- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2002

Virginia's tangled budget and the need to patch an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion shortfall through 2006 could be a blessing in disguise for Gov.-elect Mark R. Warner, the first Democrat in eight years to hold the keys to the executive mansion.
The immediate need to balance the remainder of the 2001-02 biennium budget with its $1.2 billion shortfall will be the centerpiece during this year's General Assembly session, which convenes Wednesday for the 60-day session.
For Mr. Warner, who will face an overwhelmingly Republican-controlled legislature, both the short- and long-term budget issues should mean lightning-rod social issues such as abortion rights and gun control will take second billing.
"You've got red ink as far as the eye can see. We have to get the structure of the state's finances back in shape, and that was not something if you had asked me this question a year ago I would have said would have been a top priority," Mr. Warner said in an interview last week with The Washington Times. "But I am hired for good times or bad, and until we can get the budget structure in better shape, most everything else has to be postponed.
"My agenda items don't fall along the kind of social litmus test items that clearly divide," he said. Mr. Warner said the revenue shortfalls that continue past this year include the $2 billion hole in the 2003-04 biennium budget and "another couple of billion" in the following two budget cycles.
The gloomy economic picture likely will mean deep cuts in state services, including layoffs of state employees. Mr. Warner also is set to propose the elimination or rollback of some of the 50 special tax credits, deductions and exemptions, totaling $600 million annually, that have been passed since 1995.
"We have got a [budget] problem here that is structurally imbalanced and in my mind is going to require a review of how we provide state services, top to bottom, [and] look at consolidation, as well as the whole function of what state government does," Mr. Warner said. "Unless we want to be revisiting this issue every year on into the future, we are going to have to bite the bullet now. I think the public understands it."
A year ago this time, Mr. Warner said, he knew the economy was slowing. He faulted both outgoing Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III and the legislature for spending money freely.
"The government continued to spend at 6.9 percent revenue growth," Mr. Warner said, until late November or December of last year when Mr. Gilmore finally acknowledged how bad the budget situation was. "That is not a good, fiscal conservative approach."
Mr. Warner will be sworn in Saturday and by law cannot run for a consecutive term.
The multimillionaire who made his fortune in the cellular telephone industry will face a House of Delegates this year where Republicans hold 64 of the 100 seats and Democrats have 33. The two independents generally caucus with the Republicans, and one seat is vacant. In the Senate, the majority is not as high, with Republicans holding a 22 to 18 edge in the 40-seat chamber.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria said issues that may be divisive include the debate about whether the state housing authority should extend loans to homosexual couples, and Northern Virginia's quest to hold a tax referendum that would pay for transportation or education projects.
The front-burner issue, however, will be the budget, he said, with legislators not wanting to have another fiasco like last year where the General Assembly could not agree with Mr. Gilmore on revisions to the biennium budget. That stalemate, which was largely over the size of the car-tax phaseout, was an embarrassment to the state and forced Mr. Gilmore to make $421 million in cuts to state services to balance the budget.
"Social issues will take a back seat to the budget; therefore, during the first session we should be able to come to common ground," Mr. Moran said.
Mr. Warner said he bills himself as a "fiscal conservative" and in his mind that could mean scaling back state government. He also said restructuring the beleaguered Virginia Department of Transportation and creating a "more efficient" higher education system also will be top priorities.
House of Delegates Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican, said he generally agrees that in order to balance the budget, government will have to be scaled back.
"Everything is still on the table," Mr. Wilkins told The Times, but cautioned that education funding cannot be lowered and that more money for items like security may be needed in light of the September 11 attacks.
Mr. Wilkins said he also would like to see the General Assembly pass laws to preserve more open space in a state that is still 80 percent rural. In addition, he said, there could be attempts to weaken welfare reform laws passed in the 1990s because of the current recession.
Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison, Prince William Republican and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Mr. Warner's focus needed to be on balancing the budget because, by law, a budget cycle cannot end with a deficit.
"He and the legislature are going to have to make the tough choices to balance the budget," Mr. Rollison said, adding that he was "pleased" Mr. Warner was not skirting away from the challenge even though the cuts he may propose could be politically damaging.
To reach consensus on a budget or any other partisan issues, a more amiable working relationship will be needed between not only the two major parties but also among regions, Mr. Warner said.
"I want to try to change the tone of how we do business in Richmond and in the state," Mr. Warner said. "I think that there was a frustration with the failure to reach a budget and the overly partisan tone over the last couple of years."
Mr. Warner said he does not want to be known as a dogmatic, "my way or the highway" kind of governor.
To fix the "tone of Richmond," Mr. Warner has sat down with senior lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, even before he took office, something reminiscent of President Bush's approach to building trust with lawmakers when he traveled last spring to meet with House and Senate members of both parties.
Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Manassas Democrat and senior minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, said Mr. Warner has no choice but to be bipartisan.
"It better last awhile, because the Republicans control the General Assembly and we have a Democratic governor," Mr. Colgan said last week after a 90-minute closed-door meeting with Mr. Warner and other senior lawmakers.
M. Kirkland Cox, Colonial Heights Republican, said Mr. Warner seems willing to bring all sides into the fold.
"He's made a decent effort," Mr. Cox said. "I think it's a good start."

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