The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – The Virginia General Assembly reconvened in Richmond Friday to weigh Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s 35 amendments to the state’s $150 billion budget for fiscal year 2022-24 that the body approved on June 1. While the Republican-controlled House of Delegates signed off on 33 of the changes, several key proposals were blocked by Democrats in the Senate – including a three-months gas tax holiday and an amendment that would end state funding for abortions in the case of fetal abnormalities.   

However, a Youngkin initiative that will expand the number of colleges eligible to sponsor and create lab schools to include community colleges and private schools passed the House, followed by a 20-19 vote in the Senate where Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears broke the tie, and lawmakers backed a recommendation that rolls back plans for more than 500 inmates in state prisons from being released early on good behavior this summer.

An amendment that requires each public institution of higher education to adopt an official policy on academic freedom also made it out of both chambers, as did a proposal that authorizes the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to offer graduate programs.

In total, the legislature backed 24 of Youngkin’s 35 amendments – just two weeks before the approved biennial budget will go into effect on July 1. 

After Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, gavelled in the House session at noon, newly elected House Minority Leader Don Scott Jr., D-Portsmouth, sharply criticized Youngkin in a passionate floor speech for attempting to “roll back our progress on mass incarceration” and on “restrictive reproductive freedom.” 

Scott said that the governor sent down a budget amendment to “make the poorest women who need access to abortion pay out of their own pockets for non-viable pregnancies that could literally kill them.” Under current law, Virginians may qualify for state funding through Medicaid to end pregnancies with a severe fetal diagnosis. According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, doctors performed 21 abortions for Medicaid recipients in the commonwealth last year.

The repudiation of the gas tax holiday amendment marked another defeat for Youngkin, who had pushed for this initiative since March and, via budget amendment, proposed a three-months suspension from July 1 through Sept. 30, and then cap future increases for inflation at 2%.

While the House approved his proposal on Friday, it sparked a heated debate in the Senate. “If you haven’t heard from your constituents about the rising gas prices, you haven’t talked to them,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. “Let’s send a message that we support the citizens of the commonwealth, and let’s put the pressure on the oil companies. But let’s show our citizens that we care about them and that we know what they are going through,” Peake said.

Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, countered that suspending the gas tax would further delay much needed repairs to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure. “Our roads are a mess,” Edwards said. “The transportation needs are great, and this would simply put it behind for a long time. We would be delaying the future of Virginia.”

Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County voted with Democrats to kill the amendment. 

Youngkin did not release a statement Friday evening but he turned to Twitter. “Democrats failed to put politics aside for the good of Virginians — for a third time,” he wrote. 

“At a time when inflation and gas prices are at a high in the Commonwealth, Virginians should know that higher gas prices are brought to you by @VASenateDems.”

But Youngkin’s persistence in trying to expand the number and types of public schools and institutions of higher education to be permitted and receive state funding to set up lab schools has paid off. The General Assembly had already approved $100 million in the finalized budget to pay for the initiative. But now, not just K-12 systems but any institution of higher learning – including 23 community colleges, five public higher education centers and 28 private colleges and universities – will be able to partner with localities to sponsor lab schools. 

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, said that Youngkin’s amendment will allow the state’s community colleges “to help out where they are most useful to help out, and private colleges that will be standing, willing to help.”

But Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, said that Youngkin’s amendment was “trying to circumvent the legislative process” and “trying to establish in the language an expansion of the partnership, opening the door to establishing relationship with any institute or authority,” which Hashmi said was “circumventing our role in the legislature.” 

Hashmi’s comment sparked a response from Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who called her argument disingenuous. “This is exactly what we all do, we legislate in the budget,” Stanley said. “You can make your arguments against the legislation, but don’t use the argument that the governor legislates in the budget when the horse is out of the barn.”

While Youngkin got the lab school expansion he asked for, the Senate denied him a related amendment that would have had state funding follow students from public schools to lab schools.

After the special session wrapped Friday evening, party leadership of both houses claimed victory in the budget negotiations. 

Gilbert, in an emailed statement, hailed the passage of the budget amendments as a success. “Virginians gave us a new two-year lease on the people’s House with the expectation that we would take action to make their lives better. Once again, we’ve done just that.”

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, in a statement hailed the record funding for economic growth through increased state employee wages, business investments, and both broad and targeted tax relief. “The budget appropriates more money than ever for Virginia’s public schools to develop the next generation of leaders through increased teacher pay and bonuses, renovation and construction of education infrastructure, and broadening opportunities in K-12 and higher education alike. These investments and policy choices complete a thoughtful, balanced, and responsible budget for the commonwealth that prioritizes what Virginians need most right now,” Saslaw said. 

Markus Schmidt

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