To Shenandoah Valley legislators, the start of the 2021 General Assembly session is anything but business as usual.
Today marks the first day of the session, and instead of being swarmed by lawmakers and legislative aides, the Capitol chambers are empty. The House of Delegates is conducting business virtually, while the Senate resumes meeting in person at the Virginia Science Museum.
“With session being virtual in 2021, I feel like I’m going to session for the very first time,” said Del. Chris Runion, R-Bridgewater.
Although the House is meeting remotely, Runion, along with Dels. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson, and Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, will represent their constituents in person in Richmond alongside Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon.
It’ll be a session full of challenges.
“We are coming off one of the most challenging years I think we have been confronted with since World War II,” Obenshain said. “I hope that when we go to Richmond, we will be able to get down to business and work on essential legislation and set aside brochure bills.”
Lawmakers got a taste of what a virtual session would be like during last year’s special session.
Wilt said the session was longer than any he has been apart of, adding that while he is appreciative of the work information technology staff has done to make a virtual session possible, “some things need to be done in person," such as meeting in person.
Despite the special session preview last summer, lawmakers are still in “uncharted waters” according to Runion, who expressed several concerns with having another virtual session.
“While talking with other legislators and stakeholders, it feels like everyone’s experience is out the window,” he said. “I am concerned that the citizens of the commonwealth will be further removed from the legislative process.”
Wilt said he personally knows people who attempted to have their voices heard during the past special session but were unable to due to technical challenges.
During a normal session, those who could not attend in person could rely on lobbyists to get their message across. With a virtual session, the face-to-face communication gets lost.
“It’s easy to say no over the phone, but when someone is there across the table from you, there is that real person connection,” Wilt said. “It puts a name and face to an issue.”
Bell said bills were not properly reviewed during the special session.
Instead of legislators sitting in a room together asking questions and discussing, debate became lagged through wavering internet connections.
While meeting through Zoom is "better than nothing," Bell said, meeting in person is still the way to do legislative work.
There were also concerns raised with accessing virtual meetings when an internet connection isn’t possible.
“I don't have broadband internet at my house, and we use a hot spot at our legislative office,” Runion said. “Internet access is a formality east of Charlottesville, but in rural Virginia it remains a luxury. I'm certain there will be times that my feed will freeze and lag.”
According to Broadband Now’s website, only 83.4% of Rockingham County residents and 91.7% of Harrisonburg residents have broadband coverage. In Augusta County, the broadband coverage is 79.3%, and in Shenandoah County it is 85%.
During a Zoom meeting Tuesday, Gilbert said meeting virtually is not in the interest of democracy or his constituents in the Valley, adding that the legislative process will not be done “effectively” in a virtual environment.
As far as legislative priorities go, Gilbert said Republicans will present a package far different from Democrats.
Two areas of interest are education and voting.
Gilbert said Republicans will propose to restore the voter identification requirement eliminated in 2020 and work to find a way to get teachers back into classrooms.
“Our teachers want to be back in school,” he said. “We need them vaccinated right away. That is a priority to us.”
For House Democrats, proposed legislation includes legalizing marijuana, raising teacher pay, allocating an additional $15 million to the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative for broadband, allocating $200 million to support the state’s vaccination deployment and requiring paid sick leave.
Despite the obstacles this session, Valley lawmakers echoed their intentions to represent their constituents in the best way they can.
“We are open for business,” Obenshain said. “We will make the most of a difficult circumstance.”
Hanger could not be reached for comment.