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Youngkin and GOP board majorities could reshape education, environment, elections

Governor Glenn Youngkin speaks outside the capitol in Richmond.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks outside the capitol in Richmond during February. At his six-month anniversary in office, a range of state boards are positioned to help carry out the Republican's agenda.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s push to ban “divisive concepts” from classrooms fell flat in the face of a Democratic majority in the state Senate. Democrats also doomed his attempt to pull Virginia out of a regional cap-and-trade market.

But six months into his term, Youngkin’s appointments to key state boards have given him the regulatory muscle to impact those policies anyway. His picks could eventually give the Republican lasting influence over issues ranging from abortion to elections — even if the GOP never wins complete control of the legislature during his term.

In some cases, his majorities come sooner than they would have otherwise as a result of Republican lawmakers rejecting about a dozen appointments made by his predecessor that would have extended Democratic majorities into Youngkin’s term. Democrats said the rancor represented a break from tradition.

The stakes will become clear in the coming weeks, when a new majority of Youngkin appointees on the state board of education discuss the commonwealth’s history and social science standards. The revisions, which occur at least every seven years are likely to be a political lightning rod; Youngkin campaigned on changing how race is taught in Virginia classrooms. The board was set to take up the issue this week but the meeting was canceled due to a lack of a quorum, according to Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for the department of education.

Youngkin has also reshaped the state Air Pollution Control Board, where his appointments, including a former coal executive, now make up a majority. One of the governor’s first executive orders called for the air board to consider emergency regulations to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a move some critics of his plans expect to happen in the coming weeks. Youngkin has argued the program is too expensive for consumers. Advocates haveclaimed it has helped fund flood prevention programs and argue only the legislature can remove Virginia from the program. 

Fallout from Andrew Wheeler

Youngkin’s picks still require approval from the legislature, where the governor has butted heads with Democrats in the Senate.

Youngkin was able to gain majorities on the boards after Republicans in the House of Delegates rejected 11 picks from his predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam. The stonewalling followed Youngkin’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler, a onetime Environmental Protection Agency administrator who was appointed under President Donald Trump, to be his secretary of natural and historic resources.

The Senate rejected Wheeler, leading House Republicans to reject Northam’s nominees left in limbo at the end of his term. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) told The Washington Post in February that the move “is not how we roll down here” and warned it could lead to a “new tradition” of political gamesmanship over state boards.  

Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s spokesperson, noted that it was up to the legislature to accept or reject appointments. Winning last year’s elections gave Youngkin the ability to make appointments, she wrote in a statement. 

“This is a long standing practice that is not new for our Administration, nor the General Assembly,” Porter said. “The governor has installed qualified and dedicated public servants who will admirably serve on the air pollution control board, education board, elections board, among others.”

Not all of the Republican majorities were caused by the Wheeler fallout. Republicans now also have a majority on the State Board of Elections after a Northam appointee, Jamilah LeCruise, stepped aside to accept a judgeship. Youngkin appointed Georgia Alvis-Long, a former member of the Augusta County electoral board, to replace LeCruise in May. The five-member board oversees much of the electoral process, supervises local electoral boards and election officials, and certifies elections and party nominees. The latter process has led to contentious votes over whether to allow candidates on to the ballot who filed late paperwork or made errors when filing. 

Youngkin’s picks will also eventually change the makeup of the Board of Health, which regulates abortion providers. Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s appointees to the panel passed building code restrictions on abortion clinics in 2012. Those rules were undone by members appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, in 2017.

The governor’s inauguration has already had effects at the state’s Safety and Health Codes Board. In March, the board unanimously recommended repealing pandemic workplace safety rules, fulfilling a Youngnkin campaign promise. And on Tuesday, the Youngkin administration sent out a press release cheering a recent decision by The Virginia Board for Barbers and Cosmetology to reduce the number of hours required to obtain a cosmetology license by 33%.

Unique gubernatorial power

The state has dozens of boards and commissions regulating everything from boxing to barbers, all but one of which were created by legislation. While most operate in obscurity, some have become sites of political battles. That continued under Northam, when boards became battlegrounds for issues ranging from the canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline to the workplace safety rules. 

Virginia governors enjoy a unique amount of power in their ability to appoint both top administrators — like the secretary of education — and state regulatory boards, according to Dick Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia. Howard served as executive director of the commission that drafted Virginia’s 1971 constitution and said members of that group didn’t anticipate the boards being used as blunt political instruments. The group only explicitly created one board — the state board of education — which he said was seen as critical in making sure massive resistance didn’t return to the commonwealth. 

“I think they assumed that these boards would be in a sense, something of a buffer between grassroots politics and day-to-day politics, and the running of, say, the school system in Virginia,” Howard said in a recent interview.

Youngkin’s regulatory maneuvering could still face legal challenges. Environmental groups have vowed to push back if the air board attempts to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative; the power to do so, they said, lies solely with the legislature. The board is expected to take up the issue at its next quarterly meeting, likely in August or September, according to Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“When something is this flagrantly against the laws and constitution of Virginia, you can bet the governor is going to wind up in court, and he's going to lose,” Sheppard said in an interview. 

Stephen Haner, a senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and critic of RGGI, agreed that any effort by the air board to rescind RGGI policy would likely spark a legal challenge. But he said Democrats only had themselves to blame for not cementing Northam’s picks while they still had majorities in both chambers — a move that would have required them to convene an unusual special legislative session

Youngkin “gained a couple more seats on the air board because the Democrats screwed up and didn’t properly confirm two people nominated by Northam when they had the chance,” Haner said. “Rules are rules.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.