- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

RICHMOND Gov. Mark Warner said Virginia Democrats can regain relevance within the state by distancing themselves from the national party.
"Democrats have to make the case here they, perhaps unlike at the national level, are better fiscal stewards and frankly are more fiscally conservative than the current Republican approach," Mr. Warner told The Washington Times in an interview in his Capitol office.
All 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot in November, and Mr. Warner is hopeful that Democrats can loosen Republicans' grip on state politics.
"I think the Achilles' heel for some of the Republican legislators is the fact that they position themselves as fiscal conservatives yet put together budgets that are not fiscally conservative," he said.
The 2003 General Assembly adjourned Saturday with legislators passing a $50 billion budget. Instead of raising taxes to close a $2.1 billion deficit, lawmakers approved measures increasing fees at the Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as prices at Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control stores.
While the budget passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate with bipartisan support, Mr. Warner expressed concern that lawmakers were abdicating their responsibilities.
"We can't just continue to make these promises that sometimes we don't honor," he said. "We can't continue in one breath to say we are against tax increases, but we are in favor of fee increases. That's what the Republican legislators are doing here."
The 2004 General Assembly is likely to have a different face. Redistricting as a result of the 2000 census will pit several veteran lawmakers of both parties against one another in the fall elections.
Mr. Warner said the redistricting map, which favors Republicans, will present a "technical challenge" to Democrats, but he is optimistic his party can chip away at the Republican majority in both chambers. The House currently has 65 Republicans, 34 Democrats and one independent. The Senate has 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats.
As one of only two statewide elected Democrats, Mr. Warner is the head of a party that has been marginalized increasingly in state government over the last 25 years. He said he intends to campaign in the coming months for candidates who articulate a clear message that Democrats are better equipped to solve Virginia's fiscal problems.
"I think that there is a consensus that we are going to have to grapple with tax reform and tax restructuring next year, and I think that Democrats are going to have a chance to get ahead of that responsibly," he said.
The abortion debate dominated this year's session. As a result of several special elections in which pro-life candidates won convincingly, three measures a ban on a procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion, mandatory parental consent for minors seeking abortions and the introduction of a "Choose Life" license plate passed through the General Assembly with relative ease.
Mr. Warner expressed concerns about the abortion measures, specifically the parental consent bill. He has until April 2 to sign, veto or amend all legislation passed during the session. He did not indicate his specific intentions with these bills, but said he planned to use his veto pen more this year than he did last year.
The only bill Mr. Warner vetoed from the 2002 session was the ban on partial-birth abortion.
He is hopeful, however, that the success of pro-life bills during this session will be a wake-up call to Virginians, most of whom he believes support abortion rights.
"I think that a lot of pro-choice voters in Virginia have become complacent on the issue," he said. "I think there is a majority of Virginians who favor protecting a woman's right to choose with some reasonable restrictions."
The repeal of the estate tax passed both chambers with broad support from both parties, including 11 Democrats in the Senate. It will not take effect until 2005. The numbers in both chambers will uphold a guaranteed veto from Mr. Warner, who says it is irresponsible to remove projected revenue during a fiscal crisis.
"There needs to be reform for small businesses and farmers so that [when they] pass on they don't give up their whole livelihood," he said. He said changes to the estate tax must be made in the context of overall tax reform which he supports and not as a one-time measure.
Mr. Warner said he realizes it is an election year and Democrats cannot be on record as opposing the measure.
"I have had conversations with those members who voted in favor of the estate tax repeal [and they said they] will be willing to work with me on something that says, 'Let's do it in the context of overall tax reform,'" he said.
Mr. Warner was elected in 2001, in part on his promise to bring a new tone to Richmond. The former businessman, who made millions of dollars in the technology industry, had not held any elective office before taking the governor's post.
In his 14 months in office, he has angered both allies and opponents. Some Democrats wish he would use the bully pulpit of the governor's office more often, and some Republican lawmakers question his priorities and complain he is not communicating with them.
"Making cuts and streamlining state government was not a cornerstone of my campaign, but on the other hand I would rather have someone with my background doing this than a traditional politician, because I don't think they would have made the tough choices."
Some of those tough choices have included cutting close to $6 billion from the state budget, as well as laying off more than 4,000 state employees.
Mr. Warner has been criticized for closing 12 DMV branch offices and eliminating Wednesday service hours. The budget approved on Saturday reopens the closed branches and restores Wednesday hours.
Mr. Warner said the difference between the political world and the private sector at times has been frustrating.
"In the real world, you make a commitment and you live by it, or in the case of business, you don't do business with that person again," Mr. Warner said. "In the legislative world, there are a lot of commitments made by people that they have no intention of honoring."


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