A Government Divided

A Government Divided

Lawmakers end session with little to show and no budget.

Members of the General Assembly session ended their legislative session last week without passing a budget or any marquee legislation, an indication that divided government is less effective now than it's ever been. 

The last time Virginia had a divided government, Republicans and Democrats came together to expand Medicaid. This year, though, partisan tension led to trench warfare in subcommittee meetings that ended in a political stalemate.

"A generation ago, centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats would get together and basically tell the extremists in both parties how things were going to go in Virginia," said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. "That's not the composition of today's legislature, where you have very few persuadable Democrats and very few persuadable Republicans."

Republicans swept all three statewide offices last year and seized control of the House of Delegates. But Democrats remain in control of the Senate, where they were able to block Republican efforts to roll back environmental and gun control regulations, and block Republican efforts to add restrictions on abortion. Similarly, Democrats’ efforts to expand access to voting and ditch Virginia's unconstitutional ban on gay marriage were blocked in the Republican-controlled House.

"Governor Youngkin may have organized himself a bit later than his predecessors, and so he didn't have time to develop a legislative agenda and then work the legislature to accomplish parts of that agenda if he could," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "What Governor Youngkin chose to focus his time and energy on could not get through the Senate, and he was unable to work much with Democrats in the Senate to get compromises."

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST clash was over money. The difference between the Senate budget and the House budget was an unprecedented $3 billion. House Republicans want to eliminate the grocery tax while Senate Democrats want to keep part of it. House Republicans want to delay an increase in the gas tax while Senate Democrats say that money is needed to finance transportation projects. The biggest budget gap is over the idea of doubling the standard deduction to the state income tax, which would cost $2 billion. The governor campaigned on the issue, and House Republicans want to move forward with it now. Senate Democrats want to study the idea and possibly move forward later.

"Reducing state revenues by such a large amount in a way that would be ongoing could jeopardize future state budgets because it's unclear what the economy might look like in a future budget," said Chris Wodicka, senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. "So there are a lot of unknowns."

Critics of doubling the standard deduction argue that it doesn't help those most in need, people at the bottom end of the income spectrum. They say that the Senate approach of creating an earned-income tax credit would be a more effective way of helping those most in need. 

But supporters of doubling the standard deduction say this form of tax relief would help more people because the vast majority of tax filers chose the standard deduction instead of itemizing. Besides, they say, tax relief is needed now and in future budgets.

"Yes, it's a long-term tax cut. That's the point. That's the value of it," said Stephen Haner, senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute. "People will know that year after year after year, there'll be more and more of their income they don't have to pay income tax on. We pay sales taxes. We pay excise taxes. We pay lots of other taxes. So the income tax is one where I think they could do a break this year."

SENATE DEMOCRATS began the session boasting about how they would form a "blue wall" to reject the Republican agenda, and they were successful up to a point. But there were cracks in the so-called blue wall. The most notable was a bill inspired by Fairfax County parents who were upset about their children reading Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-prize winning book "Beloved." The bill requires school divisions to notify parents when they plan on teaching sexually explicit material. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed that bill when he was in the Executive Mansion. Now Gov. Youngkin is poised to sign it.

"This last election proved that parents want a say in their child's education," said Sen. Amanda Chase (R-11). "And we as a General Assembly and the Senate need to respect the wishes of parents instead of pushing what the government thinks is best for their kids."

Democrats also failed to block an effort to strip the Air Pollution Control Board and the Water Control Board of permitting authority. The effort began after a permit for a compressor station in Chatham was denied last year, leading many to question the idea that citizen-led boards should have the authority to decide who gets a permit and who doesn't. Now a bill stripping permitting authority from these two citizen-led boards is on the governor's desk, even though rejecting this bill was a top priority for environmentalists. 

"You have a board who makes a decision, not necessarily due to the science or the facts as we have seen in the past and they don't have to explain themselves," said Sen. Richard Stuart (R-28). "So this bill actually opens up the transparency of these decisions in my opinion."

The Air Pollution Control Board meets and votes in public, although its members sometimes make controversial decisions. Its decision in December to deny the compressor station in Chatham may end up being the death knell for permitting authority of citizen-led boards. Unfortunately for the Water Control Board, its members were caught in the crossfire. Lawmakers decided to strip them of permitting authority too. The vote in the Senate was 32 to 8.

"The State Water Control Board makes its decisions based on the public record after full public input and full public deliberation, which has been included. But also a public vote," said Shelton Miles, former chairman of the Water Control Board. "All of that happens with transparency in public. That's not going to happen if this bill passes."

ALTHOUGH THERE were no marquee bills that arrived on the governor's desk, lawmakers were able to accomplish some smaller wins. One was from freshman Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D-45), who successfully passed a bill that expands the ability of local governments to engage in virtual government. Bennett-Parker has been working on this issue since she was vice mayor of the Alexandria City Council, and now she's finally been able to navigate her way through concerns of the Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

"Over the course of the pandemic, when we had virtual meetings, I think we saw a dramatic increase in participation," said Bennett-Parker. "It's important to women and other people who can't be in person all the time."

Her original bill would have allowed city councils and boards of supervisors to meet virtually. But when the bill was under consideration in the Senate, senators stripped out local government bodies that had authority to make binding decisions. So that means boards of zoning appeals or school boards would not be able to meet virtually, but advisory bodies would.

"This does not apply to town councils. This does not apply to school boards," said Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-33). "This is for boards and commissions that are not elected bodies. And I can tell you from my locality, they've been begging for this. It's hard to get people to agree to serve on some of these boards and commissions and advisory councils."

ANOTHER WIN FOR LAWMAKERS is a bill brought to them by a bipartisan pair of teenagers. The bill, now on the governor's desk, would create a student advisory board that would present an annual report to the state Board of Education. The legislation was the brainchild of the Virginia Bipartisan Civic Engagement Coalition, a group of high school students who got together and started advocating for the idea.

"We saw decisions made during the covid era where we felt students weren't being very well represented in these discussions, in these conversations," said Matthew Savage, a teenage Democrat who helped create the coalition. "Therefore you had these people making decisions that impact us more than they do anyone else and we weren't really being involved."

The original idea was to add a non-voting student member to the board of Education. But as the bill moved through the Senate, it changed into a bill creating an advisory body that would make an annual report to the Board of Education.

"We don't want someone to be sitting on the Board of Education just as a resume-builder and not actually represent the students across the commonwealth," said Brady Hillis, a teenage Republican who helped create the coalition. "If there's a group of them that annually report to the Board of Education, the Board of Education is going to hear those concerns and it's going to make more of an impact than just one non-voting student advisor every year that goes to the quarterly meetings of the Board of Education."