RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Lawmakers returned to Richmond on Tuesday for the first day of an unconventional special session held outside Capitol Square to maintain social distancing.
The General Assembly is reconvening to address the state’s response to COVID-19, criminal justice reform and the two-year budget. It’s still unclear how long the session will last.
As the Senate convened at the Science Museum of Virginia, one leading Democrat was notably absent for a little over an hour after the chamber’s scheduled start time.
Sen. Louise Lucas was charged on the eve of the special session in connection with the damage of a confederate monument in Portsmouth during a June protest–a move many of her colleagues called racially charged and politically motivated. Lucas is a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which is backing numerous police reforms.
“I will be vindicated,” Lucas said when she arrived, declining further comment.
Drama arose at VCU’s Siegel Center, where the House of Delegates met, when Republicans shot down a proposal to move the special session to an all-virtual format. Despite failing to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for the rules change, Democrats are moving ahead with the plan.
According to Jake Rubenstein, a spokesperson for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a separate resolution must be read by the Clerk for five days before it can be passed by a majority vote.
Democrats can do this along party lines but the move means House hearings won’t continue until after that vote happens on Sunday, according to Rubenstein. The Senate will continue with committee meetings this week.
“With a single vote, they declared that they have no need to meet in public, they have no desire to receive public input, and they have no intention of changing that practice anytime soon. Our constituents deserve to have the business of the House done in public. They deserve the right to be heard in committee hearings,” said House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert in a statement.
Rubenstein said a virtual format is essential to protect House members from the coronavirus pandemic. He said the public can still participate in committee hearings online.
Tuesday morning started with a virtual joint meeting of House and Senate committees. Gov. Ralph Northam laid out his vision for a revised two year budget as the state reels from revenue losses induced by coronavirus closures.
Virginia wrapped up the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on June 30th, with a $234 million shortfall in general fund revenue collections. In the following two fiscal years, the commonwealth is projected to collect $2.7 billion less than what was expected when the original budget was crafted.
That’s why Northam is calling on the General Assembly to slash new spending on his own priorities, including funding for K-12 education, early childhood education and tuition-free community college. Raises for teachers and state employees are also on the chopping block under Northam’s plan.
“To be clear, I am doing this for one reason alone: To preserve our financial options so that we can make it through this pandemic,” Gov. Northam said.
Northam’s proposal does include some new policy spending over two years.
- $2 million for pre-paid postage for absentee ballots
- $300,000 for new equity and diversity initiatives
- $1.1 million for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue
- $3.6 million for criminal justice reform initiatives
- $15 million for broadband expansion
- $25 million for housing trust fund
After the full Senate adjourned Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a package of police reforms. The bill includes proposals to ban chokeholds and make it easier to decertify officers.