Gov. Terry McAuliffe opened the 2017 General Assembly session Wednesday night with an ode to bipartisanship over the past three years of divided government and a renewed plea for cooperation in the year ahead.
McAuliffe made no direct mention of last year’s presidential contest between his close friend Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, instead stressing the need to plow ahead in a spirit of collaboration and build an economy that can thrive regardless of what happens in world capitals, including Washington.
“For the past three years, our work together has seen far more bipartisan victories than divisive battles,” McAuliffe told the state lawmakers, Cabinet officials and Supreme Court of Virginia justices crowded into the House of Delegates chamber. “While political fights rage in Washington, we have proven again and again that Virginia is a place where leaders still work together to get things done.”
Reminders of conflict at times poked through as the governor laid out a rosy view of his working relationship with the Republican-controlled legislature.
The governor again called his action last year to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had served their time one of his proudest moments, noting that Democrats greeted it with applause while some Republicans brought lawsuits. Moving on with the speech, McAuliffe didn’t mention that the Supreme Court of Virginia scaled back the order with the vote of a conservative justice Republicans elected after they ousted McAuliffe’s pick for the high court.
Entering his final go-round with the General Assembly, the relentlessly upbeat Democratic governor urged support for several big-ticket proposals that are likely to land with a thud with Republicans, but serve to lay out a Democratic agenda with a gubernatorial race looming after the session. Those proposals included universal background checks on gun sales, a full repeal of Virginia’s voter photo ID law, repeal of the law requiring ultrasounds before abortions, and enacting some form of Medicaid expansion.
“Four hundred thousand people living without health care is a problem,” McAuliffe said. “We should never stop seeking ways to solve it.”
Expanding on his less controversial proposals for the 46-day session, McAuliffe called for reforms to Virginia’s jail and mental health systems to “prevent future tragedies,” additional funding to respond to the opioid crisis and substance abuse, and shoring up the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to add stronger controls over taxpayer-funded incentives used to lure businesses.
On the state budget, a marquee item for every session made more difficult this year by a revenue shortfall topping $1 billion, McAuliffe voiced openness to legislators’ calls to give state workers a pay raise rather than the one-time, 1.5 percent bonus the governor included in his budget plan.
“If our revenue conditions do improve, I am eager to work with you to prioritize a more significant pay increase,” McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe also endorsed an expansion of last year’s bipartisan gun deal to keep firearms away from people subject to court orders for domestic violence. McAuliffe called for expanding that law to cover non-family abuse orders.
In a greatest-hits montage of his first three years, McAuliffe talked up his efforts to minimize veteran homelessness, increase education funding, enhance the state’s transportation system, and boost the state economy by bringing in business projects, 853 to be exact. To hammer the final point home, McAuliffe announced the latest deal from the podium, saying Navy Federal Credit Union had just agreed to bring 1,400 jobs and a $102 million investment to Frederick County.
The governor repeated his standing threat to veto any legislation he sees as discriminatory against LGBT people or restricting women’s access to abortion. Pointing to the fallout in North Carolina over the state’s law dealing with transgender bathroom access, he said Virginia has benefited from being a welcoming state. The governor mentioned CoStar, a real estate data company bringing 732 jobs to Richmond instead of North Carolina, as a real-world example.
McAuliffe reminded lawmakers of his 71-0 record on vetoes — lawmakers have not overriden any during his tenure — saying, “I’m ready to keep my streak alive.”
“But I hope you will deny me the opportunity by simply refraining from sending me things that are counterproductive to what we’re trying to do with our business community,” McAuliffe said.
Responding to the speech, House GOP leaders said they didn’t hear much new from the governor and questioned McAuliffe’s focus on social issues as the speech concluded.
“A lot of those are hot-button issues for his base,” said Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
They also suggested McAuliffe was looking to take credit for Republican ideas, including the pay raise for state employees that GOP budget leaders have said is a top priority.
“He can certainly join us and sign it if he’d like to,” said House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.
Earlier in the day, the General Assembly gaveled in for the opening rituals of organizing, deciding committee assignments, and beginning to implement the results of Tuesday’s three special elections. None of the two Senate seats or one House seat flipped to the other party, leaving the balance of power unchanged with GOP majorities in both chambers.
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, cleared of corruption charges over the gift scandal that sunk his political career, was spotted enthusiastically making the rounds at the Capitol after attending the pre-session reception of House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, and a prayer breakfast.
In a brief interview, McDonnell said he was back to thank former colleagues for “what they did for me during this ordeal.” Asked for his thoughts on the coming session, McDonnell said it’s “a privilege and a blessing to be a Virginian” and both sides want to keep it that way.
“I honestly can say I haven’t followed it that closely,” McDonnell said. “Money is always an issue up here. Money reflects priorities and values.”