Lawmakers to begin negotiations on plan for COVID-19 funds

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Lawmakers from the Virginia House and Senate were set to begin negotiations Thursday over the spending plan for Virginia’s share of federal coronavirus relief money after the two chambers passed different versions of the bill.

The versions that cleared the House and Senate are largely the same as far as where they direct the biggest buckets of money. But the Senate worked late into the night Wednesday, passing a series of amendments to the initial budget proposal that had been drafted in collaboration with Gov. Ralph Northam’s office and fellow Democrats.

The House rejected those proposed changes Thursday, sending the legislation to a conference committee. Conference committees generally meet out of public view to hash out differences.

It wasn’t immediately clear how soon a deal would be reached.

“I am anticipating and certainly expect that the Senate conferees will vigorously support the Senate version of the budget … but it is a negotiation, so who knows if we’ll get them all or not?” Democratic Sen. Janet Howell said of the chamber’s amendments.

Among the key differences: The House plan includes one-time bonuses of $5,000 for state police, and $1,000 bonuses for sheriffs deputies and jail officers, while the Senate version proposes giving the $5,000 bonus to all.

The Senate also added a provision requiring the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to return to allowing walk-in service for transactions at its customer service centers throughout the state. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DMV had instituted an appointment-only system for in-person services.

The Senate also stripped language included by Gov. Ralph Northam to regulate deals using the name, image or likeness of student athletes at the state’s colleges and universities. Republicans argued the issue shouldn’t be dealt with in a special session that leaves little room for debate or public input.

Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the governor’s position on the Senate’s proposals.

Both versions of the bill call for spending most of Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the American Rescue Plan funding on initiatives aimed at helping small businesses, improving air quality in public schools, bolstering mental health and substance-abuse treatment, increasing broadband access and replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund.

Both versions also include some protections against evictions and utility disconnections for families still struggling financially because of the pandemic.

The General Assembly members were also slated to elect eight judges to an expanded Court of Appeals during the special session. Lawmakers voted earlier this year to add six new seats to the court as part of an expansion plan aimed at providing an automatic right of appeal in all civil and criminal cases. There are two other vacancies on the court to fill.

Republican lawmakers complained Thursday that they were shut out of interviews with judicial candidates that Democrats conducted privately Wednesday.

“It is just wrong to do this behind closed doors, and I hope it never happens again,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain.

Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen said that when Republicans controlled the General Assembly, they drove the vetting process for judicial candidates, just as Democrats are doing now as the majority party.

“No one is being cut out of anything, but at the end of the day, the majority party has a responsibility to vet the candidates,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell said once eight finalists are determined, a public hearing will be held during which members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Courts of Justice Committee will question them. Members of the public will be allowed to testify at that hearing.