The Thinker

Good luck with the budget voodoo, Governor McDonnell

In case you haven’t heard, not only does Massachusetts have a new senator-elect, but Virginia has a new Governor. Bob McDonnell, your typical grey haired white Republican male with a toothy smile and a blonde arm candy wife was sworn in a week ago. He won election by promising no new taxes (a position few find hard to argue with) but also by promising all these new services. Yes, he has a four billion dollar budget hole to fill, but somehow he’s going to cut spending and add services. This includes increasing funds to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is already decades behind where it needs to be in providing sufficient roads to handle Virginia’s burgeoning population.

Good luck with that, Governor McDonnell. Not that I am wishing you any bad luck or anything, but you are hardly the first governor, Republican or Democratic, to promise all these magical new services without raising any additional taxes. In a way, it’s an easy promise to make. After all, you don’t have to worry about reelection. Virginia governors can only serve one term.

I guess it wouldn’t work to tell voters the truth: that state services, already cut to the bone, have zero fat in them already. To close the four billion dollar gap outgoing Governor Tim Kaine outlined, most residents are going to squeal when they see what it actually means. Virginia’s total budget is around $38 billion, so $4 billion is hardly a drop in the bucket and amounts to about ten percent of the budget. I doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that if you are not going to raise taxes, you are going to add services and you already have a large projected deficit, then you are going to have to further cut services somewhere. You already promised to give more money to transportation and increase the portion of state money given to fund teacher salaries. The only problem is that both the easy and the hard cuts were made years ago.

How crazy has it gotten? The last cut to VDOT budget was $42 million from the road maintenance fund. How much is Fairfax County getting from the state for road maintenance this year? Zero dollars. That’s right, despite being the most prosperous county in the state as well as providing more tax revenue to the state than any other county as well as tons of revenue in gas taxes which is supposed to go for things like highway maintenance, we will get zero dollars for maintenance. So either we just let the potholes get bigger or we raise county taxes to pay to fix potholes which hitherto has been at least partially a state responsibility.

Now as a frequent driver, I’m all for changing this, so I think it’s great that our new governor is going to add to VDOT’s funding but I just don’t see where the money is going to come from. Education, health and human services, and transportation, in that order, are the biggest consumers of state tax dollars. It doesn’t look like education will be cut, unless it is subsidies to state universities, which have already been dramatically reduced and have students howling over their tuition rate increases. You say that transportation will get more funding which leaves human services as a likely place to use your budget knife. These services of course have already been pared to the bone. It’s hard to see how you reduce spending more there. It’s not like Medicaid is optional. It’s a nice gesture that you and your senior staff are going to be taking pay cuts, but that’s all it is and will do almost nothing to address a four billion dollar shortfall.

As best I can tell, you are pinning your hopes on two scenarios. One: the overall economy will improve to the point where more tax revenues come in. I would not take that one to the bank at least for a year or two. The other is your hope to sell oil leases off Virginia’s coast in 2011 and using some of that money to fund the state budget. I’d say the odds are pretty long there too. First, you have to get the federal government to agree to do this. Second, you have to hope that oil companies will be willing to front the money. Lastly, you are assuming that environmentalists won’t tangle this up in the courts for years.

So good luck governor but as Virginia is not licensed to print money, it’s pretty easy to see what’s going to give. Since you promised not to raise any taxes, it likely means that our overstretched state services are going to be more overstretched, which is to say the state will have to stop doing stuff that states typically do and we’re already pretty much giving up on road maintenance. I think it is much more likely that you will find reason to consolidate prisons and let non-violent prisoners out early in an attempt to make your budget math work. You just have to hope Virginia voters do not notice. As costly as prisons are, you still won’t be able to cough up four billion dollars in savings from them.

One promise I can make is that when you leave office in four years we will be lucky if our transportation funding is where it is now and our public school teachers do not have an extra four or five pupils in their classes. As for my fellow Virginians, shame on us for falling for these lies once again. Just once, I’d like to hear a Republican run for office promising no lower taxes and fewer services because that’s what it always means. Virginians would be well advised to buy extra heavy-duty shock absorbers for our cars. There will be many bumpy days ahead.

 

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