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Abortion, taxes, politics ahead for Virginia’s General Assembly


RICHMOND — The General Assembly returns to town Wednesday for what could be a contentious legislative session. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has warned lawmakers to “buckle up because we are going to go fast,” but a combination of factors might make the ride short and not very productive.

Youngkin has to prove he can govern after a first year spent establishing a national political profile ahead of his potential 2024 presidential bid. But he’ll work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are thinking about elections of their own: All 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot this fall, and every district has new boundaries.

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The governor and legislators have big budget surpluses to help them get things done, with Youngkin proposing $1 billion worth of tax cuts, along with new spending on education, mental health services and more. But an uncertain economic environment could argue for restraint.

And the session begins with one of the hottest of all hot-button issues — access to abortion — teed up as a priority. Youngkin and Republicans who control the House of Delegates have said they will seek a 15-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother — though Youngkin has said that he believes life begins at conception and that he would sign “any bill … to protect life.”

On abortion, Gov. Youngkin says he’ll sign ‘any bill … to protect life’

Democrats who control the Senate have vowed to protect the state’s current law, which allows abortion through the second trimester, about 26 weeks, and in the third only if the mother’s life or health is at serious risk, as certified by three doctors.

The end result — on abortion and maybe other issues, too — could wind up being gridlock, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington.

“I think the main goal for most lawmakers in this session will be to get back to the district and run for reelection as soon as possible,” Farnsworth said. “Anything that can be delayed likely will be delayed.”

For all that, there are some areas that seem ripe for bipartisan cooperation. Democratic leaders agree with Youngkin about the need to address pay for teachers and law enforcement officers, overhaul state mental health services, improve workforce training and boost economic development.

“Virginians do not have time for petty politics,” Youngkin told members of the General Assembly money committees in December, when he presented a slate of proposed budget amendments. “I will work with any member of either party to get results for the people of the commonwealth.”

But the devil, as always, is in the political details.

“I’m extremely confident there are some things we can do in a bipartisan way,” House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) said in an interview — then adding a barbed caveat: “If we can get the governor to not focus on his presidential aspirations and get the MAGA Republicans to not focus on making women’s reproductive health choices.”

Youngkin has outlined priorities for the session as part of what he calls his “Day 2 game plan,” a play on the Day 1 slogan he used when campaigning and taking office a year ago. He called his budget proposals the “keystone” of that plan, which he described as “all about accelerating results for Virginians and taking Virginia to the next level.”

The governor has not released a list of bills that he is pursuing, but he has signaled his initiatives with campaign-style events, complete with signs and music.

Those included an event in October in Lynchburg, where he announced an energy plan calling for a “moon shot” effort to develop a commercial small modular nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia in the next 10 years.

Also in October, he announced a plan to beef up law enforcement through something called Operation Bold Blue Line, which involves asking the legislature for $30 million to mount an aggressive push to recruit police from other states.

Youngkin proposes $230 million investment in behavioral health services

In December, Youngkin previewed an effort to overhaul the state’s beleaguered mental health services system called “Right Help, Right Now.” His $230 million plan seeks to create 30 mobile crisis teams, increase access to in-home services and expand mental health programs in schools.

Youngkin’s biggest-ticket request will be $1 billion in tax cuts, on top of $4 billion in reductions that the General Assembly approved last year. With the state currently looking at $3.6 billion in surplus revenue, Youngkin argues that further tax reductions are affordable.

But he acknowledges that many economists warn the nation could be in for a recession this year, which has made Democrats and even some Republicans caution that cutting tax revenue could be dangerous for state finances.

Democrats have already questioned the type of tax cuts being proposed by Youngkin, which include dropping the corporate tax rate, boosting the standard deduction for personal income tax filers and shaving the top marginal income tax rate.

“I’m very concerned he would possibly trigger Virginia into an even tougher recession,” Scott said. “If you want to target tax relief to small businesses and for working families, we can have those conversations.”

“The better way is to make the earned income tax credit fully refundable,” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), who leads the House Democratic Caucus. “He’s taking a more top-down approach, and I think our priority should be our Virginia families.”

Democrats in the House and Senate announced what they call their “Vision for Virginia,” which encompasses the economy, education, civil and reproductive rights, public safety and the environment.

“What the November elections demonstrated is that voters want to see things get done,” said Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “I think that they’re sick and tired of the dissension, the division, and they want to see actual policy made, they want to see action.”

The Democrats’ economic goals, grouped under a pledge to “create an economy for hard-working Virginians,” include more affordable housing, lower prescription drug costs and required sick leave for health-care and grocery workers. They also pledge to stand by a plan, envisioned in a 2020 law but not required by it, to boost the state’s minimum wage from $12 an hour to $15 an hour by 2026.

Some policy priorities for Republicans and Democrats line up. For instance:

  • Both parties say they want to boost teacher pay, improve school facilities and invest in in-person tutoring to address learning loss that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Democrats, like Youngkin, say they want to invest in community-based mental health services.
  • Both parties say they will increase pay for law enforcement and work to increase officer retention.

In addition, House Republicans say they are working on a plan to make college more affordable — a widely embraced goal, though no details have yet emerged.

Democrats, meanwhile, have said they support a bill filed by Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) that would prevent anyone convicted of a crime related to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection from holding positions of “public trust,” such as being a teacher or police officer.

Some initiatives show the parties heading in opposite directions. With a divided legislature, one chamber can always block measures passed by the other. Areas of tension include:

  • Republicans are gearing up to help Youngkin extract Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate compact for trading carbon credits that Democrats say is an important tool for fighting climate change. Senate Democrats have pledged to resist.
  • The Democratic list of policy priorities includes a section aimed at “protecting our freedoms from Republican extremism.” It calls for amending the state Constitution in two ways: adding the right to an abortion and removing a ban on same-sex marriage. The marriage ban has been defunct since the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized such unions nationwide in 2015, but the ban would take effect again if the court ever revisited and reversed that decision.

Youngkin defends portrayal of same-sex marriage rights

  • Republicans want to untether Virginia from California’s automobile emissions guidelines, which require that all new vehicles be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035. Democrats linked Virginia’s standards to California’s as an environmental measure when their party controlled the legislature.
  • Democrats call for passing stricter gun laws, such as a measure to require that guns left unattended in cars are locked inside special devices that cannot be removed rather than just “secured,” as currently required. “It can be stuffed between your car seat and your console and be, quote-unquote, secured,” said Sen. Jeremy S. McPike (D-Prince William). “So if someone busts your window, they can still grab the gun.”

Some Republicans are seeking to roll back earlier Democratic-backed gun restrictions, such as a red-flag law that allows judges to confiscate firearms from someone deemed a danger.

No single item could bring more partisan fire than the effort to ban abortions after 15 weeks, but that topic swirls with uncertainty because of a vacancy in the Senate. Democrats have held a 21-19 majority there, and one member of that party — Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (Richmond) — has signaled a willingness to consider such a ban.

If Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) wins a special election Feb. 21 to replace A. Donald McEachin, the late U.S. congressman — which is likely given the deep-blue nature of that congressional district — Republicans could theoretically use her absence to get an abortion ban through the Senate.

That becomes a lot harder, though, if Democrat Aaron Rouse beats Republican Kevin Adams for the open Senate seat in Virginia Beach, which would widen the Democrats’ advantage to 22-18. That special election takes place Tuesday.

Abortion at the forefront in special election for Virginia Senate seat

This year’s General Assembly session begins at noon Wednesday, with Youngkin expected to deliver the annual State of the Commonwealth address to the legislature at 4 p.m. that day. As in any odd-numbered year, the session is officially slated for 30 days, but lawmakers traditionally extend it to 46. Sessions last 60 days in even-numbered years.

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