Virginia governor asks lawmakers to focus on budget ‘equity’

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam asked lawmakers Thursday to pass a state budget that has a “greater focus on issues of equity” as he tries to move past a blackface scandal that nearly ended his governorship.

Northam met with a group of state legislators to discuss the budget and sent them a letter outlining his priorities as the GOP-led General Assembly puts the final touches on its state spending plan. Top among them, Northam said, are increased funding for struggling schools and more spending to decrease the number of evictions.

“In order for every Virginian to thrive, we must invest in their success — and that requires a greater focus on issues of equity,” Northam said in his letter.

What would normally be a perfunctory meeting over budget negotiations took on new importance after a cascade of scandals has rocked Virginia. Northam has been trying to inch back to normalcy since a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced earlier this month. It showed a person wearing blackface next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam initially said he was in the photo, and then denied it the next day, while acknowledging that he did wear blackface to a dance party that same year.

Adding to the chaos are scandals surrounding other top Democrats: Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he wore blackface in college days after calling for Northam’s resignation, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has denied allegations from two women that he sexually assaulted them.

Northam has faced widespread calls to resign, including from several lawmakers and caucus groups, but made clear he intends to stay in office. The Democratic governor said he wants to try to help heal the state’s lingering racial wounds and devote the rest of his term to promoting racial equality.

Northam’s letter to lawmakers said that his “first and foremost” priority was making sure the state’s education system “is equitable for every student, no matter his or her zip code.”

The governor is asking lawmakers to boost funding for schools with high numbers of low-income students, add more money for need-based scholarships and increase spending for preschool and school counselors.

Northam said he also asked lawmakers to prioritize spending on issues related to affordable housing, including money for attorneys to represent those facing eviction.

Virginia budget writers have plenty of money to work with this year thanks to a stronger-than-expected economy, increased federal defense spending and a Supreme Court decision that will raise state revenues on online sales.

Democratic Del. Mark Sickles, a so-called budget conferee who will hammer out the final details of the state budget, said the governor will get some of what he wants but not all of it, just like in any other year.

“There are things that are non-controversial,” Sickles said, pointing to Northam’s request for an increase in school counselors as an example.

Nearly two weeks have passed since the yearbook photo surfaced and there are signs of a growing acceptance among lawmakers of Northam’s plans to stay, despite the fact that every caucus group and top leader called for him to resign.

Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger described Thursday’s meeting with the governor as cordial.

“It was just a really positive thing,” Hanger said.

And Del. Delores McQuinn, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said Northam was showing leadership by pushing for agenda items important to black lawmakers in the budget.

“I have to applaud him,” she said. “We can stay stuck in time or we can rise above it.”

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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