A push by Republican lawmakers to block new regulations aimed at cutting carbon dioxide pollution from Virginia power plants proved successful Thursday, when Gov. Ralph Northam declined to veto language in the state budget blocking the plan.
Environmental groups had been pushing hard for Northam to veto a budget provision that blocks any state spending for Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a multistate compact to curb greenhouse gases linked to climate change.
Northam’s veto power is hamstrung by a decades-old Virginia Supreme Court precedent. It says a governor can’t veto a budget condition without vetoing the funding tied to it — in this case, any funding that the state uses to implement the program.
The carbon emission regulations, approved by the State Air Pollution Board, would set a cap on carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy generation. Through RGGI, a compact of nine states from the Mid-Atlantic to New England, energy producers can trade emission reductions for cashable credits or buy credits to emit carbon dioxide past their cap.
Northam said Thursday that he was “disappointed” that the provision is part of the final state budget, but added that he is directing the state agency responsible for environmental quality to “identify ways to implement the regulation and achieve our pollution reduction goals.”
Environmental groups that fought for the program said they were dismayed by Northam’s decision to avoid a legal fight instead of digging in his heels to defend a central goal of his own agenda for reducing pollution.
“Virginians elected Northam, in part, because he promised to take serious climate action. Today, he failed to live up to that promise,” Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.
“We are incredibly disappointed with Northam’s failure to push back against House Republicans’ attempts to stand in the way of his administration’s signature climate policy.”
Nate Benforado, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, said: “Although members of the General Assembly should never have inserted this provision into the budget, Governor Northam was given the opportunity to strike it and fight for this program.”
Republicans have long opposed the regulations, which they argue are essentially a tax and would hurt the state’s ability to attract business. House Speaker Kirk Cox said the budget language will keep the governor from “unilaterally joining a regional carbon tax scheme without General Assembly approval.”
“I hope the governor’s deference today will make future governors think twice before attempting to trespass on legislative prerogatives,” Cox said in a statement.
Dominion Energy has also opposed the RGGI regulations, telling state environmental officials in March that the initial cap of 28 million tons per year is too low and would “disadvantage Virginia generation.”
Dominion has also said that should the rule go into effect, it would be forced to halt coal-burning at its Chesterfield Power Station.
Virginia would have become the only Southern state to participate in such a program. The regulations stemmed from a May 2017 directive by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Northam also lamented other provisions that remained in the state budget, which he signed Thursday.
The budget includes a provision restricting the use of state money for abortions of fetuses with severe anomalies.
“I am hopeful that other medical providers in the commonwealth are able to accommodate families in need,” Northam said.
The budget also restricts state law enforcement agencies from buying and implementing body-worn cameras, which Northam said “unnecessarily prohibits state law enforcement officers from providing the accountability that both citizens and law enforcement officers deserve.”
Northam did veto a budget provision that would have made changes to the state’s two-year pilot program designed to provide long-acting reversible contraception — such as intrauterine devices and implants — to low-income women across the state. Republicans had sought to limit the organizations that are directly funded for the devices to ensure groups that perform abortions, such as Planned Parenthood, do not benefit financially from the program.
Northam on Thursday also vetoed legislation that would expand the use of association health plans in Virginia, a type of health insurance shielded from requirements like maternity care and prescription coverage. These plans tend to offer lower rates for younger individuals, people without preexisting conditions and others.
“This bill would undermine current efforts to stabilize the Virginia health insurance marketplace,” Northam said.
Northam also vetoed a bill that would have held drug dealers and anyone who shares certain controlled substances with another individual liable for felony murder if the drugs result in an overdose death.
Northam said he does not support the bill because it would hold people liable “even months after the deceased received the drugs,” and would go beyond drug dealers to “punish individuals who are themselves struggling with addiction.”