During the first day of the Virginia General Assembly’s special session in Richmond on Monday, Virginia lawmakers went right to work on legislation to spend billions of dollars in pandemic aid that the state received from the federal government.
“The reason why I’m pushing for and advocating that we hold back $1 billion of this is because we’re not sure what we’re going to face over the next several months,” said House Appropriations Chairman Luke E. Torian, D-Prince William, noting that coronavirus cases are rising again.
The House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees advanced the sweeping spending proposals on bipartisan votes, sending the legislation to the floor in both the House and Senate.
Lawmakers will be able to debate and propose floor amendments, although some Republicans took issue with the fact that the spending priorities in the legislation were largely drafted only by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and Democratic leaders.
“We’re operating as an autocracy and not a democracy,” argued Republican Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania. “We’re not allowing all Virginians to be heard.”
Torian claimed that if Republicans wanted to weigh in, they only needed to reach out to him.
“I have never shut the door,” Torian said.
Among the measures included in the spending proposals:
- 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;
- $250 million on projects to improve air quality in public schools.
Lawmakers will need to fill eight vacancies on the Virginia Court of Appeals as the court is expanding from 11 members to 17 and two members are retiring.
It is the first time in 500 days that the full Virginia General Assembly is actually able to gather in Richmond inside the State Capitol.
Lawmakers had not met there since the 2020 regular session ended, with meetings in the meantime taking place virtually or in other locations because of the pandemic.
“I would like to start with two words: ‘Welcome back,'” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, told her chamber to cheers and applause. “I can see so many of you are as excited and as happy as I am to be serving the people once again together.”