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Virgina Responds to Coronavirus, Politically and Fiscally: Political Analysis for Friday, March 20, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between them.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week's political analysis. Topics include state reactions to the coronavirus, politically and fiscally.

Craig Carper:  From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper.  Joining me now from the Richmond Times-Dispatch is political columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Craig.  Now two weeks hunkering down.

Carper:  That's right.  Trying not to go stir crazy.  I know we're in this for the long haul.

Schapiro:  Social distancing. 

Carper:  As the COVID-19 crisis intensifies the human toll is increasing, and political and economic consequences are accelerating, Jeff.

Schapiro:  Yes, the human toll, we are probably pushing beyond 100 confirmed cases here in Virginia.  As for politics and the economy, things are coming into sharper focus.  There have been now at least three calls for an emergency session of the legislature.  One of those calls is coming from the Republican leader of the Senate, Tommy Normant.  He's worried about the effect all this will have on the state's finances.  Jennifer Caroll Foy, a two-term Democratic delegate from Prince William County.  She wants the legislature coming back into session to talk about strengthening health services and employment protections for Virginians.  Now, it's important to underscore that Tommy Normant, as the Republican leader in the Senate, is looking for an opportunity to prop up his party now in the minority.  And Caroll Foy, as a candidate for governor, is clearly looking for an opportunity to prop up her aspirations.  Now, the legislature may not be interested in a special session at least in toto at this time, and the governor is balking at the idea of bringing everyone back to town.  He says that he can manage the fiscal consequences of all this himself.  But to the point about the legislature convening itself, it can under the Constitution.  If two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate demand that the legislature must meet, into town they will march.  One other political aftershock here.  Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, in a letter to Ralph Northam is calling for, his words, “bolder, swifter action” in dealing with this crisis.  That includes mandatory orders shutting down bars and restaurants, gymnasiums, extending the tax filing deadline past May 1.  That would be the state tax filing deadline.  Also ginning up unemployment pay.  Let's say this about that.  Justin Fairfax is trying to look like a governor by second guessing the current one.  Keep in mind Justin Fairfax probably figures he has little to lose.  He is running for governor in 2021, but of course faces a significant obstacle and that is having to answer for allegations of sexual assault.

Carper:  That's right.  And with the budget likely to take a big hit, Governor Northam has tools for addressing on his own the fiscal consequences of the coronavirus.

Schapiro:  How Virginia manages this, at this time, is going to be watched very closely by the credit agencies, all three of which have given Virginia the highest possible rating, that is AAA.  Among those tools at the governor's disposal, there is a revenue reserve of more than $2 billion.  This is the “rainy day” fund, the emergency fund.  The governor can also cut spending up to 15% according to the fine print in the back of the Appropriations Act.  That could mean, if it comes to it, moving around cash for the “niceties”, as Doug Wilder would call them.  That might include construction and delaying some of these bricks-and-mortar projects.  If there is an area of the state where the economic consequences of all this are already coming into very sharp focus, it's the governor's home base, Governor Northam’s home base, Hampton Roads.  Remember there are three components of its economy.  That's the military, shipping through the port of Hampton Roads, and tourism, and we are already seeing dramatic declines in port traffic, and there are mounting signs as well that tourism is heading south.

Carper:  And the legislature must come back in just about a month, but there are looming questions about whether the Assembly will be able to meet safely.

Schapiro:  Now the legislature must meet in public.  That's required by the Constitution and by state law.  So some big telephone conference call of all 140 members is not only unlikely when the legislature is supposed to return on the 22nd of April, it would be illegal.  Now there are some exceptions in the off-season for legislative panels to allow some of their members to participate by telephone.  But they are strictly limited and must include advance notice of these meetings, and also that there are quorums present, that is the minimum number of members are in attendance for, you know, business to be transacted.  Now the House and the Senate rules allow for the leadership of those bodies to determine where the legislature can meet, and we've seen these ceremonial sessions in places like Williamsburg and Jamestown, but the legislature still must meet on the 22nd of next month, and that date is set by the Constitution's timetable for this spring session.  The only exception for the legislature not meeting is wartime, specifically an attack on Virginia's soil.  That's the wording in the Constitution.  So looking ahead to April 22 and the session of the legislature, are we thinking about social distancing on a grand scale?  Maybe legislators wearing face masks and protective suits?

Carper:  That's right.  There's a lot to figure out.  Alright well, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.


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