Virginia Governor Ralph Northam unveiled his recommendations for the biennial budget on Wednesday with big spending toward the state’s continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic, public education and other items.
The governor presented his budget proposals to lawmakers during a joint virtual meeting of the House of Delegates and Senate appropriation committees.
“We have crafted this budget against the backdrop of the pandemic,” Northam said. “The plan I will present to you today is intended to help Virginians navigate the next phase of the crisis, and perhaps, its final months. It will position us to recover as quickly as possible as we rebuild our economy in a post-pandemic world.”
During the meeting, Northam said Virginia’s economic picture is more stable now than earlier in the year and that his team is estimating $1.2 billion in additional revenue over the biennium.
The newly-proposed budget includes $240 million for public health pandemic response. Part of that money is $90 million to support Virginia’s mass vaccination efforts and to make sure the state has the supplies, staffing and infrastructure for all 8.5 million residents to get the vaccine.
For education, Northam’s proposal totals $500 million to help prevent school divisions from suffering losses in funding because of the decreases in enrollment. Furthermore, $27 million is being invested to add more school counselors to help students struggling with virtual learning as well as $80 million to give teachers and support positions a two percent bonus.
Other spending items include an additional $25 million for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, bringing the state’s annual spending on affordable housing to $55 million, $15.7 million to the Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, and another $15 million to expand broadband accessibility throughout the state.
In response to the governor’s recommendations, several Republican legislators levied criticisms at Northam, specifically about education.
“The amount of failing grades in our K-12 schools have skyrocketed. Children trapped in endless Zoom meetings aren’t just failing to learn — they’re losing hope,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in an online statement. “The Governor has proposed no funding to help parents get the technology or other assistance their children need to succeed in virtual schools.”
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) said the spending plan “prioritizes government over citizens” and, similarly to Gilbert, that Northam failed to give adequate relief to parents who are now supervising their children’s educations.
The budget proposal that drew the most ire from GOP lawmakers, however, was an allocation of $5.1 million to expand the Virginia Court of Appeals from the current 11 judges to 15 to allow for more cases to be heard by the court in a timely manner.
Overall, Northam proposed 222 amendments totaling a $2.4 billion increase in spending and 28 amendments totaling a $907.5 million decrease in spending, which brings the net increase in operating spending to roughly $1.5 billion over the next two years.
Included within that spending is $100 million to help Virginians who are having trouble paying for utilities, $40 million in CARES Act funding to the Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, $50 million to extend passenger rail connections in southwest Virginia and $25 million in justice projects.
Specifically, those projects call for $11 million to support the work by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the city of Richmond to redefine public art on the historic Monument Avenue, $9 million to develop a Slavery Heritage Site and improvements to the Slave Trail in Richmond as well as $500,000 to replace the Robert E. Lee statue in the U.S. Capitol.
Also, the budget has $650 million being deposited into Virginia’s revenue reserves.
“This level of reserve funding will get us to the goal of having 8 percent in reserves by the end of my term,” Northam said.
Highlights of the amendments and a transcript of Northam’s remarks can be found here.
Now that the 2021 regular session is quickly-approaching and the governor has offered recommendations, the two money committees will start working on further revisions that will be hashed out once the two bodies officially reconvene on January 13.
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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Background Photo “House of Delegates” by Germanna CC. CC BY 2.0.