Earlier Tuesday, Northam also proposed spending $411.5 million of American Rescue Plan funds on clean-water projects. But Republican members of the House of Delegates complained that they have been shut out of the process of determining what to do with the $4.3 billion in total that Virginia has been allotted from the act.
The General Assembly is set to convene Monday in a special session to officially allocate the federal aid. In the meantime, Northam has worked out agreements with Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature to announce commitments for chunks of the money on an almost daily basis.
Last week, state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) notified delegates that lawmakers would not be allowed to submit amendments to the governor’s spending proposals.
“It simply would be impossible to thoroughly evaluate those items in what is expected to be a short and expeditious Special Session,” Torian wrote. He added that the Senate is applying the same rules for the session, which is scheduled to last two weeks.
That rankled Republicans, who say the allocation process is being conducted behind closed doors.
“The only input on how these billions of dollars will be spent will be from a select few Democrats,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) told reporters Tuesday morning in a video news conference. “The oldest ongoing deliberative body in the New World is all of sudden being turned into a rubber stamp for the governor’s ideas.”
Torian responded in a written statement that the spending does not affect the state’s general fund and is simply a one-time emergency effort. “Our priority is expediency in getting relief funds where they’re needed,” he said, praising Northam for “open collaboration” in making plans to spend the federal money and noting that “many agreed-upon allocations are already public.”
All lawmakers will still be able to submit floor amendments, or proposed changes that go straight to the full legislative body instead of being debated in the committee process. Republicans argue that that is a haphazard approach that does not give full consideration to ideas, while Democrats say the other side has adopted an obstructionist stance.
“This is yet another political attack proving Virginia Republicans will choose politics over their constituents every time,” said Sigalle Reshef, spokeswoman for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax). She added that Republicans in Congress voted against the American Rescue Plan.
Gilbert said that as long as the money is coming, “there are good things you can do with it.” He said House Republicans intend to release a list of their own spending priorities in the coming days.
Northam’s latest proposal involves putting $862 million into the trust fund that covers benefits for unemployed Virginians. The fund is generated by a payroll tax on employers, so replenishing it with federal money will prevent tax increases on businesses and ensure “that employers are not penalized for layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Northam’s office said in a news release.
Another $73.6 million would go toward beefing up and modernizing the Virginia Employment Commission, which has been swamped with problems during the time of increased demand. Of that money, $37.4 million would go to increasing call center capacity to work with the public and $29.8 million would go to new technology. The remaining $6.4 million would be aimed at hiring and supporting personnel, Northam’s office said.
Northam’s clean-water proposal calls for using federal relief funds to improve water systems around the state. It includes $186.5 million for wastewater treatment and nutrient removal projects; $100 million to update water systems in “small and disadvantaged communities”; and $125 million for sewer overflow projects in Richmond, Alexandria and Lynchburg.
“In addition to modernizing water and sewer infrastructure across the Commonwealth, these investments will go a long way towards restoring the health of our waterways and reducing pollution in our communities,” Northam said in a statement.
State Health and Human Resources Secretary Daniel Carey said in a statement that the coronavirus pandemic “highlighted the importance of ensuring all Virginians have access to basic necessities — safe housing, quality health care, food security, and reliable utilities. Investing in our water systems will help advance health equity and ensure a robust economic recovery.”