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Virginia lawmakers outline legislative priorities ahead of 2023 General Assembly session

The session will be the second under Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is looking to advance conservative priorities through a divided legislature.

NORFOLK, Va. — Just days before the 2023 session of the Virginia General Assembly begins, lawmakers from both political parties outlined their legislative priorities.

The session will be the second under Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is looking to advance his conservative priorities through a divided legislature: Republicans control the House of Delegates and Democrats control the Senate.

13News Now spoke with Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert and Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell of Fairfax County on Monday about what each party hopes to accomplish in this year's session.

READ MORE | 3 things to know about the Virginia General Assembly right now

'We can work together': House Speaker Gilbert hopes for bipartisanship

The Republican House majority will largely focus on economic development, addressing learning loss in K-12 schools during the pandemic, mental health support and supporting law enforcement, Gilbert said in a briefing with reporters.

He acknowledged the reality of the divided legislature but expressed his hope that Republicans and Democrats could work together on certain issues.

Some of the issues Gilbert believes are areas of cooperation are improving the state's mental health system, schools, pay for teachers and public safety workers, and job training and workforce development programs.

"We are going to try to work with our Democratic colleagues in the Senate to try to find a pathway forward on things that we can accomplish," Gilbert said. "I think last year's budget negotiation that led to a historic budget with huge tax cuts for Virginians, as well as massive investments in things like public education, show us that we can work together when we have the opportunity."

When asked about the abortion issue, Gilbert expressed his belief that the public wants certain abortion restrictions, but Democrats aren't willing to budge on the issue.

"I would be very surprised if anything of substance comes out of this General Assembly on that issue," Gilbert said.

On the issue of Virginia's defunct constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Gilbert said the issue is settled by the U.S. Supreme Court but noted that one of his members, Republican Del. Tim Anderson, pre-filed a bill to repeal the ban.

"I have yet to get the full appetite of the [Republican] caucus for how they would like to proceed on that, so we await those conversations," Gilbert said.

When asked about legalizing retail sales of marijuana, Gilbert criticized Democrats for not doing so when they held the majority of the General Assembly in 2020 and 2021.

"I'm still struck by the fact that when our Democratic colleagues decided to legalize marijuana, they lacked the fortitude and foresight to provide a retail framework for that to occur," Gilbert said.

Gilbert said he was concerned about the General Assembly spending a lot of time on the issue without knowing what Youngkin wants to do.

"We're going to be looking for guidance from [Youngkin] and from the rest of our colleagues," Gilbert said. "And whether we can come to terms with the Senate, who couldn't pull the trigger on this when they had the chance, remains to be seen.

On the issue of election integrity and expanded voter access, Gilbert said he expects some election-related bills to come up, but that doesn't mean the people who submitted them are in the "election denier box." He wasn't optimistic that Democrats would be on board with these types of bills.

"They say, 'Boy, we should really make sure these drop boxes have somebody watching them' or 'Doesn't it make sense to have to show ID when you vote since you have to use ID to do almost anything else in society?'" Gilbert said.

Gilbert also said he hopes for further tax cuts for Virginians, including a full repeal of the grocery tax.

"We are overtaxing Virginians right now," Gilbert said, "so giving that money back to them in any number of ways, we believe is a much better way to help people, raise people up, lift them up and give them opportunities to sustain themselves and their families."

Senate Dems aim to incorporate spending priorities into budget

The House and Senate Democratic caucuses released their "Vision for Virginia" Friday, a laundry list of priorities that Democratic lawmakers want to take up in the upcoming session. 

Their priorities include addressing housing costs, defending the recent minimum wage increase, protecting abortion rights, investing in education and ensuring Virginia maintains its electric vehicle standards and involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

In an interview with 13News Now, Surovell said Democrats in the Senate will focus on incorporating spending priorities into the state budget while preventing further tax cuts.

"We made a lot of tax cuts last year and we had to defer a lot of important spending priorities last year," Surovell said. "So, from my perspective, I think preventing the governor's tax cuts -- so we can appropriate the $2 billion we need to spend -- is the priority."

Some of the investments that he believes are needed include raises for teachers, state employees and law enforcement; additional funding for higher education; and mental health support.

When asked about Gilbert's comments on taxes, Surovell criticized his remarks as "preposterous." He argued that the state government can't spend money on things without taxing anyone.

"There's not a single study that's ever been done that shows anyone in Virginia is overtaxed on anything," Surovell said. "If anything, Virginians pay some of the lowest taxes in America. And they can keep saying that if they want, but it's simply not true factually, mathematically or in any sense of reality."

On the issue of elections, Surovell anticipated "a lot of back and forth but very little movement" during this year's session.

"I think if the other side were serious about election protection and protecting our system, they would look really carefully at some of the failures that happened under the Youngkin administration over the last 12 months," Surovell said. "We had over 300,000 voter registrations and applications that got lost."

On the issue of abortion, Surovell wasn't sure if new restrictions could even pass the House because of how small the Republican majority is.

"All it takes over there is 2 members of the GOP to defect and you have a tie vote and the bill doesn't get out," Surovell said. "I would think that any Republican member would have to think really hard about voting for some kind of abortion restriction when women's reproductive rights are supported by two-thirds of Virginians in every single poll that we've seen."

In the case that any bills with abortion restrictions reach the Senate, Surovell said they would be referred to the Education and Health Committee, which he believes would kill the legislation.

"The membership on that committee is solid," Surovell said." There's not a bill that's going to dial back women's reproductive rights on that committee."

He also warned against Republicans using amendments or the budget process to sneak abortion restrictions into legislation, describing the strategy as a "trojan horse."

Parties consider price tag of survey about new Washington Commanders stadium

One issue which may get pushback from both parties is Youngkin's proposal to spend $500,000 to "evaluate potential economic incentives related to the potential relocation of the Washington Commanders to the Commonwealth of Virginia."

State Senator Jeremy McPike (D), who represents parts of Prince William County that are on the Commanders' list of potential stadium sites, said he plans to put it in a budget amendment to strike and remove the study funding from the budget in January.                      

“This is one of the things ‘here we go, again’ without tackling the most important issue to any community, which is traffic and transportation,” McPike said. “And the governor has missed it."                                        

Surovell, who also represents parts of Prince William County, sees no downside in the governor’s plan, adding the state paid for similar studies when considering legalizing casinos and marijuana.                

“I don't think gathering information, there's anything wrong with that,” Surovell said. “It just says, let's get some more information to see what might be feasible, whether these revenue projections are accurate."                                       

In a statement, the Commanders said, "We applaud any and all efforts taken by local officials to determine how the vision of our new venue can dramatically support the community, jobs and inclusive economic development growth objectives in any given jurisdiction."

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