SPECIAL SESSION WRAP-UP

The never ending special General Assembly session finally adjourned last week.  The session was originally called to deal with a budget shortfall caused by the economic lockdown ordered to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.  Very quickly and unfortunately, the focus shifted to police and criminal justice issues.

After the first day of session, the House convened “virtually” using Zoom for session and committee meetings.  This greatly limited the public’s ability to testify or even follow what was going on.  If you have good internet you might be able to observe your legislature at work, if you don’t then probably not.  There were technical problems as well, with members being kicked out of virtual sessions and having a limited ability to participate and debate.

The Senate figured out how to meet in person for session, not sure why the House leadership could not follow their lead.  House Democrats also collected their session per diem, or special pay of more than $ 200 per day, which is supposed to offset travel expenses, for sitting in their homes or offices and logging into the virtual meetings.  House Republicans declined to accept the additional pay. The Speaker intends to hold the 2021 regular session virtually as well, I guess they really liked getting the extra pay without having to leave their home

THE BUDGET

The final Budget restores some funding that Governor Northam had reduced. The budget maintains additional spending for education, broadband expansion, utility assistance and possible bonuses for state employees. The bonuses are contingent on the state revenues being enough to pay the costs.

Only about half of Governor Northam’s final proposed amendments to the budget were approved by the General Assembly, one of those approved being enacting language for a bipartisan redistricting commission.

The budget restored some funding for mental health services and included money for public colleges and universities responding to the pandemic.  It also restores funding for early-childhood education and at-risk students.  It includes $18.6 million required to implement new laws regarding police oversight and criminal justice issues, along with $6.6 million for police body cameras.

You may view the details of the budget at:  https://budget.lis.virginia.gov/bill/2020/2/

MY LEGISLATION

Below is a summary of some of the legislation I sponsored or co-sponsored:

HB 5001 – Would have required DMV to reopen for normal operations. Many stores, businesses, and local governments have been able to reopen with certain safety procedures to keep employees and customers safe; no reason DMV cannot do the same.  Unfortunately, this bill did not even get a hearing, further burdening citizens who can’t get critical renewals and other services.

HB 5006 – Would have waived late fees and penalties for late tax payments for individuals who lost their jobs and businesses forced to close due to the pandemic.  I think it is hypocritical for government to order a business to shut down and cause people to lose their jobs and then fine them if they are unable to pay their taxes on time!  Again, Democrats did not even give this bill a hearing.

HB 5009 – Was a bipartisan bill to allow parents of school children to who do not have highspeed internet access in their homes to opt for in-person instruction.  Many rural and poor children do not have good internet access in their homes, putting them at a disadvantage when schools offer virtual instruction. Another bill that did not get a hearing.

HB 5041 – Requires the Board of Health to amend regulations governing nursing homes, certified nursing facilities, and hospices to require that, during a public health emergency related to COVID-19, each facility establish a protocol to allow each patient to receive visits. This bill did pass.

HB 5046 – Passed and expands telemedicine services in the Commonwealth.

HB 5052 / SB 5031 – Passed and designates June 19th (Juneteenth) as a state Holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the US.

OTHER LEGISLATION

Some other important legislation that was considered this session:

HB 5013 -This bill would have removed qualified immunity for deputies and police officers, making them subject to being personally sued, putting their homes and savings at risk, if they did something someone did not like.  While Democrats pushed the bill through the House, despite my opposition, fortunately the Senate defeated it.

HB 5049 – Will prohibit the acquisition and use of certain weapons by law enforcement agencies, taking effective tools and tactics away from police and deputies. As it was written, it would have forbidden the use of rubber bullets or tear gas as less-lethal methods in dangerous situations, leaving more lethal options as the only recourse. This bill will make our communities less safe. It has passed and been sent to the Governor for his consideration.  I opposed this.

HB 5058 – Eliminates certain police stops. As passed, this bill bans stops for driving with only one headlight or taillight at night, among other things.  This will be especially dangerous for new drivers.

HB 5099 – Prohibits no-knock search warrants. This legislation sought to address an issue that rarely happens in Virginia. As law enforcement stated, these warrants, issued by Judges who consider the circumstances and evidence, are rarely used and are to protect the suspect, victims, and law enforcement from harm in special situations.  Police will now be required to announce their presence before serving search warrants giving suspects time to dispose of evidence, harm their victim, or arm themselves for a shootout.  I fear this ban with no exceptions will lead to more armed confrontations, with potentially deadly outcomes.

HB 5148 – Increasing earned sentence credits for criminals. As it passed, it is a back-door attack on Virginia’s truth in sentencing laws.  We have a low crime rate and lowest recidivism rate for a reason — our system of locking up dangerous criminals works. This bill weakens that system and will allow dangerous people back on the streets faster.  Again, I opposed this because I believe it will make Virginia less safe.

SB 5007 – Allows the defendant will be able to choose a jury trial but be sentenced by the Judge. While this may not be a bad policy,  it is estimated to cost immense amounts of money and jam our courts with cases as more and more criminals choose to roll the dice with a jury, knowing they won’t face that jury’s sentence which may be more strict than a judge.

SB 5032 – Would have led to reduced charges and penalties for assaulting a police officer or deputy. Our law enforcement officers need all the protection we can give them — including the knowledge that if someone attacks them, they will likely face serious consequences.  This bill passed the Senate but fortunately was defeated in the House Courts Committee.