Richmond Times-Dispatch: Funding for school modernization possible with U.S. aid packages; Virginia awaits money and rules


Gov. Ralph Northam is awaiting federal guidance on whether Virginia can use some of the estimated $6.8 billion coming to the state and local governments from the American Rescue Plan Act to make a “generational investment” in renovating or replacing public school buildings that have become obsolete with age.

Northam also needs to know how Virginia can spend the money under the law, which President Joe Biden signed on March 11, before he and General Assembly leaders can decide on when to call a special session this summer to appropriate the federal aid in the state’s two-year budget.

The governor hopes to use some of the money for a down payment on a multibillion-dollar problem facing school divisions, in the rural countryside and cities, on how to modernize or replace school buildings. He also wants to use some of the state’s $3.8 billion share to expand the program he created last year with federal aid to help small businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While we are eagerly awaiting decisions from the federal government as to how these monies can be spent, we hope to discuss several options with the General Assembly in the weeks to come, including investing in small businesses hurt most by the pandemic and making a generational investment in public schools,” Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said Tuesday.

Yarmosky said Virginia’s surging tax revenues — more than $1.3 billion ahead of last year through March 31 — allow the state to use the coming federal money “to boldly invest in the future of Virginia, instead of having to plug holes in our budget.”

Legislative leaders would prefer to convene in one special session to make decisions on how to use the federal money over the next four years and to elect seven judges to the expanded Virginia Court of Appeals. They also could meet separately on each task, depending on the timing of federal guidance.

“Right now, we don’t have enough information to go to special session to make any decisions on how the money is going to be appropriated,” House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said Tuesday.

Northam also has been meeting with members of Congress and other governors, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, on priorities for a $2.2 trillion infrastructure package that Biden is trying to push through Congress this year to address long-term capital projects — from roads, bridges and public transit to safe drinking water and affordable access to broadband telecommunications.

The governor met with Democrats and Republicans from both chambers of Congress in an infrastructure summit Hogan convened last week in Annapolis, the Maryland state capital. Hogan is chairman of the National Governors Association.

“Governor Northam strongly supports President Biden’s plan to modernize Virginia’s infrastructure, create well-paying jobs, and build an economy that works for everyone,” Yarmosky said. “The governor stressed the importance of investing boldly in infrastructure — including in universal broadband and clean energy — in his meeting with fellow governors and members of Congress last week.”

Summit participants also included Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, who represents 10 counties, from the Richmond suburbs to the Blue Ridge foothills that want affordable access to the internet for work and study.

“The focal point for me is recognizing that broadband is infrastructure,” said Spanberger, who also met this month at the White House with Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, and counselor, Steven Ricchetti, about the American Jobs Plan the president proposed to make big federal investments in a wide range of capital projects, including school modernization.

Her priorities also include investments in public water and waste water systems, including the replacement of lead pipes that pose long-term health risks to children; improvements in the security and reliability of the electrical grid; and expansion of Virginia’s passenger and freight rail service.

School modernization wasn’t a major topic at the Annapolis summit, Spanberger said, but it’s “certainly an issue that’s been raised within the walls of Congress.”

Making broadband accessible and affordable to all Americans has bipartisan appeal, but Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, said Biden is proposing an additional $100 billion investment that the Virginia congressman called “duplicative” of existing federal funding for broadband that the new administration still hasn’t spent.

Wittman also faults the president’s plan for reserving support for broadband networks that the administration says would be “owned, operated by or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and co-operatives,” rather than encouraging public-private partnerships with commercial internet service providers.

“Instead of investing in proven competition and free-market principles, President Biden’s plan calls for expanding broadband through government-owned broadband initiatives, creating a large, inefficient broadband bureaucracy,” Wittman said. “Publicly owned broadband initiatives would only put up barriers and red tape, grinding shovel-ready projects to a halt and stifling innovation through over-regulation and one-size-fits-all mandates.”

Democrats accuse congressional Republicans of opposing the package politically while touting the investments it would make in their districts.

“Here’s an opportunity to truly invest in Americans,” said Taikein Cooper, a Prince Edward County resident and executive director of Virginia Excels, an educational advocacy organization, during a Zoom call the Democratic Party of Virginia sponsored on Tuesday to promote the president’s plan.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, chair of the House Transportation Committee, said part of the challenge is making internet service affordable for people with low incomes.

“Even when broadband is available, it’s too expensive,” McQuinn said on the Zoom call. “We have seen more of that in the past year than ever before.”

Virginia estimates it needs an additional $300 million to build broadband networks that serve every part of the state, as Northam has proposed to do by 2028, if not sooner.

Evan Feinman, the governor’s chief broadband adviser, doesn’t have a price tag for evolving programs to make internet service more affordable, but he said Congress could help by making permanent the emergency subsidy of $50 a month for low-income residents in the Consolidated Appropriations Act Congress adopted on Dec. 27.

“That would go a long way toward solving the affordability problem,” Feinman said.

State transportation officials are focused primarily on Congress passing a new five-year surface transportation reauthorization act to ensure that Virginia receives more than $1 billion in federal funding each year. The funding act is due to expire on Sept. 30, potentially jeopardizing a wide range of projects, including the state’s share of a $3.7 billion passenger rail agreement.

“It’s formula-driven and it’s sustainable,” Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Lawson said Tuesday. “You can count on it coming over a five-year period.”

Biden’s infrastructure package also would invest in “reliable passenger and freight rail service,” which doesn’t have dedicated federal funding.

“It would be good for it to be more of a long-term program,” Lawson said, “rather than a one-time shot in the arm.”

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