Blue-Wave Agenda in Virginia Hits Coronavirus Wall

A statewide minimum wage increase is among the measures being shelved for now as the pandemic creates uncertainty over funding.

The Virginia State Capitol building. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia’s General Assembly met for a regularly scheduled veto session Wednesday, but the gathering was anything but normal as legislators prepared the state’s budget and addressed efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak in the shadow of a statewide lockdown.  

While tempers flared inside and outside legislative spaces, the brunt of the pandemic’s impact on state government is set to be felt by programs backed by the new Democratic majority in both the Senate and House of Delegates.

While the two chambers began their debates, over 100 protesters pushing to reopen Virginia circled the State Capitol block, honking horns and blocking traffic.

Legislators in the House gathered under a tent on the capitol grounds with the car horns audible through the state’s live video stream, while the Senate met inside a local museum where lawmakers maintained space between each other.  

The new programs – championed by energetic Democrats who took control of the statehouse for the first time in more than two decades last year – include efforts to expand health care under Medicaid, including dental coverage, as well as boost teacher pay, offer pre-K childcare and provide more money for public defenders offices around the state.

While Virginia’s funds have remained squarely in the black for years, the statewide stay-at-home order issued by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam to slow the spread of Covid-19 is expected to cut revenues by billions. That means nearly all these programs, approved by legislators just weeks before the outbreak, are being put on pause at the governor’s request. 

Much of the money for these programs has been classified by the governor’s office as unallotted, meaning the initiatives were still in the budget but required further action from the General Assembly before the funds can be spent. That action is expected to come in the form of a yet-to-be scheduled special session set for the fall after new revenue can be forecast. 

Senator Jennifer McClellan, D–Richmond, was among those pushing for expanded spending, specifically additions to public education funding, which hasn’t seen growth since the 2008 recession.

“We’ve been here before, but we’re going to shrink our budget in a way that ensures those systems can still be addressed,” she said in a phone interview ahead of Wednesday’s session. “That’s part of the issue for the freeze because it’s still unclear what we’re getting from the federal government and it will be limited, what we can do with it.” 

About $3.3 billion is expected to flow into the state thanks to the CARES Act signed into law last month, but McClellan said some of that money is going directly to cities and specifics on how the state will get the rest are still unknown. 

Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said in a phone interview that the governor’s office was expecting more direction on the relief funds approved by Congress this week. He suggested the money couldn’t be used directly to address falling revenues, but if it’s doled out in block grants then it would give the state more flexibility. 

Those who campaigned for Democrats, overcoming gerrymandered districts to regain control of the House on promises of things like expanded school funding, are expressing cautious optimism as the state faces this Covid-19 crisis. 

“There is disappointment over some of the governor’s proposals, but they are understandable,” said Jim Livingston, president of the Virginia Education Association, a union for state teachers.

His group’s efforts, along with those from the national Red for Ed movement, helped spur a number of new education programs that are now being labeled as unallotted.

“We understand where we are, we know what’s at stake, but when the economy recovers in Virginia our children must be first in line,” Livingston said. “Public education has been put on the backburner for far too long.”

Other progressive initiatives pushed by Democrats – including a gradual increase in the state’s minimum wage and bargaining powers for public employees – are also on track to be delayed by several months at the governor’s request. 

Northam said the delay was to “ensure workers get the support they need while allowing greater economic certainty in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Advocates for the wage increase – among them, Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge – said those who are most at risk during the crisis, like grocery store cashiers and delivery drivers, would be hurt most by the bill’s delay. 

“It is extremely disappointing that our most essential workers are still treated as the most expendable,” Guzman said in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s session. 

The measure to delay the minimum wage increase passed a Senate vote early Wednesday afternoon, with a tie broken by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, while the House started late due to technical issues. 

Another contentious issue involves how to handle local elections set for May, a thorny idea for both Republicans and Democrats as absentee ballots for many of those races had already been cast and state law would require those votes to be tossed out if a new date was approved. 

“The ability to vote is sacred,” Senate Republican Caucus Chair Ryan McDougle of Hanover said in a phone interview. “To discard those votes that have already been cast is unconscionable.”

Other measures Northam proposed, including a 60-day eviction grace period for renters during the Covid-19 outbreak, are also on agenda Wednesday in what looks to be a long day for lawmakers.

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