IN VIRGINIA'S PRIMARIES, the people have spoken -- 6.5 percent of them, anyway. That was the anemic turnout in Tuesday's voting to choose statewide candidates, and, predictably, the most activist voters selected the most ideologically committed candidates. When just 3.9 percent of registered voters show up to cast Republican ballots and 2.6 percent trickle in for Democrats, moderate candidates haven't a prayer.
The results set the stage for what should be a sharp debate over the critical questions facing the state: first and foremost, fiscal policy and how to improve Virginia's badly inadequate transportation system. Unfortunately, so far the campaigns of the two main gubernatorial candidates, Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Republican former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, have been sidetracked mainly by a peripheral discussion of property taxes, which, though central to voter concerns, remain chiefly a prerogative of local government.
Virginia needs a serious dialogue about how to raise the tens of billions of dollars needed for transportation over the next decade or two. Mr. Kaine is sidestepping the question for now, insisting that he won't talk about new taxes until existing money for transportation in a state trust fund is legally protected against raids by lawmakers who would use the money for other purposes. Mr. Kaine's running mate, the unabashedly liberal lieutenant governor candidate Leslie L. Byrne, seems more open to raising revenue, saying that it "makes perfect sense" to convene a special session of the General Assembly to consider higher taxes for transportation improvements.
The Republican nominees -- Mr. Kilgore, State Sen. Bill Bolling (Hanover) for lieutenant governor and Del. Robert F. McDonnell (Virginia Beach) for attorney general -- ardently oppose new taxes. They promise new services without new revenue, offering, in explanation, fantasy coupled with wishful thinking.
The fantasy is that state coffers are engorged with pots of extra money and junk programs, which hard-nosed budget-cutters will ferret out, yielding enough to raise teacher salaries, ensure public safety and dramatically expand the state's inadequate road network. In fact, Virginia is in the bottom third among states in per capita spending and is regarded as one of the best-managed states; there is little give in its budget. The wishful thinking is that the current surplus in state funds, which is mainly the result of an overheated housing market and notoriously volatile corporate income tax revenue, will last forever -- much like the 1990s' run-up in tech stocks.
So Mr. Kilgore favors a state constitutional amendment that would require voters to approve any increase in the sales, income or gas tax in a statewide referendum -- a spineless approach to state governance and a sure-fire recipe for demagoguery. But he adds an asterisk: He would allow the governor to declare a "fiscal emergency" and raise taxes for a year, providing that two-thirds of both the state Senate and House of Delegates approve. The asterisk suggests that Mr. Kilgore knows the fiscal future is cloudy.
As the campaign gets underway in earnest, voters should ask the candidates how they propose to find the billions needed for transportation -- especially if they are refusing to contemplate raising new revenue. Do they want to cut Medicaid benefits for lower-income patients? Those already rank among the lowest five of the 50 states. Do they want to reduce aid to localities, most of which goes to public schools? Then local property taxes will have to rise still further. Do they want to slash payrolls? Then the question is whose: state police, colleges, prisons, or facilities for mental health and mental retardation?
Virginia has gotten itself in trouble before by shrinking tax revenue and making new spending commitments during flush times, as it did in the late '90s under the last Republican governor, James S. Gilmore III. By assuming that the good times would roll indefinitely, Mr. Gilmore laid the groundwork for a financial crisis inherited by the current governor, Mark R. Warner. For Virginia to repeat that mistake two or three years after lifting itself from the trough would be disastrous.