Helicopters, money funds and a brand new public well being lab: How state businesses suggest spending Virginia’s rescue fund cash

The Virginia Capitol at sunrise. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia has $4.3 billion in federal aid to spend and no shortage of ideas.

State agencies hoping to tap into American Rescue Plan funds have submitted wish lists that top more than $18 billion, floating proposals ranging from new helicopters for Virginia State Police to $1,000 cash payments for essential workers. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration hasn’t committed to specific line items, but lawmakers are scheduled to convene next month for a special legislative session to decide how to spend the money. 

Discussions are ongoing over whether some of the requests are or aren’t eligible for the federal dollars, which are supposed to have a direct link to the negative effects of the pandemic.

Furthermore, the federal government has earmarked certain funds for specific purposes, such as combating student learning loss due to schools going virtual during the pandemic. And because the state can spend the funds over several years, policymakers may choose to set some money aside to adapt to future needs. Federal dollars put toward some initiatives may also free up state dollars for others not eligible for relief funding.

Most of the spending proposals put forward, from vaccine outreach and utility assistance to fixing the unemployment system and broadband investment, won’t come as a surprise. 

Other spending suggestions are a little less intuitive — or show agencies trying to use the sudden influx of funds to advance efforts that may have been back-burnered in tighter budget years. 

Here’s a sampling of the proposals that caught Mercury reporters’ eyes.  

Compensation for essential workers
Price tag: $800 million

Labor proposals include a suggestion to give $1,000 “hero grants” to low-wage essential workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic.

The funding request for $700 million doesn’t specify exactly which types of workers might qualify, but notes that “premium pay” for essential workers is an explicitly authorized use of the funds.

Higher education officials have also requested up to $100 million for “hero scholarships” to help essential workers who want to further their education. The proposal suggests giving up to $5,000 per year to assist essential workers with getting a GED or college degree.

Jason Chadwick, left, who has worked for Kroger for 20 years, leads other workers in a chant demanding the reinstatement of hazard pay during a protest outside of the Kroger on Lombardy in Richmond, Va., September 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boye / For the Virginia Mercury)

COVID resources for non-native English speakers
Price tag: $21 million

A persistent complaint throughout the pandemic has been the state’s dependence on automatic (and often shoddy) translations to provide information about the spread of COVID-19 and roll out of vaccines to non-English speakers.

The approach at one point led the Virginia Department of Health to inform Spanish speakers that “the vaccine is not necessary” where English speakers were informed that it is not required.

Northam’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion proposes setting aside $5 million a year to pay for translation services, as well as hiring a coordinator to create a statewide language access plan for translation needs for state agencies. The office also proposes hiring two full time American Sign Language interpreters and a coordinator dedicated to “incorporating people with disabilities and other access and functional needs” into the state’s emergency and recovery plans.

The rescue fund money would cover four years of work.

A bailout for the state’s unemployment trust fund
Price tag: $1.3 billion

One of the biggest single requests comes by way of the Virginia Employment Commission, which wants $1.3 billion to restore the state’s unemployment trust fund to pre-pandemic levels.

The state relies on the fund to pay for unemployment benefits, which saw an unprecedented 1.3 million initial claims last year and another 300,000 already this year — more than double the applications for assistance the state saw in all of 2019.

The fund would otherwise be rebuilt through a series of hefty payroll tax increases on businesses. And state leaders and the business community have already called heading that off a top priority.

A parking lot outside a UVA dorm was filled with hundreds of state police cruisers in advance of the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in 2017. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 8, 2018)

Body cameras and helicopters for state police
Price tag: $40 million

In one of the more tangentially pandemic-related requests, Virginia State Police asked for $19 million to roll out body cameras to their officers.

The department argued that “vulnerable social populations” have seen some of the biggest impacts from COVID and have some of the lowest rates of vaccine acceptance “due to fears and skepticism towards government resulting from systemic marginalization.”

The agency proposes that body cameras will help because they foster transparency that in turn “will establish trust in government and mitigate future spread of COVID-19.”

Their justification for requesting two new helicopters at a cost of $21 million was more clear cut. The agency says they will replace two older units currently used for medical evacuation flights that were “experiencing unacceptable downtime” and “impacting the department’s ability to provide air ambulance services during the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Highway improvements between Richmond and Williamsburg
Price tag: $100 million

The only major road project included in the funding requests is the continued widening of Interstate 64 between Richmond and Williamsburg.

Specifically, transportation planners are suggesting $100 million to help with the costs of widening the interstate in a 29-mile stretch between New Kent County and Williamsburg.

Mitigating congestion on I-64 has been a top priority for Hampton Roads-area leaders.

The request specifies that the new improvements would begin around Exit 205 in New Kent, where a previous widening project between Richmond and New Kent ended in 2019, and continue to exit 234 near Williamsburg.

Capital projects unrelated to COVID-19 generally aren’t intended to be funded through the American Rescue Plan, but the act gives states leeway to spend money on things like roads if the pandemic affected government revenue sources that would typically pay for them.

Mapping overlaps between historic inequities and urban green spaces
Price tag: $500,000

In 2020, a study co-authored by Science Museum of Virginia chief scientist Jeremy Hoffman made national headlines when it found that neighborhoods federal housing officials historically classified as “hazardous” because of their high proportion of low-income and minority residents are hotter than other neighborhoods

The classification, known as redlining, was used by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation between the 1930s and 1968 to guide banks on granting mortgages to homebuyers and led to wide racial gaps in homeownership. 

It also contributed to higher temperatures today in historically minority or disadvantaged neighborhoods, where shade-providing trees are in short supply and large swathes of land have been paved. 

Now the Virginia Department of Forestry wants to use $500,000 to develop heat island maps that pinpoint where higher temperatures overlap with formerly redlined neighborhoods. 

The agency says that “federal guidance aligns funding” with projects such as those that aim to create green infrastructure and improve water quality, both of which can be achieved by planting trees and other flora. 

An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Electric vehicle infrastructure
Price tag: $33.3 million

With federal guidelines allowing funds to be used to replace lost public sector revenues for services including infrastructure, the Department of Transportation is proposing a hefty investment of $33.3 million in electric vehicle infrastructure. 

Democrats in the General Assembly and the Northam administration spent the last legislative session pushing electric vehicles as a way to reduce transportation emissions, Virginia’s largest contributor to carbon emissions. 

Money was a sticking point, though. Lawmakers acknowledged that infrastructure is lacking in many rural areas. And although the General Assembly signed off on an electric vehicle rebate program, legislators left it unfunded, a situation the law’s sponsor attributed to tight pandemic budgets. 

A tour of the construction of the new Highland Springs High School in Henrico, estimated to cost about $80 million. (Henrico County Public Schools)

School construction and improvements
Price tag: $2.6 billion

Even before the pandemic, school construction was a major issue in Virginia. A recent survey from the state’s Department of Education found that more than half of public school buildings are more than 50 years old. Replacing those aging structures is estimated to cost the state more than $24.7 billion.

Enter the American Rescue Plan. The federal government set aside specific funds for pandemic-related improvements, including new HVAC systems, but VDOE proposes dedicating an additional $2 billion for more general renovation projects. That money would be delivered to local school divisions through a competitive grant fund, according to the agency’s request.

The department is also requesting an additional $600 million for improvements in early and higher education. The majority of that — $500 million over the next three years — would go toward capital improvements for “successful” child care operators, “allowing them to serve additional children and help more parents get back to work.” 

Another $100 million is proposed for modernization efforts at the state’s public colleges and universities, from updated heating systems to new equipment and technology.

A new public health lab
Price tag: $275 million

Virginia’s public health laboratory — once mostly a site for specialized testing and tracking rare diseases — has taken on a whole new importance throughout the pandemic. 

For the first critical weeks, it was the only lab in the state that could test for COVID-19. And over the past year and a half, its responsibilities have expanded dramatically, from sequencing samples of the virus to rapidly detecting new variants.

The Virginia Department of General Services wants to expand those capabilities even further. The agency is asking for $275 million to replace the state’s aging site in downtown Richmond with a “state-of-the-art” new laboratory in Petersburg. The proposed location is on the same campus as Central State Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility that’s currently undergoing a major renovation. And it would boost capacity for complex and high-volume testing, which is already “nearing its limit” at the existing lab, according to DGS.

A public health emergency fund
Price tag: $10 million

The scramble to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced, in large part, to decades of underfunding in public health. As Virginia was recording its first cases, some health departments in low-income counties were abruptly closing their doors. And across the state, employees were pulled from critical services like maternal health and environmental monitoring to serve as case investigators or contract tracers.

In those early days, the Virginia Department of Health said it lacked the funding to “quickly ramp up an appropriate operational response.” Now, the agency is requesting $10 million for a public health emergency fund. The money might not be used immediately, but leaders say it would give the department more agility to respond to future pandemics.

Eastern State Hospital in James City County (Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services)

Staffing at state mental hospitals
Price tag: $335.5 million

Virginia’s state-run mental hospitals have been struggling for years with rising admissions. But the COVID-19 pandemic pushed them into crisis mode, with outbreaks making it even more challenging to discharge patients and free up bed space. 

That high patient volume, combined with chronic staffing shortages, have made the facilities “tremendously unsafe,” according to Alison Land, commissioner of the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The agency is requesting more than $300 million over the next several years to boost employment, the majority of which would go to salary increases for essential frontline workers. Another $24 million would be dedicated to security guards and safety improvements at aging facilities.

The department is also requesting millions for community mental health services — part of an ongoing effort to reduce admissions through better front-end treatment. But staffing needs have often been framed as one of the most urgent challenges facing Virginia’s beleaguered mental hospitals.

The sun sets over the James River in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Septic and sewer overflow repairs and replacements
Price tag: $230 million

One of the biggest-ticket items Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has on its wish list is $230 million to help repair and replace failing septic systems, pipes that send waste directly into waterways and “combined sewer overflow” systems that can lead to sewage releases during heavy rainfall.

The federal rescue plan “specifically lists water and wastewater infrastructure as an eligible use,” DEQ says in its justification for the request. 

Of the $230 million, DEQ wants to see $30 million go to Richmond to speed up its ongoing overhaul of the city’s combined sewer overflow system. The agency has also identified $35 million worth of sewage system fixes in Southwest Virginia, as well as millions of dollars of investment in wastewater connections for underserved communities in Surry, Middlesex, Northampton and Accomack counties.


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EU to suggest new physique to deal with soiled cash, paperwork say

Flags of the European Union flutter in front of the headquarters of the EU Commission in Brussels, Belgium, May 5, 2021. REUTERS / Yves Herman / File Photo / File Photo

LONDON, July 7 (Reuters) – The European Union is set to propose a new anti-money laundering agency and new transparency rules for the transfer of crypto assets, EU documents showed on Wednesday as the bloc on calls for tougher measures to combat it money reacts to dirt.

Europe has come under pressure to step up anti-money laundering enforcement after several countries began investigating Danske Bank over € 200 billion in suspicious transactions through its tiny Estonian branch between 2007 and 2015.

In the absence of an EU-wide authority to stop dirty money, Brussels has relied on national regulators to enforce its rules, but they have not always fully cooperated.

“Money laundering, terrorist financing and organized crime remain major issues that should be addressed at Union level,” Reuters said in documents.

The executive European Commission of the EU is proposing a new anti-money laundering authority (AMLA), which is to become the “heart” of an integrated supervisory system that also consists of national authorities, according to the documents.

“By directly overseeing and making decisions on some of the riskiest entities in the cross-border financial sector, the Authority will directly help prevent money laundering / terrorist financing incidents in the Union,” the documents read.

“At the same time, it will coordinate the national supervisory authorities and support them in increasing their effectiveness in enforcing the uniform set of rules and ensuring homogeneous and high-quality supervisory standards, approaches and risk assessment methods.”

The EU AML rules will become directly binding on member states to prevent criminals from exploiting differences between national regulators, the documents say.

Another proposal would introduce new EU requirements for service providers of crypto assets to collect and make accessible data on the originators and beneficiaries of transmissions in these assets.

Transfers of such virtual assets are currently outside the scope of EU financial services rules.

“The absence of such rules exposes crypto-asset owners to money laundering and terrorist financing risks, as illegal cash flows can occur through transfers of crypto-assets,” the documents read.

Sven Giegold, German Greens MP in the European Parliament, said the European Commission had put together a strong package against money laundering. Parliament and the EU countries will have the final say on the proposed rules.

“With uniform standards and more centralized supervision, the EU Commission is introducing important improvements to enable a consistent approach to financial crime,” said Giegold. In the meantime, the EU should take legal action against EU states that fail to properly enforce AML rules, he added.

Reporting by Huw Jones; Adaptation by Giles Elgood

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

FDA to suggest ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes, with business more likely to problem

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it would propose a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes in the US, which would mean a big blow to future tobacco sales.

Menthol is the last permitted flavor for cigarettes. According to the FDA, menthol cigarettes were disproportionately used by teenagers, black people and low-income groups. The vast majority of black smokers prefer menthol brands of cigarettes, and black men currently have the highest rates of lung cancer in the country.

“With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce initiation of adolescents, increase the likelihood of smoking cessation among current smokers, and eliminate health gaps that occur among color communities, low-income populations, and LGBTQ + people, all of which are far more likely are to use these tobacco products, “said Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner, in a press release.

This decision was in response to a Citizen petition A court had ordered a response from the agency by Thursday.

Years until implementation

However, Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett said that proposal would take years to reach a conclusion, as it would need sufficient evidence from both sides, which could be difficult.

“If we see a proposed rule for menthol, it could take years to reach the final rule as a waterproof evidence package would have to be put together … the FDA itself has said in the past that there was not enough evidence,” he said in a report, adding that large tobacco companies might strike back in response, which would mean more time.

This decision follows Years Considerations from public health officials to help smokers make the transition to less harmful practices such as non-flammable products or to give up smoking altogether.

Menthol cigarettes make up about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States. The leading brands are Newport, which they own British American Tobacco’s RJ Reynolds and Kool who are owned by Imperial Tobacco’s ITG brands.

British American Tobacco controls a whopping 66% stake in the menthol market, while Altria has a 26% stake and Imperial an 8% stake, according to a report by Bernstein analyst Callum Elliott.

Altria’s business is less exposed to menthol sales. Elliott estimates that only about 17% of its volume falls into this category. It would be a bigger blow to British American as more than half of its cigarette volume comes from that category, Elliott said.

Imperial Brands said the FDA’s decision was “disappointing” but expected. According to Elliott, menthol makes up about 30% of its volume.

“We believe the rulemaking process will show that there is no clear scientific evidence to support a menthol and flavor ban at the federal level. We hope the FDA will comply with the law and prioritize sound politics and science over political pressure,” said the enterprise.

‘Unintended Consequences’

Marlboro cigarette maker Altria has warned of the possibility of a ban that could create an illegal market.

“We share a common goal of switching adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but the ban is not working,” he said Altria in a statement. “The criminalization of menthol will have serious unintended consequences.”

Reynolds and his parent company British American Tobacco were not immediately available for comment.

The argument against flavors

If implemented, the proposal would be of great benefit to anti-tobacco advocates who have long seen flavored cigarettes as a way for consumers to become acquainted with smoking.

Tobacco product smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the country, according to the FDA. There are plans to introduce product standards to eliminate menthol in cigarettes within the next year, as well as to eliminate all signature flavors, including menthol, in cigars.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fourteen percent of all American adults smoked cigarettes in 2019. Although smoking rates are similar between black and white populations, black smokers are less likely to quit, which some have attributed to the menthol taste. The mint taste of menthol cools the throat and makes it easier for smokers to tolerate the tobacco taste.

The FDA cited a Tobacco Control Study this suggests that a ban could help smokers quit smoking. It pursued behavior after menthol bans were introduced in Canada. The FDA estimates a US ban could cause an additional 923,000 smokers, including 230,000 African Americans, to quit in the first 13 to 17 months.

Last week the Biden administration did too announced Limiting nicotine levels in cigarettes is considered. This is another step that the FDA has been trying to push for Years. However, today’s announcement on menthol cigarettes makes no mention of a reduction in nicotine levels.

Altria and British American Tobacco, Reynolds’ parent company, lost nearly 2% in midday trading.

Read the FDA statement here.

Republicans suggest $1,000 stimulus checks. This is who would qualify

Miami Herald | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

The next Covid Stimulus checks could be less than $ 1,400 and reach fewer people if a new plan by some Republican senators is approved.

The new proposal A group of 10 GOP lawmakers are demanding $ 1,000 checks per person instead of the President’s proposed $ 1,400 Joe Biden.

This would bring the direct payments to $ 1,600, including the first payment approved in December.

Individuals earning up to $ 40,000 per year are eligible for the full payments. For those with incomes above this threshold, payments would be phased out and eligibility would be capped at $ 50,000 per year.

For married couples filing tax together, payments with an income of $ 80,000 would expire and capped at $ 100,000.

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Children and adults who are considered dependents are eligible for $ 500.

Convicted inmates would not be eligible. Currently, prisoners are eligible to receive the $ 600 checks that are put in place.

The checks would amount to an estimated $ 220 billion under the Republican plan. The overall package, including additional funding for vaccines, childcare, improved unemployment insurance, and nutritional benefits, would cost an estimated $ 618 billion.

In contrast, Biden’s plan, which calls for 1,400 checks per person, would cost an estimated $ 465 billion in direct payments, or a total of $ 1.9 trillion.

The Republican proposal is likely an “initial package of negotiations,” said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Senate employee.

“There is no way Democrats would agree to that [$618] Billions, and I think they will feel that it is not enough, “said Hoagland.

While the package could lose the support of some Democrats, the compromise could potentially win the support of some Republicans.

According to Hoagland, the new White House administration faces “a difficult equilibrium”.

“This is going to be a big job for President Biden, who I believe in his heart is happy to be non-partisan,” said Hoagland.

Much will depend on the outcome of a meeting between Biden and the Republicans scheduled for 5 p.m. on Monday at the White House.

If you have an emergency supplement in place … you can get it done much faster given the crisis we are having right now.

Bill Hoagland

Senior Vice President at the Bipartisan Policy Center

The Senate is expected to present a budget resolution on Tuesday that could lead to a law of reconciliation that would only require a simple majority to enforce. But this process will take time, Hoagland noted.

How quickly the money gets to the Americans depends on how long the negotiations between the two parties take. An emergency supplement kit could be easier to pass, Hoagland said.

“If you have an agreement on an emergency supplement … you can get it done a lot faster given the crisis we are having right now,” said Hoagland.