Northam: Budget shortfall could have been worse, General Assembly special session gets underway

Special Session underway in Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Not the rosiest of revenue forecasts for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, but addressing state lawmakers Tuesday morning, the Democrat said COVID-19 impacts on the two-year state budget could be a lot worse.

"No one could have foreseen that a pandemic would push the world into a recession," said Northam. "So there's no road map for how to get out of it."

He’s dealing with a deficit to the tune of $2.7 billion. Now, a special session of the General Assembly is underway to correct that and tackle police and criminal justice reforms.

“So that families, when they have these situations, can get a full and fair hearing in court on the merits of their case,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, (D) 71st District.

Bourne, who represents parts of the City of Richmond, spoke about HB 5013, which would roll back the use of immunity as a defense in lawsuits that allege excessive use of force by police.

"What we want to do is bring a better accountability to those situations where there has been excessive force and hold those police officers and their employers and local governments, the governments that they work for, accountable to so that families can get some sense of relief in these most tragic and horrific situations," said Bourne.

Republican lawmakers, who were cautious about suspending rules during the hybrid in-person slash virtual session, say they do want to work with Democrats on some of these reforms.

“We want to find a way to basically make it easier to fire them and also raise the standards to make sure we have the best qualified and best-trained police force in the country,” said Del. Jason Miyares, (R) 82nd District.

Meanwhile, Northam won't invest in expanding early childhood education, tuition assistance and creating free community college.

But he maintains teachers and state workers will still see a pay increase along with more investments in behavioral health.

Republicans are skeptical he can chop enough to balance the budget.

“There’s going to be a lot of promises made to a lot of people and no one’s going to be able to follow through on,” said Miyares.

House Republican Leader C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), issued the following statement: “Today was a dark day for the House of Delegates. The Democratic majority abandoned 400 years of tradition and rule of law so that they could avoid public scrutiny of their far left wing agenda -- and demanded a $210 travel allowance to do so from the comfort of their couches.

“With a single vote, they declared that they have no need to meet in public, they have no desire to receive public input, and they have no intention of changing that practice anytime soon. Our constituents deserve to have the business of the House done in public. They deserve the right to be heard in committee hearings.

“Worse, both the Speaker and the Majority Leader told the press that this had been worked out ahead of time between Republicans and Democrats. That is false. But sadly, this is what we’ve come to expect from the Democratic majority.”

The Senate was the one body that really got down to work Tuesday. Two committees began the process of reviewing proposed legislation. Wednesday, it’s a full docket for a number of Senate committees.

Access to Broadband

According to a report, nearly 200,000 K-12 students and 60,000 college students across Virginia don’t have access to broadband at home. That’s why Northam says he is proposing $85 million to expand access to broadband for unserved communities, especially since many schools have implemented online learning.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Northam is proposing a $15 million investment in Virginia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which play a large role in reducing educational inequities.

Police and Criminal Justice Reform

The governor’s office released the following items that will be a priority:

  • Expand the criteria for which a law enforcement officer can be decertified, to include officers who are terminated due to law or policy violations or resign during an ongoing investigation;
  • Empower Virginia’s Criminal Justice Services Board to initiate decertification proceedings when de-certifiable conduct is brought to the Board’s attention, regardless of written notice from a local law enforcement department;
  • Require law enforcement officers to intervene when they see a colleague engaging in or attempting to engage in unlawful use of force;
  • Standardize law-enforcement training across Virginia through development of statewide minimum training standards, curriculum, and lesson plans, to include use of force tactics;
  • Mandate information-sharing between hiring agencies and previous employers and strengthen the vetting process of newly-hired officers;
  • Create best practices for Civilian Review Panels and empower localities to establish review panels;
  • Diversify the Criminal Justice Services Board’s Committee on Training to include representatives from civil rights and community organizations, and require opportunities for public input into the development of training standards.

Northam says he plans to work closely with legislators on other measures not outlined, including proposals related to behavioral health, fair and free elections, and racial equity.

The session could take several weeks to complete and lawmakers are meeting outside of the Capitol so they can practice social distancing.

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