General Assembly hands Youngkin wins, losses on budget amendments

After months of bargaining and debate, Virginia’s budget is done

By: , and - June 17, 2022 10:06 pm

Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, and other Democrats in the House of Delegates discuss budget amendments handed down by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Friday, June 17. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s budget proposals drew a mixed response Friday in the General Assembly, where Democrats blocked some of his most contentious proposals but allowed others to pass thanks to a handful of defections on important votes.

In one of the day’s biggest surprises, three Democratic senators sided with Republicans to approve a significant rollback of an early prisoner release initiative scheduled for this summer, blocking hundreds of people convicted of violent crimes from being released as planned.

Friday’s votes wrap up the legislature’s work on the overdue two-year budget, just weeks before the current budget expires.

In an often vitriolic and high-decibel day of voting that stretched more than eight hours, the parties sparred over issues ranging from abortion to so-called lab schools to the long-running debate over whether Virginia should have a gas tax holiday.

Democrats in the House of Delegates repeatedly chided Youngkin for “not getting” the role they said he was supposed to play in the budget process, portraying him in floor speeches as an inexperienced executive trying to meddle in legislative affairs. 

“He doesn’t understand the process and he doesn’t get it,” said Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. 

But what Youngkin didn’t “get,” said Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, “is this liberal agenda that has been pushed on us.” 

“I think he does get it,” he said. “He just won the election.” 

Here’s how some of the day’s biggest debates played out: 

Abortion

In a closely watched vote, the Virginia Senate narrowly defeated an amendment that would have prohibited state Medicaid from covering abortions in cases of “incapacitating” physical or mental fetal deformities. 

The measure, which passed the Republican-controlled House on a 51-45 party-line vote, was a late-stage effort to further limit public funding for certain abortion services. Like the federal government, Virginia restricts Medicaid funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother. But the state also allows public funding to pay for the service in narrowly defined cases where the infant is almost certain to die during — or shortly after — childbirth.

Supporters argued the amendment would put Virginia in line with the federal Hyde amendment and prevent public tax dollars from funding often-controversial services. “There are many people of faith and of conscience who feel this should not be a taxpayer-funded issue,” Del. Emily Brewer, R-Sussex, said during a floor debate on the measure. 

Democrats, though, said the amendment would interfere with vital medical care and force a small number of low-income Virginians to carry traumatic pregnancies to term.

“This is a narrow provision that takes away a woman’s fundamental right to health care just because she is poor,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said on the floor.

“It should not be the case that when you have gotten devastating news, that on top of that, your choices on what to do will be dictated by the insurance you have,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, added during a Senate floor debate. “And that is what this amendment does.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, was absent from Friday’s vote, but the chamber’s 20 remaining Democrats all voted against the measure. That included Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who describes himself as pro-life and initially refused to comment on how he planned to vote.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin pumped gas in Henrico County in March to call attention to his new proposal for a 3-month gas tax holiday. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

Gas tax holiday

Youngkin’s attempt to resurrect his plan for a three-month gas tax holiday cleared the House with a handful of Democratic votes, but hit a dead end in the Senate as Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, sided with Democrats to block it. 

Republicans argued suspending the 26-cent tax per gallon would give struggling Virginians a small amount of relief at the pump and send a signal the state was at least trying to help. But Senate Democrats dismissed the idea as a gimmick that would drain transportation funding and do virtually nothing to bring down gas prices.

“Taxes have virtually nothing to do with the price of gasoline,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

Youngkin criticized the vote on Twitter, saying “Democrats failed to put politics aside for the good of Virginians.

“At a time when inflation and gas prices are at a high in the commonwealth, Virginians should know that higher gas prices are brought to you by @VASenateDems,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin ran on lower gas taxes last year and had pushed the idea for a temporary suspension of the tax since mid-March.

Cracking down on protests aimed at judges

One of Youngkin’s more surprising proposals — creating a new felony that could be used to punish protesters who target judges’ homes or courthouses — wasn’t even considered by the Republican-led House.

The proposal was taken off the agenda without a recorded vote.

“I think we all realized together that he’d gone too far,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “This is just too radical for any of us.”

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, suggested it was the Republican side that made the call.

“As long as y’all don’t think Del. Scott’s speech had something to do with this, that’s fine,” Gilbert said, referring to an earlier speech in which Scott denounced the idea of creating new criminal offenses through the budget.

Youngkin recently came under fire from the right for not using state resources to deter protests outside the Northern Virginia home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the author of the controversial draft opinion that indicated the court might drastically curtail abortion rights by overturning Roe v. Wade. Youngkin previously said it’s up to local police, not the state, to enforce the anti-picketing law Virginia already has on the books.

The perimeter of Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, which is comprised of multiple layers of fencing, razor wire and guard towers. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Earned sentence credits

Youngkin was successful in narrowing a 2020 law allowing inmates to earn sentencing credits for good behavior or participation in rehabilitation programs after three Senate Democrats sided with Republicans to pass his amendment. 

All Republicans and Sens. John Bell, D-Loudoun, Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, and Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg voted in favor of making inmates with mixed sentences — sentences for both violent and nonviolent crimes — ineligible to earn credits. 

The vote means that roughly 550 inmates of 3,200 set to be released July 1 will no longer be freed on that day. Brad Haywood, executive director of nonprofit Justice Forward and a public defender in Northern Virginia, estimated “at least 1,000 people” would be affected by the change each year of the biennial budget. 

Republicans argued a “loophole” in the 2020 legislation would lead to hundreds of violent criminals being released early by allowing credits to shorten the sentences they had been given for crimes like murder and rape. 

“None of you anticipated that capital murderers would be let out early,” said Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach. “There was an unintended consequence to the decision that you made.” 

But Democrats said Republicans were misrepresenting the law and that earned credits couldn’t be used to reduce sentences for violent crimes. 

Portraying the law as reducing murder, rape and robbery sentences is “a great soundbite and a great commercial, but that’s not what we’re doing,” said Morrissey. 

Morrissey said under the 2020 law, offenders must still serve the sentence handed down for any violent crime, with credits only applied to reduce sentences associated with nonviolent crimes for which the inmate was also convicted. 

Laboratory schools

After a party-line victory in the House, Youngkin’s push to expand laboratory school eligibility also cleared the Senate on a tie vote broken by Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears. The amendment will allow a much greater variety of higher education institutions to create alternative K-12 schools or programs, opening the door to private universities like Liberty and Virginia Union.

The decision was a victory for Republicans after months of disagreement on how the schools should be structured. Virginia code already authorizes colleges and universities with teaching programs to launch laboratory academies, and Senate Democrats — concerned by the potential privatization of schools — wanted to keep the law largely the same. An earlier Senate bill would have removed the requirement for institutions to have teaching programs but restricted the formation of new lab schools to public four-year universities.

Both the governor and House Republicans, on the other hand, wanted to open eligibility to a wide range of higher education programs, arguing it would foster “innovative curriculum” and a broader range of programs across the state. Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, said restricting private colleges from starting lab schools would especially hurt rural areas like Southwest Virginia that have far fewer state-funded universities than more populated parts of the state.

While Republicans scored a victory on expanding eligibility, the Senate blocked a related amendment that would have diverted state per-pupil funding from public schools to lab schools whenever a student enrolled. Critics argued reallocating state money away from public education could be disastrous for local districts.

“This is a blatant attempt to siphon public funds from public schools to fulfill a political promise,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. “The governor considers lab schools and charter schools interchangeable, and he’ll do whatever it takes to satisfy his goal of privatizing education.”

Virginia State University in Ettrick. (NBC12)

Financial aid for undocumented students

$10 million in financial aid originally allocated for undocumented students will be diverted to Virginia HBCUs under a budget amendment that narrowly passed the Senate with support from two Democratic lawmakers.

Both Morrissey and Sen. Lionel Spruill, D-Chesapeake, joined Republicans in supporting the measure, which passed the House earlier in a 49-45 vote. The vote followed a multi-year push to expand college assistance to Virginia’s undocumented students, who became eligible for in-state tuition in 2020 and financial aid to Virginia schools the following year.

Under the governor’s budget amendment, most of the budgeted financial aid will be reallocated to two HBCUs — Norfolk State and Virginia State University. The decision was harshly criticized by Democrats in both the House and Senate, who argued it would create tension between two vulnerable student groups.

“This is pitting our brown students against our Black students,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “And we have ample money — we don’t need to do this.”

Supporters, though, said the vote would ultimately benefit Virginia’s historically underfunded Black colleges and universities, which have spent years calling for more state investment.

“HBCUs have been historically underfunded, the governor is trying to do something about it, and all we hear is complaints,” said Del. A.C. Cordoza, R-Hampton. “We are not trying to pit anyone against each other.”

 

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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