House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. (Ned Oliver /Virginia Mercury)
A decision by Democratic leaders to impose broad restrictions on the Virginia General Assembly’s upcoming special session is drawing criticism from Republicans who say the rules will sharply limit meaningful debate on how the state should spend $4.3 billion in federal pandemic relief money.
In a memo earlier this month, House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, told state lawmakers both money committees won’t entertain amendments proposed by members and won’t reopen discussion of the state’s regular budget.
In a virtual news conference Tuesday morning, GOP leaders in the House of Delegates said that arrangement will result in rank-and-file lawmakers and the public being largely shut out of the process, with the details of how the money will be used potentially being hashed out in private by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and a small group of Democratic leaders.
“The oldest ongoing legislative body in the New World is all of a sudden being turned into a rubber stamp for the governor’s ideas,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.
Gilbert said the two weeks planned for the session starting Monday should give ample time for the legislature to consider a range of ideas from Republicans and Democratic members alike.
“If they’re just going to shove this down everyone’s throat I have no idea why we need to be there more than two hours,” Gilbert said.
In a statement, Torian noted some spending plans have already been worked out and announced by the governor’s office.
“As always, the Appropriations Committee is committed to hearing from and working with all members of the House in advancing this COVID-19 recovery spending plan,” Torian said. “It would be impossible to thoroughly evaluate amendment submissions in the short time frame of this unique special session; our priority is expediency in getting relief funds where they’re needed.”
Northam’s office has already announced proposals to spend $700 million to expand broadband internet access, $353 million for small business relief and $250 million to improve HVAC systems and air quality in K-12 school buildings.
Republicans have not yet rolled out specific proposals for the session, but the House GOP offered a preview of the issues it wants to highlight in a high-stakes election year, when Virginians will elect a new governor and all 100 members of the House of Delegates.
“It’s telling that they don’t want to discuss and debate K-12 curriculum,” said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, the House GOP caucus chair. “It’s telling that they don’t want to discuss and debate the Parole Board scandal. It’s telling they don’t want to discuss and debate the increased crime impacting communities across Virginia.”
Those topics are being heavily emphasized by Republicans as they seek to win back the governor’s office and the House in November. Though Republicans can try to amend Democratic bills on the floor, the limits on amendments will make it more difficult for the minority party to try to force swing-district Democrats into tough votes on politically potent issues.
Policymakers have characterized the $4.3 billion coming to Virginia through the American Rescue Plan Act as a once-in-a-generation chance to make strategic investments for the state’s future.
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, a self-identified socialist and frequent critic of Democratic leadership, seemed to share the concerns about a top-down approach to the session.
“This also reduces the budget possibilities to just those things that are pre-approved by corporate-friendly leadership,” Carter, who is finishing out his time in the House after losing a primary last month, said on Twitter in response to Torian’s memo.
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