RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s legacy is on the line as the General Assembly convenes Wednesday to take up initiatives that would plug money into the state’s retirement system, its schools and its crumbling infrastructure while considering Republican-backed measures to streamline government and strengthen personal property laws.
Assuming, of course, that lawmakers can get past the first day.
Before members of the assembly can tackle any issue of substance, the Senate first has to hash out how it is going to be organized. The normally rote task is expected to be complicated in the Senate this year by the 20-20 split between parties after November’s legislative elections and the standoff threatens to cast a shadow over the entire session.
Republicans have declared themselves the majority party and said they intend to use Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tiebreaking vote to control the Senate’s organization, including the all-important task of assigning committee members and chairmanships that are crucial in deciding what measures advance for a vote.
Mr. Bolling recently conceded that his tiebreaking authority does not extend to the budget, electing judges or approving constitutional amendments, and Democrats are hoping to restrict his authority even further.
Democratic caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin last month filed a lawsuit seeking to block Mr. Bolling from breaking ties on organizational matters. A Richmond judge denied a request by Mr. McEachin, Henrico Democrat, for a temporary injunction, putting the legal action on hold in large part because the session had not convened and no tiebreaking votes had been cast.
So what will happen Wednesday?
“You tell me. … I don’t know,” said Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, Fairfax Democrat. “I keep waiting for some type of white-smoke signal coming out of the Democratic caucus.”
The first time Mr. Bolling casts a contested tiebreaking vote, the lawsuit could be revived. But state law grants immunity from lawsuits to members of the General Assembly from 15 days before the session starts until 15 days after the session ends, meaning that Mr. Bolling could refuse to appear and a final answer on the scope of his authority could have to wait until the session ends.
Organizational matters aside, 2012 is a legacy-making session for Mr. McDonnell, who gets his one shot at preparing and passing a full budget because of Virginia rules that call for spending plans to be passed every two years and that limit governors from serving consecutive terms.
“Year three, of course, is often when governors make their big move in terms of stamping their legacy on the budget,” said Stephen Farnsworth, political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “A governor does a great deal to shape the trajectory of the state budget debate, and by being very vigorous in promoting his agenda, the governor is hoping to steer the legislative session that’s getting under way.”
It was the third year of Mark R. Warner’s tenure when the former governor and current U.S. senator called a special session to persuade a group of moderate Republican legislators to help him pass a historic $1.4 billion tax package and preserve the state’s coveted AAA bond rating.
Mr. McDonnell thus far has proved popular with Virginia voters, scoring among the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country in large part by avoiding divisive issues and pursuing a moderate agenda. He reiterated Tuesday that he and his party would focus on bread-and-butter concerns like jobs, education, transportation and government reform during the 60-day session scheduled to adjourn March 10.
“While we have a majority, we will not be arrogant. We will not overreach. We will not lose focus on creating jobs, [improving] our quality of life for our citizens, and ultimately solving problems,” he said. “We’ll be civil, but we’ll be passionate about the things that Republicans and conservatives believe in for our state.”
The governor’s priorities include making a historic $2.2 billion contribution to the depleted Virginia Retirement System, securing $230 million in more funding for higher education with the goal of graduating 100,000 more Virginians over the next 15 years, setting aside an additional $37 million to promote job creation and economic development, and raising $110 million for transportation maintenance by increasing the share of the state sales tax that goes to roads.
With tax hikes off the table, Mr. McDonnell has proposed funding his big-ticket priorities with millions of dollars the state has saved on items such as health care and social programs, as well as savings from government consolidating and eliminating state agencies, boards and commissions.
Under the shadow of a poor economy that has shown few signs of major improvement in the near future, Mr. McDonnell already has proposed a $50 million contingency fund to help gird for budget cuts from the federal government.
Although the GOP controls the House of Delegates by a wide margin, the governor has conceded that Republicans will need a little help from their friends across the aisle to pass the budget — help he appeared confident he could win.
“Listen, I needed a lot more than 21 [votes] last year to get things done and on major issues — the budget, higher education, transportation,” he said. “There were Democrats … that worked very well with us.”
The session also will play out against the backdrop of a presidential election, a marquee U.S. Senate race, and congressional elections — something that will not be lost on lawmakers, Mr. Farnsworth said.
“I think that the lawmakers in Richmond will have to pay very close attention to the electoral calendar,” he said.
Virginia’s 13 electoral votes will be vital to President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee in determining who will be occupying the White House starting in 2013.
Despite an influx of new conservative senators, Republicans have downplayed chatter that they will advance a rash of social legislation on abortion, guns and immigration. That would help preserve political capital for Mr. McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, who is frequently mentioned among possible Republican vice-presidential candidates.
On the perpetually divisive issue of immigration, for example, Delegate Christopher K. Peace, Hanover Republican, has said he does not plan to reintroduce a bill that seeks to bar illegal immigrants from attending state colleges and universities.
David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, and L. Scott Lingamfelter, Prince William Republican, perpetual proponents of measures to crack down on illegal immigration that have cleared the House but perished in the Senate, both said a GOP-controlled upper chamber means such bills likely would get a friendlier reception — but wouldn’t necessarily pass.
Still, Republicans will not lack detractors and opponents. A group of progressive activists managed to crash House Republicans’ annual night-before-session fundraiser at the posh Jefferson Hotel on Tuesday to voice their displeasure with the GOP agenda.
Jon Liss, the director of Virginia New Majority, one of the groups participating in the demonstration, denounced the caucus’ “anti-majority agenda” and said his group would fight every day during the session to defend the state from members’ “extreme, out-of-touch views.”
Burden on the GOP
While polls show Virginians largely approve of the legislature and their lawmakers, expectations are still high for Republicans to perform in a swing state where political fortunes can turn at the drop of a hat.
After Mr. Obama’s historic victory in 2008, becoming the first Democrat to carry the state in more than 40 years, Democrats were hopeful that the transient-rich “purple” state would permanently shift to “blue.” But Mr. McDonnell led a sweep of all three statewide elected offices in 2009, followed by Republicans in 2010 knocking off three incumbent Democratic congressmen, including 28-year incumbent Rick Boucher, and coming within 1,000 votes of taking a fourth.
Mr. McDonnell said as much the day after the 2011 elections when Republicans asserted their power, pledging to work across the aisle as he has during his first two years in office, but that the GOP would shoulder the blame for any pitfalls that may come.
“I’m asking Republicans: Don’t be arrogant, don’t overreach, don’t fight,” he said. “And I’m asking the Democrats, don’t be angry, don’t be petty and political. Work together.”