RICHMOND, Va. -- For almost a year and a half, the only statesmen inside Virginia’s Jeffersonian Capitol building didn’t do much of anything. State lawmakers met away from Capitol Square and statues of George Washington and other great Virginians were the only “officials” dotting the hallways for about 17 months
On Monday, for the first time since March 2020, both chambers of the General Assembly met inside the ornate Capitol, tasked with figuring out how to spend $4.3 billion dollars provided to the Commonwealth from the federal American Rescue Plan.
Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic legislative leaders have spent the past few weeks rolling out various priorities for the one-time funding. Those plans send millions of dollars to small business support, universal broadband projects, water quality infrastructure, behavioral health resources and school air quality initiates, to name a few.
Democrats in both chambers appear to back most of the proposals that have been laid out by the governor's office and budget leaders. Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said the spending is designed to help support Virginians across the Commonwealth who have been hurt by the pandemic in so many ways.
“We have gathered for this special session to provide more support and a more robust response to help the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia while keeping our economy moving forward,” Speaker Filler-Corn said.
“Funding in place to help some schools upgrade their HVAC systems, which will help with some of the construction and renovation costs. Putting money in to help upgrade VEC. Stabilize childcare, that’s a huge thing,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan.
Some Republicans signaled their support for some of the measures put forward.
“Three big things. Water quality improvements: there's been agreement on CSO’s in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria. Two, broadband, very clearly. The last one is school construction and school improvements,” said Sen. Steve Newman.
Still, as the minority party in both chambers, GOP members said they were mostly cut out of funding talks and are not being allowed by the majority to represent their constituents through the process. Republicans also voiced concerns about a 5 p.m. deadline placed on budget amendments from members.
“I don’t see us operating as a democracy, but rather Madame Speaker and members of the body, as an autocracy,” said Del. Bobby Orrock. “There were many times over my childhood I remember mom or dad, either one, telling my older siblings, ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
“This is a lot of money. $4.3 billion should include every legislator,” Sen. Newman said. “The Senate of Virginia has worked in the budget committees on a bipartisan basis. This one has not worked that way.”
Democratic budget leaders pushed back saying Republicans hold multiple seats on budget committees and did not choose to participate in ARP talks over the past few months.
“They could have called, they could have texted, they could have emailed. The letdown is not from the majority party. The letdown is from their own leadership. The door is always open,” said Del Luke Torian, House Appropriation Chairman.
While the current plan does send out more than $3 billion to initiatives almost immediately, Del. Torian said lawmakers plan to hold back around $900 million of ARP money until next year to respond to the changing COVID-19 environment, especially considering the recent uptick in new cases.
“We’re in the midst of this delta variant; we’re not sure what’s that’s going to produce in the Commonwealth. To be able to have some resources available to address that when we come back in 2022 will be extremely important to us,” Del. Torian said.
Senate Republicans expressed support for the idea on the floor Monday. Governor Northam proposed a similar plan to hold off allocating some of the ARP money, although the total was closer to $800 million.
The money committees in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate passed out the budget plan Monday afternoon. In each chamber, only two Republicans voted against advancing the bill out of committee.
Democrats appear determined to keep this special session to no more than two weeks, unlike the marathon 85-day special session last summer dealing with COVID response and police reform. Del. Torian said leaders want to get the ARP money out to help Virginians as soon as possible.