The first half of Governor Bob McDonnell's first State of the Commonwealth Address could accurately be described as the appetizer, the potatoes of the speech, while the second half could be called the real meat. In the first half, he talked about drawing various types of business to Virginia, boosting tourism, and even going to the stars, in a way.
Around the halfway mark to his speech, the governor brought up the energy industry. One of the highlights of his campaign, for myself at least, was his embrace of alternative energy sources in addition to, not instead of, nuclear and clean coal technologies to make Virginia the "energy capital of the east coast". The applause from the General Assembly was thunderous as he began to speak about American energy independence.
One of his goals is for Virginia to become the first state on the eastern seaboard to sell the leasing rights to explore and drill offshore for oil and natural gas in 2011. With the federal moratorium on offshore drilling gone, the first state to take advantage will reap an economic bonanza, in Gov. McDonnell's words. More than that, environmentally sound offshore drilling will create thousands of jobs right here in Virginia, and is in keeping with the president's commitment to making America energy independent. It will go a very long way to closing our current budget gap and will provide millions for investment opportunities. He even called on the Assembly to vote in this session to commit 20% of the tax revenues generated from offshore drilling, and of any authorized royalties they receive, to renewable energy projects and the other 80% going to transportation infrastructure.
He spoke of many different types of energy, including renewable ones. As technologies for harvesting and utilizing natural gas and clean coal become more efficient, energy production will grow. Regarding nuclear energy, the governor said, "Virginia has more private sector nuclear capacity than any other state in America." He asked the General Assembly to make the entire commonwealth a "green jobs zone". "Any business in the state that creates a green energy job over the next five years will receive an income tax credit of $500 per position. Virginia is for lovers ... of renewable energy."
Unfortunately, as he next pointed out, investments of any kind come at the expense of spending cuts, some "painful". He repeatedly called on the Assembly to act in this session. Responding to the conventional wisdom that tax hikes are unavoidable when facing a $4 billion budget shortfall, Gov. McDonnell pledged to work with everyone to find other, better solutions. He reminded us that Virginians are already struggling, and that increased taxes would only increase the burden on families and workers. In his words, "If you pass a bill in this recession that raises taxes on the hardworking families of Virginia, I will veto it. And if you pass a budget embedded with those same increases, I won't approve it."
Instead, as he has before promised, every opportunity to save will be embraced. As governor, he and his staff, as well as his Cabinet and officers, will cut their own pays and budgets. He called on the Assembly to "think outside the box" when it comes to the budget and what to cut, challenging the all-too-conventional wisdom sometimes used by lawmakers when setting budgets. I'm sure some of you remember that the U.S. Congress just this last year voted to raise their own salaries, despite the massive spending bills they've passed at almost the same time. As I've said before, Congress could take a lesson or two from our new governor.
He also spoke of consolidating some government programs and shedding others, most notably the state liquor stores. As he put it, while campaigning, he "did not run into anybody who thought that selling Jack Daniels whiskey or Grey Goose vodka was a core function of government." That's simply common sense, right there, in my opinion.
Moving into issues regarding education, the governor mentioned that Virginia is ranked the best place for a young person to succeed out of all the states. He introduced his Secretary of Education, Gerard Robinson, whose struggle to overcome poor grades in high school have yielded him a Master's in Education from Harvard and earned him renown as a national expert on education reform. His story is an example to everyone, and he'll be working with the governor to improve the education system in Virginia. Not only will a higher percentage of education spending go directly to improving conditions in the classroom, but also the number of charter schools will increase, as Gov. McDonnell and President Obama both agree should happen.
Next on the list is transportation, seen by many Virginians as the key issue in last year's gubernatorial election. Right away, the governor is calling to have the rest stops reopened along our highways and interstates. He also feels that, on rural interstates, the speed limit should be raised to 70 miles an hour. These are just two steps he'll take to reform our transportation system. Reducing congestion and increasing efficiency will be top priorities in the coming year, and he highlighted legislation that's already been written to address it.
Even more important is the safety and security of Virginians. As a former Attorney General, Bob McDonnell has a unique perspective on this issue, and has many proposals to push back against gangs, protect Virginians from criminals, and rehabilitate prisoners into society.
In closing, he acknowledged that in four years, he'll address the commonwealth as governor for the last time (Virginia law, if you don't know, doesn't allow governors to serve consecutive terms). He outlined briefly the Virginia that he wants to see at that time, what he hopes to be able to say in his final speech. He wants us to focus on "getting results, not taking credit; on cooperation, not division." It may sound like common rhetoric from a common politician, but I believe Bob McDonnell is anything but a common politician. He's been a public servant for most of his adult life, and a patriot. I've yet to hear a harsh or divisive word from him, even during the most acrimonious moments of last year's campaign.
I heard someone say that a governor who doesn't face reelection has no incentive to do his job. I say, not having to face reelection means he is free simply to do his job. He's our governor now, and I look forward to the job he'll do.
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