Wednesday, April 24, 2024

‘Bipartisanship’ Fizzles as General Assembly Session Ends

Senators in session on February 21. (Photo by Vali Jamal/Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — Democrats and Republicans emphasized bipartisanship and working across the aisle after the election, in press conferences and throughout the legislative session, but the sentiment seemed to fizzle by the end.

Lawmakers wrapped up the busy 60-day session on March 9 after they passed a biennial budget and over 1,000 bills—a total which excludes certain resolutions.

Members of both parties fought over the budget, key legislation and the governor’s vetoes.

Room for bipartisanship

Senate Minority Leader Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said there were many bipartisan issues.

McDougle cited a bill he worked on with Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, to bolster kinship care that places kids with family over foster care placement. Favola’s Senate Bill 39, incorporated McDougle’s SB 162. Favola’s bill passed both chambers unanimously.

“There are other bills that we were working on as well and majority of legislation passes through an uncontested, Republican and Democrat, rural, urban manner,” McDougle said.

However, many bills also passed in party-line votes. Democrats have just two more seats than Republicans in each chamber.

This session saw the most opposition to bills during voting since at least 2017, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Over a quarter of the bills passed this session had more than 40% opposition. Just over 500 bills passed unanimously.

“Whenever you work through a process, there are different opinions,” McDougle said. “My Democratic colleagues have very different opinions on crime and the Second Amendment.”

McDougle was initially optimistic for bipartisan budget negotiations, and said “we will be able to find a number of areas that we agree.” He did not vote in support of the final budget.

Each chamber passed the budget with some bipartisan support, although there was more party crossover in the House.

“Bipartisanship is overrated,” according to Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College who writes about local and state politics. “People say they want bipartisanship, but they don’t actually vote that way.”

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, is president pro tempore of the Senate and heads the finance committee. She is credited with leading the effort to block Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s signature proposal to bring an NBA and NHL team to Virginia, along with a new Alexandria stadium.

Lucas knows her constituents want her to take bold action, according Meagher.

“At some point we, as a society, have to choose a direction to go in,” Meagher stated. “And just as a matter of empirical fact, Americans don’t want bipartisanship as much as they say they do.”

Divisive issues throughout the session

Democrats and Republicans found little compromise around top issues like labor rights, firearm regulation and a recreational cannabis market.

There were party-line votes for House Bill 1 and SB 1, which raised the minimum wage.

Democrats sent the governor approximately 30 firearm-related measures, according to the Virginia Mercury.

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, urged her colleagues to support gun control measure HB 36. The bill would penalize parents if their child gains access to a firearm and they had been warned the child posed a threat to themselves or others, or if the child had a violent juvenile felony.

Despite winning over a handful of Coyner’s colleagues, the vast majority of Republicans voted against it.

Coyner is rated by Richmond Sunlight as one of the most bipartisan legislators in the General Assembly, based on an average of Democrat co-sponsored bills, co-patrons on her bills and fellow co-patrons on other bills.

Coyner was unable to provide a comment for this article.

Another point of contention among lawmakers is establishing a regulated cannabis market. Democrats may have to wait for a new governor before making progress on cannabis, according to Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

“This governor hasn’t shown much interest in coming up with a cannabis plan … and the Democrats in the legislature may very well wait it out for a subsequent governor’s cannabis plan,” Farnsworth said.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, reached a compromise between their two measures to create a cannabis market. Krizek expressed optimism there could be a deal between Democrats and the governor, who has said many times he has no interest in a recreational market.

“When we’re campaigning, we say a lot of things that once we’re governing, we realize maybe we have to do things a little differently,” Krizek said.

The bill passed both chambers with some crossover support, though most Republicans voted against it.

Republicans overall unhappy with the passed budget

The session ended with tension over the passed budget, which Youngkin described as “backward” once his tax cuts and an arena proposal were eliminated.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, opened a press conference on the final day of the General Assembly and criticized Democrats on their approach to solving issues, including the housing shortage.

Democrats were “checking boxes” for political allies, which include labor unions, trial lawyers and the environmental lobby, according to Gilbert.

House Minority Whip Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, criticized Democrats over the minimum wage and tax increases.

“They’re gonna give a $15 minimum wage, but all that is going to get eaten up in taxes,” Webert said.

Webert blamed the increased cost of groceries on Democrats and said their policies have made life harder for Virginians.

“How do they pay for everything they’ve done or put in the budget?” Webert said. “It’s with a tax increase, a $1.6 billion over what the governor introduced.”

Democrats prune Youngkin’s ‘magic money tree’

Youngkin’s proposed budget was not received well by the majority party either. Democrats want to govern responsibly and in line with Virginia traditions, according to Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

“This governor seems to think that we can just have our cake and eat it too and pay for everything with money off a magic money tree,” Surovell said at a press conference right after the budget passed.

Youngkin’s proposed tax cuts would reduce the amount of state money to invest in things that benefit Virginians, such as K-12 funding, according to Surovell.

“There’s no way we’re going to be able to educate our children in the future if we just keep cutting, cutting, cutting,” Surovell said.

The governor proposed an increased sales tax, which Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said would hurt consumers.

“Why should we only do that, taxing the consumer, when businesses have to pay their fair share as well,” Locke said.

Sales taxes are often viewed as regressive because low-income taxpayers pay the same as high-income taxpayers, which hits them harder, according to the IRS.

Democrats kept a tax on digital service transactions that Youngkin initially proposed.

Youngkin ‘needs to make a deal’ versus veto approach 

Youngkin called on both parties to work together in a press conference the day after Democrats won control of both chambers in November. He said the “razor thin” margins on election night prove lawmakers are comfortable working together.

But Youngkin stood in the same spot just a few months later and blasted Democrats over the budget and blocking his stadium proposal. He referred to this as a “colossal mistake” and has made public addresses in criticism of the “backward budget.”

The day after the budget was released, Youngkin vetoed eight of the 80 fast-tracked Democratic bills. He has vetoed a total 50 bills so far from this session, according to his press releases.

Youngkin vetoed 41 bills his first two years in office, according to VPAP records. With his veto total now at 91, he is closing in on former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s record. At the time, a lead Republican said McAuliffe was “way too heavy-handed with the veto pen.”

Youngkin needs to make a deal if he wants support for his arena, according to Farnsworth.

“He has to meet the Democrats well more than halfway and that means not vetoing legislation, it means throwing a great deal of Democratic priorities into the budget bill,” Farnsworth said.

The Democrats can wait him out, because Youngkin needs the General Assembly to pass his arena deal, according to Farnsworth.

Both parties are doing what their base prefers. Youngkin vetoed the bills because his Republican base wouldn’t be happy if he compromised, Farnsworth said.

“The governor has to decide, does he want an arena deal? Or does he want to be in the good graces of the Republican base,” Farnsworth said.

Youngkin can only serve one consecutive term as governor according to Virginia law, and his future political aspirations are currently unclear.

He has until April 8 to take action on any legislation. The General Assembly will reconvene April 17 to review the governor’s actions, although Democrats don’t have the supermajority needed to overturn his vetoes.

Virginians can likely expect this type of division going forward. Garren Shipley, communications director for House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, expects next year will be even more divisive.

“Even numbered sessions are usually the quiet ones, an odd-numbered session is an election year,” Shipley said. “I’ll just let that speak for itself.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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