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Northam puts economy, education on priority list for next year

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam said Thursday that improving the economy and education are chief among his priorities for the General Assembly next year.

In a discussion at the Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Day event, Northam detailed six areas he wants to tackle during his term. Workforce development is at the top of the list, particularly for his first year in office.

While the state economy has improved, with new jobs pushing the state unemployment rate down to 3.6 percent, rural Virginia has lagged, he said.

“If you go to the Eastern Shore where I’m from or the Southside of Virginia or the Southwest, it is not close to 3.6,” he said. “We have made improvements but we have to lift all of Virginia up.”

He wants to put all of the state’s “tools in the toolbox” into one package — the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, GoVirginia and tax credit programs, for example, he said.

Ensuring affordability with community colleges and apprenticeship programs is another priority. The job landscape has changed, and four-year college degrees are no longer the required precursor for a good job, he said.

Northam also wants to fast track his “G-3” program — to help Virginians go to school, to get a job and then to give back to communities with public service or filling vital jobs in areas with big needs.

Improving early childhood education can potentially happen through partnerships in the private sector, Northam said. That could mean creating programs through nonprofits that would be “held accountable.” Northam doesn't have an exact plan yet, except that it would be a system that would ensure public funds are being used properly when combined with private organizations, he said.

At the grade-school level, Standards of Learning tests must be revised to support “a system of accountability where we can measure children’s progress and also measure teachers’ progress,” he said.

Northam’s remaining priorities cover expanding health care access, better broadband internet connections in rural areas, embracing renewable energy, creating “responsible gun ownership” and supporting a more diverse state — an issue college students often brought up during the campaign, he said.

When asked about it, Northam said he’ll do everything to “counter or slow down” gerrymandering — making voting district boundaries more fair — but he won’t sign off on a solution that isn’t bipartisan. Later, state Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, said Northam would have allies on that in the General Assembly.

Right now, the House of Delegates is at a 51-49 Republican majority, which could change after at least two recount filings, one of them in the 94th District where Republican Del. David Yancey won by 10 votes.

“My agenda this year – and I anticipate over the next four years – will be a bipartisan effort,” Northam said.

Amin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4890 or on Twitter at @reemadamin.

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