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Legislative session kicks off new GOP era in Virginia

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Virginia’s 60-day legislative session, which kicks off Wednesday in Richmond, will feature a power struggle between the new GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate, the state’s first GOP governor in close to a decade, and the continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will be a stark departure from recent sessions of the General Assembly, when Democrats had near-unilateral control over state laws and easily enacted their key priorities, like increasing the minimum wage, tightening gun control laws and boosting police accountability.

Republicans, newly in power after a sweeping victory in November, are expected to take aim at some of those new laws, while ushering in a new conservative agenda for Virginia that is still being shaped by different camps within the party.

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin takes office Saturday as Virginia’s 74th governor. His priorities for the legislature center on a package of tax cuts he says will make Virginia a more attractive and affordable place to live, and changes to the state’s education system, including a push to usher in more privately run public schools.

The governor’s administration will also be working behind the scenes to rally support for Youngkin’s Cabinet, which requires General Assembly confirmation. Youngkin’s choice for secretary of natural resources, Andrew Wheeler, who led the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump, has drawn overwhelming criticism from Democratic lawmakers.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who succeeds Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, as speaker of the House, will lead a chamber with a new 52-48 GOP majority.

Thousands of people — lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and the public — will descend on the Capitol for a session that will be conducted primarily in-person amid a surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly infectious omicron variant.

The state’s record-setting number of cases and hospitalizations — which are straining Virginia’s hospitals and testing capacity — are expected to peak in coming weeks, as lawmakers try to carry out their work.

Here’s a list of what to watch:

Tax reform

Youngkin’s campaign took early aim at what he describes as an astronomical cost of living that he says is driving many Virginians away to different states. Amid record revenue projections of an additional $13 billion over three fiscal years, Youngkin and Republicans in the legislature have started working on a series of tax cut proposals — and the general idea has support from key Democrats.

Youngkin has proposed to eliminate the state’s grocery tax; provide a tax rebate of $300 for individuals and $600 for families; double the standard deduction; delay the recent 5-cent increase to the gas tax; cut taxes on veterans’ retirement pay; and make it more difficult for localities to increase property taxes.

In his final two-year budget proposal, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam also backed tax cuts, throwing his weight behind axing the state’s 1.5% portion of the tax on groceries starting Jan. 1, 2023. Northam’s proposal would not eliminate the 1% add on for localities.

Northam’s tax cut proposals could signal fissures between the GOP and Democratic approach to cutting taxes.

The Democrat’s plan would also make 15% of the state’s earned income tax credit refundable for lower-income families, which Northam said would benefit working-class Virginians — those disparately hurt by the economic challenges of the pandemic.

Education

Education will play a big role this session, as in the race for governor.

House GOP bills would restore a requirement that school principals report to police misdemeanors students commit on school grounds and remove the student exemption from disorderly conduct provisions in state law — in line with a Youngkin campaign promise. Democrats and civil rights activists said the changes were meant to curb the “school-to-prison pipeline” and better handle student discipline.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who will chair the House education panel, is sponsoring a bill that targets changes to the admissions process for the state’s specialty governors schools.

For years, advocates have taken aim at an admissions process that results in a disparate number of Black and Latino students at these schools. Davis’ bill describes policies to correct that as “proxy discrimination.”

Youngkin wants to expand the number of charter schools in the state from fewer than 10 to almost 300. Expect lawmakers to consider legislation toward that end. One bill from Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, would force the state to create regional charter school divisions in areas where local school districts are struggling with accreditation.

The regional charter school divisions would be controlled by a board filled out by the state, which would have the power to approve charter school applications. Local school divisions would have minority representation on these boards, giving them little say over new charters.

Crime

A number of GOP bills would reverse measures Democrats passed in an effort to curb police brutality and excessive use of force following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — all Black Americans.

GOP bills would remove the prohibition on police stopping and searching a person or vehicle based solely on the smell of marijuana; remove provisions requiring search warrants to be executed in daylight from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and remove localities’ power to establish civilian review boards with oversight over local law enforcement, including subpoena power.

The bill restricting when criminal search warrants can be executed is known as “Breonna’s Law,” after the woman Louisville police fatally shot during a botched nighttime raid in March 2020.

Other GOP bills would decrease from $1,000 to $500 the threshold at which petit larceny becomes grand larceny and repeal provisions not yet in place regarding the sealing of police and criminal records for certain convictions.

Confirmations

Youngkin, whose job as the state’s top official will be his first foray into public office, will be working to secure support for his Cabinet from the legislature.

Wheeler, who tried to roll back environmental safeguards as Trump’s head of the EPA, appears headed for rejection in the Senate.

“I don’t know of any [Democratic senator] that’s in support of that nomination, and he may even have some problems in his own party,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, whose party has a 21-19 edge in the Senate.

Youngkin’s other choices — announced in recent weeks — have proved less controversial so far, but some could still face headwinds in the Senate.

Guns

Republicans also are seeking to roll back a number of gun control measures Democrats passed in 2020, the year after a disgruntled Virginia Beach city employee killed 12 workers and wounded four others in a municipal building.

GOP bills would remove the one-gun-a-month restriction on handgun purchases; repeal prohibitions on carrying firearms in places of worship, preschools, day care centers or on Capitol Square; and remove localities’ authority to pass ordinances restricting firearms from government buildings, parks and recreation centers.

The National Rifle Association officials in Virginia have said the local authority bill is their top priority, arguing that it had created a patchwork of local policies that residents could not reasonably follow.

Elections

On elections, Republicans have introduced bills to restore the photo ID requirement for voting; to repeal drop box provisions for collecting absentee ballots; to cut the early voting period from 45 days down to 14 or even 10 days; to repeal same-day registration and to require absentee voters to provide the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

Youngkin supports restoring the photo ID requirement as part of his “election integrity” agenda. Democrats did away with the requirement, arguing that it placed an undue hurdle for low-income voters.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

acain@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6645

Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

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