Almost two months into a special session that was initially expected to last two weeks, negotiators in the General Assembly have come to an agreement over the details of the state budget. Now it’s up to both chambers and the Governor to make the bill a law.
The budget deal includes funding for public schools that was advanced by the House and behavioral health spending prioritized by the Senate. Millions of dollars would go toward implementing new criminal justice reforms and providing bonuses for law enforcement.
Within the bill, lawmakers have mapped out a plan for most of the state's remaining CARES Act funds. Control over the money has been a source of friction between the Governor’s administration and the General Assembly. “This is our job under the Constitution: to decide how money is spent. Even money that has flowed through from the federal government,” says Delegate Mark Sickles (D-43), member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Sickles says he’s hopeful that negotiations with the administration helped resolve the tension and stressed that the extraordinary length of the special session is due to negotiations over details of criminal justice bills and the lack of a procedural resolution outlining a timeline.
“This long special session was not because of the budget,” explained Sickles. “We were working on it the whole time to try to see what the best strategy is to use limited funds to help in the most critical areas during COVID-19, but we could’ve done that within the first month. It’s just that we had all these other issues,” said the delegate.
Meanwhile, negotiators have set up a process of where Governor Northam would not take action on the bill until after Election Day. The delay stems from a disagreement in the legislature over language in the budget about a redistricting amendment that’s yet to be decided by voters.
Senator George Barker (D-39) was one of six key lawmakers involved in budget negotiations through a conference committee. “What we’ve done is we set up a process where it’s not in the conference committee report where the Governor will send down an amendment to the budget shortly after the election should the voters vote for it,” he explained.
Many Democrats in the House of Delegates are opposed to the measure, whereas it has wide support in the Senate. Barker says time is of the essence. “We need to have language in the budget prior to December 1 to be able to start the process of picking the citizen members, should the voters support the constitutional amendment on Election Day.”
Asked how this arrangement came to be, Barker explained, “that was basically a gentleman's agreement here among conferees as well as the Governor and his office.”
Delegate Kirk Cox (R-66), who was not selected as a budget conferee, issued a statement criticizing Democrats for delaying the adoption of the budget due to “an intra-party fight on an entirely unrelated matter.”
He added, "they are delaying the adoption of a new budget for at least two more weeks because a few liberal holdouts within the Democratic party are opposing the bipartisan constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission.”
The legislature is expected to vote on the budget bill by this weekend.