In 1866, a New York lawyer, newspaper editor and politician named Gideon Tucker was unhappy with the resolution of a particular issue and darkly observed: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”
By that measure, we in Virginia are now safe — at least for a while.
The 2023 General Assembly has concluded its business — sort of. Bills have been passed, killed outright or killed in the polite fashion of the legislature of being “passed by indefinitely.” On that score, not much happened in this session, which was completely predictable with Republicans controlling the House of Delegates (narrowly) and Democrats controlling the state Senate (narrowly).
The House killed a lot of Democratic bills (such as increasing restrictions on guns).
The Senate killed a lot of Republican bills (such as increasing restrictions on abortion).
Complex bills that cut across party lines and require bipartisan action (such as creating a retail market for cannabis, which is currently legal for personal possession but not commercial growing and selling) never went anywhere.
The list of bills that died includes a lot of ones of special interest to this part of Virginia.
Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill to allow local governments to initiate a referendum on whether to have an elected school board. That was inspired by Lynchburg, where the city council’s new Republican majority wants an elected school board but sees the required petition drive as an onerous way to get a vote. That bill passed the House easily but was killed in a Senate committee.
State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, and others pushed for “shared solar,” which would allow renters and homeowners to band together to subscribe to solar energy from a third-party site. Current law allows for shared solar in Dominion Energy territory, mostly in the eastern part of the state, but not in Appalachian Power territory, in the western part of the state. That legislation also died.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond (and soon to be a member of Congress), pushed her annual bill to allow localities to hold referendums on raising local taxes for school construction. Right now, only eight counties and one city (Charlotte, Gloucester, Halifax, Henry, Mecklenburg, Northampton, Patrick and Pittsylvania and the city of Danville) have that power. She wanted to extend that power statewide, which would have been of great interest to rural localities that otherwise have trouble paying for school construction. That bill also was killed.
It’s fair to ask, then, whether this year’s session really accomplished anything: Neither party got what it wanted, although each at least stopped the other side from getting what it wanted.
Some important things did happen, they just weren’t necessarily headline-getters. State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, sponsored bills to make it easier for internet providers to cross railroad tracks. Railroads weren’t keen on that, but anyone who lacks broadband (and in rural areas, that’s still a big issue) sure was. These bills passed by wide margins but don’t let the lopsided votes fool you into thinking that bill came easily.
And some important things might still happen: Budget negotiators have yet to resolve how the House and Senate want to amend the state budget. In theory, they don’t have to agree to anything. The state operates on a two-year budget that was passed last year, so we already have a budget. Both sides, though, have things they want in budget amendments so it’s seems just a matter of how long it will take to get there. It’s those budget amendments that will determine how this year’s session is remembered. Both chambers agree that the state should appropriate money to acquire land for an inland port somewhere between Bristol and Wythe County; the House also wants money to actually build it. The House also includes money to begin the transformation of Catawba Hospital in Roanoke into an addiction rehab facility. Either of those projects meets the criteria for being “consequential.” Likewise in play: More flood relief for Buchanan and Tazewell counties, which were hit hard last summer. That’s certainly consequential for those communities.
Still, on all the high-profile issues outside the budget, this was a status quo session. The ultimate resolution to that will come in November — maybe. All 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot. Republicans would obviously love to win the Senate to get full control of state government. Democrats would obviously love to win the House to get full control of the legislature — and frustrate Gov. Glenn Youngkin even more than they already have.
For Youngkin, this will be a make-or-break election: If he hopes to accomplish anything legislatively, he will need a Republican General Assembly. Otherwise, his final two years in office will be limited to whatever he can accomplish purely through executive action. Just having control of one chamber clearly hasn’t been enough for many of the things he cares about most. As Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt reported last week, Youngkin really wanted to see new restrictions on abortion but those were effectively doomed when Republican state Sen. Jen Kiggans of Virginia Beach was elected to Congress — and Democrat Aaron Rouse won a special election in early January to fill her seat. That expanded the Democratic majority in the Senate to 22-18, meaning that even if Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, wobbled on abortion (as some thought he might), Democrats had a majority. House Republicans never even brought their bill to a vote, knowing it wouldn’t get through the Senate.
With this session over (more or less), the attention now turns more fully to those fall elections — or, in some cases, spring nomination battles. This will be the first elections under the new redistricting map drawn by special masters appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court. Those special masters paid no heed to where incumbents lived, which means an unusual number of incumbents now face a decision: Retire, move into a new district, or challenge a fellow party member for the nomination.
This part of Virginia will host at least two high-profile nomination battles: Dels. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, have already battled in court; next they’ll battle (ideally, figuratively) in a June 20 primary. State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, moved to become D-Charlottesville, following most of the voters in his Senate district. However, Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, has also decided to run, raising the prospect that a Senate committee chairman and former gubernatorial candidate could lose his seat altogether.
In the coming weeks, we should get answers to some other pending questions: Will state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, retire or move into a district that runs south to Roanoke County — which would pit him against Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, who has been running for the state Senate since last year? Both state Sens. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, and Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, are in the same district. So, too, are Israel O’Quinn and Will Wampler III, both R-Washington County. We’ve heard lots of rumors about who’s going to retire and who’s going to run, but actual announcements beat rumors anyday. We’ve heard three so far, from this part of the state: The biggest departure will be that of Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, because she’s a committee chair — of House Commerce and Energy, a panel of some consequence. That leaves her new district with Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, unless some other candidate emerges. Also leaving: Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, who had been paired with Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, and Del. Jim Edmunds, R-Halifax County, who had been paired with Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville.
For our part of Virginia, which generally runs either deep red or, in a few cases, deep blue, the upcoming nomination battles (where there are contested races) are the de facto elections. The two exceptions will be in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Redistricting has created an open House seat in western Roanoke County and part of Montgomery County, including Blacksburg. In theory, it’s a competitive district; both parties have nomination battles for the right to run in November. And then there’s a rare senator-versus-senator match-up — with Edwards, D-Roanoke, and David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, drawn into the same district, one with a Republican tilt.
One thing seems certain: In all the fall’s contested races, both sides will point back to the recently concluded session. Democrats will warn about all the terrible Republican bills they stopped, but which would pass with Republican majorities in both chambers. Republicans will warn about all the terrible Democratic bills they stopped, but which would pass with Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Either way, Youngkin should make sure his pen has plenty of ink for the 2024 session. With Republican majorities, he’ll be signing lots of bills. With Democratic majorities, he’ll be signing lots of vetoes. Until then, we’ll wait to see if we finally get a revised budget.