Pictured: This Wednesday Feb. 10, 2021 file photo shows House speaker Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, as she exits the center isle of the empty Virginia House of Delegates chamber after a Zoom Legislative session at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. Lawmakers are set to convene at the Capitol in Richmond for a short special session to elect judges and allocate Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the latest federal coronavirus relief bill. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
By SARAH RANKIN and DENISE LAVOIE
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The entire General Assembly returned to the state Capitol for the first time in over a year Monday, kicking off a short special session to elect judges and adjust the state budget to account for billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief money.
Some lawmakers wore masks and plexiglass dividers separated members’ desks in the Senate chamber as a precaution against COVID-19, but Monday marked something of a return to business as usual. Lawmakers had not met indoors in person since the 2020 regular session ended, with meetings since then taking place virtually or in special event centers because of the pandemic.
“I would like to start with two words: Welcome back,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn told her chamber to applause
Over the course of about two weeks, legislators will be taking up a wide-ranging budget proposal crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Democratic leaders. It calls for spending most of Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of American Rescue Plan funding on wide-ranging initiatives, including: increasing broadband access, supporting small businesses and tourism, paying for air quality improvements in public schools, boosting mental health and substance-abuse treatment, and backfilling the state’s unemployment trust fund.
The introduced budget also contains provisions that would offer some protections against evictions and utility disconnections, and it would help fund state agencies’ ongoing pandemic response efforts.
Republicans, in the minority in both chambers, have complained that they were shut out of the budget-writing process.
“We’re not allowing all Virginians to be heard,” Del. Bobby Orrock said in a speech on the House floor.
Del. Luke Torian, chairman of the House Appropriations committee shot back that if Republicans wanted to weigh in, they needed only to reach out.
“I have never shut the door,” he said.
Monday’s work was mostly procedural, and lawmakers were expected to receive briefings on the budget bill.
Lawmakers will also be filling eight spots on the Court of Appeals, after legislation passed earlier this year expanded the intermediate court substantially. Democratic lawmakers involved in narrowing the pool of applicants to a short list had not made the candidates’ names public as of Monday.