Virginia is growing strong again

Published 9:58 pm Monday, April 30, 2012

When we took office in January 2010, the commonwealth faced major challenges.

Virginia was mired in a deep recession that had pushed the state unemployment rate to levels not seen in a generation. Our state government confronted $6 billion in collective shortfalls. College tuitions had doubled over the previous decade. Transportation needed significant funding; even the rest stops were closed. In short, times were tough.

Now, looking back over the past 27 months, we can see that, collectively, we’re making progress in addressing those challenges. We are building a “Commonwealth of Opportunity.”

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Virginia is in the midst of a sustained economic recovery. Yes, it’s still early. But early returns are very positive. The state unemployment rate has fallen 23 percent since we took office, from 7.3 percent in January 2010 to 5.6 percent today. That’s our lowest unemployment rate in over three years and the lowest in the Southeast, by a long shot.

The bipartisan effort, led by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, to get our economy back on track is creating new opportunities all across the state. One-hundred sixty-thousand more Virginians are working today. And the more than 115,000 net new jobs created in the state is the eighth-highest amount in the country.

National organizations are taking notice. CNBC and Pollina Corporate have named Virginia the top state in America for business. MoneyRates.com just identified Virginia as the best state in which to earn a living.

The private sector is driving this recovery. Less than 15 percent of these new jobs are government positions. Virginia’s job creators are innovating, growing and hiring. And Virginia’s state government is doing all it can to assist them. We are helping them keep more capital to invest and expand by not raising taxes. We are removing unnecessary regulations and keeping litigation to a minimum. We have taken proactive steps to guard our highly valued Aaa bond rating.

This is a bipartisan effort. My first two years in office, with a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, 86 percent of our legislative initiatives passed. This past session, with a Republican General Assembly, 88 percent of our bills were successful. Good ideas are being turned into Virginia public policy, and those policies are getting results.

A year ago we created the framework to put the most new funding into transportation in a generation, nearly $4 billion for Virginia roads and rail over three years. Last year over $2 billion in projects were contracted, the largest amount in Virginia history. This influx of new funding is moving forward 900 projects statewide.

A year ago we passed sweeping new legislation to dramatically improve college affordability and accessibility for Virginia students. This session, we put our money where our policy is. We are directing $230 million in new funding to Virginia’s institutions of higher education, reversing a decade-long trend of disinvestment and driving down tuition increases for Virginia students.

That commitment to education extends to our K-12 system. We are matching significant reform and accountability with new funding to ensure a world-class public education system in every locality.

Through this budget we are putting over $600 million of new funding into Virginia’s public schools. That funding is accompanied by new measures to boost student reading, expand charter, virtual and college laboratory schools and reward our best teachers in order to ensure our students are college- or career-ready.

Innovation and investment don’t stop with roads and schools. We’ve put tremendous new resources into the aggressive selling of Virginia products, and the marketing of Virginia as a business location, to audiences worldwide.

It’s working. In 2011 we set a new record for state agricultural exports at $2.35 billion. Our major investment in the Port of Hampton Roads is helping us to bring more Virginia products to new overseas markets. In October, the first ship filled with Virginia soybeans left for China as part of a new export deal. Many more ships have departed since then. Estimated value of each shipload: $25 million.

Virginia’s economy is gaining momentum. More Virginians are working. And in Richmond we’re ensuring that, through sound fiscal practices, Virginians are keeping more of what they earn. We’ve turned two budget shortfalls totaling $6 billion into back-to-back budget surpluses totaling nearly $1 billion, without raising taxes. We’ve reduced the anticipated unfunded liability in our state pension system by $9 billion by 2031.

Virginia is growing strong again. This is a “Commonwealth of Opportunity.” It is the result of Virginians from Reston to Roanoke to Richmond coming together across party lines to get results. It is a success story written by the people of Virginia.

Bob McDonnell is the 71st Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. This column first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 29.