Virginia will be a more just and prosperous state as a result of the important actions taken by the Virginia General Assembly and approved by the Governor during our Special Session last week.
The General Assembly returned to Richmond on Aug. 2 for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. This Special Session was called so that we could allocate $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and appoint judges to the newly expanded Virginia Court of Appeals. The pandemic highlighted a series of cracks in our government services — this budget helps fix that. Last week, we took the final vote on the budget and it will now go to the Governor for his signature.
Help for Small Businesses and VA Workers
We invested $260 million to fully fund the Rebuild Virginia Grant Fund Program so that we can clear out the application waiting list. We also allocated $76.5 million for additional small business and tourism & hospitality programs and put aside $862 million to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The Virginia Employment Commission will also receive $73.6 million to upgrade their information technology system and to add additional call center staff and adjudication officers.
Continuing our Covid vaccine outreach, $20 million will go to an information campaign targeted for hard-to-reach communities. We’re also doing some major investing in our mental health services and substance abuse programs. $238 million has been allocated overall with specific set-asides for retaining direct care staff at Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) facilities, expanding community-based crisis services systems (like mobile crisis units and MARCUS Alert activities), renovating DBHDS facilities, and prevention programs.
Housing & Utilities
To better connect all Virginians, $716 million will be used to expand universal broadband access across the Commonwealth. The budget continues our current rent relief policy by requiring a tenant or landlord to apply for rental assistance before proceeding with an eviction for non-payment of rent and we put an additional $2.5 million to Legal Aid for civil indigent defense in eviction cases. Customers with overdue utility accounts will have some more options with $120 million for the utility assistance program.
Educating our kids is one of our highest priorities. As such, we’ve got money for teacher recruitment and $250 million for HVAC and ventilation system improvements in the school systems that need it most. For our public colleges and universities, there is $100 million in need-based financial aid and $11 million for the TAG Grant Program.
I’m proud of all the legislation we’ve passed in the past two years to expand voting rights and make the process more accessible. We’ve allocated $3 million to assist localities with the expansion of early voting, including Sunday voting. We also have $1.5 million for a voter education campaign on new election laws and to combat misinformation.
We’ve also made a lot of progress in criminal justice reform. This budget continues that effort with $34.8 million for the Department of Corrections to include funding for expansion of telehealth services, video visitation, and PPE. There is also $13.2 million for the Department of Criminal Justice Services sexual and domestic violence victim fund and $2.5 million to support the Office of the Attorney General’s gun violence reduction programs. There is funding for bonuses for police officers, sheriffs, and new hires as well as compression adjustment bonuses from 2 – 8 percent as needed.
Expanding the Court of Appeals
During the special session, we also appointed eight new judges to the recently expanded Virginia Court of Appeals. This legal reform broadens the court’s jurisdiction guaranteeing appellate review of all civil and criminal court decisions. Previously, Virginia was the only state that didn’t automatically grant appeals. This group of newly appointed judges is also historically diverse in profession, race, and gender. Of these eight, four are women, six are people of color, three are former public defenders, and one was a Legal Aid attorney. The appointees come from across the Commonwealth, offering geographic diversity as well.
Delegate Simon represents the 53rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates. He may be emailed at DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov