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Reaction to McAuliffe's State of the Commonwealth Address

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RICHMOND (WSLS 10) - McAuliffe delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address Wednesday night in the State Capitol.

His focus stuck mostly to his recently released 2016 biennial budget and to economic successes the state has seen during his tenure so far in office.

Predictably, Democrats are praising his economic plans moving forward, while Republicans have serious concerns about an increase in spending.

That increase makes this budget the highest ever at $109 billion.

It includes a 2 percent raise for all teachers and state employees, something that seems to have bi-partisan support, but it also includes divisive increases like more grant funding and an expansion of Medicaid.

McAuliffe began his Address highlighting how his administration has improved the economy.

"Think about our accomplishments over the past two years,:" said McAuliffe. "561 new economic development projects. A record $9.27 billion dollars in capital investment. The lowest unemployment rate in the Southeast. The lowest level of initial unemployment claims in 41 years. An increase in the average weekly wage from $878 to $941. And more than 3,848,000 jobs in Virginia, the largest number in the history of the Commonwealth."

Democrats say his work is worth praising.

"The economy is in good shape. We have the lowest unemployment rate in 41 years, and we have a modest surplus, so I'm hoping we can really make some progress this year," said State Senator John Edwards.

But on the other side of the isle, several Republicans are saying the increase in spending is an irresponsible use of tax dollars.

"The economy has been flat, we have a 12  point four percent increase in spending and the Governor wants to put a 2 point 5 billion dollar bond, so that would be a total 15 percent increase in the budget in 2 years," said State Senator Tom Garrett.

McAuliffe also highlighted his ambition to increase funding toward solar projects in Virginia.

"We are also doing our part to power up the solar industry in Virginia with our goal to purchase 8 percent of the electricity needed to run state government from solar generation within the next three years. Friends, that is a 100-fold increase in our solar usage," said McAulifffe.

But Garrett says he openly questions where the priorities for the state are in that plan.

"Why are we spending money on global warming when we can't pay our teachers and troopers enough? Right? Because we have a duty to take care of teachers and troopers. I'm not sure where the state's responsibility to combat global warming is?" said Garrett.

One of the biggest points of contention will also once again this year be the proposed expansion of Medicaid.

The Governor assumes in his budget that by joining the 29 other states that have already expanded Medicaid, Virginia will save $156 million the state will be able to put into other programs, but with a Republican controlled House and Senate, it will not be likely to pass.

Several lawmakers also gave hints at what they will be fighting for in 2016 Wednesday during the first official day of the legislative session:

HALTING THE CLOSURE OF CATAWBA HOSPITAL

Delegate Joseph Yost has proposed a budget amendment that would halt the proposed closure of Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County.

Right now, the proposal is to forgo making repairs on the aging mental health hospital and instead build a new wing at Western State Hospital in Staunton.

The Governor also hopes to push for more community-based mental health services, but Yost says that move would leave a big gap in coverage for people who need intensive care.

"To have an adequate mental health system that can serve the needs of Virginia in the 21st century, it can't be either or. You can't have either the community or a hospital, you have to have both, and so I think that's the most important part because, even somebody who has achieved that recovery, there's always a possibility they could go into crisis down the road, or somebody else has a crisis, and you need that acute care for those individuals that you just can't get in the community," said Yost.

Yost says he anticipates his budget amendment will be taken up in early February.

He says he has already garnered a significant amount of support for his proposal in the house.

LIMITING THE POWER OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL

State Senator Tom Garrett says his bill (SB 178) may have been the first one submitted.

It's responding to the Attorney General's recent announcement he plans to end reciprocity agreements with 25 other states, meaning those concealed permits wouldn't be recognized in Virginia.

Garrett says his bill was filed 12 hours after that announcement.

The bill would take the power to determine reciprocity agreements with other states away from the Attorney General and give it to the General Assembly.

Garrett says the power to make that decision should be vested in representatives chosen by the people instead of one appointed state official.

"Lawful concealed handgun permit holders don't commit crime. Statistically, they are dozens of times safer than the rest of the population, and so why the Attorney General chooses to punish the single most law-abiding segment of the Virginia population is beyond me, but he isn't going to do it on my watch," said Garrett.

Right now, the Attorney General's proposal to end reciprocity agreements with those 25 states would make anyone who chooses to continue to carry a concealed weapon who received a permit in one of those states a felon.

CHANGING THE PIPELINE LAND SURVEYING STATUTE

There are currently hundreds of lawsuits pending between landowners and the parent companies of the highly publicized Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Now, State Senator John Edwards wants to put another speed bump in the way of those projects.

Right now, natural gas pipelines qualify as a public utility, and therefore those companies can survey anyone's private property as long as prior notice is given, but people around the state have refused, causing the parent companies of both projects to sue hundreds of landowners.

A Virginia court has already ruled the law is constitutional, so Edwards says it's time to get rid of it altogether.

"The landowners are outraged, and so far they have not succeeded in the courts to keep the pipeline surveyors from coming on their property, and this would simply say, unless you have a certificate of public convenience and necessity, you cannot come upon a person's property to survey. It's trespassing," said Edwards.

Edwards says he believes any company having the ability to come onto a private property without the consent of the owner is wrong and he hopes to get support for the amendment in the Senate.