It may have missed the Ides of March by 11 days, but Tuesday was indeed a big day for the Old Dominion — and especially for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell as he seeks to claim his legacy while walking a tightrope between being conservative and moderate.
McDonnell had to make his tweaks to legislation passed by the General Assembly before it reconvenes April 3 to finalize things. Most of these involved amendments to his signature transportation package.
Here are the highlights from Super Tuesday that could frame McDonnell’s place in the history books. Consider:
* Bowing coolly to Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s concerns about the constitutionality of some parts of his transportation package, McDonnell changed wording calling for Northern Virginians and Hampton Roads residents to pay more in sales taxes to alleviate their road problems. Instead of these higher-tax areas behind identified geographically, which the state constitution seems to forbid, they will be picked based on data such as population, number of cars and public transit usage. Only Northern Virginia and Tidewater meet the new criteria.
* McDonnell lowered the annual fee (or fine) for using alternative energy cars from $100 to $64 a year. The fee is as pointless as the arbitrary reduction.
* At the same time, as a sop to social conservatives, McDonnell amended bills to bar abortion coverage when insurers start operating in the health-care exchanges to be set up under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
* In another pitch to the hard right, McDonnell signed a bill that will make voters present photo identification when they vote, even though there’s been no serious voter fraud in Virginia in recent history.
* Also, the Virginia Port Authority moved to kill plans to privatize the state’s vast ports complex. This had been another one of McDonnell’s ideas to raise money and keep with the privatization craze favored by pro-business Republicans and Democrats alike. One big problem was that proposed bids were low and the financial need to sell the ports off unclear. This turn of events makes one wonder why Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton fired most of the VPA board two years ago.
I guess that was enough for one day.
McDonnell’s contradiction is that he bucked conservative supporters by pushing on with the biggest, if flawed, reform on road funding since 1986. He got fiscal conservatives, smart-growthers and environmentalists all mad at him. That is an interesting mix of enemies. Then on abortion and voter ID, he locks arms with hardline conservatives.
Another aspect of all this is the part being played by gubernatorial candidate Cuccinelli. The attorney general has refused to step down although he’s running for governor on the GOP ticket. He and his hard-ally Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) get to play their cynical duet in working the agenda. Marshall asks for an attorney general’s opinion or some other tactical move. Cuccinelli supplies it. One has to wonder why Cuccinelli didn’t speak up louder on the transportation constitutionality issue when the legislature was still in session, rather than waiting till a few days before the governor must make critical adjustments to what was passed.
By not resigning his post, Cuccinelli gets to have it several ways. He’s a candidate. He’s also legal overseer. And once again, he’s outmaneuvered McDonnell.