RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell kicked off the 2013 General Assembly session Wednesday by outlining transportation and education proposals that he hopes will round out his legacy in his final year in office, but it remains to be seen whether the more conservative members of his party will push social issues to the forefront as they did last year.
Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, has laid out plans to push for a five-year, $3.1 billion transportation package that would replace the current gas tax with a sales tax increase and for school reforms that would raise teacher pay while increasing accountability of teachers and administrators.
During his State of the Commonwealth address to the assembly on Wednesday night, the governor called on lawmakers to put aside partisan disagreements and election-year distractions and pass legislation addressing one of the state's biggest problems — its aging, congested and underfunded roads and bridges.
"Do not send me a budget that does not include new transportation funding," he said in prepared remarks. "We are all out of excuses. We must act now."
While Mr. McDonnell asked legislators to not focus on their re-election hopes, Republicans are hopeful that a productive 46-day session will give them momentum to hold onto the governorship, lieutenant governorship, attorney general's post and a House majority in this fall's elections.
Mr. McDonnell, who has been mentioned as a candidate for president in 2016 or for the U.S. Senate next year, is looking to notch a landmark legislative victory that will bolster his resume for national office, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
Mr. Kidd said the governor's transportation package, which would eliminate the 17.5-cents-a-gallon state gas tax and raise the statewide sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent, is one of his most "ambitious" and "innovative" proposals to date.
"It's going to be very important for him to point to some major policy or program and say, 'I've done that, and it's a sign of my leadership,'" Mr. Kidd said.
Mr. McDonnell's plan has received some immediate blowback from Democrats and even some fiscal conservatives.
Americans for Tax Reform, the prominent anti-tax group headed by Grover Norquist, issued a statement Tuesday warning that the package as it stands could be "a Trojan horse for higher taxes" and suggesting that Virginia should raise more money for roads by simply cutting spending elsewhere rather than raising revenues.
Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, one of 20 Democrats in the 40-member Senate, argued that eliminating the gas tax will shift the responsibility for funding roads from drivers to nondrivers.
Mr. Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, pointed out that a large portion of gas-tax revenue comes from out-of-state drivers, and said that the governor's proposal would let them off the hook while asking Virginians to pay more.
"People that drive through the commonwealth and say they're going to Disney World or Myrtle Beach or where have you, basically we're letting them use our roads for free," Mr. Petersen said, adding that he favors a 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase to fund roads. "That's millions of people, and it makes no sense to me."
Mr. McDonnell appears poised to focus on roads and schools and steer clear of hot-button social issues on controversial subjects such as abortion that sidetracked last year's session. Nonetheless, conservative lawmakers including Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, have announced bills to restrict funding for and access to abortion.
Mr. Marshall said he expects GOP leaders to be reluctant to tackle abortion after national Republicans were attacked as anti-women during last year's national elections.
"They won't want to deal with these issues, but they should deal with it in a smart way," he said. "More people tilt right-to-life than the other side."
Despite such sentiments, Mr. Kidd said there is a consensus between the governor and leaders in both chambers of the legislature that any protracted debate on social issues would prove counterproductive, as lawmakers have less than seven weeks to hash out their differences on other major issues.
"Nobody wants to deal with social issues," he said. "They realize it's a short session and if conversation or debate gets sidetracked with social issues, the entire session could be taken up."
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