Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers the State of the Commonwealth to the Virginia General Assembly Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked Virginia lawmakers to put aside partisan differences and “get more done” in a State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday that kicked off the 2023 General Assembly session.
Speaking to both chambers of the politically split legislature, Youngkin said Virginia is “substantially better off than it was last year” but “still a great distance from our destination.”
“We’re on the right path and Virginians know it,” Youngkin said in a roughly hour-long speech. “They see the transformation underway, and they want more progress. And they want it faster.”
Entering the second year of his four-year term, the Republican governor mostly stuck to the core themes of his administration, calling for lower taxes to accelerate economic growth, more constraints to Democrats’ ambitious climate change plans, better-performing schools and steps to address pandemic learning loss, a bigger role for parents and a tougher approach to crime and gun violence.
He mostly avoided divisive issues until he reiterated his call to ban elective abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“When it comes to unborn children, we can come together. We can choose life, and choose to support mothers, fathers and families in difficult decisions,” Youngkin said. “It is clear Virginians want fewer abortions, not more.”
That proposal is all but guaranteed to fail in the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate, particularly after Democrats flipped a Republican-held seat in Tuesday’s special elections with a candidate who campaigned heavily against new abortion restrictions.
“The governor did not get the memo from the voters yesterday in Virginia Beach,” House of Delegates Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said after the speech.
The Youngkin-backed abortion bills filed Wednesday by Republican lawmakers include exceptions for cases of rape or incest and when the life or physical health of the mother is threatened. Other Republican legislators have introduced more drastic bills that would ban abortion altogether, but those too are unlikely to pass.
Pitching lawmakers on his proposal for $1 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses, Youngkin said data showing more people are moving out of Virginia than moving in “tells an undeniable story.”
“Virginians are moving to states with lower taxes and a lower cost of living,” Youngkin said, telling lawmakers that he’s still prioritizing the “clarion call for change” he heard from voters who elected him in 2021.
The governor also re-upped his calls for a $230 million overhaul of the state’s struggling mental health system, teacher bonuses, more resources for police and prosecutors and “tougher penalties for those who commit crimes with guns.” The speech contained a few new policy proposals, like preventing tech companies and social media platforms from profiting off data from users under 18 and steps to prevent “Chinese communist intrusion into Virginia’s economy.”
Youngkin’s second session
The second legislative session of Youngkin’s tenure will be a short one.
Lawmakers are expected to be in Richmond for 46 days of debate, with taxes, education, mental health, energy costs and the state’s unfinished effort to legalize marijuana among the big-ticket items on the agenda. There’s also likely to be vigorous back-and-forth on abortion and gun policy after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and Virginia experienced a string of high-profile shootings.
But major changes on the most contentious political topics remain unlikely with one legislative chamber controlled by Republicans and the other led by Democrats.
When the legislature adjourns in late February, lawmakers will turn their full attention toward legislative primaries and the high-stakes General Assembly elections in November. Those contests, when all 140 seats in both chambers will be on the ballot in redrawn districts that could lead to an unusual amount of turnover, will determine whether Youngkin will be able to pass more of his agenda through a fully Republican-controlled legislature or if the government will remain politically divided until he leaves office in early 2026.
It was already apparent Wednesday that the 2023 session will largely be about laying the groundwork for election season.
Democratic lawmakers said they’ll be playing a lot of defense and advocating that the surplus money Youngkin wants to use to cut taxes should go toward other priorities that couldn’t be funded when Democrats fully controlled the legislature in 2020 and 2021.
“Believe you me, you give the current governor a Republican House and a Republican Senate, make no mistake about it, we’re Florida, we’re Texas, we’re Oklahoma,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said at a morning news conference. “We can’t have that. And I don’t think the people of Virginia are interested in that.”
Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who has achieved social media stardom as one of Youngkin’s most vocal and persistent critics on Twitter, offered a blunt review of the governor’s proposed changes to the state’s two-year budget.
“To hell with the governor’s budget proposal,” Lucas said.
In a news release, House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said it was the Democrats who are out of touch with what Virginians expect from their elected representatives.
“Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle have made it clear that they intend to spend this short session fighting culture wars and treating the House of Delegates like social media,” Gilbert said. “But our constituents didn’t send us here to see who can get the most likes on social media. They sent us here to work to make their lives better.”
A reinforcement for Senate Democrats
Democrats started the session with extra pep after Tuesday’s victory in the closely watched special election in Hampton Roads, a result Democratic leaders characterized as a rejection of Republican extremism.
Democratic Sen.-elect Aaron Rouse, the winner of the contest to replace former Republican Sen. Jen Kiggans, who was elected to represent the region in Congress, got an enthusiastic welcome from his new colleagues when he dropped in on a press conference on Democrats’ legislative priorities.
“I’m ready to get to work,” said Rouse, a former professional football player and Virginia Beach city councilman who won’t be officially sworn in until Friday, after the election is officially certified. Kevin Adams, the Republican who narrowly lost to Rouse, called the senator-elect Wednesday morning to concede the race. When Rouse formally takes office, Democrats will have a 22-18 majority in the Senate, giving them slightly more room to block Republican bills than they had with a 21-19 majority last year.
There was no delay in certifying two new members of the House of Delegates, where the winners of Tuesday’s two other uncompetitive special elections were sworn in as the session got underway. Del. Holly Siebold, D-Fairfax, replaced former delegate Mark Keam, who resigned for a job in the Biden administration. Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge, replaced her late husband Ronnie Campbell, who died of cancer late last year.
On a light initial workday for the legislature, there were also celebrations of new life. Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, was absent Wednesday as his wife gave birth to a son, Rhett. In the Senate, several children of Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, including his new twin babies, were officially recognized by the body.
There were no feisty floor speeches, but Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, said he’s expecting plenty of them as the session continues “partly because we’re so close, partisan-wise.”
Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the House. That means controversial bills coming out of either chamber can be blocked by the other, leaving only a fairly narrow set of bipartisan issues with a realistic chance of final passage.
“What I’m hopeful of is that we can agree on things that help make Virginia a better place, a better place to raise a family, that allow people to make ends meet, that make our schools better and our community safer,” Gilbert told reporters after Wednesday’s largely procedural floor sessions.
Scott, the Democratic House leader, took issue with Republicans’ contention that the existence of surplus funds is proof that Virginia’s taxes are too high while criticizing the governor’s proposal to lower the corporate tax rate to attract more business to the state.
“If he wants to help Virginians who are working hard every day, this is an opportunity,” Scott said of Youngkin. “Not giving away money to out-of-state corporations that don’t care about everyday Virginians.”
In his speech, Youngkin indirectly noted that Democrats recently appeared to take credit for getting rid of the state tax on groceries, an issue he prioritized throughout his campaign for governor.
“I look forward to giving those on both sides of the aisle more opportunities to celebrate tax breaks in the coming weeks,” Youngkin said.
As he neared the end of his address to the legislature, Youngkin seemed to acknowledge the limits of bipartisan cooperation, saying “there are a few who inexplicably will put more value on political stalemate than unified achievement.”
“While the people expect us to debate and argue over what divides us,” the governor said, “Virginians demand that we come together on what unites us.”
Staff writers Nathaniel Cline and Charlie Paullin contributed to this story.
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