In declaring Virginia a “blue state,” Gov. Ralph Northam vowed Wednesday to move ahead on liberal issues he said have long been stalled by Republican control of the statehouse.
Inside a room on the upper floors of the Capitol, Northam held an open Cabinet meeting that featured talk of “a new landscape” full of “great opportunity” for the administration’s ideals.
Surrounded by his top officials, Northam vowed to move forward on the gun control measures he pitched to lawmakers after the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach. He talked about decriminalizing marijuana and sanctioning no-excuse absentee voting.
He backed an increase to the state’s minimum wage and an end to gerrymandering of political boundaries. He pitched plans for a new state-based health insurance marketplace to boost the number of insured Virginians. He proclaimed the expansion of early childhood education a top priority, along with battling climate change.
The list went on.
“This is a blue state. I declared that last night,” Northam said, adding that the “blue wave” that swept Virginia in 2017, when Democrats swept the top three statewide offices and gained 15 House seats, “was still out there” Tuesday night.
New Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will come at a critical time for Northam, who is retooling his signature budget and legislative package to take advantage of his party’s newfound power.
The two-year spending plan for July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2022, that Northam is expected to present to the General Assembly’s money committees on Dec. 17 is the only budget that he will build and roll out during his four-year term.
On Wednesday, Northam repeatedly promoted Virginia’s designation as the “No. 1 state to do business,” bestowed upon the state by CNBC.
“While we are the No. 1 state in the country in which to do business, I want to do everything that I can to support our workers as well,” Northam said.
Northam signaled boosting workforce training as a key way to help workers. Asked about more contentious proposals promoted by progressive Democrats, Northam appeared split.
Northam threw his weight behind an increase to the minimum wage, which right now sits at $7.25 an hour. Past efforts on the minimum wage, he said, have “fallen on deaf ears.”
“All of us could hopefully agree that there is no way you could support yourself or your family on $7.25,” Northam said. “To what level, or how fast we get there, I can’t tell you. But we’re certainly open, and I’ll support raising the minimum wage.”
Asked about a repeal of the state’s “right-to-work” law, which prohibits private sector unions from forcibly collecting dues, Northam refused to engage with “a hypothetical question.”
“I deal with what is put on my desk,” he said.
While appetite for repealing the law is not pervasive among Democrats, more progressive senior and incoming members support a repeal or have said they would consider one.
“If something like that gets to my desk, I’ll certainly look at it.”
Eight bills backed by Northam and introduced by Democrats during a July 9 special session on gun control will be at the top of the administration’s legislative to-do list.
Northam proposed measures calling for universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons to include suppressors and bump stocks, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and to restore a state law, repealed in 2012, to restrict handgun purchases to one a month.
Northam also proposed legislation that would set tougher penalties for leaving a loaded gun near a child, that would allow for “extreme risk” protective orders to remove guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others, and that would require people to report stolen or lost guns within 24 hours.
Northam is also pushing for legislation to allow localities to regulate firearms within their jurisdictions — including banning them in government buildings.
The state’s crime commission is expected to take up the issue this coming Tuesday, but it’s unclear whether the commission’s staff has finished studying the proposals, or whether the commission will make formal recommendations.
On Nov. 18, the current, GOP-controlled General Assembly is scheduled to reconvene to take up Northam’s proposals.
“We welcome their support, but regardless, it will be a new day,” said Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security.
Northam added: “I suspect most of the work will be done in January,” after the new General Assembly is sworn in.
Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey said his office was working on a proposal that would bring a state-based health insurance marketplace to Virginia. The marketplace would allow Virginians to compare and enroll in a health care plan through a state-run website that pools in available plans. Right now, Virginians not covered by their workplace can enroll through the federal government’s marketplace.
Some states that rolled out their own marketplaces, many of which were controlled by Democrats, ran into technological roadblocks that forced them to return to the federal marketplace. But an April report by the National Academy for State Health Policy showed that state-based exchanges enrolled more people and offered lower health care costs than the federal marketplace.
Northam said the model would give the state “a lot more control and would save the commonwealth a lot of money.”
Carey also talked about maternal health and said that in the coming weeks, his office would release a five-year plan aimed at improving maternal mortality. Northam directed state officials earlier this year to study racial disparities in maternal mortality in Virginia that result in more black and Hispanic women dying during or after childbirth, compared with white women.
“We want to make sure that plan is rooted in the communities we want to serve,” Carey said.
Northam reiterated Wednesday that expanding access to preschool in Virginia will be a budget priority moving forward. In referring to a “top to bottom review” of the state’s base budget, Northam cited the need for funding for early childhood education.
“I think we can all agree that if we can provide pre-K, early childhood education to all children across Virginia, it will really give them a good start,” Northam said.
Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni also said his office was working on adjusting staffing ratios for support positions within schools.