RICHMOND — Go Virginia, a program at the heart of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s economic development strategy, is on the ropes, after McAuliffe abruptly withdrew his support, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring said late Thursday that the $35 million program probably violates the state constitution.
McAuliffe (D), who sought a ruling on the legality of Go Virginia from Herring (D), will try to amend the legislation that created it, giving lawmakers the option to accept or reject his changes when they return to Richmond this month.
If the General Assembly refuses to go along with the governor, the legislation goes back to the governor, who then has 30 days to decide what to do.
The fast unraveling of Go Virginia is a blow to some of the most powerful figures in Virginia education and business circles, who joined with McAuliffe to devise the strategy last year.
The regional grant program would have shifted power to spend tax dollars from the administration to a board dominated by businesspeople and lawmakers. Herring said the state Supreme Court would probably find the program unconstitutional because it would create an executive-branch board that was not controlled by the executive branch.
Go Virginia was designed to encourage cities and counties to work together to create state-funded programs such as job training and skills certification that will stimulate the local economy. Local residents would lead the effort based on their experiences in the private sector.
McAuliffe gave a full-throated endorsement of the program last summer, pinning his hopes on Go Virginia as the best way to attract companies to the state and train workers — dual challenges for a state still smarting from cuts in federal defense contracts and budget reductions associated with sequestration.
“By the time we’re done with this I’m going to feel bad for those other 49 governors,” McAuliffe said last July during the statewide rollout. “Go Virginia — I am all in.”
McAuliffe committed to the program long before details were finalized, but recently worried that it upended the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, said his spokesman, Brian Coy.
“We’ve been negotiating with them about the structure of this thing the whole time,” Coy said. “The rubber met the road when the bill started working its way through the legislative process.”
Republicans balked at McAuliffe’s criticism of the program, which was easily authorized by the General Assembly with bipartisan support.
McAuliffe has been making frequent use of the veto, nixing nearly 30 bills on GOP legislative priorities that would have defunded Planned Parenthood, eroded gay rights, extended coal tax credits, protected Civil War monuments and strengthened immigration detainers.
McAuliffe has hopscotched the globe as governor, trying to boost Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state. He welcomed a job-creation plan conceived by John O. “Dubby” Wynne, former chief executive of Landmark Communications and a prolific donor to both parties, and other leading business figures in the state.
Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said he was blindsided by McAuliffe’s sudden criticism of “Go Virginia.”
“The legislation has been out there for months,” he said. “It’s not like this is a surprise. If you have a serious concern — this is not some low-profile piece of legislation — why on Earth wouldn’t you express it?”
The only dissent in the GOP-dominated House came from some Republicans who said the program meddled in the free market.
Cox also called it “puzzling” that Democratic lawmakers would be in virtual lockstep on a program so troubling to McAuliffe.
In the Senate, J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (Fairfax) was the only Democrat to join a handful of Republicans in voting no. “For better or for worse, taxpayer money needs to be spent by elected officials. That’s why we are elected,” he said. “Usually if the leadership is in favor of it, it’s a bad idea.”
The legislation that ultimately passed the legislature this year established a 22-member board made up of 12 businesspeople, seven lawmakers and three members of the governor’s Cabinet. Lawmakers would not only sit on the board but would also appoint eight of the businesspeople, compared with McAuliffe’s four appointees.
The board would have authority to create eight to 10 regional councils made up of 11 to 21 members. Each council would receive $500,000 in start-up money to figure out the region’s needs. Then they could apply for additional funding based on population as well as for awards made through a competitive grant process.