RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam delivered his third ‘State of the Commonwealth Address,’ minus the fanfare that usually accompanies the speech.
Generally, Northam would deliver his remarks to a room of more than 200 people. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Northam spoke to a nearly empty House Chamber as he addressed the General Assembly virtually.
Northam recapped the last 10 months of adversity and his plans to “build a better future.”
The governor began his speech in remembrance of state Senator Ben Chafin from Southwest Virginia–one of more than 5,000 Virginians who have died from COVID-19.
“He was my friend, and I miss him. Whether on the Senate floor or in my office, his presence always brightened my day,” Northam said.
After an initially slow roll-out, Northam pledged to ramp up the speed of vaccinations in Virginia. He said there are currently shipments of 110,000 vaccine doses arriving in the Commonwealth each week. Northam’s next goal is to increase daily shots to 25,000 as soon as possible.
Northam said Virginia got the green light Tuesday to start vaccinating people ages 65 and up, representing a slight change from the state’s original prioritization schedule that included those 75 and older.
“We’ll be moving forward with that quickly—I’ll be talking to local health directors and hospitals tomorrow about how we make this happen,” Northam said.
The Governor called on more people to volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corp to help administer vaccinations and coordinate logistics.
Some health districts in Virginia have already started to vaccinate educators, putting more schools on the road to in-person learning.
With state revenues now rebounding as budget negotiations resume, Northam is officially endorsing a more than 2 percent raise for teachers–up from the bonus he originally proposed.
His budget also includes $500 million to spare schools from funding losses due to drops in enrollment. Plus, Northam wants to fund more school counselors and resources for English-language learners.
Northam further detailed his plans to expand early childhood education and tuition-free community college in high-demand fields.
The governor went on to provide an update on the Rebuild Virginia program. He said it has helped 2,500 small businesses, two-thirds of which were either woman, minority, or veteran-owned. Now, he’s pushing for additional funding from a temporary tax on so-called gray machines to add to that support.
As the 2021 legislative session kicked off on Wednesday, Northam laid out his legislative priorities.
He encouraged lawmakers and gubernatorial hopefuls to push for automatic voting rights restoration for former felons through a constitutional amendment. He said Virginia is one of the few states that doesn’t do this already.
“It’s wrong to keep punishing people forever,” he said.
Legalizing marijuana is also at the top of Northam’s list this year. He called this a key step towards racial equity.
“By legalizing and taxing it we can use the money to help people disproportionately impacted by these laws,” he said.
Additionally, Northam is backing a push to abolish the death penalty. He said Virginia has executed more people than any other state, though the practice is becoming increasingly rare.
Northam said the “lost cause” has a “long reach” in Virginia. In 2020, Democrats ended holidays centered around Confederate leaders and gave localities the ability to remove Confederate monuments, which cities like Richmond quickly took advantage of.
During his address, Northam announced his intention to remove the statue of Democrat Harry Byrd in Capitol Square, citing his efforts working against integration.
While Northam spent much of his speech calling for unity, he also condemned threats to democracy after a riot at the U.S. Capitol left several people dead.
“When elected leaders purposely reject facts and truth and fan the flames of conspiracy all in pursuit of power they are taking dangerous steps. We have now seen where those steps can lead,” Northam said.
The Governor led a moment of silence in honor of the two U.S. Capitol Police officers Brian Sicknick and Howard Liebengood who died last week. He also praised the response of Virginia’s National Guard and State Troopers.
Sicknick was a Virginia resident who was killed during Wednesday’s riot at the capitol. Just a few days later US Capitol Police Dept. announced that Libengood died while off duty. No cause of death has been released.
“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,” Northam said.
In an attempt to preserve natural resources, the governor plans to put an extra $12 million towards the preservation of water, air and land. He said this money will help create a more robust permitting processes that will prevent harmful projects from chipping away at the state’s environmental health.
Further, Northam is proposing $5 million to go towards regional trails.
Delegate M. Kirkland “Kirk” Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Senator 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 Governor Northam’s, are as follows:
“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 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.
“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 devasting 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.”