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Assembly Reconvenes, State Budget Concerns, and Senator Warner Attempts to Make a Sandwich: Political Analysis for Friday, April 24, 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 spring session of the General Assembly, concerns over the health of the state budget, and Senator Mark Warner's attempt to make a sandwich.

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.

Carper:  Jeff, the spring session of the Virginia legislature, one completely remade by the coronavirus, has come and gone.

Schapiro:  And quite a day it was.  The House and the Senate meeting separately, lending new meaning to social distancing, members wearing masks.  The Speaker of the House, Eileen Filler-Corn, faints in the middle of all of this.  We're told that she's okay, that maybe she hadn't sufficient fuel in her system.  And then, for starters, this honking convoy of anti-shutdown protesters circling Capitol Square, playing off the president's demand via tweet that Virginia be liberated.  It was quite a day.  The budget of course was rewritten.  The governor is proposing and the legislature has consented to suspend or delay or place in abeyance or suspended animation, pick a term, more than $2 billion in new spending in the next budget.  Clearly, we are now looking at a special session this summer on the budget when the very uncertain revenue picture is perhaps a little clearer.  On Thursday we got a better feel for just how much Virginia will be receiving in the way of bailout funds from the federal government, about $1.6 billion, but with strings attached.  That's going to perhaps cause some complications, at least on the budget balancing front, going forward.  The so-called gray machines, those gambling machines that one sees it at the filling stations and convenience stores around the state, they got that year reprieve, as the governor requested, and a tax that will generate $150 million or so over the next year before, we are told, these machines will indeed be banned, that Governor Northam is prepared to veto any attempt to extend their life any further.  But the revenue side of that is the important thing.  That money would be going to COVID-19 relief for retailers.  There were some very close calls for the governor, one on his proposal to delay by four months the increase or the first step in the increase in the minimum wage, ultimately to $15 an hour, as well as a year's delay in collective bargaining rights for local government employees.  In both cases Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax had to cast the tie-breaking vote to save those initiatives for the administration.  They had been pushed by among others, local government and big business, essentially as money savers in tough times.

Carper:  And Governor Northam’s first priority beyond public health is, as you mentioned, the health of the state budget.

Schapiro:  Yeah, and that is a problem that is going to bring these legislators back in town sooner than we'd expect, again, looking at a special session.  That seems to be a certainty.  As the Senate was winding down on Wednesday, there was an attempt by Tommy Norment, the Republican Minority Leader, to get the legislature on record demanding a special session on the budget.  It'll happen soon enough, but props to Tommy Norment.  This is a reminder that the Democrats, who were clearly surprised by this move, lack the, shall we say, procedural and institutional knowledge that has allowed the Republicans in the Senate to be sort of pesky when they have to be.  Clearly the move yesterday qualifies as such. 

Carper:  And on rewrites of legislation passed this winter, the governor won some, lost some, and nearly lost some big ones.

Schapiro:  The one on which he did lose was, of course, a request that the legislature consent to rescheduling the local elections from May to November.  The House of Delegates initially resisted the proposal, then endorsed it.  The Senate just didn't bother to vote on it at all, and that essentially killed the governor's tweaks.  You know, the governor says that he wants to avoid a Wisconsin-like situation in which polling places become hotspots for COVID-19.  Now, there are some unspoken political concerns here.  Pushing elections to November could invite competition.  There are a lot of local elected officials who would prefer not to worry about having to defend their seats.  And there are a lot of local elected officials and candidates for local elected office who would have to bear the cost of reprinting campaign materials all pegged to the May elections.  Now as far as the governor's options at this point, he could push off those elections another two weeks into later May, if I may put it that way, just as he did with the congressional primaries in June.

Carper:  And some food for thought - Mark Warner's campaign for a third term in the Senate got a lift this week from a tuna melt sandwich.

Schapiro:  Ah yes, this is the senior senator’s attempt at coronavirus comfort food.  This tuna melt video, it is just awful.  And I think that's what makes it so good.  It will further humanize the senator, who of course is up for a third term this year.  Watching this video, man, he's not preparing a sandwich.  He's preparing, basically, a heart attack on a plate.  [laughing] Too much mayonnaise, and he's not even using a good southern mayonnaise, Duke’s.  He uses Hellmann’s.  He didn't bother to drain the tuna.  Tossed on a couple of slices of cheese, I believe it was cheddar.  And then, get this, he zapped it in a microwave.  He didn't grill it.  [laughing] I mean, come on now! 

Carper:  Ouch.

Schapiro:  And he is getting a lot of good-natured grief for this, from Tim Kaine, Kamala Harris, Claire McCaskill, the press corps.  And now he's building a campaign promo around it.  So basically a disaster, but basically a success.

Carper:  Alright, well I hope you're eating better than that at home, Jeff.

Schapiro:  We absolutely are. [laughing]

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

Schapiro:  Safe weekend to you.

Carper:  You as well.


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