Gov. Northam releases progressive 2020-22 budget plan

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/20/2019, 6 a.m.
Smokers might have to shell out an extra 30 cents in tax for a pack of cigarettes to help offset …
Gov. Northam

Smokers might have to shell out an extra 30 cents in tax for a pack of cigarettes to help offset the cost of tobacco-related illnesses that the state must pick up through Medicaid and other health care programs.

And motorists could pay more for fuel under a proposed three-year increase in the state gas tax that would go from 22 cents a gallon to 34 cents a gallon. The gas tax hike would raise more money for Virginia roadway building and repairs.

But motorists also would save $40 a year with the proposed elimination of an annual vehicle safety inspection and a proposed 50 percent cut in the yearly cost of registering their vehicle with the state.

The tax increases and fee cuts are among highlights of the $138 billion spending plan that Gov. Ralph S. Northam delivered Tuesday to the Virginia General Assembly that will have the final say.

His budget proposal also includes a $1.3 billion spending increase for public education and calls for significant investments in affordable housing, health care, the environment and a host of other priorities backed by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The two-year budget for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 fiscal years represents an 11.3 percent increase over the $124 billion appropriated in the current two-year budget, showing the governor is counting on a continued 4 percent growth in the state’s economy and giving less credence to recession concerns.

Gov. Northam described his spending plan as a response to the wishes of voters who handed control of the Virginia House and Senate to Democrats in the November election after years of Republican control.

Voters “told us that they want jobs that they can support themselves and their families with,” he said in remarks to re- porters. “They said they wanted their children to have access to a world-class education. They want access to affordable and quality health care. They want us to move toward renewable energy. They want safe communities. And that’s what this budget addresses.”

While the governor’s staff touted the budget as “the most progressive Virginia’s ever seen,” Republican Sen. Thomas K. Norment of James City County, the outgoing Senate majority leader, described it as an “altruistic wish list” that would give even incoming Democrats pause.

“Santa Claus Northam is going to have to get a second sleigh to carry all of these presents and goodies that he wants to extend to the citizens,” Sen. Norment stated in his response.

However, Henrico Delegate Lamont Bagby, a Democrat and chair of the 23-member Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, called it “the best budget I’ve seen from a governor.”

Less than a year after calling for the governor to resign as the result of a blackface scandal, Delegate Bagby praised the governor for picking up on VLBC initiatives and proposing key investments that will “promote racial equity and effectively ad- dress discriminatory barriers.”

Delegate Bagby cited budget proposals that would increase state funding by $92 million to address homelessness and increase affordable housing generally as well as for disabled people. He said it also would pour more than $6 million in new funds to support local eviction prevention and diversion programs.

He noted the budget also proposes $22 million to reduce the racial disparity in maternal and infant deaths through home visits and other initiatives and calls for spending an additional $45 million to increase financial aid for students from low-income families, many of whom are African-American.

He also pointed to proposals in the budget that would provide more money to support dropout prevention and other programs for high-needs students in public schools, enable school districts to hire more counselors, increase teacher pay, hire more public defenders and boost violence intervention and prevention programs.

“The VLBC is especially supportive of the governor’s budget proposals that we have previously advocated for,” Delegate Bagby stated.

Examples include a proposal to provide $2.5 million to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond to support programming for K-12 students over 2020- 22 and another proposal to give $7 million to support historic African-American history and heritage sites, he said.

He also noted that the governor has proposed removing $83,750 in annual funding to the United Daughters of the Confederacy to maintain Confederate cemeteries and to shift that money to a new fund to support African-American burial grounds.

Gov. Northam used his budget address to tout an increase in education funding he is proposing for K-12 public schools that would include a 3 percent raise for teachers and support staff in the second year of the biennium.

The bulk of the money, more than $800 million, would go to fund the Standards of Quality formula to help schools keep pace with students’ needs.

He also plans to propose a tax on the new gambling slot machine-style equipment that has sprung up in gas stations and restaurants to protect the Virginia Lottery that has been losing money as players opt to spend money on those machines rather than on lottery tickets.

The governor said his spending plan also proposes shifting a bigger share of lottery revenue to school divisions with high concentrations of children living in poverty, including Richmond and Petersburg.

Some education advocates, though, were less than satisfied.

Jeff Jones, spokesman for the advocacy group Fund Our Schools, said the governor has fallen short in providing what “it will take to fairly and adequately fund our schools.”

Mr. Jones praised the governor for including $550 million to hire more school counselors and English learner teachers and to beef up programs for at-risk students, but noted that the gov- ernor’s plan “represents less than half the amount the Virginia Board of Education recommended” a few months ago.

He noted the lion’s share of the money is going pay for re- benchmarking, a “required budgeting process that adjusts current funding levels for inflation and changes in school enrollment. These funds are not new investments in our schools.”

The governor would have to allocate an additional $2 billion to meet the recommendations from the state education board, Mr. Jones said.

Virginia Educators United also found the governor’s proposal “unacceptable” in finding too much of the money going to pay for required adjustments.

Meanwhile, environmental groups celebrated the gover- nor’s push to provide more than $700 million to address environmental concerns.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters stated that the spending plan is “the strongest budget yet for conservation, climate action, environmental justice and clean energy.”

On the health care front, the governor proposed creating a state marketplace for insurance purchases to help cut premiums.

And he put $145 million into the budget plan for a new initiative to help low- and moderate-income students cover the full cost of community college training in high-demand fields under a program he calls G3, for “Get Trained, Get A Job, Give Back.” The program would provide small state grants on top of federal Pell grants to enable students to attend school full time.

Along with raising the gas tax, his administration also said its proposal would include ways to have electric cars and hybrid vehicles contribute to road costs.

While the legislature will write the finished budget product, Gov. Northam is likely to see a friendly reception for his budget now that his political party is in charge.

Incoming Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn set the tone. She praised Gov. Northam for providing a budget that “delivers the progress Virginians voted for in November in a financially restrained way that preserves and strengthens Virginia’s economy.”