David Reynolds: The Virginia Reel
This is how it’s done. First, you take a short walk. Then you sashay, a step where the left moves off to the side, only to be chased by the right. Then you go in the opposite direction, with the right leading being chased by the left. Then you act like children, you do some skipping. First to the right, then left. This allows both sides to face one another, each backing off when one goes forward. Then everyone moves around in a big circle. Finally, both sides smile, join hands and return to their original position.
Ladies and Virginia gentlemen, this is how the Virginia Reel is conducted. It is also how the Virginia General Assembly conducts its own dance of legislation.
Both dances are art forms, one social, the other political. This year the General Assembly is doing its short dance number of sixty days. By then the shrimp will have run out and the lobbyists protecting their interests (which will be defined as ours), will have done their job. The dance will be over. Our money will have been spent.
This year the Grand Old Party (GOP) of the Grand Old Dominion (GOD) is running the only dance card in Richmond. It is filled with caucuses to determine who can move the fastest to the far right corner of the building that Mr. Jefferson designed. All without losing a vote.
Its lead man is a governor who loves to talk about his Irish ancestors, but is worried about those Irish and others who have crossed the pond and may still be out of work. He is worried that his ranks might trip and fall, just as the other party did when it moved too fast and too far to the left. The governor does not wish to have his party shut out from that big center where most Virginians love to gather. Besides, Bob still has Veep dreams dancing in his head.
I know it is hard for some to believe, but politicians are human. It is difficult to drink the wine of success without getting drunk over your own press clippings. This is the danger for Republicans who are now fully in charge of our imperial city on the James.
Conservative Republicans love to quote the Constitution and talk about limited government. But the Constitution says nothing about the size of government, only who should do what. And most of that “what” is to be done by the states. Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC are not joined by I-95 — they are separated by the United States Constitution. Thus, Virginia and 49 other states are stuck with carrying out the core functions of government, i.e., education, health, safety and transportation — with any tax crumbs left over. It’s Mr. Madison’s plan without Mr. Madison’s money.
By treating state government as just another bloated bureaucracy, conservatives create a vacuum where liberals rush in or, worse, the core functions of government are under funded. President Nixon saw the problem. He initiated block federal grants to the states — money without mandates.
Let’s see if I have this right. It’s okay to dedicate proceeds from a lottery to support our public schools, but it is not okay to dedicate a suitable gasoline tax to maintain our public roads. Kids first; roads last.
Mr. McDonnell thinks he has solved Virginia’s transportation revenue needs. Governor, excuse me, you are in error. I’m sure you have heard of Messrs. Peter and Paul. You rob from the General Fund to pay for those needs that where once funded by a dedicated tax — one that meets the criteria of a good tax or user fee: ability to pay; ease of collection; and, a direct relationship between user and payer. At least, it’s better than your 18th century toll roads idea.
But, friends, please don’t worry. It will soon be March 10 and the Richmond snow job will be over. Only slush will be left. It can be shoveled into the general fund Virginia has decided to use to pay for roads and everything else. Members of the General Assembly will have found their way home. There they will hold town hall meetings in order to tell us how great the dance went down the river, how they went back and forth with their opposite numbers and formed circles of consensus, just like those good old days in Colonial Williamsburg. We will sit and listen. And then get up to practice what we have just learned. It will be the Virginia Reel.