3 General Assembly issues where lawmakers could find common ground
- Written by Ben Paviour, VPM News
- Category: Local News
- Published: 11 January 2023
Lawmakers in Virginia’s General Assembly enter their 45-day session today deeply divided on issues ranging from abortion to gun control.
There are several reasons for the deadlock. Power remains split between the Democrat-controlled state Senate and Republican-controlled House of Delegates. All 140 seats are up for reelection in November and lawmakers are traditionally cautious the year they face voters, according to Greg Habeeb, a former GOP delegate and partner at Gentry Locke Attorneys.
“The conventional wisdom forming around this session is there is so much risk and so much uncertainty that the preference for most people is to do less, rather than do more,” Habeeb said in an interview.
Still, the parties have found areas of agreement where the partisan divide is not as steep — including mental health, housing and even marijuana.
Then there’s the 2024 presidential election and the chatter on whether Gov. Glenn Youngkin will run.
“That is certainly the noise percolating around Richmond,” Habeeb said. “And I don't think the governor is doing much to quash that noise.”
Democrats argue Youngkin’s policies are directed more at potential GOP primary voters than Virginians. Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), the top Democrat in the state Senate, said Youngkin’s proposals to restrict abortion past 15 weeks of pregnancy, for example, won’t get anywhere in the Senate.
“We have a brick wall, as we call ourselves on the Democratic side, that's gonna stand strong to make sure that we combat all of that bad stuff that takes away from the rights of people here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Lucas said last week.
Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) agreed that abortion-related bills likely won’t clear the partisan divide between the two chambers.
“I would be very surprised if anything of substance comes out of this General Assembly on abortion,” Gilbert told reporters on Monday.
Youngkin’s plans to cut Virginia’s corporate tax rate or allow parents to spend state K-12 education funds in private schools will also have to clear the Democratic wall. House Republicans are just as unlikely to embrace Democratic proposals, like gun restrictions or a minimum wage increase.
But there still may be areas of common ground.
“I think last year's budget negotiations that led to a historic budget with huge tax cuts for all Virginians, as well as massive investments in things like public education, show us that we can work together when we have the opportunity,” Gilbert said.
There’s broad consensus that Virginia’s mental health system is struggling. Last month, Youngkin called for injecting an extra $230 million into the system.
“Our jails, emergency rooms and hospitals are filled with people in mental health or substance-use crisis,” Youngkin told lawmakers last month. “Law enforcement is overwhelmed. Our teachers are burned out. Parents and families feel lost and alone. Too many Virginians are afraid.”
Youngkin has called for funding to create more teams of mental health professionals, as well as “crisis response centers” that can help people in crisis before they end up in hospitals or jails. Democrats have so far been receptive; Lucas said mental health is “the one issue that may bring both sides together to work in harmony.”
John Lindstrom, CEO of the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, said Youngkin’s proposed investments could be transformational.
“It'd be one of the largest infusions that I've ever seen in the system in my career,” Lindstrom said, noting this is his 26th year in the field.
Lindstrom said one of his biggest needs is figuring out how to hang on to staff. He said the state could help retention by subsidizing training or tuition for new staff.
“I'm very optimistic in the long run,” Lindstrom said, citing increased political focus on the issue. “It's rocky in the short run, because it's going to take time to develop.”
Another area of potential bipartisan collaboration is housing. One 2021 state report found a shortage of at least 200,000 rental units across the commonwealth.
“There's not a jurisdiction that doesn't have a shortage of affordable housing,” said Brian Koziol, executive director of the Virginia Housing Alliance.
Youngkin’s Make Virginia Home plan aims to streamline regulations and incentivize localities to build more housing. A couple Democratic mayors — Alexandria’s Justin Wilson and Richmond’s Levar Stoney — have voiced cautious support, but want more details.
Koziol said he’s particularly supportive of pairing economic development and housing, so new jobs also come with new homes.
But Youngkin has discussed cutting state funding to affordable housing — something Koziol said would hurt efforts to build more units.
“The math just doesn't work out to develop new affordable housing units without some kind of government subsidy,” Koziol said.
People are also waiting to see where the governor comes down on legal weed sales. Right now, it’s legal for adults 21 and older to grow up to four marijuana plants and possess up to 1 oz. Lawmakers have yet to agree on a plan for recreational marijuana sales. At the same time, intoxicating hemp products like Delta-8 are widely available and mostly unregulated. Habeeb, who also represents a coalition of cannabis companies, said even Republicans who don’t love legalization see that as a problem.
“The only thing worse to a lot of Republicans than marijuana legalization is marijuana legalization with no regulation, no testing, no licensure, no taxation,” Habeeb said.
Habeeb said he expects several GOP lawmakers to introduce bills on the topic. Gilbert told reporters Monday that his caucus is “looking to the governor for guidance.”
Groups like Marijuana Justice have pushed to make sure Black and minority entrepreneurs receive funding and support to grow their businesses given that those communities were most impacted by the war on drugs. But some Republican lawmakers sought to remove those provisions last year; legislation related to retail sales didn’t end up getting a hearing in the GOP-controlled House.
Workforce, same-sex marriage and more
Youngkin has called for bringing more than 1,500 workforce development programs under the leadership of one state agency and developing more business-ready sites to attract employers. Both plans could draw support from some Democrats.
Youngkin won’t have a say in a handful of proposed amendments to Virginia’s Constitution. Those need approval by the legislature — but not governor — two years in a row before voters cast ballots on the issue.
This year’s proposals — up for their first read — include an amendment that would eliminate Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage and another to automatically restore the voting rights of people who’ve served time for felonies. Republican-led House subcommittees killed amendment proposals on both topics last year, both of which were in their second year and would have gone to voters if they had passed. It’s unclear if their fate will be different this year, but the same-sex marriage proposal is sponsored by Republican Del. Tim Anderson of Virginia Beach.
Both ideas have some bipartisan support. The next 45 days will test whether Democrats and Republicans can overcome ideological divides and eke out some deals.
Additional reporting by VPM's Ian M. Stewart.