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Northam proposes $733 million in environmental spending, with big chunk for Bay cleanup

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday proposed a $733 million package of environmental spending, including programs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, encourage wind energy and preserve open spaces.

The proposals, most of which involve bond-financed capital spending, will be part of the two-year budget plan Northam (D) presents next Tuesday to legislators in the General Assembly’s money committees.

“As sea levels continue to rise and flooding and extreme weather become more frequent and widespread, Virginia must act,” Northam said in presenting his plan during an appearance in Virginia Beach.

The centerpiece of the package is $400 million in proposed new funding to support cleanup of the Bay and meet the state’s goals under federal guidelines to restore water health by 2025. That includes a boost to the state’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund to help with runoff issues in regions such as Hampton Roads.

Northam also called for spending $171 million to improve Virginia’s 38 state parks and to invest in land conservation.

On the government side, Northam proposed spending $25 million to improve operations at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, along with $2.7 million per year dedicated to environmental justice and community outreach. Northam has been criticized for DEQ’s involvement in one high-profile environmental justice issue: the fight against a proposed natural gas pumping station in the historic African American community of Union Hill in Buckingham County.

The package also calls for investment to encourage the development of renewable sources of energy, including $10 million to set up a revolving loan fund to finance clean energy projects for local governments, small business and low-income individuals.

Northam proposed setting up a state Office of Offshore Wind and spending up to $40 million to improve the Portsmouth Marine Terminal to facilitate offshore wind construction.

Finally, he pledged to support legislation for Virginia to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate collective aimed at reducing carbon emissions by allowing polluters to trade carbon credits. In participating states, owners of fossil-fuel power plants with a capacity of 25 megawatts or more must buy a credit for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. The idea is to encourage fossil-fuel plants to lower emissions while increasing the competitiveness of zero-emitting plants, including wind and solar facilities.

Republicans, who killed such an effort earlier this year, dismissed Northam’s proposal to join RGGI as a “carbon tax.”

“Radical environmentalists spent big during the 2019 campaign to get Democrats elected, and they expect a return on their investment,” said Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who will be House minority leader in the next General Assembly session. “Now we know what that return looks like: a carbon tax that will cost Virginia jobs.”

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest in Northam’s publicity tour touting components of his upcoming budget. He previously unveiled plans to spend $22 million to combat maternal mortality among women of color and $95 million to support early-childhood education.

This will be Northam’s first shot at creating a budget stocked with his priorities because of the way Virginia times its two-year spending plans. Since taking office in 2018, Northam had been working with a budget assembled by his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe (D).