- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) last week provided just the latest disturbing example of how bureaucratic bungling in Richmond creates pressure for higher taxes and squanders money that ought to be spent on improving the state's crumbling infrastructure. The oft-criticized VDOT announced Wednesday that it has failed to use more than $200 million in federal money available to repair bridges that are in deficient condition. At a meeting of the state Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday, VDOT said it would cost roughly $75 million to replace the state's 43 worst bridges.
So, why has the state been failing to use the money available to for repairs? "By internal policy, VDOT has not used federal bridge funds for all qualifying work," said Barbara Reese, the transportation agency's chief financial officer. She said that "no one ever challenged that" policy, even though the money could have legally been spent on fixing the bridges.
Since taking office in January, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, has sought to foist the blame for VDOT's myriad problems on his Republican predecessor, Jim Gilmore. But, 10 months into his administration, such excuse-making is wearing thin with voters. Skepticism about the ability of VDOT and the state and local government in general to build new road projects without squandering tax dollars played no small role in the drubbing Mr. Warner's transportation tax-increase referendums in Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads received at the polls earlier this month.
As Virginia's fiscal picture continues to worsen, the governor faces some gloomy realities: mushrooming budget deficits; new rounds of layoffs; and cutbacks in services. (The nasty controversy over the closure of some DMV offices, announced last week, is only the beginning). And, the landslide defeats of the transportation tax referendums have taken Mr. Warner's favored solution, tax increases, off the table.
Amid this dreary fiscal situation, there are two possible reasons for optimism: First, the fact that, when the General Assembly convenes in January, Mr. Warner will be working with a legislature (particularly the House of Delegates) that is increasingly dominated by fiscally conservative Republicans who are rightly skeptical of big government and higher taxes. Second, there's the Commission on Efficiency and Effectiveness in Virginia state government, better known as the Wilder Commission, appointed by Mr. Warner after he was elected governor last year. Mr. Warner chose former Gov. Doug Wilder, a Democrat who distinguished himself as perhaps the most fiscally responsible governor in the country during the early 1990s, to head the panel.
In its 1994 "Fiscal Policy Report Card On America's Governors," the Cato Institute gave Mr. Wilder an "A" for holding the line on taxes and spending. Study co-authors Stephen Moore and Dean Stansel wrote that "in an era where many politicians pretend to be 'new Democrats,' Wilder is the real thing." They added that "Wilder steadfastly resisted all new taxes and vetoed repeated attempts by the legislature to impose them. Wilder argued that 'citizens should not bear a heavier burden during this recession,' and that more revenues were 'simply unnecessary.' " Messrs. Moore and Stansel concluded that Mr. Wilder "was proven right. By holding state spending to just over the inflation rate for four years, he balanced the budget every year and preserved the state's AAA bond rating. … At the end of his term, he left Virginia in excellent fiscal shape.' "
But it remains to be seen whether Mr. Warner and other Democrats he appointed to the panel are prepared to cooperate with Mr. Wilder. The former governor has already clashed with Maurice Jones, Mr. Warner's deputy chief of staff, over whether the governor is willing to look seriously at the Wilder Commission's reform proposals, which include scaling back state-subsidized technology projects, merging a number of state agencies and selling off state-owned liquor stores.
When it comes to fiscal responsibility and making Virginia government work, Mr. Warner could stand to learn a great deal from Mr. Wilder. It's essential that fiscally responsible Republicans in the General Assembly stand with the former governor in the push for sorely needed reforms in Virginia state government.


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