Virginia Governor's State Address: A Call for Cooperation Followed by a Vow to Veto

by | January 14, 2016 AT 10:40 AM

By Travis Fain

Gov. Terry McAuliffe called for bipartisan cooperation during Wednesday's State of the Commonwealth speech, turning at one point during his annual address to hand a cigar to Republican Speaker of the House William Howell.

A memento of the governor's official trip to Cuba last week, McAuliffe said.

"There's a few more where that came from, if you know what I'm saying," the governor told the rest of the General Assembly, promising a willingness to negotiate.

But in his nearly hour-long speech, the governor also promised legislators that he won't hesitate to veto legislation that crosses bright partisan lines. Don't bother sending me bills, he told the Republican majority, that roll back gay marriage rights, target abortion clinics or work against Democratic priorities on gun control and climate change.

The governor also re-doubled his optimism on Medicaid expansion, saying he believes Republicans and Democrats can "find a way forward" on an issue Republicans have swatted back two years running.

Thirty other states have already expanded this federally funded insurance program for the poor, McAuliffe said, most recently Louisiana.

"He knows there's going to be no Medicaid expansion in 2016," Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment said after the governor's speech.

Most of McAuliffe's speech was a collection of excerpts from announcements the governor made in recent weeks, as he rolled out portions of his budget and legislative package. That budget tops $100 billion, making it the biggest two-year spending plan in Virginia history.

The General Assembly went into session Wednesday to take up that budget, and the thousands of other pieces of legislation that will vie for the body's attention for the coming 60 days. Norment, R-James City, said the governor's budget will need to be "reined in" a bit in the coming weeks.

McAuliffe put "a little bit of the Santa Claus syndrome in there," the majority leader said.

Limited to one term by the Virginia constitution, McAuliffe is already in the second half of his tenure. He has pitched his last two years as a chance to take an improving state economy and run with it, primarily through new public investments in education and economic development.

Unemployment is down and state revenues are up. Congress has delayed the sequestration cuts that dinged Virginia's economy in recent years.

"The reprieve that we have received from sequestration cuts is our chance to lay a solid foundation for the type of economy that we will need when those cuts return in full force in two short years," McAuliffe said Wednesday.

To that end, McAuliffe has proposed $1 billion in new education funding and an increased focus on tech-sector jobs. On these matters, the governor will likely find some of the oft-referenced common ground he seeks with the Republican majority that controls both legislative chambers.

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, a retired teacher, said the governor "tainted" his speech Wednesday with partisan promises, but quickly turned to areas where the two sides can work together. State Sen. Frank Ruff, who tag-teamed the formal Republican response to McAuliffe's speech with Del. Rob Bell, said he expects agreements on increased K-12 funding, as well as increased funding for mental health care, public safety and veterans' programs.

Ruff, R-Clarksville, also said to expect initiatives that encourage "more Virginians to complete educational programs that will "lead to certification in high-demand jobs," a top priority for the governor.

There will be some back and forth, though, about how much money Virginia truly has to spend. Howell, the speaker of the house, said he doesn't share all of McAuliffe's rosy economic outlook for the state.

"He takes a lot of pride in things that probably are exaggerated," Howell said. "I don't feel the economy is booming."

McAuliffe also promised new ethics legislation, drawn from an off-session study commission he appointed last year. The proposals have already received cool receptions in the General Assembly, but McAuliffe called for new prohibitions on campaign fundraising during special legislative sessions -- in addition to the current ban during regular sessions -- and a rule against spending campaign funds on personal needs.

Those changes would build on reforms the legislature passed over the last two years, in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell's indictment, then conviction, on federal corruption charges.

(c)2016 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)