The first full week of the 2022 Session of the Virginia General Assembly is now under our belt. We have a little better idea of what we are working with this year. Governor Northam left us with a budget that attempted to address some critical areas of need but also outlined a plan for tax relief. He pre-supposed that the new administration would have success with some of its goals and embedded tax relief in his outgoing budget.
The rubber has now hit the road. Governor Youngkin gave a rousing speech at his inauguration. On a beautiful crisp, sunny day he was inaugurated as the 74th Governor of the Commonwealth Virginia. Every Virginian should feel pride in the peaceful turnover of power that continues to be our tradition. We should all wish for our governor, the governor of all Virginians, to have success. That does not mean we have to agree with every policy he advances.
The inaugural address and the speech the Governor gave before a Joint Assembly of the General Assembly two days later were filled with generalities, few specifics about how to get things done, and a lot of the same rhetoric from the 2021 campaign. For starters, the Governor continues to insist on suspending a recent increase in the gas tax. That simply is not possible. The revenue from that tax has already been pledged to bonds. If we suddenly froze a source of funding for bonds, the bonds would go into default. Virginia has never defaulted on its bonds, and we are not going to start doing it now.
A lot of the other ideas he has tossed out with respect to education, like charter schools, are things we can discuss. However, many of his solutions have been considered by the legislature just about every year and have not moved forward. We all want to provide a world-class education to every child in Virginia. We need new ideas if we are going to get different results.
The Governor also nominated his cabinet, which must be confirmed by the General Assembly. As a general rule, the legislature defers to the Governor’s appointment prerogative. One appointment that has generated significant concerns is the installment of Andrew Wheeler as Secretary-designee of Natural and Historic Resources. I have spoken with him personally and advised him in simple terms that I expect his nomination to be defeated. The Chair of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee submits resolutions confirming gubernatorial appointments on behalf of the Governor. While I have not yet received that resolution, I have received hundreds of calls and emails to my office by individuals expressing their concerns about whether Mr. Wheeler is the right person to lead the effort to protect and preserve Virginia’s beautiful natural and historic resources.
As the Chair of Privileges and Elections, I also wanted to update you on our work. Earlier this week, the Committee defeated bills that would have eliminated same-day voter registration and re-imposed strict voter ID rules. We saw record numbers of voters during the 2021 election cycle, and we do not need to erect barriers to voting access. I am proud of the work of the committee and look forward to continuing this effort over this session.
In other news, on Wednesday I announced the hiring of Nathalie Molliet-Ribet to serve as the executive director of the Behavioral Health Commission. This marks a significant step forward in our work to improve our mental health system. As you know, fixing the problems of an overworked system and ensuring access to high-quality care for every Virginian are my top priorities. The employment situation at our state hospitals and at our 40 community services boards remains in crisis. There is a lot of discussion about how we fix the problem, but we have not yet developed a sound plan that can generate consensus to correct it. With the creation of a full-time staffed commission, I am confident we will begin to make headway.
In the Senate, committees have been meeting daily to hear bills and move forward with our work. You can access the Senate live stream and sign up to testify to bills in committee here. Budget amendments offered by legislators are also available online now. The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee will navigate through all of those amendments, the vast majority of which have merit, and finalize the Senate budget on February 20. Finally, today is the deadline for all bills and joint resolutions to be filed.
It continues to be an honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I may be of service, please do not hesitate to contact me. My office can be reached at (804) 698-7525 or by email at [email protected].