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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

January 13, 2018

2018 Legislative Session Begins with Commonwealth’s Most Diverse House of Delegates

State / Elections

Virginia capitol building

On Wednesday, January 10, state lawmakers returned to Richmond to kick off the 2018 General Assembly session. As it stands at the beginning of the session, Republicans hold a 51-49 edge over Democrats in the House of Delegates, an extremely narrow margin compared to last year when Republicans held a 66-34 advantage.

The Republican majority was settled following the conclusion of a two-month long battle between candidate Shelly Simonds and Del. David Yancey. Shortly before the House was scheduled to convene on Wednesday, Democrat Shelly Simonds conceded to Del. David Yancey (R – Newport News, 94th District) after an extremely close race that included a ballot recount, a court hearing on a disputed ballot, and, ultimately, Del. Yancey being declared the winner after the State Board of Elections randomly picked his name from a bowl. Another Republican, Bob Thomas, was sworn in to represent the 28th district after an appeals court refused to block his certification based on legal challenges resulting from hundreds of voters in the district receiving ballots that listed the wrong House of Delegates race.

The 2018 session convened with a myriad of new faces as nineteen new members were sworn into the lower chamber. Among these new faces, sixteen are Democrat, three are Republican. Twelve are women, increasing the proportion of female legislators from just 17% of the body to 27%, the most diverse legislature in the Commonwealth’s history. The new delegation also includes its first openly lesbian delegate (Del. Dawn Adams), its first Latinas (Del. Elizabeth Guzmán & Del. Hala Ayala) and its first female, Asian-American (Del. Kathy Tran) delegates.

Additionally, newly seated Del. Danica Roem is both the state’s first transgender lawmaker, as well as the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature in the United States. Perhaps most notably, 14 of the new members are under the age of 45, creating what is in effect, a millennial caucus buoyed by historic turnout among millennial voters. These new legislators include Republican Emily Brewer, and Democrats Jay Jones and Chris Hurst, whose run for the legislature was inspired by the murder of his girlfriend WDBJ-TV anchor Allison Parker.

The session kicked off with the unanimous election of Del. Kirk Cox as Speaker of the House of Delegates. Del. Cox, from Colonial Heights, is a longstanding member of the General Assembly who has served in the state legislature since 1990. When he addressed his fellow lawmakers, Speaker Cox acknowledged the new makeup of the House and delivered an address with a distinctly bipartisan theme:

“We are not two parties, we are one House tasked with the responsibility of governing one Commonwealth, improving the lives of one group – the citizens we serve. As we come together as a body to heal the wounds of an election season that lasted longer than any of us expected, I pray we will renew the commitment to governing.”

These sentiments have also been echoed by Governor-elect Ralph Northam who has promised to unite both parties at the General Assembly to pass a bipartisan agenda. In a joint news conference on Tuesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Governor-elect Ralph Northam outlined the policy agenda that they would like to see passed by the Virginia legislature. Among their suggestions, McAuliffe and Northam called for carbon reduction initiatives, raising the grand larceny threshold, Medicaid expansion, and universal background checks for gun purchases.

Noticeably, among the 1200 bills filed so far, there is an obvious lack of so-called “culture war” bills compared to previous cycles in which Republicans held a near super-majority. Still, the legislative agenda includes several issues known to generate disagreements between the parties including gun control and Medicaid expansion which have tended to play out along party lines.

Notable bills that have been filed include raising the minimum wage and requiring private insurance plans to cover abortions in the case of rape, incest, or life-threatening pregnancies. Several lawmakers have also proposed tax reform legislation aimed at encouraging businesses to locate in Virginia. These bills look at giving tax breaks to companies who create new jobs for Virginians or choose to locate their business within certain parts of the state. “Over the coming weeks we will continue to roll out a robust agenda to help better the lives of the people we serve,” said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman from Speaker Cox’s team.

Lawmakers will also be tasked with tackling Virginia’s biennial state budget during this 60-day session commonly referred to as a “long” session.

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