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RICHMOND – Lawmakers are set to return to Richmond Wednesday to act on the nearly 150 pieces of legislation that Gov. Glenn Youngkin either amended or vetoed since the regular legislative session concluded in March. Among the measures before the divided General Assembly in a separate committee meeting earlier in the day is the governor’s proposed three-months gas tax holiday that still faces staunch opposition from the Democratic majority in the Senate.
But the bigger issue looming large over the so-called veto session is the unfinished biennial state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 – a separate process that is unlikely to be finalized this week, despite the hopes of Youngkin who on Tuesday once again urged lawmakers to close a deal on his $5.5 billion package of proposed tax cuts.
“We know that Virginians deserve tax breaks now,” Youngkin said in an interview with Cardinal News. “This is a chance to do something very meaningful for Virginia, and the leadership over there recognizes that. It’s their responsibility to send me a budget, and I just encourage them to work faster, because Virginians have waited long enough.”
Budget conferees have been unable to close the $3 billion gap that still separates the spending bills of both parties, with most disagreements relating to different versions of tax relief proposals. Republicans, for example, want to eliminate the entire 2.5% tax on groceries and essential personal hygiene products, while Democrats want to retain the 1% portion that benefits local governments to fund schools.
Youngkin is also pushing lawmakers to double Virginia’s standard reduction and offer tax rebates of $300 for individuals and $600 for married couples. Several bills seeking to address the state’s dire school construction needs also still linger in conference.
While he said he closely monitors the budget negotiations, Youngkin reiterated Tuesday that he respects the legislative process “that has to work through its dynamics. We have very experienced and senior folks on both sides, from the House and the Senate, from the Democrats and Republicans, and they need to work through it,” he said.
That aside, lawmakers also recognize “the pressures of time,” Youngkin said. “In fact, we’ve got local budgets that need to be finalized, and they require a state budget to do it. We’ve got teachers who want to get paid, we’ve got law enforcement that we must invest in at a time when we see runaway violence in Virginia that we know we have to combat.”
But Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that “there is no indication” that the two chambers are very close to reaching an agreement on the budget. “My guess is that there will be another one-day session, maybe in May or June, to keep the government operating after June 30,” he said.
For lawmakers convening in Richmond at noon on Wednesday this means they will solely focus on Youngkin’s proposed amendments to 115 bills and his vetoes of 25 measures. All of the latter were sponsored by Democrats.
Jacqueline Woodbridge, a spokesperson for Senate Democrats, said that work in the Senate will likely extend into the evening. “I would expect six hours,” she said in a phone interview. “The vetoes will be pretty quick, but some of the amendments could take some time, especially with the back-and-forth between the two chambers,” Woodbridge said, adding that Youngkin made a lot of amendments “that are complex.”
Across the hall, the House is “ready to tackle the large number of amendments the governor sent down,” Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, said in an email. But Gilbert, too, does not believe that lawmakers can hope for a quick resolution of the matters before them.
“I expect it to be a long day,” he said.
One of the most contested measures to be taken up in committee Wednesday morning was not introduced until the special session convened April 4 – the gas tax holiday first proposed by Youngkin after the General Assembly adjourned its regular session last month. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, the legislation seeks to suspend the state’s 26.2 cents per gallon tax for three months while Virginians struggle with climbing fuel prices.
While the measure passed the House Appropriations Committee last week by a 12-10 party line vote, it will likely be defeated by the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee that is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning. Instead, Democrats proposed a $50 gas rebate per vehicle or up to $100 per household – an idea that Republicans can’t get behind.
During veto session, the Senate will consider Youngkin’s amendments to legislation seeking to direct the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and 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 that passed in the Senate. A companion bill by Del. William Wampler, R-Washington County, also went to Youngkin’s desk, but the governor sent it back to the legislature, asking that only the Department of Energy assess identify the waste coal piles – a change that Democrats fear would send a message that it’s more about energy production than it is about protecting the environment.
A measure dealing with surrogate law, sponsored by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, shared a similar fate. Surrogacy law in the commonwealth currently allows a couple contracting with a surrogate to require an abortion of a disabled unborn child or to abort multiples, but Peake’s Senate Bill 163 – which passed the Senate unanimously – would prohibit this practice.
“The governor’s amendment removes the prohibition on prohibiting abortion – essentially forcing any surrogate to complete a pregnancy, even if there is danger to the life of the mother or the child,” said Virginia Senate Democrats spokesperson Woodbridge.
Farnsworth, the political scientist, said that Wednesday’s veto session will likely be “an exercise in good luck,” adding that in partisan times, it is rare that both sides are willing to move forward on policy.
“Veto sessions during times of divided government are usually much ado about very little. Democrats want things, Republicans want things, and unless both parties want something, it won’t go very far,” Farnsworth said. “A lot of the governor’s changes via amendment won’t go through the Democratic controlled Senate, and a lot of the vetoes will be sustained in the Republican majority House.”
It is not going to take much for lawmakers to conclude that they are hopelessly divided, Farnsworth said. “We know that going in, so I don’t see much happening beyond gridlock.”
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the proposed gas tax hike will only be considered during the Senate Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, but will not be weighed by the full General Assembly during veto session.