Virginia lawmakers to address pandemic & police reform in special session starting Tuesday

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers are gearing up for what is expected to be a transformational special session.

When legislators return to Richmond on Tuesday, the General Assembly will act on a slew of bills addressing the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and months of civil unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd.

On Monday, lawmakers were still finalizing bills and debating what reforms should wait.

Democrats, who control the House, Senate and Governor’s Office, can largely decide along party lines which proposals will pass. Without the votes to block progressive reforms, Republicans are still hoping to push through several priorities.

In a virtual press conference on Monday, House Republican leadership endorsed increasing training for police and affirming an officer’s duty to intervene while witnessing misconduct by a colleague. The caucus also supports expanding what officers can be decertified for, requiring the sharing of personnel records between departments and limiting police union power over disciplinary action in collective bargaining agreements.

Republican leaders raised concerns about a number of Democratic proposals, including reducing the penalty for assaulting an officer and providing more opportunities for early release from prison.

“Democrats seem to be more concerned about letting criminals out of jail and into the community and supporting protesters than balancing our budget and paying the commonwealth’s bills,” said Del. Kathy Byron, the chair of the House Republican Caucus.

MORE: Senate Democrats unveil first police reform bill ahead of special session; House wraps up public hearings

During the special session, lawmakers also need to revise the two-year budget while accounting for significant revenue shortfalls and balancing priorities elevated by the pandemic.

House Republicans said Monday they’re focused on providing flexible funding for school reopening.

Gov. Ralph Northam, who will outline his vision for the budget Tuesday morning, has already pitched ‘historic funding’ for housing support. The governor has also endorsed extending the pause on evictions and utility disconnections.

Suring up state funding to protect the integrity of mail in voting ahead of the 2020 Election has also arose as a central theme of the special session, as President Donald Trump is accused of undermining the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s despicable. It’s undemocratic and we’re not going to stand for that,” said Attorney General Mark Herring.

Herring also released a package of consumer protection reforms on Monday, including proposals to further prevent price gouging and to prohibit the garnishment of economic relief payments related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, a growing coalition is pushing for paid sick leave. Republicans and some Democrats concerned about overburdening small businesses have shot down the proposal in the past. This time around, progressives are hoping to pass the benefits for the duration of the public health emergency and for future ones, though they’re still short on the details.

“If we’re serious about stopping the spread of COVID-19, we will not put people in a position where they have to choose between quarantine and a paycheck,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman, the Democrat carrying the House bill.

With a jam-packed agenda, questions remain about how the General Assembly will pull off a special session away from the State Capitol building. The House of Delegates will convene at VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center and the Senate will meet at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Concerns also persist about the lack of opportunity for in-person public input in committee meetings. The public can watch the special session online.

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