Last month, the General Assembly returned to Richmond to allocate $3.3 billion in federal funds from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
Some of these funds will be used for short-term economic recovery, as in nearly $1 billion to replenish the Unemployment Trust Fund and $74 million for improvements at the Virginia Employment Commission.
Our federal allotment was also used for long term priorities, such as $700 million for broadband, $250 million for public schools, and $111 million in financial aid for college and university students.
Because we have kept Virginia on a strong financial footing throughout the pandemic, these funds are also used to build on the progress that began when the Democrats took the majority of the General Assembly after the election in 2019.
Among other things, the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates and Senate passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act. This has spurred investments in offshore wind energy, made solar power more accessible, and put Virginia on track for 100% net carbon free electric generation by 2045. With this legislation, Virginia will become a leader in clean, resilient energy.
Democrats passed the most consequential transportation package in almost 35 years, without adding tolls. To fund improvements to the rural roads, in 2020 we equalized the gas tax across the commonwealth and indexed it to inflation, so our infrastructure would not fall back into disrepair. The Interstate 81 Commission was given authority to issue bonds to expedite overdue improvements to the longest Interstate in Virginia.
The transportation package in 2020 also established a Virginia Passenger Rail Authority to expand passenger rail service in the Commonwealth. I partnered with Del. Chris Hurst to establish a New River Valley Passenger Rail Station Authority to support the long-sought agreement with Norfolk Southern to extend Amtrak service to the New River Valley by 2024. In addition, we expect to add a second Amtrak train from Roanoke to Washington, D.C., in 2022.
Not only will this give our citizens the convenient option of passenger rail to and from the New River Valley, but the economic benefit to the region is projected to be more than $2 billion annually.
When the pandemic began in 2020, we responded to the needs of Virginians whose lives were turned upside down. The Virginia Rent and Mortgage Relief Program protected Virginians from eviction. The Rebuild VA program was created to keep small businesses and nonprofits afloat with nearly $120 million since July 2020.
Following outrage at the tragic death of George Floyd, Virginians demanded police reform. We established for the first time a standard of conduct for all Virginia law enforcement. We banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and mandated de-escalation training, among other things. We also strengthened decertification procedures of police officers who engage in inappropriate conduct.
I sponsored legislation to expand the Crisis Intervention Team program to every locality in Virginia. We also added much needed funding to increase pay for our law enforcement officers throughout the commonwealth and worked with the state police in making these reforms.
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I also sponsored legislation to reform and expand the Virginia Court of Appeals from 11 judges to 17 judges. The expanded court brings Virginia closer in line with the number of judges on intermediate courts in other states of similar population.
For the first time, this court will provide an automatic right of review in all civil and criminal cases. A right of appeal to a three judge panel is deemed the “model of justice” by the American Bar Association and will provide more opportunity for justice in Virginia’s judicial system.
With two existing vacancies on the court and six new judges, we elected eight exceptionally well qualified judges to the Court of Appeals. The 82 applicants were evaluated by the Virginia State Bar and nine other bar groups in the most open and transparent process in Virginia history. These newly elected judges will add invaluable diversity of perspective to the court.
Our majority has also been reforming the criminal justice system, including abolishing the death penalty, the first southern state to do so.
We also are safeguarding the right of all Virginians to vote.
We raised teacher salaries and expanded pre-K, and we increased funding for our higher education institutions. Locally, we provided funding to reduce in-state tuition for Radford University students in Roanoke to the same level as in-state tuition at the Radford campus.
Some 550,000 Virginians now have Medicaid expansion because of Democrats in the General Assembly.
Because Virginia Democrats get things done, Virginia is ranked again as “America’s Top State for Business” by CNBC. We are leading by creating opportunity through investing in our infrastructure, including roads, passenger rail, public and higher education, broadband, health care, the environment, and our commitment to justice and equality under the law.
John Edwards of Roanoke represents the 21st Senate District of Virginia.