- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 14, 2010

ANALYSIS:

RICHMOND — The commanding issue of the 2010 General Assembly is the state’s unprecedented $4 billion budget crisis, and Robert F. McDonnell made fixing it a big piece of his campaign for governor.

So why is he breaking a precedent practiced by governors for decades by not offering his own amendments to remake Virginia’s two-year state budget in his own image, and make clear the cuts he supports?

“What’s he waiting on? He was elected to govern. So govern,” House Democratic Leader Ward L. Armstrong said.

It’s a question the General Assembly’s Democrats have asked in noisy floor speeches for weeks. Now, many Republican lawmakers want an answer, too.

Mr. McDonnell was clear in last year’s gubernatorial campaign that he would not stand for new taxes if he was elected. Now that he is governor, it’s clear that bone-deep cuts to an already emaciated budget is how he and the GOP intend to reconcile the projected shortfall through 2012.

So instead of recommending cuts, he has asked House of Delegates Republicans — who have to seek re-election next year — to make the cuts and take the heat.

Some rank-and-file House Republicans have groused about that privately for days. Those who spoke to the Associated Press said they wished Mr. McDonnell would be forthcoming on his budget proposals and provide leadership on the issue.

Mr. McDonnell, however, said in a Friday interview with the Associated Press that he’s confident that his approach will be more productive.

“I am exercising a different strategy,” he said.

He means private consensus-building instead of carrying out fractious, running debates over gaping cuts and the argument for tax increases to soften them.

“Me playing a role as a leader — as a facilitator and with collaboration with me making recommendations to try to work through the budget was a better way to go,” he said.

Still, Republicans not in House leadership who fear reprisals and spoke on condition of confidentiality are venting that Mr. McDonnell, by keeping his fingerprints off cuts that will be catastrophic to some public services, isn’t holding up his end of the bargain.

“I just wish he’d be clear with us and with the public right now and send down amendments that say exactly what he wants us to do. That’s how you lead,” said one Republican now serving under his fourth governor who would not speak for the record for fear of reprisals from the popular governor, the GOP legislative leadership and the party.

House Appropriations Chairman Lacey Putney, a McDonnell ally, supports the governor’s approach, noting accurately that the constitutional responsibility for writing the state budget lies with the legislature, not the governor.

But Mr. Putney, a conservative independent from Bedford whose 49 House sessions make him the longest-serving lawmaker in Virginia history, can’t recall when a new governor didn’t offer amendments to change his predecessor’s spending priorities.

Democratic former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder did Mr. McDonnell the enormous favor last fall by refusing to endorse his Democratic foe, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds. And last week, Mr. Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor, stood with Mr. McDonnell to advocate his new initiative to expand the development of charter schools in Virginia.

But minutes after the event, Mr. Wilder was clear about what he feels is Mr. McDonnell’s obligation to make his spending plans public.

“I’m not going to be critical, but I tell you this: You must do it as quickly as possible,” Mr. Wilder said. “I think he recognizes that he needs to move really, really quickly.”

Mr. Wilder, within days of taking office in 1990, submitted a package of amendments to the budget that had been left for him by his predecessor, fellow Democrat Gerald L. Baliles. Before he left office in 1994, Mr. Wilder had guided the state through a $2.2 billion budget crisis that at the time was the worst it had ever seen without any tax increases.

It’s not as if Mr. McDonnell doesn’t know what he wants to do. During his interview with the AP he broadly outlined his proposals.

He has asked legislators to trim about $700 million the next two years from state support for public schools from kindergarten through high school, and generate the same amount in savings from a less generous public employee retirement system.

He aims to cut about $300 million in funding for health and human resources. The rest of the cuts will come from cutting the size of state agencies, including jobs.

Mr. McDonnell also wants to bolster funding for higher education and law enforcement from the deep cuts Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine prescribed in the budget he submitted in December.

Legislators have known his aims for days, he said.

“I spent a good part of my first three weeks in office meeting with (state finance experts) and going through the budget in detail,” he said. “The very first week in office, I started meeting with the House leadership and Senate leadership together and then separately.”

And in the past 10 days, he said, he has met extensively with the dozen senior legislative budget writers who will huddle in about three weeks to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget and essentially dictate its final form.

Then why not go public and in writing with them by offering your own amendments?

“The bill is now in the hands of the legislature. They have said that they want and that they need direction, and we’re giving it to them,” he said.

Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics since 2000.

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