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2019 Capital News Service

Governor Calls Bipartisan Effort to Clean Coal Ash ‘Historic’

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Redistricting Maps Favor Democrats

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead of Cooking Up Laws, Politicians Enjoy Stew

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

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Republicans National Federation Chooses Virginia for National Meeting

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel OKs Qualifying Drug Offenders for Food Stamps

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How they voted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel OKs Bill to Move Virginia Away From Fossil Fuels

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How they voted

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Offering Tuition Refunds for Unhealthy Veterans Gets Revised

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The amended bill was referred to the Committee on Appropriations.

Northam Details Budget Proposals to Boost Education

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

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, Northam addressed the future.

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

His financial proposals include:

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

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

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

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How they voted

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

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

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

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

Panel Takes Step Toward Legalizing Casino Gambling

By Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How they voted

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

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

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

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

ABSTENTIONS--DeSteph--1.

Senate Passes Bill To Address Virginia Food Deserts

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

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

Voting Along Party Lines, House Subcommittee Kills ERA

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

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event Promotes Racial Reconciliation on Virginia’s 400th Anniversary

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citizens Advocate for Gun Control from Both Sides at the Capitol

KING_Gun Violence

Use the controls to click through this slideshow.

By Evie King, Capital News Service

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

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

Virginia Citizens Defense League Rally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gun Violence Vigil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How They Voted

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

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

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

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

Lobbying ‘Day of Action’ Brings Hundreds to Richmond

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

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Senate committee votes to legalize guns in churches

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Republicans voted Monday to advance a bill that would legalize concealed weapons in places of worship in Virginia.

The Senate Courts of Justice committee voted 7-6 along party lines to advance SB 1024. The bill would repeal a Virginia law that makes it a Class 4 misdemeanor to carry or conceal “any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon without sufficient reason, to a place of worship.”

Introduced by Sen. Robert Black, R-Loudoun, the bill is designed to address the “ambiguous” Virginia laws on the use of guns in places of worship, Black previously told the Loudoun-Times Mirror.

“I believe Virginians have the right to protect themselves,” Black stated on his website. “I support the right of competent, law abiding citizens to own arms to defend themselves and their families.”

The bill recalls President Donald Trump’s assertion in October that armed guards would have prevented the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” Trump said to reporters.

Eleven were killed during the attack, which was called the “most deadly anti-Semitic hate crime in American history” by the Anti-Defamation League.

Last year, an identical bill was endorsed by Sen. A Benton Chafin Jr., R-Russell. Chafin’s bill successfully passed the Senate, but died in the House.

Some congregations nationally already allow concealed weapons, including The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida. The church’s decision came in response to the 2017 shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left 26 dead.

As a means of “warning” individuals, the congregation put up a sign stating that the property is “heavily armed.”

“Yes we are a church,” the sign reads, “and we will protect our people.”

Supporters argue that allowing concealed weapons in places of religious worship is a necessary form of preparation against potential threats. Critics maintain that stricter gun laws would better prevent attacks.

SB 1024 awaits a vote from the full Senate before moving to the House.

School Safety Bills Are Up for Final Approval in House

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The House of Delegates on Tuesday is expected to pass the first five bills in a package of legislation to improve school safety — proposals drafted by a special committee after the mass shooting last year at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, a high school teacher for 30 years, and other Republican delegates held a news conference Monday to urge support for the bills, which would help schools improve security, require them to have emergency response plans and ensure that counselors spend most of their time with students.

“I know firsthand how much students and teachers deal with on a daily basis, and the last thing they need to do while learning is to be worried about their safety,” said Cox, who chaired the Select Committee on School Safety.

The select committee was formed shortly after 17 students and staff members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last February.

Cox described the committee as a bipartisan effort — it included 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats — but only Republican members were present at the press conference.

According to GOP officials, the panel issued 24 priority recommendations in December, resulting in 10 pieces of legislation. Five of those bills have cleared House committees and are up for final consideration Tuesday in the House.

“These proposals on the House floor this week will span topics that range from school counseling, mental health, to building codes and security enhancements,” said Del. Daniel Marshall III, R-Danville. “Taken together, we have laid out a multiyear blueprint for improving school safety that we can draw from as we move into the legislative process.”

The bills, which delegates tentatively approved Monday, are:

  • HB 1725, which would require local officials to have a plan that all security enhancements in school buildings comply with building and fire codes.
  • HB 1729, requiring school counselors to spend at least 80 percent of their staff time “in direct counseling,” rather than in administrative tasks.
  • HB 1732, to require elementary and secondary schools to host at least one general emergency drill a year along with standard fire, tornado and earthquake drills.
  • HB 1733, which would ensure that school resource officers understand their roles on school grounds as defined by the local law enforcement agency.
  • HB 1738, which says that an architect trained in crime prevention must approve any school building or renovation plans, focusing on “corridors, open spaces and floor plans through the lens of school safety.”

After final approval by the House, the bills then would go to the Senate for consideration.

House Democrats have criticized the select committee for declining to consider policies concerning firearms. So they created a study group called the Safe Virginia Initiative.

“Unfortunately, despite requests from House Democrats, the decision was made that the Select Committee would specifically exclude any exploration of gun safety proposals as well as the role that access to guns contributes to the multiple incidents of carnage,” the initiative’s report states.

Headed by two Fairfax Democrats — House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Del. Kathleen Murphy — the initiative recommended that the state require background checks on all gun buyers, the reporting of lost or stolen firearms, and in-person training for concealed handgun permits, rather than video training. The Safe Virginia Initiative also called for reinstating the state’s limit of one handgun purchase per month.

Last week, a House subcommittee killed more than a dozen of the Democrats’ bills.

Thousands March on Washington Despite Controversy

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON — Waving signs and chanting loudly, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of the nation’s capital. The crowd, drawn from across the country, made its way to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue to march for the rights of women and minorities.

The event — a reprise of the Women’s March protesting the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017 — began with a gathering in front of the rally stage in Freedom Plaza. Equipped with colorful and often humorous signs, marchers of all ages and backgrounds came together to address various issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights, sexism and racial injustice.

The march was not without controversy. It started after Tamika Mallory, co-president of the event, posted an Instagram photo of her with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, calling him the “greatest of all time.” Farrakhan has been widely criticized in the past for anti-Semitic remarks.

Mallory declined to condemn Farrakhan’s statements and instead said that the Women’s March does not align with Farrakhan’s beliefs regarding the Jewish people. While some protested the march after Mallory’s comments, others came to march in solidarity with the Jewish community.

Sarah Boxer, a student from George Washington University, was one of those who showed support. Boxer, surrounded by her friends, held up a blue sign with the message: “I am a Jewish woman and proud.”

A seasoned marcher, Boxer said she was hesitant to come to the third annual Women’s March after hearing Mallory’s remarks. She said it’s important to remember that Mallory is just one person in a large organization.

“I have a lot of great women around me to support me,” Boxer said. “I’m proud to be a woman. I’m proud to be Jewish. I shouldn’t have to choose either side of who I am because of the controversy.”

Boxer added that she feels it is imperative for members of minority groups to show up and speak out.

“I think in order to have a successful women’s march, it’s important to recognize the impact that all women have, and I think it’s important that Jewish women especially talk about how they’re feeling,” Boxer said. “It’s important not to stay silent.”

Ahead of the third Women’s March on Washington, organizers unveiled what they called a “bold and visionary” policy platform — the Women’s Agenda. The plan serves as the organization’s “roadmap” to extending its advocacy year round.

The agenda calls for reproductive rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, economic justice, civil liberties, disability rights and environmental justice. The group is calling for “universal health care / Medicare for all,” ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an end to war.

Senate Votes to Repeal Racist "Jim Crow" Wage Law

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Senate on Friday passed a bill to repeal a Jim Crow era-law that legalized wage discrimination against many African-Americans.

The Senate voted to rescind the law that allows employers to pay less than minimum wage to “newsboys, shoe-shine boys, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and theater cashiers” — jobs to which many African-Americans were relegated decades ago.

The Senate voted 37-3 for SB 1079, which removes those exemptions from the list of jobs not covered by the Virginia Minimum Wage Act.

On the Senate floor, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, said the exemptions were rooted in Virginia’s history of discrimination against African-Americans.

“There is no reason for the workers in these professions to be paid below the minimum wage,” Spruill said. “It’s time to end these Jim Crow laws.”

Spruill’s bill also eliminates the minimum wage exemption for babysitters if they work more than 10 hours per week.

Two similar bills are pending before the House Commerce and Labor Committee: HB 2001, sponsored by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, and HB 2473, introduced by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News.

In 2018, Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, carried a bill with the same intent, and it died in committee. Krizek said the minimum-wage exemptions were “obviously aimed at African Americans who were in these service jobs because those were the jobs they could get at the time.”

Senate Agrees Not to Ask Job Applicants About Criminal History

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND —  After two decades of pleas from criminal justice reform advocates, the Virginia Senate voted 24 to 16 on Friday to “ban the box” -- to remove the checkbox on state employment application forms that asks applicants about their criminal history.

Democratic Sens. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg and Jennifer McClellan of Richmond sponsored the bill, SB 1199. Supporters included the advocacy group New Virginia Majority, which aims to “build power in working-class communities of color.”

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of the group, said the bill could provide more opportunities to people who have committed crimes but served their time.

“Fair-chance policies like this benefit so many families and employers throughout the commonwealth. This bill is a step forward in establishing more equitable hiring practices that we want to see,” Nguyen said. “Employers should consider a candidate’s qualifications first without the stigma that comes with checking that box.”

Bobby Lee, a member of New Virginia Majority, said he is “overjoyed” with the Senate’s action.

“I got clean in 2007 and I have been on the right path ever since, but that box has held me back from being able to help other people,” Lee said. “I am a certified mental health and substance abuse professional. I got my voting rights back, I finished school, I was hopeful. And then job after job would never call me back.”

Lee said he applied to be a “peer recovery specialist” two years ago.

“When I interviewed for the job, I was told that I would’ve been hired on the spot if it weren’t for a conviction I received when I was 17 years old,” he said.

SB 1199 would prohibit state agencies from asking applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime early in the application process. Agencies could pose such questions only after the applicant has received a conditional offer of employment; the offer then could be withdrawn “if the applicant has a conviction record that directly relates to the duties and responsibilities of the position.”

The legislation would not apply to law enforcement jobs or certain other positions that require background checks.

The bill now heads to the House of Delegates, where it has failed in the past.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted on SB 1199 (Public employment; inquiries by state agencies and localities regarding criminal convictions, etc.)

Floor: 01/18/19  Senate: Read third time and passed Senate (24-Y 16-N)
YEAS -- Barker, Boysko, Dance, Deeds, Dunnavant, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, McPike, Petersen, Ruff, Saslaw, Spruill, Stanley, Sturtevant, Surovell, Vogel-- 24.

NAYS--Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Hanger, McDougle, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Reeves, Stuart, Suetterlein, Wagner -- 16.

Democratic-Socialist Lawmaker Wants to Repeal Right-to-Work Law

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The General Assembly’s self-described socialist member is sponsoring legislation to repeal the state’s right-to-work law, which says employees can’t be forced to join a labor union.

Del. Lee Carter, a democratic socialist inspired by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, has filed House Bill 1806, which could force workers in Virginia to become union members and pay union dues as a condition of their employment.

Virginia is among 27 right-to-work states — a fact that business leaders often point to with pride. Carter’s bill aims to change that.

“Repealing it is bigger than just the actual technical changes that it would make,” said Thomas McIntire, Carter’s legislative aide. “It sends a signal to workers in Virginia saying that your voice matters.”

In right-to-work states, a workplace where employees are represented by a union is considered an “open shop”: People can work there without joining the union, and they can cancel their union membership at any time.

Critics of right-to-work laws say this allows freeloading: Non-union employees don’t pay union dues, but they benefit from the collective bargaining agreements and higher salaries that the union negotiates.

Carter ran as a Democrat in winning the 50th House District seat representing Manassas and part of Prince William County in 2018. He wants to repeal the state law that says, “No person shall be required by an employer to become or remain a member of any labor union or labor organization as a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer.”

HB 1806 would allow “agency shops” or “union shops,” where all employees must pay the union either dues or a service fee.

“A collective bargaining agreement may include a provision establishing an agency shop or a union shop,” the bill says. “If such a provision is agreed to, the employer shall enforce it by deducting from the salary payments to members of the bargaining unit the dues required of membership in the labor union, or, for nonmembers thereof, a fee equivalent to such dues.”

McIntire said the fees would help the union provide better support to employees in the workplace.

Supporters of right-to-work laws say they are good for the economy.

States without such laws tend to have higher unemployment and a higher cost of living, said Scott Mayausky, commissioner of the revenue in Stafford County, Virginia. That’s because compulsory union membership drives up the cost of goods and services, he said.

In such situations, a company’s costs can increase — and that worries Mayausky the most.

“Statistically, if you look at a lot of the Rust Belt states that are big union states, those are the ones that have been struggling economically, and a lot of their companies are leaving,” Mayausky said.

Mayausky had two grandfathers who were coal miners, so he understands the good that unions can bring. But he believes this isn’t the time for repealing the right-to-work law in Virginia.

“We’re doing very well,” Mayausky said. “I don’t understand the push to change the right-to-work law when things seem to be headed in the right direction.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Virginia has about 176,000 union members — approximately 4.6 percent of wage and salary workers in the state.

McIntire said it was important for Carter to file the bill, which is pending before the House Rules Committee.

“This is at the core of what Del. Carter stands for when it comes to worker rights,” McIntire said. “It’s important to get this in now as early as possible.”

Governor and Others Vow to Protect Women’s Reproductive Rights

By Arianna Coghill and Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Dozens of women packed into the state Capitol Thursday to stand beside Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and General Assembly members who issued a statement in solidarity with women’s reproductive rights.

Representatives of several advocacy groups, including the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, joined public officials, all Democrats, to discuss abortion rights and promote better access to comprehensive reproductive health care.

“I’m going all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to in order to protect Virginians’ health care,” Herring said.

Meanwhile, two bills calling for greater reproductive health rights failed to leave the Senate Committee on Education and Health. Committee members voted 8-7 twice, along party lines, not to advance the bills.

Public officials and advocates who support abortion rights promised to remember Thursday’s votes at the next election.

“When we can’t change people’s minds, we change seats,” Northam said.

Herring added, “As saw in committee this morning, in order to really truly protect women's rights and their reproductive rights, we need a pro-choice majority in the General Assembly.”

SB 1637, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, sought to establish a woman’s reproductive choice as a right. Also called the Virginia Human Right Act, the bill stated, “Every individual who becomes pregnant has a fundamental right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, give birth to a child, or terminate the pregnancy.”

Boysko expressed concerns that the current political climate could jeopardize women’s reproductive rights.

“We must codify our national rights into Virginia state law,” she said, “to ensure that the reproductive rights of Virginians are dependable, secure, and no longer in danger from changing political tides.”

SB 1451, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also failed in committee. The bill would have eliminated the state’s requirements women get an ultrasound before an abortion, that a second trimester abortion must be performed in a hospital and that two doctors are needed to certify a third-trimester abortion.

“It’s time we stop criminalizing a woman’s choice and expand access to care for all Virginians,” McClellan said.

When McClellan served in the House of Delegates, she was the first member to give birth while in office. She said pregnancy opened her eyes to the scope of women affected by current regulations and prompted her to submit her bill.  

“One [woman] who had a hole in her heart, who was on birth control but got pregnant anyway, had to make the terrible decision to terminate that pregnancy or risk her life,” McClellan said. “I have always been pro-choice. This took on extra passion for me because so many people have told me in the grocery store, ‘That’s my story.’”

HB 2491, sponsored by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, is identical to McClellan’s bill and currently sits in the House Courts of Justice committee. Tran said the current medical requirements are unnecessary and impact low-income Virginians and women of color.

“For women seeking reproductive care, the additional costs and obstacles imposed by existing regulation could potentially include unpaid time off from work, hospital fees and other emotional distress,” Tran said. “These restrictions harm women and have disproportionate effects on low-income women and women of color in Virginia.”

Bipartisan Group Launches Initiative for Racial Reconciliation

Richmond City Mayor Levar Stoney speaking before fellow members of Virginians for Reconciliation at a press conference Wednesday.

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Four centuries after enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, a diverse group of public officials, business executives and religious leaders has opened a yearlong dialogue about racial justice and healing.

The group, Virginians for Reconciliation, detailed its plans at a press conference Wednesday afternoon with words from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam; his Republican predecessor, Bob McDonnell; and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

The goals are straightforward: “To get people to know, respect and care for one another, to break down racial barriers of prejudice and mistrust, and build a stronger basis to solve problems for the common good,” McDonnell said. “But talk is cheap, and results matter.”

The initiative comes as the Virginia General Assembly marks its 400th anniversary, which began when the House of Burgesses convened in Jamestown in 1619 — the first European legislative body in the American colonies.

Northam said Virginians must reflect on the grim part of history as well.

“Talk about what was good about our history — the pursuit of liberty — and what was not good — the pursuit of enslavement,” said the governor, who recently proclaimed 2019 the Year of Reconciliation and Civility.

“This is an opportunity for us to review that and move forward together.”

The organization has proposed more than 20 activities, including encouraging Virginians to read “The Color of Law,” which shows how government contributed to racial segregation.

“Slavery didn’t end, it just evolved,” said David Bailey, quoting the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson.

Bailey is executive director of Arrabon, a Christian group promoting reconciliation. He said the Christian faith community has an important role to play in racial reconciliation because much of slavery was carried out “in the name of Jesus.”

As part of a clergy pulpit exchange, Virginians for Reconciliation will encourage pastors to preach at “churches of different faiths/races.” The group also will urge Virginians — including members of the General Assembly — to walk the Richmond Slave Trail, which includes sites where slaves were imprisoned, bought and sold.

“The physical chains are gone,” Stoney said. “But we all know that many people of color today are still bound by the chains of poverty, inadequate access to health care and shut out from opportunity by the criminal justice system.”

At the news conference, McDonnell was asked whether Virginians for Reconciliation would address difficult issues such as Confederate monuments that are prevalent throughout Virginia.

McDonnell said the group was focused on building relationships but might “begin recommending some of these policy changes” after a civil dialogue has taken place.

“This is a start,” McDonnell said. He said the organization’s work could “hopefully be a model for America.”

Some Energy Donors Gave Democrats More Than Republicans

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — In a break from past years, some large energy-related political donors gave more money to Virginia Democrats than to Republicans in 2018, according to campaign finance reports posted Friday by the Virginia Public Access Project.

For example, United Co., a coal mining company in Bristol, Virginia, contributed $130,000 to Democrats and $121,000 to Republicans in 2018, the VPAP numbers show. That was the only time in the past 10 years that United gave Democrats more than Republicans. In 2017, for example, United gave more than $102,000 to Republicans and nothing to Democrats.

Dominion Energy, the largest energy-related donor, contributed mostly to Republicans last year — more than $207,000, vs. about $160,000 to Democrats (including $30,750 to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and $25,000 to the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus). Over the past decade, Dominion has usually given Republicans more than Democrats.

Donations by Thomas Farrell, Dominion’s CEO, are tabulated separately from the company’s contributions. Every year from 2008 through 2017, Farrell donated more to Republicans than to Democrats. But that changed last year: In 2018, Farrell gave Democrats $38,500 and Republicans $27,000.

Farrell donated $5,000 each to five Democratic senators: Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, Mamie Locke of Hampton, Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, Richard Saslaw of Fairfax and Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake. His largest single donation, $15,000, went to the Colonial Leadership Trust PAC, a political action committee created by Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said energy companies may be reacting to the shifting political landscape in Virginia.

“It’s clear that Dominion and many other energy industries are trying to win more friends in the Democratic Caucus,” Farnsworth said. “This is particularly important in 2019 because there may be Democratic majorities in the House and Senate next year.”

Another energy-related donor that changed its pattern of political donations was EQT Corp. The Pittsburgh-based company is involved in the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia.

Last year, EQT Corp. donated more than $43,000 to Democrats and less than $35,000 to Republicans in 2018. Every year from 2008 through 2017, EQT gave Republicans more than Democrats. In 2017, for instance, EQT contributed $60,000 to Republicans and $31,500 to Democrats.

Similarly, Clyde E. Stacy, former head of Rapoca Energy, had given mostly to Republicans over the past decade. But in 2018, he donated $125,000 to Democrats and $102,500 to Republicans. Stacy is currently CEO of Par Ventures in Bristol, Virginia. He and United Co. are hoping to build a casino in Bristol — an issue before the General Assembly.

Like Dominion Energy, several large energy-related donors continue to contribute mostly to Republicans.

William Holtzman, head of a heating oil company and father of Republican Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier County, gives exclusively to Republicans, including $192,000 last year.

Appalachian Power donated more than $76,000 to Republicans and $46,500 to Democrats in 2018, according to VPAP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that shines a light on money in politics.

And Virginia Natural Gas contributed $55,500 to Republicans and $38,500 to Democrats. But that was more than Virginia Natural Gas donated to Democrats in past years. The company gave Democrats $30,000 in 2017 and $21,000 in 2016.

“This year will likely be a very expensive year for a lot of interests in Richmond,” Farnsworth said. “They basically have to donate to Republicans and Democrats, not knowing which party is going to be in control next year.”

All seats in the General Assembly are up for election in November.

Senate Panel Kills Stricter Seat-belt Law

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia will continue to have one of the weakest seat-belt laws in the country after a Senate committee killed a bill to require rear-seat passengers in a motor vehicle to wear safety belts and to make violating the state’s seat-belt law a primary offense.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-5 Wednesday to “pass by indefinitely” SB 1282, which sought to expand Virginia’s seat-belt requirements. Currently, only the driver and front-seat passengers must wear a safety belt (or children must be secured in a child restraint device). Violations are a secondary offense, meaning officers cannot pull drivers over and ticket them simply for not wearing a seat belt.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill, shared his concerns over passenger safety with the committee.

“After years of decline in traffic fatalities, we are now seeing an increase number of traffic fatalities — to some extent related to distracted driving issues,” Barker said. “This bill is something that can help address that and something we need to do to help ensure the safety of those riding a vehicle in Virginia.”

Since 2014, Virginia has seen a 20 percent increase in traffic-related fatalities and a 20 percent increase in fatalities related to unrestrained passengers and drivers, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2017, the latest year for which data are available, 308 unbelted drivers and passengers died in crashes.

Traffic safety groups supported Barker’s bill calling for primary enforcement to seat-belt usage for both front and rear passengers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that states with primary seat-belt enforcement laws “consistently have higher observed daytime belt use rates and lower fatality rates than secondary law states.” Virginia is among 16 states where seat-belt violations are a secondary offense. If someone is ticketed for the offense in Virginia, the fine is $25.

The Senate Transportation Committee split along party lines over the bill. The six Republicans on the panel voted to kill SB 1282; the five Democratic committee members voted to keep the bill alive.

Republican Sens. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield and John Cosgrove of Chesapeake questioned how police officers would enforce the seat-belt statute as a primary law.

After the vote, Georjeane Blumling, vice president of public affairs for AAA Tidewater Virginia, said she was disappointed but not surprised that the committee killed the bill.

“We knew that moving to a primary enforcement law was going to be a challenge,” Blumling said. “It has been [a challenge finding] balance between personal liberty and public safety for many years, and we appreciate Sen. Barker putting forth a bill to try to increase that safety by making seat belts both in the front and back required and a primary offense.”

Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which promotes traffic safety, said he would continue to push for stronger seat-belt laws. “The bottom line is that the routine wearing of seat belts is the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries,” Erickson said.

Erickson and Blumling will now wait for the House of Delegates to decide on a similar bill proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.

Krizek’s bill, HB 2264, calls for primary enforcement of the seat-belt requirement for drivers and front-seat passengers but secondary enforcement for rear-seat passengers. The measure has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate Transportation Committee voted Wednesday on SB 1282 (Safety belt systems; use by rear passengers):

01/16/19 — Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Transportation (6-Y 5-N)

YEAS — Carrico, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Chase, Suetterlein, Peake — 6.

NAYS — Deeds, Marsden, Favola, Edwards, McClellan — 5.

New Takeout Food Concept in Scott’s Addition

BIG KITCHEN

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A renovated diesel engine repair shop is home to a new food concept in Scott’s Addition. The Big Kitchen opened its takeout and delivery-based business on Wednesday, with the vision of creating meals from scratch that people can enjoy at home.

Restaurant co-owner Susan Davenport said they’ve been working on the space for a little over a year now.

The renovations include a storefront where customers can come in and pick up their order, as well as a walk-in cooler and a smokehouse in the back.

“This was the original bay where the semis would come through and drop their engines to be repaired,” Davenport said.

Customers can choose to drive through the covered garage to pick up their order from an employee or peruse the storefront options inside.

The menu offers a variety of items ranging from nacho kits and wood-fired frozen pizzas to bottles of wine and packs of beer.

“We have a really great team of chefs behind it,” Davenport said. “We have a lot of great sourcing with local purveyors, whether it’s our cheese or our meats, or especially in the growing season, the farms that we work with.”

The four partners behind The Big Kitchen formed Big Kitchen Hospitality, a local group that also operates Tazza Kitchen in the West End along with an outpost in Scott’s Addition.

The group said it has a staff of more than 300 employees working in its six full-service restaurants, three which are located in the Carolinas. Davenport said the online ordering technology and experienced food staff distinguishes The Big Kitchen from other carry-out concepts.

“You can order ahead and order several meals for a few days or some sides or frozen pizzas, and when you select your time for it to be ready, all you have to do is pull into our bay and we bring your order out,” Davenport said.

The Big Kitchen plans to launch food delivery service next month and will use refrigerated vans to keep the food fresh. Each item comes with heating instructions on the top label.

Jeff Grant, a BKH partner, said numerous people were involved in many trial runs to test recipes, along with the process of packaging and heating the prepared meals.

“Wood-fired cooking is still prominent, and we’ve included a few Tazza favorites, but we are excited about the new dishes and flavors that this team has put together,” Grant said.

Davenport said The Big Kitchen will offer customers the option to bring back used packaging for the staff to compost.

“I hate plastic, and so most of our packaging is compostable, and we actually compost everything organic here at this kitchen,” Davenport said. “Every month, we compost almost two tons of materials.”

The grab-and-go style market in the storefront offers freshly prepared items including sandwiches, smoked meats and salads. Storefront hours are 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 2:30-6:30 p.m. on Sunday. The Big Kitchen is located at 1600 Altamont Ave.

Panel OKs Bill to Restrict Tethering Animals

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House committee Wednesday advanced a bill requiring Virginians who tether dogs outside to give the animals more room to move.

It was one of three animal welfare bills the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources sent to the full House of Delegates for consideration.

All three measures were sponsored by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline. Last year, Orrock unsuccessfully sponsored legislation authorizing local governments to restrict how long animals can be tethered outside and to prohibit tethering during freezing weather.

Under current law, if an animal is tethered outside, the rope or chain must be at least three times the length of the animal as measured from nose to tail. HB 1827 would make the requirement four times the length of the animal or 15 feet, whichever is longer. Moreover, the tether could not weigh more than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight.

The measure would not apply to a leash used in taking an animal on a walk.

The committee voted 19-2 in favor of the bill.

Also, the panel unanimously approved a proposal to change the legal definition of “adequate shelter for animals” in the Code of Virginia.

Currently, adequate shelter is defined as a space that protects animals from “the adverse effects” of heat or cold. HB 1625 would change the definition to specify protection “from exposure to” heat or cold.

“A very simple, three-word change,” Orrock said. “But I think it gives significant additional powers to animal control to intervene before the suffering of an animal occurs.”

At the suggestion of the state attorney general’s office, Orrock is also sponsoring HB 1626, which takes aim at cockfighting. The bill says that when animal control officers find domesticated birds, such as roosters, tethered, they can presume that the birds are being used for animal fighting.

Del. Debra H. Rodman, D-Henrico, raised concerns about farmers who may tether fowl.

“Are we sure tethering is when people are cockfighting?” Rodman asked when the bill was discussed during a subcommittee meeting Monday. “I had chickens in Guatemala … and you tether your chickens on the way to market.”

The bill would allow Animal Control to investigate at their discretion, said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach. A court hearing would take place within 10 days, and the animal would be released to its owner if no evidence of animal fighting was found. This may help protect the rights of farmers while giving animal control officers more authority in animal fighting investigations, legislators said.

The committee approved the bill, 16-2.

Poor People’s Campaign Delivers Demands to Legislators

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, a revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 campaign to tackle poverty, gathered Wednesday at the Capitol, urging state and federal lawmakers to expand voting rights, raise the minimum wage, promote renewable energy and curb military aggression.

About 25 people attended the meeting, delivered demands regarding issues they said are rarely represented in the political arena.

“It’s very important for us to understand the power of voting and to not be manipulated into thinking our votes are insignificant,” said Carroll Malik, a representative from the Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia.

Malik said one of the most inspiring moments of his life was when his voting rights were restored 27 years after he was released from prison.

“We are not useless. We are not worthless. We can do something,” Malik said.

The group’s demands include restoration and expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act, an end to gerrymandering in drawing legislative districts, fully funded welfare programs, free tuition at public colleges and universities, more public housing, a ban on assault rifles and an immigration system that prioritizes family reunification.

Community organizers spent the morning discussing issues and strategy, and then participants spent the afternoon delivering letters to their elected representatives.

For the 2019 General Assembly session, the Poor People’s Campaign voiced support for several pieces of legislation:

  • HB 1902, sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, promotes renewable energy. It would make “$1 billion in grants available over three years to religious institutions, public schools, institutions of higher education, and localities” to help finance the installation and operation of solar energy systems, according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.
  • HB 1651, sponsored by Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, would raise from $500 to $750 the threshold for a theft to be considered grand larceny.
  • SB 1200, sponsored by Del. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021.

The group stated it “vigorously opposed” SB 1156, a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, to prohibit “sanctuary cities” for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

“We have come together because Virginia is in a moral crisis,” the Poor People’s Campaign stated. “We will continue to organize, mobilize and educate residents across this state around our Moral Agenda, until all our demands are satisfied.”

Richmond Public Schools Rallies Community with Advocacy Training during GA session

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Amidst fast paced agendas that can be inundated with political rhetoric and obscured by legislative processes, the General Assembly often remains an enigma to many Virginians. Even to some Richmonders, who dwell within the same city limits of the Capitol building, the first months of the year dedicated to the state's legislative system can pass by in a blur of headlines.

Matthew Stanley’s job is to bring that fuzzy grasp of public understanding into a civically energized focus.

As Richmond Public School’s Director of Advocacy and Outreach, Stanley held three public meetings in January, training over 40 community members how to advocate and interact with their legislative body for the betterment of Virginia’s public education.

Stanley asked the handful of community members gathered at the Peter Paul Development Center gym Tuesday night, “In what ways have you already advocated in your life?”  

Cheryl Burke, RPS School Board member of the Seventh District, said she has advocated for Richmond’s East End children for over 40 years, “as an educator, and as a parent.”

Taikein Cooper said his advocacy roots date back to middle school, with the uncomfortable onslaught of puberty. After feeling mistreated by his teachers, Cooper reached out to his parents for guidance.

When they set up a meeting to sort out the grievance, Cooper said it went differently than he expected. “I thought [my parents] were going to advocate for me,” Copper said to two roundtables of listeners. “But instead they let me advocate for myself. They gave me a platform and empowered me to use my voice.”

Now in his early 30s, Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, an education advocacy platform for communities across Virginia. He said he came to the meeting in support of the RPS mission to encourage community advocacy in the 2019 General Assembly session.

As a liaison between the worlds of educational priorities and legislative bureaucracy, Stanley presented a condensed slide show that bulleted a tangible step-by-step process for citizen involvement.

“The most important people for you to communicate with are your representatives, you have a delegate and a senator, and you’re their constituent,” Stanley said, outlining the basis of the political relationships at hand. “What you say to them matters. Your voice does matter.”

Subsequent slides listed resources for finding legislators, and tips for contacting them via phone or email. There were also suggestions for navigating personal, face-to-face conversations with politicians: "be confident," "stay positive," assertive-not aggressive."

"And be excited," Stanley said. "Really, advocacy is being excited about helping people."

That's the word Holly Jones used when asked how she felt about starting her new job as a mental health professional at Armstrong High School next week. "I'm excited," Jones said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders.  

Just 25 years old, and newly graduated in 2017 with a master’s degree in social work, Jones said she is bringing a lot of energy into her position. "There are a lot of challenges to overcome, but... yeah, I'm excited," she said again.

Stanley said one of those challenges is the counselor to student ratio in public schools. The state currently funds a ratio of one school counselor to every 425 students, nearly double the nationally-recommended best practice of one to 250 students.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed a three-year strategy with a $36 million investment to eventually reduce the state's ratio to the national best practice.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, released a memo in November with priority recommendations from the House Select Committee on School Safety, which included realigning school counselor's responsibilities so that "the majority of their time [is spent] providing direct student services." This would not, however, decrease the ratio.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 1735, which would review the current ratios and consider whether such a proposed alignment "is improving schools' ability to provide counseling services to students."

“It's a lengthy list… nobody has the answer to fix everything," Stanley said of the district’s list of priority recommendations and its "hashtaggable" goal to secure "more money to make better schools for stronger students."

Stanley handed out postcards at the end of the event and encouraged participants to write and begin fostering relationships with their legislators.

In white script on a red and blue background, some cards read “I support your position,” while others, in a more dissenting tone, read, “I disagree with your position.”  

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