RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) hailed a “unique opportunity” to spend money on a cornucopia of priorities from public education to rural broadband in a State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday evening, glossing over a deep divide with Republican legislators over tax dollars in a year when all 140 seats of the legislature are up for election.
The General Assembly convened earlier Wednesday for its 400th annual session with a little extra pomp, a potential breakthrough on the Equal Rights Amendment and disappointment for gay rights advocates.
In his speech, Northam pitched tax and budget plans that hinge on using $1.2 billion in new revenue that the state expects to collect as a result of last year’s federal tax overhaul. He also urged the GOP-controlled legislature to consider his plans to address gun violence — legislation that Republicans snuffed out last year.
Although he is backing those same bills again, including measures that call for universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban, Northam chose to highlight just a single bill in his speech — one that he said Republican legislatures in other states have adopted. The “extreme risk law” would make it easier for law enforcement and the courts to remove firearms from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
“It shouldn’t be a partisan issue to make sure that weapons are not in the hands of people who pose a threat, especially when the threat is to their own safety or their family’s safety,” Northam said.
Invoking the “Virginia Way” of political compromise, Northam catalogued the accomplishments of his first year in office — including expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income Virginians, raising the larceny threshold and securing funding for Metro — and he urged both parties to cooperate.
“The successes in this past year have come about not because I, or you legislators, did something individually — but because we worked together,” he said. “When we work together and help provide a strong foundation for Virginians, our families and businesses thrive.”
But Northam’s vision of a rapidly rising state flush with cash to build on its success is based on a fundamental disagreement with Republicans, who still control both houses of the legislature. The governor wants to spend some $1.2 billion that could flood state coffers because of changes to the federal tax code under the tax cuts President Trump signed last year.
He wants half of that amount tofund tax breaks forVirginian households making less than $54,000 a year, the state’s median income. He would use the other half to shore up the state’s reserve funds and make “historic” investments in schools, the environment, rural broadband and other priorities.
Republicans, though, want to change Virginia tax code so that much of that money goes back to taxpayers at middle- and higher- income brackets.
Republican leaders embraced Northam’s language of cooperation before drawing a sharp line over taxes.
“I appreciated very much the tone that he started out with,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) said in the Capitol rotunda after the speech.
But Northam’s spending plan seemed aimed at his Democratic base and will not pass muster with Republicans looking to cut taxes, Norment said. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Norment said he is committed to working with the governor and Democrats to “overcome this impasse.”
House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) also praised Northam’s tone and added that “I do think there are some places we can work together.” He mentioned K-12 education and teacher pay as examples.
Republicans also said they were open to dialogue about gun safety — though House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) cautioned that Democrats must “do that in the context of respecting our traditional rights.”
Democrats and Republicans alike cheered and rose at a few points during Northam’s 50-minute speech, such as when he called for extending broadband access to rural areas and pledged to make the state the best for business.
But with few exceptions, Republicans sat stone-faced as Northam called for dialogue about gun safety and ending the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs. His call to allow early voting seemed to fall especially flat on that side of the aisle, particularly as he tied “prohibitive barriers to voting” to the state’s history of slavery. So did his call to add language to the state code declaring that “a woman has the fundamental right to make her own health-care decisions.”
Virginia’s General Assembly marks its 400th anniversary this year, and there were nods to its history throughout the opening day of the legislative session.
The House of Delegates was in full history mode, with four honor guards from Jamestown in Colonial armor — red plumes on their helmets, halberds in hand. Cox, a former high school government teacher, offered lofty words about the meaning of the first gathering of representative democracy in 1619 in the New World.
“When our predecessors first assembled at Jamestown Island all those years ago, they changed everything. Those first citizen servants forged a path we continue on today, four centuries later,” he said.
Cox included a nod to Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), whom Democrats chose as “the first female caucus leader in our history,” he said, to raucous applause.
For all the bipartisan niceties of opening day, political reality settled in quickly. The House Appropriations Committee wasted no time brushing off the governor’s proposed amendments to the state’s $117 billion biennial budget.
In addition to tax breaks for low-income workers, Northam wants to increase spending on teacher salaries, mental-health services and other state programs.
Republicans, however, have argued that much of that windfall should go toward tax breaks for a wider swath of Virginians. Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the budget-shaping Appropriations Committee, said he will set aside all of that $1.2 billion and instead focus on smaller adjustments to the spending plan.
The Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee got right down to work on two proposed constitutional amendments — one related to the ERA, the other to same-sex marriage.
Sens. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr. (R-Chesterfield) and Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax County) proposed a measure to make Virginia the 38th and final state to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. The bill died in House and Senate committees last year, although it had cleared the full Senate in previous years.
On Wednesday, the committee passed the bill on an 8-to-6 vote, with two Republicans among the yeas: the panel’s chair, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier); and Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr. (Virginia Beach).
The committee then went on to consider a proposal from Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) to remove the state’s defunct gay-marriage ban from the state Constitution. The ban has been unconstitutional since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a right to marry nationwide. The plan from Ebbin, who in 2003 became the state’s first openly gay legislator, would have put the matter to a referendum.
The measure died on a tied 7-to-7 vote, with Vogel the only Republican voting for it.