On Wednesday, the General Assembly met for its constitutionally-mandated Reconvene Session. For over eight hours, the House of Delegates met outdoors on Capitol Square debating the Governor’s amendments to previously passed legislation, including the state budget. I want to take this opportunity to provide you with an recap of the day’s events.
First, I want to provide a bit of background on the Reconvene Session, also known as the Veto Session. As you know, Virginia has a part time citizen legislature while New York, California, and Congress are considered full time legislatures. We meet in Richmond for 60 days during even numbered years and 46 days during odd numbered years for our regular session for the purposes of passing laws, adopting a state budget, electing judges, and other regular order items.
Article Four, Section Six of the Constitution of Virginia requires that the General Assembly reconvene “on the sixth Wednesday after adjournment of each regular or special session” to consider any amendments made by the Governor to bills from the recent regular session. We also have the opportunity to override vetoes made by the Governor, an action that requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber. The Constitution further states that “No other business shall be considered at a reconvened session.”
After a 45 minute delay due to numerous technical difficulties from meeting outside, House Democrats introduced a resolution seeking to amend the Rules of the House to allow for remote voting. Though the idea had been mentioned on and off for a few weeks, no concrete plan was ever presented to legislators.
The current Rules of the House require a five day waiting period between the time an amendment is introduced and when a vote is taken. This allows legislators and the public ample time to review the matter. Instead, Democrats made a motion to suspend the Rules to allow for the immediate adoption of the amendment. Suspending the Rules takes a two-thirds vote, and as that threshold was not met, the five day waiting period stayed in effect and the amendment was not voted on.
I opposed the remote voting amendment for several key reasons. The House has 100 members representing each corner of the state. Delegates would find it difficult to fulfill their constitutional duty to debate and vote upon legislation if they experienced an internet outage or the system went down. Additionally, the House IT department did not have an opportunity to beta test any platform for this purpose. Our voting system was partially down for nearly an hour due to to technical difficulties from being outside, resulting in voice votes. That caused even some Democrats to realize their party’s plan wasn’t a great option. We have an excellent IT team, but they need time to get a system ready.
With no vote on the proposed amendment taking place, the session proceeded as planned.
Amendments to Legislation
The Governor recommended several controversial bills be amended to include a delayed enactment clause that would push back the date the bill becomes effective.
During the regular session, the General Assembly passed legislation significantly raising the minimum wage and allowing for public sector collective bargaining. Small businesses and local governments both warned that the costs associated with these bills would result in lost jobs and higher taxes, respectively. While both bills were scheduled to become effective January 1, 2021, the amendments would delay their implementation by four months until May 1, 2021. The argument was made that the bills would be difficult to implement in January due to the economic fallout from COVID-19. As I have noted in previous email updates, it begs asking why a bill would be bad in January yet good in May. A better option would have been for the Governor to veto the bills and allow for a renewed discussion to take place in 2021 when the status of the economy is clearer.
During the regular session, I had discussed how HB33 would extend parole eligibility to a group of approximately 200 violent felons. Virginia had abolished parole on a bipartisan basis in the late 1990s in response to a violent crime outbreak in the state. Today, we have one of the lowest violent crime rates in the nation. While I believe in second chances, I also believe that violent felons should serve their full sentence. I was disappointed to see the House, on a party line vote, adopt the Governor’s amendments to this bill that would make it effective immediately upon his signing of the bill rather than the normal July 1st effective date. Governor Northam also included a budget amendment that would release an additional 4,618 inmates early. 64% of those inmates were convicted of violent crimes. The amendment passed on a party line vote.
Delegate Rob Bell of Albemarle compiled a list of crimes committed by felons who could be granted parole in accordance with the budget amendment. You can view it below:
Amendments to the Budget
Though I often refer to the budget as a singular noun, it is in fact two separate bills. House Bill 29, known as the caboose bill, includes final edits to the current fiscal year ending on June 30, 2020. House Bill 30 covers the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020 and runs through June 30, 2022. In March, I sent out an email detailing the budgets that passed the General Assembly.
This year, the Governor made 37 amendments to HB 29 and 144 amendments to HB 30. Some of the amendments are what we refer to as “technical” amendments that clarify potentially vague wording or correct a minor error in drafting. Conversely, many amendments are controversial and are thoroughly debated. This year, a number of them sought to pause government spending until we have a better understanding of how COVID-19 will impact the state budget.
There are three amendments from this budget bill that I want to highlight.
First, amendment #36 would delay local May elections until November. I’ve heard from a number of individuals on this specific amendment and want to take the opportunity to address it. Though we don’t have May elections in Chesterfield or Colonial Heights, many towns and cities across Virginia do. Specifically, the amendment would cancel the May 5th local elections and reschedule them for the November 3rd general elections. What concerns me is the fact that the large number of absentee ballots already cast would be destroyed. I recognize the public health concern, but destroying ballots sets a dangerous precedent. The constitutionality of overriding local charters that require May elections also must be considered. The amendment was passed in the House on a party-line vote, but rejected on a bipartisan basis by the Senate several hours later. The amendment failed and May elections will remain on the 5th for now unless the Governor uses his statutory authority to delay them by no more than two weeks or the General Assembly meets in special session to delay to a date consistent with local charters.
Secondly, amendment #8 defers depositing approximately $601 million into the state’s reserve funds. You’ll find that delaying new spending is a common theme throughout all amendments as we don’t yet have a full picture of how the ongoing pandemic will impact the state budget. Deferring this deposit into the reserve funds is smart budgeting and allows for cash liquidity to deal with COVID-19. I supported this amendment.
Finally, amendment #24 would have given the Governor the ability to delay capital projects without any limitations. Governors traditionally have the ability to temporarily hold off on spending for new capital projects if certain criteria are met and the General Assembly is notified. His amendment would eat away at the legislative branch’s budget authority granted by the Constitution. Republicans successfully pushed back against this amendment and defeated it. An identical amendment to HB 30 was also defeated.
In HB 30 most new spending was “unallotted.” By adopting certain amendments, the General Assembly is putting a pause on new spending until such time as we can get a better financial picture. Of the 144 amendments to HB 30, 82 of them unallott new spending. The General Assembly voted to hold off on everything from new state employee positions to increased funding for at risk students. The dollar figure for unallotted funds totalled about $2.2 billion.
Unfortunately, the unclear financial picture means we must unallott previously planned raises for public employees. For me, it was a very tough vote. Let me note that the raises were not cancelled. The Assembly can prorate the raises if our financial situation improves, but unfortunately that is not likely given our current situation.
Budgeting is tough under normal circumstances, and it’s even tougher when you don’t have a full picture of the landscape. Unallotting new spending is in my opinion the fiscally responsible decision.
Governor Northam also proposed several amendments to give himself more emergency powers when it comes to budgeting. Amendment #138 would greatly expand his authority to withhold funding during budget shortfalls. The state budget has long included language authorizing the Governor to withhold 15% of an agency’s funding during a shortfall and requires those cuts to be made uniformly across an agency. This particular amendment removed the 15% cap and the uniformity requirement. The Constitution specifically gives budgeting power to the legislature, not to the executive branch. I and others shared our concerns with the Governor and he backed down from his position. The House rejected his amendment on a bipartisan basis, keeping the power for major budget changes with the legislative branch.
The General Assembly is not officially scheduled to meet again until January 2021. However, it is expected that the House and Senate will be called into a special session later this year once we have a better understanding of the state’s finances. No official date for a special session has been set, nor has it been confirmed that it will take place. Special sessions are typically limited in scope with any parameters formally being set on the session’s opening day. At minimum, I would expect any special session to include an opportunity to make further budget amendments.
As always, it remains an honor to represent you in the House of Delegates. Please know that my staff and I remain accessible by phone at (804) 526-5135 and email at DelKCox@house.virginia.gov and are ready to assist you with state-related issues you may have.