Dear Friends and Neighbors,
It was great to be back in the Virginia Capitol for the first time since March 2020. Last week the General Assembly convened for a special session to appropriate $4.3 billion in COVID-19 relief money allocated to Virginia under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and to fill vacancies on the Virginia Court of Appeals. On Monday we adopted the budget on a strong bi-partisan vote (78Y-20N) and today we wrapped up work appointing judges.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I can say with certainty that allocating $4.3 billion in funding is much better than cutting $2.8 billion – which is where we were back in April 2020. The adopted budget includes key investments in health, education, public safety, and small businesses – ensuring that resources get to the people who need it most and enabling Virginia’s workforce and economy to emerge stronger and more resilient. It is also fiscally sound. Virginia has a AAA bond rating because we make decisions considering our long-term financial stability. As a result, spending is focused on one-time investments to avoid a fiscal cliff once federal funding goes away.
The following is an overview of major elements of the budget package that was adopted by the General Assembly. Visit the Virginia Public Access Project for a great visual of spending priorities as well as additional details.
Broadband -- $716 million for the expansion of broadband infrastructure to achieve universal access.
Virginia Employment Commission -- $73 million to improve claimant services and accelerate modernization of IT systems.
Unemployment Insurance -- $862 million to replenish the Unemployment Trust Fund. Without this investment, the average base rate for employers would have increased more than three-fold. Under the new budget, no employer will experience higher premiums in 2022 compared to 2021.
Rebuild Virginia -- $250 million in business assistance. This amount clears the current backlog of grants and allows for an additional round of grants with an emphasis on the hospitality and tourism industry.
Revitalization Fund -- $22.5 million to provide grants for the redevelopment of vacant, deteriorated commercial properties.
Utility Assistance -- $120 million to continue Virginia’s utility assistance program to provide relief to residential customers with accounts over 60 days in arrears.
Wastewater and Drinking Water -- $411 million to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities and provide safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities. In addition to cleaning local waterways, this funding is an important part of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.
State Parks -- $25 million for state park maintenance and construction.
Food Access -- $26 million for several food access programs.
Public Education -- $250 million in matching grants to replace failing school ventilation systems.
Higher Education -- $100 million in need-based financial assistance at our institutions of higher learning.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse -- $238 million toward bonuses to retain direct care staff, expand community-based crisis services, and create additional permanent supportive housing.
Health Services -- $20 million to provide COVID vaccines in hard-to-reach communities and $273 million to support Medicaid home and community-based services.
Community Violence - $5 million for community-based gun violence reduction programs.
Public Safety – Funding for one-time bonuses for state police, sheriffs' deputies, and correction officers. This is an important part of our efforts to attract and retain highly qualified public safety personnel. The budget also includes language establishing a work group to evaluate starting pay and long-term retention.
Two other quick notes!
The budget includes language (introduced by Senator Chap Petersen) aimed at opening DMV service centers to walk-in customers. While DMV’s appointment-only process works well for those who have time to plan, that isn’t always how real life works. In the same way that I’d prefer to make an appointment with my regular doctor, sometimes what you need is the emergency room. The budget requires DMV to submit an operational plan to serve walk-in customers (in addition to the appointment system) within 30 days and then DMV has an additional 30 days to implement the plan.
Just as important as what we did allocate is what we didn’t allocate. With many twists and turns still in front of us (especially with the Delta variant), the budget prudently leaves $1 billion to be determined at the 2022 General Assembly session.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to contact me with ideas for using the ARPA money. It is important to remember that ARPA imposes limitations on how funding can be used, so not all good ideas qualified. But stay tuned! Virginia closed out FY2021 with a $2.6 billion dollar surplus. The 2020 General Assembly session is right around the corner.
Rental and Mortgage Assistance
Are you struggling to make rental payments? Do you know someone who is struggling and facing the potential for eviction? Virginia has one of the most robust rental assistance programs in the nation. It is designed to both keep people in their homes during the pandemic and ensure that landlords are kept whole and receive rent payments.
The budget adopted during the special session includes additional resources to help people in need access rental relief. For more information about eligibility in the City of Fairfax visit the Virginia Rental Relief Program. Fairfax County residents should visit Fairfax County Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance.
In addition to rental assistance, Virginia has established a Mortgage Relief Program. Visit the website for frequently asked questions and eligibility criteria.
Court of Appeals
One of the most important things that the General Assembly does is to appoint judges. This includes general district and circuit courts all the way up to the Virginia Supreme Court.
While Virginia has had a Court of Appeals since 1979, unlike most every other state, appeals were extremely limited. Anyone dissatisfied with a ruling in a civil case in circuit court had to go directly to the Virginia Supreme Court – therefore significantly limiting the number of cases. In 2021, Virginia finally joined the rest of the nation by granting the right to appeal circuit court judgments in criminal and civil cases to the Court of Appeals. While it was the right thing to do, it also meant that we needed to increase the number of judges from 11 to 17 to handle the additional workload.
Today we elected a group of exceptionally qualified men and women that reflect the diversity of today’s Virginia. Congratulations Dominique Callins (Front Royal), Doris Henderson Causey (Henrico), Vernida Chaney (Alexandria), Frank Friedman (Roanoke), Junius Fulton (Norfolk), Lisa Lorish (Charlottesville), Dan Ortiz (Fairfax), and Stuart Raphael (Arlington). You can watch these talented jurists in action during the Courts of Justice Committee vetting process.
I hope you are having a safe and happy summer! As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.