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‘Welcome Back!’ Va. Lawmakers Return to Richmond to Spend Stimulus Money

people seated at desks in rows
Lawmakers convene in the chamber of the Virginia House of Delegates. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

There were lots of fistbumps and handshakes in Virginia’s Capitol Monday as lawmakers returned to their usual chambers in Richmond for the first time in over a year.

“I would like to start with two words: Welcome back!” Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn said to raucous applause. She noted the legislature had wrapped up its last in person session 500 days ago, in March 2020.

The upbeat mood was tempered by rising coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant. Most Democrats wore masks while Republicans went without.

Their main task is divvying up $4.3 billion in federal stimulus funds. Democrats have already laid out plans to spend the money on items like schools and broadband, setting aside around a fourth of the money in case the pandemic causes damage to state revenues that have so far run an over $2 billion surplus. They’re also appointing eight judges to the Court of Appeals, which the legislature expanded to 17 members earlier this year.

Republican lawmakers argued their ideas aren’t getting a fair hearing because of procedural rules from Democrats that won’t allow lawmakers to submit proposals to the budget. Del. Bobby Orrock (R-Caroline), one of the longest-serving members of the body, called the system an “autocracy.” He cited old wisdom he’d received from his parents as one of eight children: “Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.”

“Madam Speaker, my hope and prayer for this body, for this state, for this body of government, is that we may heed my parents counsel to my siblings,” Orrock said.

Democrats have noted that the American Rescue Plan passed in Congress without any Republican support. Del. Luke Torian (D-Prince William), chairman of the House Appropriation committee, said Republicans could have approached him with ideas.

“The letdown is not from the majority party. The letdown is from their own leadership,” he said.

There is some bipartisan interest in keeping the session short, at least in the House of Delegates. Lawmakers in that body are on the ballot this November. The governor’s mansion and other statewide officers are also up for grabs.