The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. lawmakers barrel toward session’s end with budget, hundreds of other bills outstanding

The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its 60-day session on Saturday. On Tuesday, House Speaker Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), second from right, and other leaders speak during a floor session in Richmond.
The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its 60-day session on Saturday. On Tuesday, House Speaker Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), second from right, and other leaders speak during a floor session in Richmond. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia's House and Senate are barreling toward the end of a historic legislative session with hundreds of bills outstanding and an impasse on the state budget.

The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn its 60-day session on Saturday, the first in a quarter-century with Democrats in control of both chambers and the Executive Mansion.

But it appeared that the legislature might not wrap up its work on time, particularly when it comes to approving a proposed two-year, $135 billion budget. Lawmakers negotiating the details missed a critical deadline Thursday to have the spending plan on their colleagues’ desks by the end of the day, which would have given them 48 hours to review the proposal before a Saturday vote. The plan was still being hashed out in committee late Friday afternoon.

The House and Senate, plowing through a mountain of other legislation, called it quits at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday so that budget negotiators could get back to work. But instead of formally adjourning for the day, the House and Senate called a 12-hour “recess.”

The legislative trick allowed lawmakers, who resumed the floor session at 8:30 a.m. Friday, to pretend it was still Thursday. That kept about 100 bills alive, effectively extending the deadline to move them into conference.

“How much longer will we be in Thursday?” Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) asked Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar late Friday afternoon. It was not a joke. With both chambers still at work, Schaar had no firm answer. The Senate ultimately adjourned at 5:44 p.m., and the House a short time later.

The frenzied ending could cast a shadow on a session otherwise bursting with big Democratic wins.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has already signed 149 bills into law. The measures and hundreds of others that are on their way to his desk will fundamentally transform the former capital of the Confederacy into a solidly blue state — a place where gun laws are tighter, LGBT and abortion rights are more expansive, and certain undocumented students are eligible for in-state college tuition.

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On Friday, legislators worked to get about 100 bills off the floor, and negotiators were trying to hash out their differences on another 130 bills already in conference. Some of those are major pieces of legislation, including two gun-control bills that are priorities for Northam — one to require universal background checks and the other to limit handgun purchases to one per month.

Negotiators were also trying to reach deals on bills that would boost the minimum wage, allow localities to remove Confederate monuments, give undocumented immigrants a way to legally drive, legalize casino gambling and decriminalize marijuana, among other measures.

Also in conference is the budget bill, where lawmakers are hung up on whether to freeze tuition at the state’s colleges and universities.

Passing a budget is regarded as the legislature’s most important task, but it is a massive bill that typically comes together late.

The predictable end-of-session crush was elevated last week as the legislature came within seconds of missing a crucial deadline to get every bill with a fiscal impact out of a chamber.

After the Senate passed an extension, Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) — who at 80 is still a jogger — trotted down the marble hallway to communicate that to the House, so the lower chamber could follow suit. A few senators broke into the theme from “Chariots of Fire” as he dashed.

“With ten seconds to go before the expiration of piles of important bills, the Senate gathered around a laptop to watch the House vote on a 3-hour extension, hoping they would make the vote in time,” Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) tweeted that night.

The General Assembly swore off last-minute budgeting a few years ago, adopting a rule to require that a spending bill be finalized 48 hours before a vote. The deadline was Thursday if the legislature adjourns as scheduled on Saturday. So the General Assembly will either have to break its rule or go into overtime.

A mad dash to get ordinary bills over the finish line is not unusual in Virginia, whose part-time legislature holds some of the shortest legislative sessions in the country — 60 days in even years, 46 days in odd. Deadlines have been busted or dodged before.

“Philpott used to just stop the clock,” recalled former senator John Watkins (R-Powhatan), referring to A.L. Philpott, who was speaker of the House from 1980 until his death in 1991.

But the rush seems especially intense this year, which has been marked by marathon floor sessions. Twice since January, one or both chambers gaveled in at noon and out around 1 a.m.

Weary legislators were bracing for a potential all-nighter on Saturday — and perhaps beyond as they wrap up their work.

The reasons for the late nights are many.

Republican critics, most vocal in the House, say Democrats have been out of power so long that they’ve forgotten how to lead — something Democrats dispute.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) has criticized Senate committee chairs for advancing too many bills to the floor — sometimes with contradictory policy objectives.

Legislators proposed 3,865 bills this year, up from 3,128 the year before. It’s not just the number of bills, but the seismic policy shifts they represent and the prolonged floor debates they trigger, said Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax).

“Getting into the 21st century isn’t easy,” Marsden said.

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Some lawmakers are talking about capping the number of measures any one delegate or senator can propose. Some have even suggested charging filing fees.

“We’ve got to impose some discipline next year,” said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), chairwoman of the finance committee. “When you have to do — like I did in finance a couple days — 70 bills in one meeting, you wonder, are you making mistakes?”

The long days and nights have taken a toll. Sen. Mark J. Peake (R-Lynchburg) said he hasn’t been so sleep-deprived since he was a new dad — of quadruplets.

“I’m tired,” he confessed.

Coffee doesn’t do the trick these days for Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Bedford). She now resorts to energy drinks, though she says she’s sure they’re not good for her.

Legislators have looked for other ways to make the 10- and 12-hour floor sessions less physically taxing. Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) dresses less formally — in khakis and Allbirds instead of suit pants and dress shoes — when he sees a marathon session looming.

“We’ve had late nights before, but I don’t feel like we’ve had as many close together,” Ebbin said. “It’s just too much.”

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