RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WAVY/WRIC) — The coronavirus pandemic upended a Virginia legislative session, as mask-wearing lawmakers met Wednesday under a giant tent outside the Capitol and car horns blared nearby from protesters unhappy with mandated business closings.
House Delegates met under a canopy outside while the Senate met at a giant event space at the Science Museum of Virginia a couple of miles away. Lawmakers were seated far apart and wearing masks instead of germ-carrying ties to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Proceedings in the House quickly stalled when members encountered technical issues voting during an attendance roll call.
One state senator with health issues was surrounded by plexiglass for added protection.
Before the legislature convened, protesters on foot and in vehicles converged outside the Capitol. The 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.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the measures debated and voted on:
House approves moving elections from May 5 to Nov. 3
The Virginia House voted to approved Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to move local elections from May 5 to Nov. 3 due to coronavirus.
At first, the Virginia House narrowly rejected the plan. The vote was 45-47.
WAVY’s Brett Hall reports the House reconsidered the issue, however, ending with approval.
The Senate will now consider the matter.
The proposal would move some elections, such as those in the cities of Norfolk, Chesapeake, Newport News and Hampton. Races for mayor, city council and school board positions in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, and Williamsburg are voted on during May elections when voter turnout is typically lower.
Northam recommended local May elections be pushed back to November to prevent further spread of coronavirus – but it can only be done with approval by lawmakers.
Minimum wage increase delayed via tiebreaker vote
The Senate narrowly voted to uphold a proposed change to legislation that would raise 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. Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the 20-20 tie to approve Northam’s requested delay.
Senate 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.
Democratic Sen. Janet Howell also voted to reject the proposed amendment, saying low-wage workers are the “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.
- A proposal by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn that would’ve allow the House of Delegates to vote remotely during the pandemic failed because it didn’t win a two-thirds majority.
- The House narrowly approved a budget amendment from Gov. Northam
- It gives VADOC the authority to release inmates with a year or less left in their sentence if they’re not a threat to public safety.
- The goal is to get as many inmates as possible out of congregate settings during the pandemic but Republicans say “hundreds of murderers, armed robbers and burglars” could be released.
Rent and mortgage relief
- Legislation that originally only applied to furloughed federal workers is being expanded to provide temporary rent and mortgage relief to anyone who has lost income due to COVID-19.
- It doesn’t mean people don’t have to pay their rent or mortgage. It prevents eviction and foreclosure proceedings from moving forward during the Governor’s state of emergency
- The protections do not apply to owners who are already being protected from foreclosure under another action taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The House passed it on Wednesday.
Delaying a ban on skills games
- The House of Delegates (not sure about the Senate) approved Gov. Northam’s amendment to delay a ban on skills games for a year
- The games will be taxed for the first time before they’re phased out. The majority of that revenue will go towards a COVID-19 Relief Fund created by the bill
Decriminalizing the possession of marijuana
- $25 dollar fine for up to an ounce of marijuana
- The governor wanted to waive the right to a jury trial for what would be a civil penalty. The House and Senate rejected that amendment
- The Senate also rejected the governor’s proposal to extend the duration of a work group studying the impact of legalization from November 30, 2020, to November 30, 2021. Virginia NORML says that doesn’t mean the General Assembly won’t consider legalization next year
- The governor can now veto the bill or accept it.
WAVY’s Brett Hall is in Richmond today covering the special session. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrettHNews for the latest updates.