Eyes Turn Toward Richmond: What To Expect This Session

image of a green lawn with a large white building
Capitol Square in Richmond, VA. Photo by Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

Start your engines! The 2022 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly kicked off today, and with last November’s elections ushering in a changed political landscape in Richmond, it promises to be a barnburner.

We’re in an even-numbered year, which means we’re in for a “long”—i.e. 60-day—legislative session that, barring any extensions, will last through March 12. Accordingly, it’s also a budget year in Virginia, and outgoing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam released his proposed budget for the 2022-2024 biennium on December 16. However, with a newly-empowered Republican majority in the House of Delegates and a change of occupants in the Governor’s Mansion, it’s likely that the final budget bill will bear little resemblance to Northam’s initial proposal.

As for the format of the 2022 session, the House and Senate are both back in-person, with legislators and lobbyists returning to the halls of the Pocahontas Building for the first time since the pandemic began. Thankfully, however, the House (and hopefully the Senate) has decided to keep in place the enhanced avenues for public input on legislation utilized over the past two years, namely the ability for citizens to view committee meetings virtually, provide remote testimony, and submit written feedback via an online portal. 

With seating capacity in committee rooms limited due to social distancing protocols and many legislators indicating a preference for meeting with constituents and lobbyists virtually, the retention of remote engagement methods represents a critical opportunity for you to make your voice heard—safely and effectively—on the issues that matter to you.

From Bills to Budget – What We Know

Despite a ransomware attack in mid-December that affected key computer systems used by Virginia’s legislative agencies and disrupted bill filing for a period of time, we expect no shortage of proposed legislation this session. As of this afternoon, there were more than 700 House bills and over 300 Senate bills posted to the state’s online Legislative Information System.

Beyond the budget bills, where PEC plans to help lead the charge for increased and dedicated funding for natural resource preservation, there are a few key issue areas we’ll be watching closely over the next two months. Stay tuned for meaningful opportunities for engagement and advocacy.

Gubernatorial Appointments 

By now you’ve likely heard of the controversy surrounding Governor-elect Youngkin’s decision to nominate Andrew Wheeler, a former coal and chemical industry lobbyist and head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2018 to 2021, to be Virginia’s next Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources. Cabinet appointees in Virginia require General Assembly approval, and while it is rare for a nominee to be rejected, it is not unprecedented. Virginia Democrats at the federal and state level are extremely concerned by Wheeler’s nomination. With a slim Democratic majority in the state senate it’s possible that Wheeler will not be confirmed, in which case Youngkin would have to make an alternative pick to serve on an acting basis. 

Land Conservation 

Working with numerous land trusts across the Commonwealth, including PEC, Senator Marsden has introduced legislation that would serve to significantly increase annual state funding for land conservation grant programs. Senator Marsden’s legislation, SB 31, directs the governor to include a $40 million recommended appropriation to the Virginia Land Conservation Fund in the budget bill each year, and would make various other improvements, including allowing grants to be made to state- and federally-recognized Virginia Indian tribes. We expect this legislation to soon be on the docket before the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee and will alert you of opportunities to lend your voice in support.

Historic Preservation

Included in Governor Northam’s budget proposal was $10 million over two years for a new Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Preservation Fund. Delegate McQuinn and Senator Hashmi are the lead patrons on legislation (HB 141; SB 158) that would formally establish this new fund. PEC is incredibly excited by this proposal; we worked closely with Senator McClellan during the 2021 regular session to expand the capacity of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to survey and document historic resources from underrepresented communities. Separately, PEC staff are working with legislators to address a problem associated with heirs’ property, to ensure landowners can take advantage of Virginia’s use value taxation program, thus lowering their tax burden. This is critically important to help prevent involuntary loss of family land.

Energy Generation & Utility Regulation 

We expect a range of legislation this session pertaining to utilities and energy generation, particularly with regard to renewables. Delegate Webert, for example, is putting forward a bill, HB 206, aimed at the state’s permit-by-rule process for utility-scale solar facilities of 150 MW or less. The legislation would require a mitigation plan to accompany any proposed solar facility that would impact greater than 50 acres of contiguous forest and/or 10 acres of prime farmland soils. We also anticipate several bills addressing utility regulation and rates that PEC will join with partners to support. Lastly, we will be supportive of legislation carried by Delegate Gooditis that would improve the transparency of electric cooperatives.

Climate Resiliency

In recent years, Virginia has made significant strides in adopting policies and participating in programs designed to address the threats posed by climate change. With a Republican majority in the House of Delegates, we expect to see efforts made to roll back certain elements of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which set a 100 percent clean energy standard, established energy efficiency standards, and committed the state to a zero-carbon electric grid by 2045. In addition to the passage of the VCEA, in 2020 Virginia also joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It is the first southern state to join this multi-state cap-and-trade program, which has helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provided participating states with funds to support energy efficiency and renewable energy programs like the Community Flood Preparedness Fund here in Virginia. Governor-elect Youngkin has already announced his intention to withdraw Virginia from RGGI, which has prompted a spirited debate about his legal authority to do so. We expect the VCEA and RGGI will both be issues of significant interest this General Assembly session. 

In addition to the items described above, we expect this session will bring with it important budget items (agricultural best management practices, conservation and trails, etc.) and impactful legislation relating to land use, transportation, access to public lands, and likely a host of other issues important to us here in Virginia’s beautiful Piedmont region. In the coming weeks, we’ll be sending out additional email alerts and updates detailing ways you can get involved and asking you to lend your voice in support of key environmental and conservation priorities.  

Learn More and Get Involved

Conservation Lobby Day

Tuesday, February 1, 2022, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Virtual + Richmond, VA
Cost: Free (donations accepted)

I encourage you to attend the Conservation Lobby Day hosted by the Virginia Conservation Network (VCN). You’ll have the chance to hear updates about legislation from professional staff in the environmental community and join other volunteer advocates to meet virtually or in-person with legislators.

2022 Our Common Agenda

This briefing book is an annual publication produced by VCN and outlines the conservation community’s policy priorities — everything from clean energy and renewables, to water quality and transportation. In addition to helping write content for this great resource, PEC also coordinates closely with our partners at VCN throughout the session.

As this very different General Assembly session moves forward, we will do our best to alert you to opportunities to engage or take action, but I encourage you to get in touch with your delegate and senator now to let them know what issues are important to you.

Stay tuned for our email alerts and social media posts throughout session!

If you have any questions about the General Assembly session, proposed legislation, or PEC’s work in Richmond, please feel free to reach out to Senior Policy Manager Adam Gillenwater (agillenwater@pecva.org) or Director of State Policy Dan Holmes (dholmes@pecva.org).