2020-2-14

House advances bill to allow food stamp benefits at certain restaurants

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House advanced a bill this week that will help individuals in Virginia with an annual income of less than $3,600 get a hot meal with their food stamps, from certain restaurants.

House Bill 1410 passed the House Tuesday 54-41. The bill requires the Department of Social Services to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, or RMP, of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by Jan. 1, 2021.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, is one of five patrons on the bill and said that this bill is within the interest of the state.

“I witnessed firsthand how sometimes the lack of public education with regards to nutrition can lead individuals of lower income to use money to purchase foods that are not as nutritious as that which would be provided by a restaurant,” Samirah said.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a federal program that provides benefits to eligible low-income households. 

In 2015, SNAP helped 4.6 million people living in poverty, according to the Coalition Against Hunger which helps people apply for the benefits. 

A recipient is given an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that can be used to buy any food item except prepared or hot food. The bill would allow participants to purchase prepared meals from participating restaurants.

“The state would have to figure out exactly what restaurants would be able to access food stamp money as a form of payment for food provided,” Samirah said.

Chief patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said she hopes the proposed legislation will make hot meals accessible to the disabled, elderly and homeless populations, the groups of people the program is limited to.

“My ultimate goal with this is making sure that we are taking care of people who need to eat and that they eat nutritious whole meals, or they eat at whatever restaurants that like to participate,” Roem said.

Arizona and Rhode Island allow individuals to use their benefits card to purchase meals at approved restaurants. In Arizona, participating retailers include mainly fast food options: Subway, Jack in the Box, Papa John’s and Taco Bell.

“This is actually great for the restaurants because when someone actually swipes their SNAP benefit card in the first place, that money goes directly to the restaurant; it's guaranteed income,” Roem said.

The Virginia Department of Social Services must implement two parts of the legislation. The first part is reaching out to restaurants to encourage them to participate in the program, and the second part is informing current SNAP recipients of the participating restaurants and outline the conditions.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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Bills fail to snuff out flavored tobacco this session

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Yan Gleyzer was watching via livestream when the state Senate voted Tuesday to defeat a bill that would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. As the owner and CEO of Vape Guys, an e-cigarette distributor with three stores in Virginia, Gleyzer has been keeping his eye on tobacco legislation in the General Assembly.

Prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products including menthol was also proposed in the House of Delegates, but a committee voted last week to delay the two bills until 2021. Gleyzer called that a good thing, and said the delegates will now have more time to research and discuss proposed legislation.

“We can work with them to come up with the legislation that works for everybody,” Gleyzer said. 

Gleyzer, a board member of the Virginia Smoke Free Association, said if a flavor ban did become law, more than 400 vape shops would be forced to shut down. He said flavored products are meant to help adult smokers quit, and he doesn’t believe prohibition is necessary to prevent them from falling into the hands of teenagers.

“We definitely don’t want to have kids have those products,” Gleyzer said. “It’s not meant for kids, it’s meant for adults. So whatever we can do to prevent kids having those products, we’re definitely gonna help.”

Despite Virginia earning an “F” from the American Lung Association regarding its tobacco-control programs for the fifth year in a row, the General Assembly won’t be voting on whether or not to ban flavored tobacco products until the next session.

Aleks Casper, the American Lung Association’s director of advocacy in Virginia, said her organization supported bills that would prohibit flavored tobacco and vaping products as well as require retailers to obtain a license for the sale of tobacco.

“In light of the vaping epidemic that is occurring and the youth usage that is occurring, the time is now to act,” Casper said. “I think the sponsors of these bills are very committed to getting this work done and pulling stakeholders together to talk about how we get this done in Virginia.”

Casper said she was disappointed that the proposals were delayed but is hopeful for 2021.

“I think what it does give us is the opportunity to kind of regroup,” she said. “Talk about it, you know, talk with our sponsors. Again, the sponsors are truly committed to getting the work done.”

The following five bills concerning tobacco and vapor were continued into next year this month by the finance committee of the House of Delegates:

  • House Bill 93: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes;

  • HB 1119: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products with lower maximum penalties than HB 93;

  • HB 1120: Increase the tax on tobacco products, except cigarettes, to 39% of the wholesale price of other tobacco products;

  • HB 1185: Limit the sale of flavored and high-nicotine vapor products to licensed retailers who require identification from customers; 

  • HB 1283: Require retailers to obtain a permit from the state in order to sell any tobacco products; prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a “youth-oriented facility.”

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is the sponsor behind HB 93, which would create a civil penalty of $1,000 for the initial offense of selling flavored tobacco products and $5,000 on subsequent offenses.

Flavored tobacco products are defined in the bill as cigarettes, vapors or alternative nicotine devices with a taste or aroma of something other than tobacco. Menthol, mint, vanilla and fruit are among examples listed in the bill.

“As a long-time advocate for protecting the health of Virginia’s children, I proposed HB 93 to bring attention to the vaping crisis affecting so many of our young people,” Kory said.

Kory said she knew HB 93 was “overly broad” when she filed it, but she also knew that such a sweeping proposal would get stakeholders working together toward solving underage vaping. She also said she was pleased to work with vape-shop owners and the tobacco industry representatives on amending the bill so that it could be brought forward in this session, but time was a constraint.

“There are many more factors to be considered than time allowed,” Kory said. “I believe that continuing HB 93 under Rule 22 was an appropriate decision because this issue is extremely complex, and the solution will be difficult to legislate.”  

Rule 22 allows any bill or resolution introduced in an even numbered year and not reported out of committee to be continued for hearings and committee action during the interim between regular sessions.

Kory said she intends to focus on putting the legislation in the “proper posture for re-introduction in 2021.”

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Amended Assault Firearm Bill Squeaks out of House

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A controversial bill banning assault firearms passed the House this week along party lines, and after several amendments whittled away at certain requirements that had caused the loudest opposition. 

The House of Delegates passed HB 961 this week 51-48, which bans the sale of assault firearms and other firearm accessories. Sponsored by Del. Mark H. Levine, D-Alexandria, HB 961 is one of the many gun control efforts being introduced this session and backed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The bill has been amended several times, and because of this Levine believes that lawmakers have reached the best compromise. Levine also said he wants to counter misinformation being used by pro-gun groups.

“There have been a lot of scare tactics being used,” Levine said. “No one is going to send the police to kick down your door to take away your firearms.”

Amendments to the bill include striking the requirement that current owners of firearms categorized as assault weapons register them with the state police. Also removed was a section that banned suppressors, also known as “silencers.” Originally the bill required that the suppressors be destroyed, moved out of state, or surrendered to law enforcement by January 2021. Now the bill only restricts future sales of assault firearms and suppressors.

The bill in its current form would ban the sale and transfer of new assault rifles, as well as restrict the size of a magazine’s capacity to 12 rounds. An earlier version of the bill would have made possessing any large-capacity firearm magazine a class 6 felony violation, but that penalty was amended and reduced to a class 1 misdemeanor. 

“I have been talking to and listening to the concerns from law abiding citizens,” Levine said. “I have also worked with my colleagues across the aisle; Sen. Amanda Chase was instrumental in helping with these amendments.”

Former Arizona congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords on Monday urged Virginia lawmakers to “act with courage,” in a statement released the day before the vote.

Statewide opposition has swelled in response to proposed gun control legislation that the Democrats promised after gaining control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1993.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is a leading voice against the gun control bills that have been introduced.

“We will be working to kill the bills that crossed over,” Van Cleave said. “Expect VCDL to have a presence in all the subcommittee and committee rooms on gun bills, we will fight hard to stop it in the Senate.”

 Van Cleave and the VCDL held a massive pro-Second Amendment rally on Jan. 20, that drew over 22,000 people to Capitol Square and the surrounding areas. Northam declared a state of emergency before the event, citing concerns over safety and threats of violence.

Van Cleave said his group hasn’t planned another rally but that is something that could change on short notice.

“We are watching the gun bills,” Van Cleave said. “What happens with those bills will have bearing on our next move.” 

With Levine's bill inching closer to becoming law, many gun store owners statewide have reported an uptick in sales from state residents buying anything that would be banned under the bill. 

Eric Tompkins, owner of Paladin Strategic in Mechanicsville, said that the legislative gun control push has helped sales at his gun store, but predicted that his business probably won’t last if HB 961 were signed into law.

“It’s been a double-edged sword, because the past few months since the election have been great,” Tompkins said. “I have had a ton of customers each day, but I know that’ll drop off, and I don’t know whether my business will continue.”

The bill now heads to the Senate. Firearm bills passed earlier by the Senate include SB 70, which requires a universal background check when people sell firearms. SB 69 limits handgun purchases to one a month, while SB 35 allows localities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event. SB 240 allows authorities to take away the firearms of someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, a measure known as a red flag law. SB 543 makes background checks mandatory at gun shows.

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