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Editorial: Youngkin's economic plan is pretty disappointing

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Glenn Youngkin, the blankest of blank slates ever to run for Virginia governor, has finally started to fill in some of those blanks on policy.

The result is pretty disappointing, and something of a gut punch for the rural areas that are the base of his own Republican Party.

Last week, with some fanfare, Youngkin announced his grandly titled “plan to invest in all Virginians.”

It was nothing more than a recitation of standard Republican talking points — mostly tax refunds and tax breaks.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything else from the former co-CEO of the world’s second-largest private equity firm.

On the other hand, we had hoped for a little more creativity from someone who has worked at such a high level of the economy.

Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe have spent much of the campaign arguing about the state of the Virginia economy.

Youngkin says it’s “in the ditch.”

Democrats sputter that the state has a just finished the fiscal year with a record $2.6 billion surplus and that CNBC just ranked Virginia as the best state in which to do business, the second time under Gov. Ralph Northam that it’s won that honor.

Somebody here is clearly wrong, right?

The reality is that both candidates might be right — it just depends on what part of the state you’re in.

CNBC reports: “At a time when companies are clamoring for talent, Virginia performed well in the critical categories of Education (#2) and Workforce (#3). High-performing high school students feed a well-funded higher education system. That, in turn, has helped Virginia assemble one of the most educated workforces in the nation.” All that’s well and good if you’re, say, in Northern Virginia.

But all those pro-business accolades ring pretty hollow if you’re in one of the 18 counties in Virginia where the population is declining primarily because so many people are moving out.

Youngkin is wrong about Northern Virginia’s economy but right about much of Southside and Southwest.

That’s why we’re so disappointed in his economic plan, because there’s almost nothing in it to help rural Virginia build a new economy.

We say “almost” because Youngkin makes the obligatory nod toward rural broadband. He proposes $700 million. The problem is Northam proposed that same figure a few weeks ago. Broadband is the rare issue where there’s a bipartisan consensus. Youngkin deserves no credit for broadband as political boilerplate.

Beyond that easy box-checking reference to broadband, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — in what we heard during Youngkin’s 14-minute talk that addressed the problem of there being two separate Virginias.

Politically, Youngkin doesn’t really need to. Rural Virginia will vote heavily for the Republican ticket no matter what they say or don't say.

But as governor Youngkin will have to deal with the fact that there are lots of rural areas that, economically and demographically, are a drag on the state. Youngkin likes to talk about how he will be “a new kind of leader.” Here’s a place where he could have demonstrated that, and didn’t.

Youngkin didn’t mention the state income tax in his policy remarks last week but in other forums he has, telling some interviewers that he’d like to eliminate it.

Who wouldn’t like to see the income tax abolished? However, here are a few salient facts.

Fact number one: The state income tax provides 72% of Virginia’s revenue.

Fact number two: Virginia subsidizes most rural school systems, providing up to 65% of the funding in Scott County.

Fact number three: Rural schools are still underfunded in contrast to their counterparts in affluent suburban districts.

If Youngkin succeeded in reducing or eliminating the state income tax, would that make it more or less likely that there will be more school funding for rural schools?

Youngkin’s fascination with eliminating the state income tax might play well with Republican policy wonks in the urban crescent but would hurt actual Republican constituents in rural Virginia.

The main thing that Youngkin had to say about schools was to express support for school choice plans, another suburban conceit.

Feel free to debate the philosophy of school choice all you want, but the reality is that in much of rural Virginia, there isn’t a realistic option to the local public school.

Youngkin seems out of touch with rural reality. Indeed, he’s made no mention — none at all — of the outdated schools in rural Virginia that are, in some actual cases, held together by duct tape.

Youngkin’s lack of imagination (or nerve?) is letting an opportunity pass him by.

McAuliffe has trumpeted a “big and bold” school plan, but it’s not so big and bold as to talk about school construction, either.

All Youngkin had to do was endorse a proposal put forward by a fellow Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has pushed a $3 billion bond issue for school construction. But he didn’t.

And neither candidate has endorsed a constitutional amendment to close that disparity between rich and poor schools. Rural Virginia is being ignored by both candidates.

Notice we’re not talking up McAuliffe here. We saw four years of a McAuliffe governorship so we all know what another four years would mean.

Rural Virginians have no particular reason to be excited about the prospect of another four years of McAuliffe — and Youngkin now seems to be saying we have no reason to be excited about four years of him, either.

Oh, people who care about culture war issues might occasionally get to feel good about something, but none of those change the daily economic realities.

Maybe Youngkin is right that tax cuts will lead to more economic growth — we’ll let others marshal their competing statistics on that — but we all know where that "rip-roaring" economic growth will be and it won’t be here.

We have only a lifetime of experience to tell us that — underscored by the “great divergence” that has opened up between metro areas and rural areas in the information age. Tax cuts won’t change the fundamentals — economic growth is accelerating in talent-rich metro areas, and leaving rural communities behind. Youngkin seems uninterested in addressing that.

Youngkin must be a serious man. He wouldn’t have risen to his CEO position otherwise. You’d think he might have at least one creative thought.

But when it comes to the economic challenges facing rural Virginia, he seems incapable of anything except clichés.

That’s not being “a different kind of leader.” That’s being exactly the kind we’re used to.

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