The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin vetoes bipartisan bills while stoking political rancor

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) continued to stoke partisan rancor this week with a flurry of unusual vetoes and bill amendments that political opponents and analysts saw as punishing Democrats and agitating culture-war talking points.

Youngkin vetoed 25 bills that had bipartisan support in the General Assembly, throwing sharp elbows particularly at lawmakers who represent blue areas of Northern Virginia. For instance, he vetoed nine of the 10 bills sponsored by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) while signing identical House bills in six of those cases.

Typically a governor signs both versions, allowing both sponsors bragging rights for getting a bill passed into law. Longtime state legislators said they could not think of a case in which a governor signed one bill and vetoed its companion. “This is my 19th year, and I’ve never seen it before,” said Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax).

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All of Youngkin’s vetoes targeted bills sponsored by Democrats, and four of them were against bills filed by Arlington Del. Patrick A. Hope (D), including one to lift tobacco use penalties on health insurance premiums that was widely supported in both chambers.

“Some of the vetoes involve very uncontroversial measures … which is not the norm,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. “This is a further example of how partisan politics has become in Virginia.”

Youngkin also drew strong reactions for proposing an amendment to a routine school board bill so that Loudoun County would have to hold elections for its entire school board this fall, shortening some members’ terms. That move — which would have to be approved by the General Assembly — took aim at a county where conservative parental grievance against the school board provided enormous energy for Youngkin’s election last year.

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Youngkin took office in January promising to be a unifying governor, working with a divided legislature where the House of Delegates is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats. But since then, as his national political profile has risen, Youngkin has repeatedly riled political divisions, such as seeking to eliminate language about “racial equity” from school programs.

By vetoing 25 bills and amending 114 in his first legislative session, Youngkin got off to a more aggressive start than recent governors.

Democrat Ralph Northam vetoed 20 bills and amended 60 in 2018, Democrat Terry McAuliffe vetoed 10 and amended 57, and Republican Robert F. McDonnell vetoed none and amended 123, according to figures provided by Youngkin’s office.

Youngkin’s active veto pen surprised longtime Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth because the governor’s own party controls the House of Delegates.

“That’s what makes it look to be, in some instances, more of a political tit-for-tat than a philosophical objection,” Holsworth said.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter did not respond to messages asking if Youngkin was targeting Ebbin or other Democrats for partisan reasons. Asked why he would break with precedent by signing one bill but vetoing its companion, she declined to comment beyond the veto descriptions.

Asked if House Republicans felt rebuked for passing bills that the governor disliked, a spokesman for Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said via text message: “The Governor’s veto messages speak for themselves.”

Youngkin’s moves come at a politically fraught moment, with members of the General Assembly still trying to reach agreement on a state budget — deadlocked over tax cuts proposed by Youngkin. Lawmakers couldn’t finish the budget by the time their regular legislative session ended March 12, so Youngkin called them back into a special session April 4.

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Lawmakers from both parties had not yet finished negotiations, so the legislature went into recess and will return to Richmond on April 27 to take up Youngkin’s proposed amendments and vetoes — and possibly to finish work on the budget.

Another item they’ll have to address is marijuana legalization. Youngkin suggested several amendments to a related bill, including creating misdemeanor penalties for possessing more than two ounces of marijuana.

Under legalization measures adopted last year, adults are permitted to possess one ounce or less, but possessing a pound or more is a felony. Any amount in between was subject to a civil fine of $25. Youngkin also proposed a timetable and mechanisms for setting up enforcement under the state attorney general and the new Cannabis Control Authority.

Youngkin signaled philosophical issues with a few of his vetoes. He killed four bills that recommended studies, saying he is a governor of “action,” not rumination.

One of those was sponsored by Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) and would have required the state to conduct a study every five years to ensure agencies were using diverse small-business suppliers. The original bill passed the House 77 to 23 and the Senate 36 to 3.

“Taxpayer dollars should not be used to highlight the failings of previous administrations,” Youngkin wrote in his veto message. “The Commonwealth is under new management and the time for action is now.”

Youngkin’s vetoes of nine bills sponsored by Ebbin often carried far less explanation.

All of Ebbin’s vetoed bills passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins; six won unanimous support in both chambers. Those included a measure to bolster consumer data protection and another to require real estate agents to disclose if they have an ownership interest in the transaction.

Another, which passed the Senate 40-0 and the House 81-16, would repeal an antiquated 1920s law requiring that adult children financially support their elderly parents, punishable by up to a year in jail.

In six cases, Youngkin said he vetoed the bill because he had signed a House version that did the same thing. But governors routinely sign both versions of a measure — including Youngkin, who did so several times among the 700 bills he approved or amended.

“I’m stunned at the governor’s unexplainable decision to veto meaningful, non-controversial legislation,” Ebbin said. “It is the polar opposite of what he campaigned on and not in the best interests of Virginians.”

Ebbin said Youngkin’s actions reveal the governor to be a “bitter partisan.”

“I’ve worked with governors of both parties. I’ve never had a veto before,” said Ebbin, who vowed to work to override the vetoes.

The vetoes were widely seen as payback for Senate Democrats’ refusal to confirm a handful of Youngkin appointments, starting with their rejection of a Trump administration official for the governor’s Cabinet. Ebbin, as chairman of the Senate committee that handles appointments, has been at the center of those appointment battles.

In early February, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee rejected Andrew Wheeler, Youngkin’s pick for secretary of natural and historic resources. Virginia’s General Assembly rarely snubs a governor’s Cabinet nominee, but the Democrats strenuously objected to Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations as President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief.

Democrats approved Youngkin’s 15 other Cabinet picks. After the regular General Assembly session ended in March, Youngkin made Wheeler a senior adviser — a position that does not require sign-off from the legislature.

The political tussles have considerable upside for Youngkin, said Farnsworth. “This portfolio of vetoes is going to have the impact of increasing the governor’s national profile,” he said, adding that Youngkin’s “combative approach to the school board in Loudoun County will likely generate lots of interest on the part of Fox News.”

Del. David A. Reid (D-Loudoun), who sponsored the Loudoun school board bill, accused Youngkin of trying to undermine democracy by rescheduling elections.

“This is another attempt by some Republicans to subvert our democracy and hold it hostage to a right-wing minority,” Reid said in a text message to The Washington Post. “The members of the Loudoun County School Board were elected to serve 4-year terms and they should be allowed to serve the full duration of their terms — that’s why we have scheduled elections.”

Board member Andrew Hoyler (Broad Run) posted on his Facebook page Tuesday that while his own seat was already slated to come up for election this fall, Youngkin’s move to force all members to run again was unfair to those who had won four-year terms in 2019.

“We have legal procedures in place to remove elected officials for a number of reasons,” Hoyler wrote on Facebook. “These procedures are done through the judicial system, not the executive and legislative branches, and I do not support any attempt to circumnavigate the processes that are already present.”

Ian Serotkin, another school board member, said in a written statement that “this is a brazen effort to overturn the will of the people, who democratically elected the School Board to a four year term in 2019. The continued targeting and harassment of Loudoun County by the Governor to score political points does nothing to help our students — that continues to be my sole focus. ”

Several other members of the board and a spokesman for the Loudoun school system did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, some parent activists in the county were celebrating. Ian Prior, a former Trump administration official who founded the educational advocacy group Fight for Schools, shared a jubilant statement Tuesday lauding Youngkin’s amendment.

“For the past two years, the Loudoun County School Board has run our schools as if it had divine right,” Prior said in the statement. “Allowing school board elections THIS year will give everyone the opportunity to choose what kind of school board they want. … If that happens, rest assured, we will be ready.”