Va. governor outlines bold economic plan, is vague on funds

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who was sworn in on Saturday, promised to open more charter schools and focus on job creation in his State of the Commonwealth address on Monday.
Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who was sworn in on Saturday, promised to open more charter schools and focus on job creation in his State of the Commonwealth address on Monday. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
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By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia's new governor, Robert F. McDonnell, outlined a series of ambitious and costly proposals Monday night to create jobs and spur economic development, including adding tens of millions to programs that lure businesses to the state, making new investments in the tourism, wine and film industries, and reviving the economically distressed region of Southside.

But the state's first Republican governor in eight years did not offer a way to pay for his programs even as he acknowledged that major cuts must be made to close a two-year, $4.2 billion budget shortfall.

In his first address to state legislators since he took office as Virginia's 71st governor Saturday, he vowed to oppose any tax increase and warned that some state services will be reduced, consolidated or even eliminated.

"The budget that I have inherited is dire, and I believe it is unbalanced," McDonnell said before both chambers of the General Assembly. "More spending cuts are going to have to be made. But even in this tough economic time -- even now -- I believe we must have the vision and the foresight to invest in our future."

The speech was designed to outline McDonnell's goals for the 60-day legislative session that began last week but also set the tone for his four years in office.

In the 55-minute speech, McDonnell offered an agenda that touched on most of his campaign promises -- economy, education, energy -- although he did not talk about fixing the state's clogged roads except to say that at some point he would seek to privatize liquor stores. That would fulfill a campaign promise that McDonnell has said would raise hundreds of millions for new projects.

He vowed to double the amount of money spent on the governor's opportunity fund, a program designed to lure business to the state, increase tourism funding by $7.2 million over the next two years, and put another $2 million in the film industry -- all ways to get Virginia's sluggish economy moving again.

"He proposed an awful lot of spending for someone who doesn't want to raise taxes,'' Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria) said. "There were a lot of good ideas -- but they all cost money."

McDonnell promised to open more charter schools, shift one percent of education spending from administration into the classroom and add 100,000 college degrees during the next 15 years. He wants to drill for oil and natural gas offshore with one-fifth of the revenue going to renewable energy programs and four-fifths to transportation.

And he wants to make Virginia the easiest state in America in which to open a business by allowing currently licensed businesses to operate new ventures under the license they already have while waiting for a new one to be processed, ensure that new businesses can get approvals complete in 48 hours and waive fees for veterans starting a business.

"Any impediment to job creation and economic development is an impediment to the future of Virginia,'' he said. "And they must be removed."

Monday night's speech was Virginia's version of the President's annual State of the Union Address. The majestic Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson was filled with Virginia's political luminaries, including Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, state Supreme Court justices and McDonnell's Cabinet. McDonnell called on two special guests seated in the upstairs gallery alongside his wife, First Lady Maureen McDonnell -- a pre-schooler who has applied to attend a charter school and a former inmate released from jail who had vowed to turn his life around through a special reentry program.

When the Sergeant at Arms formally boomed that his Excellency, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, had entered the chamber, Republicans welcomed McDonnell with raucous cheering, banging the lids of their desks.

As McDonnell, a former member of the House, exited the hall after concluding his speech, Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville) and Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland) shouted out to him from across the chamber, waving pieces of white paper in the air. The sign of surrender is the traditional jab of the House reserved for members whose speeches go on longer than necessary. McDonnell gave a hearty laugh and shouted back, "At least I kept it under an hour!"

Democrats called on McDonnell to lay out specific proposals for cutting the $2 billion from the state budget necessary if the tax increase proposedby former Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is removed from the budget, as McDonnell has urged.

McDonnell promised that he would soon propose cuts to offset each of his spending items but he did not detail them.

McDonnell's address came on the same day that more than 1,000 protesters affiliated with the Virginia Tea Party Patriots and other groups calling for limiting the size of the federal government, reducing the national debt, defeating Democratic health care legislation in Washington and expanding gun rights, descended on Richmond.

The movement poses challenges for McDonnell, who generally eschewed the heated rhetoric of the protesters during his campaign but has endorsed their critique of an expanded federal government. McDonnell will work to harness the energy of the tea party movement without embracing its anger, which could alienate his more moderate supporters, or allowing it to splinter the GOP, to which protesters made clear Monday that they feel no special allegiance.

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