RICHMOND, Va - For the 400th year in a row, the Virginia House of Delegates has gaveled in the legislative session. Originally formed as the House of Burgesses in 1619, the oldest, continuous representative body in North America launched the 2019 General Assembly session on Wednesday.
Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said it was "exhilarating" to usher in the 2019 session and the 400th year of the Virginia General Assembly.
“400 years of representative democracy. Your whole passion was teaching government and teaching this great experiment. It was thrilling,” Cox said.
Wednesday marks the beginning of what will be a legislative spring for state lawmakers. The 2019 session will last on 45 days, and both major parties plan to tackle several hot button issues during that time frame.
The biggest point of contention heading into session deals with state tax policy.
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 low-income Virginians.
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.
In November, every member of the General Assembly is up for re-election, so observers and lawmakers alike anticipate fireworks during the 45-day short session.
Proposals to watch include the removal and recycling of coal ash stored near Virginia waterways, gun control measures backed by democrats but opposed by the GOP, state gambling laws after the U.S. Supreme Court decision green lighting sports betting, a statewide school modernization referendum, and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate by a slim margin and Governor Northam in the executive mansion, many controversial pieces of legislation are expected ultimately meet the same fate they did last year: either fail in the General Assembly or receive a veto from Northam.
At the annual Commonwealth breakfast, attended by lawmakers from both parties, Governor Northam hoped for civility at Virginia’s state house, especially compared the political climate in Washington D.C.
“Let’s continue to promote what I say is the Virginia way. Let’s agree to disagree; let’s do it with civility; but in the end, let’s do what’s best for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said.
Local Republicans and Democrats were able to identify several areas where they see the potential of compromise.
“Breaking the school to prison pipeline, affordable housing, the legislation to combat evictions, there are Republicans who are either carrying pieces of those or co-sponsoring,” said Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond.).
“I think there are a lot of areas in K-12, teacher pay is something I’ve always been very passionate about, affordability in high ed, some of the workforce issues,” Cox said.
“We will also be looking at redistricting reform. Health care is another very big issue,” said Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfiled).
Chase, who’s district encompasses portions of Chesterfield county, said she support’s Northam’s proposal to require power companies to remove and recycle any coal ash stored near Virginia waterways. Dominion Energy stores millions of cubic yards of the toxic byproduct of coal burning at their Chesterfield power plant.
The first day of the General Assembly always bring hundreds of people to the Capitol, and Wednesday was no different. Ashley Urtz brought along her three-year old daughter Tessa. Urtz joined dozens of activists to urge Virginia lawmakers to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
However, on this historic day for Virginia, Urtz also exposed Tessa to several other Virginia traditions.
“She got to color the state of Virginia, and got a little activity book on the House of Delegates and our bird, the cardinal,” Urtz said.