Gov. Ralph Northam, pictured on Tuesday, has been holding daily briefings on the spread of COVID-19 in Virginia and the state’s response. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
After adjourning a historic legislative session last week, a few Democratic lawmakers crossed Capitol Square to stand with Gov. Ralph Northam at a news conference about the state’s response to COVID-19. Then they left town and went home to their districts.
Then the world changed.
With almost 100 confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia and many aspects of the state economy slowing to a halt, policymakers will have to decide how much relief they can offer to Virginia residents and businesses struggling to navigate the pandemic. They may also have to rethink the two-year, $142 billion budget they just passed, which relies on tax dollars that could disappear in an economic downturn.
That budget and hundreds of other pieces of legislation are currently awaiting the governor’s signature or on the way to his desk. But instead of touting their legislative victories at bill-signing ceremonies with the governor, General Assembly leaders are watching Northam give near-daily updates on a fast-moving crisis that’s upended Virginia and left the normal business of state politics in a state of suspended animation.
For many state lawmakers, that’s meant pushing out coronavirus updates to constituents through social media, newsletters and online town halls.
Though some elected officials have called for a special legislative session on coronavirus relief measures, most General Assembly leaders appear content having Northam — a doctor who specializes in pediatric neurology — leading the state’s battle against the virus and its impacts.
“We stand ready to do whatever is necessary to ensure that Virginians are taken care of,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said in an interview Thursday evening.
A special session could also bring unprecedented logistical challenges, since the 100-member House and 40-member Senate would be violating social distancing guidelines banning public gatherings of more than 10 people. On Thursday, Northam noted that the legislative office buildings had been “disinfected” after lawmakers left and said he and Attorney General Mark Herring are exploring options for how the legislature and other public bodies could meet safely.
The General Assembly is scheduled to return to Richmond on April 22 for its regular reconvened session to deal with any gubernatorial vetoes and amendments, and some legislators would rather wait to deal with vital coronavirus-related measures then instead of acting immediately. The federal government is also weighing massive economic stimulus measures in response to the coronavirus, another key factor being considered as state policymakers deliberate over how and when they should act.
Others want immediate action.
On Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax became the latest elected official to call for a special session before April 22, releasing a letter urging Northam to do more to mitigate the outbreak and its societal impacts.
Fairfax, who is second in line to the governorship and is planning to run for governor in 2021 despite two sexual assault allegations he has denied, called on the governor to order mandatory closures for restaurant dining rooms and extend K-12 school closures for the rest of the academic year.
“I thank you, governor, for your leadership, but I sincerely hope that we will implement bolder and swifter actions at this critical moment for our commonwealth and our nation,” Fairfax wrote as he recommended a variety of steps that could be taken to help businesses, workers and nonprofits struggling to stay afloat.
If Northam perceived the letter — which his office said he learned about through the media — as a slight by a fellow executive branch official, he didn’t let it show in a news conference Thursday afternoon. As governor, he said, he gets letters from lots of people.
“I greatly appreciate their input. And I take it all into consideration,” Northam said. “And then through discussion with our staff I make decisions that are in the best interest of Virginia. Every day.”
He added, however, that “we are not making any changes in our policy” on allowing restaurants to stay open.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, another possible candidate for governor in 2021, has also called for a special session, saying the legislature should reconsider a paid sick leave bill that failed in the state Senate.
“Paid sick leave would rightfully eliminate the need for individuals to choose between their health and their financial stability,” Carroll Foy wrote in a letter to the governor. “We had a responsibility to pass these bills then, and we certainly have a responsibility to pass them now.”
A federal coronavirus relief bill signed by President Donald Trump includes a provision for two weeks of paid sick leave for some workers, but critics have said it leaves too many people out by exempting big companies with more than 500 employees.
When asked about the prospects for another state-level effort on sick leave, Northam said he supported the bill that recently failed but suggested it may have to wait until 2021.
“It was defeated. I regret that,” Northam said. “And it’s something that we’ll bring up against in the next session.”
One the House floor, just before the legislature adjourned March 8, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Loudoun, called for a special session dealing with expanded health care access for the working class. His call did not appear to gain much traction.
Though Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, also asked the governor to call a special session to mitigate impacts on businesses and the state budget, House Republicans have not taken the same step.
In a letter sent to Northam Thursday, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, other House GOP leaders called the Northam administration’s response to the crisis “commendable” while asking the governor to enact a 90-day extension for state income tax payments for individuals and businesses.
“The rapid loss of sales revenue has put many small businesses in a financial crisis,” the House GOP leaders wrote. “Extending the tax filings and payments deadline by 90 or more days is another tool to ensure Virginians have cash flow to provide payroll and other employee benefits, pay bills and care for their families.”
On Thursday, the Northam administration announced it will push the state income tax deadline from May 1 to June 1. But Northam Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said interest will still accrue, so anyone who can pay their taxes on time should.
Fixing the interest issue, he said, could be on the to-do list when lawmakers come back next month and take up questions about the economic fallout.
“Anyone that would tell you that they know exactly where this is going to end up is just not being credible,” Layne said.
The governor’s emergency declaration allows the state to begin dipping into the roughly $2 billion it has in reserve funds, and the governor has greater authority to reallocate money when the General Assembly is not in session.
“The best way to get the economy straight is to get the health problem taken care of,” Layne said. “Whatever it takes, we’ll make sure those monies are appropriated.”
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