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Northam Faces Bipartisan Calls for Special Session

The Virginia State Capitol building.
The Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

A lot has changed since the General Assembly wrapped up its regular session on Thursday, and now some lawmakers are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to call a special legislative session devoted to COVID-19.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) wrote a letter to Northam dated Monday urging the governor to call lawmakers back to Richmond to focus on the budget fallout from the pandemic.

At least two Democrats in the House of Delegates have made their own calls to focus on paid sick leave and a public healthcare option that would expand the reach of Medicaid.

At a press conference on Sunday, Northam said he’s in regular contact with lawmakers ahead of their final vote on the budget slated for April 22. The governor said his office could suggest changes to the budget and legislation ahead of that day.

“We’ll just be flexible right now, but I don’t anticipate bringing them back before reconvened session,” he said.

A spokesperson did not respond to a request for an updated comment.

Norment said he’d like to focus on updated revenue forecasts underlying the budget; the current numbers were built on an estimate presented in December.

“I believe these circumstances and their potential long-term effects on our economy necessitate prompt legislative action,” Norment wrote in the letter.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), a possible 2021 gubernatorial candidate, urged Northam to call lawmakers back -- digitally, if necessary -- to focus on paid sick leave. A bill to offer sick leave stalled at the end of the regular session amid concerns by Republicans and a few Senate Democrats about costs to businesses.

“We had a responsibility to pass these bills then, and we certainly have a responsibility to pass them now,” Carroll Foy wrote in a letter dated Friday.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Fairfax) made his plea for a special session focused on sick leave and a bill proposing a public healthcare option minutes before the session was even done last week.

Kim Bobo, president of the Interfaith Policy Center, urged Northam to use his emergency powers to push temporary paid sick leave to help workers cope with the pandemic. A bill mandating employers with 15 or more employees provide five days of paid sick leave failed to clear last-day negotiations in the General Assembly. 

“We think at this moment, we need paid sick days in Virginia desperately,” Bobo said.

Bobo and other critics contend that an aid package making its way through Congress is inadequate. A proposal passed by the House of Representatives late Friday night would provide free COVID-19 testing, establish paid sick leave for some workers, and increase funding for food assistance programs.

The sick leave policies would not apply to employers with more than 500 employees and those with less than 50 workers could apply for hardship exemptions. 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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