- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2012

RICHMOND — In his State of the Commonwealth address last month, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell advised Republicans, with a new effective majority in the Senate and overwhelming numbers in the House: Don’t be arrogant. Don’t overreach.

Mr. McDonnell has largely heeded his own advice during the first half of the General Assembly session. He’s introduced a moderate agenda centered largely on jobs and the economy that is steadily moving through the legislature, while some of his other proposals — on transportation, for example — have stumbled.

The governor’s party, meanwhile, has had a banner first half, pushing through far-reaching legislation on guns, abortion and religious rights issues over vociferous, but generally fruitless, protests of Democrats.

A bill to repeal the state’s nearly 20-year-old law limiting handgun purchases to one per month is on its way to the governor’s desk, and a slew of voter-identification bills that Democrats say are intended to suppress the vote are advancing as well.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw said Republican “irresponsibility” has defined the first half of the session.

“I just think what they’re doing is they’re wrecking this place,” said Mr. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat. “I mean, they’re running this state right into the ground.”

But Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., James City Republican, said he was pleased that Republicans’ pro-jobs, pro-economic growth agenda is advancing, and that there’s been an undue focus on contentious social legislation thus far.

“We’ve probably at this point passed out 350 bills out of the Senate, and a very modest percent of those have anything to do with social conservatism, pro-life,” he said. “The ones we had passed are important to those constituencies.”

And while Mr. McDonnell has said he would sign bills such as the repeal of one-gun-a-month, he has not staked much political capital on contentious legislation, instead honing his focus on jobs and the economy, government reform, education, transportation, and public safety.

“I think the governor is being very savvy here,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Part of the reason he was elected governor was because the very conservative state legislator gave way to the more moderate, centrist candidate, and that candidate won.”

Though the governor hasn’t openly advocated much of the conservative agenda of his party, it doesn’t make a difference, Mr. Saslaw said.

“The governor’s no different than they are,” he said. “They’re going to take $25 million a year out of the general fund and give it to kids to attend private schools? You’re telling me they’re not irresponsible? They’re supposed to be looking out for the state’s tax money, not giving it away.”

The bill Mr. Saslaw referred to, which Mr. McDonnell has advocated for, would provide tax credits to corporations that fund scholarships for low-income children. Mr. McDonnell’s budget includes $10 million for the initiative in 2014, and the maximum amount of credits annually would be $25 million. The House of Delegates gave the measure initial approval Monday.

The House also passed another McDonnell priority, reforming teacher tenure laws by establishing three-year term contracts for newly hired teachers and principals. The Senate has advanced that measure.

On the jobs front, Mr. McDonnell asked the General Assembly for about $37 million in new money for economic development proposals. Bills, such as one that would allow an individual income tax credit for investments in small businesses, are quickly moving on a bipartisan basis through the state legislature.

The governor’s agenda has also hit some roadblocks.

The Senate balked at one of his keystone proposals — to increase the percentage of the state sales tax to be used for transportation. The House version of the omnibus bill retains the item.

Mr. McDonnell has also pledged to overhaul the state’s depleted retirement system, proposing to infuse $2.21 billion into the system — the largest single investment in state history. But his initial proposal to increase state employee contributions to their pensions from 5 percent to 6 percent was quietly taken out of a bill to which the House gave initial approval Monday. That bill also included other measures to reduce future retirement benefits.

A second bill given initial approval Monday in the House added an optional 401(k)-style plan that stalled in the Senate last year.

The Senate, on the other hand, has gone a completely different route, pushing to require local government employees and teachers to contribute 5 percent to their pensions, to be offset by 5 percent raises — as state employees do now under legislation passed last year. The Senate proposal would require future local and state employees to adopt a hybrid plan that combines traditional defined benefits with a 401(k)-style plan.

Still, the governor was confident the bulk of his agenda would ultimately advance.

“The story of this session will be what I said it would be a month and a half ago, and that is, we’re going to create more opportunity and more jobs, we’re going to balance the budget without raising taxes, we’re going to reform government so it reflects the priorities of the people,” Mr. McDonnell said. “We’re going to get some big things done [I think] on transportation, higher education, K-12 and energy. That’s going to be the story in 30 days, that’s going to be the story … after we get past crossover.”

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