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GOP Lawmakers Say They’re Shut Out of Stimulus Plans

The facade of Virginia's Capitol at dusk
All 140 state lawmakers will gather in-person at the Capitol for the first time in over a year on August 2. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Top Republicans in Virginia’s House of Delegates say rank-and-file lawmakers -- and their constituents -- are being cut out of the debate over how the commonwealth spends $4.3 billion in federal stimulus funds.

Democrats who control the legislature and its key money committees have warned lawmakers they won’t be able to submit budget proposals in a special session set for August 2. That’s a departure from the process in regular session, when the committees typically review reams of spending ideas from all 140 lawmakers.

“It simply would be impossible to evaluate these items in what is expected to be a short and expeditious special session,” wrote Del. Luke Torian, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, in a July 19 memo to House lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said his caucus is willing to wait as long as it takes to give a hearing to ideas that originate outside a small group of Democratic budget writers and Gov. Ralph Northam. The governor and allies in the legislature have laid out five proposals for investments that include expanding broadband, improving drinking water, and replenishing the state’s unemployment funds.

“This is all being set up to be a rubber stamp for the governor's plans,” Gilbert said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. “It may be that Republicans have a good idea, if you can believe that.”

Gilbert said Republicans plan to unveil proposals later this week to address a shortage of workers, help small businesses, and address crime. Some Republicans have expressed support for several of Northam’s ideas, particularly a $700 million proposed investment in broadband.

Democrats in Congress passed the $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan Act in March without any GOP votes. The funding was intended to address the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The General Assembly is meeting in person for the first time in over a year to allocate the commonwealth's share of the funds and to appoint judges to a newly expanded Court of Appeals.

Gilbert said he hadn't heard from Democrats aside from Torian’s letter. Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Northam, wrote in an email that “we’ve worked with the General Assembly every step of the way” in crafting the proposals.

“If Delegate Gilbert has spending priorities, he knows how to get in touch with the Chairman Torian and the Governor,” Yarmosky said. “He hasn't done so—plenty of other members have.”

Even in ordinary sessions, the General Assembly’s budget writing process is notoriously opaque. Much of the discussion happens behind closed doors between a few key lawmakers in the majority and legislative staff. The group eventually unveils a product for an up-or-down vote or amendments. Republicans serve on the committees, but as the minority party, don’t have the votes on their own to block the budget’s passage.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with reaction from Gov. Northam's office to accusations they have not included Republicans in the budget process.

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