We’ve just passed the midpoint of the General Assembly session. If this were a football game, we’d take a halftime break and bring out a band. The Clinch Mountain Boys were a hit at the inauguration, so why not bring them back for some toe-tapping fiddle tunes? In a more perfect world, that’s how things would work. In the world we have, you get this eight-point halftime analysis. Sorry. Think of it as a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
1. The budget. The first thing that needs to be said is this: We may be at halftime for bills but we’re not at halftime yet on the budget, which is kind of important. Bills are nice, but there’s nothing like a budget to really make things happen. The budget-writing committees – the “money committees” in legislative parlance – won’t report out their preferred budgets until Sunday. That’s when we’ll know preliminary answers to some really big questions, such as what might be the biggest one of all from our point of view: With an unprecedented surplus, how seriously will the General Assembly really take school construction and modernization? Right now, we still don’t know. Come next week, we might. Lots of bills dealing with school construction have been passed (mostly out of the Senate) but bills are no substitute for actual funding.
Let me say once again: I remain mystified at Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s silence on this subject. He’s certainly not reticent on other issues involving schools. He’s politically indebted to rural Virginia, which is the part of the state that is least able to pay for modernizing its schools. He says he wants to make Virginia more competitive with other states. We have the outlines of a bipartisan coalition – with a lot of rural Republicans at the forefront. The issue seems teed up for him. So where is he? This could be a legacy-making moment for the new governor, although so far he often seems more attuned to getting quoted on Sean Hannity than in future history books. The governor should read the advice I gave him earlier: 10 things he could do to help rural Virginia, not a single one of which conflicts with a conservative ideology. School construction was tops on that list for a reason. Given all the money available right now, if this General Assembly doesn’t do something significant to address the problem, it seems unlikely it ever will.
2. Divided government. The second thing that needs to be said is this: I told you so. I wrote early on that very little would happen in this session and so far I’ve been right. The Republican majority in the House will pass lots of bills that will get deep-sixed in a Democratic Senate. The Democratic majority in the Senate will pass a lot of bills that will never see the light of day in the House. The only bills that will pass are those that are either a) not particularly partisan or b) can peel off some defectors, such as happened with the bill doing away with mask mandates in schools. That means a lot of things that have generated excitement so far – the House voting to eliminate ballot drop-off boxes and other election restrictions, the House voting to repeal “red flag” laws on guns, the House voting to modify the minimum wage and so on – are simply Shakespearean. And by Shakespearean, I mean Macbeth, Act V, Scene V: “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” They won’t pass the Senate. This will give both parties something to talk up come the midterms in 2023 when the entire General Assembly will be on the ballot – Republicans can talk about how the Democratic Senate is standing in the way of all the common sense things they want to do, Democrats can talk about how they’re the only thing standing in the way of ruin. Yes, 2023 will be fun.
3. The food tax. One big thing will happen: It appears as if the legislature will repeal at least part of the state’s tax on groceries. That would be a big win for Youngkin, although campaigning on its repeal has proven more difficult than actually doing it – because those revenues are pledged to certain funds, such as schools, transportation and local government. Both chambers say they have ways to make up the school funds but not necessarily the transportation funds. There’s a great political irony here: Years ago, it was the liberal populist Henry Howell who made repealing the tax one of the centerpieces of his campaigns for governor. Now it has fallen to a conservative Republican who might be in a position to claim credit for actually doing it.
4. Cannabis. One big thing remains uncertain: How to regulate cannabis. Democrats last year legalized the devil’s lettuce but Virginia has yet to legalize the retail market, which means right now old-fashioned drug dealers are the beneficiary. No burdensome regulations on them! No taxes either! The plan had always been to come back this year and work out the details, but that was always going to be complicated, and has been complicated more by the partisan split in the legislature. You should not be surprised to learn that Democrats and Republicans have different ideas on how to do this. When I asked one legislator how the cannabis legislation was going, he laughed and said the best way to burn up a lot of time in this session was to get involved with trying to write that legislation. House Republicans essentially gave up, saying they’d wait to see what the Senate sent them. That’s too bad because House Republicans had also talked about using a lot of the revenue for school construction. Now the Senate has sent them a bill that legalizes a retail market starting in September, sooner than previously planned. Republicans say the House caucus is split between those who want to see sales early, sales later, and some who don’t want any sales at all. You heard it here first: I would not be surprised if the legislature had to devote a special session to figuring out cannabis.
5. The Youngkin agenda. Youngkin has gotten off to an uneven start, although that’s to be expected of a rookie governor, especially one who has never served in government, even more especially one whose administration is staffed with a lot of people new to state government. Change can be good, change can be refreshing but change also doesn’t come easily or prettily. Let’s also keep in mind that Virginia swears in a new governor after the legislature convenes and then expects that governor to go at things full-tilt. Back to our sports analogy: It’s almost as if you spot the other team a field goal and then trot out an expansion team that has never played together and expect those players to perform at a championship level. Yes, life is unfair. Youngkin scored an early win with the legislature’s vote on mask mandates, which quieted criticism that he issued an executive order on masks that may or may not have been legal. Because of all the attention on masks, he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for pushing vaccines. Youngkin’s political team hasn’t served him well by taking a social media hit on a teenager who criticized the governor. (To his credit, Youngkin apologized and apparently made it clear to his out-of-state political team that this is not the Virginia Way). In terms of a legislative agenda, Youngkin will have to content himself with half a loaf, be it the untaxed part of the grocery tax repeal or the the taxed part for the reasons I outlined in point 2: The Senate remains Democratic, albeit narrowly. Youngkin’s right, politically speaking, to crow about getting rid of mask mandates and perhaps getting even a partial repeal of the grocery tax because those may be the only big wins he gets out of this session. His big push for more charter schools? Not happening. Youngkin may have to content himself with a much narrower bill, from state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, that would allow colleges to create a “lab school.” There may be one other thing, though, he can claim a big victory on, although I remain skeptical it’s a good idea . . .
6. An NFL stadium in Northern Virginia. The biggest surprise of Youngkin’s administration has nothing to do with masks (which he campaigned on) but his surprising endorsement of a state role in building a football stadium in either Loudoun County or Prince William County for the Washington team (something he didn’t campaign on ). I remain amazed at how quickly legislators from both parties have fallen in line behind the notion of a state authority that would issue bonds for a stadium. You’d think Republicans, especially, would be more skeptical, even if we’re assured no tax dollars will go to this venture. And I’m surprised that legislators from this side of the state didn’t try to hold up the legislation to try to get a cut of the revenue dedicated to school construction. The stadium authority, though, seems to have a clear path to the end zone. It’s passed the House 62-37 and the Senate 33-7. Lots of cities have helped build stadiums to keep their teams in town – or attract one from another city. Far fewer states have created a role for themselves, but Virginia’s now in the process of doing so. Will this hasty embrace of the stadium somehow help the push for state funding of school construction? Let’s hope so. After all, what politician wants to open themselves up to the criticism that they voted for a gleaming new football stadium but did nothing for schools that are literally falling apart? (I’m betting the luxury suites at the stadium won’t have to set out buckets when it rains the way one school in Prince Edward County does). Still, let me point out again: Youngkin endorsed the football stadium; he’s made no such dramatic announcement on school construction.
7. The Wheeler nomination. The biggest partisan fight so far has been the Senate Democrats voting to reject Youngkin’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler as Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. For Democrats, this seemed an easy vote: Wheeler was Donald’s Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency and, in their view, has a bad record for actually protecting the environment. Early on, one environmental leader told me he was surprised that Youngkin was investing so much political capital in pushing a controversial nominee when he could just have easily picked some anonymous “suit” who would do the same things. But that’s also exactly why the Democratic opposition to Wheeler is so mystifying. It’s not as if Youngkin will turn around and pick some Sierra Club activist for his Cabinet. He’ll just pick a less controversial version of Wheeler. Meanwhile, Republicans have decided to retaliate by letting the term of a Democratic appointee to the State Corporation Commission expire without confirmation – plus 11 appointees from the Ralph Northam era. Democrats think Republicans are overreacting but Republicans think the same thing about Democrats. If you tell your spouse he or she is overreacting to something, that’s rarely a persuasive argument, right? Same thing here.
So let’s do the math: Right now, Democrats can get the credit from their base for blocking the sizzle factor of Trump’s former EPA chief, but will get the exact same policies from a less polarizing nominee – plus they potentially give up an SCC judge and give Youngkin 11 seats he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to fill, including some on the State Air Pollution Control Board, the State Water Control Board and the Board of Education (which would give Youngkin a majority on the Board of Education a lot sooner than previously expected). This doesn’t seem a good trade to me, at least not for Democrats. Republicans may think this is just swell.
This may be a case where politics gets the better of policy. Politically, both sides come out the winner in the Wheeler fight. Republicans get to point to the Democrat as obstructionists, spitefully rejecting a nominee simply because he worked for Trump – that’s fund-raising gold. Democrats get to claim they held firm against a Trump nominee – that’s also fund-raising gold, and most people won’t ask about those other boards. At this point, Democrats can hardly relent but even if they did, why would Republicans let them? Let Wheeler be a sacrificial lamb and pick up a bunch of appointments they weren’t otherwise expecting.
8. Who was the first half star? Certainly not Youngkin. He mixed up two Black legislators, which is never a good look. Not the Division of Legislative Services, which mixed up Stephen Douglas and Frederick Douglass in drafting a bill for Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, which had the unfortunate effect of making Williams the butt of jokes nationwide when he wasn’t the one to blame. Here are some other nominees:
House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, who, by definition has been at the center of almost everything in the House as it returns to Republican control.
Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, who has been at the center of the grocery tax negotiations, which are certainly consequential.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who took an idea from a Virginia Tech class – to use Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County for substance abuse treatment – and turned it into a bill, then lined up an impressive number of Republican co-sponsors to get it through the GOP-controlled House.
Here’s my first half pick, though: State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. He’s taken at least three bills that were potentially controversial,lined up bipartisan support and shepherded them through a chamber controlled by the other party.
One was his bill that aims to prevent big “ballot dumps” on election night by requiring absentee votes – meaning all those early votes – be counted as part of the voter’s regular precinct. You wouldn’t think that would be controversial but it has been in the past. This time it passed unanimously. (I had a column earlier that explained why this bill is something both parties should support.)
The second was his bill to make public the votes of the parole board, which came under scrutiny last year following some controversial releases. Democrats might have opposed this for fear of making Democrats on the board look bad (although Youngkin has replaced them all). Republicans might have opposed this on law-and-order grounds. Instead, the bill passed 37-3. It’s a rare day when Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is expanded and not gouged out.
The third places time limits on the governor’s emergency powers, a direct outgrowth of the long-running emergency orders of the pandemic. We traditionally think of a governor’s emergency powers as something to be invoked during a discrete, time-limited event – a blizzard, a flood, some other natural disasters. Snows melt, floodwaters recede, although the pandemic we’re in now seems to just go on and on and on. This bill was more controversial, for all the obvious reasons – although some Democrats may have been won over this year by the fact that there’s now a Republican governor whose power they might very well like to limit. When I was with The Roanoke Times, I researched this point and found that most other states do place time limits on their governor’s emergency powers so whatever you think of this bill, it’s not out of line with other states. Suetterlein’s bill would limit an emergency order to 45 days unless the legislature extends it. That’s more generous than 25 states which give their legislatures the power to cancel a gubernatorial emergency order at any time. This bill passed 29-11.
These bills aren’t law yet, and many a team has celebrated prematurely at halftime. And certainly not all of Suetterlein’s bills have passed, although that’s an unrealistic expectation anyway. These are three big ones that could easily have failed but didn’t.
So – masks gone, the food tax maybe gone, cannabis legislation up in the air, state funding for school construction a big question mark, partisan gridlock on partisan issues, the budget not yet presented. That’s the score so far. As they say in sports, there’s a lot more of this game to be played.