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Northam Reflects on Strange Year, Looks Forward to Recovery

House of Delegates Chamber
Gov. Ralph Northam delivering the 2021 State of the Commonwealth Address to an empty House of Delegates chamber. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over Gov. Ralph Northam’s State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night. The governor proposed a litany of legislative priorities to offset the effects of the virus which has claimed the lives of over 5,500 Virginians, including Sen. Ben Chafin who was honored by Northam and both chambers of the General Assembly Wednesday.

“We’ve all experienced loss this year, and it has made us all stop, and ask ourselves some basic questions: What’s really important? What do I believe in? Am I taking actions that reflect my values?” Northam posed. 

Topping the governor’s priority list: financial assistance for both citizens and small businesses. Northam called for reinvestments into both the Virginia Housing Trust Fund and the Rebuild VA Program. 

In his proposed budget, Northam allocated an additional $25 million to the trust fund which provides low-interest loans to developers building affordable housing. 

“This record [amount] is more than we have ever invested in helping make sure people have stable housing, and we need to get it done this session,” he said.

The Rebuild VA program, introduced to help business recover from the financial impact of the pandemic, has provided nearly $120 million in grants to over 2,500 businesses and small profits, but Northam said that investment was not enough.

“That money was exhausted fast, but the need is huge. This need won’t be around forever, but for now, it’s urgent,” he said.

The governor called for the state to use taxes from “gray machines,” which operate like slot machines, to invest in small businesses. Those machines are set to be banned in the state on July 1, though Northam has now turned to their revenues for two straight years to provide COVID-19 relief.

Another area the governor stressed was education. Northam praised efforts to get teachers vaccinated, saying it’s one step being taken to get Virginia’s schools open.

“I know that everyone wants to get our schools open and our students back into their desks, and to do it safely. So do I. So we are taking action,” he said.

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who delivered the opposition’s response along with Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), took a different tone, criticizing Northam both on vaccine rollout and the closing of schools. Cox, who is also running to replace Northam in the Executive Mansion, said that under Northam’s leadership, “Virginia failed to live up to its once-coveted status as America’s best managed state.”

As of Dec. 14, only 9 districts were open for full in-person instruction; Northam has left the decision up to localities. Cox, a former school teacher, said keeping Virginia’s schools close threatens the education of the state’s students. 

“I know first-hand the severe and lasting consequences of having a child fall behind,” he said. “We cannot condemn an entire generation of Virginia’s students to the enduring effects of an inadequate education.”

Northam, however, said the state’s education system is built on a “solid foundation,” but argued now is the time for further investment. The governor proposed increasing funding for school counselors, providing additional resources for English language learners and, in a change, giving a permanent raise to the commonwealth’s teachers. Previously, he had called for providing a one-time bonus to teachers, but a positive fiscal report for December spurred the late change.

The speech, however, was not wholly dominated by talk of coronavirus, as social issues reared their heads as well. Northam praised 2020 efforts to remove memorials to the state’s Confederate past and called for those efforts to continue into 2021.

“It was important progress, and throughout the year, we heard the call to move faster.The people said, it’s past time for these monuments, these echoes of revisionist history, to come down,” he said.

Northam also echoed calls from his party to abolish capital punishment, automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies and legalize marijuana. Cosgrove, however, delivered a sharp rebuke of Democratic criminal justice reforms.

“In 2020, what had been near-unanimous support for our law enforcement professionals became a political issue,” he said. “Slogans like ‘Defund the Police’ became actual policy in some large American cities – with devastating consequences to personal safety and property in those communities.”

He criticized efforts to end qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement officers accused of misconduct, and mandatory minimum sentences. 

“These policies were enacted to fight crime and they worked.  Unilaterally abandoning proven measures that have made Virginia safer for all its citizens endangers our neighborhoods and our quality of life,” he said.

Research into mandatory minimums, however, is mixed on whether they prevent crime

Wednesday’s speeches concluded the first day of the 2021 session for Virginia’s general assembly. The session will last until Feb. 11, though Northam is expected to call a special session immediately following its conclusion. Follow VPM’s General Assembly Coverage at vpm.org/general-assembly.