I’m writing today to provide you with an update regarding the ongoing special legislative session. The General Assembly convened as constitutionally required back in August with the goal of plugging a $2.8 billion hole in the state budget. To date, we have been in session for nearly three months without a budget agreement.
While it appears that we may be nearing the end of the special session, there is still no firm date for adjournment. I encourage you “like” my Facebook page where I post regular session-related updates.
Legislators typically receive a per diem when they are in session to help cover expenses such as lodging and meals, with the rates being set in accordance with IRS regulations. The per diem is not automatic, however. It must be voted on at the beginning of each session.
At the beginning of this special session, House Democrats introduced a resolution for legislators to receive the standard per diem rates. This would typically be without controversy except for the fact that the House of Delegates is meeting remotely by Zoom.
Believing that we should not receive a per diem for travel expenses while working from home, House Republicans unanimously agreed to not take the per diem. As a caucus, we sent this letter to the House Clerk informing her of our decision. I am committed to completing the people’s work, but I will not be paid extra for meals and lodging when I drive ten minutes from my house to my district office to debate via Zoom.
As I noted earlier, the state budget is expected to have a $2.8 billion shortfall. This is predominantly a result of declining state revenues caused by COVID-19 and business closures. I must note that during these unique times, it is difficult to get an exact pinpoint of where the economy is headed in our forecasts and reviews.
In April of this year, the General Assembly rightly paused the majority of new state spending until we had a better idea of what our finances would look like during COVID. That was a temporary action; we all knew additional work would need to be done.
While the final budget has not been produced, I voted “no” when an early version of the bill was before the House for consideration. The proposal advanced by House Democrats includes $251.8 million in new spending that was not included in the Governor’s proposed amendments. During a time when our revenue forecast remains fluid and the state of our economy is cloudy, I do not think we should rush to spend on new programs.
I also believe the budget could have done more in the K-12 education field. While an amendment is included in the House proposal that gives school divisions additional spending flexibility, there is not enough assistance for families and students who have been negatively impacted by school closures. I proposed the READ Fund that would assist families with virtual learning needs like technology and tutoring. The Fund would rely on CARES Act money that has already been directed towards Virginia.
The main reason I voted no on the budget is a $28.4 million expenditure to fund what I consider to be bills that are anti-law enforcement in nature. These include pieces of legislation that would allow violent felons to be eligible for early release rather than serving a full sentence. House Democrats also rejected common sense budget proposals offered by Republicans including language that would make murders ineligible for parole if they did not offer up the location of their victim’s body. They likewise rejected language that would prevent police unions from protecting bad officers, something we have seen happen in other states.
I will note that the budget bill currently being debated could have been much worse. Democrat-led proposals were made to cut state police funding by a quarter, something that would have decimated the force. Additional proposals would have cut state funding for local police, sheriff departments and school resource officers (SROs), making it even hard for proper training to be conducted.
Social & Criminal Justice Reform
While the special session had originally been billed as a chance to make needed budget adjustments, it has since come to include numerous social and criminal justice reform pieces. Many of the bills passed to date will have a far reaching impact on our state.
I must first note that there are good and common sense reforms that can be made to our criminal justice system. Our justice system must operate under the assumption that all persons are innocent until proven guilty and everyone must be given a fair shot. I have spoken with many in law enforcement who believe that actions should be taken to weed out bad apples in their field so that those who wish to serve their community can do so with as much support as possible.
A number of reform bills passed the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. For example, House Bill 5045 outlaws sexual relations between and inmate or parolee and a law enforcement officer. House Bill 5051 requires that a police chief or sheriff make the Criminal Justice Services Board aware of a law enforcement officer who has been terminated for misconduct.
Other bills may be good in theory, but they are written in a way that is concerning. Let’s take citizen review boards as an example. Many would agree that on the surface a citizen review board is a good tool to help investigate instances of excessive force. But the bill as written establishes the board without any guarantees that the board members have knowledge of day-to-day police work. Republicans offered an amendment to the bill that would require all board members to participate in a ride-along session with police officers, but that was voted down on a party-line vote by Democrats. When a doctor makes a significant error and their license is on the line, the medical board that they appear in front of is made up of medical personnel. Police review boards should be the same.
Some bills just don’t make sense. One bill to ban local police departments from purchasing military surplus also includes language that prevents them from obtaining mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs). While on the surface it may not seem necessary for local governments to possess these, they are frequently used for flood rescue due to their large size and durability. Though Republicans brought this up on the floor, the bill’s sponsor denied that MRAPs are used for flood rescue.
Many bills that are categorized as criminal justice reform pieces of legislation are still being debated and amended in order to iron out differences between the House and Senate proposals. I hope to provide a more complete list once the special session wraps up its business.
Looking ahead, I do expect that many criminal and social justice issues will be more thoroughly debated during the regular legislative session scheduled to begin in January.
Early Voting & Constitutional Amendments
While not directly related to the ongoing special session, I do want to remind you that early voting is currently taking place through October 31st. Each locality has at least one early voting site presently open, with many larger localities hosting multiple sites. If you cannot vote on Election Day and are concerned about sending an absentee ballot via mail, I highly encourage you to vote early in person.
You can find more information about absentee voting (by mail) and early voting (in person) by clicking here.
Don’t forget that you will see two proposed constitutional amendments on your ballot this year. In order to become part of the Constitution of Virginia, they must receive approval from the voters during a general election.
Question #1 will reform the way in which Virginia conducts redistricting. The amendment, if passed, would create a redistricting commission composed of citizens and legislators from both parties that will draw Congressional and state legislative lines. Those lines are then sent to the General Assembly for an up or down vote with no amendments being made by the legislature. The plan removes the Governor from the redistricting equation so that one party does not have an advantage over the other in the way of a veto.
Question #2 is rather straightforward. If passed, the amendment would provide a 100% disabled veteran with a tax break on their primary car or truck. Local governments have indicated that the potential loss in revenue is not significant.
I am voting “YES” on both amendments and would encourage you to do the same. Both also have bipartisan support across the state.
For the full text of both amendments and additional information, click here.
It remains an honor to serve you and your family in the House of Delegates. If I can be of service to you on a state-related issue in the future, please let me know.