Youngkin, Democrats head into Va. budget reset with unfinished business


RICHMOND — After pulling back from a risky game of chicken this week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and leading Virginia Democrats are heading into the unknown territory of a state budget do-over.

Youngkin and the Democratic-controlled legislature struck an 11th-hour truce on Wednesday to avert a standoff that could have triggered a state government shutdown and tarnished Virginia’s stellar bond rating. While most of the attention was on the budget they set aside that day, legislators also sent a host of bills back to Youngkin after stripping them of his amendments, which in some cases had rewritten, delayed or gutted the measures.

Now Youngkin must decide whether to sign the bills in their original form, let them become law without his signature or veto them. That means certain Democratic priorities — including bills to promote safe gun storage by parents of school-age children, ensure access to contraception and end tax breaks for Confederate heritage groups — could remain on the table over the next month as Youngkin and legislators try to hammer out a deal on a two-year state spending plan.

Youngkin has so far signaled willingness to negotiate on only one of those bills, one that would allow slot machine-style “skill games” in convenience stores across the state, and had bipartisan support. He is widely expected to veto most of the rest, extending a record-smashing spree that had him nixing more bills in one year — 153 — than the 120 that the previous record-holder, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, issued in his four years as governor.

What’s less clear is whether those anticipated vetoes could upset the fragile peace between Youngkin and Democratic leaders as they try to hammer out a budget deal in time for a May 13 special session. Continued haggling over skill games also could have an impact on budget talks.

Youngkin and Democrats had been at each other’s throats for the past month over the budget and other bills, lobbing harsh rhetoric on social media and in rival statewide tours. Youngkin kicked things off in March by skewering the bipartisan spending plan as a “backward budget” and the rhetoric only cranked up from there, with House Speaker Don L. Scott Jr. (D-Portsmouth) lambasting “Pretending Glenn” in a video released on the eve of Wednesday’s reconvened session.

Youngkin and legislators said they called a timeout on the budget to cool partisan passions.

“I think there’s a real path for us to move forward and find common ground,” Youngkin said at a bill signing Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he was ready to move forward with budget talks even as he expects Youngkin to kill many of the bills sent back to him.

“If the governor holds true to form — unless he’s found a new spirit of conciliation — there’s probably going to be another couple dozen vetoes,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine tensions bubbling up when the veto pen comes out again to put the last nail in certain Democratic priorities.

Not 24 hours before they called their timeout, Scott sharply criticized Youngkin for amending bills to close tax loopholes for Confederate heritage groups. Youngkin’s proposed changes would essentially kick the can down the road — requiring that the bills be voted on again next year and calling for a study.

“The governor doesn’t have the courage just to veto it,” Scott, the first African American to serve as Virginia House speaker, told a small gathering of reporters Tuesday afternoon. “He waters it down to nothing. Dude, show who you are. Veto the bill. We’re not giving you a break. We’re going to reject those amendments and send it back and you can veto it and show us that you stand with the Confederacy.”

In the same gathering, Scott also lambasted Youngkin’s rewrite of the skill games legislation as overly aggressive.

Scott flatly dismissed one particular amendment to the bill — prohibiting the games within a 35-mile radius of casinos and other gambling venues, which would exclude them from most of the state’s population centers — as “a dumb idea.”

Youngkin’s office declined to comment on Scott’s remarks.

The governor said Thursday that he was willing to negotiate on the skill games bill — specifically noting the “perimeter policies,” a reference to the 35-mile provision as well as a requirement that they be located more than 2,500 feet — little under a half-mile — from any K-12 school, day-care center or house of worship.

Youngkin did not rule out delving into other areas of the bill. Offering to negotiate any aspect of it is extraordinary at this point in the legislative calendar. Any changes would have to be written into the budget or handled in an entirely new bill, which could be introduced during the special session if rules are drawn to allow for its consideration.

Skill games — which look and operate much like video-style slot machines but are said to involve an element of skill — were one of the hardest-fought issues of the session. Advocates called them a lifeline for mom-and-pop convenience stores, while critics warned they would turn corner stores into mini casinos.

The General Assembly ultimately sent an industry-friendly measure to Youngkin, whose amendments amounted to a wholesale rewrite calling for stricter oversight, capping the number of machines at 20,000 statewide, giving localities the authority to ban the machines and imposing a 35 percent tax on game revenue. Lobbyists on opposing sides have said the wording on the tax was unclear and could amount to a 45 percent tax.

Sen. Aaron R. Rouse (D-Virginia Beach), who sponsored the skill games bill, said he does not see it as a bargaining chip in budget negotiations, but he senses an opportunity for some changes.

There are lots of unknowns as Youngkin and a handful of legislative leaders — from both parties and both chambers — prepare to hammer out differences in the amount of taxing and spending to include in the two-year state spending plan. The way out of their stalemate won’t be entirely clear until early May, when the state’s next revenue report clarifies how large of a budget surplus might be available to spend on priorities.

“All of that is yet to be determined as we start our work. We’ll take it into consideration,” House Appropriations Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) said Friday.

Staff for the House, Senate and governor will begin meeting next week, and then the principals will get together after April 29, Torian said. That will give the elected officials “a breather” and a chance to clear their schedules, he said.

Among the bills sent back to Youngkin for him to veto, sign or allow to become law without his signature:

Virginia Beach charter change

Both the House and Senate rejected Youngkin’s proposed amendment to a charter change for the city of Virginia Beach, with one of the measure’s sponsors saying the governor is trying to interfere with the city’s self-governance. The state’s most populous city changed its method for electing city council members in 2022, switching from candidates running for citywide, at-large seats to a system of 10 districts and one at-large mayor. The new plan produced the most diverse city council in Virginia Beach’s history.

But it requires a charter change to become permanent, and Youngkin’s amendment would block the charter change unless the General Assembly approved it again next year. Supporters, including the NAACP, say the delay is unacceptable because the city faces council elections this fall. Del. Kelly K. Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) on Wednesday questioned why Youngkin would intervene, noting that, for the past 30 years, governors have always deferred to the wishes of a locality when it comes to charters.

“The governor is trying to override the will of the people,” Convirs-Fowler said. The charter change had passed the House of Delegates by a required two-thirds margin and was unanimously approved in the Senate.

The House and Senate also rejected Youngkin’s proposed amendments to two pairs of bills aimed at ensuring people have access to contraceptives. One pair of identical bills — HB609 and SB237 — would put a right to obtain and use contraception into Virginia law. Youngkin proposed changing the bill to simply express the sentiment of the legislature that people have access to contraception under federal law, which contraception advocates said would have no meaning if federal law changed. “The governor basically gutted the entire bill and just made it into a [policy] statement,” said Sen. Ghazala F. Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), who sponsored the Senate measure. The House and Senate both simply “passed by” the proposed amendment, leaving it to die without a vote.

The other pair of identical bills — HB819 and SB238 — would require health insurance plans to provide coverage of contraceptives. Youngkin proposed changing those bills to carve out an exception for nongovernmental plan sponsors with a religious or ethical objection to contraception. Del. Candi Mundon King (D-Prince William), who sponsored the House version of that bill, objected that Youngkin’s change would create “a vague, broad exception to this bill that has the potential to actually leading to less people having access to contraceptives.” The House voted 15-84 to reject Youngkin’s change. The Senate rejected Youngkin’s change to its version of the bill on a party-line vote.

HB498 and SB225 are identical bills requiring school boards around the state to notify parents every year of their responsibility to safely store firearms in the home. Youngkin put two amendments on each: one saying the bill would not become law unless reenacted next year by both chambers, and another calling for the state education department to formulate a complete list of parental rights and responsibilities, from the right to be notified of sexually explicit material in the classroom to the responsibility of protecting children from abuse. The Senate rejected both amendments on a party-line vote; the House rejected the reenactment clause on a unanimous vote, and Scott, the House speaker, ruled that the proposed study was not germane to the bill, so it was not acted upon.

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