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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

Herring Chastises Panel for Rejecting Hate Crime Bill

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring expressed disappointment Monday after a legislative committee rejected a bill to expand Virginia’s definition of hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.

“The General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them,” Herring stated after the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated the bill with a vote 8-6 along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it.

“The update to Virginia’s hate crimes definition is long overdue and would have offered needed protections for women, the LGBT community and Virginians with disabilities. I am disappointed to see this commonsense bill die in a party line vote. At a time when communities in Virginia and around the country are confronting a rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric, the General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them" - Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia

Currently, the Code of Virginia refers only to individuals or groups targeted on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background or national origin as being victims of hate crime.

SB 1375, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, sought to expand that definition to include other marginalized groups. Herring called it a “common sense” bill and said he was disheartened that it was defeated on a party-line vote.

The bill would have brought Virginia closer to the federal definition of a hate crime, which includes “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

Virginia State Police said bias-motivated crimes in the commonwealth rose from 137 in 2016 to 202 the following year.

The statistics for 2017, the most recent year available, include 89 incidents related to race, 44 to religion, 20 to ethnicity, 38 to sexual orientation and 11 to disability.

Virginia’s statistics reflect a larger national trend that shows a rise of hate crimes in the U.S. According to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, 7,175 hate crimes were reported nationwide in 2017. That is an increase of more than 1,000 reports from 2016.

Despite the defeat of the hate crimes bill, Herring remains optimistic about legislation that aims to impede activity by white supremacist militias and similar militant groups.

SB 1210, sponsored by Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, was approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee by a 7-6 vote and referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure, which died in committee last year, was first introduced following the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. During that event, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd protesting the rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other counter-demonstrators.

SB 1210 “provides that a person is guilty of unlawful paramilitary activity if such person assembles with another person with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device or any components or combination thereof,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

Such unlawful paramilitary activity would be punishable as a Class 5 felony, under the bill.

“Referring it to the Senate Finance Committee is a step in the right direction,” Herring stated. “It is time for the General Assembly to take action to protect Virginians and make sure that we prevent the kind of paramilitary activity that we saw in Charlottesville from ever happening again.”

Advocates Seek More Access to Medical Marijuana

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As other states have relaxed their laws against marijuana, citizens across Virginia gathered here Saturday to discuss how to persuade the General Assembly to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the commonwealth.

About 150 people, including health care providers and attorneys, attended the Virginia 2019 Cannabis Conference, held by the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Virginia NORML advocates decriminalizing possession of marijuana and regulating medical and recreational-use production and sales of the substance.

Members of NORML are hopeful after Gov. Ralph Northam voiced support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana during his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, the first day of the General Assembly’s 2019 session.

“We want to keep people safe. But we shouldn’t use valuable law enforcement time, or costly prison space, on laws that don’t enhance public safety,” the governor said in his speech. “Current law imposes a maximum 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.”

So far, lawmakers have proposed six bills to decriminalize simple marijuana possession. For example, HB 2371, sponsored by Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, and HB 2373, by Del. Lee Carter, D-Prince William, would legalize marijuana for Virginians 21 and older and have the state operate retail marijuana stores. Under such proposals, Virginians under 21 who are caught with marijuana would have to pay a civil penalty.

Most attendees at the conference, held at the Delta by Marriott hotel, seemed particularly interested in medical marijuana and how to access it without traveling to another state.

Lorene Davidson of Richmond works in anesthesia as a nurse practitioner. She came to the conference because of her ongoing struggle with antidepressants, which she found were bad for her liver.

“I’m looking mostly for a way to find out more about getting a medical card and furthering getting that taken care of,” Davidson said.

As a speaker at the event, Melanie Seifert Davis of Richmond shared the story of her 10-year-old daughter Madison, who was diagnosed with ependymoma brain cancer in 2014.

“Although I’m not new to the world of cannabis, I’m brand new to the world of cannabis reform,” Davis said.

Madison is on four different cannabis-based products including CBD, THC, THCA and FECO (full extract cannabis oil) to help with seizures and the cancer itself, Davis said.

“Today and for every tomorrow I’m given, I will fill seven capsules with high doses of four different cannabis medications and watch as Madison swallows each one,” Davis said. “Science, research and experience in my heart all know that it can and will and has helped her.”

At the conference, Davis said the family recently received good news about Madison’s cancer: Four of the five tumors were gone.

“Cannabis is an important and essential part of why she is still here and still her, five years into this battle for her life,” Davis shared. “Cannabis is why she has never, not even once, suffered from the nausea, vomiting or seizures that are expected side effects of her chemo.”

Not only does Davis’ daughter suffer from cancer, but her son, Aiden, has Crohn’s disease. Aiden also uses cannabis to ease the pain of everyday life, Davis said.

“I fight because when I told my son about today, the first thing he said with legitimate fear in his voice was, ‘Mom, you can’t tell them those things. You can’t tell them about Maddie’s medicine. Cannabis is illegal. I need you; you can’t go to jail,’” Davis said.

Madison has been on cannabis products since June 2017. Davis said she gets Madison and Aiden’s cannabis from a licensed doctor in California.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for Virginia NORML, said progress had been made in getting the state to expand access to medical cannabis.

According to the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, patients and their legal guardians can register to obtain such products if they have a certification issued by a physician.

“In 2016, we passed a bill that let us go forth and write a regulatory program that was based on Connecticut’s then-program, which was also low-THC, extraction-based products only and served to a small set of patients,” Pedini said.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a law allowing practitioners to issue certifications for the use of cannabis-based products to alleviate symptoms “of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.”

The Board of Pharmacy has given approval to pharmaceutical companies to open five dispensaries across the state where CBD and THC-A oils will be sold to authorized patients.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, has filed a bill (HB 2245) to double the number of medical cannabis dispensaries.

Hundreds March For Women and Minority Rights in Richmond

By Saffeya Ahmed and Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Hundreds of social justice advocates, community members and students marched for women’s rights Saturday in Richmond.

The two-mile reprise of the 2017 Women’s March began at 9 a.m. at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center as participants holding brightly decorated signs walked toward the intersection of West Broad Street and North Boulevard.

“What do want? Equal rights. When do we want them? Now,” demonstrators chanted in support of both women and minority rights.

Demonstrators made their way back to the Arthur Ashe Center around 10:30 a.m. for an expo where speakers urged reform, marchers danced to empowering music and dozens of vendors sold handmade products and spread awareness about social justice movements.

“I often times get asked … where is this surge of energy from women coming from?” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who spoke at the expo. “I like to tell them, it’s always been in us.”

Carroll Foy sponsored legislation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — which prohibits sex-based discrimination — in efforts to make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to include the ERA in the U.S. Constitution.

“We now know we must have a seat at the table,” Carroll Foy said. “We have to be where the decisions are being made and where the laws are being written.”

After marching to and from the Arthur Ashe Center, participants gathered to hear social justice advocates and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

“Every issue is a woman’s issue,” McClellan said. “We’ve had a long, complicated history. And now we fight and we march today to make sure our voices are heard.”

Spanberger thanked the work of “strong women” who helped send a total of 126 women to Congress during the 2018 midterms.

“For anyone who needs something to show their daughters or young people or anyone else,” Spanberger said, “look at who’s in Congress. Look at what we have happening in Congress.”

Spanberger — who beat Republican Rep. Dave Brat in one of Virginia’s most hotly contested races of the 2018 midterm elections — represents Virginia’s 7th District in the most diverse Congress to step foot in Washington.

“We have women from all over the country,” Spanberger said. “We have our first Muslim women. Our first Native American women in Congress. We have our youngest woman ever in Congress.”

Nearly a quarter of the 116th Congress is made up of women, the most in U.S. history, according to Pew Research.

“I love seeing women in power,” said 11-year-old Natalie Rodriguez, who participated in the march, “because I know that when my grandma was growing up, it wasn’t like that.”

Several speakers also addressed immigrant rights. Some expressed frustration with the now-longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. The U.S. entered the shutdown Dec. 22, 2018, stemming from a deadlock over President Donald Trump’s $5 billion funding request for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. 
“By shutting down the government, that’s sort of like saying, ‘I’m not going to reopen until you give me my wall,’” said march organizer and local activist Seema Sked. “It’s very childish.”

As a Muslim woman, Sked focuses her advocacy efforts toward fighting Trump’s travel ban, fighting Islamophobia and creating equity for immigrants. She recently traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to help asylum seekers with the interview process.

“Just to see the conditions that folks are in, and to see the children, and how everyone’s so desperate to find a better life and a safe place,” Sked said, “that’s really, really important to me because I look at that and think that could be me.”

Several marchers supported immigrant rights similar to Sked, holding up signs that read “immigrants are not enemies” and “make America kind again.”

This is the second year that Women’s March RVA has held an event after having been inspired by the National Women’s March held annually in Washington. The march took place a week earlier than the organization’s sister marches, giving Richmond residents the opportunity to partake in one or both events.

The National Women’s March will take place in Washington at 10 a.m. next Saturday.

Database Chronicles 400 Years of Virginia House of Delegates

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A singer crooned “La Paloma” as a Norfolk crowd showered two “legislative debutantes” with flowers and sent them off to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1924. Sarah Lee Fain and Helen T. Henderson were the first women elected to the General Assembly. To celebrate, the Democratic Women’s Club organized a bon voyage party at Roane’s Old Colonial Tea Room in Norfolk.

Virginians can now explore the history of who has served in the House, which is marking its 400th anniversary as America’s first law-making body. The House Clerk’s Office has launched an online database dubbed DOME (Database of House Members), chronicling the people elected to the House of Delegates or its predecessor, the House of Burgesses, over the past four centuries.

Set against today’s national conversation over gender equality, the database shows a stark disparity: It contains more than 9,000 men — but just 91 women.

Database reflects state’s political players

The ambitious, years-long project offers biographical and legislative information on every delegate as well as information on House speakers, clerks, legislative sessions and Capitol locations.

From 1619, when the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown, until 1923, the legislative body was all-male. Since Fain and Henderson joined the House in 1924, the number of female delegates didn’t crack double digits until 1983, when there were 11 women in the House. The number stayed in the teens through 2017.

But that year, a record number of women were elected to the General Assembly, taking 11 seats formerly held by men. As a result, 28 women currently serve in the 100-member House.

Glass ceilings, then color barriers

Sixty years after Henderson and Fain shattered the glass ceiling, Yvonne Miller of Norfolk broke the color barrier. She became the first African-American woman elected to the House in 1984 and the first elected to the Senate four years later. Miller died in office in July 2012.

In an interview with the Library of Virginia, Miller said other legislators initially thought she was a maid and told her as much. She said she realized those delegates who offended her were “operating on their history.” Miller said she had to figure out how to interact with those who did not respect her simply because of her race.

Miller called her time in the General Assembly exciting and said she thoroughly enjoyed politics. “I have enough wins to keep it interesting,” she said. “I have a lot of losses to keep me humble.”

‘Long overdue’ project may inspire more research

Laura van Assendelft, a professor of political science at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, called the DOME project “long overdue.”

“The typically limited and inconsistent availability of data at the state and local levels is such a source of frustration for scholars in the state and local subfield,” she said. Van Assendelft said she believes the database will inspire more research into the history of women in Virginia’s government.

Brian Daugherity, a U.S. history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that when completed, DOME will help citizens “see the ways in which participation in the state’s decision-making processes has expanded over time — a reminder of the importance of ensuring access for all.”

G. Paul Nardo, the clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, said he welcomes contributions from the public to help write the “ongoing history of the House of Delegates and those who have been elected to serve in it.” He said the database will be officially released this spring.

More women and more diversity in the House

The history of women in Virginia politics is still being written.

“But if I do anything worthwhile in the General Assembly,” Fain declared in 1924, “to the women will belong the credit.”

In 2017, the House of Delegates saw an increase not only in the number of women but also in other diversity.

Danica Roem of Prince William County became Virginia’s first transgender legislator. Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman also won House seats in Prince William County, becoming the first Latinas elected to the House.

Kathy Tran’s win in Fairfax County made her the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. And Dawn Adams of Richmond was elected as the first openly lesbian legislator.

Before Legislative Session, a Serving of Eggs and a Prayer for Civility

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As legislators, faith leaders and others tucked into their scrambled eggs and fresh fruit cups, two slideshow screens at the front of the room rotated Bible verses speaking to the theme of the 53rd annual General Assembly Prayer Breakfast: civility and reconciliation.

Politicians who packed the ballroom at the Greater Richmond Convention Center reflected on familiar Bible verses such as Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Republicans and Democrats alike sat next to one another Wednesday morning, amicably asking about family members and the past holiday season while sipping orange juice or coffee. There was little hint of the potential political drama or partisanship of the impending legislative session.

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly acted as master of ceremonies for the event. Bringing the room to attention with a chime of her glass, she blessed the food — "in Jesus’ name we pray" — and then introduced Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Taking the stage, Northam emphasized the importance of unity among state legislators, working toward the common goal of the good of the commonwealth.

"We are a state that supports our veterans, embraces diversity and inclusion, and attracts visitors from all over the world," Northam said, addressing the sea of gray, navy and black business suits. "I spent my career as a child neurologist. Over the years, I saw thousands of patients and their families and never once did they ask me if I was a Republican or a Democrat, nor did I ask them. All they wanted was for me to help them."

As inspiration for his work as both a doctor and politician, Northam shared his favorite scripture, Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

"I believe it is our duty as elected officials to ... help the least of our brothers. It is our duty to help the Virginians who need it the most," Northam said, citing the expansion of Medicaid as an example of that doctrine. Referencing his "tremendous friends" on both sides of the aisle, Northam ended with a blessing for the room and the commonwealth.

Three prayers followed: for children and families, led by first lady Pamela Northam; for public safety and military officials, led by Attorney General Mark Herring; and for those in need, led by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, shared a moment in his life when he personally experienced the Golden Rule, or Muslim Hadith: "None of you truly believes until he wishes for others what he wishes for himself."

When attempting to pass his first bill on the House floor years ago, Rasoul said he received a note from Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, with a tip on how to revive his dying legislation. "I believe we can both be very passionate about what we believe in and at the same time pass notes to each other on the House floor," Rasoul said.

The two keynote speakers both held positions in the White House for faith-based initiatives. Jedd Medefind worked under President George W. Bush, and Michael Wear under President Barack Obama. The two men delivered thoughtful speeches about the importance of civility in the world and the power of attentiveness.

As the breakfast broke up at 10 a.m., the room quickly emptied out. Legislators headed to Capitol Square for the session's first day, with a wish and a prayer or two.

Conservative Activists Urge Lawmakers to Reject ERA

The Family Foundation and other groups that oppose abortion urge Virginia legislators to oppose ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say the ERA, which is currently before the full Senate, is anti-women, anti-American and "a smokescreen for abortion." Photo by Kathleen Shaw.

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The Family Foundation and other groups that oppose abortion are urging Virginia legislators to oppose ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say the ERA, which is currently before the full Senate, is anti-women, anti-American and "a smokescreen for abortion."

Conservative activists held a news conference and met with legislators this week to voice concerns about the ERA, which they refer to as the “Everything Related to Abortion Act.” They said the proposed constitutional amendment uses women as pawns to push forward an abortion-rights agenda.

Patrina Mosley, director of a group called Life, Culture and Women’s Advocacy, criticized the amendment with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the feminist movement.

“The ERA is really a smokescreen for abortion,” Mosley said. “This is not really about women. Women are continually used as a prop to push an agenda, and the ‘Time’s Up’ on that.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 8-6 in favor of SJ 284, which would add Virginia to the 37 states that have already ratified the ERA. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the resolution next week.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, would then need approval from a House committee and a House of Delegates majority. ERA supporters hope that with ratification by Virginia, they would have the three-fourths majority of the states needed to amend the U.S. Constitution.

But some experts say it’s too late to ratify the ERA because Congress set the original ratification deadline to 1982.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is sponsoring what she views as an alternative to the ERA -- SJ 275, or the  Equal Rights Affirmation. Chase’s resolution “reaffirms that all persons residing in Virginia are afforded equal protection under the law. The resolution cites numerous guarantees of equality that currently exist in both federal and state law while refuting the necessity, utility, and viability of the Equal Rights Amendment,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The ERA declares that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” Chase said that wording is vague and could have unexpected repercussions.

“It's concerning to me that the ERA treats women identically to men, not equally to men -- lending to it the current fad of gender-fluidity,” Chase said. “Until you change that word to female, then I cannot support this legislation.”

Tina Whittington, executive vice president of Students for Life of America, said the ERA isn’t needed because women are already treated as equals in laws and courts. Further, Whittington said prohibiting gender bias would affect previously passed federal laws and be harmful to women.

“Many protections designed specifically for women, for mothers, would be impacted,” Whittington said.

Some women who spoke against the ERA at Thursday’s press conference said they’ve had a hard fight against the measure. Eva Scott, the first woman elected to the Virginia Senate, voted against the ERA in the 1970s as a delegate and senator. Scott said feminists do not need a constitutional amendment to be successful and rise to power.

“Women are really selling themselves short,” Scott said. “All these women really need is to embrace the truth that equality is already theirs and the whole world is at their -- and our --  fingertips.”

General Assembly Members Ask DOT for Toll Freeze for Federal Workers Affected by the Government Shutdown

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, and 14 other members of the Virginia General Assembly sent a letter Friday to state Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine and other officials requesting toll relief for federal workers commuting without pay during the federal government’s shutdown.

“These residents are still going to work every day to ensure our nation’s operations continue, but they are not receiving a paycheck,” Delaney said. “They are trying to figure out how they are going to make ends meet, and here we have an opportunity to provide some relief from the tolls they incur during their commute.”

More than 34,000 workers in the commonwealth are affected by the three-week federal shutdown, caused by an impasse between Democrats and President Donald Trump over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In terms of federal workers, Virginia is the sixth-most affected state.

The letter requests that furloughed workers who can prove their employment status have their E-ZPass deactivated temporarily. It also seeks refunds for workers who pay highway tolls while working without pay during the shutdown.

“Those who are traveling the Greenway, I-66 and other tolled roads in Virginia to get to a job where they are not receiving a paycheck should not be further financially strained for simply fulfilling their duty as a public servant,” the letter says.

“We cannot undo the financial burdens and hardships this federal shutdown has brought to the homes of thousands of Virginians, but we can help alleviate it.”

Lawmakers Have Mixed Reactions to Governor’s Address

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam gives his second State of the Commonwealth Speech before 140 members of the 2019 General Assembly, on Jan. 9. (PHOTO: Livestream)

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – From attracting high-tech businesses to improving access to health care services, Gov. Ralph Northam’s State of the Commonwealth speech touted wins and legislative proposals that both parties celebrated, though Republicans blasted his ideas on taxes and budget spending.

The 2019 General Assembly session marks Northam’s second year in office and the 400th anniversary of the House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected legislative body in the British American colonies. His speech didn’t shy away from acknowledging the state’s “long and complex history” while connecting several of the session’s proposals to health and safety.

“In 2017, 1,028 Virginians died of gun-related causes,” Northam told a joint meeting of the General Assembly at the end of the first day of the 2019 legislative session. “That’s more deaths due to gun violence than the 956 Virginians who died due to vehicle accidents.”

Fellow Democrats said the governor set the right tone.

“It is clear that the commonwealth is coming into 2019 in a strong position. Our economy is thriving, we are attracting major businesses and job creators like Amazon, and the Medicaid expansion we passed last year will boost state revenues and provide hundreds of thousands of Virginians with access to healthcare,” House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, said in a joint statement.

In the Republicans’ official response to Wednesday night’s speech, Del. Robert Thomas Jr. of Stafford and Sen. Stephen Newman of Bedford called for Virginia to balance its books, maintain low taxes and help Virginians reduce high health insurance deductibles.

“Republicans are committed to stopping Governor Northam’s tax hike on the middle class,” Thomas said. “Our tax reform plan will return the tax windfall resulting from the federal tax cuts along to taxpayers, while providing targeted tax relief to middle- and low-income Virginians and protecting our coveted AAA bond rating.”  

Republicans also voiced opposition to Northam’s proposals regarding guns.

The Democratic governor called on the General Assembly to approve an “extreme risk law” -- a legal way for law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from someone who has shown dangerous behavior or who poses a risk to themselves or others. This idea has passed Republican-led legislatures in other states and been signed by Republican governors, such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

In his response to the speech, Thomas, a father of eight, said improving the safety of public schools is more important than hashing out possible firearm regulations.

“Our goal is to employ every means available to keep dangerous individuals out of our schools,” he said.  

Echoing the recommendations of a legislative committee, Thomas proposed using threat prevention technology and improving mental health services.  Northam and Thomas both advocated for improving safety training for school personnel and safety officers. Currently, only grant-funded resource officers go through training approved by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Northam addressed criminal justice reform.  For the third year in a row, Virginia has had the nation’s lowest prison recidivism rate, and Northam said he hopes to maintain that record.

He also plans to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over failure to pay court costs, fees, and non-driving offenses. “When we take away people’s driver’s licenses, we make it harder for them to get to work, and thus make it even more difficult for them to pay their court costs,” Northam said. “We shouldn’t be punishing people for being poor.”

Moreover, Northam called for making simple possession a civil penalty to ease overcrowding in jails and prisons. Current law imposes a maximum of 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.

In his speech, Northam celebrated a budget he had signed in May that expanded Medicaid coverage to 400,000 Virginians.

He also discussed using tolls to fund improvements on Interstate 81 in the western part of the state. The interstate has seen a 12 percent increase in traffic and a 55 percent increase in delays, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In a speech that included the word “together” 32 times, the governor concluded his address by encouraging unity among members of the General Assembly.

“I hope that as we go through the next 46 days together, we give consideration to each other, and to our ideas. It can be tempting to retreat to our corners and shout at each other,” Northam said. “But I believe we all have that internal moral compass, the one that guides us toward the right thing to do. I hope we all follow it this session.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers will consider more than 2,000 bills between now and their scheduled adjournment, Feb. 23.

Amendment to Restore Felon Voting Rights Dies Along Party Lines

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- For now, Virginia will remain among a trio of states -- joining only Kentucky and Iowa -- with a lifetime ban on voting rights for people convicted of a felony.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections killed an attempt to allow Virginians who have been convicted of a felony to vote.

Currently, the Virginia Constitution says felons cannot vote unless their civil rights have been restored by the governor or other authorities. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, proposed a resolution -- SJ 261 -- to delete that passage from the state Constitution.

On an 8-6 vote at the committee’s meeting on Wednesday, Locke’s proposed constitutional amendment was “passed by indefinitely,” meaning that it likely is dead for this legislative session. The vote was split down party lines on the 14-member committee, with all eight Republicans voting to kill the measure.

Besides SJ 261, the panel on Wednesday considered a similar proposal (SJ 262) by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. The committee folded Lucas’ measure into Locke’s before killing the proposed amendment.

The resolutions proposed by Locke and Lucas sought to establish just four requirements to vote in Virginia: Voters would have to be U.S. citizens, be at least 18, live in the commonwealth and be registered. The proposed amendment “removes from current constitutional qualifications to vote not having been convicted of a felony and not having been adjudicated to be mentally incompetent,” according to the Legislative Information System.

The amendment had support from representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Former inmates who had lost the right to vote because of felony convictions also offered emotional testimony.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, encouraged Virginia legislators to follow in the footsteps of Florida, which recently restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million people. In November, more than 60 percent of Florida supported the ballot initiative.

“That leaves Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa as the only states left -- the only states left in which you have a lifetime ban of voting if you get convicted of a felony,” Gastañaga said.

Gastañaga urged state leaders to look at themselves in the context of history. She said the right to vote should belong to the people instead of those who govern them.

Another supporter of the proposed amendment was ex-convict Wayne Keaton, whose voting rights were restored two years ago.

“I was incarcerated, and I have been fighting since 2010. The governor gave me my rights back in 2016,” Keaton said, referring to an executive order by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons.

Several senators raised questions about the proposed constitutional amendment. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, asked if someone who is adjudicated to be mentally incompetent should still be allowed to vote under the proposal.

“It might be appropriate to say that somebody doesn’t have the capacity to participate in the process, but that should be an individualized decision, not an institutional one,” Gastañaga responded.

Although SJ 261 and SJ 262 may be dead for the session, at least one similar proposal is pending before the General Assembly. SJ 283, sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, seeks to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences and made restitution. It is awaiting a hearing by the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

Supporters of such proposals said they won’t give up.

“This is something we’re committed to for the long haul,” said Bill Farrar, director of public policy and communications for the Virginia ACLU. “We’re going to see it through.”

Faculty Members Lobby Legislators on Higher Education Issues

By Emily Holter and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Faculty members from colleges and universities across Virginia converged on the Capitol on Thursday, urging legislators to provide more funding for higher education and ensure affordable college degrees for future generations of students.

Higher Education Advocacy Day drew professors like Brian Turner, who chairs the political science department at Randolph-Macon College. He noted that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has developed a plan to guide the colleges and universities in the commonwealth.

“The Virginia Plan for Higher Education’s goal for Virginia is to be the best-educated state by 2030,” Turner said.

To make that a reality, faculty members asked members of the General Assembly to allocate money for salary increases, boost tuition assistance and increase student access to higher education.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed amending the state budget by giving $1 billion to higher education, including increasing tuition aid. Many public institutions in Virginia are hoping that with higher salaries, they will be able to offer a higher-quality education to students.

Low salaries make it hard to compete for prominent faculty members with other well-known institutions, Turner said.

As a group, Virginia’s college and university faculty members said they support a bill by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, to increase transparency on gifts that public institutions receive from donors that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Turner said House Bill 2386 would help ensure that donations enhance the curriculum and provide more accountability on how institutions spend their money.

Speaking with delegates and senators, some faculty members also expressed their concerns over Title IX policies. Some have questions about legislation sponsored by Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, pertaining to accusations of sexual violence on campus.

Lindsey has introduced two bills (HB 1830 and HB 1831) that would allow students to have attorneys present at any campus disciplinary hearing or sexual assault hearing.

Another higher education issue is a bill proposed by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, that would prohibit public colleges and universities from asking student applicants about their criminal history. Under HB 2471, schools could not “deny admission to any applicant on the basis of any criminal history information.”

“Your criminal history should not be deterring you from being able to pursue education. And in my bill, there’s a line that says this is really about the application,” Aird said. “If they do get admitted and let’s say, for some instance, you have a student that wants to live in on-campus housing, the institution can then request their criminal history.”

In making the rounds at Capitol Square, participants in Higher Education Advocacy Day spoke with Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Fredericksburg, about his bill to give students a voice on tuition increases.

Under SB 1204, “No increase of undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees approved by a governing board of a public institution of higher education shall take effect unless such increase receives an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of undergraduate students enrolled in such institution.”

Faculty members fear that would make it impossible to raise tuition.

“I don’t think you could round up two-thirds of the student body to vote for free beer,” Turner said.

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Lawmakers Seek Information on Prisoner Segregation

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Lawmakers and prison reform advocates are pushing three bills through the General Assembly that would force the Virginia Department of Corrections to track and share records of inmates in solitary confinement.

Virginia is one of seven states that do not require record keeping for segregated prisoners. Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, has introduced a bill that would require DOC to annually submit data reports to the General Assembly and governor regarding the length of confinement, inmate demographics and disability treatment. Hope said the bill would increase transparency and improve inmate mental health care.

“We need to make sure as policymakers we have all the information we can possibly have in order to deal with solitary confinement and make sure those in there are not suffering needlessly,” Hope said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia published a report in 2018 revealing that more than 800 Virginian inmates live in restrictive housing, for an average of 2.7 years, where they are isolated in their cells for 22-24 hours each day. After a Washington Post article published last month highlighted Virginia’s lack of prisoner data filings, human rights advocates are demanding justice.

Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Virginia, said prolonged segregation of prisoners can cause deterioration of mental health. Without facilities tracking the data on segregated prisoners, Thissen said, there is minimal chance of healthy recovery and release.

“The reality is, for people with existing mental illness, it exacerbates their mental illness, and people who have no pre-existing mental illness develop symptoms of mental illness,” Thissen said. “We would like to know the status of these individuals so we know their needs are being appropriately addressed.”

The DOC has stated that solitary confinement is not widely used in Virginia prisons. However, ACLU-VA and NAMI Virginia advocates said at a press conference Thursday that prisoners can be detained in solitary confinement for years. Moreover, they said the Administrative Segregation Step Down Program that inmates go through after being in restricted housing is biased against inmates.

At the news conference, David Smith said he served 16½ months in solitary confinement in the Norfolk city jail for child pornography. Smith recalled meeting an inmate who had been placed in solitary confinement for having too many stamps, which were considered contraband. Another inmate went into restrictive housing for defending himself from sexual assault, Smith said. Without records of these inmates, Smith said, their truths are buried.

“These are just anecdotes. Without the numbers, how do we know the truth? That’s the point of this legislation, just so we can get that understanding of what’s happening in our prisons and what we can do better,” Smith said.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, visited Red Onion State Prison in Wise County in 2011 to evaluate the correctional facility and said the conditions for solitary confinement were miserable.

Ebbin and Hope said passing legislation to reduce segregating inmates has been difficult because of the constantly changing language: It can be called segregation, solitary confinement or restrictive housing.

Ebbin said choosing one term and sticking to it is important in crafting legislation, helping current inmates and improving the prison system.

“We want to know how we’re doing in Virginia with an eye toward moving into punishment that is not overly punitive and not one that leads to mental illness even more for those who are incarcerated,” Ebbin said.

Teachers Highlight School Funding as Priority for Legislators

Richmond teachers light up the Bellevue Overpass with their top priority for the 2019 General Assembly.

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On highway overpasses on Interstates 95 and 64, more than a dozen teachers signaled to members of the Virginia General Assembly their top priority by holding up 14 foam boards with Christmas lights spelling out “fund our schools.”

Educators from Richmond Public Schools and a statewide coalition called Virginia Educators United displayed the signs Tuesday night ahead of the legislative session that started Wednesday.

“Legislators are coming into the city tonight to start session tomorrow, and we want to make sure they know, as they come in, what it is we care about,” said Sarah Pedersen, a history teacher at Binford Middle School in Richmond.

Pedersen said she and her husband, both public school teachers, truly love their work, but living on teacher salaries has put a lot of strain on the couple’s family planning.

Now raising their 1-year-old daughter and envisioning having more children, Pedersen said it’s hard to imagine how her family could grow with their current salaries.

“It breaks my heart to think that my daughter might end up being an only child because we cannot afford to have the family that we always dreamt we would,” she said.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the average teacher salary in Virginia is $56,861, falling short of the national average by nearly $2,000. Starting pay for Richmond Public Schools teachers with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000, according to the school division.

Holding the sign for an “o” in the word “school,” fellow RPS teacher Aaron Garber said he looks forward to working only one job instead of two to make ends meet. After a full day of teaching preschool at Linwood Holton Elementary, Garber said he often works construction and home repair jobs in the evenings or on the weekends.

“Which if I actually switched to full-time, I would make more money than I do as a teacher,” Garber said. “But I just love teaching. I love working with kids. It’s as simple as that.”

Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2019 budget proposal includes $268.7 million in new educational funding, $88 million of which would go toward a 5 percent teacher pay increase. Northam said the pay raise would help curb teacher turnover rates and improve retention. If approved, it would be the largest single-year pay increase in 15 years.

Keri Treadway, a teacher at William Fox Elementary in Richmond, said she is optimistic about Northam’s K-12 proposals but thinks there is room for further legislative action. “Vote yes, but find the rest,” Treadway said, smiling as she summed up the group’s energy with a pithy catchphrase.

With crumbling facilities, teacher vacancies and accreditation issues plaguing schools in Richmond and many other localities, Pedersen echoed the optimism for the governor’s proposals. But she said the issues were more expensive than what Northam’s proposal would cover.

“I don’t know how to give that soul transplant for a legislator who doesn’t understand that their constituents want a fully funded future for our kids,” Pedersen said. “But we are prepared to make that picture much brighter and much more clear in November. We will vote [lawmakers] out.”

Virginia Educators United plans to march to the Virginia Capitol on Jan. 28.

ERA Clears Senate Committee, Faces Uncertainty in House

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment gather to greet legislators Wednesday afternoon

By Georgia Geen and Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — An 8-6 vote by a Senate committee Wednesday brought the federal Equal Rights Amendment one step closer to passing the General Assembly — which could make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted to approve a resolution that Virginia ratify the ERA, which was proposed by Congress in 1972 and would prevent federal and state governments from passing laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

The six Democrats on the committee were joined by two Republicans — Sens. William DeSteph of Virginia Beach and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier — in voting for the resolution. The other six Republicans on the panel voted against it.

The resolution — SJ 284 — was sponsored by a bipartisan group of 15 senators and three House members.

The committee’s decision will send the resolution to the Senate floor for a vote. While supporters are optimistic about bipartisan support in the Senate — which has passed similar proposals five times since 2011 — the same isn’t true in the House.

A co-sponsor of the resolution, Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, said it will face Republican opposition. If it clears the full Senate, SJ 284 would go to the House Privileges and Elections Committee, where such resolutions have traditionally died.

Every Democrat on the House panel has signaled support for ratifying the ERA, but no Republican has followed suit. The lack of GOP support in the House committee represents the biggest hurdle for the resolution, said Candace Graham, co-founder of Women Matter, a group dedicated to ratifying the ERA.

“We feel very confident that if we can get those couple of votes on the [House] committee that we need for it to go to the floor, then it will pass on the floor,” Graham said.

When first introduced in 1923, the ERA did not pass in Congress. Renewed interest in 1972 pushed the amendment through Congress, and it was ratified by 35 states within the 10-year period before the 1982 deadline.

An amendment needs approval from three-fourths of the states — or 38 — for ratification.

A conservative movement led by political activist Phyllis Schlafly — who said the amendment would make all laws “sex-neutral” and subject women to the draft — played a role in leaving the ERA three states short of the 38 it needed for federal ratification at the time.

In recent years, there has been a revived push toward ratification. In 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA, followed by Illinois the next year.

Because the deadline has expired, some say the ERA can’t be ratified. But other experts disagree. The 27th Amendment, which regulates congressional salaries, was ratified more than 200 years after its 1789 introduction, though it was never given a time limit, unlike the ERA.

“There are very smart and reasonable people on both sides who disagree over whether Congress has the constitutional authority in the first place to put a time limit on the ratification of a constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, who also is a chief co-sponsor of the resolution.

Further complicating the matter is that five states have since rescinded their ERA ratifications. But the U.S. Constitution does not specifically allow states to do that, and previous rescissions have been deemed invalid.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, also co-sponsored SJ 284. He said the recent ratification by Nevada and Illinois has improved the outlook in Virginia and contributed to a new wave within the movement.

“Nevada and Illinois showed us that there are other legislatures in this country that are moving the ball forward,” Surovell said. “I think the urgency and the historical importance of being the state that puts us across the top really sort of changes the political and emotional dynamic of the issue.”

Unlike other recent efforts in Virginia, this year’s resolution is supported by several Republicans — including Sens. Sturtevant, DeSteph and Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico.

“We haven’t [previously] had a Republican who’s been willing to step up and actually carry this bill,” Surovell said.

Advocates also see renewed momentum in the form of 20,000 signatures on a petition and a poll showing that more than 80 percent of Virginians favor ratification.

“So we’re hopeful that all those things combined are going to make this year a different year,” Surovell said.

Opponents of the ERA fear it could result in integrated prisons and sports teams and fewer specific protections for women and could threaten female-only universities and organizations.

Colleen Holcomb, a lawyer and lobbyist representing the Family Foundation — which opposes the ERA — referred to it as a “fundraiser cause.”

“Regardless of what your position with regard to gender identity, we have biological men competing with women, and that's impending their ability to get academic scholarships and to be able to succeed in their areas of choice,” Holcomb said.

But advocates for the amendment view specific constitutional protections based on sex as necessary for gender equality.

“When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. They say, ‘You want special privileges.’ We don’t want special privileges. We just want what everyone else enjoys,” said Eileen Davis, co-founder of Women Matter. “Race, religion, national origin all have strict constitutional scrutiny — sex does not.”

Virginia Black Caucus Unveils Legislative Priorities

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday outlined a legislative agenda that addresses education, civil rights, voting rights and criminal justice reforms.

On the first day of the General Assembly’s 2019 session, the 21-member caucus declared its support for a number of policy proposals that the lawmakers said would improve the lives of underprivileged Virginians.

The group’s priorities include improvements to the state’s public school system. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said the caucus will join Gov. Ralph Northam in pushing for increased funding for education.

“We are committed to fighting anything that takes money out of the K-12 system, anything that undermines public education in Virginia,” McClellan said. “We will fight tooth and nail to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

McClellan also declared the caucus’ support for the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would guarantee equal rights on the basis of gender. Five resolutions have been introduced in the Senate and House of Delegates to have Virginia ratify the ERA.

The amendment has been ratified by 37 states, one short of the 38 required. However, the deadline to ratify the amendment has expired, and experts disagree over whether it still can be approved.

“You’ll hear a lot of arguments today about all the terrible things that will happen if we dare to deem women equal under the law,” McClellan said. “Well, the Virginia Constitution already does it; it’s time the U.S. Constitution does, too.”

2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the Virginia House of Delegates, originally known as the House of Burgesses. But caucus members noted that it has been only 35 years since the first African-American woman was elected to the House.

Yvonne Miller was elected as a state delegate in 1983 and a state senator in 1987, serving in that position until her death in 2012.

There are currently 11 African-American women in Virginia’s legislature.

The caucus has also put its weight behind changes to Virginia’s voting laws. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, voiced support for a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the civil rights of felons who have completed their sentences and made restitution.

“The only requirement for voting should be turning 18 years old, being a resident of the locality where you live, and to be a registered voter,” Locke said. “In a democracy, voting is not a privilege — it is a right of democracy. So we are certainly trying to, as a caucus, ensure that voters in this commonwealth exercise that right.”

Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, discussed efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

“What you will see from this caucus will be common-sense, progressive policy proposals that make sure everyone is treated equally, fairly under the law,” Bourne said.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax also made an appearance at the press conference. Fairfax highlighted the caucus’ 2018 achievements but added that there was still plenty of work to do.

“What we see in Washington and around this country are people who wish to divide us,” Fairfax said. “This caucus is focused on making sure that we move forward united to provide opportunity for everyone no matter the color of their skin, where they live, who they love.”

Legislators Outline Plans for Expanding Mental Health Services

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Legislators proposed recommendations Tuesday to expand Virginia’s mental health services — including “right-sizing” the state hospital system, altering law enforcement training procedures and providing correctional facilities access to health records.

A General Assembly subcommittee will push legislation requiring the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to “right-size” the state hospital system by ensuring the appropriate number, capacity and locations of state hospitals. The legislation seeks to improve the current state hospital model and increase access to hospital beds across Virginia.

As of 2017, Virginia had less than 1,500 hospital beds spread across nine state mental health hospitals, according to DBHDS. The hospitals also consistently operate at peak occupancy, which is nearly 15 percent above the 85 percent occupancy rate considered safe for both patients and staff, according to the same report. 

“Access remains an issue,” said Paula Margolis, senior health policy analyst for the Joint Commission on Health Care, a research group created by the General Assembly. “Temporary detention order process remains an issue, with how there’s not enough hospital beds for people. [The legislative panel is] restructuring the system so that people are better served.”

The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century focuses on the delivery of all mental health services — short-term, long-term and emergency — to all Virginians.

“There’s somewhat of a stigma built up around mental health that prevents people from getting care,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of the subcommittee. “It’s important that mental health issues [are] given the same dignity as physical health issues.”

Deeds has a personal connection to the issue. In 2013, Deeds took his son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, but the young man was  released because no psychiatric beds were available. Less than 24 hours later, Gus stabbed his father multiple times and then committed suicide. Deeds later said the system failed his son.

Last year, Deeds sponsored legislation that requires schools to teach about the importance of  mental health in ninth and 10th grades.

During the legislative session that begins Wednesday, the subcommittee will seek approval of legislation that updates training standards for law enforcement personnel to include mental health sensitivity and awareness.

From 2012-17, Virginia saw an 18 percent increase in the number of people with mental illnesses imprisoned in local jails, according to a 2017 report by the Virginia Compensation Board. The inclusion of sensitivity and awareness training is specifically focused on people experiencing behavioral health issues or substance abuse crises.

“We’ve got to build a system of care,” Deeds said, “so that people no matter where they are in Virginia have access to the services they need.”

The subcommittee also hopes to amend state law so that correctional facilities can obtain patient mental health records when needed without requiring consent.

Other legislative recommendations for 2019 include:

  • Expand “telehealth” — ways of providing health care via technology

  • Support the University of Virginia in developing a clinical fellowship in telepsychiatry

  • Ask the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to explore treatment options for people in mental health crisis who have complex medical needs

  • Fund a pilot program for a psychiatric emergency center  

Gov. Northam Backs Plan to Fund I-81 Improvements with Tolls

Gov. Northam, backed by a bipartisan group of legislators, introduces the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund, a program that would use tolls to fund nearly $4 billion of estimated improvements to the interstate.

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Flanked by a bipartisan group of state legislators, Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans Tuesday to move forward with legislation that would use tolls to fund improvements on Interstate 81.

I-81 spans 325 miles across western Virginia, connects six metro areas and links 30 institutions of higher education.

The program, known as the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund, would be supported by tolls along the expanse of the interstate. Owners of cars and small trucks would be able to purchase an annual pass for a fixed yearly fee of $30.

“Interstate 81 is the economic engine of western Virginia, and it’s time we take decisive action to enhance the safety and improve the reliability of this key corridor,” Northam said.

Northam said I-81 has a “clear safety problem,” with an average of about 2,000 crashes annually, including 45 vehicular accidents that took more than four hours to clear.

The chief patrons of the legislation are Republican Sens. Mark Obenshain of Rockingham and Charles Carrico of Grayson. Three other legislators — all Republicans with districts intersected by I-81 — are also sponsoring the proposal: Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta, Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier, and Del. Richard Bell of Staunton.

A yearlong study by the Commonwealth Transportation Board concluded that the I-81 corridor needs $2.2 billion of improvements. The governor said these changes would prevent 450 crashes each year.

The improvements seek to enhance traffic safety and reliability along the interstate, where an estimated 11 million commercial trucks travel annually.

Other interstates currently have dedicated funding sources. Regional taxes and tolls are used to fund improvements to those roadways, the governor said.

The tolls implemented along the I-81 corridor, which are currently drafted at 17 cents per mile, would be among the lowest in the nation — the second cheapest east of the Mississippi River, according to Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine. The exact price of tolls along the interstate would be determined at a later date by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The governor, along with Obenshain and Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, stressed that the program is designed to remove the “undue burden” of citizens who live along the I-81 corridor.

“The hard-working citizens in the communities on the I-81 Corridor deserve a viable, long-term solution to the challenges of travel along this route,” Landes said. “A focus on key improvements and dedicated funding for the corridor will positively affect those who rely on it every day.”

Obenshain added, “We have a tremendous opportunity to address long-standing issues on the I-81 Corridor. I will continue to work with the Northam administration and with my colleagues in the General Assembly in hope that we can find bipartisan solutions to the critical reliability and safety issues in this region of the Commonwealth.”

Members of Virginia’s congressional delegation believe that I-81 needs an additional $2 billion in improvements beyond those proposed by state officials, Landes said. He said the additional improvements would require funding from the federal government.

“It’s an interstate system, not an ‘intra-state’ system,” Landes said.

The I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan can be found at www.va81corridor.org.

Air Board Approves Permit for Buckingham Compressor Station

Pipeline

There are 25 images in this slideshow

The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community in Buckingham County – a decision that left environmentalists and residents of the Union Hill community in tears. (All photos by Maryum Elnasseh)

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community in Buckingham County — a decision that left environmentalists and residents of the Union Hill community in tears, with at least one protester hauled off in handcuffs.

The proposed Buckingham Compressor Station is a component of the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline running through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Since finding out about the proposed ACP in 2014, Buckingham residents — along with environmentalists across the state — have fiercely opposed the project. They said the pipeline would pose a threat to air and water quality and to people’s health.

However, state officials have said the project would be built and operated safely.

“The final draft permit has more stringent requirements than any similar compressor station anywhere in the United States,” said Richard Langford, who chairs the Air Control Board.

Langford’s comments drew several outcries from attendees — many of whom turned around with their backs to the Air Control Board in silent protest.

With a heavy Virginia State Police presence in the building, Langford was quick to ask officers to escort out of the room audience members who spoke up during the meeting. Attendees who resisted orders were forcibly removed.

Following comments by Langford, Air Control Board member William Ferguson said there is a proven need for the pipeline, which would be built by a consortium led by Richmond-based Dominion Energy. Supporters say the project is needed to provide a low-cost supply of energy for Virginia and neighboring states.

Critics dispute that. In March, attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed litigation on behalf of the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Wild Virginia, challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “failure to demonstrate that the pipeline is actually needed by the public.”

“The groups contend that the overwhelming evidence shows the true purpose of the ACP is to provide profits for the shareholders of the pipeline’s financial backers, Duke and Dominion, at the expense of those utilities’ ratepayers,” the Sierra Club stated in a press release.

In a 2016 report, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates found that the “region’s existing natural gas infrastructure is more than sufficient to meet expected future peak demand.”

“Making money for Dominion is not your job,” a member of the audience said in response to Ferguson’s comments.

Opponents of the pipeline have voiced concerns regarding Dominion’s influence over Virginia’s politicians.

In November, Gov. Ralph Northam removed two of the Air Control Board’s seven members — Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin — after they raised questions about the compressor station’s “disproportionate impact” on Union Hill.

Both members’ terms had expired in June, but they had been allowed to remain on the board until they resigned or the governor removed them. There are over 200 other people whose terms also expired in June still serving on Virginia boards and commissions.

Shortly after being removed, Bleicher questioned on his Facebook page if Dominion was involved in the decision. “You decide for yourself,” Bleicher wrote.

Dominion donated about $100,000 to Northam’s gubernatorial campaign in 2017. Last week, Dominion co-hosted a fundraiser for Northam’s political action committee, “The Way Ahead.”

David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, accepted gifts from Dominion in 2013 — including a trip to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia. He was seated next to the four Air Control Board members while they voted Tuesday morning.

As the meeting adjourned, attendees burst into chants of “protect our children” and “shame, shame, shame.”

Democratic Legislators on Gun Violence: ‘It’s Common Sense’

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Democratic state legislators said Monday that legislation aimed at reducing gun violence, including a proposal to fine gun owners who fail to report lost or stolen guns, are “common-sense” initiatives.

“None of this is anti-Second Amendment; it’s a common-sense legislation,” said Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, co-sponsor of House Bill 1644, which requires reporting lost or stolen firearms.

Under his proposal, failing to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement authorities  within 24 hours would be punishable by a $50 civil penalty on the first offense, and the fine would increase on subsequent offenses.  

Hayes and Dels. Delores McQuinn of Richmond, John Bell of Loudoun, and Kathleen Murphy and Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, all members of the Democrats’ Safe Virginia Initiative, held a press conference to discuss their policy recommendations for gun safety.

“Numbers are heartbreaking...I know this personally, having lost my own brother to gun violence,” Murphy said, whose brother was murdered during a robbery. “We are right to be outraged.”

Murphy said that following the Parkland, Florida shooting in February, the Republican Party chose to ignore guns in its approach to school safety.

Murphy and Filler-Corn co-chair the Safe Virginia Initiative. The regional chairs include McQuinn, Bell, Hayes and Del. Chris Hurst of Montgomery County. House Democrats formed the initiative during the 2018 General Assembly session after the Parkland shooting.

“Overall, we recognize that guns are the issue,” Murphy said.

Democratic legislators proposed several policies during the press conference.

They include requiring universal background checks to buy firearms and reinstating Virginia’s law limiting handgun purchases to one per month. “This is an initiative that deserves bipartisan support and endorsement,” McQuinn said.

Bell said better firearms training also deserves support from lawmakers. He said that currently, Virginians can get a concealed weapons permit merely by taking an online video quiz.

“We have to implement practical training requirements to ensure that gun owners know how to use their weapons safely,” Bell said.
In June, Hurst held an event in Lexington that focused on the prevalence of guns used in suicides. Hurst is the co-sponsor of HB 1763, a bill introduced again this session by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, that would permit the removal of a firearm from someone who poses a  “substantial risk.” Such orders permit families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily suspend a person's access to firearms if there is documented evidence that the individual is threatening harm to themselves or others.

Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Republican Kirk Cox, the speaker of the House of Delegates, said in a statement Monday that the House Democratic Caucus “created a campaign masked as focusing on school safety.”

“With today’s announcement, it’s clear their group solely focused on ways to restrict Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens and not practical solutions to protect our students and teachers in the classroom,” Slaybaugh said.

Legislators Discuss Evictions, Schools and Other Issues With Constituents

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

HENRICO — Democratic legislators representing parts of the Richmond area touted proposals Sunday designed to increase the number of school counselors, reduce gun violence and give tenants more time to reconcile before being evicted.

More than 100 constituents gathered to hear Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, who hosted the town hall meeting in Henrico County, along with Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg; Dels. Dawn Adams, Jeff Bourne, Betsy Carr and Delores McQuinn of Richmond; and Dels. Debra Rodman and Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico.

Education reforms and school counselors

Lawmakers emphasized the importance of increasing the number of counselors per student in Virginia’s K-12 schools. Currently, there’s one counselor for about every 329 students, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Legislators hope to incentivize schools to have a counselor for every 250 students, utilizing a proposed $36 million spending increase from Gov. Ralph Northam.

McClellan and Bourne also discussed their companion bills, Senate Bill 1107 and House Bill 1685, that would limit schools’ ability to refer students to law enforcement for lower-level disruptive behavior. The schools would still be able to refer students to law enforcement in many circumstances, including when there’s a threat of violence, among other things.

McClellan referenced 11-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and felony assault of a police officer after kicking a trash can during a tantrum in 2014. Both charges against Kayleb, who is diagnosed as autistic, were eventually dropped by a Lynchburg judge.

“This behavior needs to be corrected,” Bourne said, “not criminalized.”

Bourne recently filed HB 1921, to allow school divisions to put end-of-year surplus funds toward school-related capital renovations and maintenance, instead of having to return that money to the state.

“It may not be a whole lot of money,” Bourne said, “but every little dollar we can give a school division to maintain their buildings and upgrade their HVAC systems so their students can have safe, clean, healthy environments to learn in is a dollar well-spent.”

Affordable housing crisis

Legislators also said they will focus on housing affordability and evictions. McQuinn filed HB 1860 to amend the Virginia Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, which would extend the “pay or quit” period tenants have to pay rent after the landlord serves a written notice of termination of the rental agreement. This bill would extend the period from five to 14 days.

“We’re at a crisis,” McQuinn said.

Five Virginia cities are among the top 10 in the U.S. with the highest eviction rates, according to the recent “Eviction Lab“ study by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond.

Richmond has the second highest eviction rate in the country, the report said. Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake are also in the top 10. Carr said she’s presenting six bills focusing on evictions during the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

McClellan emphasized the need for affordable housing for low-income residents and “teachers, firefighters and officers who can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods they serve.”

Firearms and Gun Safety

Bourne said the “greatest failure” of the 2018 General Assembly session was not passing legislation to reduce gun violence.

For the 2019 session, with 18 co-sponsors, Bourne has filed HB 1644, which would require owners to report lost or stolen firearms to state police within 24 hours, punishable by a $50 civil penalty on the first offense.

Another McQuinn bill, requiring localities to prohibit firearms in libraries, did not pass in the past two sessions. McQuinn said she will “keep pushing that forward.”

McQuinn drew applause from the crowd with her closing statement about her proposed House Joint Resolution 617, which would declare 2019 a year of “reconciliation and civility.”

Gov. Northam Touts Bills on Voting Rights and Campaign Financing

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam introduced two legislative proposals at a press conference Monday aimed at improving voting access and transparency in the campaign finance system.

One proposal would allow Virginians to vote absentee without having to provide an excuse — legislation the governor said would reduce crowds at the polls on Election Day.  The current law, which Northam called “arbitrary,” requires citizens to give one of 20 reasons to vote absentee.

Northam said that voting in the days before an election is “just as American” as waiting in line at the polls and that similar proposals have been made since the 1990s.  Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate (SB 1035) and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, is sponsoring it in the House (HB 1641).

The Democratic governor also endorsed legislation to repeal the Virginia law requiring voters to present a photo ID to be able to cast their vote.

“While photo ID laws are intended to reduce voter fraud, very little such voter fraud actually exists,” Northam said.  “Instead of fixing the problem, the photo ID law just makes it harder for people, especially minority voters or low-income voters, to lawfully vote.”

This proposal will be sponsored by Locke and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax.

The Democrats also want legislation that limits campaign donations and restricts how candidates can spend political contributions.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, is sponsoring legislation (SB 1146) that would limit individual donations to $10,000 per candidate during a given election cycle. Virginia is one of only 11 remaining states that have no limits on campaign contributions.

“There’s too much big money in politics,” Petersen said. “We need some reasonable limits on what people can contribute in order to keep the process honest.”

A second proposal to be sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman would ban corporate and business campaign donations.  It also would ban corporations or businesses from making direct contributions to their own political action committees.

“Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to reform campaign finance laws by banning direct corporate and business donations,” Guzman stated. “Virginians want legislators who represent their interests, and this reform will foster more trust in the legislative process.”

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, is the sponsor of a bill (HB 1699) to ban candidates from using campaign money for personal expenses.

A spokesman for the Republican Party said GOP officials would not comment on the legislation until they had read over the proposals in full.

Prison Reform Advocates Want Data on Solitary Confinement

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of Democratic legislators are urging the General Assembly to take steps towards limiting solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.

They say that the practice is unregulated and inhumane and that prisoners may be spending unnecessarily long amounts of time isolated from human contact.

“It’s an extremely severe practice that is irrevocably harming an unknown number of people,” said Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the ACLU.

The ACLU called on Gov. Ralph Northam to ban solitary confinement entirely — something no legislator has yet proposed. But during its 2019 session, the General Assembly will consider three bills that would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to collect and report statistics on its use of solitary confinement:

  • Democratic Dels. Patrick Hope of Arlington and Kaye Kory of Falls Church are sponsoring House Bill 1642. It would require the Department of Corrections to track how many inmates are placed in solitary confinement, including their age, sex, mental health status and other characteristics. The department would have to report the information to the governor and General Assembly each year and post it online.
  • Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, has submitted two proposals with a similar intent — Senate Joint Resolution 65 (carried over from the 2018 legislative session) and Senate Bill 1085 (filed last month). Marsden’s bill, which has been referred to the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee, would require the prison system to report on its use of any “restrictive housing,” which includes not only solitary confinement but also administrative and disciplinary segregation and protective custody.

The legislative sponsors say that solitary confinement is a mental health issue and that more transparency is a crucial first step in monitoring the well-being of prisoners in solitary confinement.

“There have been very clear studies that show the correlation between the time spent in solitary confinement and deteriorating mental health,” Hope said. “Mental health care treatment is not an optional treatment. It’s mandatory just like cancer or a heart attack or anything like that. It’s just as important.”

The upcoming legislation comes on the heels of a damning investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia.

The department’s report, issued in December, concluded that the jail failed to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners and placed “prisoners with serious mental illness in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the constitution.”

Investigators wrote that the jail’s restrictive housing practices discriminated against prisoners with mental health disabilities.

“I think this is a wake-up call for the entire state,” Hope said.

Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, vice chairperson of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a prison reform group, said the Virginia Department of Correction should provide more information about how it uses solitary confinement.

Jenkins-Snodgrass said her son, Kevin Snodgrass, spent four consecutive years — from 2013 to 2017 — in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison in far southwest Virginia.

“As a mother who has a son who is serving time, who has served time in solitary confinement, I will say that HB 1642 is a first step in having transparency from the Department of Corrections, and transparency will give those behind the walls a voice,” Jenkins-Snodgrass said.

Jenkins-Snodgrass will speak at the second annual Virginia Prison Reform Rally on Jan. 12 at Capitol Square in Richmond. The rally is organized by Virginia Prison Justice Reform Network, a volunteer-based coalition of prison reform advocacy groups.

Del. Lamont Bagby, leader of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, has also come out in support of HB 1642. Bagby said the bill has the potential to reduce the number of prisoners spending time in solitary confinement.

“We have to start somewhere,” Bagby said. “We’ll at least know what we don’t know, and that is information related to race, and information related to why individuals are placed in solitary confinement.”

Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for Virginia Department of Corrections, downplayed the need for changes to the DOC’s use of restrictive housing. She accused the bills’ supporters of being politically motivated.

“Virginia is a national leader in limiting the use of restrictive housing,” Kinney said. “It’s disappointing but not surprising to see others trying to score easy political points and advocacy groups trying to fundraise off this issue.”

Currently, 62 prisoners are being held in long-term restrictive housing, Kinney said. In 2010, that number was 511.

Starting in 2018, the department’s quarterly report to the governor and General Assembly included the numbers of offenders in both long-term and short-term restrictive housing, but it did not contain demographic data or information about prisoners’ mental health status.

Marsden agreed that the department has made strides to reduce the number of prisoners in “restrictive housing,” but he said state officials should not “accept improvement as success.”

Jessica Fraraccio, a former prisoner at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, spent five weeks in solitary confinement in 2013. Fraraccio, 22 at the time, described her experience in solitary confinement as “deprivation” torture.

“You just kind of lose track of time and concept of communication,” Fraraccio said. “It starts to all drift away and you just feel isolated, like you can’t connect with any realistic concepts of the everyday.”

Fraraccio was released from prison in August 2018, after serving a five-year sentence for murder. She said that she hopes the proposed solitary confinement legislation will lead to better monitoring of the practice.

“Hopefully that’ll do something to help humanize these people a little more,” Fraraccio said, “and actually get the people who are working there to pay more attention to the people that live there.”

Women’s Prison Must Improve Medical Care, Judge Says

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

A federal judge has ruled that the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is in violation of a federal court order mandating basic medical care — nearly a year and a half after the high-profile death of an inmate.

Deanna Niece died of cardiac arrest in her cell at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women on July 25, 2017, after several unmet requests for medical assistance that same day, according to the prison.

Niece is one of four prisoners who died of preventable deaths at the prison since 2016, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon found. Legal advocates for the women say their deaths reflect a pattern of inadequate medical care at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

"In sum, the medical treatment these women received was neither timely nor appropriate, and their deaths illustrate the danger of not having appropriate medical equipment on hand," Moon wrote.

On Wednesday, Judge Moon concluded that the Virginia Department of Corrections and FCCW had violated the terms of a 2016 settlement agreement that required the agency to implement medical care reforms at the prison.

“The record shows that VDOC’s and FCCW’s own officials had — by their own admission — actual knowledge that FCCW was not complying with parts of the Settlement Agreement,” Moon said.

The court determined that the facility’s medical team had remained understaffed and that, as of January 2018, the shortage of nurses at the prison had actually gotten worse since the settlement agreement took effect in 2016.

The report also alleges that FCCW failed to improve access to medical equipment for medical personnel, which was relevant in Niece’s death.

“In the last minutes of Niece’s life, as she choked and bled from her mouth, neither a stretcher, nor oxygen, nor suction equipment was readily available,” Moon wrote.

Additionally, the court’s findings showed that the facility’s medical staff failed to appropriately supply and administer medications to prisoners. The plaintiffs documented several occasions in which medical staff failed to reorder medications before they ran out because of incorrect charting or record-keeping, and in some cases, “by nurses not even knowing how to reorder medications.”

Prison officials argued that they were unable to carry out the obligations set forth in the settlement agreement because the language was too “subjective” and unclear. That argument earned a rebuke from Moon, who wrote, “The Settlement Agreement does not condone lollygagging.”

“Women at FCCW have died in the months and years after approval of the Settlement Agreement,” Moon added.

Lisa Kinney, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that the court had declined to find the department in contempt and would not impose civil penalties.

“VDOC has continued to work to provide appropriate medical care to inmates during the pendency of the lawsuit,” Kinney said.

The court has ordered the prison to fulfill a number of requirements to remedy its breach of the settlement agreement, however.

FCCW will be required to have 78 nursing-equivalents on staff and ready access to medical equipment such as backboards for carrying patients and suction machines in all FCCW buildings. The order will also require nurses “to be trained on how to reorder medications, as well as identify and respond to signs of cardiovascular or pulmonary problems.”

The settlement agreement was the outcome of a yearslong legal battle that began in 2012 when prisoners at FCCW filed suit against the VDOC for failing to provide adequate healthcare to prisoners.

Inmates then filed a motion of contempt in September 2017, claiming that medical care at FCCW had not improved since the settlement was reached.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Shannon Ellis, said that serious medical misdiagnosis and preventable deaths were ongoing in the years after the settlement agreement was reached.

“Wednesday’s ruling is an important victory for the women who have suffered for years at FCCW,” Ellis said. “This decision is important not only for the women at FCCW, but because it lays bare the terrible human, financial, and legal costs of Virginia’s current practice of over-incarceration across the state.”

Advocates Seek Funding to Help Virginians with Disabilities

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Dozens of disability-rights activists urged members of the Virginia General Assembly Thursday to approve funding to reduce the nearly 13,000-strong waitlist for developmental disability waivers.

Developmental disability waivers, which are granted by Medicaid, include support services for mental and behavioral health, learning and employment.

According to speakers from The Arc of Virginia — which advocates for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities — about 3,000 of those on the waitlist are classified as “priority one,” meaning they will need waiver services within a year. However, The Arc members recalled experiencing years-long waits to receive resources such as one-on-one job coaching, monitoring of self-administered medications and in-home care tailored to the patient’s needs and independence level.

Cheryl Emory said she had to leave her job years ago to care for her now-young-adult daughter, Virginia, who has a disability.

“At this rate, I’ll be 70 or 80 or have died when Virginia gets a waiver,” Emory told a legislative panel at a hearing on proposed amendments to the state’s 2018-2020 budget. “Today, we’re asking you to fund all of the priority one waiting list.”

The Arc’s executive director, Tonya Milling, said the organization wants the General Assembly to completely fund waivers for those in the “priority one” category, finishing an effort that began last year when waivers were funded for 1,695 of the 3,000 on the waitlist. She estimates $38 million would be necessary to fully fund the remainder of the list.

“You don’t want to waste that big investment, because it’s the biggest one that they’ve made. We don’t want to lose that momentum that they made,” Milling said. “This is the time, this is the opportunity to bring balance to the system before people are in crisis.”

“In-crisis” patients are those with a higher need for services offered by the developmental disability waiver. Many have aging parents with their own health concerns serving as caregivers, putting them at a higher risk of institutionalization, Milling said.

Low pay for at-home health care workers also impacts care for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, many speakers said. The shortage of care providers means even those who qualify cannot always get sufficient at-home nursing.

Joyce Barnes is an at-home care worker in Henrico County, and said she has to work 12-15 hours per day. She asked General Assembly members to consider increasing wages for at-home care providers, in addition to a 40-hour work week cap that would allow them to receive overtime pay. Barnes also suggested an additional orientation program for at-home health care workers.

Constance Wilson, an at-home care provider, said she helps her clients with bathing, eating and other day-to-day tasks — but also serves as a companion by spending time with them.

“We save the state money to keep people out of the emergency room and out of nursing rooms,” Wilson said.

According to a report by The Commonwealth Fund — a health policy organization — at-home care reduces health care costs by 30 percent and can be more effective than hospital care.

Members of RISE for Youth, an advocacy group addressing youth incarceration, spoke in favor of Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget amendment to fund additional school counselors throughout Virginia. Over two years, Northam’s proposed $36 million for additional school counselors would bring Virginia’s caseload-to-counselor ratio from 425-to-1 to 250-to-1, the nationally recommended level.

Rebecca Keel, a member of RISE for Youth, said some students come to school in “flight-or-fight mode.”

“Their behaviors are criminalized instead of recognized as a cry for help,” Keel said. “Please keep investing in support staff rather than law enforcement.”

The public hearing at the Science Museum of Virginia was one of four held across Virginia on Thursday. The other hearings were in Fairfax, Roanoke and Newport News.

Legislators Host Town Hall for Henrico Constituents

By Kaytlin Nickens and Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

HENRICO -- With the federal government shut down over an impasse between Democrats and Republicans, state legislators from both parties emphasized bipartisanship at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening at Tuckahoe Library.

“This is the year that Virginia needs to come together,” said Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.

More than 100 constituents came to hear Rodman, fellow Democratic Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg and Dawn Adams, and Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant discuss taxes, education and the polarized political climate.

‘Conforming’ to federal tax overhaul

A key issue when the General Assembly convenes next week for its 2019 session is “tax conformity” — whether Virginia should adjust the state tax code to align with the federal tax overhaul approved by Congress in 2017.

VanValkenburg called conformity “a good thing.” He said it would simplify the tax-filing process and help maintain Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state.

Virginia would see an increase in state tax revenues through the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. A related issue is what to do with that money. Rodman and VanValkenburg want to increase state spending on education.

“In terms of investing, our schools need funding,” VanValkenburg said.

However, Dunnavant said she favors returning to taxpayers the additional state tax revenues that result from tax conformity. She said she will propose legislation to double the standard deduction when filing state income taxes.

“We still have plenty of money to live within our means and make the investments we need to make, but we really shouldn’t be taking money that isn’t ours,” Dunnavant said. “We should be returning that to the individuals that surrendered it.”

Dunnavant’s comments were the only ones to draw the audience’s applause.

School counselors and other education priorities 

VanValkenburg, a teacher at Glen Allen High School, said he supports increasing the number of school counselors as well as school resource and safety officers.

Dunnavant agreed about the need for more school counselors. She also suggested adding behavior analysts — specially licensed individuals who go into classrooms and help manage students.

“When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of that has to do with kids being sent out of the classroom because they’re having behavioral problems,” Dunnavant said.

She proposed funding one behavior analyst for every five schools so that the analyst could spend one day a week at each school.

Adams expressed concern about school shootings. After the shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February, Adams said she conducted research on school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Adams said the most common thread is that the average shooter is a white male with no prior mental health diagnosis, and that an age in the ballpark of 17 years old is not uncommon.

“Many of the shootings — more than 50 percent — were as a result of some kind of emotional upset,” Adams said. “It all speaks to the idea that we need to teach our children how to communicate, how to deal with their problems, how to cope better with life.”

Rodman, who serves on the House Education Committee with VanValkenburg, said she is sponsoring a bill to address the teacher shortage in Virginia. It would require the Virginia Department of Education to monitor and address the number of teacher vacancies each year.

“If there’s nothing we can come together on in a bipartisan way, it is for us to come together for our teachers,” Rodman said.

Bipartisanship in an age of increasing polarization

The legislators were asked how they will work together to continue making Henrico a place where constituents want to raise their families.

“I think we all work bipartisan all the time,” Dunnavant said.  Last year, for example, she co-sponsored with Democrats a bill expanding access to cannabis-based oils to treat or alleviate the symptoms of diseases and other diagnosed conditions.

Adams agreed, emphasizing the importance of listening to people who have different ideas.

“I think that’s the only thing you can do to be a good delegate or a good senator is to communicate well and try to come up with solutions,” Adams said.

VanValkenburg said he hopes to have Republicans co-sponsor his education bills.

“There’s compromise to be had on all of this stuff,” VanValkenburg said. “And I think there’s a coming together that’ll happen.”

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