Cupid must be in Richmond as lawmakers claim bipartisan goodwill

RICHMOND — Maybe it was because of Valentine’s Day, but the General Assembly was unusually lovey-dovey Wednesday at the midpoint of this year’s legislative session.

The Republican speaker of the House praised the Democratic governor; the top Democrat in the House praised the speaker. A Democrat and a Republican even staged a cute presentation on the House floor to invite everyone to a wine party.

As the legislature powered past the Tuesday crossover point, when each chamber wraps up its work and sends it to the other, the air was thick with a sense that Virginia may actually find ways to bridge the partisan gulf and get things done.

It was a marked change from the tense beginning of the session a month ago. At that point, GOP leaders were incensed at new Gov. Ralph Northam for taking a partisan victory lap in his opening speech. Democrats in the House had accused new Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) of stashing their bills in a special committee to die.

But so far, lawmakers are giving themselves — and each other — cautious credit for overcoming that initial rancor to make progress on several fronts.

“You’d like to think that in a session like this where you’re so tight in terms of your numbers that both parties can claim victories in various areas,” House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said.

Last fall’s elections gave Democrats near-parity in the House after years of being vastly outnumbered, with Republicans barely hanging on to a 51-49 majority. On Wednesday, Toscano credited Cox for running the show — so far, anyway — with a reasonably even hand.

He was worried when Cox assigned Democratic bills to the previously obscure Rules Committee, Toscano said, but “ultimately most of these bills got sent out to their proper committees and got a hearing.”

That outcome was partly because of the new Democratic strength — the “power of 49,” Toscano said. “We’d like to think we’ve been pushing a lot of these initiatives for years and now we’ve gotten to the point where we’re very close in terms of who has the majority, and people are really beginning to pay attention.”

Toscano cited a recent deal to raise Virginia’s felony threshold from $200 to $500 — something Democrats have sought for years — and noted that Republicans are finally suggesting they are willing to expand Medicaid.

Northam himself brokered the felony threshold deal. As a former state senator who is well-liked by both parties, Northam has nurtured quiet connections with Cox and other GOP leaders, summoning them to frequent meetings.

The governor also teamed with Cox to announce plans to cut state business regulations, and convened a stakeholder group to come up with complex legislation to overhaul the regulation of electric utilities. That measure, one of the biggest topics the General Assembly is tackling this year, is thoroughly bipartisan in terms of both its supporters and detractors.

“Honestly, if you had told me in December that we would have accomplished this much in just the first half of the General Assembly session, I would have thought you were nuts,” Cox said Wednesday in a news conference.

He praised lawmakers for passing bills related to worker training, sexual harassment, opioids and Metro funding. And he credited Northam for moving things forward — despite having offended Republicans with that opening speech.

“The tone since then has been very good,” Cox said. “I give the governor credit. . . . I think it’s been a very productive relationship.”

Of course, it’s only halfway through the session. The House and Senate will unveil their budget plans next week, and Medicaid is set to be a huge point of contention. Democrats have failed to get any gun control measures even out of committee, much less enacted. Their efforts to get the legislature to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment went nowhere. Republicans in the House passed a ban on sanctuary cities that Northam has already promised to veto.

So every day is another chance to collapse into partisan gridlock and disarray.

But on Wednesday, love was in the air. Lawmakers wore red ties, jackets, skirts and hats — including at least one “Make America Great Again” hat. Heart streamers decorated desks; seemingly every surface bore a bowl full of Valentine candy.

A group of delegates announced a new bipartisan caucus — the Virginia State Future Caucus, aimed at millennials and the concerns of young people. It drew some ribbing for setting the age range at under 45, but the 19 new delegates who won in last fall’s elections have injected youth into the House of Delegates. Before, only 22 percent of the House was under age 45; now, it’s 34 percent, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

In a news conference, about a dozen delegates from both parties said they were excited to work outside the usual party structure to focus on areas such as reducing student debt and preparing the state for new technologies.

Younger lawmakers “are tired of the status quo,” said Del. Will Morefield (R-Tazewell), who is 34. “We have proven time and time again that the status quo is no longer effective.”