RICHMOND, Va - Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) walked into his first official State of the Commonwealth address under the national political backdrop of the ongoing partial federal government shutdown. From the nearly beginning of his hour-long address, Northam urged Virginia lawmakers to operate differently during the 45-day General Assembly session that began Wednesday.
"Putting politics aside for the good of the people shouldn't be hard, but as we are seeing up the road in Washington, some politicians have a way of making even the simplest things look difficult," Northam said. "Virginia can offer a different path forward."
Northam celebrated several achievements by his administration and state lawmakers over the course of his first year in office, touting legislative compromises in 2018 that expanded Medicaid in Virginia and decreased the grand larceny threshold.
The Governor also took aim at several pieces of legislation he plans to back in 2019. They include decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, an "extreme risk law" to allow police and courts to take a person's firearm if they pose a danger to themselves or others, and codifying a woman's "fundamental right to make her own health care decisions."
During the 2018 session, marijuana decriminalization proposals were voted down in Republican controlled committees that they lead in 2019. Del. Debra Rodman (D-Henrico) has proposed a bill that would repeal the 2012 ultrasound bill requiring woman to receive an ultrasound before an abortion, although Republicans are unlikely to advance the measure like in years past.
The biggest showdown during the 2019 General Assembly is likely over Virginia's tax code.
Following federal tax cuts in 2017, a quirk in Virginia tax law that requires filers who take the standard deduction on their federal taxes to do so on their state taxes too would generate hundreds of millions of dollars of new state revenue, lawmakers said.
Governor Northam has proposed using that windfall to invest in public schools, teacher pay raises, broadband infrastructure, and making the earned income tax credit refundable for an estimated 600,000 low-income Virginians. New state tax revenue from conforming Virginia's tax code to federal code is a major part of how the Northam administration plans to pay for those investments, which total in the billions of dollars over the years.
Republican leaders argue Northam’s proposal would mean a state tax hike for middle income families, and have pitched their own plan that would allow Virginia filers to itemize their state taxes even if they choose to take the standard dedication on their federal taxes, which they say would lower the state tax burden on hundreds of thousands of middle class Virginians by $800.
"We have a chance this session to provide targeted tax relief to Virginians who aren’t seeing much help from the federal tax changes," Northam said Wednesday night. "Our tax code should work for everyone, not just the highest earners. That’s only fair, but Washington is actually making these disparities worse. In Virginia, we can work together to restore balance and fairness on the state level."
Northam said Virginia should conform its tax code to federal code, and "after that, I’m open to a discussion about how we respond to these tax changes in a fair way."
"Republicans are committed to stopping Governor Northam’s tax hike on the middle class," said Del. Bob Thomas (R-Stafford) during the GOP rebuttal to Northam's remarks. "Our tax reform plan will return the tax windfall resulting from the federal tax cuts along to taxpayers, while providing targeted tax relief to middle- and low-income Virginians and protecting our coveted AAA bond rating. We will insist that state government balance its books without taking more of your family’s earnings."
Republicans pitched their own 2019 priorities during the 2019 session, which include school safety proposals, improving Virginia's public education facilities, and the cost of health care in Virginia.
"“This year, we are advancing a package of healthcare proposals that will come from the private sector, not from government," said Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Bedford). "The package of bills includes legislation to expand the availability of affordable group insurance plans, allow more of our citizens the option of low-cost catastrophic insurance, and increase the duration of less expensive ‘short-term’ plans."
Northam closed his remarks by again urging Virginia lawmakers to find areas of compromise on important issues that impact Virginia taxpayers.
"We’re not going to agree on everything, but if we look for what we have in common, we’ll do better work for the people of Virginia," Northam said.
The 2019 General Assembly session continues through late February.