Fresh off General Assembly elections that saw them retain a 2-to-1 advantage over Democrats in the House of Delegates, Virginia Republican leaders Monday unveiled their top three legislative priorities for the 2016 session.
The legislative agenda sets up a series potential fights with Democrats and Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
In a press release Monday, House leadership said their policy focus would be highways, schools, and the economy - all major headaches for Old Dominion.
“These are the first pieces of what I expect to be a broad, bold agenda to govern and lead our commonwealth," said House Speaker Bill Howell, whom Republican delegates unanimously re-elected on Sunday.
"Our goal," Howell said, "will be to address the challenges that Virginians confront every day, whether it is traffic congestion, rising energy bills, fewer educational opportunities or a still stagnant job market.”
On education, Republicans tapped Northern Virginia Del. Jim LeMunyon to carry House Bill 1, which would prohibit tolls on Interstate 66 in northern Virginia.
The toll issue flared up in the waning days of the 2015 election, with Republicans hammering Democrats over McAuliffe's proposal to impose tolls on a portion of I-66 inside the Washington Beltway. Tolls are a sore spot for Northern Virginians, who in 2013 were slapped with a 1-cent sales taxes hike signed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell that was ostensibly aimed at easing the region's perpetual congestion.
While the issue failed to show much effect at the polls - Democrats actually gained two open House seats in Northern Virginia - Republicans still think it will work for them.
House Bill 2, patroned by Del. Israel O'Quinn (R-Washington), would give the General Assembly oversight and approval of the EPA's Clean Power Plan in Virginia. O'Quinn said the bill would require the governor to submit his plan for reaching the EPA goals for reducing carbon emissions in Virginia. "The House and Senate will then take a vote on behalf of the Virginians they represent. If the plan fails to pass, Governor McAuliffe tries again," O'Quinn said.
Republicans also filed two constitutional amendments, each of which passed through the General Assembly in 2015. If approved again in 2016, they will go before voters at next November's general election.
House Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Del. Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville), would grant the State Board of Education the power to establish additional charter schools in Virginia. Bell, who has told AMI Newswire he will seek the GOP's nomination for Attorney General in 2017, said: "This constitutional amendment will make it much easier for charter schools to be opened in Virginia.”
The second proposed amendment, House Joint Resolution 2, patroned by Del. Richard P. "Dickie" Bell (R-Staunton), would make Virginia's right-to-work law part of the constitution. Bell said this step would be a powerful signal to businesses seeking to relocate to the commonwealth, and that "Virginia will make even clearer our status as a right to work state.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy told AMI Newswire that "the governor will review the bills carefully if they pass."
Coy singled out LeMunyon's transportation bill. "I think [the governor's] many statements about his common sense plan to increase options and ease congestion on I-66 make his position pretty clear on that particular issue," he said.
During the campaign, McAuliffe called GOP Senate candidate Hal Parrish "a liar" over Parrish's 30-second TV spot titled, "Stop the Tolls."
Parrish said: "Richmond politicians are at it again. They want us to pay $17 just to drive on I-66 inside the Beltway. They are talking about more for 395, too."
In an interview on WTOP radio, McAuliffe fired back, saying that "Hal Parrish is doing this because he's got a horrible record on guns. He's horrible on women's issues, he's horrible on gun issues and he can't talk about his record," McAuliffe said, "so he's out now misleading and lying about the truth."
Parrish lost his race to Democrat Jeremy McPike by eight percentage points.