Ken Plum: COVID relief
The General Assembly is meeting this week and possibly a few days next week to appropriate the federal COVID-Relief fund made available through the American Rescue Plan Act. It is somewhat ironic that these funds are being appropriated at the same time there is a surge in infections mainly from the Delta variant and almost totally among eligible persons who have refused to be vaccinated.
ARPA made $9.0 billion in federal funds available to Virginia and similar amounts to other states based on the guidelines that accompanied the monies. Although these are federal monies they must be appropriated by the General Assembly in a budget bill passed by a majority in both houses and signed by the governor. HB7001 as the budget bill is designated is available for review at lis.virginia.gov. You should know in advance that it is some heavy going that might be best as bedside reading.
Included in ARPA are monies for State and Local Fiscal Relief Funds (SLFR) that total $4.3 billion for Virginia. Other federal funds that are provided for specific programs include Child Care Development, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Block Grants and federal unemployment benefits. There are no state general funds that are included in this budget bill as the General Assembly will meet again in five months at its regular session when surplus monies from state revenues will be appropriated. The budget bill is a consensus document worked on over many weeks among legislators and staff and executive branch staff and is not likely to be amended.
Highlights of the budget bill, many of which have already been announced by the governor, include $716 billion for broadband expansion. The pandemic demonstrated conclusively that broadband is essential to everyone in commerce and in education when children have to learn at home. Schools will receive $250 million for ventilation improvements that became obvious during the pandemic.
Public health initiatives total $120 million, and programs of public safety to reduce community violence will receive $114.5 million. Mental health and substance abuse programs are proposed to receive $238 million. The unemployment compensation program will be replenished with $862 million eliminating the need to raise unemployment fund tax rates among employers. An additional $73.6 is being provided to the Virginia Employment Commission to update their technology and increase their staff size as major deficiencies were identified and citizens were poorly served during the pandemic.
Food access programs will receive $25.6 million to ensure that Virginians do not go hungry during these challenging times. Small businesses including the tourism industry will be able to apply for relief from a fund totaling $76.5 million. New data from the U.S. Treasury shows that Virginia leads all other states on the distribution of rent relief monies, and that program will continue.
While these new monies from the federal government will provide relief to many citizens and to many programs that respond to community needs, the ultimate in COVID relief rests with the broader community. I do not expect that the legislature will mandate vaccinations or the wearing of masks. Both, however, may be the best way to realize relief from the ravages of pandemic. Let’s work in our community to ensure that all know the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing masks in crowds.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.