Northam’s budget proposals prop up pandemic response as the wait for federal aid continues

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — As coronavirus vaccinations resumed on Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam presented a slew of amendments to the two year budget to help the state navigate the pandemic while uncertainty surrounding additional federal support continues. 

The presentation to Joint Money Committees comes just over one month after Northam signed a revised budget passed by the General Assembly during a special session that was called to address the pandemic’s impact on revenues. 

Since then, Northam said the state’s financial picture has improved significantly–a good sign as the future of state and local aid from Congress remains unclear. According to Northam, revenues dipped but not as much as experts originally feared. His team is now estimating $1.2 billion in additional revenue in this biennium. 

“We all need to understand how important this is: Revenues are exceeding official forecasts, even during a pandemic,” Northam said. “This is in sharp contrast to other states. Other states have laid off workers, cut services, and even borrowed money to pay the bills—actions that will weaken their financial pictures for years to come.” 

Northam said these additional revenues are underpinning his proposals to restore some spending priorities that were previously ‘unallotted’ in anticipation of greater losses.

The projection also puts the state in a better position to continue to fund its pandemic response if Congress fails to pass another relief bill before the CARES Act spending deadline arrives. After Dec. 30, federal dollars that have propped up the state’s PPE supply and vaccination planning will run out. 

Northam’s budget proposes $90 million to continue funding the state’s mass vaccination campaign in the absence of Congressional support. While the federal government has pledged to cover the cost of vaccines, Northam said this money will ensure the state has the supplies, staffing, and other infrastructure needed to immunize eight million Virginians.

“That money should come from the federal government. But we’ve all learned not to wait,” Northam said. “Vaccines are the only way we can end this pandemic and get back to a more normal life.”

Overall, Northam is proposing 222 amendments totaling $2.4 billion in increased spending in the 2020–2022 biennial budget.

Priorities that Northam highlighted in his speech on Wednesday, Dec. 16, include:

  • $650 million towards Virginia’s reserves to protect against budget cuts if revenues don’t grow as quickly as expected
  • $100 million to reduce unfunded liabilities in the Virginia Retirement System
  • $40 million for the state’s Rent and Mortgage Relief Program
  • $100 million for utility bill relief
  • $100 million to help 2,500 small businesses
  • $25 million to maintain ‘historic’ investments in the Housing Trust Fund, building on $85 million put into that fund this biennium
  • $30 million to restore financial aid increases at public colleges and universities
  • $50 million in each year to maintain ‘historic’ funding for broadband expansion
  • $500 million over two years to protect school divisions from funding hits tied to enrollment losses
  • $26.6 million to increase the number of school counselors, changing the ratio to one full-time school counselor for every 325 students
  • A two percent bonus for instructional and support positions in public schools that could change to a permanent pay raise of at least 2 percent if revenues improve as expected
  • A bonus for state employees, adjunct faculty, and state-supported local employees. That includes local mental health workers and social workers and some state-supported law enforcement officers.
  • $16.7 million for upgrades to the voter registration system
  • $20 million in anticipation of expungement reform next session
  • $11 million to help the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, working with the City of Richmond, to redefine Monument Avenue, now that seven of the eight Confederate statues have been removed
  • $12 million to restore water quality, air quality, and land conservation initiatives at natural resources agencies
  • $50 million to extend passenger rail connections in southwest Virginia

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