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Lawmakers Reconvene to Tackle Governor’s Changes; Set Budget Special Session Date

The General Assembly reconvened April 17 for legislators to address 116 of the governor’s bill recommendations, and decide how to tackle his 242 budget amendments.

Democrats did not attempt to override any of the 153 vetoes made by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, as they lacked the necessary two-thirds majority in each chamber.

Democratic priorities such as a minimum wage increase will not have an accelerated timeline, a retail market for cannabis won’t be established, and an assault weapons ban is off the table, along with other initiatives the party advanced this session.

No vetoes, just amendments 

Lawmakers instead focused on the amendments the governor put forth. Both chambers voted to adopt or reject Youngkin’s amendments.

The Senate rejected in party-line votes several of Youngkin’s amendments to bills, including safe storage of firearms, ensured access to contraceptives and data privacy for children. The proposed changes would require reenactment of the gun storage bill, provide religious and ethical exemptions to the contraception bill and update the data privacy act with new language.

Youngkin’s changes to Senate Bill 212 were controversial. Skills games would be banned from operation within 35 miles of schools, casinos and houses of worship. His amendments also raised the tax rate from 25% to 35% of the profits.

Dozens of small business owners protested outside the State Capitol the morning of the reconvene session. They argued the amendments hurt their businesses by preventing skill games in most of the state.

A 34-6 bipartisan majority rejected the governor’s changes. Two Democrats and four Republicans voted for the governor’s amendment.

Del. Cliff Hayes Jr., D-Chesapeake, spoke to the crowd of protesters and praised their hard work and dedication.

“I think it’s only right that we have a level playing field and that we allow the small businesses, which are the lifeblood of our communities and the commonwealth, that we give them an opportunity to do the same,” Hayes said after his interaction with protesters.

Lawmakers approved Youngkin’s changes to House Bill 34, but on a narrow 52-48 vote. The amendment changed the statute of limitations for medical debt. It was extended from three years after the first invoice to three years after the final invoice, unless the debtor signs a contract establishing a payment plan that goes beyond that time.

There was 56-41 support for his changes to HB 215 with a unanimous concurring opinion from the Senate. The original bill required schools to provide ninth and 10th grade students with sexual harassment prevention training. The amended version gives local school boards the option to adopt the standards.

The governor next can either sign or veto a bill returned to him from a reconvened session, per the state constitution. Any veto would stand. If he does not act on the bill within 30 days of the reconvened session, the bill becomes law even without his signature.

Budget battle continues

The governor had 242 budget recommendations lawmakers need to resolve. Youngkin called it the “common ground budget.” In the early afternoon during the reconvened session, Youngkin announced he was calling a special budget session to start May 13. The session will be followed by a vote two days later.

Prior to the session, Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said he didn’t expect both sides to come together over the budget during the one-day reconvene session and he expected lawmakers might be back at the Capitol in June.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s been a lot of progress on the things that I’ve read in the media,” Peake said. “The Democrats don’t think much of his amendments to the budget and I don’t think they’re going to accept them.”

A source of contention was the governor’s removal of $2.6 billion in proposed tax increases. Youngkin’s compromise was that he would not offer tax cuts, and there would be no tax increases.

His amended two-year budget keeps $21.3 billion in K-12 education, caps tuition increases at 3%, includes 3% pay raises for teachers and state employees in each year and boosts investments in health and human resources by $3.2 billion over the biennium.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, was slightly more optimistic about the budget.

“I think it’s shaping up that we’re gonna get a budget, certainly not today, but I do believe that talks are beginning in earnest to finally get us to a place where we need to be,” Gilbert said.

House Republicans appreciate that Youngkin is leaning into his role as governor, according to Gilbert.

“Sometimes it’s tense with the other side, but I think right now we have a real opportunity to come to the table and work together for all Virginians,” Gilbert said.

Pointed politics

House Democrats took aim at Youngkin’s vetoes and amendments on a number of issues.

Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, blasted Youngkin’s amendments on bills related to the expansion of contraception access. She also emphasized the importance of combating Black maternal mortality, which the White House declared a health crisis.

“Some said earlier today, Mr. Speaker, that the governor has the right to his opinions,” Mundon King said. “Well Mr. Speaker, his opinions are killing us.”

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said Youngkin did not want to work with the Democrats, and he went on a “vanity tour” after the session to promote his agenda.

Republicans fired back and accused Democrats of hypocrisy.

Democrats also toured the state to promote their agenda, Gilbert said.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, criticized Democrats for hyperbolic debates, which he admitted he has also done. Decorum and respect are a two-way street, he said.

“I know I’m obnoxious,” Freitas said. “But the people I represent, the people that all of us represent, expect us to come here and actually advocate for what they believe.”

An olive branch

Despite clashes, both sides offered an olive branch to help tackle looming future issues.

“I want the chamber to know, the governor did sit down with us, today, this morning,” Herring said.

Youngkin wants to find a way forward and work for a better commonwealth, Herring said.

Gilbert also seemed optimistic about room for compromise, or at least the need for it.

“Maybe we’re in a position today where the work can actually begin in earnest to find that common ground,” Gilbert said. “Everybody’s had their tours, everybody’s had their tweets, everybody’s had their posturing, we gotta get this done.”

By Vali Jamal / Capital News Service

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