By SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A newly empowered Republican majority assumed control of the Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday as the General Assembly opened its 2022 session under divided party control.

Members of the House and Democrat-controlled Senate will be meeting for 60 days to craft a two-year state budget and take up bills covering a range of sometimes conflicting priorities on issues including education, marijuana policy, public safety and voting rights.

The bipartisan dynamics and the compromise it will require will mark a dramatic shift from the past two years, when Democrats were in full control of state government. Republicans not only flipped the House in November but also won election to all three statewide offices. Bills that pass the General Assembly will head to the desk of incoming GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who will be sworn in Saturday.

“Our agenda for 2022 is a direct response to what we heard from voters on the campaign trail,” Del. Todd Gilbert, the new House speaker, said at a news conference. “Throughout the campaign, voters consistently told us they were worried about their children’s education, inflation was making it harder to take care of their families, and they wanted to see the safety of their communities improved.”

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Senate Democrats, meanwhile, said they were ready to protect their party’s gains made in the past two years.

After convening at noon, House members took the oath of office, then elected Gilbert to preside over the chamber. He will take over control of the dais from Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn, who in 2020 became the first woman to serve in the role.

Democrats joined with Republicans in voting for Gilbert, an attorney from the Shenandoah Valley who most recently served as minority leader. He called it his life’s greatest honor, pledging the chamber would “do the people’s business in the light of day.”

With traditional courtesies concluded, members pivoted to a partisan back-and-forth over the resolution governing the session’s protocols.

Lawmakers are meeting as both hospitalizations and cases of COVID-19 surge because of the highly contagious omicron variant. Republicans introduced provisions that will allow the chamber to conduct its business electronically if two thirds of the members agree. Democrats sought changes that would require only a simple majority vote, which Republicans rejected.

The chamber is operating without mask or vaccine mandates, and mask-wearing appeared entirely split along party lines.

One House member, Republican Del. Will Wampler from southwest Virginia, was not in attendance. His absence was not explained.

In the 40-member state Senate, where no seats were up for election last year, members’ desks were separated by plastic dividers, draw ingcriticism from some GOP members who called them “cages.” The Senate will permit remote participation by sick or quarantining members.

Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in that chamber. Because Republican Winsome Sears was elected lieutenant governor, a role that involves casting tie-breaking votes, the GOP will need to sway only one centrist Democrat — and there are several — to secure a majority on any given bill.

With Sears to be sworn in Saturday as the first woman and woman of color to serve in the role, outgoing Democratic Gov. Justin Fairfax presided Wednesday.

Despite the formalities of the first day, the House and Senate majorities held dueling morning news conferences to lay out their priorities, signaling where there could be clashes ahead.

House Republican leaders promised to use their new majority to focus on education, the cost of living and public safety.

Del. Barry Knight, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Republicans will push for tax cuts to help Virginians deal with rising inflation, including providing a direct tax rebate of $300 for individuals and $600 for families, eliminating the 2.5% tax on groceries, and doubling the standard income tax deduction.

“We have a fiscal and moral obligation to help these struggling families when this inflation probably is going to heat up,” Knight said.

Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw threw his support behind a refundable tax credit rather than an across-the-board change to the standard deduction, saying such a move would return money to “people who don’t need it.”

On education, House leaders promised a push to boost the number of charter schools in Virginia, while Senate Democrats said their top priority would be strengthening the public school system. They also said they planned to advance campaign finance reform and paid family medical leave bills.

Later Wednesday, outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam highlighted his administration’s work in his final annual “State of the Commonwealth” address to lawmakers. He emphasized voting rights reform, broadband expansion, climate change initiatives, marijuana legalization, and the state’s COVID-19 response and strong financial position, among other topics.

“We are leaving this Commonwealth better than it was when we came into office,” he said.

State law barred Northam from seeking a second consecutive term.

Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.

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