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Virginia General Assembly Session Likely to be Tumultuous, ODU Political Scientists Predict

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Virginia sits in a unique position in the national political landscape.

With statewide elections held a year after every presidential election and Virginia governors limited to one term, the commonwealth's 2017 election can serve as one of the first gauges of public sentiment after a tumultuous 2016 in politics.

Because the Virginia election in November holds high stakes, political scientists at Old Dominion University say to expect a lot of volume but not a great deal of substantive legislation when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, Jan. 11 for the final session of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's term.

"Both parties will work on shaping their arguments for the election this fall," said Jesse Richman, associate professor in ODU's Department of Political Science and Geography.

The short 46-day session will also be dominated by the state budget problems. Virginia has an estimated $1.26 billion shortfall for fiscal years 2016 through 2018.

Benjamin Melusky, who joined the political science department at Old Dominion in August as a specialist in state politics, said that even modest legislative goals will be tempered by discussions about how to close the shortfall. "This session is going to be driven by the budget," he said.

Low-profile special elections held Jan. 10 to fill seats of state legislators elected to the U.S. Congress resulted in Republicans maintaining their narrow majority in the Virginia Senate. The almost-even balance of power in that body could affect the tenor of budget discussions with the Democratic governor, Melusky said.

There is likely to be little in the way of substantive legislation discussed by the General Assembly, the Old Dominion political scientists said, but a few bills in such areas as mental health and criminal justice reform could garner bipartisan support. Melusky said the legislative plan discussed by the Virginia Housing Commission, including a proposal to regulate and tax all Airbnb hosts, could gain steam during the General Assembly session.

"In a time where there is already a budget shortfall, this could prove to be popular, especially in resort and tourist areas that depend on the tourism economy," he said.

Richman said much of the theater that occurs in Richmond over the next seven weeks is likely to be preamble to the statewide elections.

The leading candidates for governor in both parties -- Democrat Ralph Northam, Virginia's lieutenant governor, and Republican Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who almost defeated Sen. Mark Warner in 2014 -- have both seen strong challengers emerge.

As candidates at all levels prepare for fall campaigns, statements will be issued and public positions staked with an eye to November's election. "It's too early to say how the General Assembly session will unfold, but I expect there will be conflict," Richman said.

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