Opinion: The race to lead Virginia gets bold, old and unsure

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Gordon C. Morse, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read
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Does Terry McAuliffe love the word “bold” or what? He’s running to be elected governor again and it’s as if his folks ran a focus group and the first mention of the word “bold” lit up the room.

“That’s the ticket,” someone screamed. “Be bold!”

So, out goes a press release last week, heralding the former governor’s latest: “Terry McAuliffe Announces Bold New Plan to Invest in Virginia Workers & A More Equitable Post-COVID Economy.”

Down in the release, how often does the word “bold” appear? Including adverbs (boldly), nine times.

This has been going on with McAuliffe’s campaign literature since he announced. Bold this. Bold that. Bold everything.

OK, but do you get to declare yourself “bold?” Or would it be better to have the electorate reach that conclusion on its own?

Forget it, the organizers of the political universe are going to tell you what to think every step of the way.

Thus, on the Republican side, we’re supposed to receive Kirk Cox’s latest idea — he called it the “give it back” proposal on a radio station — as new.

It ain’t. It’s seriously old, tried once, tried again, and thoroughly beaten into the ground. Four years ago, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie pitched a tax cut plan on essentially the same basis, i.e., elect me and get money.

Cox’s proposal differs from Gillespie’s by being a one-time-deal, based on the news that Virginia has more revenue on hand than previously anticipated. But the pitch is the same: Just think what you can do with that loot!

“It could mean help with the electricity bill, spring clothes for the kids, or tutoring,” Cox said. “Whatever it is they use it for, it’s their money and they deserve to keep it.”

Gillespie thought you deserved it, too, going further with helpful suggestions: “Make an extra car payment … buy holiday and Christmas presents … take your family to Busch Gardens,” his 2017 campaign cheerfully announced.

As it happens, the latest revenue numbers come in about $800 million less than previously anticipated. But it’s been something of a moving target ever since COVID arrived. These are adjustments being made on top of adjustments, up and down.

It all sounds confusing, but there’s a logic to it. With the COVID pandemic arriving early last year and the effects upon state revenue uncertain, the fiscal soothsayers turned pessimistic — a familiar Virginia habit.

The commonwealth budgets its spending over a two-year period, not upon what’s in the bank, but what may eventually arrive. You project, then you receive. Obviously, it’s the receiving part that really matters.

Only Cox doesn’t want the state to receive this latest “anticipated” revenue. Give it to the “the people.”

That will appeal to some, but the mentality recalls then-state Sen. Harry F. Byrd’s “Tax Credit Act,” which passed the General Assembly in 1950 and divided lawmakers in the process.

Designed to scarf up state revenue whenever a “surplus” exceeded state income tax estimates by more than 5%, the “Byrd Law” returned roughly $20 million in the first three years following passage and did no favors for K-12 schools, mental hospitals, health and higher education.

Ultimately viewed as self-defeating, Byrd’s tax credit was repealed (by an exceedingly conservative legislature) in 1956.

Cox is supposed to be the one Republican candidate for governor who knows which end is up, whose decades of legislative experience make him the reasonable and solid choice.

But Cox doesn’t have the nomination yet, perhaps worries about that and, with reason, because it remains unclear to Republicans how the nomination is to be had.

Really.

Between COVID and fevered GOP machinations, it could be a primary, could be a convention, could be just handed over to the GOP State Central Committee.

Which will produce the least crazy choice? (And, let me tell you, there’s a huge assumption in that question.)

The Democrats — those operating in the General Assembly, mostly — have been astoundingly creative in their pursuit of legislatively looney, seemingly determined to open the political field to sensible moderation.

But “sensible moderation” has been less than fully alluring for Republicans in recent statewide elections.

Which is why you see the otherwise-sensible Mr. Cox conjuring up revenue giveaway schemes. Not to be outbid, another GOP gubernatorial candidate proposes to repeal the state income tax.

And who is most likely to gain as this plays out?

Dr. Bold.

Extravagances aside, self-proclaimed or otherwise, Terry McAuliffe — bank-rolled to a fare-thee-well — is looking better by the day.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.