Friday, December 17, 2021

Northam's Budget Priorities - Education & Gun Violence Prevention

One of the quirky things about Virginia is that we don’t allow our Governor to run for re-election. The Virginia Constitution allows forbids a Governor from succeeding himself, although a former Governor can try to make a comeback after a term out of office.

We also adopt biennial budgets in the even years.  This creates another quirk, in that one of the very last acts the Governor is required to do is propose a new budget to the General Assembly, a few days before his successor is sworn in to replace him. 

Of course, this year the Governor’s mansion is changing partisan hands, which makes things even more - let’s stick with quirky, if not awkward.

Over the past week, Governor Northam has announced a series of crucial pieces of his last official budget, and he will continue to unveil important elements of the 2-year spending plan between now and the end of the year.

I’d like to focus on two of the more important rollouts we’ve seen so far, on public education and gun violence prevention. 

Public Education

Governor Northam’s proposed education budget builds upon our successes of the past two years and makes strategic investments, ensuring that Virginia remains one of the best education systems in the country.

A cornerstone of this investment is a 10% pay raise for teachers over the biennium – the largest single increase in 15 years. This means that Virginia teacher pay will exceed the national average.

Overall, the proposed budget includes $2.4 billion in new general fund spending for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. This highlights our continued commitment to having a world-class education system for every school aged child in the Commonwealth.

In the last several years we have expanded early childhood education to more Virginia families than ever before – doubling pre-k funding to serve a record-breaking 25,000 three and four-year-old children We’ve even received national attention for investments in an early childhood teacher incentive grant program.

This pandemic has underscored our need to increase access to mental health services, including within our schools. To that end, we’ve increased the budget to hire more school counselors.

After graduation, some seniors will directly enter the workforce, attend a college or university, or trade school. Investing in our kids includes investing in their futures, which means making it easier to attend an institution of higher learning or to start their careers.

Virginia high school students are now eligible for financial aid and in-state tuition, regardless of their citizenship status. And we’re expanding need-based financial aid for public undergraduate students - a $64 million investment is more than any Governor’s administration in Virginia history. Even students at private universities benefit thanks to our increasing the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) to $4,000 per student up from $3,400 previously.

We’ve made the largest-ever investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) - $328 million over three years. This includes $297 million for capital projects and nearly $32 million in operating support.

Our tuition-free community college program now helps working people who choose career paths in high-demand fields. Those pursuing careers in healthcare, information technology, manufacturing and skilled trades, early childhood education, or public safety may be eligible.

Gun Violence Prevention

The Governor’s other major budget announcement addresses gun violence prevention, introducing legislation to establish a Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention & Prevention. His proposed budget includes $27 million to support the new Center with 13 employees to oversee the program.

The Center’s mission will be to collect and report data on firearm violence. Bringing together public safety and public health experts to analyze this data and ultimately recommend strategies and best practices for violence prevention. The Center will also offer support to localities and community-based organizations working to address gun violence, coordinating a state and local response to these issues.

For decades, special interest groups have fought organizations that wanted to collect this data, which severely limits our ability to combat this crisis. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control announced specific funding for this kind of research, some of which will be done at the Virginia Department of Health and VCU.

Using this data, the Center will build on recent, commonsense legislative achievements that enhance public safety and allow us to start proactively addressing the root causes of gun violence instead of simply reacting once a tragedy has occurred.

Governor Northam’s entire final budget will be released on December 16th. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he has proposed and that we can champion during the upcoming General Assembly Session.