The 2023 Virginia General Assembly session was short, but even so, it felt looooong. Why? Because for the most part, House Republicans simply killed any and all legislation that was even remotely progressive or pro-environment, while the Senate Democratic “brick wall” killed the vast majority of far-right/extreme or just flat-out misguided bills coming over from the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. In sum, thank goodness THAT’s over with! Overall, though, I’d give the 2023 Virginia General Assembly a C grade, given that for the most part, nothing disastrous happened (thanks Senate Dems!), but on the other hand, almost nothing particularly good got done (thanks to House Rs).
So with that not-particularly-exciting intro, here are some of the highlights/lowlights of the 2023 Virginia General Assembly session.
- As the Virginia House Dems put it in a press release, this was “a session dominated by legislation (and lack thereof) on abortion, education, gun rights, and the economy.”
- The Virginia House Dems’ press release argued that Republicans failed to govern, with “their so called ‘error’ that kept 200 million dollars from our schools, to the decision to send 2,500 good paying jobs off to Michigan, and to their refusal to support women’s right to bodily autonomy…Republicans continually pushed to ban abortion, threatening the safety of women across the Commonwealth… repeatedly refusing to vote on a Constitutional Amendment enshrining the right to choose in Virginia.” Also, “Republican House leadership refused to have a vote on two extreme abortion bans that members of their own Caucus filed, including one that declared life begins at conception thereby banning all abortions including in instances of rape and where the woman’s life is at risk.”
- Also on women’s health and bodily autonomy, the Youngkin administration “helped defeat a bill…to put menstrual data stored on period-tracking apps beyond the reach of law enforcement, blocking what supporters pitched as a basic privacy measure.” As the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) put it, “The fact that we are even having this conversation borders on surreal. But thank goodness for our talented entertainers on late night T.V. and Samantha Bee. Their comments on this bizarre reality have helped put things in perspective.” Also, “White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the Youngkin administration’s effort to block the legislation ‘attacks the principles of freedom and a woman’s fundamental right to privacy in the United States of America.'”
- House Republicans disgracefully – but not surprisingly – killed a Sen. Adam Ebbin’s amendment “to repeal the so-called marriage amendment,” aka “the mistake made in 2006.” This, disgracefully and disturbingly, puts same-sex marriages in potential jeopardy if the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturns the 2015 Obergfell decision, which legalized same-sex unions. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats stopped legislation Youngkin and General Assembly Republicans targeting transgender kids, including one forced outing bil that “would have required school staff to notify a student’s parent if the student identifies as transgender or wants to use pronouns that are inconsistent with the student’s birth sex.”
- With regard to the budget, keep in mind that Virginia operates on a biennial budget, the last one being adopted in 2022. Which means that this year, it’s all amendments to that budget (including how to spend $3 billion or so in surplus funds that haven’t been allocated), so even if nothing at all passes, it’s not as if the government will shut down or anything terrible. So when it comes to proposed changes to that biennial budget, the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis analyzed the proposals by Senate Democrats and by Youngkin and the House Republicans. What it found was: Youngkin’s and the VA House GOP’s budget amendments slash taxes for corporations and (mostly) wealthy Virginian, while the Senate Dems’ budget does no such thing; Senate Dems pour money into education, with an additional $1 billion of direct aid for school divisions, $117 million for 2% teacher salary increases, $140 million for teacher retention bonuses, $57 million for additional mental and physical health staff, $24 million for additional English language instructors, $39 million for assistants at trouble schools, $271 million for eliminating the cap on funding for support staff, etc.; Youngkin’s budget amendments do not include a 2% teacher salary increase or any money for additional English language instructors or additional mental/physical health staff or assistants at trouble schools, and have much-smaller teacher retention bonuses, but do include $50 million to provide bonuses to “top-performing teachers.”; On “lab schools,” the Senate Dems’ budget reallocates $95 million from that to funding school divisions, while Youngkin provides an EXTRA $50 million for “lab schools.”; The Senate Dems’ budget amendments increase reimbursement for Medicaid providers/services by $210 million, compared to just $43 million in Youngkin’s budget amendments. So…huge differences in priorities between Democrats (invest in public schools, help working families, etc.) and Republicans (give $1 billion in tax cuts mostly to rich people and big corporations, on top of $4 billion in tax cuts passed last year). I’m not sure if these differences can really be reconciled, but we’ll see…maybe by the “reconvened” session in April?
- The General Assembly apparently managed to fix – or at least patch – the Youngkin administration’s $200 million funding “error” which involved somehow miscalculating funding to local schools. So that’s good at least!
- Clean Virginia and Virginia House Democrats touted legislation “that will reform how Dominion Energy is regulated,” with a bill “designed to lower costs for Virginia families, bring more stability, and ensure reliable service in the future.” Or as Clean Virginia put it, “The unanimous passage of the Affordable Energy Act (SB1321/HB1604) restores critical oversight powers to the State Corporation Commission (SCC), enabling the agency to set fair electric rates and protect Virginians from monopoly utility overcharges. Alongside this bill, a diverse coalition of legislators, businesses and ratepayer advocates worked with the Office of Governor Glenn Youngkin to overhaul utility-sponsored legislation (SB1265/HB1770), negotiating a major win for consumers.” Of course, as Sen. Scott Surovell argued, “none of this works unless we can reach that compromise” on filling two vacancies on the three-member State Corporation Commission, which is arguably the most powerful regulatory body in Virginia that most people probably haven’t heard much about.
- Another piece of legislation that received almost unanimous support – which usually means that it’s not controversial because it doesn’t do much – is this bill which supposedly “consolidate[s] and transform[s] Virginia’s fragmented workforce development system.” Mostly, this bill just seems to “consolidate services spread across six cabinet secretaries, 12 state agencies and 35 different programs and subprograms that are currently operating independently.” Which is fine, but how big a deal is it?
- The General Assembly passed legislation which “Prohibits any foreign adversary, as defined in the bill, from acquiring or transferring any interest in agricultural land, as defined in federal law, beginning January 1, 2023.” This bill was mostly aimed at China, which Glenn Youngkin was VERY friendly with until the summer of 2020 (a few months before he started gearing up to run for governor of Virginia, after being pushed out of the Carlyle Group), but now that he’s interested in possibly running for president, has suddenly turned very hostile (at least rhetorically) towards. Also note, as VPM reported, that only “about 14,000 acres of Virginia farmland are owned by Chinese companies or individuals,” that “none of that land was purchased during the past 10 years,” and that most of that is owned by one company, Smithfield Foods, that “was purchased in 2013 by Hong Kong-based WH Group.” Also note that Smithfield Foods has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Youngkin campaign and inaugural committee, so it’s kind of striking that Youngkin’s going after them.
- Several other areas worth noting, per the WaPo: “Both chambers voted for bills aimed at ending the use of solitary confinement in state prisons“; “Both chambers approved House Bill 1895, sponsored by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), which prohibits employers from using nondisclosure agreements or nondisparagement clauses in contracts to prevent people from speaking up about sexual harassment“; and “The General Assembly also took up two bills related to Israel...The Republican-sponsored measures, killed by Senate Democrats, would have banned state and local governments from doing business with companies that engage in a boycott of Israel.”
- On marijuana legalization, there was the “Delta-8” bill (to “toughen regulations on hemp-derived products that contain intoxicating THC through a more robust permitting system and stricter labeling rules”) and basically a “punt” when it comes to cannabis. According to Sen. Scott Surovell, this situation is a “complete mess,” like “having one agency regulating beer and a different agency regulating liquor.” Also note, following the 2023 Virginia General Assembly session failing to act, that “outside of the state’s medical cannabis program, there’s still no legal way to purchase marijuana” in Virginia.
- On fentanyl, the State Senate killed a bunch of bills, while passing another bill (SB1118) which “provides that any person who knowingly and intentionally manufactures or knowingly and intentionally distributes a weapon of terrorism when such person knows that such weapon of terrorism is, or contains, any mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl is guilty of a Class 4 felony.”
- Senate Democrats thankfully rejected “several Republican efforts to repeal a so-called ‘clean cars’ law that aims to reduce carbon pollution through the adoption of California’s stringent rules for vehicle emissions.” Glenn Youngkin and his fellow Republicans completely misstated and misunderstood (intentionally?) what those laws do, how they work, etc. But the bottom line is that they are hostile to a cleantech/clean energy transition, while relentlessly defending their buddies in the fossil fuel industry. Disgraceful. Another energy-related bill worth mentioning is this one by Sen. Scott Surovell, which requires the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation to meet and hire professional policy staff to monitor clean energy transition and vet legislation…
- The State Senate rejected several Glenn Youngkin nominees, including for the Board of Education and Health Commissioner Colin Greene, while for some bizarre reason (including that Sen. Chap Petersen voted not to reject the appointment) failing to kill putting this extremist on the UVA Board of Visitors. Ugh.
- A few other ones that VAPLAN/Cindy (who follows this stuff more closely than just about anyone in Virginia) pointed out include: per WSLS, “lawmakers approved legislation aimed at making the actions of the state Parole Board more transparent to the public“; and House Republicans killed Del. Cia Price (D)’s VA Residential Landlord & Tenant Act; as well as Democratic legislation that would have “create[d] a state Prescription Drug Affordability Board that would have the power to review and in some cases set upper price limits on prescription drugs.”
- Finally, the General Assembly passed a bill which “adopts the non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance on May 26, 2016, including the contemporary examples of antisemitism set forth therein, exclusively as a tool and guide for training, education, recognizing, and combating antisemitic hate crimes or discrimination and for tracking and reporting antisemitic incidents in the Commonwealth.” Note that Sen. Scott Surovell tried ” to put guardrails on the antisemitism bill to ensure it doesn’t end up in code despite being a Section 1 bill,” but Senators Morrissey and Spruill “vote[d] with Republicans and LG [broke] the tie,” so “watch it end up in the code after it was specifically amended to not.”
- There were numerous retirements – see here for a complete list; the two most important being Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D) and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R), plus Sen. Jill Vogel (R), Sen. John Edwards (D), Del. Ken Plum (D), Del. Kathleen Murphy (D), Del. Roxann Robinson (R), Del. Margaret Ransone (R), Del. Tim Anderson (R), Del. Jeff Bourne (D), Del. Rob Bell (R), Del. Dawn Adams (D), Del. John Avoli (R), Del. Kathy Byron (R) and Del. James Edmunds (R), as well as the promotion of State Senator Jennifer McClellan (D) to the U.S. House of Representatives (and now Del. Lamont Bagby to the State Senate to replace Sen. McClellan). So both the State Senate and House of Delegates are likely to look quite different come next January, following primaries in June and the general election in November.