2021-2-22

Lawmakers kill bill calling for transparency in redistricting commission

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate killed a House proposal to expand access to the commonwealth’s new redistricting commission and help make the process more transparent and democratic. 

House Bill 2082, patroned by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would have required the redistricting commission meetings to be advertised and accessible to the public. The commission will draw the commonwealth’s electoral districts every 10 years. The General Assembly previously drew the districts.

The bill was passed by indefinitely in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee after passing the House with a 55-41 vote. 

“During the debates on the commission, I kept saying ‘There’s no transparency here, there’s no transparency,’” Levine said. “Well, there wasn’t, and there isn’t. Without my legislation, the commission can meet in a dark room.”

The law already requires the commission to allow public comment at meetings, but Levine’s bill called for the meetings to be more widely advertised and in multiple languages. 

Levine said that one of the most important parts of the bill is that it allowed people to comment on the district maps after they are drawn, not just before. The bill required that maps be posted on the commission’s website and three public comment periods be held prior to voting.

People are more likely to have opinions once they see the practical impact of a district map, he said.

“You might not care before, and then you look at the map and they’ve split your community right down the middle,” Levine said. 

 The bill also would have prohibited the Supreme Court of Virginia, which has the authority to decide districts if the commission can’t come to an agreement, from meeting in private. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission has been meeting virtually. Eight legislators and eight private citizens serve on the commission, split evenly between the two major political parties. For a map to be approved, 15 of the members would have to vote yes, Levine said. If two or more commission members voted against the map, the decision would go to the Supreme Court, according to Levine. The Court also becomes involved if the state legislature rejects the maps.

Levine said that the redistricting court meetings should be publicly accessible, because the Supreme Court would be acting like a legislature.

“I would’ve shined a bright light on the process, and it would have made the commission better,” Levine said. 

Virginians voted to establish the commission during a ballot measure in the November general election, where it won with 66% of the vote.

“It doesn’t make it perfect,” Levine said. “I recognize that Virginians voted for it, but I want to make it better.”

Opponents of Levine’s bill believed that the Supreme Court should have the right to meet privately. Republican members of the Voting Rights subcommittee abstained from voting on the bill, then voted against the substitute version of the bill. The vote that killed the bill in the Senate, however, had both Democrats and Republicans voting against it. 

During the House Privileges and Elections committee meeting on Feb. 3, opponents of the bill expressed concerns about whether it would go into effect in a timely manner, as well as concerns about whether the Supreme Court should be able to meet in private.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, asked whether the bill would have an impact on the 2021 district maps, because it would not have gone into effect until July 1. A public commenter asked whether the bill raised “constitutional issues” because it prevents the Supreme Court from deliberating in private. 

“Both opponents and supporters of the bill agree that we need transparency,” Levine said during the meeting.

Members of several advocacy groups spoke in support of the bill during the meeting, including redistricting coordinator Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports left-of-center causes.

“We believe that the newly-developed redistricting commission should work to be accessible and transparent,” Corbett said. “With this legislation, we can better ensure language access, public comment, and inclusivity as we move through the process of redistricting in Virginia.”

A provision in the bill, which was taken out during subcommittee hearings, would not have counted prisoners from outside of the commonwealth as Virginia residents. Virginians who are imprisoned in Virginia have been counted as residents of their home districts, but Levine’s attempt to extend this to non-Virginians imprisoned in Virginia was unsuccessful. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia General Assembly advances bill to modernize HIV laws

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly advanced a bill this week that lawmakers say will modernize Virginia’s current HIV laws. The amended measure has passed both chambers, but lawmakers must now accept or work out differences in the bill. 

Senate Bill 1138, introduced by Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also removes a law that prohibits the donation of blood and organs by people with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A 21-17 vote along party lines pushed the bill out of the Senate earlier this month. The House of Delegates passed the bill Friday in a 56-44 vote. 

The bill repeals a law that makes it a felony for HIV-positive people to sell or donate blood, body fluids, organs and tissues. Donors must be in compliance with the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act. This state legislation does not apply to national organizations such as the American Red Cross. The organization implements FDA guidelines that require men who have sex with men to defer from sexual intercourse for three months before donating blood. 

The measure also removes HIV, AIDS, syphilis and hepatitis B from the list of infectious biological substances under the current infected sexual battery law, opting to use the language “sexually transmitted infection.” The crime is punishable by a Class 6 felony, which carries a punishment of no more than five years in prison or a $2,500 fine. In 2019 and 2020, three offenders were convicted of such crimes, according to data provided in the impact statement by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. The Senate voted to lower the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor. 

Opponents of the bill spoke against reducing the penalty for such crimes. The House vote Friday included an amendment to keep the Class 6 felony punishment.

The bill adds language that HIV will not be included in the current statute as an infectious biological substance. It is a Class 5 felony to cause malicious injury by means of an infectious biological substance. The offense is punishable by five to 30 years in prison. 

McClellan said current HIV laws put in place during the 1980s AIDS epidemic have proven ineffective from a public health perspective. She said they are counterproductive and were implemented years ago tof receive federal funding.

“There are other laws that could be used to criminalize intentionally infecting someone with anything,” McClellan said. “There’s no need to specifically target and single out for HIV-positive status.”

LGBTQ and HIV advocacy groups hope the bill will end the stigma attached to HIV-positive people and also LGBTQ members who are not HIV positive.

The bill has the support of organizations such as the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Equality Virginia, the Zero Project, Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia, or ECHO VA, and the Positive Women’s Network - USA. 

Deirdre Johnson, co-founder of the ECHO VA Coalition, said the bill is a step in the right direction for ending the stigma against those with HIV. 

“One of the biggest things with the stigma has been the fear of knowing that you could be criminalized for having HIV, period, and then you know, of course, that deters people from getting tested,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that HIV stigma and criminalization have a profound effect on people of color and other marginalized communities who already experience health care inequity and mistrust. 

“Virginia is for lovers and I really want us to encompass that slogan, including people living with HIV and a perceived risk for HIV,” Johnson said

Cedric Pulliam, co-founder of ECHO VA, said lawmakers in the 1980s and 1990s saw HIV as something the public needed to be protected from when it was and continues to be a public health concern. There is now a call for state legislators around the country to change HIV criminalization laws.

Pulliam said that national agencies are reaching out to state legislators to help undo prior initiatives that limit HIV prevention, treatment and services. 

“We need your help from the state to really, basically right this wrong that we created decades ago,” Pulliam said of the agency outreach.

Pulliam called the move to decriminalize health status a “liberation” for those living with HIV because they would no longer have a target on their back. He also said that laws specifically target people with HIV. In Virginia, syphilis and hepatitis also are criminalized but other chronic illnesses and diseases are not, he said.

Virginia is currently one of 37 states as of 2020 that have HIV discriminatory laws, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If the federal government has really been calling for states to make this change, it's time for Virginia to be one of the next and not be, you know, the last,” Pulliam said.

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Moves Closer to Ban Plastic Foam Containers

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- For a second year in a row, a bill that prohibits food vendors from using plastic foam containers is up in the air as the General Assembly hashes out a Senate amendment. 

Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, introduced House Bill 1902 this year after her bill passed last year with a reenactment clause, which means it must pass two years in a row. 

 The Senate passed the legislation Friday in a 21-15 vote. The passage came with an amendment proposed by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, that would not exempt nonprofits, state and local government entities and schools from the ban. 

“Why are we going to say styrofoam is bad if it's used by a small business, but it's okay if it's used by a school division,” Petersen said during Friday’s session.

The House rejected the amendment and the Senate voted unanimously to insist on its amendment. There is a conference committee scheduled to work out the legislative differences.

The measure prohibits food vendors such as restaurants, food trucks and grocery stores from packaging prepared foods in polystyrene containers. The prohibition will not extend to packaging for unprepared foods, including coolers used in food shipments or unprepared food packages, such as raw or uncooked meat, fish or eggs. 

Retail food establishments with 20 or more locations are required to phase out plastic foam containers by July 2023. Other food vendors must stop using these types of takeout containers by July 2025. 

The bill is a continuation of Virginia’s lawmakers’ sweeping effort to pass environmental legislation, but the COVID-19 pandemic has opened a discussion on the usefulness of single-use disposable packaging such as polystyrene to limit contamination and facilitate a shift to carry-out business. 

 The Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, an organization for restaurants and other hospitality industries, opposes the ban.

Robert Melvin, director of government affairs at the association, said the bill is “misguided” and will hurt smaller, local restaurants financially, whose businesses have taken a toll amid the pandemic.

“I don't know why we would even entertain the idea of going and banning something that helps prevent the spread of disease when we're fighting a public health epidemic,” Melvin said.

Polystyrene container alternatives can cost as low as one penny a piece, said Elly Boehmer, state director of Environment Virginia, an advocacy affiliate of Environment America. Alternatives can include paper-lined containers or biodegradable products made of molded fiber or bagasse, a pulpy byproduct from sugarcane. 

“The more that restaurants start adopting this, the more options there will be and the lower the price will become,” Boehmer said. “So right now, that's the case where we can find really good cost alternative sustainable products.”

Polystyrene is nonbiodegradable and is difficult to recycle, according to Environment Virginia. Boehmer said polystyrene when flattened and shredded can resemble paper, which creates problems in recycling plants.

“It can also impact and contaminate our paper recycling and things that we actually can recycle,” Boehmer said.

Polystyrene can take 500 years to biodegrade and some items never do, making its way to riverways and oceans, according to Environment Virginia.

Expanded polystyrene foam can break down into microparticles, which is harmful to the environment and wildlife and detrimental to human health, Boehmer said. Polystyrene contains styrene, known to be toxic and probably carcinogenic, according to a study published in 2018. 

“The toxic chemicals from it can leach into food and drink and then be ingested. And this is especially of issue when the containers are hot,” Boehmer said. “When you get your coffee, that's when you're more likely to get a lot of the toxic chemicals from this product.”

Melvin said the switch to non polystyrene containers will drive up restaurants’ costs in the long run.

“That adds up quickly,” he said, “especially when you're dealing with large numbers of food containers.”

Food vendors may be granted a one year exemption from the ban if they demonstrate “undue economic hardship,” such as inability to afford polystyrene container alternatives, according to the bill. Vendors may be granted further exemptions if they can prove continuing hardship.

Instead of a polystyrene ban, Melvin said there should be more studies on the recyclability of polystyrene, such as advanced recycling.

Advanced recycling, also known as chemical recycling, refers to chemical processes that convert plastics into their original building blocks, for future development of new plastic products.

Senate Bill 1164, sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr., R-Augusta, seeks to define chemical recycling as a manufacturing industry rather than a solid waste industry. The bill is nearing its third reading in the House after passing the Senate with strong support.

A House bill redefining chemical recycling died after Del. Kenneth R. Plum, D-Reston, requested his bill be stricken from a committee docket. 

Opponents of Carr’s bill spoke against the polystyrene container prohibition at a Senate subcommittee meeting. They said recycling polystyrene is economically feasible and is being done across the country. There are plans to build a chemical recycling facility in Cumberland County.

While polystyrene can be processed by chemical recycling, some environmental advocacy groups are wary of the practice. A report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a group that works to find waste and pollution solutions, concluded chemical recycling will worsen the plastic waste crisis and that local governments should focus on reducing plastic pollution by transitioning to zero waste systems.

Carr said her bill is tied to SB 1164, which she said has overwhelming Senate support. However, she said chemical recycling and a polystyrene prohibition can coexist in the commonwealth. 

“It is not in conflict with any recycling manufacturing efforts,” Carr said. “There's ample time for our restaurants to accommodate, with lots of products that are available and affordable.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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