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Va. assembly session ends without budget

McDonnell sees mixed results

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RICHMOND — The report card for Bob McDonnell and the state legislature at the conclusion of the Virginia governor's legacy-making 2012 session might best be characterized as "incomplete" — for now.

The General Assembly, embroiled in partisan policy and power disputes, adjourned on time Saturday, but without finishing its most important task — enacting a budget for the next two years.

That, said Mr. McDonnell, was his biggest disappointment of the session.

"I'll be reminding them — often — about what happens if a budget is not done very soon," he said. "That's obviously the biggest disappointment of the session, but it's one that I'm confident people of good faith will get through soon."

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, said lawmakers could be finished by the end of the month. They'll return March 21 in special session to continue their work on the proposed $85 billion, two-year spending plan.

"It's not a big deal," he said. "I mean, people would like to make it a big deal, but it's not a big deal."

By Mr. McDonnell's tally, 88 percent of the items on his legislative agenda, which focused on job creation, pension reform and K-12 and higher education, among other topics, were approved by the General Assembly.

Two major pieces of Mr. McDonnell's plan did not survive. The Senate twice voted down a measure that would end tenure-like teacher contracts, and also balked at the Republican governor's proposal to increase the percentage of the state sales tax that goes toward transportation. On its final day, the legislature approved a transportation package that was a shell of Mr. McDonnell's original proposal, retaining the arguably dubious plan to sell naming rights for certain roads and bridges in the state.

"He not only ran into united opposition from the Democratic Party," Mr. Saslaw said. "He was turned down by his own party in the Senate."

Still, elements of Mr. McDonnell's proposal to overhaul the state's $52 billion retirement system were approved by the legislature, though his proposal to offer state employees an optional defined contribution plan, akin to a 401(k), was replaced with a mandatory hybrid plan that includes a defined benefit portion for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2014. Local government employees and teachers will also have to contribute 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions, to be offset by 5 percent raises, and benefits for future employees will be reduced.

Social issues

Though nearly 1,600 bills were passed during the session, much of the focus was diverted from Mr. McDonnell's preferred subjects — jobs and the economy — toward high-profile social issues.

Perhaps the most notable of the bills the governor signed into law this session was one that will require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before they have an abortion. Amid national mockery and at Mr. McDonnell's request, the legislature amended the original legislation that could have required a more invasive, transvaginal ultrasound that opponents likened to "state-sponsored rape."

Some of the focus on social issues came in spite of the governor's better efforts to rein in the more conservative wing of his party, which exercised control of both chambers and the governor's mansion for only the second time since the Civil War after winning a 20-20 split in the Senate in November elections.

"At the very start of the session, Bob McDonnell warned Republicans not to overreach," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. "What's very clear is the governor is not driving this train. Unified government is open to a floodgate of divisive social legislation that overshadows the economic message that will resonate with swing voters."

Indeed, the GOP pushed a slew of conservative bills — one that would repeal a mandate that girls receive a vaccination against a virus known to cause cervical cancer, another that would require some welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, and other abortion-related measures that would ban most abortions after 20 weeks and deny funding for poor women to have abortions if their child would be born with a severe abnormality.

The legislature also passed bills that will end the state's ban on purchasing more than one handgun per month, tighten voter identification laws that were denounced by Democrats in a state still stinging from the legacy of the Jim Crow South, and allow adoption agencies to deny placements if they conflict with their religious or moral convictions, including their beliefs about sexual orientation.

Perception is reality

Though much of the divisive social legislation was defeated, often with the help of moderate Republicans, perception is reality in politics.

"Obviously, McDonnell wanted to get his agenda through, but in the end, Republican control of the Senate has probably hurt him politically," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

One example was Republican Delegate Robert G. Marshall's failed "personhood" bill that would define life as beginning at conception and assign the same rights and privileges to embryos as human beings. The bill passed the House and was shelved in the Senate with the support of some Republicans — but only after it drew national headlines and was lampooned on "Saturday Night Live."

Mr. McDonnell said he sometimes felt a handful of bills received an inordinate focus.

"The message of the session was government reform, VRS reform, jobs, K-12 and higher-ed reform, veterans, energy, and those kinds of things," he said. "People ought to know about what we're doing up here in its entirety. Sure, we got into passionate debates on issues of life and family and marriage and religious freedom — it happens every year. But I think they did a very good job on key issues — the biggest disappointment, of course, the budget."

But as the 2012 presidential campaign gears up — Mr. McDonnell has been frequently mentioned as a potential ticket mate — the images of police in riot gear arresting demonstrators protesting anti-abortion legislation on the steps of the state Capitol will likely linger long after an inside-baseball squabble over the budget is resolved, given the national attention that has been devoted to women's health issues in recent months.

"Republicans have taken a beating on the national level," Mr. Kondik said. "When you think about it that way, it might harm McDonnell's chances of being selected."

He said it was "very clear" that Democrats are going to want to play up questions about contraception.

"Whether it's fair or not is beside the point," he said.

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