VIRGINIA GOV.-elect Timothy M. Kaine (D) basked in the afterglow of his decisive electoral victory for all of about a week before hitting the campaign trail again. He is stumping for a transportation plan whose shape and dimensions are in doubt but whose urgency is not. Without a sustained infusion of new cash, Virginia's maddeningly clogged road network will deteriorate at an ever-accelerating rate. Mindful of that, Mr. Kaine has launched a series of town hall get-togethers across the state, including one scheduled for Tuesday in Manassas.
Mr. Kaine faces the unenviable task of confronting, in his first few months in office starting in January, what could be the make-or-break trial of his four-year term. Every member of the General Assembly is up for reelection in 2007, and the expected departure of several key moderates from the Senate could doom any major tax packages in 2008. Then comes 2009, Mr. Kaine's last year under the state's one-term limit for governors, when statewide races will already be underway. For Virginia's next governor, the future is now.
Hundreds of people jammed Mr. Kaine's first transportation summits in Roanoke and Newport News. The apparent purpose of these sessions is to do what Mr. Kaine evidently felt he could not in the course of the gubernatorial campaign: rally support for major new revenue, probably including taxes, to provide a portion of the $100 billion or so in extra transportation funding that the state believes is needed by 2030. If that sounds like a huge price tag, it is, but at current rates all state transportation funds will be consumed by highway maintenance in five years or so, leaving no funds for expansions or improvements.
Having dodged the question of new taxes for transportation as a candidate, Mr. Kaine takes office lacking a revenue-raising mandate. Accordingly, he faces an uphill battle, as well as a relatively poor political climate. His initiative comes just two years after Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) fought a bitter fight for a $1.5 billion tax overhaul and increase for public education. Pulling off a second major tax increase in three years will be a colossal challenge.
In addition, Mr. Kaine, in suggesting that local officials be allowed to veto new developments if road systems are lacking, has cultivated suburban slow-growthers who helped kill local road tax referendums in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in 2002. That may force him to choose between competing constituencies, and policies, if he cannot reconcile them.
Finally, Virginia's robust fiscal health -- $1.1 billion in surplus revenue is anticipated for the fiscal year ending next summer -- will supply a ready argument to opponents of any revenue-raising measures: Why raise taxes when the state is awash in dollars? Mr. Kaine will have to explain that cyclical surpluses can be a source for one-time expenses but not for major road-building projects, which require ensured, long-term cash flows.
Heartened by a healthy victory margin at the polls, Mr. Kaine shows no signs of shrinking from the fight, and for that he deserves credit. To prevail he'll need all of his considerable reserves of energy -- plus 11 or 12 swing votes in the 100-member House of Delegates to supplement the minority bloc of fellow Democrats. The House was also Mr. Warner's battleground in 2004 when he managed, after weeks of overtime, to fashion his revenue program. Bitter Republican anti-taxers said Mr. Warner and his allies in both parties would pay dearly. In fact, Virginians accepted the tax increase as a prudent investment, and nearly all the lawmakers who voted for it were easily reelected.
That should be instructive for fence-sitting legislators, but it will not be sufficient. Mr. Kaine will also have to show that he is doing everything possible on the transportation front, including mass transit, public-private partnerships and tolls, not just taxing and paving indiscriminately. In his campaign he did outline various measures: ensuring that lawmakers do not raid transportation funds for other uses; enhancing the use of signal coordination and other traffic management tools; encouraging off-peak road use; and continuing to improve the state's on-time and on-budget performance for road construction. All that, plus agile politicking, will be required if Mr. Kaine is to succeed.