Northam’s sunny budget rewrite roils Republicans with his proposed Court of Appeals expansion

Northam’s sunny budget rewrite roils Republicans with his proposed Court of Appeals expansion
(Source: AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

In his optimistic midcourse revisions to Virginia’s two-year, $135 billion spending blueprint, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed hundreds of millions in new spending for vaccine deployment and pandemic response, including half a billion dollars for public schools upended by COVID-19.

It includes millions more to help hold off an oncoming wave of evictions resulting from job losses from the virus, bonuses for state employees and state-supported local personnel and to push broadband internet farther into underserved rural areas.

But he drew the wrath of Republicans for $5.1 million he proposes for adding four new judges to the 11-judge Virginia Court of Appeals to expand Virginians’ right to appeal trial court decisions. The cost of boosting the understaffed court brimming with Republican appointees represents four one-thousandths of 1 percent of the overall two-year budget.

Northam made his rosy recommendations Wednesday in a videoconference to members of the General Assembly’s budget-writing committees based on estimates showing Virginia faring better than most states and projecting revenue growth over the course of 2021. The proposals he submitted as COVID numbers continued to spike in Virginia and nationally are based on revised economic forecasts for $1.2 billion more revenue than in August’s forecast, just before the General Assembly convened a special session to revise a budget that had been ravaged by the pandemic just a few months after its passage last March.

The Democratic governor based much of his optimism for growth in the second year of the budget ― the fiscal year 2022 which begins July 1 ― on the prospect that a significant share of the state’s population will have received new coronavirus vaccines now entering the market.

“While we believe an end to this crisis and a rebounding of our economy is insight, we are not there yet,” Northam said in his comments to the House and Senate money committees.

In the penultimate year of the single, non-renewable four-year term to which Virginia uniquely limits its governors, Northam proposes putting $650 million into the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund. Another major chunk, more than $500, goes to K-12 public education to underwrite funding for local school districts, including bonuses for teachers and additional counselors.

But it was his proposal to add four seats on the state Court of Appeals that prompted complaints from legislative Republicans of a Democratic plot to “pack” the court with liberal appointees.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.