Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the legislature.
Screenshot of Gov. Glenn Youngkin addressing the legislature.

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RICHMOND – In his first State of the Commonwealth speech before a joint session of Virginia’s legislature, Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday urged lawmakers to put their bipartisan differences aside and get to work “to make Virginia even stronger, so we can compete to win economically, attract the best jobs, and unlock the dreams and rich talents of all our people.”

While the state of the commonwealth was “substantially better” than it was a year ago when Youngkin assumed office and Republicans regained the majority in the House of Delegates, “we are still a great distance from our destination, a destination where Virginia truly is the best place to live, work and raise a family,” Youngkin said. 

“I’m here this afternoon to urge us to accelerate our efforts – to get more done and get it done faster – and make Virginia even stronger, so we can compete to win economically, attract the best jobs, and unlock the dreams and rich talents of all our people,” he said. 

In his one-hour address, Youngkin touted his administration’s accomplishments last year, from providing $4 billion in tax relief – including eliminating the state’s grocery tax – to raising teacher pay, making a historic investment in K-12 education, and reopening the commonwealth for business by recruiting companies like Boeing and Raytheon Technologies, welcoming Lego’s first ever American manufacturing facility, and watching companies like Plenty, RocketLabs and DroneUp launch next generation agricultural technology, rockets and drones in Virginia. 

“When I took office, Virginia was 47th in the nation for job recovery from the pandemic,” Youngkin said. “Since then, more than 85,000 more Virginians are working – placing Virginia now in the top 20 of states for job growth since the turn of the year. But we still have 125,000 fewer Virginians working than before the pandemic.”

When Youngkin, a former investment manager from Fairfax County, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November 2021, Republicans swept all three statewide offices in a contest that was deadlocked in most polls. GOP candidates also flipped the majority in the House, where they now hold a 52-42 edge. 

But because members of the state Senate weren’t on the ballot that year, Democrats have continued to control the chamber with a slim 21-19 majority. In his first year in office, Youngkin was forced to govern with a divided legislature – which means that most of his administration’s accomplishments are the result of bipartisan compromise. 

The legislative stalemate will continue at least through the 2023 General Assembly session, and Senate Democrats even picked up one more seat in a special election Tuesday evening, when former NFL defensive Aaron Rouse of Virginia Beach defeated his Republican opponent Kevin Adams, flipping the seat vacated by former Sen. Jen Kiggans, who now represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. 

Rouse’s win gives Senate Democrats a more robust 22-18 majority, which all but assures that more contentious Republican legislation – such as limiting access to abortion – will be dead on arrival in the Senate. 

Consequently, Youngkin did not spend a lot of time discussing abortion Wednesday. “This session, I have asked the General Assembly to come together to protect life at 15 weeks, the point when a baby can feel pain,” he said, about halfway into his speech. “It is clear, Virginians want fewer abortions, not more.”

Instead, Youngkin struck a more unifying tone, focusing on issues where bipartisan compromise was not out of reach. 

“Common sense is something that’s all too lacking in government and politics these days,” he said. “Too often, we’re bogged down by the mental gymnastics of partisanship, the heavy weight of hands that do too much finger pointing, and a media culture that stokes controversy instead of collaboration.”

Tax relief was front and center – literally – in Youngkin’s address to the legislature, and he noted that the General Assembly’s agreement on a package of cuts last year was “a clear sign” that there is “bipartisan momentum” for more such relief during this session, if both parties come together.

“I look forward to giving those on both sides of the aisle more opportunities to celebrate tax breaks in the coming weeks,” Youngkin said. “For the commonwealth to become truly competitive with our neighboring states, we are going to have to systematically move to lower taxes to make Virginia more attractive to young people, families, veterans and retirees, and more competitive for business.”

Youngkin said that the budget amendments he proposed last month – he is asking for an additional $1 billion in tax relief for individuals and corporations – are “key, visible commitments and a modern-day shot heard ’round the world that says Virginia is here to compete and Virginia is here to win.”

Youngkin also renewed his push to increase, again, the standard deduction by another 20%, which he said would benefit all Virginians, but especially the lower and middle income tax-payers.

“The plan I have laid out utilizes $1 billion of the $3.6 billion projected surplus for tax relief, and is structurally sound,” Youngkin said. “When combined with last year’s tax relief, our plan would save a typical family more than $1,900, and over 47,000 working Virginians would have their tax liability eliminated entirely.”

But Democrats made clear Wednesday that instead of more tax cuts, they would rather use the state’s flush coffers to invest additional money in essential services such as public education. 

“We heard from a governor focused on running for president and appeasing the MAGA movement – not looking out for families,” Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, the House Minority Leader, said in a statement, referring to the Make America Great Again policies of former President Donald Trump. “A Governor who wants to give handouts in tax breaks to the wealthiest … House Democrats want to cut taxes for working families and small businesses,” Scott said.

However, one area where both sides are likely going to find a compromise is further investment in mental health services. 

“Virginia, like the country, is experiencing a behavioral health crisis. And our behavioral health system is overwhelmed, grappling with a level of mental health and substance use issues never seen before – all too often resulting in violence, suicide and murder,” Youngkin said. 

Youngkin recalled how last month he stood at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital in Henrico County to announce a three-year plan to “fundamentally transform” the state’s behavioral health system. “The ‘Right Help, Right Now’ plan is comprehensive – and I ask this General Assembly to fully fund the $230 million bold first step of this plan,” Youngkin said, adding that this funding would rapidly accelerate the “transformation toward a strong and stable” behavioral health safety net.

“It’s part of a bold approach that will substantially expand system capacity – same-day care, relieving the burden on law enforcement, greater pre-crisis service capacity in schools, a focus on substance use disorder, a stronger behavioral health workforce, and service innovations,” Youngkin said.

The governor made no mention of efforts by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who has been championing a plan to transform Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery.

Last year, the General Assembly approved $750,000 to study the feasibility of Rasoul’s proposal. Rasoul told Cardinal News on Wednesday that the study has been completed and that it deemed the project a necessary investment. Rasoul introduced legislation this week that would direct the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to begin with the transformation of the campus.

But foremost, Youngkin, who is quietly contemplating a presidential run in 2024, made clear that he wants results, and he wants them soon. 

“Throughout my career in business and now as your governor, I’ve maintained a simple rule that I will apply here, today,” he said Wednesday. “Don’t sidestep problems, clearly understand them and identify solutions.”

But Democrats are unlikely to give Youngkin the victories that he is asking for. Earlier on Wednesday, Senate and House Democratic leaders laid out their party’s agenda for this year’s legislative session, still giddy with excitement over Rouse’s victory on Tuesday.

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the Senate Majority Leader, said that Rouse’s win showed that Virginians rejected the Republican agenda. 

“We think we’re in line with where the state wants to be,” Saslaw said. “With the economy, our education, healthcare and reproductive rights, we have a full plate. On some of these items obviously we are going to play defense, and on some of them we won’t. But we know what the people want and we are going to provide.”

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, slammed Youngkin’s proposed amendments to the state budget as “ill-fated,” particularly the additional $1 billion in tax relief that he wants. “I think we need to make sure that we are putting money in the pockets of hard-working families, and to hell with the governor’s budget proposal,” Lucas said. 

And Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said that Democrats would fight all Republican attempts at limiting access to abortions, which the Youngkin administration made a legislative priority after the Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, which provided constitutional protections for abortion nationwide.

“Republicans have made it clear that their first priority this session is to ban abortion and roll back our rights,” Locke said, adding that Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield Chase and Youngkin want to pass “a flurry of abortion bans or restrictions” during this session. “I am here to say, not on our watch. Senate Democrats are committed to protecting abortion rights in Virginia,” Locke said. 

Under current law, abortions are legal in the commonwealth in the first and second trimesters, allowing for the procedure in the third trimester only if continuing the pregnancy “is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

Across the hall from the Senate chamber, Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, earlier this week filed legislation that would enshrine reproductive freedom in the state constitution as a fundamental right. But the proposal is almost certainly to fail in the House, where Republicans hold a 52-48 majority.

Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, said Wednesday that Herring’s move did not surprise Republicans. “We knew that was coming,” Gilbert told reporters. “I think they are certainly trying to lay down a marker. Unfortunately the marker is that they don’t favor any restrictions on abortion at any time, right until the moment of birth, and they would take that notion and put it in the Constitution of Virginia. We think that’s a fairly extreme proposal, and it will be treated as such.”

But Gilbert said that Republicans and Democrats could find some common ground during this session. “The state is flush with cash, which means we are overtaxing Virginians,” he said. “We can find things that we believe are priorities on the other side, perhaps fund those, as well as giving people tax relief at a time when they are paying crazy prices every time they are going to the grocery store and fill up their gas tank,” Gilbert said.

“We managed to balance these competing interests in our last budget, there is no reason we can’t continue to do that on these amendments.”

Gilbert also hailed legislation introduced by lawmakers from Southwest Virginia that would create a legal framework for the arrival of small modular reactors in the commonwealth. 

“We believe that if people want to have reliable sources of energy, and they at the same time want to do it in a way that’s carbon free, that nuclear is the way to go, and the technology of the future is these small nuclear reactors that are safe and reliable and that we can replicate over and over again all over the place,” Gilbert said.

The so-called SMRs are part of Youngkin’s energy plan that he rolled out in October. The governor said at the time that Virginia must be “all in” on nuclear energy and that he wants to deploy at least one SMR somewhere in Southwest Virginia within 10 years. 

Dominion Energy is already evaluating several sites in Southwest Virginia, including retired fossil fuel plants and former coal mines. Appalachian Power Company says it’s also looking at the new nuclear technology. 

Gilbert said Wednesday that Republicans had “passing conversations” with Democrats about SMRs. “This should be a win-win for everybody,” he said. 

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Markus Schmidt

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