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Policing, Pandemic, and Budget on Special Session Docket

Justin Fairfax reviewing papers behind podium
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax reviews papers at the Senate's veto session in April. The chamber is meeting again at that venue in an annex building of the Science Museum of Virginia. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Virginia lawmakers are returning to Richmond for a special session beginning Tuesday that will put protesters' demands for criminal justice reforms to a legislative test.

Those reforms are just one element of an unusually far-reaching special session that will also deal with a $2.7 billion two-year budget shortfall and legislation intended to address the pandemic.

The scope of Democrats’ agenda means lawmakers could remain in session for several weeks or even longer.

Criminal Justice

Lawmakers will be returning to an altered city. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Richmond in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, culminating with the removal of all but one Confederate statue on Monument Avenue.

Democrats have proposed at least two dozen pieces of criminal justice reform legislation inspired in part by the protests. Their proposals include a ban on the police use of chokeholds, an end to no-knock warrants, and reducing the mandatory felony charge for assaulting police officers to a misdemeanor.

Many of the ideas aren’t new. But Sen. Scott Surrovell (D-Eastern Fairfax County) said this summer’s protests made it clear people want to see big changes to policing.

“They also want to see it urgently and not more studies or talk or tinkering,” Surrovell said. “They want to see real structural change.”

There are differences between the package of bills put out by Senate Democrats and their colleagues in the House; lawmakers in the latter caucus have proposed ending qualified immunity, a step that would open up police officers to more civil lawsuits.

While Democrats have largely read the protests as a call for addressing police brutality and criminal justice, Republican leaders like Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham), co-chair of the GOP caucus, argued those messages were overshadowed by property destruction that occasionally accompanied them.

“I don’t believe that rewarding rioters is an appropriate response,” Obenshain said.

Obenshain said police reform was better left to the regular session, when the pace of work would be less rushed for the part-time legislature. He accused Democrats of trying to “defund the police” through legislation that makes state funding conditional on meeting requirements like ending local agencies’ purchase of surplus military gear.

“These should not be undertaken on a whim or as a result of pressure from particular interest groups,” Obenshain said.

Still, House Republicans have signalled they’re open to proposals that “will help Sheriffs and chiefs remove the few bad actors from their forces,” Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a statement last week. Republicans also plan to introduce legislation that would ban or limit the scope of police unions to collectively bargain; they gained that ability under legislation passed by Democrats earlier this year.

Republicans also plan on highlighting failings of the Virginia Parole Board uncovered in an inspector general’s report focused on the early release of a man convicted of killing a police officer.

Pandemic Response

The special session will give Democrats a second crack at passing mandatory paid sick leave for certain employers, an effort that will almost certainly run into opposition from Republicans and business groups.

The bill will also include 80 hours of paid quarantine leave. Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) said in an interview last week that it will also exclude part-time employees who work less than 30 hours per week in a concession to moderate Senate Democrats that opposed her last bill.

“We need to realize that we have been on conservative leadership for 26 years and sometimes change takes time,” Guzman said.

Other pandemic-related legislation proposed by House Democrats includes new protections against evictions, broadening workplace compensation protections for first-responders and essential workers, and providing immunity from civil claims related to COVID-19 for complying with health guidance.

Republican proposals include limits to the governor’s executive powers, vouchers for parents whose school districts do not offer in-person instruction, and the creation of a new religious exemption from immunizations.

The Budget

Virgninia’s $2.7 billion budget shortfall isn’t as severe as other states thanks in part to the large role the federal government plays in state spending and employment.

Nonetheless, Democrats will have to scale back plans for more than $2.2 billion in new spending that they passed back in March and froze at a special session in April.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget avoids state layoffs or cuts to core state services like Medicaid. But lawmakers will have to wrestle with how to support schools and universities whose state funding never fully recovered from the last recession in 2008.

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a left-leaning think tank, has proposed increased income taxes to those making more than $100,000; the current top bracket is around $17,000.

“Without a more progressive income tax, Virginia requires taxpayers with moderate incomes of all races to pay the same rate as those with the highest incomes, who tend to be white,” the center said in a report earlier this month.

The idea has so far gained little traction and would likely be met with fierce opposition.

“Republicans have reflexes too, and one of them is that raising taxes is not the proper response to move out of a recession,” wrote Stephen Haner, senior fellow at the conservative Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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