I know it’s summer, and most people are off vacationing with their families, sunning on beaches, and diving into pools, but in Richmond, the legislators are meeting for a special session to distribute the federal funds that came to Virginia from the American Rescue Plan Act. The American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law on March 11, 2021 by President Biden following passage in the US House and Senate. Not a single Republican in Congress voted for the Act.
ARPA resulted in a windfall of $4.2 billion to Virginia. But the Act was clear that the funds had to be used for: COVID-19 expenditures such as assistance to households, small businesses, economic recovery; premium pay for essential workers; investments in water, sewer, and broadband. The money could NOT be used to offset tax reductions. And it must be spent by the end of 2024.
In early June, Governor Northam called for a special session of the General Assembly to allocate those funds. Over the last few weeks, the Democratic leaders of the House Appropriations (Delegate Torian) and Senate Finance (Senator Howell) committees asked for input on priorities for spending the funds. According to Senator Howell, only four Republican senators responded to her inquiry, while 16 of the Democratic senators did. Honestly, it was generous of Democrats to ask their input, since if their party had its way, there would have been no federal funds to spend in the first place. Conversations with the Governor’s Administration undoubtedly also occurred. Torian and Howell and their teams then each drafted a budget indicating how the legislature proposed to spend the funds.
The House and Senate bills provided money to speed up universal broadband access, to make HVAC repairs at schools, to fund premium pay for the behavioral health services (currently facing a staffing crisis), to give bonuses to law enforcement and create a compensation study to address retention and shortages, and to provide eviction relief and legal services. With some fiscal conservatism, the budgets wisely held back some of the federal funds in case the Delta variant or other new COVID-19 related events cause new economic crises, rather than spending the entire pot immediately.
Yesterday and the day before, the House and Senate floor voted on their budgets, as well as on a number of amendments proposed on the floor. In the House, the Republican delegates didn’t really draft more than a handful of amendments (a couple by Delegate Glenn Davis relating to HBCU scholarships, and one about guns from Delegate Miyares, who’s running for AG against Mark Herring), but the Minority Leader Gilbert introduced a full substitute budget bill. In the Senate, despite having had the opportunity to give input on priorities, the Republican senators drafted over a hundred pages worth of floor amendments.
Many amendments were attempts to legislate through the budget, bringing back the photo ID requirement for voting that the General Assembly repealed last session, making the Virginia Department of Education model policy for the treatment of transgender students optional instead of mandatory for all school districts, prohibiting schools from teaching about systemic racism, changing the mandatory retirement age of judges, etc. Other GOP amendments involved spending more, more, more of this money their party didn’t want Virginia to receive. For example, the Governor requested $700 million to speed up the deployment of last-mile broadband access, based on estimates of the costs of moving up the date to three years from now, making Virginia one of the first states in the country to have universal broadband. The GOP introduced an amendment to increase that amount to $1 billion, without any indication how throwing more money at it would help. (But when that amendment failed, their “Democrats block $1 billion to broadband access” messaging was instantaneous.) Other amendments similarly threw money at various projects, ultimately serving to take away the prudent saved resources in case this unpredictable COVID-19 virus throws another wrench into our economy.
Some of the floor speeches on these amendments tossed around accusations of Democrats being Communists and even “Marxist-Communists,” and Governor Northam being “King Ralph.” And yet, there was no suggestion coming from that side of the aisle that they wouldn’t take this money. They were perfectly glad to have the government pay for socialized broadband, socialized school repair, a socialized water line to the Virginia International Raceway, socialized Spearhead Trails funding, a socialized NASCAR and motor vehicle racing heritage trail, and more. They stood there with their hands out, grasping at the very funds their counterparts in Washington (including every single member of the Virginia Republican Congressional delegation) voted against. (For video of Senator Howell and Majority Leader Saslaw punching back against the GOP hypocrisy, see here.)
Oh, and then after debasing themselves like that? The Senate Republicans (except for Sen Hanger) voted against the budget anyway, because they didn’t like the “process” of how much time they had to offer amendments and how much time was given to debating the amendments and the budget. On the House side, the Republican leadership team all voted against the budget, and threw nearly half their own caucus, who voted for the budget, under the bus, tweeting it would raise taxes on employers. What a joke. And they wonder why the Democrats control Richmond.