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YMCA Preschoolers learn about "Dental Health" 

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Assembly OK’s a 2-Song Solution

By Cort Olsen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates joined the Senate on Tuesday in approving both “Our Great Virginia” and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as official state songs. But will Gov. Terry McAuliffe sign the legislation into law?

The House voted 81-15 in favor of a bill to designate:

  • "Our Great Virginia” as “the official traditional state song.” The song combines the melody of “Shenandoah,” a ballad from the 1800s, with words by New York lyricist Mike Greenly. This song is the preference of House Speaker Bill Howell.
  • “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as “the official popular state song.” This is an up-tempo pop tune by Richmond musicians Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett.

The measure designating the state songs is Senate Bill 1362, which was approved 37-1 by the Senate on Feb. 10. It represents a compromise: Originally, SB 1362, sponsored by Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, included only “Sweet Virginia Breeze.” But it was amended to incorporate SB 1128, which sought to designate “Our Great Virginia” as the state song.

A third song – “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” by Richmond singer-songwriter Susan Greenbaum – had been in the running. But the bill promoting that song died in the House Rules Committee two weeks ago.

Greenbaum said she is still hopeful for her song. “It isn’t over, from what I have been told,” Greenbaum said. “The governor still hasn’t signed any of the songs into law yet.”

Virginia has been without a state song since “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was retired in 1997 for its racist lyrics.

When it comes to the songs, the votes at the Capitol don’t exactly mirror the votes on social media.

On YouTube, for example, “Sweet Virginia Breeze” has been played more than 42,000 times, with about 200 likes and three dislikes. The folksy “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” has been played about 12,000 times, garnering 140 likes and five dislikes. “Our Great Virginia” also has been played about 12,000 times, with 50 likes and 21 dislikes.

About 4,800 people responded to an online poll in which Capital News Service asked, “What’s your No. 1 choice to be Virginia’s next state song?” About 56 percent preferred “Sweet Virginia Breeze”; 41 percent, “Virginia, the Home of My Heart”; and 2 percent, “Our Great Virginia.”

The remaining 1 percent of the respondents suggested other songs, like “Virginia Pride” by David Tuck, “Rolling Home to Old Virginia” by The Press Gang and even “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.

Several people who took the unscientific poll criticized “Our Great Virginia,” saying it evokes Missouri rather than Virginia. A plurality of the comments extolled “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” calling it heartfelt and dignified. Many other people said they enjoyed “Sweet Virginia Breeze” because it is upbeat and catchy.

Some respondents said Virginia voters should decide the issue. “Please put this on a ballot and let the PEOPLE NOT THE POLITICIANS decide what their state song should be. After all it’s THEIR state song isn’t it?” one person wrote.

But a few respondents supported the two-song solution. One person commented, “Why not two state songs? I vote for ‘Sweet Virginia Breeze’ for the fun one and ‘Our Great Virginia’ for the one to play at funerals.”

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Rep. Scott: Let Independent Panel Draw Districts

By Ali Mislowsky, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, says the General Assembly should take some of the politics out of redistricting by having an independent commission redraw political boundaries.

When legislators themselves do redistricting, they have a personal interest in protecting their political future and their party, Scott said. That’s why he’d prefer that redistricting be done by a bipartisan or nonpartisan panel.

“It would still be partisan, but the difference is that it’s not personal,” Scott said in an interview after speaking to political science students and faculty Monday at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“When you’re doing it in the General Assembly and the people affected are sitting right across the aisle from you or right in front of you ... interpersonal relationships start getting into it.”

The boundaries of Virginia’s only African American majority district were declared unconstitutional last year by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“The unconstitutionality was, they found that race was a prominent factor in drawing the lines,” said Scott, who has represented the 3rd District since 1993. He added that the district was challenged for violating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, “which says you can’t dilute minority representation.”

Scott’s district has been challenged for doing just that. Its shape resembles a Rorschach inkblot: The 3rd District includes Portsmouth and Petersburg and parts of Newport News, Norfolk and Richmond – all areas with large African American populations. As a result, black voters have a smaller presence and less influence in surrounding districts.

The General Assembly has been tasked with drawing new district lines. Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, plans to wait until the Supreme Court makes a decision in the case. Scott said that could take a while.

“The Supreme Court has not taken action on it because there is a similar case in Alabama,” Scott said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We just have to wait for that Alabama case.”

During this legislative session, more than a dozen measures were introduced to address the problem of “gerrymandering,” a term to describe the manipulation of district boundaries to suit partisan political interests.

Several sought to establish an independent redistricting commission, either by law or through a constitutional amendment. Other bills tried to prohibit the General Assembly from using political data or election results in redistricting.

The Senate passed three redistricting reform measures – but every attempt died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Partisanship may always be a part of the redistricting process. But an independent panel may offer a better shot than legislators at producing a fairer outcome, Scott said.

“Anybody that would be interested in it usually has some political interest,” he said. “It’s just hard to get politics out of it, but you can get the personalities out of it. And you can get kind of objective standards, which makes it a little more likely that you’re going to get a result that better reflects the community.”

The U.S. District Court has given the General Assembly until Sept. 1 to redraw the 3rd District – unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules earlier. If the Supreme Court rules before then, the deadline will be 60 days after its decision.

“It is wasteful for the General Assembly to devise a redistricting plan without the views and instructions of the Supreme Court,” the District Court said.

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McAuliffe Signs Dominion Bill into Law

By Matt Leonard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After weeks of debate, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law Tuesday a bill that will allow Dominion Virginia Power to forgo biennial base rate regulation by the State Corporation Commission while freezing electric rates for five years.

Dominion and other advocates of the legislation say it will help Virginia comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to cut carbon emissions by 2030.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored Senate Bill 1349, which was approved 32-6 by the Senate and 72-24 by the House. Wagner issued a statement thanking McAuliffe for signing the bill.

“I also encourage the governor to stand strong for Virginia and oppose any effort by the EPA to hold Virginia to a higher or different carbon dioxide emission standard than our neighboring states,” Wagner said.

He said Virginia is more severely affected by emission cuts than its neighboring states. The EPA has called on Virginia and nearby states to reduce emissions by these amounts:

  • Kentucky: 18.3 percent
  • Maryland: 36.5 percent
  • North Carolina: 39.7 percent
  • Tennessee: 38.8 percent
  • Virginia: 37.5 percent
  • West Virginia: 19.8 percent

Under SB 1349, Dominion will agree to freeze its base rates, which make up just over half of customers’ electric bills, for five years. During this period, the State Corporation Commission will not be able to conduct biennial reviews to see if the company has earned excessive profits. Past reviews have resulted in refunds to customers.

While critics say the legislation benefits the utility more than consumers, supporters say it will help keep electric rates stable during a time of uncertainty.

“This legislation will keep Virginia’s electric rates the lowest in the mid-Atlantic and among the cheapest in the nation, it will protect thousands of jobs and will provide certainty as businesses plan to locate, grow and expand in the commonwealth,” Wagner said.

He also said the bill calls for completion of a solar power facility in Virginia by 2020. McAuliffe cited that aspect of the legislation in a statement Tuesday.

“When this bill was introduced, I expressed concerns about several of its provisions. However, after working with the General Assembly to make several key changes, I have concluded that this legislation represents a net positive benefit to Virginians and to our economy,” McAuliffe said.

“This bill will make a dramatic expansion of Virginia’s renewable energy economy possible and will lead to lower energy bills for many families who may be struggling to keep up with their energy costs today.”

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Petersburg, Chesterfield Negotiate School Acquisitions

By Eric Luther and Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Petersburg City Public Schools may circumvent a state takeover, pending a Senate budget proposal aiming to provide Chesterfield County the authority to intervene and essentially manage the city’s worsening schools.

Proposed by Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, the proposal allots more than $1.6 million to Petersburg and Chesterfield over the next two years for the purpose of developing a school-services cooperative agreement and tuition contract.

The budget item is modeled after an agreement between Fairfax County Public Schools and Fairfax City, under which the schools are operated y the county but the buildings are maintained by the city.  Nicole Bell-Van Patten, a Petersburg Public Schools spokeswoman, stated in a press release that the division is aware of the budget amendment but was surprised to learn of the proposal.  “We will stay abreast of developments from the General Assembly regarding this issue,” Bell-Van Patten stated.

According to a report from the Senate subcommittee on education, funding would allow for $1 million in the first year and $600,000 in the second year to alter a per-pupil funding disparity between the two districts.  The recommendation of the Senate subcommittee states the proposal is meant to avoid routing Petersburg’s failing schools to the Opportunity Educational Institution Plan … effectively avoiding a complete state takeover to solve the schools' problems.

Petersburg schools, which receive funding from federal School Improvement Grant allocations, spent an average of $10,655 a pupil in fiscal year 2012, while Chesterfield schools spent $8,755 a student, according to a state senate report. 

Norment spokesman Jeff Ryer says the proposal is an agreement between two localities within the same region, as opposed to the state imposing some other solution.  “I would look at it as an administrative change,” Ryer said. “I think everybody is looking for some kind of solution that occurs relatively soon. Every day a child is in a failing school is a serious problem.”

Peabody Middle School and A.P. Hill Elementary were denied accreditation by the State Board of Education this academic year for poor performance. Other schools, including J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, Robert E. Lee Elementary, Walnut Hill Elementary, Vernon Johns Junior High and Petersburg High School, were allowed accreditation with a warning.

Passing rates on the English test of the Virginia Standards of Learning in Petersburg schools decreased from 77 percent in 2010-2011 school year to 52 percent in 2012 - 2013. On the mathematics test, only 50 percent of students passed this past year, and only 56 percent of students passed the writing exam.


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