Schapiro: Pandemic thwarts progressive advances in Virginia

Schapiro: Pandemic thwarts progressive advances in Virginia

In 1931, as the Great Depression erased jobs and pushed families into despair, Virginia’s political boss, Harry Byrd Sr., received some advice from a corporate leader cum confidant: Stand by the status quo.

“We must,” tobacco man Billy Reed wrote Byrd, then a former governor and future U.S. senator, “keep Virginia like she is without any changes.”

It is not that Reed, whose letter was unearthed by historian Ronald L. Heinemann for a 1983 book on the Depression’s impact on the state, didn’t recognize the need for some help for Virginians from their governments in Richmond and Washington. For example, Reed reported to Byrd on the laments of tobacco farmers over their collapsing crop.

More than anything, Reed — and he was not alone — wanted Virginia, privation notwithstanding, to preserve its business-friendly culture, emblems of which included disciplined budgets, low wages, limited regulation and antipathy for organized labor.

They are emblems that endure in 2020, as the Great Pandemic erases jobs and pushes families into despair.

Some of the state’s biggest employers are attempting to achieve this spring what they failed to accomplish this winter: block an increase in Virginia’s minimum wage, preserve obstacles to unionization and stop higher local taxes on hotel and motel rooms and — Reed would approve — cigarettes.

Because the coronavirus crisis would be a terrible thing to waste.

The Coalition for a Strong Virginia Economy, formed by 27 industry pressure groups, sees COVID-19 as an opportunity to derail — if only temporarily — initiatives by the legislature’s new left-leaning majority that in January were depicted as a burden for business but in April are deemed lethal.

The organization wants Gov. Ralph Northam to delay for at least a year what were stunning breakthroughs for interests often overlooked by the General Assembly, including the Virginia AFL-CIO and environmental organizations. Both are deep troughs of votes and cash for Democrats.

The corpocracy is not alone in its worries over the fast-moving, crippling effects of the epidemic, measures of which include a big hole in the current state budget and a bigger one — $1 billion or more — in its successor, and a spike in unemployment claims that saw more in the past two weeks than in all of 2019.

Local governments are in a panic.

The Virginia Municipal League is pressing Northam to put off until next year the incremental bump-up in the minimum wage — it would go from $7.25 per hour to $15 by 2026 — and pause authorization for localities to negotiate with public employee unions over wages, benefits and work conditions.

VML, which represents cities and urban counties, has long argued local government— as a subsidiary of state government — requires a freer hand in its finances. Now it is looking to state government to protect it from itself as its finances crater, forcing, for example, Chesterfield County to furlough more than 500 full- and part-time employees.

A higher minimum wage, the unshackling of labor, government contracts that include higher wages for unionists, new taxes on tobacco, a state-directed shift to renewable energy and stricter emissions for power plants — all have been on the progressive wish list for years.

All came true this year because Democrats last year took back the General Assembly, giving the party total control of state government for the first time since 1994, when Republican George Allen became governor, having harnessed voter anger over, among other things, attempts by some Democrats to raise taxes during the 1990-91 recession.

It seems the antidote to progressive policy is pandemic, even as new, younger voices in the legislature — many from Northern Virginia, some angling for statewide office in 2021 — say that the crisis is no time to retreat on hard-fought gains. Some say it’s an opportunity to attempt more, including vote-by-mail.

COVID-19 sets up a classic confrontation: Northam, the innate moderate mindful of the bottom line, and the dominant liberal wing of the Democratic Party, whence sprang the newbie delegates and senators who delivered most of his agenda and a good bit of their own.

At this point, Northam has the upper hand. Lawmakers know it. Anyway, he’ll be gone in less than two years, when progressives could have a firmer grip on the General Assembly. So they needn’t suspend disbelief if Northam suspends some of their priorities.

With fiscal hawk Aubrey Layne as his secretary of finance, it is difficult to believe that Northam won’t keep an ear cocked for the small, influential voices that are the credit-rating agencies, all three of which have given Virginia the highest-possible grade, Triple A.

Virginia had that rating before Billy Reed wrote that letter to Harry Byrd.

You can bet Northam wants the state to have it after this pandemic.

Because, as another former governor, Colgate Darden, said in 1978, “You take an ordinary Virginian and wake him up out of a deep slumber — shake him right quick — and he’ll say two words: ‘fiscal sanity!’”

Full article >>> Richmond Times-Dispatch

Coalition Letter to Gov. Northam