The General Assembly adjourned last week having failed to accomplish the most important task of our 60-day legislative session. We left Richmond without passing a biennial budget.
The House of Delegates and State Senate took markedly different approaches to the Commonwealth’s 2-year taxing and spending plan, with the Democratically controlled Senate favoring a mix of tax cuts, rebates, and investments on long neglected and perennially underfunded state responsibilities.
The House of Delegates, now controlled by a very narrow Republican majority, instead wanted to spend billions of dollars on permanent tax cuts that would favor mostly relatively wealthy Virginians. This approach continues to neglect state responsible programs that were cut more than a decade ago during the great recession and never fully restored. Unfortunately, the programs hit hardest during that period and that are still struggling funding-wise are things like K-12 education, school construction and maintenance, and pre-K programs. We also continue to underfund mental health services (permanent supportive housing, health facilities maintenance, and general access to behavioral health services) and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
It’s not particularly unusual for the two chambers to take different approaches in their initial budgets. However, we usually spend time working out our differences, looking for places to meet in the middle, and splitting the difference to get a state spending plan all the parties can live with.
What’s different this year, based on all the accounts I’ve heard from people in or near the room where it happens, is that our new Governor has instructed the House negotiators not to negotiate. The Budget Conferees (the members of the special conference committee appointed by the leadership of the two chambers to negotiate the final budget) met only a few times, and not all during the final 3-4 days of our 60-day session.
There was no flurry of activity at the end. No racing to get the bill printed and placed on member’s desks before the deadline. Instead, just a demand that the Governor get his way. Making things more difficult, it wasn’t always clear what it was that the Governor’s way was. A political and Virginia Government neophyte, neither he nor any of his staff seemed capable of articulating specifically what he was looking for from the budget conferees.
For better or worse, this wasn’t the only failure of the Session.
While I’m no fan of them, it’s remarkable that almost all of our new Governor’s signature initiatives were defeated or remain in limbo. For instance, his effort to defund public education and divert public dollars to charter schools. There is a watered-down bill that would make it easier to create lab schools - but even the watered-down version is languishing in a conference committee of its own.
The House and Senate, by most accounts, remain far apart on the parameters of a Stadium Authority and incentive package designed to try and lure the Washington Commanders to Virginia. I can’t say that I’d be sorry to see this bill fail, but it is an example of another high-profile initiative the Governor called for in his state of the commonwealth address that he’s been unable to bring legislators together on.
Another area where we continue to see friction and unwillingness to come together has been the election to fill two Supreme Court vacancies. Appointments became a flash point early in the session when the Governor tried to install Trump’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, as the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.
Republicans retaliated by removing Angela Navarro from the State Corporation Commission along with 11 other reappointments, including removing the teacher of the year from the Board of Education.
Ironically, the Governor whose 1st executive action was to create a snitch line to report teachers teaching “inherently divisive topics” has, through inexperience and ineptitude (or perhaps very intentionally) only widened divisions between the two parties in Richmond.
I hope that with the benefit of some experience and perhaps a renewed desired to learn what it is we do in Richmond, the Governor will begin using his office and his enormous power to bring folks together and find commonsense solutions to overcome the challenges ALL Virginian’s face.