(The Center Square) – The Virginia General Assembly voted to accept most of Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget amendments, some of which reduced spending amid COVID-19 concerns, and approved some attempts to broaden executive power while rejecting others.
With state revenue projections dipping below where they were at the beginning of the budget talks, Republicans and Democrats agreed to freeze or eliminate funding for a variety of projects, including teacher salary increases and higher education spending. The governor plans to call a special session later in the year to reconsider funding priorities based on updated revenue forecasts.
“Our bipartisan plan to pause new spending in the state budget ensures this historic progress remains intact, but on hold while we direct state resources where they are most needed in response to the virus,” Northam said in a statement. “We will reconvene later this summer to adjust the state budget when the economic and financial impacts of the pandemic become clearer.”
Lawmakers also approved a COVID-19 relief fund for small businesses, unemployed Virginians, those who can’t pay rent or mortgages, and the homeless. It will be funded through an electric skill gaming tax, which Northam expects will generate $150 million annually. The fund had unanimous support in the House but faced opposition among Senate Republicans who believed it gave Northam too much flexibility to allocate funds without legislative approval.
Several of Northam’s other budget amendments shifted power away from the Legislature and into the executive branch during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Some of these powers were approved with bipartisan support, some approved with opposition from the Republican minority, and others were rejected by both parties, ultimately failing.
An amendment to let the governor override the provisions of The Virginia Unemployment Compensation Act so he could make it easier to access unemployment benefits passed with Democratic support but Republican opposition in both chambers.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said the governor should not have such overarching power over the legislative code. He said a special session could address these issues.
“That is a very dangerous highway to start meandering down,” Norment said.
Some other broadened executive powers that passed were supported by House Republicans but opposed by Senate Republicans, including an amendment to grant more authority to the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services to manage care and change plans.
“It seems like an overreach,” Stephen Newman, R-Bedford, said.
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, said she would agree with that sentiment in normal times, but said “we’re not in ordinary times,” and it is not practical for lawmakers to keep coming back to make these adjustments in special sessions.
With bipartisan opposition, lawmakers in the House blocked an amendment that would have given the governor the authority to delay the continuation or the initiation of capital projects to address money issues related to COVID-19.
“I just don’t think it’s a good precedent,” said Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. He said the General Assembly should not give this legislative authority over to the executive branch. Rather, he said the legislature should consider such changes during a special session.
Lawmakers in the House narrowly blocked an amendment that would have given the Commonwealth Transportation Board more flexibility to allocate money to various transportation agencies and programs to ensure enough funding was available for COVID-19-related issues.
The governor also failed to postpone local elections.
An amendment to the budget would have postponed local May elections until Nov. 3, which is the date of the general election. The measure initially failed in the House, but was brought up for reconsideration and then passed the chamber narrowly, 47-45. When brought to the Senate, the chamber agreed to pass by the legislation for the day with a voice vote, which effectively killed the amendment. This amendment would have thrown out all of the absentee votes that had already been cast and forced those people to vote again.
“We cannot make decisions based on hysteria,” Sen. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, said before motioning to pass by the legislation.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-James City, said turning away ballots already cast would set terrible precedent.
One of the amendment’s supporters, Sen. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, acknowledged that delaying elections through the budget was “certainly not an ideal solution,” but said there weren’t any other options available. He said this amendment likely would have increased overall voter turnout in the elections.
In a statement, Northam said he will review the General Assembly’s action on this amendment and announce his next steps soon.