RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) presented budget proposals to state lawmakers Thursday morning in his first legislative meeting since the scandal over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook broke two weeks ago.
Over a breakfast of bacon, eggs, waffles and fruit in the Executive Mansion, Northam told a group of conferees from the House of Delegates and the state Senate that he wants them to add money to several programs aimed at helping minorities and the disadvantaged.
Northam did not apologize or directly address the swirl of controversy in the executive branch, and the attendees were cordial and businesslike, according to two people familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door session. Most of the legislators in attendance have called on Northam to resign, speaking in their own right or through their caucuses.
The gathering — an annual event — lasted a little more than a half-hour as Northam explained a letter outlining his position.
“In order for every Virginian to thrive, we must invest in their success — and that requires a greater focus on issues of equity,” Northam wrote to the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate money committees.
That language echoes statements Northam has made while defying calls for him to resign over the scandal. He has said he wants to remain in office to work on racial reconciliation. Northam initially took responsibility for the 1984 yearbook picture, which shows one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe, but he later said he was not in the photo. At the same time, he revealed that he had darkened his face that same year to dress as Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) later disclosed his own blackface incident, saying he dressed as a rapper for a college party in 1980. And Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has denied sexual assault allegations made against him by two women.
The cascading crises — which unfolded in the span of a single week — have overshadowed the General Assembly session, in which lawmakers reached a bipartisan consensus on a tax plan and modifications to the state’s $117 billion biennial budget.
The tax component resolved a major stalemate that has prevented Virginia from being able to process state income tax returns. Northam is likely to sign the tax legislation soon, increasing the state’s standard deductions and creating a one-time rebate of up to $110 for individual state taxpayers and up to $220 for married couples.
But the House and Senate have also proposed a number of changes to the state budget, using new revenue to fund priorities such as pay raises for teachers.
Northam had initially proposed fewer tax cuts and a far greater array of spending increases, and on Thursday, he pushed the lawmakers to restore a few of those requests. Those included adding:
● $35.6 million to a program that helps school districts serve at-risk students. A House proposal eliminated the extra funding, while the Senate proposed a smaller increase, $14.2 million.
● $19 million to the Virginia Housing Trust Fund to help reduce evictions among low-income residents. The House budget plan contains no additional funding, and the Senate would add about $6 million.
● $50 million to a fund that helps localities deal with damage from storm water runoff. The House would eliminate all that extra funding; the Senate adds $10 million to the fund.
House and Senate committees will take up those individual budget items in meetings over the coming week. The General Assembly’s adjournment is scheduled for Feb. 23.