Legislators meeting in a scheduled two-week special session have just two tasks on their to-do list, both highly consequential: allocating $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds and appointing a slew of judges to the state’s second-highest court.
Most of the attention has been trained on the enormous spending plans that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Democratic leaders have rolled out in the days leading up to the session, each one tapping hundreds of millions in American Rescue Plan dollars.
Plans for the Court of Appeals will also have far-reaching effects. The legislature voted early this year to greatly increase the right to appeal civil and criminal cases to the court.
“Virginia was the only state in the U.S. that did not guarantee litigants a right of appeal in criminal or civil cases,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), a lawyer, adding that it made the state an “extreme outlier when it came to appellate rights of litigants.”
The legislature also expanded the number of judges from 11 to 17 to handle the extra appeals. During the special session it will elect six judges to the new seats and also fill two vacancies, for a total of eight — nearly half of the remade bench. The judges serve eight-year terms.
That will give the legislature the chance to make the bench more representative of the state, Surovell said.
“We need to have a court that reflects the diversity of Virginia’s regions, the diversity of people who live here, some gender balance, diversity of practice areas,” he said. “Right now, a lot of people feel the court’s lacking in a lot of key aspects.”
But the judicial makeover is giving Republicans “heartburn” given that Democrats will have complete control over the process, said Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle), a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee. The majority party always fills judicial slots to its liking, but Bell said the process should be more bipartisan this time because so many seats were created at once.
“There’s a regular churn on the courts, but this is something different,” he said. “This will enable them to change the court dramatically. And it is our position that there should be a different sort of election process.”
Democrats, who control all the levers of power in Richmond, have been working behind the scenes to try to hammer out deals on spending and judges ahead of the special session.
It’s a strategy meant to produce a quick and efficient burst of legislating, a contrast to the marathon special session a year ago that stretched from August to November. Democrats say fast action is needed to get federal help to Virginians without delay. Republicans complain that the Democrats’ approach has left the minority party — and the public — in the dark.
But there’s an upside for both parties to get in and out of Richmond quickly. With all 100 House seats and three statewide offices on the ballot Nov. 2, legislators will be eager to return to the campaign trail.
Northam and budget chiefs in the House of Delegates and state Senate have largely been on the same page when it comes to how to use American Rescue Plan money.
The dollar amounts would be eye-popping at any time but seem especially so given the economic and health crises the state has endured — and could again, with surges in Virginia’s coronavirus cases stemming from the highly contagious delta variant.
The Democrats’ plan includes $935.6 million to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance fund and shore up the state agency still buried in an avalanche of jobless claims; $700 million for rural broadband; $411.5 million for clean-water projects; $353 million to help small businesses and industries hit especially hard by the pandemic, including tourism and hospitality; $250 million for school ventilation systems; $169 million for health data system improvements and local public health infrastructure; $120 million for utility assistance; and $114 million in federal and state funding for public safety, about half of that in hazard pay for police and other officials.
Northam also plans to set aside at least $800 million of the money, which the state has four years to spend. House and Senate budget leaders were pushing Northam last week to reserve even more — $1 billion — as the delta variant loomed, potentially threatening the state’s finances.
“My preference is for it to be a little bit more, at least $1 billion set aside,” state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) said in an interview Friday.
But if Northam sends down an appropriations bill that falls short of that number, it’s unlikely that legislators will do much about it. In a typical budgeting process, the governor proposes a spending plan, the legislature revamps it, and eventually, through the amendment process, the legislative and executive branches come up with a budget.
This time around, Northam has worked out most of the spending details ahead of time with Torian and Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). The House and Senate spending committees do not intend to amend Northam’s bill before sending it to the two chambers for a vote. It will pass in both chambers if all Democrats stick together. Democrats have a 10-seat margin in the House. But there is no room for error in the Senate, which Democrats control 21 to 19.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) has the power to break tie votes in the Senate, with two exceptions highly relevant to this session — he cannot weigh in on budget bills or judges. He is allowed to vote on budget amendments, however, which could come into play if Republicans try to amend the appropriations bill on the floor.
The General Assembly was just wrapping up its annual session in March 2020 when Northam declared a state of emergency. Legislators have not gathered in the Capitol since.
The House convened for its one-day veto session under a tent on the Capitol lawn in April 2020, and opted for Zoom for this year’s regular session. The Senate continued to meet in person, setting up in a large conference space at the Science Museum of Virginia with desks spaced far apart and faces behind masks.
(One notable exception: Chesterfield Republican Sen. Amanda F. Chase, who calls herself “Trump in heels,” refused to wear a mask. Senate staff built a three-sided Plexiglas box around her desk meant to protect colleagues.)
The House and Senate decided it would be safe to meet in the Capitol for this session, but the delta variant has raised new worries in recent days. Legislators will not have to wear masks in either chamber.
“We are encouraging people to wear them, but as of right now they are not required,” Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar said. “My staff will be wearing them.”