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Tuition and Student Debt Increasing in Virginia

 

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Most students who graduated from Virginia’s public colleges and universities last year left not only with a degree but also with a financial burden: an average student loan debt of about $30,000.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, once among Virginia’s most affordable institutions, students owed an average of nearly $31,000. As college and university tuition continues to rise, new laws that take effect this summer aim to help students get a grip on how much they owe.

Tuition increases have become the norm as decreases in state funding have pushed universities to boost prices to cover costs. These tuition hikes coincide with statewide trends in higher education costs and student loan debt.

At VCU, officials are proposing an increase of $844, or 6.4 percent, in tuition and mandatory fees for the coming academic year as part of the 2018-19 budget, said Karol Kain Gray, vice president of finance and budget.

Other institutions also are raising tuition. Virginia Tech approved a 2.9 percent hike in tuition and mandatory fees, the University of Virginia adopted a 2.5 percent increase and the College of William & Mary raised tuition 6.5 percent for incoming in-state undergraduate students. Current William & Mary students will continue to pay the tuition in effect when they were admitted.

From 2007 to 2017, college tuition and fees in Virginia have increased each year by an average of $578, or 6 percent. During the decade, VCU’s tuition and fees have increased annually by an average of  $743, or 8.4 percent.

This year, in-state undergraduate students at VCU paid $13,624 in tuition and mandatory fees. That was the fifth-highest amount among Virginia’s 15 four-year public colleges and universities. VCU’s tuition has more than doubled — it’s up 120 percent — since the 2007-08 school year. Back then, in-state undergraduates at VCU paid $6,196 — the fifth-lowest amount in Virginia.

At a recent forum hosted by the VCU Student Government Association, Gray outlined the university’s budget goals and explained how the school uses its funds and why it needs a tuition increase. About 40 people attended the session, including students, staff and members of the Board of Visitors.

For VCU, the 6.4 percent increase is part of a $33 million request to fund its “highest priority” needs and other academic and administrative priorities. Some of the high-priority needs, according to Gray, are raises for teaching and research faculty and adjuncts, and additional need- and merit-based financial aid for undergraduates.

VCU’s average instructor salary of $49,000 is lower than other four-year institutions in Virginia. Tech, U.Va., George Mason University and William & Mary have average instructor salaries between $53,600 and $63,700, according to the American Association of University Professors 2016-17 report on university salaries.

“We have to start looking at where we’re going and at having reasonable increases to support the things we deserve to have,” Gray said. “This hurts our ranking, it hurts our [faculty] retention and it’s a morale issue.”

Tripp Wiggins, an 18-year-old VCU freshman, said he came to the forum looking for fiscal transparency from the university. He left feeling like there wasn’t enough information about why VCU is relying on tuition as its primary source of revenue.

“I feel like I understand how the funds are being managed,” Wiggins said. “But I still don’t have a clear understanding why the burden [of education costs] is going towards student tuition when there are other ways of getting revenue.”

From a Public Good to a Private Benefit?

In Virginia, the state shares the cost of education with students by providing general funds to universities. Universities then set tuition based on how much state funding they will receive. This educational and general fund is used to finance faculty salaries, financial aid and improvements to classrooms and academic buildings.

In 2004, Virginia set a cost-sharing goal: The state would cover 67 percent of the educational cost, and students would cover the remaining 33 percent through tuition. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

According to the 2017-18 tuition and fees report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, students are paying for 53 percent of the cost of their education, with the state picking up 47 percent.

Changes in state funding and the economy have pushed universities to increase tuition and fees to maintain their academic standards and growth, officials say.

At the VCU budget forum, Dr. Charles Klink, senior vice provost for student affairs, said this represented a shift in the perception of higher education overall.

“At one point people saw higher education as a public good. Now it seems more like a private benefit,” Klink said.

For students paying for their education through loans, lawmakers in the most recent General Assembly session passed new laws to protect borrowers from drowning in debt.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, introduced legislation that would help students manage their federal loans, while Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, sponsored a bill to create a student loan ombudsman. Both bills have been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam and will take effect July 1.

Obenshain’s bill, SB 568, requires public colleges and universities to provide students with an annual statement about their federal loans. This statement includes how much money they have borrowed so far, the potential amount they will owe and estimated monthly payments.

“I want to ensure that college students know how much they are actually borrowing and how much it will cost them in interest so that hopefully we can help get under control the overwhelming debt that our students often face upon graduation,” Obenshain said.

Price’s bill, HB 1138, created a state student loan ombudsman within SCHEV. According to the bill summary, this office is will be an advocate for borrowers by helping them understand their rights and responsibilities under their loan. The office also will review and attempt to resolve complaints from borrowers.

There are other methods universities can use to keep tuition hikes low while maintaining growth. Gray said one way is increasing the number of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

At VCU, for example, 10 percent of students are from out of state, according to SCHEV reports. Tech and U.Va. enroll about 30 percent from outside Virginia.

Huge Crowd Fills D.C. in ‘March For Our Lives’

By Adam Hamza and Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of people from around the country rallied in the nation’s capital Saturday to send a single message to lawmakers: Enough is enough.

David Hogg, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior and event organizer, said it’s time to remove politicians supported by the National Rifle Association because “this isn’t cutting it.”

“To those politicians supported by the NRA, that allow the continued slaughter of our children and our future, I say: get your resumes ready,” Hogg said.

The demonstration was the work of Hogg and fellow students at the Parkland, Florida, high school where a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day. Saturday’s March for Our Lives — and more than 800 sister marches around the world — was a response to that massacre.

Georgia native Adam Marx, 27, said he was most impressed by how the students have risen up in this movement.

“These students are leaders,” Marx said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 16, 17 or 27 … age is a number. [Having a] mission, passion or vision for what we want to have for people living here, that’s not restricted to a number. It’s that simple.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sophomores Jorgie Garrido and Anna Bayuk were among many of their fellow students at the nation’s capital. They described the atmosphere in one word — unity.

“To see all the people that came out, the students, and especially the non-students, it’s really reassuring,” Garrido said. “It provides a sense of unity where you can see how many people are standing with you, how many people are supporting you, and how many other people are also demanding change in this country. “

Garrido knew Helena Ramsay, 17, and Carmen Schentrup, 16, and Bayuk knew Jaime Guttenburg, 14, who were killed in last month’s shooting.

“I know that my friends, if they had survived and other children had died, they would be here too,” Garrido said. “They would be fighting for the same things we are. To know that we’re trying to guarantee that no other child ends up like they did, shot dead in a classroom, I think that that’s the best way to pay respect to them.”

Bayuk said she and her classmates will be transitioning back into their routines after they travel home, but they will keep advocating for stricter gun laws.

“We’re going to be moving on and trying to get back to everyday life, but there’s a new normal, and we can’t just sink back into complacency and sink back into being quiet,” she said.

2018 General Assembly Scorecard

Below is an infographic showing how many bills each legislator passed as a percentage of the number of bills submitted. This infographic was created by Capital News Service reporter Adam Hamza.

 

Dr. Grace Harris Is Remembered for ‘Her Spirit of Hope’

By George Copeland Jr and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dr. Grace Harris, whose life and career stretched from the roads of rural Halifax County to the halls of the Virginia State Capital, was celebrated Saturday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Nearly 200 people, including family, friends, legislators and educators, assembled to remember Dr. Harris, who died Feb. 12 at age 84. She was praised as a “thoughtful, forward-thinking leader” by Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao. Dr. Harris remains the highest-ranking African-American woman in the college’s history.

Rao cited her 48-year tenure at the school, where she served as a dean, provost and acting president, as fundamental to VCU’s community and culture.

“I’ve talked a lot about VCU and its commitment to public good. That’s Grace,” Rao said. “VCU is committed to excellence and inclusion. That’s Grace.”

Rao also made clear that those present “must never forget” how racism initially barred Dr. Harris from attending VCU (the Richmond Professional Institute at the time) during her college years. As a result, Harris had to start graduate school out of state – at Boston University, where her classmates included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Members of the Harris family shared memories and personal stories of how they viewed her legacy.

In the course of their life together, Dr. Harris and her husband, James W. “Dick” Harris, had two children – James and Gayle. James Harris described the work ethic his mother instilled in him growing up in a letter read by his wife, Noelle Harris.

“She showed me what hard work, talent and dedication can do,” James Harris wrote. “And I’m glad to say and show her that I listened.”

Gayle Harris reminisced about the openness, kindness and respect her mother showed her throughout their life together.

“How wonderful it has been to have such support, encouragement, acceptance and love,” she said.

Recalling his time working with Dr. Harris on VCU’s Board of Visitors, Roger Gregory, chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, remembered the “prescription of life” she brought during her tenure.

“She gently wove her spirit of hope into the tapestry of every professional endeavor she had and every professional encounter,” Gregory said.

A number of political leaders, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, attended the service. U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were unable to attend but wrote letters sending their regards. Dr. Harris served on Warner’s transition team for his term as Virginia governor in 2001. When Kaine was governor, she helped him choose appointees to university boards of trustees.

Former Gov. Douglas Wilder noted the challenges Dr. Harris faced and overcame as a woman of color in a racially segregated state and society. He also spoke of the importance of her legacy at a time of national upheaval and change for women.

Quoting Dr. Harris directly, Wilder left the audience with words of inspiration: “I will persist until I succeed, for I was not delivered into this world in defeat.”

That inspiration was evident in those in attendance. Leon Sankofa, president and founder of Family and Youth Foundations Counseling Services in Hampton, said Dr. Harris’ outreach efforts led him to enroll in VCU’s School of Social Work, where she served as assistant professor from 1967 to 1976.

“She was my idol,” Sankofa said. “She still is.”

Dr. Harris’ legacy of compassion extended beyond the funeral’s speakers and audience. Band leader Rudy Faulkner, during the opening musical selection, briefly mentioned the kindness the Harris family showed him one Christmas many years ago.

It was this compassion and kindness that Jullian Harrison, Dr. Harris’ grandson, saw as her greatest quality.

“Yes, she was smart. Yes, she was kind. But also, she was empathetic,” he recalled. Harrison said that is what made his grandmother so special.

“In a day and age when leadership and power is so synonymous with the focus on self, the fact that she could build a legacy and foundation based on kindness and to have it be successful is what made her.”

Homeland’s Record Spending Boosts Economy, Highlights VA’s Film Incentive Programs

Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam recently praised the American spy thriller series “Homeland” for bolstering Virginia's film industry and boosting the state’s economy. Recent studies add context to how Virginia attracts these productions through tax incentives and how such productions benefit the state.

Northam announced that season seven of SHOWTIME's “Homeland” is on track to produce about $45 million in direct spending in Virginia — the largest single production expenditure in the state’s history. Factor in the film’s effect on secondary businesses, and the economic impact may be nearly double that, at $82 million, he said.

Filming for season seven began in the fall and is scheduled to finish early this spring. Northam expressed his excitement to see Virginia portrayed in the new season.

“We have been delighted to host this iconic show in the Commonwealth,” he said in a press release. “‘Homeland’ has had an incredible impact on Virginia's economy and created an excitement that is impossible to measure.”

Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, and Esther Lee, Virginia’s secretary of Commerce and Trade, said the decision to film in the state has several economic benefits for the commonwealth.

“Cast members have dined and raved about Virginia's food scene; our beautiful scenery and cultural assets are in the national spotlight,” Edmunds said. “Virginia's status as a competitive film location has been bolstered.”

Lee said the commonwealth's film production industry has grown consistently over the last several years.

“‘’Homeland’s’ record estimated spend shows the remarkable potential this industry holds for Virginia,” she said. “This series has and will continue to contribute millions to Virginia's economy, and provide high-income jobs to our industry workers.”

Impact of Virginia’s Film Industry

Despite the praise, studies examining the impact of film productions and film tax incentives on Virginia's economy offer somewhat mixed results.

Mangum, an independent economics firm, found that the film industry has boosted Virginia’s economy significantly. Data compiled by the firm revealed that in 2016 the film industry contributed to Virginia's economy 4,287 full-time-equivalent jobs, $215 million in labor income, $697 million in economic output and $27 million in state and local tax revenue.

This includes the impact of productions such as documentaries, long-form specials, television series or mini-series, commercial ads and music videos.

Season three of AMC's “Turn” and season two of PBS's “Mercy Street” were filmed in Virginia from September 2015 to July 2016. A separate Mangum study said the two productions had a “sizable impact” on Virginia's economy.

Those two series generated 530 full-time-equivalent jobs, $29 million in wage and salary and $40 million in economic output. They also generated more than $2 million in state and local tax revenue.

A study published by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in 2017 evaluated Virginia’s film incentive programs from 2012 to 2016. It found that although incentives positively impacted economic growth, that impact was smaller than the impact of similar programs in other states.

The programs Virginia offers have a low return on investment at 20 or 30 cents per dollar. But Edmunds said the return on investment appears low because the study doesn't take every factor into account.

“If infrastructure investment and local business expansion, local resident career advancement and the added value of a broadcast platform related to tourism advertising were taken into account, the return on investment would likely be much higher,” Edmunds said in a written response to the study.

The study also found that incentives do influence production companies to film in the state, but they are not significant factors in the decision. Additionally, growth in Virginia's film industry has been small overall, despite increased spending through incentives. The film industry is being concentrated in metropolitan areas and is overshadowed by other states like California and New York.

Virginia's Motion Picture Incentives

Virginia is one of 31 states and U.S. territories that offer motion picture incentives, alongside Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The state offers two major incentives for filmmakers: The Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and the Motion Picture Tax Credit Fund.

According to the Code of Virginia, the Motion Picture Opportunity Fund is a grant to help cover the costs of production companies and producers who make their projects in Virginia using Virginia employees, goods and services.

This grant is awarded at the discretion of the governor and there is no minimum required expense. The legislature appropriated more than $3 million for the grant each of the last two fiscal years.

The Motion Picture Tax Credit fund provides a tax credit of “15 percent of the production company's qualifying expenses or 20 percent of such expenses if the production is filmed in an economically distressed area of the Commonwealth,” according to the Code of Virginia.

The JLARC study recommended eliminating or simplifying the tax credit and creating a point-based scoring system to evaluate applications for the grant. There was no legislation introduced in the 2018 session to address either recommendation.

“Homeland” is eligible to receive a Virginia film tax credit and grant. The exact amount will be based on the number of Virginia workers hired, Virginia goods and services purchased and intangible products including Virginia tourism promotions.

Bill Would Exempt Trade Secrets from FOIA

Delegate Roxann Robinson, R - Midlothian, before the General Laws subcommittee, reading her proposed bill creating general rules exempting trade secrets from Freedom of Information Act requests (photo by Adam Hamza)

Delegate Roxann Robinson, R - Midlothian, before the General Laws subcommittee, reading her proposed bill creating general rules exempting trade secrets from Freedom of Information Act requests (photo by Adam Hamza)

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Open government and environmental advocates are once again battling bills they say that would limit public-information access by creating a Freedom of Information Act exclusion for trade secrets.

HB 904 by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, would create general exclusions from FOIA for trade secrets submitted to a public body. It passed its initial hearing in a House General Laws subcommittee Tuesday.

The bill is similar to four others Robinson introduced last year that would have allowed FOIA exemptions for chemical names and concentrations used in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. All failed to pass.

The new bill is supported by the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Alan Gernhardt, the council’s executive director, said the bill simplifies the way FOIA treats trade secrets.

He said that over the past few years, FOIA exemptions have been issued based specifically on the type of record as well as the agency. This means each time an exception is sought, an individual exemption must be crafted.

“The problem is more and more agencies are holding or receiving trade secrets, and so they’re asking for more exemptions every year,” Gernhardt said. “We want to get the one general exemption everybody can use and remove the language that’s specific for each agency.”

Opponents of the bill countered that the exclusions are too broad and carry significant unintended consequences – mainly, keeping more information from citizens.

Emily Francis, representing the Southern Environmental Law Center, criticized what she termed a sweeping exemption. She said the legislation doesn’t address the center’s concerns from Robinson’s earlier bills, including the need to provide public access to the names of chemicals used in fracking.

“The public would like access to this information. As of today, they do have access to this information, and they would like (continued) access to that information,” she said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, expressed objections similar to those of the law center.

“We do want to point out that, yes it has been worked on for four years, and the bill that came – nobody was happy with it,” Rhyne said.

Corrina Beall, political director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, and Daria Christian, assistant director of the Friends of the Rappahannock, also spoke in opposition.

Trade secrets in the legislation are based on the definition in Virginia’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act, according to the bill summary.

A trade secret, according to the act, “means information, including but not limited to, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process, that: 1. Derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use, and 2. Is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.”

The subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines to send the bill to the full committee:

  • Republican Dels. Keith Hodges of Middlesex, Hyland Fowler of Hanover, James Leftwich of Chesapeake and Jason Miyares and Glenn Davis of Virginia Beach voted for the bill.
  • Democratic Dels. Betsy Carr of Richmond, Patrick Hope of Arlington and Kathleen Murphy of Fairfax voted against it.

Virginia House End Secrecy in Committee Votes

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for government transparency are applauding the Virginia House of Delegates for ending its practice of allowing committees and subcommittees to kill legislation on unrecorded voice votes.

In adopting rules for the legislative session that began Wednesday, the House voted unanimously to require panels to record who votes how.

“A recorded vote of members of a committee or subcommittee shall be taken and the name and number of those voting for, against, or abstaining shall be taken upon each measure,” according to the chamber’s new rules, introduced by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

In addition to recorded votes, the new rules provide for more proportional representation on committees and require live-streaming and archiving of committee hearings.

In the past, many bills were approved or rejected at the committee and subcommittee level on voice votes alone. This made it was impossible to know which delegates voted against or for a particular bill.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who founded the Virginia Transparency Caucus, praised the rule change as a major step forward for Virginia.

“This is a victory for transparency and open government for the people of the commonwealth,” Chase said. Levine agreed.

“By having these votes recorded, members will now be responsible for all legislative actions they take. No more will bills be killed in secret without any accountability,” he said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, commended the move. After the change was announced, Rhyne wrote in an email: “Good work from the House leadership!”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, echoed that sentiment. “Everyone needs to know how decisions are made,” she said.

Democrats blamed Republicans for the past secrecy.

“For years, House Republicans have killed critical pieces of progressive legislation through unrecorded voice votes,” House Democratic Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring of Alexandria said in a joint statement. “That era is over, and we welcome a new era of accountability and governance that is more reflective of last year’s election results.”

Democrats picked up 15 House seats in November. As a result, Republicans have only a 51-to-49 majority in that chamber.

Republican leaders acknowledged that the makeup of the House was a factor in changing the rules.

Gilbert said the new rules “reflect the new composition of the House chamber, as well as several new transparency initiatives we are proud to champion.”

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said he is proud that the House changed the rules.

“The work we do as public servants should always be open and accessible to an informed citizenry,” he said. “I have always advocated for recorded votes.”

Last year, Cline sponsored a bill to require recorded votes in committees and subcommittees. It died in the House Rules Committee – on an unrecorded vote.

Inauguration Attendees: ‘I’m Proud of My State’

 

 

 

 

 

By Adam Hamza and Christopher Wood, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Traveling from all parts of the state, thousands of Virginians came to watch Ralph Northam take the gubernatorial oath of office on Saturday. Many traveled to show their support for the new governor – and others to reflect on what the future holds.

‘I’m proud of my state’

Mark and Elizabeth Martin drove 85 miles from Stanardsville to see their son march in the parade with the Virginia Military Institute. Before Northam’s inaugural address, Mark Martin said he believed Virginia was regressing in its politics.

“In the 2016 election, we had the backlash of nationalism and small mindedness, and this was a move in the other direction,” he said.

Both Mark and Elizabeth said they believe Northam will have a progressive impact in Virginia.

“I’m proud of my state for doing the right thing,” Elizabeth Martin said. “Partisan politics aren’t the way to go; we need to look at each issue individually and see what’s best for everyone.”

 

First-time to attend an inauguration

Jaylen Green, a student at the University of Virginia, said she and a friend came to support other friends who had worked for Northam’s campaign. She said she has seen how politics affect people locally, and that she voted for Northam in the gubernatorial primary elections.

“Neither of us had been to an inauguration before,” Green said.

Jill Caiazzo of Arlington attended the inauguration for the first time as well.

“I’m just excited to see Ralph Northam inaugurated. I think he’s going to do great things for this state,” she said.

 

A supporter of women’s rights

Northam’s inaugural address covered a range of issues including Medicaid expansion, gun regulation, women’s rights and the need to end partisan politics.

Elizabeth Martin, a pro-choice supporter, said she thought it was important that the new governor specifically mentioned women’s rights.

 

 

“I’m so happy he hit on women’s rights and is stressing that, and rights for all people,” she said.

 

 

A focus on other issues

 

 

Some attended to voice their causes and gauge what Northam’s goals are. Sheba Williams is the executive director of Nolef Turns, a charity that helps men and women who have been convicted of a felony. She said she went to the inauguration to better understand the direction the administration is taking.

 

 

“We just want to see what the goals are for this administration, and see who they will be focusing on,” Williams said.

 

 

Sam Barker, a student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, said he came to the inauguration to see a friend, Justin Fairfax, take the oath of office as the state’s lieutenant governor. He said he hopes Northam keeps a strong stand on his environmental policy.

 

 

In the past, Northam has worked to preserve water quality and management in the Chesapeake Bay. He has also rejected the idea that environmental regulation and economic growth are mutually exclusive.

 

 

“I just really hope he puts a stop to offshore drilling in Virginia,” Barker said, referring to a recent action by President Trump. “Trump has reinstated offshore drilling on the East Coast, which has been banned since at least the ’70s.”

Dueling Gun Rallies Held at Virginia Capitol

By Christopher Wood and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Demonstrators for and against gun control held rallies on the Capitol grounds Monday, highlighting an issue that has sharply divided Republicans and Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Dave Brat and several fellow Republicans held a rally in the morning in support of the Second Amendment and the expansion of gun rights.

“I’m not going to take away your Second Amendment rights,” said Dick Black, a state senator and Vietnam veteran from Loudoun County, “when I’m standing here alive because I had a rifle when I needed it.”

A few hours later, Democratic officials delivered a different message, advocating what they call “common-sense” gun control proposals.

“Over 1,000 individuals lose their lives each year in Virginia to gun violence and accidents – more than will die in motor vehicle accidents,” said newly inaugurated Gov. Ralph Northam. “Why don’t we all stand up and say ‘enough is enough?’”

Virginia Citizens Defense League rally

The Virginia Citizens Defense League started its rally at about 11 a.m. at the Bell Tower on Capitol Square. One of the attendees was Cesar Inong, Jr., a mortgage loan assistant from Springfield in Northern Virginia.

Inong said he thinks restrictions on guns should be loosened for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from muggers and other attacks.

“Over years and years, gun laws have become stricter and stricter, but the issues that coincide with anti-gun laws are increasing – issues including shootings,” Inong said.

At the rally, several Republican politicians, including Del. Dave LaRock of Loudoun County, spoke in support of gun rights.

Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, criticized bills before the General Assembly that would restrict gun rights.

“There’s a bill that if somebody swore an oath that if you were a danger to yourself, before you go to court or anything they can come in your house and take your guns away for a couple of weeks,” Van Cleave said. “You’re guilty before you’re innocent.”

Speakers at the rally said restrictions on obtaining a concealed weapons permit hurt minorities and lower-income residents who may live in high-crime neighborhoods. Another vulnerable group is victims of domestic violence.

Elizabeth Baran, a nurse from Maryland, said she was nearly beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend.

“I called the police when he would break into my home. They could do really little other than writing a report,” Baran said. “After a failed suicide attempt on his part, he came to my home and broke in and decided that was the day I was going to die.”

She described being raped and beaten and having her head slammed repeatedly into the cement, leaving her with a brain injury that would end her career as an emergency room nurse.

“After a very long and difficult process in Maryland, I was able to obtain my unrestricted wear-and-carry permit in Maryland,” Baran said. “I want people to be able to understand that being able to own and carry a firearm can sometimes be truly a life-and-death situation.”

Virginia Center for Public Safety vigil

In the afternoon, the Virginia Center for Public Safety held a vigil for victims of gun violence and then met with legislators, urging them to support bills such as one requiring background checks before all gun purchases.

The center’s rally was held only hours after Republicans on a Senate committee killed that bill and 19 other proposals to restrict firearms.

At the vigil, Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring reaffirmed their commitment to gun safety laws. They were joined by religious leaders and activists to send one message: The fight is not over.

“This morning, the legislature had an opportunity to take some concrete steps to make our communities safer, to make our families safer, by passing better laws,” Herring said. “And what happened? They were all defeated partially, if not all of them, on a party-line vote.”

Herring left the crowd with a clear promise: “We’re not going to stop. We’re not going to give up.”

Fairfax echoed Herring’s commitment to continue fighting for gun control and reducing gun violence.

“We are not going to allow what happened today in the legislature deter us,” he said. “I promise you this … we will win this fight.”

Northam told the crowd that his concerns about the proliferation of firearms come from his experience as a physician in the Army.

“I served in Desert Storm. I saw firsthand what weapons of war do to human beings,” he said. “We do not need them on the streets. We do not need them in our society.”

Kris Gregory, 58, from Falls Church, attended the event. She organized a traveling vigil made of T-shirts representing the 32 victims killed at the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. She said she liked what the legislators had to say about the future of gun regulation in Virginia.

“[I’m] delighted to have strong advocacy for sensible gun laws,” Gregory said. “We knew it was not going to be easy. This is a marathon, not a sprint, but we have a great deal of hope and the country is with us.”

New Immigrant Rights Legislation Aims to Protect Undocumented Virginians

IMG_3346

Margie Del Castillo, associate director of community mobilization at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (CNS photo by Adam Hamza)

 

By Caitlin Barbieri and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights called on the General Assembly Tuesday to pass legislation to provide driver's licenses and in-state college tuition to certain undocumented immigrants

Coalition members and student supporters spoke at a news conference advocating for legislation that would improve the lives of undocumented immigrants. Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, attended to show her support.

“While Virginia cannot create a path to citizenship for undocumented students, Virginia does have the power to create opportunities for them,” Boysco said. 

Boysco plans to propose legislation that will give undocumented immigrants access to a state driver’s license. Virginia resident Gustavo Angels spoke at the meeting to express his support for such a bill.

“Drivers will be more likely to stay at the scene of an accident, aid police or other emergency workers and exchange insurance information with other drivers,” he said. “It would allow many community members to feel more comfortable reporting a crime or involving the police when they need help.”

Jung Bin Cho is a recent Virginia Tech graduate and registered as an undocumented immigrant through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012. Because of DACA, he was able to work and go to school as an undocumented immigrant. Cho said his own access to a driver's license allowed him greater access to jobs. 

“It’s important [to have a driver's license] in Virginia because, I think, you need that to be successful,” Cho said.

Boysco has proposed HB 343, which expands eligibility for in-state tuition to students who have applied for legal residence or intend to apply.

“All Virginians benefit when each of our young people fulfill their greatest potential,” Boysko said.

“There are thousands of unfilled jobs in Virginia that require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. We need an educated workforce to continue to build a new Virginia economy. These students are our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, and family. I believe in building a more just and inclusive Commonwealth.”

When asked about the obstacles to the bill, Boysko said, “Some members of the House of Delegates believe that undocumented immigrants should not benefit from in-state tuition.  Clearly there are those at the federal level of government who hold those views.

“I hope that in Virginia we can do better.  The economic benefits of an educated workforce and the moral imperative of treating all of our young people fairly is the right choice for Virginia.”

Virginians Urge Legislators to Expand Medicaid

By DeForrest Ballou and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A procession of health-care advocates urged state legislators Wednesday to expand Medicaid and increase funding for Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

At a hearing on the state budget that the General Assembly must craft this spring, dozens of speakers expressed support for expanding Medicaid – an idea advocated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and other Democrats but opposed by most Republican lawmakers.

The speakers included Nichole Wescott Hayes, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

“ACS-CAN is part of a larger coalition of health-care-related agencies, Healthcare for All Virginians. And we are trying to expand Medicaid so that we can cover the gaps of the 300-some-thousand individuals who are without coverage at this time,” Hayes said.

“The whole ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ is not just about tourism; it’s about helping each other. That’s kind of the bedrock of what Virginia is about.”

Medicaid, which is funded by the federal and state governments, provides health care for low-income Americans. The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid and promised that the federal government would pay for it. But most Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly fear that the state would be stuck with the bills if it expands Medicaid.

Health care was the dominant topic at the hearing. Of the 82 speakers, roughly half addressed that issue.

For instance, Kelly Brookes of Henrico County has a daughter with cerebral palsy. She advocated for more equitable education.

“My child should not have to prove that she is capable of learning, which she absolutely is,” Brookes said. “She should be able to receive the same education as other kids.”

Rachel Deane, who works for a nonprofit group called the Legal Aid Justice Center, said it’s important to attend events like hearings on the state budget.

“I think it’s always just a good opportunity for us to be at a budget hearing and to talk directly to members of the General Assembly about what funding we need for youth to be successful,” Deane said.

The center provides legal representation for low-income individuals. Deane is the legal director for the group’s program serving children.

Her goal at the hearing was to ask for funding of programs that could keep children out of the correctional system. She sat alongside a group wearing tan shirts with the words, “Guide us, don’t criminalize us.”

Mark Strandquist also addressed the legislative panel. Strandquist is the creative director for ART 180, another program run by the Legal Aid Justice Center. During his presentation, he played a recording of children who have been helped by ART 180.

“We literally view our role as being a megaphone for youth whose voices have been silenced. That’s why I literally played audio recordings made by the youth over the microphone,” Strandquist said.

The General Assembly will convene next Wednesday for a 60-day session. The major item on the agenda is to write the state budget for the next two years.

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