by Paul Goldman
In Godfather 1, Don Corleone redeems a favor from a friendly undertaker in order to make his son’s body suitable for an open casket funeral. Unless reality undergoes a reinvention, Governor McDonnell will need to do the same in preparation for the public burial of his ABC privatization plan, which is dead, and unlike the plane crash victims in the TV series “The Event”, can’t be brought back to life even by ET’s. But should Virginia Democrats want to attend a funeral on a minor issue or would the Commonwealth better benefit by the party seizing this opportunity to see if McDonnell’s troubles might offer an opening on the far larger and more important issue of the state’s transportation network?
My answer: Take a chance, and see if McDonnell will do the right thing even if this allows him to get off the hook on one of the biggest mistakes in modern times by a Virginia Governor. Truth is, the states of the Union who have the best transportation network, so that goods that need to be moved can be moved either by air, water, rail, road, will do the best on the economic front. When they can move trucks over an IPhone application, then all bets are off: but for now, the best transportation grid as we know it triumphs, even Steve Jobs can’t beat that.
And Jobs is the right metaphor: Because in the end, it is all about jobs, as in employment, as in economic activity. The service economy continues to grow as does health care: but without the best transportation grid, you can’t be the best state for job creation in the foreseeable future.
So in the end, transportation equals Jobs, indeed for now it trumps even Stevie.
To be sure, His Excellency, Governor McD, has gone around the state for roughly a year now preaching his virtue on the ABC issue, attacking Democrats for not having any, and otherwise making grand promise after promise on the matter. Turns out, His Excellency was “all hat and now cowboy”. During the campaign, his ABC plan would be revenue neutral, raise upwards of $800 million, create thousands of jobs and be part of a transportation fix.
Except everything he promised wasn’t true. His plan busts the budget, might raise half what he promised for transportation if you still believe his figures, and if it creates many jobs at all, most will be retail clerks selling liquor at Wal Marts or a your local cash and carry whiskey store.
Truth is: If the laws against bait and switch applied to the McDonnell campaign promise, our Governor would be facing the biggest consumer fraud suit in state history, assuming Attorney General Cuccinelli could stop campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire long enough to protect the public interest.
Bottom line: McDonnell’s false attacks and phony promises have put him in this situation, and he has no right to expect Democrats to come to his rescue. But this misses a potential opportunity. One of the ironic laws of politics is rooted in the equation that the worse a Governor does, it might make it more likely that he is willing to do a better thing.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw is correct in saying that there is no possible fix to our growing transportation mess without a new source of funds. But like most Virginians, I believe increased user fees for transportation should be a last resort, not a way for government to avoid responsibility for mismanagement of the many billions in highway funding already being paid by citizens. Indeed, did not the Governor just claim to have found many hundreds of millions in transportation dollars either unspent or wasted by the Kaine Administration?
Some say this was pure political spin, and surely the numbers are somewhat confusing.
All of which points in this direction: It has been over a generation since a Governor appointed a bipartisan, super respected Commission of exceptionally talented individuals to review the state of transportation in our Commonwealth and come forward with an analysis, along with recommendation options, for the people to consider. Not political spin: but the facts, politically incorrect if need be.
As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. Under normal circumstances, the type of Commission I envision would not come Governor McDonnell. For example, his Reform Commission is headed by one of the most partisan Republicans in the country, who has spent 40 years doing what he is doing now, raising huge sums of money form undisclosed donors to defeat Democrats. Is there any wonder his Reform Commission produced no major reforms, it was another case of McDonnell talking big but delivering small?
This kind of Commission would be worth nothing on an issue like transportation. But if McDonnell would agree to appoint a truly bipartisan, super-respected Commission of members who can not only talk the talk but walk the walk, then in my view this could make a huge difference going forward.
This is not to say their facts will be accepted by those who increasingly see politics as a 24/7 noise machine, the more noise you make, the powerful you become.
But the vast majority of Virginians still believe that the best policy is based on the best facts, that the truth is worth knowing because it is the only way to make real progress in the final analysis.
My proposal: If Governor McDonnell will agree to work with Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly to form this type of super quality Transportation Commission, then Democrats should agree to give the Governor his choice of two options. One, they will put his ABC plan to a vote of the people in an advisory referendum. Or, in the alternative, Democrats will agree to hold a statewide referendum asking voters whether they want to privatize the retail end of the whiskey selling business only, replacing the roughly 300 ABC stores with about 1000 private stores.
Moreover, and this is key, Democrats will agree that if the people vote to privatize the retail store end of the liquor selling business, they will release McDonnell from his pledge that any such privatization plan will need to raise significant transportation money.
Why is this later point key? Because the transportation part of the ABC privatization equation makes such a change impossible without giving powerful special interests a state asset a fire sale prices. Democrats could never support such a giveaway under any circumstances. Moreover, a retail-only plan, even using McDonnell’s funny numbers, barely produces enough money to pay for one month of the state’s road maintenance budget. So why are we wasting time on it?
Thus, McDonnell would be presented with a clean path to what he says he wants, getting the state out of the liquor business. He can roll the dice on his plan, which is fine with me, since his inability to get any real support in the House GOP should tell anyone remotely familiar with politics how badly it would be defeated in a referendum. But he says it would pass. Okay, Governor, take your best shot.
Or His Excellency can seize on an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and ask the people to approve an historic change in state liquor policy, a move to privatizing the retail end of the business while keeping the state in control of the wholesale operation as we see whether this change really is what the people want.
In return, for giving the Governor a chance to start the privatization process and to get off his transportation hook, Democrats get something they would never otherwise get under any Republican Governor or GOP controlled House: a truly bipartisan, super quality Transportation Commission with knowledgeable individuals who are not afraid to let the chips fall where they may.
Yes, a small step toward a sustainable transportation future policy. The Commission is as likely to disappoint Democrats as Republicans.
But it does do what we can not do right now: get the facts without the politics.
Until we do that, the transportation mess only gets worse, never better as should be clear form the last few years of trying.