Members of the General Assembly delegation for the Roanoke and New River valleys credit Gov. Ralph Northam for his coronavirus outbreak response, but remain unsure about how to balance protecting public health with keeping businesses afloat.
“While I have never been particularly complimentary of this governor, this is a time when it’s probably very good that we have a doctor at the helm,” Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, said of Northam, a pediatrician. “I think he is trying to communicate things as best he can.”
“I think the governor’s response so far has been sufficient,” said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery. “I think we’re all struggling to communicate a proper healthcare response that also weighs into account what the economic impact will be.”
“I think the administration is doing a good job of keeping us up to date and taking this very seriously,” Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said. “I know there are more extreme measures that could be taken, and we may get to that point.”
However, legislators seem less clear on what the General Assembly’s role might be going forward.
“I don’t know what else there is to do,” Head said. “Every day I have vacillated between thinking we’re overreacting to not thinking that we’re reacting enough.”
“I really feel like, in times like these, he [Northam] has all the constitutional ability he needs to respond accordingly,” Hurst said. “This is about resources management and resources response.”
A General Assembly response would be logistically difficult and fraught with safety concerns and bad optics anyway, Hurst and Rasoul noted.
“I don’t know how smart it is to convene a special session,” Hurst said of calling 140 legislators and hundreds more staff back to Richmond when state and federal guidance all discourage gatherings of more than 10 people. “If we’re trying to practice what we preach, I don’t see how that’s the right thing for us to be doing.”
Plus, “adding 140 cooks in the kitchen at this point is not helpful,” he said.
Rasoul noted that any legislation would have to be passed as an emergency measure in order to take effect promptly.
That means any bill would have to pass with 80% of both the House and Senate in support, he said.
Convening a special session without confidence that anything considered would have that level of support would be “just political theater and no one wants to do that at this juncture,” Rasoul said.
One major question is what becomes of the state budget the General Assembly just passed, and whether legislators will need to revisit it.
“I think we probably will, because all of the budget is predicated on economic conditions that literally have changed since we voted it on it a week ago,” Head said.
The General Assembly reconvenes April 22 for a one-day session to consider any amendments or vetoes to legislation made by the governor.
Hurst, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said that panel and the Senate Finance Committee meet monthly and get regular reports so they can keep abreast of the changing revenue picture as business slows and tax revenue with it.
“But I think we prepared a compromise budget that’s fairly conservative in terms of what we actually appropriate,” Hurst said. That includes adding money to reserve and rainy day funds.
Head said he hopes Northam will review what he called “really anti-business legislation” from the session, such as a minimum wage increase and a bill allowing public employees to engage in collective bargaining. He said he’d like to see those bills slowed down because he believes that combined with the coronavirus disruption of business it constitutes a “major wallop.”
Hurst bristled at Head’s suggestion and called it “opportunism” on behalf of people who don’t want to help the workforce.
“We should not be trying to politicize this crisis,” he said.
Hurst said that the minimum wage bill doesn’t take effect until January, and the collective bargaining bill includes an opt-in provision for affected governments, so there’s no immediate impact.
He said the policies are beneficial to workers.
Hurst and Rasoul said there are more pressing needs, such as testing materials for the virus, personal protective equipment for frontline responders and preparation of adequate hospital facilities.
Head, who runs a home health care business that serves senior citizens — the group most vulnerable to the worst ravages of the virus — said he’s concerned that lacking the right or enough response, the system of care could be overwhelmed.
He urged prayer and working together, and called on the American spirit.
“We are a resilient people, and it’s been a while since we’ve been kicked in the gut, but we’re pretty good at taking a punch,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”