By Alan Suderman and Sarah Rankin Associated Press
Virginia lawmakers were in a mad scramble Thursday to finalize passage of several top priorities for the new Democratic majority.
Lawmakers have only a few days left to pass legislation before this year’s legislative session is set to end but are at an impasse on a number of high-profile bills, including legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, give local governments the ability to remove Confederate monuments and expand collective bargaining rights to at least some public workers.
Legislators also must pass a $135 billion two-year state budget while resolving key differences between competing versions of bills that would legalize casino gambling.
Leaders in both parties have urged lawmakers to work faster and have warned of possible overtime.
“I just hope if we continue down this path that there’s not a lot of whining and moaning when we come to the realization that we are not getting out of here on Saturday,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment said on the Senate floor earlier this week after lawmakers spent about an hour debating just one bill.
Virginia’s short legislative session typically leads to heavy last-minute workloads, but this year there’s more than usual. Democrats are in full control of state government for the first time in a generation and have decades of priorities they are looking to pass.
But some moderates in the state Senate are uneasy with the pace at which some of their more liberal colleagues are moving, which could threaten passage of some key Democratic priorities.
“In a citizen legislature your worst fears are the unintended priorities,” said Democratic Sen. Lynwood Lewis. “Some of this stuff, frankly, I think should have been studied.”
Several lawmakers said they are unhappy with the often secretive and hectic way laws are made in Virginia, especially in the final days. Some newer lawmakers have said they are open to changing how the legislature operates, including extending the length of future sessions.
“The legislative calendar was set in the 17th century, when everyone in the legislature was a plantation owner,” said Del. Lee Carter. “It’s absurd that it’s 2020 and we’re still on that same calendar.”
The House passed a key energy bill late Thursday, advancing it to the Senate for final passage. The House also agreed to support the Senate’s version of a bill to require universal background checks on gun purchases. The House had initially wanted a stricter version of the bill that would also apply to certain gun transfers, like gifts.
Here’s a look at some key outstanding issues:
The more conservative Senate is at odds with the more liberal House over how quickly to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and whether poorer parts of the state should have lower minimum wages.
Rural lawmakers have argued forcefully for different regional minimum wage increases while black lawmakers have pushed back hard against the idea.
Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour was a key campaign plank of Gov. Ralph Northam and many Democratic lawmakers, and the debate on the issue has become heated at times.
“We’re working on it,” said Del. Jeion Ward, one of the chief negotiators on the bill.
Differences must also be resolved between the House and Senate version of bills that would give localities the ability to remove Confederate monuments. The Senate’s bill imposes several hurdles not included in the House version that a local government must take before removing a monument.
A violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 added new momentum to the long-running debate over whether Confederate monuments should stand in public places. Critics of the monuments say they distastefully glorify Virginia’s history as a slave-holding state, while others say removing them would amount to erasing history.
Many places around the country started taking down the tributes after the 2017 rally, but Virginia localities that wanted to do so were hamstrung by an existing state law that protects them.
Lawmakers appear ready to extend collective bargaining rights to at least some public workers, a historic change backed by labor unions and opposed by business associations and many of the state’s local governments.
But Democrats are split on how many public employees should be included. A sweeping bill that would repeal the state’s current prohibition on public sector collective bargaining, clearing the way for both local and state workers to participate, passed the House. The Senate passed a far more narrow proposal that wouldn’t include state workers.
A conference committee has to reach an agreement.