(AP) Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has asked state lawmakers to leave intact a spending plan for $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief money that his administration helped craft and to reject bipartisan changes the Senate is seeking.
In an email to members of a conference committee assigned to work on a compromise bill, State Finance Secretary Joe Flores said the governor is seeking a “quick resolution to the few outstanding items to ensure these resources are put to work for Virginians as soon as possible.”
“As such, he is asking for a bill with no amendments — fiscal or policy — reflecting the agreement we negotiated and hammered out prior to the beginning of this special session,” Flores wrote in the email, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, declined to comment. “We’ll just let the email speak for itself,” she said.
The budget plan, as written by Northam and fellow Democrats, sets aside about $800 million to use later as the state continues to deal with the pandemic’s impact on the economy. In his email, Flores cites the recent surge in COVID-19 cases spurred by the delta variant. “Therefore, it is imperative that no amendments are included in the final agreement that spend down the $800 million set aside for future COVID-related needs,” he wrote.
The Virginia House and Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to the budget legislation, each passing slightly different bills.
The House passed the bill without changes. In the Senate, the chamber passed the bill with a handful of amendments after angry protests from Republicans who said they had been shut out of the budget process and not given a chance to fully debate its provisions.
The bills both call for spending most of Virginia’s $4.3 billion share of the American Rescue Plan funding on initiatives aimed at helping small businesses, improving air quality in public schools, bolstering mental health and substance-abuse treatment, increasing broadband access and replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund.
Among the amendments approved by the Senate was one that would give staff of sheriffs offices and regional jails a one-time $5,000 bonus. The spending plan as introduced already included $5,000 bonuses for state police.
In his email, Flores said the governor is asking that the final bill not include additional bonuses for law enforcement or an extension of a 12.5% increase in rates for Medicaid home- and community-based services that care for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, another amendment that was approved by the Senate.
“We have committed to examine and address these issues in the next few months as we prepare the Governor’s 2022-24 biennial budget, and we pledge to work with you on these important funding issues,” Flores wrote.
Another amendment approved by the Senate would require the Department of Motor Vehicles to return to allowing walk-in service for transactions at its customer service centers throughout the state. Because of the pandemic, the DMV instituted an appointment-only system for in-person services. The chamber also voted to effectively strip language from the budget that dealt with allowing student-athletes to earn compensation for the use of their name, image or likeness. Republicans argued the issue shouldn’t be dealt with through budget legislation in a special session where there is little room for debate or public input. Those amendments were not specifically mentioned in Flores’ email.
Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment said the administration’s “inflexibility” was stunning. “That position is so disrespectful, if not bordering on disgusting, as it shuns Medicaid providers and law enforcement again,” Norment said.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, a member of the conference committee and the only Senate Republican who voted in favor of the amended spending plan, said the committee is in the process of finalizing a compromise package he believes will get wide support from lawmakers and from Northam.
“I think when the dust settles, he will not object to what we are doing,” Hanger said.
“We’re embracing some of the amendments and modifying some of the amendments, and for some, we’ve found other ways of accomplishing the intended purpose of the amendment,” he said. He declined to discuss specifics of the plan.
Democratic Sen. Janet Howell, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.