Just like earlier this year, the 2023 General Assembly session will be a case of the art of the possible for Arlington’s all-Democratic, seven-member delegation.
“This session is going to be exactly the same [as the previous one] in many, many ways,” said Del. Rip Sullivan (D-McLean-Arlington) during a 90-minute work session between legislators and County Board members held Dec. 6.
By that, he meant Democrats will be playing defense, as they no longer control either the governorship or the House of Delegates, halting momentum that had ramped up during the brief period in recent years when Democrats had held total control of state government.
Despite the current political dynamic, “our job is to continue fighting for the issues and the policies we know are right,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington-Fairfax).
Democrats control a very narrow (currently 21-19) majority in the state Senate, which effectively prohibits Republicans from moving forward with their own aggressive agenda that had been standard operating procedure back when the GOP controlled all levers of power in Richmond.
“We’re going to have to be a brick wall once again,” state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-McLean-Loudoun) said of Senate Democrats.
At the Dec. 6 meeting, County Board members outlined their own proposed legislative package, acknowledging that much of it likely will be dead on arrival in Richmond but offering legislators their support for any efforts that will be made.
“Let us know how we can help – as you can tell, we have opinions,” County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said.
There might be some areas of bipartisan agreement: Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) said Gov. Youngkin has made positive comments on the need for additional mental-health support.
“I am hopeful he will put some significant revenue into the budget,” Hope said.
(The 2023 session is a year that will only deal with amendments to the budget adopted in 2022. The next full budget will be developed during the 60-day legislative session in 2024.)
For Lopez, who is known for having a robust number of bills each legislative session, the limits placed on the amount of legislation that can be patroned by any one legislator represent “my personal hell.”
“I have to make choices,” he said, hoping to be able to give some of his additional pieces of legislation to newer members of the House of Delegates to patron in his stead.
The 2023 General Assembly session, slated to run 45 days, will open in mid-January. But all eyes will also be looking ahead to next November, when all 100 House of Delegates seats and 40 state Senate seats statewide will be on the ballot.
The result could go one of three ways:
• If Republicans can hold the House of Delegates and win back the state Senate, they and Gov. Youngkin will have the ability to roll back some of the legislation put in place during the few years during the Northam administration when Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship.
• If Democrats can win back the House of Delegates and hold the Senate, they will be able to pass much of their agenda, but likely will face the veto pen of Youngkin during the 2024 and 2025 sessions.
• If the election result is split control of the legislature, things will likely remain as they are, with neither side having the power to impose its will on the other.
As a result of redistricting, Arlington will go from four seats in the House of Delegates to three. Sullivan and Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker (D-Alexandria-Arlington) will no longer be part of the Arlington delegation.
And Arlington will see its Senate contingent reduced from three to two, with the seat currently held by Sen. Janet Howell (who is expected to retire) no longer including any part of Arlington.
Sullivan told County Board members that while he will no longer be representing Arlington after the 2023 session, he would continue to try and serve the county government’s interests in Richmond.
“Trying to drag Virginia into the 21st-century is a full-time job sometimes,” Sullivan said.
(It’s a pithy comment that might have played well with the all-Democratic County Board, but may not go over so well in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.)
Hope said one of his goals is to be able to “start a conversation” with Republicans on issues where it might be premature to actually introduce legislation, hoping to build alliances that can translate into success in future years.