Wearing a medical mask as he worked with staff in his Capitol Square conference room, Northam grimly reined in the Democrats’ two-year, $135 billion spending plan while happily signing landmark gay rights, environmental and criminal justice bills backed this year in a Capitol that was fully under Democratic control for the first time in a generation.
Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, touted “the most progressive budget in the commonwealth’s history” in a conference call with reporters even as he announced the governor was tapping the brakes. Northam will hold off on about $1 billion a year in new spending in the budget, which takes effect July 1.
“It keeps our entire budget and our priorities, which remain our priorities, in place, but it’s putting a pause button on those priorities for the time being,” Mercer said.
Northam vetoed just one bill — a relatively obscure measure backed by the dairy industry, which would have prevented makers of almond milk, soy milk and similar milk substitutes from continuing to label their products as “milk.”
“While the Governor is very supportive of the dairy industry, he is concerned this bill is unconstitutional and could violate commercial freedom of speech,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a written statement.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) blasted Northam for not scrapping the minimum wage increase or other measures that could burden businesses already hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The hundreds of thousands of Virginians who have filed for unemployment and the businesses that employed them are going to be digging out of this financial hole well past May 1, 2021,” he said, referring to the date Northam wants the wage increase to take effect.
The General Assembly is scheduled to return to Richmond on April 22 to take up all of Northam’s amendments. But lawmakers will have another chance to reconsider what they can afford at a special budget session Northam plans to call in the summer or fall. But for the time being, with the state under a stay-at-home order meant to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, it is too soon to come up with a new forecast for revenue, Mercer said.
Under legislation passed by the General Assembly this year, the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage would gradually increase to $12 by 2023. The first hike, to $9.25 an hour, was scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2021. With his amendment, Northam would push that off until May 1, 2021. Later increases would continue on schedule to reach $12 by 2023.
“These new laws will support workers and help our economy rebound as quickly as possible from COVID-19,” Northam said in a statement.
Northam took a similar line with other worker-friendly bills — supporting them, but with amendments pushing off their effective dates until May 1, 2021. Those include measures to allow public employees to unionize and require certain government contractors pay “prevailing wages.”
“We went into covid-19 the best state in the country for business and we will come out of covid-19 the best state for business,” Mercer said. “We’re also going to come out the other end a great state for workers.”
Northam also signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which establishes energy efficiency standards, sets a schedule for closing nearly all coal-fired power plants by the end of 2024 and requires the state’s largest electric utility, Dominion Energy, to generate all of its electricity from 100 percent renewable sources such as solar or wind by 2045.
He made only “technical” amendments to a bill requiring the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which establishes a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions from power plants.
In the area of civil rights, Northam signed the Virginia Values Act, making Virginia the first Southern state to extend broad anti-discrimination protections to LGBT citizens in housing, employment, public spaces and credit applications.
Northam signed bills to double the felony larceny threshold to $1,000, eliminate the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees, and raise the age at which a prosecutor can try a juvenile as an adult without court approval from 14 to 16. He amended a bill to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, requiring that a work group studying legalization produce a report by Nov. 30, 2021.
He also amended a pair of bills that would make people sentenced by juries between 1995 and 2000 eligible for parole consideration. Virginia abolished parole in 1995. But juries were not instructed on that until 2000, following a court ruling that required they be informed and take that into consideration as they sentenced defendants. Northam’s amendment would add an emergency clause to the bills so they would take effect immediately rather than July 1, when most of the state’s new laws take effect.
Northam signed legislation giving local government the power to decide whether to remove, relocate or contextualize Confederate monuments. He also signed bills creating a commission to recommend a replacement for the Robert E. Lee statue that represents Virginia in the U.S. Capitol.
In the area of voting rights, Northam signed bills repealing the state’s voter ID law, making Election Day a state holiday and expanding access to early voting. He also signed legislation to implement automatic voter registration for citizens doing business with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.