Opinion: Commentary: Legislating in the Time of COVID-19

Opinion: Commentary: Legislating in the Time of COVID-19

This week, I returned with my colleagues to Richmond to revise the Commonwealth’s budget in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, pass pandemic-related legislation, and to address the twin issues of racial inequity and police reform. For the past couple of months the House Democratic Caucus has worked dutifully and deliberately on an impactful package of laws that will change people’s lives in an unprecedented and positive way.

Early Tuesday morning before the beginning of the session that gavelled in at 1 p.m., I attended the joint money committees (Appropriations and Finance) meeting where we heard the official budget re-forecasting data. From this meeting we received full details as to how the pandemic has affected the Virginia economy and how we will need to reshape the budget to compensate for those adverse effects. As you know, any new spending allotted by the budget that the General Assembly passed in March during the regular session was frozen, or “unallotted,” due to the pandemic. After receiving the re-forecasting details and later going through the information with a fine tooth comb, it will be clear whether any of the funding can be re-allotted for its original intent, or whether further cuts will need to be made, which is unknown to me at the time I am writing this column.

To maintain physical distancing, the House of Delegates is meeting on the basketball court of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Stuart C. Siegel Center with our desks spread out six feet apart from one another and wearing our face masks. While not physically open to the public due to health concerns, the session is live-streamed on the Virginia General Assembly website beginning on Tuesday, Aug. 18 at 1 p.m. The session will probably continue through the end of the month and even into September as we embark on this extraordinary undertaking during this critical period in our Commonwealth.

This will prove to be an historic session for many reasons, but especially given that this is only the third time in the Commonwealth’s history that the General Assembly has not met in our traditional chambers. The first time was in 1849 due to a cholera outbreak, and then the second time was during this past April’s annual reconvene session. In fact, this will be the first time in 171 years that the House of Delegates will not convene on the Capitol grounds, as the Senate of Virginia chose to meet a few miles away at the Science Museum of Virginia in April, while the House of Delegates met outside the Capitol in a tent.

This special session will stand in stark contrast to the outcome of that 1849 session, where a 17th-century ban on interracial marriage was officially codified, and where it was made a felony to criticize slave ownership, punishable by up to five years imprisonment. It is nice that this time we are moving in a much different direction. While the fact remains that like that 1849 session, we will be legislating and updating our Commonwealth’s budget in the time of a deadly pandemic, our other goals heading into this year’s unprecedented special session revolve around improving racial equity and reforming our criminal justice system.

Last week, the House Democratic Caucus released our legislative priorities going into this special session. It’s a transformative package of legislation to remove much of the inequality in our criminal justice system and provide tools to combat the health crisis. I’ve included most of it here:

COVID-19 Relief

• Requiring businesses to grant paid sick leave for Virginia workers.

• Establishing a presumption as to death or disability due to COVID-19 for workers’ compensation for first responders, teachers, and other high-risk essential workers.

• Providing immunity from civil claims related to COVID-19 for complying with health guidance.

• Protecting Virginians from eviction during a public health emergency.

• Creating a Commonwealth Marketplace for Personal Protective Equipment acquisition.

• Mandating transparency requirements for congregate-care facilities during a public health emergency.

Criminal Justice and Police Reform

• Reforming Virginia’s laws related to the expungement of police and court records.

• Increasing good behavior sentence credits.

• Eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.

• Prohibiting no-knock warrants.

• Banning the use of chokeholds and other lethal restraints used by law enforcement.

• Creating a statewide Marcus Alert system to ensure the presence of mental health professionals for calls related to mental health crises and wellness checks.

• Strengthening laws related to Citizen Review Panels.

• Eliminating certain pretextual police stops.

• Demilitarizing police departments by prohibiting the acquisition and use of certain weapons by law enforcement agencies.

• Banning sexual relations between officers and arrestees.

• Expanding the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls made on the basis of race.

• Standardizing and enhancing training for all police academies.

• Mandating the duty of one officer to report and intervene during the misconduct of another officer.

• Requiring decertification of law enforcement officers who fail to properly perform their duties.