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School Reopenings, Monument Removal, and a Better Than Expected Budget Shortfall: Political Analysis for Friday, July 10, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between the two.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM news host Benjamin Dolle for this week's political analysis. Topics include the debate over reopening schools in the fall, legal maneuverings around the removal of Confederate monuments in Richmond, a better-than-expected gap in the state budget amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Benjamin Dolle:  From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Benjamin Dolle.  Joining me now is Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and VPM’s political expert, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good morning, Ben.

Dolle:  So, from Washington to Richmond to school districts across Virginia, the focus as the pandemic continues is getting kids back to class this fall.

Schapiro:  And there does not seem to be a single opinion on that.  This week the Northam administration modified the guidelines for public schools across Virginia in terms of social distancing, in terms of masking.  However, no sooner than those new guidelines were issued, President Trump said that school districts that resist reopening because of their worries over COVID-19 could risk losing federal aid.  This contributed, as well, to something of a hissing match between Republicans and Democrats over the Northam administration's plans.  The Republicans, of course, out of power in Virginia, organized this virtual news conference in which their members at a safe distance insisted that state government do more for public schools to assure that they are fully opened by the end of August, the end of the summer holidays.  And that would include more money for schools, more money for teacher pay raises.  And then, I think this is important as well, protections for school districts against COVID-related lawsuits.  And I think we may see a bit of this when the legislature returns in August.  There are concerns in higher education, as well.  Most of the public and private schools, public and private colleges and universities in Virginia are planning to reopen next month.  There's a proposal advanced by some of the largest public universities to, and this includes VCU and UVA, to spend $200 million on a testing and tracking program.  This money would come out of that big pot of COVID relief funds that the state has received from the federal government.  No word yet from the Northam administration on whether it will go along with this recommendation.

Dolle:  The Confederate monuments have been coming down around Richmond, the symbols of white supremacy that had been standing for a century or more, in some cases.  The mayor is acting under a new state law that leaves it to localities to decide what to do with these statues.  However, there's an escalating legal debate over the monuments and whether they stay or go.

Schapiro:  And in Richmond, for the next 60 days at least, those still standing will remain.  The circuit judge in Richmond, Brad Cavedo, who is also hearing the case over the state-owned statue of Robert E. Lee and whether it stays or goes, is blocking Mayor Levar Stoney from taking down these remaining statues because there are questions whether Stoney is exceeding his authority in ordering their removal.  P.S.:  In the course of the hearing over this lawsuit by an anonymous plaintiff against the Stoney administration contesting the removal of these statues, the administration said that the Ashe family wants the city to remove the monument of the black tennis star, that they fear it could become a target for those angry about the Rebel statues that are coming down.  That said, we have still seen the removal of Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, J.E.B. Stuart, and then up on Church Hill, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, as well, a likeness of Joseph Bryan, the first of four Bryans to sit in the publisher's chair at the Times-Dispatch.  Its editorial page, of course, was strongly supportive of segregation, including Massive Resistance.  That is, you know, closing schools, rather than allowing integration.  The newspaper, of course, has apologized for its racist views.

Dolle:  And with a little bit of time left, it turns out with a new report the hole in Virginia's budget is not as big as the governor's office worried it was going to be in light of the pandemic.

Schapiro:  The shortfall is now estimated to be $236 million.  That's well short of the administration's initial projection of a billion dollars.  Some of this has to do with better than expected tax collections.  It does not mean the state is in the clear, that a deficit of a billion dollars is still possible in the current spending cycle which began on July 1.  The legislature has got to repair this budget.  It’s likely to do so in August.

Dolle:  And Dominion Energy pulled the plug on its controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, selling its gas transmission business to Warren Buffett and declaring it will focus on its core business, state-regulated electric and gas power.

Schapiro:  And what is interesting about this is Dominion has spent years trying to and successfully limiting the authority of regulators.  This pivot means that to some degree Dominion will be operating on friendly territory.  But there's a growing pushback by legislators and regulators, and this is not just because the General Assembly is again in Democratic hands.   The pipeline, of course, had been delayed by legal challenges, most of them initiated by environmentalists.

Dolle:  Alright, thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we’ll see you again next week.

Schapiro:  Good weekend to you.



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