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Virginia legislators are divvying up $4.3B in federal aid. Here’s what’s in the plan.

The special General Assembly session that starts today — just a few months before the gubernatorial and House of Delegates elections —  offers a platform for both parties to spotlight ideas for how Virginia can make the best possible recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Democrats are calling it a rare chance to make strategic spending moves that will shape Virginia’s future for years to come, an opportunity to devote big dollars to some of the state’s most pressing problems.

Republicans see an exercise in one-party rule, with only Democratic leaders deciding what the top issues are and what to do about them.

Either way, the special General Assembly session that starts today — just a few months before the gubernatorial and House of Delegates elections —  offers a platform for both parties to spotlight ideas for how Virginia can make the best possible recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working in advance with key Democratic legislators, Gov. Ralph Northam and his General Assembly allies have rolled out billions in spending proposals ranging from business relief to unemployment fixes, infrastructure, mental health, college affordability and public safety. 

We have the chance to change the course of the commonwealth once again with this upcoming budget,” Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said in a news release last week. “Coming out of the pandemic, we are well-positioned to rebuild stronger and better.”

The full plan was revealed Friday with the release of an 18-page appropriations bill that includes a few extras, most notably language allowing college athletes to make money through advertising and sponsorship deals and a caveat to Virginia’s anti-mask law specifying no one can face charges for wearing a mask due to COVID-19.

The advance decision-making coupled with a rule preventing legislators from offering amendments in committees has drawn a blistering response from Republican leaders, who have accused the majority of abusing its power and flouting the usual process allowing legislators to at least have their ideas heard even if they have little chance of approval.

“It’s not a dictatorship,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, who said his caucus will propose amendments on the Senate floor. “It’s not an oligarchy where only Democrats make decisions for the entire commonwealth.”

Democrats have characterized the rules as a way to maintain focus and prevent the session from being sidetracked by political fights that have little to do with allocating pandemic relief funds. Democratic budget leaders have said they won’t be making decisions about what to do with the record $2.6 billion surplus the state certified for the budget year that ended in July, a windfall they say can be dealt with through the regular budget process in the 2022 session.

The session, which will also deal with judicial appointments to the expanded Virginia Court of Appeals, could take up to two weeks. It could be shorter if Democratic leaders stick to the plans worked out ahead of time, but Republicans have signaled they’ll be looking for ways to force debate.

At least $800 million of the funding could be left unallocated to give the state room to adapt to any unexpected developments or setbacks with the pandemic, but that still leaves policymakers with a big pot of money to draw from.

Here’s what Northam and Democratic leaders want to do with it:

$935.6M for the unemployment system

With more out-of-work Virginians relying on it, the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund was depleted during the pandemic. To avoid future tax hits on businesses that pay into that fund, Northam wants to replenish it with $862 million in federal dollars.

The Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business noted state officials have estimated it would take $1.3 billion to fully restore the fund and avoid tax ramifications for businesses.

We appreciate that the governor is advocating a large sum of money towards a deposit in the Unemployment Trust Fund,” NFIB Virginia director Nicole Riley said in a news release. “We’re encouraged by this news and look forward to seeing if this deposit will significantly blunt the anticipated quadruple increase in taxes small employers will have to pay in January.”

The inability of the Virginia Employment Commission to effectively adjudicate a surge in unemployment claims has been a major point of frustration during the crisis. To make the system work better going forward, the governor has proposed a total of $73.6 million to improve call center capacity, modernize technology and hire more staff.

$700M for broadband

One of the governor’s more ambitious suggestions is devoting money to achieve universal broadband access by 2024, a priority heightened by the shift to remote work and virtual schooling.

Northam had already set a target date of 2028, but his administration says an infusion of funding now will accelerate efforts to bring high-speed internet service to underserved areas within the next year and a half.

It’s time to close the digital divide in our commonwealth and treat internet service like the 21st century necessity that it is — not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all,” Northam said in his announcement.

$485M for behavioral health

Severe staffing shortages recently forced more than half of Virginia’s state-run mental hospitals to halt new admissions. The governor’s plan calls for dedicating $247 million to address those challenges.

Federal funding could provide immediate relief to Virginia’s state-run mental hospitals

Another $128 million is earmarked for community-based mental health and substance abuse services. Other behavioral health proposals include $50 million for infrastructure at state-run facilities, $30 million for crisis services and mobile emergency response teams, $30 million for substance abuse prevention and $3.3 million to expand a dementia pilot program.

$411.5M for water and sewer infrastructure

The plan includes $125 million for combined sewer overflow projects in Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg, and another $186.5 million for wastewater treatment and nutrient removal.

“With this funding, we have a tremendous opportunity to rebuild our aging water systems and ensure every Virginia family has reliable access to safe, clean drinking water,” Northam said in a recent news release.

Lynchburg leaders held a news conference last week to highlight their request for funding to complete the long work of fixing their antiquated combined sewer system, which can lead to raw sewage and stormwater flowing into the James River during heavy rain.

$353M for small business relief

The first of the governor’s budget rollouts focused on aid to small businesses, including $250 million to beef up the Rebuild VA grant program that allows applicants to recoup up to $100,000 in pandemic-era expenses.

Since its launch in the summer of 2020, the program has distributed roughly $120 million to more than 3,000 small businesses and nonprofits, according to the governor’s office, but some applications were turned away due to a lack of funds.

Northam is also calling for $50 million in funding to promote Virginia tourism and attempt to bring in more business for the struggling hospitality industry, and $53 million for a pair of programs meant to spur redevelopment of industrial sites and the revitalization of small towns.

$250M for school air quality

The governor has proposed allocating $250 million to HVAC improvements to improve air quality in K-12 schools, while requiring localities to use their own rescue funds to match the state dollars.

The proposal has gotten mixed reviews from some advocates, who say it advantages larger, wealthier school systems as opposed to impoverished communities with less ability to pay.

Northam’s $250 million HVAC investment leaves education advocates underwhelmed

The funding for ventilation improvements also comes amid a yearslong debate over how to fund construction of entirely new school buildings, and some have questioned the logic of putting costly new systems in old buildings. The governor’s office has said HVAC improvements fit more squarely within the parameters of how the federal aid money can be used.

$114M for public safety

With Republicans accusing Democrats of taking an increasingly anti-police stance after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Democratic leaders want to put millions toward boosting pay for public safety personnel.

Their proposal calls for $20 million to fund $5,000 bonuses for sworn Virginia State Police officers and address salary compression in the department. Another $21 million would go toward hazard pay bonuses for staff in prisons, jails and sheriff’s departments.

To address the threat of COVID-19 in prisons, the proposal allocates roughly $31 million for testing supplies and protective equipment.

The plan also includes $12.2 million to enhance services for crime victims and $2.5 million for gun violence prevention programs run through the attorney general’s office.

 

$111M for college affordability

The proposal devotes $100 million for need-based financial aid at public colleges and universities, with $11 million for private institutions.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia would decide the details of how that money would be distributed.

The Democratic budget bill includes other provisions dealing with ongoing pandemic issues like eviction relief and assistance with utility bills.

Republicans complained that they hadn’t seen the full text of the bill until late last week, but GOP legislative leaders haven’t rolled out specific proposals of their own.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, running against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, offered up his ideas for the money at a news conference last week in Richmond, saying he’d look to return $1.5 billion of the state surplus to Virginians as tax relief.

“It’s time Virginians catch a break. Under my plan, Virginians will actually get one,” Youngkin said.

He also proposed giving $500 “refunds” for each student in public schools, money he said families could use for things like tutoring and mental health services to “to help make up for last year’s terrible outcomes.”

“There has been so much learning loss because our children spent a year trapped at home,” Youngkin said.

Though the next governor will have some say over any funds left unallocated, Democratic leaders have indicated they don’t intend to deviate far from the plan they’ve rolled out over the last few weeks.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Suspension Bridge to Belle Isle Closed Today

The bridge should be completed by the weekend.

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The suspension pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle is temporarily closed due to concrete falling from Lee Bridge.

The closure took place Wednesday after city officials received reports of concrete pieces being found on the pedestrian bridge.

“It was concluded that the concrete pieces fell from an open joint of the Lee Bridge. Consequently, the pedestrian bridge located directly under the open joint had to be closed in an effort to protect the public,” a release said.

While the engineers say there is no serious danger they’re putting in a scaffolding protection system along some stretches of the bridge. The installation is taking place today (Thursday) and is expected to be done Friday.

Dominion RiverRock is this weekend and temperatures are in expected in the upper 90’s so usage of the bridge and Belle Isle will be at a season-high.

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Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

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By Graham Moomaw

Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.

Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.

“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”

Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”

As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.

Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.

After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.

In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”

“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.

Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.

“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.

“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”

Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.

If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.

Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.

“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Look Up Saturday for the 40 ACRES: Chimborazo Park Skywriting

The poetics of the skywriting serve as a reminder of that unfulfilled promise of reparations.

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1708 Gallery is excited to announce the date of 40 ACRES: Chimborazo Park, a skywriting performance by Sandy Williams IV. For the performance, a skywriter will trace the dimensions of a 40-acre plot above Chimborazo Park to place a sharp focus on the Freedman community that existed in this area. The poetics of the skywriting serve as a reminder of that unfulfilled promise of reparations. It is a public acknowledgment that will be briefly visible for miles and a physical metaphor for the ways in which the legend of reparations, “40 Acres and a Mule”, still holds an invisible presence in our atmosphere. The visual presence of things might disappear, but the memory is kept alive in the stories that we remember and pass down. This performance is part of William’s upcoming exhibition with 1708 and their long-term work The 40 Acres Archive.

Sandy Williams IV’s skywriting performance 40 ACRES: Chimborazo Park will begin at 3:00 pm.

At the performance, visitors can expect a DJ set, light refreshments, and a brief presentation of the project by Williams and his collaborators.

Please RSVP. This event is free and open to the public.
This project is being supported by Reynolds Gallery, Oakwood Arts, where Sandy is an artist in residence through support from CultureWorks, Afrikana Film Festival, and Arts & Letters Creative Co.
Reserved rain dates to be confirmed the week of:
Friday, May 20, 2022 (5:00 PM – 7:00 PM)
Sunday, May 22, 2022 (2:00 PM –  4:00 PM)

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