Legislators reunite for surreal reconvened session
Minimum wage increase delayed until May 1, 2021.
In a strange and often surreal day during which the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates fainted at her podium and a state senator voted from inside a Plexiglas cubicle, state lawmakers reconvened for a pandemic-era veto session Wednesday in Richmond.
Instead of meeting in their typical chambers in the Virginia State Capitol, delegates assembled under a large tent on the Capitol grounds and state senators decamped to a large room more than two miles away at the Science Museum of Virginia.
Both legislative bodies narrowly approved a five-month delay in increasing the state’s minimum hourly wage to $9.50, which will take effect May 1, 2021, a postponement proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam in light of the coronavirus-fueled financial crisis. Minimum wage increases to $11 by January 2022 and $12 in January 2023 will go forward as planned. The current hourly minimum wage, $7.25, was set in 2014.
What will likely remain in the memory of anyone watching the action — online or in person — was the sight of lawmakers wearing masks and gloves, and the constant vuvuzela-like drone of car horns in the background, the result of a parade of “Reopen Virginia” protesters circling Capitol Square for three hours, which finally came to a stop around 2 p.m. During the first hour, the electronic voting system malfunctioned and didn’t record some delegates’ votes, prompting an early delay in business.
Later, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn collapsed at the podium and received medical assistance, according to media reports, and seemed to recover quickly while the house took a short recess. Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar later reminded senators to put on their masks, saying that some in the room — including her — were in higher risk categories for COVID-19 and that the Virginia Department of Health recommended wearing masks the entire session. State Sen. George Barker, D-Prince William, who recently had surgery, sat inside a clear, protective cubicle.
Many of Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendments were made with the recent coronavirus-fueled economic collapse in view.
Both the Senate and the House voted to enact a one-year delay of a statewide ban on so-called “skill games” (otherwise known as “gray machines” for the legal gray area in which they have thrived within the commonwealth), allowing the previously unregulated slot-like machines to remain in action through July 1, 2021, but this time taxed and monitored by the Virginia ABC. Proceeds of the $1,200 per machine monthly tax will go to a COVID-19 emergency fund to support small businesses and others financially affected by the virus.
Northam said he would not support delaying the ban after 2021.
As for the minimum wage increase, Republican state senators used the opportunity Wednesday to call for a rejection of Northam’s proposed five-month delay — even though rejecting the measure would, at least on paper, have enacted the raise on Jan. 1, 2021, unless the governor decided to kill the measure.
“The governor had an opportunity to be sympathetic to these businesses,” said Sen. William R. DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. “Instead, what I see is the screws tightening down on these businesses.”
Arguing for the Senate to reject the bill, Sen. Amanda Chase, the Chesterfield County Republican who is running for governor, said Virginia businesses are “on the Titanic right now. Are you going to throw them a life raft or an anvil?”
However, Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, countered, “This is not a draconian measure. This is a common-sense measure. We’re all in this together, and it’s just not right to exclude our workers.” The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said he’d be “embarrassed” to pay an employee $7.25 or even $9 an hour, noting that a full-time minimum wage worker would earn less than $20,000 a year even with the $9.50 hourly rate.
Ultimately, senators voted 20-20, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the tie in favor of enacting the governor’s amendment. The House of Delegates voted 49-45 in support of the delay.
The House voted to approve the governor’s recommendations on the following bills:
- HB 4 — regulation of casino gaming by the Virginia Lottery Board, which will include a “voluntary exclusion” list for people with gambling problems and others who do not wish to participate in the lottery, casino gambling or sports betting. Individuals can opt out for two years, five years or for life. Casinos and other gaming entities are directed to make reasonable attempts to cease direct marketing to those on the list.
- HB 340 — expanding protections to tenants and homeowners affected by COVID-19 who were not protected by other foreclosure protection
- HB 358 — delays effective date to May 1, 2021 to let localities have the option to use public labor agreements in major development projects, which would largely impact workers on big projects, protecting them from “wage theft” among contractors and subcontractors.
- HB 662 — prohibiting an employer from discharging or retaliating against an employee if they have discussed wage information with another employee.
- HB 789 — moving effective date from July 1, 2021 to Jan. 1, 2021, providing protection earlier from predatory lending practices but allowing lenders time to adjust their lending models
- HB 881 — Delay of ban on so-called “skill games” by a year, until July 1, 2021, so the machines can be taxed $1,200 per month per machine. The Virginia ABC will be responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing penalties, which would range from $25,000 to $50,000 per violation. Proceeds will go to a COVID-19 relief fund to provide assistance for small businesses, long-term care facilities and others impacted by COVID-19.
- HB 896 — Virginia Lottery will manage and establish rules for sports betting apps. Amendments require businesses pay a $50,000 fee for background checks on all principals, and Martinsville and Richmond motorsports facilities will be allowed to collaborate in their marketing.
- HB 981 — An amendment to the clean energy bill ensures that funding for shoreline flood resiliency is permanent and perpetual.