RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The General Assembly went home over the weekend without a finished budget, marking the end of a regular session defined by political division.
During the 46-day stretch, the Senate’s Democratic majority regularly bickered with House Republicans. Gridlock largely prevented either side from moving the needle on hot-button issues like climate change, guns and abortion.
In the end, Governor Glenn Youngkin racked up a few bipartisan wins impacting economic development, energy bills and even foreign policy.
Up next, lawmakers will take those mixed results to the campaign trail in what’s expected to be a particularly chaotic election season. Every seat in the General Assembly will be up for grabs in the first statewide test of redrawn district lines that matched up several incumbent lawmakers. The November contest will also follow a slew of high-profile retirements, including the Senate’s majority and minority leaders.
“I really do think this is the calm before the storm,” said political analyst Rich Meagher of the 2023 session. “There will be lots of new faces and maybe an entirely new constellation of power players in the General Assembly. So I would expect to see some fireworks next year whereas this year seems much more cautious.”
The Democrat-led Senate shot down several bills that sought to restrict abortion at different stages of pregnancy, from conception to the third trimester. Similar proposals died quietly in the Republican-led House because they were never put on the calendar for a vote, including Youngkin’s proposed ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The GOP repeatedly blocked an effort to enshrine abortion rights in the State Constitution and, after the Youngkin administration weighed in, rejected an effort to protect menstrual data from being seized under search warrants.
A bill defining antisemitism to help track hate crimes and guide education passed with bipartisan support. The legislation was among the recommendations of Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism, which was created under one of his first executive orders.
A major test of bipartisanship is still unfinished: updating the state’s budget.
It means more money for education, mental health and state employee raises will remain in limbo unless House and Senate budget conferees can reach a compromise. Youngkin’s package of additional tax relief is also tied up in negotiations.
“We are committed to continue with this dialogue to try to get us this budget,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight told lawmakers over the weekend.
Lawmakers approved a so-called skinny budget as a stopgap measure to buy time for a broader deal. The plan, among other things, fixes a math error by the Youngkin administration that would’ve left Virginia schools with less money than they planned for.
“We are at the 11th hour. We have run out of time and so this is what’s necessary to take care of a $200 million human error,” Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said on the House floor. “We’re doing this with the understanding that folks remain committed to completing this process and that we’re not going to use this stopgap as an excuse to stop working towards those important priorities.”
A bill that would’ve allowed Petersburg to decide the fate of a proposed casino in a local ballot referendum while delaying a second vote in Richmond died in the Senate.
Now, Petersburg’s last hope is to get something passed in the budget but at least one lead negotiator has publicly condemned the idea.
The General Assembly passed bills banning apps with Chinese ties, like TikTok and WeChat, from state government devices in Virginia, doubling down on an executive order from Youngkin.
Another Youngkin-backed bill bans foreign adversaries like China from acquiring or transferring any interest in Virginia’s agricultural land. It would also require an annual state report showing the current status of foreign ownership.
Climate and energy
Over the weekend, both sides of the aisle came together to pass a bill that will increase state oversight of electric utilities like Dominion Energy. In a statement, Youngkin said it would save customers money on their monthly bill, a claim previously challenged by some groups.
A Youngkin-backed effort to decouple Virginia from California’s clean car standards was shot down in the Senate. It means the commonwealth is still on track to effectively ban the new sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
A Senate panel also rejected a push to repeal the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which sets a goal of decarbonizing the state’s electric grid by 2050.
Criminal justice reform
On Saturday, lawmakers passed a bill restricting the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. The legislation sets some guardrails, such as having at least four hours of out-of-cell time each day, but it didn’t include a 15-day maximum for isolation over a 60-day period, disappointing some advocacy groups.
The bipartisan effort was an outlier among criminal justice reforms that often died along party lines this session. For example, a Republican panel rejected a bill that would’ve given more incarcerated people a chance to shorten their sentence and efforts to make phone calls free behind bars.
However, lawmakers agreed to increase transparency surrounding the Parole Board, which was embroiled in controversy under former Governor Ralph Northam’s administration. Another measure aims to give crime victims more notice about potential plea deals.
Youngkin pushed for felony homicide charges for drug dealers in fatal overdose cases but that effort was shot down by the Senate.
Lawmakers found common ground on another bill that would classify fentanyl as a weapon of terrorism. Under the designation, those who “knowingly and intentionally” distribute and manufacture any mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl would be guilty of a Class 4 felony, on top of other charges.
Partisan gridlock largely prevented both sides from moving the needle on guns, despite several high-profile mass shootings leading up to the 2023 session.
Several Democratic efforts to strengthen gun storage laws were shot down, but legislation creating a tax credit for those who purchase firearm safety devices, like a lockbox, passed with bipartisan support.
In response to the fatal shooting of three University of Virginia football players last year, the General Assembly also approved bills directing college threat assessment teams to get police involved quickly if they identify a potential concern in a preliminary review.
Hemp, marijuana & magic mushrooms
House Republicans rejected efforts to kick start recreational marijuana sales in Virginia and lower penalties for possessing psilocybin, the key ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”
Meanwhile, a Youngkin-backed bill creating new limits on THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis, passed with bipartisan support. Supporters call it a consumer safety measure but critics say it’s overly broad and will decimate the existing hemp industry.
A Democrat-controlled Senate panel killed a GOP-led bill that would’ve required parental notification when a transgender student comes out at school. Another bill that died in the Senate would’ve prohibited biological males from competing on women’s sports teams from elementary school through college.
A defunct ban on same-sex marriage will stay in Virginia’s Constitution after Republicans rejected a push to remove it.
The General Assembly passed a bill that makes it easier for retired teachers to rejoin the workforce amid staff shortages at schools across the state.
Another approved bill makes an existing state grant fund for school resource officers more flexible while specifying that the money can’t be used to purchase firearms. Other efforts to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools failed in the Senate, as did legislation that would’ve created a uniform system of discipline for disruptive student behavior.
Bipartisan legislation tightens the state’s definition of “school counselor” and requires that they spend most of their time providing direct services to students.
The House and Senate both approved legislation expanding the Virginia Literacy Act to address pandemic learning loss.
Republican-led “parental rights” measures were shot down in the Senate, including various bills that aimed to alert parents about sexually explicit school library books.
A school choice bill supported by the Youngkin administration never made it out of the GOP-led House. It would’ve put taxpayer dollars generally reserved for public schools into a fund that parents could pull from for private school tuition or other specified education expenses.
Youngkin’s lab school initiative is also on the chopping block after Senate Democrats proposed stripping nearly all of its funding in their budget plan.
The General Assembly approved the creation of a new state agency consolidating workforce development programs, a major priority for Youngkin. The administration has previously called existing efforts “fragmented” and “inefficient.”
“It wasn’t a perfect batting average for the Governor, but I think he did a little bit better this year than he did last year,” said Meagher.