Northam’s ‘State of the Commonwealth Address’ highlights criminal justice, vaccine status, teacher raises


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address to a virtual joint meeting of the General Assembly on Wednesday evening.

Northam spoke about on the status and growth of Virginia in the last year. He also shared his visions for this year’s legislative session.

Northam’s speech will followed the theme, “Calling the Commonwealth to action in times of crisis.”

Throughout the speech, the governor discussed the state’s ongoing response to and experiences with COVID-19, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Northam will be giving proposals for teacher raises, small business support, early childhood education expansions, marijuana legalization and the abolition of the death penalty.

“We are social people, and we are meant to be together,” Northam said in a start to the address.

“We need to talk about who we are as a state,” he continued. “What we believe in and what are our values.”

Northam took time to highlight Virginians working to help out their neighbors this year and take care of those around them. One Central Virginian got a special shoutout during his speech, UPS driver Anthony Gaskin. Gaskin’s delivers packages in the Hallsley neighborhood and this year the neighborhood came out to show their appreciation through a parade.

The governor spent part of his speech remembering Sen. Ben Chafin from Southwest Virginia.

“He was my friend, and I miss him. Whether on the Senate floor or in my office, his presence always brightened my day.”

Chafin was one of more than 5,000 Virginians who have died from COVID-19. There will be a moment of silence to remember all of the state’s victims.

Another moment of silence will be held in honor of the two Virginians killed during the riots at the U.S. Capitol building. Two United States Capitol Police from Virginia, Officer Brian Sicknick and Officer Howard Liebengood, lost their lives during the violence.

“While the fact that our help was needed is terrible, I am proud we were able to help avert more tragedy,” Northam said. “There is nothing to celebrate about the fact that our nation needed help — especially to defend our Capitol from fellow Americans — but we can all be proud that Virginia stepped up.”

BELOW: Watch the full address.

Virginia also sent National Guard members and Virginia state troopers to the U.S. Capitol to help de-escalate the situation and prevent further harm.

The governor also highlighted some of the most influential legislation passed this year including laws impacting gun control, green energy usage, driver’s license rights and more. This year’s legislative session ended before the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading throughout the state.

Northam later pivoted to Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Virginia so far is in the top 10 states with the most vaccines administered. There are currently shipments of 110,000 vaccine doses arriving in the commonwealth each week. The next objective is to have 25,000 vaccines administered each day.

As of Tuesday this week, states have been authorized to give vaccines to anyone age 65 and up. Virginia is working to move forward with that expanded age group soon.

Northam urged everyone in Virginia to get the vaccine, saying he and his family will also be getting vaccinated.

The Virginia Medical Reserve Corp is beginning to train volunteers to help distribute vaccinations. Anyone with medical experience can help with the administration, but volunteer opportunities exist for people without medical experience to help with logistics as well.

Another health-related point that Northam made during his speech was that Virginia is the only state in the nation where the rate of people without insurance dropped from 2018 to 2019.

“The pandemic has proven that that was the right decision,” Northam said. He said he is so thankful Virginians who were unemployed this year were still able to access healthcare through Virginia’s Medicaid expansion.

The governor further hopes to change public health in another way. He plans to have a formula that impacts state funding of local health district updated for the first time in a “generation.” Making sure localities get the appropriate amount of funding to aid in their health services.

In addition to health services, Northam spoke about helping small businesses through the pandemic.

Rebuild Virginia program has helped 2,500 small businesses in the commonwealth, two-thirds of which were either woman, minority or veteran-owned. Of the grants given to businesses, $40 million was given to businesses in low-income areas.

The governor hopes to help schools this year as well. Students have been out of classrooms for months. Parents and teachers have had to change gears and plans constantly throughout the pandemic.

Virginia’s educators are starting to get vaccinated.

With teachers and staff protected from contracting the virus, students may finally be able to return to school more permanently. Virginia schools have already started to vaccinate their educators, putting them on the road to a return to learning that schools can feel safer about.

Northam said he hopes to help “start our littlest learners off on the right foot.” He wants to budget an extra $500 million toward schools as they experience funding losses due to drops in enrollment. Also in his budget proposal, he wants to fund more school counselors and resources for English language learners.

Northam also spoke about helping teachers by increasing pay. He hopes to add a more than 2% raise for educators across the state. His proposal was met with claps from the few people in the room with him.

The pandemic has made many Virginians realize just how important certain resources are. One thing that Virginians flocked toward in the last year was green space and natural resources. State parks, city parks and trails became incredibly valuable resources as people tried to find ways to safely leave their homes and spend time with loved ones.

Northam is proposing $5 million to go toward regional trails, especially ones more than 35 miles long, like the Capital Trail. He says trails like this offers valuable outdoors space to local and do a lot to attract visitors to any area.

In a more broad attempt to preserve natural resources, the governor plans to put an extra $12 million toward the preservation of water, air and land. This money will help create more robust permitting processes that will prevent harmful projects from chipping away at the state’s environmental health.

He went on to use his speech to encourage legislators and gubernatorial hopefuls to push for voting rights restoration for felons. Northam wants to welcome people back to the community after they’ve served their time. He explained that Virginia is one of the last remaining states that does not automatically grant felons a restoration of their civil rights.

Under Northam’s leadership, there have been more pardons than under any other Virginia governor. He wants to shift that responsibility away from governors and have automatic civil rights restoration added to the state constitution.

Amending the state constitution would take two legislative sessions and Northam hopes that leaders elected in 2021 will still keep fighting for that change.

Another change that he wishes to see in the criminal justice system is the legalization of marijuana. A move that could help decrease inequities in the criminal justice system and bring revenue to the state. WAVY sister station WRIC dug into this issue to find out what it could mean.

Another impactful change Northam hopes to see soon is the abolition of the death penalty. Throughout history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state. Currently, only two people are on death row. More from WAVY sister station WRIC about the governor’s plans to completely eliminate capital punishment can be found below:

Widespread civil unrest has had the entire world examining ways to promote racial and social justice. Virginia’s efforts at racial reconciliation have begun, but are not yet finished. During the address, Northam spoke to the lost cause’s long reach in Virginia. He called for the end of celebrating the Confederacy. This year, Virginia ended holidays centered around Confederate leaders and cities and counties the ability to remove Confederate monuments –an ability that cities like Richmond quickly took advantage of.

The U.S. Capitol will soon also see Virginia move away from the glorification of Confederate leaders. In place of Robert E. Lee, civil rights hero Barbara Johns will represent the commonwealth in the Statuary Hall.

Northam changed his approach as he spoke of the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He began speaking louder and with more conviction, condemning the attempt to overturn a fair and legal election.

“Those who want a government that serves only themselves don’t care about democracy,” Northam said.

He says anyone who uses “falsities” to try and destroy democratic institutions can not be a part of those institutions, warning against “fanning the flames on conspiracy.” Northam says elected leaders have a duty to tell the truth and voters have a right to know the truth, even if it’s hard to hear.

He took those frustrations and turned towards a more hopeful message, eventually wrapping up the speech with a smile on his face.

The end was a call to action: People have been hurt by the pandemic and Northam hopes this year’s legislative session can do a “great deal of good.”

He remains hopeful that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout will allow for the return to normalcy. Giving hugs, sending kids to school, work lunches and concerts are all things he hopes Virginians will get to do again this year.

“We step into this new year with a lot of hope…” Northam said. “We need to remember that we care about each other. We are all connected, we are one Virginia.”

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