Has Virginia Really Seen "Remarkable Forward Movement" Under Gov. Kaine?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

According to an op-ed by Tim Kaine in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch, Virginia under his leadership has seen "remarkable forward movement" and is "well positioned going forward because of our economic, educational, and political leadership." In making the case that his governorship was highly successful, Kaine argues that:

*"The Virginia economy today is one of the nation's most vibrant."
*"We are in the top 10 states in median income and have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. "
*"In my term as governor, we have achieved the unparalleled honor of being recognized eight times as the best state for business in America."
*"Because of great strides in recent decades, Education Week now ranks Virginia as one of the top five states in overall educational quality, most notably recognizing the commonwealth in 2007 as 'the place where a child born today is most likely to have a successful life.'"
*"We've expanded pre-kindergarten education by 40 percent in the past three years while dramatically increasing career and technical education programs throughout our state."
*Governing Magazine has rated Virginia the "best-managed state in America."
*"We are one of the few states to hold the rare triple-A bond rating for our fiscal management."
*"...despite a recession that has required billions of dollars in budget cuts, we have been able to sharply reduce infant mortality, preserve open space, invest in the Chesapeake Bay, improve community mental health services, ban smoking in state buildings, restaurants, and bars, and reform our foster care system."
*"Virginia has become the new "bellwether" state in national politics. With President Obama's victory here in 2008, our long trend of being ignored in presidential politics is over."
*" A recent listing of the top 15 political "risers" of the last decade by MSNBC included five Virginians (three Democrats and two Republicans)."

Wow, that's a lot of accomplishments by Governor Kaine! Very impressive!!! Or is it? Let's look at these claims for a minute.

First, with regard to Virginia's median income, we were ranked #8 in the nation in 2005 (the year before Tim Kaine became governor), and were still ranked #8 in the nation in 2009. No change at all.

On another important economic indicator, Virginia's unemployment rate was 3.1% when Tim Kaine took office in January 2006. In November 2009, it had more than doubled to 6.6%. This compares to the national unemployment rate, which went from 4.7% in January 2006 to 10.0% in November 2009 - the exact same relative increase (113%) as in Virginia. Also, Virginia had the 8th lowest state unemployment rate in November 2009, compared to 3rd lowest in 2005 and 2nd lowest in 2006. In other words, we've slipped a bit on unemployment relative to the other states since 2005 but are still fairly strong. It is important to note that Virginia's economy is strong in large part because of its proximity to the federal government, and because of the huge amount of federal spending - on salaries, contracting, consulting, the military-industrial complex, etc. - that goes on here. That was the case prior to Tim Kaine's governorship and it will continue to be the case after Tim Kaine's governorship ends.

The bottom line is that Virginia started off Tim Kaine's governorship as one of the nation's most prosperous states, and ended Tim Kaine's governorship in essentially the exact same place. There were no particular macroeconomic gains relative to other states the past few years, but there were no particular losses either. In short, with regard to Virginia's macroeconomy, Kaine's governorship was largely a period of treading water relatively speaking, although of course Virginia suffered absolute losses from the national recession that began during the Bush Administration.

As far as the AAA bond rating is concerned, Virginia has held that status for 70 years now, through Republican governors and Democratic governors. True, Virginia didn't lose its AAA bond rating under Tim Kaine, which is a good thing, but we also didn't gain the AAA bond rating under Tim Kaine.

Regarding the "best" awards, most of these are not the result of anything that happened the past 4 years. Frankly, how could they be, as almost nothing got through the Republican-controlled House of Delegates? Also, keep in mind that Pew ranked Virginia "best managed state" in 2005 and also in 1999, both before Tim Kaine became governor. The point is, this "best managed state" honor wasn't something new that Gov. Kaine can really take credit for. What he can take some credit for is not messing it up. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's not the same as claiming credit for winning the ranking in the first place.

On pre-K education, it's good that Gov. Kaine expanded it "by 40 percent in the past three years." That's an accomplishment, no question. However, keep in mind that Kaine's goal was to achieve universal pre-K, and he didn't even come close to that. This wasn't particularly his fault, given the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and our recession-related budgetary problems, but it's a bit much to claim great success in this area.

Finally, with regard to the other accomplishments Kaine claims - 1) improving mental health services, 2) banning smoking in restaurants, 3) reforming foster care, 4) preserving open space, 5) "sharply reduc[ing] infant mortality", 6) investing in the Chesapeake Bay, and 7) turning Virginia into the new "bellwether" state - I'd say it's a mixed bag. On the bright side, I'd definitely give Kaine at least partial credit for the first 5 items on this list (mental health, smoking ban, foster care, open space, infant mortality). But on the last 2 items, I'm far more skeptical. With regard to the Chesapeake Bay, the latest grade was a miserable "D," with the Bay considered to be "incredibly out of balance and in crisis." Obviously, this is unacceptable, and it's partly the result of Virginia's failure to take strong enough action to "Save the Bay."

Finally, on Virginia turning into a new political "bellwether" because of Tim Kaine, well that's just silly. True, Kaine endorsed Barack Obama for President earlier than almost anyone else. Also true, Kaine campaigned and raised money for Democratic candidates at the state and federal level. But here's the problem: if Kaine gets credit for making Virginia politically competitive, then does he also get the blame for the debacle of 2009, with Republicans sweeping the top three state offices as well as the House of Delegates? Hmmmmmm. Other than that, Tim Kaine is wrong if he believes that he was responsible for the demographic (huge population growth in NOVA and among minority groups), economic (Virginia's shift from an agrarian/natural resources to an information and technology-based economy), cultural (Virginia's shift from a rural to an urban/suburban state) and political (backlash to Bush) forces that turned Virginia from a "red" to a "purple" state over the past decade.

In the end, Tim Kaine governed during a difficult time for Virginia and the nation, including a nasty economic downturn for the last 2 years of his governorship. Kaine also was confronted with a recalcitrant Republican-controlled House of Delegates, who were determined not to give Kaine anything to work with or to create another Mark Warner. These were largely out of Kaine's control. Unfortunately, Kaine made a number of his own policy mistakes on things that were under his control, such as agreeing to repeal of the estate tax (cost to the state: $100-$150 million per year) and signing into law the "transportation monstrosity," which was thrown out by the state Supreme Court and also by popular outrage. Economically, we hung on for the most part, but we really didn't make much forward progress the past four years. And politically, Kaine presided over Democratic successes, such as taking back the State Senate in 2007 and helping Democrats carry Virginia in 2008, but also played a significant role (both by omission and commission) in the Democratic collapse of 2009. Does all this qualify as "remarkable forward movement?" I certainly wouldn't characterize it as such, what about you?