Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) delivered his state of the commonwealth speech on Wednesday. While different in political vision and in delivery, his address most resembled a Bill Clinton State of the Union address in the voluminous policy details that form the building blocks of his central argument. McDonnell’s case boils down to this: “[H]ere in Virginia, the Cradle of Democracy, we enact policies that actually work. In Washington, we see debt, taxes, delays, blame, and dysfunction. Here in Virginia we see results, solutions, job growth, surpluses, and cooperation. What a difference 100 miles makes.”
He outlined his fiscal accomplishments:
In January 2010 the unemployment rate was 7.3%.
Today it is 5.6%; the second lowest east of the Mississippi and the lowest in the Southeast.
Virginia has created 150,500 net new private sector jobs during that time.
In 2011 we hit our all time record for agricultural exports, at $2.35 billion, bolstering Virginia’s largest industry.
Together we put in place a stronger environment in which the private sector can create good-paying jobs, and Virginia is now outperforming our neighboring states.
We have also worked to get our fiscal house in order.
Three years ago, we closed a cumulative budget shortfall of $6 billion, without raising taxes.
The results: We’ve had three consecutive budget surpluses, totaling $1.4 billion.
We more than doubled the Rainy Day Fund.
We gave two 3% performance bonuses to our great state employees
We maintained Virginia’s AAA bond rating while the federal government was losing theirs.
We audited multiple state agencies, finding over $1 billion dollars and bolstering efficiency. We eliminated and consolidated dozens of boards, commissions, agencies and programs.
We set priorities and cut spending. In the past three years we have recommended cuts and reallocations in spending of more than $1 billion.
And then he set out two main policy initiatives: education and transportation. As I reported yesterday, his transportation plan seeks to increase revenue by eliminating the gas tax in favor of a small increase in the sales tax dedicated to transportation. On education he proposed more funding for math and science teachers and for merit increases; a program to place top university grads in underperforming schools; an Opportunity Educational Institution to turn around failing schools; and expansion of charter schools. He is willing to give teachers a long-delayed increase in exchange for tools to weed out bad teachers. (“It will extend the probationary period for new teachers from three to five years, and require a satisfactory performance rating as demonstrated through the new performance evaluation system to keep a continuing contract. Good teachers will advance and flourish; poor ones will not.”)
Taken in totality, McDonnell’s record and his plans for his last year in office are producing on a state level what GOP lawmakers in the Obama era have failed to do, namely govern with fiscal discipline so that government is lean but active. At the end of the speech he did offer some tidbits the conservative base will especially like.
On Obamacare: “I have informed the Obama Administration that we will not operate a state based exchange that gives limited state control but distinct financial risk. We will work to ensure that Virginia maintains her traditional regulation of the insurance market.”
On Sandy Hook: “While some evil acts can never be fully understood, we must do our best to prevent them. I am proposing targeted new mental health funding. I ask you to approve $5 million for specific adult and child crisis services, and an additional $1 million for children’s mental health services. And I am proposing $750,000 to assist in discharging individuals from state hospitals who are ready to transition home.” No gun-grabber is he.
There was no talk of hot-button social issues, however. The closest he came was “$2.3 million in the budget to provide a $1,000 incentive for up to 1,000 families who adopt foster-care children.”
McDonnell is neither flashy nor flamboyant. Some Republicans have trouble seeing how he would stand out in a crowded 2016 presidential field should he decide to run. He will need to build on his military experience (21 years of active and reserve service in the U.S. Army) by developing additional national security expertise. (He’s been vocal in the fight against sequestration and in opposing relocation of Guantanamo detainees to the United States.) He certainly should weigh in on Defense Department cuts and trade issues that affect his state, and after leaving office he will have time to travel and meet with foreign policy experts and world leaders.
But that is a long way down the road. McDonnell for now is selling a brand of reform-minded conservatism that focuses on bread-and-butter issues. He is not afraid to spend money, but he is determined not to waste it. Maybe by 2016 the GOP and the country will be longing for some no-nonsense conservative governance. If so, McDonnell may find his way on to a presidential ticket.