(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday signed a series of bills into law, including a $135 billion biennial budget that altered several spending initiatives to address economic conditions that resulted from the response to COVID-19.
Budget amendments proposed by Northam and then affirmed by both chambers of the General Assembly with bipartisan support, froze or eliminated several spending initiatives, including a teacher pay raise and an increase in higher education spending.
The budget also gives the governor broader executive authority for certain funding allocations to accommodate the COVID-19 emergency's effect on the economy. Some of these shifts in power had bipartisan support, but some faced some Republican opposition.
The amended budget includes a COVID-19 relief fund for small businesses, unemployed Virginians, those who can’t pay rent or mortgages and the homeless. This fund will be paid for with an electric skill game tax, which Northam expects to generate $150 million. This received some bipartisan support, but opposition from Senate Republicans who cautioned it gave Northam too much flexibility over how the money would be spent, rather than keeping that authority with the General Assembly.
“I am proud of the accomplishments we made together during this General Assembly session,” Northam said in a statement. “We advanced long-neglected priorities, including rights and protections for Virginians. We were able to redirect funding to address the COVID-19 pandemic, and a number of the laws we enacted are proving to be more important than ever. My administration will continue to work with the General Assembly to craft budget and legislative responses to the pandemic’s effects on our commonwealth.”
Northam signed legislation that decriminalizes the simple possession of marijuana. Effective July 1, a person caught with possession will only face a $25 civil penalty. It also establishes a study that inquires into fully legalizing marijuana in the commonwealth.
The governor also signed legislation that establishes licensure and other requirements for pharmacy benefits managers and a bill that sets up regulations for pet shops.
Alternatively, Northam vetoed bipartisan legislation that would allow people to enter into associate health plans. Supporters said this bill would have made health care more affordable, but opponents, such as the AARP, said it could increase costs for sicker or elderly Virginians.
Republicans criticized the veto.
“While other states now offer their residents relief from the exorbitant costs of obtaining insurance through Obamacare exchanges, Gov. Northam insists on condemning Virginians to the outrageous premiums and unaffordable out-of-pocket expenses featured in exchange plans,” Senate Republican leaders said in a joint statement. “While Republican senators have sponsored similar legislation in previous years, Sens. Barker and Mason carried these bills this year. But as in previous years, Gov. Northam has vetoed legislation that would make ACA-compliant health care coverage more affordable and accessible.”
Senate Republicans said they intend to resubmit these bills when the General Assembly reconvenes.