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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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Become a Richmond tourism ambassador from the comfort of your own home

The free I Am Tourism workshops help participants gain a visitor’s perspective of the region and an understanding of tourism offerings.

RVAHub Staff

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Richmonders have a new way to learn about the region – from home.

Richmond Region Tourism is launching a virtual version of its popular I Am Tourism ambassador workshop on Wednesday, Oct. 28 from 9-11 a.m., with a second session on Tuesday, Nov. 10 from 9-11 a.m. New classes will be held monthly.

The free I Am Tourism workshops help participants gain a visitor’s perspective of the region and an understanding of tourism products and offerings.

The Oct. 28 session includes information about the economic impact of tourism and an overview of the attractions, events and activities in the Richmond region. A virtual tour led by Bill Martin, The Valentine executive director, will guide the class on a custom visit to some of his favorite places.

“The I Am Tourism program is an exciting opportunity for everyone in our community to become knowledgeable and influential representatives of the region,” said Jack Berry, Richmond Region Tourism CEO and president.

The primary reason people travel to the Richmond Region is to visit friends and family. National travel data points to this trend continuing as people continue with more car-based trips during the pandemic. The I Am Tourism classes provided an opportunity for residents to become knowledgeable ambassadors when guests visit.

“Richmond’s hospitality industry hasn’t escaped the devastating financial impact of the pandemic, but we’re seeing signs of growth and progress. The new virtual sessions are an opportunity for the entire community to help the tourism industry and the region’s economic rebound,” Berry said.

Participants must register for the Oct. 28 class by Oct. 27 at noon.

Since the I Am Tourism program launched in 2015, more than 2,600 Ambassadors have gone through the program. Richmond Region Tourism also creates custom classes for employee engagement activities for local businesses.

For more information on upcoming I Am Tourism ambassador trainings and to register, visit visitrichmondva.com.

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Police, prisons, and protests: recent poll sheds light on the opinions of student voters

Voters are more divided now than they were in the 2016 election, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Many young Virginians believe the passion could translate to the polls on Election Day.

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By Hunter Britt

Voters are more divided now than they were in the 2016 election, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Many young Virginians believe the passion could translate to the polls on Election Day.

Rickia Sykes, a senior at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, said that her political views have grown stronger since protests erupted globally in late May. The death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis Police Department officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes, inspired months of protests.

Sykes said that her political views line up with her faith. She considers herself pro-life, believes in advocating for the working class, and supports law-enforcement.

“The protests have shown me we need to keep God first, but it has also shown me that good cops are important to help keep law and order,” Sykes said in a text message. “I do realize that there are bad cops, but in order to make a change, I believe we need to work together with the good cops.”

Sykes said that now she researches politicians more thoroughly before deciding which candidate gets her vote. She looks at voting records to see if they vote in a way that “will help us middle and lower-class families.”

Erik Haugen, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who considers himself a Libertarian, said his political views haven’t changed much since the protests started.

“I just see the stronger push for equality, and I think it’s a good step in our nation so long as it proceeds peacefully,” Haugen said.

Equality is at the center of issues that student voters are concerned about this election. From racial injustice to prison reform to healthcare concerns, many students say they want to enact positive change.

Students have varying opinions on whether or not the importance of voting has become more significant in recent years. Sykes said that she has always found voting significant, but she believes the importance of it has grown for others. Haugen said that while his political views haven’t changed, he believes voting has become more important in general and especially for the younger generations as tension in the U.S. grows and protests become more prominent.

Sarah Dowless, a junior at William & Mary in Williamsburg, said that voting has always been important, but the protests have made voting more prominent, “like people encouraging folks to vote and making information about voting accessible, especially among young people.” Dowless said the recent protests have reinforced her progressive beliefs.

“If anything, the protests have only amplified my concern for racial injustice in America and my concern about police brutality,” she said. “It’s a fundamental issue about freedom and it calls into question the very principles on which this country was founded and continues to claim.”

The protests also influenced a host of legislation in the recent special legislative session of the General Assembly that ended last week. Virginia legislators passed numerous bills focused on police and criminal justice reform.

According to the United States Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds jumped 15.7% between 2014 and 2018. This was the largest percentage point increase for any age group. Turnout is expected to be high this year as well, but there are no final numbers for age groups. Voter registration in Virginia set a record this year with almost 5.9 million voters  registering. During the last presidential election a little more than 5.5 million people registered to vote.

Sykes is also concerned about the economy and health care.  She wants a political leader who will increase the odds that people have a stable source of income to afford medical treatment.

“As a graduating senior, I want and need a good paying/stable job for when I graduate,” she said. “I need someone who will make sure we have a strong and reliable economy.”

Dowless wants U.S. prisons, which she describes as currently being “more punitive than rehabilitative,” to undergo major reform. Haugen would like police academy programs to be longer and implement de-escalation training.

“I first and foremost care about the safety of the American people,” Haugen said.

Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting are currently underway throughout the state. The deadline to request to vote absentee by mail is Oct. 23. Early voting ends the Saturday before Election Day, or Oct. 31.

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Suspect Sought in Credit Card Fraud

On Friday, October 2, an unknown female was seen on security footage using a stolen credit card to purchase several bottles of alcohol.

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From RPD:

Richmond Police detectives need the public’s help to identify the individual in the attached photos who is suspected of using a stolen credit to make fraudulent purchases.

On Friday, October 2, an unknown female was seen on security footage using a stolen credit card to purchase several bottles of alcohol at the Virginia ABC Store in the 2000 block of East Main Street.

Anyone with information about the identity of these suspects is asked to call Third Precinct Detective T. Wilson at (804) 646-0672 or contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or at www.7801000.com. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app for smartphones may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.

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