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Big ideas face the hard reality of coronavirus as Virginia General Assembly prepares to convene

Washington Post


RICHMOND — All the pomp and ritual that usually accompanies the start of a Virginia General Assembly session will be compressed into one mundane action this week for Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) and his colleagues.


“I’ll just open up my laptop,” Bagby said.

Virginia’s General Assembly kicks off its 2021 session on Wednesday with 402 years of tradition flying out the window yet again because of the coronavirus pandemic. As they did during last year’s special session, the House of Delegates will meet online in a giant videoconference; the Senate meets in person but under strict distance requirements in a spacious room at the Virginia Science Museum.


Those physical restrictions are appropriate for a session that could be defined by how much lawmakers are willing to test limitations. A year after new Democratic majorities swept into the Senate and House of Delegates with a fat state budget and a sense of historic mandate, the General Assembly faces the reality of coping with a pandemic, a shrunken economy and the political uncertainty of new districts being drawn ahead of November elections.

Expect the coronavirus to be a major theme — not only for the precautions being taken to protect lawmakers, but as a factor that drives everything from state spending to a debate over reopening schools and efforts to prop up the economy.

Democrats who control both chambers still intend to take up a few big issues.


Spurred by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), members plan to consider legalizing marijuana, a process that could take years. There is also a push to allow expungement of nonviolent offenses from a person’s record, restore parole to the Virginia corrections system and possibly consider abolishing the death penalty.

Democratic leaders say they also plan to emphasize aid to small businesses hurt by the pandemic, efforts to lower prescription drug costs and safeguarding health insurance protections for people with preexisting conditions.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said via email that her priorities will be to “continue protecting families, keeping Virginia healthy, and rebuilding our economy stronger.”


But overlaying that agenda will be a heavier than usual helping of political ambition. All 100 members of the House of Delegates are up for election in November — and because the state’s new redistricting commission is also redrawing political boundaries this year, no delegate can be certain of what his or her district will look like or even whether it will still exist.

Senators won’t face reelection until 2023. But two senators and two delegates — plus Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who presides over the Senate — are running for governor, which is also on the ballot this fall. Five other lawmakers are running for lieutenant governor and two for attorney general. At least one more is mulling a run for federal office: Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) confirmed Friday that she is considering a challenge to Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) next year.

Republicans intend to make the case for a GOP chief executive to put the brakes on a Democratic legislature. They’ve already begun attacking Democrats as soft on crime, although the pro-Trump rioters who took over the Capitol on Wednesday could complicate that effort. Republicans have also called Democrats weak on reopening schools for in-person instruction.


“We’re also planning on a suite of legislation that will help rebuild confidence in our electoral process,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said via email. “Transparency in counting, making sure absentee ballots are included in the precinct they’d otherwise be cast, and other measures to ensure there’s no room for fraud, or even conspiracy theories about fraud.”

Some Republicans drew criticism in the fall for raising unfounded allegations about voter fraud in Virginia and other states.


Republicans have promised a procedural move to limit the session to 30 days, instead of the 46 days that would be customary in an odd-numbered year. Democrats say they’ll work around it, potentially by Northam calling a special session so lawmaking can continue.


“It will be a 46-day session, make no mistake about that,” Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said.

Either way, the scope of the session will be compressed this year because both chambers have adopted limits on the number of bills each lawmaker can introduce — seven for delegates and 12 for senators.


“Put it all together, and I think you really are looking at the 2021 session being a year dominated by the ‘cautious caucus,’ ” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington. “All these things create an environment that discourages dramatic developments in lawmaking.”

There also could be legislative fatigue. The General Assembly just wrapped up a marathon special session that ran from August until November. And hanging over everything is the Jan. 1 death of Sen. A. Benton Chafin (R-Russell), a 60-year-old lawyer and cattle farmer from the state’s rural southwest who had been hospitalized with covid-19. Chafin’s desks at the Capitol and at the museum will be draped in black for two weeks.


No date has been set for the special election to fill his seat, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.

Senate Democrats would like to allow members to participate remotely instead of in person under very limited circumstances: if they are diagnosed with covid-19 or in quarantine because of potential coronavirus exposure. Republicans have opposed that so far, but Saslaw said they are still in talks.

Republicans in both chambers have expressed concerns that by operating remotely, the legislature makes it hard for activists, lobbyists and ordinary citizens to participate. Testifying in committee hearings can be difficult via Zoom; buttonholing legislators, impossible.


Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) had filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s plans to bar the public from the Pocahontas Building, where legislators have their offices.

In a compromise announced by way of a federal court order Friday, the state will make four conference rooms in an office building adjacent to the museum available for appointments with constituents.

Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Han­over), the chamber’s GOP caucus chairman, said he will not propose a single bill as a means of protest over limitations on conducting Senate business.

“How do you move forward legislation that’s far-reaching and impactful to Virginians when they can’t even have access to their legislative member?” McDougle asked rhetorically in an interview Thursday.


McDougle does, however, intend to propose budget amendments, which are not technically considered bills and do not count against the strict bill limits in place this year. One of his amendments would provide a $2,500 per-pupil grant, available in areas where in-person instruction has been canceled because of the pandemic. Parents could use the money to defer the cost of hiring a teacher to lead an educational “pod,”  he said.

McDougle said Republicans will also be playing defense against Democrats, such as pushing back on liberal policy goals that Democrats were not able to pull off last year. Those include efforts to repeal the state’s law that prohibits compulsory union membership as a condition of employment. He also said they’ll fight efforts to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, tighten restrictions on guns, or eliminate qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits.

Other Republicans have been pushing law-and-order themes, demanding more transparency for the state parole board.

The session is expected to expose fissures within both parties. Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), who is running for governor as a bombastic Trump supporter, has long drawn rebukes from fellow Republicans for her inflammatory rhetoric. In mid-December, she urged President Trump to declare “martial law” to prevent his removal from office. She spoke to rallygoers in Washington this past week, and though she left before they stormed the Capitol, she praised those who did as “patriots.”

Democrats will have to contend with their own rifts. Some members say they should push to advance liberal priorities on many fronts while Democrats enjoy full control in Richmond — something that could change after November’s elections. But others think the party needs to focus on the most pressing issues, most of them brought on by the pandemic.

“Getting kids back in schools is the priority. Legalizing marijuana is not a priority,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), whose four children “have not had a single day of in-person instruction for 10 months.”

Petersen said he will introduce a budget amendment that will make the entire state spending plan contingent on reopening public schools. Petersen said he is not wedded to any particular way to reopen them. He said options might include prioritizing school staff for vaccines, masking students or staggering classes to increase social distancing. 

“You can choose any way to get there, but if you’re a parent like I am, it’s a little bit disturbing that there’s not a higher sense of urgency about this,” he said.

While last year’s special session focused on areas of social and criminal justice, members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus plan to emphasize that there is still work to be done in those areas.

Legalizing marijuana and enacting automatic expungement for nonviolent offenses are aimed at longtime racial disparities in how criminal laws have been enforced, said Bagby, who leads the Black Caucus. He also expects a renewed push to roll back qualified immunity for police officers.


Continuing to expand access to voting will be another priority, Bagby said — including a bill to allow early voting on Sundays.

While he said he regrets that the pandemic will limit the ability of members to huddle and cut deals, Bagby said he doesn’t expect anyone to curtail their ambitions — though he added that there might not be as much room for political speeches.

“We won’t have a whole lot of time for grandstanding on any side of the aisle,” he said. “I’m confident that the Speaker will make sure we’ll move right along and focus on the people’s business.”