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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske August 16, 2021

Did Virginia lawmakers hand Northam a $1 billion blank check?

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  • The General Assembly left Gov. Ralph Northam $761 million in unallocated funds. 
  • Northam can only use the money without legislative approval to respond to a public health emergency before Jan. 12, 2022.

State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, says the General Assembly recently handed Gov. Ralph Northam a "$1 billion blank check."

His comment came in an Aug. 9 floor speech, moments before the Senate cast a largely partisan vote to approve a spending plan for $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus aid that left about one-fourth of the money unappropriated. The bill was also approved by the House and signed by Northam, a Democrat.

"I was not in a position where I could give this governor a $1 billion blank check," Suetterlein said in explaining why he opposed the bill.

We fact-checked whether Northam has a free hand in spending the unappropriated money and found Suetterlein’s statement is highly exaggerated.

The General Assembly left slightly more than $1.1 billion unappropriated in the current state budget, which ends June 30, 2022. They earmarked $354 million of that money for programs in the budget year that will begin next July 1.

Left over is $761 million that the bill — now law — says the governor can dig into without General Assembly approval only "to respond to a public health emergency or to prevent the emergence of a new health emergency." Northam is required to notify the chairpersons of the House and Senate budget-writing committees at least five days before taking such action.

The governor has this emergency power only until the General Assembly starts its next regular session, scheduled to begin Jan. 12, 2022. At that point, the money will be folded into a proposed state budget — for many possible uses — that would have to win legislative approval.

We asked Suetterlein why he says Northam was given a "blank check." In an emailed reply, he repeated his assertion while also acknowledging that the law limits Northam’s use of "nearly $1 billion" in the unallocated money to health emergencies.

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Suetterlein mostly expressed frustration with the legislative process in passing the law, complaining that Democrats used their control of the General Assembly and the governor’s office to block Republican influence on spending the federal aid. That complaint is widely shared by GOP lawmakers.

Suetterlein said Democrats ceded the General Assembly’s powers of appropriation to Northam. He said the action was unnecessary because the legislature could be convened on an emergency basis within 48 hours to make spending decisions in a health crisis.

Suetterlein also said it is a departure from the General Assembly’s "usual practice" to leave $1 billion unappropriated. He noted the custom in previous budgets has been to leave less than $10 million unappropriated.

Our ruling

Suetterlein said unappropriated funds in the General Assembly’s spending plan for federal coronavirus aid gave Northam "a $1 billion blank check."

The legislature left Northam with $761 million of unallocated aid and put controls on its use. By law, Northam can only reach into the money without legislative approval only "to respond to a public health emergency or to prevent the emergence of a new health emergency." He must give the chairpersons of the House and Senate budget committees five days advance notice. The governor’s special power lasts only until January, when the General Assembly starts a two-month session.

Suetterlein’s claim of a blank check is exaggerated. Northam has wide discretion in spending the money only in very specific circumstances.

We rate Suetterlein’s statement Mostly False.


Our Sources

David Suetterlein, State senate floor speech, Aug. 9, 2021. (1:25:00 mark).

Email from Suetterlein, Aug. 12, 2021.

Legislative Information System, HB7001, 2021 Special Session II.


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Did Virginia lawmakers hand Northam a $1 billion blank check?

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