RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Wednesday urged a General Assembly that had been bitterly divided just a year ago to come together to achieve sweeping reforms in transportation funding and education.
In his last State of the Commonwealth speech, the term-limited Republican with national ambitions made clear that he has no interest in coasting through his final year in office. He used the occasion to boost his $3.1 billion transportation plan and also announced plans to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons and create a state “turnaround” division that would step in and manage failing schools.
Speaking to legislators in the ornate House chamber just hours after they had reconvened for the 2013 session, McDonnell (R) made the case for an ambitious legislative agenda — one that ran the gamut from a monumental overhaul of road funding to a relatively obscure effort to save Virginia oysters, the very sort that legislators gobbled down at a post-speech reception at the governor’s mansion.
“If we are remembered at all, we will all be remembered for what we actually got done. Not what we promised to do,” McDonnell said. “Talk is cheap. Results matter. The Virginia way has always been about both fighting civilly for our principles and finding common ground. That’s what happens here in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.”
Democrats, in their formal response to the governor’s remarks, said they agreed with McDonnell’s do-it-now pitch but also evoked the battles of the previous session.
“Last year, Virginia’s legislature became known for the fodder we provided to late-night talk shows as the Republican majority passed several bills that injected government between a woman and her doctor,” said Del. David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the House minority leader. “We cannot afford another session like last year. . . . In 2012, Virginia lost its ranking as the best state in the country to do business because we neglected issues like roads and schools in favor of social issues. It’s time to focus on what’s important.”
The General Assembly got back to business Wednesday without the fireworks that accompanied last year’s opening day. Within an hour, the House and Senate dispensed with the formalities required to declare themselves “duly organized” — managing that task so quickly that they caught McDonnell off guard. A year earlier, the 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats in the Senate spent more than five hours wrestling for control of the chamber, a battle ultimately decided in the GOP’s favor with the help of tiebreaking votes by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R).
A year removed from that fight and from an entire session dominated by partisan standoffs over social issues, voting rights, the budget and Senate power, some legislators said they were eager to work across the aisle on less divisive legislation.
But certain issues — perennial favorites and new ones — were already promising to keep things lively in Richmond.
Demonstrators on both sides of the abortion debate rallied outside the Capitol on Wednesday morning. Overhead, a plane towed a banner urging legislators not to reappoint Helen E. Dragas, the University of Virginia rector who orchestrated the summer’s short-lived ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.
The Dragas issue could be a thorny one for McDonnell, who chose to reappoint her despite considerable uproar over her actions. Several legislators have vowed not to confirm her.
An even larger issue that went unmentioned in McDonnell’s speech was uranium mining.
Southside Virginia is home to one of the nation’s largest known uranium deposits, and the General Assembly will consider legislation to lift a 30-year ban on mining the radioactive element. McDonnell has not taken a position, but he has said that he would be in favor of mining if it could be done safely. The issue has gotten trickier, as Republican legislators from the region have come out against it. Bolling, a member of McDonnell’s cabinet who has been mulling over an independent run for governor, has voiced opposition.
During Wednesday night’s speech, McDonnell asked lawmakers to reward teachers with a 2 percent raise but also hold schools more accountable when they underperform.
He seemed to be making overtures to at least some Democrats with certain aspects of his transportation plan, which calls for eliminating the gas tax, raising the sales tax and hiking some car fees.
Even as he proposed taking more sales tax revenue for roads — something Democrats have staunchly opposed in the past — the governor vowed to devote the first $300 million to extend Metrorail to Dulles, a priority for Northern Virginia Democrats.
“He’s going down swinging in his last year, and I hope we connect with something,” said Jeffrey L. McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), praising him for wading into transportation.
McDonnell’s long list of priorities for the 45-day session is matched by a large and eclectic mix of legislation brought forth by the state’s 140 legislators.
Among the bills filed are proposals to arm teachers, expand Medicaid, curtail union rights, thwart an “Obamacare” mandate related to contraceptive coverage and amend the state constitution to allow Virginia governors, who are barred from serving successive terms, to succeed themselves.
“This could be a . . . roller coaster of a session,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington).
But it was a smooth ride on opening day.
About the only hiccup came when a delegation from the House and Senate was dispatched to tell McDonnell that the chambers had been “duly organized” and were ready to get to work.
When the legislators arrived at McDonnell’s Capitol office, they met a locked door.
Apparently, no one had notified the governor that he was being notified. The delegation was left standing in the hall outside for about 10 minutes.
“I didn’t expect you to be organized so fast,” McDonnell told the group when he finally appeared.