RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly froze much of its ambitious two-year spending plan Wednesday, taking up recommendations from Gov. Ralph Northam to delay new programs until the state better understands the cost and impact of the coronavirus crisis.
Lawmakers also put a hold on new spending for an expansion of state agencies and to provide raises to teachers and state employees — priorities that were passed by the legislature’s new Democratic majorities this year. The items were not canceled, but Northam (D) has said he will call lawmakers back to Richmond over the summer to reconsider them after conducting a fresh assessment of the state’s economic and revenue outlook.
Wednesday’s session was dominated by the coronavirus both in process and substance. To help prevent infection, the House met under a canopy on the lawn of the Capitol, and the Senate met 2½ miles away in a large room at a science museum.
Most lawmakers wore face coverings, some wore gloves and hand sanitizer was everywhere. Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who had open-heart surgery and pneumonia last year, was seated behind a three-sided plexiglass box. Just in case delegates somehow forgot what was going on, a caravan of protesters drove in circles around the capitol for about two hours after the noon session began, honking their horns to register dismay at the state’s efforts to shut down businesses and mandate social distancing. The noise formed a distant but distracting backdrop, though one delegate noted that the sound “was just like working in New York City.”
Action in the House was delayed repeatedly by technical difficulties with the electronic voting system, as staffers roamed under the vast canopy checking wires and connections. And after 3½ hours of standing at the dais, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) appeared to faint and was tended to by emergency medical personnel.
After getting something to drink and eat, Filler-Corn resumed the session from a padded chair — but nearly an hour had been lost. She had hoped to get the House to approve a rule change to allow remote voting so that the gathering could adjourn and reconvene in an online “virtual session.” But that effort failed, and the action dragged on until 8:30 p.m.
The purpose of the annual meeting was to take up any vetoes or amendments Northam issued in relation to the 1,291 pieces of legislation passed during the regular session, which adjourned March 12 — the same day Northam declared a state of emergency because of the novel coronavirus.
Northam had issued just one veto, on a bill that redefined milk as coming only from a cow or other mammal. That veto stood.
Votes in the Senate and House to delay the initial increase to the state’s minimum wage were the first of many budget-related steps in response to the devastating economic impact of the pandemic.
Democrats had used the majorities they gained in last fall’s elections to push through an increase to the state’s $7.25-an-hour minimum wage, scheduling it to rise in stages until it reaches $12 by 2023. The initial increase was to take place in January but now will be delayed until May 1, 2021; the later increases will not be affected.
Republicans who opposed the minimum wage increase earlier this year as anti-business were doubly opposed Wednesday. They said businesses barely hanging on during the coronavirus crisis could not afford to pay their workers more.
Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) compared the state’s businesses to the Titanic.
“Is the General Assembly going to throw them a life raft or an anvil?” she asked.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) joined Republicans in voting against the amendment, but for reasons of her own: She said low-wage workers are the ones on the front lines during the crisis and deserve a raise.
“We have our workers in grocery stores, we have the people keeping our hospitals clean so nurses and doctors can work there,” she said. “It’s a tragic time, and it’s made it extremely obvious that we have to adopt much more vigorous policies” to address income inequality. Howell’s defection led to a 20-20 tie that gave Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) the deciding vote.
Similar arguments played out in the House. Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas) said he “condemned” Northam for suggesting that workers should wait for a pay raise. But Del. Christopher T. Head (R-Botetourt) said just delaying the increase instead of killing it is “frankly insulting to the business community.” In the end, delegates wound up approving Northam’s delay.
The Senate killed one of Northam’s most controversial proposals: postponing until November local elections that are scheduled for May. The House had passed the amendment, saying it would keep voters from being exposed to the worst of the pandemic.
But Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) led the charge against it, saying the legislature instead needs a special session to determine how to conduct elections safely.
“We’re all scared,” Petersen said. “I’m scared for my mom. I’m scared for my in-laws. But sometimes you have to take a stand. Part of democracy is having elections.”
The House and Senate both agreed to Northam’s amendments to bills allowing no-excuse absentee voting and making a certain class of prisoners eligible for parole. They also signed off on his recommendation to make “driver privilege cards” — meant to give undocumented immigrants a way to legally drive — look identical to the temporary license already issued to certain noncitizens who are legally present for a short time.
On marijuana legalization, the Senate accepted most of Northam’s amendments but rejected two. One, which also was rejected by the House, would have removed the right to a jury trial for those charged with the newly created civil offense of marijuana possession. The other would have given a work group more time to produce a report on full legalization.
The House rejected a recommendation from Northam that would have given him more power during the crisis to delay big capital projects, and Northam withdrew a proposal to let him have greater control over spending after members complained about it.
House and Senate Democrats approved another proposal that expands Northam’s authority to discharge or reassign prisoners in the correctional system to help prevent conditions that foster the spread of disease. Republicans cried foul.
“Flinging open the prison doors might make these criminals safer, but [it] puts our communities at risk at the worst possible time,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a statement.
Delegates unanimously approved a budget amendment giving Northam the authority to distribute federal grant funding under the coronavirus relief program. It won approval in the Senate in a 21-19 squeaker.
The day’s session was as notable for the way it was conducted as for what was done. The Senate was gaveled into session shortly after noon, with members seated at individual folding tables spread across a vast conference room at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Germ-catching ties were banned and face masks mandated.
The House met under a white canopy outside the capitol. Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William), who is a pastor, opened the session with a prayer noting that “we are in the midst of some very difficult days.”
Filler-Corn delivered a pep talk about convening “amid a national emergency” and mentioned previous times the legislature has met during crisis, such as during the 1918 flu pandemic and in 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“None of those events interfered with our predecessors’ work,” she said. “Nor will the pandemic of today thwart our work to do the people’s business.”