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General Assembly Debates Virtual Special Session

lawmakers sit at desks 6 feet apart on the floor of a big arena
The Virginia House of Delegates convened on the floor of VCU's Siegel Center in Richmond on Tuesday. (Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

State lawmakers returned to Richmond on Tuesday for a  special session on the budget, COVID-19 and police reform

Before taking up legislation, they spent the day debating whether to meet virtually or in-person during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats in the House of Delegates tried twice to pass a rules change allowing them to meet virtually moving forward. Republicans blocked both votes, saying they feel meetings can be done safely in person. The House met Tuesday on the floor of VCU’s Siegel Center arena, sitting at desks at least six feet apart.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said his party also has concerns about how online voting will work.

“We spent an hour at the  reconvened session trying to get our voting machines to work right,” he told reporters. “Lord knows what it is going to be like having 100 people in a Zoom meeting trying to get this right.”

Gilbert also said he was concerned that low-income and rural Virginians that don’t have access to broadband internet may not be able to participate in public hearings. 

Republicans were able to block the rules change because a vote on the same day it was introduced requires a two-thirds majority to approve. After five days it will only require a simple majority, which Democrats have.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said the dispute over whether to go digital should be resolved this weekend when House Democrats plan to push the rules change through. He said it’s about ensuring the safety of lawmakers and their staff during the pandemic.

“The Speaker [of the House] is committed to making sure we do this remotely, safely and efficiently for everyone,” Simon said. 

As for the other chamber, Senators will continue to meet in person. The public can  register online to speak by phone or video conference for senate hearings.

The Senate voted down a proposal from the House to lay out ground rules for the special session, including limits on the number of bills that can be filed and narrowing the scope to COVID-19 related issues and police reform. It’s unclear how that will impact the process moving forward.

Lawmakers are expected to discuss a  wide range of police reform legislation following the police killing of George Floyd and nationwide civil unrest. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has  taken the lead on proposing reforms ranging from more crisis intervention training to banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants. 

In addition to police reform, the General Assembly will  consider budget cuts due to COVID-19 and other legislation aimed at keeping frontline workers safe.

A full calendar of all House and Senate meetings can be found  here.

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