The Virginia General Assembly convened on Bank Street in Richmond today for the short, 45-day session to discuss both new legislation and possibly some of the remnants of bills from 2018. January 9 also marks the unofficial beginning to the 2019 election season as all 140 members of the state legislature will face re-election in November.
With Republicans holding onto a slim, one-member majority in both the State Senate and House of Delegates, they will seek to govern on conservative values while opposing a rising progressive wing within the Democratic Party.
During the 2019 session, some of the biggest priorities for lawmakers will be:
Governor Northam presented his 2019 budget amendments to committees in Richmond last week, proposing $2.2 billion in new state spending, $1.6 billion of which would be recurring after his term ends.
Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by President Donald Trump doubled the standard deduction – now $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for joint filers – a provision designed to benefit the middle class. Like many states, Virginia’s standard deduction is conforming, meaning that it matches the federal deduction. Rather than advance a routine conformity measure, however, Northam has opted to redirect bigger returns for taxpayers towards his spending package through the state’s general fund.
Democrats have refused to respond to the tax hike directly, instead blaming the Trump Administration and Republicans. The Virginia GOP has pledged to offer an alternative budget which keeps $1.2 billion in the hands of taxpayers, while opposing the Democratic Party’s other plans to subsidize a “refundable” earned income tax credit (ETIC) for low-income Virginians.
The Select Committee on School Safety, the first select committee formed in the Virginia state legislature in 155 years, will also reveal legislation supported through meetings with teachers, safety advocates, administrators, lawmakers, and others after last year’s devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“When I formed the Select Committee on School Safety I promised that our final product would be comprehensive and consensus-driven,” said head of the committee Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) following the November authorization of a 24-point priority recommendation plan to increase security in schools. The plan includes realigning the role of school counselors, statewide mental health and suicide prevention efforts, increasing funding for school resource officers, and bolstering school security grants, according to the House select committee’s “Priority Recommendations” report.
Elections and Campaign Finance:
Other important legislation that may be coming forward in the opening of the session follows a study created by a General Assembly subcommittee to investigate election laws and reform that could be made to make Virginia elections run more smoothly, add transparency, and maximize voter participation. Formed by Speaker Cox and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City), the Joint Subcommittee on Election Review was tasked with discussing issues related to the conduct of elections that were revealed following the aftermath of many close races in the statewide elections in November 2017, and problems that came about during the 2018 midterms.
After Delegate David Yancey (R-Newport News) won his election in 2017 when his name was drawn out of a bowl when the 94th House District, a split precinct, gave exactly 11,607 votes to both him and his Democratic challenger, a change has been needed to ensure such a rudimentary measure was never used again. One Republican House member is said to forward a constitutional amendment to aid local registrars who must encounter voters who live in two different legislative or congressional districts at the same polling location.
One Democratic House member believes voter participation could be bolstered by doing away with the Commonwealth’s traditional method in which potential voters must register three weeks before Election Day, proposing to join 34 other states in same-day voter registration.
Though, this would place a lot of pressure on Virginia’s struggling voter registration system. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) found in September that the Virginia Department of Elections (ELECT) has a faulty IT system, according to their 75-page report. The investigation found that the system registrars use to maintain the list of the Commonwealth’s 5.5 million registered voters is “not sufficiently functional or reliable,” with the JLARC report suggesting the possibility of a full replacement of the Virginia Election and Registration Information System (VERIS).
Governor Northam also supports repealing Virginia’s voter ID law, banning corporate campaign contributions, and limiting individual contributions in this year’s proposed legislation.
After the Senate Subcommittee on School Facility Modernization toured some of the Commonwealth’s crumbling schools after the 2018 session adjourned, Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin), who penned a scathing letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) about the state of school infrastructure, is set to sponsor legislation to provide schools that are “fully modernized or maintained as seemingly required,” by the U.S. Constitution.
Schools in Virginia typically have an average lifespan of 40 years. Considering the average school age is above 46 years, the need to begin fixing schools has become very evident in both rural and urban settings. In fact, nearly one-third of schools in Virginia are 60 or more years old, some of which date back to before World War I.
“Every school division has the same problem, which is decaying schools. We’ve got to do something about it,” Stanley said recently. “Our local school divisions really don’t have the financial resources to fix these schools, and not just fix the problems they have, but bring them up to modern 21st century standards.”
Gambling and Sports Betting:
The introduction of slot machines, the legalization of sports betting, casino gambling, and the expansion of the Old Dominion tradition of horse racing could also be coming in the 2019 session. As the state progresses from its highly conservative outlook on gambling, teamed with the federal recognition of Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe, casino-style betting and gaming seems to be somewhat of a newly-bipartisan issue.
One Republican bill would allow horse racing and “pari-mutuel” wagering, which is set to garner support from Governor Northam, who has been a proponent of reopening horse racing tracks in his past legislative career, as well as during his current tenure in Virginia’s executive branch.
Two other bills in the General Assembly this year, both proposed by Democratic legislators, provide that sports gambling in Virginia should serve as a benefit to higher education and transportation infrastructure.
A Republican-led initiative to improve the 325-mile-long Interstate 81 corridor in the western portion of the Commonwealth will also be one of the major topics discussed in this year’s 45-day session. Although the bipartisan measure is backed by Governor Northam, one thing that must be decided is how to pay for the $2.2 billion in proposed improvements, which could be a contentious topic.
The Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund, passed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) in November and headed by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), will be supported by tolls, a news release from the governor’s office states. Moreover, “the proposal would establish limits on toll rates and give automobiles and small trucks the ability to purchase an annual pass allowing unlimited use of I-81 for a fixed yearly fee.”
Other funding proposals that have been discussed to improve I-81 have included a 0.7 percent increase in the state retail sales and use tax and a 2.1 percent increase in regional gas and diesel-only taxes.
Last Friday, Governor Northam unveiled a broad gun control package which would ban certain semiautomatic weapons, ban private party transactions, reinstitute Virginia’s “One Handgun a Month” law, and impose “Red Flag” laws, which gun rights supporters say fall short of constitutional due process requirements. Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City) said Northam’s sweeping package of gun control bills was “dead on arrival” in the House of Delegates, reaffirming the party’s commitment to defend the Second Amendment ahead of a critical legislative session during an election year.
The governor’s supported gun control bills come during a time of rising anti-Second Amendment sentiment within the Democratic Party, as its lawmakers and candidates aggressively push to mirror more restrictive states such as New York and California.
Although Medicaid expansion passed through the General Assembly during the 2018 session after years of a Republican bulwark blocking its approval, state budget analysts have found that Virginia’s government vastly underestimated the multi-billion dollar program. The massive financial overruns will cost Virginians, even if they do not sign up for the government-run healthcare program, $260 million, or $23 per person in the Commonwealth.
A new forecast calls for an additional $202 million in state Medicaid spending in the current fiscal year that began July 1, and $260.3 million in the next fiscal year to rectify the problems. Meanwhile, House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) and other legislators have expressed their frustration with the federal position on Medicaid reimbursement.
A list of bills increasing in length is hoping to remedy redistricting problems after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia invalidated the 2011 House redistricting plan, leading to court-appointed “special master” drawing the new judicially-mandated legislative maps meant to address racial gerrymandering in 11 House districts in the Richmond and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas. Speaker Cox was denied a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court just one day before the session began, meaning that two of the most powerful Republicans in the House of Delegates may face much tougher campaigns in the 2019 election cycle if the new map is adopted by the General Assembly.
To recap the impasse:
There was the $4 million Democratic lawsuit challenging the 2011 map; a federal court ruling part of the map unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered; a motion filed to the Supreme Court by Republicans; a mysterious map maker hired by Democrats; a “politically-neutral, race-blind” remedial map from Republicans; a scheduled vote in Richmond after a bipartisan agreement; a promise to veto the new plan by Governor Ralph Northam (D); a judicial contingency plan; a “special master” to re-draw the districts; an announcement that the Supreme Court will hear the redistricting case from Republicans in the Spring; Speaker Cox calling for a stay on the judicially-mandated map pending the high court decision and to move back 2019 House primaries; and then the denial of that request.
As the state legislature works to establish better standards to govern redistricting plans that include the constitutional requirements of population equality, compactness, and contiguity, additional standards to minimize split precincts and prohibit consideration of incumbency in elections may have come too late to affect this coming November’s statewide elections. Therefore, the landscape is still set for a much-altered 2019 election season with all 140 members of the House and Senate up for re-election governed by a map drawn by a contingency plan from a federal court, not a constitutionally-mandated, legislatively-drawn map.