Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

There are indications we are breaking through Covid-19’s chokehold and starting to recover from the pandemic. More than half of Virginians have received a Covid-19 vaccine, demonstrating their trust in science and commonsense. It comes as no surprise that a great divide remains across the Commonwealth regarding the merits of the vaccines. Even with breakthrough cases, the odds still greatly favor the inoculated.

Governor Northam called the General Assembly back to the State Capitol on August 2. For a part-time legislature, special sessions are usually rare events. The pandemic has presented circumstances that require due diligence and legislative action. I may be overly optimistic, but this session should be short and sweet. Laser focused will ensure that outcome.

On the plus side, the economy is regaining strength and unemployment is dropping. Tourism season has brought back many jobs in the leisure and hospitality sectors. Unfortunately, it is a rare day when I don’t hear from restaurateurs, retail owners and /or personal service providers who cannot staff up quickly enough to meet the reopening demands.
Putting the brakes on our biennial spending plan has kept Virginia operating without economic disaster.

By readjusting the forecasted revenue and un-allocating earmarked expenses, we are positioned well for recovery. We need to reinvest in Main Street and small businesses: the life blood of local communities. Rebuild.

Virginia Grants have been awarded to over 3,000 qualifying small businesses. In 2021, the VA Community Development Financial Institution Fund appropriated $10 million for low-cost credit for businesses impacted by Covid-19. Further, the state will conform to the federal tax exemption for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiveness and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Programs, excluding recipients from taxable income on their returns.

When offices closed, many employees with connectivity were able to keep working. Learning continued with online classes However, there were many kids left behind without consistent connectivity. We can do a better job for all Virginians and we will. With high aspirations for widening the net, enabling legislation for school boards, and $124 million in grants, we are on the fast track to expansion and increased access across Virginia.

Virginia has received its share of one-time federal funds (almost $4.3 billion) under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Specific guidelines for use of the funds are spelled out for localities and run through December 31, 2024. Much of our work this month will be to allocate this appropriation from the federal government.

First and foremost, the money is to be used to respond to the public health emergency caused by Covid-19. This includes addressing access to and equitable delivery of healthcare in communities, as well as addressing the housing crisis and utility payment problems for those who lost their jobs. We will use some of these funds to assist small business, tourism, gyms, and cultural attractions such as museums and theaters. Let’s get “mom and pop” open and functioning. Small towns as well as certain industries need revitalization to claw out of the economic vice of the pandemic.

The Virginia Employment Commission was overwhelmed, understaffed and flat out “broken” when the unemployment tsunami hit. The benefit fund is nearly depleted along with outdated computers and orders from the courts to expedite outstanding claims. ARPA funds will be allocated to addressing these issues and keep the lid on payroll taxes.

Finally, our public schools need major facelifts, improved air quality and HVAC systems, and upgrades to some of the antiquated buildings. There seems to be consensus on both sides of the aisle for ARPA investments toward public education.

Funds will be used to mitigate learning loss in public education. Higher Ed will provide a pathway for the workforce of the future. Financial assistance will be available to ensure an equitable pathway.

These are a few of the highlights that I will support during this Special Session. Stay well as we go back to our offices, schools and get out in the community again. Doing the right thing will keep you from being a Covid-19 victim.