- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

When I was a boy growing up in Richmond, my dad supported our family by working as a Safeway meat cutter. Because our family budget was tight, he often talked to my mother and me about the difference between “wants” and “needs.”

In Virginia these days, the governor and many members of the Virginia Senate seem to have lost sight of this difference. Their “wants” are threatening to overwhelm the “needs” of the people of our Commonwealth.

In recent weeks, thousands of Virginians from across our Commonwealth have joined former Gov. George Allen, former Gov. Douglas Wilder and me in trying to remind the governor and the Virginia Senate leadership of something my dad knew very well: Good budget management means setting priorities for your “needs.” Sometimes the “wants” just have to wait.

Keeping promises and responsibly managing the taxpayer’s money in a way that did not require tax increases were the goals of the three previous, Democrat and Republican, administrations. Gov. Wilder promised not to increase taxes, and he didn’t. Gov. Allen promised “Honest Change” with no tax increases, and he kept his word. I pledged to cut taxes, and I kept my promises.

During my administration, we moved dramatically forward on a broad front: jobs, colleges, education, technology, roads, public safety and health care. As we did so, we kept the taxpayers in mind and reduced instead of increasing taxes. This increased revenues as the economy grew.

Now that the nation is emerging from the national recession that caused budget deficits in 32 states, Virginia has an opportunity to grow the economy again if state government will limit spending instead of stifling our economic growth with huge new tax increases.

The current conflict over the state’s budget, as unfortunate as it may be, affords Virginians an opportunity. The time is right for “spending reform” as opposed to the so-called “tax reform” advocated by Gov. Mark Warner and leaders of the State Senate.

We need to take an honest look at every agency and every program that receives taxpayer money and evaluate how they are fulfilling their missions; look at all the resources available from all sources and decide whether our money is being effectively spent to educate our children, build our roads, protect our streets and provide health care on a basis that is fair to everyone.

The businesses of our Commonwealth have changed how they operate over the past 15 years. Our businesses are leaner, more efficient and much more productive because they have to be to stay in business. Government is the only major part of our economy that hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Virginia needs to examine not simply how we do certain things but to see whether we should do them at all. We need to discuss real reforms that actually affect people — not eliminating 50 boards and commissions that never met and didn’t spend money as Gov. Warner did.

We need to tell the people the truth: Virginia didn’t cut $6 billion in spending. In fact, every budget put forward this year was a multibillion-dollar increase over last year’s budget.

The problem with the debate over tax increases this year is that as important as that issue is, it avoids a discussion of the correct subject: spending reform. As the economy recovers, and revenues go up, we must engage in a thorough, long-term review of how we spend the people’s $30 billion per year to run government programs. We should no longer accept the assertions that unless we appropriate a certain sum, we are “anti-education” or “anti-transportation” or “anti-higher education” or “anti-environment.”

It’s time to reassess our essential goals and ask ourselves how we carry out a vision for a progressive Virginia without simply increasing the amount we take from the taxpayers every year. The sad part of today’s tax debate is that we continue to postponing this necessary evaluation, and are just raising taxes to cover the demands of the special interests.

James S. Gilmore III is the former governor of Virginia.

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