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Party leaders talk priorites as General Assembly returns to divided government

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general assembly swearing in 2022.jpeg

Members of the House of Delegates are sworn in for the 2022 legislative session. 

Courtesy of Virginia Mercury

Divided government returned to Richmond Wednesday as the 2022 General Assembly session began with House Republicans and Senate Democrats laying out different visions for what they want to do over the next 60 days.

Assuming power after winning back a GOP majority in last year’s elections, new House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, touched on many of the same themes Republicans campaigned on, promising to push for lower taxes, a tougher approach to crime and better schools. 

“The reason we think we’re here in this position today, in the majority, is because we listened to Virginians’ concerns,” said Gilbert, a 51-year-old lawyer and former prosecutor who has served in the House for 15 years.

But even with Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin set to be sworn into office Saturday as the state’s first Republican governor since 2014, the GOP agenda depends on what the Democratic-controlled Senate will agree to.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, sits with his sons Jack and Grant before being sworn in as Speaker of the House.

“We made generational progress in the past two years,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said at a virtual news conference, vowing to block attempts to roll back the state’s efforts to mitigate climate change and transition away from fossil fuels. “And part of our agenda will be to protect that progress going forward.”

With both parties insisting they’ll focus on “kitchen-table issues,” Senate Democrats said they’ll prioritize paid family leave, making child care more affordable and addressing teacher shortages and other pandemic-era struggles in public education.

One big-ticket item on the legislature’s education docket will be a proposed expansion of public charter schools, a priority for Youngkin that remains uncertain given longstanding local resistance to alternatives skeptics warn could siphon funding from traditional schools.

“Past history has shown that the thing that charter schools are most adept at is draining public school money,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “The results on testing don’t justify draining those funds.”

Republicans argue Virginia lags far behind peer states in the adoption of charter schools, which they’re pitching as a way to bring innovation and options to the existing public-school system.

“They are public schools,” said Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, the incoming chairman of the House Education Committee. “There will not be any funds utilized that go to a charter school that are not educating a public-school child.”

The two chambers and Youngkin seem to broadly agree on boosting education funding and raising teacher pay, but House Republicans made clear their agenda will also include more hot-button educational issues. For example, Davis said the GOP will again introduce a bill to ban so-called critical race theory and mandate race-blind admissions at Virginia’s governor’s schools, proposals sure to spark debate over racial inequities and how education policy should address them.

Tax relief also appears to be another area with some potential for bipartisan accord, despite some differences in philosophy. House Republicans said they’ll seek direct tax rebates of $300 per individual filer and $600 per couple, as well as doubling the standard deduction for state income taxes.

“We’ve got a lot of money in the state right now,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “We have a fiscal and moral obligation to help struggling families. …That obligation starts with reducing the taxes they pay.”

Saslaw said he disagrees with the across-the-board approach, preferring instead more targeted tax credits that could benefit the neediest Virginians.

“You’re going to wind up giving a lot of tax credit money away to people that don’t need it,” Saslaw said. “I don’t need a tax cut.”

Youngkin also campaigned on ending the state’s tax on groceries, an idea departing Gov. Ralph Northam partially incorporated in his final budget proposal.

Democrats in both chambers say their goal is to protect the sweeping changes they’ve made over the last two years, including expanding voting access, raising the minimum wage, ending the death penalty, tightening gun laws and protecting the environment.

Gilbert said his caucus is “acutely aware” of the limitations of dealing with a Democratic Senate.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t be boldly pushing forth ideas,” he said.

Youngkin, who will have to deal with a politically divided legislature through at least 2023, has not yet rolled out a detailed legislative agenda.

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