RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed six Republican redistricting bills live on his monthly call-in radio show Thursday, then took the highly unusual step of signing the budget plan produced by Virginia’s GOP-led legislature without a single amendment.
McAuliffe’s actions came one day before the Democrat is expected to announce vetoes on a raft of Republican legislation turning on political flashpoints such as guns, home schooling, “living wage” rules and the limits of federal power.
Taken together, the moves seem intended to project twin images of McAuliffe, as both bipartisan dealmaker and stalwart defender of certain liberal causes. They also reflect the political reality that McAuliffe faces, with Republicans fully in control of both House and Senate. With his top campaign promise, to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, out of reach given the present configuration of the legislature, McAuliffe has abandoned the high-stakes budget brinkmanship that brought the commonwealth to the edge of a government shutdown last year.
By coming together quickly on a budget that contains no new taxes or fees, gives raises to teachers and state employees, provides health care to Virginians with severe mental illnesses and stashes away extra millions in the state’s rainy-day fund, McAuliffe and Republican legislative leaders can make the case that Richmond can govern in ways that Washington cannot. Making note of the across-the-board federal spending cuts that are a symbol of congressional dysfunction and a threat to Virginia’s defense-heavy economy, McAuliffe said sequestration had spurred the state’s leaders to put partisanship aside.
“We all know we do face tremendous cuts to defense with sequestration,” McAuliffe, flanked by Republican budget leaders from the House and Senate, said in a bill-signing ceremony in the Capitol. “The debate has already begun up in Washington. But I think the actions that we’ve taken here have prepared us for whatever they’re gonna throw at us. We have a balanced budget, sustainable budget.”
With his signature, McAuliffe became the first governor since James S. Gilmore III (R) in 1998 to agree to a budget without any tinkering. Gilmore was then in the first year of his term — and he was signing a budget that had been introduced by the outgoing governor of his own party, George F. Allen (R). You have to go back to 1989 and then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) to find another governor who had at least a year under his belt and was willing to take a budget without proposing amendments or exercising his line-item veto, said Robert Vaughn, staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.
Hours earlier, McAuliffe found a flamboyant way to make his first vetoes of the year’s legislative session — on live radio. And on Friday, McAuliffe is expected to announce vetoes of about a dozen other bills, all sponsored by Republicans. They include legislation intended to allow home-schooled students to play public school sports, tighten restrictions on voting, loosen them on guns, reject Common Core educational standards and undermine local “living wage” rules, several people with knowledge of his plans said.
By flexing his veto muscle while also seeming unusually conciliatory on the budget, McAuliffe reprises the balancing act he attempted as a candidate, when he ran for office promising to reach across the aisle while also vowing to be a “brick wall” against Republican efforts to restrict abortion rights, said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political scientist.
“I think he’s decided that he’s trying to position himself as someone who’s bipartisan on economic issues, particularly on anything related to trying to reinvigorate Virginia’s economy . . . and at the same time promote Democratic priorities on social issues,” Holsworth said.
The redistricting bills would have made changes to the General Assembly district boundaries outside of the constitutionally mandated once-a-decade statewide redistricting process. With no prior notice, McAuliffe vetoed the bills while on air at Richmond’s radio station WRVA (1140 AM and 98.5 FM), using the host’s pen.
“First of all, I don’t think these bills are constitutional,” McAuliffe said. “I like nonpartisan redistricting, but what I won’t stand for is to allow every two years you get to redraw lines and add certain voters to your district and take certain voters out. I just think that is wrong.”
Those vetoes came the day after the U.S. Supreme Court told a lower court to reconsider whether a redistricting plan drawn by Alabama’s Republican-led legislature packed minority voters into districts to dilute their influence elsewhere.
The case is similar to one in Virginia challenging a dozen House of Delegates districts and another that deemed the commonwealth’s congressional map unconstitutional for diluting the influence of African American voters.
The redistricting bills that McAuliffe vetoed would have made what lawmakers call “technical amendments” to state House and Senate lines.
The bills include one proposed by Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) that would have made his district more Republican — and safer for him — as he faces a Democratic challenger this year. The measure would have traded precincts with a neighboring district represented by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D), giving Deeds a heavily Democratic precinct and Reeves a Republican one. Reeves denied a political motive.
Such bills often raise eyebrows because of the partisan nature of redistricting. Over the years, maps have been drawn with heavy concentrations of Democrats and Republicans to protect longtime lawmakers from election challenges.
That process, in turn, tends to attract candidates who appeal to the extremes of their parties. Where a district is heavily Republican, a more conservative candidate is more likely to win than in an evenly divided district; similarly, a deeply blue district is more likely to elect a very liberal Democrat.
Advocates for nonpartisan redistricting regularly blame the process for the gridlock and polarization that has increased in recent years in Richmond — and Washington. A raft of bills intended to reduce the influence of politics on the process died in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates during the recent Virginia legislative session.
In 2013, Senate Republicans took advantage of the absence of then-Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, who was attending President Obama’s inauguration, to pass “technical amendments” that could have handed the GOP control of that chamber for decades.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) killed the map, but ever since, Democrats have ramped up their opposition to such amendments.