April 29. 2020
The annual "veto session' was truly surreal. The veto session, officially called the Reconvene Session, is required by our state constitution. The purpose of the session is to vote on amendments the Governor made to various bills and especially the budget. It is also when we vote on any vetoes. Last week we voted on 102 amendments to bills and 144 amendments to our two budget bills. Our responsibility was normal. Nothing else was.
Because of COVID-19 the Senate met at the Science Museum. Instead of sitting at our usual desks that are inches apart, each senator had a six by three foot table that was at least six feet from any other table. We were instructed to wear masks and constantly use the hand sanitizer that was provided. One senator who is recovering from surgery was provided a large plexiglass box to sit in. We senators tend to be rather friendly back-slappers and hand shakers-- but not last week.
Meanwhile, the House of Delegates met in a huge tent on the capitol grounds. Their session was disrupted by ill-informed protesters circling the capitol grounds honking horns and demanding that we "liberate" Virginia. The Speaker of the House briefly passed out. And, there were technical difficulties.
Somehow, both the Senate and House completed our task in one day. Given the tragedy our Commonwealth is enduring, it was a weighty responsibility. Virginians are dying in unprecedented numbers, Most are not working and large numbers have desperate income needs. Schools and universities are closed. Medical personnel, first responders, and law enforcement are risking their own lives to save ours.
As chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, it was my responsibility to speak to all the Governor's budget amendments. It was heart-breaking. All the progress we had made just weeks ago in funding teachers' pay, early education, human services, economic development, and climate change measures vanished. I placed 80 budget items in a bloc and had them all "un-alloted" until the General Assembly meets to reauthorize them. Un-allot is an executive branch technique. It means they cannot spend the money even though it is in the budget. Sadly, it is very possible we will have to make more cuts. Currently, we are analyzing the assistance coming from the federal government and how we are permitted to spend it.
In addition to the budget we voted on amendments to various pieces of legislation. I voted against the amendment to delay the minimum wage increase. I believe the greatest threat to our democracy is income inequality. Currently, Virginia has a minimum wage of $7.25/hour. We need to increase it substantially and quickly. Ironically, many of those we depend on most during the pandemic are only earning minimum wage, usually with no benefits. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of voting with the Republicans who had not wanted to increase the minimum wage at all.
By now you undoubtedly know the precautions you need to follow: wash your hands constantly, wear a mask, stay at home as much as possible, practice social distancing. And, to the extent you are able, help those who are suffering from this tragic pandemic.