Pride goes before the fall

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

By the time you read this, the November elections will likely be over.  I say likely because there’s a good chance the post office will not get this issue of Virginia Business delivered before Election Day.  At the same time, it is also possible that voting could be close enough to result in a lengthy 2000-style recount.  Remember Bush v. Gore and the hanging chads in Florida?

Given very close pre-election polls, as well as recent changes in election laws in several key states, including Virginia, vote-counting disputes seem reasonably possible.  Likely or not, let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to a court-decided election.  Voting that requires a final tally by the judicial branch doesn’t auger well for the image of democracy, in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world.

With lobbying expenditures at an all-time high, the campaign rhetoric has achieved a new low this time out.  While negatively themed political ads are certainly nothing new, I don’t think we’ve ever seen this many of them, including ones targeted at state races.  It’s hard to believe that Tim Kaine and George Allen both could have so many negative attributes.  When you meet them in person, they seem like pretty nice guys.  Virginia’s status as a battleground state has certainly seemed to accentuate the negative.

Hopefully, we’ll get a break from politics for a few months before the next governor’s race heats up. Meanwhile let’s turn to the commonwealth’s status as a business-friendly state.

Not long ago, Virginia was known as the No. 1 state for business.  Now by most counts, we are number two at best.  It’s a bit unsettling to think that we’ll need to launch a campaign for economic development along the lines of Avis’ “We try harder.”  The image of our governor dashing through airports and hurdling suitcases just doesn’t seem quite right, but you know if the glove fits maybe we just have
to wear it.

Seriously, I guess Virginia will now have to settle for being one of the best or a top state for business.  It’s been awhile since we’ve actually been named the best state for business or the best managed state.

What are the reasons for the fall?  Most reports point to uncertainty over the impact of federal spending reductions, military or otherwise, on the future of Virginia’s economy.  Others mention the lack of long-term funding solutions for transportation.  Tight state budgets, resulting in cutbacks on higher education may also be a factor.

These are hard problems to solve and will take more spending than can be funded through greater government efficiency.  For proof of this, look no further than Gov. Bob McDonnell’s much-ballyhooed Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring.  This blue-chip panel of government and business leaders was formed the day of the governor’s inauguration through Executive Order No. 2 (Order No. 1 named Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling chief jobs creation officer).  Nearly a year later, in its December 2010 report to the governor, the commission recommended finding savings through restructuring and efficiency equal to 2 percent of the state budget or $100 million.

Eleven months later, the governor’s office issued a news release announcing just $2 million in reforms to be presented to the General Assembly during its 2012 session.  Even if subsequent phases of the reform commission’s work were to come up with plans totaling to the original $100 million recommendation, the savings would be woefully short of what the commonwealth needs.

According to a November 2011 report by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center, “Virginia’s transportation program needs a minimum of $600 million per year to restore stability to the HMOF (Highway Maintenance and Operation Fund) and an additional $500 million to $1 billion per year to ensure a robust construction program capable of meeting defined, performance-based needs.”

And then of course, there’s education, business recruitment incentives and other needs affecting the commonwealth’s future prospects for economic development.

The well-intended efforts of our governor and his reform commission have clearly demonstrated that savings from existing programs are not sufficient to fund the present and future needs of the commonwealth.

Virginia has always had many reasons to be a proud state: its history, its economy, its quality of life and its business-friendly environment.  Let’s just hope that pride does not come before the fall. 

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