Northam Unveils Plans for Limited New Spending Amid Pandemic

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is looking to block evictions until next spring, boost spending on high-speed internet access for students learning virtually and set aside $1 million for the safe removal of a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Northam administration released details Friday of the governor's priorities for next week's special session, where lawmakers will take up the state's budget while addressing criminal justice issues and other matters.

Northam's office said Friday that it is predicting $2.7 billion in lost revenues over the next two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said the virus's hit to state finances could have been much worse, and Virginia is better situated, thanks to federal and defense spending, than other states.

Layne said Virginia can manage to maintain its current level of spending, with some smaller one-time spending on items of great need, but can't afford many of the ongoing, big-ticket spending that a new Democratic majority approved earlier this year like teacher raises and extra spending on early childhood education.

“This is not the time to be adding to the base budget,” Layne said.

Lawmakers voted in April to delay state employee and teacher pay hikes, a minimum wage hike, and other items amid uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the economy.

Northam's new proposed budget would restore $35 million previously approved for increasing broadband access and add in $15 million more.

He also wants to restore $23 million previously approved for an affordable housing fund and add an additional $25 million. Northam also wants to extend a moratorium on evictions until at least May, a move that drew praise from housing advocates.

“We are glad he is hearing the cries of the hundreds of thousands of people in the commonwealth who stand on the brink of homelessness,” said the Rev. Keith Savage, co-chairman of the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement.

Earlier this month, the Virginia Supreme Court granted Northam's request to block evictions through Sept 7.

Northam also indicated broad support for criminal justice reforms that have been proposed in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police in Minnesota. That includes a law requiring police to intervene when they see a colleague using unlawful force.

The governor's proposed budget also includes $1.083 million to remove a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the state’s capital city.

The Lee monument on a prominent Richmond avenue has become a focal point and gathering spot amid sustained anti-racist protests since Floyd's death. Northam announced plans in June to remove the statue, citing the pain felt around the nation by Floyd’s killing, but has been blocked by ongoing legal challenges.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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