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As election-year General Assembly session begins, Youngkin urges lawmakers to “get more done”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked Virginia lawmakers to put aside partisan differences and “get more done” in a State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday that kicked off the 2023 General Assembly session.

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By Graham Moomaw

Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked Virginia lawmakers to put aside partisan differences and “get more done” in a State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday that kicked off the 2023 General Assembly session.

Speaking to both chambers of the politically split legislature, Youngkin said Virginia is “substantially better off than it was last year” but “still a great distance from our destination.”

“We’re on the right path and Virginians know it,” Youngkin said in a roughly hour-long speech. “They see the transformation underway, and they want more progress. And they want it faster.”

Entering the second year of his four-year term, the Republican governor mostly stuck to the core themes of his administration, calling for lower taxes to accelerate economic growth, more constraints to Democrats’ ambitious climate change plans, better-performing schools and steps to address pandemic learning loss, a bigger role for parents and a tougher approach to crime and gun violence.

He mostly avoided divisive issues until he reiterated his call to ban elective abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“When it comes to unborn children, we can come together. We can choose life, and choose to support mothers, fathers and families in difficult decisions,” Youngkin said. “It is clear Virginians want fewer abortions, not more.” 

That proposal is all but guaranteed to fail in the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate, particularly after Democrats flipped a Republican-held seat in Tuesday’s special elections with a candidate who campaigned heavily against new abortion restrictions.

“The governor did not get the memo from the voters yesterday in Virginia Beach,” House of Delegates Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, said after the speech.

The Youngkin-backed abortion bills filed Wednesday by Republican lawmakers include exceptions for cases of rape or incest and when the life or physical health of the mother is threatened. Other Republican legislators have introduced more drastic bills that would ban abortion altogether, but those too are unlikely to pass.

Pitching lawmakers on his proposal for $1 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses, Youngkin said data showing more people are moving out of Virginia than moving in “tells an undeniable story.”

“Virginians are moving to states with lower taxes and a lower cost of living,” Youngkin said, telling lawmakers that he’s still prioritizing the “clarion call for change” he heard from voters who elected him in 2021.

The governor also re-upped his calls for a $230 million overhaul of the state’s struggling mental health system, teacher bonuses, more resources for police and prosecutors and “tougher penalties for those who commit crimes with guns.” The speech contained a few new policy proposals, like preventing tech companies and social media platforms from profiting off data from users under 18 and steps to prevent “Chinese communist intrusion into Virginia’s economy.”

Youngkin’s second session

The second legislative session of Youngkin’s tenure will be a short one.

Lawmakers are expected to be in Richmond for 46 days of debate, with taxes, education, mental health, energy costs and the state’s unfinished effort to legalize marijuana among the big-ticket items on the agenda. There’s also likely to be vigorous back-and-forth on abortion and gun policy after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and Virginia experienced a string of high-profile shootings.

But major changes on the most contentious political topics remain unlikely with one legislative chamber controlled by Republicans and the other led by Democrats.

When the legislature adjourns in late February, lawmakers will turn their full attention toward legislative primaries and the high-stakes General Assembly elections in November. Those contests, when all 140 seats in both chambers will be on the ballot in redrawn districts that could lead to an unusual amount of turnover, will determine whether Youngkin will be able to pass more of his agenda through a fully Republican-controlled legislature or if the government will remain politically divided until he leaves office in early 2026.

It was already apparent Wednesday that the 2023 session will largely be about laying the groundwork for election season.

Democratic lawmakers said they’ll be playing a lot of defense and advocating that the surplus money Youngkin wants to use to cut taxes should go toward other priorities that couldn’t be funded when Democrats fully controlled the legislature in 2020 and 2021.

“Believe you me, you give the current governor a Republican House and a Republican Senate, make no mistake about it, we’re Florida, we’re Texas, we’re Oklahoma,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said at a morning news conference. “We can’t have that. And I don’t think the people of Virginia are interested in that.”

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who has achieved social media stardom as one of Youngkin’s most vocal and persistent critics on Twitter, offered a blunt review of the governor’s proposed changes to the state’s two-year budget.

“To hell with the governor’s budget proposal,” Lucas said.

In a news release, House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said it was the Democrats who are out of touch with what Virginians expect from their elected representatives.

“Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle have made it clear that they intend to spend this short session fighting culture wars and treating the House of Delegates like social media,” Gilbert said. “But our constituents didn’t send us here to see who can get the most likes on social media. They sent us here to work to make their lives better.”

A reinforcement for Senate Democrats

Democrats started the session with extra pep after Tuesday’s victory in the closely watched special election in Hampton Roads, a result Democratic leaders characterized as a rejection of Republican extremism.

Democratic Sen.-elect Aaron Rouse, the winner of the contest to replace former Republican Sen. Jen Kiggans, who was elected to represent the region in Congress, got an enthusiastic welcome from his new colleagues when he dropped in on a press conference on Democrats’ legislative priorities.

“I’m ready to get to work,” said Rouse, a former professional football player and Virginia Beach city councilman who won’t be officially sworn in until Friday, after the election is officially certified. Kevin Adams, the Republican who narrowly lost to Rouse, called the senator-elect Wednesday morning to concede the race. When Rouse formally takes office, Democrats will have a 22-18 majority in the Senate, giving them slightly more room to block Republican bills than they had with a 21-19 majority last year.

There was no delay in certifying two new members of the House of Delegates, where the winners of Tuesday’s two other uncompetitive special elections were sworn in as the session got underway. Del. Holly Siebold, D-Fairfax, replaced former delegate Mark Keam, who resigned for a job in the Biden administration. Del. Ellen Campbell, R-Rockbridge, replaced her late husband Ronnie Campbell, who died of cancer late last year.

On a light initial workday for the legislature, there were also celebrations of new life. Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, was absent Wednesday as his wife gave birth to a son, Rhett. In the Senate, several children of Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, including his new twin babies, were officially recognized by the body.

There were no feisty floor speeches, but Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, said he’s expecting plenty of them as the session continues “partly because we’re so close, partisan-wise.”

Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the House. That means controversial bills coming out of either chamber can be blocked by the other, leaving only a fairly narrow set of bipartisan issues with a realistic chance of final passage.

“What I’m hopeful of is that we can agree on things that help make Virginia a better place, a better place to raise a family, that allow people to make ends meet, that make our schools better and our community safer,” Gilbert told reporters after Wednesday’s largely procedural floor sessions.

Scott, the Democratic House leader, took issue with Republicans’ contention that the existence of surplus funds is proof that Virginia’s taxes are too high while criticizing the governor’s proposal to lower the corporate tax rate to attract more business to the state.

“If he wants to help Virginians who are working hard every day, this is an opportunity,” Scott said of Youngkin. “Not giving away money to out-of-state corporations that don’t care about everyday Virginians.”

In his speech, Youngkin indirectly noted that Democrats recently appeared to take credit for getting rid of the state tax on groceries, an issue he prioritized throughout his campaign for governor.

“I look forward to giving those on both sides of the aisle more opportunities to celebrate tax breaks in the coming weeks,” Youngkin said.

As he neared the end of his address to the legislature, Youngkin seemed to acknowledge the limits of bipartisan cooperation, saying “there are a few who inexplicably will put more value on political stalemate than unified achievement.”

“While the people expect us to debate and argue over what divides us,” the governor said, “Virginians demand that we come together on what unites us.”

Staff writers Nathaniel Cline and Charlie Paullin contributed to this story.

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Community

Storm the Gates with Art 180, All City Art Club, and Supply.RVA

Bridging the divide between street art and gallery spaces with street signs, black book works, graffiti pieces, and creative public art activities.

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Art 180, All City Art Club, and Supply.RVA is bringing you their first exhibition of 2023, Storm the Gates, a gallery takeover celebrating graffiti artists, illustrators, cartoonists, and people painting in the corner of their bedrooms and garages. Bridging the divide between street art and gallery spaces with street signs, black book works, graffiti pieces, and creative public art activities.

Join them this Friday during February @rvafirstfridays where they’ll unveil a mural collaboratively painted by All City Art Club and ART 180’s program alumni and current participants.

Friday, February 3
5-9 p.m.
ART 180’s Atlas Gallery
114 W Marshall St.

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Business

Greater Richmond Convention Center marks 20 years serving region

Since 2003, the complex has hosted a total of 7,034 conventions, consumer shows, sports tournaments, and other events, bringing millions of people and dollars to the region.

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Virginia’s largest meeting and exhibition venue celebrates two decades of welcoming events and visitors to the Richmond Region this year. The Greater Richmond Convention Center officially opened on February 28, 2003, as cheerleaders from across the country flipped in the American National Cheer and Dance Championships in the building’s exhibit hall.

Since then, the GRCC has hosted a total of 7,034 conventions, consumer shows, sports tournaments and other events bringing millions of people and dollars to the region.

The GRCC replaced the 62,000-square-foot Richmond Center, which opened in 1986. Stretching across a six-block area, the 700,000 square-foot GRCC incorporates some of the steel and pillars from the original facility.

Construction for the project began in 1999 and was supported by a $10 million investment from former Governor George Allen and the regionwide transient lodging tax.

“It is the best example of regional cooperation in the history of this whole area,” said late Lt. Gov. John H. Hager during a 2002 press conference.

The Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority – a political subdivision of Virginia with representation from the city of Richmond, Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties – oversaw the financing, development and construction of the GRCC. The Authority’s 25th anniversary is this year.

We’re immensely proud of the legacy and the positive impact the Greater Richmond Convention Center has had on tourism,” said Lincoln Saunders, City of Richmond Chief Administrative Officer and Chair of the Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority. “Millions of people are introduced to the Richmond Region through events and competitions that are hosted at the facility every year. These visitors support our economy by shopping at our small businesses, eating at restaurants and visiting attractions.”

To examine the viability of the GRCC, regional leaders commissioned a feasibility study by C.H. Johnson Consulting in 1999. The researchers projected hotel tax collections to reach $30 million by fiscal year 2020. Hotel tax collection revenues reached $30 million by fiscal year 2019.

Throughout the GRCC expansion phases, groups were welcomed to the region to use completed portions of the building. About 1,200 women from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority were the first to use the facility’s new ballroom during a three-day conference in May 2001.

When the GRCC was officially completed in 2003, Richmond Region Tourism had booked 18 conventions through 2008.

Interest and bookings have experienced a dramatic uptick over the years. During its last fiscal year, the GRCC hosted over 180 events.

From USA Fencing tournaments and ice dancing competitions to offshore wind conferences and comic conventions, the GRCC has hosted various large-scale events since it opened.

“The convention center is a shining example of regional collaboration,” said Jack Berry, president and CEO of Richmond Region Tourism. “The success of the convention center demonstrates how investing in tourism results in positive economic development for our entire region. Richmond Region Tourism and its partners are committed to working alongside our community to continue tourism’s positive momentum.”

The GRCC went through extensive upgrades to modernize the facility in 2020.

GRCC’s technological and cosmetic improvements include new LED lighting and RGB color lighting, monitors, digital signage, and a new digital sound system.  Its interior spaces were updated with new tile, accents, paint scheme, and pub-style tables and seating. The facility also features a new executive lounge and a renovated food court and service desk.

Today the GRCC features 178,159 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, a 30,550 square foot grand ballroom, and 50,000 sq. ft. of additional meeting room space.

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Downtown

Animal welfare advocates disappointed bill to declaw cats failed

House Bill 1382 would have made the declawing of cats a $500 civil penalty for the first violation, $1,000 for the second violation and $2,500 for the third or any subsequent violation. The bill failed to advance when it was tabled by a 6-4 vote in a House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee.

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By Cassandra Loper

A proposal to outlaw the declawing of cats, a procedure that animal rights advocates call cruel and unnecessary, failed to advance from a House subcommittee last month.

House Bill 1382 would have made cat declawing a $500 civil penalty for the first violation, $1,000 for the second violation and $2,500 for the third or any subsequent violation. The bill was tabled by a 6-4 vote in a House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee.

The bill is important because cats’ claws are natural and used for stretching, marking territory, balance and more, according to Molly Armus, Virginia state director of the Humane Society of the United States.

Declawing cats is actually an “incredibly painful procedure,” according to Armus.

“I think it’s up to us, as people who are taking these cats into our homes, to learn more humane and less invasive ways to manage scratching,” Armus said.

An onychectomy, or declawing, is a surgery that includes 10 separate amputations, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. PETA is the largest animal rights organization in the world, according to its website.

Declawing is typically performed for convenience, according to the Animal League Defense Fund. Many people declaw their cats to prevent scratching, its website states.

“Localities around the nation, a couple of states, including our neighbor Maryland, have passed a declawing ban,” said bill sponsor Del. Gwendolyn Gooditis, D-Clarke, in the committee meeting.

New York and Maryland are the only U.S. states that have outlawed declawing. Multiple U.S. cities have passed declawing laws, with the most located in California, according to PETA.

“Declawing cats means, look at your hands, it would be the equivalent of your fingers and your toes being chopped off at the first knuckle,” Gooditis said.

The procedure can cause impaired balance, as much as a person would after losing his or her toes, according to PETA. Declawed cats may have to relearn how to walk.

“It’s a removal of that last bone,” Gooditis said.

Susan Seward, a lobbyist for the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, or VVMA, testified against the bill in the committee meeting. The VVMA strongly opposed the bill, Seward said.

“I think one of the unintended consequences would be setting up a really unpleasant and adversarial relationship between animal control and veterinarians, and that is certainly not a relationship we want to diminish,” Seward said to the committee panel.

Alice Burton, program director for nonprofit animal welfare organization Alley Cat Allies, said the organization was disappointed the bill failed.

Alley Cat Allies mission is to protect and improve the lives of cats. according to its website. The organization operates a trap-neuter-return program to help stabilize the cat population. A cat is transported to a veterinarian, spayed and returned to its original location.

It’s an act of cruelty to declaw cats, according to Burton, who was an animal control officer for 15 years.

“They no longer have their nails as a defense, so their first instinct is to bite,” Burton said. “So all of a sudden they’ve got these bites on their record, which obviously does not bode well for them.”

Declawed cats also struggle to use the litter box because the litter hurts their paws, she said. Many cats who have been declawed will stop using the litter box and soil where they aren’t supposed to, Burton said.

“I would say most of the time these negative effects lead to these cats being surrendered to the shelters or rescue groups,” Burton said. “They would, in most cases, be deemed unadoptable and they would be euthanized.”

There are many other humane options out there, according to Burton.

Humane alternatives to declawing include trimming a cat’s claws regularly, using deterrents such as double-sided tape on furniture, rubber caps for the nails and providing a variety of scratching options, according to Alley Cat Allies.

“We’re not giving up,” Burton said. “We’re going to come back and keep fighting.”

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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