We are now six and a half months into a global pandemic. The toll on our nation has not been easy to wrap our brains around. Losing over 200,000 individuals to Covid-19 far exceeds the combined losses of several wars our country has fought in. Sadly, the leadership coming out of Washington leaves much to be desired. Denial and defiance are not cures for Coronavirus.
At the end of September, Governor Northam announced who the virus had invaded his Richmond household. This is a person who has led Virginians in the effort to curb the virus. He embraces science, a healthy lifestyle, as well as practicing and promoting CDC guidelines that include wearing a mask in public, social distancing, and regular hand washing. Best wishes for a speedy recovery to our Governor and First Lady.
On a personal note, I happened to be with the Governor two days prior to learning of his positive test. I am pleased to let you know that I have tested negative. And let me tell you something — I am a believer in wearing a mask in public and as far as I am concerned, this close call affirms the value of that face covering.
I joined the Governor and others at George Mason University to announce a restructuring of debt for these institutions. As a result of this action, they have realized $300 million in savings. Even with refinancing capital projects at the lower interest rates, the Commonwealth maintains its Triple-A bond rating. As many of the extracurricular activities are being trimmed from collegiate budgets, this is a good news story for Virginians.
The Special Session of the General Assembly is now in its sixth week. Despite having democratic majorities in both chambers, it is not uncommon for the House and Senate to come at issues from different points of view. Several bills remain in conference as we iron out differences. Those that cannot be reconciled will have met their legislative fate for this session.
Due to their fiscal impact, improvements in policing and criminal justice reform were taken up before the budget. The Senate has proposed $2.6 million in FY 2021 plus another $1 million in 2022 for mandatory curriculum, decertification, civilian review boards, and information sharing about law enforcement officers. An additional eight positions will be funded at the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
The pandemic has had its impact on our economy, requiring a reforecast of anticipated revenue. Looking forward, the Senate has put forth a spending plan with investments in Virginians as a key priority. In education we emphasized early childhood learning, re-benchmarked the SOQ, kept funding for community colleges offering high demand workforce programs, and funding for undergraduate need-based aid.
During this pandemic, more than 155,000 Virginians have contracted the virus. Access to healthcare has never been more important. We still do not know the long-term effects or the toll on our community. To address this reality, the Senate planned for full funding of the Medicaid forecast, increased provider rates, and added waiver slots. We are also proposing targeted increases in employee compensation for teachers, personal care givers, state police, and state employees.
Equally important are investments in Land Conservation, the Water Quality Improvement Fund as well as a $1 billion investment in our transportation infrastructure. The Senate and House budgets also address food instability, the threat of eviction during this economic downturn, and how we keep the utilities on for those still trying to recover from being unemployed.
Early voting has begun. The Commonwealth is embracing its most fundamental right in a big way. Virginia is processing more than 860,000 applications for absentee ballots. We are fulfilling these requests with a pre-paid postage return envelope, not requiring a witness signature, and drop boxes available for returning ballots. The Governor has signed into law the bill authorizing $2 million dollars for these initiatives.
It’s no state secret that we are in the most turbulent times of this nation’s history. Isn’t it time we returned to true leadership on the world stage? Isn’t it time for leaders to embrace science and battle this pandemic and climate change? Isn’t it time we restored some integrity to the Oval Office? We are in this together and together we can make the changes necessary to embrace the values which makes our nation thrive. I hope you will join me in voting for the Biden-Harris ticket.