Va. lawmakers to start special session focused on billions in pandemic aid

State lawmakers in Virginia are set to head back to work next week for a special session focused largely on how to spend $4.3 billion in federal pandemic aid from the “American Rescue Plan.”

A number of spending proposals have already been announced by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.

“We’ve been clear about our priorities for this money,” Northam said at a news conference earlier this month, joined by House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

“These budget proposals will keep our economy on the right track and support those who have been hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak,” Filler-Corn said. “As we look towards our special session, we are going to continue to prioritize the best interest of Virginians.”

While the governor’s proposals are typically just a starting point for lawmakers who introduce amendments and make changes, these particular plans were crafted in collaboration with legislators and budget committee staff, according to Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer.

Each announcement has been accompanied by statements of support from Democratic lawmakers who control both the House and Senate.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert criticized the process this week, saying Democrats are blocking bipartisan discussion.

“This is all being set up to be a rubber stamp for the governor’s plans,” Gilbert said. “The only input on how these billions of dollars are going to be spent will be from a select few Democrats.”

Among the measures lawmakers will vote on are plans to spend:

  • Nearly $1 billion to replenish the fund that pays unemployment benefits
  • $700 million to expand broadband infrastructure
  • $485 million to strengthen the state’s mental health and substance-abuse treatment services
  • $411.5 million on various projects to reduce water pollution and improve drinking water
  • $353 million for relief for small businesses and hard-hit industries such as tourism; and
  • $250 million on projects to improve air quality in public schools.

The session will start Monday and is scheduled to last two weeks.

Major work on Court of Appeals

Spending plans won’t be the only item on the agenda as lawmakers have significant work to do regarding the Virginia Court of Appeals.

The General Assembly previously voted to expand the court from 11 members to 17 and two members are retiring, meaning there are eight vacancies on the court that need to be filled during the special session.

“Both the House and the Senate have to agree on the same eight people and that’s where the real challenge is because there are a lot of competing constituencies in that process,” said Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell.

More than 80 people applied for the jobs.

“We want to make sure that the court has decent regional, racial and gender diversity, Surovell said. “It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of thought.”

The court’s expansion is part of a monumental shift in Virginia state law, as the General Assembly’s vote also granted the right to appeal in all civil and criminal cases.

Previously, if someone was not satisfied with the results of a circuit court ruling, they could only file a petition asking for an appellate court to hear their case. That petition could be accepted or denied.

Under the General Assembly’s changes, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals will now be required to review any case that is brought to them.

Effectively, it will lead to a massive amount of new work for the court.

“With all the new cases that are coming because of that, we had to expand the court to handle that volume,” Surovell said.

Virginia had been the only state in the country where there was no guaranteed right to appellate review in civil or criminal cases.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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