RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia lawmakers were feuding Monday after Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn announced plans for that chamber to again conduct its work remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic when it convenes in January.
Shortly after the speaker's office made the announcement, House and Senate Republican leaders said they would use a procedural move to limit the 2021 session to 30 days, rather than the typical, longer session Filler-Corn said she expected. Such a move could hinder the breadth of what Democrats, who have a narrow majority in both chambers and Ralph Northam in the governor's mansion, are able to address.
“I think it’s extremely disappointing that the Republicans would use this moment - a time when we should be helping Virginians through this pandemic - to exercise their limited power to cut the planned 45-day legislative session short," Filler-Corn said in an interview. “And I think it's clear that they are continuing to prioritize politics over everything else.”
She declined to discuss the matter further but said the Democratic majority would “do what is necessary to complete the people's business.”
The Republicans said that given the lengthy special session that concluded earlier this month, during which lawmakers approved a new state budget and passed a host of major new criminal justice reforms, 30 days should be sufficient time to complete the year's work. The 100-member House also conducted its work virtually during the special session.
“We’ve already experienced an unprecedented virtual session, at least in the House, which proved to have any number of problems, not the least of which is the public’s ability to access their legislators and the legislative process. So, if there was ever a year to just stick with what the Constitution contemplated, it’s obviously this one,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert said in an interview.
The state Constitution requires the agreement of two-thirds of the members of each chamber to extend sessions held in odd-numbered years. That's a threshold Democrats alone could not meet.
Lawmakers are scheduled to convene Jan. 13. The 40-member Senate met in person at the Science Museum of Virginia in an area large enough to accommodate social distancing and will do so again in January, Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar wrote in an email.
Filler-Corn said the decision to remain virtual was made after conversations with the Clerk of the House and experts at the Virginia Department of Health. She said she considered alternatives, including a hybrid model, but after looking at the numbers and where the pandemic is headed, “it was clear this is what we needed to do.”
Her announcement comes as both cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 are increasing in Virginia and across the U.S. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam on Friday announced substantial new restrictions statewide that took effect Monday, including an alcohol curfew, expanded mask mandate and a tighter restriction on the size of gatherings.
Republicans raised concerns during the special session that meeting virtually in some cases limited the public's ability to testify on bills. They also said some of their caucus members who live in rural areas did not have reliable internet access.
Filler-Corn said public participation and transparency will remain a top priority. She said subcommittee meetings, where substantive discussion of bills often takes place, will be livestreamed. And she said the new arrangement could even make it easier for members of the public to weigh in on bills because they will be able to offer testimony in writing or by video.
“You don't need to get in the car and travel six hours to be heard,” she said.
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