Richmond Times-Dispatch: Biden rescue plan could give Virginia big boost in broadband ‘long after COVID is gone’


Virginia’s payoff from the American Rescue Plan could last long after families spend their stimulus checks and no longer need the additional unemployment benefits included in the $1.9 trillion relief package passed by the U.S. Senate on Saturday to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan, the first major legislative initiative by President Joe Biden, would raise child tax credits by 50% and provide money to expand affordable access to broadband internet that Virginia and its local governments could further boost with more than $6 billion in estimated federal aid.

“It’s an infrastructure investment which will pay benefits long after COVID is gone,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in an interview on Friday on the eve of a marathon 24-hour session to adopt a revised package and send it back to the House of Representatives for action as early as Tuesday.

The package includes $17 billion to expand access to high-speed broadband internet networks, which Warner called “the largest-ever federal investment of its kind and will be a significant boost to our economy as we work to rebuild and recover from COVID-19.”

Virginia budget officials estimate the plan, as passed by the House more than a week ago, would send up to $3.8 billion to the state and $2.6 billion to local governments to help them survive and recover from the public health emergency that has devastated parts of the economy.

“This is a tremendously important relief package that will support working Virginians, accelerate our vaccination program, and boost our recovering economy,” said Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for Gov. Ralph Northam, on Saturday.

Warner and other members of Virginia’s congressional delegation recognize that the state’s economy has fared much better than expected, primarily because of its robust sales tax revenues and large, technology-driven businesses that weathered the public health emergency well.

But they say the relief package, passed by Senate Democrats on a 50-49 party-line vote, will help Virginians and businesses that have been hurt most, especially in low-income urban and rural areas, as well as localities such as Williamsburg and Virginia Beach that rely on tourism-driven hospitality industries that have been devastated by the pandemic.

“Because of this bill, millions of Virginians will receive a stimulus check, unemployment benefits will last through the summer and 85,000 of the Commonwealth’s children will be lifted out of poverty [through the increased child tax credit],” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Saturday. “The past year has been dark, but with this much-needed relief and the acceleration of vaccinations, a brighter, healthier, more prosperous America is on the horizon.”

Warner, part of a group of moderate Senate Democrats who sought to narrow some provisions of the plan, said, “I will be the first to acknowledge that this bill is not perfect.”

However, he said, “I am glad that as the Senate considered this legislation, we made some important changes to target aid where it is most badly needed as millions of Americans remain out of work, state and local governments continue to lay off workers, and small businesses struggle to keep their doors open.

Most immediately, the bill would extend enhanced unemployment benefits from the last relief package that are set to expire in mid-March, affecting more than 250,000 Virginians, Kaine said. The plan would provide $300 a week — on top of the state unemployment benefit of up to $379 a week — through September.

The House had approved an enhanced unemployment benefit of $400 a week, but the Senate lowered the weekly payment to $300 while protecting recipients from having to pay income taxes for up to about $10,000 of the unemployment insurance payments they receive.

Another immediate benefit from the package would be a stimulus check of $1,400 for those who meet income limits of $75,000 per person and $150,000 per household. A couple with two children earning up to $150,000 a year would receive $5,600, but the Senate voted to end any stimulus payments to people earning more than $80,000 a year or couples earning more than $160,000.

The bill also would expand the federal child tax credit from $2,000 a year to $3,000 to $3,600 a year, depending on age.

The package includes $130 billion for education to help schools reopen and students recover the learning opportunities lost, as well as $350 billion for state and local governments, which Congress had left out of the last relief package adopted on Dec. 27.

Under a revised two-year state budget adopted last weekend, the General Assembly proposes to have the ultimate decision on how the state spends its share of new federal COVID-19 aid, but Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said Saturday that he expects the administration and legislature to share priorities for the one-time funding.

“Infrastructure, broadband, helping those individuals and businesses who were impacted the most, that’s where I would advocate spending the money,” Layne said.

In Virginia, about 320,000 households do not have access to broadband communications networks and about 370,000 households that do, especially in low-income urban communities, can’t afford the monthly fee.

Without financial help, “in Creighton Court, it’s just not going to happen,” said Evan Feinman, Virginia’s chief broadband adviser, referring to a public housing community in Richmond.

Additional federal money “could be extremely high impact” for Virginia to close an estimated $250 million gap for broadband infrastructure alone, Feinman said.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, said Saturday, “The pandemic has underscored the need for rural students to have increased access to reliable high-speed internet.

Spanberger said the new relief package “would allow more Virginians to benefit from greater connectivity in their homes” by boosting funding and lowering regulatory barriers.

“The House needs to vote to pass this legislation and send it to President Biden’s desk as soon as possible,” she said.

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