AG Mark Herring says Virginia General Assembly can meet remotely during pandemic

Coronavirus

Virginia lawmakers meet for a veto session on April 22 under tents, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing guidelines.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring issued an opinion Thursday that the General Assembly can meet electronically amid a declared emergency like the coronavirus pandemic.

Herring’s opinion, issued at the request of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, comes after a resolution from Filler-Corn that would have allowed the House to vote remotely failed to garner the required two-thirds majority during last month’s veto session. House Republicans argued that technical issues with the electronic voting system, which did occur in April, could lead to delays during remote meetings.

The attorney general stated that provisions in the two budget bills, House Bill 29 and House Bill 30, authorizes each chamber to meet and vote electronically.

READ MORE: Full opinion from Attorney General Mark Herring

“It is important that bodies continue to adhere to important principles of open government and transparency,” Herring wrote. “The fundamental commitment to openness must be upheld and maintained, even as public bodies consider alternative methods to conduct the operation of government.”

Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) commended Herring for his ruling, stating that it will allow lawmakers to lead by example during the crisis.

“Public experts have clearly stated that limiting large physical gatherings is crucial to reducing the spread of COVID-19.  The Governor’s budget recommendations that passed during the Reconvened Session give the Virginia General Assembly the flexibility to convene remotely, if necessary,” the House Speaker said in a statement to WRIC-TV. “This will allow legislators the option to complete the people’s business remotely while leading by example on public health during the Governor’s Declared State of Emergency. I thank the Attorney General and his team for their hard work and diligence in looking into this important matter.”

Filler-Corn’s spokesman Jake Rubenstein said that Gov. Ralph Northam has hinted that a special session would be required “later this summer” to look over the budget in the wake of the revenue losses due to the coronavirus.

“Whether an electronic session would be used for that remains to be seen,” Rubenstein said.

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) reacted to Herring’s opinion in a tweet, saying that he hopes Filler-Corn “isn’t suggesting here that she doesn’t need to pass the very same change to the House rules that she already proposed to make this happen.”

“It is not surprising that the Attorney General would pave the way for House Democrats to circumvent state transparency laws,” Gilbert said in a statement to WRIC, “but that has absolutely nothing to do with the Speaker’s demonstrated understanding that they would need to change the operating rules of the House in order to facilitate remote voting.”

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