From the state capital in Richmond, I’m Ben Paviour.
For most of the year, things are pretty quiet around here. Lawmakers pop back now and then, but mostly they’re back home. Then, in January, their Richmond offices spring to life.
Things haven’t been this lively since June, when the newly-elected Democratic Governor, Ralph Northam, signed his first budget .
Northam: This budget will empower nearly 400,000 Virginians with access to health insurance by expanding Medicaid.
It was a big win for Democrats, who had been trying to push expansion for years. It helped that they’d flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates in the 2017 elections. That wave helped convince a handful of moderate Republicans to break ranks and pass the budget.
This year is a short session, so there won’t be a new budget. But there will be an election in November. And with Democrats just a few seats away from taking the legislature, Republicans are playing defense. Rich Meagher is a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College.
Meagher: I think they're looking to find moderate areas of bipartisan agreement that they can point to in the fall and say, look, we're not, we're not like those national Republicans. We’re not about putting kids in cages or whatever it is. Instead, we're about real reforms and common-sense approaches.
But these days, you can’t escape President Trump. His new tax law is at the top of this year’s state agenda. The changes will cause some households to pay lower federal taxes but higher state taxes.
That could mean a $1.2 billion surplus for the state over the next two fiscal years. Governor Northam wants to use some of this money to give targeted tax refunds to lower-income families. He talked to reporters about his plan last month.
Northam: The changes in the federal tax code basically helped high earners and corporations. It does very little for individuals that are making less than $54,000 a year. So that's why I've had proposed making the earned income tax credit refundable--to really level the playing field.
Northam also wants to spend this money on rural broadband, environmental projects, and shoring up the state’s reserves. Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox says that may sound well and good. But….
Cox: That's really paid for mainly by $1.2 billion worth of tax increases on the middle class.
Cox is backing a Republican plan that would extend the Trump tax cuts to the state level. Cox says the plan would help a married couple with a joint income of around $120,000 a year save several hundred dollars a year; Democrats say it’s really a giveaway for the wealthy. Rachel Bitecofer of the Wason Center for Public Policy thinks they’ll ultimately agree on a tax break for everyone.
Bitecofer: Everybody gets a win out of tax reform, especially something that puts money into voters pockets. So there's a lot of incentive there.
Another big priority is school safety. Democrats support increased gun control, but it’s a non-starter for Republicans. There’s more agreement about supporting school counselors, but that requires more money.
One possible new source of revenue? Gambling. Neighboring states have loosened up their gambling laws, and polling shows broad support for doing the same here. But Governor Northam wants to study the issue before endorsing any of those changes.
Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox was also cautious in an interview with WCVE last week.
Cox: My personal viewpoint on gambling has generally been you’ve got to be really careful that you don’t see that as a panacea.
It’s not just gambling. It’s unclear whether enough moderate Republicans will side with Democrats on issues ranging from redistricting reform to ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. Rich Meagher of Randolph-Macon is skeptical Republicans will have an appetite for high-profile legislation in an election year. He also thinks voters will be more tuned into the White House than the Statehouse.
Megher: I suspect that whatever goes on in national politics, which is driving the kind of Democratic direction, is going to overwhelm anything that happens in the General Assembly.
The next 45 days will help gauge whether or not Virginia legislators can break through the noise of national politics and sway voters come November.
Ben Paviour, WCVE News.