Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell outlined his plans to increase funding for key state services but also demanded more accountability in his State of the Commonwealth speech as the legislative session opened Wednesday.
Focusing on the $85 billion budget that will largely define his nonrenewable four-year term, McDonnell pitched his proposed increases of $438 million for public schools and $200 million for colleges and universities as a 60-day session begins.
But the Republican governor also wants public schools to put teachers on an annual contract rather than a continuing contract, which would make it easier to weed out bad teachers and reward good ones.
“Just like workers in most other jobs get reviewed every year, and are therefore able to be more accurately promoted and rewarded for their success, so too should our teachers,” McDonnell told the legislators.
His increased funding for higher education also would come with a new funding formula that rewards colleges that increase the number of degrees, improve graduation rates and expand “practical research,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell also is proposing a record $2.21 billion state contribution to shore up the underfunded state pension system, but said state employees also will have to accept some plan adjustments that he will announce later. Localities also will be required to fund their share of an increase in Virginia Retirement System funding for teachers, who are local employees.
“Doing the right thing at the state level is not an unfunded mandate on localities,” McDonnell said. “The rates have been set, the bills are now due.”
The education and VRS proposals, along with most of the other topics covered in the governor's speech, had been unveiled in the weeks leading up to the session.
McDonnell said nothing about hotly contested social issues such as abortion restrictions and gun rights that are expected to come up in the session. After last fall's elections, McDonnell has a strengthened Republican majority and an evenly divided Senate operating under the tie-breaking vote of Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to improve the prospect of conservative causes long dear to the GOP.
The governor also made no mention of one of the most high-profile issues in the session: whether to lift a 30-year ban on uranium mining. A company wants permission to mine the radioactive ore from a 119-million-pound deposit in Pittsylvania County, but opponents worry about the safety and environmental consequences.
McDonnell called putting about 260,000 unemployed Virginians to work “the most pressing issue” facing the state. He urged lawmakers to approve his proposed $38 million in additional funding for job-creation programs, along with a new investor tax credit for small businesses.
The governor also is proposing mechanisms to increase funding for transportation, including increasing the amount of sales tax dedicated to that use from .5 percent to .75 percent over eight years. The first increase of .55 percent would generate $110 million, about one-eighth of one percent of the total state budget.
“If we can't resolve to use just one-eighth of one percent of our budget for additional transportation maintenance funding, then we just aren't serious about maintaining our infrastructure,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell opens the session with increased chances of enacting a wide range of conservative legislation after Senate Republicans ruled out power sharing with Democrats during floor debate in that chamber earlier Wednesday. The move assured Republican control of both the executive and legislative branches of Virginia government for the first time in 11 years.
The governor urged lawmakers to work together amicably, telling the majority, “Don't be arrogant. Don't overreach,” while advising the minority: “Don't be angry. Don't obstruct.”