The part-time, politically divided Virginia General Assembly is set to convene this week in Richmond for its annual sprint of a legislative session.
Members of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and Democratic-held Senate will meet for at least 30 days to debate issues ranging from taxes to abortion to energy policy in an election year when every legislative seat is on the ballot. The dynamics will force some bipartisan cooperation and test the limits of party unity and may rein in what gets accomplished.
“I think the 2023 legislative session is going to be like a summer thunderstorm where it doesn’t rain — lots of thunderclaps and lightning bolts but no measurable precipitation,” said Albert Pollard, a former Democratic House member and now a lobbyist.
A key task for lawmakers who begin their session Jan. 11 at noon will be adjusting the two-year budget they passed last year. Gov. Glenn Youngkin laid out his proposed amendments last month, offering a starting point for negotiations.
The Republican governor, who already signed about $4 billion in tax relief into law, is asking for another $1 billion including a corporate tax rate cut, given that Virginia is expecting a $3.6 billion surplus for fiscal year 2023. The proposal has been warmly received by Republican lawmakers, who say the cuts will help families and boost job growth, but spurned by Democrats.
Arguing that Youngkin’s plan goes too far, Democrats instead proposed in their agenda making the earned income tax credit fully refundable, something they say would offer more targeted help to families in need.
There is bipartisan consensus on the need for pay raises for public workers and investment to catch up from pandemic-related learning loss and shore up the state’s fractured mental health system, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said in an interview.
“So how can we now come along and say on the other side of our mouth, we want to cut taxes and give corporate entities this big handout?” she asked.
Lawmakers will also be debating how Virginia should regulate abortion for the first time since the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Youngkin has said he favors stricter limits than under current law, specifically hoping to pass a 15- or 20-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. He asked a group of four Republican lawmakers last year to start working on a proposal. But one member, GOP Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, said in early December that no formal meetings had taken place yet. She said Jan. 5 by text message that her measures would be filed soon.
Such a bill faces a tricky path forward, as it would need to clear a committee disproportionately stacked with Democrats who have promised to vote down any abortion restrictions before advancing to a floor vote, where the chamber is more closely divided on the issue.
Senate Democrats are hoping for a victory in a special election Jan. 10 for the state Senate seat vacated by Republican Jen Kiggans’ election to Congress to give their narrowly divided caucus more breathing room on the issue.
At least one House Republican has vocally opposed making abortion a focus of the session, saying his party is also divided and it’s clear most Virginians support abortion rights. Del. Tim Anderson of Virginia Beach said he’s been encouraging fellow Republicans to focus instead on measures to support parents and pregnant women.
“There’s a lot of anxiety in my caucus about holding the House and whether getting into an abortion fight is going to be the right thing to do in 2023,” Anderson said.
Dean Goodson, chief of staff to House Speaker Todd Gilbert, declined to make any predictions about the outcome of an abortion ban.
The House GOP has not publicly rolled out a legislative agenda, but Goodson said their focus would be kitchen-table issues like public safety, education and the cost of living, including electric bills.
Advocates are preparing for another year of debate over electric rate reforms, though some key bills have not been filed.
Lawmakers will also debate several proposed amendments to the state constitution, including a measure that would start a multiyear process of removing defunct language prohibiting gay marriage. And they will again take up perennial measures to tighten Virginia’s exceptionally loose campaign finance laws.
On several environmental issues, Democrats will be on defense, attempting to rebuff Republican attempts to repeal a measure that set Virginia on a path toward adopting California’s rules for transitioning to zero-emission vehicles.
Republicans hope to advance school choice proposals, and lawmakers from both parties want to address declining student achievement during the pandemic. Other proposals would limit the participation of transgender students in athletics.
After recent high-profile shootings, Democrats pledged to introduce gun control measures, which will almost certainly be voted down in the House. Youngkin said in December that the shootings showed the need for increased funding to improve mental health services.
Again, lawmakers will take up the thorny issue of marijuana — which the General Assembly legalized in a chaotic rush in 2021 without enacting a framework for retail sales. They’re also expected to reconsider regulations on other products containing THC that have proliferated and in some cases sickened children.
The General Assembly will also deal with appointments including two vacancies on the powerful State Corporation Commission.
Legislative sessions in odd-numbered years last for at least 30 days and are typically extended to 46 days.
-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press