Two Chesterfield County state senators and a state delegate took time recently to reflect on the state Legislature’s one-day “veto session” that occurred April 22.
Due to the impact of COVID-19, the state House and Senate held meetings under a canopy outside the state Capitol and at the Science Museum of Richmond.
“I’m glad it was held at the Science Museum of Virginia with people 10 feet apart,” state Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) said.
“It was a continuation of the same in which the new (Democratic) majority got pretty much what they wanted (during the regular session),” state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) said. She called the veto session “very disappointing and very frustrating.”
During the session, state legislators considered Gov. Ralph Northam’s vetoes and budget amendments.
SB2, which decriminalized up to one ounce of marijuana during the regular session, was brought up because Northam wanted to end a right to a jury trial for those convicted of the civil offense.
Chase and Morrissey voted with the majority in a 32-8 vote preserving the right to trial by jury.
Morrissey said that even a civil conviction gives the appearance of wrongdoing. In Virginia, one can get a jury trial for a felony, misdemeanor or traffic offense, he said. Morrissey called the underlying decriminalization bill “very important” and a “major accomplishment.” The same bill calls for a study on legalization of marijuana to be complete by November.
‘Games of skill’
So-called “games of skill” or electronic “gray machines” were kept alive for at least another year as legislators accepted a Northam amendment to keep the “slot-like” machines open with proceeds going toward coronavirus-related causes.
The state has been getting $1,200 per machine per month for the past year under a loophole in state law, Morrissey said. The machines have the look, feel, smell and taste of a slot machine, he said, noting that they are located in convenience stores.
“Good luck getting rid of that next year,” he said, adding that there were more lobbyists on that bill (SB971) than any other during the regular session this year. An estimated total of $125 million to $130 million will come from their legality, he said.
SB7, which increases the state minimum wage gradually from $7.25 to $12 on Jan. 2, 2023, was amended. The first step — an increase to $9.50 — was delayed four months from Jan. 1, 2021, to May 1, 2021. The vote was 20-20, with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax breaking the tie vote after Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County) voted with the Republicans. It also passed the House. The next steps are: $11 on Jan. 1, 2022 and $12 on Jan. 1, 2023.
The Legislature adopted some of Northam’s amendments on HB29 and HB30 that had to do with the budget. The first, which is called the “caboose” bill because it deals with the budget through June 30, eliminates a $601 million contribution to the state’s “rainy day” fund due to uncertainty about the impact of COVID-19.
The second, HB30, gives Northam the authority to use money from all new discretionary spending from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022, so that he can use it to respond to COVID-19. Morrissey said the amendment, which “unallots” funding, will take money from a lot of legislators’ “pet projects.”
Chase disagreed with the amendment to HB30, saying it gives Northam the power to spend $2.2 billion “to do whatever he wants.”
In an email to constituents, Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) commented about HB30.
“Unfortunately, the unclear financial picture means we must unallott previously planned raises for public employees,” Cox said. “For me, it was a very tough vote. Let me note that the raises were not cancelled. The Assembly can prorate the raises if our financial situation improves, but unfortunately that is not likely given our current situation.”
Northam said he plans to call a special session in late summer or early fall to propose new revenue forecasts, review the “unallotted” appropriations, and propose any cuts in spending or adjustments needed to address the economic downturn associated with COVID-19.
Gas tax extended
An amendment to extend a new 7.6-cent gas tax related to creation of the Central Virginia Transportation Authority was approved. Implementation of the regional tax, which affects nine localities including Chesterfield, was bumped three months from July 1 to Oct. 1. The bill, HB1541, was sponsored by Del. Dolores McQuinn (D-Richmond). The tax is indexed to inflation.
Northam’s effort to push more than 100 May 5 city elections to Nov. 3 was rejected by the Senate, although it passed the House. The proposal would have extended the terms of some local officials from June 30 to November, and it would have resulted in already-cast absentee ballots being tossed. After the veto session, Northam used his authority to bump the local elections to May 19. No county elections are scheduled for Chesterfield this month.