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Virginia General Assembly gives Youngkin mixed results on budget

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), standing at left, explains budget amendments during the General Assembly's special session on June 17 in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) suffered defeats Friday in his efforts to temporarily suspend the state gasoline tax and to impose more restrictions on public funding for abortion, but scored a partial win in his push to expand “lab schools” as the General Assembly took up a final series of proposed amendments to the budget.

Youngkin’s own party resisted one of his proposals, with the Republican-controlled House of Delegates choosing not to act on a budget amendment that would have created a felony for demonstrating at the home of a judge with the intent to intimidate.

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House and Senate negotiators had agreed on a $165 billion, two-year state spending plan on June 1, using a surplus of revenue to fund both tax cuts and major increases in spending, including raises for teachers and state employees. Youngkin had one final chance to tinker with that budget, proposing about three dozen amendments that lawmakers took up Friday.

He went on Twitter on Friday night to scold lawmakers for resisting the three-month gas tax holiday. “Democrats failed to put politics aside for the good of Virginians — for a third time,” Youngkin tweeted from his personal account, referring to his earlier efforts to suspend the tax. “At a time when inflation and gas prices are at a high in the Commonwealth, Virginians should know that higher gas prices are brought to you by @VaSenateDems.”

One Republican — Sen. Emmett W. Hanger (Augusta) — joined Democrats in opposing the tax holiday, based on the argument that there’s no guarantee that wholesalers will pass the savings on to consumers and that the state badly needs the funding for transportation projects.

Youngkin has no further chances to amend the budget; he has to either sign it or veto it. The final budget needs to be in place by the end of the month because the new fiscal year starts July 1.

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In his first major action on abortion, Youngkin proposed a budget amendment that would have prohibited using public money to pay for abortions in cases where the fetus has “incapacitating” physical deformities or mental deficiencies. Hotly debated in the House and approved by Republicans on a party-line vote, the matter failed in the Senate as the Democratic majority united against it.

The proposed felony was another of Youngkin’s most contentious proposals. He sought the change after drawing criticism from some conservatives last month for saying he had no power to order state police to arrest demonstrators outside the Alexandria home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose draft of an opinion that would overturn the federal right to an abortion leaked to the media.

Democrats blasted Youngkin’s effort to “legislate by budget,” saying the new governor was trying to bypass the legislature’s usual careful review of changes to the criminal code.

“He is literally putting into this sacred criminal code taking people’s liberty away, and you guys are about to vote for it because he’s bullying you,” House Minority Leader Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) told Republicans.

As it turned out, Republicans moved to set the proposal aside instead of voting on it — though House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) prefaced the action by saying they would do so “as long as y’all don’t think Delegate Scott’s speech had something to do with it.”

Gilbert said later that he agreed with Youngkin’s intent but felt the new felony needed more time for review.

“It’s the kind of thing that, we spoke to the governor about maybe sending down a bill … and allowing it to go through a more natural process” of consideration by committee, Gilbert said.

“We are certainly sympathetic to the need for urgent action,” he added, but said that “we don’t want to have unintended consequences because there’s some word that we didn’t get right because we didn’t discuss it in criminal subcommittee as we normally would. We have to be very careful with criminal law.”

Because the budget bill originated in the House, that chamber had to act first on all the amendments. Only those passed by the House went on to the Senate for consideration.

Democrats who control the Senate blocked several amendments, including one that would have added two staffers to the office of Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R), who presides over that chamber.

The Senate also decided to “pass by,” or not vote on, an amendment that would have directed the University of Virginia to create a program on the Constitution and democracy, and another that would have directed $1.6 million to the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University to study K-12 educational issues.

Without Senate action, those items were effectively dead. On a party-line vote, Senate Democrats rejected an amendment that would have set aside $500,000 for supplemental security for the lieutenant governor and attorney general and $250,000 for the Virginia State Police to do a threat assessment for officials in state government.

The Senate approved a raft of technical amendments, as well as one that requires the state’s public colleges and universities to come up with plans to guarantee free speech on their campuses. Three Democrats sided with all Republicans in supporting that amendment.

The Senate also voted 22 to 17 to approve a change to the way prison inmates can earn credits for good behavior. Under new restrictions, which had been approved on a party-line vote in the House, about 500 inmates will no longer be eligible for early release on July 1.

The Republican-controlled House passed all of Youngkin’s amendments, apart from two related to the new felony proposal. House Democrats put up a fight almost every step of the way, most of them hammering on a theme that Youngkin “just doesn’t get it.”

One of Youngkin’s proposals took $5 million that had been designated over the next two years to help the children of undocumented immigrants afford higher education and instead directed the money to students at two of the state’s historically Black universities.

Asked to explain why the money was being shifted away from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), the chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said: “This was a recommendation by the governor and I assume that the governor decided it was just a choice of his, that he thought, if he’s going to preference someone, he would rather preference historical Black colleges and universities as opposed to DACA.”

“I’m flabbergasted by what was just said,” Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) responded. “It is inappropriate to pit two high-need groups of students against each other.”

The amendment passed the House on a party-line vote. It provoked a similar debate in the Senate, but wound up passing, 20-19, when two Democrats — Sens. Joseph D. Morrissey (Richmond) and Lionell Spruill Sr. (Chesapeake) — joined most Republicans in voting for it. One Republican — Hanger — voted against.

The House also approved an expansion of Youngkin’s plan for “lab schools” around the state — K-12 schools that, under current law, can be set up in partnership with public four-year colleges and universities with teacher-training programs.

The budget compromise passed this month by the House and Senate includes $100 million for the program. One of Youngkin’s amendments would allow private, nonprofit institutions of higher learning and those without teacher-training programs to participate. Another amendment would add to the $100 million by diverting per-pupil funding from traditional public schools to lab schools.

Some Republicans welcomed the effort to allow education funding to follow the student, a long-sought goal for advocates of school choice. But at least some Democrats called it a threat to existing public schools.

When the two amendments got to the Senate, the one to allow private schools to participate passed when Morrissey left the floor before the vote, and Earle-Sears broke the resulting tie. But the amendment adding funds to the program failed as Morrissey voted against it.

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