Gov. Ralph Northam is trying to turn what might have been the General Assembly’s biggest failure of the session into his greatest opportunity to prove himself as a leader again.
Days before the General Assembly reconvenes Wednesday to finish legislative business before submerging into winner-take-all elections, Northam proposed a package of road, fuel and regional taxes to make $2 billion in critical improvements to Interstate 81 and boost funding for interstates across Virginia.
While some legislators say the governor’s proposal is too much, too late, others say it’s an opportunity to repeat the assembly’s election-year feat of six years ago, when it approved more than $6 billion in state and regional taxes to pay for long-deferred transportation projects that are underway in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
“It’s a real opportunity to address a very pressing need,” said House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.
Jones was one of the main architects of the 2013 transportation funding package supported by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican to hold the office, and then-House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, who faced a primary challenge because of it.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, on Friday called I-81 “an absolutely critical corridor,” but also noted the potential political consequences for legislators.
“I’m not sure what the appetite is for some more fiscally conservative Republican incumbents to deal with taxation issues on the eve of this pivotal election,” Norment said. “It’s certainly a consideration, I can tell you that.”
The I-81 proposal capped a busy week for Northam, who is trying to make himself relevant after a racial scandal halfway through the legislative session that ended Feb. 24.
He pitched a new plan for replacing Central State Hospital, sought to revive a measure to ban motorists from holding cellphones while driving, and unveiled budget recommendations to provide tax relief for lower-income families and end the state practice of suspending the driver’s license of people who haven’t paid all their court fines and fees.
The governor’s budget package also includes spending for priorities of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Northam is trying to regain the group’s favor after the revelation — two months ago Monday — that his 1984 medical school yearbook page included a racist photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
On Feb. 1 Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo, then reversed himself a day later, insisting that he was not in the picture, which he said he never had seen before. However, he also acknowledged he had darkened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in Texas in 1984.
He has resisted calls for his resignation, including from fellow Democrats and members of the black caucus, who fear the scandals that engulfed the governor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring could doom the party’s chances to seize control of one or both chambers of the assembly in November elections for all 140 seats.
“Generally speaking, he’s bouncing back,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “But then, there’s no alternative, is there?”
Fairfax, poised to become Virginia’s second African-American governor if Northam resigned, instead is defending himself against charges from two women who said he had sexually assaulted them. He denies the charges, from a woman who said he assaulted her in Boston in 2004 and another who accused him of raping her at Duke University in 2000.
Herring, second in line for the governorship, apologized for his own blackface scandal, acknowledging that he blackened his face to impersonate a rapper at a University of Virginia fraternity party in 1980 when he was 19.
Whatever happens at Wednesday’s veto session, Sabato said Northam, Fairfax and, to a lesser degree, Herring still have questions to answer about their past conduct.
“We still need answers,” Sabato said of the governor. “He owes these answers to us, and Fairfax does as well.”
Politically, he said legislators have to decide “how do you get out from under this if you’re a Democrat and how do you capitalize on it if you’re a Republican.”
The state Republican Party also has made clear that it won’t allow questions about the yearbook photo to go unanswered.
Affordable Care Act
Democrats are trying to change the subject back to President Donald Trump, who threw his support behind a new Republican push, this time in the courts, to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
The casualties would include Medicaid expansion, which has extended health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Virginians since it took effect Jan. 1.
Senate Republicans, who generally opposed Medicaid expansion in the state budget a year ago, are upset over Northam’s veto of a package of bills to allow alternative health insurance plans for Virginians who aren’t eligible for subsidized care through Medicaid, the federally run marketplace or their employers.
“Governor Northam continues to prevent Virginians from even being allowed the option of choosing a health care plan that better meets their needs and budgets,” said Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, chairman of the Education and Health Committee.
Senate Republicans, with a 21-19 edge, need 27 votes to override the governor’s vetoes of bills to allow Virginians to purchase short-duration and catastrophic health plans that Democrats say would further weaken the individual insurance market and raise premiums for everyone.
Veto session flashpoints
The closely divided House and Senate — Republicans have two-seat edges in each — mean opponents will not be able to muster the two-thirds vote in each chamber that they would need to overturn Northam’s vetoes. The action will come on his proposed amendments to passed legislation, which would need simple majorities to pass.
The biggest issues before the reconvened legislature are likely to be tax relief, driver’s license suspensions, Northam’s effort to revive the bid to bar drivers from holding cellphones, and the new plan to improve I-81, an increasingly dangerous, heavily traveled truck route that extends 325 miles along the spine of western Virginia.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, already has signaled that he will block the governor’s proposal on drivers holding cellphones by finding it not germane to the bill it would amend, a measure that would bar motorists from holding cellphones while driving in work zones.
Cox could do the same with Northam’s attempt to amend the budget to stop the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid court fines and fees, which is a big concern for racial and ethnic minorities.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, passed the Senate on a vote of 36-4, but died in a House subcommittee led by Republicans who want to maintain license suspension as leverage on people to pay their fines and fees.
The Senate is a bigger obstacle than the House for Northam’s proposal to extend eligibility for one-time tax refunds to more than 151,000 Virginia taxpayers, almost all of them earning less than $50,000 a year. The measure would not consider any tax credits in determining their income tax liability, including the earned income tax credit.
House budget and finance leaders support the proposal, which would cost about $17.7 million from the new taxpayer relief fund, but it appears to face opposition from Norment, principal author of the tax relief package that the assembly adopted and the governor signed.
“He who pays the taxes ought to be entitled to the refunds and the relief,” he said.
However, Norment suggested, “It will be decided more by politics than policy.”
Northam’s proposal for fixing I-81 also could run into a parliamentary roadblock. It seeks to add a series of tax increases to legislation that established a study commission for finding ways to pay for improvements to make the road safer and reduce time motorists spend waiting for crashes to be cleared.
Those funding mechanisms include increases in truck registration fees, road and diesel fuel taxes, and a 2.1 percent fuel tax in localities along the I-81 corridor to mirror the regional taxes paid in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia under the 2013 tax package.
“I don’t expect the speaker will allow a vote on it,” predicted Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, who has long advocated increasing fuel taxes to pay for the project but thinks the governor’s new proposal is too complicated.
“I don’t see it going anywhere,” said Hanger, who faces a Republican primary opponent.
Northam’s proposal has the support of the Virginia Trucking Association, which strongly opposed an alternative proposal that would have relied on tolls for heavy trucks and inexpensive annual passes for other vehicles.
“Under this plan, the trucking industry is stepping up to the plate to pay a large share of the cost of improving I-81 and other interstates in Virginia,” Dale Bennett, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
The plan also includes money — based on truck miles traveled — for improvements to interstates 95 and 64, compensating the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for $20 million in revenue lost in last year’s rescue package for the Metro system, in addition to almost $151 million a year to fix I-81.
Hanger isn’t convinced by the governor’s plan, but he concedes it’s “a good political move.”
Quentin Kidd, director of The Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, sees the practical politics of the regional taxes approved in 2013 for Hampton Roads.
“I don’t notice I’m paying any more gas tax when I fill up, but I do notice all the construction going around,” he said.
Kidd thinks the I-81 plan and Northam’s other legislative proposals help the governor “get back in the game.”
“We’re not talking about scandal; we’re not talking about an irrelevant governor; we’re not talking about a governor who’s sidelined,” he said. “At the end of the day, this can only be a positive for the governor.”