by former VA House Democratic Leader David Toscano
The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated our communities, and shone a bright light on the disparities and inequities that many communities have experienced for far too long. People have lost their jobs, businesses have closed and may not reopen, and our students risk falling further behind by the day. Virginians talk a lot about returning to “normal”, but the truth is that normal is no longer good enough. While comfortable for some, “normal” hasn’t been working for far too many of our communities. Leaders like President Biden are addressing this challenge in bold and creative ways. And we are seeing strong leadership emerge from our nation’s governors—both Democratic and Republican– to ensure these changes will be implemented at the state level in an equitable and efficient manner.
The good news for Virginia is that leaders like Ralph Northam and Terry McAuliffe have the vision for the future and know how to accomplish it. Take, for example, McAuliffe’s climate and energy plan. While governors in red states are generally ignoring this challenge, McAuliffe’s proposals not only confront it directly, but also leverage federal dollars to create new and sustainable jobs. Thousands of jobs can be created in solar installations, and in building wind turbines for placement off of our coasts. This creates new industries and spin off activities to drive economic opportunity in the future.
One of the great initiatives of Biden’s American Rescue Plan is its guarantees of nearly $2 billion in emergency relief funding for Virginia’s K-12 schools, including up to $1.5 billion that can be used for essential health and safety upgrades. In normal times, states would simply pass along these one-time dollars to local governments with little guidance about how it should be spent, and some governors are doing just that. But it is time to move beyond normal, and McAuliffe recognizes that. He has laid out a plan that will protect the health and safety of our students during COVID-19 while attacking the long-standing need to upgrade our outdated and crumbling school infrastructure. McAuliffe’s plan will leverage these federal dollars to support renovations, establish clear benchmarks to track energy usage in schools, and invest in energy-efficient upgrades like new HVAC systems, electric heat pumps and more. This will save localities monies that they can then reinvest to meet the needs of their residents.
At best, outdated technologies and infrastructure impede our students’ abilities to gain the skills they need to step into high-demand jobs of the future. At worst, crumbling schools can expose kids to dangerous environmental hazards like mold or pollutants, which can cause serious health problems and can lead to lower test scores and poor educational outcomes.
This pandemic has derailed major sectors of our economy and the recovery for many may prove difficult. But it has also given us the opportunity to think in more equitable and creative ways. It compels us leave the business-as-usual approach in the rearview mirror. It is no accident that Terry McAuliffe continues to use the word “bold” to describe his approaches to rebuilding the Commonwealth following the pandemic. In short, his experience tells him that this is the only way to meet our critical needs, whether it is in the schoolroom or the energy arena. His refusal to take the easy path and to slide back into the old way of doing things because it feels more comfortable is a refreshing approach that should be embraced by governors and elected leaders across the country. And it will further cement Virginia’s national leadership as the best place to live in the nation.
David J. Toscano served 14 years in Virginia’s House of Delegates. He is the author of Fighting Gridlock: How States Shape the Nation and Our Lives, forthcoming in 2021 from University of Virginia Press, and Bellwether: Virginia’s Political Transformation from Red to Blue, 2006-2020.