Virginia’s local governments say they face economic calamity unless the state delays new legislation — including an increase in the minimum wage, permission to allow collective bargaining for local government employees and expanded eligibility for workers’ compensation — that the General Assembly enacted this year before the coronavirus pandemic shut down many businesses and put thousands of Virginians out of work.
After meeting with Gov. Ralph Northam and Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne early this week, the Virginia Municipal League formally asked the state on Thursday for a one-year delay in implementing almost a dozen pieces of legislation that it said “will increase local costs and that the General Assembly did not adequately fund.”
Layne confirmed on Friday that he asked the league to address its concerns directly to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, but he said, “There’s no guarantee to do anything.”
The municipal league also asked the state agency to convene a local government task force on saving money from state-mandated services; freeze state funding of economic development initiatives unless there is a signed contract; halt housing evictions; reform bail requirements for people charged with nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses; and amend the budget to allow local governments to restrict attendance at meetings to comply with a 10-person limit on public gatherings.
Foremost, municipal league Executive Director Michelle Gowdy said she already had asked Northam and Layne “to not jigger” funding formulas for state-mandated local government services, especially K-12 public education and public safety agencies on the front line of the coronavirus crisis.
“The 9-1-1 call for help comes to us and not to Richmond,” Gowdy said in a three-page letter to Erik Johnston, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency that serves as the principal state partner with local governments.
“To that end, every dollar appropriated to local government that is cut from the state budget in order to protect the state’s balance sheet results is one less dollar to protect the health and safety of Virginians,” she said.
The league — representing Virginia cities, towns and large suburban counties — accepted the Northam administration’s estimate that the economic crisis caused by the pandemic could cost the state $1 billion a year in the pending two-year budget that would take effect on July 1.
However, the budget is likely to be revised substantially before the General Assembly’s annual veto session, currently scheduled on April 22, to reflect both expected revenue losses and the state’s share of a $2.2 trillion federal aid package that the House of Representatives approved and President Donald Trump signed on Friday.
Layne estimated Friday that Virginia would receive $3.3 billion under the bill, called the CARE Act. The state would receive $1.8 billion, but he said use of the money would be restricted to public services directly related to the coronavirus crisis. The package also includes $1.5 billion for Virginia cities and local governments.
The municipal league called the veto session “an opportunity for the governor and General Assembly to conserve the tax dollars needed.”
However, Gowdy said, “Local governments are not asking the governor to veto legislation that the General Assembly enacted and that is currently under gubernatorial review.”
“We are asking that those bills that will increase local costs and that the General Assembly did not adequately fund (or even fund at all) be delayed until July 1, 2021,” she said.
A pair of bills to increase the state minimum wage topped the list of legislation that local governments want to delay. However, a minimum wage increase was a top priority of the newly elected General Assembly, now controlled by Democrats in both chambers who adopted an aggressive agenda in the session that ended on March 12.
Northam proclaimed a state of emergency for the coronavirus on the same day.