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UPDATED: With harder edge, Democrats hit McDonnell on state retirement funding

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Rosalind S. Helderman

With the annual legislative session just around the corner and a pretty sound thumping at the polls just behind them, Virginia's Democratic party is trying to adopt a new aggressive tone with Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

Activists have been concerned for some time that the official party structure hasn't been challenging McDonnell on a regular basis or in any organized fashion.

But with a new communications director on board and a new chairman set to be elected next month, the party is promising a new, more pro-active approach.

For instance, McDonnell has been on national television for months arguing that he successfully steered an austere budget through the General Assembly this year, allowing the state to end the fiscal year with a small surplus without raising taxes.

The party Tuesday started fighting back against that notion in an organized way, pointing to a report in last week's Richmond Times Dispatch about warnings from the board that manages the Virginia Retirement System about the state's chronic underfunding of employee pensions.

At McDonnell's urging, the General Assembly agreed to borrow $620 million from the fund to help close a hole in this year's budget.

In a statement released through the party, House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (Henry) called that move "tricks and gimmicks."

"Last week, the costs of the Governor's failure to lead began to come to bear, as the VRS board of trustees warned that such stunts put Virginia in danger of being unable to honor the promise we make to our workers that their pensions will be fully funded and available when they need them," he continued.

Of course, it's not the easy charge to level: Though Armstrong voted against the budget, the budget, including borrowing from the pension fund, was approved by the Democratic majority in the senate.

UPDATED 3:14 p.m.: We've received a response from McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson--and it takes a harder edge right back with the Democrats. She writes:

"We will treat this like it is: a partisan press release from a Democrat trying to play to his base in hopes of gaining support for future endeavors. It was Governor Kaine, National Chairman of Mr. Armstrong's Democratic Party, who introduced the last budget, and included in it the biggest tax increase in Virginia history.

It was Governor McDonnell who, upon taking office, defeated that tax increase, and then cut $4.2 billion in spending to balance the budget without raising taxes. It's also a curious press release considering that Mr. Armstrong voted in favor of then-Governor Kaine's caboose budget that deferred 4th quarter employee contributions to VRS.

We wish Mr. Armstrong well with his future campaigns, but he should at least try not to be so painfully transparent, and so inconsistent, moving forward."

Armstrong's full statement:

"Last year Governor McDonnell had the opportunity to introduce an honest budget that funded state government without borrowing or mortgaging the future. Instead he punted and balanced the budget with tricks and gimmicks such as underfunding the Virginia Retirement System and promising to make up the cost down the road.

Last week, the costs of the Governor's failure to lead began to come to bear, as the VRS board of trustees warned that such stunts put Virginia in danger of being unable to honor the promise we make to our workers that their pensions will be fully funded and available when they need them.

Just like families in Fairfax or Newport News can't balance their household budgets by refusing to pay their bills, the Governor cannot continue to balance the state budget by kicking the can down the road on our obligation to our retirees.

I urge Governor McDonnell to take this VRS warning as the reality check it should be. He has three years to improve upon the legacy of this first year, but budgetary gimmicks, privatization schemes and continued inaction on major issues like transportation and education won't get him there. It's time for the Governor to step up and lead."

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | November 9, 2010; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Robert F. McDonnell, Rosalind Helderman  
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