Home Budget, Economy Audio: Alexandria City Legislative Director Gives Preview of Virginia Special Session –...

Audio: Alexandria City Legislative Director Gives Preview of Virginia Special Session – Budget, “Qualified Immunity” Reform, etc.

Argues that reforming qualified immunity is a "tough one for us," that the focus should be on "fix[ing] the things that create bad actors"

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Check out the following audio by Transition Virginia, in which they preview the upcoming Virginia General Assembly’s Special Session, which starts tomorrow. A few things in particular jumped out at me, including comments by Sarah Graham Taylor, the legislative director for the City of Alexandria, who “advocates on legislative items of concern to the City during the Virginia General Assembly session.” Here are a few highlights:

  • As Taylor explains, the Special Session – particularly committee meetings – will be heavily “virtual” (while the Senate as a whole meets at the Science Museum of Virginia, and the House of Delegates as a whole meets at VCU’s Stuart C. Siegel Center).
  • The first order of business is “the procedural resolution…hammering out the rules and the procedures and the guidelines, the guardrails for the special session and that will be Tuesday after the joint money committee meetings, which will be held that morning.”
  • According to Taylor, “what we’ve heard is that we should expect…rather than seeing lots and lots of individual bills in these areas, we are expecting to see kind of omnibus bills.” Also worth noting: “[T]here is not an appetite for this being a, you know, a 60 day 60 day, special session, you know, a special session that’s longer than regular session is probably not what they’re going for. I think that at least on the Senate side, it feels like they have been very coordinated as to how they put their agenda together and their bill packages together. So I would expect that anything that’s rolled out is fully vetted and pre baked. At least from the Senate Democratic side. That’s what it feels like. Whether there’s been a similar effort on the House side is still yet to be seen.”
  • As far as Taylor can remember, with regard to the budget, this really is “an unprecedented situation and a huge challenge,” given COVID-19. Taylor adds that “not only are we looking at the things that were taken out of the budget that was passed this past session, but we’re also looking at all these new things that have been brought to the table that cost money, and whether it’s the criminal justice stuff, or the police reform stuff or the COVID stuff. You know, we now have a whole series of competing priorities and an ongoing budget shortfall.
  • On the budget shortfall, “We’ve heard everything from $600 million for the rest of this fiscal year to two billion for the biennium.” Also, as far as Taylor is aware, “I have not heard of new revenue sources being on the table, that it’s more of looking at the revenue that we have available to us and seeing how to apply it.”
  • Regarding the main issues that are likely to be discussed and debated, other than the budget itself, Taylor points to “the COVID impact on the elections,” “healthcare and uninsured,” “paid sick leave,” “nurses in school buildings,” “policing reform,” and “criminal justice reform,” among others.
  • On criminal justice reform, there was a fascinating discussion on the issue of reforming “qualified immunity” for police officers. According to Taylor, this is “a tough one for us…because on the one hand, you want to be able to say…bad actors should face consequences…like…if you were…an average person who did something that a police officer did in the line of duty.” But, Taylor argues, “for us, I believe it’s more of a slippery slope issue when it comes to qualified immunity and sovereign immunity and the immunities that are that are granted to employees of governmental entities and the protections that they receive with regard to doing their job,” potentially “opening a Pandora’s box.” Taylor argues, when it comes to local governments, “that we believe that this is a in most cases is a reasonable protection that is granted to our employees and that taking that protection off the table is obviously not something that we would want to see wholesale, and that if the system is working correctly and that you have a police officers who are trained properly and are vetted properly and are hired properly and are doing their jobs properly, that the problems of qualified immunity should not really be problems.” So, Taylor concludes, the legislature should “address some of these systemic problems, then the problem of qualified immunity is not really one that needs to be addressed wholesale on the front end…if we can fix the things that create bad actors or that allow bad actors to have these be in these positions, then perhaps that’s what will get us there.” This seems very reasonable; what do you think?
  • On a related note, the “qualified immunity” issue is currently being debated in deep-blue Massachusetts, where the state’s Attorney General – a Democrat – argues that “we do need to reform our qualified immunity statute for police officers,” BUT “We also need to make sure that public employees who have to make tough calls in their job aren’t constantly getting sued.”