Bob McDonnell presses lawmakers on education, transportation

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

RICHMOND -- With an eye to his legacy, Gov. Bob McDonnell pressed lawmakers to swiftly approve sweeping education and transportation reforms during Wednesday's State of the Commonwealth address, and pleaded with them not to let election-year politics get in the way.

In his last speech to the General Assembly as governor, McDonnell put education at the top of his priorities for the 45-day legislative session that opened Wednesday. McDonnell wants to give the state power to take over failing schools and pushed for more charter schools to give parents more options.

"If a young person does not graduate from high school, or does not graduate career- or college-ready, you have failed, I have failed, but worst of all, they fail," McDonnell told lawmakers.

Democrats were unimpressed.

"That thing [McDonnell's education plan] is so dead over here it's unbelievable," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield.

McDonnell's crowning achievement, if it passes, would be a plan that seriously addresses the transportation funding shortfall, which has eluded the Republican leader and his predecessors. McDonnell pitched eliminating the existing gas tax and raising the sales tax from 5.0 cents to 5.8 cents as part of a package projected to raise $3.1 billion.

His plan also shifts some existing sales tax revenues to roads, though Sen. Don McEachin, D-Henrico, said Democrats won't go for it because it diverts money away from schools and public safety.

McDonnell told lawmakers they can't leave Richmond until they agree on a solution to the road funding problem.

"I know there are parts of this plan you will like and parts you won't," McDonnell said. "But we cannot let another session be lost as each member holds out for their perfect plan."

McDonnell also wants $31 million to create additional slots at Virginia universities for state residents and more money for tuition grants. He drew a standing ovation when he urged lawmakers to restore civil rights to non-violent felons.

In the wake of the mass school shooting at a Connecticut school, McDonnell is asking for nearly $7 million to address mental health care in the state. His speech steered clear of gun control and arming teachers, an idea in which he had expressed interest.

While McDonnell vowed to focus on kitchen-table issues, the fallout from last year's session lingers. Democrats reignited the debate on women's health, vowing Wednesday to undo anti-abortion measures Republicans passed in 2012.

That sets the stage for a legislative session in which Democrats will attack Republicans, especially Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, as out of touch with mainstream voters heading into the November elections.

McDonnell called on lawmakers to address issues that matter most to Virginians and to not use the session to score political points.

"If politics trump effective governing," McDonnell said, "we all lose."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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