McDonnell's LCI Decision Doesn't Deserve the Applause It's Getting

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In case you were focused on shoveling and missed the big news, here's what Governor McDonnell announced yesterday:
... he will support updating the Local Composite Index (LCI), the formula which determines state and local education funding responsibility, in the upcoming budget. His predecessor, former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, had proposed freezing the index to save money in the strapped state budget.
As Anita Kumar points out, Kaine's decision "would have cost cash-strapped schools in Northern Virginia nearly $140 million." In short, Gov. McDonnell's decision was a major victory for Northern Virginia school systems.

Not surprisingly, McDonnell is a popular guy among NOVA politicians right now. For instance, Delegate Mark Keam wrote, "Gov. McDonnell does the right thing on LCI." Del. Scott Surovell declared that it was "the right decision for Virginia" and that "Governor McDonnell should be commended." Sen. Chap Petersen said that McDonnell "gets full credit here for taking a firm position on this issue which was critical to the taxpayers and kids of Fairfax County." Sen. Janet Howell called McDonnell's decision "a very helpful move on his part." Etc., etc.

So, what's not to like? Two major problems. First, as the News & Record points out, McDonnell's decision favors Northern Virginia (and maybe that's justified given how NOVA's been shortchanged in the past), while forcing "local governments in most other counties and cities in come up with a larger share of funding for school divisions." For instance, Halifax County "will face a $1.5 million funding reduction from the state, on top of an estimated $3.4 million in cuts already plugged into Virginia’s education budget."

Second, also from the News & Record, McDonnell will cover the increased expenditures required not by raising revenues, but by measures such as taking "$13 million from Literary Fund balances" and by raiding the Health Insurance Fund of $8 million. In other words, McDonnell can make all the announcements he wants on this subject or any other, but unless he starts making hard decisions, it's all "magic cuts or tax increases" - in the words of one General Assembly member who emailed me.

The bottom line: while McDonnell may be 100% correct that the LCI freeze is wrong as a philosophical and legal matter, and also that this is a huge issue for schools in NOVA (which it is!), the way he's going about addressing the problem is more McDonnell "smoke and mirrors," just as we saw in his fundamentally dishonest gubernatorial campaign. In this case, by failing to make any tough decisions, McDonnell effectively robs Peter to pay Paul, pits one region of the Commonwealth (NOVA) against other regions (Hampton Roads, Richmond, etc.), and resolves one serious problem by causing other ones. I for one, am not going to applaud McDonnell for that.

UPDATE: It's been pointed out to me that the LCI freeze would have had Virginia use false economic data. That's obviously not acceptable, and it's good that Bob McDonnell put a halt to it (although that probably wasn't his main intent here).

UPDATE #2: The DPVA just issued a press release that echoes what I'm getting at here, not specifically on the LCI but in general.
For a candidate who bragged about his 'leadership' in TV commercials, Bob McDonnell has shown little of it in Richmond.

In a transition full of stumbles, McDonnell has punted any transportation plan down the road, has avoided making tough decisions on non-discrimination policy, and has become the first incoming governor in at least four decades to fail to submit budget amendments.
And that's not to mention rolling out his signature economic proposals with job creation figures that seemed to be pulled out of thin air -- or, at least, a random selection of posterboard. (AP, 1/27/10).

"Virginia voters have to wonder: Is Bob McDonnell ready for prime time?" said C. Richard Cranwell, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "Virginia became the best state for business and the best state to raise a child because we had strong leaders who made tough choices to put our Commonwealth on the right path. So far, it seems like Bob McDonnell isn't ready to take the leadership role that Virginia needs in these tough times."

McDonnell's stumbles have been numerous - starting with his failure to submit any budget plan.