Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County) announced Monday that the Virginia House of Delegates would continue to meet virtually during the upcoming 2021 General Assembly regular session, just as they did during the special session, because of the current status of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the emailed statement, Filler-Corn’s decision was made after discussions with the Clerk of the House and officials from the Virginia Department of Health, which includes a letter from Virginia State Health Commissioner, Norman Oliver, strongly recommending the House hold sessions virtually “to the greatest extent possible.”
“As legislators, we must set an example on how to conduct our business and adapt during this pandemic,” the Speaker said in the statement. “While I look forward to the time we can return to conducting business in person and go back to the way we operated prior to the global pandemic, at this time we must continue to listen to the experts and make informed, responsible decisions based on their recommendations and science.”
Filler-Corn continued: “Our announcement today is about maintaining the health and safety of all 100 members of the House of Delegates, the staff that would be required to conduct an in-person session, as well as the health and safety of the communities to which each member and their staff would return.”
In the statement Filler-Corn also said the House would be live streaming subcommittee meetings and giving citizens the option to submit written comments on legislation to increase public access and transparency.
“I strongly think that the Speaker made the right decision,” Del. Mark Levine (D-Arlington) told The Virginia Star. “While I would concede that in ordinary times it is better for us to meet in person, in Mr. Jefferson’s capitol, [but] these are not ordinary times. The COVID pandemic is reaching a fever pitch.”
Other House Democrats, like Delegates Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond City) and Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), echoed Levine’s support of the Speaker’s choice and her reasoning regarding the virus.
Bourne also applauded the decision to allow for written comments on bills from the public.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Bourne told The Star. “We have to find other or additional ways to engage the public and allow them to be involved in the legislative process, much like we have throughout our special session.”
House Republicans, however, did not share that sentiment with their colleagues.
“No, I do not agree with it. We’ve done enough virtual damage to Virginia in the 84-day special session,” Del. Wendell Walker (R-Lynchburg) said. “The problem with the virtual session that we held this summer is the ability to get on to each session, and for those that want to have public input, we found that a lot of them were not able to login or get access.”
Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) offered similar comments on the Speaker’s decision.
“I think it’s the opposite of what we think is good government,” Miyares said. “Basically, we’re legislating like Hollywood squares. You stick 100 legislators on a zoom call and I think you can imagine how ineffective that actually is.”
Both Walker and Miyares brought up the fact that the Senate met in-person during the special session that concluded earlier this month and asked why House Democrats couldn’t find a solution of their own.
Miyares also mentioned an idea for the House to hold in-person sessions at the Capitol while adhering to social distancing by splitting up members between multiple large rooms in the building.
Less than an hour later, House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) released a joint statement saying they oppose extending the 2021 session past 30 days, the mandated length in the Virginia Constitution.
“Considering the lengthy regular and special sessions held this year, the General Assembly should be able to complete its work for 2021 in the 30 days the Constitution allows,” Norment said in the statement. “This year’s regular session lasted 65 days and the special session stretched out over 84. The Constitution limits General Assembly sessions to 60 days in even-numbered years and 30 in odd-numbered ones.”
Several Senate Republicans said they agreed with the two GOP leaders.
In an online statement, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) said: “I join Delegate Gilbert and Senator Norment in their call to limit the 2021 Session to 30 days. The Constitution requires a two-thirds concurrence to extend the Session and the Republican Caucuses in the House and Senate will not be voting for that.”
Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) confirmed he would not vote for an extension beyond 30 days, also citing the length of the 2020 regular and special sessions.
Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) told The Star that he hoped Norment and Gilbert would have worked with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle to find a compromise for the 2021 session instead of engaging “in a publicity stunt.”
Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond City) said it was somewhat “illogical” to go into a regular session thinking the workload can be completed in just 30 days and that he would vote for an extension.
“I would love to be able to get all of our business accomplished in 30 days, but if we haven’t been able to do it in the last 30 years, why would we be expected to do it this year,” Morrissey said.
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