RICHMOND — His big, wooden gavel temporarily stolen, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) resorted to tap-tap-tapping the Virginia Senate into session with a tiny plastic mallet Saturday, when lawmakers passed a state budget with near-unanimous support.
It was a fitting start to the final day of an understated General Assembly session, in which most hot-button bills died early and differences over the state’s spending plan were relatively minor.
With just one “no” vote between the House and Senate, the two chambers voted for a budget that covers a $1.2 billion shortfall, provides long-sought raises for state employees, troopers and teachers, and boosts funding for K-12 education.
The final stretch of Virginia’s legislative session is usually a frenzied affair, with lawmakers and the governor trying to strike last-minute deals, sometimes on hefty legislation, such as the sweeping 2013 transportation plan that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) wrangled out of the General Assembly as the session drew to a close. Just last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and the GOP-controlled legislature battled down to the wire over a state Supreme Court appointment.
This year — one in which all 100 House seats and three statewide offices are up for election — the legislature spent its last day on work that was important but notably lacking in drama. Among the bills pushed through Saturday were those aimed at reforming the state’s economic-development arm and getting the city of Alexandria to stop flushing raw sewage into the Potomac River by 2025.
“It was devoid of anything truly death-defyingly contentious,” said Sen. Dave W. Marsden (D-Fairfax).
Even the final moment was anticlimactic. By long-standing tradition, the House and Senate send a delegation up to the third floor of the historic Capitol, where the governor has a ceremonial office, to inform him that they have adjourned. Not this time. McAuliffe was in Washington, leading a meeting as chairman of the National Governors Association.
“We were not able to ascertain that he’s in the commonwealth,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover).
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor’s whereabouts should have been no mystery.
“I think we made it very clear to them where he was and what he was doing,” Coy said. As the legislature gaveled out, Coy said, McAuliffe was presiding over a panel discussion on early-childhood education.
The governor later issued a written statement saying that the session was “marked by bipartisan cooperation on issues that are important to the people of Virginia.”
But McAuliffe also made note of several measures that failed against his wishes, including universal background checks for gun purchases and raising the felony threshold from $200 to $500.
The budget makes adjustments to the two-year, $105 billion spending plan passed last year. The legislature provided more money for raises and K-12 education than the proposal McAuliffe had made in December, when the state’s finances looked bleaker.
The plan approved Saturday includes a 3 percent raise for state employees and an even bigger boost to state police, who have been leaving the agency in droves. It also provides the state’s share of a 2 percent raise for teachers.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) became emotional as he discussed the spending plan, noting to Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), “This is our last budget together.”
Howell, who has led the chamber for 15 sessions, announced Monday that he would not seek reelection.
“I want to thank you for the trust you placed in me,” Jones said of being appointed the chairmanship, his voice breaking. “I will be forever grateful for your confidence.”
The lone holdout on the budget was Del. Kaye Kory (D-
Fairfax). Even she had high praise for the spending plan.
“I honestly think this is one of the better budgets — if not the best budget — I have seen since I’ve been here,” she said, noting the money devoted to addressing opioid addiction, mental health and schools. Her beef was with the elimination of $6 million for long-acting, reversible contraception coverage for low-income women. She also objected to plans to develop systems for detecting fraud among food-stamp recipients.
Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-Loudoun) expressed disappointment that there was no funding provided to fill a vacant Loudoun County Circuit Court judicial slot.
“Defunding our judiciary is not a good idea,” said Minchew, who nevertheless voted for the budget.
The legislature will reconvene April 5 to consider any amendments or vetoes from the governor.
McAuliffe has already vetoed a number of bills, including one that would have cut off state funding to Planned Parenthood. That action brought the partisan flash point of abortion briefly to the House floor Saturday, as Del. C. Matthew Fariss (R-Campbell), seeking to override the veto, raised the possibility that “someone would kill an unborn child because of its race.”
The House failed to override the veto, a move cheered by Northam, who is running to succeed McAuliffe.
As the session began, Northam found that his gavel had been removed from the dais — a trick typically played on the Senate’s presiding officer on the last day. It turned up in the desk of freshman Sen. Mark J. Peake (R-Lynchburg).