Opinion: Commentary: Special Circumstances for Special Session

Opinion: Commentary: Special Circumstances for Special Session

On Tuesday, the General Assembly returned to Richmond for a Special Session called by Gov. Ralph Northam to revisit the biennial budget following the release of updated revenue forecasts due to the coronavirus pandemic. Legislation is also being considered addressing policing and criminal justice reform as well as adapting to COVID-19.

To ensure social distancing, the Senate met at the Science Museum of Virginia and the House met on the floor of the VCU Siegel Center before voting to continue their session via Zoom, convening outside the halls of the Capitol for only the third time since the cholera pandemic of 1849.

This is the third year in a row that we have been called back to Richmond for a special session. Two years ago we expanded Medicaid to more than 400,000 Virginians in a marathon 14-hour floor session. Last year we returned to address gun violence prevention measures in the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Virginia Beach, only to have the then-Republican majority gavel out without even a minute of debate. This current special session will span multiple days as bills are being heard by committees with remote testimony, debated on the floor, and will need to be approved by both chambers.

In anticipation of the special session, Senate Democrats hosted statewide listening sessions with citizens, law enforcement agencies, and interest groups like local NAACP branches and Justice Forward Virginia. Relying heavily on this input and the views of affected communities, we formed a special subcommittee to draft legislation on criminal justice reform, chaired by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) which prepared several omnibus bills on criminal justice reform. Resulting bills propose reforms to policing, sentencing, mental health support, and prison reform.

Our policing reform package, carried by Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), would ban police from purchasing military-grade equipment from the federal government and establish a statewide officer code of conduct -- streamlining the process of decertification if an officer violates this code of conduct or any criminal statutes. The bill would also ban violent use of force including chokeholds, ensure de-escalation training, and require officers to intervene if another officer violates the newly established use-of-force continuums.

Our proposed sentencing reforms, carried by Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath County) and Sen. Joe Morrisey (D-Richmond), would allow for the expungement of criminal records for drug possession and expand authority for prosecutors to enter into “deferred dispositions” rather than giving individuals criminal records for minor offenses. Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) is carrying legislation to give localities authority to establish civilian review boards with subpoena power over police misconduct and establish a “Marcus Alert” system, which would require social service workers to respond to mental health crises alongside police officers. Legislation was also introduced to allow for the conditional release of geriatric and terminally-ill prisoners and to expand access to reduced sentences for good behavior. At the request of Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, I introduced a bill allowing a local Commonwealth’s Attorney to request Virginia Attorney General to serve as an independent prosecutor in cases of criminal use of force by police. Unfortunately, the bill was killed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in Thursday mornings' meeting.

COVID-19 has laid bare the lack of access to affordable housing and renter protections that have long plagued Virginians. The economic damage that the pandemic has wrought is putting hundreds of thousands at risk of being evicted in Virginia. While the Governor has instituted an eviction moratorium through Sept. 7, and allocated $50 million in rent and mortgage relief payments, these actions alone will not prevent the looming eviction crisis. The General Assembly is considering expanded financial relief for tenants and landlords alike, and several bills dealing with the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (VRLTA) during the Special Session. I introduced legislation to require landlords to offer a payment plan to tenants if they miss a rent payment prior to seeking eviction during COVID-19. This policy would ensure that one financial crisis can’t make the tenant homeless and ensures small landlords do not lose income or go through the costly and unsettling process of evicting a family. The bill passed out of the Senate General Laws Committee unanimously and will have a floor vote next week.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Richmond) has also introduced legislation to extend the eviction moratorium through next Spring.

We are also reviewing $2.2 billion in potential new spending that was approved during the 2020 legislative session and frozen during “veto session” due to the economic impact of COVID-19. This funding included proposals for early childhood education, tuition-free community college for professional degrees in high demand fields, affordable housing, and initiatives to expand rural broadband. Though future economic forecasts are not rosy, Virginia ended our 2020 fiscal year with a $236.5 million budget shortfall, far less than the $1 billion that was originally anticipated. However, we now expect to see $2.7 billion less revenue over the next two years than was projected last Fall when the budget planning process was in full swing. Tough decisions will have to be made as to what new spending will be cut and where we can make a few strategic investments for the most critical services to Virginians, despite a greatly reduced budget. As a member of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, I will continue to fight to keep progressive priorities in the budget and support our localities’ requests for funding for key projects.

The world is a different place than it was when the General Assembly left Richmond earlier this year. None of us could have foreseen the national crisis we have faced in the last six months, but the job of the legislature requires adapting to novel challenges. I hope that through our work in the coming weeks Virginia will again be a different place when we gavel out -- one that is safer, more equitable, and more just.

Tuesday, in a meeting of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, Senate Democrats advanced a bill to ensure elections security over Republican objections.

I co-sponsored SB5120 in order to shore up the integrity of our elections and expand access to the ballot box. The legislation will require ballot drop boxes, and provide voters an opportunity to correct an absentee ballot oversight such as forgetting to sign the ballot return envelope and also provides $2 million for prepaid postage for absentee ballots. These provisions will make certain the safety of our democracy and the health of Virginia voters and elections officials.

I remain dedicated to making it easier and safer to vote.

It is my continued honor to serve the citizens of the 30th District.