Opinion: Commentary: Special Session 2 Begins

Opinion: Commentary: Special Session 2 Begins

The General Assembly will allocate the nearly $4.3 billion Virginia has received from the federal economic stimulus bill.

On Monday Aug. 2, the General Assembly gaveled in for a two week “2021 Special Session 2” called by Gov. Ralph Northam for the purpose of allocating the nearly $4.3 billion Virginia has received from the federal economic stimulus bill — the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) that passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was signed into law by President Biden on March 11. It feels wonderful to be back in the House Chamber meeting with my colleagues safely, yet still wearing my mask, and in person for the first time in over a year. We will be hard at work crafting the budget and ensuring that each federal dollar the Commonwealth receives is put to good use serving our citizens in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and our recovery efforts.

HB/SB 7001 includes many priorities critical to getting the Commonwealth back on its feet. This bill allocates $3.5 billion in ARPA funds while prudently holding back almost a billion dollars as a hedge against further unforeseen issues due to COVID-19 infections rising with the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. The budget focuses on a few areas key to recovery: education, child care, rental assistance and housing, and public health initiatives.These initiatives will include money for child care, rental assistance and housing, public health, helping workers, public schools, small business relief, and expansion of rural broadband.

$862 million will be put towards replenishing the unemployment insurance trust fund so that Virginia businesses will not have to pay any more into it with the business tax rates capped at current levels for the next year, which will provide relief to small businesses as we begin to recover. Funding will be added to support Virginia Employment Commission’s efforts of IT modernization, increasing call center capacity, enhanced security, and hiring additional adjudication staff.

Virginia has led the nation in distributing federal rental relief funds to those in need, with 43 percent of the first round rental relief already distributed. $800 million in additional federal rental relief assistance now will be distributed, which is even more important because the federal eviction moratorium expired this week. Virginia’s current rent relief policy of requiring a tenant or landlord to apply for rental assistance prior to proceeding with an eviction for non-payment of rent will continue. Moreover, this budget provides an additional $2.5 million to Legal Aid for civil indigent defense in eviction cases.

As I discussed in my article a few weeks ago, one of the largest expenses this budget takes on relates to the expansion of broadband. Universal broadband will open doors to prosperity for many of the areas in the Commonwealth that currently lack reliable, high speed internet. With broadband, Virginians can access educational opportunities, telehealth, and remote work opportunities.

Significantly to many in our community, $120 million will continue Virginia’s utility assistance program to provide relief to residential customers. The budget also places a moratorium on Phase II Electric Utility disconnections for low-income individuals until March 1, 2022.

Also, the budget provides substantial appropriations for wastewater nutrient removal, and combined sewer overflows (CSO), including $125 million matching funds for the Alexandria, Lynchburg, and Richmond CSO projects ($50 million is for Alexandria). $250 million will be invested in school ventilation improvements to prevent COVID-19 infections, $111 million will go towards higher education financial aid, including $11 million for private colleges. Importantly, $25 million will be set aside to alleviate the state park maintenance backlog.

As of this writing, the budget has passed its second reading on the floor of the House of Delegates and should pass the House on Wednesday Aug. 4 and the Senate soon thereafter.