In a formal speech Wednesday to the Virginia General Assembly at the self-described “halftime” of his term, Gov. Glenn Youngkin reemphasized his plan for a tax overhaul, promised to veto a pro-union measure if the legislature’s new Democratic majorities send it to him and pushed back against accusations his budget shortchanges public schools.
As he addressed lawmakers on the opening day of the 2024 legislative session, Youngkin pitched his plan to lower state income taxes and eliminate the car tax as part of a broader effort to win the “opportunity sweepstakes” and make Virginia more attractive to families, workers and businesses.
“We are going to compete and win and ensure Virginians keep more of their hard-earned money,” Youngkin said. “And to do this, we must lead.”
The governor’s tax plan appears to be facing long odds in the legislature after being criticized by Democratic leaders who say it disproportionately benefits the wealthiest at the expense of the poor. Some lawmakers have also expressed doubt that the governor’s proposed tax cuts can be offset by his planned increases in the sales and use tax and beefed-up taxes on tech products like streaming services, software and digital purchases.
Youngkin seemed unswayed by that pushback, stressing that his proposal also includes an increase in the earned-income tax credit that benefits lower-income workers. He also hinted he doesn’t want to see his plan picked apart, calling it a “package deal.”
“I’m only interested in a plan that reduces taxes for Virginians,” the governor said.
New Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the speech left him and other Democrats feeling Youngkin remains more interested in campaign slogans than serious policymaking.
“A lot of the policy proposals we heard tonight were all dependent on a magic money tree growing somewhere on Capitol Square,” Surovell said in an interview.
Youngkin made another sales pitch for the pending economic development deal that could bring both the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals to a new sports arena in Alexandria, calling it a rare opportunity to deliver a “huge win” for the state. However, that plan too faces an uncertain path in the legislature, with many lawmakers saying they’re still reviewing the details to make sure the plan makes sense for the region.
Between numerous calls for bipartisanship, Youngkin issued one clear veto threat. He promised to block any effort to repeal the state’s right-to-work law, which inhibits labor organizing by barring unions from requiring workers to pay dues in unionized workplaces.
“Please don’t bring me a bill that impacts Virginians’ right to work, as it will be met with the business end of my veto pen,” Youngkin said.
It’s unclear if Democrats plan to pursue right-to-work repeal. The issue has divided the party in the past, with progressives pushing repeal as a top labor priority and more centrist, pro-business Democrats resisting the idea.
Youngkin spent most of Wednesday’s speech talking about his own priorities.
He talked up his efforts to bring more intensive tutoring resources to K-12 schools to combat pandemic learning loss and said his latest education budget, totaling roughly $20.2 billion, is again the largest in Virginia history.
“This has been a tremendous effort on all of our behalf to fund our schools at unprecedented levels. And I would caution us from drawing strong opinions from out-of-date facts that precede this great work that all of you facilitated,” Youngkin said, an apparent reference to a recent state study that found Virginia’s K-12 school funding trailed the national average by about 14%.
He also emphasized his efforts to shore up Virginia’s struggling mental health system, a push that’s drawn widespread bipartisan support.
Many of Youngkin’s legislative priorities were familiar from last year’s campaign season. He called for the repeal of a Democratic-backed law tying Virginia to California’s vehicle emissions standards, even though the federal Clean Air Act requires states to either follow federal standards or the California standards.
He also called for new rules to restrict tech companies from selling data gathered from minors, tougher criminal penalties for drug dealers whose products lead to overdoses and stiffer punishment for those who commit crimes with guns.
“We should also know that Virginia’s gun laws are already among the toughest in the nation,” Youngkin said, seemingly laying down a marker against a proposed assault weapon ban and numerous other gun-control bills Democrats are expected to pass this session. “Therefore, I’m asking you, allow us to hold accountable those criminals that commit crimes with guns by lengthening and making more severe the penalties in order to keep them off the streets.”
There were a few new proposals in the speech. After championing legislation last year to adopt a new definition of antisemitism, Youngkin called for new legislation seemingly tied to the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel and the ongoing debate about how American institutions should respond to the Israel-Hamas conflict.
“Pass a bill which says the commonwealth of Virginia won’t do business with companies that boycott Israel,” Youngkin said. “Pass a hate crime bill which ensures all forms of antisemitism, not just religious bigotry, are treated as hate crimes under the law.”
Surovell, the Senate Democratic leader, said that for all Youngkin’s talk of bipartisanship, it was light on policy specifics and issues the Democratic legislature might support.
“It’s hard for us to know where he stands,” Surovell said. “Because he never takes positions on a lot of important issues.”
One big question hanging over the 2024 session is whether Youngkin can be convinced to move forward with legalized sales of marijuana, a proposal that’s drawn at least some bipartisan support as a way to restore order to Virginia’s cannabis laws. Democrats decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot in 2021, and the state now allows home growers to cultivate up to four marijuana plants for their personal use. But there’s still no way to legally purchase marijuana for recreational use.
Speaking to reporters after the speech, Youngkin said “I just don’t have a lot of interest in pressing forward with marijuana legislation.”
Mercury reporters Charlie Paullin and Nathaniel Cline contributed to this story.