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Youngkin's State of the Commonwealth: 'Virginia is stronger than ever'

Gov. Youngkin is shown delivering remarks.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers the State of the Commonwealth to the joint session of the Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday, January 10, 2024 in Richmond, Virginia.

Bipartisanship cooperation was hinted at, despite divides in state government.

On Wednesday, Virginia’s General Assembly took on a new look, with new members being sworn in and a historic first for the House speaker.

Democrats regained control of the House of Delegates last fall and bolstered their thin majority in the Virginia Senate. Members of the House and Senate will have considerable influence over the only budget Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has control over due to the way Virginian electoral and budget cycles line up.

In a historic first for the Commonwealth, Del. Don Scott was unanimously voted in as Virginia’s first Black speaker of the House.

"The historic nature of this moment is not lost on me," he told his fellow delegates.

Scott, a Navy veteran and attorney, had previously been incarcerated. He shed tears as he thanked his wife for her support: "I was at my lowest, you looked at me and you saw me exactly where I'm standing right now.”

“There are those who will tell you that you should be defined forever by a mistake,” Scott said, “I'm here to tell you do not believe them. God's grace and mercy are sufficient. Duty, honor, country; I take those words very seriously.

Scott comes into the role with a thin majority in both legislative chambers. He hinted that passing major legislation would only be possible through bipartisan work but also recognized that partisanship would be present this session.

“Sometimes we all get emotionally attached to some stuff, and that's good,” he said. “That's why we were elected, because we care.”

Democrats from both chambers packed into a briefing room Wednesday morning to unveil their priorities for the session, which included education, affordability, abortion access and infrastructure.

“This state spends 14%, less than the national average, on K-12 [education],” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, referencing a report by the General Assembly’s research arm. “It's incomprehensible to us that that's something that Virginians have to tolerate.”

During his State of the Commonwealth address, Youngkin said that he was committed to replacing the Standards of Quality formula, which funds schools “with a system that puts students first.”

After the speech, Scott told a group of reporters said that he’d heard in Youngkin’s an opportunity to negotiate on the SOQs.

“It's one critical reason that underscores why any of these discussions about tax cuts are completely unrealistic,” Surovell said.

Meanwhile, Youngkin signaled he may not accept proposals to raise taxes.

“I am not interested in any increase in taxes that don't facilitate an overall decrease in taxes for Virginians,” he told reporters following his speech, warning them “don't go grab tax increases until we're working also on tax decreases. We need to reduce the tax burden on Virginians.”

Democrats appear to not have reached a consensus on Youngkin’s proposal to remove a sales tax exemption for digital purchases.

Wide policy gulfs also were apparent Wednesday. While Democrats have proposed bills for a retail market for adult recreational use of cannabis, Youngkin said it was “an area that I really don't have any interest in.”

In light of the Democratic control of the statehouse, he asked lawmakers to send him bills that cut taxes and increased penalties for crime. He said if a repeal of Virginia’s Right to Work law made it to his desk, he’d strike it down with the “business end of my veto pen,” which won applause from the Republican side of the chamber.

Still Youngkin, like Scott, said that Virginia’s government would still work despite different parties in control of their respective branches.

“We've been we've been successful with divided government. And we can continue to be successful with divided government,” he said.

2024 State of the Commonwealth address

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.