Monday, February 8, 2010

Hiding out in the Governor’s Mansion

There’s something odd going on in Richmond.

It’s a budget year and there’s a process the state normally goes through to reach a balanced budget.

In a gubernatorial election year that process starts with a proposal by the outgoing governor.

Gov. Tim Kaine did his part, although nobody liked his contribution. He proposed a budget with more than $2 billion in cuts and more than $1 billion in tax increases to fill a hole in the next biennial budget that may be as big as $4.4 billion.

With Republican in firm control in the House and “No Tax Increases” Bob McDonnell newly installed in the Governor’s Mansion, the tax hike was quickly disposed of.

But that’s where the process has broken down. Because the next step in the process should be budget amendments submitted by the new governor to change the old governor’s budget.

While McDonnell has submitted a few amendments to balance new spending programs he’s proposed – largely economic development measures – he has not addressed the large cuts that need to be made to balance the budget. Even if McDonnell were to accept all of Kaine’s cuts – and the new governor has said he disagrees with some, including cuts in public safety, higher education and state employee retirement contributions – he needs to make nearly $2 billion in cuts. If he restores any of Kaine’s cuts, he’ll need to make even deeper cuts.

But the governor has not submitted any budget amendments to propose those cuts.

And recent comments by his press secretary suggest that he may not.

This governor may not propose “formal budget amendments” but may continue to have “quiet conversations” with legislators about the budget.

Hmmm, that’s a different process.

Virginia Republicans are famous for their lack of respect for process and their focus on outcomes. Often they seem to decide what result they would like and to design a process to get there. For instance, shortly after gaining control in the House, Republicans instituted a system where subcommittee, previously advisory in nature, could actually kill bills. That meant that three members of the legislature could seal a bill’s fate. Until public complaints forced them to change the policy, they did it without recorded votes. That allowed the GOP majority to kill bills they didn’t like without having to be accountable to the public. A former GOP speaker of the house once changed the composition of a committee t0 minutes before it was scheduled to meet in order to change the vote on a single bill. Our last Republican governor, Jim Gilmore, cooked the state’s books to get around a process – put in place largely by Senate Republicans – that would have stopped the implementation of the next phase of his car tax “cut.”

McDonnell seems to be changing the state budget process. To what end?

Well, he may hope that he can get to a balanced budget without having his fingerprints on the sure-to-be-controversial cuts in public education, health care funding and other state services that will be necessary, given his party’s hostility to the idea of increasing state revenues.

He may realize that the number of state and local government employees whose jobs will be lost to those cuts will make his “Bob for Jobs” campaign slogan look like a bad joke.

If he hopes to take a “hands-off” approach to the budget and hide in the Governor’s Mansion while his allies in the legislature do the heavy lifting, he may find there are problems with that strategy.

First, it hangs Republican legislators out to dry. They would be the ones responsible for the cuts and the ones to pay the political price if voters are angered, as some no doubt will be. Although there are some freshman members of the House who rode McDonnell’s electoral coat tails to victory and may feel they owe him, neither senior House members nor the entire Democrat-controlled Senate owe McDonnell a thing. It’s hard to believe they’ll take the fall for his political benefit.

And, because of the power vested in Virginia’s governors, it would be very hard for McDonnell to wash his hands of the budget, blaming his predecessor and the legislature.

McDonnell not only has the line-item veto, which allows the governor remarkable control of the budget since it requires a supermajority to override, but he has the ability to propose amendments to the completed budget that the legislature is bound by law to vote on.

That gives the governor a great deal of power to shape a budget, even one initially proposed by his predecessor. The governor is at least an equal partner with the General Assembly in the budget process.

Ultimately, he has the choice to sign or to veto the budget. If he signs it, he’s responsible for it. He owns it. If he vetoes it, he creates a constitutional crisis that still must end, eventually, in a signed budget.

So, like it or not, this is McDonnell’s budget.

As the General Assembly goes into its fourth week, he and his administration had best roll up their sleeves and get to work to make it one His Excellency can live with.

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