RICHMOND — Democrats in Virginia's House of Delegates announced plans Thursday for the twin challenges they'll take up in a special session next week: a criminal justice overhaul sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and a state budget do-over forced on them by the coronavirus pandemic.
The General Assembly’s return to Richmond on Tuesday comes just months after newly empowered Democrats pulled off a raft of legislative wins in the regular session.
The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic will force Democrats to retreat on the ambitious two-year, $135 billion spending plan they passed and praised early this year as the most liberal in state history. They can use their power, however, to protect certain priorities from the budget ax.
But Floyd’s killing in May by Minneapolis police has Democrats on offense in the realm of social justice, in some cases pushing further than the General Assembly was willing to go just a few months ago.
Virginia House Democrats will try to make it easier for local governments to remove Confederate monuments — revisiting a battle they waged against Senate Democrats in the regular session, when the Senate insisted that localities must clear a string of procedural hurdles before taking them down.
House Democrats are also proposing a ban on police chokeholds and no-knock warrants. Another bill would prohibit sexual relations between officers and arrestees, something that is already banned in many states and is included in a wide-ranging overhaul measure that state Senate Democrats offered last week. One would expand the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls made on the basis of race.
They further seek to require officers to report and intervene in misconduct by a fellow officer, and seek to strengthen vetting before officers are hired and eliminate qualified immunity, a legal doctrine used by law enforcement to shield officers from civil suits.
Other measures announced Thursday would make it easier to expunge certain police and court records, increase good behavior credits for inmates, and strengthen prosecutors’ ability to dismiss charges.
When it comes to the budget, House Democrats say they will prioritize funding for higher education, telehealth and broadband access to support K-12 remote instruction. They also want to extend eviction protections and provide support for elections ahead of November’s presidential and congressional contests.
House Democrats also introduced a package of bills related to the pandemic. They would require businesses to grant sick leave to workers, prohibit stimulus relief checks from garnishment, ban evictions during a public health emergency, combat price gouging for personal protective equipment and require greater disclosure of outbreaks at nursing homes.
Several of the House Democrats’ bills were proposed at the request of Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), including one that would allow the attorney general to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations into systemic problems in police departments, such as racial bias or misconduct. Herring also requested the bills banning garnishment of stimulus checks and price gouging on personal protective equipment.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) issued a statement saying Republicans were ready to support legislation to remove “bad actors” from law enforcement, but he signaled they would try to go about that in a different way.
Calling police unions “a major impediment to removing bad actors,” Gilbert said Republicans would submit a bill to take disciplinary matters “off the table” in collective bargaining contracts.
Gilbert also warned that bans on certain “defensive tactics” could wind up making encounters between police and civilians more deadly because less-lethal tactics would no longer be an option.
“While some of the [Democrats’] concepts merit further evaluation, some will undoubtedly make communities less safe,” Gilbert said.
Together with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Democrats in the House and the Senate will have no trouble passing any agenda they can all agree on. But there have been tensions within the party all year about just how far the party should push.
During the regular session, a handful of Democrats in the narrowly divided Senate hit the brakes on a ban on assault weapons and reined in a minimum-wage increase, while a House committee defeated some liberal criminal justice bills.