McDonnell shows some successes in first legislative sessions

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; B01

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell finished his first legislative session with modest victories in economic development and education -- limited goals set as the state continues to face a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

The new Republican governor put off many of the ambitious pledges he made on the campaign trail last year, such as finding new funding for roads, creating 100,000 more degrees at state colleges and shifting more money to public school classrooms.

"I would have liked to maybe do a lot more," McDonnell said in an interview in his still-undecorated office on Capitol Square. "Honestly, when we came in here, we took a look at the budget and decided what we were going to be able to introduce this session. . . . There are some things that strategically . . . I didn't feel like I could realistically build consensus on. Those were going to have to wait."

As McDonnell looks forward, he has begun building a reputation for taking the same moderate, pragmatic approach that he took during his campaign.

He picked a team of top advisers who were for the most part not considered ideological. He concentrated his speeches and trips across the state on his top priorities during the campaign: jobs and the economy. He tried to make inroads with legislators, meeting nearly half of them face-to-face, inviting groups to the Executive Mansion and giving out his cellphone number to all 140.

And he steered clear of talking about social issues or taking a stand on them unless forced to do so. After Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) told public colleges that they could not legally prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the governor issued an executive directive telling state employees that they can be reprimanded or fired if they engage in such discrimination.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) described McDonnell in his first eight weeks in office as cautious to the point of being timid.

"He appears to be someone who has further national ambitions and is trying not to make a mistake," Armstrong said. "He's promised all these things. Where are they?"

McDonnell said he might call a pair of special sessions this year -- one on finding money for roads and transit, and another on saving money through efficiencies in government that could include privatizing state liquor stores and consolidating agencies -- but only if he can first build support for his proposals.

"I'm not going to put forth a half-baked proposal, have people complain and have it fail," he said.

Republicans said McDonnell was smart not to take on his ambitious agenda too fast. They said that President Obama got into trouble by doing just that and by getting mired in health insurance reform instead of focusing on the economy.

"I give the governor credit for not biting off more than he can chew," said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester). Vogel said it would have been a mistake to try to ram through a transportation package when everyone was focused on carving $4 billion from the budget, cutting K-12 education funding and creating jobs. "That becomes background noise when you're about to lose your home," Vogel said.

Still, Democrats accuse McDonnell of failing to follow through on his campaign pledges. Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) said McDonnell's first session will be remembered for "broken promises," particularly for not backing bills that would have changed the way the state establishes legislative and congressional boundaries and extended legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation.

McEachin questioned whether McDonnell's priorities this session -- particularly his education package -- were the best use of his time and effort. "Is Virginia better off for those things?" he asked.

McDonnell focused in the session on a pair of policy goals: an economic development package and a series of education reform bills, which all passed.

The $50 million economic development package included programs to lure businesses to the state; investments in the tourism, wine and film industries; and incentives to encourage energy research and economic development at universities.

The education bills are designed to increase the number of charter schools, virtual schools in which students can learn outside traditional classrooms, and laboratory schools that would benefit from partnerships with colleges and universities.

But the high-profile charter bill had to be amended significantly to win approval in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. It originally called for the state Board of Education to have final approval over charter school applications but was modified to return control to local school boards, which have not been overly welcoming to charters.

The governor's office says about 75 bills were introduced on McDonnell's behalf -- many more than for the past two governors, Democrats Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, in their first sessions. About 80 percent of them passed.

He won support to raise the speed limit on rural interstates from 65 to 70 mph, conduct independent audits of the state's largest agencies and spend future revenue from unapproved offshore oil and gas drilling to improve state roads. But the Senate killed his bills to change Virginia's budget cycle and to require lobbyists to tell the public more about the proposals they advocate.

McDonnell praised legislators for immediately dismissing any proposals to raise taxes -- which he had campaigned against -- and instead focusing on restoring money to public safety, higher education and transportation while trimming K-12 education and health care, as he had recommended.

Early on, Democrats questioned McDonnell's leadership on the budget because he refused for weeks to release his recommendations publicly, despite repeated requests. Republicans praised McDonnell, saying he was politically savvy to not publicly attach his name to the cuts and to use his negotiating skills to help work out a budget.

Members of both parties say McDonnell's legislative agenda in his first session was hampered by the budget process. The new governor worked round-the-clock to learn the budget process and had to make do with few dollars for new programs.

"What can you do? There's no money," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "A year from now, if he hasn't done anything, then I would say it's not working out."

Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.

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