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General Assembly Finalizes Special Session Work

General Assembly building
An over two month-long special session officially came to a close on Monday. (File Photo: Sara McCloskey/VPM News)

Patrick Larsen reported this story. 

An over two month-long special session officially came to a close on Monday, with the General Assembly accepting only a few of Governor Ralph Northam’s final suggestions for adjusting the state budget.

The Governor’s proposals included amendments to legislation passed during the extended session, which accounted for criminal justice reform and COVID-19 pandemic measures.

Five of Northam’s budget amendments were approved, including a new $1 million allocation for an independent investigation into Virginia Military Institute’s traditions and policies.

Calls for an investigation were prompted after the Roanoke Times and Washington Post reported allegations of racism at the school. 

Most Republicans voted against the amendment, including Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). He said he feels disappointed in how Northam has handled the situation at VMI, citing the resignation of school superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III.

“I just don’t have a lot of confidence - and this is the key - in an independent investigation from this administration,” Cox said.

While Cox said the reports of racism at the school should be investigated, he thinks that the school’s Board of Visitors, appointed by Democratic governors, should be in charge.

The General Assembly also approved language that enacts the state’s Constitutional amendment on redistricting, approved by voters in a referendum last week. The House unanimously approved it, but several Democrats expressed desire to do more for redistricting reform in the state.

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) listed a variety of concerns, including limited access for citizens to the map drawing process and transparency issues.

“I’ll support this measure; but please recognize, only as a first step forward,” Levine said.

Delegates declined to approve a few of Northam’s proposals, effectively killing them, including one that would have given Northam more power to shift unused CARES Act funding around.

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne told VPM News that this measure was essential to finding uses for the federal funds, which have to be spent by December 30th.

“If they’re not, then you have to remit those back [to the federal government],” Layne said.

But delegates, including Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax), took issue with other portions of the amendment that cut back on the General Assembly’s allocation of funds.

“The governor eliminated our language. We like our language and we think that it’s our role as the legislative branch to direct these funds,” Sickles said.

There is already existing language in the budget that reallocates unused funds to Virginia’s Unemployment Compensation Fund.

Amendments allowing beautician customers to remove face masks to receive facial treatments and a request to strike funding for a Virginia Beach construction project were also accepted.

Lawmakers approved all but one of the changes to legislation laid out by Northam. A bill barring police from stopping, searching or seizing any person based on the odor of marijuana alone was clarified to allow for police to stop cars with no operating headlights or brake lights. 

The regular legislative session is set to begin Jan. 13, 2021. 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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