(The Center Square) – Republicans have expressed frustration after Virginia House Democratic leaders decided the chamber’s Appropriations Committee will not consider any amendments to Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed revisions to the state budget regarding the allocation of federal relief funds.
State lawmakers are scheduled to meet in a special session next week to allocate about $4.3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds provided through the American Rescue Plan. The session is expected to last between several days and a couple of weeks.
In a letter to lawmakers, House Appropriations Chair Luke Torian, D-Dumfries, said neither the House nor the Senate committees will consider any amendments. However, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats could not confirm such a prohibition has been introduced for the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee and The Center Square could not reach Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, who chairs the committee. Jeff Ryer, a spokesperson for the Senate Republicans said Republican senators have not received a similar email.
“Because of the unique circumstances and limited nature of the 2021 Special Session II, neither the House Appropriations Committee nor the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee will be accepting any member amendment requests to the governor’s introduced bill,” Torian wrote to state lawmakers. “It simply would be impossible to thoroughly evaluate those items in what is expected to be a short and expeditious special session.”
In the letter, Torian added the special session will be limited to the allocation of federal funds and will not change general fund expenditures. He said general fund issues will be addressed during the 2022 regular session.
Torian said in a statement provided to The Center Square that thanks to Northam’s collaboration on the budget, many of the agreed-upon allocations are already public, which include investments in public schools, small businesses and infrastructure. He said the priority is expediency in getting relief funds where they are needed.
Republican House leaders, however, feel like they’ve been left out of the discussion. During a news conference, they criticized the decision and argued lawmakers should debate the spending proposals in committee. Normally, bills are revised through the committee process before receiving a vote on a chamber’s floor.
“[Democrats] have learned the art of cutting off debate,” House Republican Caucus Chair Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, said. “...It’s time for transparency.”
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said there are many ways in which the state could spend the money wisely and lawmakers in the committees should be able to put forward ideas of their own. He said Democratic leaders are just “going to do what the governor tells them to do behind closed doors.”
Gilbert said Republicans will still be able to offer floor amendments, but that most of the debate tends to happen in committees and subcommittees. Although he said floor amendments are not ideal, they are the only avenue Republicans have left. If Democrats could cut off those amendments, Gilbert said he expects they would.
Republicans vowed to focus on school curriculum, struggling businesses, funding for the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, the cost of living, crime and other issues. The caucus leaders did not unveil specific proposals and said they are waiting to see more specifics from the governor before they decide what changes they plan to propose.
The session will begin Aug. 2.