House Speaker Todd Gilbert (left) with House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore and Appropriations Committee Chairman Barry Knight. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – As the Virginia General Assembly kicked off its 60-day session Wednesday,  Del. Todd Gilbert, a Republican from Shenandoah, was sworn in as the 57th Speaker of the House of Delegates after a unanimous 97-0 vote. Gilbert’s election marks the end of a two-year Democratic reign in the General Assembly where Republicans regained a 52-48 seats control following a statewide sweep in the November election.

Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, was also elected as the new Republican House Majority Leader. Like Gilbert, Kilgore announced his bid for the chamber’s top job shortly after the election, but he later ceded to Gilbert, who in return vowed to back him as the new majority leader, averting a potential intra-party showdown.

Addressing his fellow members of the House, Gilbert chose a cautious, unifying tone. “It is my hope and intention that we will engage in spirited debate on this floor, and we will return to the inherently deliberative nature of this body; that we will argue our cases zealously but with mutual respect and proper order,” he said. “I would hope all want the same things – a better future for our children, more prosperous families and communities, and a commonwealth where everyone can live in relative safety. We just often disagree on how best to get there.”

Gilbert pledged to be a speaker for all Virginians and for all the members of the House, not just his caucus and party. “My door will always be open to each of you to talk about how we can best accomplish great things for Virginia and her citizens,” he said. 

Born in Newton, Texas, Gilbert moved to Virginia as a child. He holds a bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Virginia and interned in the Capitol Hill Office of then-U.S. Rep. George Allen. After earning his law degree from Southern Methodist University School of Law in 1996, Gilbert worked at the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Lynchburg, where he was a member of the Violent Crime Prosecution Team, before returning to Shenandoah in the late 1990s.

“It wasn’t that long ago that as a much younger and much greener local GOP committee chair and assistant prosecutor I got a call from my predecessor’s aide telling me that his boss was going to the floor to announce his retirement and I had 10 minutes to decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” Gilbert reminisced. “That November I asked the people of the district for their votes, and they’ve stood with me ever since. I hope I have made you all proud today, and I pledge that I will continue to represent you well here in Richmond.”

Following a bipartisan House tradition, Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, seconded the motion of  Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, to put Gilbert’s election up for a vote. “I am confident that Del. Gilbert in his role as speaker will uphold and honor our traditions and be thoughtful as he meets the responsibilities in his new role as the speaker,” Murphy said. “I am privileged to know him as a friend, to witness his dedication and integrity, and the depth of his commitment to our House, our commonwealth, to his community and to his wonderful family.” 

In a brief interview at the state Capitol Wednesday, Del. Sam Rasoul, a resident of Roanoke and the lone Democratic House member from Southwest Virginia, said he believed Gilbert’s call for unity to be sincere. “I have a great relationship with the speaker and the majority leader, and while we may disagree on some issues, I believe that they will do a good job on working together,” Rasoul said.

At a news conference at the Pocahontas office building earlier Wednesday, House Republican leadership laid out their policy priorities for the 2022 session. Gilbert reiterated that the GOP victories in the November election were a referendum on Democratic policies that just didn’t meet the approval of voters. 

“We think we are here in the majority today because we listened to Virginians’ concerns; the things we kept hearing most about were their children’s future, the education of their children specifically, the rising cost of living, of doing business, just trying to get along in this world, prices are going through the roof, making it harder to put food on the table for your family. All that’s become strained and stressed, so we want to work to relieve that whenever we can,” he said. “Our policy agenda addresses those concerns directly, and we intend to put these issues on a path for success and to leave a long, lasting legacy for Virginia.”

Gilbert said that Republican leadership is mindful of the 21-19 Democratic majority across the hall in the state Senate. “We are acutely aware of the fact that we have a divided government, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be bold in pushing forward ideas,” he said. “We’ve already enjoyed a great working relationship with our colleagues across the aisle, and I think we are going to be able to talk about everyday kitchen table issues that take on a different tone and get some things done.”

One of the bigger issues Republicans plan to tackle in the next 60 days is creating a framework for the regulation of cannabis. While some personal possession and home growing became legal last summer, the parts of the legislation that would create a full, legal marijuana marketplace by 2024 weren’t finalized. 

“It’s a complicated issue. We have a number of members of our caucus who are working diligently to try to come up with a solution to the mess that we’ve been handed,” Gilbert said. “In the midst of legalizing marijuana without creating any of the regulatory framework for it, which is what our colleagues in the Democratic Party did, they just emboldened the black market without any responsible take on how to have it regulated.” 

You can smoke marijuana, you can possess marijuana, you can grow it, but you can’t buy it, Gilbert said. “So who is going to supply people who can now legally smoke marijuana if not the black market? I don’t think there is any guarantee about how we are going to proceed, we are going to have to talk to the Senate obviously, and we need to see where the governor is on this. It’s a mess, and it’s been handed to us.”

Kilgore added that “there is a lot to figure out” in regards to how to regulate marijuana and work through the market and to see which agency is going to be the regulator in that market. “If you look at most of us up here, we didn’t vote to legalize marijuana, but we are going to have to be working hard to come up with not only a regulatory environment, but also a policing environment before we move forward. I don’t think any of us realized that this is going to be one of the big issues that we are going to address during this session.,” Kilgore said.

On the Clean Economy Act that outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law after the 2020 legislative session, Kilgore said that Republicans will be making some amendments to the law rather than pursuing a wholesale rollback. Democrats designed the new law as a path to transition Virginia’s electric grid to 100% clean energy by 2050 by eliminating carbon emissions and investing in clean energy technologies. Under the Clean Economy Act, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a plant in Wise County that burns gob coal along with regular coal and biomass, would have to close by the end of 2045. State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, has already filed legislation that would grant an exemption to keep the facility open beyond that. 

“We are going to try to address some issues that could lower folks’s power rate,” Kilgore said. “We know that we want to get to a clean economy, and use renewable energy, but the sun doesn’t shine every day and the wind doesn’t blow every day, so you’ve got to have that backup power plant and natural gas or coal.”

Republicans also plan to make good on their promise to keep Virginia’s public schools open, improve curriculums and, more urgently, the crumbling infrastructure. “Regardless of the district, education was the one thing Republicans heard about across the commonwealth during the election. Parents are deeply concerned about the education of their children, and that’s why it is a huge part of our 2022 agenda,” said Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, chair of the House Education Committee. 

School construction is one of the key items for Republicans, Davis said. Data provided by the Virginia Department of Education shows that the total cost to replace schools that are at least 50 years old would carry a price tag of over $25 billion. 

In his final two-year budget, Northam proposed to contribute $500 million from the state’s flush coffers toward repairing or replacing outdated public school buildings. And a legislative commission on school construction in December adopted several recommendations for making more grants and low-interest loans available to school divisions, which would benefit especially those in underserved localities that have far less capacity to provide much above the state required minimum for per student expenditures.

“Our children can’t learn while they are worried about the roof over their heads leaking. We will continue to allocate significant new funding to help rebuild those crumbling schools,” Davis said, adding that House Republicans also plan to reinstate merit-based admissions at Virginia’s Governor’s Schools and make it easier for Virginians to establish charter schools. 

And parents, Davis continued, will get to have a say in their children’s curriculums. “We’ll make sure that there is transparency for parents, and we’ll make sure that schools will have to notify parents regarding instructional materials that contain sexually explicit material,” he said. 

Another key objective for Republicans is providing tax relief for Virginians, made possible by the state’s flush coffers and record surplus. “We have some good news,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “We got a lot of money in the state right now, from federal stimulus to come down and our revenues are way above what we thought they are going to be.”

Northam’s proposed two-year budget for fiscal 2022-24 totals $158 billion – and a strong economic recovery and federal aid during the pandemic allowed the administration to set aside $1.7 billion to the commonwealth’s revenue reserves, including a $564 million voluntary deposit, bringing the total reserves amount to more than $3.8 billion.

Knight said that lawmakers under these circumstances have “a fiscal and moral obligation” to help struggling families who are getting crushed by inflation. “Our obligations start with reducing the taxes they pay, and keeping more of their own money for their families,” he said. 

That process is going to start with a proposed direct tax rebate – $300 per filer, or $600 per joint filing couple. “Next, we are going to double the standard deduction which will keep more money in paychecks by reducing the overall income tax burden these families have to endure,” Knight said. Republicans also want to eliminate the 2.5% grocery tax. Legislation sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, would repeal the entire tax rate, of which 1% currently goes to the state to fund local schools. To make up for the latter, McNamara proposes using the state’s general fund to pay for local school construction. “The commonwealth will make up these funds and these funds will be indexed,” Knight said. “I will find a sustainable revenue strain to replace these funds that go back to the localities.”

On Wednesday evening, the House of Delegates will welcome their Senate colleagues and Northam in the House chamber for what will be the outgoing governor’s final speech in a joint session. 

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.