The General Assembly reconvened last week to deal with Governor Northam’s amendments to legislation that was passed during the regular session. This was an unusual session, as we did not meet in the House Chamber, but under a tent on the lawn of the Capitol in order to maintain social distancing. For the first hour or so, we were serenaded by the sound of freedom, protesters honking their car horns calling on Governor Northam to reopen Virginia’s economy and let people go back to work.
The session started out with Speaker Filler-Corn and the Democrats pushing a change to House Rules to allow remote voting for the House, instead of gathering to meet. Evidently the Speaker intended to pass this rule change, then adjourn, and schedule an “online” session to actually vote on legislation later. This would have required the Senate and perhaps the House to come back on another day to wrap-up the session, which made no sense to me. We were already gathered, there was no reason not to vote and get our work done while we were there.
Keep in mind that this has never been done before, the software to do this has not been tested for reliability or security, and there was no clear plan to allow the public to observe this electronic session. As someone who worked in systems testing and analysis for more than two decades, I can tell you systems hardly ever work as advertised the first time you try to use them. Fortunately, Republicans defeated this proposal and session proceeded has close to normal as could be, given the circumstances.
As it turned out my experience with technology proved true, it took an hour and a half for technicians to get our new, outdoor voting system to work. Our first several votes had to be done via roll call. I can only imagine what a mess an “online” session would have been; probably would have ended up with lawsuits for the lack of transparency or inability of Delegates to fully participate.
Once we got all the bugs worked out of the system, we managed to complete our work. Below is a brief summary of our actions.
The Governor made numerous changes to the state budget, primarily rolling back new spending initiatives and deferring many construction projects in order to reduce spending. This was required due to a significant drop in tax revenues caused by Governor Northam shutting down much of Virginia’s economy in response to the COVID-19 virus. In addition to these amendments, the Governor has the authority to further reduce spending to keep the budget in balance.
Governor Northam has indicated he plans to call a special session of the legislature in August or September to make further changes to the state budget, once we see how badly revenues have been impacted.
BAD BUSINESS BILLS
During session, Democrats forced through a several bills that increased costs on businesses and government, which will make it more difficult and costly for businesses to create new jobs or even stay in business. These bills included collective bargaining, increasing the minimum wage, project labor agreements, and new taxing authority. Acknowledging that these bills are bad for business, the Governor delayed their effective date by a few months, hoping to give businesses a little extra time to recover from the current economic shutdown before imposing additional burdens on them. Instead of just delaying these bills, he should have just vetoed them.
Governor Northam submitted, and Democrats approved, amendments to expand and accelerate the eligibility of criminals for parole and early release from prison, including violent felons and sex offenders.
Governor Northam amended the “Driver’s Privilege Card” for illegal aliens to remove the required language “Driver Privilege Card: not valid ID for voting or public benefits purposes.” This will make it easier for illegal aliens to use the card as an official ID, including for voting. Democrats passed this amendment over the objections of Republicans.
One of the good things we did during session was pass legislation to make it easier for employees and small businesses to form healthcare associations to offer insurance to their members. Governor Northam’s amendment would have required the legislation pass again next year before it would become law (a reenactment clause). I believe this was really an attempt to kill the bill without vetoing it; he wants to force people to use the Obamacare exchanges, which are just too costly for many. His amendment was defeated, so now he has the option to veto or sign the legislation.
Another amendment that was defeated would have moved May city and town elections to November, despite the fact that absentee voting for those elections is already underway and thousands of votes have been cast. His amendment was opposed by nearly all elected officials in the affected cities and towns.