Virginia General Assembly: Veto Day 2020
Virginia lawmakers passed sweeping changes to state law during an unusual pandemic session on Wednesday.
Lawmakers in both parties support holding off on new spending, but there has been disagreement over when Virginia should reopen businesses during this health crisis.
Wearing masks and dodging motorized protesters, the reconvened veto session in the pandemic was like none anyone had witnessed before. The House of Delegates struggled with tech failures during its first ever outdoor session. House Republicans blocked an effort to move the meeting online, which Democrats said would be safer. Things went smoother for the state Senate, which gathered at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-District 41) also briefly fainted. A spokesperson says she got dizzy after a light lunch.
Both chambers approved sweeping changes to state law, including an increase to the minimum wage, legalizing casino gambling and decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.
This comes just over a month after the legislature wrapped up a historic legislative session
After two decades of Republican control of the General Assembly, the newly-empowered Democratic majority passed a series of landmark legislation, such as measures on gun control, new protections for the LGBTQ community and a resolution making Virginia the last state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
But these legislative wins have been bittersweet.
Lawmakers passed the original version of the budget on the same day Gov. Northam declared a state of emergency. The first person in Virginia died after being diagnosed with the coronavirus disease two days later.
Virginia soon began to take steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, including closing schools for the rest of the academic year and closing non-essential businesses until at least May 8. The Commonwealth has been under a stay-at-home order since March 30, which could last at least until June 10. While data released last week from the U.S. Department of Labor shows unemployment claims are beginning to slow down, hundreds of thousands of Virginians are still filing for assistance.
The state now estimates a shortfall of at least $1 billion on the current budget in place through June, and another $2 billion in the next two-year budget because of the pandemic.
EARLY RELEASE OF INMATES:
One of Gov. Northam’s budget amendments passed on Wednesday increases the number of inmates eligible for early release during the pandemic.Those who are incarcerated in state-run correctional facilities with one year or less left in their sentence could be discharged, or moved into a lower level of supervision if they have demonstrated good behavior and are not a threat to public safety.
This is an effort by the state to minimize the risk of spreading the virus among prison populations and staff According to the latest figures from the Virginia Dept. of Health, 13 out of the 148 outbreaks in the state are in correctional facilities. The Department of Corrections announced this week that testing is being ramped up at select facilities. Northam had previously told reporters he has no plans of issuing pardons or executive orders to address coronavirus in correctional facilities.
CHANGES TO WHEN LOCAL ELECTIONS ARE HELD:
The proposal to push local and special elections set for May to November is going back to the governor’s desk, after failing to get enough support late Wednesday night by the General Assembly. The House of Delegates narrowly passed the governor's budget amendment after reconsidering the vote, but by a voice vote the Senate passed the measure by.
Multiple legislators called for a special session to address changes to elections. Many spoke out about this plan, since ballots already cast for the May election could be tossed out.
Gov. Northam originally made the proposal after he moved the June congressional primaries from June 9 to June 23, to mitigate the spread of the virus.
RAISING THE MINIMUM WAGE:
A piece of legislation hotly debated on the floors of the House and Senate this year was a proposal to raise the minimum wage. Wednesday was no different.
The bill that made it to the governor’s desk will raise the wage to $12 per hour by 2023, with the first increase being to $9.50 an hour originally starting in January, 2021. Northam amendments the bill to include a four-month delay to increase the wage.
Virginia Republicans wanted to push the amendment back to Northam’s desk, so he could take another look at fiscal projections for Virginia’s economy, or to veto it all together.
“We are giving basically our OK to move forward with something that we know by the very amendment is injurious to the commonwealth,” Sen. Steve Newman (R-District 23) said.
Democrats, like Sen. Scott Surovell (D-District 36), say the pay raise will help the economy, as Virginia recovers from the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s not only the businesses that need to recover, it’s the people. When things come back online there’s a lot of people that will need to catch up and an increased minimum wage will help them catch up and it will help everybody,” Surovell said.
K-12 AND HIGHER EDUCATION SPENDING:
Included in funding that’s “on hold” until lawmakers assess impacts of the coronavirus: $300 miillion in educator pay raises, $83 million in expanded pre-K access for at-risk three and four-year-olds, and $61 million in funding for high-poverty schools.
While lawmakers will have the ability to “unfreeze” the spending if the revenue outlook improves, education advocates are worried about what the uncertainty will mean for area school districts.
Virginia lawmakers slashed $50 million in new spending across the biennium originally slated to reduce caseloads for school counselors. That’s one of a few specific areas Governor Northam recommended taking action on now to reduce the fiscal impact of COVID-19.
“It is important that we take this step now to include the appropriate staffing ratios in the budget, and more importantly, to send a clear message to school divisions as they plan for the next school year,” Northam wrote when announcing amendments. “Then, we can return to this shared priority when our financial picture is clearer.
Chris Duncombe with the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis wanted lawmakers to just freeze the funding for now, and revisit it later after looking at available federal funding.
“I think it's really important that the state look to determine all potential revenue sources to preserve these critical investments,” Duncombe said.
Lawmakers also froze $240 million in new funding for colleges and universities, and an additional $80 million for the “tuition moderation” fund. The Governor’s G3 program is also on hold.
FROZEN FUNDS IN VIRGINIA’S MEDICAID PROGRAM
Governor Northam plans to provide increased funding for expanded telemedicine services and nursing home workers. But over $200 million in new allocations for several other Medicaid services and $140 million for behavioral health programs that lawmakers approved new funding for earlier this year could be on the chopping block due to COVID-19.
Funding that’s “on hold” includes $68 million that would have increased provider rates for DD waivers, and $19.2 million to allow overtime for personal care attendants. Also, $34 million to add an adult dental benefit, $13 million to enhance behavioral health services for Medicaid recipients, and $3.2 million to expand Medicaid coverage to some new moms up to 12 months postpartum.
“This epidemic is a public health crisis, and anybody without health insurance is even more at-risk and more severely impacted,” said Ashley Airington with Voices for Virginia’s Children.
Also included in frozen funding is $4.5 million to lift a current requirement that legal permanent residents work for 40 quarters (about 10 years) before they qualify for Medicaid coverage. Virginia is one of only six states with this requirement.
This story is still developing and will be updated. Sara McCloskey, Ben Paviour, Megan Pauly, Whittney Evans, and Craig Carper contributed to this report.