McDonnell to begin term as Va. governor with heavy burdens

In a busy week in Richmond, newly elected politicians are sworn in as the Virginia General Assembly session opens, Gov. Tim Kaine gives his final State of the Commonwealth address, and Republican Robert F. McDonnell takes the governor's office.
By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

RICHMOND -- Republican Robert F. McDonnell will be sworn in as Virginia's 71st governor at noon Saturday with the weight of his own promises and the hopes of a resurgent party upon him.

McDonnell, 55, won an overwhelming electoral victory in November by pledging to be a different kind of conservative than those whom Virginia voters rejected in the past two gubernatorial elections.

He would make government leaner while still reinvesting in the state's vaunted higher education system. He would solve Virginia's two-decade-long transportation crisis without raising taxes. He would be a champion for conservative social causes but spend most of his time solving everyday problems.

Now comes the hard part, as McDonnell takes office amid the worst recession since the Great Depression, a vast shortfall in the state budget and a political culture in Richmond beset by the same partisan infighting that in many ways stymied his Democratic predecessor.

He said this week that he is undaunted by the challenges ahead and looks forward to proving that his philosophies work as well in governing as they did on the campaign. Virginians will be able to monitor his progress, he vowed, on a new Web site dedicated to tracking the status of 200 promises made before the November election.

"I'm a person that believes in action," he said. "I stressed during the campaign that people don't want to hear rhetoric. They don't want to have a bunch of partisanship. They want action and cooperation."

Few governors have taken office facing as wide an array of potential obstacles to their agenda.

Over the last four years, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has made deep cuts to government services. Last month, Kaine dropped into McDonnell's lap a proposed budget that would sap money from schools, freeze or eliminate health care services, dip into funds for police and sheriff's offices and lay off hundreds of state workers. Kaine did that even as he proposed an income tax increase, which McDonnell has said he finds unacceptable.

It now will be McDonnell's task to work with the General Assembly on the difficult process of finalizing the spending plan. McDonnell said this week that one of his first goals will be simply to ensure the legislature adopts a budget on time. In a state where budget battles have led to extended legislative sessions five times in the last decade, it will not be easy.

"This situation is fundamentally different than any other in my lifetime," said Gordon Morse, a longtime political analyst and a former top aide to Democratic Gov. Gerald L. Baliles. Morse warned of the pain to come from a $4.2 billion, two-year gap in the state budget. "McDonnell will have to be able to explain what's happening to the people. . . . Right now, we're in an era of political delusion."

Jobs high on agenda

Although its economy is better than elsewhere in the nation, Virginia's unemployment rate is at its highest level in decades.

Finding ways to create jobs and spur the economy will be first on his agenda by working to reduce what he considers intrusive government regulations on business, McDonnell said this week. He will pursue education reforms long endorsed by Republicans, and more recently by President Obama, and push immediately for the creation of more charter schools in Virginia.

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