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General Assembly 2018 Week 9:
Unknowns Of The Not So Sine Die Session
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRICHMOND, VA – If there was one thing all members, staff, lobbyists, media and interested observers could agree on, it was that they were glad the 2018 session of the Virginia General Assembly was coming to an end. A session that began with serious unknowns ended with even greater ones — as in when would the next two-year budget get done and what would it look like?

When session began in mid-January there were unprecedented uncertainties: an unheard of razor thin Republican House majority, a new speaker, a new governor and lieutenant governor and even a new (temporary) legislative headquarters building. All were all wild cards that would produce outcomes no one could project.

Not only were the Democrats near parity in the House for the first time in nearly 20 years, the composition of its 16 new members made for a dramatic, further-left shift in that caucus’ already progressive leanings. Combined with a Republican caucus stripped of some of its most conservative stalwarts, certain GOP pragmatists would hold key cards. It all kind of enforced a certain workmanship among members.

But as it became apparent the biggest question — the budget and whether or not to include in it Obamacare Medicaid expansion — would not get answered, so did the contrived strictures on civility, not all of them reserved for cross-party acrimony. While House Democrats took offense at Republican displeasure over a heinous piece put out by Delegate Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), which portrayed Republicans as NAZIs and terrorists for not supporting gun control, the Republicans did a good enough job attacking each other over their split on the budget.

It was a world tuned upside down as the not-as-fiscally-conservative 21 Senate Republicans stood shoulder- to-shoulder on its Obamacare-less budget, while the House Republicans split over its version, which did include it. A majority of House Republicans voted against their own leadership’s bill, although that’s a bit of a misnomer. Speaker Kirk Cox’s (R-Colonial Heights) three lieutenants — Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), Whip Nick Rush (R-Christiansburg) and Caucus Chairman Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax) all voted against it. Presumed conservatives slammed their principled colleagues for offering amendments to the proposal. Republican Fratricide.

After ramming it through with a solid Democrat bloc, and not coming to an agreement with the Senate by last Thursday night, Cox issued a news release slamming Senate Republicans. That led to Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) to take to the Senate floor and, in vintage Norment rhetorical style, sarcastically torment his opponent. He called the release "fake news” because it wasn’t a House Republican budget, but a Democrat budget, with the speaker’s caucus and leadership deserting him.

Adding to the chaos were Senate Democrats who had the numbers to block a super majority needed to extend the session, which they did. The House refused to play along on an extension as well, trying to isolate the still united Senate Republicans. After a cooling off period of Friday night to Saturday, the best they could do was agree to Sine Die with a resolution to Governor Ralph Northam asking him to call them back into special session.

Perhaps the doom could have been forecast from the beginning. In the General Assembly Building, the offices of the House Appropriations Committee chairman, vice chairman and staff were on the ninth floor (the committee that prepares the House budget). While it was hoped to keep them on the ninth in the Pocahontas Building for continuity’s sake — "This bill needs to go to the ninth floor” was traditional GA speak — their offices were put on the unlucky 13th. Why that was is yet another unanswered question.

Stephen J. (Steve) Rossie is a Richmond-based public and government relations consultant. He has been a General Assembly lobbyist since 2006 and has written about Virginia government since 2007.

 





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