Ordinarily down the hall from each other in the state Capitol, the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate will reconvene Wednesday miles apart as the legislature meets to finish business it started earlier this year in an entirely different climate.
The brief veto session, in which the legislature will take up the governor’s proposed amendments, comes amid the growing outbreak of COVID-19, which the Virginia Department of Health says has killed more than 300 people in the state.
Legislation the General Assembly agreed upon last month, including a raise to the state’s minimum wage and a new two-year budget, delivered on Democrats’ broad liberal agenda during their first session in power in a generation. Now, much of the work will be aimed at dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a unique experience. It’s humbling,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City. “Forty-five days ago, we were on top of the world. We had a great economy and Democrats had power and the governor had a successful session. Now we’re just trying to keep people alive and keep people working.”
Petersen and other senators will meet inside the Science Museum of Virginia, socially distanced from one another, while the House of Delegates convenes outside the Capitol building. The chambers inside the Capitol, where legislators have met since 1788, will sit vacant.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said she hopes lawmakers will gather for a brief session, vote to allow remote voting, and head back home to finish the pending legislative work on Thursday.
“I hope lawmakers will do the right thing and support remote voting,” Filler-Corn said in an interview. “It’s important for [the reconvened session] so that we don’t need to be together longer than necessary. I’ve made health and safety the top priority from the beginning.”
Filler-Corn’s plan has come under criticism from some House Republicans, who are skeptical about a never-before-seen remote setup. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said he hopes the work can be accomplished in one day to minimize physical contact among lawmakers.
“We’re ready to get it all done tomorrow, if the House is,” Saslaw said, adding that uncertainty about the vote in the House is leaving senators in the dark about whether they’ll need to convene again Thursday or Friday, or both.
Saslaw, a state lawmaker since 1976 and a senator since 1980, said this session will be unlike any he’s seen, “to put it mildly.”
The speaker’s plan would need a two-thirds vote in the House, or 67 votes, meaning that even with the support from all 55 Democrats, Filler-Corn would need some Republican cooperation.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in an interview that support for the plan is tenuous among the 45 members of his caucus.
“We have varying levels of tech savviness among our members; members who live in remote areas who don’t trust their ability to participate fully remotely. You couple that with the fact that we have to be there tomorrow, so why not just get it done?” Gilbert said.
“Nobody is being critical of [Filler-Corn’s] good intentions, but nobody trusts this is a good idea on our side, I think.”
Filler-Corn said that whatever happens with the proposed rules change, House leaders will work to consider legislation as quickly as possible. She added that the House’s larger membership than the Senate led her to propose the additional safety measures.
“They are dealing with 40 members, I am dealing with 100. It’s a big, big difference. The chance of contracting the virus is exponentially higher with 100 members.”
Some people calling on Northam to reopen Virginia plan to protest around Capitol Square on Wednesday, urging the governor and lawmakers to lift social distancing restrictions and mandatory business closures. Protest organizers plan for cars to continuously circle the roads around Capitol Square from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Three miles from where the House will gather, senators will meet inside the Dewey Gottwald Center, an event space within the Science Museum of Virginia. The space, which can seat 500, will instead have five rows of eight individual tables for lawmakers, separated to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Both chambers will offer limited access for journalists in the areas where lawmakers will gather. As the House meets, overflow space for reporters will be near the Capitol Square Bell Tower, where they will be able to approach lawmakers as they enter and exit for questions.
The reformatted reconvened session presents its own challenges for advocates and lobbyists, many of whom will be tracking the ongoing work remotely, without the ability to approach lawmakers and staffers in person.
Among the issues
At their respective sites, lawmakers will consider Northam’s proposed amendments on a wide array of issues, from an increase to the minimum wage to gambling policy. Some of his proposed amendments are technical in nature, while others are not, such as his proposal to delay implementation of a measure that lifts Virginia’s ban on public sector collective bargaining from July 1 to May 1, 2021.
Other issues to be considered include bills aimed at decriminalizing marijuana, a measure to ban strip searches of children and legislation to curb predatory lending.
Lawmakers must also decide whether to accept Northam’s proposal to push local elections scheduled for May to November. That proposal has drawn criticism from Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate — enough to kill Northam’s amendment, which stipulates that local elected officials whose terms were set to expire at the end of June would continue in office until their successors have been elected.
“These localities need to have a government, and I don’t see any way you could legally just extend those terms,” said Petersen, who, along with Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, wants the elections pushed to June 16 instead.
The proposed delay to the scheduled May 5 municipal elections is one of Northam’s more than 180 proposed amendments to the two-year budget that takes effect July 1.
The budget, which lawmakers passed in March and proponents hailed as the most progressive in Virginia’s history, now would suspend all new spending, part of a “timeout” the administration is instituting until the pandemic’s economic fallout is clearer.
A spokeswoman for Northam said he planned to convene lawmakers for a special session in late summer or early fall to tackle the budget in light of revised state revenues.