The Virginia General Assembly began its 2022 session on Wednesday.
It's a big political week in Virginia. The General Assembly's legislative session kicked off on Wednesday, with House Republicans returning to the majority after a two-year hiatus. New Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin will be sworn in on Saturday.
Both political parties have staked out their priorities for the 60-day session, including how they hope to spend surplus billions. Meanwhile, local leaders in Northern Virginia are grappling with what's to come from this new era of divided government in Richmond — and sharing their own hopes for state support.
An uncertain political landscape
In a Wednesday press conference, House Republicans said they planned to support legislation that would limit the governor's emergency powers, give Virginians a direct tax rebate drawn from federal stimulus funds, roll back the income tax, and end the grocery tax. Party leadership also said they would support Governor-elect Youngkin's push for school choice, including adding charter schools and offering educational savings accounts to parents who choose to send their children outside of the traditional public school system.
New House Speaker Todd Gilbert said House Republicans have "a great working relationship" with their Democratic counterparts who retain the majority in the Senate, but acknowledged that there was only a "narrow band of areas" where the legislature as a whole might find common ground.
In their own press conference on Wednesday, Senate Democrats said they would oppose many of the centerpieces of the House Republican agenda, including school choice provisions, major tax cuts, and Youngkin's support for rolling back environmental regulations and climate change programs. Democrats say they will support proposals in outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam's budget to fund affordable childcare subsidies to help people return to work in the pandemic and fix the state's beleaguered unemployment claims system.
The Democratic caucus is also proposing support for student mental health, pathways to expand and retain the teacher workforce, two separate options for paid family leave, additional funding for law enforcement, and the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences. They also want to defend what they see as their main achievements of the past two years, including expanding voting access, gun safety measures, and criminal justice reforms.
One big unanswered question as the session begins is how Youngkin will approach working — or not working — with Democrats once he takes office. Some saw his campaign as a return to the moderate, suburban, Republican wing of the Virginia party. But state Democrats believe there are a few indicators that run counter to that image, like his recent nomination of Trump's former EPA secretary, the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, to a cabinet post.
"The first big policy announcement the governor made was that we're pulling out of RGGI [the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative]. The second one was that he's going to sue the Biden administration over mask policy. And then the third is Andrew Wheeler," says state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat representing parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties. "I think they're all warning flags from my perspective about how he intends to govern."
In the midst of the political uncertainty, Northern Virginia elected officials have their own wish lists for state support, especially focused on schools, the pandemic, housing, and mental health. Above all, they want to see Richmond continue to respect local control. This is especially tricky in Virginia, which is a Dillon Rule state, meaning local government powers are limited to those specified by state law.
"Local governments are elected locally, and we believe that we are closer to the people and we know what they need and want and what they're asking for," says Phyllis Randall, the Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, and a Democrat. "So we push back against eroding [that] authority or getting mandates from the General Assembly."
Randall and her counterpart in Fairfax County, Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay, a Democrat, are also concerned about unfunded mandates that pass on costs from the state to localities. McKay says the problem of the state depending on localities to pick up budgetary slack — "the state raiding of local budgets," he calls it — is chronic, and affects areas across the state.
"It's no longer 'Oh, that's Fairfax County whining,' or it's no longer 'That's a liberal or conservative viewpoint.' It's universal at the county level," he says.
McKay feels the balance between state and local spending in Northern Virginia is especially unfair, given that the region is Virginia's biggest economic engine. According to Fairfax County's legislative priorities document, Northern Virginia generates 40% of the money that flows into the state's general fund, but receives just 21% of spending back from the fund.
Responding to the pandemic surge
The legislative session's kickoff and Youngkin's inauguration coincide with a record-breaking wave in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations across the commonwealth. The rapid increase, driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant, has overwhelmed Northern Virginia's testing capacity and seriously strained hospitals, prompting outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam to declare a limited state of emergency to try to support the buckling health care system.
In Northern Virginia, leaders are calling for state-run public testing sites and help in finding reliable sources of tests, something the Virginia Department of Health itself has struggled with. They also want continued support from the state on vaccinations.
McKay and Randall both point to the pandemic as a key illustration of why the state should enable localities to impose their own policies according to the situation they're experiencing locally. In Northern Virginia, that usually means paying closer attention to caseloads and policies in neighboring D.C. and Maryland than in areas further south in Virginia.
"The positivity rate in Loudoun County may be very different from the positivity rate in Norfolk. And so it may not be a one size fits all response," Randall says.
Youngkin has expressed concern over the pandemic situation, but he's also focused on the state's economic recovery and the rollback of the few remaining pandemic restrictions.
"Virginians should rest assured that we are monitoring this variant and doing everything we can to be smart about this," he said in a statement announcing a new medical advisory team. "I will enter office ready to reopen Virginia, support our healthcare heroes, and protect the lives and livelihoods of Virginians."
There are several indicators that the new administration may represent a change in state policy on the pandemic — and that shift could directly conflict with Northern Virginia localities' coronavirus approach. Youngkin does not support vaccine mandates, which local governments in Northern Virginia have required for employees and school staff. He also opposes the statewide indoor mask mandate in public schools, recently asking state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver — the author of the school mask mandate — to step down after nearly two years of guiding Virginia through the crisis. The new chair of Youngkin's medical advisory team is a Fox News contributor who has argued that COVID-19 immunity from infection may preclude the need for booster shots. He has also spoken out against extensive testing and quarantine regimens on college campuses, and called masking schoolchildren "abusive."
McKay says Fairfax County would push back on any challenge to its vaccine mandate for county employees or its school mask mandate, and he didn't rule out the possibility of legal action if necessary.
"Any effort to undermine our authority to be able to do that will be vehemently opposed by Fairfax County. That is a local level control lever that we must continue to have," he says. Any effort to tell our local school board that they can't require masks in schools we will vehemently oppose. Both of those things are why our schools are open and why our county government is open today."
Meanwhile, members of the General Assembly are grappling with how to shape the long-term future of the state's response to the coronavirus, as the disease moves from pandemic to endemic — an issue, Surovell says, with a lot of different perspectives within the parties as well as on opposite sides of the aisle.
"I think you know that the conversation has moved away from lockdowns and masks and more towards trying to figure out a way we can sort of live together with this virus into the future," he says. "I'm not really sure where all that's going to come out."
Steve Helber/AP Photo
Virginia House of Delegates speaker, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, waves to visitors in the gallery prior to opening ceremonies in the Virginia House chambers at the Capitol Wednesday Jan. 12, 2022, in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber/AP Photo
Funding for education
The biggest-ticket item for local budgets is paying for public schools, and local leaders have leveled criticisms at the state for consistently underfunding public education — leaving localities to pick up the hefty tab. Virginia currently ranks 41st in state funding for education, though it is in the top 10 states for median household income, and education experts say state funding for its schools has never recovered from the 2009 recession.
"The schools are over half of our budget," McKay says. "If we could fix that problem and that disparity, it would free up so much money to do so many other things."
Specifically, McKay says he wants the state to increase its education spending and to reconsider its current education spending formula. Generally, the current formula requires counties to pay more per pupil based on their "ability to pay." But Northern Virginia leaders feel that formula should take into account the high cost of living and the need to fund more competitive salaries for educators (current state funding for teacher salaries is based on a statewide weighted average.)
"I don't think people understand the magnitude of how ridiculously unfair that formula is and how it hides poverty, and it hides cost of living to the detriment of Northern Virginia," McKay says. In fiscal year 2020, Fairfax County, one of the largest school systems in the nation, spent more than $12,000 per pupil compared to the state's $2,700 contribution. And the state has expected the county to step up to pay the lion's share for teacher raises, too. In 2021, the General Assembly approved a 5% raise for teachers, which would have cost Fairfax $100 million compared to the state's $22 million contribution. Educators received a 2% raise instead.
Republican lawmakers in Richmond have supported overall raises in teacher salaries, which are included in outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam's budget though, again, the issue of balance between state and local contributions to the raises is in question.
Youngkin and Republican statewide leadership have also focused on opening 20 new charter schools, a controversial move in a state that has just seven.
Currently, the power to approve or deny proposed charter schools rests exclusively with local school boards, which also oversee traditional public school systems. Critics say that this structure has stunted charter school growth in the state — but some worry that changing it would take the power to determine when a community could use a charter school away from local elected officials.
McKay also wants to know where the money to create a host of new charter schools would come from, in light of his frustrations over lack of state funding for traditional public schools. Asked about whether creating new charters would take away funding from other schools, new House Speaker Todd Gilbert said Republicans would add a budget amendment to fund charter schools, and also said they'd explore moving money around the existing K-12 budget.
There's some indication that some Northern Virginia parents support a greater degree of school choice. Last year, a vocal movement of parents dissatisfied with public school leadership in the region and frustrated by lengthy pandemic school closures mobilized — and in the wake of the gubernatorial race, many said they supported charter schools or other options outside of the traditional public school system. Across the state, 52% of Virginians support adding more charter schools, with 34% opposed, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University poll. The poll also found a widespread consensus — shared by 79% of respondents — that remote learning had damaged student outcomes.
Many Northern Virginia localities are seeking help solving one of the region's most acute problems: skyrocketing housing costs that are pricing out people with low and modest incomes.
"Affordable housing in Northern Virginia is teachers. It's firefighters, it's police officers, it's nurses," Randall says. "And so it's really important that the people who serve our counties and who have served them so well during the COVID crisis are able to live in the counties that they serve."
Loudoun County's legislative program, a document approved by the Board of Supervisors that lays out the county's priorities for the General Assembly, includes support for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, programs to shore up rental housing, and bigger state contributions to the Housing Trust Fund.
Fairfax County's own legislative package lays out the problem in stark terms. The county "is already experiencing a deficit of 31,000 affordable rental homes, and the gap between the need and the supply will grow considerably without new approaches for expanding housing availability and affordability," it reads. "It is anticipated that 15,000 net new units affordable to households earning 60 percent of area median income and below will be needed by the year 2034."
And the problem has only gotten worse as cost-burdened renters struggled through the pandemic and now face the threat of eviction. As a result, Fairfax County supports an increase in the state's contribution to the Housing Trust Fund to $125 million, new housing tax credits, down payment assistance, and state funding towards legal aid for tenants facing eviction.
But while Northern Virginia officials say housing is one of their biggest challenges, it appears less likely the General Assembly may send help this session. Surovell predicts the issue, which he calls "an acutely Northern Virginia problem" will be a contentious one between the political parties.
"I suspect that's going to be the big source of conflict this session because I know that's a big priority to my caucus, but I don't think it's a priority for the governor or for the Republican caucuses," he says.
Another major issue for Northern Virginia jurisdictions is providing adequate support for mental and behavioral health care, during and after crisis. The problem has worsened as a result of the stress and isolation of the pandemic, and the closure of over half of the state's psychiatric hospitals, which were typically a last resort for inpatient care if no other options were available.
While Prince William County and other neighboring counties are setting up their own crisis stabilization centers, the region still lacks capacity: it currently has 21 inpatient psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, well below the Treatment Advocacy Center's recommended 50 beds per 100,000 people.
The lack of treatment beds, in turn, strains local hospitals — and local law enforcement.
"The individuals going through the trauma and stress of serious mental health crisis are essentially being warehoused at Virginia Hospital Center," Arlington County Manager Mark Schwarz told the County Board in September. Schwarz described people in crisis handcuffed to gurneys, and noted that sometimes half of the county's on-duty police officers are transporting people in crisis to the hospital and watching over them until they can be released to a treatment provider.
There are also severe staffing shortages. In September, Schwarz said Arlington's mental health responder staff were at less than 50% of full staffing, and was struggling to cover shifts.
Many Northern Virginia jurisdictions are asking for state support for local programs, like co-responder programs that pair police with mental health professionals, crisis stabilization centers, local community service boards, and the behavioral health crisis-focused Marcus Alert system, which the General Assembly approved in 2020 but did not fund.
On the campaign trail, Youngkin promised to fix Virginia's mental health safety net, but it's not clear yet exactly how he'll go about it. But his cabinet pick for Health and Human Resources secretary, John Littel, has experience in the field: most recently, he's served as an executive at Magellan, a managed care organization that contracts with Virginia to offer behavioral health services to Virginia Medicaid patients.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.