The only African-American member of the General Assembly’s budget conference committee declined to meet with Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday at a traditional breakfast meeting at the Executive Mansion on spending priorities.
Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said he did not attend the meeting with the governor, whom black legislators urged to resign after a scandal erupted Feb. 1 over a racist photograph on Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page.
“I am still not at a comfortable place with the governor in the circumstances,” Torian told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The absence of Torian, the only member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to serve as a budget negotiator, shows how far Northam has to go to win back the confidence of black legislators over the yearbook photo — which featured one person in blackface and another dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes — and the governor’s subsequent admission he had appeared in blackface 35 years ago at a dance contest in Texas.
Northam’s office had no comment on Torian’s absence or his reason for not attending.
House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, confirmed that Torian, pastor of First Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dumfries, had approached him to say he would not attend the meeting at the mansion.
“I told him I understood and I respected his decision to not attend,” Jones said Thursday.
The meeting did include the 13 other members of the conference committee. It has begun its work to reconcile differences in the budgets adopted by the House of Delegates and Senate before the session’s scheduled Feb. 23 adjournment.
In the meeting and an accompanying letter, Northam reasserted his state spending priorities — including more help for high-poverty school divisions and affordable housing — “with a greater focus on issues of equity” important to minority populations.
Those issues have become the overriding priority of Democrats, especially members of the black caucus, who have criticized the tax deal the governor reached with legislators for doing too little for the poorest Virginians and starving investments in priorities for minority communities.
“First and foremost, we have to ensure that our education system — from early childhood to K-12 to higher education — is equitable for every student, no matter his or her ZIP code,” Northam said in asking legislators to restore cuts their respective budgets made in the “at-risk add-on” funds he had proposed for Richmond and other school divisions with high concentrations of students living in poverty.
The governor’s budget, unveiled in December, increases the amount of at-risk add-on money for school districts with a high population of low-income students by almost $36 million, but the Senate budget would reduce the proposed increase by $14.2 million while the House plan would eliminate it entirely.
The House budget proposes instead to increase Virginia Lottery funding available to all school divisions by almost $28 million with no requirement for local matching funds. However, the liberal Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis said the exchange would hurt Richmond, Petersburg and other school divisions with high concentrations of students living in poverty.
Richmond would lose more than $1.7 million under the House swap, while Petersburg, a small city with big financial challenges, would lose more than $500,000. In total, all school districts would receive $77 million less under the Senate budget and $56 million under the House plan, the institute said.
The at-risk add-on program targets schools with high concentrations of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals and works to give them after-school programs and special instruction, among other things.
“It provides the best opportunity for the success of young people across Virginia,” said Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. She appeared at a news conference Thursday with other legislators representing the city, as well as Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras.
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, city and school officials gave roses with a note attached to budget conferees. A poem on the note read: “Roses are red; Violets are blue. Our schools need more funding; It can’t happen without you!”
Jones already has promised members of the black caucus, including Torian, to reconsider at-risk add-on funding and some of their other priorities. Jones’ pledge earlier this week was in return for their backing of emergency tax legislation. African-American lawmakers initially had helped to block it from receiving the required 80 votes in the House, saying it did not provide enough for low-income working families.
The legislature passed the tax legislation on an emergency basis so that it can take effect immediately upon Northam’s signature and not on July 1, two months after the state’s tax filing deadline.
In his budget letter, Northam also asked that the committee restore money for early childhood programs and financial aid to students who most need it to attend public colleges and universities, including historically black institutions.
His other spending priorities include expanding the state’s Housing Trust Fund to promote affordable housing, addressing eviction rates that are among the highest in the nation, and investing more in environmental protection initiatives to reduce stormwater pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“In order for Virginians to thrive, we must invest in their success,” the governor said, “and that requires a greater focus on issues of equity.”
Torian declined to comment on Northam’s letter, but he said, “As a conferee, I’m going to work to do my best for the economic interests of the citizens of the commonwealth.”