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David Reynolds: Barack and Bob

Politics makes strange bedfellows. We elected a president over two years ago. We gave him a midterm report card. It was not good. The voters said he was spending and borrowing too much.

Then just over a year ago Virginians elected a new governor. He had two opponents, a Mr. Deeds and the president. Both lost to Mr. McDonnell in a landslide. Virginia voters said that they did not wish to be like other states. And, heaven forbid, anything like Washington, DC. Those other places were spending and borrowing too much.

So what does our new governor from the right do in his first State of the Commonwealth address? You got it. He went left. He tells us that Virginia should spend and borrow. Just do it faster! Did you hear a word about a rainy day? Anything about saving for those really tough times?

I’m confused. Both the president and the governor don’t get it. So much for political parties.

It seems that borrow-to-spend is the GOP way. And tax-to-spend is what Dems do best. Both try to grow Spring flowers following winters of political discontent. For transportation, Bob’s ABC proposal was anything but simple. Better roads are for helping the economy; liquor stores are for forgetting the economy.

So why did Bob borrow? One good reason and one bad. Most of all it was because he campaigned on a no-new-taxes pledge. That’s good. Bob wasn’t going to be a Bush41. No reading of lips and then no second term. But why should a Virginia governor keep a campaign pledge? We give them only one shot . . . no matter whether they keep promises or not.

The bad reason we borrow is that Virginia is not like other states. We are not governed from Washington. We are governed from New York! Our governors fly regularly to Wall Street. After a recent meeting our current governor had a AAA bond rating pined to his suit. He was told that as long as Virginia’s debt does not exceed 5% of general fund revenues he could wear it. He and the other Richmond suits flew home happy. They were not sold a bridge.

Nonetheless our boys from Richmond were told of a problem that every New Yorker already knew: interest rates are rising. So the governor decided to do what every losing investor and gambler tries. He decided to outsmart the market. He doubled down on his bet. Governor Bob McDonnell proposes to issue $600 million of debt per year over three years instead of the $300 million cap authorized by the General Assembly in 2007. (Disclosures: (1) I wish I were making this up; (2) Virginia was once a proud pay-as-you-go state.)

Oh, what a circus! But does it matter? Not for roads. Not with today’s construction costs. Do you know what those highly touted four billion transportation bond bucks will buy? Your choice: (a) Two Woodrow Wilson bridges across the Potomac or (b) four Springfield type interchanges in Northern Virginia. Four big ones won’t even come close to covering the cost of fixing our beloved I-81. And, as always, land costs are extra. So is cheese and a partridge in a pear tree.

Virginia has 57,867 miles of road. Not 867. The governor proudly “called for another $191 million in cuts and reprioritizations in my amendments to this budget.” Excuse me. Has anyone in Richmond done the math? This equals less than one-half of one per cent of one year spending. At this snail’s pace Virginia can only totally revise a budget every 200 years!

Don’t you love those Republicans! They talk big. But act small. We must ask what would the Governor of New Jersey do. In fact, Democratic governors are doing just that. Gov. Cuomo of New York got the word. Our Sen. Webb decided he wasn’t going to buck the trend. If he was going to write fiction, novels are more fun than budgets.

I thought Republicans believed in federalism, the 10th Amendment and all that good stuff. Again I’m confused.

When will we get it right? As good Americans, only after we try everything else. We need to kick this borrowing addiction. And no more smoke and mirrors. It doesn’t allow you to think clearly. Maybe we should think about the gas tax.

Column by David Reynolds