Virginia’s General Assembly wrapped up its session last week by handing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) some solid victories, humbling defeats and yet another divisive social issue to overshadow it all.
The governor had made more than 100 amendments to the budget. Legislators struck down a total of 31 – more than anyone, including 50-year House veteran Lacey Putney (I-Bedford), could recall.
As stunning as the sheer number of rejections, legislators said, was how lopsided the vote tallies were.
“This is unprecedented, both in terms of the number of amendments that he had submitted and the number of amendments that were defeated, not just in close votes but in pretty dramatic fashion,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville). “If you look at some of his major initiatives and they go down 95 to 3, 90 to 5 , those are huge numbers.”
The Republican-dominated House unanimously rejected an amendment that would have made it harder for state employees to receive a one-time, 3 percent bonus. Lawmakers also rebuffed McDonnell’s efforts to cut safety-net services for the elderly and steer Medicaid patients toward less expensive, generic psychiatric medications.
Sloppiness – something the detail-oriented governor is not usually prone to – led to another major defeat. McDonnell had submitted a budget amendment that appeared to withhold $150 million already approved in the current budget for construction of Metro’s multibillion-dollar planned extension to Dulles International Airport. The measure, which would have provided the money when Virginia’s two new members were seated on the trouble-plagued board overseeing the project, failed because of a major wording error only discovered on the House floor. As it read, the amendment would have withheld funding from not just the rail project but all of state government for the current fiscal year.
“There were too many amendments – period,” said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk). “They were trying to do a lot of things in a short period of time.”
Jones sees that oversight as an aberration, not as evidence of gubernatorial neglect, even as McDonnell’s leadership of the Republican Governors Association has kept him busy with television and personal appearances.
“He’s got a lot of energy and he works very hard,” Jones said. “He’s got more balls up in the air than most governors have, but he’s always been very attentive to detail and always been very gracious with his time.”
Even as they rebuffed McDonnell’s perceived meddling in the budget, the General Assembly went along with $19.5 million in economic development funding he’d added to it.
The measures ranged from relatively modest — adding $1 million a year to lure filmmakers to Virginia — to something broadly described as audacious: shoe-horning into the budget a piece of unrelated legislation meant to promote Virginia ports.
Putney called the measure, which would pay private companies grants of up to $3,000 for every port-related job they create, an “egregious violation” of the requirement that amendments be germane to the underlying bill. No money was included to fund the program.
“It was a section of the code that had nothing to do with appropriations. It was clearly not germane,” Putney said. “You could justify putting anything in the world in the budget based on that decision. … It seems to me that jobs, economic development, ‘Do something now’ sort of trumps the responsible legislative process.”
Other lawmakers expressed similar concerns but wanted nevertheless to move ahead with a plan that could make Virginia ports more competitive. Both the House and Senate approved the measure.
Republicans were willing to “swallow a toad or two,” as one observer put it, to give the man who ran for governor on a “Bob’s for Jobs!” slogan some substantial wins for his marquee cause.
Add to all that job-boosting potential the other measures McDonnell successfully championed earlier in the session – boosting K-12 and higher education by more than $880 million, pouring about $2 billion into the underfunded retirement system for state employees – and supporters say the governor had great success.
If only anyone had noticed.
“That’s probably the biggest piece of legislation to reform government in the last 50 years,” said Del. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond), referring to Virginia Retirement System reform.
Yet Loupassi knows only too well why the Old Dominion hasn’t been abuzz about VRS, that stealthy port amendment, or even tax credits for Steven Spielberg and his ilk.
Also on that last day, the General Assembly debated and ultimately rejected the appointment of Tracy Thorne-Begland, an openly gay man who’d been nominated for a Richmond judgeship. Loupassi was the House sponsor for Thorne-Begland, a veteran Richmond prosecutor who challenged the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, has advocated for gay marriage and is raising twins with his partner.
It was just the last of many hot-button issues to crop up. All session long, Republican-backed legislation over abortion, gay adoption and voting rights stole the limelight from the government reform/economic development agenda McDonnell sought to highlight — even as unemployment in the state dropped to a three-year low of 5.6 percent, legislators and political observers said.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re feuding over these things that are sort of side shows,” Loupassi said. “There’s a lot of good government that goes on and it’s lost in the shuffle.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said this was “a good news/bad news year for the governor.”
The good: The economy remains strong, providing Virginia with enough revenue to avoid the painful service cuts endured in many other states, he said.
The bad: “Social conservative items made Virginia a national joke. That’s not good for business and that’s not good for the governor’s vice presidential prospects.”
“Bob McDonnell didn’t want to be put in this position,” Farnsworth said. “He didn’t want the legislature to put a socially conservative agenda in front of him because he didn’t want to make enemies and choices that can hurt him in the future. What Governor McDonnell wanted to do is avoid coming to the fork in the road.”