Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs legislation in February ending school mask mandates. His proposed amendments to recently passed legislation would give Virginia’s state health commissioner total discretion over local health director appointments, a change some worry could undermine trust in public health authority. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Almost three months into his term, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has signed 700 bills, suggested amendments to over 100 more and vetoed 26 as Monday’s deadline passed for him to act on most of the General Assembly’s work for the year.
Though the governor touted the bipartisan nature of many of the bills that had to win approval from the Democratic Senate and the Republican House of Delegates to get to his desk, some of his decisions struck many Democrats as a continuation of an aggressive start to his four-year term.
Some legislation, most importantly the two-year state budget, is still unfinished after legislators decided to adjourn a month ago without completing all their work.
Lawmakers will return to Richmond on April 27 to take up Youngkin’s vetoes and recommendations.
Here are some of the moves Youngkin made this week:
Forcing Loudoun County School Board elections ahead of schedule
Loudoun County schools, a frequent punching bag for Republicans in last year’s campaigns, have become ground zero for the culture wars over K-12 policies dealing with race and gender.
Re-upping that battle, Youngkin amended a routine local bill to try to force the entire nine-member Loudoun School Board to stand for re-election this year instead of a regularly scheduled election in 2023.
Democrats accused the governor of meddling in local affairs and trying to dictate an election calendar based on the politics of the incumbents.
In an interview with WTOP, Youngkin called the proposal a way to bring “accountability and transparency” to a local board that has had “challenges.”
“I amended the bill and this is a great chance to allow parents to express their will in selecting their school board this year,” Youngkin told the radio station.
The original bill established a process to transition the board to staggered terms, a change local officials had to request from the General Assembly.
Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, the bill’s sponsor, denounced the proposed amendment as setting a precedent allowing the party in power to “undermine local elections and local control.”
“This is another attempt by some Republicans to subvert our democracy and hold it hostage to a right-wing minority,” Reid said in a statement. “The members of the Loudoun County School Board were elected to serve four-year terms and they should be allowed to serve the full duration of their terms — that’s why we have scheduled elections.”
If Senate Democrats reject the governor’s amendment, Youngkin could allow the bill to pass in in its original form or try to block it.
Blocking a particular Democratic senator’s bills
Roughly a third of the bills Youngkin vetoed had the same patron: Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.
Ebbin put Republicans in a snit earlier this year during a fight over gubernatorial appointments when he said Senate Democrats “weren’t going to be walked all over” and the Republican-led House “needs to be taught a lesson.” As chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, Ebbin played a key role in the Senate’s move to reject four of Youngkin’s appointees to the Virginia Parole Board, forcing the governor to pick four new people this month.
In an interview Tuesday, Ebbin said he can only assume Youngkin’s vetoes were “retaliation.”
“To be an effective governor one has to be able to look at individual bills and actions and evaluate them one by one,” he said. “I’ve never had a bill vetoed in my 19 years before.”
One of Ebbin’s vetoed bills would’ve scrapped an obscure law requiring adult children to support their elderly parents under threat of a $500 fine or up to a year in jail.
“I think that’s kind of silly to veto that bill,” Ebbin said. “It’s a relic from the 1920s.”
The Youngkin administration didn’t seem to be trying to hide the fact it was singling out Ebbin’s bills. In multiple cases, the governor vetoed an Ebbin bill while allowing an identical House version to live on, a sign Youngkin’s actions on the Senate bills had more to do with the patron than the underlying policy.
Youngkin said he vetoed the parental support bill due to possible impacts on bankruptcy proceedings. Explaining why he vetoed some of Ebbin’s bills that were identical to others he supported, Youngkin wrote: “Given my signature to the companion legislation, this bill is no longer necessary.”
Leaving high school athletes freer to make money
Youngkin vetoed a unanimous bill to prevent high-school athletes from signing contracts to profit from their name, image and likeness, a proposal aimed at safeguarding young players from exploitation until the state can come up with a more comprehensive endorsement-deal policy for younger players like the one recently approved for college athletes.
In his veto statement, Youngkin called the bill a “premature prohibition that fails to recognize the continually evolving marketplace for content creation and monetization.”
“To claim that this bill is necessary to protect minors from predatory contracts ignores that minors in Virginia are generally prohibited from entering contracts without parental consent,” Youngkin wrote. “Virginia High School League policy also restricts paid endorsement deals.”
Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, the bill’s sponsor, said the governor’s veto message comes from “a very privileged point of view” by assuming all young people have parents knowledgeable enough to shield them from predatory contracts.
“The problem is that we have spent two years now coming up with very specific, targeted and protective guardrails for college students,” Price said. “But we’re just saying the Wild West is OK for high-school students.”
A separate bill the governor signed explicitly empowered college athletes to hire an agent or attorney to help them navigate any business deals connected to their sports career.
The handbook for VHSL, the sanctioning organization that oversees competitive high school sports in Virginia, forbids players from accepting payments or signing contracts in pursuit of professional sports deals, including hiring agents.
Protesting ‘public interest’ declarations in energy policy
Despite its bipartisan support, Senate Bill 347 ordering state regulators to set annual energy savings targets for Dominion Energy to meet in supplying electricity to low-income, elderly, disabled or veteran customers also fell under Youngkin’s veto pen.
Bill patron Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, told a House committee in March that the legislation aimed to “help save money for people who are actually the most vulnerable and the least able to tackle these problems on their own.”
“I was surprised that the governor vetoed it,” he told the Mercury Tuesday. “It really wasn’t a controversial bill.”
Under the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Dominion is already required to meet annual energy efficiency targets. The new law would have required the utility to ensure that a portion of those savings came from members of the four identified groups.
Youngkin objected to the bill’s inclusion of a line declaring that actions taken by Dominion “for the purpose of maximizing both energy savings through low-income energy efficiency programs and reducing the relative energy burden of low-income customers are in the public interest.”
“Public interest declarations unnecessarily restrict the constitutional authority of the [State Corporation Commission] and should be used rarely, if ever,” he wrote.
Public interest declarations have long been a tool used by the General Assembly to push for particular public policy goals, especially in the energy sphere. Depending on their use, and who’s pushing for them, they have been both criticized as tying the SCC’s hands and embraced as a way to set broad statewide policy.
Youngkin said Bell’s bill “could, through an arbitrary declaration of the public interest, increase energy costs on Virginians,” moving state energy policy “further away from a cost-effective, all-of-the-above strategy with strong regulatory oversight administered by the SCC.”
Energy efficiency programs have historically been used to drive down individual customers’ energy costs as well as to reduce the overall energy demands on the grid to avoid having to build out more generation facilities.
Blocking industry-supported fee increases for landfill operators
Senate Bill 250 from Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, was a rare instance in which one of Virginia’s regulated industries — waste management — was asking to pay more money to the state.
The legislation, which would have adopted the recommendations of a 2020 state work group, would have increased the fees waste operators had to pay with the aim of covering the expenses of the Department of Environmental Quality’s waste program.
While waste operators have been paying permit fees since 1992 and annual fees since 2004, those payments haven’t covered the full cost of Virginia’s waste permitting and inspection work, leaving taxpayers picking up the rest of the tab.
The industry supported the legislation, calling the fee increases “an environmental win for Virginia and not a tax issue.”
Youngkin, however, said the bill would increase “the cost of doing business in Virginia with pass-through costs to consumers” and blamed prior administrations for what he called “eight years of mismanagement.”
“The burden of increased costs this would place on Virginians is too great, especially given the record budget surpluses of the commonwealth and the accelerated inflation that everyday Virginians are experiencing,” he wrote.
Surovell characterized the veto as part of “the conservative allergy to increased fees and taxes.”
“I would have thought that the industry being OK with this and it making enforcement self-funding would have been seen as being fiscally conservative policy, but apparently they want to have landfills compete against schools for funding every year,” he said.
Killing efforts to eliminate a tobacco surcharge charged by health plans
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, was able to rally bipartisan support for HB 675, a bill that would prohibit health insurers from charging higher premiums to tobacco users.
Youngkin vetoed the legislation on the grounds it would raise health care costs, listing smoking and tobacco “among the leading causes of chronic health problems.” But the bill, a recommendation from Virginia’s Joint Commission on Health Care, was actually intended to do the opposite.
In a report on lowering premiums on the individual market, analysts found that the Affordable Care Act allows insurance companies to charge tobacco users up to 1.5 times more because of the associated health risks — a surcharge intended to push consumers into tobacco-cessation programs. The problem, studies show, is that the extra charge doesn’t work. Instead of pushing patients to quit tobacco, it discourages many of them from buying health insurance at all, especially among the low-income.
“While tobacco use of any kind among the adult population is less than 20 percent, it may be as high as 40 percent for low-income adults,” state analysts found. “This results in low-income individuals who would otherwise receive significantly subsidized premiums forgoing coverage because of the increased cost.”
Federal law allows states to eliminate the tobacco surcharge, and six — plus Washington, D.C. — have already prohibited it entirely. Models estimate that the same action in Virginia would lower premiums costs for all consumers by up to three percent by bringing more tobacco users into the individual market. Analysts estimated the recommendation would also reduce the number of uninsured Virginians by up to 14,000, making it one of the report’s highest-impact policy options.
Hope wasn’t pleased by the veto, writing on Twitter that “Virginians can’t afford to pay higher health care costs.” In a Tuesday phone call, he said he was “perplexed and disappointed” by Youngkin’s decision, whose office didn’t contact him with any questions or concerns about the bill before Tuesday’s veto.
Changing a controversial hemp bill
Since the General Assembly legalized recreational marijuana without establishing a regulated marketplace, Virginia has been overrun with untested and often illegal products made with synthetic THC manufactured from industrial hemp.
SB 591 from Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, aimed to crack down on those sales by setting tighter regulations on hemp products, banning any that contain more than 0.3 percent or .25 milligrams of THC per serving (or more than one milligram per package). The bill earned broad support in the General Assembly, passing the Senate unanimously and sailing through the House on an 89-7 vote.
The legislation attracted more controversy after lawmakers sent the bill to Youngkin, with hemp manufacturers arguing it would outlaw high-quality CBD products sold in some pharmacies. JM Pedini, development director of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws, said Hanger’s measure simply conformed to similar federal regulations. But the governor seemed to agree with the hemp industry, removing sections of the bill that tightened THC serving sizes.
Youngkin said he agreed with the “general purpose” of the legislation, retaining language that banned hemp products made to resemble trademarked medications or shapes including animals and fruit. He also directed the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to convene a workgroup on additional oversight. But in a nod to the industry, he also ordered the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to “identify strategies for promoting traditional, non-intoxicating uses of hemp,” including bedding, clothing and rope.
In another significant amendment to the bill, he added new misdemeanor penalties for Virginians carrying more than two ounces of marijuana, a recommendation initially made by a state oversight committee last year.
Editor’s note: This story originally misstated Del. Patrick Hope’s district. It is Arlington, not Fairfax.
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