Virginia House plans to hold 2021 session virtually

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax ,confers with Clerk Suzette Denslow as the Democratic majority took control of the chamber's legislative proceedings in January. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn announced Monday that the chamber will meet virtually for the 2021 session due to ongoing health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House met remotely for most of the recently concluded special session on the state budget and criminal justice reform. Some Republican delegates had complained about logistical snafus that arose from virtual legislating, but Filler-Corn’s decision means the system will continue when the General Assembly reconvenes early next year.

“I think the most important thing here is that as legislators we need to set the example on how to conduct business and adapt during the pandemic,” Filler-Corn said in an interview.

While informing House Members of the plan, House Clerk Suzette Denslow circulated a letter from state Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver saying he “strongly recommends” the 2021 session be conducted remotely “to the greatest extent possible.”

“Oliver notes that COVID-19 transmission is rising in multiple regions of Virginia, thus increasing the risk for in-person meetings of people from around the state,” Denslow wrote. “In addition, for the legislators, there would be increased risks for the communities that the legislators serve as they travel from home to Richmond and back.”

The General Assembly is scheduled to convene Jan. 13.

The state Senate, which met in person at the Science Museum of Virginia during the special session, has not yet announced its plans for the upcoming session.

Republican leaders said Monday they intend to keep the 2021 session even shorter than usual, vowing to enforce a little-exercised constitutional rule limiting short sessions to no more than 30 days. Short sessions, which occur in odd-numbered years when lawmakers aren’t crafting a new, two-year budget, are typically extended to 45 days. But that requires approval from two thirds of both chambers.

“Given that we’ve already addressed the primary purpose of the upcoming session, amending the state budget, it makes sense that we keep within the constitutional minimum until the people of Virginia can once again fully participate in their government,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

On Twitter, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, described the Republicans’ stance in starker terms, noting that 2021 will be an election year with control of the House and the governor’s office at stake.

“We’re doing what we can to limit the amount of further destruction Democrats can inflict on the Commonwealth in their remaining 12 months in power,” LaRock said.

Democrats called the GOP announcement an obstruction tactic and hinted they may be able to work around it.

“It’s clear they continue to prioritize politics over everything else,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “The Democratic majority is focused on governing and we will do what is necessary to complete the people’s business.”