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Lawmakers reject gas-tax reprieve, abortion restriction

Legislators sit in rows of desks at the Capitol in Richmond.
Virginia lawmakers reconvened on Friday to debate and vote on budget amendments from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (File photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Several VPM News reporters are covering the 2022 Virginia special legislative session Friday in Richmond. Updates will be made below.

Education

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle Sears broke a tie vote in the Senate to allow Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to extend lab-school status and funding eligibility to community colleges and TAG-eligible private schools in Virginia to move forward; Sen. Joe Morrisey (D-Richmond) did not vote. The approved amendment also removed a prior requirement that lab schools function as teacher training programs.

However, a separate amendment from Youngkin that aimed to reverse course on which entity receives state funding for the schools — attempting to move funding from public school boards to universities — failed to pass the Senate. This was a key point of contention in earlier discussions about lab schools.

Education advocates and some state lawmakers were also concerned about Youngkin’s proposed reallocation of college financial aid funds initially earmarked for immigrant students — including certain students without permanent legal immigration status and some asylum seekers — to historically Black colleges and universities.

Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) said it was “at best, unnecessary, and at its worst, a misguided attempt to pit communities against each other.” 

Advocates, including Chad Stewart with the Virginia Education Association, shared similar sentiments and pointed out Youngkin proposed a net loss in the amount that was taken away from undocumented students and transferred to HBCUs; lawmakers previously approved $5 million in financial aid a year for immigrant students while Youngkin only proposed half of that — $2.5 million a year — for financial aid at Virginia State University and Norfolk State University combined.

“While both could use additional support for financial aid, the method I think of pitting these two groups against each other … a lot of us found unacceptable in the education policy space,” Stewart said. 

Despite the concerns, the amendment cleared the Senate 20-19.  (8:20 p.m.)

Criminal Justice

Lawmakers accepted Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to stop the early release of hundreds of people serving prison sentences for violent and nonviolent crimes. They became eligible for early release through an expedited earned-sentence-credit program the General Assembly passed in 2020. The number of people who will now have to wait to go home is at least 560. 

Members of both parties in the GOP-controlled House set aside Youngkin’s attempt to create a new felony penalty for “picketing or demonstrating in or near a court or residence with the intent of interfering with, obstructing, or impeding the administration of justice.” Democrats argued the proposal violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and would face legal challenges. (Updated 8:03 p.m.)

Lawmakers reject Youngkin’s gas-tax reprieve, abortion restriction

Democrats in Virginia’s Senate rejected another attempt Friday by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to create a three-month reprieve on the state gas tax. They also voted down a separate amendment from Youngkin that sought to bar Virginians eligible for Medicaid from receiving state funding to end pregnancies with a severe fetal diagnosis. 

Virginia doctors performed 21 abortions for Medicaid recipients last year due to severe fetal anomalies at a cost of $1,125.61, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Virginians on Medicaid can receive state funds for abortions in a few specific cases: fetal anomalies, incest, rape or when the life of the mother is at risk. 

A small group of lawmakers from the Democratic Senate and Republican-controlled House spent months earlier this year hammering out a two-year state budget. Youngkin supported the bulk of that agreement but offered a total of 38 amendments — the first and only attempt he’ll get at directly shaping a document that was first introduced by his predecessor, former Gov. Ralph Northam, and refined by lawmakers.

In the statement announcing his amendments, Youngkin said they furthered his goal of “focusing on expanding opportunities for education, keeping our communities safe, and making Virginia the best state for business.” Top Democrats, however, argued Youngkin was attempting to legislate through the budget — a taboo in Virginia politics — in a bid for attention in the conservative mediasphere.

“He doesn’t understand the process,” said House Minority Leader Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), in what became a refrain throughout the afternoon. (updated 7:39 p.m.)

Gas tax

In a statement from earlier this week, Youngkin said he’d hoped “Democrats will join us to give Virginians a break this summer” as prices at the pump hovered at $5 per gallon. His plan would have halted a $0.26 per gallon state tax for three months and capped future inflation-based tax increases at 2%.

But Senate Democrats and some policy analysts argued the loss of funding would gut transportation projects without giving consumers much relief. Research from the left-leaning Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis found oil companies would capture 30% of the savings produced by the tax suspension — with out-of-state drivers and truckers benefiting at the expense of Virginia residents.

“The proposed reduction in the gas tax would permanently lower the amount of revenue available for maintaining an improvement, improving Virginia system of public transportation and also roads and highways and rail,” said Laura Goren, the institute's research director. (updated 7:39 p.m.)

Gas tax, abortion limits

The Virginia House of Delegates signed off on several of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposals Friday. These included suspending the gas tax for three months and limiting access to abortions for people on Medicaid. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin submitted about 40 amendments to the state budget for lawmakers to consider this week. 

The Republican controlled House approved a ban on using state money to pay for abortions for Medicaid-eligible Virginians who have received a severe fetal diagnosis. Right now, low-income patients can use taxpayer dollars for an abortion in those cases — and in a few other instances. 

Virginia doctors performed 21 abortions for Medicaid recipients last year due to fetal anomalies, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

The House also approved an amendment that would effectively roll back plans for about 550 people incarcerated in state prisons from being released early this summer on good behavior. 

All of these state budget amendments still have to clear the Democrat-led Senate. (updated 2:55 p.m.)

Judge protests

Republicans in Virginia’s House of Delegates delivered a rare rejection to Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Friday.

They sided with Democrats to scrap Youngkin’s proposal to create a new felony crime for protests that aim to intimidate or influence judges.

It would have also banned demonstrating outside judge’s homes.

Democrats said the plan would have violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Some conservatives criticized Youngkin after protesters began picketing outside the homes of three Supreme Court justices who live in Virginia.