RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — When Virginia’s General Assembly reconvenes in the state capitol on Tuesday, nearly five months will have passed since Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Since then, a host of additional crises have sprouted: unemployment, evictions, school and public health and safety and nearly 70 straight days of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers.
The special session, a rare occurrence in the Commonwealth where the state’s two legislative bodies only meet for two months at the start of the year, was called for by Northam, a Democrat, in July with the hopes of addressing the myriad of problems the state is facing.
“Virginians are hurting right now — and the commonwealth is stepping up,” said the governor in a tweet Friday afternoon announcing his agenda for the session which includes millions of dollars in support for housing, broadband projects and education, while also hoping for police reform called for by protesters.
The last special session happened in 2019 and aimed to address gun violence. While Northam asked for numerous new gun laws in the wake of mass shootings in Virginia and around the country, the Republican-controlled Legislature gaveled out in about 90 minutes.
But don’t expect such brevity this time.
While the session starts Tuesday, the initial meeting is expected to only give the 140 legislators a chance to vote on rules for the session going forward. While hopes of a quick meeting and omnibus bill from both chambers, now controlled by Democrats, was rumored, it quickly became clear that the complex range of issues would turn this special session into more of a lengthy regular session which could last weeks, if not months.
“It’ll take as long as it takes to get it right, get public input and be transparent,” said state Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, in a phone interview. “There is a sense of urgency but we need to get it right and make sure the public has an opportunity to see what we’re doing and be heard.”
The nature of the coronavirus has presented new challenges. While usual sessions hold committee meetings to discuss each bill, large gatherings are limited due to the virus. Though not public yet, legislators and staffers told Courthouse News the rules are expected to allow those meetings to be held digitally, something required considering the pandemic but not fully supported by those on the right.
“We saw, when we moved the veto session 10 yards outside [of the capital], we still ran into technical difficulties,” said Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper in a phone interview, harkening back to a veto session held in April which was held in a socially distanced tent due to the virus, but faced problems involving live video streams and microphones.
“I think there are ways we can hold these on site so the public can engage,” he added hopefully before admitting he hadn’t seen the final rules yet. While they might get the chance to debate them, it’ll be up to the Democrats who have controlling votes to decide, but also take the blame if things go wrong.
As for public access to the session, besides a live video feed, there will be none with only limited seating for journalists to observe.
McClellan said members of both chambers have been holding digital meetings and opened their ears and inboxes to public comment so far and will continue to do so.
“We’re doing everything that we possibly can to make sure the public knows what we’re doing in a safe manner,” she added.
But beyond coronavirus safety concerns, Democrats have flaunted other norms. With a bit less than 72 hours till the session starts, there’s only one piece of legislation from the majority party visible to the public in the state’s legislative system.
“It’s amazing for so many people to not file a single bill with less than a week before the session starts,” said state Senator David R. Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, in a phone interview. He noted it was the Democrats’ idea to call the session in the first place and “if these bills are so important they warrant a special session, I think it’s all more important they are made public.”
Offering an alternative, Suetterlein has joined several of his Republican colleagues in submitting legislation they hope will get some kind of hearing in the coming weeks.
Among them is an effort, submitted in different forms by several members of the GOP, which aims to limit the governor’s emergency powers.
“Those executive order powers exist so emergencies can be declared, especially with a state where the General Assembly isn’t always in session,” said Suetterlein whose bill would require a meeting and vote from the Legislature in order for an executive order to last longer than 45 days.
“Making executive orders with the force of law does not have the proper balance of power,” he added. “If the governor believes the Legislature would never meet to affirm the order, that means he doesn’t think he has the support to extend the order.”
A Northam spokeswoman pushed back on the senator’s assessment in an emailed statement.
“Emergencies can change fast, and Covid-19 shows that they are not always limited to some arbitrary timeframe like 60 or 45 days,” she wrote. “Under [the GOP efforts] Virginia’s response to the pandemic would have ended weeks ago in May, effectively leaving 8.5 million Virginians without a leader or during a worldwide health crisis.”
“That’s a bad idea, and so is this bill,” she added.
But the absence of legislation from Democrats also makes it hard to know what they plan to offer to address the multiple ongoing crises.
“We’re working as fast as we can,” said McClellan. “We’re working to get bills finalized and take input from stakeholders before they are filed but that takes time.”
A bullet point list of agenda items has been released by Democrats in both chambers, and the topics — which often overlap — include things like addressing evictions and utility bills as well as expanding PPE and guidance for schools for teaching in-person and virtually.
“We’ve got a lot of big issues that my constituents have been asking about so I’m focused on what we can do right now while planning for what’s next,” the senator added.
The session also hopes to address the more contentious effort of police powers. Despite the two parties becoming increasingly polarized there’s still hope to find what Virginia legislators have often called “peace in the valley.”
Addressing police misconduct is among those issues with efforts, authored by the GOP Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, and others which aim to limit the use of choke holds, address legal immunity for civil rights violations and allow for the decertification of officers who break the rules.
“We’re very concerned about making sure we have safe and secure communities with things like community-based policing,” said Freitas.
McClellan said many of these issues were being discussed long before she even came to the Legislature in 2006 when Republicans were in charge. She also pointed to efforts passed in other states in the wake of protests, like giving localities the ability to create civilian review boards and mental health crisis support systems that offer alternatives to the police.
“It’s not like we’re creating something from scratch,” she said.
But while members of both parties hope to find some common ground, compromise is not expected across the board.
“Defunding police is a nonstarter with a lot of us, certainly with me,” Freitas said.
Last, but certainly not least, is the state’s biennial budget. While it was supposed to be finalized earlier this year, talks were delayed because of the Covid-19 outbreak. Much of Northam’s effort to support the state during the health crisis was announced Friday with budget funds aimed at the priorities listed above, but like legislation from Democrats, the public still hasn’t seen the full text of the proposal yet.
There’s also the unknown element of federal funding to make up for missing tax revenue from the state-level down to localities totaling as much as $2.7 billion, according to the governor’s office.
“We’re hoping for [federal money] but we need to plan for contingencies,” said McClellan, matching the hopes of many of those on the left who feel Congress needs to step up but aren’t counting on approval from President Donald Trump.
“We need federal assistance but we can’t depend on it, so we’ve got to plan for it or don’t get it,” she said.
Freitas and Suetterlein, however, believe the state should take care of its own.
“The state has a responsibility to manage its own budget and it’s inappropriate to rely on federal dollars that the federal government doesn’t have,” said Freitas. “It’s on the state to manage its budget at this time.”
While conversations with legislators ahead of Tuesday’s meetings often hope for that increasingly elusive peace in the valley, those who have been tracking politics in the state for years think it could be just as contentious a session as those in the past.
“The world is changing day by day and that makes it very difficult for lawmakers to chart the course ahead,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “The relatively small number of moderates in either caucus suggests compromise will be as elusive in 2020 as it was in 2019.”
He also noted the number of legislators who are on the ballot for Congressional seats this year, like Freitas, and the rest of those who are running to keep their seats or for higher office next year.
“The smart move politically would be to put as many months as possible between controversial actions and the elections,” said Farnsworth. “But the prudent course would be to not rush into significant reforms.”
While many mysteries remain for Virginia’s special session, it all should come clear in the coming days. With Democrats in control of all three chambers, expect many issues to be addressed in a more progressive way, but much like the virus, we won’t know everything until it’s over.