IF ANYONE in Virginia ever doubted that Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was serious when he first called for significant cuts in government spending, the question mark is long gone -- replaced by dozens of new question marks from bleeding agencies, troubled lawmakers and anxious constituents all left reeling after a look at the governor's latest numbers. Gov. Wilder has announced a $1.4 billion cut, or about 5 percent of the state's budget for two years. The first question from every department head, local government or individual may well be, "What's not in it for me?" -- and the fine details are yet to come. But an overriding question for the legislature in January involves the most delicate of fiscal judgment calls: At what point do budget cuts become penny-wise and pound-foolish? Financial prudence is fine, but if cuts in education, transportation and social services go too deep, how prudent an investment in Virginia's long-term future is that?
Start with the education budget, which accounts for 41 percent of all state spending -- and which is set to take the heaviest hit: a total of 48 percent of Gov. Wilder's proposed cuts. That would put a blunt end to the days of generous education spending by the governor's two predecessors, Charles S. Robb and Gerald L. Baliles. The cuts would affect public schools as well as colleges and universities. Education Secretary James W. Dyke Jr. says the cuts are aimed at reducing unneeded bureaucracy and administration, not at hurting the quality of instruction. But again, a question: Even if tuition surcharges at George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College will help offset state cuts for the first year of the two-year budget, what will cover the second year?
In the area of cultural projects, even seemingly modest dollar amounts that would be cut could deal mortal blows to certain programs. There are other proposals to save money that wind up creating still more problems -- such as cutting out night lights on campuses, thereby creating new public safety problems.
Still other proposals are matters of government good faith. For example, the governor's plan would take back the bigger share of real estate transfer fees that local governments had been promised. It is these same local governments, however, that will be left scrambling to make up for other cuts. In Northern Virginia, the total of cuts could top $90 million for the biennium. Also in the good-faith department: What about expected increases for state government and school employees?
Gov. Wilder may be determined to avoid raising any taxes to help out -- but here, too, at what point would Virginians rather see some taxes increased than programs wrecked? If not taxes, then how about letting go of that huge "rainy day" reserve that the governor seems intent on keeping in the budget for disposal some way next year? What if the rains don't wait?
Depending on how the revenue estimates play out, it may be that Gov. Wilder has merely presented the worst-case scenario, that by next year the outlook will have brightened and any fiscal pains will have subsided. If not, many of Gov. Wilder's most vocal critics now will no doubt be complaining that he failed to anticipate the severity of the situation and should have been far more prudent.