RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia House gave initial approval Wednesday to a spending plan for billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money, a day after the Democratic majority flatly rejected a Republican-proposed alternative.
The chamber ultimately advanced the legislation on a bipartisan vote of 71-25. A vote in the Senate was expected later in the day.
The budget proposal crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Democratic leaders calls for spending most of Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the American Rescue Plan funding on initiatives aimed at helping small businesses, improving air quality in public schools, bolstering mental health and substance-abuse treatment, increasing broadband access and replenishing the state’s depleted unemployment trust fund.
Republicans, in the minority in both chambers, have complained that they were kept out of the budget-writing process and were stifled by Democrats in the House who allowed no amendments to be offered in committee and squashed a Republican counterproposal offered on the floor Tuesday by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert. Gilbert was given two minutes to discuss his proposed alternative.
“I would have hoped that in this process, we would have at least been afforded the opportunity to explain our bill, but instead we are left with the inevitable two minutes,” Gilbert said. “Two minutes to discuss things of great importance to children, to law enforcement, to public safety, to the businesses that are hurting around Virginia and have been hurting for some time. Two minutes to put forward ideas that might help in any of those areas and ... what we’re learning from this process is that, you know, those ideas are not welcome.”
Democrats said their budget would help struggling families and businesses.
“Virginians have experienced so much hardship in the last year and a half, and this budget sends a clear message to Virginians: We hear you, we are working for you, and we are building an even stronger Virginia in the process,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said in a statement after the vote Wednesday.
The special session was taking place at a sensitive time for House members. All 100 seats are up for election this fall.
In the Senate, members approved several amendments, including one that would give staff of sheriff's offices and regional jails a one-time $5,000 bonus. The proposed spending plan already includes $5,000 bonuses for state police.
Another amendment approved by the Senate would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to return to allowing walk-in service for transactions at its customer service centers throughout the state. Because of the pandemic, the DMV instituted an appointment-only system for in-person services.
The Senate also approved an amendment that would direct the Department of Human Resource Management to conduct a survey of state agencies on the percentage of state employees who are still working remotely and those who have returned to work in their offices.
Both chambers would have to agree to any amendment before it could go to the governor.
The spending plan approved Wednesday by the House also includes some protections against evictions and utility disconnections for families still struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And about $800 million would remain unallocated to use later as the state continues to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
The plan also includes funding to help various state agencies pay for costs associated with the pandemic, including $34.8 million for the Department of Corrections to cover ongoing testing costs, the purchase of personal protective equipment and the expansion of telehealth services and video visitation.