A state commission formed a year ago by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell quietly made a surprising recommendation in the fall: Virginia leaders should embrace and even lobby Congress to move forward with a new round of military base closures, a process known commonly as BRAC.
The counterintuitive idea -- part of a comprehensive strategy for blunting the impact of expected defense cuts -- has not earned favor with Gov. Terry McAuliffe or members of the state's congressional delegation, who roundly rejected the idea.
"That's not a path that the governor has any plans to pursue," said Brian Coy, a McAuliffe spokesman. "He is not of the mind that we should be asking Washington for another round of BRAC. The governor wants to move forward as though we will be receiving one, and he plans to make every effort to make sure the state is ready if that happens."
The report by the 10-member Commission on Military Installations and Defense Activities was finalized in October under McDonnell and made public this week by the McAuliffe administration. Led by retired Adm. John Harvey, the commission -- which included four Cabinet secretaries -- came up with 20 recommendations aimed at strengthening the state's relationship with the military.
The commission calculated that Virginia -- home to the nation's largest naval base and multiple four-star commands -- would actually stand to gain should Congress seek to consolidate military operations at fewer bases. Further, it noted that defense cuts are coming -- with or without BRAC -- as the Pentagon reconfigures after 13 years of war, and that could lead to downsizing without public input.
The commission pointed to the Pentagon's 2010 decision to close Joint Forces Command in Suffolk as an example of the sort of "back-door BRAC" that can harm the state's economy with little warning and no recourse.
"I'd much rather fight an enemy at my front," said Harvey, the former head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.
In an interview Tuesday, Harvey said the commission "was pretty much unanimous" in believing that Virginia is well-positioned for another BRAC and should embrace the process.
McAuliffe disagreed with that approach, but he respected the insight, Coy said. After Harvey briefed him on the report in December, McAuliffe asked him to serve as his secretary of veterans affairs and homeland security.
"We can't say he's bought every one of the recommendations, but the governor is certainly giving them careful consideration and working to put some of the proposals into practice," Harvey said.
The commission relied in part on a $300,000 study by the Spectrum Group, an Alexandria-based consulting firm led by Anthony Principi, the chairman of the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.
McDonnell established the state panel to prevent a repeat of 2005, when state leaders were blindsided by a suggestion from BRAC commissioners to close Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.
After that, state and city officials spent millions of dollars to reduce development around the master jet base and promised to improve their relationship with the military.
Along those lines, McDonnell's panel suggested exempting some members of the military from tolls at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels. The commission said that the tolls, which went into effect in February, would be "a significant barrier to military personnel and dependents driving across town to work or receive medical services."
In a move aimed at helping employees and patients of Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, the panel recommended that the state exempt lower-ranking medical personnel from tunnel tolls in Hampton Roads. The commission also suggested that the state provide vouchers to military members who travel through the tunnels for medical services.
Coy, the McAuliffe spokesman, said the governor is committed to providing toll relief for all Hampton Roads residents; McAuliffe has not considered a military exemption.
The commission also recommended that the state study the Navy's interest in acquiring Camp Pendleton in Virginia Beach -- an idea that had not previously been made public. The 325-acre state-owned property is used by the Virginia National Guard.
According to the report, an unnamed unit based at the Navy's Dam Neck annex wants to expand local training operations and has identified the adjacent Camp Pendleton as a possible solution.
The Navy confirmed it has been exploring the possibility of acquiring at least part of Camp Pendleton for about a year.
Dam Neck is home to several Navy commands, including the secretive Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known commonly as SEAL Team 6.
Camp Pendleton's future use deserves further consideration, the commission recommended.
Other suggestions in the 10-page report included:
- Giving the governor more authority to prevent development around military bases.
- Partnering with the military to boost private investment in renewable energy sources.
- Establishing regular meetings between state and military leaders.
- Actively promoting public-private partnerships to improve infrastructure on and around military bases.
Coy said McAuliffe is continuing to review the report and has not endorsed any of the recommendations.
"This is a report commissioned by his predecessor and finalized before he took office," he said. "That said, this is a good base for a conversation about how to prepare for the possibility of defense reductions."
Virginia's congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike, quickly dismissed the idea of requesting another round of base closings. Few lawmakers in Congress are ready to support the White House and Pentagon push for a BRAC in 2017.
"I believe we should look at overseas facilities first before even considering another BRAC round for domestic installations," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement.