Multiple construction zones surround the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va, June 3, 2022. A new tunnel will connect the Capitol with the new General Assembly building. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)
After taking no action Wednesday on the main piece of business that brought lawmakers back to Richmond, the Virginia General Assembly got into a new fight over how to leave town.
The session ended — partially — without the legislature filling the third, final vacancy on the State Corporation Commission while limiting the powers of the governor and leaving the status of legislative action in limbo.
The Republican-led House of Delegates adjourned sine die, an action that would end the special session the legislature has been in for much of the year after taking extra time to finish the state budget. But the Democratic-controlled Senate didn’t adjourn sine die, putting the two chambers at odds over whether the special session is over or not.
That difference is significant because when the legislature isn’t in session, Gov. Glenn Youngkin gains additional powers to make appointments and set the dates of special elections to fill vacant General Assembly seats.
The Virginia Constitution says neither legislative chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the other’s agreement. But the ramifications of the standoff weren’t fully clear as lawmakers left the Capitol.
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter declined to comment on if the governor intends to make an appointment to fill the SCC vacancy.
Filling the vacancy on the SCC, one of the state’s most powerful authorities regulating energy, business, insurance and more, was thought to be the primary reason for Wednesday’s session after the appointment was left undone earlier this year.
The vacancy was created when the House let former Commissioner Angela Navarro’s appointment expire.
Two judges currently sit on the State Corporation Commission, which has oversight of massive utility projects being carried out under the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, such as the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, and utility rates.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the state Senate’s failure to adjourn sine die leaves the option of reconvening the special session, even during the 2023 regular session, to fill the remaining SCC seat. However, he said Senate Democrats hadn’t discussed the ramifications of not adjourning.
“Today’s session date was agreed upon in June with the express purpose of filling the SCC vacancy,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said in a news release after the session ended. “It is unfortunate that today’s session resulted in no action despite taxpayers’ dollars being wasted.”
House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Youngkin did not ask the Republican-controlled House to keep the SCC seat open in order to make his own appointment.
“I would ask him not to,” the speaker said when asked if he expects Youngkin to try to make such an appointment.
Gilbert said he hopes the legislature can come to an agreement on the commission seat when the regular session starts in January. The House adjourned sine die, he said, because “we are done with our business.”
The chambers’ split decisions on adjournment could cause other problems. Over two dozen bills passed during the special session are linked to the end of that session and will not go into effect without adjournment. That legislation deals with issues ranging from school construction to medical records privacy. Several bills, however, are tied to budget measures allowing them to still go into effect, Surovell said.
Despite the lack of action on the SCC vacancy, the legislature managed to make several other judicial appointments to local courts around the state.
Abortion speeches, but no bill
As abortion-rights advocates rallied at the Capitol in opposition to potential anti-abortion legislation that didn’t materialize Wednesday, several Democratic lawmakers seized an opportunity to critique the GOP’s plan to eventually pursue a 15-week abortion ban and ding Gov. Glenn Youngkin for his out-of-state political travels.
“They know that if they try to pass a ban in Virginia, today or any other day, it’d be a big mistake” Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said in a floor speech. “And that’s why they didn’t try today.”
Scott also took issue with Youngkin’s decision to travel to Maine this week to campaign for the state’s former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who has a history of racially inflammatory remarks. Scott called LePage an “unabashed racist and MAGA Republican.”
“To be going to Maine to stand with a person like that, today, while we’re here working is shameful,” Scott said.
Asked for a response to those criticisms, Porter called it a “baseless partisan attack against a governor rising in popularity for following through on his promises.”
“Partisan Democrats in Virginia have spent the better part of the last decade overtaxing Virginians, telling them what cars to drive and shoving parents out of their kids’ classrooms,” Porter said. “The governor donates his salary and pays for his political travel.”
In an abortion speech of her own, Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, held up a chart showing the 40 weeks of pregnancy and said Democrats should explain where they think the cutoff should be. Brewer, who noted she is 31 weeks pregnant herself, accused Democrats of trying to “stir the pot” on the issue.
“Are you OK with 40 weeks?” Brewer said. “Are you OK with the moment of birth? Is that acceptable to you?”
Several delegates stood up to praise former Democratic Del. Mark Keam of Fairfax County, who announced his resignation this week and didn’t attend Wednesday’s session. As the day began, Gilbert announced he had set a special election for Jan. 10 to fill the empty seat, ending any uncertainty over whether Republicans would try to keep the seat open for the 2023 session to deprive Democrats of a vote in the House.
“Every Virginian has a right to have their voice heard in Richmond,” Gilbert said in a statement.
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