RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers are due back in Richmond next month for a one-day session scheduled to wrap up their work, but it’s being recast as an opportunity for Gov. Ralph Northam and state lawmakers to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on Virginians.
Lawmakers likely will need to perform triage on the state’s budget due to expected drops in state revenue with the economy crippled. At the same time, many lawmakers are eyeing legislation that could be delayed or amended to meet the needs of the moment.
New proposals include delaying an increase to the state’s minimum wage and other legislation that some perceive as burdensome to business, and expanding the ability of residents to vote by mail in the coming November elections.
Most of the power rests with the Northam administration, which is tasked with amending the budget and other legislation passed by lawmakers by April 11. Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene April 22, when they will be able to accept or reject Northam’s proposals.
Asked Friday whether he is considering a delay to the minimum wage increase, raises for state employees or other proposals cleared by the legislature, Northam said he’s looking at it “on a day-to-day basis.”
“We’re assessing that every day, and we’ll make decisions between now and the reconvene session,” he said.
Democrats have touted increasing the state’s minimum wage as a central part of their agenda for their first year in full control of government, arguing that the state’s minimum wage forces the lowest-paid Virginians into multiple jobs to sustain their families.
Republican lawmakers, who have opposed the increase, argue that delaying a proposed increase could help the state’s businesses weather the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.
The Virginia Municipal League, which represents the state’s municipalities, threw its weight behind the delay Friday, arguing that raising the cost of doing business could harm local governments.
Along party lines, Virginia lawmakers agreed earlier this month to raise Virginia’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour on Jan. 1 and increase it gradually to $12 an hour in 2023. The measure is now before Northam, who has said increasing the state’s minimum wage is among his top priorities.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said raising the state’s minimum wage during an economic crisis could further hamper recovery.
“There are companies in Virginia that are making the hard decision to lay people off because they can’t afford to pay them,” he added. “If you can do anything to help those employers bring those workers back quickly, you should.”
Democrats reached by the Richmond Times-Dispatch said an overdue increase to the minimum wage will be as necessary as ever as families weather the downturn.
“Putting more money into the hands of workers and ordinary people will be the best way to stimulate the economy,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, noted that many of the state’s lowest-paid workers, such as grocery store clerks, are essential workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we’re debating the minimum wage and thinking about who the minimum wage workers are, they are right now our first responders and our front-line workers in a way that highlights that they need to be paid according to their worth,” McClellan said.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he supports staying the course on a minimum wage increase. But, he said, he would support delaying other bills that he sees as burdensome to businesses. Petersen specifically pointed to legislation making it easier for employees to sue their employers when they are fired due to their race, religion, nation of origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or pregnancy.
“There were a lot of bills targeting businesses and making them as defendants,” Petersen said. “Even before COVID-19, I thought it was overkill. I do think that the governor should say, you know, for some of these bills, it’s not the right time.”
Petersen and his wife own a law firm that employs 12 people, and he said many of their clients are going out of business or expect to in the coming months.
Simon, meanwhile, said there may be “less appetite” for walking back bills meant to protect workers in the House.
“Workers are suffering as well, and I think the worker protections we put in place are as necessary as ever,” he said.
While November remains months away, uncertainty around the end of social distancing due to COVID-19 may see lawmakers take action to protect the state’s elections.
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, is urging Northam to explore the creation of a 100% vote-by-mail system by November, arguing that the state should prepare in case the pandemic rages into the fall.
Lawmakers expanded early voting in a bill now before Northam that allows any voter in Virginia to request an absentee ballot without an excuse 45 days before an election.
Carroll Foy applauded the legislation, but said there may be a limited amount of time for the government and advocates to urge people to apply for an absentee ballot.
In neighboring West Virginia, state officials are planning to send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter, a measure to encourage people to vote by mail. In states like Colorado and Hawaii, all voters receive absentee ballots by mail automatically.
Carroll Foy said she would like to see Virginia “take the lead on that issue” amid COVID-19, “because access to voting rights is so important.”
Simon, who introduced one of the bills in the House to expand early voting, said that legislation could become a vehicle for further reform.
“With COVID-19, there’s more interest and enthusiasm for things like vote-at-home and vote-by-mail,” he said.
He said lawmakers could make it easier for people to apply and be granted absentee ballots. The legislature also could send out absentee ballots to all registered voters, except those who opt out.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, urged caution on absentee voting, saying he was skeptical about “performing open heart surgery to the state’s voting system without legislation going through committee.”
An unusual gathering
Convening in the time of COVID-19 could force the legislature to alter where and how they meet to ensure that the disease does not spread among lawmakers, staff, journalists and visitors.
The Virginia Constitution could allow the General Assembly to meet in a different location, and two House lawmakers familiar with the discussions said ongoing conversations include the possibility of meeting in a larger space, such as the Richmond Convention Center or Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center.
Simon said that kind of setup could help “create distance” between lawmakers, thereby minimizing the risk of contagion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people remain six feet apart.
Megan Rhyne, of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said state law currently does not allow the General Assembly to meet virtually, unlike the allowances for municipalities in times of crisis, meaning lawmakers will have to figure out how to meet in person safely.
“It’s not something that can’t be overcome,” Simon said. “We can be creative about it. We have to assure everybody’s safety.”