Democratic Governor Ralph Northam outlined his policy agenda for 2019 in the annual State of the Commonwealth address, delivered to lawmakers Wednesday in Richmond on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.
Emphasizing liberal priorities, Northam called for increased spending paid for with higher taxes, sweeping gun control, expanded abortion rights, and repealing Virginia’s voter ID law, among other liberal priorities.
Already, the 2019 legislative session is shaping up to be the most liberal ever, driven by the governor’s proposals, as well as a slew of left-wing bills filed by freshman Democratic lawmakers, ranging from top-level priorities such as higher spending and gun control, to other measures including repealing Virginia’s Right to Work law, allowing convicted drug dealers to receive food stamps, and taxing paper and plastic bags.
Tax Increases and Spending
Of all issues pending before the legislature this year, none have drawn more attention than Governor Northam’s proposal to increase state spending by $2.2 billion, $1.6 billion of which would occur after his term expires.
Northam proposed paying for the spending, in part, through $1.2 billion in higher taxes levied on 600,000 middle class Virginians.
In his address, Northam touted the spending plan as a signature issue.
“Just a few short weeks ago, I shared my proposed budget amendments with the Joint Money Committees,” said Northam. “These amendments reflect the unique opportunity we have this session: to make forward-looking investments in our success, to further strengthen our reserves, and meet our existing obligations.”
Last week, House Republican leaders vowed to oppose the tax hike, proposing alternate legislation which would protect 600,000 middle class Virginians from higher taxes, while also offering tax relief to 2.7 million taxpayers, principally those with low to moderate income.
Under the governor’s proposal, a married, home-owning couple each making $55,000 per year would pay $805 more in Virginia income taxes, depending on deductions.
By contrast, the GOP-led plan would conform the state’s tax code to the 2017 federal tax reform law, also increasing the standard deduction from $3000 to $4000 for individuals and from $6000 to $8000 for couples. Under the GOP-backed plan, this family would receive $115 in tax relief.
“Our proposal keeps more money in the pockets of Virginians without costing the state one penny,” said Republican caucus chair Tim Hugo (R-Clifton), during the GOP rollout. “Even after providing this tax relief, the state will have more money for teachers, transportation and other key services than it did last year. Our plan says ‘no’ to a tax hike on the middle class and ‘yes’ to cutting taxes for all Virginians.”
Gun Control and the Second Amendment
Northam also highlighted an aggressive gun control agenda as a top priority for the legislative session.
“If we want every Virginian to have a chance at a healthy, safe, successful life then we need to have a conversation about responsible gun ownership,” said Northam. “I recognize that this is a topic where it has been difficult to have meaningful dialogue.”
Last week, Northam rolled out a sweeping package of gun control bills, including bans on common semiautomatic firearms, a prohibition on private party transactions, “Red Flag” gun removal laws, and the reinstitution of the “One Handgun a Month” law, previously repealed in 2012.
In response to the proposal, Republicans pledged to support the Second Amendment.
“The Virginia House GOP will steadfastly fight to defend the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens from far-left gun control proposals this session,” said Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), following the governor’s announcement.
Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City), a supporter of the Second Amendment, said the governor’s gun control agenda was “dead on arrival” adding that he did not expect any of the measures to reach the House floor.
Voter ID and Elections
Earlier this week, Northam proposed repealing Virginia’s voter ID law, a measure which has long been a priority of liberal activist groups, despite polling which suggests that 80% of voters support the law, according to Gallup.
During his speech, Northam referenced the proposal again.
“It obligates us to the full and true exercise of democracy. In this day and age, that means ensuring the elimination of unnecessary and prohibitive barriers to voting,” said the governor, referring back to his January 7th announcement.
Northam also proposed no-excuse absentee voting, which would allow anyone who chooses to vote by mail, without providing a reason, such as work obligations or disability. Opponents have warned that such a measure would increase the risk of voter fraud and “ballot harvesting” like that which recently tainted a US House election in North Carolina, an incident which remains unresolved as of January.
Right to Work
Absent from Northam’s speech was any mention of repealing Virginia’s Right to Work law, considered a high priority for left-wing Democrats and their labor union allies. Currently, legislation filed by Delegate Lee Carter (D-Manassas), a self-described “Democratic socialist”, would repeal the law, which has been in place since 1947.
Right to work laws provide that employees may not be forced to join a labor union or pay union membership dues as a condition of employment.
When campaigning for governor, Northam stopped short of defending the law, which has been in place since 1947 and was once a point of bipartisan agreement, before the 2017 elections pushed the Democratic Party to the left.
“I think also we have to be realistic in Virginia, what we can get done with our current legislature. I think rather than pick fights that we perhaps can’t win right now,” Northam said in 2017, according to the Washington Post.
Northam has yet to indicate whether he would sign or veto Carter’s bill in this session, or whether he would wait to endorse such legislation in hopes of Democrats winning legislative majorities in the November elections.
Northam proposed creating a “fundamental right” to abortion within the Code of Virginia.
“I’m proposing that we put into the Code of Virginia that a woman has the fundamental right to make her own health care decisions,” said the governor.
Touting Republican Accomplishments
During his speech, Northam touted a number of initiatives spearheaded by Republicans, including regulatory reform, parental leave for state employees, as well as career and technical education.
The governor’s speech was delivered on the first day of the legislative session, which convened on Wednesday, January 9th. The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to remain in session through February 23rd.