The vaccine became available to school teachers earlier this week.
The vaccine became available to school teachers earlier this week.

Schools, broadband and public health take center stage.

RICHMOND-Virginia received $4.3 billion from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan this month. Now Gov. Ralph Northam and General Assembly leaders have to determine how to use it. The group outlined some plans Wednesday, while also saying they’ll have a special session this summer to fully sketch out the details. 

“Virginia has two options,” House and Senate majority leaders said in a joint statement with the governor. “[We can] invest these dollars in Virginia’s future or reject them and let Congress use our dollars for some other federal purpose. We choose the future.” 

You can’t just spend the money on anything. The funding is meant to first address any pandemic response needs. Is there a pandemic-related state program that needs funding support? Do emergency personnel have everything they need to handle a COVID-19 outbreak? Do schools have what they need to handle any students staying remote? 

Also, states can spend the money to fill revenue shortfalls. We’ve already passed the state budget this year without any pandemic-sized holes, so that can be marked off. Finally, the money can be used to support communities hit hard by COVID-19. That can include actual cities and counties or communities of people across the Commonwealth. 

The First Two For Virginia

House Speaker Eileen Filler Corn, Senate President pro tem Louise Lucas and other leaders detailed where they want to spend the money Wednesday. It’s worth pointing out a couple things first, however. These federal dollars can’t replace current spending. If the Assembly already committed $4.3 billion to Virginia schools, they can’t pull that money back and replace it with ARP funding. 

Second, these proposals are just that. None of these plans are set in stone. The Virginia General Assembly will have to meet and vote on each before the money gets distributed. 

“We intend to meet in special session this summer for the express purpose of allocating federal dollars to five specific needs,” the leadership group said in their statement. 

The first of those five needs should come as no surprise. Lawmakers want to use part of the ARP funding to fully deploy broadband across Virginia. Instead of the current 10-year plan to reach every household, Assembly leaders want to do it over the next 18 months. To be clear, that includes bringing broadband to all of Virginia, even the mountains and rural areas. 

It’s definitely a problem. As we detailed before, 11% of Virginia residents have no access to any type of internet service. That’s according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report. More than 700,000 Virginians have internet, but it’s not reliable. 

In addition to fully funding broadband, Assembly leaders want to upgrade state and local public health services. The goal here is to identify and solve community health problems across the Commonwealth. In their statement, Virginia leaders said they also wanted to look at the cost of housing and utilities, as part of a public health plan. 

Help For Small Business

Third on the list is a plan to help small businesses. The proposal would fully fund the Rebuild Virginia program, designed to help small businesses around the Commonwealth get back on their feet. Assembly leadership said they want to “augment relief dollars for the hardest-hit industries.” That includes restaurants, hotels, museums, gyms and theaters. 

“We will invest in Virginia Tourism’s work to recruit visitors back to Virginia,” the group said in their statement. “And [we will] help our Housing and Community Development team invest in Virginia’s main streets, small towns and industrial revitalization.” 

Beyond that, the plan calls for helping workers in a number of ways. The Unemployment Trust Fund has come under attack over the last few months for failing to pay a majority of approved cases. Assembly leaders want to provide additional funding to the UTF and pay for a full upgrade of the Virginia Employment Commission’s website. Assembly members also want to provide funding to hire additional VEC staff members “for a system that historically has been one of the lowest-funded unemployment systems in the country.”  

Finally, the plan would use remaining funds to help public schools. That includes rehabilitating and upgrading existing facilities, improving air quality and HVAC systems and improving safety on campus. 

“This is a unique opportunity to invest in Virginia’s long-term future,” the Assembly leadership group wrote in their statement. “We intend to be good stewards of these taxpayer dollars, in full compliance with fiduciary guidelines. [We] reject calls to refuse these federal dollars, and we support the law’s prohibition on cutting state taxes to substitute federal dollars. We embrace this rare opportunity, and we choose to invest.” 

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@vadogwood.com.

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