Special to The Gazette

Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled his proposed amendments to the 2020-2022 biennial budget to the Joint Money Committees of the General Assembly Wednesday.

It included $240 million for public heath pandemic response, over $500 million to prevent reductions to school division funding due to COVID-19, $15 million to help bring broadband to the commonwealth and more.

“We have crafted this budget against the backdrop of the pandemic. 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,” said Northam.

He added, “It will position us to recover as quickly as possible as we rebuild our economy in a post-pandemic world. And it’s about advancing the progressive agenda that we all embarked upon together a year ago.”

The Governor’s budget delivers on his signature priorities by making key investments to support early childhood, K-12, and higher education; boost funding for historically black colleges and universities; increase access to quality, affordable housing; transform African American historical and cultural sites; expand high-speed broadband; and reform the criminal justice system.

The budget also funds Virginia’s aggressive pandemic response and ensures Virginians will have widespread access to the COVID-19 vaccine as it becomes available.

Northam also said he estimates $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. This is in sharp contrast to other states,” he added.

Looking to build the foundation for the future, he would like to allocate $65 million to reserves, which would leave 8% in reserves by the end of his term.

His budget includes $240 million for public health pandemic response, including $90 million to support Virginia’s vaccination deployment and ensure Virginians “have the supplies, staffing, and other infrastructure needed to vaccinate eight million Virginians.”

“We all are heartened by the news of vaccines that are starting to be put into arms as we speak. This is the light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel,” said Northam.

In addition to the $500 million for education, he also is investing $27 million in school counselors.

“We have pushed for more school counselors for a long time, and this will ensure we have one full-time school counselor for every 325 students. Let’s get it done,” said Northam.

The budget also restores over $16 million to expand access to early childhood education.

“This budget restores funding for early education, including a pilot program to provide three-year-olds access to early childhood education programs, and grants to address pay equity issues for early childhood educators. Early childhood education has been a priority for me since I was in medical school. The majority of brain development occurs in these early years. We want every child to enter kindergarten ready to learn,” said Northam.

The governor’s budget also includes a 2% bonus for instructional and support positions.

“It is a small way to say thank you for your devotion to educating our children,” said Northam.

An additional $25 million is included in Northam’s budget for the Virginia’s Housing Trust Fund in FY2022 to help local and regional efforts to craft housing affordability solutions, matching the $55 million that is maintained in FY2021 to bring Virginia’s HTF to its highest level ever of $55 million annually. The budget also includes $15.7 million in FY21 for the Rent and Mortgage Relief Program, and $1.5 million in FY2022 to fund additional housing attorneys at the Virginia State Bar.

To help with internet accessability, Northam included an additional $15 million in the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) in FY2022, matching the $50 million that is maintained in FY2021 to bring the Commonwealth’s broadband funding to $50 million annually.

The Governor’s budget also includes $36 million in FY2022 for the G3 Program to get free or low-cost job skills training in high-need fields through Virginia’s community college system.

“G3—Get a Skill, Get a Job, Give Back—is a program I have championed since before I became Governor. It helps people get job skills training in high-need fields, through our community colleges. Even more importantly, it provides the financial aid necessary to help people get that training. G3 will provide free community college for certain low- and middle-income Virginians who enroll at our two-year colleges in pathways that lead to a high-demand job. These pathways include the skilled trades, healthcare, technology, early childhood, and public safety,” said Northam.

The governor’s budget also includes $98 million for a one-time bonus for state employees ($1,500), adjunct faculty ($750) and state-supported local employees (1.5%) and $9.5 million for the Compensation Board to increase support for Virginia’s constitutional officers. The budget also includes $100 million for the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) to reduce unfunded liabilities in the retirement plan for public school teachers, the state employee health insurance credit program, and benefits for first responders.

Northam also hopes to invest $5.1 million to expand the Virginia Court of Appeals from 11 judges to 15 judges and to direct more than $700,000 to the Virginia Parole Board, which has come under criticism this year from victims’ families, prosecutors and Republican lawmakers, to hire more employees and improve victim services assistance.

“As we wrote this budget, our decisions were driven by one question: how much will this help Virginians,” said Northam.

Virginia operates on two-year budgets with this budget covering mid-2020 through mid-2022. Lawmakers will convene Jan. 13 to pass budget legislation, sending it to the governor for his signature or further amendments.