HARRISONBURG — Virginia lawmakers are preparing for the state’s next budget cycle — one likely to be rife with new asks from empowered Democrats, including a free community college proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam.

Senate lawmakers on Thursday considered a budget recommendation from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which called for a $20 million investment in community colleges in budget year 2021 and a $30 million investment in 2022.

The figures were part of a preliminary presentation in Harrisonburg, where Senate lawmakers began to square broad agency funding requests and state revenue outlooks.

Tom Allison, an analyst with the higher education council, said that the $50 million over two years is meant to support student access, affordability and completion at community colleges and would represent an unprecedented amount for the state’s programs.

That could include a tuition-free community college program, he said.

“We are seeing that we need to invest in the sub-baccalaureate area. We are going to need to produce more associate degrees and certificates,” Allison said. “While the parameters of a free college plan will be a decision for the governor’s office, we support the investment.”

Allison said there are “a hundred different ways to design a free college plan.”

Fully funding the state’s community college program would cost upward of $512 million. But, Allison said a more modest program might cover low-income and middle-income students who are pursuing technical education or credentialing in “high-priority” fields that are likely to result in quick, gainful employment for students.

Students benefiting from such a program would be required to submit federal student aid applications to make sure that they were fully tapping existing federal aid. The state would cover what is not covered by federal aid.

Allison wouldn’t speculate on the cost of a program with those parameters, pending the details of Northam’s plan. A representative of the administration on Thursday told community college officials that one was in the works, without specific details. Northam is expected to present his proposed two-year budget to the House and Senate money committees on Dec. 17.

In Norfolk this summer, Northam described the skeleton of such a plan. He said he envisioned a program that would allow students to graduate debt-free from community college in exchange for a commitment to work in a public-sector job or a high-demand field, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

“The governor has long been a fierce advocate for expanding access to affordable higher education, and he will continue to prioritize this issue in his upcoming budget and legislative proposals,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky.

“With record low unemployment in Virginia, we all recognize the need to invest in our workforce. His final budget is still being finalized, and details will be announced in the coming weeks.”

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