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State legislature tackles budget amendments amid coronavirus fallout

The General Assembly’s reconvened session Wednesday was abnormal as the House dealt with technical difficulties, disruptive protests and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, collapsing at the podium.

Capital News Service

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By Emma Gauthier

The General Assembly’s reconvened session Wednesday was abnormal as the House dealt with technical difficulties, disruptive protests and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, collapsing at the podium.

Filler-Corn was standing for over three hours before she fell, just as the House was going into a break. Emergency medical services immediately attended to her and she resumed her post after an hour break.

“She looked like she was ready for a break, and then I looked down and suddenly, I just heard a collapse,” said Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. “By the time I looked up she was down.”

Lawmakers considered holding this session remotely. Levine said Republican delegates were concerned there would be technical difficulties, so legislators opted to meet in person but not in their respective chambers.

“I think it was that they wanted to make it as difficult as possible because the Democrats are in control,” Levine said. “But they’re not going to stop us from going forward, if we have to risk our lives, we will risk our lives, but we shouldn’t have to.”

Delegates congregated under a tent on the lawn of the Virginia State Capitol. The session was punctuated several times by technical difficulties, even delaying the start. The Senate met a few miles away inside the Science Museum of Virginia.

Legislator sat at tables set up roughly 6 feet apart to prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus. Many delegates wore face masks, but often removed them when speaking. Some delegates elected to wear gloves, though that was not the majority. Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, wore a mask and sat inside a plexiglass structure that lawmakers jokingly called “the cage.” Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax kept his face mask on while at the podium, though Filler-Corn opted not to.

Virginians for Constitutional Rights 2020, formerly Reopen Virginia, gathered outside of the Capitol to protest Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order. Northam’s order was recently extended to June 10. Protesters cited the tanking economy as the reason the state should reopen. The protesters, most in vehicles, honked their horns for nearly three hours as they drove a circuitous route around the Capitol. At times legislators strained to be heard amid the cacophony of horns.

The protest and technical difficulties did not impede the session from conducting business. Of the 100 delegates, 95 were in attendance. All 40 senators attended the Senate session. Some delegates elected not to attend due to COVID-19 related concerns, Levine said.

The House, with 97 items on the agenda, started by accepting Northam’s only vetoed bill: HB 119, a measure to define milk. The bill would only allow products that are “lacteal secretions” from a “hooved mammal” to be labeled as milk, excluding products such as almond, oat and soy “milks.”

“Not only are [dairy farmers] not making enough money on their milk, they are now dumping it down the drain,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, the bill’s sponsor. “My bill was to send a signal that we sympathize with you and want to offer our support.”

Lawmakers grappled at length with issues related to the budget, which must be amended in response to the economic blow of COVID-19. Northam suggested 181 total amendments to the budget bills. The governor called for a freeze on many budget items and said that new circumstances required lawmakers to revisit initiatives such as early childhood education, more affordable college tuition, and pay increases for public employees and teachers. Northam said in his amendments that he may ask lawmakers to reconvene at a later point to vote on these items after they have reforecast state revenues.

Northam’s recommendations included $55.5 million for “sufficient disaster declaration authorization” and $2.5 million for “deficit authorization for housing.” The House accepted these amendments.

Lawmakers rejected Northam’s budget amendment to delay existing capital projects “in order to address cash flow and debt capacity concerns resulting from the COVID-19 emergency.”

Northam’s proposal to push the May 5 municipal elections to November was contested. Initially, the House voted along a slim majority not to adopt the amendment. After debate, confusion and technicalities, the amendment passed with two votes. The Senate, which accepted most budget recommendations, did not vote on moving May elections. Levine, who voted to accept the amendment, said this means elections will be held in May, despite public health concerns. He suggested that since the Senate did not vote to move the elections, the senators should man the polls.

Other budget recommendations approved by the House and Senate:

  • Increase nursing facility rates by $20 a day per patient in response to COVID-19.

  • Provide authority for the Director of the Department of Corrections to discharge or reassign certain inmates until July 2021.

  • Expand access to long acting reversible contraceptives.

  • Authorize the governor to appropriate Congressional funding related to COVID-19.

Many of the other legislative amendments were technical and made minor changes to some pivotal legislation passed in the historic session. The session marked the first time since 1994 where Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Two of Northam’s recommendations to the marijuana decriminalization bill, HB 972, were rejected, regarding an extension for the study on the legalization of marijuana and not allowing a trial by jury for the civil penalty of simple possession.

The governor’s recommendation to delay the $9.50 minimum wage increase from January until May 2021 was accepted after several impassioned pleas. Other lawmakers voiced concern that the economy can not handle increasing the minimum wage. In the Senate, Fairfax cast a tie-breaking vote to accept the bill’s delay.

A major concern during the reconvened session was that all in attendance take precautions amidst the pandemic.

“This is definitely unique,” Filler-Corn told the Washington Post. “Health and safety are a top priority.”

Levine wished that the session had been held remotely for safety reasons, but understands that it was necessary to meet, even if in person.

“Any of us could have [the coronavirus] and the longer we all stay in this environment around each other, the more likely it is that it will be transmitted,” Levine said.

Each session began at noon and after over eight hours of discussion, voting and interruptions, the House erupted in applause when they came to end. The Senate adjourned shortly after 10 p.m.

“Am I willing to risk my life to continue to serve this commonwealth?” Levine said. “Yes, I got elected for it, I’m going to take that risk, but we shouldn’t have to.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Businesses Unite to Bring Change to Monument Avenue

“We believe inclusion is integral to the strength of our organizations, and that symbols antithetical to equality, equity, and unity harm our employees and community.”

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The Monument Commitment is a pledge by Richmond employers to work for change not only along Monument Avenue but in the community.

RVAHub is proud to stand with the businesses below.

If you would like to learn how to add your organization to this commitment email: [email protected]

The pledge reads:

Governor Northam, Mayor Stoney, City Council Members:

We are employers of the Richmond community.

We believe inclusion is integral to the strength of our organizations, and that symbols antithetical to equality, equity, and unity harm our employees and community.

We ask that you commit to support the respectful removal of all the confederate monuments on Monument Avenue in coming months, and do not repair – other than for public safety – the monuments as they currently stand.

For our part, we commit to confronting racism in our organizations and supporting you in eradicating systemic racism in our community.

It is time to take them all down.

Sincerely,

Please note we created this post on Friday morning and since businesses are being added constantly some businesses might not be on the list above. This is not a statement against those businesses just an inability to keep up. This link will give you the most current list of those that have made the commitment.

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Downtown

Wayback RVA — Old Pythian Hall and Mechanics Savings Bank

A Then & Now photo essay of Richmond places from around the area.

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Wayback RVA

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The Old Pythian Hall and Mechanics
Savings Bank, Mr. Jno. Mitchell Jr., Pres.

John Mitchell Jr. was aptly described as “a man who would walk into the jaws of death to serve his race.” Mitchell – newspaper editor, entrepreneur, city councilman and candidate for governor – was one of the most respected black leaders of his day. [RTD]

A fascinating individual. The Shockoe Examiner has an interesting post from 2012 about Mitchell’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery. Alas for the old bank building, it’s former location now rests under the Richmond Convention Center.


(Old Pythian Hall and Mechanics Savings Bank is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)


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Community

Black Bear’s Visit to Richmond Comes to a Safe End

No picnic baskets, bears, dogs, cats, or humans were harmed in today’s adventure.

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A black bear decided to explore Richmond today. First spotted on the Northbank Trail he later headed into town. Previous reports earlier in the week had the bear up near Pony Pasture. The picture above is from RACC Instagram which reported on the sedation and transportation of the bear.

We just received a call about a bear-and it really was a bear. Sometimes we laugh and arrive on scene with a giant Rottweiler, but nope-this was a real bear. We named him Fuzzy Wuzzy. Shout out to @richmondpolice for helping keep us safe and to @virginiawildlife for tranquilizing and relocating the bear out of the City!

Bear on Northbank this morning! from r/rva

Here he is in town.

Bear at Byrd and 5th from r/rva

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