The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, December 23, 2005

Bloggers dig into Warner’s final budget; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

They had plenty to say about the election.

Now they’ve got even more to say about governance, starting with Gov. Mark R. Warner’s final budget.

Announced last week, the Democrat’s fiscal swan song has been met with a muted reaction in official Richmond. But Virginia’s political bloggers are tearing into the raw data and more often than not, they don’t like what they see.

The roughly $70 billion, two-year budget increases spending over the last biennium, but doesn’t include any new changes to the state’s taxes — no hikes or cuts.

Bloggers, a term for the keepers of Web logs, rose to some prominence during the gubernatorial campaign. More than a dozen sites now follow Virginia politics closely, with a mix of commentary, gossip and news.

Both the Republican and Democratic campaigns fed information to the sites during the race for the governor’s mansion. The campaign of Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Kaine went so far as to hold a conference call with bloggers.

Now that the campaign is over, some of the self-described pamphleteers are taking a hard look at the Warner administration’s final budget.

Jim Bacon, head pundit at Bacon’s Rebellion, an online magazine that focuses on government and public policy issues, said there’s one overriding bad number to the proposed budget — 13.7 percent.

“That’s how much state spending will grow under Gov. Mark R. Warner’s proposed … budget over the current budget,” he said. “Even with inflation warming up, that’s a rapid expansion.”

But that’s just a little over par for the course, according to a new study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a quasi-investigative arm of the General Assembly.

Over the last 10 years, spending has increased an average of 7 percent per year, even during the downturn of 2001 and 2002.

Between fiscal 1996 and fiscal 2005, Virginia’s budget has gone from $16 billion to $29 billion, an increase of more than 80 percent, or 45 percent adjusted for inflation, according to the commission.

Even so, it’s not all bad, according to Bacon.

The fact that Warner didn’t introduce new recurring spending initiatives and has forecast a conservative rate of growth for state income over the biennium is good news, as is the fact that the budget has now been published in a much more user-friendly format that makes year-to-year changes easier to follow.

It’s better to spend revenues on things like research and development at state universities than create new programs, he said.

Across the aisle at “Raising Kaine,” blogger Lowell Feld gave the budget high marks for its $200 million-plus to improve the state’s water quality. Warner announced the new money for waste water treatment plant upgrades ahead of the budget roll out.

“Among other things, I’m thrilled about the Chesapeake Bay and also the language making it illegal for the Commonwealth to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation,” Feld said.

But Norman Leahy, keeper of the “One Man’s Trash” blog and former executive director of U.S. Term Limits, said the budget is just more fodder for those calling for a Colorado-style “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.”

Such laws generally cap government spending and call for the refund of surpluses to taxpayers.

Virginia has posted surpluses every year since fiscal 2003. If current projections hold, the state will have banked more than $1.7 billion by the end of fiscal 2006 since the surpluses started.

“His budget makes a very strong case for a taxpayers’ bill of rights,” Leahy said. “And yet we’re told by some that the state hasn’t spent nearly enough on education, transportation, health care — you name it.”

Don’t look for a rebate check from Richmond anytime soon, though, he said.

“Since the political will does not exist in the General Assembly to curtail and control state spending, let alone rebate excess revenues … to taxpayers, the best we can hope for is a bit of trimming here and there,” he said. “But even that may be wishful thinking.

The legislature convenes Jan. 11.