THE CONTINENTAL BANK of Chicago has just ranked Virginia as the bond market's creme de la creme, the state with the best long-term fiscal prospects among the 18 states with triple-A credit ratings. (Texas was a close second; Maryland ranked 8th.) That's quite an honor for the commonwealth, Gov. John Dalton has been quick to attribute it to "nine and a half years of Republicans in the governor's office." But that claim is only partly right, and not entirely to the credit of the GOP.
One element that Continental measured was the relative tax and debt burdens of the 18 states. Virginia positively gleamed; it has the lowest tax burden and the second lowest debt burden of all. The GOP has had a hand in this, since Mr. Dalton -- like Mills Godwin before him -- has certainly adhered to the fiscally conservative tradition of the commonwealth. But that is not a uniquely Republican stance; the bulk of Democrats in the General Assembly have been just as frugal -- or stingy, if you prefer.
Moreover, Continental did not base its ratings solely on the states' borrowing and taxing policies. The study also measured their relative prosperity, growth rates and economic stability -- and that's where the matter of political policies really gets interesting. One big reason for Virginia's good economic rating is the boom in Northern Virginia. Richmond has had much less to do with that than Washington. And Gov. Dalton is in an especially poor position to pat himself on the back, because -- again, like Mr. Godwin -- he seems to appreciate the Washington suburbs mainly at tax-collection time, and otherwise has trouble remembering that they are part of the state.
Pursue that one step further. As the Continental study shows, the commonwealth has reaped great fiscal benefits from growth. But it has so far failed to address many of the related costs, such as Northern Virginia's immense transportation needs or the pollution problems of the Tidewater area. Those obligations, which Continental did not try to measure, are piling up fast. A sudden rush to finance everything, especially by borrowing, could erode the fiscal attractiveness of the state; to an extent, that has happened to Maryland. Yet the study does suggest that Virginia's credit rating is so strong that it could venture into the bond market somewhat more without jeopardizing its gold star. Gov. Dalton should consider that. It might get him more credit of a useful sort -- with the state's fast-growing urban electorate.