With much work unfinished, Virginia lawmakers extend session

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s 2020 legislative session blew past its scheduled close Saturday with plenty of business, including the approval of a new state budget, left unfinished.
The legislature, led by Democrats for the first time in more than two decades, adjourned late Saturday and agreed to return Sunday to finish working on legislation and the two-year $135 billion state spending plan.
Last-minute clashes on the budget and on other major policy items, including legalizing casinos, led to a bipartisan agreement to extend the session.
Republicans — and even some Democrats — have complained that the new Democratic majority is trying to do too many things this year. House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said the session’s delayed finish was “inevitable.”
“It seems like they were trying to do everything this year all at once,” Gilbert said.
But House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring brushed off such criticism and said lawmakers were simply doing what voters told them to do in November.
“Our members are filing legislation that people wanted. And so that’s what it is, that’s representative democracy,” Herring said.
The new Democratic majority has already sent Gov. Ralph Northam several high-profile pieces of legislation that would dramatically remake the Old Dominion into the South’s most liberal state. The legislation includes broad LGBTQ protections and removing restrictions on abortion access.
Lawmakers had a busy Saturday, giving initial sign-offs on key legislation such as bills that would allow local governments to remove Confederate monuments and let some public employees collectively bargain.
Lawmakers also put the finishing touches on bills that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain special IDs. And two gun control bills — universal background checks on gun purchases and a monthly limit on handgun purchases — also won final passage.
Virginia’s short legislative session typically leads to heavy last-minute workloads, but this year there were more than usual. Democrats are in full control of state government for the first time in a generation and have been working to pass decades of priorities.
Lawmakers roamed the Capitol, making last-minute deals with each other to get bills approved by both the House and Senate as scores of lobbyists kept watch. Legislators grew increasingly chippy with one another in floor exchanges as the night wore on.
Bills to legalize online sports betting and casinos have been among the most heavily lobbied pieces of legislation this year, with deep-pocketed interests around the country looking to influence policy. Virginia is currently one of only a handful of states that forbid any type of casinos. Lawmakers in the Senate approved legislation that would allow voters in Bristol, Danville, Richmond, Norfolk and Portsmouth to hold local referendums to approve casinos. The House is expected to approve the measure Sunday.
Both chambers made progress on one of the year’s thorniest issues: raising the minimum wage.
Each passed a compromise measure that would increase the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $9.50 in January. The wage would then gradually increase to $12 by 2023, but raising it higher than that would require additional approval from the General Assembly.
Democrats said Virginia was far behind other states in helping low-income workers who haven’t benefited from the state’s business-friendly reputation.
“This legislation is for so many people who feel invisible in our economy, but who are essential to our success,” Democratic Del. Jeion Ward said.
But Republicans said the measure was increasing the minimum wage too fast and without proper attention to what impact it would have on the state’s poorer areas or on businesses that rely on student workers.
“Every time you raise a wage you’ve got to raise a price,” said GOP Del. Chris Head.