RICHMOND, Va. -- Gov. Terry McAuliffe is urging the General Assembly to join him in a bipartisan effort to create jobs in the commonwealth.
"If we work together during the next 60 days, we can expand economic opportunities for everyone in the Commonwealth," McAuliffe said in his State of the Commonwealth Address on the first night of the 2016 legislative session. “We will show that we in Virginia don’t back down from a challenge."
With the relationship between the Democratic governor and the Republican-led General Assembly as contentious as ever, McAuliffe touted economic growth and investment across all sectors.
McAuliffe just returned from a trip to Cuba, where he brokered a trade deal. (In the middle of Wednesday night’s speech, he gave Republican House Speaker William Howell of Stafford a Cuban cigar.) The governor also noted other international trade agreements, such as Virginia apples being sold to India and poultry being shipped to Oman.
Continuing the theme of the need for bipartisan job creation, McAuliffe called attention to the state’s efforts to boost solar power and other alternative energy sources. Such moves will attract companies and offer manufacturing opportunities, he said.
Also in his speech, McAuliffe directly challenged Republican lawmakers by again prodding them to expand Medicaid, the health care program for low-income residents. He said even conservative states such as Utah and Louisiana have elected to do so under the federal Affordable Care Act.
"I am convinced that we can find a bipartisan, Virginia solution that totally protects our commonwealth’s finances while taking advantage of this historic opportunity to make our state a better place to live," McAuliffe said.
Following a national trend to roll back the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the governor also advocated limiting standardized testing in schools while maintaining quality education.
"You cannot build an economy for 2050 with a 1950s approach to education," he said.
In the Republican response to governor’s speech, Del. Rob Bell of Albemarle and Sen. Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg said the GOP would use its majority in the House and Senate to challenge McAuliffe on key issues.
Ruff said Republicans will fight McAuliffe’s efforts to expand Medicaid as part of President Obama’s new health care law.
"One area where we will not be in agreement with Gov. McAuliffe is Obamacare," Ruff said. "While the governor’s budget again includes the federal program’s Medicaid expansion scheme, we believe this initiative threatens critically important priorities like education."
Medicaid costs are rising even without expansion, Ruff said.
"Even without the optional federal expansion, mandated spending on Medicaid will take an even higher share of state spending in the new budget,” he said. “Expanding the program further would not be prudent, and would only increase the funding pressures on other state core services."
Bell addressed Republican grievances over executive actions taken by McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring. In recent months, the governor banned firearms from state buildings, and Herring declared that Virginia would no longer honor concealed handgun permits from 25 states that he said do not meet the commonwealth’s standards.
"Our system of government is founded on the constitutional principles of a separation of powers," Bell said. "As has become all too common in Washington, here in Richmond we have seen Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General Herring use executive actions and appointments to circumvent these constitutional limitations and undermine the balance envisioned by our founders."
The Republican response to McAuliffe’s speech included areas of agreement with the governor.
Ruff said Republicans want to prepare Virginians for the changing economy and create an environment that will draw employers.
"To better prepare our workforce for the demands of a rapidly changing economy, the budget we approve will include initiatives to encourage more Virginians to complete educational programs that lead to certification in high-demand fields," he said.
"By investing in workforce training targeted to growing industries, we can make Virginia even more attractive to employers."
The senator acknowledged common interests the Republicans share with McAuliffe.
"As a member of one of the two legislative committees that will consider the governor’s proposed budget, I know we will find common ground with him on efforts to increase funding for our public schools, for mental health care, for public safety, and for our veterans."
By Margaret Carmel and James Miessler