Unlike last year’s marathon, 84-day-long, open-ended, anything-goes, free-for-all special session, the one that began Aug. 2 for General Assembly members will be short and focus strictly on allotting the $4.3 billion in federal stimulus funds and selecting Court of Appeals judges.
Local legislators – all Democrats – said they are looking forward to the session. Some expressed hope that funds would be targeted toward priorities they support, while one wanted to ensure accountability from some institutions moving forward.
State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-McLean-Loudoun) was enthusiastic about the session’s goals.
“Virginia has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make positive, meaningful investments for all Virginians,” she said. “These investments will affect the quality of life for generations to come.”
Favola hoped the federal funds would be used for structural and air-quality renovations at school buildings, mental-health programs, environmental measures and renovations to water-pollution-control plants to prevent spills into rivers.
“It’s exciting to be part of an effort that will make such a difference in the lives of fellow Virginians,” said Favola, who added that all of the budget priorities she had submitted earlier had been included in Gov. Northam’s announcements.
One of those priorities will be replenishing the Virginia Employment Commission’s unemployment-insurance trust fund, instead of leaving that up to small businesses, she said.
“We will take steps to preserve a stable, predictable and pro-growth environment and make improvements to the Virginia Employment Commission to ensure the backlogs are reduced and Virginians are actually served in an efficient way,” Favola said.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston-Arlington), who chairs the Senate’s Finance and Appropriations Committee, said she had been “working nonstop for weeks” leading up to the special session.
“We’re following a very unusual process for these unusual and sad times,” Howell said. “To get funding out as fast as possible, we have been working together to put together a budget that’s satisfactory to everybody. There are significant funds for healthcare, bonuses and incentives for law enforcement, public and higher education, and eviction relief.”
Not all of the activity will involve spending funds. Lawmakers will seek to have more than $2 billion in reserves, including $1 billion out of the recent $4.3 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
Selection of Court of Appeals judges likely will be “unpredictable and tense,” said Howell, who hoped those leading the process would recommend a slate of candidates.
“There are many qualified people and only seven slots,” Howell said. “We have to take into consideration geographic diversity. Northern Virginia is heavily underrepresented and there also are too few women and minorities [on the court]. It’s going to be a real tussle.”
The special session will not afford legislators the chance to offer amendments or introduce additional bills, said Del. Mark Keam (D-Oakton-Vienna).
‘I think its going to be pretty simple and straightforward,” Keam said. “The governor and the House and Senate Finance and Appropriations committees already have made all of the plans. The budget’s pretty much a done deal.”
State Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax-Vienna) said he would work to ensure taxpayers were getting their money’s worth from the institutions they funded.
“My concern is requiring accountability with state agencies and the court system,” he said. “They need to be fully open for customer service.”
Del. Marcus Simon (D-McLean) said he was “very excited” about proposals for major investments in broadband, housing, school renovations and mental-health services.
“I’ve worked for almost my entire legislative career on creating programs and developing the necessary infrastructure to divert people suffering from mental illness away from the criminal justice system and into mental-health treatment programs,” he said.
Gov. Northam’s budget includes $485 million in state and federal funding for Virginia’s behavioral-health system, which would be put toward fixing hospital staffing shortages and enhancing community-based services such as those offered in Fairfax and Falls Church, Simon said.
Simon also favored the governor’s proposal for $145 million for public safety, including hazard pay for police officers and other personnel who have had to cope with the pandemic while doing their jobs. Simon also supported the proposed expenditure of $2.5 million for efforts to prevent gun violence.