The General Assembly’s budget committees on Monday adopted a sweeping plan to spend — or save — billions of dollars in federal emergency aid within hours of returning to their historic chambers at the Virginia Capitol for the first time in 500 days because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees voted by wide, bipartisan margins to adopt the budget bill proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam to spend up to $3.5 billion of the $4.3 billion in federal aid Virginia received under the American Rescue Plan Act.
The swift action came despite Republican objections to what Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, called “rule by autocracy,” as Democratic budget leaders pushed to approve one-time spending on critical priorities.
Those priorities include expanded access to high-speed internet, compensation for direct care staff in state behavioral health facilities, public schools and law enforcement, upgrades to school buildings, improvements to water and wastewater systems, and help for struggling hospitality businesses and jobless Virginians.
“We are here this week to get Virginia’s stimulus dollars out the door to where they’re needed,” House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said before the committee voted 18-2, with one abstention, to approve the budget bill without amendment.
One of the “no” votes came from former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who said he supported many of the spending proposals but faulted a legislative process controlled by Northam and four Democratic budget leaders.
“It was a very close call for me,” Cox said after the committee vote. “I just didn’t like the process.”
Torian, who had vigorously defended the budget process during a speech on the House floor, acknowledged “a breakdown a little bit” in communication over spending priorities and promised delegates the opportunity to propose amendments on the House floor.
“It is not my intent to stifle any member’s voice,” he told the committee.
The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee approved the proposed budget by a 14-2 vote, despite similar Republican misgivings over the process and some of the priorities.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, voted against the budget, as did Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg. Newman said he supports two-thirds of the proposed spending and intends to propose amendments to the bill on Tuesday to address the remaining one-third.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, voted for the plan, even though he also would like to tweak it with amendments.
“There is too much good in this for me to vote against it,” Hanger said, “but I would also say there are opportunities to improve it.”
The quick committee action on the budget does not mean the General Assembly got off to a fast start on a special session that could last two weeks, or longer.
For the second straight year, the House and Senate failed to agree on a procedural resolution to define the rules and boundaries of the special session, including when it will adjourn.
The House had unanimously approved a resolution that would have required the session to adjourn by Saturday, Aug. 14. The resolution also would have allowed either chamber to adjourn temporarily and reconvene on 48 hours’ notice to allow the budget and courts committees to work on the spending plan and the election of eight judges to the Virginia Court of Appeals.
The Senate, led by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, eliminated the closing date and required the House and the Senate to make a “joint call” to adjourn temporarily. The Senate also reduced the required time for reviewing the final budget plan from 48 hours to 24.
Surovell said the House and the Senate should synchronize their schedules so they “have to work together and talk together.” He said special sessions traditionally have not had a deadline for adjournment, although he said, “All of us want to get out of here as soon as humanly possible.”
Traditionally, leaving special sessions open-ended has enabled the legislature to prevent the governor from making “recess appointments” — including naming judges — while the General Assembly is not in session.
The House unanimously rejected the Senate amendments, leaving the assembly without operating procedures for the second consecutive year. Last year, the assembly met in special session to deal with budget and criminal justice issues, and adjourned 84 days later after a final battle over political redistricting.
Assembly leaders want to avoid a long special session this year, with all 100 House seats up for election, along with the top three statewide offices.
“I think we need an end date,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who also objected to requiring a joint call by the two bodies to adjourn temporarily.
“Each body has its own authority,” Herring said.
Still, the mood was celebratory when the assembly convened in the Capitol for the first time since March 2020, when legislators adopted a two-year budget the same day that Northam declared a public health emergency that would require them to revise the spending plan twice last year.
“I want to start with two key words: Welcome. Back,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, prompting a standing ovation on both sides of the political aisle.
The House has met online since the pandemic began except for two occasions — the veto session held outside the Capitol in April 2020, when Filler-Corn fainted in the heat, and the first day of the special session that began almost a year ago.
“Virginia has set a national example in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Filler-Corn said Monday.
“We listened to the science as we worked to ensure the health and safety of our citizens,” she said.
Filler-Corn drew another standing ovation — but only on the Democratic side of the aisle — by reminding delegates that the state also was named the best state in the country for business by CNBC for the second consecutive time, despite the pandemic.
“We have an incredible opportunity to keep Virginia on the road to recovery and emerge stronger than ever,” she said.
But Torian and Filler-Corn also cautioned that the pandemic is not over, with new COVID-19 infections rising and a highly contagious delta variant spreading.
“We’re not sure what we’re going to face over the next several months with the delta variant,” said Torian, explaining why he wants to hold back up to $1 billion of the federal aid as a hedge.
“With historic resources at our disposal, we’re building back a safer, healthier, more equitable Virginia,” he said. “We don’t intend to waste time doing so.”
Staff writer Patrick Wilson contributed to this report.