Del. Ken Plum reflects on returning to Richmond for special session to spend COVID relief funds

Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (via Martin Kraft/Wikimedia Commons)

After nearly a year and a half spent working with colleagues over video, Del. Ken Plum was happy to be able to see all of his fellow Virginia General Assembly members in-person again.

“It’s good to see and work with people after such a profoundly long time,” said Plum, who represents Virginia’s 36th House District, including Reston.

When the Virginia General Assembly met for a special session on Aug. 2, it had been about 17 months since the entire legislature last convened in person at the State Capitol in Richmond. With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, lawmakers still saw some notable deviations from their usual procedures.

Plexiglass walls surrounded a number of legislators’ desks with many wearing masks, though not everyone did, despite Gov. Ralph Northam’s recommendation late last month.

“All the Democrats seem to be wearing masks,” Plum told Reston Now by phone as he sat in the back of the chamber waiting for it to reconvene after a recess. “Many Republicans have chosen not to [wear masks].”

The General Assembly concluded the special session yesterday (Tuesday) after approving a host of new appeals court judges and a plan for spending $4.3 billion in federal aid.

The American Rescue Plan Act package included:

Additionally, $1.1 billion — about a quarter of the aid — is being left unappropriated in case those funds are needed later this fiscal year.

“We are getting monies out to communities and residents that need it,” Plum said.

In addition to allocating coronavirus relief funds, the General Assembly voted yesterday to confirm eight new judges to the Virginia Court of Appeals. That expands the number of seats on the court from 11 to 17, as the Commonwealth will allow appeals for all civil and criminal cases to the court for the first time.

The confirmations also make the Court of Appeals significantly more diverse by adding four Black judges and four female judges.

Several locals are now on the court, including Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Ortiz and Vernida Chaney, a former Fairfax County public defender.

“For the first time, this is no longer a white boys and girls’ club,” Plum said. “The appelate will look and feel like a justice system representing the full community.”

He noted that it was an “incredibly exhaustive effort” to vet and choose the right people after more than 80 candidates applied.

“That’s a lot, which is wonderful and means people are interested,” Plum said.

While Plum is comforted by being able to work again in person, he believes a hybrid approach would be ideal, allowing votes to be cast in person, for example, while public meetings and other activities that might draw people from far away can be conducted virtually.

“[Zoom] actually didn’t limit participation, but expanded it,” Plum said. “It wasn’t all bad and we shouldn’t give up on it entirely.”

via Martin Kraft/Wikimedia Commons

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