There’s soon to be a new occupant in the governor’s mansion, one with different ideas and priorities than the outgoing administration. Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory in November’s general election, coupled with Republicans retaking a narrow majority in the House of Delegates, means that Virginia will head into the 2022 General Assembly session with interesting challenges and opportunities across the levers of state government. By the time you read this, we expect Youngkin’s transition team may have announced certain intended appointees for key cabinet positions and state agencies, including the Governor-elect’s pick for Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources.
The Northam Administration has a few final things to do before handing over the keys, however. On Dec. 16, Governor Northam will release his final budget proposal. This fall, PEC joined more than 25 conservation and advocacy organizations in calling on the governor to dedicate over $120 million for new and existing natural resources protection programs. Based on state agency funding requests made available in early October, we’re optimistic that this call has not fallen entirely on deaf ears. For example, the Natural and Historic Resources Secretariat has included requests for $12 million in funding for land conservation in tribal communities and $10 million over two years for a new Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Preservation Fund.
Regrettably, however, there were no agency requests for increased funding for the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation or trails funding. PEC will continue to press for more dedicated funding for natural resources conservation and public access, as well as robust funding for agricultural best management practices. Even with a change in leadership, we remain hopeful; these priorities have bipartisan support and Governor-elect Youngkin has demonstrated a commitment to conservation.
After nearly two years of coping with uncertainty wrought by the ongoing global pandemic, Virginia is closing out 2021 in a far better fiscal situation than initially anticipated. During a brief special legislative session in August, the General Assembly allocated $3.5 billion of the $4.3 billion that Virginia received from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Congress in March 2021. The General Assembly did direct a portion of those funds to programs and projects designed to improve water quality, increase access to food and clean water, and address maintenance needs at state parks. However, we were disappointed that policymakers in Richmond did not seize this extraordinary opportunity to significantly increase the state’s investment in land conservation, public access, trails, and maintenance of our shared natural spaces. As Virginia ends fiscal year 2021 with a $2.6 million budget surplus—the largest in state history—we will press the incoming Youngkin administration and legislators in the General Assembly to make natural resources funding a higher priority in 2022.
The 2022 General Assembly session begins on Jan. 12 and legislators have already begun filing bills. Though we don’t yet know the exact format that next year’s regular session will take—in-person, hybrid, or fully remote—we believe it important for the House and Senate to continue allowing people to participate virtually and via written comment.
Beyond plans to help lead the charge for increased and dedicated natural resources funding in the state budget, PEC staff are actively working with state policymakers on several other legislative priorities for the upcoming session. A few such efforts include:
A watershed moment in 2020 was the passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, to help prevent involuntary loss of family land through partition, which disproportionately affects Black families in the South. The conservation community is exploring ways to strengthen this landmark legislation, including ensuring that low-income landowners do not face an undue tax burden and are more easily able to establish a clear chain of ownership, both important tools to keep land in the family.
With solar energy increasingly ascendant across Virginia, and particularly in the Piedmont, PEC will continue our work supporting access to renewable energy while ensuring that permitting of new industrial-scale solar facilities considers impacts to existing resources. To that end, we plan to push for enhancements to the state’s permit-by-rule process for utility-scale solar and greater incentives to support smaller-scale solar generation.
The rural beauty of Virginia’s Piedmont has led to more and more wedding venues and event centers throughout our region. While these businesses play an important role in bringing tourism revenue and tax dollars to localities, PEC wants to make sure these venues, particularly those housed in aging agricultural structures, are safe for all involved. Accordingly, PEC staff are considering working with legislators to tighten the inspection exception for certain agricultural buildings.
Land Conservation Tools
In order to better provide for the preservation of Virginia’s natural lands, PEC and the broader conservation community are working to expand the tools available for land conservation in the commonwealth, as well as to protect and enhance existing programs. For example, PEC is committed to ensuring robust state support for the Land Preservation Tax Credit, one of the most effective private land conservation programs in the county.
January will be here before we know it, and with it renewed opportunity in Richmond to advocate for policies and programs that will help the Virginia Piedmont remain a beautiful place to live and visit for all of us, well into the future. As always, if you have any questions about PEC’s work in Richmond, please feel free to reach out to Director of State Policy Dan Holmes (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Senior Policy Manager Adam Gillenwater (email@example.com).