‘The time to act is now’

Gov. Bob McDonnell is greeted by supporters at the state Capitol in Richmond as he makes his way into the House chamber to deliver the State of the Commonwealth address. He spoke for 50 minutes to a joint session of the legislature.

Gov. Bob McDonnell called for automatic restoration of civil rights for nonviolent felons during his annual State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night, committing his prestige to a proposal that his own party has resisted for years.

“As a nation, and for me as a governor, that believes in redemption and second chances and helping people that make mistakes, I think it’s time we provide a clear path for willing individuals who want to become productive members of the society once they have served their sentences and have paid their fines and restitution and their debts to society,” the Republican said.

“I think it’s time for Virginia to join most of the other states in the country and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for nonviolent offenders in our state,” he said to hearty applause and standing ovation from part of his audience in the House chamber.

During the 50-minute address to a joint session of the legislature, McDonnell pushed for more changes as part of his K-12 agenda and asked lawmakers not to leave the General Assembly session that started Wednesday without approving a long-term transportation funding plan.

“Please do not send me a budget that does not include new transportation funding,” he said. “Because we’re out of excuses and the time to act is now.”

McDonnell this week rolled out a transportation funding overhaul that would eliminate the state’s 17.5-cent gas tax and add 0.8 percent to the state’s sales tax. It would increase the vehicle registration fee by $15 and add a $100 fee for alternative fuel vehicles.

The change would make Virginia the first state without a gas tax, according to the administration. McDonnell says the plan, which also relies on capturing more online sales taxes, pending action by Congress, would raise $3.2 billion over five years.

McDonnell continued his push for more charter schools in the state, asking lawmakers to create more ways for the schools to be approved. The changes would, in part, involve a constitutional amendment to allow the state Board of Education to authorize charter applicants.

He also proposed a statewide school division to manage failing public elementary or secondary schools.

“If a school is consistently failing, the Opportunity Educational Institution will step in to manage it,” he said. “If the school has failed for two years or more, the institution can take it over and provide a brand-new management system to a broken school and that will make a change in that school for those young people.”

They are new pieces in McDonnell’s multifaceted K-12 public school reform package that also includes a 2 percent pay raise for public school teachers — contingent on lawmakers approving a series of changes.

He wants to assign public schools a letter grade, A to F; beef up algebra and reading help; and bring to the state Teach for America, a program that recruits top college graduates to teach in hard-to-staff schools.

His plan also would extend the probation period for new teachers to five years from three, and “require a satisfactory performance rating as demonstrated through the new performance evaluation system to keep that continuing contract,” he said.

“Good teachers will flourish; poor ones will not.”

In a response to McDonnell’s address, House Minority Leader Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said, “During the last several years, the unfortunate response to our educational challenges from some of our Republican colleagues is propose further cuts in K-12 funding — while providing more resources to private schools.

“In the Democratic view, that is the wrong way to go,” he said in prepared remarks. “Every investment in education is a down payment on a growing economy.”

When discussing the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that killed 26 people in Newtown, Conn., McDonnell outlined mental health funding and his school safety task force but did not mention gun control.

On the effort to restore civil rights, McDonnell noted that Del. Peter F. Farrell, R-Henrico, is among the lawmakers carrying automatic restoration legislation.

Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, and other Democrats interviewed Wednesday evening expressed strong support for the governor’s rights restoration proposal.

Some, including Sen. A Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, and Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, suggested the bill should be named after the late Sen. Yvonne B. Miller of Norfolk, who championed rights restoration for 17 years until her death last year.

“If we can get that bill passed, her legacy will live on,” McClellan said. “He (the governor) is to be applauded for adopting our idea and wanting to move it forward.”

Some Republicans, however, had reservations about the idea.

“I have some substantive concerns about a blanket policy as opposed to looking at these individually,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover, referring to the current rights restoration process versus McDonnell’s proposal.

McDonnell’s office said it has restored the civil rights of 4,423 felons and that the number is higher than any of his predecessors. The governor campaigned on implementing a speedier restoration-review process and, once in office, he set a goal of delivering an answer to a petitioner within 60 days.

In Virginia, the governor must restore civil rights to felons. The Sentencing Project estimates Virginia’s disenfranchised population at 451,471 people but does not specify the number of violent and nonviolent felons.

McDonnell also plugged his budget amendment to provide a $1,000 incentive for up to 1,000 families who adopt foster care children. He asked legislators to approve $2.5 million for the state Marine Resources Commission for targeted oyster restoration projects.

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Staff writers Jim Nolan and Markus Schmidt contributed to this report.

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