Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) on Thursday called a rare special session of the General Assembly to unravel legislation that mistakenly granted the state's private employees the right to time off on weekends.
In his second such proclamation this year, Warner said he "does hereby summon the members of the Senate and House of Delegates, constituting the General Assembly of Virginia, to meet in special session." This time, the session is "for the sole purpose of considering legislation to reinstate the exemptions to the day of rest laws."
The state's 140 lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Tuesday at noon.
In March, Warner called a special session after the legislature deadlocked over whether to raise taxes. That session dragged on for nearly two months.
Tuesday's session probably will last only a few hours as lawmakers convene to revoke a law that requires employers to grant non-managerial workers a weekend day off or be subject to fines and a requirement to triple the workers' pay.
Legislators accidentally resurrected the obsolete law during their extended 2004 General Assembly session as they were trying to rid the state code of outdated provisions known as blue laws. In this case, though, they inadvertently removed exemptions to the "day of rest" law for most businesses.
Longtime political observers said they do not recall a special session ever being called in Virginia to correct a legislative goof. Such mistakes are usually corrected in the next regularly scheduled session.
"It is certainly unusual and without precedent," said G. Paul Nardo, the chief aide to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "But making sure there is a stable and predictable environment for businesses and employees is very important."
Last week, a Richmond Circuit Court judge halted implementation of the law pending a hearing on its constitutionality. But he hinted strongly that the law's fate should rest with the legislators who created it, not with the judiciary.
Administration officials had for days urged calm, saying there was no need to rush into a special session. Warner is vacationing with his family in Wyoming.
But spokeswoman Ellen Qualls said the governor relented under mounting pressure from the business community, which warned that the uncertainty of the law's status could threaten the state's economy. "This thing just kept picking up momentum and was creating such confusion for employers and employees that the legislative leadership and the governor finally saw a special session as inevitable," she said.
Warner called the session after his top aides conferred by telephone Thursday morning with business leaders, who said they were seeking only to put the law back the way it was before July 1. Administration officials wanted to make sure the session did not become a vehicle for a broader debate.
In theory, lawmakers could use the gathering to revisit their contentious debate over taxes. But several top Republicans said any action other than fixing the law would be inappropriate.
"This is not the time and place" for addressing other legislation, said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), who opposed the measure passed by the legislature that raised tobacco and sales taxes. He added that it would be tough to get all 140 lawmakers to arrive in Richmond, because many are on vacation.
Those who attend will find themselves in a miniature version of a regular session.
The bill to rectify the mistake will be introduced in the Senate and heard in a Senate committee. Assuming it passes in committee, it will head to the Senate floor and then to the House of Delegates.
A House committee will hear the bill, which, if approved, will go to the House floor for a vote. If it passes in identical form, it will be sent to the governor for his signature.
Nardo said the entire process could take as little as three hours. "Let's come in and do the business at hand," he said. "There's no opposition that we are aware of at this point."
Some concerns have been raised about the cost of a special session. If every lawmaker attended a one-day session and collected a per diem, the cost to the state would be $25,905, not counting mileage reimbursements. Howell and Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), the Senate president pro tem, have said they would not collect the money.
Legislative leaders and administration officials said they have heard no calls from religious organizations for retaining the "day of rest" law, which was originally intended to allow Virginians to attend religious services.
Jerry Falwell, one of Virginia's most well-known religious leaders, said this week that the legislative mistake must be fixed because it makes operating businesses "totally impractical" in modern times.
Business leaders said they were relieved that Warner had listened to their concerns. In some places, workers began to notify their employers that they wanted Sundays off. In the worst-case scenarios, businesses could be fined up to $500 each time they forced someone to work on Sunday, and a company that forced an employee to work could be required to pay triple the employee's regular wages.
"Everybody's very pleased that the governor took this action," said Steve Haner, a spokesman for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.