Yes, the General Assembly is Still in Special Session

The Virginia Senate in its spread formation

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

It is time to check in on the progress of the endless session of the General Assembly. It is apparent that it was a mistake for the House to meet virtually. If the Delegates had been required to stay in Richmond the whole time, rather than being able to “attend” committee meetings and floor sessions from the comfort of their homes, they would have finished much quicker. But, maybe it is not endless; leaders of both houses are predicting they will be able to finish up by the end of next week.

Budget. The legislature has not gone through the formal process of getting the budget bill into conference and appointing conferees. Nevertheless, the chairs of the two money committees, Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, report they are close to a final budget deal, according to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But, Governor Northam is not happy with the approaches the two houses have taken and is threatening to throw cold water on any deal and veto it. He does not like the contingency spending that was in both the House and Senate versions of the budget bill, because those provisions commit funding that he wanted to keep in reserve due to uncertainty over the fiscal effects of the pandemic. He also does not like the legislature designating how most of the federal CARES money should be spent on COVID issues, thereby decreasing his flexibility over that $1 billion pot of money. (For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see my previous post here.)

Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne repeated his earlier position, “We do not need a new budget for financial purposes.” That remark leads to the obvious question: “Then why did the governor call the special session?”

Criminal justice reform. Progress has been made on some criminal justice issues, although the two houses have been at odds over some of them.

Assault of law-enforcement officers (SB 5032)—Killed in House committee. (See discussion of this legislation and its demise here.)

Jury sentencing (SB 5007)—Passed both houses, but the House of Delegates added a clause requiring its reenactment in the 2021 Session before it could become effective. As reported by the Daily Press, the House members expressed their concerns about the possible costs resulting from implementation and wanted more information. This was a way of killing a bill without actually voting to kill it. Patron Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, will need to start over (for a third time) in the next session. (See more discussion of this issue here.)

Chokeholds (HB 5069)—As introduced, this bill would have made it a Class 6 felony for a law-enforcement officer to use a chokehold. The Senate amended it to prohibit the use of chokeholds unless their use were immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person. It also got rid of the criminal penalty and provided that any officer violating the statute would be subject to a range of administrative disciplinary actions, including decertification. The House accepted the Senate version although the bill’s patron, Del. Jennifer Carrol Foy of Prince William, was very unhappy with it.

Intervention (HB 5029)—This is another instance in which the Senate moderated the House approach. The original bill would have required a law-enforcement officer to intervene if she witnessed another officer engaging in unlawful use of force. Failure to do would be a criminal offense, ranging from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a Class 4 felony, depending on the circumstances. The Senate removed the possible criminal penalties and made the failure to intervene subject to a range of disciplinary actions, including decertification.

Decertification (HB 5051)—This bill would expand the grounds for decertification of a law-enforcement officer to include serious misconduct as defined in statewide professional standards of conduct to be adopted by the Criminal Justice Services Board.

Except for the decertification bill, Republicans were largely united in opposition to these bills.

The two houses are still in disagreement over several major issues, including no-knock warrants, citizen review boards, and Marcus alert programs.