- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

RICHMOND — Want sparkling new schools? Better health care? More generous benefits for the state’s military veterans?

If so, it’s time to tune in because Republican and Democratic legislative leaders are promising those goodies and others in a spurt of generosity that coincides with the final sprint to the high-stakes Nov. 6 elections.

On Wednesday, House and Senate Republicans promised new money for public school construction this year. Four hours earlier, House Democratic leaders pledged expanded life insurance and counseling benefits as well as tax breaks for the state’s military veterans.

The Republicans recently touted easier access to health care while the Democrats trotted out a new plan to reduce the commonwealth’s dependence on foreign oil and do its part to slow global warming.

It’s the politics of pledged policies, and it’s playing an important role in the most competitive legislative election in years, and one that’s on pace to be the most expensive ever.

“What they’re doing now is every party is trying to find any little advantage in this election cycle because they all know how high the stakes are,” said Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of political science and dean at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the state Senate, the Democrats could retake the majority they lost in 1995 by winning four seats Republicans now hold. Winning the Senate this year is vital to both parties because this is the last Senate election before the state’s legislative and congressional district lines are redrawn in 2011. If the Republican Party keeps control of the House and Senate, it can preserve or expand its majorities for another 10 years.

The stakes are also reflected in the cash that legislative races have raked in this year. By the end of August, House candidates had raised nearly $18.6 million and spent $13.3 million, more than double the totals for House candidates four years earlier. In the Senate, candidate fundraising so far totals $20.6 million compared with $11 million raised through August before the 2003 Senate election, while campaign spending totaled $15 million, up 72 percent from the $8.7 million spent by Labor Day four years earlier.

Republican Delegate M. Kirkland Cox, who presided over the press conference announcing the Republican Party’s plan to create a revolving loan fund to help finance local school construction, acknowledged that policy rollouts flourish as elections near. His party has proffered a new program each of the past four weeks.

“Yeah, in an election year you’re going to have more high-profile announcements, but we’ve been doing policy in our policy committees the last three or four years,” said Mr. Cox, Colonial Heights Republican.

Missing from both parties’ pledges are any significant cost breakdowns, details that become paramount once the General Assembly convenes in January with the burden of funding September’s promises. It’s a job made tougher by a projected $641 million state budget shortfall.

“I think you go to voters and you say, ‘We think this ought to be done,’ ” said Delegate Ward L. Armstrong, Henry County Democrat, who was chosen House minority leader in February to help make the party more aggressive and competitive in this year’s races for House seats.

“I can’t guarantee the outcome that all these proposals will be implemented, but I think it’s fair to have a debate on them and I think it’s fair to bring them forward,” he said.

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