Opinion: Commentary: Serving During the Pandemic

Opinion: Commentary: Serving During the Pandemic

Last week, the General Assembly returned to Richmond for what was probably one of the most unusual sessions we will ever have. We convened for one day to consider the Governor’s vetoes of and amendments to the bills and budget we passed earlier in the year.

The Senate met in the Virginia Science Museum. The House of Delegates met in a tent on the Virginia State Capitol lawn. Men did not wear ties because we were told they are germ magnets. The Senate clerk gave all Senators masks and gloves. I wore a bandana mask and a bolo made with a Virginia quarter that I bought for the occasion.

Each Senator sat at tables 10 feet apart in order of seniority which put me in about the middle of the room. Sen. George Barker sat in a plexiglass box due to recent heart surgery. The clerk provided box lunches and we were prohibited from touching the drink cooler. We caucused in outdoor tents with chairs scattered six feet apart. The whole day was surreal.

Budgeting Cautiously

We passed dozens of amendments to the budget, basically putting on hold new spending that we approved earlier this session. We will revisit the budget after revenue projections stabilize and we have a better understanding of new federal funding and any new federal funding that Congress might appropriate. Revenue collections in states like Virginia are reeling from the economy’s crash and unlike the federal government, our state constitution requires a balanced budget. If revenues do not increase and federal funding is not forthcoming, states could be facing massive layoffs.

Advocating for Safe Elections

One of the major points of contention was the Governor’s proposal to move local elections scheduled in May to November 2020 which I supported. In our area, the towns of Occoquan, Quantico, Haymarket, Vienna and the City of Fairfax have elections in May. May elections are also scheduled for Norfolk, Chesapeake and Newport News.

Wisconsin held an election on April 7 and so far, 16 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to voting in that election. The average poll worker is over 70 and vulnerable to COVID-19. When people move around, they can unknowingly spread this disease to others. I did not see the need to conduct elections at the height of a pandemic when they could be moved to November. Three Democrats joined all the Republicans to kill the Governor’s proposal, and two days later, he postponed the elections two weeks later to May 17 using statutory authority.

We have three elections before the end of the year: May town elections, June party primaries and the Nov. 3 general election. You can apply to vote by mail in all three today via my website at www.scottsurovell.org/vote.

The Governor also proposed amendments to Senator Adam Ebbin’s marijuana decriminalization bill, including an amendment to eliminate the right to a jury trial in Circuit Court on such charges. Virginia has led the world on the right to trial by jury and I did not support this change. Neither did the Senate and the remainder of the bill passed.

Governor Northam also amended four of my bills. He made clear that my bill giving localities some firearm regulatory authority applied to parks that localities manage, not just parks they own. He extended my bill creating new penalties for drivers who injure pedestrians and cyclists to passengers on bicycles including infant trailers. He added clarity to my community solar bill and amended my bill providing driving privileges to undocumented immigrants to provide that credentials would be identical to other limited-duration driving credentials. All of these amendments passed and the bills will become law on July 1, 2020.

We also took action to help with the pandemic. First, we gave homeowner and condominium owner associations the ability to meet remotely during the state of emergency and clarified that local governments can as well. We also passed a 60-day emergency moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for anyone affected by the pandemic and gave the Governor authority to provide early release to many inmates who have less than one year to serve on their sentence.

I hope you will share your comments with me at scott@scottsurovell.org.