Maybe what Virginia needs is a better class of conservative.

Four years ago, "conservative" Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore was trying to explain why, after the state's annual tax revenue grew by $4 billion during his first three years in office, he was obliged to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in college construction funds and slash state agencies' spending to balance the budget.

The contradictions involved, a product of exuberant spending combined with even more exuberant tax-cutting, busted the state's budget and established the basis for the election of Democrat Mark Warner, who promised to straighten out Virginia's fiscal mess.

Warner ultimately found the Republican support to get it done, including a $1.5 billion revenue package that helped preserve the state's credit rating. He slashed spending as well and curbed a state road-building program that had been built on promises more than hard currency.

Now the state has more revenue rolling in than expected, and a giddy, just-nominated ticket of Republican "conservatives," led by former attorney general Jerry Kilgore, the GOP's candidate for governor, have dollar signs in their glassy eyes and more tax cuts on their fevered, calculating brains.

Kilgore unabashedly fashions himself on Gilmore, but with a twist. Kilgore would end the remaining portion of the local property tax on cars -- a billion dollars on top of the billion already being spent by state government to cover lost local revenue. Then he would cap residential property assessment growth at 5 percent; once implemented, that cap would cost local governments an estimated $400 million annually, none of it to be made up by the state.

The twist is Kilgore's desire to amend the state constitution to require a state referendum for tax increases. Gilmore never ventured there.

"I don't know why we fear the voters," Kilgore says. "I don't fear the voters. It blows my mind that there are people out there who fear voter involvement."

A mighty fine sentiment, that. But Kilgore leaves himself room to maneuver on this proposal by ignoring "voter involvement" should an emergency or fiscal crisis emerge. Such as the one that Warner faced, maybe?

Nevertheless, Kilgore's eagerness for referendums is notable. In late 2003 he proposed a referendum on a $1 billion bond issue to finance public education. A couple of months after that, he argued for a referendum on the entire state budget. Another Kilgore campaign pledge includes the creation of new regional transportation authorities that would be empowered to raise revenue -- i.e., taxes -- subject to a referendum.

A voting booth fiesta? You betcha, and if the poll workers will let you, bring a picnic lunch, because the logic of referendums yields no obvious terminus.

The word "radical" having been seriously devalued in political discourse these days -- likewise "extreme," "drastic" and "cuckoo" -- let's just say that the Kilgore referendum-for-everything mind-set leaps, bounds and hops away from Virginia's traditional approach to representative government.

After all, why settle for direct democracy only on tax increases? Why not for tax decreases? Or appropriations for specific programs? Why fear the voters deciding what money from what parts of Virginia (such as Fairfax County) stays at home or goes to Richmond?

But let's look at something more immediate, such as the "launch pad for discussion" that Warner and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) presented to Congress on Medicaid last week.

The $330 billion Medicaid program eats up 22 percent of state budgets, and the governors worry that Congress would like to do the financial part of reining in the program -- via budget cuts -- while putting the states in the unenviable position of deciding whose granny gets in the nursing home, assuming granny gets into a nursing home at all.

Virginia's Medicaid program has nearly tripled in cost -- from a $1.47 billion program in fiscal 1992 to an estimated $4.4 billion program in fiscal 2006 -- and yet it is one of the leanest programs in the country. With a rising tide of retirees expected, to say that Virginia faces a challenge on long-term elderly care would be an understatement.

Yet it obviously can't be understated enough for Kilgore, who acknowledges a problem, then avoids an honest response by offering some tepid tax credits, a commitment to "information technology" and $20 million over four years for rural health centers.

Here it is: If you substitute "convenience" for this new version of "conservatism," it all begins to make sense.

If, for instance, it's convenient to cut local taxes instead of state taxes while ignoring the consequences for city and county services, that's conservative.

If it's convenient to promise new spending on education, transportation and public safety while never explaining what that means to long-term state spending commitments, that's conservative.

If it's convenient to avoid discussions of looming problems -- i.e., Medicaid -- while screaming "liberal" in the direction of your opponents, then that's conservative.

Or if it's convenient to simply step aside and hand things over to "the people" and let them make the hard choices while you put up your feet and swill down a mint julep, well, heck, that's conservative, too.

gcmorse@cox.net