Opinion

Early months show McDonnell’s strategic approach

Our View - April 2010

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Two events served as symbolic bookends for the 2010 General Assembly. 

The first was the partisan opposition that led to Gov. Bob McDonnell scuttling the nomination of Richmond businessman Robert Sledd to be secretary of commerce and trade. 

The second event was the legislature’s unanimous vote to name former Attorney General William C. Mims to fill a vacancy on the Virginia Supreme Court.

A unanimous vote! Perhaps, there is hope for nonpartisan progress in the commonwealth.

But progress was slow on the state budget with the Democratic Senate and Republican House of Delegates wrangling over where to make cuts. While passage of a balanced budget is constitutionally required, this was an exceptionally tough year to reach agreement because of a $4 billion shortfall.

Some of the outcomes of the budget package are necessarily shortsighted.  It is impossible to close a multibillion-dollar gap without making near-term sacrifices.

The principle behind McDonnell’s “no new taxes” stance is that lack of revenue will force government to become more efficient.  In practice, this has rarely been the case.

Unfortunately, this year’s session pushes much of the state’s budget problem back on localities, which will have to make deep cuts or raise local taxes.  This is much like the failed regional transportation authorities proposed in 2007. That legislation put transportation funding decisions in the hands of unelected regional authorities. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the arrangement was unconstitutional.

The problem is that there just isn’t enough room in the general fund to continue to deliver the services that our state government has historically delivered.  Roughly two-thirds of state expenditures are made for education and health care.  When deep cuts are required, these areas cannot avoid being the most affected.

The budget process and other events during the legislative session illuminate the strategic approach McDonnell has taken during his first months in office.

First, he was smart to stay out of the budget fray (at least in public) during his early days, forcing the House and the Senate to come up with their own solution. During this time, the governor focused on the passage of a number of bills related to economic development and job creation. 

(Looking beyond this year’s assembly sessions, McDonnell’s commission on government reform and restructuring is an important step to solving longer term budget problems.)

Second, McDonnell has shown willingness to compromise.  The withdrawal of the Sledd nomination was an early example.  Rather than spend political capital on a bruising partisan fight over questionable conflict-of-interest issues, McDonnell made Sledd an unpaid business adviser to the administration.

Compromise was also evident in the budget process. On the campaign trail, fee increases or the elimination of tax exemptions were rightly labeled as tax increases.  From the governor’s office, some fee increases have been deemed acceptable as long as they fund the services for which fees are being charged.

Even more surprising was McDonnell’s decision to issue an executive directive forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That action followed the uproar over Attorney General Ken Cucccinelli’s letter to Virginia’s public colleges saying that they could not prohibit such discrimination unless directed by the General Assembly. 

Our view is that McDonnell’s directive was not driven by social ideals, but by economic ones. The letter provoked protests on college campuses and made the state the butt of jokes on late-night TV. Probably more important to McDonnell was the fact the controversy was gaining momentum at a time when the state was bidding to become the new corporate home of Northrop Grumman. The defense contractor, now based in Los Angles, offers benefits to domestic partners.

McDonnell’s directive doesn’t have the force of law or an executive order, but it helps knock down the perception that Virginia is homophobic.

Using pragmatic compromises to defuse partisan squabbles, pushing forward economic development initiatives and delivering what is perhaps the toughest budget ever passed by the General Assembly are marks of political leadership.  Since taking over the governor’s office in January, we’ve seen evidence that Bob McDonnell intends to keep Virginia on solid footing as the best state for business.


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