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Among the first investments to be announced was $700 million in funding for broadband, a technology lacking in rural parts of the state, affecting an estimated 233,500 localities.

“It’s time to close the digital divide in our commonwealth and treat internet service like the 21st century necessity that it is—not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all,” Northam said of the funding request, a big boost compared to the $124 million the state has spent on similar projects since 2018.

Other requests from Northam include $353 million for small business recovery, $485 million for the state’s behavioral health system and $250 million to fix school HVAC systems. 

Another $304 million is set to be allocated to 190 towns, on top of over $2 billion given to Virginia municipalities under an earlier federal Covid-19 package.

“We have worked diligently to ensure that all localities receive the funds designated for them, and we are excited to see the positive outcomes that will result for communities across Virginia,” the governor said

But the appropriations process has not been without controversy. Republican lawmakers, who lost the majority in the Virginia House of Delegates for the first time in decades in 2019, say they’ve been completely left out.

Among those with concerns is Senator Bill Stanley, a Republican whose rural district includes the south-central part of the state. He compared the Democrats' treatment to something his father used to say: “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Stanley admitted the once deep-red state and its GOP leadership acted similarly in past budget fights, but he argued there was still a level of collaboration, even if minimal, that allowed for minority input. This time, however, he pointed to a letter from House Democratic leadership sent to all 140 members saying no amendments to the budget would be allowed during the upcoming session. 

“This is their money and they’re going to make decisions without our input and they could care less about what we think,” he said in a phone interview. “And the next time the pendulum of power swings it’s what we’re going to do.” 

But Delegate Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said that wasn’t quite the case. While amendments may not be accepted when the funding bills come to the floor, he said he and his fellow members of the House Appropriations Committee welcomed input from Republicans but haven't received it. 

“They’ve had every opportunity to let leadership know what their priorities are,” said the committee's vice chair, who has helped write the upcoming budget. “They could be involved as any engaged citizen could be.” 

Sickles also noted there were a number of rules attached to the funds limiting how and where they could be spent. 

“They’re universally popular expenditures,” he said. 

Stanley agrees on the importance of expanding broadband, noting he lacked access to high-speed internet in his home district. But he said the proposed investments he’d seen so far were a drop in the bucket compared to what was actually needed. 

“Two-hundred and fifty million for schools? That’s nothing,” he said of Northam’s HVAC funding plan. “They could solve some major problems if they took a lot of that money and focused it on a few things, instead they’re spreading it around for political cover.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in Alexandria, Va., in March 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Sickles laughed at the idea of Republicans being disappointed with the lack of bigger spending. 

“We’re the wrong people to complain about [not spending enough],” he joked, before suggesting Republicans who wanted more should talk to their own party members in Congress who sought to reduce funding during the months-long coronavirus relief debate. 

Beyond the budget dispute, changes made to the Virginia Court of Appeals will also be addressed in the coming weeks. 

Those changes include an expansion of the number of seats on the bench from 11 to 17, as well creating a new appeal as of right in every civil and criminal case.  

“In almost every case you’d get oral argument as well as having the opportunity to have your case be considered by three judges,” said the bill’s author Senator John Edwards, D-Roanoke, during the a floor hearing. 

Delegate Mike Mullin, D-Hampton, hoped the changes to the appeals process would be a revolution for the state’s justice system. Virginia was the last state in the country to lack a right to appeal without getting permission from the trial or appellate court.

“An appeal by right in criminal and civil cases will make our system more fair, just and efficient,” he said in a phone interview. 

A former county prosecutor, Mullin scoffed at the idea that the changes could see some of his own work face additional appeals. 

“Everyone is subject to appeal, no one is an island in and of themselves,” he said. 

But Republicans argue the court expansion is an attempt by Democrats to rig the state’s appeal system in their favor. 

“They’re court-packing. They want to add six pro-defense, pro-criminal defendant judges to the Court of Appeals,” Virginia Beach-area Republican Delegate Jason Miyares said in a phone interview. A former commonwealth's attorney, Miyares is also running for state attorney general, a position up for grabs this fall, and has pointed to recent spikes in crime rates as part of the Democratic trifecta’s failures. 

But he joined Stanley in saying expanding the appeals court’s duties wasn’t the worst idea, it was just the timing of the judicial additions. 

“We need more access, we need to take the load off the Supreme Court,” the senator said, before stressing he tried to add guardrails to the appointment process to avoid partisanship, something that would have gotten a “yes” vote from him at least. 

“Without safeguards to address that demonstrates that regional proportionality, you’re left with a partisan determination which I think is bad for justice,” Stanley added.

That regionalism is an important part in the judicial appointment process. Every elected official Courthouse News spoke to said state lawmakers had a history of taking the locality of nominees into account. 

“Partisan politics doesn’t play as much of a role in our judicial selection as it might in D.C. Much more of it comes down to things like regionalism,” said Mullin, who noted many parts of the state - the heavily Democratic northern and coastal regions in particular - have long been underrepresented on the bench. 

“I think you’ll finally see those parts of the state properly represented for the first time in a long time,” he said, noting the power shift to Democrats will weigh heavily on the selection process. 

That's not to say politics wont inevitably play a role. Stanley pointed out a judicial appointment made by former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who's running to get his old job back this fall, was removed from the bench and replaced by the GOP legislators after only a short few months. 

“I put a motion in to certify her but it died,” the senator said of judge Jane Marum Roush, whose tenure he supported to no avail. ”She was the best pick but that’s not what we do.”

Stanley also questioned the Democratic majority’s ability to secure nominations in the face of regional considerations. He said that while there might be a few guarantees on the list, he could see Democratic factions split by region on others. 

“It’s going to be a blood sport,” he opined.

But Delegate Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, a civil rights attorney, said the appeals court changes would open doors for everyone across the state, something every legal organization in the state has supported for years. 

“There’s been talks about it for a long time,” he said. “With Democrats in charge we finally had the momentum to do it.”

Follow Brad Kutner on Twitter

Source : https://www.courthousenews.com/virus-relief-spending-court-appointments-on-agenda-for-virginia-special-legislative-session/

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