Virginia lawmakers held a legislative session unlike any in the state's more than 400-year history Wednesday, donning masks and keeping their distance from each other as they voted to delay a minimum wage hike, teacher raises, and other items amid uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the economy.
“In a crisis of this magnitude, sacrifices must be made,” said Democratic Del. Luke Torian, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
House Delegates spread out at individual tables under tents on the Capitol lawn while the Senate convened at a giant event space at the Science Museum of Virginia a few miles away. Lawmakers ditched their germ-carrying ties and wore masks and bandanas.
Proceedings in the House quickly stalled when members encountered technical issues with their voting machines that lasted about 40 minutes. Horns blared from the cars of protesters who gathered nearby, unhappy with mandated business closings.
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About three hours into the House session, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn appeared to collapse and was attended to by medics and a fellow delegate who is a nurse practitioner. An aide said Filler-Corn hadn’t eaten lunch, became dizzy and was uninjured in the fall. She resumed her role presiding over the chamber about an hour later.
In the makeshift Senate chamber, one lawmaker with health issues was surrounded by plexiglass for added protection from the virus. At one point, the clerk of the Senate admonished senators who weren’t wearing masks, noting that there were several lawmakers and staff in the room who are at high risk.
Democrats in both chambers — in full control of the General Assembly this year for the first time in a generation — voted to approve amendments by Gov. Ralph Northam to delay many of their long-sought priorities.
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That includes delays on granting local government employees the right to collectively bargain and raising the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50. Northam wants the wage increase to kick in May 1, 2021, instead of in January 2021. Future minimum wage increases included in the bill — it would increase to $15 by 2026 — are not be affected.
Republicans tried to reject the amendment so Northam could have another chance to consider vetoing the bill entirely.
“Instead of being sympathetic to these businesses at their worst time, we’re tightening the screws,” said Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph.
Some Democrats were also unhappy with the delay. Democratic Sen. Janet Howell also voted to reject the proposed amendment, saying low-wage workers are “the very people who are keeping us going” during the pandemic. She said those workers should not have to wait any longer than necessary for a raise.
Lawmakers also voted with Northam to push back decisions on whether to give teachers and state workers raises, freeze in-state college tuition, and implement other new spending in a $135 billion, two-year 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 later this year to adjust their spending priorities, after the state has a better handle on what the virus’s impact has been on revenues.
Before the legislature convened, protesters on foot and in vehicles converged outside the Capitol.
Drivers leaned on their horns and shouted in the direction of the Capitol and governor’s mansion. Many of the cars were flying American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, or President Donald Trump campaign flags and had signs affixed to their windows protesting Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders implementing business closures and social distancing measures. Some of the same vehicles circled repeatedly, and they mixed in with normal traffic like city buses.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor is eager to ease restrictions as soon as it is possible to do so safely.
“As is clear from our case counts and the president’s own guidelines, we are not there yet. The governor is grateful to the millions of Virginians who are doing the right thing and protecting the health of themselves, their families, and their communities,” she said in a statement.
Northam also changed legislation to speed up certain measures due to the virus. He moved up the implementation of a new law meant to protect borrowers of short-term, high-interest loans and another that would make about 300 inmates immediately eligible to apply for parole.
At the start of the House session, Democrats proposed a rules change that would have allowed members to participate remotely. Republicans objected, and the measure failed.
Lawmakers also gave their final sign-off to legalizing casinos in five cities in Virginia and passed an amendment to delay the ban of unregulated betting machines in restaurants and gas stations. Northam proposed the amendment, saying the state should tax the machines and use the revenue to fund a virus relief plan.
The Senate rejected Northam’s move to delay elections for local offices currently scheduled for May. Senators said they want the governor to call a special session and reschedule the elections for June.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.