RICHMOND — Virginia House Republicans on Monday announced the first part of a legislative agenda chocked full of hot-button issues, from traffic in Northern Virginia and climate change to charter schools and unions.
Lawmakers have two more months to submit proposed legislation before the 2016 General Assembly session begins.
The opening salvo all but guarantees another session filled with partisan rancor as the overwhelmingly Republican chamber squares off against Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has the added challenge of proposing a two-year budget.
In the first half of McAuliffe’s term, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) successfully blocked the governor’s attempts to expand Medicaid, tighten restrictions on gun ownership and protect gay and transgender Virginians from discrimination.
This coming session, House Republicans want to reverse an administration plan to charge some drivers on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway and want to give lawmakers veto power over efforts to implement President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Another bill would allow elections officials to deny voter registration applications that are missing information such as citizenship status.
Republicans also propose constitutional amendments to give the Board of Education the power to create charter schools and strengthen the state’s right-to-work law, which weakens the power of labor unions.
“The Republican-led House of Delegates has consistently demonstrated over the years that we are the party of ideas, our majority is a governing majority and we are focused on the issues most important to our citizens,” Howell said in a statement. “These are the first pieces of what I expect to be a broad, bold agenda to govern and lead our Commonwealth.”
Democrats decried the bills and resolutions as purely political distractions from diversifying the state’s economy.
“I just wish we would get a little more serious about addressing our real problems,” Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) said. “Our focus should be on making sure we spend our limited scarce dollars in the most effective ways.”
The Republican bill on tolls would prohibit them on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway.
The issue captured the attention of voters and campaigns in the final weeks of the recent legislative elections when House Republicans ramped up a coordinated effort to portray the administration as poised to impose $17 tolls on drivers.
A plan set to take effect in 2017 would give solo drivers the option of paying to use carpool lanes at the busiest time of day, and few drivers would fork over the maximum possible fare of $17. But the GOP’s message caught fire and prompted several Democratic candidates to back away from McAuliffe’s plan even as the governor defended it as the only way to reduce traffic on the congested highway.
By holding a floor vote on the toll plan, Republicans could force freshman Democrats to choose between going on the record in opposition to the governor or changing their stance.
“This legislation will stop Governor McAuliffe from tolling I-66 inside the Beltway,” said Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), who introduced the bill. “I look forward to working with our Democratic colleagues to pass it, and to develop an alternative that provides real congestion relief on I-66.”
Sickles noted that Republicans have yet to come up with a plan to ease traffic.
Another GOP bill would give lawmakers the power to block the implementation of federal climate-change regulations that were finalized this summer. House Republicans — and more than a dozen state legislatures — introduced the same bill during this year’s session, but it never made it to McAuliffe’s desk.
Nationally, Republicans have derided as “job killers” the standards set by Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency to curb greenhouse gas emissions. McAuliffe lobbied the White House to lower Virginia’s emissions goal, but Republicans are still opposed to it.
“The implementation of President Obama’s executive action could have significant impacts on Virginia families and businesses,” said Del. Israel D. O’Quinn (R-Washington), who introduced the bill.
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said the bills are designed to score Republicans political points with “the extreme right wing of their tea-party base.”
Simon has filed his own raft of partisan bills, including efforts to repeal statutory bans on same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision legalizing it nationwide. Another of his bills would require private employees to offer paid sick leave.