Virginia's immaculate reductions

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

EVEN BEFORE Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell took office a month ago, he made clear that he would force cuts of almost $2 billion from the state's two-year, $30 billion operating budget. That's on top of $2 billion-plus in cuts already proposed in the spending plan submitted by his predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, shortly before he left office -- to say nothing of the billions more Mr. Kaine had already lopped from the budget. Mr. McDonnell, who ran for election on a platform opposing higher taxes, was within his rights; having preached the Republican gospel of smaller government as a candidate, he has something close to carte blanche to cut the budget.

But with crunch time approaching, Virginians have heard next to nothing from the governor about how to shrink an already badly depleted budget. And having dodged tough questions in last fall's campaign about how to spare public education and core services, Mr. McDonnell is now attempting to outsource the political pain to the state legislature.

Past Virginia governors, faced with having to make cuts, proposed budget amendments and took the political responsibility. By contrast, Mr. McDonnell, after weeks of consultations with top lawmakers in Richmond, has made only private recommendations to make heavy cuts that would involve closing schools across the state, firing state employees and slashing health and social service programs.

The governor's approach has left even Republican lawmakers seething. "I just wish he'd be clear with us and with the public right now and send down amendments that say exactly what he wants us to do," an unnamed veteran GOP lawmaker told the Associated Press. "That's how you lead."

So far, Mr. McDonnell has proposed more government spending than reductions. He wants to pump up programs geared toward job creation, which is fine with us, and charge the state $29 million in the course of shifting more education funds to Northern Virginia from downstate: also fine. No doubt, it's more pleasant to tell taxpayers how their dollars will benefit the commonwealth than to let them in on the news that services and schools will be gutted.

We'd ask the same question about his much-vaunted transportation plan. The governor said he would raise hundreds of millions of dollars to build roads by selling off state-run liquor stores. But at his urging, a bill in the legislature to do just that was killed last week. The probable reason? Profits from such liquor stores go directly into the state's coffers, to the tune of about $100 million a year. Mr. McDonnell, having promised to tackle Virginia's transportation funding crisis in his first year in office, still has time. What Virginians have yet to see are viable ideas that will yield cash for a transportation budget whose construction funds are just about gone.

The governor has taken the reins at a difficult juncture. He faces agonizing decisions. To his credit, he has appointed moderate, pragmatically oriented cabinet secretaries to help make those calls. There is no reason to expect the deliberations on budget-cutting or transportation to be quick and easy. But having ruled out new taxes to preserve schools and services, we wish he would level with Virginians about the pain, and shortfalls, to come -- and take some responsibility for them.

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