Virginia lawmakers set for special session Monday
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Lawmakers are set to meet in Richmond for a short special session to elect judges and allocate Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the latest federal coronavirus relief bill.
Here’s a look at what’s expected at the Capitol this week, with work getting underway Monday:
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced in June that he was calling lawmakers to Richmond to fill judicial vacancies and pass an updated budget bill to reflect the infusion of money coming to Virginia from the federal American Rescue Plan.
The sweeping relief bill President Joe Biden signed into law in March directed $350 billion in aid to state, local and tribal governments. It also extended unemployment benefits, sent direct payments to millions of Americans, increased the child tax credit and contained aid for schools and businesses.
No Republicans in Congress supported the bill, though some have promoted it since. Many said the measure was too expensive and not focused directly enough on the pandemic.
The aid to states is intended to help meet pandemic response needs and bolster the economy. It has some restrictions on how it can be used, though the plan lawmakers will be considering is wide-ranging.
Northam announced his budget proposal piece by piece leading up to the session and has indicated it has the support needed from Democratic leaders to pass. The plan calls for spending on all kinds of initiatives, including: increasing broadband access, supporting small businesses and tourism, paying for air quality improvements in public schools, boosting mental health and substance-abuse treatment, and backfilling the state’s unemployment trust fund. It also contains provisions that would offer some protections against evictions and utility disconnections.
The text of the budget bill did not become publicly available to view until Friday afternoon.
A PARTISAN DIVIDE
Democratic lawmakers, General Assembly staff and officials from the Northam administration worked together to craft the budget bill lawmakers will take up at the session, Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, has said.
That’s drawn the ire of House Republicans, who say Democrats shouldn’t have been working behind closed doors to decide how to spend such a massive amount of money. The minority party has also taken issue with guidance from House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian, who wrote in a memo sent to lawmakers in July that neither the House nor Senate money committees would be accepting amendment requests to the bill as introduced.
In response to the criticism, Torian said in a statement that it would be “impossible” to thoroughly evaluate amendment submissions in the short time frame of the session.
“Our priority is expediency in getting relief funds where they’re needed,” he said.
The special session comes at a sensitive time for members of the House. Every seat in that chamber is on the ballot in November.
Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive and political newcomer, laid out his vision Thursday for how the money should be used. His suggestions included tax refunds, money for a school choice initiative and extra pay for law enforcement officers.
Youngkin is facing Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a second, nonconsecutive term. Northam cannot seek re-election this year under state law.
Judges in Virginia are elected by lawmakers, and the General Assembly has extra work to do this year because of legislation passed in March that expanded the Court of Appeals.
That bill, which that took effect in July, added six judges to the intermediate court and will provide criminal defendants and civil litigants an automatic right of appeal, something Democratic proponents of the measure said every state but Virginia previously offered.
Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from Roanoke and chairman of his chamber’s judiciary committee, said lawmakers will also be filling a Court of Appeals vacancy from last year as well as a recently announced retirement, for a total of eight spots.
Edwards and his House counterpart, Majority Leader and House Courts of Justice Committee chairwoman Charniele Herring, asked a number of statewide bar associations to conduct vetting of the dozens of applicants. Edwards said Wednesday the committees were working to create a short list.
“There will be a public hearing at some point,” he said. “Some things are up in the air.”
Lawmakers will also be electing judges to other lower court positions, according to Edwards.
LOGISTICS AND COVID PROTOCOLS
Lawmakers will be meeting in person at the Capitol for the first time since the 2020 regular session. Meetings since then have taken place virtually or in special event centers.
In the Senate, members will not be required to wear masks and no COVID testing will be done, Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar wrote in an email. Plexiglass is being installed between members’ desks, she said.
House Clerk Suzette Denslow did not respond to a request for comment.
It was not clear how many of the lawmakers have chosen to be vaccinated. They were offered vaccinations early in the year, at a time when access was limited for the general public.
Both chambers convene at noon Monday. The Capitol is open to the public, and the session can also be livestreamed online.
Legislative leaders haven’t said exactly how long the session’s business will take to complete. Lawmakers were preparing for a relatively short week or two.