The Reconvened Session of the General Assembly met in Richmond on Wednesday, April 22. The purpose of the Reconvened Session under the Constitution of Virginia is to consider amendments and vetoes offered by the Governor. It has been part of the Virginia process since the 1971 Constitution. Before that time, the legislature did not have an opportunity to override or consider the Governor’s actions.
The age of social distancing made it an interesting day. Without question, we all want to get back to work and get back to normalcy as quickly as possible. However it is also clear that social distancing is working. We are slowing the spread of the virus, and therefore saving our medical assets and lives. We are all in this together, and we must be patient. Knowing all of that did not make the Reconvened or Veto Session any easier.
Because of the social distancing rules, the House and Senate could not meet in their chambers in the state Capitol. The Senate arranged for us to meet in a spacious room at the Science Museum of Virginia on Broad Street in Richmond. In that room, we had desks that were spaced six feet apart. We were all required to wear masks, and we were equipped with gloves and hand sanitizer. Debate, questioning and presentation while wearing a face mask made it even more unusual.
The House met in a tent on the grounds of the Capitol. In a typical year, messengers walk across the Capitol to communicate actions on bills between the House and Senate. This year all of that occurred electronically. It was an odd day to say the least.
Despite all this, the day was all business.
For the most part, the Governor’s amendments were accepted. Many of them involved fiscal impacts to the Commonwealth. Recognizing the incredible economic damage that the coronavirus is causing to the American economy, the Governor proposed delaying some of those actions, such as raising the minimum wage or allowing local governments to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employees. Much of the debate on these contentious issues mirrored the same discussions we had this winter during the regular session. The bills have already passed the General Assembly. Our vote on Wednesday was simply to decide whether we should delay implementation of the bills due to the current economic situation. The Governor’s amendments passed recognizing that circumstances have changed since the bills passed.
There were some interesting issues. Last year, Senator Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County sponsored legislation to allow for association health plans. The Governor vetoed the legislation and laid out specific concerns about passage of such a bill. This year, Sen. George Barker of Fairfax County drafted a bill with those concerns in mind. The bill passed the House and Senate again in 2020. The Governor offered an amendment to require the bill pass during the 2021 session as well before becoming law. The same concerns put forward last year were raised again this month.
In Virginia, 20% of realtors are uninsured. An association health plan, run by a local realtors’ association or the state association, could be an affordable option for providing health insurance to this group. The Governor’s amendments on that bill were rejected, so the bill goes back to the Governor.
The most difficult issue to stomach during the Reconvened Session pertained to the budget. During the regular session, we worked hard to develop a two-year budget to address critical needs in the Commonwealth. One of our top priorities was a huge investment in public education. We finally got back to our pre-2008 recession levels of investment. We provided funding for raises for teachers and for state employees. We made significant investments in STEP-VA to improve the delivery of mental health services throughout Virginia and in housing supports. We joined the majority of states in providing dental services to adults enrolled in our Medicaid program. We provided critical funding for our state parks and for land conservation, and so much more.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on our economy. People are not working; tax revenues that fund state programs are lagging. Recognizing this, the Governor went through the budget and unallotted – or froze – new spending on these initiatives and others. I anticipate that the General Assembly will have a special session later this summer, once we have a revenue forecast to address the budget and hopefully restore the spending.
This pandemic is having an awful effect on families, communities, local governments, and the state. We will get through this and be stronger than before, but we have to be patient and work together. My sense is that this pandemic has laid bare some of the economic inequities built into our economy, and it is my hope that when we emerge on the other side of this pandemic that we can rebuild an economy that works for all of us. We are ready to do our part here in Virginia.
Thank you for allowing me to serve you. It is an incredible honor. We are all struggling to get through this pandemic. However we will get through it. If I may be of service, the best way to contact me is by email at [email protected].
P.S. In other news, I was appointed earlier this month to serve on the Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Resources Oversight and to the Special Joint Subcommittee to Consult on the Plan to Close State Training Centers. The Health and Human Resources portion of the budget is one of the largest areas overseeing Medicaid, behavioral health, social services, and other matters related to health. The training centers have been going through the process of closure as ordered by the federal courts. I am looking forward to serving on both of these committees.
See the Addendum to this post.