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Political Analysis for Friday, March 1, 2019

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Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins WCVE News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include the end of the General Assembly session, debate over the state budget, more issues in the political scandals that have hit the top state Democratic leaders, and advances to gambling and redistricting efforts.

CC: From WCVE News in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper. Joining me now from the Richmond Times Dispatch is political columnist and WCVE’s political analyst, Jeff Shapiro. Jeff, good morning.

JS: Hi there, Craig.

CC: Well, we have survived the 2019 General Assembly session. They adjourned on Sunday, one day late after a 47-day session of which the second half was overshadowed by political crisis engulfing Governor Ralph Northam, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring.

JS: Yes, and the governor has his work cut out for him as a result of the legislature's departure, about 800 or so bills have been sent to his nibs. He can sign them, he can veto them, or he can ask the legislature to amend them, to change them, and the legislature will do so when it returns sometime in April. One of the explanations for that one-day overtime, the House Democrats were in a snit over the Republican majority thwarting action on the Equal Rights Amendment. It was a provision in the ground rules for the 2019 session that revisions to the budget would be considered for two days before there was an up or down vote. So the House Democrats insisted, well, at least one day's consideration, and so that's how we ended up quitting town on Sunday. The budget is important for what's not in it, specifically about an extra $1 billion. That's money that the Republicans are insisting be returned to Virginians in the form of tax relief. And depending on who's doing the addition, it's either fairly generous tax relief for certain people and not terribly generous tax relief for others. But the Republicans were insistent on that, believing that it's a powerful theme for the November elections in which the control of the legislature will be determined. The Democrats need only two seats in the House to take it back and two seats in the Senate, and if they accomplish both, that means that the Democrats would have total control of state government. That election is clearly going to be effected, though we don't know how by this Northam/Herring blackface calamity. And also that Justin Fairfax’s political problem could become a criminal one, having been accused of sexual assault by two women. And of course he stunned members of both parties in the closing day of the session by comparing himself to lynching victims. Now, no sooner than the legislature was gaveled into history, the House Republicans were out with a digital ad saying that the Democrats were all about embarrassing Virginia and the Republicans are all about being effective in behalf of Virginia. The voters will have the final say.

CC: And in more fallout from the Northam blackface scandal, the governor's wife, Pam, is being criticized for handing a cotton ball to African American teens during a tour of the Executive Mansion for Senate pages.

JS: And they're told this is nothing more than a teachable moment about slavery. Slave labor, of course, was used to harvest the fields in which cotton and other crops grew. And also to build the Executive Mansion who's powerful, white occupants relied on those goods for nourishment and comfort. Mrs. Northam, who was a teacher, was using that boll as a prop just to convey, so her staff says, to her young visitors, black and white, what it might have been like for young slaves to toil day in, day out, unpaid, unfree. But there are some who were on that tour and the parents of some who were on that tour who took this all quite personally and suggested that this exchange only raises questions about the Northam administration’s sincerity to kind of set right some of these racial wrongs that have been spotlighted by this blackface calamity.

CC: And back to actual legislating, the possible legacy of the 2019 session could be perceived breakthroughs on gambling and redistricting. Two issues on which for years there's been more talk than action.

JS: Yes, certainly on gaming things have accelerated, certainly in recent years. The legislature is sending the governor a bill that would give the first of two green lights to casinos perhaps in Bristol, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Danville and Richmond. They would have to be approved by voters in referenda, local referenda, and the state legislature will have to go through the whole process again next year. This bill includes what's called a reenactment clause. This essentially requires a do-over, and because that feature is in this bill, it raises the possibility that lawmakers might retreat on gambling. I think the guessing is they likely will not, given the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the gambling interests have been throwing at legislators and the army of lobbyists trying to keep them in line. But another feature of this bill would be a study by the legislature's investigative arm, sort of to try to establish the regulatory and tax demands of getting into gaming, full-on getting into gaming. Virginia would be the 38th state, I believe, to have casinos. Redistricting could be turned on its head largely because of this proposed constitutional amendment that would strip the General Assembly of its power to draw boundaries and turn it over to a so-called independent commission. This is a proposal that would also have to go through the legislature again next year. Because it is a constitutional amendment, voters would have the last word next year, and that means that in 2021 when Virginia next redraws congressional and legislative lines this independent commission would go to work. But as I think we have discussed many times, these legislative elections this year will determine whether redistricting reform actually happens. A Democratic majority could be less enthusiastic about it, ditto an affirmed Republican majority. And what happens if the legislature is split? So we have miles to go.

CC: Thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times Dispatch. Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

JS: Good weekend to you.

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