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Outgoing governor urges lawmakers to ‘work together’

RICHMOND, Va.  – Gov. Terry McAuliffe delivered his farewell State of the Commonwealth Address on the opening day of the General Assembly’s 2018 session, making a final plea for legislators to expand Medicaid and saying the state is in good hands as he passes the baton to a fellow Democrat, Ralph Northam [Scroll to the bottom to watch or click here to read full comments]. 

With a smile, McAuliffe took the podium Wednesday night before a joint session of the House and Senate as he announced his pleasure to address the General Assembly “one final time.” The Republican side of the chamber appeared silent while Democratic lawmakers stood, cheered and banged their desks in appreciation.

Once again, McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for low-income Americans.

“The chief issue that demands your attention is making a clear statement that, in a new Virginia economy, health care is not a privilege for the few – it is a right for all,” McAuliffe said. “Put the politics aside. It’s time to expand Medicaid in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

In his address, McAuliffe said that at his inauguration, he promised to maintain the state’s reputation for strong fiscal management, to make Virginia the greatest place in the world for veterans, military service members and their families, and to be a brick wall to protect the rights of women and LGBT Virginians from discrimination.

“Four years later, we have kept those promises,” McAuliffe said. “And we are a Commonwealth of greater equality, justice and opportunity for all people as a result. That is a legacy we can all be proud of.”

McAuliffe spoke not just to legislators but to everyday Virginians as he recited progress the state had made during his term.

“In the coming years, I hope you will build on that foundation by using your voices and your votes to make Virginia more equal, more just and more prosperous for all people, no matter whom they are, where they live or whom they love,” McAuliffe said.

He took notice of political battles, such as Republicans suing him for contempt when he attempted to restore, in one fell swoop, the voting rights of about 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences.

McAuliffe established the record for the most bills vetoed during his time in office – a total of 120.

“I absolutely hated having to veto a record 120 bills – but those bills took Virginia in the wrong direction,” McAuliffe said. “They attacked women’s rights, equality for LGBT people and access to the voting booth. They hurt the environment, and they made Virginia less safe. I honestly wish they’d never made it to my desk.”

McAuliffe received several standing ovations during his address, but perhaps the loudest followed his statements regarding Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in August. Everyone on the floor took the moment to stand and applaud for the remarks about Heyer.

McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was elected governor in November 2013, defeating Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

During his term, Republicans had a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, making it difficult for McAuliffe to pass his key priorities, such as expanding Medicaid. But Democrats made big gains in last fall’s elections. As McAuliffe leaves office, the GOP holds a slim margin in both the House and Senate.

“Virginia is a different place than it was four years ago, and for that we should all be proud. But there is still more work to do,” McAuliffe said.

He later added, “As I look across this room, I see many new faces. The people of Virginia, in their wisdom, have made significant changes to the composition of this General Assembly with a simple message in mind: work together to get things done.”

In their response to McAuliffe’s speech, Republicans took issue with his rosy assessment of the state’s economy. They said that Virginia has been eclipsed by other states and that McAuliffe has neglected rural areas, especially the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

“With fierce competition between states to attract and retain businesses,” said Del. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge. “Virginia simply cannot afford to stagnate. Our past achievements will not sustain a prosperous future.”

Sen. A. Benton Chafin, R-Russell, said McAuliffe put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with other energy-rich states.

“The last four years has seen some very pitched and contentious battles here in Richmond,” Chafin said. “Gov. McAuliffe began his term by initiating and championing a nearly four-month-long budget stalemate. Now, he is concluding his term by advancing the very same proposals that nearly resulted in our first-ever government shutdown.”

By Chelsea Jackson and Jessica Wetzler/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia's community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.