As the days tick away before we elect Virginia’s new governor, I believe it’s important to clear away the debris leftover from the political mudslinging and media bombardments and consider the background dynamics of the race. We Virginians, at least many of us, look to the election and the candidates through a prism of questions and concerns about the future of our Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the rest of the country’s interest somewhat differs – the out-of-state money oozing into the race generally comes stapled to political grudges and symbols. Very little is being spent in the hope of seeing good policies implemented for the people of Virginia.
Yet when the dust settles, and either Mr. Creigh Deeds or Mr. Bob McDonnell has raised his hands in victory, there will still be serious issues facing Virginia. And though the clamor of the campaign will dim, the quiet ferocity of our challenges will continue to compound unabated. Whoever is elected governor must see Virginia through an age of uncertainty in a time where this country’s assumed might can no longer be taken for granted.
There is no disagreement to be found among serious people that Virginia’s transportation problems are a mounting crisis. On one hand, the new Governor will have to balance the Commonwealth’s unquestionable woes in creating and maintaining a functioning, modern, state transportation infrastructure. On the other hand, Virginia’s fiscal situation is not going to be getting any better anytime soon. The new administration must weigh these issues carefully and prepare to make difficult decisions, as it is clear that the Commonwealth can neither afford to allow transportation to be ignored nor dismiss what is an approaching fiscal tsunami.
Virginia’s Fiscal Tsunami
Jim Bacon – you may have heard of him – has some depressing coverage of this very phenomenon on the [now unaffiliated] Bacon’s Rebellion blog. In the interests of preserving these pages’ positive zen, I’ll refrain from quoting the scary figures, but the conclusions are clear: Virginia is on its way to a fiscal nightmare. And worse, much of it is below the radar of most of our media and even our politicians. With this oncoming budgetary crisis, the Commonwealth is on the precipice of losing its shirt along with the ability to fund not only ambitious transportation needs, but the entire constellation of public services throughout the state.
As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser points out on his New York Times blog, the relationship between human capital cultivation – that is, education – and economic growth is hard to ignore. And yet, it’s hard not to feel at least some disappointment with the relatively little attention education has received during the campaign. There has been very little discussion about why Virginia has some of the most restrictive teacher licensing requirements in the country, despite clear evidence that non-traditional teachers can have comparable (and in some cases, better) results than their more conventional counterparts; or why existing charter school enabling legislation has been so utterly ineffective; or whether Virginia high school graduates are being actually prepared for the workforce or further education. Aside from the usual platitudes and the obligatory nods, there’s not been anything to really indicate that Virginia’s education system will be primed to meet the changing needs of Virginia’s people and the economy.
As I consider some of these issues, I can’t help but wonder if we are at the point that has haunted so many northern states – where the excesses of government can only be satisfied by the windfalls of boom years. Instead of prudent fiscal stewardship during times of economic growth, Virginia squandered its bounty by seeking more programs to fund, more roads to build, more entitlements to carry; but when those revenue sources dried up, the new line items’ constituencies did not.
To revisit an increasingly-tired theme of mine: Virginia’s standard operating procedure of budgeting, spending, administration and provision is no longer tenable. Fundamentally – and this refers to the items above, as well as virtually every other difficulty looming over Richmond – Virginia’s governments must challenge itself to more closely attune itself to the needs of its customers, to Virginians. This means everything from totally rethinking our budgetary processes to providing telecommuting options to state employees to approaching our spending decisions as actual investments, with the attendant risks and opportunities that the term implies.
Our candidates, for whatever their faults, both seem to be decent Virginians. But for too many this race is important because of political struggles in Washington, rather than for its impact on the future of the Commonwealth. Understandable, yes, but whoever wins, Virginia’s many storm clouds will continue to gather on the horizon. I hope our candidates realize that their victory will not be the end of their journey, but only the simplest.