Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Youngkin Vetoes Bills on Contraception Access, Skill Games, Confederate Heritage Rollbacks

Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaking with reporters outside the Capitol Building on March 7, 2024. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Last week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed 48 more bills passed by the Democratic-led General Assembly, blocking legislation aimed at preserving contraception access, ending state perks for Confederate heritage groups and legalizing slot machine lookalikes known as skill games.

Friday was the governor’s deadline to act on a final batch of bills the General Assembly had returned to him in April. Most of the vetoes dealt with legislation Youngkin tried to amend in ways the legislature opposed.

Youngkin has now vetoed a total of 201 bills from the 2024 legislative session, a record-setting number for a modern governor that reflects Virginia’s divided government and the dueling priorities of the state’s Democratic legislature and Republican governor. Nearly 850 bills won final approval. Here are highlights of some of the bills that met their end at the tip of Youngkin’s veto pen.

Skill games

As expected, Youngkin vetoed a high-profile bill that would tax and regulate skill games in Virginia, a setback for gambling interests and business owners that lobbied to have the machines turned back on in convenience stores, truck stops and restaurants across the state.

Skill game supporters are hoping a new bill could emerge from the remains of the one Youngkin killed, but it’s unclear when and how that might happen.

The legislation vetoed by the governor was one of the most intensive efforts to date to convince Virginia to officially sanction machines that have evaded gambling taxes and regulation for most of their existence in the state. A ban on the machines took effect in 2021, but was suspended for nearly two years as skill game backers fought the ban in court. The Supreme Court of Virginia reinstated the ban last fall, leading to an urgent push by the skill game lobby to change the law and get rid of the ban.

Its failure could mean the machines remain banned for at least another year, unless General Assembly leaders agree to call lawmakers back to Richmond in a few weeks or months for what would be an unusual summertime session on a gambling issue.

The governor had proposed a higher tax rate, stricter regulations and sweeping geographic limitations on skill games meant to stop the machines from cannibalizing revenue from Virginia’s casinos and Rosie’s gambling facilities tied to horse racing.

Access to contraceptives, bias training in maternal health care

Youngkin vetoed right-to-contraception legislation by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond and Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News. The lawmakers say their proposal is relevant because of the shifting national landscape surrounding reproductive health care laws and how some states are targeting birth control access.

The veto came after Youngkin had previously sought amendments to the bill that Hashmi said “gutted” it.

The version of the bill that passed the legislature says that health care providers have a right to prescribe contraceptives and that people have a right to obtain them. It also offers definitions of forms of contraception, and outlines legal actions that could be taken if rights were infringed.

When the Supreme Court of the United States overturned federal abortion protections in 2022, Justice Clarence Thomas offered an opinion that indicated other settled cases could be revisited in the future — such as Griswold v. Connecticut, which protects contraception access. Youngkin’s previously proposed substitute would have aligned Virginia with the federal rulings.

But Hashmi and Price said their legislation would be useful should the Supreme Court reverse its previous rulings.

Youngkin wrote that the bill would create “an overly broad cause of action against political subdivisions and parents, as well as medical professionals.”

Price said in a text message that she thinks the governor is “picking and choosing so called First Amendment issues” and that his “hypocritical stances are an impediment to protecting our rights.”

She added that lawmakers will try again on the bill.

“I will continue to fight for this,” she said. “It’s too important to not (do so).”

Youngkin also vetoed another reproductive health bill that he’d first tried to change.

Senate Bill 35 would require unconscious bias and cultural competency training when renewing medical licenses. It was among a suite of bills aimed at improving maternal health — particularly Black maternal health — that cleared the legislature this year, some of which Youngkin has signed.

On this bill, he’d sought amendments that advocates for the measure worried would have made trainings just a “checked box.

His proposed substitute would have required completion of “two hours of continuing learning activities that address maternal health care for populations of women that data indicate experience significantly greater than average maternal mortality, including African American, indigenous, and Hispanic women and women in underserved rural communities.”

In explaining his veto, Youngkin noted how the legislature did not accept his amendment but that he wants to keep working with lawmakers on maternal health issues.

“I will continue working with the General Assembly on our shared goals of providing more support for mothers and mothers-to-be,” he wrote.

Galina Varchena, a policy director with Birth In Color, previously told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the original version of the bill would be crucial to ensure training is evidence-based — something that was missing from Youngkin’s proposal.

“It’s so easy to put something in place and then pretend that it solved a problem,” Varchena said. “We need to make sure that when we’re talking about training — is it working?”

A study shows that Black people are more likely to experience negative maternal health outcomes, in part, due to providers’ racial bias. Black women are also more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

The bill’s key patron, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, stressed that the bill could play a role in better health outcomes. She accused Youngkin on social media of having a “lack of understanding” through his veto and that the very unconscious bias the bill hoped to help solve played a role in his action.

“This bill was not about partisanship or ideology,” she wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. “It was about ensuring better healthcare outcomes for patients, mothers and their babies. It is a shame unconscious bias drove this veto.”

Clean energy bank

Included in the round of vetoes was Youngkin’s rejection of a bill to create a Clean Energy Innovation Bank, a funding mechanism designed to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars coming from the federal government in the form of loans.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, carried the bill this session after hearing a presentation from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Program Office on the state’s ability to get funding for about 80% of the costs of clean energy projects, including those that transition fossil fuel sites into renewable sources. The state would only have to put up about 3% of a project’s funding in order to receive the long-term, lower-interest financing option.

Utility providers and homeowners would have been eligible for the financing, and projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a 15% cap on funds disbursed for projects involving coal bed methane and new nuclear, such as a small modular reactor.

Youngkin had previously tried to put a re-enactment clause on the bill, which would’ve required it to be passed again next session before becoming effective. The legislature rejected that amendment during the reconvened session.

“While I agree with the underlying purpose behind the legislation, regrettably, the General Assembly did not adopt my recommendations which would have allowed the opportunity for conflicts between the entity created by this legislation and existing programs at the Virginia Department of Energy to be resolved,” Youngkin said in his veto memo.

According to Surovell, the governor had said at one point that other state agencies could have acted as the State Energy Financing Institution and received the federal funding, such as the Department of Housing and Community Development taking in money for energy efficiency efforts. Another difference, Surovell said, was the governor wanted to have the bank overseen by the Virginia Department of Energy, which would answer more directly to the administration instead of the 12-member board with non-legislative citizens that the bill would’ve created to oversee financing of projects statewide.

“I wanted to create one SEFI that could finance everything,” Surovell said. “He wants to control everything. It’s just not how the government works.”

Lee Francis, deputy director of the League of Conservation Voters, which backed the bill this session, said Youngkin’s failure to sign the bill “ is an incredible missed opportunity and would follow a pattern of this governor putting politics ahead of what’s best for Virginia’s economy and sending good paying clean energy jobs to other states.”

Confederacy-related license plates and tax breaks

After the General Assembly rejected Youngkin’s amendment to a bill to repeal state-issued special license plates honoring the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Gen. Robert E. Lee, the governor ultimately vetoed the legislation on Friday.

Youngkin had proposed lawmakers return next year to vote on the legislation and to have the state analyze the effects on the commonwealth’s revenue should the plates be discontinued.

“He’s just not brave enough to do the right thing, and I believe he knows that he’s wrong,” said Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, who carried the legislation. “He wants to continue to appeal to MAGA extremists who want to relive the Civil War.”

According to the Department Of Motor Vehicles, as of Feb. 27, 1,783 Robert E. Lee plates and 543 Sons of Confederate Veterans plates are currently in circulation.

Youngkin also vetoed legislation to eliminate tax exemptions for the national and Virginia division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and the Stonewall Jackson Memorial.

Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach — who carried the legislation, along with Sen. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk — said the veto raises questions about fairness and fiscal responsibility.

“It is crucial that we align our tax code with our values and vision for the commonwealth without delay,” Askew stated. “The governor’s unexplained focus on preserving these tax breaks is perplexing.” Askew added that Virginians deserved to know “why the governor is providing tax relief to historically pro-slavery institutions instead of extending tax breaks to more deserving organizations that offer opportunities for all.”

Youngkin signed seven bills on Friday, including ones to expand localities’ ability to lower roadway speed limits, to allow schools divisions to offer one-year, nonrenewable local eligibility licenses for teachers, and to task the Board of Education with creating guidelines for notifying parents about school-related drug overdoses.

Read Youngkin’s explanation statements for all 48 of his final vetoes here, and find details on all the bills he signed from the 2024 session here.

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