2020 Special Session of the General Assembly: A Recap and Looking Forward

With the General Assembly completing a budget and all legislation, here is a recap of the Special Session and a glance at the work ahead in the coming weeks.


  • The Special Session lasted 60+ days and addressed policing, criminal justice reform, COVID-19, and the state’s budget. 

  • Many overdue and needed policing and criminal justice reform measures passed, including a chokehold ban and a no-knock warrant ban.

  • The Chapter will continue its work in support of the Movement for Black Lives in further legislation and across our work. 

  • The General Assembly closed the $2.7 billion+ budget deficit. 

  • The budget includes concerning and limited protections for evictions, but stronger protections by way of a utility shut-off moratorium. 

  • The budget fails to return any of the more than $500 million+ in Dominion over earnings to customers. 

  • The budget will be transmitted to Gov. Northam for signature after the election in order to determine if language surrounding redistricting is needed. 

  • Logistics of how the Assembly will meet in 2021 remain outstanding as the Chapter has turned to reviewing legislative priority items for the upcoming regular session. 

    The Special Session

The Special Session of the General Assembly called by Governor Northam that began on August 18 has reached a relative conclusion. Tasked with making urgent reforms to policing, acting on critical criminal justice changes, and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout, all while closing a more than $2.7 billion budget shortfall, the legislature was in session for more than 60 days. Longer than the length of a regular session in alternating years. 

The General Assembly passed important policing and criminal justice reforms. These include: a ban on the use of chokeholds used in the murder of George Floyd, stricter regulation of no-knock warrants used in the murder of Breonna Taylor, a duty to intervene law, a prohibition on fired officers being rehired elsewhere, the creation of a Marcus Alert System for situations that require mental health services crisis response, the creation of a local option for a citizen review board, legislation limiting unnecessary traffic stops, and a variety of new processes for developing police training standards. 

Long overdue, and deeply needed, these reforms are critical to ensuring that the police serve our community and that the justice system delivers its justice impartially. The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter is proud to support these reforms. We will continue to do so in the 2021 regular session and beyond. We will use our resources to continue support for the Movement for Black Lives and do all we can to assist in passing legislation that ends the long-lasting tide of inequity and structural racism that plagues our communities, BIPOC personally, and our government systems. 

The General Assembly was also tasked with responding to the ongoing and growing COVID-19 pandemic. Legislation the Chapter supported that would have continued a full eviction moratorium until April 2021 was unsuccessful. However, the budget includes guidelines for what must occur before an eviction can proceed, and this includes an application for assistance by the tenant and/or the landlord to the Virginia Rental and Mortgage Relief Fund as a condition. We echo partner organizations including the Virginia Poverty Law Center, New Virginia Majority, and the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center in expressing concern that the language does not do enough to protect Virginia families. 

The Chapter also supported budget language to address the growing crisis around utility debt and utility shut-offs. We are glad that the budget includes language to reinstate the utility shut-off moratorium until the end of the health crisis. A deeply troubling omission from the budget surrounds Dominion Energy’s overearnings, which total more than $500 million in the past few years. The General Assembly failed to use any of the shareholder overearnings from this monopoly utility as a component of utility debt relief. Rather than use money that rightfully belongs to the ratepayers, the General Assembly shamefully allowed Dominion to forgive utility debt and then offset the cost of doing so in the next rate case. In the passed budget, the relief for Virginia families will be paid for by other customers all while shareholders sit atop a mountain of excess profit that doesn’t belong to them in the first place. The Chapter will work with partner organizations to address this issue in the 2021 session because this budget fails to do right by all families struggling during this pandemic and uses their own money against them.

Ultimately, House and Senate leaders and Governor Northam came to an agreement on an amended state budget. Prior to the agreement, Governor Northam expressed concern publicly about the spending proposed in the budget and urged lawmakers to prioritize the Commonwealth’s cash flexibility. On Friday evening, October 16, the budget passed the House and shortly thereafter the Senate. However, the budget has not yet proceeded to the Governor’s desk for signature.

Creating further delay in the budget process is a budget-language-related issue dealing with Constitutional Amendment #1 on the ballot this year about redistricting. The passage of the amendment would trigger the need for legislative action to set up the framework of the Commission included in the amendment’s language. The General Assembly will need to meet certain deadlines contained in the amendment. To do so, they will wait to transmit the budget to Governor Northam’s desk. If the amendment passes on November 3, or in the days after depending on ballot counting, then the Governor will propose a change to the budget to address the requirements of the amendment. 

After the election results are known on this point, the budget is expected to be signed by the Governor. The Governor’s signature on the budget and any remaining bills will mean the official conclusion of the Special Session, however when it comes to legislation and further budget discussions, the Session has concluded.

Looking Forward to 2021 - Logistics and Priorities

The logistics of the Special Session’s operations also posed challenges for the duration of the session. With all face to face lobbying eliminated due to the pandemic, the Senate met in a hybrid format. With floor sessions occurring in a large room inside the Science Museum of Virginia, along with some committee meetings, while other committee meetings were held on Zoom. The House, both floor sessions and committee meetings, met entirely via Zoom. 

This posed logistical challenges to advocacy organizations who were tasked with managing the bill amendment and budget process virtually while also balancing deadlines required to register to speak during the public testimony portion of committee meetings and the accompanying and differing Zoom access links. Anticipating that this structure or a version of it is not going away soon, the Chapter Legislative Committee and staff are working on a plan for the regular session to ensure the voices of our members are heard by their leaders. We do expect that the General Assembly, including both the House and Senate Clerk’s offices, will announce further logistics and details about the 2021 regular session in the coming weeks. 

Until that time, the Chapter is focused on determining, collaborating on, and finalizing our legislative priorities for the regular session within a timeline that has been significantly compressed by the Special Session’s length and additional challenges posed by the pandemic. 

If you have any questions about the Special Session or our process looking forward to 2021, please contact Connor Kish at connor.kish@sierraclub.org 

Connor Kish
Legislative and Political Director
Sierra Club Virginia Chapter