Northam’s budget plan would fund vaccine deployment in Virginia, regardless of federal aid

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Wednesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam presented a slew of amendments to the two-year budget to shore up the state’s coronavirus response, regardless of additional support from Washington.

Amid uncertainty about the future of federal aid, Gov. Northam reassured Joint Money Committees that state funds are available to sustain vaccine deployment in the months to come.

The update comes just over one month after Northam signed a revised 2020–2022 biennial 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. He said revenues dipped but not as much as experts originally feared. Northam’s 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.” 

The good news means Virginia is 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 December 30th, federal dollars that have propped up the state’s PPE supply and vaccination planning will run out without further action in Washington.

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.”

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

Some of the most significant investments would go towards public education. Northam is proposing $26.6 million to increase the number of school counselors, potentially changing the ratio to one full-time staff member for every 325 students.

Additionally, Northam said he would push to change a 2 percent bonus for instructional and support positions to a “permanent pay raise” of at least 2 percent if revenues improve as expected

Northam’s plan would also spare local school districts from more than $500 million in possible funding losses tied to declining student enrollment during the pandemic.

The plan drew push back from Republican leadership on Wednesday. While the proposed budget maintains $50 million each year for broadband expansion, House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said it’s not enough to address the digital divide.

“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,” Gilbert said in a statement. “The Governor has proposed no funding to help parents get the technology or other assistance their children need to succeed in virtual schools.”

Overall, Northam is proposing 222 amendments totaling $2.4 billion in increased spending. The largest line item at $650 million would go towards Virginia’s reserves to protect against budget cuts if revenues don’t grow as quickly as expected.

“While I applaud his commitment to placing funding into cash reserves to strengthen our fiscal position, his overall spending plan continues to prioritize government over citizens,” Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) said in a statement.

Other priorities Northam highlighted in his speech on Wednesday include:

  • $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
  • 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 7 of the 8 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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