Protesters in cars honked endlessly as they circled the Capitol. The Speaker of the House collapsed on the dais as she led a floor session. A lawmaker cast votes from a Plexiglas enclosure.
The typically sleepy reconvened session of the Virginia General Assembly on Thursday fully reflected the bizarre world into which we’ve all been thrust by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If anyone in this room is going to die from the virus if they get it, it’s me,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who worked from the transparent enclosure constructed by Senate staff. He said he was still recovering from open heart surgery and a bout of pneumonia.
The reconvened session, held every spring, is usually a perfunctory exercise to address the governor’s amendments and vetoes to legislation. This year, Gov. Ralph Northam asked both chambers to put their legislative stamp of approval over a significantly tempered spending plan as lawmakers scramble to respond to a public health — and economic — emergency.
Most of the governor’s legislative amendments were accepted, including a slate of budget cuts that will delay raises for teachers, millions in new funding for the state’s neediest school districts, an expansion of Medicaid and a free community college program. But, despite squeaking through the House, the governor’s push to move May municipal elections to November went down in the Senate, where some senators hoped to push the governor into convening a special session to address the issue.
Special precautions, a loud protest and a fainting spell
In an effort to reduce the risk of viral transmission, the House and Senate convened two and a half miles apart — the Senate in an event hall behind the Virginia Museum of Science, and the House in a massive open-sided tent erected beside the state Capitol.
The latter setup left House staff scrambling to respond to an ongoing series of technical glitches that stalled votes for the first hour of the session. “The problem seems to be that people have unplugged things,” House Clerk Suzette Denslow admonished. “So please don’t.”
Later that afternoon, legislators came to a standstill for several tense minutes after Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn collapsed at the dais. Spokesman Jake Rubenstein attributed the fall to a dizzy spell worsened by the glaring afternoon sun on the tent. Filler-Corn took her place again after some water and an assessment by Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, a licensed nurse practitioner.
The tension was heightened by a demonstration calling for an end to Northam’s stay-at-home order, in which hundreds of cars drove on streets around Capitol Square honking.
The “Reopen Virginia” demonstration was one of several staged across the country by a loosely organized movement of business interests and right-wing activists. The horns were clearly audible in the tent where the House was conducting its business.
In contrast, the Senate’s meeting space was quiet, climate controlled and free of technical glitches, which prompted some gloating by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
“We didn’t have any problems voting. Other people did. Our presiding officer didn’t keel over.” He said, adding that, “The good news is, Eileen’s doing fine.”
The behavior of some lawmakers did earn a stern admonishment from Senate Clerk Susan Schaar, who pleaded with senators to keep their masks over their faces as some took pulled them down to talk.
“We have several people in this room in a high risk category for various reasons, including myself,” she said.
A four-month delay for Virginia’s minimum wage increase
Lawmakers narrowly agreed to a four-month delay for the state’s first minimum wage increase in more than a decade.
Under legislation passed last month by newly elected Democratic majorities, the minimum wage would have increased from $7.25 to $9.50 on Jan. 1. Gov. Ralph Northam, citing economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, proposed pushing that back to May 1, 2021.
Democrats were somewhat divided over the proposal. Some called it prudent. Some said they opposed the delay but worried Northam would veto the bill altogether if they didn’t accept it. And a few said they opposed it and voted against it.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, fell into the latter camp, arguing the low wage workers the bill would help are among the front-line service workers keeping the public healthy.
“I think it should go into effect now,” she said.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, cautioned that there was no guarantee Northam would still sign the bill if they rejected his amendment.
“They say, ‘Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it,’” he said. “I would ask the body, ‘Be careful what you ask for, you might not get it.’”
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said a four-month delay wasn’t nearly long enough to give small businesses time to recover from the pandemic. “This is just untimely,” he said.
A COVID-19 emergency release program for Virginia prisons
Northam’s administration has faced significant criticism for not doing more to reduce the state’s prison population as COVID-19 began to spread.
Though he’s rejected calls to use his pardon power to release low-risk inmates nearing the end of their sentences, he sent a budget amendment to the General Assembly proposing a release program that would allow the Department of Corrections to release as many as 2,000 of its 30,000 inmates.
The proposal faced outspoken opposition among Republicans, narrowly clearing the House on a 47-45 vote.
The measure allows DOC to discharge any prisoners with less than a year left to serve who have nonviolent records. It goes into effect immediately.
Lawmakers also moved up the effective date of a program that grants parole eligibility to so-called Fishback inmates, who were sentenced by juries after Virginia abolished parole but before the state began informing juries of that fact.
GOP lawmakers also opposed that measure, noting the parole board just angered the law enforcement community by granting parole to a man convicted of killing a Richmond police officer 40 years ago.
“This is an especially bad idea given the board’s conduct over the past three weeks,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.
Eviction protections and a quicker path to payday loan reform
Lawmakers adopted two reforms aimed at helping renters during the COVID-19 pandemic. One would prevent eviction lawsuits from being heard for at least two months after the state court system reopened. Another makes a 10-percent cap on interest rates for late payments effective immediately.
Neither measure drew significant debate.
A push to speed the enactment of payday loan reforms was more controversial. 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.
Northam asked the General Assembly to approve an amendment moving up the effective date of the bill six months from July 1, 2021, to Jan. 1.
Some balked, arguing short-term loans are more important now more than ever. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, wondered whether brick-and-mortar loan shops would suddenly close.
Other lawmakers were less sympathetic, and the measure passed. “Is there anybody who really feels sorry for the payday lenders?” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. “I only wish the governor moved it up to this past weekend.”
Attempt to move elections stalls in Senate
Gov. Ralph Northam’s request to move numerous May municipal elections to November narrowly passed the House but stalled in the Senate amid concerns over destroying thousands of ballots that had already been cast, among other objections.
“We cannot make decisions based on hysteria,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who was among a group of Democratic senators pushing an alternate plan that would move the more than two hundred local elections scheduled for May 5 to June.
Several Republicans in the House and Senate said absentee ballots in the local races were being cast at record levels.
“I think it would be a horrible precedent to turn away ballots that have already been cast,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
But Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the pandemic, which is infecting and killing more Virginians every day, made the move to November the best option before the senators Wednesday night.
“This kind of stuff happens every once in a century,” he said.
Surovell said the governor has the power to push the elections back two weeks on his own.
“Gov. Northam is grateful that the House of Delegates made the commonsense decision to move these elections to November. He will carefully review next steps, given the actions of the Senate,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement.
‘Gray machines’ survive
Though it actually voted to ban them earlier this year, the General Assembly approved a request from the Northam administration to allow “gray machines,” gambling devices that resemble slots, to remain in existence for another year with an accompanying $1,200 per month per machine tax that will create a pool of money to help Virginia weather the pandemic.
“Mostly I think they’re kind of sleazy,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, of the machines, which have popped up in restaurants, bars, truck stops and convenience stores across the state by trying to exploit a gray area of Virginia law.
“But when we left here, we also had a great economy. As everybody knows, the world has changed since then. … This is an emergency measure to help us through very hard economic times.”
Howell said allowing the machines to continue to operate is expected to generate $150 million for the fund.
Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said it was bad policy to allow the so-called skill machines “because we need some money. “
State law previously banned slot machines before lawmakers opened the door for historic horse racing terminals and casinos over the past two years. That’s put the squeeze on the Virginia Lottery, which generates money for education, to the tune of about $140 million last year.
“I think it’s a bad idea for Virginia to sell our souls for gambling money,” Peake said.