By the time you read this, the 2022 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly will be over—hopefully. However, as of March 10, House and Senate conferees had yet to reach an agreement on the state budget bills, making it likely that the session will run past its scheduled end date of March 12.
After two years with Democrats in full control of the levers of state government, the results of last November’s election brought divided government back to the state capitol in 2022. As you might suspect, these political dynamics, combined with the ongoing challenges of conducting legislative business in the midst of a global pandemic, made for a barn burner of a session.
One of the first controversies to grip Richmond this session was Gov. Youngkin’s nomination of Andrew Wheeler for Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. Gov. Youngkin’s nomination of the former coal lobbyist and head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2019 to 2021 was met with immediate and spirited opposition from the environmental community, which called upon Senate Democrats to block his confirmation. Ultimately, Senate Democrats voted to do just that, but in a sign of just how acrimonious this situation became, House Republicans subsequently removed around a dozen Northam-appointed members of various state boards. None of Governor Youngkin’s other cabinet nominees, including his picks for Secretary of Agriculture (Matt Lohr) and Director of the Department of Environmental Quality (Mike Rolband), met with much, if any, opposition.
As of press time, the House and Senate are still negotiating a final agreement on the budget, with the issue of tax relief looming large. Importantly, while far from perfect, the House and Senate budget bills made several notable investments in programs and initiatives that advance land conservation, outdoor recreation, and agricultural best management practices across the commonwealth.
The Senate biennial budget bill included meaningful funding increases for the state’s three flagship grant funds — the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation (VLCF), the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund (VFPF), and the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund. The House proposal, unfortunately, not only reduced funding for VLCF and VFPF, but also removed language and funding from the introduced budget that would have established a pilot program to assist historically underserved landowners in the resolution of heirs’ property issues. We were pleased to see that both the House and Senate recommended robust funding to the tune of more than $230 million for Virginia’s Agricultural Cost-Share Program, which supports farmers in implementing conservation practices that protect soil health and water quality.
As for outdoor recreation priorities, the introduced budget included historic investments in Virginia’s outdoor recreation economy, including $233 million for multi-use trails and approximately $70 million for maintenance and resource needs at Virginia’s state parks. Unfortunately, both chambers significantly reduced the proposed trails funding to less than $100 million and took different approaches to allocation. The House budget also took an ax to the proposed funding for state parks, while, in contrast, the Senate added more than $100 million over the $70 million recommended level to address maintenance backlog issues. In welcome news, both chambers included language to create a new state park in Culpeper County, the Culpeper Battlefields State Park.
The more than 3,000 bills and resolutions introduced this session are a few too many for us to update you on here, but we highlight below several bills that PEC actively tracked or worked on this session.
On the land conservation front, the session added a new tool in the toolbox for preservation of historic sites in under-represented communities with both the House and Senate passing and allocating funding for the establishment of a Virginia Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Preservation Fund. In an admittedly more half-loaf outcome, SB31, which proposed several positive changes to the VLCF program, passed on a bipartisan basis, but not before it was amended to remove language recommending a $40 million annual appropriation.
In the climate and clean energy arena, Senate Democrats stood firm to block several bills approved by the House that would have rolled back recent efforts to move Virginia toward a carbon-neutral future. The Senate dispatched with HB2265, which would have repealed the Virginia Clean Economy Act (2020 legislation that set a deadline to end carbon emissions from utilities by 2050), as well as HB1301, intended to take the commonwealth out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (the multi-state compact designed to limit carbon emissions through the auction of carbon dioxide allowances), which Virginia joined in 2021. We’re also pleased that HB206, a bill that PEC spent countless hours shepherding, passed and is expected to be approved by Governor Youngkin. This bipartisan, compromise legislation promises to encourage more responsible siting of future utility-scale solar projects by requiring solar developers to submit mitigation plans to address significant adverse impacts to agricultural and forestal resources.
Beyond utility-scale solar, this session saw no shortage of bills related to other land use issues. PEC worked closely with Del. Webert to secure the passage of HB996, which will help prevent involuntary land loss of heirs’ property by allowing the majority of owners to make decisions related to enrollment in Virginia’s use value taxation program. We also supported Sen. Hanger’s SB400, which directs the Board of Housing and Community Development to create regulations related to agritourism event buildings. The General Assembly approved this legislation, but added a reenactment clause, requiring it to pass during the 2023 session for most of its provisions to take effect. Lastly, concerted pushback from localities and the environmental community led to the defeat of SB255, which would have effectively gutted local approval authority for most new telecommunications towers.
Numerous other bills were of relevance to our work in the Piedmont. PEC was proud to support HB828 and HB830, which both passed unanimously. HB828 expands eligibility for dairy producers wishing to participate in the Margin Coverage Premium Assistance Program, while HB830 directs the state to develop a five-year strategic plan to increase total combined throughput capacity of slaughter and meat-processing facilities. Unfortunately, the General Assembly approved SB657, championed by Sen. Stuart, limiting the authority of the Air Pollution Control Board and State Water Control Board to issue regulations and transferring their existing authority to issue permits to the Department of Environmental Quality. We were similarly disappointed that HB250, which would have studied copper, zinc, and lead mining in Virginia and placed a moratorium until July 1, 2024 on new permits for mines larger than 10 acres, died in committee. We’ve run out of space, but the list goes on!
To those of you who followed along with us during the session and reached out to legislators to advocate on specific bills, thank you! In many cases, it was your direct constituent advocacy that pushed our priority bills across the finish line. We consider the 2022 session largely a success, and we’re already looking forward to 2023.
This story appeared in The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit pecva.org/join.