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January 10, 2013 12:10 am


Gov. Bob McDonnell



--Gov. Bob McDonnell is calling for Virginia to make automatic the restoration of civil rights for those convicted of a nonviolent felony.

McDonnell announced the proposal in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech at the Capitol on Wednesday night, the first day of the General Assembly's 45-day session.

He also used the speech to announce a proposal to create a "statewide school division" with the power to take over failing schools, as well as a constitutional amendment authorizing private charter schools.

McDonnell had restored the civil rights of 4,423 felons as of Wednesday, surpassing the previous record by former Gov. Tim Kaine, who restored the rights for 4,402 felons.

State law requires those convicted of a felony to apply to the governor--after they've served their sentence--for restoration of their rights to vote, serve on a jury, hold public office and serve as a notary public. The restoration of those rights is not automatic upon completion of their sentence.

"While we have significantly improved and fast-tracked the restoration of civil rights process, it's

still an executive process," McDonnell said. "As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution. It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for nonviolent offenders."

At least two delegates propose constitutional amendments to automatically restore some rights to felons. Del. Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, would restore rights to nonviolent felons. And Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, would create an automatic restoration of the right to vote.

But McDonnell's support doesn't guarantee passage. At least two Republicans with public-safety backgrounds said after the speech that they oppose automatic restoration of rights.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, a former police officer, was one.

"I'm a believer in forgiveness, but I also believe there should be a process to get that back," he said.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, an attorney and candidate for attorney general, said he thinks the governor is wrong on the issue, and that each case should be reviewed individually. Bell also said there is a wide range of offenses categorized as "nonviolent."

The school proposals are the third part of McDonnell's plans to revamp K-12 education. He previously announced bills to give teacher raises, tied to passage of changes to teacher evaluation procedures.

He wants to provide more ways to turn around schools that aren't meeting accreditation standards, he said.

"Even in a state like ours with a very good public education system, some students are trapped in schools that are underperforming and unaccredited," McDonnell said. "It must end now."

His proposal would let the General Assembly establish the threshold for when a school that has been denied accreditation multiple times should be taken over by the statewide school division, and also authorizes a portion of the per-pupil funding from that school district to be shifted to the statewide division.

He wants to have a constitutional amendment authorizing charter schools and then let local school divisions decide when to allow a new charter school, without needing state Board of Education approval.

McDonnell has long been a proponent of charter schools. He said Wednesday that Virginia has "one of the weakest public charter schools laws in all the country.

"The best public charter school operators in the nation will not come to Virginia because we have make it nearly impossible for them to get started here in our state," McDonnell said. "We need new charter school laws that demand excellence, set clear standards, and welcome the best charter schools into our communities."

Democrats in the legislature have opposed additional public resources going to private schools. In a response made before McDonnell's speech, House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said he still thinks it's the wrong move for Virginia.

"During the last several years, the unfortunate response to our educational challenges from some of our Republican colleagues is propose further cuts in K-12 funding--while providing more resources to private schools," Toscano said. "In the Democratic view, that is the wrong way to go."

Democrats also object to McDonnell's positions--made previously but reiterated in his Wednesday speech--that Virginia will not create its own state-based health insurance exchange, nor expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act.

"The cost of Medicaid in our budget has grown 1,600 percent in the last 30 years," McDonnell said Wednesday. "Virginia simply cannot afford to become the bank for a federally designed expansion of Medicaid. The federal government must promptly authorize real, innovative, state-run Medicaid reforms to allow us at the state level to run our programs and manage our programs better. Without dramatic reform, I cannot recommend a dramatic Medicaid expansion."

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028

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