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Schools, roads on deck for governor




RICHMOND—Gov. Bob McDonnell says the only people who question a governor’s “legacy” are staff and the press.

But he’s heading into his last legislative session as governor, his last chance to make any changes in Virginia that require legislative approval. Sure, he’ll write a full two-year budget a year from now, but he’ll have to leave it in others’ hands—he’ll be out of office before it even gets a hearing.

In an interview in his Capitol Square office, McDonnell said he’s not worrying about his legacy or his dwindling time in office.

He’s using his last session to push through structural changes to two large areas of state government: transportation and K–12 education.

Already, McDonnell has hinted at the transportation package he has yet to unveil—it will generate about $500 million a year in new revenue for roads, he says, and he wants at least $48 million of that to come through pulling some extra revenue from the current sales tax out of the general fund and into transportation. He’s not the first governor to push for a fix to the long-standing problem of transportation revenue—former Gov. Tim Kaine tried several times during his term.

Like Kaine, McDonnell will have to sway a Republican House that dislikes tax increases, and a divided Senate that doesn’t want to shift money to transportation from the general fund.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have a road package that will pass this year.  . . . We’re out of time, out of excuses,” McDonnell said. “The obligations at this point just can’t be met, and ultimately it’s affecting our ability to create jobs.”

While at least one legislator has talked about a transportation proposal that would give the legislature veto power over tolls, McDonnell doesn’t sound ready to make a trade on his tolling authority. He has applied for, and received, federal approval to put toll booths on Interstate 95, but the proposal is getting a lot of blow-back from residents around the proposed location in Sussex.

“A reasonable use of tolls is a proper way to build transportation infrastructure. We’ve used it very sparingly in Virginia, overall. It is used widely around the country and around the world,” McDonnell said. “I do understand the citizens’ concerns. If you have a free road now and you’re asked by the state to pay a toll, of course you’re going to have a concern. But I’m more concerned about the safety improvements that need to be made on I–95, and at this point I am generally out of options. The General Assembly has not provided the resources that I’ve asked for and that are needed to properly maintain and construct road infrastructure.”

McDonnell has also already announced some K–12 proposals—raising teacher pay by 2 percent but linking it to changes in the teacher probation and evaluation process. McDonnell says he’ll also have other education bills on issues like school choice. Transportation and education reform, he said, are his top two priorities for the session.

“I looked at this session and said, ‘What are some of the major structural problems facing Virginia that we have not fixed?’ ” McDonnell said. “We’ll have a hundred other bills, but those are the things that I think going forward if we do those right and get those done, that will lay a great foundation for future jobs and future opportunity.”

McDonnell can set his agenda for his last session, but current events are bringing other issues to the fore. The recent school shootings in Newtown, Conn., have prompted McDonnell to create task forces to study school safety and mental health. And individual lawmakers are planning to propose changes to the state’s gun laws.

McDonnell got widespread attention last week for saying, in a radio interview on WTOP, that the possibility of allowing teachers or school staff to carry guns should be considered.

During The Free Lance-Star interview in his office, he said that he was just answering a question, and that he’s not advocating any policy changes at this point.

McDonnell said he wants the school safety task force to work quickly, though, to give time for any needed changes or additional funding during the 45-day legislative session. He said that before the Connecticut shootings, he had put additional funding for some mental health needs into his budget.

Through grants to localities, his proposals would add dollars for crisis services for adults and children, child psychiatry and in-home services, and expanding a discharge program to help those leaving state hospitals.

McDonnell faces criticism from Democrats for his decision not to have Virginia create a state-based health exchange under the federal health care law, and his reluctance to expand the Medicaid program. He said he doesn’t trust the federal government’s promise to cover most costs for the expansion for several years, nor does he support expanding a system that he thinks is inefficient at best.

“They’ve got to be willing to do a lot more with flexibility and waivers. I’d prefer they just block grant Medicaid . . . [but] I see no receptivity to doing that,” McDonnell said.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028