State lawmakers are returning to Richmond on Tuesday for a special session that will be packed with debate on police and criminal justice reform, issues that arose from the coronavirus pandemic and adjusting the state’s budget.
Gov. Ralph Northam planned for the General Assembly to return in mid-August to revisit the two-year budget upended by the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. In their first year with majorities in both chambers and in the executive mansion, Democrats passed a budget they hailed as the “most progressive in history.” The $135 billion spending plan included free community college for in-demand fields, restoring K-12 funding to pre-recession levels, expanded funding for early childhood programs, investments in affordable housing and dental benefits for Medicaid recipients.
Measures that required new spending were put on hold, and the Northam administration is anticipating a loss of about $1 billion in revenues for each year of the budget. Lawmakers will have to grapple with what priorities on hold they want to protect as well as any additional proposals they are putting forward for the special session that come with a price tag.
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“There’s uncertainty about what will happen during this special session, and there’s uncertainty about the pandemic,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke.
Northam is proposing a record $85 million to expand access to broadband in unserved communities and $15 million for the historically Black colleges and universities to increase support for underserved students.
He also wants $88 million in funding to deal with evictions and expand access to affordable housing. Much of the funding would go toward the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, which will complement federal CARES Act funding to protect Virginians from eviction. About $3 million would support the creation of an eviction prevention program to reduce evictions.
He also is proposing a pause on evictions until at least April 30, 2021, tying that to a requirement that landlords and tenants work together on a payment plan and seek financial assistance, which includes through the state’s rent and mortgage relief program. Northam’s package also will call for a moratorium on utility disconnections for electric, water and natural gas utilities until 60 days after the state of emergency ends.
“Virginians are hurting, and the commonwealth is stepping up,” Northam said in a statement. “Our country is battling both a health crisis and an economic crisis at once, so Virginia is advancing new programs to help people stay in their homes, care for the ones they love, and feel safe in the community.”
House and Senate Democrats also want to provide funding for the November election. The House and Senate both passed a bill earlier this year for absentee ballots sent to voters to come with prepaid postage, but it included language requiring the legislature to pass it again. Democrats also say they are looking into setting up ballot drop-off boxes for people who are worried their mail-in ballots could be misplaced or delayed, and they’re bracing for pushback from Republicans.
“These are the three things Republicans are going to attack us on: drop box, voting by mail and early voting,” Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, said at a recent town hall with fellow members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Democrats and Republicans will have other areas to disagree on at the special session, including police reform and a push from the GOP to rein in the governor’s emergency powers. It’s unknown how long the session will last.
In order to have more space for legislators to distance from one another, the House of Delegates will meet at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Stuart C. Siegel Center, while the Senate will gather down the street at the Science Museum of Virginia. The public won’t be allowed in the buildings and will instead have to watch the proceedings online.
Both chambers plan to incorporate virtual committee meetings to allow for public comment and voting, but neither the Senate nor the House of Delegates has released details to the public.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, made an effort for the House to do its business online during the April session when the legislature returned to consider the governor’s recommended changes to bills, but Republicans blocked the proposal. It’s unclear what kind of support, if any, she would need to shift meetings online.
More than 60 bills have posted for public review, but more are expected to come in the next few days.
House Democrats plan to introduce a bill about paid sick leave, an issue that has gained prominence since the COVID-19 outbreak. The bill’s details are unknown. Last session, the House passed a bill to require public and private employers with 15 or more employees to provide paid sick time, but the Senate had concerns about money not in the budget to support paid sick time for part-time state employees. The bill died in the Senate.
Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, has expressed a desire to use CARES Act funding for two weeks of paid leave for personal care attendants who tend to Medicare recipients residing at home.
House Democrats plan to address the early controversy that erupted during the coronavirus pandemic when the Northam administration refused to name nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks. Numerous lawmakers disagreed with the administration’s interpretation of the state code. Nevertheless, they said it was important to revise the code for clarity.
“There is wide agreement among Republicans and Democrats that the Virginia Department of Health and the government could and should release that information,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County. “The General Assembly and governor need to be clear that that information should be released.”
House Democrats also will file a bill revisiting the removal of war monuments, but details on that bill also haven’t been made public. The General Assembly passed and the governor signed a new law this year allowing localities to remove war monuments they own. Governing bodies would have to provide a 30-day notice of the intent to remove a statue. Localities have to hold a public hearing and offer the monument to a museum, government or military battlefield.
“There were a lot of hurdles in the bill before a monument can be removed,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said. “I think this bill will remove some of those hurdles.”
Some of the House Democrats’ proposals are at the request of Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat. They include prohibiting garnishments of stimulus relief checks and combating price gouging for personal protective equipment.
Republicans wanted to return to Richmond sooner to discuss the issue of school funding and reopening. One of the biggest challenges for schools has been how to incorporate virtual learning for students who don’t have high-speed internet at home. A bill from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, would require school boards to provide throughout the pandemic in-person instruction to any students whose primary residence isn’t capable of receiving decent internet speed.
“One thing Southwest Virginia legislators want to focus on is the safe reopening of our schools and how do we get broadband to our students who don’t have broadband so they can participate in their classes when they’re online,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott.
Frustrated with Northam not answering their calls to have a special session sooner to take up pandemic matters, Republicans have pitched a few variations on how to limit the governor’s emergency powers while boosting their own. Currently, a governor’s executive order issued under an emergency declaration can last until June 30 following the next regular session of the General Assembly, which starts in January.
Suetterlein wants to limit an executive order issued by a governor under an emergency to no more than 45 days, and the General Assembly would have the ability to extend it in some way. A proposal from Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania, would limit an order to 60 days. Cole’s bill would prevent it from going beyond 30 days.
Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, filed a proposal to amend the Virginia Constitution so that an executive order issued in a state of emergency would expire after 45 days unless the legislature approved an extension.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, has a version which would limit it to 30 days. If the General Assembly doesn’t take any action on it, the governor can issue the same order for another 30 days.
“I really believe this should not be a partisan issue at all,” Newman said. “If we had a Republican governor, I hope I would be saying we need to run the state the way the constitution would have us run it and not by a single individual. This limits the current governor just like it would the next.”
Most Democrats haven’t pushed back on Northam’s orders, and Edwards didn’t anticipate they would support limiting the governor’s power.
“The governor needs the kind of authority to deal with short-term problems within a longer-term problem,” Edwards said.