Some of Emily’s students were missing 10 or more school days each year due to asthma. When she noticed her public school’s HVAC system was circulating the same stale air all day, she was told not to open her classroom’s windows for fresh air because of chipping lead paint on the frames. One AC unit flooded regularly, leading to mold on the walls, carpeting and classroom furniture.
Teachers like Emily complained but nothing changed. When COVID-19 sent everyone home, many teachers noted significant improvements in their respiratory health. After a year of reduced exposure to the unhealthy classroom air, Emily said some of her coworkers’ voices became unrecognizable without the hoarseness of clogged sinuses and chronic coughs.
It goes without saying that no child should be asked to learn where they can’t breathe. Now that it seems the coronavirus will be with us for another school year, the urgency of clean air flowing into our classrooms is even more apparent. This task is one of the many crucial, transformative statewide infrastructure projects included in the stimulus package recently passed by Virginia’s General Assembly.
The federal American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed into law this past March included billions of dollars for Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam called the General Assembly into special session to allocate those funds at the beginning of this month.
On Aug. 9, the House of Delegates and state Senate adopted our final budget, which the governor signed into law. Now, $3.2 billion in relief is being dispersed to Virginia’s communities. As chair of the House Appropriations Committee, I’m particularly proud of this budget and the forward-looking investments it makes in every region of Virginia.
By 2025, every Virginian will have the opportunity to learn, work and access telehealth from home as a result of $700 million dedicated to expanding high-speed broadband internet infrastructure. With this investment, Virginia is on track to be the first state in the nation to achieve universal broadband service.
Our budget prioritized clean air and water for all Virginians. It directs $250 million to Virginia’s public schools for ventilation upgrades so teachers like Emily can focus on making up for lost time – not moldy carpets and noxious air.
We’ve planned for an equitable distribution of these funds; support for HVAC projects will be distributed on a per-pupil basis with a minimum of $200,000 for Virginia’s smallest school divisions. Local matches should come from another federal relief program – the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – which is weighted heavily toward higher-poverty school divisions.
Our stimulus package also dedicated $411 million to wastewater treatment and clean drinking water. That includes well and septic system improvements for low-income homeowners and $125 million for combined sewer overflow projects to keep wastewater out of Virginia’s streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
Environmentally minded undertakings don’t stop there. This budget authorizes up to $25 million in bonds for the Port of Virginia to support an offshore wind project. Additionally, we are sending $25 million to our state parks for maintenance and construction.
This budget invests in our communities. In addition to $4 million in support for Virginia’s Main Street businesses, we are putting $22.5 million into industrial revitalization – redeveloping vacant and deteriorated commercial properties.
Health care is infrastructure. This spending package launches critical projects across Virginia’s health care system. We are funding electronic management and recordkeeping systems as well as broadband connectivity, facility and network upgrades at local health departments. We are addressing capacity limits at state behavioral health hospitals by adding supported housing options for long-term patients and funding facilities renovations.
Virginia already has the most comprehensive voting rights protections in the South. This budget further invests in our election infrastructure with $3 million to assist localities with the expansion of early voting, including Sunday voting.
As a result of strong leadership and prudent budgeting over the past 17 months, Virginia’s economy is in good shape; we have a greater revenue surplus and larger reserves than ever before. While other states are using their stimulus funds to simply stay afloat, our commonwealth’s strong fiscal standing allowed us to pass a stimulus package that will transform Virginia’s communities through a set of historically ambitious infrastructure projects. Your majorities in the General Assembly are looking forward and planning for the future – and we’re just getting started.
The writer, a Democrat, represents the 52nd District in the Virginia House of Delegates and serves as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.