Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Changed Circumstances Required Governor’s Red Pen

Last Saturday night at midnight was the constitutional deadline for Governor Northam to act on the 1,291 bills that we sent to him from the General Assembly this session. In total, Governor Northam signed 1,021 bills, vetoed one bill, and has sent back 102 pieces of legislation with recommendations that my colleagues and I must review and vote on during the upcoming reconvened session on April 22nd. He had a very busy weekend with his red pen making numerous edits to the budget and legislation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and circumstances rapidly change, it is still too soon to know how much expected revenue Virginia has lost and will continue to lose. In addition, the current budget does not account for all the increased expenses that the COVID-19 response has and will cost Virginia. To reflect these unforeseen changes, Governor Northam has requested that the General Assembly approve a freeze of $874.6 million in spending in the fiscal

year that will start on July 1st, 2020, and $1.4 billion in the fiscal year that will begin on July 1st, 2021. He also adds an additional $55.5 million for the Department of Emergency Management. We will also get the opportunity to vote on his helpful and important amendments to waive interest on state income tax payments submitted after May 1st, and to provide spending flexibility, and to allow virtual public meetings for Government bodies. Until we pass that amendment we must convene in person. The plan is to do so on the 22nd, but outside wearing masks and with at least 6 feet between us. Hopefully, for safety’s sake, we can finish up quickly and if necessary, reconvene online from home if there are any amendments left to act upon.

With the new circumstances of life under this deadly pandemic, the Governor revisited many of our decisions and delayed some long-awaited initiatives our new Democratic majority fought for during the General Assembly session. The critical labor legislation that we worked hard to pass this session is delayed until May 1st, 2021. So, the first increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 an hour, would not happen until May 1st, 2021. This is a change from the bill we passed that had it go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. While this first increase is delayed, the remaining incremental increases will go into effect as originally proposed, topping out at $12 an hour beginning in 2023. As I have stated before, this comes at a time when minimum wage workers are serving on the frontlines of this pandemic.

In addition to our accolades, these workers deserve living wages. Pay raises for teachers and other public employees will also be put on hold, as well as the hiring of much-needed school counselors. Indeed, the Governor has proposed 83 budget amendments to freeze new spending initiatives that we approved when the economy was in far better shape.

To create a COVID-19 relief fund and ease the burden on restaurants and businesses that have had to reduce business or shutter their operations, Governor Northam has recommended a 35% tax on games of skill, otherwise known as “gray machines”, which we voted to ban during the session. If approved, this tax revenue could generate somewhere north of $100 million to go towards funding a COVID-19 relief fund for small businesses, as well as housing and nursing home assistance. After one year, the delayed ban would be implemented and the games of skill would be banned. However, the likelihood is that these small businesses, mostly restaurants, truck stops, and small convenience stores, will still require this revenue. I anticipate that we will need to pass a new bill next session to regulate them so that they are not in places where there are children and don’t create a host of mini-casinos.

Also significantly, Governor Northam signed sweeping new voting access laws into law that will make voting more accessible to all Virginians. These bills included allowing Virginians the option to vote early without an excuse up to 45 days prior to an election, and ensuring that mail-in ballots postmarked on or before the date of the election shall be counted. In-person voting hours were also extended, with polls now closing at 8 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. In addition, Election Day was officially made a state holiday, replacing Lee-Jackson Day. This move will give Virginians more time and opportunity to cast their votes.

Finally, Governor Northam signed the Clean Economy Act which will accelerate Virginia’s transition to clean energy. This legislation requires Dominion Energy to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045 and Appalachian Power to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. It requires nearly all coal-fired plants to shut down by the end of 2024. This legislation also advances offshore and onshore wind projects. In addition to bills like my HB 502, which increased the penalty for delinquent litter taxes, these environmental actions will give Virginia a jumpstart on combating climate change and protecting our environment.