Virginia lawmakers approve budget for COVID-19 relief money

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a spending plan for most of the state’s $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief money, including funding for initiatives aimed at helping small businesses, increasing broadband access and replenishing the state’s depleted unemployment trust fund.
The budget approved by the Senate and the House of Delegates preserves most of a plan crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam and fellow Democrats, but also includes several amendments proposed by Republicans in the Senate, including raising bonuses for law enforcement officers. Under a compromise worked out by a conference committee, state-supported sheriffs’ deputies and corrections officers will receive bonuses of $3,000, while state police will receive $5,000.
“With this budget, we will meet the needs of thousands of Virginians across the Commonwealth. This funding is vital to rebuilding Virginia stronger and will have an enormous impact on the people hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring and House Democratic Caucus Chair Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr. said in a statement.
Last week, the two chambers passed separate versions of the spending plan with slight differences. A conference committee reached an agreement on a compromise on Friday. On Monday, the Senate approved the compromise deal on a vote of 23-16, while the House approved it on a vote of 78-20.
The budget will now be sent to the governor, who said he supports the compromise.
“Together, we are using the American Rescue Plan to invest boldly and build Virginia back better,” Northam said in a statement.
Northam said the bill allocates approximately $3.5 billion of the $4.3 billion in federal relief aid. The remaining $761 million will remain unallocated and available to use as the pandemic continues, he said.
The bill calls for helping small businesses avoid a large tax increase by using $862 million of the federal money to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund, which has been depleted by the large number of claims filed during the pandemic.
The spending plan also includes some protections against evictions and utility disconnections for families still struggling financially due to the pandemic.
There is also a provision to extend a 12.5% Medicaid rate increase for providers of services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities through the end of June.
Another provision will require the Department of Motor Vehicles to resume walk-in service at its customer service centers throughout the state within 60 days. Because of the pandemic, the DMV instituted an appointment-only system for in-person services 17 months ago, a system that has drawn widespread complaints from customers.
The budget plan also includes a provision that would establish regulations to allow student athletes — including students at four-year colleges and universities and two-year community colleges — to receive compensation from outside parties for use of their name, image and likeness in sponsorships, paid partnerships and advertisements.
Democratic Del. Wendy Gooditis said the more than $700 million allocation to expand broadband will be “absolutely transformational” for rural Virginia, where the pandemic has focused attention on the difficulty of doing virtual schooling and telehealth visits without universal high-speed internet service.
“Thank you for remembering us in this budget,” she said.
Approval of the budget has been the main focus of a special legislative session that began last week. Lawmakers are also slated to elect eight new judges to the state Court of Appeals.
Republicans, in the minority in both chambers, have complained that they were kept out of the budget-writing process and stifled by Democrats who allowed little or no debate on Republican-proposed amendments.
“I’m not impressed with the process,” said Sen. Minority Leader Tommy Norment, who voted against the bill.