AFTER VIRGINIA'S most trying legislative session in years, Wall Street has scrutinized the hard-won accomplishments in Richmond and reaffirmed the commonwealth's top-rated financial standing. Moody's Investors Service formally ended its warning to clients that the state's finances were uncertain, citing Virginia's decisions to restructure and bolster the tax code, to increase taxes and to stem a hemorrhaging of revenue caused by the plan to repeal the car tax. These moves, along with an improving state economy, "will restore the state's structural balance and illustrate the strength of the Commonwealth's long tradition of conservative financial management," Moody's said.
The statement is a tribute to the leadership of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) and responsible legislators in both houses of the General Assembly who prevailed against the strong and stubborn opposition of those content to rail against tax increases with little or no regard for the very consequences that prompted the Moody's warning in the first place. Virginia's AAA bond rating -- which the state has held since 1938 -- is more than a top credit rating for borrowing. It is a matter of intense pride among Virginians and a message to employers, in Mr. Warner's words, "that Virginia is a great place to do business."
That was not the message before the governor and the legislature went to work. When Moody's put Virginia on its "watch list" in September, it cited a deteriorating balance sheet; economic weakness; increasing spending requirements for Medicaid and other programs; a diminished rainy-day fund; and the costly phasing out of the car tax under a plan pushed by former governor James S. Gilmore III that, along with accounting gimmickry and borrowing, was bound to hurl Virginia deep into the red.
Mr. Warner and Mr. Chichester understood the stakes. Mr. Warner toured the state, citing deep budget cuts he had made and listing specific needs that the state could not address without additional revenue. In an address in February, Mr. Chichester outlined the plight: "Virginia has lived for the moment for too long. We have let serious discussions about tomorrow be waylaid by today's distractions. . . . Our current debate is about how we are going to define and fund our future."
Even as the good news from Moody's was announced Thursday, no-tax-increase lawmakers with blinders still in place continued to carp. It was just growth in the economy that did it, said some; the whole rating thing was just a scare tactic to win tax increases, others claimed; and from Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a crack that Moody's analysts "are acting like politicians with a liberal agenda rather than bankers."
What the governor and the legislature achieved was substantial. Yet Mr. Warner, Mr. Chichester and the others who did the heavy political lifting know that the state must invest substantially more in transportation, educational facilities, health care and public safety. Mr. Chichester, whose original proposals this year included an increase in the gasoline tax to raise funds for transportation, says he won't revive that idea in the face of today's high prices at the pump. But he is not afraid to say that more money must be raised, especially for transportation.