2011 Virginia legislative session preview

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 9:35 AM

RICHMOND - Legislators will return to the Virginia Capitol next week to debate how to spend the state's first budget surplus in years and consider thousands of bills on subjects as varied as transportation, crime, jobs, immigration and social issues.

The 46-day session, which will begin Wednesday, will take place against the twin backdrops of continued economic sluggishness and a looming election - all 140 seats of the General Assembly will be on the ballot in November.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), entering his second year in office, will look to use the session to help shape a legacy for his four-year term. He has said he will focus on four top priorities: job creation, transportation, higher education and government restructuring proposals, including privatizing the state's liquor stores.

Meanwhile, after two straight years of crushing electoral defeats, Virginia Democrats are struggling to find their voice opposing a resurgent Republican majority. They are looking for ways to contrast their governing and budgeting philosophy from McDonnell's and, especially, that of the state's conservative attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II (R).

McDonnell has proposed spending $54 million for economic development, including $25 million for a research and technology innovation fund and money for small businesses, tourism, tax credits and the film industry.

He wants to spend $58 million on his education plan, which includes awarding 100,000 new associate and bachelor's degrees over the next 15 years through financial aid, grants to virtual schools and other programs. And he wants to use $400 million on roads and bridges while borrowing an additional $2.9 billion over the next three years for transportation.

"From our recommended new investments in higher education, to our new job-creation initiatives, to our plan to put $4 billion into transportation over the next three years, it all focuses on getting our economy back on track and our people back to work," he said in a recent speech to legislators.

Virginia finished the fiscal year with a $400 million surplus, and McDonnell told legislators last month that the state's economic outlook has continued to improve, prompting him to raise the financial forecast by $283 million over the next two years.

But McDonnell also expects to save millions of dollars through a slew of proposals developed by his government reform commission, such as encouraging the use of high-deductible health insurance plans, consolidating accounting and payroll systems and allowing employees to work 10-hour days four times a week.

McDonnell unveiled a proposal during the summer to privatize the wholesale, distribution and retail liquor system in the state. But he met considerable opposition by Democrats and some Republicans, in part because the plan, which would generate cash upfront that McDonnell would spend on state roads, would bring in $47 million less each year for the state.

McDonnell has pressed ahead on the issue, promising to introduce a proposal to privatize liquor stores on the first day of the legislative session. According to some legislators and lobbyists, he is considering a more modest proposal that would involve the state selling its retail stores while maintaining its monopoly on liquor wholesaling and distribution.

That proposal is likely to generate some of the session's most heated debates. Democrats say McDonnell's liquor privatization plan is financially irresponsible - a proposal to deprive the state of a long-term source of reliable revenue in exchange for a quick buck.

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