RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe touted legislative successes on education, economic development and mental-health coverage Tuesday but said he was disappointed that Republicans rejected his proposals on gun control, pay equity and gay rights.
Surrounded by his Cabinet and top administration officials, McAuliffe (D) said the 2015 General Assembly session, which ended late Friday, will help him create jobs and improve the state’s economy — his top priority.
“I am so excited about what we got done in this legislative session. I almost feel bad for those other 49 governors,” he said. “They are just not going to be able to compete with the commonwealth of Virginia. We are the best. Now we have the tools to take us to the next level.”
But the session was a mixed bag for McAuliffe, who saw many of the liberal causes he championed, as well as his renewed push for expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, go nowhere in the Republican-controlled legislature.
McAuliffe has less than a month to review hundreds of bills that he could sign, amend or veto, including a complicated proposal to remake ethics laws in the state after former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s public corruption conviction.
He declined to preview his plan for ethics legislation — which in some ways mimics limits he put on his staff when he took office last year — or a bill to require reporting of campus sexual assaults amid federal investigations.
The extended wrangling over ethics did not prevent the legislature from wrapping up its 46-day session ahead of schedule for the first time in 15 years. The early conclusion was a priority for Republican leaders eager to demonstrate that the GOP, long in control of the House, has governed well since taking over the Senate last summer.
“We adjourned early for the first time in 15 years, adopted a balanced budget ahead of schedule and offered positive solutions on the issues that matter most to Virginians,” House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) and other Republican House leaders said in a statement. “Completing our work early saves taxpayer dollars and illustrates that Richmond can rise above the partisan gridlock so easily visible in Washington.”
The talking point can only help lawmakers, including Howell, who face challenges in their home districts this year.
For the previous three years, the Capitol has been roiled by one hot-button issue after another, from vaginal ultrasounds and a gay judicial candidate to secret schemes to expand Medicaid and redraw Senate district lines.
But this year, social issue bills, including those that would have prohibited abortion after 20 weeks or expanded gay rights, died quietly. Two antiabortion measures made it to a vote of the full House, but only because they were attached to the budget. They later died in behind-closed-doors budget negotiations.
The General Assembly did nothing to remove the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage from the books in its first session since the Supreme Court allowed same-sex unions to proceed in Virginia by letting a lower court’s ruling stand or replace “husband” and “wife” with terms that are gender neutral.
“I’m not so sure this session was the lovefest that a lot of people think it has been,” Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said. “The Republican majority still killed all of our bills, but they smiled while they did it this year. Part of the reason things were so eerily quiet here at the end is that minimum wage, equal pay, one handgun a month, same-sex marriage and fair housing all died during the first two weeks. The majority was incredibly efficient in disposing of popular, progressive initiatives this election year.”
McAuliffe also suffered a surprising loss on a bill supporters said was intended to help the state hire compounding pharmacies to make lethal-injection drugs. The effort died in the House amid concerns about a secrecy provision, with conservatives suspicious of government secrecy forging an unlikely alliance with anti-death penalty Democrats.
In the budget, the legislature rejected McAuliffe’s plan to increase certain business taxes by $11.7 million, spend $28 million on new voting machines and close tax loopholes for the coal industry. But the budget plan does provide the millions the governor had sought to expand mental-health services and school breakfast programs.
In addition, the legislature gave McAuliffe the $27 million he sought to lure new businesses to the state. Yet the budget puts new controls on how he can spend the money and, in a partisan jab, changes the program’s name from the Governor’s Development Opportunity Fund to the Commonwealth’s Development Opportunity Fund.
A few bills with the potential to become political flash points made their way through the legislature with little to no opposition. Lawmakers approved a narrowly tailored medical-marijuana bill, aimed at protecting people with severe seizures from being prosecuted for possessing a non-hallucinogenic extract of the plant. They also signed off on the cultivation of hemp for industrial uses.
The legislature found time to pick not one but two replacements for “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” the minstrel tune demoted to “state song emeritus” in 1997 because of its nostalgic references to slavery. It designated “Our Great Virginia” the official traditional state song and made “Sweet Virginia Breeze” the official popular state song.