- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, beginning his final year in office, said yesterday that bringing together a group of centrist lawmakers to deal with a major fiscal crisis will be one of his greatest legacies.

“I’m real proud of this year,” Mr. Warner said during an interview with The Washington Times. “The thing I’m proudest of this year is that there was that re-emergence of what I call the sensible center. People took off their partisan hats for a while and said, at least in terms of the finances, let’s try to make a tough choice and do what we think is right for the long-term fiscal interests of the state.”

Last spring, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a $1.38 billion tax-reform package that increased the sales, cigarette and real estate taxes and cut others.

The Democratic governor said he is proud of the 17 maverick Republicans who broke with their caucus and joined Democrats to pass the tax-reform package in order to preserve the state’s coveted AAA bond rating.

“How that kind of moderate center continues will be one of the real challenges of this coming year,” Mr. Warner said. “It was an important step.”

Mr. Warner said the Democratic win in a special House of Delegates election in Norfolk last week could be an indicator of how the statewide elections will play out next year.

Democrat Paula Miller narrowly defeated anti-tax Republican Michael Ball in the race for the seat that Republicans had held since 1996. Democrats now hold 38 House seats, Republicans control 60 and independents hold two.

Virginia voters will elect a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 House delegates next November.

Mr. Warner said he believes the state’s voters are moderate and that they want candidates “that will actually try to reach out across party lines.” He predicted centrist candidates will emerge from both parties next year, but said he thinks Democrats will gain more seats in the House.

“I still hope there will be that kind of moderate coalition in the middle,” he said.

Mr. Warner said his first years as governor presented challenges, ranging from natural disasters to budget woes, and that he is looking forward to a successful final year. By law, Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms.

“Not only did we deal with Virginia’s long-term fiscal issues, but we also made some significant progress in education efforts, and we saw some of our efforts in economic development starting to pay off,” he said.

His priorities for his final year include transportation, continued progress on a “financially stable” state budget and promoting economic development and reform in government and education.

Mr. Warner said the state can achieve long-term savings with reform efforts he began on the state’s information technology and real estate portfolios. But, he said, he needs legislators to help push such reforms so they can continue after he leaves office.

Making the senior year of high school more productive for students and offering teachers rewards for good performance are among the governor’s education reforms.

As for transportation, Mr. Warner this year presented an $824 million package that uses public-private partnerships, rail and transit initiatives and repays the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

While serving as Virginia’s governor, Mr. Warner, who turned 50 earlier this month, has become a national political player.

After Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry lost the November election, political pundits said Mr. Warner, a Southern Democrat who is popular in a conservative state, could be a contender in 2008 for the party’s nomination.

Last week, Mr. Warner’s political action committee raised $2 million at a birthday party held for him in Northern Virginia, further fueling rumors that his political career could be far from over.

Mr. Warner said yesterday he might use some of the money for political travel expenses, but laughed off a question about whether he will be traveling to Iowa or New Hampshire, key states for a presidential nomination.

He did say that he will use some of the money to finance Virginia candidates “who reflect the moderate, fiscally responsible, pro-education approach that I’ve tried to advocate.” He said “time will tell” whether centrist Republican candidates will receive any of that money.

The governor, who is chairman of the National Governors Association, said he might return to the business world.

Mr. Warner was a telecommunications mogul before he became governor in 2002. He praised his former venture-capital firm and said he still has friends there.

Still, Mr. Warner said he hasn’t decided his next political step.

“If I do want to pursue something else in politics,” he said, “the one way I can have the most options is to make sure I don’t mess up my last year as governor.”

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