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The nation has been mesmerized by the latest arrival on the national political scene – Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Sen. John McCain’s choice for vice president.
The implications of this controversial choice are still reverberating through the Fourth estate, but one thing is very clear: The choice is shaking up the national political calculus. Less obviously, it will reshape Virginia’s statewide elections next year as well.

Sarah Palin cut taxes in Alaska and reshaped city and state government. The energy-based economy of Alaska is booming, but rather than crank up spending and build patronage, Palin vetoed a quarter of a billion dollars in unneeded state capital projects and sent each taxpayer a $1,200 check as a rebate. Her popularity reached 80 percent — a number rarely achieved by any politician… anywhere.

How do politics on the far side of the country impact Virginia? By energizing voters. The Obama campaign generated tremendous enthusiasm among Democrats and now, it appears, Palin’s candidacy is sparking comparable excitement among Republicans.

Many experts think that this fall’s voter turnout could be the largest since the razor-thin presidential race of 1960 when Jack Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by less that one vote per precinct. Virginia could be the state that decides this election.

More people are excited about politics this year than in a long, long time. Folks are looking for fresh faces and fresh ideas. And they will be looking for the same next year. So, both political parties should be on notice that the old, worn-out ideas of the past could well fall flat next year.

With that in mind, let me outline some ideas that candidates of either party could champion next year that would grab the emotional attention of all those who have been energized by the “change agents” of Barack Obama and John McCain.

First, limiting the growth of state government will force it to prioritize spending, find efficiencies within its current operating budget, and get rid of programs that are no longer necessary or are not doing very well.

Second, the state faces a budget shortfall of somewhere between $1 billion and $1½ billion dollars and it may grow larger before the General Assembly opens its doors in January. So, what should be done? There are 7,600 job openings in state government. If these positions were eliminated, the budget savings would reach almost a half billion dollars. That one measure could close one third to one half of the anticipated budget gap.

Third, the poor quality of education received by too many minority children is a calamity. We must demand the implementation of proven reading programs and insist that kids in failing schools be given the option to move to more successful schools. Anything short of free choice is an abuse of government and oppression of the poor. Opportunity scholarships, phonics-based reading, the removal of poor teachers and the cutting administrative overhead in our public schools should be policy, not rhetoric.

Fourth, more money is needed to improve transportation but taxation is a last resort. Privatizing road maintenance can save scores of millions of dollars each year. Public-private partnerships can build new roads and expand existing ones. A performance audit of VDOT might well find millions of dollars in potential savings and congestion-relieving construction. Prioritizing transportation spending can channel dollars to where they do the most good. Virginia needs to put into place a long-range transportation plan that favors congestion relief over “economic development” and other forms of extraneous spending.

Finally, Virginia needs to play its part to make America less dependent on foreign energy supplies. We need to drill for oil and natural gas in the ocean waters off our coast and earmark royalties from this effort — potentially $700 million per year — to traffic congestion relief. We need to speed the regulatory approval of nuclear power plants. We need to use tax incentives and research grants to bring clean coal energy production to reality. We need to encourage new technologies to move our economy away from today’s reliance on carbon-based energy.

This year’s presidential race is exciting. Change is in the air. That excitement generated by the nominations of both political parties will last beyond Election Day. Candidates of both parties offering exciting ideas like the ones described above could rally the voters seeking real change here in Virginia.

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