The past week produced dramatic news on a couple of fronts.
First, the economy continues to expand. Record growth in tax revenues continued through January, and it looks like we will have about $2 billion more than we anticipated in this year’s budget. The growth combined with our unemployment rates continuing to fall are both good signs. However, inflation remains high. People are paying more for necessary staples. Having some extra spending money is helpful, but not if the cost of groceries and gasoline absorbs that money and more. We still have a lot of work to do.
In light of the expanding economy, the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee passed a bill to provide tax relief, striking a balance between the tax relief plan proposed by Governor Youngkin and the one included in former Governor Northam’s outgoing budget. The Committee developed a compromise between the two that we hope is a responsible plan for reducing the sales tax on food. As currently written, the Senate proposal will eliminate the remaining 1.5 percent. The plan will also reimburse localities for lost revenue and retain the additional authority of local governments to charge an additional one percent tax on food.
A second item making the news this week was the passage of a bill sponsored by Senator Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County to ensure public schools stayed open. The bill had widespread bipartisan support. Senator Chap Petersen of Fairfax City amended the bill to say that every parent would have the discretion as to whether their children wear a mask in school. While that may sound like a good idea, it is simply not sound public policy. For one thing, decisions about local schools need to be made by our local school boards. Senator Petersen’s amendment usurps the power of local school boards, which are best able to respond to local needs and concerns. The second concern about the adoption of this amendment is that we simply do not know what new variant of COVID or what new epidemic may be next. We are embedding this prohibition on mask mandates in the Code of Virginia and limiting our schools’ flexibility in responding to any future health crises. Nobody knows how we are going to have to respond or how best to protect our families and communities. For those reasons, I opposed the bill, which is already moving quickly through the House of Delegates.
The third item that generated a lot of buzz in Richmond related to gubernatorial appointments. The Governor of Virginia has the power to make thousands of appointments to the bureaucratic boards that implement and govern much of the day-to-day work in Virginia. The Constitution of Virginia also requires those appointments to be confirmed by the General Assembly. Appointments to these boards and commissions are staggered to ensure some consistency and institutional knowledge for these public bodies. It is important to note that gubernatorial appointments are not always partisan. Three members of Governor Youngkin’s cabinet were actually appointed to boards and commissions by Governor Northam.
Like every other year, the Governor sent down resolutions for the purpose of confirming appointments from the prior year. The Chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee carries those resolutions on behalf of the Governor. The resolutions confirming former Governor Northam’s appointments passed the Senate weeks ago. The House of Delegates nearly missed the deadline for approving those resolutions and appointments, apparently in retaliation for the Senate’s rejection of Andrew Wheeler as Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. This was a very dangerous game that the Republican leadership in the House, with the approval of Governor Youngkin, was playing.
If House leadership had continued to hold up these appointments, under Virginia’s Constitution they would be considered vacant. The people appointed by Governor Northam, some of whom were appointed last spring and have functioned in the jobs for months, would have been ineligible for reappointment. This would have set up a potential constitutional crisis. The failure to confirm the nominees could have resulted in boards not being able to establish quorums or otherwise gum up the regulatory process. The process of vetting and making appointments is time-consuming, and it is not clear how long it would have taken to fill those openings.
The Republicans in the House also refused to elect Angela Navarro of Charlottesville to serve a full term on the State Corporation Commission. She was elected last year to fill a vacancy and has served the Commonwealth well in that position, and in positions in the McAuliffe and Northam Administrations. This was also in retaliation for the Senate refusal to confirm Andrew Wheeler’s appointment.
By the end of the week, the Republicans ended the standoff by approving all but eleven of Northam appointees, either because of the specific Board to which the individual was appointed or because someone may be too much of a Democrat. The rejected appointments are split among the State Board of Education and several citizen environmental boards, such as the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the State Water Control Board.
The actions by the leadership in the House suggest that the working relationship between the Republican House and the Democratic Senate is not going to be smooth over the next two years. Remember we have vacancies in various courts around the state to fill. We have two Supreme Court vacancies this year. In the next few weeks, we will need to reach a compromise on the biennial budget. The process requires that we work together and compromise. We need our government to function and to quit the political games.
It continues to be my honor to serve you in the Senate of Virginia. If I can be of service to you or if you wish to share your views about pending legislation, please reach out to me at (804) 698-7525 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.