Moderation? Senate Holds Back House On Issues

By Steve Haner

With two weeks remaining in the 2020 General Assembly session, the tendency to procrastinate (and perhaps some buyer’s remorse) has several key issues still pending. Here is an update on some  previously discussed on Bacon’s Rebellion.

The moderating impact of the narrow 21-19 split in the Virginia Senate, with several of those Democrats needing to be sensitive to more rural constituencies, is on full display. The defeat of the assault weapons ban is not the only example, just the most reported example. 

The omnibus Virginia Clean Energy Act has crossed over and is pending in committee, with several differences between the House and Senate versions to resolve. The Senate version provides more flexibility to Virginia’s major industries (capitalist running dogs that they are). It also thinks it possible to save the world with a five-year delay in reaching Net Zero Nirvana, 2050 instead of 2045.

Senate Commerce and Labor is likely to take the bill up first, on Monday. The House Labor and Labor Committee (the new unofficial name) meets Tuesday and could act in full committee or call it up in a subcommittee. All the news I get about that is on Twitter, where those of us with concerns are dismissed as “climate deniers.” The Virginia Mercury’s take on the issue gets into the House-Senate differences.

Senate Commerce and Labor is also quietly holding two bills positive for ratepayers. House Bill 1132 unshackles the State Corporation Commission to do a full review of Dominion Energy Virginia’s base rates during the pending 2021 analysis and lower the rates if justified. Killing it for Dominion is complicated by the strong bipartisan support it earned on the House floor.   Update: But the bill is in deep jeopardy, missing from Monday’s docket, according to Virginia Mercury

The other bill potentially positive to ratepayers still in that committee is House Bill 167, which outlines various issues the SCC needs to address if and when Dominion seeks to charge ratepayers for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In 2019, a similar bill barely passed the House and died in that Senate Committee, but Dominion is not opposing this year’s version and the House vote was unanimous.

The more moderate Senate lowered the motor fuels tax increases proposed by Governor Ralph Northam. The Governor asked for 12 cents per gallon additional over three years, but the Senate cut that to 8 cents over two years. That conflict needs to be resolved. Both bills are resting in the money committees. The various safety proposals embedded in the original transportation bill are also still undecided, but the Senate broke them out into separate legislation.

The Senate has also balked, so far, at raising the minimum wage to $15 over the next five years, as approved by the House. The Senate took another vote Thursday, amending the House bill to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2023, and then implementing a complicated system to determine regional minimum wage levels. Both bodies have also approved removing some of the existing exemptions allowing some workers to be paid less than the federal minimum amount. This all needs to be resolved before adjournment, and it is hard to imagine proponents will walk away with no bill.

Will Virginia allow the national popular vote total to dictate how its presidential electors vote? House Bill 177 would enroll the Commonwealth is such a plan, and it is pending in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee. A Senate version in that committee was stricken by its patron before crossover, perhaps a sign the House bill is doomed but perhaps the move was simply tactical, leaving more time to round up enough votes.

There is one crucial issue where it is the Senate being stymied by the House, the proposed state constitutional amendment to establish a redistricting commission.  Columnist Jeff Schapiro tells that Tale of Hypocrisy better than I could.  While a key deadline for that issue has passed, a simple majority vote can change any rule.  It may come back if the heat grows.

The Senate might also reject the House bill that would mandate extensive reports of payroll data, to be filed with and then sifted through by Attorney General Mark Herring. House Bill 624 is pending in the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee, which meets Wednesday. A Bacon’s Rebellion post which first reported the bill got better than average distribution, and the business lobbyists are now targeting this one. House Republicans forced some roll call votes on the budget Thursday related to this issue.

The House and Senate versions of legislation on public employee collective bargaining are significantly different. The Senate bill, Senate Bill 939, gives local governing bodies the option of allowing the employees to form a union, while House Bill 582 requires no governing body approvals. Even if the Senate version prevails, once the wall is broken by the first few localities public employee unions will spread rapidly. The House bill also covers state employees and the Senate bill does not.

Most of these will either resolve by the end of next week or be the subject of formal committees of conference. Several of them also have financial impacts, creating new state operations, so the issues need to be resolved in time for the budget conferees to reflect the outcome in that final document.

There are plenty of other issues where the outcome is no longer doubtful, even if the bills themselves are still in process. The Virginia Values Act, with its major increase in civil litigation liability, is still drawing fire but some Republicans are voting for it so it is unlikely to stumble.

But in general, the Senate has been holding back the House. The pattern might be clearer once the bills reach their final form. One of the Democrats who doesn’t always toe the party line, Chap Petersen of Fairfax, wrote about the role played by the “less numerous body” in his most recent constituent email.

“Since the House is more numerous than the Senate and passes many bills without amendment, a lot of work lies ahead. In some cases, it means acting as a brake on ambitious legislation which will have unintended consequences. Some may call it “moderation.” I call it common sense.”

This year, the intended consequences are just as worrisome as the unintended ones.