The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia House attempts first-ever online floor session; Senate advances police overhaul

Virginia State Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield) stands as she addresses the Senate from her protective enclosure during the body’s special session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond on Wednesday. (Steve Helber/Pool/AP)
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RICHMOND — The first virtual floor session in 401 years of Virginia legislative history got off to a rocky start Wednesday, as the House of Delegates wrestled with a balky video system and Republicans complained of lost connections.

But the state Senate, meeting in person, began advancing ambitious measures aimed at overhauling policing and the criminal justice system.

Democrats in control of the House insist the experiment with online lawmaking during a pandemic won’t slow their efforts to tackle the same big topics as their counterparts in the Senate. But for now, they’re stuck in a procedural cul-de-sac, unable to officially get underway until the online session can be formalized Sunday over Republican objections.

The special session of the General Assembly was convened Tuesday by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to address budget issues raised by the economic impact of the novel coronavirus, but he and Democrats who lead the legislature have vowed to use the session to tackle issues of criminal justice and racial equity as well.

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The Senate, meeting in a cavernous room at the Science Museum of Virginia to maintain social distancing, took up several of those issues.

Senators advanced a bill that would remove a mandatory minimum six-month sentence imposed for assault on a police officer. Proposed by Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), the bill originally would have made assaulting a police officer a misdemeanor instead of a felony, but the Senate Judiciary Committee changed it late Tuesday night to keep the charges a felony, but give a judge or jury discretion to reduce it to a misdemeanor if there is no bodily injury.

The committee advanced the bill to the full Senate, with all nine Democrats in favor and all five Republicans opposed. It’s likely to come up for a floor vote on Friday.

Senators also advanced the Democrats’ sweeping police overhaul bill, sending it to the Senate Finance Committee to consider its impact on the state budget. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), would prohibit no-knock warrants, impose statewide minimum training standards for law enforcement, require police to be trained in de-escalation techniques and limit the use of deadly force, among other things.

Democrats and Republicans teamed up to back a measure to rein in the emergency powers of the state Board of Health and health commissioner, advancing a bill brought by Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) that would limit emergency orders to 30 days, with a possible 30-day extension. Such orders currently have no required expiration date, and Newman said that gives the board too much power.

There was no committee action in the House, where Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) had pushed for moving the session online after convening Tuesday at the Virginia Commonwealth University basketball arena. Because there are 100 seats in the House — compared with 40 in the Senate — Filler-Corn argued that a virtual meeting would be the best way to protect members and staff from the coronavirus.

Republicans objected that delegates and members of the public in rural or low-income districts don’t have access to high-speed Internet and would have a hard time participating. Because there weren’t enough GOP votes for a rules change, Democrats have to satisfy a procedural requirement to read the new rule enabling the online session for five days in a row before enacting it.

So Wednesday’s session — delayed 20 minutes because of a faulty live-stream link — consisted largely of Filler-Corn and a handful of staffers in an otherwise empty House chamber as clerk Suzette Denslow read the new rule out loud. Delegates from around the state watched online.

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As soon as Denslow finished, Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House minority leader, spoke up and said that several Republicans had been “kicked from the meeting and essentially kicked from the House floor,” meaning that they had lost connections. After a pause to get the glitch fixed, Denslow read the rule all over again.

Some of the most basic House practices seemed awkward in the digital format. When Filler-Corn called for a voice vote to set the next day’s session for noon, instead of a unified “aye” from members, the response was a cascade of disembodied voices that seemed to startle those in the House chamber.

Republicans savaged the system in interviews and in real-time complaints on social media.

It was “the opposite of what I think everyone should consider as good open and transparent government,” Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) told reporters.

But Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) defended the effort in a tweet: “I think the minority leader did a commendable job of bringing a few glitches to the Speaker’s attention and was pleased to see we took our time to accommodate everyone and make sure they were able to log in at their own pace. I’m sure tomorrow will go even more smoothly.”