Back in February, Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, warned that state politicians who wanted to raise taxes were preparing to "spend all the money like drunken sailors."
Callahan took heat for that remark. Now, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) is expressing the same concern about lawmakers.
In a radio interview last week, Warner said he is worried that members of Virginia's General Assembly will be too quick to dole out the fruits of a rapidly improving economy in ways that could threaten to balloon the cost of government for years to come.
"This probably will be a bone of contention with the legislature," Warner told listeners of WRVA radio on his monthly "Ask the Governor" show.
Why would Warner, who had a long and contentious 2004 session, pick such a bone in advance of the 2005 session, which begins in January?
Because the latest figures show there will be, as Warner put it, a surplus of "many hundreds of millions" of dollars when legislators arrive in Richmond. And Warner knows what happens when Virginia lawmakers have a big surplus in an election year and then are asked to control themselves.
In the late 1990s, as the Internet boom pumped money into Virginia's budget, lawmakers joined with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to cut taxes -- most famously the car tax. They boosted spending on public schools, colleges and police. Virginia's general fund grew by 44 percent in five years.
Some of that time, the legislature was controlled by Democrats. Then Republicans took over. Both parties spent, in Callahan's words, like drunken sailors.
Eventually the bottom dropped out of the stock market. In 18 months, Virginia's revenue plunged by $1.3 billion a year. When Warner came into office, Virginia faced a huge shortfall.
The tax increases Warner helped pass this year were supposed to resolve that mess. When fully in place, the sales tax and other increases will add about $1.5 billion to Virginia's coffers annually, enough to pay for more spending on schools, colleges, health care, police and other state functions.
But the good news might be coming too fast for Warner's liking. Virginia's economy is improving more rapidly and broadly than that of most other states. Some Virginia officials and lawmakers estimate there might be an additional $700 million in the treasury.
"The challenge will be putting some restraint on the legislators," Warner said. "To somehow assume, okay, happy times are here again, and let's start a whole lot of new spending programs . . . that is going to drive us back into the fiscal ditch in 2007 and 2008."
Warner said Virginia's first six-year financial plan shows healthy revenue for the next two years. But Virginia is still facing the costs of new prisons, higher health care bills and new classrooms. In just three years, he said, Virginia could be dealing with another budget shortfall. On Dec. 17, Warner will propose his new spending plan, including his proposals for using the new money.
Republican lawmakers who opposed Warner's tax increase are hardly amused by his call for spending restraint. They paint Warner as a tax-and-spend liberal who forced through a tax increase to grow state government.
Privately, some Republican lawmakers are worried that Warner will propose millions in new spending, and then dare lawmakers to remove it in an election year. Warner, who cannot run for reelection in 2005, would be long gone before the bill comes due, they said.
But Callahan, who voted against Warner's tax increase, now says he fully supports Warner's cautionary message.
In fact, the 37-year veteran lawmaker said that will be his message at the Appropriations Committee's two-day retreat next week. Economists and legislative staff members will predict a large surplus for the coming year, but Callahan said he will seek to dampen the enthusiasm.
"There are already people lining up to spend this. We'd better be very careful what we do with it," Callahan said.
Commenting on Warner's radio comments, Callahan said, "If I were him, I'd be doing the same thing."