RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ
More than $8 billion in federal emergency relief is on its way to Virginians and crucial state services, including education, unemployment insurance, housing, child care, transportation and even funeral costs for the families of more than 5,000 people who have died from COVID-19 since the public health emergency began 10 months ago.
Almost half of the money, more than $3.8 billion, is coming as direct stimulus payments to Virginians under the $900 billion emergency relief package Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed in late December after a political standoff with the White House, partly over the size of the checks.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of the architects of the framework for the legislation, said the benefits to Virginia are greatly underestimated in a summary by the U.S. Treasury Department on how the money will be divided among the states.
“It’s safe to say that this is a roughly $15 billion package for Virginia,” Warner said in a telephone interview on Monday.
The Treasury summary released Monday does not include Virginia’s share of more than $350 billion that the package provides for small businesses, including restaurants and entertainment venues, to survive a pandemic that has hit them hard because of measures to limit gatherings and protect public health.
The package also reserves $12 billion for Community Development Financial Institutions to expand their lending capacity for Black and other minority-owned businesses.
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That has been a priority for Warner, one of a bipartisan group of eight senators who negotiated the legislative framework over Thanksgiving and unveiled it in early December with help from other colleagues in the Senate and House.
He said the summary also does not reflect money in the package for food assistance programs, health care providers and expanding broadband telecommunication networks, which he expects to address again in future funding legislation.
“I’m really proud of the COVID package,” Warner said.
The relief package, unlike the CARES Act adopted in March, does not include direct aid to state and local governments, but instead provides billions of dollars for high-priority services, including $240 million that Gov. Ralph Northam had budgeted from the state general fund to pay for Virginia’s continuing response to the pandemic.
“This is clearly a step forward for the country, and that’s good,” said Grant Neely, the governor’s communications director, on Monday. “We are excited that Congress appears to have responded to the needs of the states.”
Neely also praised the package for extending the deadline by a year for state and local governments to spend money they received last year under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion package Trump signed into law in late March.
“All of that is good on its own,” he said. “It’s also good because we believe it also will free up funds in the general fund budget.”
For example, the package includes more than $102.1 million for Virginia to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines, allowing the state to offset about $90 million that Northam included in the budget he presented to the General Assembly money committees before Christmas.
The state has come under criticism for the slower-than-expected rollout of the initial vaccine shipments. Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne said the issue is not money, thanks to the direct grants under the new law and the one-year extension of the deadline for state and local governments to spend money they had already received under the CARES Act.
“There should be no lapses in terms of funding,” Layne said Monday. “There is no monetary issue.”
Northam’s budget would provide an additional $150 million in state money to pay for other expenses from responding to COVID-19, such as expanded testing and contact tracing.
But Layne said most of those state funds could be replaced by more than $519 million in additional federal aid to Virginia for other measures to track and control the spread of the coronavirus, which House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said is “exactly what’s going to happen.”
“It’s coming at a good time,” said Torian, whose committee will begin its review of the governor’s proposed budget when the General Assembly convenes next week.
The federal relief package also will provide more than $1 billion in additional unemployment insurance for Virginians, who would receive an extra $300 a week — for an average total weekly benefit of $583 — for up to 11 weeks.
Public education, representing the biggest part of the state budget, would receive $76 million for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, $939.2 million for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and $488 million for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, a major priority for Torian.
“I’m delighted to hear this,” he said.
It remains unclear whether the federal rules for the legislation will allow Virginia to use the money to replace $513 million in state funds that Northam included in his budget to protect local governments from losing state aid for K-12 education because of sharp enrollment declines during the emergency.
The package, however, represents “a big shot for education,” said Neal Menkes, fiscal consultant to the Virginia Municipal League.
Local governments had wanted Congress to give them money with flexibility in how to spend it, as it did with the CARES Act, but Menkes said the new package takes a much more targeted approach using existing programs to get help to residents and businesses in the most need.
“I think it can be put to work quickly,” he said. “It’s a life preserver for citizens and small businesses.”
Virginia’s share of the federal package also includes:
$568 million for rental assistance;
$201.5 million for child care;
$830.3 million for the Washington Metro system, as well as $1 million for public transit in the Richmond area, $9.2 million for Hampton Roads and $136,000 in Blacksburg;
$252.7 million for highway funding;
$57.4 million for airports;
$52.5 million for rural transit systems; and
$35 million for funeral assistance to the families of 5,011 Virginians who had died of COVID-19 through the end of last year.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, was part of the informal negotiations with the Senate “gang of eight” as a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group in the House.
“During relief negotiations, my top priority was to provide an emergency lifeline for thousands here in Central Virginia, including those who are struggling to make rent, worrying about their ability to provide food for their family, or barely surviving until the next paycheck,” Spanberger said in a statement Monday.
“The billions of dollars for Virginia in this relief bill are more than a set of numbers — they represent essential assistance to Virginians and their families during the most difficult health care and economic crisis in a generation,” she said.
“Heading into a new year, I’m particularly thankful that thousands of Virginians will continue to receive additional unemployment assistance from the federal government.”
Neely, the governor’s communications director, credited Warner and Spanberger specifically for their roles in the bipartisan relief package, which Congress approved in tandem with a $1.4 trillion bill to fund the federal government for another year.
“They stuck their necks out and reached across the aisle,” he said, “and it’s paid off.”