Northam’s ‘State of the Commonwealth Address’ highlights criminal justice, vaccine status, teacher raises

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address to a virtual joint meeting of the General Assembly on Wednesday evening.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Northam spoke about the status and growth of Virginia in the last year. He also shared his visions for this year’s legislative session.

Northam’s speech followed the theme, “Calling the Commonwealth to action in times of crisis.”

Throughout the speech, the governor discussed the state’s ongoing response to and experiences with COVID-19, as well as the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Northam also mentioned proposals for teacher raises small business support, early childhood education expansions, marijuana legalization, and the abolition of the death penalty.

“We are social people, and we are meant to be together,” Northam said as he began amping up to talk about Virginians who have made a positive impact on the Commonwealth this year.

“We need to talk about who we are as a state,” he continues. “What we believe in and what are our values”

Northam took time to highlight Virginians working to help out their neighbors this year and take care of those around them. One central Virginian got a special shoutout during his speech: UPS driver Anthony Gaskin. Gaskin’s delivers packages in the Hallsley neighborhood and this year the neighborhood came out to show their appreciation through a parade.

The governor spent part of his speech remembering Sen. Ben Chafin from southwest Virginia. “He was my friend, and I miss him. Whether on the Senate floor or in my office, his presence always brightened my day.”

Chafin was one of over 5,000 Virginians who have been died from COVID-19. A moment of silence was held to remember all of the state’s victims.

Another moment of silence was held in honor of the two Virginians killed during the riots at the U.S. Capitol building. Two United States Capitol Police from Virginia, Officer Brian Sicknick and Officer Howard Liebengood lost their lives during the violence.

“While the fact that our help was needed is terrible, I am proud we were able to help avert more tragedy,” Northam said. “There is nothing to celebrate about the fact that our nation needed help—especially to defend our Capitol from fellow Americans—but we can all be proud that Virginia stepped up.”

Virginia sent National Guard members and Virginia State Troopers to the U.S. Capitol to help deescalate the situation and prevent further harm.

The governor also highlighted some of the most influential legislation passed in 2020 including laws impacting gun control, green energy usage, driver’s license rights and more. The previous year’s regularly scheduled legislative session ended before the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading throughout the state.

Northam later pivots to Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Virginia so far is in the top 10 states with the most vaccines administered. There are currently shipments of 110,000 vaccine doses arriving in the Commonwealth each week. The next objective is to have 25,000 vaccines administered each day.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 12, states have been authorized to give vaccines to anyone age 65 and up. Virginia is working to move forward with that expanded age group soon.

Northam urges everyone to get the vaccine saying he and his family will also be getting vaccinated.

The Virginia Medical Reserve Corp is beginning to train volunteers to help distribute the vaccinations. Anyone with medical experience can help with administration and volunteer opportunities also exist for people without medical experience to help with logistics.

Another health-related point that Northam made was that Virginia is the only state in the nation where the rate of people without insurance dropped from 2018 to 2019. Virginia’s Medicaid expansion opened new health insurance opportunities in 2018.

“The pandemic has proven that that was the right decision,” Northam said. He says he is so thankful Virginians who were unemployed this year were still able to access healthcare.

The governor further hopes to change public health in another way. He plans to have a formula that impacts state funding of local health district updated for the first time in a “generation.” Making sure localities get the appropriate amount of funding to aid in their health services.

In addition to health services, Northam spoke about helping small businesses through the pandemic.

The Rebuild Virginia program has helped 2,500 small businesses in the Commonwealth, two-thirds of which were either woman, minority or veteran-owned. Of the grants given to businesses, $40 million was given to businesses in low-income areas.

The governor hopes to help schools this year as well. Students have been out of classrooms for months. Parents and teachers have had to change gears and plans constantly throughout the pandemic but things may soon settle down.

Virginia’s educators are starting to get vaccinated.

With teachers and staff safely protected from contracting and spreading the virus, students may finally be able to return to school more permanently. Virginia schools have already started to vaccinate their educators, putting them on the road to a return to learning that schools can feel safer about.

Northam said he hopes to help “start our littlest learners off on the right foot.” He wants to budget an extra $500 million towards schools as they experience funding losses due to drops in enrollment. Also in his budget proposal, he wants to fund more school counselors and resources for English language learners.

Northam also spoke about helping teachers by increasing pay. He hopes to add a more than 2% raise for educators across the state. His proposal was met with claps from the few people in the room with him.

The pandemic has made many Virginians just how important certain resources are. One thing that Virginian’s flocked towards in the last year was green space and natural resources. State parks, city parks and trails became incredibly valuable resources as people tried to find ways to safely leave their homes and spend time with loved ones.

Northam is proposing $5 million to go towards regional trails, especially ones over 35 miles long like the Capital Trail. He says trails like this offers valuable outdoors space to local and do a lot to attract visitors to any area.

In a more broad attempt to preserve natural resources, the governor plans to put an extra $12 million towards the preservation of water, air and land. This money will help create more robust permitting processes that will prevent harmful projects from chipping away at the state’s environmental health.

He went on to use his speech to encourage legislators and gubernatorial hopefuls to push for voting rights restorations for felons. Northam wants to welcome people back after they’ve wrong and served their time. He explains that Virginia is one of the last remaining states that does not automatically grant felonies with the restoration of their civil rights.

Under Northam’s leadership, there have been more pardons than under any other Virginia governor. He wants to shift that responsibility away from governors and have automatic civil rights restoration added to the state constitution.

Amending the Constitution would take two legislative sessions and Northam hopes that leaders elected in 2021 will still keep fighting for that change.

Another change that he wishes to see the criminal justice system is the legalization of marijuana. A move that could help decrease inequities in the criminal justice system and bring revenue to the state.

Another impactful change Northam hopes to see soon is the abolition of the death penalty. Throughout history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state. Currently, only two people are on death row.

Widespread civil unrest has had the entire world examining ways to promote racial and social justice. Virginian’s efforts at racial reconciliation have begun but are not yet finished. During the address, Northam spoke to the lost cause’s long reach in Virginia. He called for the end of celebrating the Confederacy. This year Virginia ended holidays centered around Confederate leaders and cities and counties the ability to remove Confederate monuments. An ability that cities like Richmond quickly took advantage of.

The U.S. Capitol will soon also see Virginia’s move away from the glorification of Confederate leaders. In place of Robert E. Lee, civil rights hero Barbara Johns will represent the Commonwealth in the Statuary Hall.

Northam quickly began to change his approach as he spoke of the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He began speaking louder and with more conviction, condemning the attempt to overturn a fair and legal election.

“Those who want a government that serves only themselves don’t care about democracy,” Northam said.

He says anyone who uses “falsities” to try and destroy democratic institutions can not be a part of those institutions, warning against “fanning the flames on conspiracy.” Northam says elected leaders have a duty to tell the truth and voters have a right to know the truth even if it’s hard to hear.

He takes those frustrations and turns towards a more hopeful message. Eventually wrapping up the speech with a smile on his face.

The end was a call to action, people have been hurt by the pandemic and Northam hopes this year’s legislative session can do a “great deal of good.”

He remains hopeful that the vaccine rollout will allow for the return to normalcy. Giving hugs, sending kids to school, work lunches and concerts are all things he hopes Virginians will get to do again this year.

Take action, people are hurting, “they are counting on us” we can do a great deal of good this session

“We step into this new year with a lot of hope…” Northam said. “We need to remember that we care about each other. We are all connected, we are one Virginia.”

Republican Rebuttal

Del. M. Kirkland “Kirk” Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Sen. John A. Cosgrove, Jr. (R-Chesapeake) tonight delivered the Republican perspective on the State of Commonwealth.  The text of their remarks, which were broadcast following Northam’s, are as follows:

Del. Kirk Cox

“Good evening and thank you for joining us following the annual State of the Commonwealth Address. I’m Delegate Kirk Cox from Colonial Heights.

“After a challenging and difficult year for our nation and our commonwealth, Virginians look forward to the day when the coronavirus pandemic is behind us. With the arrival of the vaccine in record-breaking time, that day is finally within sight.

“The Northam Administration’s ability to distribute and administer vaccines has been extremely disappointing. Ranking in the bottom third of states nationally, every state we border is doing a better job than Virginia in administering this life-saving vaccine. West Virginia is actually ranked first nationally. This is simply unacceptable.

“This is not the only critical area where Virginia failed to live up to its once-coveted status as America’s best-managed state. Thousands of Virginians have had to wait endlessly to receive unemployment benefits, unnecessarily extending their hardship.

“Virginia has to do better. We know that we can, because – until recently – we have consistently been one of America’s leading states in so many important areas.

“In 2020, Governor Northam and the Democrat-majority in the General Assembly abandoned the policies that made Virginia a national leader. They enacted nearly $2 billion in new taxes. They implemented an energy scheme that will cost families hundreds of dollars more every year. And, they imposed new onerous regulations on our businesses struggling to survive.

“Now, more Virginians are moving out of our state than other Americans are moving in. As Democrats refuse to enact policies that would grow our economy, an election that results in new leadership is our best hope to change this trajectory.

“In the meantime, Republicans will be advancing policies to improve the lives of Virginians and the quality of life in Virginia.

“We will be advancing an agenda that gets our kids back in school and provides assistance to parents who have been forced to take on added responsibilities to ensure their children are learning. 

“Having spent 30 years teaching in our public schools, I know first-hand the severe and lasting consequences of having a child fall behind. We cannot condemn an entire generation of Virginia’s students to the enduring effects of an inadequate education.

“With students enrolled in private schools remaining in the classroom, and with schools in other states open for classroom instruction, it is time for Virginia’s public schools to reopen.

“We must also preserve the strong law enforcement policies that made Virginia a national leader in reducing crime and criminal recidivism. Senator John Cosgrove of Chesapeake will be detailing where we stand on this critical quality-of-life issue.

“John…”

Sen. John Cosgrove, Jr.

“Keeping our homes and neighborhoods safe requires constant vigilance. The men and women of our police departments and sheriff’s offices know this first-hand. Every day, these officers and deputies put their lives on the line to protect our families.  They deserve our support and our thanks.

“In 2020, what had been near-unanimous support for our law enforcement professionals became a political issue. Slogans like ‘Defund the Police’ became actual policy in some large American cities – with devastating consequences to personal safety and property in those communities.

“Here in Virginia, there was actually an effort to end the essential protections law enforcement agencies must have to retain and recruit officers. While this misguided proposal did not advance to the Governor’s desk, its dispiriting effect could be felt by the women and men who carry a badge.

“Every Republican legislator opposed efforts to diminish Virginia’s law enforcement. We will continue to strongly ‘Back the Blue’ again this session.

“Over the course of several decades, Virginia has enacted model laws to ensure the victims of crime receive respect, support, and protection. Virginia’s Parole Board, however, repeatedly disregarded those laws.

“Releasing murderers long before their sentences were complete – including those who had received life sentences – the Parole Board acted without notifying the families of the victims of these horrific crimes. The Northam Administration concealed – and in some cases continues to conceal – the devastating reports of investigations by the State Inspector General of Parole Board misconduct.

“Placing the interests of violent criminals above those of innocent citizens who are the victims of crime isn’t just wrong, it’s unconscionable.  It is evidence of an administration with misplaced priorities and misguided values.

“Now, Democrats are spearheading a new initiative to end mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes. These policies were enacted to fight crime and they worked. Unilaterally abandoning proven measures that have made Virginia safer for all its citizens endangers our neighborhoods and our quality of life.

“As we enter the 2021 session, Virginia is no longer the national leader we had been for so long. By adopting common-sense policies that open our schools, strengthen our economy, and protect our citizens, we can become a national leader once again.

“Republicans hope to earn your support as we fight for the people of Virginia we are honored to serve.

“I’m Senator John Cosgrove of Chesapeake. Delegate Cox and I thank you for watching tonight.  We wish you and your family a happy and blessed new year.”

Watch the full address below:

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