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Virginia General Assembly adjourns with job unfinished

Members leave after adjournment of the House of Delegates inside the State Capitol in Richmond on Saturday. (Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)
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RICHMOND — The General Assembly wrapped up its 60-day session Saturday without an agreement on the two-year state budget or dozens of other bills, kicking all of that legislation down the road for a special session.

The budget impasse reflects the new political reality in Virginia’s divided Capitol, where Republicans regained the House and Executive Mansion after two years in the political wilderness and Democrats who control the Senate have found ways to flex their limited power.

But legislators and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) were nevertheless upbeat about prospects for reaching consensus soon.

“I’m pleased by the progress that’s been made in the last couple days with the budget,” Youngkin said. “I actually want to thank our legislators on both sides of the aisle for the really good work that they’ve done to date.”

Youngkin met briefly with a bipartisan delegation from the House and Senate, who trooped up to his ceremonial office on the third floor of the Capitol to say they were adjourning.

“I think we all are agreed, the sooner we can get back together, the better. We’ll work together to find a good time,” he told them. “We’ve had a good session. And I do believe that we’ve got a little more work to do, but I’m quite optimistic we’ll get it done.”

Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) slammed his hand onto the table. “I agree!” he declared, and everyone laughed.

“Senator, do you agree?” Youngkin asked Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). “I agree,” Saslaw said.

“I think that’s the first time this session you and I have laughed at the same time,” Norment told Saslaw, slapping him on the back.

Legislators from both parties and both chambers said budget negotiators were not terribly far apart. Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he believed they could reach a deal in the next few days.

“I believe right now we have a budget [that], with a few small tweaks in it, it’ll pass the Senate and the House each by bipartisan support. I think both sides are getting most of what they want,” Knight said. He described a “very amicable” meeting with Senate budget conferees on Friday night that sketched out the lay of the land.

Tax cuts are the main sticking point, he said — particularly Youngkin’s signature effort to double the standard deduction on personal income taxes and to eliminate the state’s tax on groceries. The Republican House passed a version of the budget that would do both; the Democratic-controlled Senate preferred to study the standard deduction issue for a year because of its long-term impact on revenue, and voted to eliminate the 1.5 percent portion of the grocery tax that’s levied by the state. It left a 1 percent levy that goes to localities untouched.

“We were a little bit apart, now we’re pretty close together,” Knight said. He said both sides had given ground, citing a one-year suspension of a hike in the state gasoline tax and a Senate plan to make the earned income tax credit for working families partly reimbursable as other areas of compromise.

Lawmakers must complete the budget before Youngkin can summon them back for a special session.

“I would say there are just a couple items [to be worked out],” said Sen. Steve D. Newman (R-Bedford), a Senate budget conferee. “If we can get through those in the next week or so, I think everything else should fall into place.”

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The House and Senate started Saturday knowing they would not have a budget deal by day’s end, but still trying to hammer out agreements on dozens of other bills. Those included two high-profile measures supported by Youngkin — one aimed at luring the Washington Commanders to Virginia, the other to create “lab schools” that would partner colleges and universities with K-12 schools.

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No deals were reached on either, so they will be carried over to the special session along with the budget and dozens of other bills.

The session was the first under Youngkin, a political newcomer who took office three days after legislators gaveled in. The former Carlyle Group executive spent his first two months in office navigating a steep learning curve. Mixing personal outreach and partisan bomb-throwing, he emerged with wins and losses.

Youngkin, who made parental empowerment and opposition to coronavirus mandates major campaign themes, secured a win with a bill making masks optional in schools. The legislature also passed a Youngkin-backed bill giving parents the power to exempt their children from school assignments involving sexually explicit material.

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But Senate Democrats killed other measures he supported, including those to ease the creation of charter schools and ban the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive concepts.” In a rare snub, they also rejected Youngkin’s choice of former Trump administration official Andrew Wheeler for a Cabinet post.

The Senate largely lived up to its vow to be a “brick wall” against Republican efforts to roll back laws passed over the past two years, when Democrats controlled all the levers of power in Richmond. GOP bills to expand gun rights, halt scheduled increases in the minimum wage and tighten voting restrictions all died in the upper chamber.

Likewise, the Republican-led House mostly stopped the Senate from pulling the state further to the left. A House committee killed two proposed constitutional amendments — one to repeal the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, the other to lift a Jim Crow-era lifetime ban on voting by felons.

In the waning days of the session, as House and Senate negotiators tried to hash out compromises in impromptu huddles, more sausage-making went on in the marble hallway between the chambers than inside them. Swarms of lobbyists hovered for 11th-hour arm twisting, along with a pair of Richmond insiders on the new governor’s team, counselor Richard Cullen and policy chief Matthew Moran.

Saturday was a day of stops and starts, with legislators shuttling between the House and Senate as one chamber notified the other after they’d taken action on certain items, such as the election of Circuit Court judges. Legislators came to last-minute agreements on some bills, including one that will limit disclosure of certain police records under the Freedom of Information Act.

They also finished work on nuts-and-bolts bills addressing questions of government operations. Which agency, for example, should inspect restaurants if they’re housed inside grocery stores? (The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.) Or what criminal penalty should apply to the theft of catalytic converters? (One to five years in prison.)

The House and Senate also approved a string of restitution payments — some topping $1 million — to people who had been wrongfully incarcerated. Legislators also found time on a busy final day to pass feel-good resolutions, such as one commending the Cave Spring High School boys basketball team in Roanoke for winning the AAA state championship.

With ample down time between votes, legislators watched Capitol Square fill up with snow, asked retiring Richmond Times-Dispatch photographer Bob Brown to autograph copies of his books and crossed the aisle to engage in friendly banter that goes on in Richmond even amid the sharpest partisan debates.

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Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) popped into the Senate to offer well wishes to Sen. Todd E. Pillion (R-Washington), who’d hit his head the night before and needed nine staples in his scalp. Pillion gamely showed off the staples to lawmakers and laughed as senators who’d accompanied him to the emergency room Friday night showed a video of him in his hospital bed, jokingly pleading with Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) to take a funding “clause” off his lab-school bill because of his injury.

Howell laughed as she watched the video on a cellphone, but she wasn’t budging.

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