RICHMOND — The General Assembly convenes Wednesday for the final session of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s term, and the world looks a bit different from what the Democrat expected just a few weeks ago.
With Hillary Clinton roaming the woods of Upstate New York and Donald Trump headed to the White House, there’s no more speculation about McAuliffe’s potential role in a presidential administration. What remains is the routine work of negotiating with a Republican-controlled legislature and to put the last touches on his legacy.
At the same time, McAuliffe will have at least one eye on the race this year to succeed him (Virginia governors are prohibited from serving back-to-back terms). Even that is different: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was supposed to have a smooth path to the Democratic nomination so the party could focus on the general election, but this past week former congressman Tom Perriello launched a defiant bid to lead the party’s ticket.
So McAuliffe’s agenda for the session is somewhat restrained. It’s a little surprising, for an ebullient governor who came into office with a reputation for being more of a party man — in every sense of the word — than a sober technocrat. But McAuliffe says his priorities reflect his joy in governing and desire to get things done.
“As governor, literally, you can change people’s lives,” he said in a recent interview. He was reflective, eager to run through what he saw as accomplishments from previous years — transportation projects, building a leadership team, the controversial executive action to restore felon voting rights. But above all, his drive to woo business and jobs to Virginia. Along with workforce training, he said, “I’ve got everybody in this building focused on that.”
Late this past week, McAuliffe huddled with his staff for a day-long retreat in Charlottesville, where they mapped out their plans for the coming 46-day session.
“Finishing strong, that was the overall sentiment,” spokesman Brian Coy said.
McAuliffe has set out an agenda that builds on long-standing efforts in economic development, workforce development, education and public safety, while plowing new ground on criminal justice and mental health.
The governor says he is optimistic about working with Republicans on those matters, without backing down on the social issues that sharply divide them. Just in the past week, a Republican state delegate proposed a bill to restrict bathroom use by transgender people. Two days later, McAuliffe issued an executive order prohibiting state contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or identity.
McAuliffe plans to support legislation to repeal the state’s requirement that women undergo an abdominal ultrasound before having an abortion. He also favors legislation to remove a ban on same-sex marriage — made defunct by a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — from the state Constitution.
“He’s going to continue to make the case that we can’t allow Virginia to become defined by the same types of divisive social-issue battles that are raging in places like North Carolina,” Coy said. “Those policies are job killers. He’s committed to protecting the civil rights of gay Virginians and women because it’s the right thing to do. But he also believes those polices would put us in a position where businesses don’t want to come here.”
Republicans see a more pragmatic McAuliffe coming into the session. Despite the fact that he helped deliver Virginia for Clinton — the only Southern state she won — Republicans see him as weakened by her national defeat and chastened by his own losing battles with the legislature.
While Republicans have worked cooperatively with McAuliffe on some fronts, most notably the budget, they have thwarted the governor on a high-profile state Supreme Court nomination and his marquee campaign promise: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“I think that he did not spend his early years looking for common ground,” said Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun). “He engaged in clashes with the General Assembly. And I think at this point, of course, the national election has taken the air out of the balloon for liberal Democrats. . . . Hillary Clinton was the big ticket, and he was someone who was viewed as the ultimate insider with Hillary.”
Senate Majority Whip William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) said he thinks that could make for a more productive session.
“Governor McAuliffe’s had three years of fighting the General Assembly rather than working with the General Assembly,” Stanley said. “Let us hope that he learned from his last three years of defeat enough to create one year of victory.”
Here are several issues that McAuliffe is pushing as big themes of the coming session:
McAuliffe has proposed a package of bills that he says would make the justice system more fair. One would make any felon eligible to petition the court based on new DNA evidence; under current law, those who have pleaded guilty may not do so. Another would boost the felony larceny threshold for the first time in 37 years, up to $500 from a lowest-in-the-nation $200. Two others would end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of a driver’s inability to pay outstanding court fees — a practice that is the subject of a pending class-action lawsuit.
Virginia must plug a $1.5 billion hole in the second year of its biennial budget. The pain will probably get spread around. Republicans want to address long-delayed raises for state employees and teachers, but McAuliffe has instead proposed a one-time, 1.5 percent bonus. He otherwise has pledged to keep K-12 funding whole. GOP budget leaders have worked cooperatively with the administration over the years on the budget, so no big drama is expected here.
The governor is asking for $31.7 million to improve and standardize treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. That includes money for state mental-health hospitals to pay for beds in private facilities to alleviate crowding. He also includes funds to purchase naloxone, a drug that can block the effects of heroin and other opioids.
McAuliffe’s main focus has been expanding and diversifying Virginia’s defense-heavy economy — an area where he can make his mark largely without having to tangle with the legislature. But he does not have an entirely free hand. He has a bill to reform the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the state’s economic development arm. The VEDP was recently the subject of a scathing report by state auditors, who found a lack of accountability going back many administrations.
McAuliffe has built expansion of the federal-state health-care program into every spending plan he has put forth until now, only to have the GOP strip it out. Now, as President-elect Trump and congressional Republicans aim to do away with the Affordable Care Act itself, McAuliffe makes only the smallest nod to expansion: a proposal intended to give the governor power to expand the program unilaterally if it still exists a year from now. Republicans say that’s dead on arrival.