Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called for increased education spending, a higher minimum wage, joining a regional climate change initiative, and tax hikes to help pay for his agenda in his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.
Democrats claimed control of state House of Delegates and Senate in November’s elections after years of Republican control. Northam said the changes in the makeup of the legislature reflect changes in the commonwealth itself.
Over the past decade, Virginia's population has grown by about 600,000 people, which the governor equated to adding another Richmond or Virginia Beach to the commonwealth. Much of this growth happened in more urban settings and was primarily caused by people moving from other states and countries.
During that timespan, Northam said that the economy has improved, the stock market has gone up, and unemployment has gone down. Ten years ago, about 10 percent of Americans were out of work, he said, but now more people are working than ever. Virginia has seen record low unemployment numbers, as has most of the U.S. since President Donald Trump took office.
The governor pointed to other economic successes in Virginia, which include Amazon’s decision to base half of its second headquarters in Arlington, the state's 2.6 percent unemployment rate, and $1.9 billion in financial reserves.
However, the governor said that these successes are not enough. Despite the booming economy, Northam said that not all Virginians are equally benefiting from it. For example, he said that a lot of people are underemployed and stuck in poverty. He said that Virginia needs to boost education spending to ensure that everyone has a quality education. Northam said that Virginia needs to raise the state's minimum wage, and he said that Virginia needs to reduce the maternal mortality rate among black women.
Northam also said that the state will finally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which seeks to establish a cap and trade pollution policy. He also called for raising the state's cigarette tax to make it closer to neighboring states.
In a response to Northam’s State of the Commonwealth address, Sen. David R. Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said he worries that some of Democrats' policies will reverse the commonwealth's many economic successes, rather than improve them.
“Some of the proposals being advanced by Governor Northam and the Democrat legislative majority will have a profoundly negative effect on Virginia’s working families,” Suetterlein said.
“If implemented, the Democrats’ agenda will place a substantial burden on working Virginians,” he added. “Specifically, the Democrats’ proposals will raise electric bills, making it more expensive for you to live in your home; raise fuel prices, making your daily commute to work more expensive; and raise taxes, taking more of your hard-earned money. Disappointingly, the budget submitted by the Governor has substantial spending increases, yet doesn’t include a pay increase for our hard-working teachers this year.”
Democrats have a 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates and a 21-19 majority in the Senate.