- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Mark Warner will spend much of his last year in office in the national spotlight, lobbying on behalf of the nation’s governors for changes in Medicaid and for improvements in benefits and equipment for the National Guard.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, said yesterday federal cuts to Medicaid will hurt Virginia. He also said that the war on terrorism is pulling away thousands of National Guard members from critical jobs as first responders in their communities.

“As we rethink America’s military presence and capabilities, the Guard and Reserve is a critical piece that has to be part of this debate and governors are going to have to step up and play a major role,” Mr. Warner told The Washington Times in an interview in his office. “This is one of those issues that has not received near the attention it should.”

Virginia currently has 2,000 National Guard members — one-fourth of the total Guard — on active duty, he said. Some states have more than half of their Guard members on active duty, he estimated.

Mr. Warner, who is chairman of the National Governors Association, said he opposes the proposed $60 billion federal cut to Medicaid, which could equate to a $1 billion cut in Virginia as well as cuts in other states.

“Medicaid is not sustainable as it currently stands,” he said. “The president has picked the wrong crisis to focus on. When Social Security goes broke in 2042, state health care systems are going to go broke a long time before that if we don’t do something about Medicaid.”

The NGA chairmanship has propelled Mr. Warner, 50, into the national spotlight and pundits are speculating on his political future.

Many think Mr. Warner will seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. Mr. Warner says he is focused on finishing his term as Virginia governor and declined to comment on his plans.

As the 2005 General Assembly adjourns this weekend, Mr. Warner declined to say where he stands on the bills that are headed to his desk. One of those bills denies illegal aliens access to state and local public benefits, including Medicaid.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has said it will ask Mr. Warner to veto the measure. Yesterday, Mr. Warner would only say the measure is under review.

Negotiations on the state budget were under way yesterday and Mr. Warner praised what seemed to be a compromise forged on an $850 million transportation plan.

“It’s the largest single infusion of new money into transportation in more than 20 years,” he said. “This is a significant down payment.”

Mr. Warner also lauded the reduction of the food tax, which will take effect in July.

During his last 10 months as governor, Mr. Warner promised to make sure his successor does not inherit a “fiscal mess.”

He said the state is “absolutely” stronger than when he took office in 2002. “It’s not always been without some turmoil, but these things were done in partnership with the General Assembly and I think they should be proud as well,” he said.

Mr. Warner’s other priorities include economic development in Southside and Southwest Virginia and making sure the government and education reforms he has initiated are firmly implemented before he leaves office in January.

By law, Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms.

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