Northam's Budget Covers Water Projects, Unemployment Fund

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam introduced two more spending proposals Tuesday for the state's $4.3 billion share of federal coronavirus relief money, calling for investments in clean water projects and over $860 million to replenish the fund that pays unemployment benefits.

The Democratic governor has been incrementally rolling out his spending plans ahead of the special legislative session that begins next week, when lawmakers will vote on how to allocate the money from the American Rescue Plan.

While the governor's budget proposals are typically a starting point for lawmakers who then make extensive changes, these spending plans have been crafted in collaboration with legislators and budget committee staff, according to Northam's chief of staff, Clark Mercer. Each announcement has been accompanied by statements of support from key Democratic lawmakers who control both the House and Senate.

Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Democrats' approach to budgeting the enormous influx of taxpayer money as lacking in transparency.

On Tuesday, the governor outlined two proposed tranches of spending, calling first for a $411.5 million investment in various projects to reduce water pollution and improve drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

The proposal includes $186.5 million for wastewater treatment and nutrient removal, $125 million for combined sewer overflow projects in Richmond, Alexandria, and Lynchburg, and $100 million to assist water systems in small and disadvantaged communities, Northam's office said in a news release.

Combined sewer overflows, often called CSOs, occur in systems with one pipe to convey both sewage and rainwater runoff. During periods of heavy rain, the system often can’t handle the volume, leading to the release of untreated water. Alexandria's problem in particular has been the subject of partisan fights in the General Assembly.

The governor also outlined plans to direct nearly $1 billion to both replenish the state's unemployment insurance trust fund and speed up modernization efforts at the Virginia Employment Commission, which has struggled to keep up with a surge in applications due to the pandemic.

Under the proposal, $862 million would go to the trust fund, which pays benefits for laid-off workers and is financed through taxes paid by employers, who have been staring down the prospect of a steep increase.

Nicole Riley, Virginia's state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the group's members appreciated the large sum but that it wouldn't fully restore the fund to pre-pandemic levels.

For the employment commission, Northam's spending plan includes $37.4 million to boost call center capacity, $29.8 million to upgrade technology, nearly $4.6 million to hire additional adjudication officers, and $1.8 million for personnel support, according to the news release.

Republican House leaders criticized Democrats on Tuesday, saying they were blocking bipartisan discussion about how the money should be used. They shared a memo sent earlier this month by Del. Luke Torian, chair of the House appropriations committee, that said neither chamber's money committees would be accepting any member amendment requests to the governor’s introduced bill.

"Democrats don’t want to engage in a transparent legislative process that lets all 100 members of the House of Delegates have a say in how tax dollars are spent; they are making backroom deals and in doing so are excluding all of Virginia’s citizens from the process,” GOP House Whip Jay Leftwich of Chesapeake said.

Northam has previously laid out plans for investing $250 million of the state’s funding in projects that will improve air quality in public schools, $700 million in expanding broadband infrastructure and $353 million in relief for small businesses and hard-hit industries like tourism. Additional announcements were expected later in the week.

Lawmakers also will be filling judicial vacancies during the special session.