(The Center Square) – A marathon 83-day legislative special session ended in Virginia this week, highlighted by a revised state budget, several criminal justice reforms and a series of bills meant to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Together, with our colleagues in the Senate, Virginia is now a national leader in the effort to pass necessary improvements to policing and criminal justice,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said in a statement. “We came together and passed a fiscally responsible budget that provides relief for all Virginians, especially those struggling to get by. And, we have done this while convening all members of this body safely and efficiently.”
Lawmakers passed a skeleton budget earlier this year that withheld funding for certain spending initiatives because of revenue uncertainties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that state officials have a better grasp of prospective revenue, lawmakers provided additional education and broadband expansion funding and utility and rental assistance.
Public schools initially lost funding because part of it is reliant on sales tax revenue, which has been down for much of the year. Lawmakers, however, allocated $90 million in one-time funding for public schools from the state’s tax on skilled gaming machines to offset these losses. The budget also included additional funding for other K-12 initiatives and funding for higher education, which was included in the budget before the pandemic hit.
The revised state budget also included $100 million in COVID-19 relief funds to assist Virginians who fell behind on their utility bills. The money will be directed to smaller companies. The state’s largest utility, Dominion Energy, will use excess money to offset the utility bills for their customers. The bill also expands flexibility in the housing trust fund so Virginians who are unable to pay their rent have easier access to the money.
Police officers will receive a $500 bonus, and $7.5 million was allocated to help police departments recruit and retain officers. The budget also includes potential bonuses for state employees and a salary increase incentive for teachers that is contingent on the state having the funds. Before the pandemic, lawmakers intended to provide teachers, police officers and other state employees with raises.
Lawmakers advanced a series of criminal justice and policing reform bills, including a ban on no-knock search warrants, heavier restrictions on chokeholds and greater authority for civilian review boards of police if localities choose to provide it. Other reforms include restrictions on police departments purchasing military surplus weapons and uniform training standards for police, which includes racial sensitivity and mental health training.
The General Assembly failed to reach an agreement on automatic expungement for certain crimes and the elimination of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects officers from lawsuits unless a person can prove the officer clearly violated an established right that a reasonable person would be aware of.
“The Legislature made some moves in the right direction (on criminal justice reform), but it’s clear that we need to reimagine and transform the role of police in our society,” Ashna Khanna, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, told The Center Square.
“When it comes to racial justice and police accountability, we still have a very long road ahead of us,” Khanna said. “Lawmakers had the opportunity to end qualified immunity to allow people to sue police for unconstitutional conduct, which is a simple way to bring more accountability to policing, but they failed to take action. This issue should be a top priority when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.”
Most of the criminal justice reforms were led by Democrats. While some garnered Republican support, Republican leadership and some police groups opposed bolder reforms, such as ending qualified immunity and prohibiting no-knock search warrants, out of concern they would impede officers’ ability to do their jobs.
“We had no illusions of how far Democrats would go in their efforts to weaken public safety and demean the good men and women of law enforcement,” House Republican Caucus Chairperson Kathy Byron, R-Forest, said in a statement. “Republicans were prepared to support common sense reforms, but our suggestions fell on deaf ears. The actions taken by Democrats will result in less safe communities. Law enforcement professionals will quit, retire early, or no longer look at entering the profession. I fear the consequences of the special session will be felt for years to come.”
Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) told The Center Square it was a “pretty fair special session” for businesses. The NFIB is the largest small business association in the country.
Riley said Gov. Ralph Northam expanded eligibility for the Rebuild Virginia program and lawmakers did not impose additional restrictions on businesses during the session. However, she said lawmakers failed to provide civil liability protection for businesses against COVID-19-related lawsuits as some states have.
During next year’s session, Riley said lawmakers should consider providing businesses with these protections.