The plan to spend the about $4.3 billion dollars in American Rescue Plan Act funds provided to Virginia in the federal government’s second stimulus package, passed the House of Delegates on Wednesday afternoon, but local representatives are unhappy with how it was done.
The 100-member House is split 55-45 with Democrats in the majority, but the plan passed with a bipartisan 71-25 vote. The state Senate was expected to vote on a plan later Wednesday.
House Minority leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Republican delegates Bill Wiley and Michael Webert, who both represent parts of Warren County, voted against the plan, with Gilbert and Wiley saying they felt shut out of the process.
“I would have hoped that we would have at least been afforded the opportunity to explain our bill, but instead we are left with the inevitable two minutes,” Gilbert said on the House floor. “Two minutes to explain things that are of great importance to children, to law enforcement to public safety, to the businesses that are hurting around Virginia and have been hurting for some time. Two minutes to put forward ideas that might help in any of those areas.”
Gilbert was referring to the two minutes he had to explain the Republican proposal. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, stated before the special session that began Monday that the usual committee process, which allows for more amendment submissions and deliberation, wouldn’t be followed for the sake of expediency.
“We didn’t want to have to knock on the door to the smoke-filled room...,” Gilbert said on the House floor while explaining the GOP’s proposal. “We wanted to participate in this process.”
The House-approved plan calls for $700 million for broadband access expansion; $120 million in utility assistance; $25.6 million for food access programs; and rental assistance and relief against evictions, Torian explained before Wednesday’s vote was taken.
It also includes $73.6 million into the Virginia Employment Commission to increase efficiencies; $414 million to water infrastructure; $25 million for state parks; $250 million for public school HVAC system upgrades; $280 million in public health measures; and $238 million in mental health system and substance abuse programs.
About $800 million is being held back in case of future emergencies as COVID-19 cases and the more contagious delta variant surges throughout the country.
“If anyone looks at this proposed budget, there is no way in the world any of us should vote against this budget,” Torian said Wednesday before the vote.
The House Republican’s plan sought: to have public school funding go toward renovation of schools, not just HVAC work; implement “Project Cease Fire,” a gun violence reduction strategy that doesn’t include gun control; provide a $500 per student grant to help parents and their children bounce back from learning loss; and give a $5,000 bonus to every sworn law enforcement officer and correctional officer in the state, not just State Police, like in the Democrats’ plan.
In the Senate, which was calling up several amendments to the bill for approval, an alteration to the plan that would give a one-time $5,000 bonus to staff at sheriff’s offices and regional jails was approved, according to the Associated Press. Other amendments would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to return to allowing walk-in service and another would allow for a survey to determine how many state employees are still working remotely versus having returned to offices, the AP reported.
“It is the right thing to do,” Sen. Mark Obenshain, D-Harrisonburg, said on the Senate floor while advocating for the law enforcement bonuses going to more than just State Police members.
Wiley acknowledged there were some good things in the House plan, such as the commitment to broadband expansion. But Wiley said he liked the Republican’s effort to allocate the school funds using a calculation that he said distributes the money more equitably between smaller and larger counties.
Because of the lack of discussion with House Democrats in crafting the bill, he said he couldn’t vote for it in on principle. “You just don’t do business like this,” he said.
Del. Michael Webert did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
After the Senate approves its version, a conference committee between the two legislative bodies will finalize the spending plan, said Garren Shipley, spokesperson for Gilbert.
The special session was called for two weeks starting Monday, and is expected to also fill judge vacancies before its end.