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McDonnell's unfinished business: education and transportation

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The latter is the bigger challenge, with its element of political gridlock.

By Landmark News Service

RICHMOND — For Gov. Bob McDonnell, his final full year in office is about unfinished business.
The Republican who campaigned under the slogan “Bob’s for Jobs,” has taken stock of his own job performance and assessed “what’s left to fix” to keep Virginia economically competitive.
“It’s two things,” McDonnell said during an interview Jan. 4 in his office. “It’s work force, which is education. And number two, it’s transportation gridlock.”

McDonnell will deliver his annual State of the Commonwealth address to a joint session of the General Assembly tonight, Wednesday, kicking off a legislative session that could cement his legacy. McDonnell will ask lawmakers to enact a package of education reforms that, in his view, will improve school accountability and performance, reward good teachers and boost student achievement.
His bigger challenge will be getting legislators to agree on a plan to pump new, sustained funding into Virginia’s cash-starved transportation program.
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 that pumped more than $3.3 billion into transportation, much of it debt. But the state is shifting more than $360 million from its road construction budget to cover rising maintenance costs, and that figure is expected to grow to $500 million by 2019. And traffic congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads is hurting the state’s business-friendly reputation.
“I have used every tool, to the maximum extent possible, that the General Assembly has given me to build roads and rail and transit, and it’s insufficient,” McDonnell said. “Having done everything I can do, including reforming VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] and auditing VDOT and everything else, we still are going to have a $500 million maintenance deficit in five years. And in short order, we’re not going to have new construction funds to build any new projects.”
McDonnell said he wants a solution that is both economically sound and politically viable, aware of the General Assembly’s recent history of gridlock. The Republican-dominated House of Delegates has largely opposed any tax increases for transportation. The Senate, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, has resisted diverting revenue from the state’s general fund, which pays for services such as education, public safety and health care.
“I can tell you that the only approach I see passing will require the use of general fund and will require the use of new revenues,” said McDonnell, who will unveil his plan this week.
McDonnell already has proposed shifting $48.1 million from the general fund for transportation in the next fiscal year by increasing the portion of the state sales tax that goes to transportation from 0.50 percent to 0.55 percent. He wants to gradually increase that share to 0.75 percent in five years.
The Senate rejected that approach as recently as last year. Democrats argue that diverting general fund money to transportation would hurt schools and other programs. McDonnell called that argument “factually wrong and irresponsible.”
“The last three years we’ve averaged $450 million a year in surplus, so you can’t say with a straight face, when you’ve got budget surpluses averaging a half-a-billion dollars, that you can’t afford $50 million for transportation,” he said.
Some legislators have questioned whether a significant transportation funding plan can pass in an election-year session that is scheduled to end Feb. 23. McDonnell said he believes there is a “groundswell of support,” citing the fact that Republicans in both houses have proposed transportation funding plans.