Upside-down politics: Va. Republican wants to borrow, Md. Democrat to cut spending

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 10:41 PM

Conventional politics has been turned upside down in Virginia and Maryland, as the states' legislatures began their annual sessions Wednesday.

Virginia's conservative governor, Bob McDonnell (R), is the big-government guy who wants the state to borrow billions of dollars so it can keep fixing its roads for a while. His plan is smart politics and, in my view, smart policy. But it's hardly what you'd expect from the GOP these days, after the party clamored in the recent national campaign to shrink government at all costs.

Meanwhile, across the river, Maryland's liberal governor, Martin O'Malley (D), is talking about closing a yawning budget deficit by cutting spending on education and on public employees' pensions and retirement benefits. For now, at least, he's proposing only to slash expenditures and not to raise taxes.

Again, it's smart politics and, maybe, smart policy. (I'm not sure about the school cuts.) And it's certainly surprising, given that education has been one of O'Malley's most-prized priorities and that public-sector employees unions are among the Democrats' most reliable allies.

The governors' counterintuitive approaches illustrate two realities, one economic and the other political.

The economic reality is that Virginia, unlike most states, is enjoying a budget surplus ($403 million). That means McDonnell has public dollars to invest in projects that will help the state in the long term.

By contrast, Maryland - though not nearly as bad off as California or Illinois - has to close a gap of $1.3 billion. Maryland's finances are under more pressure than those of its neighbor partly because its economy did a bit worse in the recession. Also, Maryland has been more generous than Virginia to such beneficiaries as state employees and public colleges and universities.

"Because of the philosophical differences over the years over what the states should fund, Virginia didn't get out as far in front as Maryland in their public spending," said Steve Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "As a result, as the economy soured three years ago and revenue started falling, Virginia didn't get in as much trouble."

The political reality is that both governors see an advantage in not conforming to expectations. McDonnell seems likely to put Virginia Democrats on the defensive by daring them to vote against new money for transportation. O'Malley, just beginning his second four-year term and barred from running for reelection, can demonstrate that he's a politician willing to make tough, unpopular choices.

"Democrats have had to prove to voters that they care about austerity. Republicans had to prove that they had a plan to move forward in the future," said Bob Holsworth, a former government professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

McDonnell's plan is particularly revealing, because it shows that he's willing to risk alienating parts of the GOP whose ideology is offended by government spending. He wants to sell $2.9 billion of bonds over the next three years, partly by accelerating borrowing that's been authorized. Some of the money would pay for road improvements in our region, including widening Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway and upgrading intersections around Fort Belvoir.

"Unlike many of the grass-roots activists on the right, McDonnell does not reject the big-government, activist model of leadership," said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason.

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