Some local lawmakers say a partially virtual upcoming Virginia General Assembly session and the locking of constituents out of offices will make public participation challenging.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, announced last month that the 100-member House of Delegates will conduct the session online due to rising cases of COVID-19 across Virginia. The 40-member Senate is expected to again meet in person at the Science Museum of Virginia, which is large enough to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
Committee and sub-committee meetings will be livestreamed.
In addition, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the Senate Rules Committee chairwoman, and Filler-Corn announced the Pocahontas Office Building will only be open to legislators and legislative employees during the session, due to COVID-19. It houses the offices of all General Assembly members.
“If this [closure] order sticks, that means the thousands of people we normally visit with and talk to and that participate in the legislative process won’t be participating this year,” state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, told members of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce this week.
“We will do everything we can to make sure we’re accessible as we can, whether on the weekends when we’re home or — if you come to Richmond — there are plenty of offsite coffee shops and places we will meet you and discuss your concerns,” Pillion said.
This week, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, asked a judge to grant an injunction forcing the office building to be open.
“I believe that the declared orders are a violation of the 1st Amendment and inconsistent with open government,” DeSteph said in a written statement.
Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, also voiced disdain about the plans.
“We know it is going to be a challenge because we’ve already gotten the test drive of the virtual session for 83 days back during the summer and fall. I don’t think we should all be sitting in the House chamber every single day — I think we know that could potentially be a very dangerous situation. But I’ve seen enough of virtual session to know it is a miscarriage of representative government. We’ll have to do the best we absolutely can to try to make this work.”
O’Quinn said email may be the best way to communicate with lawmakers and their aides.
“We can do phone and other things in lieu of actually seeing one another in our Richmond offices,” he said.
“There is going to be a link where you can comment on individual bills in committee, which we haven’t had. If you testify, normally you come up and you give your 45- or 60-second spiel. The committee chairs, in our experience thus far, are typically allowing one or two pieces of testimony on each side of an argument, so I think written testimony is going to be crucial.”
The session convenes Jan. 13 with an abbreviated schedule after the the extended 2020 special session was completed in November.
“The normal 45- to 46-day short session will be 30 days this year,” Pillion said. “Hopefully, this will force the members to focus less on politics and more on what’s best for Virginia.”
In addition to considering Gov. Ralph Northam’s final biennial budget, lawmakers are expected to revisit the minimum wage increase that passed in March but was put on hold in the wake of the public health pandemic.
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