RICHMOND — Before the November elections, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell predicted expectations would be high if fellow Republicans took control of both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly.
He was right.
As legislators return to the Capitol for the General Assembly’s annual session Wednesday, McDonnell and Republican lawmakers say they are under pressure to tackle kitchen-table concerns, such as job creation, and not be tripped up by social issues like gun rights.
Republicans are eager to capitalize on their newfound strength while not turning off independent voters who will be critical to this year’s presidential and U.S. Senate races.
“It’s tougher,’’ Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester) said. “We have way more opportunity to demonstrate that we can deliver in a rational, measured way.’’
McDonnell, kicking off the most important legislative session of his term, has an agenda that would pump billions of dollars into the state’s retirement system, unclog roads, award more college degrees and spur job creation.
At a news conference Monday, he unveiled several proposals intended to raise academic standards, improve teacher quality and promote charter and virtual schools.
McDonnell will push for the repeal of a 30-year law that sets the first day of school after Labor Day. He has proposed establishing an annual contract and evaluation process for teachers, replacing the tenurelike job protections afforded by traditional multiyear contracts. The measure is intended to strengthen school divisions’ ability to remediate or remove poorly performing teachers.
“We have a large number of big ideas and big problems that I want to fix this session,’’ McDonnell said in a recent interview in his Capitol Square office. “We’re not taking a pass on fixing these big problems and kicking those cans down the road.’’
Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate, and they immediately claimed control because Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) can cast tie-breaking votes in the equally divided chamber. And they will hold a hefty 68-seat majority in the 100-member House of Delegates — the highest in Virginia history.
McDonnell will join with Republican legislative leaders Tuesday to talk about their priorities — making government smaller and more efficient, boosting the fragile economy and saving money for a rainy day.
Brian Moran, chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the Republican plan is anything but aggressive — perhaps all the more surprising since they will hold both the legislature and Governor’s Mansion for only the second time since the Civil War. “We expected a bolder vision,’’ he said.
McDonnell, one of the nation’s most popular governors and a possible vice presidential contender, hopes new allies in the General Assembly will help him leave a lasting mark on the state.
“This session is one where he can certainly have an imprint on government,’’ said Sen. Ryan McDougle (Hanover), chairman of the Republican caucus. “Virginia is a fairly well-run state, but there are things we can do better — absolutely.”
Democrats, who are still pressing to share power in the Senate, say McDonnell still needs their help, especially because Bolling is barred from voting on the budget.
“The governor’s going to need to work with us,” Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk) said. “I think he needs to reach out to us.”
McDonnell’s $85 billion spending blueprint includes shuffling millions of dollars from public schools and health care to his top priorities of pension reform, higher education and transportation.
One of his most controversial proposals is to spend $110 million more to ease clogged roads by boosting the portion of the sales tax spent on transportation — a move Democrats said will take money away from education, public safety and other core services.
Sen Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), the Democratic leader in the Senate, called McDonnell’s recommendation to divert money to transportation a “gutless act.”
McDonnell scoffed at that criticism — and returned fire. He suggested Saslaw show “his guts” by proposing a tax increase and seeing the reception it gets in the legislature.
“I think it takes more guts to tell people what your priorities are and to be able to make the tough decisions on reallocating money,’’ McDonnell said.
But even before the session starts, it became clear that McDonnell may not get the support he needs from members of his own party on transportation.
“That is a bottomless pit and, if allowed to continue to grow, will continue to undermine funding for education, public safety, health care, the courts, all of the above,’’ Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) said. “It needs to pay for itself.’’
McDonnell said he does not plan to push hot-button subjects, including abortion and immigration, and will spend the session on less controversial issues — jobs, traffic congestion and education.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he supports McDonnell’s agenda. (Sen. Thomas K. Norment of James City, the Senate Republican leader, has kept a low profile since the election and did not return phone calls.)
But conservatives, even those who campaigned on boosting jobs, curbing spending and streamlining government, are counting on McDonnell to back proposals that have been derailed in the past by Senate Democrats.
Already, they have introduced bills that would give unborn children rights, lift some background checks for gun owners and require the police to determine the immigration status of any person who is arrested.
McDonnell, who has built a national profile as the leader of the Republican Governors Association, will have to decide whether the image he wants to project in the final two years of his term will be that of a centrist or more of a conservative.
But the governor downplayed that, saying he doesn’t mind that more conservative issues will cross his desk.
“Nobody should be surprised that I continue to be pro-life, pro-family and a fiscal and a social conservative,’’ McDonnell said. “I’ve supported those issues for 21 years and nothing’s changed.’’