A briefly unconscious House leader, a senator inside a plexiglass box and incessant honking from protesters contributed Wednesday to one of the most extraordinary gatherings of the Virginia legislature in recent memory.
From behind cloth masks, lawmakers in the House and Senate gathered in Richmond for a veto session in which they considered the sweeping impact of COVID-19 on Virginia, as well as Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed changes to legislation they passed during the winter session.
The Democratic-controlled chambers largely went along with Northam’s proposals, agreeing to suspend about $2 billion in new spending in the two-year budget that will take effect on July 1 and to delay the state’s minimum wage increase until May 2021 in favor of struggling businesses, among other measures.
The Senate rejected a proposal from Northam to push back the state’s May 5 municipal elections to Nov. 3. The proposal would have extended the terms of some local officials from June 30 until November.
The Virginia Capitol sat nearly empty as the work went on: The House gathered under a tent off the Capitol’s southern lawn, while the Senate gathered at the Science Museum of Virginia.
At Capitol Square, an outdoor session intended to minimize spread of the disease posed its own challenges for lawmakers, news media and staff.
Technical issues related to microphones and voting buttons plagued the start of the House’s work and continued intermittently throughout the gathering. In the background was the sound of honking from protesters demanding that public restrictions be lifted in Virginia, which persisted for about two hours. Heat from a cloudless sky plagued those working on the outskirts of the tent.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn came into the day with a proposal that would have allowed the House’s 100 members to quickly adjourn and vote on legislation remotely on Thursday. Republicans united to block that proposal, arguing that technical challenges could doom the effort.
Hours after that vote, Filler-Corn appeared to faint behind the dais. The speaker was back on her feet within 20 minutes, with the help of first-responders and Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a nurse practitioner.
Legislative business in the Senate, which has 60 fewer members than the House, appeared to go on with comparative ease.
“We didn’t have any problems voting. Some other people did. Our presiding officer didn’t keel over,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said, adding he was glad that Filler-Corn recovered.
Meeting inside the Dewey Gottwald Center at the Science Museum of Virginia, senators sat at separated foldable desks equipped with tissues and hand sanitizer. Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, was in a plexiglass box away from other members. Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar’s husband, Bill, designed the box for Barker, 68, who had recently undergone surgery.
Next to Barker’s station, informally called “The Barker Box,” rested a bookcase with copies of the state code and a hand sanitizer station, two essentials for conducting Senate business Wednesday.
Schaar, who has served as Senate clerk since 1990, used a cardboard box to hold the 75-page floor calendar.
“It’s very important that you have those masks on,” Schaar reminded senators, adding that “several people in this room are in a high-risk category for various reasons.”
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, who is normally fond of pink ties, traded in the neckwear for a pink face covering.
The House and Senate voted to back Northam’s proposed delay of the state’s minimum wage increase, from $7.25 per hour to $9.50 per hour. The measure would gradually increase Virginia’s minimum wage to $12 per hour in 2023.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, voted against the proposed change. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the 20-20 tie in favor of the governor’s recommendation.
The House voted 49-45 to back the governor’s proposed delay.
Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who introduced the legislation, said that even with a delay, the bill would guarantee wage increases for the state’s lowest-paid workers, many of whom, she said, are on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight.
The increase would go on, she said, “while still allowing for businesses to get back on their feet.”
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, decried Northam’s amendment as an impossible choice for Democrats who want to see minimum wage increases. If they rejected the delay, many feared, Northam would veto the increase altogether.
“I’m willing to condemn our governor for making us make that choice,” Carter said.
Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the delay in hopes of stalling the legislation.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, said a four-month delay is insufficient for struggling businesses, calling it “paltry and insulting.”
Senate Republicans shared a similar sentiment, with Norment calling the increase “untimely” as the minority party unsuccessfully advocated for rejecting the delay in hopes that Northam would, in turn, veto the bill.
“Voting no on this amendment keeps this issue alive and … gives the governor one more chance to do what’s right,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.
One Senate Democrat, Howell, voted with Republicans, but for a different reason: She wanted minimum wage workers to get a raise sooner rather than later.
“The very people who are keeping us going are at the bottom of the income chain,” she said.
Fairfax said in an interview that the delay “strikes a balance during a very critical moment” and that “our workers need jobs to go back to.”
The legislature also voted to delay local option collective bargaining for public employees until May 1, 2021. The measure would have taken effect July 1 and would remove Virginia from the list of three states that bar the practice.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, said in a statement that the “front-line workers who risk their lives to keep us alive during this pandemic ... are the people hurt most by the delay of these two bills.”
Several localities and elected officials, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, have voiced support for public sector collective bargaining. Local governing bodies would need to sign off on collective bargaining for their public employees.
Northam plans to call the assembly into special session later this year after the administration is able to develop a new revenue forecast to deal with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
Both chambers supported Northam’s proposal to create a new COVID-19 relief fund within the budget with revenues from a new tax on electronic skill games. The money would help small businesses, protect people’s housing and pay for state response to COVID-19. The amendment also allows the governor to appropriate federal funds Congress approved for responding to the pandemic.
However, the House rejected some of his proposed amendments, most notably proposals to cut more than $6 million from the new Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority and devote $20 million from the pending sale of the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon to economic development initiatives for cybersecurity research and commercialization of higher education research.
House Appropriations Vice Chairman Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, and former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, opposed the governor’s amendments, which they said would undermine the two-year-old Commonwealth Cybersecurity Initiative led by Virginia Tech in collaboration with research universities across the state.
The House also balked at budget amendments that would have expanded the governor’s authority to delay or stop capital projects and shift money among transportation programs.
While the Senate narrowly backed the governor’s recommendations, Senate Republicans balked generally at budget amendments that would broaden the governor’s authority during the public health emergency in waiving requirements for unemployment insurance, relaxing requirements for the state’s Medicaid program to help providers of services to disabled Virginians and releasing prisoners with less than a year left in their sentences.
“In times of emergency, some extraordinary damage could be done to the process and possibly in the budget,” Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said as the Senate adopted the amendments on 21-19 party-line votes.
They also opposed Northam’s plan to create a COVID-19 relief fund from the new taxes on electronic skill games to help small businesses, prevent homelessness and aid long-term care facilities during the crisis.
“He can set up a small business relief plan and decide who is in it and who is not,” Newman said shortly before the amendment passed on a 21-19 vote.
Northam had agreed to withdraw a proposal that would have expanded his authority to make cuts in state spending without assembly approval by removing a cap of 15% of revenues, but the House rejected the amendment to be sure.
The House and Senate agreed to the governor’s amendments to legislation that would legalize casino gambling in five Virginia cities, including one that would dedicate the state’s share of gaming revenues to school repair, modernization and construction.
The Senate approved the amendments by a 30-9 vote without debate. The House of Delegates approved Northam’s casino amendments on a 66-29 vote.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, who sponsored the House bill, said the provision for dedicating state gaming revenues to the school fund “is fairly general … but we can flesh it out in the years to come.”
Separately, the House and Senate approved the governor’s proposed amendments to companion bills to allow betting on professional and collegiate sports, except those involving Virginia colleges and universities.
Northam's plan to push back the May 5 municipal elections to Nov. 3 was presented as an amendment to the state budget. The Senate passed the plan by for the day, effectively killing it. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, led the effort, saying moving the elections to November would “void” local charters.
“We cannot make decisions based on hysteria,” he said.
Petersen is asking for a special session of the General Assembly to consider legislation that would require the Department of Elections to establish coronavirus-related voting guidance and to push the local elections to June 16.
In the Richmond region, the towns of Ashland and Louisa are each scheduled to elect three Town Council members on May 5. Northam could still push the elections back two weeks. The governor said in a statement late Wednesday that he will review the General Assembly’s actions on scheduling local elections and announce next steps soon.
Northam’s amendment also called for absentee ballots already cast to be discarded, which lawmakers opposed.
“It would be a horrible precedent to turn away ballots that have already been cast,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
Similar sentiments were shared in the House, where the proposal passed narrowly. Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, said the move could disenfranchise voters who have already cast the absentee ballots.
The House ultimately backed the measure with some Democrats arguing that the delay is the only viable option to conduct the elections safely.
“Let’s not emulate those places where poll workers and citizens have contracted COVID-19,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “There is a poll worker in Illinois who died of the virus, several people sick in Wisconsin. There is too much at stake.
The House approved amendments to legislation that creates the Central Virginia Transportation Authority, including one that delays an increase in the regional sales tax in nine localities until Oct. 1 at the request of the state tax department.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, will raise the gas tax by 7.6 cents per gallon on July 1, matching the regional fuels taxes already imposed in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and along the Interstate 81 corridor.
The regional authority will oversee and finance transportation projects in nine localities — Richmond, Ashland and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City.
The legislation allows localities in the region — primarily Richmond and Henrico — to reduce their local payments to GRTC Transit System by half to $12 million a year. The requirement is based on their contributions in mid-2019 under one of the governor’s amendments, instead of July 1. However, 15% of the revenues raised by the gas and sales taxes will go to GRTC, or more than $24 million a year.
The new taxes are expected to total $168 million a year, with half of the money going to the localities that generate the revenue and 35% to the new authority for regional projects.
Local taxing authority
Virginia counties will have to wait a little longer for the authority to impose transient occupancy taxes without seeking General Assembly permission. The House and Senate approved the governor’s amendments to delay the provision until May 1, as part of legislation that gives counties equal taxing authority as cities. The amendments also make a technical correction to protect the existing authority of Fairfax and Arlington counties to tax cigarettes.
Senators rejected an amendment to marijuana decriminalization legislation that would have delayed the due date of a study of legalization.
As passed by the House and Senate, the legislation called for a study on legalization due by November 2020. Northam, who has expressed hesitancy toward the legalized used of marijuana, proposed that the study be due in November 2021, near the end of his term.
Senators who rejected the amendment said Northam’s new deadline does not align with the deadline for a similar study the General Assembly requested through a joint resolution, which does not require Northam’s support.
The House backed the amendment, but aligned with the Senate to reject another change Northam proposed that would have eliminated the right to trial by jury on an appeal of a simple marijuana possession infraction to a circuit court.