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Shelter at Home and the Impact of Coronavirus: Political Analysis for Friday, April 3, 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 the governor’s shelter in place order, economic consequences of the coronavirus, and impacts to upcoming conventions, local elections and primaries.

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, how are you doing?

Jeff Schapiro:  I'm doing well, Craig, from one side of the James to the other.

Carper:  Yes, this week we saw Governor Ralph Northam getting tough, or should we say tougher, on restrictions for controlling the coronavirus in Virginia.

Schapiro:  The governor issued a shelter in place or a stay at home order that is in effect through June 10.  He is warning Virginians to dig in.  He says that the outbreak of COVID-19 here may not peak until late-May.  One of the reasons he is issuing this order or has issued this order, and remember not too long ago he said this was really a matter of rhetoric and semantics, that what he was pushing previously was indeed in effect a stay at home order.  But one of the things that the governor is concerned about is that Virginians, he would suggest, are not using their judgment and not practicing social distancing and not avoiding unnecessary travel.  He apparently was steamed by news footage of a jammed oceanfront last weekend in Virginia Beach.  Of course, this is his home base.  And no doubt he was getting reports firsthand as well of the traffic down there.  Now what he is saying is that the authorities will be busting up groups now of 10 people or more.  This latest order sets civil fines for violators, but there have been questions about whether Northam has the authority to do so.  Now when all of this is over, whenever it is over, I think it's safe to bet that there'll be a closer look at a governor's emergency powers and maybe even those of local government, which of course in Virginia largely depends on the state to determine, you know, what is or isn't an emergency.  You know, this is because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, and that means local government is a subsidiary of state government, and the only power that the locals have is what the state gives them.

Carper:  That's right.  And this week, we've seen the economic consequences of the pandemic coming into sharper focus in the Commonwealth.

Schapiro:  Yes, there has been a spiking jobless rate and this clearly augers huge budget problems for Virginia.  Since the 14th of March, just over two weeks ago, new unemployment claims in Virginia swelled from about 2,700 to about 114,000, and they're likely to go higher. Now it is not clear how quickly fattened jobless pay will begin flowing to the unemployed under that $2 trillion federal relief bill.  And it's supposed to mean money for state services, about $1.5 billion.  Now the Northam administration would prefer cash, than money with strings attached.  They feel, or the administration feels, that it can more efficiently and more effectively keep the budget in balance if it were a block grant, and there's still a lot of talk about that.  Now for the spending year that begins July 1, the administration is anticipating a gap of $1 billion, at least $1 billion.  But now there is a profound cash shortage, and it is expected to blow a hole in the current budget which runs through June 30, and that translates to cuts imposed by the governor.  The governor is obligated under the Constitution to keep the budget balanced at all times, and the budget law itself, the Appropriations Act, allows the governor to cut appropriations by up to 15%.

Carper:  And Jeff, up to this point, there's been little or no partisan sniping in Virginia during this health crisis, though that appears to be coming to an end.

Schapiro:  The Republicans, among them the state Republican chairman, do not like the governor's latest stay at home order.  They are worried that the date, it lapses June 10, reaches beyond the Republicans’ senate primary.  This is to choose an opponent for Mark Warner, the Democratic incumbent seeking a third term in Washington.  And Republicans are wondering, is this not a ruse by a Democratic governor to tamp down Republican turnout?  The administration says this has nothing to do with politics, not that Republicans believe it.  Now, when you're out of power, as Republicans are, shut out statewide in the legislature, in the congressional delegation, if only to keep the shrinking Republicans engaged, why not question how and why a Democratic governor is managing a pandemic as he is.  And of course, the Republicans have already scrubbed their state convention in May because of the coronavirus. And there is a big question over the biggest Republican district convention, that's one here in Trump-carried central Virginia.  That will choose a Republican to take on Democrat Abigail Spanberger, who of course won a House seat two years ago.  No decision yet regarding the state's Democratic convention in June.  But an important footnote to all of this, what about voting in those May local elections and those June primaries?  The governor is saying people should vote by absentee ballot.  But the electoral boards, and they are in a snit worried about the health and safety of election workers, they want immediate and emergency legislation allowing voting by mail.

Carper:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.  Stay safe.

Schapiro:  And you.

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