Lawmakers to hold legislative session unlike any other in Va. history due to COVID-19

Lawmakers to hold legislative session unlike any other in Va. history due to COVID-19
Virginia Capitol. (Source: Conor Lobb/Capital News Service)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers are set to hold a one-day legislative session unlike any other in the state’s 400 year history as they grapple with how to handle fallout of the coronavirus.

It’s been slightly more than a month since a new Democratic majority wrapped up this year’s legislative session after passing a series of consequential bills – including new gun restrictions, expanded voting rights and a new law making it easier to remove Confederate monuments.

Ordinarily, lawmakers return to the Capitol a few weeks after session ends to take up the governor’s vetoes and proposed amendments during a one-day session, colloquially called the “veto session.”

But the coronavirus pandemic has overturned everything, including the logistics of how lawmakers are supposed to gather.

House Delegates plan to meet under a canopy outside the Capitol while the Senate is meeting at a giant event space at the Virginia Science Museum a couple of miles away. Lawmakers will be seated far apart and are asked to wear masks instead of germ-carrying ties to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Del. Ken Plum, who has served in the House for four decades, said he’s never experienced anything like this year’s veto session: not only because of the social distancing involved, he said, but because of the rapid economic collapse that’s occurred right after the legislative session ended in early March.

Plum said he’s going to wear a mask, carry hand sanitizer, and get in and out as soon as possible.

“I don’t expect to have any socializing time,” Plum said.

A group of people unhappy with mandated closures and social distancing measures are also planning to protest around the Capitol on Wednesday.

Here’s a look at key issues:

BUDGET

Northam has proposed plans to delay some long-sought Democratic priorities until more is known about the pandemic’s affect on the economy, pushing back decisions on whether to give teachers and state workers raises, freeze in-state college tuition, and implement other new spending in the budget recently passed by lawmakers.

The pandemic is pounding state governments nationwide with a one-two punch, costing them millions in containment efforts just as businesses shut down and tax revenue collapses.

Northam has said he’ll likely call lawmakers back into a special session to adjust spending priorities later this year, when the state has a better handle on what the virus’s impact has been on state revenues.

MINIMUM WAGE

Citing economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Northam has proposed an amendment to a bill increasing the state’s minimum wage that would delay its implementation by several months.

Northam wants the wage increase to kick in May 1, 2021, instead of in January 2021. Northam, a Democrat, proposed the same May effective date for a number of other labor-related measures, including a bill that would allow limited public sector collective bargaining.

Some of his fellow Democrats have opposed the move, saying the pandemic has made the needed for higher wages and greater worker protections more pressing. Business groups had lobbied Northam to delay or veto the measures, saying they would strain employers and add costs for taxpayers.

LONE VETO

With Democrats in full control for the first time in two decades, Northam’s veto pen had little work this year.

The one bill Northam vetoed was legislation to prohibit plant-based beverages from being marketed as “milk,” as in “soy milk” or “almond milk.” The bill was backed by the state’s dairy farmers, but Northam’s office said the measure could violate free speech.

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