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Virginia’s Special Session Still Not Quite Over

Virginia's Capitol
Virginia's Capitol. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Virginia lawmakers wrapped up work on the state budget and legislation on Friday. But the General Assembly’s special session will likely stretch into November, delaying the enactment of key priorities that Democrats spent roughly two months hashing out.

A few bills related to COVID-19 have already gone into effect because they passed on an emergency basis, with broad bipartisan support. That includes a new law that limits the liability of nursing homes for injuries or deaths caused by the disease.

Governor Ralph Northam is now reviewing criminal justice bills, including new training standards for law enforcement. Those proposals wouldn’t go into effect until at least March 1, 2021, assuming the legislature formally finishes its work next month. 

The legislature also approved a new budget on Friday, which includes a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs. Those protections will take effect when Northam signs the budget. 

But that is traditionally not a fast process. State officials generally spend a couple of weeks reviewing and formatting the document before it reaches the governor’s hands. At that point, he would have seven days to sign or amend it. 

If the governor proposes changes -- which he usually does -- lawmakers will have to meet again to vote on them. Northam could use this period to add language to help set up a redistricting committee if voters approve a constitutional amendment authorizing its creation. 

That process means lawmakers likely won’t be totally done with the special session that began August 18 until early November, at the earliest. That timeline has sparked concerns among housing advocates like Elaine Poon, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center's Charlottesville office.

"Any sort of delay on that is just another court date where someone is going to get a judgement against them, is going to get an eviction notice against them” Poon said. 

Back in March, Democrats approved a slew of new funding for everything from housing to healthcare. Their latest proposal eliminates most of that because of a $2.8 billion shortfall caused by the pandemic.

Virginia does have over $1.2 billion leftover from CARES Act funding that needs to be spent by the end of 2020. Democratic lawmakers are calling for some of that to help pay for the costs of reopening schools and universities. The budget allots for a $1,500 hazard pay bonus for personal care attendants who serve Medicaid recipients and a $500 bonus for some law enforcement officers.

State employees would see an extra $1,500 in their paycheck in 2022, but only if state revenues avoid a deeper hit. The proposed budget includes an eviction moratorium through December 31, and adds new limits after that.

Republicans criticized the length of negotiations, which dragged on for nearly two months. Democratic leaders said they’d achieved what they set out to do in August. 

“I am proud of everything that we have accomplished, and there is still more to come,” said Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), in a statement.

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