Virginia’s General Assembly session got underway today, and both political parties are buzzing with Big Ideas they hope will transform the commonwealth.
That’s the hype. The reality is that the entire 2019 session, and almost all the legislation proposed in it, is intended to influence the November elections.
(Oh, and of course, no matter what happens in Capitol Square, President Trump’s long shadow will loom over everything and everyone)
With all that in mind, what’s on tap?
Republican House leaders are staking their political fortunes on expanding the standard income tax deduction and a few other tweaks to allow Virginians to reap more of the benefits of the 2017 federal tax overhaul.
It’s not exactly a tax cut, but it’s in a neighboring Zip code, and that’s good enough for political purposes.
In a call with reporters Friday, House Finance Committee chairman Lee Ware admitted the House wasn’t attempting “comprehensive tax reform,” which is a shame. It’s long overdue but probably impossible in the 46 days of the 2019 session.
But, Ware said, the leadership’s proposal was “needed now, so the Trump tax cuts [are] fully implemented in Virginia.”
So it’s almost a tax cut. And Ware’s was the only mention of the president’s name during the call.
Appropriations Committee chairman Del. Chris Jones put a bit of a damper on the affair when he said the House proposal would have sunset clauses attached to it because the federal changes on personal income taxes expire in 2024.
So it’s not the cleanest or the sexiest sell. And it doesn’t address corporate taxes, either.
But it’s still incredibly important to the GOP, particularly with word coming out of the governor’s office last week that a gaggle of Republican lawmakers were ready to carry a $2.2 billion proposal to improve Interstate 81. And pay for those improvements in mobility and safety with tolls.
The proposal would establish limits on toll rates and would offer owners of automobiles and small trucks an annual pass allowing unlimited use of I-81 for a fixed yearly fee.
Tolls might be the very best and most efficient way to pay for what is needed -- the classic “user pays” scenario, where only those who drive on I-81 pay for its transformation.
It is also politically tough for the GOP, which six years ago approved then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) multi-billion dollar tax hike for road maintenance and construction that broke the user-pays model.
Telling voters that the tax hike wasn’t nearly enough so now they have to pay tolls on a highway they long assumed their gas taxes already paid for is going to be a neat election-day trick.
But Republicans aren’t the only ones trotting out bags of electoral tricks. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is proposing a series of gun laws that, according to the headlines, are intended to make the commonwealth safer.
He wants to bring back the one-gun-a-month law, ban assault weapons and impose universal background checks. All sound great in campaign ads, which is all they will be, because there’s no way Republicans are going to allow these measures to become law.
Good luck, too, with getting Republicans to agree to the governor’s proposal to allow no-excuse absentee voting, getting rid of the photo identification requirement to vote and tweaking the state’s campaign finance laws.
All of that may make the hearts of Democratic voters and interest groups sing. But unless something drastic changes over the course of the session, the only place we will see these ideas mentioned again is in campaign ads.
And that, Virginia, is the point of the 2019 short session. It’s where the copy for November’s TV ads and countless fundraising appeals will be created.
Oh, and there will be a few opportunities for legislators to do some genuine long-term good for the commonwealth, too. I’ll have more on those in future columns.