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McDonnell makes case for transportation tax change

Thursday - 1/10/2013, 5:58am  ET

AP: fdc34c13-3cd7-48d6-99d6-5aa7b2ac3443
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, at rostrum, gestures as he delivers his State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the 2013 Virginia General Assembly in the House chambers at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 in Richmond, Va. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, top left, House speaker William Howell, -Stafford, top center and State Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, top right, listen. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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By BOB LEWIS and LARRY O'DELL
Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - Gov. Bob McDonnell used his annual address to the state Wednesday to make one big, last push for an enduring legislative legacy, urging lawmakers to enact his education and transportation reforms.

But he also included a surprise: an appeal to the 2013 General Assembly to pass bills that allow for nonviolent felons' civil rights to be automatically restored.

McDonnell last month began sketching out education reforms for teachers in kindergarten through senior year that condition a 2 percent raise on the enactment of new laws making underperforming faculty easier to fire.

On Tuesday, he disclosed his plan to replace Virginia's 17 1/2-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax with a 0.8-cent increase in the state's 5 percent sales tax as a way to replenish dwindling highway maintenance funds.

Entering the final year of the non-renewable four-year term Virginia governors are uniquely allowed, McDonnell _ a year ago a Republican vice presidential prospect _ is still looking for a signature policy triumph for which he will be remembered.

In his 50-minute State of the Commonwealth speech, McDonnell targeted the perennial issues of schools and the outdated and perpetually gridlocked web of state highways, particularly in the sprawling and populous Washington, D.C., suburbs, months ago, and is still searching for legislative consensus, particularly in a state senate where Democrats and Republicans hold 20 seats apiece.

In his budget, McDonnell has set aside nearly $59 million to help localities provide a raise for public school teachers, principals, librarians and other instructional personnel. While Democrats and the 60,000-member Virginia Education Association like the raise _ the first for teachers in six years _ the trick will be passing legislation that prolongs the probationary period for new teachers from three to five years and affords local school districts greater authority to dismiss educators with poor performance reviews.

"Good teachers will flourish," he said. "Poor ones will not."

He also made another push to expedite the creation of charter schools, which receive public funding and must meet accountability benchmarks but can operate under certain less restrictive rules.

Transportation

McDonnell's transportation funding plan would make Virginia the first state without a direct tax on gasoline paid at the pump. It's the first major overhaul of the state's primary stream of transportation revenue since the per-gallon tax was levied 27 years ago. McDonnell noted that because that tax is tied to gasoline volume and not price, declining usage, greater automotive fuel efficiency and looming competition from emerging alternate fuel sources has eaten into its ability to sustain needed maintenance work, much less underwrite badly needed new projects.

"Please do not send me a budget that does not include new transportation funding," he implored legislators. "We are all out of excuses. We must act now."

While McDonnell's plan won praise from leaders of the Republican-ruled House, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist condemned the plan as a tax increase, an action that conservatives within the GOP caucus can't ignore with all 100 House seats up for election this fall.

His plan is also lacking support from Democrat leaders, including Sen. Dick Saslaw, of Alexandria.

"This is the most absurd thing I've ever heard of. I mean, I have seen some screwed up bills in my life. This takes the cake," Saslaw said.

And despite the need for more transportation funding in Northern Virginia, local lawmakers aren't totally convinced that McDonnell's proposal is the best option.

"It'll sell better in the low-income areas than it will in higher-income areas like Northern Virginia," said Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, of the governor's plan.

Civil Rights Restoration

Elaborating on his surprise measure for 2013, McDonnell urged lawmakers to support two GOP-sponsored bills to amend the Virginia Constitution to allow automatic restoration of nonviolent felons' voting rights.

"As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they've served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution," McDonnell said. "It's time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for nonviolent offenders."

That drew more applause from Democrats than Republicans with Del. Charnielle Herring of Alexandria _ the state Democratic Party chairman _ standing to cheer the proposal. Del. Rob Bell, chairman of the state commission that vets legislation about crimes and punishment and a Republican candidate for attorney general, said he opposes automatic rights restoration.

The governor alone has authority in Virginia now to restore the rights of the convicted _ a time-consuming and cumbersome process. Since taking office in 2010, McDonnell charged his administration with accelerating the process by vetting applicants through the secretary of the commonwealth and his legal counsel, then providing applicants a response within 60 days.

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