The Virginia legislature could be the most influential of any in the country

Spring has finally made its way to the Virginia Capitol, bringing with it a renewed sense of hope and anticipation. However, despite the changing seasons, a budget deal has yet to be reached. The Virginia Mercury reports on this ongoing issue, emphasizing the need for swift action and cooperation among lawmakers. As the days grow longer and the temperatures rise, the pressure to find a resolution intensifies, highlighting the urgency of the situation.

Virginia’s legislature and governor are currently engaged in a heated battle over the new biennial budget, which is crucial for funding the government and must be passed by June 30, 2024. This ongoing conflict can be likened to a tense standoff between two scorpions trapped in a bottle. To address the matter, both parties will convene in Richmond on Wednesday for the “reconvened” or “veto” session.

Budget battles in the commonwealth are a common occurrence, but this particular one stands out due to the unprecedented number of changes proposed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to the bipartisan spending plan. Youngkin has labeled the bill a “backward budget” and has been actively touring the state to emphasize this point. In response, legislators have launched their own tour and have criticized Youngkin’s actions, comparing them to the behavior of spoiled brats who don’t get their way.

The governor has vetoed an unprecedented number of bills, encompassing measures aimed at safeguarding reproductive rights and bolstering gun safety. Given that overriding a veto necessitates a two-thirds majority, it is highly likely that the governor will emerge victorious in the majority of these battles.

The battle for the budget bill will take a different turn. Youngkin had initially planned to wield the “line-item veto” power, striking down certain provisions in the budget and daring the legislature to muster a two-thirds vote to overturn them. The tax on digital services he had put forth and the requirement for the commonwealth to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) were believed to be his main targets. However, he changed his strategy when lawmakers cleverly drafted these provisions to create legal hurdles for a line-item veto.

Youngkin, on the other hand, has put forward an impressive total of 233 amendments to the budget bill. However, it is unlikely that many of these amendments will be approved. In order for an amendment to be included in the budget, it must receive a simple majority vote. Given the ongoing tension between Youngkin and the Democrats, who are still angry about his rhetoric and previous vetoes, it is doubtful that many of his proposed amendments will receive the necessary support. This leaves Youngkin with a difficult decision to make. He can either sign the budget as it currently stands, or he can veto the entire plan, forcing a special session and a new budget to be created.

The approaching July 1 deadline for a new budget creates a sense of urgency. Agencies and local governments are concerned about a potential government shutdown and are working to develop contingency plans. There is even a possibility of reevaluating Virginia’s long-standing Triple A bond rating. The stakes are high, and it is likely that the legislature will ultimately get what it wants, even if it requires a special session.

The legislature is the most powerful branch of government

Youngkin is currently experiencing the same realization that his predecessors had long ago: the legislature holds the most power among the branches of government, and Virginia’s legislature stands as one of the strongest in the entire nation.

The power that the Virginia General Assembly holds over governors is a result of various factors, including historical context, strong leadership, and, most importantly, the Virginia Constitution. In an effort to prevent the emergence of dictatorial colonial governors, our founders designed the state constitutions to prioritize governance that is more closely connected to the will of the people, which is primarily embodied by the legislature.

In the Virginia Constitution, there exists a legislative advantage that sets it apart from other states. Unlike any other state, Virginia prohibits its chief executive from serving consecutive terms. This unique provision poses a significant challenge for governors who aim to extract concessions from legislators, as the latter tend to serve longer terms. In their initial year, governors are still in the process of familiarizing themselves with the system. However, by their third year, they are already perceived as “lame ducks.”

When a new governor takes office in Virginia, they are faced with a budget that was prepared by the previous governor for a two-year period. Unlike in other states, where newly elected governors submit their own budget at the start of their term, Virginia governors can only propose amendments to the existing budget. This means that they are working within the framework established by their predecessor. The only budget plan that truly reflects their priorities is the one they create at the end of their second year in office. However, by the time this budget is debated by the legislature, the governor has already left office, giving the legislature more influence over the budget process. This has led to the saying in Richmond that “governors come and go; the legislature is forever.”

Youngkin’s only budget is currently under consideration by the commonwealth. This budget represents his best opportunity to establish a lasting impact, but his tenuous relationship with the legislature poses a significant threat to its success.

Virginia’s legislature is uniquely powerful

The Virginia legislature wields significant influence, extending beyond budgetary matters. It possesses substantial appointment powers, allowing it to impede the nomination of important individuals favored by the governor. An excellent illustration of this is the State Corporation Commission (SCC) in Virginia. Operating almost as an independent branch of government, the SCC’s rulings have wide-ranging implications, encompassing areas such as utility rates and insurance oversight. In a departure from other states, where comparable bodies have comparatively less authority, SCC judges are exclusively appointed by the legislature. Alternatively, in some states, these regulatory bodies are either elected by citizens or appointed by governors.

Furthermore, the judiciary is wholly appointed by our legislature. In the majority of states, including those with state supreme courts, judges are either appointed by the governor or elected by the people.

In Virginia, unlike other states, the legislature has complete control over judicial appointments. This means that the governor does not have the authority to use these appointments as a means of dispensing political favors.

The system seems almost old-fashioned when compared to the intense statewide political campaigns for state supreme court positions that have recently taken place in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. As the state courts handle more cases involving fundamental rights, people will pay closer attention to the judges chosen by the legislature.

This week, the main focus in Richmond is the budget, and it is highly likely that the legislature will ultimately achieve most of its goals. This unique position grants the Virginia legislature powers that surpass those of its counterparts in other states, making it arguably the most influential legislature in the country.

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