Bi-partisan support for $15 minimum wage vanishes and a political ploy appears in Va. Senate

By: - January 21, 2019 6:42 pm
State Sen. Tommy Norment

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republicans in the Virginia Senate voted down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour on Monday afternoon in a bit of political theater apparently scripted with the November elections in mind.

The bill only got to the Senate floor because two Republicans, Majority Leader Tommy Norment and Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, voted for it last week when it came up in committee.

It would have been a surprising change of heart for both men — a minimum wage bill has never escaped committee under their watch.

And indeed, on Monday it became clear their intent was less an earnest foray into new legislative territory and more a warning to pro-business political groups: Here’s what’s going to happen if Democrats win a majority in the General Assembly in November.

The GOP is hanging on by a one-seat advantage in each chamber, and leaders expressed expressed extreme displeasure that in a recent special election the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce endorsed a Democrat, now-Sen. Jennifer Boysko.

Norment wrote a letter to the group arguing that “Even self-proclaimed ‘Democrat Socialist’ Lee Carter voted more frequently with business” than Boysko, going on to ask “whether your organization has ceased to support or promote an agenda that encourages commerce,” according to the Daily Press, which called the letter “extremely unusual.”

Norment invoked the Northern Virginia chamber again on Monday during his floor speech opposing the minimum wage bill he had voted for a week ago, noting widespread opposition voiced by business groups.

“My favorite group that has come out in opposition to this is the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “My buddies.”

His remarks were among several by Republican senators warning of the economic doom they believe a $15 minimum wage would bring.

Republicans appear to have intentionally selected the most aggressive minimum wage proposal filed by Democrats.

The bill, filed by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, sets a two-year timeline to double the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour in two years. During the same committee meeting where Republicans helped advance Dance’s bill, they passed over one filed by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, that would have topped out at $11.25 and taken a year longer to get there.

Republican senators also rejected a floor amendment proposed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, which his caucus unanimously supported and would have lengthened the ramp up to Dance’s proposed $15-an-hour minimum and exempted small businesses that employ 25 or fewer people.

Democrats, who campaign on promises to raise the minimum wage, did not seem worried the vote might hurt them down the road.

“There were amendments that would have made this a little better for some of those on the other side of the aisle, but they didn’t accept it,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

Afterward, Democrats sardonically thanked Republicans for “admitting this whole gambit for y’all was about the Nov election & not good governance,” the party tweeted. “We’ll beat you in Nov AND we will #RaisetheWage for hardworking Virginians.”

In another tweet: “Virginians are sick of your partisan tricks and fact-free arguments.”

Meanwhile Senate Republicans set immediately set about blasting their own message on social media:

“Stopping $15 an hour wage hikes, which would put thousands of Virginians out work, and protecting Virginia small businesses and employees will be a clear difference in November. We’re #serious in protecting Virginia jobs and businesses.”

Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the bill “would have had terrible, unintended consequences on small businesses and their employees.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.