Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell used his annual address to the state Wednesday to make one big, last push for an enduring legislative legacy, urging lawmakers to enact his education and transportation reforms.
But he also included a surprise: an appeal to the 2013 General Assembly to pass bills that allow for nonviolent felons' civil rights to be automatically restored.
McDonnell last month began sketching out education reforms for teachers in kindergarten through senior year that condition a 2 percent raise on the enactment of new laws making underperforming faculty easier to fire.
On Tuesday, he disclosed his plan to replace Virginia's 17.5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax with a 0.8-cent increase in the state's 5 percent sales tax as a way to replenish dwindling highway maintenance funds.
Entering the final year of the non-renewable four-year term Virginia governors are uniquely allowed, McDonnell -- a year ago a Republican vice presidential prospect -- is still looking for a signature policy triumph for which he will be remembered.
In his 50-minute State of the Commonwealth speech, McDonnell targeted the perennial issues of schools and the outdated and perpetually gridlocked web of state highways, particularly in the sprawling and populous Washington, D.C., suburbs, months ago, and is still searching for legislative consensus, particularly in a state senate where Democrats and Republicans hold 20 seats apiece.
In his budget, McDonnell has set aside nearly $59 million to help localities provide a raise for public school teachers, principals, librarians and other instructional personnel. While Democrats and the 60,000-member Virginia Education Association like the raise -- the first for teachers in six years -- the trick will be passing legislation that prolongs the probationary period for new teachers from three to five years and affords local school districts greater authority to dismiss educators with poor performance reviews.
“Good teachers will flourish,” he said. “Poor ones will not.”
He also made another push to expedite the creation of charter schools, which receive public funding and must meet accountability benchmarks but can operate under certain less restrictive rules.
McDonnell's transportation funding plan would make Virginia the first state without a direct tax on gasoline paid at the pump. It's the first major overhaul of the state's primary stream of transportation revenue since the per-gallon tax was levied 27 years ago. McDonnell noted that because that tax is tied to gasoline volume and not price, declining usage, greater automotive fuel efficiency and looming competition from emerging alternate fuel sources has eaten into its ability to sustain needed maintenance work, much less underwrite badly needed new projects.
“Please do not send me a budget that does not include new transportation funding,” he implored legislators. “We are all out of excuses. We must act now.”
While McDonnell's plan won praise from leaders of the Republican-ruled House, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist condemned the plan as a tax increase, an action that conservatives within the GOP caucus can't ignore with all 100 House seats up for election this fall.
Elaborating on his surprise measure for 2013, McDonnell urged lawmakers to support two GOP-sponsored bills to amend the Virginia Constitution to allow automatic restoration of nonviolent felons' voting rights.
“As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they've served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution,” McDonnell said. “It's time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for nonviolent offenders.”
That drew more applause from Democrats than Republicans with Del. Charnielle Herring of Alexandria -- the state Democratic Party chairman -- standing to cheer the proposal. Del. Rob Bell, chairman of the state commission that vets legislation about crimes and punishment and a Republican candidate for attorney general, said he opposes automatic rights restoration.
The governor alone has authority in Virginia now to restore the rights of the convicted -- a time-consuming and cumbersome process. Since taking office in 2010, McDonnell charged his administration with accelerating the process by vetting applicants through the secretary of the commonwealth and his legal counsel, then providing applicants a response within 60 days.
McDonnell also proposed a measure in response to last month's school shooting in Connecticut: $6 million in new mental health funding for crisis services and children's treatment. The mass shooting was the nation's deadliest since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
McDonnell has indicated he might support letting teachers carry guns to deter armed interlopers, but he did not mention that in his speech. Instead, he said he has asked his new School and Campus Safety Task force to make recommendations by Jan. 31.
In the Democrats' response, House Democratic Leader David Toscano blasted McDonnell's charter schools proposal while ignoring major provisions of his education package.
“During the last several years, the unfortunate response to our educational challenges from some of our Republican colleagues is to propose further cuts in K-12 funding -- while providing more resources to private schools,” he said.
Toscano made scant mention of McDonnell's transportation initiative, but spoke at length of Republican legislation restricting reproductive rights that earned the state national ridicule from television comedians a year ago. McDonnell made no mention of the contentious social issues in his speech.