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Governor Northam proposes budget with unprecedented investments in working Virginians

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On December 16, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam proposed his biennial budget for 2022-2024. The proposed budget is a reflection of Governor Northam’s historic progressive leadership as the most economically successful governor in Virginia’s history. In the past four years, Virginia has generated record economic growth, with $80 billion in capital investment, and created more than 100 thousand new jobs. Under Governor Northam, Virginia generated a $2.6 billion surplus—the largest in the Commonwealth’s history.

This record economic growth and fiscal responsibility have allowed Governor Northam to build on the priorities of his last four budgets: education, equity, and investments in working Virginians.

The Governor’s proposed budget sets the incoming administration up for success in virtually every facet of state government: education, the environment, broadband, behavioral health, public safety, and economic development. Governor Northam noted that Virginia is stronger and more forward-looking as a result of the last four years—and his budget is a roadmap to continue this success.

“Over these four years, we have steered this state in a prudent manner, invested wisely for our long-term needs, and created more opportunities for our communities and our people to thrive,” said Governor Northam. “I am confident that this state is stronger and more forward-looking than it was when I took office nearly four years ago. This budget is a roadmap to continue Virginia’s success.”


The Governor’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below and the key highlights of the Governor’s budget amendments can be found here.

Good morning. Chairman Torian, Chairwoman Howell, Chairwoman Watts, Speaker
Filler-Corn, members of the General Assembly, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the privilege of speaking with you this morning.

I would like to recognize Attorney General Mark Herring, my wife Pam, and members of our Cabinet and staff.

And I want to welcome Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears and Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin.

I invited the incoming administration today because once the campaigns are over, we all should work together to help Virginia succeed. I want to thank our Department of Elections, all of our local registrars, and the thousands of volunteers who all work to make our elections run smoothly.

We had a nearly-flawless election of Governor-elect Youngkin this year, just as we did last year when Virginia voted for President Joe Biden. Our elections are always well-run, they’re free and fair, and they’re transparent. This is a hallmark of our democracy, and I am proud of all Virginians whose efforts help ensure that our elections go well.

We saw record turnout last month—and that’s a direct result of our work to make it easier to vote in the Commonwealth.

So Governor-elect, welcome. I want you and your administration to be successful, because if you are, Virginia will continue to be successful.

It’s good to be gathered here together today. I’m glad that I can deliver my last budget speech to you all in person.

When we first met here, I was not quite a year into my term. Back then, a four-year term seemed like a long time.

But those years have gone by very fast. And today I present to you my last budget. I’m biased, but I also think it’s our best one yet.

That’s because Virginia’s economy is doing very well. State revenues are at record levels. And we are at a unique moment when we have the funding to catch up on long-delayed investments, while also putting money back into the pockets of the hardest working Virginians.

We need to be clear about how this has happened. It is because, over these four years, we have consistently taken a prudent, cautious approach to budgeting.

We have strengthened our balance sheet to keep our finances stable. We’ve made
targeted long-term investments to help Virginia grow. And we’ve made choices that ensure more opportunities for more Virginians.

In 2018 I spoke to you about strengthening our balance sheet, making historic investments, positioning Virginia for potential future downturns, and targeted tax relief.

I am glad to see that despite everything that has happened over these four years, our priorities really haven’t changed.

We still want to take care of our neighbors. We still want to make sure Virginia has money put away for a rainy day.

We still want to strengthen this Commonwealth in every way possible, by making investments that will help us in the long run. We still want to do the most good possible with the resources we have. We have kept the promises we made four years ago.

When I presented our budget in 2018, I told you our economy was headed in the right direction.

And while we’ve had some ups and downs—particularly in the early months of the pandemic—I can confidently say that our economy today is the strongest we’ve seen in a very long time.

We ended the last fiscal year with the largest surplus in the Commonwealth’s history.

And while we’ve benefitted from federal pandemic funding, please don’t fall into the trap of believing that’s the reason for the surplus. Pandemic funding is one-time—revenues are ongoing. And those booming revenues show us that the things we’ve been doing these four years are working.

We’ve made targeted investments for the future, helped people get through the pandemic, and put money aside as a buffer for the future. This is possible because of strong, steady fiscal stewardship.

We have built a strong Commonwealth that works for more Virginians than ever before.

The budget I propose to you today will leave a roadmap to continue the strong economic success that we are seeing. We will keep making the investments that Virginia needs, and we will keep putting resources into supporting Virginians who need it.

First, we have built this budget as we have every budget—with Virginia’s long-term fiscal stability in mind.

When I started this job, Virginia was on a negative credit watch. My goal was to get our credit back on the positive side of the ledger and to set aside the equivalent of 8 percent of our budget in reserves. That goal would have meant we had more in reserves than any previous governor, of either party.

Well, we did that, and much more. I’m happy to say that our AAA rating is safe and sound, and this budget puts $1.1 billion in our Revenue Stabilization Fund. We’ve also added a voluntary deposit, another $564 million. Because when you’re doing well, the first thing any financial advisor will tell you to do is put money in the bank.

Altogether, this brings our reserves to more than $3.8 billion. That’s 16.8 percent, more than double the 8 percent I set as a goal four years ago. I am proud that even as we weathered the worst pandemic in our lifetime, we’ve rebuilt our reserves so that Virginia is prepared against future downturns.

That financial advisor would also tell you that when you have a surplus in cash, it makes sense to pay down some bills. So this budget sets aside nearly $1 billion for the Virginia Retirement System. This will reduce unfunded liabilities, making sure we can meet our retirement obligations for thousands of state employees, folks like social workers, and road crews.

And it also commits $42.5 million each year for the payments we expect to make under our deal with Amazon—payments that are contingent on them meeting their promises on investments and job creation.

And, finally, the financial advisor would tell us that if we want to make long-needed renovations to the house, it makes more sense to use cash than credit. So we’re budgeting $2 billion for capital projects, including maintenance needs in state government and higher education buildings. And we’ve also got to protect our house—so this budget includes over $60 million for cybersecurity upgrades across state government.

All of these actions mean that Virginia will have more tools in the toolbox next time there’s an economic downturn—because we planned ahead today. That means our historic investments won’t disappear when the next downturn comes.

Strong revenue years, like this one, are the right time to make strategic, long-term investments. That’s true whether the investment is in asphalt and concrete, or the people who truly make up this state government.

And we want to invest in people.

That’s why our budget includes pay raises for the people who make public services run.

For teachers, we’re proposing a 10 percent raise—five percent in each of the next two years. With local matching funds, Virginia teacher pay will finally meet the national
average—and that’s good news.

This is the right way to say thank you to our teachers for all they do every day—especially for all they have done during this long pandemic.

I am proud that every budget I proposed as governor included a pay boost for teachers—including the largest single-year raise in 15 years, in 2018. There is power in every child—teachers give a child the tools to unlock that power. They go above and beyond every day, and these raises are one way to show our gratitude.

I’m also proposing pay raises for law enforcement officers and corrections officers. For years they have faced what we call “pay compression”—when we raise starting salaries, it means junior officers start earning almost as much as senior officers. The structure we’ve proposed raises both starting salaries and those of officers with more experience. Law enforcement is not an easy job—officers put themselves at risk every day, and they deserve to be better compensated for it.

And finally, I’m proposing a 10 percent pay raise for all state employees—five percent in each of the next two budget years. Our state workforce is what makes the government run. They are the service in public service. None of the services we all rely on – from fixing roads to keeping state parks open to the public health services we’ve needed so much these past 20 months—none of that would happen without state employees, and this is a way to thank them for their hard work.

The pandemic affected many state services—and in some cases, put a spotlight on longstanding problems.

It put additional strain on our already-challenged behavioral health system, as our state and community systems—and the people who provide those services—struggled to provide care during the pandemic.

In July, I committed to using millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan to alleviate pressure in state hospitals, boost community services, and provide greater support for substance abuse treatment and prevention efforts.

We also put ARPA funding toward staff bonuses, and we committed to staff salary raises to better compensate the people who do this tough job.

Today, I’m announcing this budget includes $560 million to address our behavioral health challenges, on a variety of fronts.

We’re proposing $164 million to give pay raises to direct care staff in our state hospitals and training centers, along with discharge assistance.

We’ll also provide $263 million for community-based services. This includes fully funding STEP VA services at our community services boards, enhancing crisis services, and expanding permanent supportive housing.

I’m budgeting $75 million for new behavioral health care standards in jails, and to increase the number of counselors in the Department of Corrections.

And we’ll provide $33 million to expand access to community-based addiction treatment—something that we need now more than ever, unfortunately.

We’ll also boost services for developmental disabilities, with a historic $675 million to strengthen community-based services and allow more people to be eligible for Medicaid waiver services. This includes revising rates to providers for the first time since 2016 and adding 1,200 new waiver slots for community services.

Every state is facing the long-term challenge of behavioral health, and how to best provide treatment. These issues, especially in our state hospitals, are challenging and have been building for a long time. This funding package will help ease the strains on the system while compensating our hardworking staff, and providing additional community support for the patients who need and deserve help and treatment.

We are unfortunately living at a time when a variety of health issues are pressing enough to be considered public health emergencies.

One of those is the persistent crisis of gun violence in our communities.

Every year, we lose more than a thousand Virginians to gun violence. That’s more than three Virginians every day, in communities across the Commonwealth.

Whether those deaths are homicides, suicides, or accidents, every one of them is a tragedy. Every one of them is a family that will never be the same.

I am proud to have passed comprehensive gun safety measures in 2020. But there are still important gaps in our knowledge about the problem, and how to prevent it.

That’s why my budget provides $27 million to establish and staff the Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention.

This center will collect and report data on firearm violence in all its forms. It will provide resources and support to localities and community-based organizations that are addressing firearm violence, and it will coordinate state and local responses to such violence. The center will collaborate across both public health and public safety state agencies, so we can address this crisis in a data-driven way.

Our revenues allow us to make investments we’ve needed for a long time. And one problem that has festered in Virginia for decades is the issue of crumbling schools—schools with leaky roofs and ceilings, and antiquated classrooms. It’s hard for children to learn when the school itself is distracting.

Many school divisions have old schools, and not enough money to build new ones. But school construction has traditionally been a local responsibility, not a state one.

While I understand the reasons for that, I believe that when we have the means to help, we should.

So my budget includes $500 million to help localities construct or renovate school buildings. This isn’t the first time we’ve proposed school construction loans – in fact, we proposed it through the Literary Fund in 2018. But this is the most we’ve ever proposed to help ensure students have a healthy and safe learning environment.

Overall, we’re proposing more than $2.3 billion in direct aid for education.

We’ll also increase support for at-risk students by more than $268 million. In 2019, we proposed investing $140 million to support high-poverty school divisions—the most we had ever been able to give to support at-risk students.

This investment nearly doubles that, helping schools offer additional support to students who need it.

Every child, no matter who they are or where they live, should get a world-class education in Virginia.

And that education should start as young as possible. Early education has been a priority of mine, and of the First Lady’s, throughout my term in office. This budget expands access to the Virginia Preschool Initiative for three-year-olds and increases the Child Care Development Fund by more than $73 million each year.

It also expands the early reading initiative, investing more than $77 million over the two years. I want to thank Pam and all the dedicated people across government and around Virginia who have worked to make early learning more available and accessible to all of our children.

We’re also making important investments in safe, affordable housing. We’ve increased our support for the Housing Trust Fund in past budgets, and we’re able to do it again. I am proposing $190 million over the two years to create more housing that is safe and stable, and that people can afford.

When I came into office, we were putting just $11 million in the Housing Trust Fund. Our administration has made historic investments—$145 million so far. The importance of affordable housing, as well as supportive housing, has been even more evident during this pandemic.

You can’t tell people they’re safer staying home if they don’t have a home to stay in. That’s why these housing investments are so important, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to increase this funding during my term.

One of the most important investments we have been able to make is in broadband coverage.

Broadband is to today’s economy what electricity was generations ago. It is quite simply a necessary service for students to connect to education, businesses to connect to the wider world, and citizens to connect to work. It helps make economic opportunity more equitable.

But when I came into office, we were spending $4 million a year on connecting the thousands of Virginians that still lacked broadband access.

We bumped that up to $50 million a year. And earlier this year, we made the decision to put $700 million in federal pandemic funding into broadband. When we leverage local and private funding, Virginia is deploying $2 billion into broadband and high-speed internet.

Because of this decision, earlier this week we were able to award grant projects to dozens of communities—projects that will close 90 percent of the digital divide. We’re on track to have universal broadband on its way to every community by 2024—far faster than expected, and faster than most other states.

That funding is built into the base of this budget, and it’s vital to Virginia’s economic health that we keep this project moving forward. This is an infrastructure investment that will help Virginians for years to come.

Last week, I announced additional funding for our state parks and multi-use trail systems.

We’re also making investments in other environmental priorities—especially those that help ensure clean water and protect land for future generations.

I am proud to say that with this budget, we have put $1 billion toward our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

That is more than any other governor has ever been able to invest in the Bay. As someone who grew up with the Bay as my backyard, this is personal to me—I want to ensure that my grandchildren, and your grandchildren, can enjoy beautiful, clean water the same way I did.

This money will go to a variety of programs that make our water cleaner—reducing nutrient runoff, conserving forest and farmland, fully funding the BMP cost-share, and helping localities update old sewer systems.

It will help us meet our statewide goals for Bay cleanup by 2025. We must meet those
obligations. The Bay touches so many states that cleaning it up is a group project, and we do not want Virginia to be the state that doesn’t carry its share.

As part of this effort, we’re also providing funding for the cities of Richmond, Lynchburg, and Alexandria, to improve their wastewater systems, through what we call combined sewer overflow projects. Their CSO projects will deliver cleaner water for everyone.

That’s why we’re using federal ARPA dollars for those projects. When we announced how we’d use that funding earlier this year, we purposely set some aside for other needs. This is an excellent way to use those resources to solve a decades-old health problem.

We also are taking steps to protect land and cultural sites that are important to Virginia’s tribal nations, Black Virginians, and other Virginians of color.

As we strive to tell a fuller and more inclusive story of Virginia, it’s important to preserve and protect physical places and spaces that represent the history of all Virginians.

We’ll set aside $12 million to help Virginia’s tribal nations conserve and expand their tribal lands for future generations—something we’ve already started on, with actions in recent years to protect land for the Chickahominy and Mattaponi tribes. We’ve also budgeted $10 million to preserve historic sites related to Black and indigenous Virginians.

Clean air and water are important legacies to leave for future generations. And it’s important to prepare our Commonwealth for the climate changes that are having an impact now.

I’m so proud of the work we’ve done to make this state more resilient. And the country is once again turning to Virginia for leadership. In fact, President Biden has nominated Admiral Ann Phillips, our special assistant for coastal adaptation, to serve as the next U.S. Maritime Administrator. Admiral Phillips is in the midst of her confirmation hearing as we speak. I know she will serve the United States as well as she served our Commonwealth.

I am incredibly proud that during my term, we have brought in a record $80 billion in economic investment, creating more than 100,000 new jobs. And CNBC has named Virginia the best state for business three years running—proof that when you treat people right, it’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business.

CNBC uses more than 70 different metrics to score that ranking, about half of which touch on the business and tax climate. Both Republican and Democratic governors compete for this ranking—and we’re the only state to get it in successive years. For comparison, we’re in company with states like Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina—not exactly liberal hotbeds.

I want to thank the Commerce and Trade team, everyone at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and our local economic development officials, all of whom work hard to showcase all that Virginia can offer to companies.

And I thank the MEI team, which includes several of you legislators. We’ve brought thoughtful projects to you, and we’ve been able to help them succeed.

But we can do more—specifically to attract large manufacturing projects and others who need large sites prepared and ready to go. We’ve been losing projects, along with their jobs and capital investments, that are looking for this specific kind of site.

So I’m proposing $150 million to address this issue. The majority, $100 million, will establish a mega-site development fund, which will prepare our largest sites for future mega projects. These are the kinds of projects that represent thousands of potential jobs, and billions in capital investment.

The remaining $50 million will be used for midsized sites that are priorities for our economic development programs around the Commonwealth. Together, this investment will make our communities as competitive as possible, and help ensure that every region of Virginia can participate in this economic growth.

Our strong economic development track record, and being the best state for business, aren’t things that happen in a vacuum.

They happen because we have put the pieces in place to make them happen. Our
inclusive, commonsense policies have encouraged business investment. Being named the best state for business is a testament to our workforce, our education system, our commitment to diversity, and our strong business climate. And it shows that when you treat people right, good things happen.

Because of this investment, Mr. Youngkin, you will one day find yourself in a rural community to cut the ribbon on a mega-site during your term.

And because of this, I also expect to see Virginia as the best state for business for the fourth year in a row.

We got good marks with CNBC for our education system, including our world-class colleges and universities. These days, if you want to get a good job and get ahead, you need additional skills training or education beyond a high school diploma. I’m proud that in Virginia, we have everything from training focused on skills, to outstanding advanced degree programs.

But we can’t rest on our laurels in higher education.

Last week, I announced additional funding for our historically black colleges and universities. They’ve long been underfunded, which is why we have increased funding for them in every budget I have proposed.

We have budgeted support for capital improvements, and for student access.

Our schools are not serving their purpose if students can’t afford to go there—especially the first-generation students, for whom college can make a huge difference.

My budget adds $40 million over two years for Norfolk State University and Virginia State University for affordable access.

We also include $20 million over two years to help support scholarships at Virginia Union, and at Hampton University.

And we’ve budgeted for capital improvements, student support, and other needs—$297 million altogether. With these investments, we’ll have put half a billion dollars into HBCUs during my term, an increase of 87 percent.

We also know that student access is an issue at every school, public and private, HBCU or not.

That’s why we’re increasing tuition assistance for students in other ways. This budget provides $150 million to increase undergraduate financial assistance at our schools and $10 million to increase graduate financial aid. We’re providing $97 million for affordable access programs.

And we’re raising the level of Tuition Assistance Grants to students at private colleges and universities to $5,000 per student over the next two years.

That means that over my term, we’ll have increased TAG by 50 percent.

This year, roughly 23,000 Virginia students are being helped by the TAG program.

That’s no small number of students who might have been able to get an education because of this assistance.

Our private colleges do an outstanding job of helping students who might not have thought they could afford a private college—or afford to go to college at all.

In fact, here is a remarkable statistic about Virginia’s private colleges—of our student body attending Virginia’s private colleges, more than 44 percent of the student body is eligible for Pell grants, with many of our colleges exceeding 55 percent.

It takes a village, as they say, and these colleges are committed to access to higher education for all, and I thank them.

Not every student wants or needs a four-year degree to get a good job. There are many high-paying jobs that don’t require four years of school, but they do require training programs

We have excellent community colleges.

When I ran for governor, I campaigned on an idea to make community college tuition-free for low and moderate-income students, if they were getting training in high-need areas.

Last year we were finally able to keep that promise and fund the G3 program. It covers the cost of school for qualifying students—and it helps pay for other needs, like transportation and child care, that can prevent someone from getting the education they need.

This budget puts another $38 million into G3. It is a critical program to help Virginians get the training they need for the jobs they want.

We’ll also put more than $11 million into UVA-Wise to help expand programs, particularly those focused on economic development. UVA-Wise is doing great things in Southwest Virginia to help the region’s economy grow and diversify.

And at my own alma mater, VMI, we’ll provide nearly $12 million to implement the One Corps, One VMI steps to a more inclusive and supportive campus.

Our strong economy is making a lot of these budget investments possible. But it’s important to remember that these past two years have not treated everyone the
same.

If you’re a white-collar professional, your work probably moved online, and you made it through the pandemic pretty well.

But workers whose jobs require close contact have had a rougher time. Some jobs simply can’t move online—restaurant workers, teachers, law enforcement, home care
attendants, and many, many others.

Many of these folks are still struggling.

And for years, we’ve seen the gap between the wealthiest Americans, and the least wealthy ones, widen.

In 2017, when I ran for governor, I campaigned on a promise to reduce taxes for the Virginians who need it most.

And one of the tax cuts I proposed in 2017 was that we eliminate the sales tax on groceries.

]In Virginia, we’ve applied the sales tax to groceries since 1966—the year the Commonwealth first established a sales tax.

Since that time, Virginia has reduced the state portion to 1.5 percent—plus a one percent local sales tax.

We’ve gone from being on a credit watch when I took office, to having a record surplus.

So the time has come. I am sending you a budget that will finally eliminate the 1.5 percent state sales tax on groceries.

This will help working families in every corner of Virginia and keep a promise I made on the campaign trail.

In 2018, I also proposed giving working families a tax cut. The federal government had made tax changes to help wealthy people, but it did little for everyone else. I wanted to make sure everyday Virginians benefitted too, so we proposed making Virginia’s earned income tax credit refundable.

This is the right thing to do, and it’s a policy that was first created by President Richard Nixon.

My budget makes up to 15 percent of the earned income tax credit refundable for eligible families, which will give a tax break to working families who need it the most.

And just like we did in 2019, we’re going to offer one-time tax rebates to Virginians—$250 for individuals, $500 for married couples. We did this in 2019 because the revenues were good. This year, revenues are great. We want to offer some help to Virginians who could most use it.

I’m also proposing to finally eliminate the accelerated sales tax, a budgeting move that required retailers to pre-pay a portion of their sales tax.

Now, let’s be straight with each other. We know that Virginia is going to cut taxes in 2022. I want to make sure that happens in the right way. And what I mean by that is that tax relief needs to be focused on those who need it most—workers who have lower-incomes, workers who have struggled in this pandemic. Workers who need it, not just those who want it.

My plan focuses on tax relief in the right way, helping keep a few more dollars in the pockets of working families.

When we met four years ago, we could not have predicted the biggest challenge looming ahead—the biggest, I think, that any of us have ever faced. The covid-19 pandemic.

It has touched every facet of our lives. And it has made almost everything more difficult.

But a year ago, we had the first ray of hope. The first vaccines were being authorized by the FDA. And by the end of December 2020, shots were going into arms.

Now, a year later, 87 percent of our adult population has had at least one shot. Virginia has been in or near the top ten states for vaccination rates—doing better than many other large states and all of our southern neighbors. Vaccines, paired with masking and people continuing to be cautious, have helped keep our covid numbers per capita among the nation’s lowest.

I am incredibly proud of how we have handled Covid – following the science, and always taking actions based on protecting Virginians’ health and safety.

But unfortunately, people are still dying—more than 15,000 Virginians have died of covid. Every day, I get an email with the previous day’s numbers. Consistently, somewhere between 20 and 40 Virginians die every day from this virus. Many Virginians have lost a loved one. In the state Senate, we lost one of our own.

Now, as the omicron variant spreads, we cannot say with certainty what we face next, from a health perspective or an economic one.

We have been grateful for federal funding over the past two years that has helped us respond to this pandemic on many different fronts.

That’s why this budget sets aside $424 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, to address future impacts of the pandemic.

I hope that as Virginia continues to fight this virus, the same focus on science and health will continue to drive decisions. And if anyone who is listening has not been vaccinated yet—please, get the shot. It will save your life.

Four years, as I said, only seems long when you’re looking ahead—not when you’re looking back.

I am incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished in that time.

When I stood here at the end of 2018, we had already worked together for a major victory—expanding Medicaid. While we couldn’t know it back then, that decision was critically important when this pandemic hit. That decision means more than 600,000 Virginians have access to health care – access they did not have in 2018. Imagine if those 600,000 people had gone through the pandemic with no health coverage. The expansion was a good thing to do, and it has made Virginians healthier.

In 2018, we were on a negative credit watch, and I promised to get us back to a more positive footing and shore up our reserve funds.

Now we have kept that promise, and we have record amounts in our reserve funds—ensuring that Virginia is in a very good position for the next economic downturn.

Keeping that promise was a good thing to do.

In December 2018 we had just announced that Amazon would bring its HQ2 project to Virginia, bringing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact. Every new job means another Virginian who can provide for their family.

Now, we have broken records for economic investment—$80 billion dollars invested in this state, four times any previous governor, creating more than 100,000 jobs. Every job created is a good thing to do.

In 2018, I said we needed to cut regressive taxes that take more out of a small paycheck than they do a large one. Today I have again proposed tax cuts and tax refunds that will help working families the most. Keeping that promise is a good thing to do.

We have accomplished the things I set out to accomplish—steering this state in a prudent manner, investing wisely for our long-term needs, and creating more opportunities for our communities and our people to thrive.

I am confident that this state is stronger and more forward-looking than it was when I took office nearly four years ago—because of the work you and our administration have done together.

With this budget, I leave you with a roadmap to continue Virginia’s success. And I am leaving you with my friendship, and my best wishes. I am confident that you will continue to steer this ship in a steady, forward direction—in a way that is open and welcoming to all, treats people right, and works to build a brighter future for every Virginian.

Thank you, and have a safe and happy holiday season.

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Virginia House approves bill to boost transparency when judges get punished

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A proposal to make more information public when Virginia judges violate ethics rules passed the House of Delegates Friday on a bipartisan vote.

Currently, almost all records of the state’s Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (JIRC) are kept strictly confidential unless they involve a proven breach serious enough to rise to the Supreme Court of Virginia for a formal censure or removal from the bench.

Each year, the seven-member commission files a report detailing how many complaints about judges it received. But those reports aren’t required to identify which judges were disciplined, what rules they broke, or their punishment. The bill sponsored by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, would instruct the commission to include that information in future reports.

“Obviously, we appoint judges and keep tabs on how they’re doing,” Williams said as he presented his bill to a legislative committee.


The bill was approved by a 67-31 vote, with most Democrats in the no column but more than a dozen voting yes. The opposition appeared to be more about Williams’ conduct the day before the vote rather than the substance of his bill.

On Thursday, Williams refused to yield the floor to take a question about the JIRC bill from Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, bucking the tradition of engaging colleagues who may be seeking clarity, debate, or technical fixes to a piece of legislation.

“I just thought that we should include retired judges in the bill,” Mullin said in an interview Friday.

Retired Virginia judges are frequently called in to hear cases from which active judges have recused themselves. It’s a common practice in politically sensitive cases involving sitting legislators because the General Assembly has the power to hire, promote and fire active judges.

When told why Democrats had opposed a bill that received unanimous support in committee, Williams insisted his bill already covered retired judges.

“It actually includes anybody who has ever taken the judge’s oath and is going to sit on the bench,” Williams said.

Whichever interpretation is correct, the bill can be amended when it passes over to the state Senate. In the other chamber, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, has filed a similar JIRC transparency bill that has not yet been heard.

Complaints against judges rarely lead to formal punishment. In 2022, the commission received a total of 415 complaints, and 402 were dismissed. The vast majority of complaints were dismissed for either failing to fall under the commission’s jurisdiction or failing to allege a specific violation of the Canons of Judicial Conduct, the state’s official rulebook for judges. The commission determined a breach occurred in five cases, but all five of those cases were also dismissed, according to the body’s annual report.

Raymond F. Morrogh, commission counsel for JIRC, explained in an email last month that “some matters may not be of sufficient gravity to constitute the basis for a judge’s retirement, removal, or censure.”

“Where breaches of the Canons may be minor, it is conceivable that a matter may be resolved without resort to a formal hearing or the filing of a complaint in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Virginia,” Morrogh said.

The Canons of Judicial Conduct deal with a wide array of issues, including judges’ fairness and impartiality, diligence about avoiding conflicts of interest, gifts and other favors, and the use of social media.

Most complaints against judges come from the general public, but some originate with lawyers, court employees, and other judges.

Williams’ bill would only require disclosure when a breach is substantiated and results in discipline, which would prevent frivolous or unproven accusations from being made public.

“It’s a very small universe of people,” said Robert Tracci, a senior attorney in the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares, referring to the number of judges likely to be identified under the proposed law. “And it does promote transparency in government.”

The attorney general’s office has called for more openness in the judicial discipline process, a proposal that seemed to take on new urgency because of its connection to Republican efforts to investigate the actions of a former chair of the Virginia Parole Board who’s now serving as a judge in Virginia Beach.

Bennett, whom Miyares has accused of abusing her Parole Board powers and breaking the law in a rush to release inmates in early 2020, was suspended from her role as a judge in the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in 2021. Media outlets’ efforts to figure out what she was disciplined for have been unsuccessful due to the secretive nature of the process.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch filed a legal petition seeking to have the disciplinary records unsealed. Still, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a split opinion last year that kept most of the documents confidential.

“From the start, Judge Bennett made clear that she did not want anyone but us to see the reason why JIRC had suspended her,” Supreme Court Justices D. Arthur Kelsey and Teresa M. Chafin wrote in a dissenting opinion. “The majority holds that Judge Bennett has a statutory right to keep that information secret and that the public has no constitutional right to break the seal of secrecy.”

In 2021, JIRC reported receiving 395 complaints. Only one was ruled a breach of judicial conduct and not dismissed.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Two inmates escape Southwest Virginia jail and more state headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed a $1 million jury award to the family of a Virginia Beach man killed by police in 2019 during a mental health crisis. In a split opinion, the court ruled the shooting was justified.—Virginian-Pilot

• Authorities in Southwest Virginia were searching for two inmates who escaped from a local jail Thursday afternoon.—Bristol Herald Courier

• “Hot topics roil Virginia General Assembly but lead to few new laws.”—Washington Post


• At a union hall in Northern Virginia, President Joe Biden warned “MAGA Republicans” are threatening to send the country into economic “chaos.”—CNN

• A judge declined to dismiss misdemeanor charges brought against Loudoun County’s former school superintendent after finding the attorney general’s office, which empaneled a grand jury to investigate the school system, has “a broad swath of authority” to pursue criminal cases at the request of the governor.—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Bill increasing parental oversight of school library materials clears House but faces tough Senate

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A stack of books rests on top of a podium at the Virginia State Capitol building. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Legislation giving parents more control over checkout procedures for books and materials in Virginia’s public school libraries passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates Thursday.

But Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, who chairs the Senate’s public education subcommittee, said such a proposal is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Earlier this month, the Senate Education and Health Committee rejected a different bill from Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, that would have directed school boards to adopt policies for school libraries that included mandatory written parental consent for students to check out materials that depict a child engaged in certain sexual acts.


“If that bill from the House is similar to Sen. DeSteph’s, it will likely receive the same votes,” said Hashmi.

Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, put forward the legislation that cleared the House Thursday and would require school principals or their designee to electronically catalog all printed and audiovisual materials in school libraries, identify whether the item contains graphic sexual content, and make the catalog available to parents.

It would also direct schools to permit parents to restrict their child’s access to any item that contains graphic sexual content and allow parents to request a graphic sexual content notation for any item.

School library materials have become a political flashpoint in Virginia in recent years, with parents increasingly attending school board meetings to challenge books in public schools. During his campaign, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran a television ad on the issue featuring a Fairfax County woman who, in 2013, objected to the inclusion of author Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved” in her son’s Advanced Placement high school curriculum. Other challenges have occurred in Virginia Beach and Spotsylvania County.

Last year, Anderson, who is an attorney, and Republican congressional candidate Tommy Altman attempted to take legal action to prevent bookstores from selling two “obscene” books to minors without parental consent. The books were “Gender Queer,” an LGBTQ-themed memoir, and fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury.” A Virginia Beach circuit court judge, ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.

Del. Tim Anderson speaking at a subcommittee meeting on Jan. 17, 2023. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Republicans have focused on the rights of parents following controversies over school policy changes, books, and school safety issues across Virginia. Meanwhile, Democrats have called for more resources in communities and schools and challenged Republican claims that “inherently divisive concepts” are being taught in schools.

During committee hearings on his legislation, DeSteph, who filed a similar bill last year, urged lawmakers to “protect our children’s innocence as long as humanly possible.”

While movies have ratings, and devices and televisions have parental controls, “our school libraries don’t,” he argued.

“I think it’s a sad state when our children are safer turning on the TV or radio than perusing their local school library,” he said.

Library workers, however, said the bill would place increased burdens on librarians. They also contended that school divisions have existing procedures that give parents “significant opportunity” to know and object to library books.

“What are these parents telling their children in the home?” asked Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, during the Jan. 12 committee hearing. “If parents are not taking responsibility in the house about what they’re saying to their children, relative to these kinds of materials, it isn’t going to mean anything if that child is going outside of that house and going to a library and accessing these materials.”

Hashmi questioned whether the state should require school librarians and staff to review every material instead of “giving the parents the responsibility of monitoring what their children are encountering.” She also pushed back against the notion that schools have pornographic material.

“I find that hard to believe,” Hashmi said. “Both of my girls went through public schools through Chesterfield County. I never had an incident where they encountered any material in a school library that I would object to. So I find it hard to believe that our schools are brimming with pornography.”

House bills headed for Senate

Besides the bills from Anderson and DeSteph, House Bill 1448 from Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, would direct the Department of Education to recommend model policies for the “selection and removal of books and other audiovisual materials in public schools” by Nov. 1 to the General Assembly. That bill passed the House Thursday.

Anderson has said his legislation does not ban any books from school libraries.

“It simply says me in my household, I don’t want my children to have access to these books, and I have to know what they are before I can do that,” Anderson said Wednesday on the House floor.

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, said she trusts educators and librarians to do their jobs.

“There’s no teacher, no librarian, no educator that I have met in a classroom that has ever not wanted the best for the children,” Convirs-Fowler said. “This is not our expertise, but rather extremism trying to play to their extreme MAGA base.”

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Three interesting bills of the week: Pound charter, stillborn child tax credit and private police

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The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

Hundreds of bills are filed for General Assembly consideration each year. In this occasional series, the Mercury takes a look at a few of the proposals that might not otherwise make headlines during the whirlwind legislative session. 

Senate Bill 1537: Restoring the town of Pound’s charter

This bill from Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, would repeal legislation passed in 2022 to revoke the charter for the town of Pound in Wise County.


Revoking the charter means Pound would legally cease to exist as a municipality, and the roughly 900 residents would therefore live in an unincorporated part of Wise County.

The original bill to revoke the charter came from House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, despite objections from residents. Pound made headlines in the fall of 2021 after business owners in the former coal town stopped paying taxes, every town employee either quit or was fired, and the police department was disbanded.

“Wise County is now providing water, sewer, and public safety for the citizens of Pound,” said Kilgore in a statement to WJHL last January. “My genuine hope is that this serves as a wake-up call.”

Kilgore’s bill had a provision that delayed the charter’s repeal until Nov. 1, 2023. Last spring, he told The Washington Post that if he felt Pound was getting back on track, he would be willing to ask the General Assembly to restore the charter.

If Pillion’s legislation fails, Pound will join the four other towns in Virginia to have their charter terminated. Most faced similar financial difficulties and population decline before their demise.

House Bill 1915: Stillborn child tax credit

HB 1915 from Del. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk, would establish a refundable income tax credit of $2,000 for individuals or married persons filing jointly after delivering a stillborn child.

The tax credit would be available starting this year until the end of 2027 and could only be claimed in the year in which the stillbirth occurred and if the child would have become a dependent of the taxpayer.

The bill defines a “stillborn child” as a child who suffered a spontaneous death, was at least 20 weeks, weighed at least 350 grams and whose death was not the result of an induced termination.

If the amount of credit exceeded the taxpayer’s tax liability for the year, the excess would be refunded to them.

House Bill 2448: Allowing private police to make arrests without a warrant

This legislation from Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, would add private police officers employed by a private police department to the list of officers who can make arrests without a warrant in certain cases.

Virginia recognizes eight private police departments primarily employed by homeowners associations, hospitals, amusement parks, and resorts, Avoli said Wednesday. Language added to the bill defines a “private police officer” as someone exercising the powers and duties of the law on property controlled by their employer and on any contiguous property upon approval by the local chief of police or sheriff. These officers would be required to meet all training requirements for law enforcement officers but wouldn’t be considered state or local employees.

Private police officers could make arrests without a warrant for many reasons under Avoli’s bill, including if the officer has probable cause to suspect a person of having committed a felony or a misdemeanor like shoplifting or destruction of property.

Individuals employed as law enforcement officers by private corporations or entities used to be defined as special conservators of the peace with the authority to make arrests without a warrant. But legislation in 2015 redefined those employees as law enforcement officers while withholding that authority.

Lawmakers voted 4-3 along party lines to recommend approval of the bill during the House Subcommittee for Courts of Justice on Wednesday.

 

by Meghan McIntyre, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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As Republicans tout Parole Board report, some Democrats see ‘a whole lot of nothing’

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House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, looks out over the chamber from the dais. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

 

The top Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates said Thursday that the GOP is considering “every possibility” in response to a new investigative report alleging systemic violations of law and state policy at the Virginia Parole Board under the watch of a former leader who’s now a sitting judge.

But House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the decision on whether the General Assembly should remove Virginia Beach Judge Adrianne Bennett from the bench will rest largely with the Democrat-controlled state Senate.

“We intend to ask them if they are as shocked by the findings as we are,” Gilbert told reporters Thursday on the House floor. “I know the Democratic leadership told us how silly the whole thing was then. I think the report reveals a number of things to the contrary.”


While announcing the release of a 69-page report outlining a series of missteps at the Parole Board in 2020, Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares on Wednesday raised the possibility of impeachment proceedings against Bennett, a judge with the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

In Bennett’s final weeks as chair of the Parole Board in early 2020, according to the attorney general’s report, the board she led repeatedly failed to properly notify victims and prosecutors of pending decisions to release violent offenders. The report alleges Bennett went as far as falsifying records and declaring some inmates eligible for parole even though courts had said they were not.

Miyares said his office concluded Bennett could have been charged with criminal offenses over the allegedly altered paperwork and overriding of court decisions. But because his investigation didn’t begin until 2022, after he and Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office, Miyares said the one-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor offenses had expired.

The General Assembly appoints all state and local judges, but the legislature almost never removes a judge over misconduct allegations. Gilbert said he believes judicial impeachment proceedings would begin in the House and then go to the Senate, but he acknowledged such a process would be fairly uncharted territory.

“We don’t have any modern precedent for it in Virginia,” Gilbert said.

Democratic General Assembly leaders had not formally weighed in on the report as of midday Thursday, nearly 24 hours after Miyares released it. In interviews, several Democratic senators said they had not yet read it and could not comment on its substance.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he was skeptical of any suggestion a judge could be removed over conduct that occurred before they were serving on the bench. He also raised doubts about whether the misconduct of which Miyares is accusing Bennett without charging her should rise to the level of impeachment.

“To paraphrase Allen Iverson, we’re talking about a misdemeanor. Not a felony. A misdemeanor,” Petersen said, stressing that he was not up to speed on everything laid out in the report.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, whose call for a bipartisan legislative investigation into the Parole Board affair was not acted upon in 2021, said he was concerned by what he’s heard. But he, too, said he would need to read the report before commenting further.

“I really wish it had been done in a clearly nonpartisan way,” Bell said. “I think it would be more credible.”

Other Democrats seemed to have already concluded the report isn’t the bombshell the Republicans are portraying it as.

“All politics,” said House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said it appears to him the headline should be “The Parole Board granted parole.” He said Miyares seems to be trying to “play racial politics with a basic government function.”

“I know that my conservative friends don’t like it when the Parole Board does its job,” said Surovell, who acknowledged he had not read the report. “And they continue to try to demonize the board for doing what we’ve charged it to do under the code.”

Surovell noted that the time period in question was the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the state was trying to protect elderly inmates who were most at risk of dying from a new disease few understood.

However, former Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran — whose duties included overseeing the Parole Board during Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration — told the attorney general’s office the board wasn’t given any special authority to release offenders because of the pandemic.

Instead, according to the report, Moran felt that authority should have rested with the Virginia Department of Corrections. At the time, the state prison agency had a more public and detailed plan for which offenders would be eligible for early release, emphasizing nonviolent offenders with less than a year left on their sentences.

“We weren’t going to do it randomly,” Moran is quoted as saying in the report. “I mean, that was insane.”

The General Assembly approved budget language dealing with the early release of prisoners during COVID-19. That language specifically excluded prisoners convicted of serious felonies like murder and rape from the emergency COVID-19 accommodations. The Northam administration also asked the Parole Board to expedite pending cases. Still, state watchdog reports stressed nothing about the COVID-19 emergency allowed the Parole Board to sidestep its own policies or state law.

On Thursday, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, called the report “a whole lot of nothing.”

“This idea that there’s probably a lot of criminal stuff that’s gone on, but we can’t charge any of it because the statute of limitations ran out? It’s a political tool. It’s more political theater,” Simon said. “I don’t think there’s any real there.”

Senate Republicans have called for Bennett to step down on her own accord rather than forcing the legislature to consider removing her. She has given no indication she plans to do so, and a lawyer representing her released a statement saying the report was an attempt to “vilify” a “dedicated public servant.”

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said the Miyares report offered a much more thorough look at the Parole Board’s problems than any of the various reports made public under Democratic leadership.

“It’s a well-documented investigation,” he said.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Attorney General Miyares joins the charge against contraband cell phones in prison

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On January 26, 2023, Attorney General Jason Miyares joined a coalition of 22 Attorneys General urging Congressional leaders to pass legislation giving states the authority to jam contraband cell phones.

“Contraband cell phones are already illegal and pose a significant threat to safety and security at correctional facilities – but the reality is that they exist and are prevalent in our prison system. They allow willing inmates a way to continue running and organizing criminal activity while incarcerated, threatening the public safety of Virginians,” said Attorney General Miyares. “I encourage Congress to swiftly pass legislation permitting states to implement a contraband cell phone jamming system to stop this illicit activity and protect our communities.”

Contraband cell phones are a nationwide problem, commonly allowing inmates to continue their criminal behavior, plan escapes, and intimidate witnesses from behind bars.

The letter details that “in Oklahoma, the white supremacist prison gang, the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, used contraband cell phones to help commit murder, money laundering, assault and robbery throughout the state. In Tennessee, a Memphis inmate used a contraband cell phone to orchestrate drug conspiracy deals by sending a FedEx package full of methamphetamine to his girlfriend. Then in Georgia, inmates used contraband cell phones to make scam calls and demand payment and even texted photos of bloodied inmates to the relatives demanding cash.”


Bills have been filed regarding this issue in previous sessions, H.R. 1954 in the 116th Congress and H.R. 8645, S. 4699 in the 117th Congress. But none of the bills have moved or received a vote.

Click here to read the letter.

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