Gilmore Ready for A Change In Agenda
By R.H. Melton
After months of biding his time on issues other than his beloved car-tax rollback, Gilmore and his team of senior advisers want to focus on the state's higher education system, Northern Virginia's technology industries, the care of inner-city children, tougher law enforcement and new benefits for state employees, according to those close to the governor.
Gilmore, who led the GOP sweep of the three statewide offices last fall, is counting on Republicans capturing firm control of both houses of the General Assembly in late 1999, smoothing the way for proposals that in other years might have rattled Virginia's political establishment.
This past week, as the assembly put finishing touches on the car-tax relief already paid for in the new state budget, Gilmore aide Dick Leggitt said his boss was chafing to leave a lasting mark on Virginia.
"If we achieve our significant proposal -- cutting the car tax with this first installment -- he'll be in a position to get on to other things," Leggitt said.
Friday night, the General Assembly ended a three-day special session by giving Gilmore that down payment on his five-year, $2.8 billion tax cut, voting unanimously to reduce the levy for most car owners in Virginia by 12.5 percent this year and by 27.5 percent in the next.
Democrats, joined by some Republicans, also forced Gilmore into spending $110 million to help local districts build and repair schools, the first time that has happened in Virginia since 1954.
The lawmakers also rejected or pared down several of Gilmore's other priorities, including hiring 2,000 additional teachers. The legislature authorized 600 new teachers plus money that can be used to pay as many as 1,400 who are already at work.
Some Democratic critics, even those who think Gilmore's new agenda may be worthwhile, fear that his goals will be unreachable because of the $1 billion-a-year cost of car tax relief once it's fully phased in five years from now. At that point, local taxes on the first $20,000 of a car's value would disappear, and the state would reimburse local governments for the lost income.
Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said the burden will constrain Gilmore's ability to achieve his goals. "The only limitation I can think of is the car tax, budgetarily," he said yesterday. "This period of sustained growth can't last forever.
"At the end of the five-year day," Gartlan added, "nine to 10 percent of the annual general fund will go for the single purpose of meeting the loss that local government will feel because of no car tax. When was the last time we had revenue growth like that?"
Knowing he may be a bit pinched for cash by the end of his term, Gilmore probably will not tackle his remaining big issues at once, but stagger them, his allies said.
"He's been very smart to earmark issues of major concern to him," said state Sen. J. Randy Forbes (Chesapeake), chairman of the state Republican Party. "Next year [in the legislature] you will not see a hodgepodge of things from him, but one or two big things that matter to him."
For Gilmore, the top item on the list is a detailed look at Virginia's university system -- especially the finances of what an administration adviser called "that money hog," the network of generally well-regarded state schools whose budgets have blossomed over the years.
As promised, Gilmore plans to name a blue-ribbon commission on colleges in the coming weeks, and he wants it to cast a sharp eye on costs ranging from perks for university presidents to their institutional budgets. One official said Gilmore's philosophical underpinning for the review was "figuring out ways to make the schools more accountable to taxpayers and parents."
Gilmore has a particular interest in his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and the school's president, John T. Casteen III. As attorney general, Gilmore shot down Casteen's attempt to give a sizable raise to the university's counsel, an assistant attorney general.
Gilmore, a man of modest beginnings, has told staff members he is troubled by the generous salaries and other benefits some college presidents enjoy -- such as cars, and tuition for their children. A university spokeswoman said Casteen's annual salary is $290,000, with a bonus and deferred compensation totaling an additional $56,251.
"He's not accepting of that lifestyle," one administration official said of Gilmore, "and he thinks the schools can accomplish more with less money."
Gilmore made it clear from the day he took office that education would be a priority, and a frontal assault on the time-honored fiscal traditions of the universities would be well in keeping with his own prosecutorial ways. But it also could be tough to push through a legislature whose members, Republican and Democrat alike, have long looked after their hometown schools.
Gilmore's mantra is focus, reminding many observers of Gerald L. Baliles, the steely Democratic governor from 1985 to 1989 who set clear goals and went after them methodically.
"He has a very, very high focus, the way Baliles did," said Christopher J. Spanos, a veteran lobbyist here with strong ties to state Democrats. "He knows where he's going, always two to three steps ahead. He's interesting, thoughtful.
"And he's done a great job of framing his issues," Spanos added.
Gilmore's keen interest in high-technology issues is pragmatic. While the industry is booming in regions of the state such as Richmond and Roanoke, it is king in Northern Virginia, a phenomenal source of jobs. But overall, the state lags behind others such as California, where government works far more aggressively to help high-tech companies.
By creating Virginia's first Cabinet-level director of high-technology issues -- for which he soon will pluck a Northern Virginia executive -- Gilmore is giving a nod to the region's prowess in the field.
Gilmore has promised more state help for high-tech companies that want to move to the region or existing ones that want to expand. He also has told business executives he will support job training programs, which companies say is vital if Northern Virginia's expansion is to continue.
"He is very pro-Northern Virginia," said J. Douglas Koelemay, a lobbyist for the Northern Virginia Technology Council. "He has that sense that California does: 'coopetition,' where he sees the regions of the state and brings them together. They may compete politically, but in a cooperative spirit," Koelemay said.
Less clear at this point is how Gilmore will pursue helping children in Virginia's cities, although aides are discussing a state initiative to help "latchkey" kids who may not have reliable care for the hours their parents work.
Gilmore, a former chief prosecutor for Henrico County, also is working on ways the state can provide more help to local police departments.
He's particularly concerned about the number of unsolved crimes, including the Route 29 stalkings and the Spotsylvania County slayings of the Lisk sisters, Kati, 12, and Kristin, 15, and Sofia Silva, 16.
Among the governor's ideas is creating a state response team that would be ready for quick action to help local police solve serious cases that elude answers.
Finally, in a politically tinged payback for an old antagonist, Gilmore wants to weaken the grip that insurance giant Trigon enjoys on the health care plans of state employees, sources said.
Gilmore sued Trigon several years ago for widespread violations, winning a $160 million settlement, and now wants to give employees more choices of coverage.
This new agenda will be a welcome break for Gilmore, who learned a few tough lessons this winter about going toe-to-toe with the legislature.
His direct, even purposefully confrontational style rubbed many in both parties the wrong way. Now, with them out of town, he'll get down to cases.
As he put it last week at the height of the seesaw struggle over new school construction money: "This is not a game here. This is an effort to govern well."
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