A prominent group of northern Virginia business leaders recently sent the Governor and the entire Virginia General Assembly a tersely worded letter to remind the Republican leadership that the welfare of Virginia depends on a robust economy and not on their social agenda. Governor McDonnell ran on a "jobs" platform, and over the next decade, the northern Virginia region will have over 600,000 jobs to fill. About half will be brand new jobs, most in the information and technology sector, and half will be needed to replace an aging workforce. According to the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, we are going to need substantial changes in education and housing policies and a dramatic infusion of funds for our aging infrastructure if we are going to attract the workers we need here to fill all those jobs.
While northern Virginia leaders in the business and academic communities focus on the critical disconnect between the workforce we have today and the kind we will need in a decade, the Governor and the Virginia General Assembly are staging a cultural revolution in Richmond that will have economic consequences for our region and beyond for years to come. They are carrying us back to an old Virginia that most people in our region never knew or would like to forget.
The disconnect includes a $65 million cut in the Governor’s budget to the northern Virginia "cost to compete" funds – the money designated to attract and keep professional staff in our more expensive region. His signature education initiatives included restoring pension funds he previously cut while diverting General Funds from education to transportation. The Virginia Senate thwarted his bill to dramatically change teacher tenure, reducing both job security and faculty cohesion, but he wants it restored.
The Governor’s transportation proposals are transparently thin at a time when our construction fund is almost entirely depleted to pay for necessary maintenance. His solutions: naming rights for roads, more tolls, and getting local governments to levy taxes so state legislators can remain true to their "no taxes" pledge. Making transportation a priority and not funding it is a big disconnect too if your goal is job growth and economic prosperity.
The business leaders who sent the letter to the Governor know that if you are not willing to fund education and transportation, you are not seriously pro-business or pro-jobs. If your agenda is social issues, you will not attract the workers you need. And with fewer than a dozen bills out of over 2500 introduced, this legislature has changed the image of Virginia for years to come.
Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads share the majority of the state’s population and commercial base, and should have the votes to drive an economic agenda that promotes sensible education and transportation policies. But many of our urban legislators, including local Fairfax delegates Dave Albo, Barbara Comstock, and Tim Hugo, are complicit in the "nothing for something" legislative and budget agenda that the Governor and his fellow partisans have proposed. And despite McDonnell’s admonition to these delegates not to overreach, they wasted no time in doing so.
Thanks to their votes, Virginians will find it harder to vote, but easier to buy guns. With calls for limited government, this legislature pushed for legislation so hostile and intrusive to women’s privacy and health care that it made national headlines. Our state officials are pro-kids and family unless you are gay. They are pro-science but short change the K-12 education funding to train future scientists. Poverty is rising, so programs for poor families are being cut, putting the next generation’s workforce at risk.
In short, if you don’t look like you would fit nicely in a Norman Rockwell painting, you might not fit in here. Our area business leaders understand that the Virginia others see may not be so inviting for many of the talented potential workers we must attract to remain competitive.
The irony is that Governor McDonnell might have created a lasting legacy of accomplishment with real transportation solutions and education programs that acknowledge the significant challenges we face to prepare for a competitive international workforce and economy. Instead he is tethered to zealous and reactionary true believers who are writing his legacy for him. Virginia is becoming a vision free zone. All the proposed tax credits and giveaways will not lure businesses here if potential workers find a small minded culture reminiscent of that intolerant, provincial Virginia we thought we had overcome.