Governor offers priorities, while also laying out plans to fight COVID-19.
RICHMOND – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam delivered a message of hope and optimism in his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday.
“The adversity of the past ten months has revealed a strong, resilient Virginia. Virginians have lost a great deal. Jobs, livelihoods, and unfortunately loved ones. But we’re still here. We’re poised and ready to rebound,” said Northam.
Northam pointed to the recent distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as a reason to celebrate the beginning of 2021. As he looks towards a brighter future, the current state of the Commonwealth is frankly dark.
Virginia, like the rest of the country, is in the midst of an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. As of Wednesday night, there are 412,545 cases in Virginia and 5,552 deaths so far.
Northam Pledges to Take the Vaccine
In addition to social distancing, wearing a mask, and avoiding social gatherings, individual Virgininians can help combat the pandemic by accepting the vaccine.
“I urge you to get vaccinated when your turn comes. I will do it and so will my family. This is how we get back to a near-normal. This is how we reopen our schools and rebuild our economy, through the vaccine. It is literally the light at the end of a long and dark tunnel,” Northam said.
Virginia is now in Phase 1B of its distribution plan. In this phase people over the age of 75, people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters or migrant labor camps, people working at grocery stores, public transit workers, post office employees, teachers, educational support staff, firefighters and police officers are all eligible for the vaccine during this phase.
Only 1492 Years to Go
Virginia is currently receiving about 110,000 doses of the vaccine every week. If all of those vaccines are distributed as they are received, it will still take 1492 years to vaccinate everyone in Virginia alone.
Former healthcare workers or administrative professionals with an interest in assisting in the Commonwealth’s vaccine distribution efforts can contact the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps to volunteer your time and expertise.
According to Northam, he’s prioritizing vaccinating teachers in order to return Virginia children to school.
“Vaccinating teachers is just one way we’re working towards the shared goals of reopening schools and making sure students are getting the support that they need,” Northam said.
Children’s high viral loads mean they are more likely to contract and spread the virus, but are less likely to become seriously ill as a result. However, it has happened. Northam’s plan for reopening schools did not include any mention of vaccinating children before school reopens, only teachers.
Northam Promises Support for Teachers and Schools
In addition to prioritizing their access to vaccines, Northam is also putting teacher salaries first.
Instead of the one-time 2% bonus, Northam is proposing teachers and support staff will receive a permanent bonus.
“When I first proposed the bonus for teachers a few weeks ago, I said that if revenues improve enough this month, we should convert that one-time bonus into a permanent raise. Well, tonight I have good news. Revenues look good and we’re going to have more money than we thought,” said Northam. “We need to make this teacher bonus a raise and make it more than two percent.”
In his address, Northam also promises to invest heavily in schools across Virginia whose student populations are declining due to the pandemic.
“We’re making sure schools don’t suffer harm from the challenges of this school year. That means putting $500 million dollars into schools to make sure they don’t lose funding from drops in enrollment this year,” Northam said.
Supporting Businesses with Gray Machines
Northam says the Commonwealth has more revenue now than projected. In addition to affording a raise for teachers, Northam says Virginia can reallocate funds to support businesses.
According to Northam, he wants to reassign tax revenue the Commonwealth receives from ‘gray machines’ out of emergency education funds to supporting businesses. ‘Gray machines’ are skills and chance based video games located in convenience stores, truck stops, and restaurants across Virginia.
“They bring in a lot of money. Upwards of ninety to a hundred million dollars in revenue from these taxes. Last special session we did the right thing and earmarked this money for education in the event that revenue slipped. Well, they didn’t slip. And this money can once again be used for its original purpose. To help our small businesses,” said Northam.
Restoring Felons Voting Rights
Looking towards racial justice in the Commonwealth, Northam made a commitment to support legislation to restore voting rights to felons in the Commonwealth. Felons in Virginia lose the right to vote automatically upon conviction. They can only regain it by petitioning the governor directly.
“You shouldn’t have to ask for your basic civil rights to be restored. So I’m proposing to change Virginia’s constitution to make that process automatic. If we want people to return to their communities and participate in their society, we need to welcome them back fully,” Northam said.
Two bills before the General Assembly which would restore voting rights to felons would also restore the voting rights of people who the state deems to be ‘mentally incompetent.’
Northam Supports Marijuana Legalization
Like the history of disenfranchising felons in Virginia, the history of marjiuana criminalization is rooted in racism. According to Northam, it’s time for the over-policing of minority communities for marijuana convictions to end.
“It’s time to join sixteen other states and make marijuana legal and end the current system rooted in inequity. We’ve done the research and we can do this the right way. Leading with social equity, public health, and public safety. Reforming our marijuana laws is one way to ensure that Virginia has a more just state that works better for everyone,” Northam said.
Northam said in his address he supports expunging marijuana-related offenses.
“Rooting out inequities includes expunging the records of people who were convicted of this and certain other crimes in the past. It’s time to act during this session to have a robust debate about how to best conduct the process of expungement of people’s records. This will make our system more just and equal, and it needs action this session,” said Northam.
The Death Penalty
Northam also said in his address that he will support legislation to ban the death penalty in Virginia.
As he pointed out, the Commonwealth has a long and bloody history with capital punishment. Virginia has carried out more executions than any other state. According to the governor, the inequitable enforcement of the death penalty is the reason why it must not continue.
“It’s time to change the law and end the death penalty in Virginia. We’re taking these actions because we value people and we believe in treating them equitably,” Northam said.
Northam Says Monuments to Insurrection Coming Down
The biennial budget Northam is proposing for approval by the General Assembly also includes money to ‘reimagine’ Monument Avenue in Richmond. Monument Avenue has previously been the site of several enormous statues commemorating the Confederacy.
“The Lost Cause has had a long reach here. For a hundred and fifty years the Confederate insurrection against the United States has been celebrated here in Virginia,” said Northam.
Protesters over the summer toppled many of the monuments on Monument Avenue, and the City of Richmond had several more removed. The last statue, erected in honor of Robert E. Lee, remains standing while litigation over its removal continues.
“The people said it is past time for these monuments, these echos of revisionist history, to come down. We saw that most clearly in our capital city. And Virginia’s largest monument to the Confederate insurrection will soon come down,” Northam said.
The protests over the summer were not about monuments to the Confederacy, however.
These protests were in response to the continuous oppression and assault of Black communities by the judicial system. At no point did the black liberation protests’ demands include requests for the statue’s removal. Instead, they continue to demand a complete defunding of the police.
According to advocates, taking down symbols of white supremacy does nothing to address it.
‘Words Have Consequences’
The governor ended his yearly address with a warning to the any elected officials who continues to spread the misinformation which led to a domestic terrorist attack by white supremacists on the U.S. Capitol last week.
“Words have consequences. Inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous. This is not a game. When elected leaders purposefully reject facts and truth and fan the flames of conspiracy, all in pursuit of power, they are taking dangerous steps. We have now seen where those steps can lead,” said Northam.
One General Assembly Member, Sen. Amanda Chase (R – Midlothian) is already facing calls to resign after she spoke in support of the attack.