RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In a legislative session defined by political division, Virginia lawmakers are finding some common ground in the final stretch, but the General Assembly will need to go into overtime to finish up.
Saturday is the last scheduled day of the 2023 session but House Republicans and Senate Democrats haven’t reached an agreement yet on updating the state’s budget.
After a meeting Thursday night that both sides described as productive, the House GOP’s threat of walking away with no deal appears to have disintegrated.
“I think that’s absolutely off the table now. You know, unless this thing blows up,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) in an interview on Friday. “We have agreed in principle on the big picture.”
Chairman Knight and Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Co-Chair George Barker (D-Fairfax) hope to reach a deal over the weekend and hold floor vote late next week. Barker said Virginians can expect the final plan to balance both budget proposals.
“There will obviously be some of the things that the House wanted in terms of some of the tax reductions. They’re not as huge by any stretch of the imagination compared to what it was last year, but then they will also get significant investments in K-12 education, higher education and mental health services,” Barker said on Friday. “We’re pretty united on that.”
Senate Democrats initially rejected the entirety of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s $1 billion package of additional, proposed tax relief.
Now, both Barker and Knight expect increasing the standard deduction and a tax break for small businesses to be a part of the final plan.
In an unexpected move, Barker said the compromise may also include a second tax rebate. Last year, the General Assembly agreed to give back $250 to individuals and $500 for married couples via checks an direct deposits.
“I think there will be a second rebate. We don’t know what size it’s going to be at this point, but there may be something along that line,” Barker said.
Knight said they’re still discussing cutting the corporate tax rate but he doubts it will make the final plan due to Democratic push back.
“That is the biggest thing they’re resisting,” Knight said. “I think that is on the bottom of the priority list at this stage of the game.”
In the final days of session, lawmakers are also racing to pass remaining bills and sort through some thorny debates.
In response to frustration with COVID-19 lock downs, a push to prevent emergency orders from shutting down religious services while other businesses remain open won bipartisan approval. Another bill defines antisemitism to help track hate crimes and guide education.
Several bills successfully emerged from closed door negotiations on Friday after different versions passed in the House and Senate.
One aims to make it easier for retired teachers and bus drivers to rejoin the workforce amid staff shortages at schools across the state. Another would make a state grant fund for school resource officers more flexible while specifying that the money can’t be used to purchase firearms.
Legislation that would set new limits on THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis that causes a high, also passed with bipartisan support but it stirred controversy in the Senate. The goal is to crack down on consumable, synthetic hemp-derived products but critics say the definitions are overly broad.
“Unfortunately, I think the way it’s structured is going to put a lot of hemp farmers out of business and local shops as well,” said Senator Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William).
“It’s not safe for children. It’s not safe for adults at certain levels and so we want to make sure we get them off the shelf,” said Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta).
It’s still unclear if lawmakers will be able to reach a deal on legislation that could restrict solitary confinement in state prisons, but conferees are hoping to vote on a compromise on Saturday.
Legislation that could change how electric utilities are regulated and potentially impact monthly energy bills has yet to come out of closed-door negotiations.
A final vote on a bill reforming the Parole Board process is also docketed for Saturday.