Opinion: Commentary: Virginia Legislature Decides on Funds, Addresses Needs

Opinion: Commentary: Virginia Legislature Decides on Funds, Addresses Needs

On Aug. 10, the General Assembly completed work in a special session to appropriate federal pandemic funds and elect judges.

In March, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). ARPA brought $4.3 billion in unexpected funds to Virginia but required it to be invested in specific areas such as water, sewer and broadband infrastructure to respond to the COVID-19 emergency, address pandemic impacts and provide government services suffering from revenue reductions because of the pandemic. Unlike other counties, Fairfax County received $222 million in direct ARPA funding with similar requirements.

Here is how we voted to invest most of these funds:

  • $700 million to build “last-mile” broadband and close Virginia's digital divide over the next three years;

  • $862 million for Virginia’s Unemployment Trust Fund which was depleted. Without our action, it would have been forced to assess major unemployment insurance premium increases on small businesses;

  • $73.6 million to upgrade the Virginia Employment Commission’s systems to improve responses to unemployment claims;

  • $250 million for school heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades if localities match those funds; localities that are traditionally charged with funding 100% of school construction costs in Virginia.

  • $411 million for wastewater treatment infrastructure, including $125 million for the Alexandria, Richmond and Lynchburg combined sewers which currently dump billions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Potomac and James rivers.

  • $25 million for the Virginia state park maintenance backlog. I had hoped to address a statewide $275 million backlog so we can complete work at Stafford County’s Widewater State Park. I will continue to press for this in the Governor’s next budget.

  • $111 million in financial aid for low-income Virginia college students;

  • An historic $250 million investment in our stressed mental health system;

  • $120 million for consumer utility assistance;

  • New funds for supportive housing, substance abuse treatment and community crisis systems;

  • $5,000 bonuses for all Virginia State Police (VSP) and state Capitol Police officers and $3,000 bonuses for deputy sheriffs and correctional officers around the state. We also funded bonuses to alleviate salary compression in the VSP and $5,000 recruitment bonuses with $2,000 recruitment relocation grants.

  • $3 million to improve access to early voting;

  • $4 million for gun violence prevention programs;

  • We also retained $1.1 billion of ARPA funds to appropriate in 2022 contingent upon Delta variant progress.

We also passed an amendment requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to open for in-person service within 30 days.

We also worked to reform Virginia’s judicial appellate system. Prior to our action, Virginia was the only state in America that did not provide a right of appeal to litigants in either criminal or civil cases. In 2020, I carried a resolution directing the Judicial Council of Virginia to study the issue and that group recommended a change. I worked with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. John Edwards to draft the legislation which passed during the regular session.

The study recommended that the legislature elect six new judges to handle the case volume generated by creating a right of appeal. Because of two retirements among existing judges, we had to elect eight new members to the Court. After a six-month vetting process by nine bar associations that considered 82 applicants, our caucuses vetted candidates and elected eight new members to the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

Four new judges will come from Northern Virginia. This is a welcome development because previously our region had only one member, but we have over 32% of Virginia’s population. The Court of Appeals has never had a judge from Arlington or Alexandria. There were no judges on the existing court who lived west of Richmond. We elected one judge from Charlottesville and one from Roanoke. Four new judges are African-Americans and four are women. The existing court had only one minority member and three women.

The new judges represent a diversity of legal expertise, practice areas, life experiences and perspectives and eight judges have not been elected since the Court was created in 1985. Our action was truly historic and will greatly bolster our judicial system and how it operates.

It is an honor to serve you. Please share your views with me at scott@scottsurovell.org.