After his livestream update to Virginians on Wednesday afternoon on the coronavirus, Gov. Ralph Northam returned to his office on the third floor of the Patrick Henry Building to meet with his policy staff on legislation sent to him by the General Assembly.
Two members of the staff, Carter Hutchinson and Connor Andrews, were waiting for Northam — not in the conference room with its view of Old City Hall, but about two miles away, in their Fan District apartment, where they have been vetting bills, using a ping-pong table as a desk and a laundry hamper as a computer stand.
Hutchinson, Andrews and their three colleagues in the policy shop — along with thousands of other state employees — have been working remotely for about two weeks because of the pandemic.
By conference call, all five joined Northam and the two socially distancing senior aides accompanying him, Courtney Dozier and Matt Mansell, for a 45-minute dash during which the governor received a final briefing on some 50 bills he would sign into law with a black, fine-tip roller-ball pen that he — being a physician — always stows in his shirt pocket.
In signing a bill of, say, special significance to a Cabinet secretary, Northam will use a ceremonial pen that is given to the official as a keepsake.
There already have been four of these virtual bill-signing sessions. The latest was Friday.
This is the ordinary work of government, routine but relevant, that continues as the Northam administration confronts the extraordinary: A fast-moving flu that is sickening Virginians, killing some; that is weakening the economy, likely choking off more than $1 billion to the state budget; and threatening promised investments in people and programs.
At week’s end, Northam had acted on about 530 of the 1,290 bills passed by both the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. He has until 11:59 p.m. April 11 — 30 days from the close of the legislature’s winter session — to sign or veto bills, or to recommend revisions lawmakers can accept or reject.
When and where they do is unclear.
Safety concerns from COVID-19 could disrupt the constitutionally mandated spring session, set for April 22. House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, is in discussions with Attorney General Mark Herring on how the General Assembly could convene without violating legal requirements that it meet at a specific time and in public.
In the meantime, Northam’s bill review continues apace.
It is an ancient process that in recent administrations has become automated, driven by apps and email. The exercise simultaneously unfolds across several layers of the bureaucracy, with results funneled to the governor through his legal and policy staff, typically at sit-downs — some as brief as 15 minutes.
The flow of bills is the job of a former campaign worker, Grace Kelly.
A traffic cop of sorts, Kelly is responsible for delivering the actual legislation — parchments, in the parlance of state government — and keeping them under lock and key in two black cases until Northam is ready to act. Once he has, she returns them to the General Assembly. They are sent to what’s called the indexing and enrolling office, on the fourth floor of the State Capitol.
These days — in a sign of the times — the jackets containing the parchments, on their arrival at Northam’s office, are sanitized with Lysol wipes. They also go through a security scanner.
Between beginning and end, legislation is picked apart, with Kelly monitoring its movement.
Cabinet secretaries and the agencies they control vet bills specific to their areas. Legal and policy aides do likewise.
Hutchinson handles, among other things, gambling legislation, on which Northam has yet to act. Andrews follows education and employment issues. That presumably includes another closely watched topic on which the governor is silent: allowing public employee unions to bargain with local government over wages and benefits.
Questions and concerns about bills are posted on an electronic bulletin board. That might include those raised by lawmaker or lobbyists.
Mansell, who has worked for legislators and lobbying groups, had to fire off emails to calm lobbyists on both sides of a peer-to-peer, car-rental measure. Some were agitated because of rumors of a possible deal-killing amendment, never mind Northam had yet to consider the bill.
And if bill review is guided by the notion of saving best for last, Northam, who warns Virginians their first worry should be the epidemic’s worst, will be even busier.
Still outstanding: the two-year, $135 billion state budget. Northam might have to propose the General Assembly rewrite vast swaths of it because of the economic aftershocks of COVID-19.
Now, if they could only figure out when and how the legislature might do it.