“This is definitely unique,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax). “Health and safety are a top priority.”
The annual reconvening lets lawmakers take up any vetoes or amendments issued by the governor to the 1,291 pieces of legislation passed during the regular session, which adjourned March 12.
Theoretically, there shouldn’t be much to do. Democrats won control of the legislature in last fall’s elections and worked with Gov. Ralph Northam, also a Democrat, to enact a mountain of shared priorities. From gun control to LGBT protections and easing abortion restrictions, everything that passed closely matched Northam’s agenda.
He only issued one veto — for a bill defining milk as only coming from a cow or other mammal.
But the state budget — a $135 billion, two-year spending plan — is up for a massive redo. Passed five days after the General Assembly was supposed to adjourn, on the same day Northam declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus, the budget now looks like a relic from another era.
Rather than gut the spending blueprint now while the state is shut down and waiting for the pandemic to reach its peak, Northam has proposed freezing new spending and diverting reserve funds toward coronavirus expenses.
Then he’ll call the General Assembly back into session, probably in midsummer, to look at a revised forecast for Virginia’s economy and make some hard choices.
“This will really give us an opportunity to take a look and see where we are,” said Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure we’ve got the resources available to deal with the covid-19 right now. . . . Then we’re going to have to reprioritize some spending.”
Northam’s proposed budget amendments would divert hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the virus in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and set aside another $2 billion to absorb costs and lost revenue over the next two fiscal years.
It would delay some priorities passed by Democrats, such as raising the state’s minimum wage. The state would still increase the current $7.25-an-hour wage to $12 by 2023, but the first incremental bump would push to May 1, 2021, instead of going into effect in January.
While most of the budget recommendations seem to have broad support, two of Northam’s proposals appear headed for debate.
The legislature haggled long and hard before deciding to ban “gray machines,” unauthorized gambling devices that have popped up in convenience stores and restaurants because of a gray area in state law.
Northam has proposed allowing the machines to exist for one more year and taxing them to help pay for the coronavirus crisis. Several Democrats said privately that that’s going to cause a fight.
And because of an executive order banning public gatherings through June 10, Northam has proposed postponing local elections scheduled for May until November, as well as delaying by two weeks federal primary elections that had been set for June 9.
Three Democratic senators have already made a counterproposal to move the local elections to June 23 along with the primaries.
Lawmakers generally have been supportive of Northam’s efforts to restrict social movement to fight the coronavirus. But in the past week Republicans have begun chafing at the business closures; on Tuesday, GOP House leaders wrote to Northam, urging him to gradually allow nonessential businesses to reopen. Northam has said he will stick to federal guidelines calling for 14 days of declining covid-19 cases before relaxing restrictions.
Beyond the legislative battles, lawmakers have been consumed in the past few weeks with dust-ups over how to conduct Wednesday’s unusual session.
The House and Senate need to work in concert, one chamber acting on measures that have cleared the other. Usually that entails staffers shuttling back and forth within the Capitol, but this time the two bodies will be far apart along Richmond’s busy Broad Street. They’ll have to communicate electronically.
The 100 House members will sit more than six feet apart at temporary desks under a huge white festival-style canopy erected outside the Capitol this week. They’ll be encouraged to wear face coverings. Disinfectant wipes will be everywhere.
The outdoor venue could make it hard for the House to tune out demonstrators from a group called Reopen Virginia, which is urging protesters to drive around Capitol Square for the first few hours of the session, leaning on their car horns. The group drew about 50 demonstrators to a protest on the square last week.
Filler-Corn has proposed having the House approve a rules change allowing online voting, which would enable them to adjourn quickly, go back home and resume a “virtual” session over the Internet.
But two-thirds of House members would have to vote in favor of the change, and many are skeptical.
“We have members with varying degrees of technical savviness,” Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the minority leader, said during a radio interview on Monday, noting that some members live in rural areas with spotty Internet connections. “If we have to be there anyway, maybe we should just get this over with like the Senate is doing.”
If the effort fails, Filler-Corn said she has worked with Gilbert and others to plan how to keep the session moving so members don’t have to gather for long.
Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) expressed frustration this week about the uncertainty. In a conference call with fellow members of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, chairwoman Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) endorsed plans to cast votes in blocs and said she hoped the House would do the same.
Saslaw responded: “I don’t think they know what the hell they’re going to do.”
Howell said in an interview that she didn’t want the Senate to have to stay in Richmond for a second day to wait for the House to finish, hunkering down at a dwindling list of hotels that remain open in the city.
“We’re all at risk,” she said. “Many members live too far away to just go home.”
Each of the 40 senators will sit alone at tables spaced 10 feet apart. Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar said her staff has been “scrubbing down desks” all week.
Typically a stickler for decorum, Schaar has directed senators to dress “business casual.” That means leave the ties at home, following the lead of Northam, a physician who recently announced he’d quit wearing them because they can harbor pathogens. No scarves allowed either. Senators must wear masks, and Schaar will supply hand sanitizer and gloves if members want them.
Though unusual, this is not the first time in the Virginia legislature’s 401-year-history that a session has been altered by disease. During a cholera outbreak in 1849, the General Assembly fled to Fauquier County to conduct its business from the safety of a posh spa.