In return, Northam agreed to support Republican efforts to increase collection of restitution on behalf of crime victims, something the previous Democratic governor refused to sign into law.
The deal marks the second major bipartisan compromise this week between Northam and House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights). They had earlier announced agreement on efforts to roll back state business regulations.
In addition, Northam has been working to broker a bipartisan deal on controversial legislation to undo an electric utility rate freeze.
The rush of cross-party cooperation is something Northam promised when he took office last month and is a marked change from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who sometimes antagonized the Republican-dominated legislature.
A news conference Thursday to announce the deal was a lovefest that would have been hard to imagine during the high-stakes battles of last fall’s governor’s race — and marks a change from last month when GOP lawmakers criticized Northam for playing to his Democratic base.
“We’ve gotten off to a great start,” said Northam, who before becoming governor served as lieutenant governor and was elected twice to the state Senate. “I’ve been here for 10 years, I have great relationships with folks on both sides of the aisle. . . . Where there are areas we can compromise and find agreement, that’s what we plan to do.”
“I give Gov. Northam great credit,” Cox said.
Virginia’s felony threshold was an issue in last year’s elections, when even Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie agreed it was too low. The $200 level — tied with New Jersey for lowest in the nation — was the equivalent of more than $600 in today’s dollars when it was set in 1980.
Democrats had hoped to aim for a level of $1,000, to prevent someone from having the permanent stain of a felony for stealing a pair of shoes or an iPhone. Northam said $500 is “a compromise.”
It will still remain among the lowest in the nation; 34 states have a threshold of $1,000 or higher.
Northam agreed to support legislation making its way through the General Assembly that requires offenders to fully pay restitution before they can be released from probation and ensures that the money is delivered to victims.
A recent state crime commission study found that more than $230 million in restitution was unpaid or overdue across the state, the lawmakers said.
Asked whether the season of bipartisan cooperation meant lawmakers were also coming together on the session’s hottest topic — Medicaid expansion — Cox responded with a joke.
“I hear he’s going to be a Cowboys fan,” he said, gesturing at Northam.
“I think we’ve had some very productive discussions,” Northam said, pointing out that the 60-day Assembly session is almost halfway through.
“I’m hopeful that by the end of the session we’ll have a plan that we can put on the table and perhaps both sides of the aisle will be content with.”