RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- As coronavirus restrictions cause business and government to lose revenue at an alarming rate, Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing pushing back implementation of several changes to state law his party pushed for.
The General Assembly still has to approve the governor’s proposed amendments. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Richmond for a reconvened session on April 22.
Minimum wage increase
Gov. Northam is proposing putting off the first phase of Virginia’s minimum wage increase. If the House and the Senate approve, workers will begin making $9.50 per hour in May 2021, rather than in January.
Del. Jeion Ward, who sponsored the bill, said after speaking with the governor on Tuesday that later phases will not be delayed. That means workers can expect a raise in January 2022 and another in 2023, when the rate will reach $12 per hour.
Ward said workers, especially those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, shouldn’t have to wait longer for a higher wage.
“I’m disappointed. These people have been waiting 11 years. They’re in there sanitizing the hospitals. They’re still transporting people on buses. They’re still working in our grocery stores and here we are saying to them again you have to wait a little longer,” Del. Ward said. “But I understand. We’re in uncharted waters.”
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement that the delay doesn’t go far enough to ease the burden on business.
“We are squarely in the middle of an unprecedented health and financial crisis. The hundreds of thousands of Virginians who have filed for unemployment and the businesses that employed them are going to be digging out of this financial hole well past May 1, 2021. The actions taken by the Governor fail to provide long-term certainty for Virginia’s businesses and their employees. A thirty-one percent increase to operating costs — plus a 25 percent hike in power bills — would be tough in a great economy, they will be potentially devastating as Virginia looks to rebuild.”House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert
Collective bargaining for public employees
A law legalizing collective bargaining for public employees could also be delayed from July 2020 to May 2021.
Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said Virginia is one of three states that doesn’t allow public sector employees to participate in budget negotiations.
“There are those who chose to use the crisis of the pandemic to further their own agenda unfortunately but at the end of the day it’s still a huge win for public sector workers in Virginia,” Livingston said.
Some Republicans fear the change will lead to higher taxes. Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays said in a statement the legislation is about giving stakeholders a seat at the negotiating table.
“You cannot support workers if you do not believe all workers should have the right to form a union, and you cannot support unions if you do not believe that unions should have the ability to collectively bargain,” Crouse-Mays said. “Nothing in the collective bargaining bill would have required a locality to participate, which makes its delay all the more nonsensical and cruel.”
Livingston said school budgets are already set for next year. He said, with or without the delay, teachers unions wouldn’t have been able to have input in negotiations until the 2021-2022 school year.
Skill game ban
The governor is also trying to postpone a bipartisan ban on skills games for a year.
Often found at bars and convenience stores, the games are sometimes called “grey machines” because they operate without taxation or regulation. Some consider them a threat to Virginia Lottery revenue–a large source of public education funding. They’re also seen as in competition with the Commonwealth’s emerging casino industry.
Northam is proposing to, for the first time, tax skill games. He said at a press conference Monday that this could generate up to $150 million in state revenue to go towards sheltering for the homeless, providing resources for nursing homes and supporting small businesses during the pandemic.
According to Northam’s office, this is consistent with the governor’s past stance on skill games. He supported regulating and taxing them ahead of the General Assembly session as well. A bill that would’ve done this died in committee.
Northam said the Commonwealth has about 15,000 of these machines.
Mike Barley, a spokesperson for Pace-O-Matic, said before the pandemic their manufacturer owned about 7,000 units in Virginia. He issued the following statement:
“We appreciate the Governor’s leadership in this matter as he worked to address a revenue stream which greatly assists local small businesses and their employees. Additionally, we are pleased that the majority of the tax revenue generated by our skills games will go to support a COVID19-response fund to help small businesses, protect people’s housing, support nursing homes and other healthcare providers.”Mike Barley, spokesperson for Pace-O-Matic