Flanked by Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle Sears and House Speaker Todd Gilbert, Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his first State of the Commonwealth address. (Photo by Ned Oliver)
That didn’t take long. At all.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin roared out of the starting blocks after being sworn in a few days ago: He issued executive orders and authored proclamations and promulgated his own share of wrongheadedness. His actions will surely inflame the culture wars. The moves won’t necessarily be effective, either.
His fellow Republicans in the General Assembly, to a lesser extent, followed suit.
Youngkin, a political novice who upset former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in November, indeed kept some of his Day One promises. The problem? Many were misguided or of dubious legality.
You don’t expect the latter from the state’s chief executive. He should know the law and the limits of his own authority, even if he’s a newcomer to elective office.
The guv’s first executive order, for example, ends “critical race theory” in public education, even though K-12 schools don’t teach it in Virginia. I wrote previously that conservatives ginned up the issue to enrage their base and prevent the teaching of comprehensive U.S. history – warts and all, especially as it pertains to Blacks, Native Americans and Asian Americans.
Youngkin calls for an end to “inherently divisive concepts,” including CRT. The problem is that what’s divisive to some is accurate to others. Here’s a suggestion: How about educators provide students the truth and facts about history without fear of backlash – as they did before this national hysteria started?
Executive Order Number Two says parents should decide whether their children wear a mask in school. He says a 2021 state order discusses the delta variant, not the omicron variant currently wreaking havoc that, Youngkin contends, “results in less severe illness.”
Yet the commonwealth recently set a one-day high of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Children comprise few of the overall coronavirus deaths in the United States, but there have been more than 8.3 million cases among children, according to a published report citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ill children can also transmit the virus to others.
Nearly as soon as the governor signed the order about masks, school divisions around the state – from Richmond, to Fairfax County, to Charlottesville – fired back, saying they would continue to follow guidance from the CDC for students and teachers to use masks. Democratic legislators said state law also requires Virginia to follow CDC guidance.
A group of parents in Chesapeake quickly sued the governor in the Virginia Supreme Court, claiming Youngkin had overstepped his legal authority. Meanwhile, the new Republican lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, floated the idea the administration could withhold state funding if school divisions refuse to knuckle under. The administration didn’t provide much clarity on the topic when questioned Tuesday by my colleague Kate Masters.
Why the guv and his staff wanted to wade into this controversy so quickly is baffling, especially when lives are at stake during the nearly two-year-old pandemic. Some 1.4 million Virginians have contracted COVID-19 and more than 15,800 have died.
Unless this is all just to burnish Youngkin’s conservative – and Trumpian – bona fides.
Then there’s his stance on an environmental issue. Before he was sworn in, he indicated Virginia would leave the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. He signed an executive order to re-evaluate Virginia’s participation in RGGI and begin regulatory processes to end it, partly because of the cost to Virginians.
For the time being, I won’t argue whether the state should pull out. But legal experts and lawmakers had said Youngkin couldn’t unilaterally remove the commonwealth because of state regulations put in place. The outgoing state attorney general, a Democrat, issued an advisory opinion against Youngkin’s move.
The executive order, in fact, says Youngkin wants a state regulatory board to remove the commonwealth from the initiative. Even that process is debatable.
Some of the guv’s orders are sensible. His demand to overhaul the Virginia Parole Board is warranted, given the board’s checkered recent history. It came under fire for controversial release decisions under then-Gov. Ralph Northam.
The problem is Youngkin acted as if he had the power to do things when, in fact, that doesn’t appear to be true in several cases. That’s a worrisome trend no matter who’s the chief executive.
That brings me to state GOP legislators. They were chomping at the bit to revise election law – especially after taking control of the state House of Delegates. Legislators filed at least 20 bills to restrict or limit absentee voting.
The bills came in the wake of record numbers of absentee voting during the pandemic, when people wanted to cast ballots but not put themselves at greater risk of catching COVID-19. Such enfranchisement initiatives should be supported, not reversed.
A state Senate panel, controlled by Democrats, already killed some of the bills. Democrats expanded voting access in 2020 when they held the House, Senate and governor’s seat.
Many Republican lawmakers, in Virginia and nationwide, have spewed the “Big Lie” that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 presidential election and that fraud is rampant in voting, despite repeated audits, reports and court cases contradicting such claims.
Nor have any GOP legislators in Virginia said their election in 2021 should be repeated because something was amiss.
What a surprise. Guess there’s a problem only when a specific party loses.
Week One suggests a contentious, controversial course under our new governor. The least he could do is learn what he controls legally – and what he doesn’t.
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