RICHMOND — The two most powerful Republicans in Richmond criticized Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday for what they described as a hands-off governing style that is short on policy specifics.
The Democratic governor has not shifted gears from broad-brush campaign rhetoric to the nitty-gritty of governing, House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) and House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (Colonial Heights) said in separate interviews as the 60-day General Assembly approached its halfway mark.
They contend that McAuliffe, while voicing such big-picture goals as Medicaid expansion and changes in school testing, mental health and ethics, has not proposed bills of his own or weighed in on measures pushed by others. McAuliffe staffers might attend committee meetings where individual bills are being considered, but when called on, they usually respond that the administration has no position on the legislation, Howell and Cox said.
“This is a new governing style,” Cox said. “I’ve never seen this before — where you just don’t see much of anything.”
Said Howell: “There’s been absolutely no input. I was just talking to my committee chairs about — ‘Has there been much interaction from the different agencies, executive branch agencies, on any of the legislation coming through?’ And there’s no one there [in committee meetings], or they’re there and don’t comment.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy disputed the notion that McAuliffe, who took office just under four weeks ago, was not deeply immersed in the nuts and bolts of legislation.
“Governor McAuliffe and members of his team have been in constant contact with Speaker Howell, Leader Cox and a bipartisan group of legislators on a range of bills and issues that are important to Virginia families, including SOL [school testing] reform, transportation and closing the coverage gap to insure more Virginians,” Coy said in an e-mail. “If the Speaker and the General Assembly are struggling with how best to approach any additional issues, there have been ample opportunities to seek the Governor’s counsel over the phone, at meetings or at nightly bipartisan receptions at the Executive Mansion.”
Del. Thomas A. Greason (R-Loudoun), who has led his party’s effort in the House to change standardized school tests, said he has worked closely with McAuliffe’s Education Secretary, Anne Holton, on that subject. But he said the administration has only reacted to the GOP proposals, not put forth any “proactive details” of its own.
“I’ve really enjoyed my relationship with Anne Holton,” he said. “I don’t expect her to walk into a meeting and say, ‘Oh, thanks, Delegate Greason, but here’s my ideas.’ I’ve been working on this issue 10 months. The secretary was appointed three weeks ago.”
He said that in other areas — he serves on education and housing committees, among others — he has noticed a lack of engagement.
“We’re just not seeing that involvement from the administration,” he said, noting that it has not weighed in on a plan to put $4 million in a housing trust fund. “Even in education — virtual schools — we’re just not getting a lot there.”
Republicans make these criticisms at a time when they are trying to shake the “party of ‘no’ ” image that the recent federal shutdown helped saddle them with. Last summer, Howell assembled work groups so that no matter who won the governor’s office, the GOP would be ready with detailed legislative proposals on a range of issues: transportation, ethics, mental health reform, K-12 education and others.
McAuliffe has voiced support for the main thrust of many of those initiatives, but Howell and Cox contend that he has remained vague on the details.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) said that the governor is merely acting in a spirit of bipartisanship.
“He’s not here to say, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ ” McEachin said. “He wants to see if we can find common ground on that.”
Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) said it is “unreasonable to think he would have a full-fledged legislative package dropped in in the first month he’s here.”