- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

RICHMOND — The combination of a slowing economy, defeats in the 2008 General Assembly and a Dulles rail bombshell last month has resulted in a rocky start for Gov. Tim Kaine in his third year.

“You tend to earn your pay when times are tough,” Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, told The Washington Times. Virginia, like others states across the county, is facing tough financial times as a result of an economy slowed by the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry; the slowdown could kill Mr. Kaine’s signature legislation, expanding state-funded pre-kindergarten for thousands of “at-risk” 4-year-olds.

“It has not been a good session thus far for Governor Kaine, and it’s not all because of us,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican. “Some of it he chose — to take up bills that previously failed.”

Republican lawmakers point to Mr. Kaine joining family members of victims of the Virginia Tech massacre in backing legislation to require private gun dealers to do background checks at gun shows.

The plan to close “the gun-show ‘loophole’ has never passed,” said Mr. Griffith, adding that gun-show laws had nothing to do with the Tech tragedy.

Mr. Kaine also has backed the proposed smoking ban for Virginia restaurants — a perennial Assembly loser that is expected to die this year in the House.

While Republicans say Mr. Kaine’s stances reflect liberal policies not embraced throughout much of Virginia, Democrats say Mr. Kaine’s stances show that he is a man of principle.

“There is not a single person on this planet who could have gotten [the gun show bill] passed — not a single person,” said Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. “It’s a principled stand in trying to deal with a problem we have in our society.”

The worst moment early in Mr. Kaine’s third year arguably came during a Jan. 24 meeting on Capitol Hill.

Federal Transit Administration Administrator James S. Simpson stunned Mr. Kaine and members of Virginia’s congressional delegation when he said the proposed Metro rail to Washington Dulles International Airport project had problems and was about to lose $900 million in federal funding.

One of the agency’s biggest concerns is the ability of Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority — which runs the Dulles airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — to oversee such a large construction contract. Mr. Kaine signed the deal with the authority in March 2007 and, since the Hill meeting, has said the agency’s concerns can be resolved.

Mr. Kaine’s predecessor, Mark Warner, a Democrat, also had rocky times after becoming governor in 2002.

Early on, he faced a hostile Republican-controlled Assembly but found his footing by the third year.

In 2004, he persuaded the majority of legislators, after a 115-day fight over the state budget, to pass a $1.38 billion tax increase that he says saved the state’s finances. Mr. Warner left office extremely popular, despite breaking a campaign promise that he would not increase taxes.

Mr. Kaine could continue to face rough times after he gives lawmakers an updated revenue forecast next week, which they will use to decide spending priorities in the two-year budget that starts July 1.

As a result of the slowing economy, the Kaine administration in December said the state faced a $641 million shortfall. Republican lawmakers now say they would not be surprised if the revenue updates put the shortfall as high as $1 billion.

“This is his signature budget of his four-year term and he was trying to set some legacy agenda items, but the fact is the economy turned against him,” said John Hager, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “With a conservative General Assembly, especially in the House, no one is interested in spending on new programs when we are stressed economically. I think he has an uphill battle to make this a successful session.”

Said Mr. Saslaw: “It’s real easy to be governor here when times are booming. One former governor told me, ‘When you have a booming economy, a chimpanzee can run Virginia.’ The trick is to be able to do it when you don’t have that. That’s what he’s got and he’s doing fine.”

Mr. Kaine acknowledged that his job would be easier with “money coming in the door” but said he also has had recent successes.

Since proposing a $78 billion biennial budget in December, lawmakers have generally agreed with his plans to reform the state’s mental-health system, a direct response to the Tech massacre. Lawmakers also generally support the governor’s proposal to issue $1.65 billion in bonds for higher-education building projects.

In addition, Mr. Kaine appears to have helped persuade lawmakers to repeal the so-called “abuser fees” against Virginia drivers that the Assembly approved last year.

However, Republican lawmakers continue to oppose his proposal to expand pre-school to 17,000 4-year-olds from low-income families and question whether they can fund his proposal to expand health care access for the uninsured.

They also have criticized his plan to close the current budget gap and his desire to use transportation dollars for new programs.

Senate Finance Chairman Charles Colgan, Prince William Democrat, said that it’s too early to tell how far Mr. Kaine’s agenda will advance and that lawmakers will have a better idea after they see the updated state revenue forecast.

“He is a human being; I am sure he wants to leave something behind,” he said. “It’s really wait and see right now, but he’ll be OK.”

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