It’s unusual for Virginians to look to the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J., for inspiration. But lawmakers in Richmond can’t be blamed if they’ve begun to wonder whether the Garden State’s newly elected governor might be charting a more effective way out of his state’s budget mess than his newly elected counterpart in Virginia.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, was elected in November by a plurality of votes in a three-way race and faces a state Senate and Assembly both dominated by Democrats. On Feb. 11, slightly more than three weeks after his inauguration, Mr. Christie delivered a fiery speech to the members of both chambers in which he outlined a specific list of immediate actions he planned to take to address New Jersey’s budget shortfall.
No one can tell whether Mr. Christie’s assertion of emergency powers to impose a spending freeze this year will survive court challenges or whether he will find willing partners in the New Jersey Legislature to make good on his promise that “Today, the days of Alice-in-Wonderland budgeting in Trenton end.” Mr. Christie has defined the choices and framed the debate for the people of New Jersey in unambiguous terms – no more spending freely today and figuring out how to pay for it later. Mr. Christie has laid down a clear blueprint for citizens and legislators alike. He has given lawmakers who might be willing to make hard choices a political environment in which to do so. He has lent his executive power to the effort and signaled lawmakers that if they will go toward budget solvency, they will not go alone. Moreover, he has asked the state’s residents to understand that they share in the responsibility to find a new path forward.
Like his counterpart in New Jersey, Virginia’s new Republican governor, Robert F. McDonnell, has called for reforming his state’s budgeting process. He has proposed to shift the timing of the biennial state budget so new governors aren’t put in the position every four years of reworking a budget presented by the outgoing governor. (The commonwealth’s top executives are limited to a single four-year term.)
Mr. McDonnell also gave a speech at the Virginia Statehouse shortly after taking office – the rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech. He echoed many of the themes from his campaign – economic growth, the relationship between the federal and state governments and protecting individual liberty – all worthy issues. He sounded all the right notes; the criticisms from some Virginia lawmakers that he was distracting himself from Virginia’s issues to prepare for the speech and complaints that he should not have used the historic House of Delegates chamber as the setting for his speech came off as partisan political posturing at the time. Now, a few weeks later, as the lack of a clear resolution to the multibillion-dollar deficit has become more apparent, even the governor’s likely allies in the General Assembly have begun to question whether Mr. McDonnell should take a more direct and public role in the state’s budget discussions.
The partisan split within the Virginia legislature (the House is controlled by Republicans, the Senate by Democrats) does not lend itself to easy reconciliation of the budget proposals. The chambers have taken differing approaches, and the deadline of March 13 approaches quickly. Asked about his behind-the-scenes approach, Mr. McDonnell told the Associated Press’ Bob Lewis that he has pursued a “different strategy” designed to build consensus in private rather than stirring up the public debate over service cuts versus tax increases – an approach he says ultimately will prove more productive. State legislators acknowledge their primary responsibility for crafting the state’s budget, yet even some legislators of the governor’s own party question how effective they can be without his assistance in building statewide public support for the tough decisions ahead.
The McDonnell approach to budget negotiations strongly resembles the Obama administration’s approach to its signature legislative initiatives – paint broad objectives and leave details to the legislature. Thankfully (or not, depending upon your perspective) this approach hasn’t proved effective in Washington. We can’t help but wonder whether Richmond is heading for a similar impasse if Mr. McDonnell doesn’t take a more active role. Playing it safe may be the low-risk strategy for someone who has been held up as an example of the new breed of Republican leader – but Mr. McDonnell risks both the party’s image and Virginia’s future – as well as his own image and future – if his strategy stalls out.