RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Days after taking office, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia told the General Assembly on Monday evening that Medicaid eligibility should be expanded in the state.
In addressing the lawmakers, McAuliffe said the state can't afford to forgo $2.1 billion a year in federal funds by not expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law to about 400,000 Virginians.
"This money represents tax payments that Virginians have sent — and will continue to send — to Washington regardless of whether we seized this opportunity or not," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe also noted that several other states have expanded Medicaid, which is designed to provide health care to the poor, including those led by conservative governors.
The issue is set to be one of the most contentious of this year's legislative session.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates have steadfastly rejected McAuliffe's overtures to expand Medicaid, saying the program needs reform and Virginia should not rely on the federal government's promises of future payments.
House Majority Leader Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights said getting Medicaid expansion through the House is unlikely.
"I just don't see that happening," he said.
McAuliffe promised to work in bipartisan fashion as governor, a frequent pledge he made prior to assuming office that's likely to soon be tested as the legislative session gears up.
The new governor also stressed the need to diversify the state's economy, reducing dependence on the federal government while improving workforce development efforts.
McAuliffe said he will ask legislators to spend an additional $5 million to help the expensive northern Virginia region compete for top tier public school teachers.
McAuliffe also said he supports expanding pre-kindergarten programs and reforming the Standards of Learning tests.
He said he got an earful from Virginians about the tests on the campaign trail. People complained about over-testing students and suggested using essay tests to measure knowledge and cognitive reasoning.
McAuliffe also indicated his support for a proposal to allow the children of undocumented immigrants who are Virginia residents to pay in-state tuition at public universities.
On the environment, McAuliffe pledged to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay and announced a new goal of conserving 400,000 acres by the end of his four-year term.
McAuliffe also declared that the tolls are too high for drivers using Virginia's Midtown Tunnel Project linking Norfolk and Portsmouth. McAuliffe says he had directed Virginia's transportation secretary to present a revised tolling rate schedule to a transportation board by Wednesday.
McAuliffe took the oath of office as Virginia's 72nd governor on Saturday, succeeding a Republican, Bob McDonnell. In his speech Monday, McAuliffe offered support for a bipartisan ethics reform plan that emerged after a gift scandal overshadowed McDonnell's final year in office.
Winning office was a years-long effort by McAuliffe, who unsuccessfully sought his party's nomination in 2009. He spent the next four years touring Virginia and campaigning, then won his first elective office in November by narrowly defeating then-Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Associated Press writer Larry O'Dell in Richmond contributed to this report.