- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

RICHMOND Gov. Mark R. Warner began his second year as Virginia's governor by pledging to reopen the 12 Department of Motor Vehicle branch offices that were closed because of the budget crisis.
During his hourlong State of the Commonwealth address last night, he also pledged to veto any budget that cuts funding for education or the Virginia Retirement System.
While Republicans generally praised the tone of the speech, many questioned the timing of Mr. Warner's DMV announcement and the motives for discussing cuts to education or VRS things they claim were never an option anyway.
"The governor knew that we as a committee were going to restore [the DMV] funding anyway. I think he wanted to take the credit for [fixing something] that shouldn't have been done in the first place," said House Appropriations Chairman Vincent Callahan, Fairfax Republican.
"I don't know of anyone who wanted to raid the VRS," said newly elected Speaker William J. Howell, Fredericksburg Republican.
But Delegate Brian Moran, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Mr. Warner was just making his priorities clear.
"He just sent a message. Cuts to VRS have been considered in the past, and so it was appropriate for him to say now that they are off the table," said Mr. Moran, Fairfax Democrat.
In addition to promising to veto any budget that included cuts in education, Mr. Warner allocated an additional $65 million in education funding.
"We have made too much progress to retreat from our commitment to public schools," he said, highlighting an increase in the state's Standards of Learning test scores and greater number of teachers accredited throughout the state.
The governor's announcement about the possible reopening of the DMV offices, however, took many lawmakers by surprise.
Mr. Warner said he would use $6 million in settlement money from Wall Street banks to reopen the DMV branches closed in October to help cut the deficit. The largest investment houses agreed in December to major reforms and a record $1.4 billion in fines and investor restitution to settle federal charges that they deceived clients to increase profits.
"I find the timing curious," said House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. "Why did we have to go through the pain if this is all it's going to take to fix it?"
"I think he must have been listening inside all the Republican caucus meetings this week," said state Sen. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, Fairfax Republican. "[He had to have seen] that closing all those DMV offices blew up in his face."
Mr. Warner also told lawmakers that he would veto any budget that included cuts in public education, despite Virginia's $2.1 billion budget deficit.
"If you send me a budget that cuts funding for education, I will not sign it," Mr. Warner said.
His budget includes an additional $65 million for public education.
Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore was at an undisclosed location during the speech in case of a terrorist attack or other catastrophic event at the state Capitol, the first time a top elected official did not attend a State of the Commonwealth address because of security concerns.
Mr. Warner proposed in December consolidating departments and streamlining the government to save money.
It is now up to the legislature to approve his plans or provide an alternative.
"I know that some of you on both sides of the aisle will disagree with some of our choices," he said. "That is part of the give-and-take of the legislative process."
Mr. Warner singled out the need for reform in state technology services as a good place to start. He is suggesting the creation of an agency that deals with technology concerns.
"We buy Dell computers from 15 different places at 15 different prices," Mr. Warner said. "That makes no sense. Over the next four years, this plan alone could save as much as $100 million."
Mr. Warner also recommended that lawmakers ban the execution of mentally retarded adults, double fines for traffic violators in high-volume areas and support a constitutional amendment eliminating the one-term limit on Virginia governors.
Mr. Warner faces a tough battle to get his package through the General Assembly, where Republicans solidly control both chambers. He often tried to work with Republican lawmakers during last year's session, but his major initiatives were unsuccessful.
His most public failure was the sound defeat of two regional transportation referendums on the November ballot.
Republicans quickly reminded the governor that they were eager to work with him this year but would not support any tax increases.
"I am glad the governor has seemingly given up on his quest for higher taxes," Sen. Steve Newman, Lynchburg Republican, said in the Republican response to the address. "Now we can focus on making this budget as fair and efficient as it can possibly be while living within our means."

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