RICHMOND — The pandemic continues to rage. A promise to make strides on systemic racism and inequality looms. And he’s got just one year left in office.
“There’s none of this ‘lame duck.’ We’ve got a lot to do,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch Friday, just days before lawmakers convene in Richmond for their annual legislative gathering.
Virginia’s 73rd governor is pressed for time as lawmakers prepare to gather Wednesday for the last regular General Assembly session over which Northam will preside, one that GOP lawmakers want to restrict to 30 days. Northam called it an impossible timeline given the pandemic and Democrats’ “ambitious” progressive agenda.
“To say you can come in and do the work of the people in 30 days is just not realistic,” the governor said, vowing to extend the legislative gathering by 15 or 16 days through a special session, unless state Republicans drop their opposition to formally extending the session.
“If they want to come in here and say, ‘We want to do it in 30 days,’ then I have the means and the plans to make it 45 days,” Northam said. “I’ve had discussions with the leadership, and they know I’m not gonna sit back and collect dust for the last year I have.”
First and foremost, Northam said, is grappling with the effects of the pandemic, which has strained workers and businesses. The vaccine is here, but a virus that is out of control has continued to force business closures, boost insurance claims and risk an evictions crisis.
“COVID-19 has put a lot of people in a very hurtful position. That will be my top priority,” Northam said.
Reflecting on the scandal that nearly toppled his administration — a racist yearbook photo with unclear origins — and a summer marked by protests against systemic racism, Northam said delivering on his promise to make Virginia a more equitable place is also high on his list.
Expanding preschool offerings for families that can’t afford private placements, legalizing marijuana in a way that redresses the way people of color were disproportionately criminalized, automatically expunging criminal records for certain nonviolent crimes, and creating a path toward free community college are among the top items on Northam equity-focused agenda.
Much of that work, Northam said, is driven by Virginia’s dark history with racism, and became “more focused,” after the yearbook scandal and the protests this past summer.
“We have evolved and continue evolving, some quicker than others,” Northam said. He said his job as a governor “has been to speed up that evolution, if you will, and to really put some of that unfortunate and discriminating history in our rearview mirror.”
Northam remarked that on Wednesday, when congressional leaders requested the help of Virginia’s National Guard and State Police after a mob breached the U.S. Capitol, the former capital of the Confederacy was ready to send aid.
“Virginia was the first state to get into the capital city of this country and defend democracy. And I think that says a lot for Virginia and its history.”
Among the changes since Northam took office three years ago is that political division, already heightened the year he ran for governor in 2017, has become further entrenched.
That division was marked on Wednesday when insurrectionists — supporting President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread election fraud — breached the U.S. Capitol. On Thursday, Northam joined many other Democrats — and some Republicans from other states- in calling for Trump to be removed from office.
“He had been building a tinderbox for days, years, and especially since the Nov. 3, election by, just repeating falsehoods and that it was fraudulent that the election was stolen from him, and, obviously, individuals listen to that and they hear it over and over again, supporters of his,” Northam said.
“That tinderbox was being built and then on Wednesday, he just threw a flame on that tinderbox, and the rest is history. He is a very dangerous man in his current position,” the governor said, “and every day that he stays there is one day too many.”
Northam cast blame on the four GOP congressmen from Virginia — some with whom he’s worked closely — who supported the president’s efforts to challenge electoral college votes from several states that reported victories for Biden.
“I was very disappointed. And I know all four of them,” Northam said, referring to Reps. Rob Wittman, R-1st; Bob Good, R-5th; Ben Cline, R-6th; and Morgan Griffith, R-9th.
“The actions that they took and the statements that they were making just contributed to the overall problem.”
Northam plans to preach a message of unity and hope Wednesday during his second-to-last State of the Commonwealth address, one that comes after a year battered by instability.
“We do have division” and “we have tremendous disparities,” Northam said. “2020 was a very, very difficult year for a lot of people, whether it be with COVID-19, or the economy or, or the racial injustice, that protests we had,” Northam said. “I’m going to do everything that I can continue to provide hope that tomorrow’s gonna be a better day.”
The State of the Commonwealth address marks the beginning of Northam’s last legislative session in power.
Northam made clear that he will extend the legislative session to 45 days by declaring a special session if Republicans in the General Assembly insist on limiting the work to 30 days, which would be the first time the state has done so in an odd-number year since adoption of the state’s current Constitution in 1971.
“That’s what we’re accustomed to doing and that’s what we will do this year,” he said.
The governor recalled the political backlash against Republicans in 2019 after he called a special session to pass gun control legislation after a mass shooting that killed 12 people in Virginia Beach. “They spent 90 minutes and went home, and look what happened in the next election,” he said, recalling how Democrats seized control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 20 years.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, acknowledged what he called the governor’s “prerogative” to call a special session, either at the beginning or the end of the regular session.
“If he wants to exercise it, fine, but those extra 15 days are going to cost taxpayers about $1 million at an absolute minimum,” he said.
Norment noted that legislators are paid for a full day on Fridays, when they generally work a half-day, as well as Saturdays and Sundays when they’re generally home. “We need to put our nose to the grind and get it done,” he said.
“What’s happened is we’re supposed to be a venerable part-time legislature,” but after the regular session last extended 64 days, followed by a special session with a total duration of 84 days, he said, “that’s about half a year.”
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said in an interview that she prefers that the upcoming session last up to 46 days, but if Republicans refuse, “my response is we will govern accordingly.”
“The real issue here is that House Republicans are refusing to move forward responsibly,” Filler-Corn said.
House and Senate Democratic leaders reportedly are near agreement on a procedural resolution to set operating rules for the session, after failing to resolve their differences at the beginning of the special session in mid-August that stretched into November.
Northam, who proclaimed in The Times-Dispatch a year ago that he is “the leader of this party,” said he has been involved in discussions between House and Senate Democrats on operating rules for the session, which he is confident they will adopt at the beginning of the session on Wednesday.
“They’ll be on the same sheet of music come Wednesday,” Northam said sternly.
Northam said the assembly will need plenty of time to act on his proposed revisions to the two-year state budget, which he expects will benefit from the $900 billion emergency relief legislation Congress passed and Trump signed at the end of the year.
He estimated that Virginia will be able to save at least $250 million in state tax funds he included in his proposed budget by using federal money for distributing vaccines and other COVID-19 measures, bolstering K-12 and higher education, and supporting child care providers.
“There is significant federal relief coming to Virginia,” he said.
Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said Friday that Virginia also could save an additional $200 million or more because of a new federal decision to continue paying a larger share of Medicaid costs for an additional three months through June 30 to help states weather the crisis.
The state also generally won’t know its revenues for January — and the potential for revising how much money is available for the budget — until mid-February, as a 30-day session would be ending.
Norment, a veteran member and former co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, doesn’t buy the argument that the governor’s administration wouldn’t know the revenue outlook sooner.
“The ability to track those revenues is there,” he said.
In addition to supporting COVID-19 relief and progressive funding priorities, Northam said he will insist on his proposal to deposit $650 million into Virginia’s cash reserve fund, after diverting $900 million in planned deposits in response to a $2.7 billion projected shortfall in the budget adopted in the special session.
Advocates for progressive causes have criticized the administration for putting so much money into financial reserves instead of using it to restore new spending that the state cut from the $135 billion budget adopted on March 12, the same day Northam declared a public health emergency because of COVID-19.
“I resist that pretty easily and talk about the importance of our Triple-A bond rating,” he said.
Northam wants to end his term with the equivalent of 8% of general fund revenues in financial reserves to hedge against potential economic calamities, from the pandemic to a monster hurricane.
If the assembly adopts his proposal to increase reserves, he predicted that when the next governor takes office in 12 months, “Virginia is going to be in probably the best financial shape that they’ve ever been.”