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2019 Capital News Service

ATTN: GREENSVILLE COUNTY TAXPAYERS

Greensville County Business, Professional and Occupational Licenses for 2019 are now due.  To avoid penalties, please secure your 2019 license from the Commissioner of the Revenue’s Office on or before March 1st.  We are located in the Greensville County Government Building at 1781 Greensville County Circle, Rm 132 on Highway 301 North – Sussex Drive.  Our office hours are from 8 to 5 Monday thru Friday.


Martha S. Swenson
Master Commissioner of the Revenue
Greensville County, Virginia

Virginia Sports Betting Bills Advance

By Andrew Gionfriddo and Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The odds of Virginia legalizing professional sports betting are improving as bills to authorize sports gambling are advancing in the Virginia General Assembly.

However, legalizing online sports betting may need a little push from companies that wish to bring their business to the commonwealth.

Senate Bill 1238, which would establish the Virginia Sports Betting Department and authorize sports betting, cleared the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology on Tuesday and is now heading to the Senate Finance Committee.

Also making its way to the Finance Committee is Senate Bill 1356, which would change the name of the Virginia Lottery Board to the Virginia Lottery and Sports Wagering Commission. The department would be allowed to accept sports betting wagers.

SB 1238 would prohibit betting on youth and collegiate sports, while SB 1356 would allow betting on youth and collegiate sports outside of Virginia.

The Virginia Sports Betting Department established in SB 1238 would allow for betting entities to apply for a three-year license if a locality votes to approve gambling facilities.

The Virginia Lottery and Sports Wagering Commission of SB 1356 would operate its own facility. While SB 1356 would create an online platform operated by the Lottery, neither bill would legalize private online sports betting.

Still, the push for online sports betting remains alive and well.

Last week, sports betting websites FanDuel and DraftKings lobbied the General Assembly to legalize mobile gambling in addition to sports betting, saying the move would generate millions in tax revenue and help curb illegal gambling in Virginia. Mobile gambling is done on a cellphone, tablet or a remote device with a wireless internet connection.

Sarah Koch, director of government affairs for DraftKings, and Cory Fox, counsel for policy and government affairs for FanDuel, detailed the benefits of sports betting to the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology on Jan. 18.  

Both companies currently operate mobile and web-based fantasy sports, allowing the sites to operate legally as a game of skill, not chance. That’s an important distinction in Virginia, where there’s more flexibility built into the Code of Virginia for games of skills than games of chance. Since there are a number of facets for players to consider, such as statistics or injuries, the operators contend that fantasy sports gambling is more about finesse than luck.

If online and mobile gambling were legalized, DraftKings and FanDuel would be able to open up their sportsbook facets of their websites and apps in Virginia. Both FanDuel and DraftKings sportsbooks act as traditional Vegas style gambling entities and operate in all states where sports betting is legal.

According to Koch, legalizing mobile gambling would help curb illegal sports gambling in the commonwealth.

“Mobile betting allows for advanced age and identity verification, tracking of bet activity, and the ability to restrict or exclude bettors to a greater degree,” Koch said.

Supporters also said the state could get a financial boost if such laws are passed. Fox said Virginia could match New Jersey’s success. He said over $94 million in revenue was generated in the first six months since electronic and in-person sports betting was legalized in New Jersey.

SB 1238 states that 50 percent of the revenue would go to the locality in which it was generated, whereas in SB 1356, 95 percent of the revenue generated from sports gambling would go into the state’s general fund.

Fox said fair tax rates could also assist in the decrease of illegal betting.

“Reasonable tax rates also help attract illegal betters to legal platforms because it allows the operators access to a viable marketplace, while also providing bettors more favorable payouts, further dis-incentivizing betting on illegal platforms,” he said.

Those who oppose sports betting, such as the Family Foundation, have voiced concerns about gambling addiction and collegiate sports betting. Both SB 1238 and SB 1356 aim to mitigate fears of facilitating gambling addiction by funding programs to help compulsive gamblers.

A study was recommended to be completed prior to the passing of any gambling bills. Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne spoke about the study last week, stating it would be about the public policy and regulatory structure of such bills.

“We have significant questions to answer regarding financial impacts,” he said. The study would look into the revenue sharing between state and local governments and what social impacts legalizing such gambling could bring.

Panel OKs Rules for Using ‘Dangerous’ Room Dividers at Schools

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On an afternoon last spring, Wesley Lipicky, a third-grader at Franconia Elementary School in Fairfax County, was helping his teacher in the gymnasium when he became caught between a motorized room partition and a gym wall. The 9-year-old boy suffered traumatic head injuries and died that night.

On Monday, a legislative subcommittee unanimously approved a bill calling for additional safety measures on using mechanized room dividers in public schools in hopes of preventing similar accidents in the future.

“Children’s lives are precious, and we as a society must do everything in our power to protect them,” said Kathy Cole, who runs a business that specializes in gymnasium equipment for schools. “These tragic situations can and must be prevented.”

House Bill 1753 would require schools across the commonwealth to take precautions when using motorized room partitions. These mechanisms, also called electronic partitions or doors, are used in schools to divide rooms into smaller spaces. They are heavier and larger than garage doors and most commonly used in school gymnasiums.

Sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, HB 1753 would give public schools that use motorized room partitions one of two options:

  • Install safety sensors that automatically stop the partition if a body passes between the partition and the edge of the wall

  • Or operate the partition only when there are no students in the building

Wesley’s death prompted Sickles to sponsor the legislation.

“These dangerous dividers that are in a lot of our schools,” Sickles said, “need to have technology applied to them that will prevent this kind of thing from occurring.”

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee voted 8-0 in favor of the bill. It now goes to the full committee and then to the House of Delegates for consideration.  

Putting safety sensors on a motorized room partition could cost $3,000 to $6,000, Sickles estimated. He said such sensors would be a useful investment for partitions that must be used multiple times a day, such as in the gymnasium.

Mindful of the costs, the subcommittee suggested that schools have the option of using the partitions only when students aren’t around.

The legislation also would require annual training for school employees on operating the room dividers.

Wesley’s death on May 18 is not the sole case of a student or teacher killed by an electronic partition.

“Unfortunately, this kind of thing has happened before,” Sickles said, citing deaths in 1973, 1991 and 2001, as well as several injuries caused by partitions.

New York is the only state that requires safety devices on motorized room partitions and training for school staff to operate the doors. That state passed its law after two deaths caused by electronic partitions.

“History has taught us that these accidents happen more frequently than most people realize,” Cole said. “No parent should have to lose his or her beautiful son or daughter due to this safety error ever again.”

Northern Virginia Road Projects Get $1 Billion Investment

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia and private partner Transurban will invest over $1 billion in four transportation projects in Northern Virginia andFredericksburg, state officials announced Tuesday. The projects are designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve connectivity on Interstates 495 and 95.

“Creating opportunity for all Virginians no matter who they are or where they live depends on having a safe, reliable transportation network,” Gov. Ralph Northam said. “People need good transportation — be it road, transit or other options — to get to work and businesses need it to move goods.”

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said the projects include a two-and-a-half mile extension of the express lanes of I-495 north to the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland border. The Capital Beltway Express Lanes Northern Extensions, or Project NEXT, will require no public funding from the state, Valentine said.

She said the project will address one of the “worst bottlenecks in the region” and reduce cut-through traffic in nearby McLean neighborhoods.

Valentine, who oversees the Virginia Department of Transportation, said Project NEXT will connect Virginia to Maryland by creating direct access to the American Legion Bridge, the George Washington Parkway and the Dulles Toll Road.

Officials also announced a new auxiliary lane that would seek to reduce bottleneck traffic on the Occoquan Bridge.

“The I-95 bottleneck at the Occoquan Bridge has been a source of personal frustration and time stuck in traffic—valuable time that could be spent with family,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike of Prince William County. “With funding now in place, VDOT will begin the design and construction that our community has sought for years.”

The Occoquan Auxiliary Lane will connect the southbound Route 123 ramp onto I-95 with the westbound off-ramp of Prince William Parkway.

Also announced was the addition of a new reversible ramp that would improve access Potomac Mills and Sentara Virginia Medical Center. The ramp would connect existing I-95 express lanes directly to Opitz Boulevard where the facility is located.

Lastly, a plan was finalized to extend the I-95 express lanes in Fredericksburg — a 10-mile extension expected to increase the highway’s capacity by 66 percent during peak hours. The Fredericksburg Extension Project, or Fred Ex, was initially announced in January 2018. Construction will begin later this year and is expected to be finished by the fall of 2022.

Transurban President Jennifer Aument spoke about her company’s long history working with Virginia to solve “major transportation challenges.”

“With expanded capacity and new connections to commuter routes and commercial centers,” Aument said, “we are committed to delivering transportation solutions that keep travelers moving faster and safer throughout Northern Virginia.”

ERA Supporters to Protest Daily After Resolutions Killed in Va.

 

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND — Women’s rights advocates started a daily protest Tuesday at the Capitol, urging Republican legislators to change their minds and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Inside the Capitol, members of the group VA Ratify ERA began their protest by standing “silent sentinel.” The organizers said they will do this daily starting at 10:45 a.m.

A leader of VA Ratify ERA, Kati Hornung, said all is not lost despite resolutions to ratify the ERA having been killed.

The women’s rights advocacy group adopted Friday the plan to hold a daily protest, after the House Privileges and Elections Committee followed  the subcommittee recommendation to kill resolutions to ratify the ERA. The proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution would guarantee equal rights regardless of sex. 

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy,  D-Prince William, said Virginia must continue efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, even if that means getting new legislators in office. “If we can’t change their minds, we will change their seats,” Carroll Foy said.

Del. David E. Yancey, R-Newport News, supported the ERA in a floor meeting Monday. “Like my mother, there are so many women in my district who all want a level playing field,”  Yancey said. “It’s time we stand up and fight for all women struggling to raise a family and make ends meet.”

If Virginia becomes the 38th state to ratify, the ERA would hit the requirement of having three-quarters of states onboard, for the amendment to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Dana Hawkins, an advocate for the ERA, said that this is a cornerstone of many things.  “The message that’s sent to woman in this country that they are not worthy of the Constitution equality is awful,” Hawkins said. “Treating women fairly can solve so many of the issues we have in this country.”

Hawkins, like many others --  mostly women -- came to the Capitol Tuesday, protesting and holding signs on the stairway of the Capitol gallery. Many ERA advocacy groups stood alongside VA Ratify ERA in the protest.

Hawkins said she thinks it’s important that women equality is written into the Constitution and reflected in laws.

“This is an ongoing effort, so today is just another day in the fight,” Hawkins said. “I think everybody knows how important we feel about constitutional equality for women.”

State Lawmakers Kill Legislation to Protect Student Journalists

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A legislative panel rejected a bill protecting student journalists from administrative censorship on a tie vote Monday.

House Bill 2382, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, would have protected free speech for student journalists in public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as public institutions of higher education.

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 3-3 on the bill after hearing testimony from students and faculty advisers from high schools and colleges across the commonwealth.

Kate Carson, a former writer and editor for The Lasso, the student newspaper at George Mason High School in Falls Church, said her school’s administration censored several controversial topics the publication attempted to cover, including bathroom vandalism, absence policy abuse and a sexting scandal.

“As student journalists, we were perfectly positioned to report on these issues and separate fact from rumor,” Carson said. “Instead, The Lasso was censored when we attempted to cover the vandalism and policy abuse. We didn’t even attempt to cover the sexting scandal.”

One teacher told the panel how her students’ paper was shut down and she was removed as adviser after the students published an article about renovating the school.

“We have seen an increasing number of censorship cases in the commonwealth,” Hurst said. Hurst said the bill seeks to reapply the Tinker standard to student free speech, which was established in a 1969 Supreme Court case. This standard requires administrators to have reasons for censoring content, Hurst said.

In 1988, the Tinker standard was overruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which laid out that school administrations have the right to censor school-sponsored media if they wish.

“All this bill does is protect against what we call the ‘making-the-school-look-bad censorship,’ the image-motivated censorship,” said Frank LoMonte, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and head of the New Voice Initiative, a campaign network for anti-censorship laws. “Anything a school can stop you from saying on a T-shirt or ball cap, they can stop you from saying in a newspaper.”

Two people voiced concerns with the legislation, saying the protections should not apply to school-sponsored speech or to young student journalists.
“We’re not talking about an 18- or a 19-year-old; we’re talking about possible a 14- or 15-year-old writing a story,” said Thomas Smith with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. “There are many instances in the code where they treat college students and post-secondary students different from secondary students.”

The legislation would have protected “school-sponsored media,” which includes any material “prepared, substantially written, published or broadcast” by student journalists and is distributed or available to the student body. The bill prohibited administrative censorship or disciplinary action unless content:

  • Is libelous or slanderous material
  • Unjustifiably invades privacy
  • Violates federal or state law
  • Creates or incites students to create a clear and present danger

If HB 2382 had passed, Virginia would have been the 15th state to provide protections for high school or college journalists. Half of the states that have passed similar legislation to Hurst’s bill did so in the last four years. Five other states introduced bills in 2019 to protect student journalists.

Here is how the House Education subcommittee voted on HB 2382:

01/28/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (3-Y, 3-N)

YEAS — Davis, Tyler, Bagby — 3.

NAYS — Bell, Richard P., Helsel, Bulova — 3.

Amid Protest, Legislators Announce 5% Pay Raise for Teachers

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As hundreds of teachers and supporters from around the state marched to the Virginia Capitol to call for higher salaries and more funding for public schools, legislative leaders announced Monday that they would include a 5 percent pay raise for teachers in the state budget.

Armed with red coats, scarves and signs, participants of all ages gathered in Monroe Park for a small rally. Then they marched to the Capitol as a girl riding in the back of a small red wagon used a microphone and handheld speaker to lead their chants.

The marchers gathered on the Capitol grounds to hear community leaders protest what they see as inadequate funding for public education.

Rodney Robinson, Virginia’s Teacher of the Year, said Amazon will receive nearly $3.5 billion in public subsidies from New York, Virginia and Tennessee to locate facilities in those states. Virginia’s state government and Arlington County offered more than $570 million in direct subsidiesand about $220 million in transportation improvements to entice Amazon to put an East Coast headquarters near Reagan National Airport in Crystal City.

Robinson said the money Amazon will get could “pay for more teachers, counselors and 21st-century school buildings that are not infested with roaches, rats and mold.”

The Virginia Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, organized the “Red4Ed” rally. The VEA says Virginia ranks 34th among the states in teacher pay. The average annual teacher salary in Virginia is $51,265 — more than $9, 200 below the national average, according to the association.

According to the Richmond School Board, 1 in 5 educators must take a second job to make ends meet.

Liz Holmes, a second-grade teacher at Greenville Elementary School in Warrenton, said she has not had a raise in 11 years. Holmes came to the march to express her frustration over the lack of “fair compensation” in her workplace.

“We are losing qualified teachers every year to surrounding counties that pay higher wages,” Holmes said, holding a picture of her and her students. “Enough is enough.”

As the teachers held their demonstration, Republican lawmakers who control the House of Delegates announced that they would include a 5 percent raise for teachers in the state budget they plan to release on Sunday. Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, made the announcement in a speech on the House floor.

“Virginia has some of the finest teachers in the country and that has led to Virginia students consistently outperforming nationwide peers on standardized tests, college admissions, and graduate rates,” said Landes, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “To maintain that success we must ensure our teachers are fairly compensated and know the hard work they do each and every day is greatly appreciated.”

The committee’s chairman, Republican Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk, said the proposed budget would increase teachers’ salaries without raising taxes. “Under conservative leadership in the House of Delegates, this will be the fourth teacher pay raise in the last six years,” he said.

“I am proud of Chairman Jones and Vice Chairman Landes for the hard work and dedication they have shown to ensuring our teachers know how much they are appreciated in the Commonwealth,” said House Speaker Kirk Cox, a retired high school government teacher.

“As a public school teacher for 30 years, I know how hard teachers work to educate Virginia’s future leaders. We must make it a priority to keep great teachers in the classroom and that starts with making sure our teachers a fairly compensated.”

Democrats are already on board with the 5 percent pay raise for teachers. In the two-year budget adopted by the General Assembly in 2018, teachers were scheduled to receive a 3 percent salary increase on July 1. In his proposed revision of the budget, Gov. Ralph Northam recommended awarding teachers an additional 2 percent raise.

Northam, a Democrat, reiterated that proposal at a meeting of the Virginia School Board Association last week, calling it “the largest one-time pay raise for teachers in over 15 years.”

But Virginia teachers say that their salaries are more than 10 percent below the national average — and that the planned raise does not close the gap.

“It’s a start,” Holmes said. “But it’s not enough.”

Senate OKs Bill to Boost IT Jobs in Southwest Virginia

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- More information technology jobs could come to rural Virginia under a bill unanimously passed by the state Senate on Monday.

SB 1495 is a Republican effort that would provide $600,000 beginning in 2020 to establish an apprenticeship program for small technology businesses in rural southwest Virginia.

The program would provide IT workers on-the-job, mentored training at a company with guaranteed job placement at the end of the 18-month apprenticeship.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County, said the program aims to provide IT job opportunities in rural southwest Virginia.

The bill would target the counties of Alleghany, Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe and the cities of Bristol, Danville, Galax, Martinsville and Norton.

“If you look at southwest Virginia, they have great institutions of higher education training our young people in information technology,” Chase said, “but it’s really hard for them to find meaningful employment after they graduate.”

According to Chase, the region’s young IT workers are currently drawn to areas of the commonwealth with more job opportunities, especially northern Virginia.

The apprenticeship program, Chase said, would provide an incentive for them to “stay in the community they grew up in instead of leaving southwest Virginia to move to another place where they can actually find work.”

The bill would create a fund in the state treasury to award grants to small, rural information technology businesses to employ IT workers in the region.

The General Assembly would provide $600,000 to the program starting in 2020.

Businesses that receive a grant from the program would be eligible for funding for up to five years or until the business employs 100 individuals. The amount of money given to a business to employ an apprentice wouldn’t exceed the entry-level salary of an IT worker.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County, said that the program would be housed at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia, and coordinated with area community colleges.

David Matlock, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, was optimistic that the program would help meet the employment needs in the region.

“Southwest Virginia is always looking for ways to enhance our workforce,” Matlock said. “We want to keep our graduates here, and we want to help these new businesses and attract more businesses like them.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

Panel Kills Ban on Gender-Based Pricing at Dry Cleaners

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Kinsey Liebsch asked state legislators a question often raised by women who take their clothes to a dry cleaner or laundry service.

“Given that a woman’s long sleeve blouse isn’t much different from a man’s shirt, why am I being charged more than two and half times the amount just because the buttons are on the opposite side?” she asked a legislative subcommittee. Liebsch said dry-cleaning and laundry services can charge more to clean women’s clothing than comparable men’s clothing.

Liebsch initially took her concerns to her local legislator — Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. Then Levine filed a bill to ban gender-based price discrimination by apparel-cleaning services.

“Every woman I’ve talked to about this bill has said it was necessary,” Levine said. “Every man I’ve talked to about it didn’t realize it was an issue. And to be fair, I didn’t realize it was an issue until Kinsey brought it to me.”

But last week, Levine’s legislation was hung out to dry: Subcommittee No. 2 of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted unanimously to table HB 2423.

Liebsch and two other women testified before the subcommittee in support of the bill.

One of the women was Dr. Elizabeth Hendricks, an Alabama native who moved to Virginia two years ago. She recalled her experience getting a dress-suit cleaned at an Alexandria dry cleaner.

Hendricks described the article of clothing as a “dress and jacket that matched as a suit.” The price listed for a suit cleaning was $13.50, but Hendricks was charged $22 because her dress was not considered “short.”

“Slacks and a suit are not short either,” said Hendricks, who stands 5 feet, 2 inches tall.

HB 2423 would have ensured that prices for cleaning services for similar items do not vary because of a person’s gender. The bill said price differences are acceptable if one item takes longer to clean or poses more difficulty than another.

“Everyone understands that a wedding dress is going to cost more to clean than a groom’s tux,” Levine said.

The Virginia Retail Federation opposed the bill and said apparel-cleaning services do not base their prices on a customer’s gender.

“They base their pricing on material,” said Kate Baker, the federation’s director of government affairs. “Our members feel like they should be able to determine their own prices.”

The all-male subcommittee voted 6-0 to kill Levine’s bill. It happened the day after a proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment died in the House of Delegates. Levine said his bill was “just one tiny example of why we need the ERA.”

National Film Festival Makes Stop in Richmond

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Richmonders piled into the Science Museum of Virginia Thursday evening for a night of films hosted by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and emceed by Richmond City Councilman Parker Agelasto.

Over 200 people attended the “Wild & Scenic Film Festival,” an event launched 17 years ago by California-based environmental activists working to protect the South Yuba River. Closer to home, the alliance is a regional nonprofit organization that focuses on streams and rivers in Virginia, while working cooperatively with regional partners to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The 13 short films were screened simultaneously where other alliance offices are located: Annapolis, Md.; Lancaster, Pa; and District of Columbia.

“So it’s not just a Richmond Wild & Scenic — it’s the Chesapeake Bay Wild & Scenic. And we just thought that that was such a great way to engage the public more and our mission to restore the rivers and streams that float in the bay,” said Nissa Dean, the director of the alliance’s Virginia office.

In 1983, grassroots environmental activists in Nevada City, California, formed the South Yuba River Citizens League to protect the river from dams. The “Wild & Scenic Film Festival” starts each year with a five-day flagship event in Nevada City before spreading out to various cities; it’s how the citizens league hopes to “inspire activism across the globe.”

It’s the largest environmental film festival in North America, according to organizers.

Each of the short films screened focused on different areas of conservation, though a common theme throughout was the need to protect land across the Earth for future generations.

“The Salmon Will Run” showed the Winnemem Wintu tribe and their journey to bring salmon back to Winnemem’s ancestral watershed — which is currently being blocked by the 70-year-old Shasta Dam.

Another film, “The Nature of Maps,” took viewers through the Chilean mountains of Parque Patagonia where two modern-day pioneers roamed and mapped the entire park — which eventually led the park to open as a public domain.

Tickets to see the films projected onto the massive Dome screen sold for $30 and included a drink ticket. Vendors filled the lobby, and raffle tickets were available for purchase. Every raffle ticket bought went directly to the alliance and its efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“I would say in terms of an event like this, it’s more socially focused rather than restoration focused,” Dean said.

Councilman Agelasto urged the audience to do their part in conserving the planet.

“We need to be doers for our future,” Agelasto said.

He said Richmond was the first locality in Virginia to develop a single permit system, meaning residents can obtain a storm-water permit, wastewater permit and drinking-water permit under one application.

“It’s a big accomplishment to get that, and it’s largely due to the collaborative work with nonprofits like the alliance,” Agelasto said.

The alliance announced its recent partnership with Richmond and RVA H2O, an initiative of the city’s Department of Public Utilities. The alliance received a $1 million grant to develop a Green Infrastructure Master Plan with the focus of reducing stormwater pollution into the James River. The project will last three years, according to Dean.

“We all live on this enormous planet, but we’re individuals and even the smallest hands can contribute to the future of our Earth,” Agelasto said.

Virginia Legislators Consider Letting Governors Seek Re-election

 

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia is the only state where a governor cannot serve two consecutive terms. But if voters think their governor is doing a good job, why shouldn’t he or she be re-elected?

Democrats, who have won the past two gubernatorial elections, generally support allowing governors to succeed themselves. Republicans generally oppose it. Political experts say Virginia’s one-term policy for governors is rooted in history.

Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, called the policy, which is enshrined in the Virginia Constitution, a “detriment to the commonwealth.” She is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 608, which would let governors elected after 2021 serve two terms in a row.

“Now is the time we should look to pass a constitutional amendment for consecutive but limited governor terms,” she said.

Last week, the Senate defeated an identical amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 250, on an 18-22 vote. Fifteen Democrats and three Republicans voted for the measure, and 18 Republicans and four Democrats voted against it.

On Monday, Adams’ resolution is scheduled for a vote by a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. The panel also plans to consider HJ 627, an identical proposal by Del. Mark Levine, D-Arlington.

Similar resolutions have been introduced since 2013 in the General Assembly but have never made it out of committee — which is why supporters were happy that SJ 250 even made it to the Senate floor. They say limiting the governor to one term doesn’t make sense given that Virginia operates on a two-year state budget.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, a Republican from James City County, voted against the amendment. In urging his colleagues to do the same, he mentioned two past governors — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Jim Gilmore — whom he wouldn’t have wanted in office for more than four years.

“I would very succinctly and ecumenically say two words: Gilmore and McAuliffe,” Norment said, drawing laughter from some fellow legislators.

Norment said the term restriction balances the governor’s executive power to amend and veto bills, appoint officials and order a special legislative session.

Supporters of amending the constitution compare term limits on the governor to a business that gets a new boss every four years.

“What real challenge can any company overcome when its leader is but a blip on the trajectory of an employee’s career?” Adams asked.

Under Virginia’s biennial budget system, each new governor begins under the predecessor’s budget. The governor must wait until the second legislative session before proposing a budget that covers the second and third years in office. In the fourth year, the governor submits a plan for another two-year budget that a successor might or might not endorse but has little power to change.

Adams said the lack of continuity in leadership has led to “inefficiency, waste, duplication of services, low morale and low productivity.”

Opponents of changing the constitution note that while governors cannot seek re-election, they can still serve nonconsecutive terms. However, only one governor has done that since the Civil War. Mills Godwin Jr. was elected as a Democrat in 1965 and again as a Republican in 1973.

Virginia’s prohibition on governors serving consecutive terms has survived more than 160 years. Virginians did not directly elect their governor until 1851, according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia. Before that, the state constitution held the General Assembly responsible for choosing a governor.

Virginia’s anxiety over a powerful executive branch has roots in the American Revolution. The first Constitution of Virginia was enacted in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence. After declaring war on one king, Virginia was not eager to create another in the form of a powerful governor.

Matt Pinsker, a professor of constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University, said it all comes down to “tradition.” He said that although Virginia’s current system is “a unique anomaly among the states,” he believes it provides a well-functioning government.

Pinsker said that even if the amendment passes, it would likely make little difference in the day-to-day operations of Virginia government or the policies being pushed by the governor’s office.

That is because Virginia’s governors have typically used the position as a stepping stone for higher office, Pinsker said. Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — first served as governors.

“Our historical ties do have an impact,” said Robyn Diehl McDougle, director of the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

McDougle said the General Assembly is reluctant to give up power to the executive branch, especially when partisan politics come into play.

“If I’m in the party opposite of who’s in the Governor’s Mansion, I’m less likely to vote for the possibility of their re-election,” she said.

Republicans control both the House and Senate, and Gov. Ralph Northam is a Democrat. Of the dozen legislators sponsoring HJ 608 and HJ 672, just one is a Republican: Del. Mark L. Cole of Fredericksburg. That could spell trouble for those measures to make it out of committee.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible,” McDougle said, “but I am saying it is an uphill battle.”

Panel OKs Bill Seeking Data on Solitary Confinement

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House committee voted unanimously Friday to require reports on solitary confinement in prisons across Virginia.

House Bill 1642 would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to submit semiannual reports to the General Assembly and governor detailing the DOC’s use of solitary confinement.

The House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety approved the bill, 21-0. The panel sent the measure to the House Appropriation Committee for a look at its financial impact before it goes to the House floor.

Also referred to as “restrictive housing,” solitary confinement is defined as isolation in a cell for 22-24 hours of the day with little to no human interaction. The DOC does not currently report statistics on the number of inmates held in restrictive housing.

Sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, the legislation would provide the state legislature and governor statistics on the department’s use of restrictive housing in correctional facilities. The information would also be posted online.

The semiannual report would include:

  • Demographics such as age, race, ethnicity and status of mental health
  • The average daily population held in restrictive housing
  • The number of offenders placed in and released from restrictive housing
  • Documentation of self-harm and suicide incidents or attempts
  • The number of days each offender spent in confinement
  • The number of full-time mental health staff

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia called on Gov. Ralph Northam in May to ban solitary confinement and limit its use to rare and exceptional cases. The ACLU said inmates should remain in restrictive housing for no more than 15 consecutive days, which aligns with international human rights standards. Currently, Virginia inmates placed in restrictive housing spend an average of 2.7 years in confinement, according to a 2018 ACLU report.

Nationally, about 88,000 inmates — or approximately 5 percent of all prisoners — are held in solitary confinement, according to a study done at Yale Law School.

Virginia has implemented reforms for restrictive housing before. The number of inmates held in solitary confinement at Red Onion — a maximum-security prison in Wise County — dropped 85 percent in the last decade. The facility, known for its use of restrictive housing, currently houses about 70 inmates in solitary confinement compared to 500 at the start of the decade, according to a Washington Post article.

The House Appropriations Committee could address HB 1642 as soon as Monday.

In the Senate, two Fairfax Democrats have offered similar legislation. Sen. David Marsden has proposed SB 1085, and Sen. Richard Saslaw has filed SB 1777.

On Friday, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee folded Marsden’s bill into Saslaw’s and then unanimously approved SB 1077.

Panel Wants Prisons to Modify Tampon Ban

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia Department of Corrections would have to modify its official but unenforced policy of barring women from wearing feminine hygiene products when they visit a state prison, under a bill approved Friday by a House committee.

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 19-1 in favor of House Bill 1884 and sent the legislation to the full House of Delegates for approval next week.

HB 1884 would require the DOC to modify the policy it announced in September for visitors wearing menstrual cups and tampons.

The rule banned the feminine products in an attempt to prevent people from smuggling contraband into facilities.

“If someone chooses to visit a Virginia Department of Corrections inmate, he or she cannot have anything hidden inside a body cavity,” a DOC spokeswoman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time. “There have been many instances in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina.”

Soon after the announcement, Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, suspended the policy until further review.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, would require the DOC to rewrite the restrictions. As amended by the committee, the measure would require the DOC to:

  • Notify visitors about the policy prohibiting menstrual cups and tampons ahead of their visit.
  • Provide visitors the option of removing any prohibited menstrual product and replacing it with a state-issued one in order to have a contact visit with an inmate.
  • Allow visitors who do not want to remove prohibited menstrual products the option of a no-contact visit with an inmate.

Virginia Redistricting Amendment Advances to the Senate

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A constitutional amendment aiming to create an independent redistricting commission in Virginia has reached the Senate floor and may come up for a vote next week.

Under the amendment, an independent commission — instead of legislators — would redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Senate and House of Delegates in 2021 after the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population and demographic data.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, who is sponsoring the amendment, said SJ 306 would reduce the influence that politicians have in the redistricting process and would limit their ability to draw racially and politically gerrymandered districts.

“It doesn’t give the legislature the type of control in the process that it has now and that it’s had for many years,” Barker said.

During the 2011 redistricting process, the General Assembly redrew several districts in the House of Delegates and U.S. House of Representatives that have since been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court because they diluted the voting power of African-American voters. Those racially gerrymandered districts had to be redrawn by a court-appointed expert.

Barker said Virginia needs an independent redistricting commission to ensure that this won’t happen again.

“I think that’s critical for making us the most effective General Assembly that we can be,” Barker said.

The 16-member commission would consist of eight legislative members and eight citizen members.

Of the eight legislative members, four would come from the Senate, and four would come from the House, with equal representation given to each political party.

The eight citizen members would be chosen this way: First, a committee of five retired judges of the circuit courts of Virginia would nominate 16 people — four Democrats, four Republicans and eight independent voters. Then, House and Senate leaders would pick eight names from the list to be on the commission — two Democrats, two Republicans and four independents.

Any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizen members. The plan would then be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The General Assembly would not be able to make any amendments to the plan.

The commission would be required to submit its plans for the Senate and House of Delegates districts within 45 days of the release of census data and plans for the U.S. House of Representatives within 60 days.

If the commission fails to submit a plan by its deadline, the General Assembly fails to adopt a plan by its deadline or the governor vetoes a plan, districts would be decided by the courts.

“We think this a fair and balanced approach,” Barker said. “We think it provides a lot of protections, and there are a lot of checks and balances in there to get to the best decision for the commonwealth.”

Barker’s proposal faces a long road to be added to the Virginia Constitution. Constitutional amendments must pass in two legislative sessionsand then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

A similar amendment, SJ 274, was killed in committee earlier this week. That amendment also would have created an independent redistricting commission, but the makeup of the commission differed slightly from Barker’s amendment.

SJ 274, proposed by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta and Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, would have required a 10-member commission of citizens to establish legislative and congressional districts following a 2020 census. No legislators would serve on the commission.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 9-5 to kill the proposal.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they support redistricting reforms, and an advocacy group called One Virginia 2021 has pushed for a nonpartisan approach to redistricting.

Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, said it was disappointing that SJ 274 wouldn’t move forward, but he was excited that Barker’s amendment had made it to the Senate.

“If passed, this amendment could significantly change the way districts are drawn in Virginia,” Cannon said.

In a speech Thursday at the University of Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe called gerrymandered congressional districts one of the “worst things to happen to democracy.”

“I support all 50 states having independent, nonpartisan commissions draw these lines,” McAuliffe said.

Senate Panel Rejects Ban on Offshore Oil Drilling

By Serena Fischer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bipartisan bill to ban oil drilling off Virginia’s coast was shot down on a 9-6 vote in a Senate committee Thursday.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources killed SB 1573, which sought to prohibit permits for oil and gas exploration or drilling “in the beds of any waters of the Commonwealth.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, also would have repealed a section of the Code of Virginia that supports federal efforts for natural gas exploration up to 50 miles offshore. Current law allows for the authorization of oil and gas leases on state-owned bottomlands (subaqueous lands within three miles of the shore).

“We rely on having clean beaches,” DeSteph said.

The bill was co-sponsored by two Democrats — Sens. Monty Mason of Williamsburg and Lionell Spruill Sr. of Chesapeake.

DeSteph and several speakers, including small-business owners and environmental lobbyists, said offshore drilling impacts more than just Virginia’s wildlife. They said Virginia Beach’s two biggest industries, tourism and the military, could be threatened by pollution and unsightly oil rigs.

Virginia Beach hotel owner Diana Burke said offshore drilling could hurt her business.

Groups such as the Virginia Petroleum Council and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce voiced opposition to DeSteph’s bill.

A spokesperson for the petroleum group called the legislation “premature” and suggested that state officials “wait until more information can be gathered.”

Governor Calls Bipartisan Effort to Clean Coal Ash ‘Historic’

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginians could see an additional $5 charge on their power bills after Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox and a bipartisan group of legislators announced an agreement Thursday to clean up large ponds of toxic coal ash throughout the state.

The $3 billion plan is to remove coal ash -- the residue from power plants -- from sites near Virginia’s waterways within 15 years. Democratic Sens. Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Amanda Chase of Chesterfield began the team effort to address the problem three years ago. Chase, Surovell and Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, are sponsoring legislation to close the coal ash sites, clean them up and prohibit further construction.

Surovell’s Senate Bill 1533 specifically targets the ponds in Prince William, Chesterfield  Fluvanna counties and the city of Chesapeake. Dominion Energy, which operated the coal-fired power plants responsible for the ash, would pass along the cost of the cleanup to customers. The company would be required to use local labor and resources when practical to remove the material.

Chase has filed two bills -- SB 1009 and SB 1743 -- prohibiting coal ash ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and requiring the closure of existing ponds. She said she is excited to work with her colleagues to solve this problem.

“Clean water is a bipartisan issue,” Chase said. “If you think of the cost of cancer and compare it to $5 a month, that's nothing.”

If the legislation becomes law, that amount would begin appearing on Dominion customers’ bills starting in 2021.

Virginia has been storing coal ash in ponds since the 1930s. Dominion Energy’s website states that it has 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills totaling about 27 million cubic yards of coal ash statewide. The plan requires the power company to recycle a minimum of 7 million tons by the 15-year mark.

In a statement, Dominion Energy representative Dan Genest said the company “supports the comprehensive agreement reached by the Governor, legislative leaders, and members of the General Assembly that accomplishes clean closure, minimizes truck traffic, and prudently manages customer costs for the closing of ash ponds at our power stations.”

Northam described the bipartisan agreement as historic and said the plan is a breakthrough in protecting the people and environment of Virginia.

“Our effort will ensure we are disposing of coal ash in the safest, most environmentally responsible way. As they exist now, we run the risk that they could contaminate the drinking water supply, our tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay,” the governor said. “I think the environmental impact far outweighs those costs.”

Northam said 25 percent of the coal ash must be recycled into concrete, asphalt or other construction materials. Coal ash that isn’t recycled would be moved to landfills certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or into modern pits at the site of power plants whose lining will prevent contamination.

Democratic Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy lives near the Possum Point Power Station, which has four coal ash ponds, in Prince William County. She said she commends her colleagues, constituents and the power company for compromising on a solution.

“Coal ash is something that's very personal to me, having Dominion’s coal ash pond in my backyard,” Foy said. “Arsenic, lead and mercury needed to be removed from the community so it would not disturb and have poison in our playgrounds and lead in our water.”

The bills addressing the issue have been referred to the Coal Ash Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor.

New Redistricting Maps Favor Democrats

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Democrats could have a better shot picking up seats in this year’s legislative elections under a redistricting map that a U.S. District Court has selected for the Virginia House of Delegates.

If enacted, the new map would place at least five Republican delegates in districts where a majority of voters chose Democrat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election — including the 66th House District represented by Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.

Democratic districts affected by the maps appear less likely to change hands based on those election results.

In a statement issued shortly after the court’s decision, Cox said that the maps chosen by the court aimed to give Democrats an advantage.

“The [maps] selected by the Court target senior Republicans, myself included, without a substantive basis in the law,” Cox said.

In 2012, 37 percent of voters in Cox’s district voted for Obama. Under the new map, that number is much higher — 53 percent.

The new maps would affect a total of 25 districts primarily in the eastern part of the state between Richmond and Hampton Roads and could present favorable conditions for Democrats to gain control of the House in 2019.

Currently, Republicans hold a slim majority in the House, 51-48. All 100 seats are on the ballot in this year’s election.

Democrats have not had a majority in the House since 1998.

Under the new map, the 94th House District, a majority-blue district represented by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, would become even more Democratic. The 2017 election between Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds ended in a tie, and Yancy was awarded the seat after his name was drawn from a bowl.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would also see his district become more Democratic. In 2012, 44 percent of the voters in Jones’ 76th House District voted for Obama. That number is 58 percent under the proposed redistricting map.

The U.S. District Court’s decision is the latest in a years-long redistricting case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. The high court ruled that 11 districts in Virginia had been racially gerrymandered by the 2011 General Assembly to dilute the voting power of African-American voters.

The court has asked the “special master” appointed to oversee the redistricting process to integrate the new districts into the statewide map and to submit the final plan by next Tuesday.

Republicans have appealed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and asked the court to delay the redrawing until it hears their appeal later this spring. The Supreme Court denied that request, giving the U.S. District Court the green light to complete the redistricting process before this year’s election.

On Wednesday, the Virginia NAACP issued a statement in support of the maps selected by the court.

“While we think the court could have done more to fully remedy the effects of the 2011 unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, we are overall pleased that voters will have fairer maps when they vote later this year,” NAACP spokesman Jesse Frierson said.

“We are pleased that the court sees the need to incorporate another district where voters of color will be able to elect a candidate of their choice.”

The District Court’s map selection will impact only the 2019 election. District lines will be redrawn statewide after the U.S. Census Bureau releases new demographic data in 2020.

Instead of Cooking Up Laws, Politicians Enjoy Stew

Capital News Service Reporter Arianna Coghill struggles to stir 85 gallon pot of stew.

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. --  The rich aromas of Brunswick’s famous stew pour from the tent, tempting passing legislators to poke their heads inside Wednesday, eager for Stew Day to begin. But they’re shooed away like children peeking under the tree on Christmas Eve.

When Stew Day begins, it’s a hustle of activity. Long lines of clerks and lawmakers stretch and wrap around corners. Legislative pages -- the smartly dressed boys and girls who run errands for members of the General Assembly -- scurry out of the tent to deliver containers of stew to legislators who couldn’t make it but desire a little taste of Brunswick.

Usually, politicians are hungry for change, but today, they’re hungry for stew.

Besides legislators, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring dropped by, happily cradling their own steaming cups of stew. Even Gov. Ralph Northam took a turn stirring the pot.

“It’s a great tradition. Wonderful people,” Fairfax said. “We’re huge fans of not only the stew but the people of Brunswick.”

Brunswick Stew -- named for Brunswick County, along Virginia’s border with North Carolina -- traces its origin to a hunting party in 1828. In 2002, the General Assembly passed a resolution officially designating the fourth Wednesday of each January as Brunswick Stew Day. The resolution called the stew a "gastronomic miracle" and "celestial sustenance.”

“Brunswick stew is a big thing in the rural areas,” Del. Thomas Wright, who introduced the legislation back in 2002, said, “It was something that I thought deserved recognition.”

Most of the people in the tent where the stew was being served Wednesday could recite the dish’s history.

 

Inside the tent, four burly men stood around an elevated, 85-gallon cauldron overflowing with a hearty stew so thick that the paddle used to stir it sticks straight up at attention. The men pushed that paddle around as if it were second nature. And to most of them, it was.

It took five cooks to make the stew, starting at midnight. They cooked all the way through the morning until 8:30 a.m. At the helm of it all was Tracy Clary, the stewmaster.

Clary was the 2017 winner of the Brunswick Stew Cook-Off, a competition ordinarily held each October to determine which recipe of Brunswick stew would reign supreme. The winner is crowned “Stewmaster” and provides the stew for Brunswick Stew Day at the Virginia Capitol in January.

Unfortunately, last October’s cook-off was canceled due to inclement weather. But luckily, Clary was there to step in.  

Making stew has been in Clary’s family for generations. He had started making soup as a teenager with his grandmother, who was steadfast in her recipe that she kept on a 3-by-5 index card. As he has grown older, Clary has confessed to tweaking her recipe just a bit to suit his own tastes.

Now he cooks for his community, making about 600-800 quarts at a time.  “We make money for a lot of civic organizations. I cook for churches, individuals. We raise a lot of money,” Clary said.

He hopes his 12-year-old grandson will carry on the tradition.

“We have to keep the tradition alive. Twenty-five years from now, no one’s going to know how to cook Brunswick stew,” Clary said, his eyes beginning to tear up. “And that’s bad.”

Young Republicans National Federation Chooses Virginia for National Meeting

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Young Republicans National Federation’s national meeting will be held April 5-7 in Richmond -- the first time the group will gather in Virginia.

“In the YRNF’s 88-year history, Virginia has never before hosted, and it is fitting that this first-ever national meeting will take place in 2019, concurrent with the critical Virginia legislative elections,” said Jason Emert, the federation chairman.

All seats in the Virginia General Assembly are up for election Nov. 5. Republicans have a 51-49 majority in the House and 21-19 edge in the Senate.

“Our mission as an organization is to recruit, train and elect Republicans. To serve that mission, we have to go where we will make the biggest difference,” Emert said. “There is no state where we can make a bigger difference this year than in Virginia. We are committed to working with Republicans in Virginia to win elections across the state.”

About 400 young Republicans between the ages of 18 and 40 are expected to attend the April meeting.

The organization will showcase local and regional culture, as well specific events that signify the beginning of the 2019 election cycle, including meet and greet events with elected officials and a joint luncheon with the Young Republican Federation of Virginia.

Panel OKs Qualifying Drug Offenders for Food Stamps

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A legislative subcommittee voted 6-4 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would make food stamps available to people convicted of drug-related felonies.

The panel recommended that the full House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee approve House Bill 1891, which would expand eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, to any drug offender.

“We are a nation of second chances,” said Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored the bill. “This is an issue we need to think about … repealing the lifetime ban on food stamps.”

Under current law, only people who are convicted of drug possession felonies can be eligible for food stamps and temporary assistance, if they comply with the court and complete a substance abuse treatment program.

James said the legislation serves as a “safety net for felons who have done their time, paid their prices.”

In 2018, more than 4,000 SNAP applicants were denied food stamps because of drug-related charges, according to the bill’s impact statement. If passed, HB 1891 would provide SNAP to more than 600 new Virginians who do not reside in SNAP homes and are not currently eligible for SNAP because of drug-related crimes.

Eighteen states have dropped the restrictions prohibiting drug offenders from receiving SNAP, and 26 states — including Virginia — have reduced prohibitions by offering benefits if specific requirements are met. Virginia requires compliance with criminal court and Department of Social Services obligations, and the completion or active engagement in a substance abuse treatment program. Only three states implement a full lifetime ban on SNAP for drug offenders, James said.

“I could have a felony as serious as homicide and be eligible for SNAP benefits,” said Pamela Little-Hill, director of social services for the city of Portsmouth. “There is something incredibly wrong with that.”

James’ proposal would modify Virginia law to include any drug-related felonies, not just those related to possession. It also sought to remove the additional requirements for drug offenders to meet — court compliance and drug rehabilitation — in order to be eligible. But the subcommittee amended the bill to keep the requirements.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, sponsored legislation similar to James’ food stamp bill. HB 2397 would prohibit denying Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, to individuals who have been convicted for drug-related felonies as well. The subcommittee voted 4-5 to reject Lopez’s legislation.

“Parents re-entering their communities after incarceration routinely require public benefits to reunite their families, pay rents and buy food, clothing and other necessities,” Lopez said. “Denying access to such families as they attempt to rebuild their lives is counterproductive. Family members who are innocent of any wrongdoing are being punished for the crime of a parent.”

TANF is a federal welfare program that provides monthly cash assistance to families to help meet basic needs. Lopez’s TANF bill would assist more than 100 families across the commonwealth, he said, and provide approximately $79 a month to each household.

“Through this process, we’re going to be helping families, helping stabilize communities,” Lopez said.

Both HB 1891 and 2397 focus on re-incorporating drug offenders into society and reducing recidivism, or offenders relapsing into a continuous cycle of crime.

“These bills seek successful re-entry,” said Salaam Bhatti, attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “Studies show that 91 percent of people who are leaving prison don’t have access to food. This will help. Eligibility for these programs significantly decreases recidivism.”

The House Health, Welfare and Institutions committee might consider HB 1891 when it meets Thursday.

How they voted

Here is how the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted on HB 1891 (Food stamps; eligibility, drug-related felonies.)

01/22/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (6-Y, 4-N)

YEAS — Stolle, Edmunds, Hope, Aird, Rasoul, Rodman — 6.

NAYS — Bell, Robert B., Pogge, Hodges, Head — 4.

Here is how the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted on HB 2397 (TANF; eligibility, drug-related felonies.)

01/22/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (4-Y, 6-N)

YEAS — Hope, Aird, Rasoul, Rodman — 4.

NAYS — Bell, Robert B., Pogge, Stolle, Hodges, Edmunds, Head — 6.

Panel OKs Bill to Move Virginia Away From Fossil Fuels

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On a split vote, a legislative committee has approved a bill to halt the construction of power plants that use fossil fuels and pipelines that carry such fuels after 2020 and to develop a plan for Virginia to rely totally on renewable energy for generating electricity by 2036.

The House Commerce and Labor Committee voted 9-7 on Wednesday in favor of HB 1635, which would place a moratorium effective Jan. 1, 2021, on issuing permits for electrical generating facilities that use fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. The moratorium also would apply to pipelines, refineries and other facilities associated with fossil fuels.

Moreover, the bill mandates that beginning in 2036, all electricity sold by public utilities in the state must be generated from clean energy resources.

“It challenges Virginia to come up with an aggressive 100 percent renewables plan in the next 15 years,” said the measure’s sponsor, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. “We clearly have heeded the warning that we are in an environmental crisis that could lead to an economic crisis.”

There are more than 97,000 jobs in the solar, wind and other renewable-energy industries in Virginia, Rasoul said. He said the bill would create more jobs and boost the economy, especially in impoverished areas, while helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.

But the bill’s opponents argue that the timetable to switch electricity production from fossil fuels to renewable energy is too short.

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, said that he supports renewable energy but that the plan would have negative consequences on the state.

“People are reading too much into the tea leaves,” Wilt said. “Moving from A to Q in a short amount of time could be devastating.”

Rasoul’s bill initially called for imposing a moratorium on the construction of fossil-fuel power plants, pipelines and other facilities on Jan. 1, 2020. The House Commerce and Labor Committee changed the date to 2021 before voting on the legislation.

Republican Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax joined eight Democrats on the committee in voting for the bill. Five Republicans and two Democrats voted against the measure. Six committee members — all Republicans — did not vote.

In an interview Wednesday, Rasoul acknowledged that it would be difficult for the bill to pass the full House of Delegates. But he said that he is glad people are talking about moving away from fossil fuels — and that he is hopeful for his proposal in the long term.

“It is time for Virginia to be bold if we want to move in the right direction,” Rasoul said.

How they voted

Here is how the House Commerce and Labor Committee voted Wednesday on HB 1635 (Fossil fuel projects moratorium; clean energy mandates).

01/22/19 House: Reported from Commerce and Labor with amendment (9-Y 7-N)

YEAS — Hugo, Ward, Keam, Filler-Corn, Kory, Bagby, Toscano, Mullin, Bourne — 9.

NAYS — Kilgore, O’Quinn, Ransone, Wilt, Head, Lindsey, Heretick — 7.

NOT VOTING — Byron, Ware, Marshall, Bell, Robert B., Yancey, Webert — 6.

Bill Offering Tuition Refunds for Unhealthy Veterans Gets Revised

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The House Committee on Education recommended an amended bill Wednesday that would refund tuition for veteran students who need to withdraw during a semester due to a medical condition.

Legislators requested an amendment to HB 2113, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, to make its provisions more specific. The bill did not originally state what kind of medical condition and what causes would make a veteran eligible for reimbursement for a leave of absence.

“They can withdraw for the first time due to a service-connected medical condition,” Murphy said. “We wanted to clarify that.”

Qualifying medical conditions include PTSD-related trauma along with physical ailments, according to Murphy.

Additionally, student veterans must have their condition “certified in writing to the institution by a physician licensed to practice medicine,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The amended bill requires the institution to reimburse the student veteran for the semester tuition, along with any mandatory fees. The student veteran can only qualify for a tuition refund the first time they withdraw due to a medical condition.

The refunded tuition would go back to the student’s GI Bill benefits, Murphy said.

Carrie Ann Alford, the policy director of the Department of Veterans Services in Virginia, said the department supports the bill.

The withdrawal would not affect the student's ability to re-enroll at the institution, according to the bill summary.

The House Education Committee passed the bill with an 20-1 vote, the only nay vote being the Committee Chairman R. Steven Landes, R-Albemarle.

The amended bill was referred to the Committee on Appropriations.

Northam Details Budget Proposals to Boost Education

Gov. Northam signs his proclamation recognizing February 2019 as School Board Appreciation Month while VSBA President R. Tyrone Foster looks on.

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam outlined his budgetary proposals to educators Wednesday: for a 5 percent teacher pay increase, expanded broadband internet, funding for school resource officers and counselors, and a major bump in the state’s rainy day fund.

“There is power in every child out there, and every child needs the same opportunity, and that is access to a world-class education,” Northam said.

Seated at circular tables with their district’s name printed neatly on a card, elected members of school boards from around the state listened to speakers discuss the budget and policy proposals at the 2019 Virginia School Board Association Capital Conference.

VSBA President R. Tyrone Foster said it’s important for attendees “to meet with your local legislators to make sure that we advocate for our children.” On Thursday, the second day of the event, members will do just that — meeting face to face with their representatives at the Capitol.

Northam identified fields in which Virginians will find the “jobs of the 21st century.” He named science, technology, engineering, the arts, math and health care and fields such as cybersecurity, biotechnology, data analysis and artificial intelligence.

“How do we educate our children so that they can be on a pathway for those exciting job opportunities and careers?” the governor asked.

He said Virginia’s growing economy is giving the commonwealth funds that can be put toward educational goals. Northam said changes in the federal tax code and a proposed internet sales tax will contribute to the increase in government revenues.

“The question is: What will we do with it?” he said.

Northam highlighted the importance of the rainy day fund, which he said accounted for $500 million of last year’s budget.

“Our economy right now is doing well, but you never know what it’s going to do next year,” he said.

Northam said he hopes to save 8 percent of the budget by the end of his administration.

For current taxpayers, the governor addressed his plans for a fully refundable earned income tax credit “for those making $54,000 or less” and a raise in the Virginia standard tax deduction.

Lastly, Northam addressed the future.

“We really are at a unique opportunity here to be able to invest some of this revenue into the future of Virginia,” Northam said.

His financial proposals include:

  • $50 million per year over five years “to make sure that everybody across Virginia has access to broadband.” The governor said, “If our children are working on a computer at school during the day and then have an assignment at night, and they don’t have access to broadband, their hands are literally tied.”
  • A 2 percent pay raise for teachers on July 1 in addition to the 3 percent already planned. “That will be the largest one-time pay raise for teachers in over 15 years,” Northam said.
  • $36 million per year for “hiring and supporting” school counselors. “Our children are exposed to a lot of different things these days. They rely heavily on their counselors,” he said.
  • Several million dollars for school resource officers. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea for our teachers to be law enforcement officers,” Northam said. “We pay them to teach, not to be law enforcement.”
  • $80 million for school renovations and new construction.

According to press secretary Alena Yarmosky, the budgetary proposals were based on recommendations from the Children’s Cabinet, “a diverse group of stakeholders focused on enhancing school safety and ensuring the well-being of Virginia’s students,” established by executive order last year.

Senate Panel Kills Bill To Update Law For Same-Sex Parents

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Senate committee has killed a bill to remove gender-specific pronouns from parentage laws. The legislation would have made state laws more inclusive of same-sex couples, while also reflecting federal law.

“Our code is out of compliance,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill. “The commonwealth, I think, is subject to due process challenge because we haven’t changed things.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

The court ruled that the 14th Amendment “guarantees the right to marry as one of the fundamental liberties it protects, and that analysis applies to same-sex couples in the same manner as it does to opposite-sex couples.” Federal laws were then updated to reflect the court’s decision.

The gender-neutral language of SB 1544 was taken from the most recent version of the Uniform Parentage Act, a set of rules for determining a child’s legal parentage without discriminating against same-sex couples.

The bill also sought to ensure that same-sex couples would no longer have to go through the adoption process when using assisted conception. Currently, the non-biological parent must go through an adoption process to be considered a legal parent of the child.

For example, if a lesbian woman uses assisted conception to conceive a child, that woman’s wife would have to go through an adoption process to be considered a legal parent of the child under current Virginia law. Under this bill, adoption would not be required.

“I’ve had people contact me in Northern Virginia that actually make arrangements to have their child born in D.C., so they don’t have to go through legal adoption in Virginia,” Surovell said. “This [bill] is needed to bring our law up to speed.”

Joseph D. Wilson, from the law firm of Kelley Drye & Warren, voiced his support of the bill during the floor debate.

“We need to do this to comply with what the Constitution is now,” Wilson said. “I represent a same-sex lesbian couple, and I’m here to speak principally to you. I support the provisions in SB 1544.”

On a 7-8 vote, Surovell’s bill was defeated Monday in the Senate Committee of Courts and Justice. An identical bill also failed to advance out of committee in 2018.

Some legislators who opposed the bill raised concerns about the legal parental and financial ambiguities that could result from a scenario in which someone decides to conceive a child without consent from that person’s spouse.

Wilson said this concern already exists with current Virginia law. He said the bill would not resolve this issue but would only update the language to include non-gender-specific terms.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate Committee of Courts and Justice voted Monday on SB 1544 (Assisted conception; parentage presumption).

01/21/19 Senate: Failed to report (defeated) in Courts of Justice (7-Y 8-N)

YEAS — Saslaw, Howell, Lucas, Edwards, Deeds, Sturtevant, Petersen — 7.

NAYS — Obenshain, Norment, McDougle, Stuart, Stanley, Reeves, Chafin, Peake — 8.

Panel Takes Step Toward Legalizing Casino Gambling

By Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee approved legislation this week to allow casino gambling in five cities in Virginia. Next stop: the Senate Finance Committee.

The General Laws Committee modified SB 1126 to allow the possible establishment of a casino not just in Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville but also in Richmond and Norfolk. The panel then voted 9-3 in favor of the measure, which supporters say would increase jobs and tax revenues in economically distressed areas.

But the bill won’t go immediately to the full Senate for consideration. Instead, the General Laws Committee sent the legislation to the Finance Committee for a look at its fiscal impact.

Under SB 1126, a city could have a casino if it meets certain criteria of economic need, such as high unemployment and poverty levels. Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville meet those criteria.

The General Laws and Technology Committee incorporated into SB 1126 aspects of two other bills -- SB 1503 and SB 1706. SB 1706 said cities with more than 200,000 residents also could have a casino if it is operated by a federally recognized Indian tribe. The Virginia Pamunkey tribe has expressed interest in establishing a casino and could consider Portsmouth, Norfolk or Richmond under the bill.

“The one thing I’ve pushed for the most is that it puts the ultimate decision in the hands of the people in the jurisdiction directly impacted, including those associated to the Pamunkeys,” said Sen. Charles Carrico Sr., R-Grayson.

Under the bill, local voters would have to approve a casino gaming establishment in a referendum before it could get a license from the Virginia Lottery Board. The measure that emerged from the General Laws and Technology Committee also specifies that only one license can be issued per city.

Gov. Ralph Northam previously called for a study on casino gambling. The committee’s substitute bill adopted that idea and said a “review of casino gaming laws in other states” would be conducted concurrently with local efforts toward possible referendums. No casino license could be issued until July 1, 2020, according to the legislation.

“It doesn’t look like it’s a study to me. It looks like it’s just a first step in a few-year process to making it happen,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, a member of the General Laws and Technology Committee. “This is a gambling bill that has a small provision for a study in it, so that’s why I will be against advancing the bill at this time.”

SB 1126 would require that counseling and other services be made available for problem gamblers. It would also create a “voluntary exclusion program" in which people could sign up for a list to be barred from casinos.

As outlined in the bill, Virginia would collect a casino tax of 10 percent --  a lower tax rate than in every state but Nevada and New Jersey, according to Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. That’s an issue the Finance Committee will discuss.

“MGM has been sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of this state up in Maryland, right across the river from my house, for four or five years now,” Surovell said. “I’ve been saying for four years, since I’ve gotten to the Senate, supporting my colleague from Portsmouth, that we need to do something about it.”

How they voted

Here is how the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee voted on SB 1126 (Lottery Board; regulation of casino gaming, penalties).

01/21/19  Senate: Reported from General Laws and Technology with substitute (9-Y 3-N 1-A)

YEAS--Ruff, Locke, Barker, Vogel, Ebbin, Surovell, McPike, Dunnavant, Mason--9.

NAYS--Black, Reeves, Suetterlein--3.

ABSTENTIONS--DeSteph--1.

Senate Passes Bill To Address Virginia Food Deserts

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — More grocery stores might open in areas of Virginia lacking easy access to healthy food options under a bill unanimously passed by the state Senate.

SB 999, which cleared the Senate on Monday, is a bipartisan effort that would establish the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to provide $5 million for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the commonwealth.

The bill’s chief sponsors are Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County and Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg. Stanley said the absence of grocery stores in low-income areas is a health issue for the state.

“Right now, we have 1.7 million Virginians — almost a half a million of those are children — who live in what we call food deserts and have limited access to nutritious and healthy foods,” Stanley said.

Legislators are asking for the General Assembly to provide $5 million for the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund over the next two years. The money would be distributed by the state treasurer with approval from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Legislators have requested that the annual interest earned and any remaining money stay with the program. Up to 10 percent of the fund can be used to pay administrative and operation costs.

Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as parts of the country that don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods, usually because those areas don’t have grocery stores, farmers’ markets or healthy food providers close by.

According to the USDA, nearly 18 percent of Virginians live in food deserts.

Dance said eliminating food deserts was especially important for children living in indigent communities.

“What we found is that when children are given choices, when healthy foods are available, they select healthy foods,” Dance said. “I think the cost [of the grocery fund] is outweighed by the benefits that the children will receive.”

The bill sponsors cited food deserts as a contributor to the state’s health problems, saying that residents of areas without grocery stores often rely on local convenience stores that primarily sell sugary, fat-laden foods.

“Those are not as healthy as the opportunities in regular grocery stores,” Stanley said. “We have higher rates of diabetes. We have higher rates of those kind of chronic illnesses, which then puts pressure on our healthcare system, which is already under enough pressure.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

A similar House bill, HB 1858, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, was killed by a subcommittee Jan. 16.

Voting Along Party Lines, House Subcommittee Kills ERA

Proponents of the ERA react to the committee's vote to kill the resolution. Photo by Georgia Geen

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House of Delegates subcommittee killed four bills to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment in a 4-2 party-line vote Tuesday amid verbal conflicts between the chairwoman and members of the audience.

The decision to “pass by indefinitely” HJ 577HJ 579HJ 583 and SJ 284 marks the end for efforts to pass legislation ratifying the ERA — a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution preventing sex discrimination — unless it is brought up in the full House Privileges and Elections Committee Friday.

“I think that with this type of attention that it’s getting, I think there’s an expectation that it will be brought to full committee on Friday,” said Del. Mark Sickles of Fairfax, one of two Democrats on the subcommittee.

The subcommittee’s chairwoman — Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland — was vocal about her opposition to the ERA, sparking tensions with the crowd. Before the vote, Ransone asked those in support of the ERA to stand, and most people in the audience rose.

“This resolution has come after this committee year after year, meaning we are very aware of this resolution and it’s a thoroughly understood issue,” Ransone said. “I don’t need words on a piece of paper — God made us all equal.”

In her remarks, Ransone referenced Eileen Davis, co-founder of the pro-ERA group Women Matter and mother of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, by name.

ERA supporters “have disrespected me year after year,” Ransone said. “And, Eileen, you have brought young people and young women to my office and told them that they’re not worthy. They are worthy.”

Ransone said that she is respected by the male members of the Republican Caucus and that women “deserve every opportunity in life that a man does.”

“Women deserve to be in the Constitution,” Davis said from the audience in response.

Ransone and fellow Republicans – Dels. Hyland “Buddy” Fowler Jr. of Hanover, Riley Ingram of Hopewell and John McGuire of Henrico – voted to kill each of the resolutions to ratify the ERA. Sickles and Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico voted to keep the resolutions alive.

The ERA says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The amendment was first introduced by suffragette Alice Paul in 1923 but made little momentum until the 1970s when 35 states ratified it, three short of the 38 needed to make an amendment part of the U.S. Constitution. Efforts subsided after the ratification deadline imposed by Congress passed in 1982. However, the Constitution does not specifically give Congress the right to put a deadline on amendment ratification.

A campaign led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly is credited with halting the movement and resulting in five states rescinding their ratifications, a right not granted by the Constitution.

“Alice Paul said, 100 years ago, ‘Unless women are prepared to fight politically, they should be prepared to be ignored politically,’” Davis said. “And we’re not prepared [to be ignored] anymore; time is up on that.”

Supporters of ratifying the ERA had high hopes after the Senate passed SJ 284 on a 26-14 vote last week. Seven Republican senators joined the 19 Democratic members in voting to ratify the ERA.

But it was a different story when the issue moved to the House.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Stafford, who sponsored HJ 579, called the subcommittee vote “one of the most important … that we will take in our lifetime.”

“The same arguments that are being made are the arguments that were made for segregation,” Carroll Foy said. “We want to be on the right side of this issue.”

Event Promotes Racial Reconciliation on Virginia’s 400th Anniversary

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — With art, music, dance and spoken word, a national organization that fights injustice is holding a two-day event in Richmond to reflect on the history of slavery in Virginia and to promote racial reconciliation.

The organization, Initiatives of Change USA, partnered with more than 30 nonprofits, businesses, artists and social justice activists to host “Something in the Water” at Studio Two Three in Richmond. The event began on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and will conclude Tuesday — the National Day of Racial Healing.

“This year is 2019, and it’s the 400th year of observance in Jamestown,” said Sionne Neely, the group’s director of marketing and communications. But she noted that it also is the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to Jamestown — the first slaves in what would later become the United States.

Slavery has left rifts in American society, and events like “Something in the Water” can help heal them, Neely said. “There are a lot of different perspectives being shown here,” she added, describing them as “portals, opportunities to experience something new and different.”

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped create Initiatives of Change USA and establish the National Day of Racial Healing to celebrate humanity, acknowledge racial division and increase understanding and communication among all ethnic groups.

Richmond is one of the 14 cities to receive a grant from Initiatives of Change USA to achieve those goals.

Sarah Workman, the organization’s program development coordinator, said she is concerned with how to change the narrative of Richmond, where slaves were once bought and sold. “I felt a certain heaviness that I really didn’t understand,” she said.

Workman left Richmond at the age of 18 and didn’t return until almost 16 years later. She said it was important for her to come back and understand what the people of color she grew up with went through.

“A big part of what racial healing means to me is finally unearthing that empathy and understanding,” Workman said. She said she is “trying to figure how I can be in this community using my privilege — my whiteness — to help this community.”

Also at Monday’s event was Eleazer Afotey Allnice, a native of Ghana and student at the University of Richmond. He said there is beauty in color.

“It helps us to reflect on the past and how to make our society a better place,” Allnice said. “Everyone is important.”

Christina Hairston, a local artist, also attended “Something in the Water.”

“I think people need something that just uplifts their spirits in these times but is also informative — even for the kids here,” Hairston said.

Amanda Barnes is the graphic designer and social media liaison for Initiatives of Change USA. She said she hope that each person at the event gains individual voice and power.

“There are people who aren’t aware that this is the 400th year that Africans were brought over,” Barnes said. “This is kind of a reflection point of where we are as a society and what changes should happen.”

Citizens Advocate for Gun Control from Both Sides at the Capitol

KING_Gun Violence

Use the controls to click through this slideshow.

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- People on both sides of the gun control debate rallied at the Capitol on Monday to advocate for their stances on firearms in Virginia.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League held a Second Amendment rally at the Bell Tower at Capitol Square in the morning. The Virginia Center for Public Safety followed with an afternoon vigil that honored lives lost to gun violence.

Virginia Citizens Defense League Rally

An hour before the Capitol Bell struck noon, over 50 VCDL members congregated, clad in winter coats and wearing hunter-orange stickers that read "Guns save lives." Demonstrators gathered to listen to speeches from gun rights activists and legislators sympathetic to their cause, including Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, and Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun.

The Virginia state and American flags blew in the frigid wind as VCDL President Philip Van Cleave introduced the speakers.

"I don't think there's been a year in the legislature that I have not introduced a gun bill," said Black, who plans to retire from the General Assembly at the end of the year.

Decrying Gov. Ralph Northam's proposed gun control measures as "California-style restrictions," Black expressed his support of  VCDL advocacy efforts.

"Thanks to ... all of you and the work that you're doing and the pressure that you put on the legislators, we are killing those bills and killing them fast," Black said.

Van Cleave said he hopes the General Assembly passes SB 1024, sponsored by Black. It would legalize concealed weapons in places of worship in Virginia. A Senate committee approved the bill Monday on a 7-6 party-line vote.

Nikki Goeser addressed the crowd and advocated for the right to bear arms in the spirit of self-defense. Her husband was murdered in 2009 at a restaurant in Tennessee, where it is illegal to carry a firearm in an establishment that serves alcohol.

"Not a day goes by that I don't ask myself, what I could have done if I had my weapon," Goeser said.

Kristi Horton said self-defense was also her primary reason for showing up to the rally. As a victim of sexual assault and a former law enforcement employee, Horton said she looks to legislators to protect her right to bear arms.  

"The result of my work help put people away in jail … sadly, I still get death threats …  to me, anything that makes it more difficult for me to obtain a firearm to defend myself hurts me, because there are people who really do want to hurt me," Horton said.

A group of teachers, mothers and their children marched near the gun rights advocates and protested the VCDL meeting, specifically the group's president, Van Cleave. He endorsed arming kindergartners with stuffed animal decorated guns in a controversial video orchestrated by actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Alsuin Preis led the group and called Van Cleave's ideas about arming children "insane" and "ludicrous." Preis said the fear that motivates members of the VCDL is unfounded.

"It's all based on a lie ... It's a fake premise that we're all under attack. We're not. There needs to be sensible gun laws. There needs to be common-sense gun laws," Preis said.

The  VCDL rally ended with a coordinated group cheer of "guns save lives," which Second Amendment supporters yelled upward toward the sky as the bell tolled noon.

Gun Violence Vigil

Two hours later, the Bell Tower courtyard repopulated with a noticeably different crowd. Where the predominately white male, gun rights activists previously stood, a diverse crowd of families, students and faith leaders gathered to honor the more than 1,000 Virginians lost to gun violence in 2017.

Among them was Shana Turner, who traveled to the vigil from Hampton Roads in honor of her  25-year-old son. Turner held a poster in one hand and a framed picture of her son Shaquille in the other. She said her son's murder inspired her advocacy. According to police reports, Shaquille Turner was killed by a co-worker in a murder-suicide on Dec. 12, 2017.

"I'm not taking away anyone's Second Amendment, but let's be clear, people that have guns in their home aren't actually using them to protect themselves. They're using it for suicide [or for] domestic violence," Turner said.

Prayers from three local faith leaders were followed by speeches from prominent Democratic politicians. Attorney General Mark Herring said the Virginia legislature is not doing everything it could to make sure gun violence is stopped, "Not with a week like last week."

More than a dozen gun control bills were killed in committee last week on party-line votes by the Republican majority. Among them was HB 1763, referred to as a "red-flag" bill that would allow law enforcement officers to ask a judge to take away and prohibit the purchase of firearms by any person who "poses a substantial risk of injury to himself or others."

Aimed at preventing suicides and mass shootings, "red flag laws" have seen recent bipartisan support in other states such as Maryland and Florida.  

Northam echoed the sentiments of the bright yellow stickers demonstrators wore on their jackets that read "background checks save lives."

"Folks on the other side of the aisle continue to defeat what we know as common sense legislation to promote gun safety, things like universal background checks," Northam said. "They're more than willing to talk about how we make our streets and highways safer  ... but why can't we have a dialogue about how we ... as Virginians can address [gun control] issues."

Northam said he is interested in having conversations with legislators on both sides of the aisle, "but if we can't change people's minds, we need to change their seats," he said to a cheering crowd.

Northam celebrated the 2017 election results, which flipped 15 seats in the House of Delegates from Republican to Democrat, and the 7th Congressional District victory in November by U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who attended the rally.

"We need to keep that energy going in 2019. ... We will see you all out here next year, and we will have the majority in the House and Senate, and we will finally get things done for the Commonwealth of Virginia," Northam said.

"Change is coming once again," musician Crys Matthews sang, accompanied by her acoustic guitar, as the gathering dispersed.

Senate Kills Bill to Raise Minimum Wage in a Party-Line Vote

More than two dozen advocates gathered outside of the Capitol on Monday morning to rally in support of SB 1200, a bill to raise the minimum wage in Virginia.

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate bill that would have raised Virginia’s minimum wage is dead -- much to the dismay of more than two dozen advocates who braved the cold to rally for the bill Monday morning.

Introduced by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, SB 1200 would have increased the minimum wage to $10 on July 1 and eventually to $15 in July 2021. It was defeated Monday afternoon in a 19-21 party-line vote.

“It’s been 10 years since Virginia workers received an increase in wages,” Dance said. “Meanwhile, the price of everyday goods continues to go up. In 2009, the average price for a gallon of gas in America was $1.78 -- today, it’s $2.41.”

There are 30 states with a minimum wage higher than Virginia’s $7.25 -- which is the federal minimum wage.

Speaking in opposition of the bill, Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Thomas Norment, R-James City, argued that SB 1200 would hurt businesses and working Virginians.

Norment voted last week in the Committee on Commerce and Labor to advance the bill, but voted against it Monday. He said that raising the minimum wage to $12 would cost Virginia 24,000 jobs.

“If we raise the minimum wage in the manner described in this bill, those jobs, opportunities and learning experiences are gonna disappear,” Obenshain said. “And we’re not gonna be able to provide that to the kids graduating from high school, people entering the workforce. We’re gonna hurt an awful lot of businesses that depend on providing those opportunities to those just entering the workforce.”

Countering Obenshain’s view, Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, said there is a misconception that the majority of workers who earn less than $15 an hour are teenagers working part-time jobs.

“In fact, many of these workers are adults working full time, trying to earn enough to support their families and their futures,” McPike said. “Without the opportunity to earn a living wage, these workers have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet. That means time away from their kids.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average age of workers who would be affected by a minimum wage increase is 35 years old.

McPike was one of 10 Democratic senators who spoke in favor of the bill, sharing stories of their constituents who are unable to meet their needs, as well as research conducted on states with higher minimum wages.

            Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said that a recent study shows that Arizona raised its minimum wage but did not lose any jobs.

Before the Senate convened Monday afternoon to vote on the bill, constituents rallied outside the Capitol in support of HB 1200. Organized by the labor union SEIU Virginia 512 and the organization New Virginia Majority, the rally drew more than two dozen people.

“You can’t survive on 7.25,” the group chanted, as senators passed by to enter the Capitol.

There are several other bills this session that would also increase the minimum wage:

  • HB 1850 would raise the minimum wage to $9 on July 1 and eventually to $15 in 2023.
  • HB 2157 would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in 2020.
  • SB 1017 would raise the minimum wage to $8 on July 1 and eventually to $11.25 in 22.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted Monday on SB 1200 (Minimum wage; increase to $10 per hour effective July 1, 2019):

01/21/19 — Senate: Defeated by Senate (19-Y 21-N)

YEAS — Barker, Boysko, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, McPike, Petersen, Saslaw, Spruill, Surovell — 19.

NAYS — Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Dunnavant, Hanger, McDougle, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Reeves, Ruff, Stanley, Stuart, Sturtevant, Suetterlein, Vogel, Wagner — 21.

Lobbying ‘Day of Action’ Brings Hundreds to Richmond

Political Activists attending Monday's Day of Action march down Fifth Street on their walk to the capitol, where they plan to lobby for legislation to increase the minimum wage.

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Hundreds of political activists from across Virginia gathered in Richmond on Monday to lobby in favor of driving rights for immigrants, a higher minimum wage and voting rights for felons.

The New Virginia Majority, a civic engagement group that focuses on marginalized communities, held its fifth annual Day of Action event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

A diverse group of activists assembled at the Hotel John Marshall for presentations on the organization’s legislative priorities before marching to the Capitol where they lobbied lawmakers.

“We are actually working and tracking and advocating in support of over 200 pieces of legislation,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the New Virginia Majority.

The group’s lead political organizer, Monica Hutchinson, coached activists and community members before they set out to lobby legislators.

“They need to put a face and a story to that bill,” Hutchinson said.

Faces like Robert Davis, who lobbied for voting rights legislation, including bills that would restore rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Davis had his right to vote restored in 2016, after almost 30 years of disenfranchisement.

“I always wanted to vote, but I couldn’t vote because of my background,” Davis said. “I’m still a convicted felon.”

Virginia is one of three states that permanently disenfranchise people with felony records. The law affects over 500,000 Virginians, over half of whom are African American, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform.

“It affects all of us,” Davis said. “But the minority, it hurts.”

The first marchers of the day left to rally for SB 1200, a bill before the Senate on Monday that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next two years. That’s more than double the current wage of $7.25.

“The plan is to make my money, save my money, plan for the future, plan for retirement,” said Thomasine Wilson, a home-care worker from Richmond.

Wilson said people can’t save for the future if they have to work two or three jobs just to get by. “I can’t go on vacation. I can’t even go to the grocery store.”

SB 1200 was defeated Monday on a 19-21 vote.

The vote didn’t stop New Virginia Majority from meeting with legislators on other key issues such as paid medical leave for all, redistricting reforms, no-excuse absentee voting and in-state college tuition and driving privileges for Virginia residents despite their immigration status.

“We’re fighting to get the privilege of driving,” said Elena Camacho, an activist for immigrants’ rights.

HB 2025 would grant driving privileges to Virginia residents who meet certain criteria, even if they have been living in the United States illegally.

“The benefits would be security on the streets,” Camacho said. “People would know who is driving, and they can know the record of the people.”

After marching to the Capitol, activists spent the afternoon meeting in small groups with legislators, sharing personal stories and discussing legislative proposals.

“If they say no today, that doesn’t stop us tomorrow,” Hutchinson said.

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