Parliamentary Immaturity In Richmond

Senate Democrats are having a religious experience.  Some might call it Karma, others would simply quote Galatians 6:7 and say “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  Their days of hiding behind John Chichester are coming back to haunt them, and all they can do is stomp their feet and complain of partisan actions.

How can I say such a thing?  Because of what has transpired in the Senate Finance Committee, and how it reflects on The Gov and the Senate leadership.

The Senate Dems have proposed a state budget with all variety of add ons at a time when Governor Kaine is talking about layoffs and raiding the state “rainy day” fund.  There are a wide variety of things that have been talked about but not done (a new legislative building, for instance) and a collection of Governor Kaine fiscal favorites (expanding state paid pre-K coverage is one).  The budget came up and for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee, and it passed in a straight party line 9-7 vote.

Committee Chairman Chuck Colgan (D-Manassas) was outraged, accusing the GOP members of making it a partisan budget.  SenKen, a committee member, reports that Colgan claimed “the Budget is above politics!…Get politics out of this arena, it doesn’t belong here!”

I guess Colgan believes that no candidates ran for office last fall based on how they thought state money should be spent!   Colgan knows that not a single GOP member of the House was targeted in the 2005 primaries and general election because they voted the (later proven to not be needed) Mark Warner Tax Increase.  Shoot, I bet there was not a single person who talked about being able to get funding for this or that or how to stop money from going to an unfavored system or region.  One can easily see how politics and budgeting do not go hand in hand.

Right…

Then, Ed Houck attacked the GOP over their vote, saying “It takes a lot of guts to start kicking around — politically — poor, 4-year-old children. Man, that’s leadership,”. Houck’s sarcasm was applauded by NLS-when in fact it was inappropriate, unstatesmanlike, self-defeating, and quite inaccurate.

Governor Kaine has chastised the House GOP, claiming they will take their ball and go home” by saying it was wrong of them to say “my way or the highway.” Better I suppose to engage in Kainesian Economics and simply accept without questioning what is put before them.

Gosh, where to start?

The fundamental fact is that even in the face of a slowing economy, the Democrats in Richmond and the GOP differ on how much money will come in during the next budget period. They assume that despite the very flat income tax structure in Virginia, that taxes received will raise at a faster from personal income growth. I don’t see how under the current Virginia structure tax income can do much more than increase at the same rate as personal income grows-or declines. To say it will outstrip the income growth rate seems to be unfounded.

First, the Democrats are obviously not enjoying life without John Chichester. First they failed to win his seat in the general election last fall. Now, they no longer have him to hide behind in the Senate Finance Committee. You see, regardless of what you think of him Chichester had the smarts, the charisma, the gall, and the cajones to make his will stand. He also had a permanent majority. Depending on the issue he and his minions could vote GOP and pick up a majority on the right, or bolt and go left and get the Democratic votes. Since he could always get a majority, there was little point in opposing him.

It should be noted that although retired from the Senate Chichester cannot help but heave cheap shots.  He was quoted in the WaPo as opining:

“What you have now is gridlock,” Chichester said from his home in Fredericksburg. “Before, the common goal was, ‘What is best for Virginia?’ Now that’s deteriorated to, ‘What is best for the party?’ ”

The Senate vote on the budget was disappointing, said Chichester, who said he never saw such dissent in his 30 years in the legislature.

This is, of course, silly speak. No matter now much the RK guys think this is statesmanlike chatter. The reason Chichester never saw anything like it is because for over half his time in the Senate either the Democrats held a massive majority-so there was no need to work together-or there was a tie-in which case there was every reason to work together.

Some may say the rancor began when the GOP took the majority. It appears to me the rancor began when Chichester became the sole chair of the Finance Committee.

In an aside, I should note how Lowell has changed his tune on what constitutes “partisan rancor”. When the Senate Democrats (in the minority) were voting as a bloc against the GOP budget, it was a good and patriotic thing. Now when the Senate GOP (in the minority) votes as a bloc against the Democratic budget is causes “partisan rancor”.

Horsefeathers…the rancor was already in place, created by an unwillingness on both sides to work together, but fostered on the democratic side of the Senate by their willingness to hide behind John Chichester’s Chairman’s chair.

Moving on…

Chuck Colgan, a good man, has never been accused of having political gravitas. His election in 1975 delayed the widening of Va-234 for years. He is not a leader, nor does he inspire loyalty or fear as Chichester did. He is not going to be able to intimidate, agitate, or otherwise shmooze the GOP minority to do something just because he wants it that way.

Colgan also carries the burden that both sides have come to see that committee and floor votes have consequences now that they might not have had twenty years ago. Twenty years ago a legislator could go along on a bill he was not 100% behind knowing that it would take real digging to get that information before the public in a context that would hurt him. Not now…votes are out and announced an in the public domain immediately thanks to all types of new media.  Votes that went unnoticed twenty years ago now must be defended.

Of course, the differences in how much revenue is coming in might not matter if either party set a needs baseline. Most business’s, people, families, etc., set a budget. The determine what goods and services they need, how much it takes to pay for them, and how much dinero is coming in. If the expenses exceed the revenue, they either cut the expenses or take steps to increase the revenue.

Not in Richmond, not for a long time. For the last ten years it does not matter who holds the legislature or the governor’s mansion, neither party has made a case for what the state needs to spend money on. In hard times, they start talking cuts and layoffs and attriting job openings, but that is all after the fact. No one has been willing to say “here is what we think the state needs-and here is why”. Instead, they assume they should start from where we were in the last budget.

Needless to say, this causes problems…especially when The Gov wants to start new programs in non-growth years.

Part and parcel of this practice is the argument that “this new thing costs so little, we should do it!” This is out of the same logic as the person from the cash strapped family who buys a bunch of stuff the family does not need, but points out that because of the sale they saved money. If the state doesn’t need the program NOW, now is NOT the time to subject the state budget to the Kainesian economics and torture it with the fiscal death by a thousand cuts by pushing through a multitude of small programs that individually may not be huge expenditures (given the overall budget) but taken in the aggregate is a huge sum.

Next comes the lust for power.  Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a real platform they operate from.  I have chastised the GOP for it, but noted the Democrats are no better.  The General Assembly Democrats believe that Governor Kaine’s bankroll won several races for them, so they had better push his program.  This means raiding the rainy day fund, implementing new programs at the expense of existing ones, and doing all this without a framework for explaining where they want to go. 

The stubbornness of the new Democratic leadership is of the same brand as that of the recent GOP Senate Majority. But it is disingenuous for them to carry on in so many forums about how partisan the GOP is being. While in the minority the Democrats wrote the book on “principled obstruction”, part of which was not fighting for legislation-because that created a record that could be fought against in the next election.

Well, now they are in the majority, and they get to learn their own lesson about “principled obstruction”. And now that the Senate Democrats can no longer hide behind John Chichester, now that they have to produce a record, now that they have to show what their own principles are…that adds a whole new aspect to how campaigns will be fought and policy produced here in the Commonwealth.

Most of all, it will cry out for a new parliamentary maturity in Richmond…because to date the new boss is about as petulant as the old boss.

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