Monday, January 10, 2011

Time for another round of kick the can?

The General Assembly goes back into session Wednesday.

So it's time for our elected representatives to start putting off until tomorrow what they could be doing today.

They'll be ably assisted by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

It's easy to tell the governor is a former legislator, because his administration has been busy pushing important decisions down the road.

Last year the governor and the legislature conspired to balance the budget by withholding the state's payment to the Virginia Retirement System. That payment is due to be paid back, with 7.5% interest, over ten years. Those payments will start in 2013. Guess who leaves office that year?

After passing up a chance last year to push his reluctant allies in the House to do something about bi-partisan redistricting in time to matter for this year's redrawing of the state's congressional and legislative districts, the governor appointed an advisory panel the other day. Their input, which legislators aren't under any requirement to pay attention to, might have some impact on redistricting. In 2021.

The fact is McDonnell never favored bi-partisan redistricting. He was a consistent vote against it when he was in the House. But his half measure this year allows him to say he's fulfilled a campaign promise, without having any effect on the partisan gerrymander that House Republicans have planned.

The governor's transportation plan, while admirable in some ways, gives the administration another opportunity to kick the can down the road. And they've jumped at it.
The governor's plan is to issue $3-4 billion in bonds that the General Assembly has already approved.

There's nothing wrong with that and it represents more than has been done for transportation under the last few governors.

Not only is there nothing wrong with using debt to finance roads, this is the perfect time for it. Both interest rates and construction costs are at generational lows because of the bad economy. The construction projects that the bonds would finance should also act as an economic stimulus, creating the jobs that McDonnell says are his top priority.

(One does feel compelled here to mention that borrowing money for infrastructure projects, which also serves as a stimulus to create jobs, is a very Democratic approach to the problem. If the governor isn't careful, Bob Marshall, Ken Cuccinellii and the Tea Party are likely to label him a Keynesian.)

However, responsible bond financing requires that you designate a stream of money to service the debt. That's the can that McDonnell has decided to kick for some future governor and General Assembly to worry about.

This plan is an improvment, of sorts, to the governor's previous highway plan that relied on building roads out of moonbeams and fairy dust.

The bonds are real money, unlike the windfall profits from privatizing the state's ABC stores or drilling for oil and natural gas off the coast of the state's biggest tourist destination.

McDonnell's inability to convince a majority of  Republicans to back his ABC plan -- it's rumored he'll try again -- convinced him of the futility of going that route and the Obama administration's moratorium on offshore drilling frustrated that plan.

The governor is still seeking authority from the federal government to put tolls on I-95 and I-85 at the North Carolina borders. Since the tolls being discussed are quite hefty -- $1 to $2 per axle -- they might serve as way to service the bond debt, if the Federal  Highway Administration approves them.

The proposal does make one wonder what traumatic incident in McDonnell's childhood made him dislike North Carolina so much. After all, Virginia shares borders, all crossed by interstate highways, with Tennessee, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland. The governor isn't asking for huge tolls -- $2-$4 for a passenger car, $9-$18 for an 18-wheeler  -- at those crossings.

Maybe he's just kicking that can down the road for now.

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