Gov. Ralph Northam will sit down for breakfast on Thursday with General Assembly budget negotiators at a routine meeting in extraordinary circumstances.
Northam, who is trying to win back public confidence amid a crisis that threatens his governorship, will outline his priorities for a budget that has been overshadowed by tax reform and recharged by African-American legislators’ demands for racial equity.
The conference committee will begin work to reconcile differences between the budgets that the House of Delegates and Senate adopted amid an uproar over successive leadership scandals that have brought race to the forefront in how the state sets tax and spending policies affecting minority communities.
“Governor Northam looks forward to working with the conferees to ensure priority areas are addressed, including opportunities to improve equity,” spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said Tuesday afternoon.
Northam has been besieged with calls for his resignation since the Feb. 1 report of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page and his admission the next day that he had appeared in blackface as singer Michael Jackson at a dance contest 35 years ago.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would become Virginia’s second African-American governor if Northam stepped down, has been accused of sexually assaulting two women, one in 2000 and the other in 2004.
Attorney General Mark Herring, second in the line of succession, faces public criticism after acknowledging that he, too, had appeared in blackface, dressing as a rapper at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia in 1980. Herring previously had called for Northam’s resignation.
The leadership crises have affected legislative debates on the budget and tax policy. Democrats in both chambers initially opposed emergency legislation on tax policy that they said would shortchange low-income working families and stymie investments in public services important to minority communities.
The Senate budget proposal already includes a half-dozen spending concessions Democrats sought in return for their support, while House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, has promised House members in the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus that he will reconsider some cuts in funding for education, eviction diversion and other public services important to minority communities.
Meanwhile, legislative leaders are pushing to get two bills to Northam for his signature to conform Virginia’s tax code to the new federal tax law. That would enable the state to begin processing more than 753,000 tax returns that have been held in limbo during a tax policy standoff among the House, Senate and governor.
“It’s going to take us about three weeks to get through the backlog,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said Tuesday.
So, while the breakfast meeting between Northam and the budget conferees is routine, the timing is not.
“It is a customary event that most governors do as a courtesy to encourage budget conferees to timely reconcile their differences,” said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, who will lead a team of Senate negotiators that will be named Wednesday. “And, if his office or the Secretary of Finance can assist, they will be available.”
Jones will lead a six-member delegation from the House that Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, appointed last week. The other House budget conferees are: Dels. Steve Landes, R-Augusta; Chris Peace, R-Hanover; Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach; Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg; Luke Torian, D-Prince William; and Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax.
“We go and we listen,” Jones said of the meeting with Northam. “It’s not necessarily going to change anything we do in the normal conference process because the budget is in the bosom of the legislature for its action.”
Northam is expected to present a letter, also customary, that outlines his broad concerns and priorities for the budget that the assembly will adopt before its scheduled adjournment on Feb. 23. Then he will have the opportunity to veto budget provisions or propose amendments, which the assembly will consider when it reconvenes on April 3 for the one-day veto session.
At the moment, the overriding priority for the governor and legislative leaders is enacting the new tax law as quickly as possible to allow the state to begin processing returns and issuing refunds. The emergency legislation, approved by 80 percent of each chamber after intense debate, allows the law to take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature, rather than July 1 — two months after the state’s tax filing deadline.
The House and Senate passed the emergency legislation Monday and then completed the process on Tuesday by each accepting the other chamber’s substitute bill. Cox has signed the identical bills and House Clerk Paul Nardo already has enrolled them. Fairfax will sign them on Wednesday morning, which would allow them to go to the governor’s desk.
Northam has seven days to act on the legislation, but the tax department is gearing up to begin processing pending tax returns as early as Monday and start issuing refunds soon afterward.
“We can’t officially start processing returns until the governor signs the bill,” Layne said.
The agreement on the tax policy already has settled how much revenue is available, so the conference committee will focus on how to spend the money in the two-year budget, Norment said. “The two houses are not that far apart.”
The legislature’s distance from Northam will become clearer after breakfast on Thursday.