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Broadband, School Construction, Business Grants and More on GA’s Docket for Special Session

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File: A brick path leads to the steps of the Virginia State Capitol. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

VPM state politics reporter Ben Paviour recently spoke with Alan Rodriguez Espinoza to preview the upcoming General Assembly special session. Below is a list of proposals mentioned in the preview and an lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Proposals:

Alan: For VPM News in Richmond, I'm Alan Rodriguez Espinoza. The General Assembly is set to meet in person on Monday for the first time in over a year. The main task of their special session is to decide how to spend over $4 billion in federal stimulus money. Here to talk about the session is our state politics reporter Ben Paviour. Thanks for joining us, Ben. 

Ben: Good to be here. 

Alan: So this is a really big influx in money. Remind us where is it coming from?

Ben: Back in March, Congress passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, and I should say democrats passed it because there was no GOP votes for this. And that included money, the $300 for unemployment checks and $1400 direct payments, there was the boost to the child tax credit. And state and local governments also got a cut. So many states are struggling, but Virginia is not one of them. Actually, we're running a surplus of around $2 billion. But lawmakers in Richmond say that this money coming through the stimulus can really make a difference on issues like unemployment and health care.

Alan: So in Richmond, it's democrats that are running the show right now. They control the General Assembly and the executive mansion. So they're in charge of where the money goes. What do we know so far about their plans? 

Ben: Governor Ralph Northam and top Democrats have already come to consensus and announced their plan. So they're talking almost as if this is a done deal. One of the bigger proposals they've announced involves high speed internet. The governor and his allies want to spend $700 million to create universal broad access to broadband by 2024. At a press conference earlier this month, Northam compared the situation to electricity, which took much longer to reach rural parts of the state in the 1930s. 

“And the reason was, much as it has been, today is the cost issue. It costs a lot of money to get what we refer to as that final mile.” 

Obviously, Internet access became hugely important during the pandemic. And so there's bipartisan support around this idea.

Alan: Yeah, it definitely came up a lot when I interviewed teachers and students during remote learning last year. But now students are heading back and we're hearing a lot more about school infrastructure needs.

Ben: Absolutely, Alan, and as you know, Northam has suggested spending $500 million dollars of this money to improve school ventilation systems. But some districts are asking for more flexibility and more money. And as you've reported, many schools need major work. 

Alan: Okay, so we have broadband, school construction. What else is there?

Ben: Well, there's consensus among many lawmakers that the state should use this money to plug a big billion-dollar-plus hole in the unemployment trust fund. And that's the money the state pays out for unemployment claims. And if they don't take action, businesses are going to have to foot the bill.

There's also a mounting crisis in the state's mental hospitals. They're severely short-staffed. Four are currently not accepting patients. So Democrats want to spend some of the money on staff bonuses and community based crisis services.

Just to mention a few other plans they've announced, they talked about a new round of funding for a small business grant program of up to $100,000 per business, money for water treatment, stormwater runoff, drinking water. They announced over $100 million for financial aid for low, middle-income college students. So there's a lot in the works here in this in this package.

Alan: And just how solid are these plans? It sounds like they've already kind of made up their mind. So is there going to be much debate at the session?

Ben: It's definitely unusual to know this much about a budget before the session even starts. So Democrats, as I said, are already more or less unified about it. And they say they're eager to get the session over with and the money out. But they're doing that by not allowing lawmakers to submit their own budget proposals, at least formally through the usual process. And this is unusual, it's upsetting to Republicans. They say that they have their own ideas and they deserve consideration, ideas around fighting crime and helping small businesses. Democrats say Republicans have been involved behind the scenes and this is just election-year posturing. And a reminder on that: the House of Delegates is on the ballot this year, so there'll be plenty of speeches and grandstanding.

Alan: Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM. Ben, thanks for doing this. 

Ben: Happy to do it. 

Alan: I'm Alan Rodriguez Espinoza and you're listening to VPM News.

Clarification: In the above transcript, it is stated Northam called for spending $500 million dollars on repairing and replacing schools' HV/AC systems. Northam's proposal calls for using $250 million in federal funds while asking districts to match that investment. The list of proposals has been updated to reflect the state's investment alone.