Legislators were in session for less than two hours Monday, but said they would return when there was a budget to vote on. Fourteen legislators are negotiating the budget in private. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)
While surrounded by beagles at Virginia’s Executive Mansion, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Monday he hoped state lawmakers could approach their ongoing budget work with the same bipartisan zeal behind the animal cruelty bills he was signing.
“I was disappointed at the pace the work was going,” Youngkin said, explaining his decision to bring lawmakers back to Richmond Monday for a special session to finish the budget left incomplete when legislators left town March 12. “I was disappointed there wasn’t more work last week. Everybody’s here today. And I expect them to get to work today.”
But with no budget deal to vote on, the General Assembly was in session for less than two hours. Lawmakers ate a lunch of hot dogs and hamburgers, briefly argued about rules for taking up Youngkin’s new proposal for a three-month gas tax holiday, and left again, agreeing to come back on 48 hours notice whenever the 14 legislators negotiating the budget in private reach an agreement.
Several Democrats dismissed Monday’s reconvening as an unnecessary waste of time, but Youngkin said he felt it would help speed along the process.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said the legislature has “plenty of time” to pass a two-year budget before the current fiscal year ends on June 30. He said he expects “some movement” before legislators return to Richmond on April 27 to take up any gubernatorial vetoes or amendments.
“We’re confident we will come to an agreement,” Ebbin said.
The politically divided legislature is mostly split on the issue of tax cuts, with the Republican House of Delegates largely going along with Youngkin’s more sweeping relief proposals and the Democratic Senate insisting on more narrowly tailored tax cuts that they say leave more money to invest in core services like schools, mental health and law enforcement.
With the state budget flush with revenue and an influx of pandemic relief dollars from the federal government, Youngkin contends Virginia has plenty of money to completely scrap the state’s 2.5 percent tax on groceries, double the standard deduction for state income tax returns, suspend the gas tax for three months and give taxpayers rebates of up to $300 per individual or $600 per married couple.
Democrats have agreed to slightly lower rebates and a partial repeal of the grocery tax. But they argue the full tax-cut package, a top campaign issue for the new Republican governor, is fiscally irresponsible. They’re also pushing an alternative tax-relief plan to make the state’s earned income tax credit refundable, which they say would provide more targeted help for low-income Virginians.
The difference between the House and Senate budget plans is about $3 billion, but information has been limited about what exactly budget negotiators have been discussing behind closed doors. Unlike regular committee hearings, the ad hoc committee finalizing the budget does not give public notice of when and where it will meet, leaving even fellow legislators with little insight into what’s happening with one of the biggest items the General Assembly takes up each year.
In an update on the House floor, Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the two bodies have been talking “a little bit” but now it was time to get in a room together and “lock the door.”
“We’re not sure if we’ll get together this afternoon,” Knight said. “But we certainly anticipate getting together later this week or next week. We’re not as far apart as you might read in the paper. We are talking about returning some money to the citizens.”
Other high-profile issues are wrapped up in the budget negotiations, including possible state assistance for the construction of a Washington Commanders football stadium in Northern Virginia, new anti-crime initiatives to reduce gun violence and Youngkin’s push for new K-12 “lab schools” in partnership with colleges and universities.
In the last few weeks, the most pointed public debate has been over the the 26-cent-per-gallon gas tax. Last month, Youngkin announced he’d use his executive powers to send down new legislation imposing a three-month gas tax holiday, something lawmakers did not consider during the regular session earlier this year. Youngkin pitched the idea as a way to give motorists emergency relief from high fuel costs caused partly by the war in Ukraine. But the proposal has gotten a chilly reception from Senate Democrats who say it would mean the loss of badly needed transportation dollars without having a major impact on the cost of gas.
“We’re more interested in funding direct dollars that go back to Virginians,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William. “And not gimmicky cuts that out-of-staters that come through Virginia would receive.”
The only major debate at the Capitol Monday was over the rules for how the legislature would take up Youngkin’s gas tax legislation.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, proposed an amendment to the special session rules that would have given the legislature more discretion to decide whether to even take up Youngkin’s new gas-tax proposal.
“It’s up to us to decide what we want to consider in the special session,” Surovell said. “Not the governor.”
Republicans pressed Democratic leaders on whether they were trying to sidestep the gas tax issue altogether.
“What this means is that there’ll be no vote in the Senate on suspending the gas tax,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover. “That’s what this is about.”
After a private huddle, Surovell agreed to withdraw his amendment and the two chambers agreed to the rules as written.
With little else happening on Capitol Square Monday, Youngkin siezed an opportunity to convey bipartisanship by holding a bill-signing ceremony for several pieces of legislation that put new restrictions on breeding cats and dogs for research purposes. Those proposals came in response to a controversial beagle breeding facility in Cumberland County accused of widespread animal welfare violations.
After signing the beagle bills, Youngkin said he felt calling lawmakers back would be “an important motivator.”
“I know that there are meetings that can be held and should be held and will be held,” he said.
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