Opinion: Commentary: Detailing Relief in Dollars

Opinion: Commentary: Detailing Relief in Dollars

On Monday Aug. 2, the Virginia General Assembly convened in Richmond for a Special Session to allocate federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and appoint judges to fill eight vacancies on the Virginia Court of Appeals. The judicial slots were created by legislation passed earlier in the year to create an automatic right to appeal and proportionately increase the number of jurists to meet the heightened case load. For the first time since COVID hit Virginia, the House and Senate have returned to their respective chambers in the Capitol. Due to close quarters, our desks are surrounded by plexiglass to prevent possible transmission of the increasingly common COVID-19 Delta variant.

Unlike previous special sessions, the Senate and House agreed to limit legislative action to a single bill which allocates $3.2 billion of the $4.3 billion in ARPA funds, and makes several emergency policy changes through budget language. Federal guidance limits the General Assembly to spending these funds to respond to COVID-19 and its economic impacts, providing increased pay to workers essential to responding to the pandemic, and investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure. While we are focused on these critical issues, some of my Republican colleagues had different ideas, filing amendments to the budget which would have banned “critical race theory” (a legal theory examined in some law schools) in public schools, and blocking common sense protections for transgender students. I am glad my motion to rule these amendments not “germane” to the budget bill was sustained and we were able to move forward with a budget focused on the needs of Virginians.

Under that guidance, the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee leadership gathered input from members over the last month to share with Governor Northam before the Governor finalized his proposed spending plan. I was happy to see $50 million in funding for the Alexandria’s Combined Sewer Overflow remediation project included, which will reduce the cost burden on ratepayers.

As parents, students, and educators prepare to return for a fully in-person school year, their safety and ability to learn best is top-of-mind to all of us. A key way to improve the long-term safety of our students and staff is to ensure that schools have high quality ventilation and HVAC systems. That is why the General Assembly allocated $250 million to repair and improve these systems in elementary and secondary schools. This funding will require a local dollar-for-dollar match, yielding a $500 million investment. The upgrades are estimated to cover 80% of all needed HVAC repair and replacement capital projects in Virginia schools, modernizing our education infrastructure across the Commonwealth.

During the pandemic, mental health issues and addiction have become drastically more prevalent, leading to devastating impacts on families and overburdening our psychiatric hospitals to the point that, in mid-July, state facilities were forced to stop admitting new patients. The final budget bill provides the necessary funding to staff up and open more admission slots in these critical facilities, and makes a massive, $485 million downpayment on improvements to our mental health and substance abuse treatment programs in Virginia. Righting the trajectory for these services will create a brighter future. In concert with improvements to mental health services, the General Assembly invested an additional $354 million in public health including facility infrastructure improvements and modernization of our public health technology to ensure that Virginians can receive high-quality services.

To continue to improve public safety, we also allocated close to $93 million for anti-violence initiatives, including $75 million to increase state police and state supported sworn officers of sheriffs’ departments salaries to competitive levels, $13.2 million for support services for victims of crime including sexual and domestic violence, $4 million to improve mental-health training for law enforcement to implement the new “Marcus Alert” system which requires mental health professionals respond with police officers that are called to deal with a person in crisis, and $5 million in gun violence prevention programs.

The social distancing we have practiced over the past year has, in many cases, only been possible because of affordable access to reliable internet — from online school, to work, to accessing e-books from the library, to telehealth services, the internet has been a lifeline for many. However, for many Virginians, access to broadband is still out of reach. But that will change with the passage of this budget bill. The General Assembly allocated $700 million to bring high-speed broadband to every home and business in the state by 2024. (Currently some 234,000 still remain unconnected!)

Small businesses can also expect $250 million in relief via RebuildVA grants and $50 million in tourism and marketing grants to draw customers back in and start to make up for the incredible impact the pandemic had on hospitality and destination based small businesses in Virginia. To prevent future tax increases on small businesses and ensure Virginians get the help they need if they are or become unemployed, the General Assembly deposited $862 million into the depleted coffers of our Unemployment Trust Fund. We also allocated $91 million to improve the efficiency at which the Virginia Employment Commission processes, adjudicates, and disperses unemployment benefits. The current system was overwhelmed during the peak of COVID-19, and continues to fail many Virginians in getting the help they deserve. I am hopeful that these investments will finally bring a resolution to this issue.

Finally, the General Assembly continued to work on a core priority of mine: preventing evictions and increasing affordable housing. We appropriated a combined $750 million in housing assistance, $250 million of which will be used to cover overdue mortgage bills, taxes, insurance, and HOA fees. To learn how to access these funds, visit https://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/rmrp. Because of this major influx in rental relief, and the end of the federal eviction moratorium, we also prohibited landlords from taking any action to obtain possession of a rental unit for nonpayment of rent unless they have first applied for rental assistance and their tenant refused the assistance or did not qualify for the funding. This is one of the most important actions we have taken this special session, and will protect tenants and landlords alike from the painful, economically devastating process of evictions.

With the Governor’s signature, these historic investments will begin flowing, shovels will go into the ground, businesses will continue opening, and Virginians will begin to feel some weight lifting from their shoulders as a more robust safety net is constructed. A firm base has been laid for the future of our Commonwealth, and I look forward to building on it in the years to come.

It is my continued honor to serve the 30th District.