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2017-1-13

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History, Heritage, and Hope

By Dr. Al Roberts

The opening of a new year provides an opportunity for self-assessment and the chance to embrace renewed hope for the months yet to come. At the same time, revealing January’s calendar page begins an annual roll call of holidays that commemorate past events, reminders of our shared history and challenges we’ve already overcome.

On the third Monday in January, which this year will fall on January 16, our nation honors Martin Luther King, Jr., a dynamic civil rights leader and advocate of nonviolent activism. Dr. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 and assassinated in April 1968.

Rosa Parks, another civil rights pioneer, was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Mrs. Parks inadvertently stepped into the national spotlight in 1955 by refusing to obey a bus driver who was enlarging the section of seats reserved for white passengers. Her refusal to move to a different seat resulted in her arrest for violating a city law that mandated the racial segregation of public buses.

These two remembrances lead into February’s observance of Black History Month, which provides an opportunity for learning more about the stories, struggles, and achievements of African American people. Other nationally recognized heritage months provide similar opportunities to learn about diverse groups that comprise our nation’s multicultural landscape. These include Women’s History Month (March), Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month (May), Hispanic Heritage Month (from mid-September to mid-October), National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October), and Native American Heritage Month (November).

Higher education is a key tool in efforts to vanquish inequalities of the past. In a recent report on diversity, the U.S. Department of Education noted, “Student body diversity in institutions of higher education is important not only for improving the economic and educational opportunities for students of color, but also for the social, academic, and societal benefits that diversity presents for all students and communities.”

Southside Virginia Community College is committed to fostering, cultivating, and sustaining a culture of diversity and inclusion. We believe our community is stronger when we welcome diverse ideas and perspectives, as well as people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. The College’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee embraces goals such as identifying practices designed to hire a diverse faculty and staff, supporting culturally expanding experiences, requesting that students with disabilities self-identify and utilize provided services, and encouraging employees to volunteer with charitable organizations that help diverse populations and people living in poverty. Student organizations include the Minority Awareness Programming Club and Make It Happen, a program that provides an institutional climate supportive to African-American male students.

Through these efforts and more, the College strives to create a welcoming, inclusive environment where all people feel respected and valued.

Dr. Al Roberts is president of Southside Virginia Community College, an institution of higher learning that provides a wide variety of education opportunities to a diverse student population within a service area that spans ten counties and the city of Emporia. He can be reached via email at al.roberts@southside.edu.

House Democrats Focus On Jobs, Wage Reform

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia House Democrats outlined their legislative agenda to raise the minimum wage, increase workforce training and protect minority rights during this General Assembly session.

The caucus, led by House Minority Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville, held a press news conference Thursday to reaffirm efforts to boost Virginia’s economy. “Our priority is to be laser-focused on creating jobs. That’s what our governor has done, that’s what we have tried to support, and that’s the positive message that Virginians want to hear,” Toscano said.

Democratic representatives took turns introducing legislation aimed to improve workforce practices.

Del. Kenneth Plum of Reston has filed House Bill 1771, which would increase the minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 to $10.10 per hour by Jan. 1, 2018.

Del. Matthew James of Portsmouth submitted HB 1592, to require community colleges to set policies that would award academic credit to students who have completed state-approved registered apprenticeship credentials.

Del. Jennifer Boysko of Herndon has filed legislation to address discriminatory pay gaps. HB 2190 would prohibit employers from inquiring about a prospective employee’s wage or salary history.

During the press news conference, House Democrats accused their Republican counterparts of focusing on “socially divisive” legislation such Del. Bob Marshall’s “bathroom bill,” which would prohibit individuals from using a bathroom of the opposite sex in government buildings.

Del. Mark Sickles of Franconia submitted two pieces of legislation to remove prohibitions on same-sex marriage which are no longer valid following the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. HJ 538 is a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the definition of marriage as “only a union between one man and one woman.” Similarly, HJ 1395 would repeal the statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriage in the state code.

Toscano presented the outlined agenda as an effort by the Democratic caucus to present “a positive approach to legislation.”

Republicans have also vowed to promote Virginia’s economic development during this legislative session, which began Wednesday. Top priorities on the Republican agenda included cutting government red tape to encourage job creation, instituting welfare reforms and funding public schools.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency Expands Bridges to Opportunity Nationwide

WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2017 — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) today announced the expansion of a unique service for farmers and ranchers. FSA’s Bridges to Opportunity program provides a one-stop-shop that connects producers with resources, programs and educational services offered across the department, as well as from other USDA partner organizations. Bridges to Opportunity, which currently provides enhanced customer support to more than 150,000 customers in 20 states, will expand to serve customers across the country before the end of the month using fiscal year 2016 funds.

“By partnering with numerous local, state, regional and national agricultural organizations, FSA employees now can provide farmers and ranchers with comprehensiveinformation aboutresources, grants, courses, events and activities provided throughout USDA and from external partner organizations,” said FSA Administrator Val Dolcini. “Bridges to Opportunity is another example of how USDA is working to reconnect people to their government and provide enhanced services to farmers and ranchers, who, in turn, provide our nation and the world with safe, affordable and reliable food, fuel and fiber.”

FSA’s presence in over 2,100 county offices, in nearly every rural county, puts the agency in a unique position to partner with non-governmental organizations to reach thousands of agricultural producers who can benefit from the programs and services.  Bridges to Opportunity allows FSA employees to search and obtain a list of all local, state, regional and national organizations that may be able assist local producers with their specific need.  For example, FSA’s Houston County office in Texas partnered with many agricultural organizations to serve producers affected by severe drought.  When drought-stricken agricultural producers came to the county office looking for assistance, FSA employees were able to provide traditional services, such as the Livestock Forage Program and the Emergency loan program administered by FSA, as well as connect local farmers with local, regional, and national organizations that provide drought assistance and education.

Bridges to Opportunitywas developed by FSA to provide producers with a more comprehensive customer service experience by connecting them with other USDA agencies and nonfederal partners. Through Bridges to Opportunity, FSA county office employees have the tools to connect farmers, ranchers and anyone interested in agriculture with customized expertise on topics ranging including organic production, beginning farmer resources, integrated pest management, disaster assistance, conservation practices, agricultural educational courses, loans, grants and other financial assistance that can start, grow or benefit farming and ranching operations.

“Bridges to Opportunity embodies FSA's modernized approach to customer service. By providing a broader array of resources than FSA or USDA alone, FSA is bringing farmers and ranchers one step closer to achieving their version of the American Dream,” said Dolcini.

For more information about Bridges to Opportunity, please contact your local FSA county office. To locate your FSA county office, please see https://offices.usda.gov.

Over the past eight years, USDA has taken big, bold steps to forge a new era for civil rights and ensure all Americans who come to USDA for help are treated fairly, with dignity and respect. Through coordinated outreach and consistent engagement, USDA is forming new partnerships in diverse communities and regaining trust where it was once lost. Learn more about our progress during the Obama Administration to increase access to opportunity for all Americans, and to create a more equal and inclusive USDA in chapter 8 of our yearlong results project: The People’s Department: A New Era for Civil Rights at USDA.

Lawmakers Start Tackling Virginia’s Opioid Crisis

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia officials are scrambling to get a grasp on the state’s growing opioid epidemic, legislators and health-care leaders said Thursday.

William A. Hazel Jr., the commonwealth’s secretary of health and human resources, gave a presentation to the Senate Education and Health Committee and the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee about the opioid problem and how lawmakers should start to solve it.

Experts – including Dr. Mishka Terplan, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of obstetrics and gynecology – joined in the presentation.

The number of deaths in Virginia caused by overdose has been on the rise. Hazel said overdose deaths in the state this year may exceed 1,000, possibly 1,100.

Hazel said 600,000 Virginians – 7 percent of the state’s population – used illicit drugs in the past month. “Of those who are addicted, 75 percent take a prescribed medicine before they’ve taken the heroin.”

Terplan proposed treatment plans for those addicted.

“Addiction is a brain-centered disease and the symptoms are behaviors, so you have to treat both,” Terplan said. “For the biological basis of treatment there’s medication, but also what’s essential is treating the behavioral component of addiction, and that’s through counseling.”

Several bills will be introduced during the 2017 General Assembly session to combat the opioid crisis. One involves community dispensing of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, and another bill would put a limit on opioids being prescribed in emergency rooms.

Del. Chris K. Peace, R-Mechanicsville, said the upcoming legislation also seeks to change criminal laws affecting the opioid epidemic.

“We’re going to be dealing with bills not only in the health care field but also in criminal justice,” Peace said. “I have legislation that tries to introduce peer recovery models into first offender programs like VASAP (Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program), and we’ve known that peer recovery programs are efficacious in aiding people who are in addiction and long-term recovery.”

Virginia legislators said they were well aware that they must take steps before the opioid crisis deepens. The joint committee meeting was just the beginning in addressing the issue.

Delegate Defends Bathroom Privacy Bill

Del. Bob Marshall speaking in support of his proposed Physical Privacy Act (Photo by Jessica Nolte)

By Tyler Hammel and Jessica Nolte, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A state lawmaker and his supporters Thursday defended legislation telling transgender individuals which bathroom they must use – a proposal that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vowed to veto.

House Bill 1612, proposed by Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, would require people in public schools and government buildings to use the restroom for the sex shown on their original birth certificate.

The bill also would require the principal of a public school to notify the parent or guardian if a child requests to be identified by the name, pronoun or treatment “inconsistent with the child’s sex.”

Marshall discussed the proposal, known as the Physical Privacy Act, at a news conference with members of the Virginia First Foundation, a citizens group that supports “limited Constitutional government supported by a strong Judeo-Christian, Conservative culture.”

“This bill ensures that parents are included when a student requests accommodations when they are gender uncertain,” Virginia First Foundation board member Travis Witt said.

He said HB 1612 would be a way to respect everyone while preserving the privacy and safety of others. “It’s time to put our children’s interest ahead of special interests.”

The issue has generated controversy in recent years. The Obama administration has told public schools to allow transgender students – who are born as one sex but identify as the other – to use the bathroom of their choice. North Carolina has faced boycotts after passing a law similar to HB 1612.

LGBT advocates say that for fairness and safety, transgender people should be allowed to use the restroom of the sex with which they identify. Opponents fear that such policies would allow men to enter the women’s restroom and could lead to sexual assaults.

At the news conference, Mary McCallister of the Liberty Counsel said the Obama administration was trying to redefine sex to include sexual orientation, sexual identity and gender expression.

Two women, Jeannie Lowder and Terry Beatley, spoke in support of Marshall’s bill.

“We can look at other options, we can work together to make this happen, but we do not need to do this at the expense of our children and those who have experienced sexual trauma,” Lowder said.

Beatley compared the movement to allow transgender individuals to use public restrooms to efforts to legalize abortion in the 1960s. She said women were lied to during the movement, which led to “a culture of 60 million dead babies.”

“This is about being fair to other people. Aren’t we tired of being such a divisive country?” Beatley said.

After the press conference, the organizers opened the floor to questions.

“Where would you like me to go to the bathroom?” Theodore Kahn, a transgender man, asked.

“Not here,” Marshall said above the uproar of the other speakers.

Kahn is no stranger to people questioning which bathroom he should use. He said it didn’t matter which bathroom he tried to use – he was still hassled.

“I’m not a thing. I’m a person, and I deserve to pee in peace,” Kahn said.

Marshall said he filed the bill because his constituents are concerned about privacy in public restrooms. “I have introduced HB 1612 to simply preserve the status quo,” he said.

Marshall’s bill faces opposition from LGBT advocates and Democratic leaders. Gov. Terry McAuliffe addressed the bill in his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday night.

He said North Carolina’s law, called HB 2, has cost that state millions in economic activity and thousands of jobs.

“North Carolina remains mired in a divisive and counterproductive battle over laws its legislature passed that target the rights of LGBT citizens. As we have seen in that state and others, attacks on equality and women’s health care rights don’t just embarrass the states that engage in them – they kill jobs,” McAuliffe said.

“I want to make it very clear that I will veto any legislation that discriminates against LGBT Virginians or undermines the constitutional health care rights of Virginia women.”

Advocates for Rape Survivors Applaud Grant

By Tyler Woodall, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Organizations that help rape survivors see benefits from Virginia receiving a $2 million federal grant to improve the commonwealth’s handling of sexual assaults.

They say the money will help the state train sexual assault investigators, test rape evidence kits and provide services to rape survivors.

“At YWCA Richmond, we acknowledge that all survivors respond differently to trauma and to news involving sexual assault. News of this continued testing may provide comfort to survivors and their families that justice will be served to the perpetrator of the assault,” Rachel Solomon, the Y’s development and relations coordinator, said Thursday.

“Many service providers, survivors and community members may also find comfort that the collection of evidence from physical evidence recovery kits could lead to the prevention of future sexual assaults by known perpetrators.”

The Virginia Department of Forensic Science and Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced Wednesday that Virginia will receive the funding from the Federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

The grant is part of an effort that started in 2015 when Virginia received $1.4 million to conduct DNA testing on a backlog of more than 2,000 untested Physical Evidence Recovery Kits. PERKs contain evidence collected from the survivors of sexual assaults.

“This new investment is going to let us take those efforts to the next level, completely eliminating Virginia’s backlog of untested kits once and for all and making needed upgrades throughout our response to sexual violence,” Herring said.

“Survivors are going to be met with a more informed and compassionate response, cases against perpetrators will be stronger, and every survivor will know that their commonwealth stands with them as they seek justice and healing from these brutal crimes.”

The funding will enable Virginia to:

  • Finish processing untested PERKs.
  • Establish a statewide tracking system that will show each step of the PERKs from collection to the test results. Victims and all those involved in the handling of the kit will be granted access to the status of the kit.
  • Hire a dedicated specialist to provide support for sexual assault survivors through the investigation. The Department of Forensic Science also would hire a project manager and a research assistant to oversee and streamline the processing of PERKs.
  • Provide specialized training for Virginia law enforcement.

The training will help officers understand how the experience impacts a victim’s memory to aid in the investigation. Officers also will receive training about preventing gender bias to make sure all survivors are treated with respect.

House Panel Shoots Down Ban on Guns in Libraries

Richmond Public Library Board Chair Gail Zwirner addresses the committee in favor of HB1418

By Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee shot down a bill Thursday to allow libraries owned or operated by local governments to ban firearms from their premises.

On a 4-1 voice vote, Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee recommended tabling HB 1418. The bill, proposed by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, sought to allow localities to adopt ordinances to prohibit the carrying firearms in public libraries.

“The (library) staff strongly feels that a library should be used as a reading circle and that schools and libraries are inappropriate places to openly carry firearms,” McQuinn said. “We know that a lot of times accidents are waiting to happen, and God forbid that happens in a public library.”

Tanya Francis, a resident of Richmond’s North Side and a Richmond Public Library board member, echoed McQuinn’s statements.

“We have to have these laws place in order to hold these people accountable if something were to happen,” Francis said. “We have a law to cover the schools, and to me, the library is an extension of the school. This law would capture that.”

Lori Haas, Virginia state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, also spoke in favor of the bill.

“Gun homicides in Richmond, Roanoke, Portsmouth, Newport News and other localities are on the rise,” Haas said. “There are certain circumstances where we need to give localities some control over innovative ways to deal with gun violence.”

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, questioned Haas’s statement. Gilbert, a member of the subcommittee, said he believes McQuinn’s bill would do little to combat gun violence, asserting that it would “not stop those bent on homicide.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, joined Gilbert in opposition.

“It is a bill in search of a problem,” Van Cleave said. “We haven’t been having problems in libraries. (The Citizens Defense League) holds meetings in libraries, and it’s always been well accommodated. It’s a public meeting place.”

He said such laws would be a step backward for the state.

“If we let localities start deciding on their own to ban guns, we’re back to the bad old days, prior to 2004, where a gun owner had to have a map of every locality to try to figure out where he could or couldn’t carry a gun,” he said.

“It’s so much better now. It’s nice and clean, and people can learn the gun laws and not worry about breaking them when they travel around the state.”

Virginia Senators Respond to Budget Vote Beginning ACA Repeal

The United States Senate has begun the process of repealing the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, that some have called Obamacare. Instead of doing this in the light of day and allowing any form of debate, the Republican led Senate has used the Budget Amendment process to stifle debate and prevent a Democratic filibuster.

Repealing the ACA with no suitable replacement would cause major job losses in every state and contract the economy to the point that, according to some economists, we could be driven back into recession. One study puts the job losses at three million and $1.5 Trillion in lost gross state product.

Virginia job losses are expected to be around 52,000. If the ACA is repealed, Virginia will likely loose $39 Billion in gross state product, $53 Billion in business output and $923 Million in state and local tax revenue. These losses will be on top of what the state has already lost in the last few years when they refused to expand Medicaid.

There is bipartisan support for slowing the repeal process down while alternate plans are developed. Currently the only replacement plan offered by the Republicans is Healthcare Savings Accounts.

Many people who have insurance through the Marketplace can only afford it with the subsidy that they receive. These subsidies have been the catalyst for job growth in the insurance and healthcare industries. Many rural hospitals have only survived because of the ACA and the expansion of Medicaid in some states.

KAINE STATEMENT ON 2017 BUDGET VOTE TO REPEAL AFFORDABLE CARE ACT

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Tim Kaine released the following statement on last night’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Resolution vote to begin a fast-track process of repealing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement:  

“Last night, Senate Republicans moved our country one step closer to health care chaos. I voted against the budget resolution because I believe it’s health care malpractice – as well as economic malpractice –  to jumpstart a legislative process that would result in hundreds of thousands of Virginia families being kicked off their insurance coverage with no plan for a replacement in sight. We should be working to fix our health care system, not break it.”

STATEMENT OF U.S. SEN. MARK R. WARNER

~ On Senate vote to proceed with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a viable replacement~

WASHINGTON—U.S. Sen Mark R. Warner (D-VA), a member of the Senate Budget Committee, issued a statement today on the 51-48 FY 2017 Budget Resolution vote by the Senate, which would begin the process of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without providing a viable replacement:

“Anybody who thinks it is a good idea to repeal the ACA without even the hint of a viable replacement plan does not understand how markets work. The uncertainty created by this flawed, political strategy will fundamentally destabilize the healthcare system. More than 20 million Americans will be left in the lurch, including nearly 700,000 Virginians. There is a smarter way to do this, and I have long advocated for targeted, commonsense improvements to the ACA that will reduce costs and ease requirements on employers. But this “show vote” to repeal it without a plan to replace it is bad for businesses, bad for Virginians, and will bring chaos to the healthcare market.”

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