Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

Labor Day traditionally marks the start of the school year, a change of seasons, anticipation of more traffic on the roads as vacations end, and the gearing up for the dreaded “flu season.” Although Virginia has been thoughtfully managing the pandemic, Coronavirus is still among us. To date, Virginia has conducted well over 1.5 million tests with 116,000+ positive results and 2,537 Virginians succumbing to Covid-19. This virus has affected our nation and Commonwealth in countless ways, often with a domino effect.

The General Assembly has been in session since Aug. 18 to address some of the crushing effects the virus has had on our economy, education system, essential workers, and front-line healthcare providers. Housing security, voter protection, and criminal justice reform have also been top of mind. We began the session on a sobering note with an overview of Virginia’s resources. Shockwaves hit when it was announced the forecast for the biennium would be lowered by $2.7 billion. The trickle-down effect would be felt in local revenue and the state’s existing budget.

Layoffs and consumers buckling down have contributed to less revenue from sales, payroll, and income taxes — sources of most operating funds for Virginia’s government. The CARES Act provided us with over $3 billion dollars to help offset specific Covid-19 spending. Despite these setbacks, the threshold for accessing Virginia’s rainy day fund has not been met.

Over 1 million unemployment claims have been filed with the Virginia Employment Commission. More than 90 percent of the cases were dispatched quickly and brought much-needed assistance for those whose jobs disappeared because of the pandemic. Despite its initial problems (and there were many) the VEC has been recognized as #3 in the country for the delivery of timely unemployment benefits.

The consequences of unemployment have also contributed to housing instability. Governor Northam has proposed additional rent relief in the amount of $88 million and set up access through the Dept of Housing. The issue of extending the court moratorium on eviction proceedings has been hotly debated in the Senate. Owners and renters are all scrambling to make mortgage payments or rent payments. When considering a moratorium, there are many complex considerations including non-Covid-19 related reasons for eviction proceedings.

Ending the last academic year in virtual mode, we will again see the school year begin online in most school districts. Learning gaps may necessitate getting students caught up. CARES money has been directly distributed to localities with the intent of students having continuity of services. That can include computers/notebooks for virtual learning, mobile modified hot spots, possible sanitizing of school buildings, and even continued meal distribution.

The pandemic, when combined with a failure in leadership from across the Potomac has created a controversy that has led the Governor to address ballot security. Banking on fear of the disease and a lack of confidence in USPS’s ability to timely deliver ballots by mail, SB 5120 has been introduced to combat the sleight of hand used to confuse and deny voters their most fundamental right.

SB 5120, a measure to address voting in a pandemic, has been among the most contentious measures before the Legislature. The bill encourages voters to cast a ballot in the safest and most comfortable way possible in the upcoming presidential election. Let me be clear, this bill and the funds necessary to implement it are essential to providing citizens options for casting a ballot. Equally clear, in-person polling places will be operational on November 3. Leading up to the elections, individuals will be able to cast their absentee vote in person in select locations starting September 18.

This pandemic has given pause to the elderly, those with chronic health conditions, and individuals who want a safe alternative to in-person voting. Virginia no longer requires an excuse to vote absentee. This bill provides an individual with the opportunity to correct any error or omission on an absentee ballot up to October 31, it provides for utilizing strategically-placed drop boxes to receive ballots, and it also eliminates the required witness signature during this medical emergency.