Press "Enter" to skip to content

State legislature tackles budget amendments amid pandemic

The General Assembly’s reconvened session last Wednesday was abnormal as the House of Delegates dealt with technical difficulties, disruptive protests and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), collapsing at the podium.
Filler-Corn was standing for over three hours before she fell, just as the House was going into a break. Emergency medical services immediately attended to her and she resumed her post after an hour break.

Delegates congregated under a tent on the lawn of the Virginia State Capitol. The Senate met a few miles away inside the Science Museum of Virginia.

Virginians for Constitutional Rights 2020, formerly Reopen Virginia, gathered outside the Capitol to protest Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order. The order was recently extended to June 10. Protesters cited the tanking economy as the reason the state should reopen. The protesters, most in vehicles, honked their horns for nearly three hours as they drove a circuitous route around the Capitol. At times, legislators strained to be heard amid the cacophony of horns.

The House, with 97 items on the agenda, started by accepting Northam’s only vetoed bill: HB 119, a measure to define milk.

State budget

Lawmakers grappled at length with issues related to the budget, which must be amended in response to the economic blow of COVID-19. Northam suggested 181 total amendments to the budget bills. The governor called for a freeze on many budget items and said that new circumstances required lawmakers to revisit initiatives such as early childhood education, more affordable college tuition, and pay increases for public employees and teachers.

Northam’s recommendations included $55.5 million for “sufficient disaster declaration authorization” and $2.5 million for “deficit authorization for housing.” The House accepted these amendments.

Lawmakers rejected Northam’s budget amendment to delay existing capital projects “in order to address cash flow and debt capacity concerns resulting from the COVID-19 emergency.”

Other budget recommendations approved by the House and Senate:

—Increase nursing facility rates by $20 a day per patient in response to COVID-19;

—Provide authority for the Director of the Department of Corrections to discharge or reassign certain inmates until July 2021;

—Expand access to long-acting reversible contraceptives, and

—Authorize the governor to appropriate Congressional funding related to COVID-19.

Many of the other legislative amendments were technical and made minor changes to some pivotal legislation passed in the historic session. The session marked the first time since 1994 where Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Two of Northam’s recommendations to the marijuana decriminalization bill, HB 972, were rejected, regarding an extension for the study on the legalization of marijuana and not allowing a trial by jury for the civil penalty of simple possession.

The governor’s recommendation to delay the $9.50 minimum wage increase from January until May 2021 was accepted after several impassioned pleas. In the Senate, Fairfax cast a tie-breaking vote to accept the bill’s delay.

A major concern during the reconvened session was that all in attendance take precautions amidst the pandemic.

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) Levine said he wished that the session had been held remotely for safety reasons, but understands that it was necessary to meet, even if in person.

Each session began at noon and after over eight hours of discussion, voting and interruptions, the House erupted in applause when it came to end. The Senate adjourned shortly after 10 p.m.