No governor. No problem.
Del. Ken Plum (D-36) presented his own State of the Commonwealth Report at a business breakfast at the Hidden Creek Country Club in Reston last week on Thursday morning.
As state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) tells it, Plum is a regular E.F. Hutton. "When Ken speaks," she told the crowd of about 75 local business and community leaders, "people listen."
While it's an election year in Virginia, Plum is one of 66 percent of the state's delegates who are running unopposed this campaign cycle. For a politician in a safe Democratic seat, Plum sounded at times on Thursday like he was caught up in a closely fought contest. Instead, Plum, despite his lack of an opponent, announced he would be vigorously campaigning for reelection on a "campaign of ideas."
Heaping praise on her fellow Reston politician, Howell, who does face a general election fight this fall, said that Reston's interests were well served in Richmond thanks to Plum. "We are so fortunate to have Ken Plum in the House of Delegates," Howell said in her introduction. "We all know what a truly decent person he is and what a tremendously hardworking person he is. What you might not be aware of, however, is just how truly respected down in Richmond, he is."
In the most recent session, Howell said she was in a room with Gov. Mark Warner (D) watching closed-circuit television of debate on the House floor. Warner, Howell said, had sent down to the Republican-led House a laundry list of amendments that needed to be defended. "On issue after issue after issue, Ken defended the governor's position."
Suddenly, the governor, Howell said, turned to her and said, "That Ken Plum, he's awesome."
Not missing a beat, Plum responded in kind, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Let me say this about Sen. Howell, she knows what she is talking about," Plum said to a chorus of laughs. "And I will tell you someone else who knows what he is talking about, that's our governor."
Acknowledging that it is the governor's constitutional duty to present his version of the State of Commonwealth, Plum said he, too, looked forward to his unofficial mid-year report card. Though only June, Plum, with his distinctive Virginian drawl, said, "There's no where to go but up."
PLUM BEGAN BY CITING a recent USA Today article that laid the blame for the rash of busted state budgets around the country on bad political moves and not the economy. "Ladies and gentleman, as I report to you about the interim health of the Commonwealth, it is apparent that Virginia is suffering from both a sagging economy and from some unwise political decisions," Plum said.
Plum reminded the gathering that during the previous economic downtown — the recession of the early 1990s — Virginia was one of only two states at the time that survived the recession without a tax increase. Some programs were cut by more than a third while Virginia's state college tuition raised to nearly the highest in the country, he said. "The good news, at that time, was that we were recognized as being the best financially managed state in the union. The following year we tied for first place with Utah," Plum said.
During the mid to late 1990s, Virginia blossomed from the Internet boom with a more than 10 percent growth in revenue.
"Now we have had to cut nearly $6 billion from our $50 billion bi-annual budget," Plum reminded the audience. "I'm sorry to say that Governing Magazine now ranks Virginia 'fair' in regards to its financial management."
Of the 10 states with a AAA bond rating, Virginia ranked lowest on the Governing's scale, Plum said. "What went wrong?"
The Reston politician blamed politics, the conservative tough-on-crime politics that swept former Gov. George Allen into the state house last decade, specifically. "[The no-parole policy] was a great idea," Plum said. "Keep criminals locked up and the crime rate will go down. Only problem was, nobody talked about the cost. It came out of the existing budget."
While the correction's budget remained flush, Plum said the state raided the budgets of other important state programs, like higher education. Plum said students can expect substantial increases in fees and tuition next year. "The University of Virginia now raises more in the private sector than it gets from the state," the former educator said.
VIRGINIA SPENDS nearly $50 million on SOL testing, Plum said, while public school growth accounted for 30 percent of the budget growth in the last six years of the last decade. The second greatest growth came via Gov. James Gilmore's car tax cut, Plum bemoaned. "It took nearly a $1 billion out of the budget."
The Democratic delegate blamed an additional 50 tax cuts in the last decade for costing the state $600 million in much-needed revenue. "It's deja vu, all over again," he said, quoting Yogi Berra.
Plum insisted that the state needs to get a handle on its "structural imbalance in the budget." Calling the state of the state's finances, "sorry," Plum said Virginia was overdue to restructure its revenues. He said it was not right that millionaires in the Commonwealth pay less than five percent of their income in taxes, while the "lowest 20 percent of wage earners" pay nine percent of theirs.
"It's what I preached in the Appropriations Committee," he said. "They tried to shut me up by taking me off the committee, but as you can tell, that didn't work."
Plum said that while the state Democratic party has been "weakened," the Virginia Republican party has been taken hostage by "neo-Conservatives." It is these GOP operatives that are "lying in wait" to sing a "chorus of tax and spend" if the governor moves to restructure the tax code, said Plum who champions a 50 cent increase in the state's low 2.5 cent cigarette tax. Plum also floated the idea of raising the state gasoline tax to keep up with inflation. The tax has not been touched since 1986, he said.
Smoking related health problems add more than $300 million to the already bloated Medicaid budget, he said. A cigarette tax increase would raise $350 million. "If we raised $350 million, the Feds would give us another $350 million," he said. "Sounds like a deal to me."