The General Assembly is back in Session – Special Session – to make important decisions on the roughly $4.3 billion in federal pandemic relief funds allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and to make appointments to the Court of Appeals of Virginia. Though all 140 legislators are back together in Richmond for the first time since April of 2020, this Special Session has been less accessible and accountable than even the virtual and remote location sessions.
This Special Session has been unprecedented – not just because the part-time legislature is convened again this August after adjourning for the year in February – but because the General Assembly is making appropriation decisions for $4.3 billion without a single public hearing and no opportunity for public comment during either the House of Delegates or Senate committees’ deliberations. To put it into perspective – $4.3 billion represents several years of discretionary spending.
What’s more, the folks you elected to represent your best interests were given less than 22 hours notice of deadlines to submit budget amendments important to your community, properly submitted budget amendments were not available to the public until voting began in the Senate, and opportunity to make the case for amendments was limited to 120 seconds in the House of Delegates and 3 minutes per amendment in the Senate.
Clearly, this secretive process concerning a massive sum of federal public funds is contrary to best practices for a republic. In typical sessions, the Governor introduces a budget, and members of the Senate and House of Delegates have the opportunity to make amendments to that bill, which are deliberated in public meetings of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee or in the House Committees on Appropriations and on Finance. Then, each chamber advances its own version of the budget with amendments approved by each committee after having an opportunity to hear from other elected officials, relevant stakeholders, and the public. Once each chamber passes its own version of a budget, a select group of members from Senate Appropriations and Finance and the House Appropriations are elected as conferees and negotiate a compromise budget to include the priorities of each.
This Special Session, the enormous $4.3 billion spending bill was approved without any amendments at all in the House of Delegates, and only 9 amendments in the Senate, with a compromise budget containing only a few watered town amendments and one, gun violence prevention funding for DCJS, not considered by either chamber but included in the compromise bill nonetheless.
The Governor’s Secretary of Finance encouraged conferees to reject all amendments, writing Northam is “looking forward to a quick resolution to the few outstanding items to ensure these resources are put to work for Virginians as soon as possible,” and “As such, he is asking for a bill with no amendments — fiscal or policy — reflecting the agreement we negotiated and hammered out prior to the beginning of this special session.”
Excluding your elected representatives from the process silences your community’s voice, and limits honest deliberation and debate, leading to a final bill that spends a record amount of public funds with only a select few people involved in the process of deciding how best to implement investments. This goes against our republic, the expectation of access to decision making, and is clearly contrary to best management practices in public service.