In a virtual forum with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that despite a significant revenue shortfall, the state’s finances are in good shape and the state is positioned for a strong rebound once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
Northam, delivering remarks at the Greater Washington Board of Trade’s 2020 Capital Region Business Forum, painted a desperate picture for the region at the start of the pandemic. He criticized the federal response to the pandemic and noted that states had to take resource-procurement and testing capacity into their own hands.
But he also said the state’s economy was healthy before the pandemic, with just a 2.6% unemployment rate, and that it is well-positioned to rebound once the pandemic is over, although nobody knows when that will be.
Without getting into specifics or the ongoing wrangling over the $2.7 billion revenue shortfall for its two-year budget, Northam said initial numbers showed that the hit to state revenues from the pandemic was smaller than some feared.
“We anticipate coming out of this very strong as well. Our budget is in good shape. Our reserve, what we call our rainy day fund, is very healthy,” Northam said. “And so as soon as we can get our economy back up and running, as soon as we can get this health crisis behind us, we’re confident that Virginia will be a very friendly state for business.”
The state’s economy has recovered significantly in the last few months, but only from the baseline of an 11.2% unemployment rate in April, the depth of the COVID-19 related contraction. In August, Virginia’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 6.1%.
On the call, Northam touted a grant program the state opened last month, offering a total of $70 million for small businesses with 25 or fewer employees and $1.5 million or less in annual gross revenue. On Monday, Northam announced that the program’s eligibility requirements would be expanded for businesses that already received CARES Act money earlier in the crisis.
“The message has to go out to all businesses that we’re here to help,” Northam said Friday. “Through the CARES Act, we do have some resources to use and so if there are businesses that are hurting, please let us know.”
He and Hogan also bemoaned the lack of additional federal stimulus money to support school reopenings, small businesses and states and localities. Talks on Capitol Hill over a long-awaited third round of federal relief have broken down in recent weeks.
Barely discussed on the call were the numerous transportation concerns shared by all three jurisdictions, and the massive revenue shortfalls faced by Metro. Transit ridership has cratered with fewer people commuting to work and is expected to remain low until a COVID vaccine becomes widely available. WMATA has said it will either need more money from the federal government or will be forced into drastic service cuts and layoffs. Last week, Metro’s board endorsed cutting $212 million from the authority’s operating budget.
Northam did not mention the budget crisis facing Metro on Friday or interjurisdictional transportation projects whose funding sources could become more precarious.
In August, on a different Chamber of Commerce roundtable, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said VDOT and its partners remain committed to the $3.7 billion agreement Northam announced in December to construct a second Long Bridge and increase Virginia Railway Express service. She also reiterated the state’s support for the $1 billion agreement between Virginia and Maryland to replace the American Legion Bridge on Interstate 495.
Friday’s roundtable also took place on the day that the state began accepting in-person absentee ballots. For the first time in its history, voters don’t need to give any reason to vote absentee by mail or in-person before election day. According to Virginia Public Access Project data, so far 901,953 absentee ballots have been requested by state voters, with 864,225 of those requests coming for mail-in ballots. All told, 615,843 absentee ballots were cast in the state in the 2016 general election.
Between Friday and Saturday -- the first two days of early in-person voting in the state -- 3,096 ballots were cast in Prince William County. On Friday, 310 were cast in Manassas.
“The last message I have, especially for those of you from Virginia: Today started early voting,” Northam said on the call. “No excuses, you don’t have to check a box to why you’re voting early. We have absentee voting, we have drop off boxes in our localities, so I just encourage everybody, elections matter. No excuses for not voting, exercise your right.”