RICHMOND – Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell launched a new era of Republican dominance in Richmond Wednesday night, laying out a jobs-focused agenda during a State of the Commonwealth address that asks more of public workers and puts transportation needs ahead of social services.
In his 48-minute speech to the General Assembly, McDonnell did not veer far from the policies on which he’s focused since taking office two years ago. But his latest push comes with newfound confidence that conservative priorities will be more warmly welcomed in a legislature now controlled by Republicans.
“This is not a status quo period in the life of Virginians and Americans, therefore this cannot be a status quo session,” McDonnell said.
Democrats immediately pounced on McDonnell’s blueprint, questioning funding cuts to education programs like pre-K classes for low-income families and the $65 million program that Northern Virginia schools use to attract and retain top teachers.
In the Democratic rebuttal, Sens. George Barker and Don McEachin were also critical of a proposed tax credit for companies that provide scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools — a voucher-like program McDonnell failed to pass in a legislature in which Democrats still controlled the Senate.
Democrats reserved their sharpest criticisms for McDonnell’s plan to shift 0.25 percent of the sales tax away from social service and education to road repairs, though they did not propose any specific alternatives.
“Taking money from education is a terrible approach to transportation funding,” McEachin said. "The governor needs to work on a real long-term solution to funding transportation instead of treating public education as a piggy bank to be raided.”
McDonnell insisted that fixing the state’s congested highways would benefit the state’s business environment.
“Transportation is a core function of government and we have to treat it like one,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell also addressed the $20 billion shortfall in the state’s pension fund. But that will likely come at a cost to state employees, who will learn about retirement “plan adjustments” in the coming days, McDonnell said.
The shifting of a greater share of pension costs to public employees has become more common in cash-strapped states, particularly as Republicans gained increased influence in statehouses across the country.
Education reforms will also be a major focus of McDonnell’s final two years in office. The governor insisted school systems need greater power to weed out underperforming teachers and principals and reward the best.
Teachers would no longer work on continuing contracts but rather one-year deals, and more charter schools will increase competition by creating more opportunities, he said.
“Social promotions are not acceptable,” he said. “When we pass a student who cannot read well and is not ready for the next grade, we have failed them.”
For a Republican known for taking shots at the White House, McDonnell’s speech was largely devoid of political rhetoric. Nothing in his remarks could be construed as an attempt to rile Republican voters during a presidential election year.
However, McDonnell’s insistence that both parties play nice despite the new dynamic following Republican gains in November’s elections could play well on a national stage as voters grow increasingly disenchanted with the political divide in Washington.
“In the midst of all this (economic) uncertainty and structural change Virginians want government to provide some measure of stability by providing its core services well,” McDonnell said.