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RICHMOND – The Virginia General Assembly on Saturday adjourned its regular 2023 session without a deal on amending the state’s biennial budget after lawmakers failed to agree on about $1 billion in additional tax relief legislation that Gov. Glenn Youngkin had asked for.
Instead, the legislature passed a four-page stop-gap measure to revise spending for some essential functions of the government funded as budget negotiations continue. They also passed landmark legislation to return oversight of the state’s utilities to the State Corporation Commission.
Disappointed with the stalemate, Youngkin urged budget conferees to keep working. He also said that he is ready to call the legislature back to Richmond for a special session to vote on a more expansive slate of amendments.
“I don’t think it’s that hard, really. We have plenty of money in the system, and it’s not an ‘or’ moment. We can fund a lot of very important things and cut taxes,” Youngkin told reporters at the state Capitol Saturday.
Virginians deserve an opportunity to see our legislature and our government work for them, Youngkin said. “We have $3.6 billion of surplus, and there is plenty of money for tax cuts, and to invest in these most important priorities like education, behavioral health and law enforcement. We can get this done.”
Youngkin rolled out his amended budget proposal in December, which included another $1 billion in proposed tax cuts, and a $230 million package to overhaul the state’s behavioral health system. The legislature’s money committees released their proposed amendments to the budget on Feb. 5, and both the House of Delegates and the state Senate passed their individual budget bills.
But Democrats rejected Youngkin’s push for more tax relief, believing that last year’s historic investment of $4 billion in cuts and rebates was more than enough.
“Now we’re saying any tax cuts shouldn’t go to the wealthy and corporations, and instead we focused on investing in teacher raises, mental health and transportation issues as we move forward,” Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, told Cardinal News.
When the House of Delegates and the state Senate convened Saturday morning, lawmakers were close to reaching an agreement, Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said in an interview.
But the deal blew up when Democrats asked for more concessions, Knight said. “They wanted to spend on education and mental health, and I was fine with that. And I wanted the same amount to be spent on our side on tax rebates and tax cuts, and they didn’t want to give us the equal amount of what I was going to give them.”
Virginia’s legislature adopts a two-year budget every other year, and unlike the federal government, the commonwealth must remain funded to avert a detrimental impact not only on the state government but localities relying on cash from the state. The biennial budget is enacted into law in even-numbered years, and amendments to it are enacted in odd-numbered years.
Youngkin said Saturday that the chairs of both money committees are now finding themselves in “exactly in the same place they were last year,” when they didn’t get the budget done by the end of the session.
When the legislature adjourned in 2022, about 50 bills still lingered in conference. Both houses then passed a resolution allowing them to approve conference committee reports on bills – including the budget – in a subsequent special session.
Lawmakers then returned to Richmond on April 4 after Youngkin called for a special session ringing in the legislature’s second attempt at completing the state’s biennial budget.
For this year, party leaders were hoping for a faster deal that would allow lawmakers to return to their home districts to run for reelection. Concerned that a partisan stalemate in the legislature would unnecessarily drag out negotiations over amendments, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, two weeks ago named the chamber’s budget conferees, urging them to get a deal by Feb. 25, when the legislature was set to adjourn.
“To say I’m disappointed with today’s outcome is an understatement. As recently as last night, we had an agreement in principle on not only tax cuts for Virginia’s hard working families, but also even more funding for schools and other priorities,” Gilbert said Saturday. “But it appears the Senate’s brick wall may turn into a barrier to better schools, safer communities, and putting people’s hard earned money back in their own pockets.”
Senate Democrats, however, touted their own achievements during this year’s session.
“For the past 46 days, Senate Democrats went to work and delivered for Virginia families,” said Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
“From passing legislation that ensures the economy works for all Virginians, to defending Virginians’ freedoms, Senate Democrats are proud of the work we’ve accomplished this session. While there is still more to do, we are standing firm on our values during budget negotiations and investing in Virginia families.”
Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt County, said that although Democrats “walked back” from an initial budget deal, both sides were ready to continue with negotiations.
“We just decided to take another approach, and come back at a later date, maybe when there is a better environment for accomplishing the mission of what needs to be done, and see if we can do it then,” Austin said. “I hope that we can revive it, get a budget and move forward.”
Adjourning without an amended budget means that several economic development projects in Southwest and Southside Virginia remain unfunded until a deal is reached.
For example, the first construction project at the state-owned Catawba Hospital would not be able to begin. Earlier this month, a House panel had unanimously backed HB 2192, sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, directing the Department of Behavioral Health to begin with the transformation of the hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance use disorder treatment and addiction recovery.
While not approving Rasoul’s $147 million budget request to fund the entire project, the House Appropriations Committee instead opted to fund the planning cost and renovation of an existing building with $14.7 million. The appropriation is currently pending in conference.
The same goes for a $150 million allocation to complete the widening of Interstate 81 between exits 143 and 150 in the Roanoke Valley, which the committee approved already, in addition to $55 million to buy land and build what would become Virginia’s second inland port in the Mount Rogers Planning District, which encompasses six counties and two cities in Southwest Virginia between Wythe County and Bristol.
The Senate Finance Committee also backed a request by Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, in its own budget proposal. Pillion sought $10 million for the initial planning, design and site acquisition, which is needed to get the project started.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said that this year’s General Assembly session was an “extreme case” of what an election year legislature looks like.
“Lawmakers generally wanna put off controversial decisions until after they are reelected, but this session really is a strong example of that,” Farnsworth said. “Everything that could be delayed, has been delayed. And depending on the partisan majorities that emerge in November, the next session may be a more aggressive one.”
All of the big issues that candidates run on in Virginia were kicked down the road for the future, including legislation on gun rights and gun safety, abortion and taxes, Farnsworth added.
“The lawmakers may not have succeeded in passing a lot of legislation, but they have succeeded in creating an issue mix to run on,” he said. “When gun bills are on the agenda, Democrats can talk about Republicans not being committed to safety, and Republicans can talk about Democrats not being committed to the Second Amendment, so it’s win-win, even if nothing passes.”
Below, we have compiled a list of proposals drafted mostly by lawmakers from Southwest and Southside Virginia that we have been watching during this session and that survived the session’s midpoint earlier this month, all relating to issues with statewide implications and others that are unique to our coverage area.
Bills with statewide implications
Much like last year, Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, carried Youngkin’s signature tax relief legislation in the House.
In January, McNamara’s House Bill 2319, which would lower the top income tax rate from 5.75% to 5.5% starting in 2024 – which Republicans said would save taxpayers more than $1 billion in its first two years – passed in the House by a 52-48 party-line vote. Additionally, the bill would raise the standard deduction to $9,000 for single filers and $18,000 for married couples, saving the average Virginia family earning $75,000 approximately $114 annually.
The House by a 52-47 vote also passed McNamara’s second major tax relief measure. HB 2138 would lower the state’s effective business tax rate from 6% to 5%, saving Virginia businesses about $300 million annually. The bill also allows for new deductions for small businesses, providing an estimated relief of more than $275 million over the next two years, according to House Republicans.
Believing that last year’s historic $4 billion tax relief was enough, Democrats instead pushed for more investments in Virginia’s crumbling school infrastructure this year. Consequently, the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee earlier this month rejected both of McNamara’s proposals by a 11-5 party-line vote.
However, the Senate by a 39-1 vote passed HB 2178, sponsored by Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, which would add coal mine methane to the list of alternative sources of energy production that qualify an industry as a creator of green jobs for purposes of the green job creation tax credit.
Legislation sponsored by Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, seeks more regulations for cannabis dispensaries across the state. HB 1846 would allow pharmacists who are employed by a pharmaceutical processor or cannabis dispensing facility to issue written certificates for cannabis products – if the pharmacist is acting as the agent of a practitioner and has verified the patient’s diagnosis with a practitioner with whom the patient has a bona fide practitioner-patient relationship.
The bill would further amend and add numerous provisions regarding the commonwealth’s medical marijuana program, including provisions related to recordkeeping, product registration, expiration dates, allowable deviations, dispensing, packing, labeling and advertising. It also requires pharmaceutical processors and cannabis dispensing facilities to collect and provide to the Board of Pharmacy by July 1, 2024, data regarding implementation of the bill.
Head’s proposal, which had passed the House earlier this month by a 89-10 vote, also advanced in the Senate Tuesday by a 32-7 vote.
A proposal by Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, which would have allowed parents to send their children to any public school of their choice without boundaries defined by ZIP code passed in the House earlier this month, but it was rejected by the Senate Education and Health Committee by a 9-1 vote, with one abstention.
A measure proposed by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, that sought to create a grant fund for STEM+C robotics competition teams in underserved public school divisions and that had passed in the Senate unanimously, also found favor among members of a House Education K-12 subcommittee. But Stanley’s SB 806 was killed by the House Appropriations Committee last week.
However, HB 1726, sponsored by Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, that requires the Department of Education to authorize a Virginia-based nonprofit organization as a local education agency to provide schools for adults to earn an industry-recognized credential or dual college credit and a high school diploma, advanced in the Senate with amendments by a unanimous 97-0 vote.
The House on Tuesday unanimously passed a proposal by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, seeking to prevent political toying with special elections in the state legislature by requiring certain vacancies in the House of Delegates or the state Senate to be filled within 30 days of a member’s departure or death.
SB 944 would ensure that a political leader cannot deny constituents their elected voice in the General Assembly by unnecessarily delaying a special election.
A measure introduced by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, the House Majority Leader, that would make several changes to how the State Corporation Commission regulates Virginia’s investor-owned electric utilities, on Wednesday passed in the Senate with a substitute by a 25-14 vote.
HB 1770 would require a review of rates and conditions every two years instead of every three. It also would change some aspects of how the SCC determines utilities’ rates of return by expanding the peer groups to which they are compared and by requiring the commission to hew closely to the average returns realized by those peers.
Under Kilgore’s proposal, Dominion Energy customers also would see some rate adjustments rolled into base rates, and the measure would change the process through which the utilities retire their remaining fossil fuel-fired power plants, as required by the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. Currently, the SCC may step in and halt a planned closure if it determines that the retirement would hurt grid reliability. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our approximately 2,500 donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.)
And after the House backed HB 1779, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, that would establish the Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program to be administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the proposal also advanced in the Senate unanimously on Monday.
The program’s purpose is to award grants on a competitive basis to any public institution of higher education or private institution of higher education in the commonwealth that seeks to offer a nuclear education program.
But a proposal by Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, making it a policy of the commonwealth to promote the development and operation of small modular nuclear reactors at the earliest reasonable time possible, died in conference after it unanimously passed in the Senate Wednesday.
Under HB 2333, Virginia would have set a goal of having the first small modular nuclear reactor operating by the end of 2032. The bill would also have required the State Corporation Commission to establish a small modular nuclear reactor pilot program. Youngkin has been pushing to build at least one SMR in Southwest Virginia.
After Virginia approved four casinos in the commonwealth – including one already open in Bristol and one under construction in Danville – Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, filed HB 1465 to create a Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Advisory Committee within the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services in an effort to reduce the negative effects of problem gambling. Krizek’s proposal passed in the House earlier this month, and it advanced with unanimous support in the Senate Monday.
Just months after two mass shootings shook Virginia in a matter of days, a Democratic-controlled Senate committee in January passed a slate of gun bills aimed at keeping firearms out of the hands of people who could potentially inflict harm on others.
Among them was SB 1382, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, which would ban the new sale and possession of assault weapons manufactured after July 1, 2023, while also raising the age to buy such weapons manufactured before the bill’s effective date from 18 to 21.
A similar proposal by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, was rolled into Deeds’ measure, which passed in the Senate by a 23-16 vote in January. But a House Public Safety subcommittee earlier this month killed the legislation by a 6-4 party-line vote.
A measure introduced by Del. Jason Ballard, R-Giles County, aimed at cracking down on gang violence would expand the definition of “predicate criminal act” to include all felonies and carrying a concealed weapon violation, on Tuesday passed the Senate by a 31-9 vote.
HB 1478 would also increase various penalties for gang crimes.
However, the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month by a 9-6 vote killed legislation introduced by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, that sought to create a “rebuttable presumption” against bail for certain criminal offenses enumerated in the bill and for people identified as being illegally present in the United States who are charged with certain offenses.
The same committee also rejected HB 1549, filed by Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth County, which provided that if the parent or legal guardian of a child is killed by someone driving a motor vehicle or watercraft under the influence, the person who has custody of the child can ask the court that the defendant pay child support.
The Senate on Wednesday by a 35-5 vote passed HB 2171, sponsored by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, that would prohibit the governor or other governmental entity from applying emergency or disaster directives to the exercise of religion in a church, synagogue or any other place of worship.
Bills with implications unique to Southwest and Southside
HB 1539, sponsored by Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, establishes a new charter for the town of Farmville in Prince Edward County and repeals the current charter, which was created in 1956. The proposed charter sets out the organization of the town’s government and contains powers typically granted to towns. Edmunds’ measure passed both the House and the Senate, and the companion legislation SB 961, carried by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, also passed unanimously in both chambers.
With HB 1641, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, makes good on a promise he made to residents of Pound a year ago, when he introduced legislation to revoke the troubled Wise County town’s charter by November 2023: If they worked on getting their act together, he told them then, he’d come back during the next General Assembly session and file to repeal the revocation before it could take effect.
Since then, the town, which had been struggling for years with a dysfunctional town council and a declining tax base, elected new council members, named a new mayor and sought help from outside experts to improve how it does business – and Kilgore’s legislation passed the House unanimously at the end of January and the Senate earlier this month.
In light of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to build small modular reactors in Southwest Virginia, several lawmakers from Southwest Virginia filed legislation creating the legal framework for such an undertaking.
Among them is a proposal sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, which tasks the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority with supporting energy development projects, geothermal energy, advanced wind and solar energy, and advanced reactors and advanced nuclear technologies, among others. The bill unanimously passed the House at the end of January and also advanced the Senate by a unanimous vote on Tuesday.
One day after the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee by a 11-3 vote backed legislation creating the Virginia Power Innovation Fund, another Senate panel removed nuclear research from the list of technologies that the fund would be used for. But the provision was added back in conference at the urging of Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
O’Quinn had filed House Bill 2386 in order to create a public fund that would be used solely for research and development in innovative energy technologies, also including hydrogen, geothermal, pumped storage hydropower, battery storage and manufacturing, and carbon capture and utilization.
A measure sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, Scott County, would add coal mine methane to the forms of renewable energy under the Virginia Electric Utility Regulation Act. In mining, methane is contained within a worked-out area of an underground coal mine and eventually escapes to the surface via vents, fissures or ventilation holes.
Kilgore’s HB 1643 passed the Senate by a unanimous vote Tuesday, after SB 1121, the companion measure sponsored by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, had advanced in the House by a 83-15 vote earlier this month.
And Senate Joint Resolution 258 directs the Department of Energy to study the environmental and economic impacts of eliminating waste coal piles in the commonwealth. Also filed by Hackworth, the measure unanimously passed the House last week.
However, the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month by a 10-6 vote killed HB 1780 – another O’Quinn proposal – which would have established the percentage of the revenue to be allocated to each locality and provides that the host locality shall retain the remaining 6% of the revenue.
After a Democratic-controlled Senate committee last year blocked his effort to turn the Virginia Transportation Museum in Roanoke into a state agency, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, gave his proposal another shot by filing SB 1020.
The legislation establishing the museum – which is currently operated as a nonprofit – as a public entity and educational institution under the commonwealth, governed by a 15-member board of trustees, passed unanimously in the Senate earlier this month, but it failed to report in the House Education Committee.