The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – As the General Assembly reached the midpoint of its 2022 session at the end of Tuesday, victorious Republicans celebrated achieving many of their key legislative priorities such as lower taxes, safer communities and parental rights in their children’s education. 

“It’s a radical concept in politics: politicians doing what they said they’d do when they’re elected,” House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said in a statement. “But that’s just what we’ve done in the first half of this 2022 legislative session. We said we’d put parents back in charge of their children’s education. We said we’d cut taxes, and that we’d make our streets safer. Promises made, promises kept.”

The bipartisan dynamic and the compromise required to pass legislation this year marks a dramatic shift from the previous two years, when Democrats were in full control of state government. Republicans not only flipped the House in November but also won election to all three statewide offices. Bills that pass both chambers of the legislature are now headed to the desk of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who signed his first bill on Monday – a measure that ensures farmers can participate in the state premium assistant program, despite recent delays in the rollout of the federal farm bill program.

Democrats, now on the defensive, take pride in stonewalling legislation in the state Senate – where they still hold a narrow 21-19 majority – that would unravel some of the process they say they have made while in power in 2019 and 2020.

“What you’re looking at is the nature of divided government. Anything that fails to have bipartisan appeal dies in one chamber or the other,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. 

“The Democratic Senate majority has been effective in blocking Republican agenda items most of the time, and they are largely unified apart from this very controversial issue of mask mandates,” Farnsworth said, referring to the party’s failure to block a Republican proposal allowing parents to opt their children out of masking in school – a rule that aligns with Youngkin’s executive order that he signed on his first day in office last month. The measure cleared the Senate with the support of two Democrats – Sens. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. 

“No doubt about it, the main focus of this session has been COVID-19, and dealing with educational matters connected to the virus,” Farnsworth said. “It’s important to recognize that the greatest power that a majority has is deciding what to talk about and what not to talk about, and that agenda setting authority is a powerful mechanism for minimizing discussions of issues where Democrats are united.”

Youngkin is set to sign the bill providing parental opt-out from school mask mandates in a ceremony on the portico of the state Capitol Wednesday afternoon after the measure had been rushed through the House. 

But Republicans were able to win other key victories in the first 30 days of the 2022 session – and some of them with the help from Democrats. 

“I’m very happy that we were able to grow bipartisan support for various bills in the Senate, like the ending of election night mirages by counting absentee votes by precinct, making parole boards public and putting limitations on unilateral emergency executive orders,” Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said in an interview. “They all passed on much wider margins this year than in the past, and now that there is a Republican House and a Republican governor, I am very optimistic about their chances of becoming law.”

Suetterlein added that he is also “very happy” about bipartisan support in the House of Delegates for a measure sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, that seeks to repeal the grocery tax. “I think that the strong vote in the House will help it in the Senate,” Suetterlein said.

However, Suetterlein said he was still disappointed in what he called “partisan efforts” of Democrats aimed at Youngkin’s common sense proposals. “Most Senate Democrats aren’t being serious enough about providing tax relief to Virginians by raising the standard deduction. Hopeful that we will succeed in that effort,” he said. 

Del. Sam Rasoul from Roanoke, the lone Democrat in the House hailing from Southwest Virginia, countered that Democrats largely have been playing “some good defense” and have been protecting “some of the progress we’ve made over the last couple of years.”  But he still regretted seeing a variety of measures passing his chamber in the days before crossover that “could be characterized as extreme” and that brought a lot of social issues into the fold.

 “But much of the conversation in the first half of this session has been productive about how to move the commonwealth forward, regardless of where you live,” Rasoul said. 

Below, a list of legislation sponsored by lawmakers from Southwest and Southside Virginia that Cardinal News has been tracking since the beginning of the 2022 session:

Bills with statewide implications

Tax Relief 

A measure seeking to eliminate the 2.5% tax on groceries and essential personal hygiene products passed the House of Delegates by a 80-20 vote. House Bill 90, sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, goes farther than a former Gov. Ralph Northam who in his final budget proposed to slash the tax while retaining the 1% grocery tax rate that benefits local governments. McNamara’s bill would do away with the entire tax rate, of which 1% currently goes to the state to fund local schools. To make up for the latter, he proposes using the state’s general fund to pay for local school construction, among other propositions. 

Over in the state Senate, a measure allowing localities to return surplus personal property tax revenues to taxpayers found unanimous support. Senate Bill 12, sponsored by State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, passed the body by a 39-0 vote. 

However, another tax relief proposal by Suetterlein failed in committee. Senate Bill 11 would have increased the standard deduction for taxable years 2022 through 2025 from $4,500 to $9,000 for single filers and from $9,000 to $18,000 for married filers (one-half of such amount in the case of a married individual filing a separate return). The Democratic-led Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee by a 11-3 party-line vote moved to revisit the legislation during the 2023 session, with one Democrat, Sen. Chap Petersen of Fairfax County, abstaining. 

K-12 education and school construction 

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, won one of the first victories in the fight for funding for school construction when a Senate panel cleared his proposal that would require school boards to use unspent leftover funds from the state to finance capital projects. Senate Bill 276, which seeks to ensure that school divisions use any unexpended tax dollars for school construction and modernization, was later merged with Senate Bill 481 by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, which the Senate approved by a unanimous vote last week. 

But another Stanley proposal that would have required the Virginia Department of Education (to make recommendations to the General Assembly for amendments to the standards of quality to establish standards for the maintenance and operations, renovation, and new construction of public elementary and secondary school buildings was continued to the 2023 session.

A measure introduced by state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, that would require the governor in any year in which there is a budget surplus to set aside 5% of such surplus to fund the operational costs of local school divisions was approved by the Senate with a 36-3 vote, with Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, casting one of the nay-votes. Before it reached the Senate floor, the proposal was merged with the nearly identical Senate Bill 473 by McClellean. The legislation also provides for an equivalent decrease in the amount of operational costs funded by the Lottery Proceeds Fund and an equivalent increase in the amount of money in the fund restricted exclusively for local school divisions’ capital construction and renovation costs. 

Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, wasn’t so lucky. His House Bill 63, which would have added Prince Edward County to the list of localities that, under current law, are authorized to impose an additional local sales tax at a rate not to exceed 1%, with the revenue used only for capital projects for the construction or renovation of schools, failed to advance in a House Finance subcommittee. 

Governor’s emergency powers

Former Gov. Ralph Northam did not hesitate to use his vast emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic – much to the chagrin of many lawmakers, including some Democrats. Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, that is seeking to limit any executive order issued by the governor pursuant to his powers under the Emergency Services and Disaster Law to no more than 45 days, passed the Senate by a 29-11 vote. Suetterlein’s proposal states that if the General Assembly does not take any action on said order within this time period, the governor must not issue the same order relating to the same emergency at a later time. Under current law, once issued, such executive orders are effective until June 30 following the next regular session of the General Assembly. 

Other lawmakers filed similar legislation, including Senate Bill 166, introduced by state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, which was rolled into Suetterlein’s bill. Related legislation advanced in the House of Delegates, where House Bill 158 – sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County – was approved by a 99-0 block vote. However, House Bill 151, carried by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, was left in the House Rules committee. March’s proposal also sought to prohibit an emergency executive order from establishing any moratoriums on the payment of rent to landlords in the commonwealth unless pursuant to a confirmed order of quarantine or isolation.

Cannabis

Although GOP House leadership had vowed to tackle the commercial regulation of marijuana in Virginia, little has happened. While the Senate has sent the House legislation to consider in the coming weeks, the General Laws committee took no action on HB 176, sponsored by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville. Marshall’s proposal was an attempt at addressing concern by some Republicans last year with the Democrats’ new marijuana law that allows social equity licenses to be issued primarily to Black Americans who have been disproportionately targeted in marijuana arrests over the course of decades and who are seeking to legally sell small amounts of cannabis. The measure would have required the Board of Directors of the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to expand the definition of social equity applicant to include any applicant who has lived for at least one year in a jurisdiction determined by the board to be economically distressed – which would cover large portions of Southwest and Southside Virginia. 

Election laws

A proposal by Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, seeking to expand the state’s current voter ID requirement to include photo identification, passed the House of Delegates by a 52-48 party-line vote after being rolled into House Bill 46, an identical measure carried by Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan. While Virginia already requires voters to present identification – such as Virginia driver’s licenses, U.S. passports and student IDs – copies of utility bills or bank statements, which bear the voter’s address, but no photo, are also acceptable under current law. House Bill 46 also repeals the provisions of law currently permitting a voter who does not have one of the required forms of identification to vote after signing a statement that he is the named registered voter he claims to be. Instead, the bill only allows such voters to cast a provisional ballot. 

But a House Privileges & Elections subcommittee took no action on a measure by Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, that would have required registered voters to provide a reason for being absent or unable to vote in person on election day in order to receive an absentee ballot to vote by mail. House Bill 35 also would have repealed the permanent absentee voter list while limiting the special annual application to those voters with an illness or disability.

Over in the Senate, a proposal sponsored by state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, that would have required general registrars to verify on a voter registration application that the name, date of birth and Social Security number by an applicant match the information on file in the Social Security Administration database or other database approved by the State Board of Elections, was defeated in the Senate Privileges & Elections Committee by a 9-6 party-line vote. 

The same committee by the same vote also rejected Peake’s measure seeking to repeal a provision that would have permitted anyone qualified to register to vote up to and including the day of the election, notwithstanding any deadline for the close of registration records, didn’t fare better. 

Legislation aimed at preventing political toying with special elections in the state legislature shared a similar fate. Senate Bill 66, sponsored by state Sen. David Suetterlein, would have required certain vacancies in the House of Delegates or the state Senate to be filled within 30 days of a member’s departure or death. Under current law, only the governor can set a special election to fill a vacancy in either legislative body, unless the General Assembly is already in session. The Senate Privileges & Elections Committee by 9-6 voted to continue Suetterlein’s proposal to the 2023 session. 

Medical mandates

A proposal by Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, declaring that “each adult has a fundamental right to be free from medical mandates”  by the commonwealth or any locality, private employer, healthcare entity or provider, or provider of public accommodations was not taken up by the House Committee on Health, Welfare, and Institutions by the crossover deadline. 

Minimum wage

Legislation seeking to cancel the gradual minimum wage increase set under current law was defeated in the Democratic-led Senate Commerce and Labor Committee by a 12-3 party-line vote. Senate Bill 173, sponsored by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, would have left Virginia’s minimum wage at its current $11 rate. 

But a measure by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, that would change the definition of wages to include a payment to healthcare benefits on behalf of an employee passed the House by a 51-48 vote. House Bill 296 would not remove any provisions related to increasing the state wage. Instead, the paid wage plus the cost of healthcare benefit together would need to meet the current $11 minimum, growing with the planned increments.  

Hunting permits

A proposal by Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, that would have permitted hunting in wildlife management areas owned by the Department of Wildlife Resources on Sundays was stricken from the docket of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee by a 21-0 vote. 

Carry legislation 

Legislation sponsored by Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, that would have invalidated a Virginia law that makes bringing a firearm to church or any other place of worship a Class 4 misdemeanor was not taken up by the House Rules committee before the crossover deadline. 

Bills with implications unique to Southwest and Southside

Virginia Museum of Transportation

The hard-fought battle by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, to convert Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation from a non-profit to a state agency ended in the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, where members voted by 11-5 to continue the proposal to the 2023 session. Under Edwards’s Senate Bill 72, the museum would be governed by a 15-member board of trustees and be eligible for state funding of up to $2 million per year, which the senator pushed for in a separate budget amendment.  

Waste coal

By a unanimous vote, the Senate approved legislation seeking to direct Virginia Energy (formerly the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy) to identify the approximate volume and number of waste coal piles still present in the coalfield region and come up with options for their removal, including the use of waste coal for the generation of electricity. 

With his Senate Bill 120, Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, initially had wanted to define waste coal – a byproduct of previous coal processing operations – as a source of renewable energy, but he eventually offered the aforementioned substitute. A companion bill by Del. William Wampler, R-Washington County, also cleared the House by a 99-0 vote. 

Scenic Rivers

House Bill 49, sponsored by Del. Matthew Fariss, R-Campbell County, that would designate an additional 44-mile portion of the James River running through Nelson, Appomattox, and Cumberland counties as a part of the Virginia Scenic Rivers System, passed in the House by 85-13. A similar bill (HB28), filed by Del. Ronnie R. Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, seeks to extend a portion of the Maury River, which was previously designated as a scenic river, by an additional 23 miles. It also cleared the House by 87-12. 

Flood relief

Spurred by the devastation caused by the devastating flood in Hurley in August, Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, in early December filed legislation that would establish a Flood Relief Fund using money from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that over the past year has brought more than $227 million to Virginia. Under House Bill 5, claims would be paid at 175% of property value in a double distressed locality, 150% of property value in a distressed locality, and 100% in all other localities. But in a strategic move, Morefield asked for his proposal to be tabled in the House Appropriations Committee, because he said he had “identified a clearer path in securing private assistance for the flood victims in Hurley.” The details will be announced Sunday, when the House budget is presented, Morefield added. 

Catawba Hospital study

Legislation that would direct the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to study the feasibility of transforming Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the art campus that would offer substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery passed in the House by 99-0. With his House Bill 105, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is seeking to expand the role of the hospital, which is located in the western part of Roanoke County, from that of its current mental health services.  

Nitrile Glove training program

By a 96-4 vote, the House of Delegates approved legislation that would establish a grant program of up to $4.6 million for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership in order to support the recruitment and training of employees at medical glove manufacturer Blue Star NBR’s new nitrile glove production facility in Wythe County. House Bill 186 is sponsored by Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County. A similar proposal, Senate Bill 596 by Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, cleared the Senate by 40-0. Last fall, then-Gov. Ralph Northam had touted the company’s plan to invest $714 million in a new production facility in Wythe County as the largest manufacturing job announcement in Virginia in the last 30 years

Miscellaneous bills

Critical race theory

While the House by a 50-49 vote advanced legislation banning critical race theory from Virginia’s public schools, a measure sponsored by Del. Wren Wiliams, R-Patrick County, relating to the same issue failed to make it out of the House Committee on Education. House Bill 781 had made national headlines because in its requirement for school divisions to provide students with historical context regarding America’s early history, it had in a reference to the Lincoln-Douglas debates confused the Black abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass with Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas. The latter famously debated his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln in 1858. The Division of Legislative Services (DLS) – a nonpartisan state agency providing drafting services for lawmakers – later claimed responsibility for the error.

Daylight Savings Time study

The House Rules committee did not take up a proposal sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, that would have required the state to study the effects of daylight savings time on the commonwealth. House Joint Resolution 6 would have requested the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to look into the impact of Virginia’s continued observance of Daylight Savings Time under the federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 and the potential consequences of a decision to use either Standard Time or Daylight Savings Time year-round. 

School bus decals

When presenting her House Bill 113 to a Republican-led House Education subcommittee, Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, failed to get a motion for a vote on her proposal that would have allowed school divisions to display decals with the phrases “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God” on the sides and rear of public school buses. In December, March had said in a podcast that the measure would expose communists among Democratic lawmakers inclined to vote against it. 

Volunteer firefighters 

Del. March also wants to address the shortage of volunteer firefighters and other emergency medical services personnel by rewarding them with special lifetime hunting and fishing licenses. Under House Bill 114, volunteers who have completed three consecutive years of service would have qualified to receive the incentive, but March’s measure was killed by a unanimous vote in a House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee. 

Markus Schmidt

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