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Assembly Reconvenes, Potential Adjustments, and Northam's Approval Ratings: Political Analysis for Friday, April 17, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week’s political analysis. Topics include the General Assembly “reconvene” session on April 22 in the time of coronavirus, proposed budget and legislation adjustments, the governor’s approval rating, and upcoming elections.

Craig Carper: From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper. Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro. Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro: Good morning, Craig.

Carper: Jeff, the legislature returns to Richmond for its spring session next week, and because of the coronavirus, it returns to a very different Richmond.

Schapiro: These are not ordinary times because of COVID-19. First off, the House and Senate are taking unprecedented steps to ensure the health and safety of members and staff. The legislature is not going to be meeting at the Capitol. Their physical distancing is difficult, to say the least. But we will be seeing legislators, delegates and senators, wearing masks and surgical gloves, sitting or standing at least six feet apart. However, the House will be doing so on the grounds of the Capitol, outdoors. There will be protection from rain or sun in the form of a tent or some kind of a marquee. The Senate will be convening at the Science Museum of Virginia. That's about four miles from the Capitol. Now one would think all of this should be a lot easier in this hyper-technological age. However, the Open Meetings Law does not allow legislators to meet virtually. Now the pandemic could change all of that. There are more and more people, politicians, legislators, lobbyists, saying that the Open Meetings Law should be revised; these prohibitions should be lifted. The Government in the Sunshine advocates are concerned about this. They're worried that anything that makes it easier for the political class to meet out of public view is ultimately a disservice to the public.

Carper: The legislature's agenda Wednesday is being remade by the pandemic. Whether it's the budget or measures long advocated by the New Democratic Majority, they're being reshaped by the coronavirus.

Schapiro: And as we've discussed earlier, the governor has laid out some fairly severe, fairly austere steps to keep the current budget and the next budget in balance, largely because of these huge holes that are going to be blown in both because of this almost instantaneous downturn in the economy. However, austerity, and that's most notably in the form of a suspension, if you will, of more than $2 billion in new spending in the next budget. This is not the only tool that the governor is planning to use, of course, with the consent of the legislature. There have been hiring freezes and not a dime is being spent on training and travel. Those are all the sort of steps one would expect, but the governor is also proposing measures that might be, say, unconventional, by Virginia standards. That includes fine print in some of the amendments he has sent to the legislature that would allow the state to go into the debt market and issue bonds for the sole purpose of generating cash, about $1.5 billion. This is not unheard of, but it is unusual in Virginia, where there is a record of disciplined budgeting. The governor also wants a freer hand in running the unemployment insurance program, as well as Medicaid. This is about making sure jobless Virginians have an income, or something that resembles an income, as well as healthcare. And I guess the Democrats would say Northam must be doing something right. There was a poll this week by Virginia Commonwealth University that shows 76% of Virginians approve of his handling of this health crisis. That said, there are signs of restlessness. On Wednesday the governor extended another two weeks into May the mandatory closing of recreational attractions, you know gyms, theaters, amusement parks. And in very short order the Republicans, in particular the Republicans on the Senate side, we're out with a statement demanding that the governor come up with some plan for reopening the state's economy. They say many of these businesses will not survive if they are forced to remain closed until June 10. Of course, that's when the governor's “shelter in place” order expires.

Carper: And at the so-called “reconvene” session, there are a couple of measures that could become flashpoints between Northam and Republicans and Northam and his fellow Democrats.

Schapiro: Watch the proposal to increase, albeit incrementally, by 2023 the minimum wage from $7.25 cents an hour to $15. The governor wants to delay that until next year because of the coronavirus. The Republicans may attempt to capitalize on a split between the governor and House Democrats in particular, who want him to stick with this on-time bump up in the wage. Now if the House Democrats don't stand with Northam, and the bill is returned to him with the date for the implementation or the beginning of this implementation unchanged, would he veto it? Presumably Republicans would like a very public fissure between the governor and his party. Plus, the Republicans are thinking about 2020. Now, if the economy is still in trouble, if joblessness is in double digits, and people are not ruling this out, and if Donald Trump is out of the White House, eliminating a huge target for Democrats, could Republicans, and this is what Republicans are telling themselves, have a shot at taking back the governor's office? The other measure that is going to emerge as a possible flashpoint is pushing these local government elections because of COVID-19 from May to November. And for more than a week now we've been hearing rumblings, largely among Senate Democrats, that those city and town elections should proceed on schedule. Now if the governor does not prevail on this date change, it means that the elections would be held next month and the local governments would have to take steps to ensure the safety of voters and election officials. As we have discussed, this is a situation many of the registrars and the Electoral Boards had hoped to avoid.

Carper: Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro: Be safe.

Carper: You as well.