Virginia State Capitol
The state capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

The 2022 General Assembly is now history. Well, sort of. The legislature still has to come back at some undermined point in the future to pass a budget and resolve whether we should repeal all or just part of the tax on food – so the two biggest things before this year’s legislature are still undone. But all the passing and killing of most other bills and such is done.

So, other than finishing work on the top two agenda items, what did this year’s session accomplish?

In terms of quantity, not very much. That’s what happens when there’s a Republican House of Delegates and a Democratic state Senate. The House passed lots of bills that Republicans were interested in and Democrats promptly killed them in the Senate. The Senate passed lots of bills that Democrats were interested in and … you can guess the rest. We thought we might have some drama with Republicans trying to pick off one or two Democrats in the 21-19 Senate to pass bills. Other than mask mandates, though, that didn’t really happen on anything controversial. That meant what bills did pass were ones that had bipartisan support, which doesn’t seem that bad a thing unless you’re a partisan on one side or another and really wanted to see your side’s bills pass. That means this year’s session simply helped to set up next year’s legislative elections, when all 140 seats in both chambers will be on the ballot – both parties now have plenty of material they can use to warn about all the horrors that will ensue if the other party has complete control of the legislature. The session underscored a hard truth for our new governor: Glenn Youngkin won’t be able to accomplish very much legislatively unless Republicans can control both chambers. How you feel about that likely depends on where you stand politically.

One thing the General Assembly certainly did was block a lot of appointments, although I’m not sure that’s much of an accomplishment. The tit-for-tat began when Democrats objected to Youngkin’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler – a former coal lobbyist who led the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump – to be Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. One way that Richmond is different from Washington is that it’s rare in Richmond for a legislature to reject a governor’s Cabinet nominees. Unlike Washington, in Richmond the confirmation process is usually a formality. The only other time anyone can remember a legislature rejecting a governor’s choice for Cabinet secretary was 2006 when Republicans nixed Tim Kaine’s choice of labor leader Danny LeBlanc on the grounds that he didn’t support the state’s right-to-work law. This year, Democrats rejected Wheeler because they didn’t think he’d be a good steward of the environment.

In response, House Republicans refused to confirm some of the appointees that Gov. Ralph Northam had named in his final year; they also let lapse the reappointment of a Democratic choice for a State Corporate Commission judge. In return, Senate Democrats blocked Youngkin’s appointees to the parole board – including Montgomery County Sheriff Hank Partin.

Question: Will Youngkin respond by saying, “Gosh, you’re right, I shouldn’t have done that, sorry folks,” and instead nominate someone from the Sierra Club? Of course not. He’ll pick someone who will do the same things Wheeler would have done, just without Wheeler’s polarizing resume. I wouldn’t make a very good partisan because if I were a Democrat, I’d have wanted to hold onto that SCC judgeship. Instead, Democrats succeeded in killing the Wheeler nomination but they lost an SCC judge, opened the way for Republicans to pick up a majority on the Board of Education sooner than they might have – and will still wind up with environmental policies they don’t like. Blocking Wheeler is probably good politics for Democrats – they can use this as a talking point to rally their base – but I’m not sure it’s good policy for them. They seem to have paid a high practical price (those appointments Republicans nixed) for a largely symbolic victory. I realize Democrats couldn’t possibly vote for a former Trump officeholder but I still wish somebody would explain to me why blocking Wheeler’s nomination, and setting off this chain of events, was good strategy because I sure don’t get it.

In terms of the quality of what the General Assembly did, well, that’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? Since this is an opinion column, I’ll give mine.

We won’t really be able to judge this year’s session until we know the outcome of the budget. As I’ve written before, there are some items in the budget that are potentially transformative for this part of the state. First there’s the question of state funding for school construction – will this be a one-time infusion of funds (as the Senate proposes) or a more long-term funding stream (as the House proposes)? And that’s just the beginning: The Senate version includes $20 million to pay off the bonds for the Central Virginia Training Center in Amherst County, which would allow that unused but highly developable property be sold off, and $200,000 to study the possibility of “inland ports” in Lynchburg and Bristol; the House version has $5 million for automotive research in the New River Valley – you can go read the original piece, no need to repeat it all here. (You can also read my pitch for restoring the funding to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise that the Senate Finance Committee largely stripped out.) Judging this year’s General Assembly without knowing what’s in the budget is like saying Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball team had a so-so year in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season – without knowing about their torrid march to the tournament championship. As a great philosopher from another sport once said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” If some or all of those budget items get approved, we could someday look back on this year’s General Assembly as a landmark session. If they don’t, we could view this as a lost opportunity of historic proportions.

Likewise, the unresolved question of whether to repeal all or part of the tax on food is another matter of historic consequence. Decades ago, that was the rallying cry for liberals, notably Henry Howell. Somehow Democrats let that issue slip past them, and last year it became one of the signature campaign issues for a Republican. At worst, Youngkin will be able to claim a partial victory – both chambers are in agreement on repealing part of the tax, it’s the final 1% that goes to local governments that is the holdout. The food tax debate also gives us an opportunity to marvel at our citizen legislature. In December, I stopped by the Salem Ice Cream parlor and found its proprietor, Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, behind the counter, dishing up ice cream. Now, as the sponsor of the “repeal it all” legislation, he’s at the center of something that’s been an issue for more than half a century.

In the absence of knowing how those issues are resolved, we’ll have to deal with other issues.

On the plus side, I’m partial to two bills from state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. One makes public the votes of the state parole board (whenever it finally has enough members to actually have votes). As a believer that the public’s business should be public, I have to think this is an improvement over the secrecy we’ve had. By bipartisan margins, the General Assembly agreed. The bill passed the Senate 37-3 and the House 96-3 and has already been signed into law. It’s a good day whenever the Freedom of Information Act is expanded, not Swiss-cheesed.

The other Suetterlein bill is intended to prevent the election night “mirages” we’ve seen in the past two election cycles since early voting became a thing in Virginia. When you vote early, you’re technically voting absentee – which until now has meant those votes all got counted as part of a “central absentee precinct,” not your regular precinct. When there weren’t many absentee ballots, that didn’t matter much – but when we have so many people voting early (46% of registered voters in 2020, according to the State Board of Elections), it does. What happened in 2020 and 2021 is that there were big “ballot dumps” that couldn’t be attributed to any specific precinct. Since early voting tends to be a partisan thing (Democrats like it more than Republican), we often see early returns showing Republicans leading even in normally Democratic areas – and then “suddenly” falling behind when that ballot dump comes in. That breeds unnecessary suspicion, even though it’s simply a matter of which order the votes get counted in. As a journalist, I’m more interested in the other consequences of these big ballot dumps – they make it impossible to analyze voting trends at the precinct level. Suetterlein’s bill would prevent that, by counting those votes as part of the regular precinct. Yes, we can have our early voting and our precinct analysis at the same time. Once again, there was a bipartisan majority for this – in the end, the final language of the bill passed unanimously in both chambers. However future elections go, we should thank Suetterlein for being able to understand them.

I won’t attempt to catalog every good bill that got passed – it may be years before we realize some of them were good ones – but let’s also call favorable attention to one from state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, that will require the state to determine how many students don’t have broadband access. I suspect some may be startled by the results. (Full disclosure: My kids are now grown but I’m sitting here at home trying to get internet access from a hotspot that some days doesn’t work very well – so I’m not in broadband territory here in my part of Botetourt County. It’s on the way, but it’s not here yet.) And, as a former 4-H kid, I have to be partial to the bill from Pillion on the Senate side and Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, on the House side to give excused absences to students who have to miss school for 4-H activities. Megan Schnabel wrote about the Wise County teenager who came up with the bill. I should also confess that my 4-H experience didn’t end well, although not nearly as badly as it did for my 4-H hog, who gave birth to piglets on the night Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 – then promptly rolled over and killed many of them. Read into that whatever you will.

For my money, the biggest mistake this year’s legislature made was to pass legislation – at Youngkin’s behest – to create a state authority to help build a new football stadium for the Washington Commanders in Northern Virginia. Technically, the bill hasn’t passed yet; the House and Senate passed different versions that are now being resolved in conference committee. Those details may be important, but the basic question seems to have been resolved – Virginia’s going to do this. Proponents assure us no tax dollars will go into this, but the legislation does foresee Virginia giving up a lot of revenue. I remain astonished at how quickly these bills went through the legislature, without much public scrutiny at all – or any overt attempt by legislators in Southwest and Southside to trade their support for a revenue stream coming to this part of the state. As a sports fan, I’m sympathetic to cities that cut sweetheart stadium deals to get a team – sports are an important part of our culture. But here, we already have the team and there’s no real threat of it moving to an NFL-less city. True, the team’s not based in Virginia but it’s still in the same market. And, true, there’s a lot of tax revenue to be generated for the state if the team’s new stadium is on our side of the Potomac. Still, I worry that we’re giving up a lot for something we might have gotten anyway. And let’s face it, it’s not as if that land in Loudoun County or Prince William County would sit idle, unused and untaxed. Why is this form of development more desirable than, say, paving it over with strip malls and office parks and data centers? I fear someday we’ll look back on this as a bad deal we should have asked a lot more questions about.

At the beginning of the session, I laid out 10 things we should look for, so that provides one set of markers by which to judge this year’s Assembly. So let’s review:

  1. The legalization of marijuana – or cannabis, as some prefer to call it. Democrats set this in motion last year when they controlled the full apparatus of state government but left the job undone, saying they’d come back this year to finish the work. More to the point, the state last year legalized weed, but did not yet set up the rules and regulations for how a retail market will work. The winners in the meantime: your friendly neighborhood pot dealers. Republicans vowed to clean up the Democrats’ mess but didn’t. House Republicans never came up with a bill at all, then they promptly killed the bill sent over from the Democratic Senate. I’ll have more to say about cannabis in a future column but for now, the bottom line is the General Assembly failed in this task.
  2. School construction. There seems some consensus, however grudgingly, that the state should put up some money for school construction – so that’s progress. The question is how and how much. The General Assembly is still haggling over a measure from Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, that would set up  a mechanism for distributing school construction funds – it’s one of about 50 bills with competing versions from the House and Senate that must be resolved in conference. That O’Quinn bill is a big deal but it’ll be a bigger deal when there’s actual money in it. For that, we need the budget. Meanwhile, several other measures that would have enabled school construction and modernization were defeated. A House panel killed multiple bills that would have allowed localities to hold referendums on whether to raise the local sales tax to generate revenue for school construction. It also killed a measure from state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, that would have required unspent funds go toward capital projects. All of those bills were ones recommended by the state’s bipartisan Commission on School Construction and Modernization. Clearly, many legislators do not share a sense of urgency on the sorry condition of many Virginia schools – and the inability of some localities to pay to improve them. Nor has Youngkin made this a priority, even though he is politically indebted to many of the rural localities that would benefit most from state funding. I remain baffled why he hasn’t. Of course, I’m also baffled why the business community hasn’t made this a higher priority. All I know is that the governor seems more concerned about securing funding for creating so-called “lab schools” than fixing the cracks and leaky roofs in the schools we already have.
  3. Talent attraction. When the Senate Finance Committee – still very much under Democratic control – held its retreat in Roanoke in November, much of the conversation dealt with ways to help rural Virginia deal with its economic challenges. Some of those economic challenges are also demographic challenges – not enough young adults. One idea that elicited much excitement was the Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction Program, whereby the commission pays the student debt of recent graduates who move to the commission’s territory and fill certain in-demand jobs. This checks off several boxes at once – it helps those communities fill jobs that are hard to fill and also brings in a younger demographic. The Senate Finance Committee was fascinated by this program – state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, called it “the most innovative idea I’ve heard in 20 years.” There was talk then about providing the funds to expand this program and perhaps extend it elsewhere.   Didn’t happen.
  4. Tobacco Commission. There was also talk at the same Senate Finance retreat about expanding the commission’s footprint into non-tobacco-growing areas.  That didn’t happen, either. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned: The money dedicated to growing a new economy in former tobacco-growing regions shouldn’t be used for other things. But the state could, if it wanted, create some entity to endow development in those non-tobacco regions. It just hasn’t.
  5. Site development. This hasn’t happened yet, either – another of those “wait until the budget” things. But there does seem consensus that the state needs to be more aggressive about funding site development. A state report last year found that: “In just the last few years, Virginia’s lack of prepared sites has contributed to the loss of projects representing more than 39,000 direct jobs, 75,000 additional jobs, $55 billion in capital investment, and more than $235 million per year in new state general fund revenue.” That’s a lot of jobs. Since then there’s been bipartisan support for Virginia to put more money into site development. The Senate Finance Committee heard in November that North Carolina spends $80 million a year on site development, Georgia $66 million, Ohio $50 million, South Carolina $43 million – and Virginia just $5 million. In his final budget, then-Gov. Ralph Northam responded by proposing $150 million for site development in his outgoing budget; Youngkin echoed that call. The Senate budget calls for $150 million over three years; the House version puts in $164 million but over two years. There’s also a provision that limits funds to sites of 200 acres of more – which will rule out a lot of places in Southwest Virginia. This may not matter much in Northern Virginia, where wealth is produced in cubicles, but does matter a great deal in rural Virginia, where those sites – and those jobs – would be or could be. File this one with many of the others – “incomplete.”
  6. Mining in Southside. There are a lot of interesting minerals beneath the surface in Southside. Always have been, but now there’s a Canadian company prospecting for copper, lead and zinc in Pittsylvania County. That led Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, to introduce a bill calling for a “pause” on permitting. That bill got killed early on – but you can still read Randy Walker’s fascinating story about why there are so many weird minerals under Southside. Whether the demise of that bill is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your politics.
  7. The Virginia Museum of Transportation. The nonprofit museum in Roanoke wanted to be transformed into an official state agency. State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, introduced a bill to make that happen. It got killed early on, too.
  8. Catawba Hospital. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke – inspired by a Virginia Tech class – introduced a bill to study using Catawba Hospital in Roanoke County for substance abuse treatment. The bill sailed through the House 99-0 but then got scuttled in a Senate committee – technically carried over until next year. The official rationale was that we shouldn’t be studying a specific facility. That would make sense – if there were a statewide study, but there’s not. This is one of those legislative actions that is simply maddening. I understand when bills get killed for ideological reasons or even simply partisan reasons. I don’t understand things like this.
  9. Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center. Environmentalists have never liked the Dominion Energy plant in Wise County because it burns coal – along with waste coal and biomass. Southwest Virginia legislators love it because it’s a big employer. They secured an exemption for the plant in the Clean Economy Act. While most other coal plants must close by 2024, Virginia City can stay open until 2045. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but we tell all donors up front that donations will have no influence on news decisions.) Some Democrats would like to close that exemption; Southwest Republicans would like to exempt Virginia City forever. In the end, neither happened. Nor did waste coal get declared to be “renewable” energy as some had proposed – but the General Assembly did authorize a much-needed accounting of just how much waste coal there is sitting around Southwest Virginia. (State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, was the sponsor in the Senate; Del. Will Wampler Jr., R-Washington County, in the House). A report from the Appalachian School of Law earlier this year found that a lot of the waste coal in the region is too far away from Virginia City to get burned there, anyway – but it still is polluting waterways in the region. That report also suggested that cleanup of all that waste coal could become a big jobs generator in Southwest Virginia. Before the state can formally compile a list of all the gob piles (the Appalachian School of Law study said there were at least 245 but nobody was really sure), there has to be funding for the count. That’s yet another budget matter – but assuming that happens, this could be the beginning of a very important undertaking. Credit Hackworth and Wampler for making that happen.
  10. Flood relief for Hurley. We’ve written much about the flood-ravaged community in Buchanan County and how it’s effectively been abandoned by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which twice rejected requests for aid. Enter Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, who proposed the state provide aid. This seemed a long shot at the time but Morefield secured $11.4 million in the House version of the budget – now we just have to wait to see whether the Senate goes along.

Of those 10 items, four (school construction, site development, waste coal, Hurley) remain dependent on the budget. In terms of affirmative action passed, I only count two things that actually passed: O’Quinn’s school funding plan (sans the money), and Hackworth’s waste coal study (again, dependent on funding). I count the lack of legislation diluting the Tobacco Commission a good thing; some may think the defeat of Simonds’ bill pausing mineral prospecting in Southside to be a good thing, others not so much. Ditto some of the other measures.

So, however you count them, some good things happened in this year’s session, some bad things happened, and a whole lot of other other things just didn’t happen. Come to think of it, maybe that’s no different from any other year.

The bottom line here really is a bottom line: We can’t truly measure this year’s General Assembly session until we have a budget.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.