By Dan McDermott
LYNCHBURG — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell spoke to reporters Wed. March 30 at a ribbon cutting in Lynchburg just one day after Senate Democrats and House Republicans released their respective plans for new legislative lines in the Commonwealth.
The senate plan groups four Republicans into two senate districts. In one case, Sen. Steve Newman’s district runs two hours from Lynchburg through the Jefferson National Forest to the West Virginia state line and includes the home of Sen. Ralph Smith.
McDonnell said he hadn’t looked at the plans closely but said they must be contiguous, compact and meet the legal qualifications of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
Gov. McDonnell addressed his long-time advisor and colleague Del. Clay Athey’s decision not to seek re-election this fall. McDonnell said Athey indicated that he would most likely retire two months ago and his Warren County district has been divided among four neighboring delegates.
McDonnell said the Virginia Retirement system needs to be changed or it will run out of money and that convicted murderer Jens Soering should remain in prison and in Virginia.
McDonnell says he has made several recommendations for changes to a bill for autism insurance and that he is headed for Texas Saturday to watch the VCU game.
(00:00) Question: The Governor’s bipartisan commission is getting ready to bring its recommendation out. Is it going to have any impact on the House plan that combines two Democrats into one district and the Senate plan that puts Republicans in the same district?
Gov. McDonnell: Well for the last 30 days I’ve just been focusing on 900 bills that I’ve had to review and amend and sign and veto in the budget and I’ve just finished that at midnight, that was my deadline. So I know that the House and Senate put forth bills yesterday. I think the commission that I chartered is supposed to make its recommendations today or tomorrow and then the General Assembly will start meeting in committee on Monday so I haven’t looked at the plans and really won’t weigh in until after the General Assembly does its work. I just want them to follow the law. I signed an executive order saying that the plan needs to honor communities of interest, it needs to have districts that are compact and contiguous and honor the Voting Rights Act. That’s what the law requires. There are any number of ways to do that but that’s the minimum threshold so I haven’t looked at specific districts. I’ve just read late last night that Lynchburg and Central Virginia actually has some Senate districts combined. That will be a subject of discussion in the Senate. At this point I haven’t looked at the plans.
(01:25) Question: On the Virginia Retirement System bill, do you plan any changes there?
Gov. McDonnell: Yes. We sent down the budget last night and there are a number of proposals that I’ve made, one that will put about $24 million of new money into the retirement system by accelerating payments in the 4th quarter of 2012. We’re going to accelerate the transfers into the system from quarterly to monthly to increase the interest rates. I have offered again in the budget and in legislation an optional defined contribution plan so that employees could have a choice from their current defined benefit program. That will save us money in the out years. And we’ve also provided for local governments to have the choice to require local employees to pay up to 5%.That’s what we did this year. Employees pay 5%. Now we’ve offset it with a 5% pay raise but we’re giving local governments the option to do that. We’re in trouble with our retirement system. We have a $17.8 billion unfunded liability. That’s going to represent about 61% funding by the year 2014 according to the latest JLARC report and I’m not going to pass this problem on to another governor. I want to make sure that we’re taking the prudent steps now to ensure the long term solvency of the system. I’m disappointed that the General Assembly didn’t approve our earlier plan to have shared sacrifice between employees and the government. We’re only one of four states that requires no participation by an employee and we’re just at a point in Virginia where we can’t afford it anymore. So its a long term challenge. We’ve taken some short term steps with the budget now to address that but there’s a lot more to do.
(03:09) Question: The Senate rejected the defined contribution twice. In essence with a bill and also with the budget. How is this going to…
Gov. McDonnell: Well, I’m giving them a chance to reconsider. You know you can always admit you were wrong and do the right thing and this is the right thing to do. State employees didn’t have any objection to it and it’s a matter of choice. If you want to manage your own portfolio because you’re computer savvy and market savvy through a 401-K or a defined contribution program you ought to be able to do it. You might be able to get a better return than the government can get managing it for you. I mean that’s what we believe about it. It’s freedom of choices in America. I hope there shouldn’t be objection to that. I know they rejected it twice but it’s the right thing to do. It’s what almost all the private business is doing, going to defined contribution. And it’s what all but four other states either have a shared contribution with a defined benefit program or they have a defined contribution program. It’s clearly the way its going and Virginia is out of the mainstream on that so we’re going to have another discussion about that next week.
(04:09) Question: Governor, I wanted to ask you real quick about Thomas Johnson. You’re here today because he’s starting a woodworking school. You were talking a little about his belief in free enterprise and that sort of thing. How do you think what Thomas is doing is good here in Lynchburg is good not just for Lynchburg but for the economy as a whole.
Gov. McDonnell: I find Thomas Johnson to be an incredibly inspiring and compelling figure. I met him a couple of years ago, saw what he was doing, heard his life story about coming from Ghana, coming to this country, realizing this incredible land of opportunity and freedom we have here in America and just by good old fashioned traits of hard work and entrepreneurship and innovation he’s created a successful company and now wants to be able to share that passion for furniture manufacturing with other people. That’s what this country is all about and I wanted to be here today to help kick off the next stage of his vision and I think his role and his story as an entrepreneur will be one that will be retold through NFIB and other groups around the state to inspire other young people, other new generation of entrepreneurs to do the same thing so it’s a great story.
(05:15) Question: Governor, I’ve got one non-local question. Sorry everybody but..for the other paper. Del. Clay Athey is a friend of yours. He was an advisor to your campaign. Was this a shock to you? What are your thoughts?
Gov. McDonnell: I had talked to Clay over the last couple of months and he told me that he was thinking of entering a new phase in his life and retiring and concentrating on family and law practice and so forth and so I knew this was likely to come. Clay has really been one of the smartest policy minds in the General Assembly now for a decade. He was very helpful to me, advising me on everything from business to rural policy issues during the campaign. He was a force on the Courts of Justice Committee and I think will be sorely missed but that’s part of–talking about redistricting–that’s part of the vibrancy of our republic. People come and go. Since I got elected twenty years ago, about 90% of the General Assembly has turned over and so people go but there are new people like Clay Athey that are brilliant public servants that will come in and take his place and I think that’s why we’re a great state. But he’ll be missed.
(06:26) Question: Some folks in Warren are concerned because the county has been split into three separate legislative districts I guess with the foresight that he was going to step down. It just hadn’t been announced yet and it was announced the same day the plan came out. Some folks in Warren might be concerned that a county of 35,000 people is going to now be split and have less influence arguably. What are your thoughts on that?
Gov. McDonnell: I don’t have any comments on specific districts because I haven’t looked at the plan and my role is to look at that after the General Assembly acts. My over-arching concern is to make sure that it is a lawful plan, that it follows the statutes, the Constitution and the Federal Voting Rights Act. How they do that is really a function of the General Assembly but what they should do is to the maximum degree possible is to preserve communities of interest so that a community, whether is Warrenton or Fairfax or Abington or Lynchburg, essentially has one legislator that can represent all of that. That’s the goal but mathematically its not always possible because you have to have one man, one vote and sometimes things have to be split so I’ll take a look at that next week.
Question: Sen. Newman’s district is going all the way two hours to West Virginia through the national forest.
Gov. McDonnell: I’ve just read some clips about that but this has got a ways to go. The student competition has produced some recommendations. We have a bipartisan panel, its an advisory group that’s going to come out with recommendations today or tomorrow to the legislature. The committees will meet next week. This is an historic redistricting process. We’ve never had a time with a split General Assembly. We’ve got a Democratic Senate, a Republican House. We’ve always had one party in both houses to do it. Invariably there will be some changes I assume, some compromise and then I’ll look at the bill when it comes to me to see if it meets the constitutional muster.
(08:13) Question: Jens Soering is going to be coming up for parole soon. Any thoughts on letting him go back to Germany?
Gov. McDonnell: Well the Parole Board is completely independent. I appoint them but I don’t tell them what to do and so they’ll make their decision based on what the statutes require and whether they think he’s eligible, should be paroled. He’s clearly eligible. He’s been denied a couple times. He was convicted of an incredibly brutal and heinous murder and what I have done is to say that I don’t think that he should go back to Germany to serve his time. I revoked Gov. Kaine’s request to the Justice Department to have him sent back to parole so that he’d serve his time here in Virginia. We feel better about criminals committing crimes in Virginia serving time in Virginia prisons but the Parole Board will make what they believe is a fair and just decision. I’ve just replaced the entire Parole Board so its a new set of eyes to look at his case.
(09:04) Question: And then really quickly, the bill that would require insurance for children that have autism. You’ve made some changes to that?
Gov. McDonnell: Some of them I think are clarifying. I’ve reviewed those in some detail with the patrons. I hope that most of them that they will approve. We wanted the people that provide the routine treatment for autism spectrum disorders that they are licensed and properly trained. We wanted to make sure that there are independent reviews of the care to make sure that it is appropriate and that its within the bounds of cost and we also made an amendment–and this one will be one that will be of some debate–that if the caps on the bill that are currently $35,000 a year, if for any reason a court were to strike those down under federal mental health parity laws, that then the bill is invalidated because the whole, the advocates of the bill were fairly certain that the $35,000 cap would make sure that there was a constant limit to what would be spent on the autism care. But if those caps were to be invalidated the expenses would increase dramatically and so that’s one of the amendments that I put on there if somehow the caps are invalidated that therefore the bill is invalidated. That’ll be subject to some discussion but I’m hoping the rest of the amendments, in my conversation with the patron, I’m hoping the rest of them will be approved.
(10:31) Question: Are you going to Houston to watch VCU play?
Gov. McDonnell: I’m going. Go Rams! All the way! I’m going Saturday, yeah. I talked to Coach Smart last week to congratulate him and President Rao and they’re sending me the T-shirt so I’ve got the right uniform for the game but what a great story of hard work and determination and overcoming odds and all the naysayers who said that they didn’t belong in the tournament. It’s a great American story. They have represented Virginia and their school incredibly well and I’m going to be there Saturday and Monday to see them win it all.