Poor Penmanship: What About All Those Vetoes?

Poor Penmanship: What About All Those Vetoes?

The heavy workload of this year’s General Assembly session produced some 728 bills from our bipartisan legislature. Though the outcome of some key pieces of legislation and an agreement on our biennial budget remain outstanding, these bills reflect the urgent priorities of lawmakers and those they are elected to represent. With a different party controlling each chamber of the legislature, the only bills which made it to the Governor were the product of bipartisan compromise built on long-standing relationships, intensive stakeholder input, and the shared priority of doing the people’s business. 

Each year, at the adjournment of session, focus shifts to the Governor’s policy team as they review the often complex, diverse slate bills we send them. A new administration often means that aides who were not involved in the crafting and amending of these bills, and who are still honing their subject matter expertise, face a monumental task. The Governor is Constitutionally required to approve, amend, or veto all bills communicated to him within 30 days of the end of session. That deadline was Monday, April 11th.

With no bills possessing a major partisan bent in the mix, Governor Youngkin’s team was granted a rather unique opportunity to fully put aside political maneuvering and focus completely on vetting the policies. 

Unfortunately, as the clock ticked towards midnight on his last day to act, the Governor squandered that rare opportunity with a flourish of his pen — vetoing 25 uncontroversial, bipartisan bills, all carried by Democrats, in a harried attempt at political retribution. These included nine of the 10 bills I sent to his desk — five which passed unanimously, and four others which passed with more than 2/3rds of both bodies voting in favor. These bills provided real, meaningful change for Virginians, including reducing the backlog for benefits at the Virginia Employment Commission, increasing consumers' privacy over their personal data, providing employment and insurance protections for living organ donors, and reducing overburdensome taxes on growing businesses. In five cases, the Governor signed identical House bills, then vetoed my Senate version. This is an unprecedented practice, devaluing the teamwork and collegiality which allow House and Senate patrons to navigate each other's chambers. The Governor and I have had several congenial, productive meetings since he took office, and though we have clashed over several of his first choices for appointed positions, I was surprised by this rather churlish use of his authority. 

Generally, the Governor provides a thorough written explanation for his legislative actions to the Assembly — making his case to uphold a veto or win approval of an amendment. However, despite vetoing more bills than any first-year Governor since Jim Gilmore in 1998, details on the Governor’s reasoning remain sparse. In one case his office pointed out several flaws in a bill, introduced by Sen. Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax), regulating cars blocking a right of way. The only problem? The final version of this bill already addressed these concerns — one can only infer that their analysis was based on the unpolished, introduced version. The Governor attributed three other vetoes to “industry opposition” including a bill by Del. Cia Price (D-Hampton) to give localities the ability to sue dangerously negligent landlords, one from Sen. Marsden to reduce high-risk braking by 18 wheelers during snowstorms, and one by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) to index the cost of solid waste disposal. But in all three cases, the industry stakeholders didn’t oppose the bill — in fact they had actively supported and collaborated with the patron to improve the bills. The Governor vetoed several bills creating studies stating that we should not waste public dollars on studying issues — “the time for action is now.” This stands in clear contrast to the multiple times Youngkin’s office offered amendments to bills that changed active policy to studies and workgroups. 

This lack of consistency surely leaves Virginians scratching their heads. Is it indicative of a prolonged learning curve, a signifier of priorities focused outside the lawmaking process, or simply frustration boiling over from a session where less than 50% of the Governor’s agenda made it to his desk? Whatever the answer, these actions serve neither the deliberative and effective culture of the General Assembly, nor the people of Virginia, well