RICHMOND — The General Assembly released the state’s spending plan Wednesday, which includes significant investments in broadband expansion and funding to support bringing passenger rail service to the New River Valley.
The budget includes measures to help Virginians struggling to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic as well as priorities for Democrats who control the General Assembly, including raising the pay for teachers, setting up a system to oversee the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, and various criminal justice reform policies.
“With a brighter revenue forecast and a clearer path out of the pandemic, this budget will continue the work of the last special session to build a safer, healthier, and more equitable commonwealth,” said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
With the legislature scheduled to adjourn at the end of the month, budget negotiators will spend the next couple weeks hashing out the differences between the House and Senate spending plans.
The legislature wants to maintain COVID-19 relief spending efforts, including about $20 million from revenues from electronic games of skill for the Rebuild VA economic recovery fund to provide grants to small businesses. Legislators also want to continue to fund schools at their pre-pandemic enrollment numbers rather than use the attendance formula to reduce their funding because parents have placed students in alternative learning environments.
Other forms of assistance legislators want to provide are a sales tax exemption for businesses purchasing personal protective equipment and improved services at the Virginia Employment Commission to help with unemployment needs.
The House and Senate both want to include about $50 million over the next fiscal year to expand broadband, an issue that has received increased attention during the pandemic with many people having to work and learn from home. The House wants to develop a better map of broadband access across the commonwealth to ensure more people are getting better internet.
The funding will go through the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative, one of the primary mechanisms the commonwealth uses to reach areas where there is no broadband. The program requires funded projects to be public-private partnerships, with a local government partnering with a private sector internet service provider to bring service to that community.
The budget also includes a provision to allow the municipal authorities to apply for VATI grants without a private sector partner, meaning the authorities would serve as the internet service provider on the application rather than a company like Cox or Shentel. This has been a priority for the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority.
Gov. Ralph Northam originally requested $50 million to advance a goal to extend Amtrak passenger rail service to the New River Valley and add a second Amtrak train out of Roanoke. The House budget sticks with that amount, while the Senate wants to increase that funding to $137 million, so both chambers will have to come to an agreement. Negotiations with Norfolk Southern Corps. are ongoing, but transportation officials said the project could cost at least $200 million.
Democrats have also set aside funds for legislative priorities, such as roughly $35 million for a new program championed by Northam to provide tuition-free community college attendance opportunities to middle and low-income students in high demand professional fields. This program was one of several the legislature had to put on hold last year due to the pandemic hurting revenues.
The budget proposals also provide funding to help support measures the General Assembly is still working on related to getting rid of some mandatory minimums from the state code and expanding the system to seal criminal records.
“We have pushed ahead to help Virginians through the pandemic and move us forward in a number of areas, including education, health and human resources and criminal justice reform,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.