Virginia General Assembly gavels in for short session with long to-do list

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The 2023 legislative session is officially underway at the Virginia State Capitol. 

Lawmakers gaveled in for 46 days of action that could have major consequences in an election year when every seat in the General Assembly will be up for grabs. 

This will be Governor Glenn Youngkin’s second swing at a legislative session. Like round one,  Republicans control the House of Delegates and Democrats control the Senate, a political reality that will continue to blunt some of Youngkin’s more controversial plans. 

That blue barrier grew a little bit taller on Tuesday when Democrat Aaron Rouse flipped a previously red seat in a special election to represent the Virginia Beach area. Democrats now have a 22-18 advantage in the upper chamber.

That will lower Youngkin’s chances of passing a ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Virginia is being watched as the next abortion battleground as lawmakers get their first chance to weigh in on the issue since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year. 

“The voters of Virginia Beach and Norfolk have spoken that we will not roll back the hands of time when it comes to women’s reproductive rights,” Rouse said after making a surprise appearance at a press conference featuring House and Senate Democratic leadership.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle are now publicly acknowledging that new restrictions are highly unlikely. 

“Much of anything getting passed on this subject is unlikely this session because of the makeup of the House and Senate,” House Speaker Todd Gilbert told reporters on Wednesday.

Asked about the election results on the way out of a caucus meeting at the State Capitol, Youngkin said, “It doesn’t change any of our agenda at all.”

“We have to go to work. We have to get things done together,” Youngkin continued. 

Lawmakers will need to compromise as they debate how to spend record revenues while accounting for a looming recession. 

But Youngkin’s $1 billion tax relief proposal, which includes reduced tax rates for people and corporations, is already proving divisive. House and Senate Democrats condemned the idea during a joint press conference on Wednesday morning. 

“We need to make sure we put money into the pockets of hard-working families and into education. To hell with the governor’s budget proposal,” said Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth).

Democrats say they plan to cut costs in other ways, including by targeting prescription drug prices and making the earned income tax credit fully refundable. 

Both sides of the aisle want new investments in behavioral health and education. The question is where to spend the money and how much. Democrats say the state must fully fund public schools and a broken mental health system before prioritizing tax cuts.

Republicans are reviving their push to expand school choice. Lawmakers are split over a bill that would create savings funds allowing parents to spend public dollars on private education. 

Multiple bills target transgender youth, including proposals restricting participation in school sports and gender-affirming medical care. 

Gun reform is once again top of mind after a six-year-old shot and injured his teacher in a Newport News elementary school. It’s one of several high-profile shootings in Virginia that have grabbed national headlines recently. 

But Democrats say they don’t expect any meaningful action from the GOP.

“It’s unconscionable, it’s ridiculous and it’s embarrassing but unfortunately our colleagues want to dance around the issue,” said Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News). 

Senator Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg) said the shooting has reinvigorated talks over school safety.

“This is the year to make sure every school has a school resource officer so you have someone there who can react quickly in case of a situation like this,” Newman said.

Lawmakers will decide whether to move forward with retail sales of recreational marijuana after greenlighting adult possession and home cultivation in 2021. They’ll also revisit how to rein in the sale of hemp-derived cannabis products, including Delta-8, that have proliferated in the absence of a regulated market and caused safety concerns. 

House Republicans swiftly blocked a 2021 bill that would’ve green-lighted retail marijuana sales. 

“Marijuana will be addressed this year. How? We don’t know,” House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Wise) said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’m not sure that I can say for the House Republican caucus is fully committed to that.” 

Republicans will also aim to reverse course on climate change commitments passed under Democratic leadership. One bill aims to decouple Virginia’s vehicle standards from California’s, which set a goal of banning the new sale of gas-powered cars by 2035. 

Meanwhile, the state continues to grapple with competing interests in its growing gambling industry, teeing up what one lawmaker called “a brawl that’s likely to have every lobbyist in Richmond involved.” Two Central Virginia cities–Richmond and Petersburg–both are vying for the chance to build a casino with voter approval. 

“I’m not sure the market supports both,” Kilgore said.