Election night couldn’t have gone much better for Republicans in Virginia, starting with Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who has vowed to use his party’s victory to set the state on a new course.
At the top of that agenda are a host of education issues, where Republicans feel they have a strong mandate after an election that focused on parent frustration and cultural divisions within schools.
Undoing pieces of the Democrats’ agenda is also on tap, including a measure to address climate change and another that made it easier to vote without a government-issued I.D.
Republicans’ agenda and their ability to deliver on it could face the test of voters sooner rather than later; a legal tangle over redistricting could force House of Delegates elections again next year.
That prospect is already prompting GOP leaders to temper expectations among conservatives on such issues as abortion and gun rights, which have been popular with the GOP base but alienate many of the suburban voters who brought them to victory.
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Asked Thursday whether the House GOP will pursue measures similar to the Texas abortion ban or Georgia’s voting overhaul, House GOP leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah said: “You didn’t hear our caucus running on those things.”
He said members of the GOP caucus ran on such issues as the cost of living, education and public safety, but added that Republicans consider the voting ID requirement a “common-sense” measure.
The Virginia Senate, still narrowly controlled by Democrats, could become a filter for some GOP-backed measures that would be unpopular among liberals.
Youngkin, who has never held public office, will have to learn to maneuver power-sharing with the House, where long-serving lawmakers tend to be zealous about their constitutional powers. Youngkin will also need to foster a close alliance with new Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, who will preside over the Senate and hold a tiebreaking vote on most issues aside from the budget and election of judges.
Much of Youngkin’s message on education focused on what students are learning, or aren’t, in the classroom. It’s not immediately clear how the Youngkin administration would deliver on its promise to ban from classrooms “critical race theory,” a term he and other Republicans use in referring to schools teaching students about systemic racism or the role of racism in U.S. history.
Youngkin also promised to return “excellence” to Virginia schools and to boost the role of parents in their schools and over their school’s curriculum.
The finer details of how those goals will take shape will likely come after he names his top education officials. During his campaign, Youngkin promised to name a new education secretary and state superintendent by Dec. 1, with a mandate that they in turn assemble an education task force made up of “teachers, administrators, law enforcement, students and parents.”
Youngkin and Republican leaders have also promised to address school safety issues. Gilbert, who hopes to become the next speaker of the House, said his caucus would try to roll back a law that gave school principals discretion on reporting some misdemeanors to law enforcement. During his campaign, Youngkin also proposed that every school have a law enforcement officer on its campus or else face losing some of its state funding.
During a recent campaign rally outside of Staunton, Youngkin promised to vastly expand the number of charter schools in Virginia, which now has just seven. Youngkin said his goal is to bring up the number of charter schools in Virginia to match North Carolina, which has more than 200.
Charter schools are funded with public dollars but operated by private entities, like universities or for-profit groups. They operate with some autonomy from their local board, but still have to comply with state education laws.
Ginny Gentles, a school choice advocate from Northern Virginia who helped shape Florida’s expansive charter program, said Virginia’s law allows only local school districts to authorize charter schools, as opposed to a state agency, which could be suppressing the number of such schools.
That and other issues, such as how much autonomy charter schools may have, might prompt legislative proposals.
Youngkin also promised to deliver “the largest education budget in Virginia’s history,” which would include teacher pay raises and money to address crumbling school infrastructure, an issue that has dogged lawmakers and local officials.
Youngkin unveiled a $3.5 billion package of tax cuts at the end of August that he promised to enact “on day one,” but those promises didn’t fully account for the cost of the proposals to the state and to localities, and whether the money is available.
Some of those proposals may be more realistic than others, at least in the new governor’s first year. His proposal to eliminate the state sales tax on groceries has been a goal of both Democrats and Republicans for years, giving the measure at least political oxygen.
But cutting the tax would cost an estimated $568 million the first year of the two-year budget and $581 million the second year, or more than 2½ times the $225 million that Youngkin estimated in his “day one” agenda. The reason is that more than half of the cost would be borne by local governments that rely on a portion of the tax for their revenues.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, a high-ranking Republican with sway on House budget matters, said he thinks doing away with the grocery tax is “doable.”
“It seemed to catch the will of the people ... who we work for,” he said. However, he added that the state cannot eliminate the grocery tax without considering the effect on local government.
“We’re going to have to see how to make them whole,” he said, otherwise, “it’s basically an unfunded mandate on localities and we can’t do that.”
Youngkin’s other proposals include exempting the first $40,000 in military pensions from the state income tax, doling out $300 in tax rebates to Virginia adults — $600 to joint filers — and delaying Democrats’ most recent 5-cent increase to the gas tax.
Knight said he supports the military pension proposal, but said bearing the burden of the cost could prompt lawmakers to phase it in.
As for the rest of Youngkin’s tax package, Knight said “we’re going to have to look at it,” he said, “because we can’t do everything.”
Much may come down to Youngkin’s ability to adjust into the role of governor — more deal-maker than high-powered CEO.
“We’re going in with a spanking new governor and we’re going in with appropriations people who have been there for a while,” Knight said. “It’s the legislative branch that appropriates money.”
“The governor is going to make suggestions,” he said, “but as we like to say, the governor proposes and the legislature disposes.”
Republicans have already picked targets among measures Democrats successfully passed.
During his campaign, Youngkin said he would support gutting the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a massive energy package that will ban the sale of electricity from carbon-emitting sources by 2045.
Youngkin and Republican leaders already expressed support for doing away with that requirement; the original bill squeaked to passage in the 2020 session, when Democrats controlled the legislature.
During a news conference on Thursday, Gilbert also took aim at Democrats’ marijuana legalization law, an unfinished product. Democrats left key portions of the law unfinished with hopes of coming back to it during the upcoming 2022 session. Now, the GOP and the Senate Democrats, who were often at odds with House Democrats on the issue, will take the reins.
Youngkin said during his campaign that he wouldn’t seek to repeal the law. But he and Republicans in the legislature will now have power over how to set up the legal market, the role of localities in that, and where revenues will go.
As for criminal justice measures, broadly and within the realm of marijuana legalization, the GOP agenda isn’t yet clear. Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, a high-ranking Republican who tends to focus on criminal justice issues, said in a call that it is too early to outline the GOP’s priorities.
Sen. Scott Surovell of Fairfax, a high-ranking Democrat, said he thinks that a divided legislature will usher in some gridlock and “stasis” in Virginia, with no party having enough power for massive changes.
In the House, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, agreed. Cautioning that the GOP’s apparent takeover in the House is not yet final, he said that if the Democrats find themselves in the minority, they would focus on supporting bipartisan solutions to everyday problems.
“It would be a mistake for Republicans to read a mandate from these results, and think they’ve tapped into the great will of Virginians to undo a lot of the great popular things Democrats accomplished during their majority,” he said. “With parity between the parties, I would hope that we would focus on common-sense solutions that make life better for Virginians and their families.”