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General Assembly Preview: The Big Issue
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRichmond – As the General Assembly inches its way toward a new session beginning January 9, the search continues for the issue that will define the 2019 session.

It’s an annual exercise at Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol, but not one that produces much fitness — especially in election years, when no lawmaker wants to risk introducing legislation that may end up on an opponent’s television ad. Making such a prediction always comes with the pitfall of getting blindsided by an unnoticed, seemingly innocuous bill that gets elevated beyond propriety. Remember the "Droopy Drawers Bill”?

The context of the 2019 session, however, is unlike any recent circumstance, or perhaps ever. Not in the age of competitive two parties in Virginia, that is.

But with Republicans holding oneseat majorities in each chamber after the Democrats’ stunning 15 seat pick-up in the 2017 House elections, and the commonwealth’s changing demographics and political bent, this could be the last year of the GOP’s two decades of House control. It could also be the beginning of its turn in the wilderness if a redistricting case in federal court eventually is resolved in a new map that relegates the GOP to not only a minority, but a perpetual tiny minority.

That’s why the tactics are likely to change this session — Republicans’ backs are against the firing squad wall, especially in the House. What was unlikely was that Governor Ralph Northam, in large part responsible for the Democrats’ resurgence, and who engineered the gold plated legislative dream of Virginia’s Left last session — Medicaid Expansion — gave the desperate Republicans a lifeline.

Last session, House Republicans tried, with no traction, to highlight Democrat bills that would have increased taxes on any number of purchases, actions and income sources, including an appeal to millennials, a base Democrat constituency, that a Democrat caucus backed bill would tax Netflix purchases.

But the astute Northam uncharacteristically took what should be a technical issue and exploded it into a controversial one — a major income tax increase to fund new, colossal government spending. Taxes and spending just may be the only issue remaining on which Virginians trust Republicans more than Democrats.

The issue revolves around the new federal tax cuts and reform law that knocked Virginia’s tax code out of synch with federal guidelines, resulting in a $1.2 billion state tax increase on individuals this year and next if not fixed now, and which will rise to $4.5 billion by 2024. Instead of simply proposing a realignment of the two tax systems, Northam wants to use the revenue windfall to provide refunds to those who don’t pay state income taxes and massively increase spending during the current twoyear budget, an unprecedented and unpopular rewriting of the budget in midstream.

Two current polls, by Christopher Newport University and Mason-Dixon Polling, will inject fuel into Republican tax reform and relief proposals and, likely, propel the issue to the top of the session’s agenda. The Mason-Dixon poll gauged support for returning the tax increase to taxpayers by a 59-29 percent majority. It also received majorities and, in some cases, super majorities in all demographic and regional breakdowns.

The real issue may not be what the issue is, but how far Republicans take it. Will it force an extended session as did last year’s Medicaid expansion? Since members cannot raise money while in session, that brings up another election year norm: End session on time, go home and campaign.


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