The minute he walks through the door, you can tell Jerry Kilgore is a big spender.
Kilgore, the scripted-to-a-T Republican favorite in Virginia's gubernatorial race, used a recent debate with his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, to lay out a few of his spending priorities.
Taking them in no particular order, let's review the areas on which Kilgore, Virginia's former attorney general, intends to lavish state funds.
There's health care, where he wants to establish new rural clinics, boost incentives to state health care officials, and extend tax credits for the purchase of long-term care insurance and to doctors using cutting-edge information technology. (Big bucks.) There's education, where he would hike teachers' bonuses, retirement benefits, tax incentives and student loan payments. (Very big bucks.) And there's transportation, of course, which he says merits a much bigger chunk of Virginia's budget. (Sky's-the-limit bucks.) Those are just the headlines on Kilgore's shopping list; there are also sundry smaller-ticket items, including boosting pay for indigents' defense lawyers, directing tens of millions of dollars to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and using surplus state revenue (as long as it lasts) to build schools and give parents a tax break when they buy computers, software and tutoring for their kids.
In the face of this spending onslaught, it would be logical to think Kilgore has a plan to ensure that Virginia can pay for it all in the long term. He doesn't. In fact, Kilgore would cut revenue to the bone. He'd roll back incumbent Gov. Mark Warner's 2004 tax hike, which generates $700 million a year; phase out the car tax, at a cost to the state of at least $500 million a year; and cap real estate assessment increases at 5 percent, a crowd pleaser in fast-growing parts of the state that would squeeze localities on their main source of school funding.
If lawmakers tried to raise taxes on income, sales or gasoline, Kilgore would exercise his veto unless the tax was first approved at a referendum by Virginia voters -- a referendum that he would probably oppose.
"I believe that we can lower our taxes and fulfill our promise to fully phase out the car tax and increase funding to education," Kilgore said in his debate with Kaine. "Raising taxes does not equal leadership."
So there you have it: a populist free lunch for Virginia.
The Kilgore camp would have Virginians believe that the state's surplus, generated partly by Warner's tax hike, will last and last. But what if the good times suddenly stop rolling? That's what happened under Virginia's last Republican governor, Jim Gilmore, who was so busy spending and cutting taxes that he brought the state to its fiscal knees. Kilgore seems not to have noticed that near-disaster. Nor is he heeding the advice of senior lawmakers from his own party, who last week publicly dismissed his proposal to build a line item for transportation into the general budget, where it would be forced to compete with education and health care spending. (Transportation, the state's most urgent underfunded priority, is paid for from a separate, dedicated account.)
Frustrated, Kaine has hammered away at Kilgore's extravagant promises. "There's no such thing as magic beans," he said. "We are not going to strike gold or strike an oil well." He demanded to know how the Republican would compensate for the $700 million a year he would slash by eliminating Warner's tax increase. Would he cut deputy sheriffs' positions? Schools? Health care?
Kilgore was mum. He opposed Warner's tax increase, but he loves spending the money it's produced.
Whatever its shortcomings in logic or fiscal responsibility, Kilgore's spendthrift good-times strategy could put Kaine in a box. Unlike Kilgore, Kaine supported the centerpiece of Warner's administration, his tax increase. The increase made good sense and attracted bipartisan support. (Even Kilgore's twin brother, Terry, a Republican state delegate from rural Scott County, voted for it, as Kaine delighted in pointing out.) But it's still a stretch for a Democrat to overcome Virginia's Republican tilt by wrapping himself in a tax hike. That is the essence of what Kaine is trying to do.
Warner, the most successful Virginia governor in a generation, is broadly popular. Unfortunately for Kaine, the governor cannot transfer all of his considerable support to Kaine. And it is precisely with key swing segments of Warner's constituency -- suburban, rural and moderate voters who extend the Democrats' natural base -- that Kilgore's anti-tax populism and social conservatism are likely to strike a chord.
If they do, Virginians may buy Kilgore's free lunch after all.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address is email@example.com.