Both major candidates for governor in Virginia seem to have concluded that they can be honest or they can be elected, but that they can't be both.
They're not the first. Four years ago, Democrat Mark Warner won the governorship by saying he wouldn't raise taxes, even as he promised higher teacher salaries and other pricey improvements.
When he reached Richmond, he professed astonishment at the fiscal wreckage left by his two Republican predecessors. He spent a couple of years looking to economize and then skillfully assembled a legislative coalition to enact what his opponents like to call the largest tax hike in Virginia history.
Now Warner is more popular than ever and testing the political waters well beyond Virginia. He is cited as a model for Democrats who want to win, and successfully govern, in the South.
Since Warner paid no political price for his turnabout, you might expect those seeking to replace him to be emboldened to speak some truth about taxes and programs. With the exception of state Sen. Russell Potts, who is running as an independent, you would be wrong.
Both Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and, more egregiously, Republican former attorney general Jerry Kilgore are promising the moon and neglecting to mention its price tag. Kaine, who courageously stood with Warner during the tax hike debate, wants credit for his courage but simultaneously feels the need to describe it as a tax "reform" that simply lowered some taxes while raising others.
Kilgore opposed the tax hike, but he's ready to spend the proceeds, and more: on schools, roads, rural health centers, new technology for doctors, long-term care insurance for families and businesses, engineering education, assistance to parents buying textbooks and other supplies, rehabilitation programs for gang members, and so on.
When candidates are asked how they could provide so much while taxing so little, they generally offer the following: They will cut fraud, waste and abuse, and also bloat and duplication; they will run government like a business; and they will reprioritize. In their reprioritizing, programs always move up on the list; nothing ever moves down.
Kilgore has added to this traditional formula a transportation "plan" that consists of allowing regions such as Northern Virginia to hold referendums on whether to increase their own taxes. Opposed as he is to any new taxes, Kilgore has suggested that he would oppose these referendums if they ever reached the ballot. But that doesn't keep him from promising the expensive new roads and bridges that could be built only if the referendums were approved. (If Kilgore's vision of regional autonomy took hold, it probably also would have the effect, over time, of limiting the flow of resources from wealthy regions such as Northern Virginia to rural areas such as his home turf of southwest Virginia, whose development he says is a priority. But that's another story.)
The truth is that almost all state spending goes to education, health care, public safety and transportation. You can slight any of them, but not without consequence. Pinch funding for mental health, and severely ill people end up in prison, costing more. Starve higher education, and university quality declines while tuition rises. Stop building roads and rail lines while population grows, and roads become extremely crowded. Virginia has experimented with all of these.
Campaigning without acknowleding that good things cost real money leaves the victor with few options. He can serve his four years and hope to leave town on a rising economy and before the mess is apparent (Sen. George Allen's technique when he was governor). He can borrow and leave the burden to future taxpayers (Gov. Jim Gilmore's favored method and President Bush's). Or, like Warner, he can discover new facts and change his mind.
Why do candidates nonetheless bind themselves to this formula? Maybe their internal polling shows that the voters who hate taxes aren't the voters who want higher teacher salaries, but you have to attract support from both groups to win. Maybe voters, already feeling hard-pressed, just want to believe that they can get something for nothing. Or maybe they have come to believe what they've been told by so many politicians over the years: that they can have it all, if the government would just cut some of that fraud, waste and abuse.
Could a candidate avoid these binds, be honest and win? We won't find out this year.