Gov. Mark R. Warner's flip-flop on closing 12 service centers of the Department of Motor Vehicles cost little money ($6.4 million) and next to nothing in political capital (both major parties cheered the reopenings), and it certainly won him points with many Virginians who had been standing in long, wintry lines at the 62 other DMV centers.
But the hidden costs of the reversal are incalculable. By giving in to Democratic and Republican legislators concerned more about their coming reelection campaigns than fiscal coherence, Warner tarnished the integrity of his plan for state spending, a budget that for the most part had been scrupulously fair in spreading the pain.
Warner also confirmed for the whole world the open secret of divided government at the state Capitol in Richmond -- even the mere threat of retaliation by the General Assembly's Republican majority is enough to spook this Democratic chief executive into doing Republicans' bidding.
Until now, Warner could take great pride in restoring a measure of sanity to Virginia's finances. His private business skills, his eye for both the big picture and the details of a budget and his blend of innovation and common-sense frugality made him well qualified to see the state through its worst finances in 50 years.
But Warner's penchant for catering to the Republican majority, his desire to throw an occasional bone to hapless fellow Democrats and his near-total aversion to making people angry got the better of him in this case.
In October, announcing $858 million in emergency cuts and more than 1,800 state worker layoffs, Warner asked a statewide television audience to judge him by the thoughtfulness of his reductions.
"At the end of the day, a budget shortfall of this magnitude cannot be solved with sound bites about 'cutting the fat,' " he said. "These decisions have not been easy, and I have not made them lightly."
Taking Warner at his word, the DMV cuts were defensible. The agency suffered a reduction of about $45 million -- or 11 percent, the average for the bureaucracy -- and 587 positions were cut, 121 of them full-time employees at 11 customer service centers and one automobile dealer center in Alexandria.
Fairfax and Loudoun counties lost their centers in Fair Oaks and Sterling, respectively, and Loudoun's other one, in Leesburg, remained open. The Warrenton center that had long served neighboring Prince William County also closed.
Complaints about the curtailed service started quickly as the holidays approached, with Republicans grousing that Warner appeared to have targeted DMV offices in their districts, although they never quite mustered evidence to support that partisan claim.
Through it all, Warner stuck to his guns, until the legislature returned to Richmond for its annual session, and Democratic lawmakers clamored for their governor to reopen the DMV offices -- well in advance of the Nov. 4 election, when all General Assembly seats will be on the ballot.
Whipsawed by his own party and the Republicans' promise to take care of the DMV reopenings if he did not, Warner collapsed quickly, shoehorning about $6 million from a Wall Street securities settlement into his budget to pay for reopenings.
Not that Warner was happy about it. This is one governor who likes a multitude of options, but he had none here. He announced the reopenings in his State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the General Assembly, and it won the applause everyone knew it would.
But Warner's rueful smile told the real story. Election-year politics in his own party and a feisty Republican majority out to teach the governor a lesson had joined against him, and he knew it.
When the high point of Warner's most important speech all year is the reopening of a dozen DMV offices, that reveals something about the power dynamic in Richmond and Virginia's cockeyed priorities as a whole.
It underscored the fact that, for all of Warner's talk about bipartisanship, he fundamentally has zero traction with the Republican majority. It also means that Warner will never present lawmakers with the truly tough choices to force them into the kind of substantive "conversation" about state priorities that he says he wants.
"Warner is able to live up to his campaign promise -- to restore civility and bipartisanship -- but it probably means he's going to have to make fairly substantial concessions to a GOP agenda," said Robert D. Holsworth, who directs the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Perhaps the most charitable thing that can be said about Warner's reversal is that it removed the DMV closures as a distraction from other, more important items. Yet, even that isn't satisfactory. His flip-flop on the small stuff tells Republicans that they have free rein to distract him on the big stuff, too.