The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – A Democratic-led Senate panel on Tuesday essentially killed a measure aimed at preventing political toying with special elections in the state legislature by requiring certain vacancies in the House of Delegates or the state Senate to be filled within 30 days of a member’s departure or death.

Following a lively discussion about the timeline embedded in the proposal by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee by a 9-6 party-line vote used a procedural maneuver to carry over the legislation to the 2023 session, allowing the Department of Elections enough time to provide feedback. 

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County

Suetterlein said that he had drafted his proposal to ensure that a political leader cannot deny constituents their elected voice in the General Assembly by unnecessarily delaying a special election. His measure would have forced them to call a special election within a month if the vacancy occurs between Dec. 10 and March 1, when the General Assembly is getting ready to reconvene. 

“What we saw in the last few years was significant disparities in the amount of time special elections would be called,” Suetterlein told the panel, referring to last year when then-Gov. Ralph Northam waited until March to call for a special election to fill a vacancy left by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who had died unexpectedly due to complications from COVID-19 on New Years Day.

Chafin’s constituents in the massive 38th state Senate district were left without representation for the duration of the 2021 legislative session, which ended Feb. 27. It wasn’t until more than three weeks later, on March 22, that Travis Hackworth, a Republican from Tazewell County, was elected to this seat. 

“This meant that the people of Southwest Virginia missed having representation in the state Senate for the entire General Assembly session,” Suetterlein said. “The dates I picked are so if there is going to be a vacancy, we are going to fill it as quickly as possible, so we would fill it during the regular session. I just feel it is very important that the people of the commonwealth have their duly elected legislator in office speaking on their behalf.”

While no Democrats on the panel outright disagreed with Suetterlein’s measure, several members expressed concern with the proposed timeline, among other things. Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, the committee’s chairman, said he would have liked to add some language allowing for an exemption in the case of a governor declaring a state of emergency, which Democrats said had forced Northam’s hand in delaying the special election in the 38th Senate district at the onset of the pandemic. 

Suetterlein disagreed. “The thing that makes me resistant to that is the previous governor who called a state of emergency and at the same time was calling districts that were predisposed to electing members of his party, and all those elections were called within 30 days. And when the district that you might argue might be the least likely to elect a member of his party had an election that needed to be called, he delayed it by 81 days,” he said.

Under existing law, only the governor can set a special election to fill a vacancy in either legislative body, unless the General Assembly is already in session. In the latter case, the Speaker of the House of Delegates or the president pro tempore of the Senate would set the date for a new election, depending on which chamber the vacancy occurs. 

There are currently no time constraints, yet in December, then-Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, issued a writ of election initiating a special election to be held Jan. 11 to fill the seat vacated by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, in the 89th House District. Jones, who had announced in December that he would resign. “She wanted to make sure that Hampton Roads would have representation and she held that election within 20 days,” Suetterlein said.

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, said that while she was “100% supportive of the mission of the bill,” she had discussed Suetterlein’s bill with local election officials who warned that the proposa’s quick time frame could “put them in a real pinch” to get the ballots printed and get everything organized. “The one thing that was raised was could you accept an amendment to the bill that would set a window that would say no less than 30 days but no more than 45 days?” Holtzman Vogel asked.

But Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, countered that while he agreed with the bill’s intent, he wouldn’t support a strict timeline. “By putting brackets on things, you can have a scenario where there are local special elections that are declared in the same jurisdiction and the poll books could be tied up or wrapped up in weird ways so that the General Assembly special (election) might overlap with the local special in an unworkable way,” Surovell said. “There might be a way to build some more flexibility into this that might achieve your purpose while this might be too rigid.”

Speaking on behalf of the Voter Registrars Association, Wise County registrar Allison Robbins said that she appreciated the emphasis on doing the work to ensure special elections get called as quickly as possible. “However, we do have some concerns related to just ensuring that there is an adequate amount of time that is given to local election officials to actually conduct an election as expediently as possible,” Robbins said. “We prefer to have something in the neighborhood of 45 to 60 days to allow for a full timeline of early voting and by mail voting.”

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, who voted for Suetterlein’s measure, left his fellow committee members with a warning. “I would remind people on this committee that we have a new governor in town, and if there is a vacancy that occurs, the same thing could happen to them, so it seems like a good bipartisan bill,” he said.

In an interview after the committee meeting, Suetterlein expressed his disappointment. “The Senate Democrats declined the opportunity to ensure Virginians have their elected voice in the Capitol during regular sessions,” he said. “Political gamesmanship like Governor Northam’s decision to shut out Southwest Virginia in 2020 can now continue.”

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House panel approves McNamara’s minimum wage bill

Across the hall in the state Capitol, a House panel earlier on Tuesday by a 12-9 vote approved an amended minimum wage measure sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, Roanoke County, that would change the definition of wages to include a payment to healthcare benefits on behalf of an employee.

Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County.

“The minimum wage statute as it exists remains with the increase to $12 and the other increases depending on the reenactments, nothing has changed in that original bill. What has changed is how wages are classified,” McNamara told the House Committee on Commerce and Energy, of which he is a member. 

Virginia’s minimum wage is currently set at $11, after the General Assembly voted in 2020 to gradually increase it from $7.25 to $9.50, effective Jan. 1, 2021. But then-Gov. Ralph Northam amended the measure to delay the first increase to May 1 of last year — providing employers an additional four months to recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic before the law went into effect. The wage then increased to $11 on Jan. 1 and is set to go up once again to $12 in 2023. Further increases to $13.50 in 2025 and $15 in 2026 are contingent on the General Assembly’s enactment by July 1, 2024.

McNamara said that under his proposal, a paid wage plus the cost of healthcare benefit together would need to meet the current $11 minimum, growing with the planned increments. “That’s simply giving an opportunity in situations where people can be better served by healthcare, which is certainly important for everybody,” he said. “It gives employers that opportunity if they wish to go that route.”

A Republican-led attempt at permanently capping the minimum wage at its current level had failed in the Senate last week, where the Commerce and Labor Committee voted down a proposal by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, along party lines by 12-3.

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.