Virginia Democrats’ redistricting fight spills into special session budget talks

By: - October 9, 2020 12:02 am

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance committee, adjusts her face mask during the floor session in the temporary Virginia Senate chamber inside the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, VA Wednesday, August 26, 2020.

Last week, Virginia Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, stood to try to extract a promise from Democratic leaders.

Since the Senate was solidly behind the bipartisan redistricting commission voters will weigh in on next month, Norment asked, would Senate Democrats be willing to fight for it in budget negotiations with their counterparts in the House of Delegates?

“I think this is one of the most important things we could be doing this session,” said Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. “I and my team will do everything we can to keep it in the budget.”

But, she cautioned, “tweaks” can always happen.

Some House Democrats, most of whom oppose the redistricting proposal, seem just as adamant about making sure the budget doesn’t lay the groundwork for a commission they think shouldn’t exist at all.

“I’ve encouraged the conferees to stay strong on not putting it in the budget and separating it from our other big budgetary priorities,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, referring to the House members appointed to work out budget differences with the Senate in a conference committee.

The standoff won’t make or break the redistricting commission proposal, which is ultimately in the hands of regular Virginians who will give it an up-or-down vote on Nov. 3. But it could reveal which side will be the first to budge near the end of a special session that’s already gone far longer than expected. The two chambers were said to be nearing a budget deal this week, but the actual voting on the budget won’t come until next week or later. And Gov. Ralph Northam has hinted he may not sign off on it if lawmakers tie his hands on federal COVID-19 relief money or spend too much of the cash he wanted to keep on hand for any future pandemic-related needs that arise.

As Virginia voters make their picks for president, they’ll also decide the outcome of a ballot question asking if the state Constitution should be amended to create a 16-member redistricting commission made up of eight legislators and eight citizen members, with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. 

If approved, the commission would redraw the state’s legislative and congressional maps using the 2020 census data instead of the General Assembly, a process that will shape state politics for a decade to come. 

Supporters say the shift to a commission would boost transparency and strike a blow against political gerrymandering by preventing the majority, currently the Democrats, from drawing district lines to consolidate power. Critics say the plan lacks protections for minority communities and leaves such a strong role for legislators it would only perpetuate gerrymandering, not end it.

The language included in the Senate’s budget lays out the process for creating the commission and sets the ground rules for how it would conduct its business. But none of it would go into effect unless voters approve the commission.

If the budget has to include a plan for what happens if the amendment passes, Simon said, it should also have language on what happens if it fails.

The so-called “enabling” language passed both chambers in the 2020 session, but died late due to opposition from House Democrats.

Its failure frustrated supporters of the redistricting amendment, who saw it as sabotage intended to bolster the argument the amendment is unworkable. Though the commission wouldn’t start its map-drawing work until well into 2021, the amendment requires the work to set up the commission to begin next month. The first deadline is Nov. 15, when the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia is supposed to deliver a list of judges willing to serve on a Redistricting Commission Selection Committee. That committee would then select the commission’s citizen members using candidate lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.

If the enabling legislation isn’t in place, the work to set up the commission could be delayed, an outcome commission supporters say could impede its functionality under an already tight timeline.

Opponents of the amendment say the time crunch isn’t their problem, but instead represents yet another flaw in its design.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, one of the amendment’s strongest opponents, said redistricting should be kept separate from a budget that deals with other big issues, namely relief for people struggling from the COVID-19 pandemic and adjustments to account for weaker-than-projected revenues.

“It’s not an emergency. We don’t even know that we’ll need it,” Price said of the enabling language.

House leaders like Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax and Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, haven’t taken a public position on the matter. Both voted against the redistricting amendment earlier this year.

Though Gov. Ralph Northam could not sign or veto the resolution to put the redistricting amendment on the ballot, he will have to sign the budget and could insist it come to him with or without the redistricting language. He too has yet to publicly take a side.

The governor is working closely with the House and Senate on their respective budget proposals, and looks forward to reviewing a final budget when it reaches his desk,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.

In response to Norment’s question on the Senate floor, Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, one of the redistricting amendment’s main sponsors, said setting up the commission to work if voters approve it is a matter of “good governance.”

“I think the people have spoken in terms of where we want to go on this issue,” Barker said. “Let me tell you after putting in all the time I’ve put in over many years to make sure that we move this forward, I’m certainly not looking to back down on anything right now.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.