With Robert D. Holsworth
Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002
The Virginia General Assembly convenes its 60-day session today, with legislators facing the worst budget troubles in a decade. (Read the article.) Lawmakers will grapple with solutions to some of the state's most pressing problems, including education, taxes, abortion and gun control. Under the reign of new Gov. Mark R. Warner, what can we expect to see as the session progresses?
Robert D. Holsworth is the director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and is an expert in Old Dominion politics.
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washingtonpost.com: Prof. Holsworth, thanks for joining us today. What do you think will be the main issues to watch in the upcoming Virginia legislative session?
Robert D. Holsworth: Delegate Bob Bloxom was quoted in one of the papers today saying that the main issues for the General Assembly will the "3 M's: Money, Money, Money." I think that he is right-dealing with budget shortfall will occupy most of the legislators' time.
Perhaps the most fascinating issue, however, will be how the Assembly decides to deal with proposals from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, and possibly the Richmond Metropolitan area, to hold "regional referendum" that would call for sales tax increases to pay for infrastructure needs. Not too many people have focused on this, but, if successful, these would introduce an entirely new element into governance in Virginia.
Richmond: How much of a factor will party politics be this year?
Robert D. Holsworth: A simple but great question. Governor-elect Warner hopes that it won't have much of a direct effect at all. He is making a determined effort to govern in a manner that transcends conventional party lines. He believes, probably correctly in my opinion, that the major issues of the day are not necessarily Republican issues or Democratic issues, but are ones that require open-minded thinking across partisan lines.
I think that, at least on the budget issue, most members of the assembly agree with him. They were embarrassed by the damage to Virginia's reputation for high quality governance caused by last year's budget debacle and want to ensure that it never happens again.
At the same time, party politics will play a huge role, if only in a more indirect manner. The very fact that the GOP controls both chambers of the assembly and has almost a 2-1 majority in the House shapes what Warner will be able to propose. In addition, I tend to think that Warner's major problems won't emerge from his own agenda (which will be pragmatic) but from what the Assembly presents him with that could be anathema to his Democratic base.
Columbia, SC: Please explain what the battle lines are for the regional referenda proposals. Who would oppose it? Support it? What sort of deal-making are we likely to see?
Robert D. Holsworth: At the moment, the battle lines aren't clearly drawn and, if we're to believe public opinion polls, the public overwhelmingly supports the referenda. But things will become much more interesting as the details of the proposals emerge. Here are some of the critical questions.
First, who will be in the referenda? Who are the people of Northern Virginia and Tidewater? Where do the lines begin and end?
Second, what will the referenda be about? In Northern Virginia, we already have debate about whether these should be transportation only or transportation plus education. If it is T only, Senator Saslaw has already said that he would oppose it and so have many folks in Arlington, Alexandria and within the education community in Fairfax. If it is T+E, I doubt that rural legislators (including the Speaker of the House) will support it because they believe it will simply already further the educational disparity in the Commonwealth?
Third, who will decide the distribution of funds and projects? What will the regional governance structure be and how will it be determined and changed?
Fourth, How long will the tax increases last?
Fifth, Are regional referenda the best ways of dealing with state needs or should we look at funding formulas and a revision of the tax system?
It will be fascinating to watch the discussion in the Assembly because at each point in the process, a new configuration of interests will emerge. Hold on to your hats!
VA: Do you think that Gilmore set up Warner by "giving" the monies in the budget knowing that it would be impossible to fund. Then when Warner has to cut the budget, he (Warner) is the bad guy? I work for the state and I know deep in my heart that we will not see another raise for a long, long time (and I know whose fault it is--not Warner's!).
Second question, assuming you answer yes to the above question, will voters realize this and perhaps see Gilmore's plans and see what he did?
And, if anyone asks, I'm sitting here on my lunch hour eating my Lean Cuisine.
Robert D. Holsworth: In many ways, this was a "legacy budget" for the outgoing Governor. He completes the elimination of the car tax, he funds raises for state employees and teachers, and calls for UNSPECIFIED cuts of up to 6% in the budgets of state agencies. The spending is defined and the cuts are general.
In the short term, however, this doesn't present more of a problem for Warner than he already inherits. There is a good portion of the General Assembly that is so dissatisfied with the outgoing Governor that they have already declared his budget DOA. And to the extent that Warner can work out a better compromise with the GA than Gilmore did last spring, he'll be politically advantaged by it.
My sense is that Gilmore knows this and both his budget and his State of the Commonwealth talk this evening are efforts to speak over the heads of the "civic elite" in the state (who dislike for him has been quite visible) and maintain the support of the rank and file voter who were very pleased to elect him on the car tax promise. I wouldn't at all be surprised if Jim Gilmore tries to run again, just to prove all the "elitists" (legislators, pundits, corporate leaders) wrong.
Alexandria: How much will regionalism play into things? Are there different caucuses? How far away are we from having a Northern Va. against everyone else mentality?
Robert D. Holsworth: Let me answer the second part of your question first.
I think that we are still some distance from having a Northern Virginia against all mentality. Indeed, I think we're closer to seeing that as northern Virginia gets larger, its interests become more diverse and its legislators find it more difficult to reach consensus. It was the northern Virginia delegation that couldn't reach agreement about the substance of a regional referendum last year and it is an open question about whether they'll agree this year.
Beyond this, regionalism plays into the referendum question in quirky ways. For instance, anti-Northern Virginia sentiment may well be supportive of a transportation referendum ("it's going to cost so much we should let them pay for it."), but it could be the death knell of proposals to include education ("why should their schools get more money than they already have.")
Finally, the general philosophical issue about how far we should go in promoting regional political identities is likely to emerge in any number of ways.
Fairfax: Think we'll be hearing any more about the car tax?
Robert D. Holsworth: Not this year. Everyone, including Governor Gilmore, says that it should be frozen. But, remember this, Mark Warner has promised to eliminate it by the time he leaves office. My feeling is that next year we will be hearing a lot about the need to modernize and update the entire tax system so that it reflects the economic realities of the 21st Century and treats localities fairly and predictably. This could well be the big battle of the next few years.
Arlington, VA: Can you elaborate on the regional referendum idea? How would this impact the roles of Assembly Members and County/City councils?
Also, how far along is the Governor-elect in setting up his administration? The Cabinet has been appointed, but is the rest of the staff in place and ready to govern on Monday?
Robert D. Holsworth: I'll take you second question first. The Governor-Elect has put together a very interesting Cabinet and gubernatorial staff. He has not loaded up with friends and cronies from the campaign, but has really cast a wide net, even crossing party lines. He has a number of very experienced people on his staff (look at his Chief of Staff Bill Leighty and his Policy Director Jane Kusiak, for example) who are very comfortable in the Virginia state government environment. He will still making some changes at the agency level as he goes forward, but this is the case with every new governor. His major challenges will be that, a) since the group was not simply chosen on the basis of personal loyalty to him, ensuring that they can work together as an effective team and b) developing the political strategy for the trans-partisan approach to government that he wants to establish. A Democratic governor has never had to do this in Virginia- this should be fun to watch.
As to your second question, you are right on target. As we move to regional approaches to politics, one of the issues that will have to be decided is how do locally elected officials relate to these kind of regional bodies. We certainly have some experience with this in a number of areas of government, but I tend to believe that this could emerge as a major question in some of the regional referenda.
Arlington: How does having such a short (60 day) session affect things?
Robert D. Holsworth: I tend to like the idea that we have relatively short sessions and have more of a citizen legislature than some states. It does mean that the time for deliberation and consideration of legislation (especially that which has not been studied for years) is shorter. But at the same time, all legislatures, including Congress, tend to pack an awful lot of work into the last few days before they adjourn. If we went much longer, I think that it would be increasingly difficult to attract individuals who are truly citizen-legislators and who spend as much time home in their communities as ours currently do. One other outcome of the relatively short session is that I think it actually increases the power of the Governor- for a good portion of the year, he has an administrative free hand that is not witnessed on a day to day basis by the legislature.
Fairfax: How different is the state now than it was when Mark Warner started running for governor? How has his plan for the state changed?
Robert D. Holsworth: The dimensions of the budget shortfall have become both clearer and worse, though there were a number of us who were saying exactly this during the campaign. The simple fact of electoral life is that campaign are generally about hope and aspiration and candidates will resist talking about allocating sacrifice and pain. Once the campaign was over, however, reality set in and Warner is the third out of the last four Democratic governors to inherit a recession. Both Wilder and Robb handled these challenges effectively and responsibly and Warner now faces a similar challenge and has a similar opportunity.
Germantown, MD: Recommendation to Virginians fed up with their incompetent legislature in Richmond - move to Maryland where we know how to elect governors who can govern and legislators who can write a budget.
Robert D. Holsworth: Now this is kind of argument that Virginians love. They often point to the their northern brothers and sisters as exemplars of how not to run a government. Defenders of the honor of the Old Dominion note that that Virginia state government has not experienced the kind of governmental corruption that has been the subject of trials and incarceration of elected officials elsewhere.
More seriously, the Post published a great article in the last year or so explaining how the different histories of the two neighbors have led to very different political cultures.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Professor Holsworth.
Robert D. Holsworth: Thanks so much for the questions. I look forward to speaking with everyone as the session develops.
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