Is Virginia "Ungovernable?"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In this morning's Washington Post, Robert McCartney has an excellent article reviewing the past four years and concluding that "Kaine and Virginia politics share blame for his failures." And yes, despite Kaine's super-optimism and positive spin on the past four years, there were many failures, first and foremost transportation, which was in gridlock four years ago and is even worse today.

McCartney asks, "If Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is such a smart, capable, decent guy, how do we account for all the disappointments he had in four years in office?" GMU professor Mark Rozell takes a stab at answering that question, at least on transportation:
It almost looks like the state is ungovernable when you look at issues such as transportation. I've lived here a quarter-century, and the discussion is still the same...The issue just seems too volatile in so many ways -- it pits region against region and party against party -- and nothing seems to happen.
Based on what we just lived through the past four years, it's hard to disagree with this. The entire situation was epitomized by the fiasco of a bill I like to call the "transportation monstrosity," which gerrymandered the Commonwealth through unconstitutional "regional authorities," and which resorted to a wildly unpopular - later discarded after a popular revolt - gimmick known as "abuser fees" in order to raise revenues. The way the "monstrosity" went down epitomizes how Virginia's political situation is a mess, if not ungovernable.

*The large, complex, and above all expensive "irresistible force" of the transportation issue runs up against the "immovable object" of flat-earth House Republican opposition to raising revenues.

*Regional differences, particularly between rural areas (where there's often no gridlock at all) and urban/suburban parts of Virginia (where transportation is a mess), led to cockamamie schemes like the "regional authorities."

*Opposition to raising the gas tax or other broad-based transportation funding mechanisms doomed the package to being a debacle from the start.

*Tim Kaine, instead of vetoing the bill, reacted angrily at first but a little while later essentially caved and signed the bill. Big mistake on two levels, policy (we see what ended up happening to the legislation in the end) and politics (Kaine took the issue away from Democrats heading into November 2007 elections, probably resulting in fewer gains than Democrats would have achieved otherwise).

*The parts of the state that are the "economic engine" of Virginia but are being increasingly stymied by traffic were trumped by parts of the state that are not "economic engines" but are also not particularly concerned about transportation problems in urban/suburban areas.

On and on we go, where this stops, we all know: Virginia eventually losing its attractiveness to residents and businesses as transportation infrastructure deteriorates further and further. Does Bob McDonnell have any chance of making progress on transportation the next four years? According to McCartney's article, it's highly unlikely, barring a "cataclysm."
That doesn't seem likely to change for Kaine's successor, Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R). He's ruled out a tax increase to raise money for roads, a condition that his principal political adversary in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), warns will lead to deadlock.

The impasse is reminiscent of what we're seeing at the national level over health reform. The division of opinion is so stark that even if a bill is passed, it would be significantly weaker than what many health-reform advocates have hoped.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, I asked Kaine what he thought it would ultimately take to break the deadlock on transportation. His answer wasn't encouraging.

"I can tell you one thing that would make it get solved in five minutes: some cataclysmic disaster, a bridge collapse or a hurricane where there weren't enough evacuation routes," Kaine said. "At some point, there will be a crisis that will force a change. The question is whether we can solve it absent a cataclysm."
When even Tim "rose-colored glasses/glass-half-full" Kaine believes the only way we'll make progress on transportation the next four years is via a "cataclysmic disaster," you know we're in deep trouble. Good luck to governor-elect McDonnell, you're going to need it!