Legislators near the finish line on a very special General Assembly session

Legislators near the finish line on a very special General Assembly session
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

From the beginning, the current Virginia General Assembly special session was unlike any other.

The drawn-out session, which started on Aug. 18 and has lasted longer than the 46 days set for the General Assembly’s regular session in January, is the result of many factors, from the COVID-19 pandemic to an ambitious set of priorities.

The General Assembly had worked out a $135 billion biennium budget in March, right as the pandemic struck the region and Gov. Ralph Northam put a freeze on new spending. As a result, this session has been dedicated to the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate wrestling with a new budget, as well as pandemic relief measures and criminal justice and police reform.

“There is no doubt that the governor’s call to special session this time was ambitious, and it had all of these big, important things that were part of it,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said. “Then of course, you add to it the fact that they’re trying to conduct this in the middle of a crisis, a pandemic. I think that’s really slowed things down.”

At the beginning of a special session, the General Assembly adopts a procedural resolution that lays out the rules, including deadlines, for the session. This year, the General Assembly did not adopt a procedural resolution.

“This special session, the House drafted a procedural resolution and passed it, but the Senate did not pass the procedural resolution, so we started off in a special session with no rules,” Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, said.

Without a procedural resolution, the special session has no official end date – the session ends when the General Assembly accomplishes its stated goals. Between the lack of legislative guard rails and the challenges involved with operating two legislative bodies in the middle of a pandemic, the pace of legislative approval has been glacial.

“I think it’s been frustrating for everyone,” Taylor said. “I think it’s been frustrating for legislators, I think it’s been frustrating for advocates, I think it’s frustrating for members of the public who have interest in this subject matter. Without clarity as to how this all goes and, potentially, how it all ends, it’s just been challenging.”

The act of meeting to discuss the issues and hash out legislation has been slowed as well. While the House of Delegates has been operating entirely online, the Senate has been meeting in-person in Richmond’s Science Museum of Virginia.

“On the one hand, it’s nice to see people and not be totally isolated,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said. “On the other hand, it’s probably not the safest protocol, and this is likely what we’ll be doing next winter as we’re in session.”

The larger pieces of legislation related to the budget and police reform have yet to be finalized, but Northam has already signed about 30 other bills into law during the session, most of them related to broad social justice initiatives and pandemic relief.

The General Assembly quickly worked up some legislation that would allow Virginians to vote more easily in the 2020 presidential election, including drop boxes for ballots and prepaid postage for mail-in ballots, Ebbin said.

The governor also signed a measure establishing Juneteenth as a state holiday and a bill that created a civil penalty for those who violate an executive order, including those established during the pandemic.

Some of the most talked about legislation is still being worked on in conference committees, a closed-door part of the process that commences when both bodies pass different versions of the same piece of legislation.

Budget discussions are coming to a close, as both bodies grapple with an estimated $2.7 billion revenue shortfall in coming years as a result of the pandemic. Each chamber passed a separate version of the budget and will now move to a conference committee to create a unified budget that can go to the governor for approval.

Priorities in the original budget, such as raises for teachers and state employees and large investments in social programs and the state’s reserve fund, were cut. However, the Senate budget includes a one-time $500 bonus to law enforcement officials and the House budget provides a one-time $1,500 bonus to state employees, including police officers.

To make up for sales tax shortfalls, the budgets call for rerouting $95 million from electronic gaming machines to K-12 public schools. The House-approved budget would restore $150 million to the state’s reserve fund, while the Senate-approved budget would invest more in health initiatives.

The General Assembly is also working through several pieces of legislation related to policing and criminal justice reform. The omnibus policing reform bill includes a probation on no-knock warrants, the expansion of decertification measures for “bad apple law enforcement officers,” a limit on the use of chokeholds and the requirement of de-escalation training and reporting of data from all law enforcement agencies, Ebbin said.

The General Assembly passed the bill that would limit the use of chokeholds by police on Oct. 7 and it currently awaits the governor’s signature to be enacted.

The House of Delegates initially proposed a bill that would outright ban chokeholds and institute felony penalties for the use of them, but the Senate rejected the comprehensive ban. Under the new bill, police officers can use chokeholds only if they are in a situation where it “is immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person,” according to the bill. Officers that use neck restraints outside of such cases would face administrative penalties, including the loss of their license to work as an officer, under the Senate-approved bill.

Many of the bills being considered align with measures already taken by the Alexandria Police Department or directives provided by City Council, Taylor said. One bill would mandate that localities create community police review boards, something City Council is already pursuing.

“Obviously, community police review boards are … something the City Council has already said we’re going to do, so we’re basically monitoring and working on that legislation to ensure that it doesn’t hamstring us in any way or limit us in any way with what council has given us direction on community police review boards,” Taylor said.

The General Assembly is also deliberating over the so-called Marcus Alert Bill, named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old biology teacher in Richmond who was shot and killed by police in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

The bill would require localities to create teams of responders so that, in mental health crisis situations, it is not only law enforcement officers who are responding but mental health professionals as well.

Legislators are also considering broader reform to the criminal justice system, including a bill that would eliminate jury sentencing in favor of sentencing from a judge.

“[In other states], the jury determines guilt or innocence and then, if they convict, the case is sent out for the sentencing hearing with a judge. This would be a pretty significant change,” Porter said.

In the wake of a series of high-profile police shootings of Black men and women, ongoing protests and the ensuing social movement around racial injustice, the legislative conversation on these issues has become personal for many state leaders, Taylor said.

“It’s tough subject matter. A lot of this is very personal – it’s very emotional,” Taylor said. “It is hard to not want to do the very, very best you can and reach as far you can on this. It’s hard to not let perfect be the enemy of good on some of these issues.”

Although that kind of personal investment can result in meaningful change, it has also illustrated the complications that can occur when the wheels of passion meet the road of legislative process.

“When I do this job, I always tell people that I don’t deal in personalities and I don’t deal in feelings – I deal in words on paper,” Taylor said. “And this session has been all about personality and feelings, and it has been much harder to get to the brass tacks of words on paper and to be very focused on the subject matter and the implications.”

The end of the lengthy session is nearly in sight. Many bills have entered conference committees and many expect both the budget and police reform bills to be resolved by the end of the week, Ebbin said.