An example of Mr. Northam’s political legerdemain is his tax proposal, which avoided the minefields of income or sales tax increases. Instead, he suggested hiking the gas tax while scrapping mandatory annual vehicle inspections and halving vehicle registration fees. Under his plan, the burden of building and maintaining the state’s transportation network would shift to the drivers who use highways the most, including those from out of state. That may sound like common sense, but it’s worth remembering that the last time Virginia lawmakers raised the gas tax, in 2013, it took a quarter-century of dwindling revenue, a crumbling highway system and a popular Republican governor to coax them to do it. Equally rational is Mr. Northam’s proposal to double the tobacco tax, to 60 cents, the nation’s second-lowest, which has not increased since 2005.
Mr. Northam is counting on those new sources of revenue, plus possibly optimistic projections of rising tax collections in a robust economy, to pay for spending initiatives that address serious needs across broad constituencies. They include $145 million to make community college free for thousands of low- and moderate-income students in programs that would prepare them for fields where applicants are in short supply — and on the condition that they perform community service. That’s a wiser way to go than subsidizing rich and poor alike, as some national Democratic candidates propose.
Mr. Northam would also devote nearly $100 million for needy and at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds to attend pre-K programs, a critical investment to prepare toddlers who might otherwise lag in elementary school. That proposal, like another to spend $22 million to combat relatively high levels of maternal mortality among minority women, aims directly at a problem that counts as an embarrassment in one of the richer states in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
There are risks in such an expansive budget, not least from a sudden economic downturn. Mr. Northam’s answer to that, at least in the short term, is adding $300 million over two years to state reserve funds, which would be boosted to a healthy 8 percent of state spending. That provides a cushion while safeguarding the state’s sterling AAA bond rating.
Mr. Northam is sailing with the wind at his back; his Democratic colleagues will take control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in a generation when they convene next month. He has proposed a something-for-everyone budget; it even sets aside $200 million for lawmakers to do with as they like. Yet Virginia remains a fundamentally moderate state. The measure of the governor’s political adroitness is whether he can maintain that fidelity to common sense while enacting a budget his administration calls the most progressive in the state’s history.