RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia House and Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to budget legislation allocating billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money, each passing slightly different bills that lawmakers will have to reconcile.
Legislators started their work during the special session that convened Monday with a budget proposal crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Democratic leaders. It called for spending most of Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the American Rescue Plan funding on initiatives aimed at helping small businesses, improving air quality in public schools, bolstering mental health and substance-abuse treatment, increasing broadband access and replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund.
The House took up its measure first, passing the bill as it was introduced on a bipartisan vote of 71-25.
“Virginians have experienced so much hardship in the last year and a half, and this budget sends a clear message to Virginians: We hear you, we are working for you, and we are building an even stronger Virginia in the process,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said in a statement after the vote.
Although some Republicans joined with Democrats in voting for the bill, the GOP objected strenuously to being shut out of the budget-writing process and being largely kept from debating the legislation.
A day earlier, Democrats in the chamber quickly squashed a Republican counterproposal offered on the floor by House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, who was given just two minutes to discuss his proposed alternative.
“I would have hoped that in this process, we would have at least been afforded the opportunity to explain our bill, but instead we are left with the inevitable two minutes,” Gilbert said. “Two minutes to discuss things of great importance to children, to law enforcement, to public safety, to the businesses that are hurting around Virginia and have been hurting for some time.”
The special session was taking place at a sensitive time for House members. All 100 seats are up for election this fall.
In the Senate, the Democratic majority allowed debate on floor amendments, and discussion stretched late into the night Wednesday. A debate devolved into angry tirades about the process and whether it had been adequately bipartisan before the chamber eventually passed the bill, 22-18.
“I think we have a product that we can be very proud of,” said Sen. Janet Howell, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.
Moderate GOP Sen. Emmett Hanger was the only Republican to join with Democrats in voting for the bill.
Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle said he approved of some provisions in the bill, but objected strenuously to leaving $800 million of the federal money unspent, for the governor to allocate in the future. “When we choose to spend almost a billion dollars without any discussion, without any input, without any debate, that’s wrong,” he said.
Republican Sen. Amanda Chase blasted Democrats for limiting debate on Republican-proposed amendments, promising to fight what she called “one-party control” and “communism.”
That prompted an angry retort from Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw. “I’ve never heard such fairy tales in my life,” he said.
“I really don’t appreciate being called a communist,” he added.
Before the final vote, senators approved a handful of amendments, including one that would give staff of sheriff’s offices and regional jails a one-time $5,000 bonus. The spending plan as introduced already included $5,000 bonuses for state police.
Another approved Senate amendment would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to return to allowing walk-in service for transactions at its customer service centers throughout the state. Because of the pandemic, the DMV instituted an appointment-only system for in-person services.
The chamber also voted to effectively strip language from the budget that dealt with allowing student-athletes to earn compensation for the use of their name, image or likeness. Republicans argued the issue shouldn’t be dealt with through budget legislation in a special session with limited debate and public input.
Lawmakers will now have to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation before a final product can go to Northam.
Both versions of the spending plan approved Wednesday include some protections against evictions and utility disconnections for families still struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The General Assembly members were also slated to elect judges to an expanded Court of Appeals during the special session. They had not made public the list of contenders as of Wednesday.