WASHINGTON – Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (search) may not be on John Kerry's (search) short list, but he still has something to offer the Democratic presidential ticket: lessons for raising taxes in a Republican Legislature.
The Democratic governor slashed spending, forged a bipartisan pro-business coalition and exploited a nationwide GOP rift over taxes. Kerry may need to follow those steps if he's sent to the White House with a Republican Congress.
Kerry, who accepts the Democratic nomination in late July, wants to roll back portions of President Bush's tax cuts approved by a GOP-led Congress.
"I believe what we have done in Virginia contains some pretty important lessons for Democrats throughout the United States and our colleagues in Congress," Warner told the moderate Democratic Leadership Council (search) on Tuesday. "Because I believe today we're in a time that cries out for leadership ... on fiscal issues."
Warner, elected in 2001 and bound to one term by the state constitution, will become chairman of the National Governors Association (search) next month. He has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, but Warner said he has not talked to Kerry about the job and his vast financial holdings are not being reviewed by the candidate's search team.
Governing one of the nation's most conservative states, Warner in April won a $1.4 billion budget-balancing tax increase from a heavily Republican Legislature. It provides an unprecedented spending boost for public schools, long-deferred state employee pay raises and new money for law enforcement and colleges.
Warner had help from 17 state House Republicans who defied their party's unforgiving anti-tax orthodoxy.
Virginia is the latest state to raise taxes and fees with a Republican-led Legislature, a GOP governor or both. Others include Alaska, Alabama, Nevada, Idaho and Ohio.
To the dismay of ideological conservatives who strongly oppose tax hikes, the more pragmatic and pro-business arm of the GOP is raising its voice to fill budget gaps caused by national economic declines and to protect education, health and infrastructure budgets that benefit the private sector.
"Warner has sliced business from the Republican Party and added it to the Democratic Party," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia
In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano got all she wanted and more in a budget fight after moderate Republican lawmakers defied their leadership to back her spending plans. Though tax increases were not included, conservative Republicans vigorously fought Napolitano's budget and plans for full-day kindergarten.
Could Kerry drive a wedge between Republicans in Congress? First, he has to beat Bush. Then, Warner says he can look to lessons learned in Virginia including:
— Cut spending before asking for tax hikes. "You've got to show taxpayers you will squeeze every dollar" from the budget before raising taxes, Warner said. He eliminated 5,000 jobs, killed or consolidated several agencies and closed the Department of Motor Vehicles one day a week to save money.
— Take it to the people. Warner formed a political action committee to pay for his travels throughout the state with a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation. When anti-tax advocates scheduled their own town hall meetings, Warner's coalition flooded the rooms with supporters of his plan. Moderate Republicans took notice.
— Forge creative coalitions. Warner's supporters included the pro-business Chamber of Commerce, the 50-and-older lobby AARP, the Virginia Education Association and lobbying groups for cities and counties.
— Frame the issue in a politically smart way. Though critics found little reform in his tax package, Warner billed it as a way to make the state tax code fairer. "Opponents tried to make it all about taxes," he said. "We made it about reform."
— Talk straight with voters. Though he favored the word reform, Warner said he didn't shy away from referring to his package as tax increases, instead of "revenue enhancements" or other fuzzy language. "Let's stop the doublespeak."
This from a governor who increased taxes by more than $1 billion after campaigning on a pledge not to raise them.
Asked about that pledge, the governor said he told voters, "I didn't intend to raise taxes." He emphasized the word "intend," and said he never signed a no-tax pledge.
What's difference does that make? Warner smiled and said, "probably not much" — a concession to critics who say he broke his word.
But the governor said he found out after taking office that Virginia's budget was in worse shape than he had been told, and something had to be done to maintain the state's fiscal viability.
Is that another lesson for Democrats? Perhaps they shouldn't repeat his no-new-taxes pledge.
"I would recommend you don't go out and sign one of those pledge documents," Warner said.