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Democratic Control, A New Budget, and the First Female Speaker: Political Analysis for Friday, January 3, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Shapiro, with a microphone between them.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include Democratic control at all levels of state government, the introduction of Governor Northam's two-year budget, the first female Speaker of the House in the General Assembly, and the experience of Republican members of the General Assembly.

Craig Carper:  From VPM News in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper.  Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, Happy New Year!

Jeff Schapiro:  And Happy New Year to you, Craig.

Carper:  Jeff, this coming Wednesday the General Assembly convenes, and with it a new era of one party, read large-D, Democratic government.

Schapiro:  Ralph Northam’s party is in command of the legislature and if you listen to the governor, he's in command of the party, a remarkable turnaround for the governor given that eleven months ago he was considered DOA.  That's of course when the black face calamity erupted.  With the Democrats again in charge of the Senate and the House following the November elections, it seems all is forgiven.  The relationship between the governor and his party will be watched closely.  This has a lot to do with some very significant differences, if not in substance but style.  The governor is perhaps more moderate than many of the Democratic legislators in Richmond, and there's going to be a good deal of demand for this progressive agenda that they have been pushing.  Apparently the word “liberal” is no longer in vogue.  So what I think a lot of people are going to be watching for is how hard will Northam push, and he's got his share of progressive items, but how much will he push back?  So we'd expect, I think, similar reaction from that new Democratic majority.  One proposal in which there seems to be at least a measure of friction, this chatter about doing away with Virginia's prohibition on union membership as a condition for employment, the so called “right to work” law.  And the governor has already told organized labor that he is going to block repeal; he would use his veto if necessary.  It may never get to that.  If a repeal bill were to get out of the House, it's likely that it would meet its doom in the Senate.  And there is this long, long wish list for Democrats.  I guess the question is, “What isn't on it?”  We know the Democrats want more gun control.  They want fewer restrictions on abortion.  They want virtually no restrictions on voting.  They like higher taxes - fuel and tobacco taxes to pay for transportation improvements and health care.  Localities are looking to this new majority, this new Democratic majority, to give them the freedom to take down Confederate monuments.  This is part of a bigger issue, of course, and that is giving localities greater freedom period, and that would include giving locals the authority to adopt maybe even more taxes on tobacco on top of what the governor is proposing.  And it would also include giving counties and cities the authority to pretty much ban guns anywhere.

Carper:  And Jeff, this is also the year in which Governor Northam introduces a so-called “legacy budget.”  This is the only two-year budget that fully reflects his priorities for the second half of his non-renewable four-year term.

Schapiro:  And this is an enormous budget, two years and $135 billion.  The governor, good Democrat that he is, wants to spend more of it on education.  You would expect that, though teachers think they're getting the short shrift because there's not enough in there for teacher pay raises.  There is also missing from the Northam budget pay raises for the state workforce.  We've talked about some of the investments the governor wants to make.  That includes accelerating the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.  We mentioned as well these tax increases on tobacco and fuel to pay for health care and road projects, respectively.  And I think the budget is going to be one of those places, one of those issues, on which the governor's relationship with the new Democratic majority will be tested.  And he may be anticipating some friction.  Perhaps that's why he threw in $100 million in play money for the legislature, allowing it to spend that money as it pleases.  And of course, there could be even more.  In February the governor will provide the legislature with a revised revenue report, and that will include the Christmas tax collections and those for the first months of the new year.  The other wrinkle in all of this is that the money committees are going to be very different, right down to the staff level, and that is going to make for a much different dynamic going forward.

Carper:  And history will be made with the installation of the first female Speaker of the House, Eileen Filler-Corn, a Northern Virginian.  She will also be the first Jewish speaker.

Schapiro:  To which one says, “Mazel tov.”  [laughing] There are going to be 55 Democrats in the House, and the new speaker, who helped elect a number of these Democrats, for certain those starting in 2017, is going to be looking to that majority to back her up.  And that includes what is and what isn't in the House rules, as well as committee assignments and whether those committees will still have proportional partisan representation.  That was put in place of course by the Republicans.  Behind the governor the House speaker is the most powerful official in the state and expect Filler-Corn to come under some pressure from her Democrats to use that to help the party.  And the Republicans, now back in the minority, will be looking for any opportunity to challenge her authority, and we could see that on Wednesday when the Assembly convenes if there's a fight over the rules.  By the way, the new speaker quit a Washington lobbying and public affairs firm for which she has worked.  She clearly wants to avoid the appearance of ethical conflicts.  Perhaps to some degree, she's thinking about one of her predecessors, Bill Howell the Republican, who built those big Republican majorities in the House, and when he retired after the 2017 election, went to work for one of those lobbying power houses here in Richmond.  And though he's not registered as a lobbyist, it could be argued that Howell is a lobbyist in everything but name.  He advises clients and uses his considerable national contacts in their behalf.  So much for Republicans draining the swamp. . .

Carper:  [laughing] And Jeff, Republicans no longer have the numbers to control the legislature, but they have something else - knowledge and experience, and they could be powerful weapons against the new Democratic majorities.

Schapiro:  Of course, the Republicans controlled both sides of the Capitol for the better part of 20 years.  Democrats took back the Senate in 2007 and held it for seven years before losing it to the Republicans in 2014.  So there you have a Democratic majority that includes a number of former minority members who recall and remember what it was like to be in the majority.  Not the case on the House side, only 2 of 55 House Democrats served in the majority, Ken Plum and Vivian Watts both from Fairfax County.  In the Senate Dick Saslaw, the incoming majority leader, I mean this is a job he will have held at least three times.  Now, running things and using their numbers to do so allowed Republicans not only to set the policy agenda, but dictate the rules for considering it, so Republicans still know a lot about process and the little tricks for manipulating it.

Carper:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Shapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up next week.

Schapiro:  Looking forward to it.

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