Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

RICHMOND – One day before the mandated deadline, Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday proposed a total of 35 amendments to the state’s biennial budget for fiscal year 2022-24 that the General Assembly approved on June 1. He did not veto any provisions in the spending bill. 

While most of the amendments are of technical nature, the governor seeks to expand the number of colleges eligible to sponsor and create lab schools to include community colleges and private schools. He also wants to require each public institution of higher education to adopt an official policy on academic freedom, and he renewed his push for a three-months gas tax holiday to bring relief to Virginians struggling with high gas prices – a proposal that Democrats have previously defeated. 

But Youngkin left unchanged key elements in the $150 billion budget, such as $4 billion in tax relief, a 10% pay increase for state employees and teachers, a partial repeal of the state’s grocery tax, and record investments in public education as well as school construction and modernization projects.

“With five-dollar gas prices and plenty of money in the system, I’m continuing the effort to lower gas prices for hardworking Virginians and my hope is, this time, that Democrats will join us to give Virginians a break this summer,” Youngkin said in a statement. “I’m grateful for the hard work of leaders in the House and Senate for presenting a budget to me that delivers key priorities for the commonwealth, these amendments build on that and further our goal to make Virginia the best place to live, work and raise a family.”

Youngkin aides told reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday that the proposals would total about $35 million, of which $32 million would come from a reduced fiscal impact of conforming with current federal tax laws and unspent relief funds.

The General Assembly is set to reconvene Friday at noon to weigh Youngkin’s proposals. Some of the amendments are expected to be favored by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, but Democrats – who still hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate – are unlikely to back them. Without the support of the amendments from both chambers, the budget will go into effect in its current carnation. 

Of the proposed amendments, Youngkin’s lab school initiative may be among the most controversial because it is often viewed as an alternative to traditional public schools. The proposal would allow not just K-12 systems but any institution of higher learning and private companies to form lab school partnerships with localities. Youngkin has repeatedly referred to CodeRVA, a computer-science focused regional high school in Richmond, as a potential blueprint. 

At the beginning of the regular legislative session in January, Youngkin pressed 

the General Assembly to approve $150 million to help colleges and universities set up lab schools – lawmakers gave him a total of $100 million in the finalized budget. But now, Youngkin wants to expand lab school eligibility to public community colleges; higher education centers, and institutions of higher education eligible for the Tuition Assistance Grant Program. Youngkin aides told reporters that the amendment would allow 23 community colleges, five public higher education centers and 28 private colleges and universities to be able to be sponsors of lab schools.

A proposal requiring each public four-year institution of higher education and the Virginia Community College System to include in its six-year plan and amendments to its plan submitted to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) an “official commitment and set of policies and practices to support freedom of expression and inquiry, free speech, academic freedom, and diversity of thought” may also become a contentious issue among Democrats.

Youngkin aides said Wednesday that the governor has been meeting on a regular basis with all presidents of the state’s universities to discuss this issue. “We’ve had very rich conversations and dialogues around this shared commitment to creating cultures committed to free speech … Everyone is in agreement that this is part of the rule of higher education to ensure that free speech is happening on every campus.”

Youngkin also submitted an amendment that would authorize UVA Wise to offer graduate programs. Besides VMI in Lexington, the public liberal arts college in Wise County is currently the only institution of higher learning that doesn’t offer these programs.  

In a message attached to the spending bill, Youngkin wrote that he approves of the general purpose of this bill,” but that he is returning it without his signature with the request that 35 amendments be adopted. “My amendments primarily focus on expanding opportunities for education, keeping our communities safe, and making Virginia the best state for business. I believe that my amendments are necessary in order to continue the work that can unite Virginians, Republican and Democrat alike,” he wrote.

Youngkin left untouched one of the key issues that the General Assembly had compromised on – a partial repeal of the state’s 2.5% grocery tax. Youngin wanted to see the entire tax repealed, but Democrats committed to slashing only the state’s 1.5% portion of the grocery tax while retaining the 1% portion that benefits local governments to fund schools. 

He also did not try to increase the amount of tax rebates that the legislature agreed on – individuals will get $250 and families $500, which is slightly below the $300 and $600 that the governor proposed. He also left unchanged the refundable tax credit for low-income working families, a larger deduction for military retirement income and an increase of the standard deduction from $4,500 to $8,000 for individual taxpayers and from $9,000 to $16,000 for families. 

And Youngkin appears to be content with the 10% pay increase for state employees and teachers and a record $1.25 billion investment to leverage more than $3 billion for school construction and modernization projects that the budget includes. 

He also did not propose any amendments to some of the key legislation relevant to Southwest and Southside Virginia, such as the $11.4 million in relief funding for the victims of last year’s flood in Buchanan County, and $25 million to pay off the remaining debt of the shuttered Central Virginia Training Center, clearing the way for the site’s future development. 

The governor didn’t seek any changes to a provision allocating $750,000 to study the feasibility of transforming Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery, and a nearly $16 million grant to the city of Roanoke for the renovation of an existing facility to create an advanced laboratory, business incubation and an accelerator space for the development of new biotechnology companies across southwestern Virginia.

Markus Schmidt

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