RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) –On Monday, the Virginia General Assembly convened inside the State Capitol for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced them out nearly a year and a half ago.

It’s not clear how long the special session will last but lawmakers are currently planning to wrap up within two weeks. 

During that time, legislators will fill vacancies on the recently expanded Virginia Court of Appeals and decide how to spend $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. 

Members of the public took full advantage of the General Assembly’s return to Richmond. Democracy was on full display on Monday morning as two demonstrations unfolded downtown. 

A group of homecare workers with the Service Employees International Union was there, in part, pushing for higher pay.

“We are frontline essential workers,” said SEIU member Thomasine Wilson. “We don’t want people to dismiss us. We deserve what we are asking for.” 

A separate group gathered to push for a forensic audit of the 2020 election in Virginia. 

“We have a problem with confidence in our election. We need to audit this. If there was nothing wrong, I would be thrilled,” said Greg Thomas, who traveled from Lindon, Virginia. 

Inside of the Capitol building, face coverings were recommended but not required. The advisory comes after the CDC recently backtracked on its guidance, advising people to wear a mask indoors in areas with substantial or high coronavirus transmission, regardless of vaccination status. 

Most Republicans and some Democrats went without a face covering on Monday. Others took it off while seated, especially on the Senate floor, where plexiglass surrounded every legislator’s desk. 

The vaccination status of General Assembly members and staff is not being comprehensively tracked. 

Much of the afternoon was spent bickering over procedural rules and the budget process.

However, by the end of the day, the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees adopted the budget bill Gov. Ralph Northam proposed. The votes were bipartisan but not unanimous.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert was among those criticizing Democratic leaders for cutting lawmakers and the public out of spending negotiations by blocking the traditional budget amendment process in committee. 

“We feel like this has been a very closed process. Democrats have been crafting the spending of this federal money behind closed doors in the governor’s office with only a select few able to participate.” Gilbert said. 

House Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Torian pushed back on that. 

“They have had an opportunity to have access and be involved if that is what they would have chosen to do but I’ve received a very small amount of telephone calls,” Torian said. 

Gov. Northam came out with several spending priorities ahead of the special session with the backing of Democratic leadership, including broadband expansion, higher education tuition assistance, improved air quality in schools, and clean water initiatives. 

Additional funding has been proposed to address staff recruitment and retention issues impacting the Virginia State Police and the state’s mental health hospitals as concerns over worker shortages grow. 

“It’s not going to be enough but it’s going to be a start,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), a leading advocate for improvements to Virginia’s behavioral health infrastructure.  “The house is on fire. We have to put the fire out but for the long haul we need to invest more money in community services.”

Democrats are also proposing additional investments to modernize the outdated unemployment system, support small businesses and to prevent a big payroll tax hike as a result of pandemic layoffs. 

Gilbert said he supports a number of the priorities that Northam has outlined but he fears the proposed investment in the Unemployment Trust Fund isn’t large enough to totally prevent a tax increase on businesses.

Gilbert said addressing the impacts of school closures is another priority for his party, though he didn’t cite any specific amendments they would introduce if given the opportunity. 

“Parents really need resources to be able to adjust and mitigate that lost year of learning for children,” Gilbert said. 

Meanwhile, Torian wants to leave a significant portion of federal aid unspent for now. He is suggesting holding back $1 billion. 

“We are in the midst of this delta variant and we aren’t sure what that is going to produce,” Torian said. “To be able to have some resources available to address that when we come back in 2022 would be extremely important to us.”

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