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Some victories, much pain in Va. General Assembly session

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By Robert McCartney
Sunday, March 14, 2010

RICHMOND

This Story

It's hard to find anything positive about a Virginia General Assembly session where the main business at hand was cutting $4 billion in public services to balance the budget.

"I don't think there have been any winners," Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said gruffly when I asked him to name victors and also-rans. Despite that guidance, here's my score card of winners as well as losers from the eight-week gathering that was supposed to end Saturday but went into overtime:

Winner: Ken Cuccinelli. The state's new attorney general made a big splash by picking a fight with public universities over gay rights and challenging the EPA's efforts to limit greenhouse gases. He ensured that his agenda of social conservatism and state's rights will be a prominent feature of government and politics in Richmond for the foreseeable future.

Cuccinelli also successfully positioned himself to the right of two fellow Republicans, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. That's just where Cuccinelli wants to be if he's looking ahead to the next election. Being "more conservative than thou" would help him with the party base if he decides to challenge the low-profile Bolling for the gubernatorial nomination in 2013.

Loser: Virginia's image. The price of Cuccinelli's success was a blow to the state's reputation for tolerance, with his letter to the colleges drawing negative attention from outside the state.

It became an issue in Virginia's battle with Maryland and the District to attract the headquarters of aerospace giant Northrop Grumman. You know the climate of opinion has shifted when even huge military contractors are worried about being tagged as anti-gay.

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart ran a mock news segment about the controversy. "Whatever happened to 'Virginia Is for Lovers'?" he asked, and then showed the famous slogan with an asterisk clarifying, "Certain Kinds Of."

Winner: Northern Virginia's schools. Education budgets in the Virginia suburbs were spared some severe damage when a proposal that would have frozen funding levels was killed. If the freeze had remained, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties stood to lose $118 million.

It was a rare victory for Northern Virginia in a major struggle with the rest of the state over divvying up school funds. It appeared that McDonnell and the GOP were honoring a campaign commitment to help Northern Virginia get a fair share of the huge flow of tax dollars it sends to Richmond.

Some Democrats played down the whole affair, saying the freeze never should have been proposed in the first place. But it was their own outgoing governor, Tim Kaine, who suggested it.


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