Minimum wage, gambling and weed: 6 big-ticket bills Northam wants to amend

By: - April 13, 2020 12:02 am

Gov. Ralph Northam talks to reporters in the Capitol ahead of the 2020 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s deadline to act on legislation adopted by the General Assembly came and went over the weekend.

The full list of bills he’s signed, amended and vetoed hadn’t yet been posted publicly, but his administration announced action on dozens of pieces of high-profile legislation over the weekend, including an overhaul of voting laws, repeal of abortion restrictions and the state’s first ban on discrimination against LGBTQ people.

The governor’s office also shared amendments he’s asking the legislature to adopt when it reconvenes on April 22. Here’s a quick look at six bills Northam wants to change:

Slowing down legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage

The General Assembly voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 over three years. As passed, the legislation would increase the wage to $9.50 an hour on Jan. 1, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023.

Northam is asking to delay that first increase five months, pushing it back to May 1. He is not proposing a change to the subsequent increases.

His administration cited economic uncertainty caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Business groups and local governments have been lobbying Northam to reconsider the legislation.

Northam did not act on calls from advocates to expand the legislation to remove exemptions for certain classes of workers, including agricultural laborers, who are left out of the bill.

He also proposed delaying a handful of other bills pursued by labor groups to May 1, 2021, including legislation that would allow local governments to engage in collective bargaining with their workers, establish a prevailing wage for some public contractors and open the door to project labor agreements.

All of the proposed changes have drawn strong condemnations from advocates: “The anti-worker forces who saw opportunity in tragedy have secured yet another victory,” said Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, in a statement. “They will be back next year where they will undoubtedly attempt to win more.”

Earmarking state casino revenues to a new fund for local school construction, giving skill games

Northam left a massive bill legalizing casino gambling in five cities largely intact, but he does have thoughts about where the taxes from the estimated $900 million in revenue should go.

Under the bill passed by the General Assembly, the state’s share would go into the state’s general fund, where it could be spent by lawmakers on pretty much anything.

Northam proposed setting it aside “for programs established to address public school construction, renovations, or upgrades.”

The state currently doesn’t fund local school construction, something some lawmakers had been pushing to change without much success.

A reprieve for gas station slot machines to fund COVID-19 relief

Lawmakers voted to ban so-called skill games — slot machine inspired terminals that manufacturers argue side-step the state’s current prohibition on gambling by incorporating an element of skill. The games have popped up in gas stations and convenience stores around the state, cutting into lottery revenues, which, for better or worse, the state relies on to fund K-12 education.

Northam proposes keeping the games around for another year and taxing their profits at rate of 35 percent.

His administration says he wants to use the estimated $150 million in proceeds to pay for a state COVID-19 response fund that would funnel aid to small businesses, among other needs.

Making drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants look like normal licenses

The General Assembly passed legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants who file tax returns to obtain driver’s privilege cards that must be renewed every year.

The Senate insisted on a version that would visually differentiate the cards from other temporary driver’s licenses. Northam is proposing striking language that would state “Driver Privilege Card: not valid ID for voting or public benefits purposes,” and instead direct the DMV to produce cards that are “identical in appearance to the restriction on the back of a limited-duration license, permit or special identification card.”

The change is significant because advocates worried the language would lead to profiling by law enforcement.

Slowing Virginia’s roll toward legal marijuana

Lawmakers voted to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and seal past convictions, which Northam has supported. The bill sets a $25 civil penalty for people caught with an ounce or less of the drug.

But he hasn’t signed the legislation yet because he’s proposing taking an additional year to study legalizing recreational marijuana. Lawmakers had called for background work to be completed by the end of November.

Accelerating payday-loan reforms

Northam is asking to the General Assembly to approve an amendment moving up the effective date of the bill six months from July 1, 2021, to Jan. 1.

The legislation would cap interest on the loans at 36 percent, among other reforms. The state currently has among the weakest consumer lending laws in the country, allowing interest rates in the triple digits.

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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.