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Legislature Set to Kick Off Unusual Pandemic Session

Podium and screen at Science Museum of Virignia
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax's podium at the Senate's new home at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Lawmakers in Virginia are returning to Richmond on Wednesday under completely changed circumstances.

They’re trading ties for masks and moving out of their usual chambers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia’s House of Delegates is meeting on the grounds of the Capitol beneath a white events tent in a setting that looks more fit for a wedding than a legislative session. Lawmakers have been instructed to wear masks and leave their germ-carrying ties at home.

The state Senate, meanwhile, will decamp a couple of miles down the road to an 11,000 sq. ft. annex donated by the Science Museum of Virginia.

They may have to speak over the honks of protestors, who are planning an in-car  rally against Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order.

Lawmakers have plenty of work to do in their veto session, which usually only lasts one day. 

They’re considering changes to the budget they passed last month. Northam is asking them to suspend all new spending.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow for his fellow Democrats, who will have to put off priorities like pay raises for teachers.

Still, top lawmakers from both parties have signaled they support Northam’s plans. They’re facing a budget gap projected to top $2 billion over the next two years.

They’re also considering Northam’s changes to legislation, including a four-month delay to a proposed minimum wage increase. Under Northam’s proposal, the first raise to $9.50 an hour would occur on May 1, 2021, as opposed to January 1.

Northam is also proposing changes to local elections. Some of Virginia’s cities and counties are set to hold municipal elections on May 5.

Northam said that timeline is too dangerous given the pandemic, and has asked lawmakers to push back the elections until November.

But some lawmakers, including three Democratic senators, have spoken out against his plan. 

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) said he’s fine with pushing the vote back until June.

“But moving the election all the way to November would mean you would have to destroy thousands and thousands of ballots,” Petersen said. “It’d be very confusing. And you’d have no leadership in these communities from July to November.”

Petersen said he’s spoken to the administration about legislating changes to the calendar that would allow the vote to take place on June 16, but had yet to win them over.

Petersen’s plan would require Northam to call a special session to consider the legislation. 

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