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Brandon Celentano

For-Profit Colleges Leave Many Students with Big Debts

By Deanna Davison and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Higher education and the profit motive, many argue, do not mix – and students at for-profit colleges often pay the price.

ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit college institution with about 130 campuses in 38 states, shut down in September2016 after then-President Barack Obama’s administration blocked its students from receiving federal student aid. The institution had 40,000 students enrolled among all campuses when it closed.

For-profit schools have a history dating to colonial America, according to the book “Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University.” In those days, a scarcity of places for people to receive a formal education resulted in entrepreneurs teaching practical skills and trades, as well as reading and writing.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a trade organization that represents 1,500 for-profit colleges, praised a judge’s ruling in March that said Obama’s Department of Education failed “to consider various categories of relevant evidence” in reviewing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the largest accreditor of for-profit colleges in the U.S.

In September 2016, the Education Department removed the council’s accrediting authority, following a lengthy controversy over its capability to be an effective overseer for students and billions in taxpayer dollars.

“Yes, our sector has had bad schools like every sector of higher education,” Gunderson said in a news release. “But it is time that everyone across the political spectrum stop, step back and look for ways to work together to establish public policies that treat all sectors of higher education on a fair and equal basis.”

Government regulation of for-profit colleges has become less restrictive since President Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education. DeVos froze regulations that protected students from loan defraudment and paused the gainful employment rule, which states: “In order to be eligible for funding under the Higher Education Act Title IV student assistance programs, an educational program must lead to a degree at a non-profit or public institution or it must prepare students for ‘gainful employment in a recognized occupation.’”

According to Inside Higher Ed, Obama’s administration created the gainful employment rule to establish accountability for career education programs when they produce too many graduates with debt they cannot repay. Schools could have their federal funding eliminated if they did not meet requirements.

Democratic attorneys general in 17 states and Washington, D.C. sued DeVos in October, alleging that freezing those regulations violated federal law. The Department of Education said those allegations were “frivolous.”

Sales and recruiting techniques, specifically at ITT Tech, were discussed in a 2012 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It said that in recruiting students, ITT Tech staff members followed a script called a “Pain Funnel,” asking increasingly uncomfortable questions.

When addressing prospective students who signed an enrollment agreement but indicated they may not want to start school, ITT Tech representatives were instructed to “poke the pain a bit” and “remind them what things will be like if they don’t continue forward and earn their degrees,” the report said.

The script’s questions, designed to elicit emotional pain from prospective students, were intended to persuade vulnerable individuals to apply to the school. The pressure culminated with the question: “Have you given up trying to deal with the problem?”

ITT Tech is not the only for-profit institution to face legal action for allegedly defrauding students. In December 2016, DeVry University – an Illinois-based university with 38 campuses across the U.S., including two in Virginia – settled a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission that claimed the school used deceptive advertising to recruit and mislead students.

DeVry paid $100 million to the FTC: $49.4 million for students harmed by the advertisements, and $50.6 million for student loan forgiveness. All unpaid private student loans the school issued to undergraduate students between September 2008 and September 2015 were forgiven, as well as more than $20 million that students owed the school in tuition and fees.

An ITT Tech advertisement from 2007, which details the feel-good story of graduate Charlie Graves, promises viewers and prospective students the chance to attain their goals. The website of the Career Education Colleges and Universities touts similar success stories of students from diverse backgrounds who earned degrees and launched careers in fields ranging from advertising and nursing to computer science and audio production.

But critics say “success” is not the outcome for many students at for-profit colleges, particularly when it comes to loan debt.

Time magazine reported in January that more than half of borrowers – 52 percent – who attended a for-profit college in 2003 defaulted on their student loans after 12 years. Borrowers from two-year community colleges defaulted at half that rate: 26 percent.

Judith Scott-Clayton, who wrote a recent report on student borrowing for the Brookings Institution, said the high percentage of for-profit students who default on their loans does not illustrate the full scope of the issue.

For-profit colleges are generally more expensive to attend than community colleges, so more students tend to take out loans, and at higher amounts. The Brookings Institution report said its findings “provide support for robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector, to improve degree attainment and promote income-contingent loan repayment options for all students.”

The 2012 Senate report on ITT Tech stated: “Compared to public colleges offering the same programs, the price of tuition is higher at ITT Tech. Tuition for an associate’s degree in business administration at ITT Tech’s Indianapolis campus was $44,895. The same program at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana cost $9,385.”

Tuition for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at ITT Tech’s Indianapolis campus was $93,624. The same program at Indiana University in Bloomington was $43,528.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a former admissions and financial aid counselor for ITT Tech, said she sold associate degrees for about $30,000 and bachelor’s degrees for about $60,000.

“On average, students enrolled in for-profit colleges take on student loan debt that they cannot manage,” said Cottom, now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

“Whether that is because these students are more likely to be economically vulnerable or if it is because employers don’t seem to value these degrees very much, we aren’t exactly sure.”

Cottom said her work at for-profit colleges, which she discusses in her book, informed her interest. Later, she decided to do research on for-profit colleges as a sociologist because she thought the expansion of these institutions and their degrees were understudied.

She thinks it is important to keep in mind the circumstances of students who attend for-profit schools. Many individuals enrolled in such programs are people who have been disadvantaged in accessing high-quality, not-for-profit higher education, she said.

“As a sociologist, one of our long-standing disciplinary interests is in how and why inequality happens. I study for-profit colleges as a way to understand contemporary inequality,” Cottom said.

“When this [student debt] happens, people can be worse off for having pursued higher education than they would have been had they never gone to school at all.”

The National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent report on bachelor’s degree graduation rates showed a significant disparity in graduation rates for students at for-profit colleges versus not-for-profit colleges. Twenty-three percent of students at for-profit colleges graduated within six years; the six-year graduation rate for students at public not-for-profit colleges was 59 percent.

Some students who studied at for-profit institutions have said they felt they wasted their time.

Erika Colon, 35, of Boston, took out $15,000 in loans for a medical administrative assistant certificate at a campus of Corinthian Colleges. The chain of colleges closed after it was found to have misrepresented post-graduation employment statistics.

“They are just giving students high hopes for nothing and just taking people’s money,” Colon said.

‘Bamboozled’ ITT Tech Grad Saddled with Massive Debt, Subpar Degree

By Deanna Davison and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bobby Donovan always loved video games. The 29-year-old from suburban Hanover County played games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends daily and worked as a senior game adviser at GameStop for a few years after high school. When Donovan saw ITT Technical Institute was offering a bachelor’s degree program in video game design, he jumped at the idea.

But his hopes of attaining that degree and furthering his career did not last long. Donovan entered the program at the for-profit college’s Midlothian campus in fall 2010. By the following fall, the program had lost its accreditation and was eliminated.

Donovan said ITT Tech received late notice that the video game design program was not meeting the expectations of its accreditor. Contrary to Donovan’s belief, he was never enrolled in the bachelor’s program. Instead, he and other students in the same situation were transferred into a graphic design or visual communications program. And that program was for an associate’s degree, not a bachelor’s.

“They cut the program and never enrolled anybody into the bachelor’s program,” Donovan said. “They only enrolled people into the associate’s, so you were never on track for the bachelor’s. We didn’t know they did that. They never told us, or they never told me.”

When Donovan learned the video game design program was eliminated, he looked into transferring schools. But there was one significant issue: What he thought was his best option, ECPI University, another large for-profit institution in Virginia, would not accept his credits. He felt he had no choice but to stay at ITT Tech and complete the associate’s program, which he did. He graduated in 2012.

Donovan, who now lives in Woodbridge in Northern Virginia, estimated that he took out about $50,000 in loans to fund his associate’s degree. His loan debt is split between a federal and a private lender. Approximately $20,000 of it is from the private lender ITT Tech used, who sold Donovan’s debt to Student CU Connect in 2013. The loan has a variable interest rate that started around 12 percent but has increased to about 16 percent. It caps at 16.75 percent.

“The amount is really just unheard of for an associate’s degree,” Donovan said. “If I didn’t have student loans, I would probably have an extra $1,000 every month.”

David Hodges, 31, a former classmate of Donovan’s, enrolled in ITT Tech’s visual communications associate’s program in 2010. He withdrew from the institution after a year.

“I feel that I educated my professors more than they educated me,” Hodges said. “I enjoyed my classmates, but not the program. The art program at ITT Tech is comparable to an eighth-grade art class.”

Hodges, who lives in Richmond, is now a self-employed street artist and fine arts painter, but he said it is no thanks to his time at ITT Tech.

“I tell everyone I’m self-taught because I learned nothing at ITT Tech,” he said.

In 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency founded in 2011 to protect citizens from unfair bank and lending practices, sued ITT Tech. The bureau alleged the school’s enrollment and financial aid advisors used predatory lending tactics to coerce students into costly private loans they could not afford. The lawsuit also alleged ITT Tech misled students about their post-graduation job prospects and the transferability of earned credits.

“ITT marketed itself as improving consumers’ lives, but it was really just improving its bottom line,” Richard Cordray, the bureau’s former director, said in a news release when the bureau filed the lawsuit. “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. [This] action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT Tech closed its campuses and declared bankruptcy in September 2016, after the U.S. Department of Education judged the school failed to meet accreditation standards twice that year and eliminated ITT Tech’s ability to receive federal student aid. Some students who were enrolled at the time or had recently withdrawn – within the previous 120 days – could apply for loan cancellation, but that applied only to federal loans, not private loans.

Because Donovan graduated in 2012, neither of those options applied to him. He received an email from ITT Tech on Sept. 6, 2016, explaining the school’s closure. The response blamed the federal government for forcing the school to close, Donovan said, and offered no options relevant to him other than providing information on how to obtain his academic transcript.

“The Department of Education’s August 25 letter imposed a combination of requirements on ITT Educational Services, Inc. that we believe are unprecedented in the history of the Department of Education,” the email stated. “Please know we worked diligently to identify alternatives that would have allowed you to start or continue your education at ITT Tech and earn your degree. But the Department of Education’s actions have forced us to cease operations at the ITT Technical Institutes.”

The email shared a list of schools that ITT Tech said had entered into agreements allowing students to transfer credits. The email also included a list of schools in students’ local areas or online that offered similar programs. Donovan said he thinks the schools ITT Tech mentioned were also for-profit colleges. The website is no longer active.

Donovan said his student loan debt will hang over his head for years to come. He is still motivated to earn a bachelor’s degree, but it is not feasible for him to return to school just yet.

“It’s kind of been put on the back burner after starting a family, getting a house,” he said. “[The debt] affects a lot of things – not just going back to school, but really starting my life outside of school after one huge mistake.”

He also said if he were to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school, he doubts his associate’s degree would be considered; thus, he would likely have to start over with zero credits.

“I don’t think any actual college or university will actually recognize it as a degree,” Donovan said. “But I’m not 100 percent sure. I haven’t found out yet.”

He is doubtful his associate’s degree has been valuable in his post-ITT Tech job pursuits either, he said, but he remains positive and hopeful for the future.

“The people that I met [at ITT Tech] are great people,” Donovan said. “Some of the teachers were really good. It was a learning experience. I know I’m not going to be bamboozled again.”

Time to Go Green – St. Patrick's Day Is Saturday

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Green beer, Irish music and people dressed up as leprechauns: Residents can experience all this and more at a number of events celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday.

Although people of all ancestries celebrate the holiday, about one in 10 Virginians claims Irish heritage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Scott Nugent is one of them, and he hopes partygoers will recognize the holiday’s not-so-festive roots as they celebrate.

“St. Patrick’s Day to me means a chance to inform people of the Irish people and how they overcame their struggles,” said Nugent, the president of Richmond’s Major James H. Dooley Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of America, a Christian charity. “Someone only needs to hear the stories of ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ signs in store windows to get a feel for what the Irish had to overcome when coming to America.”

Nugent will celebrate by attending the AOH special St. Patrick’s Day mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church, 213 N. 25th St., in Church Hill. Afterward, he will be doing an annual pub crawl to the various Irish pubs in the Richmond area.

“It’s always a good time,” he said.

Others can have a good time at a number of events in and around Richmond:

·       The Rosie’s St. Patrick’s Day Back Lot Party starts at 10 a.m. at Rosie Connolly’s Pub, 1548 E. Main St.Attendees will hear live music from the Cary St. Ramblers, Andy Cleveland and Glenn Sutor, the Greater Richmond Pipes and Drums and the Metro Richmond Police Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. Irish dancing will be performed by the Baffa Academy of Irish Dance. Guinness and Jameson will be plentiful.

  • At O’Toole’s Restaurant & Pub, 4800 Forest Hill Ave. Music will start at 11:30 a.m. Artists include thePressGang, Danovic’s, Pugh’s Mahoney and the Hullabaloos.
  • St. Patrick’s Day with the Donnybrooks starts at noon at the Rare Olde Times Public House, 10602 Patterson Ave. in Henrico County, and will include a performance by a Celtic string band, the Donnybrooks.
  • St. Patrick’s Day at The Circuit, an arcade bar at 3121 W. Leigh St., starts at 1 p.m. Attendees can participate in a guitar hero tournament, enter a raffle for prizes and hear live music with artists F1NG3RS, 8-Bit Mullet and Don Chirashi.
  • St. Patrick’s Day Turn-Up with Vibe Riot starts at 7 p.m. at the Castleburg Brewery and Taproom, 1626 Ownby Lane. The bands Vibe Riot and Jaewar will provide an uplifting concert featuring a funk rock soul band and special guests.
  • St. Patrick’s Day celebration starts at 10 a.m. at Keagan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, 2251 Old Brick Road in Glen Allen. Musicians are performing live. The artists will include the Greater Richmond Bagpipes and Drums, Bobby Baine and DJ Lix. Green beer will be served.
  • Silly Supper St. Patrick’s Day starts at 5 p.m. at Hutch Bar + Eatery, 1308 Gaskins Road in Henrico. The gathering will offer rainbow crafts and green food for kids and cocktails and green beer for adults.

There are also events outside the Richmond area:

St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Festival in Fredericksburg starts at noon at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery. The 16th annual Jeff Fitzpatrick St. Patrick’s Day Parade is set to include fire trucks, classic cars, a high school marching band, community organizations, Irish dancers, horses, military equipment and local pageant winners.

The Alexandria St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been rescheduled for Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and will be held at the intersection of King and St. Asaph streets. Participants will march down King Street to Lee Street and continue west on Cameron Street to Royal Street.

Next weekend, Richmond residents will celebrate the 33rd Church Hill Irish Festival, a street festival in front of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Patrick Shea, the webmaster for the AOH State Board, said the St. Patrick’s Church Hill Festival will be a great way to cut loose.

The festival starts off at 10 a.m. on March 24 with a parade and concludes on March 25 with the annual AOH Dooley Division raffle drawing at 5 p.m. Three city blocks will be closed off. Booths, live entertainment and Irish spirits will be available for everyone to enjoy.

Bill Halpin, president of the Virginia State Board of the AOH, said he celebrates not only St. Patrick’s Day but also Irish Heritage Month in its entirety.

“Wearing some green on St. Patrick’s Day is insufficient for a true Irish-American. I celebrate Irish custom, tradition music and dance in a public way and encourage my Hibernian brothers to do the same,” Halpin said.

Construction May Start Soon on Monument Honoring Women

Rendering of the Monument design by the 1717 Design Group Inc. of Richmond.

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Construction likely will begin this summer on the state Capitol grounds for a monument honoring Virginia women.

The executive committee of the Women of Virginia Commemorative Commission was briefed Wednesday on the timetable for the project, which will feature bronze statues of a dozen historically significant women of various races and backgrounds.

Holly Eve, an administrator in the Virginia Department of General Services, and her assistant, Charles Bennett, told the panel that the construction phase is drawing near.

“I am pleased to report that we have received the permits. The general contractor can now start procuring materials and start the shop drawing phase,” Bennett said. “We should start seeing materials arrive on-site early in the summer.”

The Virginia Women’s Monument, titled “Voices from the Garden,” will be built on the western side of Capitol Square at the top of the western sloping dell.

The commission broke ground on the first phase of the project – the memorial plaza – on Dec. 4. The monument is expected to be completed by October 2019.

State officials said the monument will cost about $3.5 million and will be paid for with private funds. So far, the Virginia Capitol Foundation has raised more than $2.1 million in contributions and pledges, according to figures circulated atWednesday’s meeting.

According to the commission’s website, the monument “will acknowledge the genius and creativity of Virginia women and their presence and contributions to the Commonwealth. The monument is a metaphor for the often unrecognized voices that have been responsible for shaping our culture, country, and state for over 400 years.”

The commission says the monument would be the first of its kind in the nation recognizing the full range of women’s achievements. The project will feature an oval-shaped garden with statues of:

  • Ann Burras Laydon, who arrived in Jamestown in 1608 – one of the first female settlers in the colony.
  • Cockacoeske, a Pamunkey chief who signed a treaty in 1677 establishing the tribe’s reservation.
  • Mary Draper Ingles, who was taken captive by Shawnee Indians during the French and Indian War in 1755, escaped and traveled 600 miles back to her home in Southwest Virginia.
  • Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife. In the monument, she will represent the wives of all eight Virginia-born presidents.
  • Clementina Bird Rind, editor of the Virginia Gazette, an influential newspaper and the official printer for the Colony of Virginia, in the 1770s.
  • Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a slave who bought her freedom, became Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidant and established the Contraband Relief Association, which provided support for freed slaves and soldiers wounded in the Civil War.
  • Sally Louisa Tompkins, who, as a captain in the Confederate army, established a hospital to treat injured soldiers.
  • Maggie Walker, an African-American teacher and businesswoman who became the nation’s first female bank president.
  • Sarah Garland Boyd Jones, the first woman to pass the exam to practice medicine in Virginia. She and her husband, also a physician, established a medical association for African-American doctors and opened a hospital and nursing school in 1903.
  • Laura Lu Copenhaver, who, as director of information for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, expanded southwestern Virginia’s agricultural economy.
  • Virginia Estelle Randolph, an African-American teacher who developed a national and international reputation as a leader in education.
  • Adele Goodman Clark, a suffragist who became president of the League of Women Voters in 1921. She is considered to be one of the founders of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

During its meeting Wednesday, the commission discussed Senate Joint Resolution 85, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House. The proposal would make the Capitol Square Preservation Council’s architectural historian a member of the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission.

The resolution would also allow the governor, the speaker of the House of Delegates, the secretary of administration and the librarian of Virginia to appoint designees to serve in their place and grant ex-officio members voting privileges. Finally, it would ensure that the dedication of the monument be coordinated by the clerk of the Senate, the clerk of the House of Delegates and the secretary of administration.

Activists Oppose Drilling Off Virginia’s Coast

    

    

Business, military, fishing and environmental leaders unite at the Four Points hotel by the Sheraton Richmond Airport to publicly oppose allowing oil and gas development off of Virginia’s coast as the Trump Administration’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management holds one of its first public hearings in Richmond. This opposition is joined by growing bi-partisan calls from Virginia leaders, including Governor Ralph Northam, Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Scott Taylor, to remove Virginia from this newly proposed oil and gas leasing program.

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — About 75 people, including activists and lawmakers, rallied Wednesday against the Trump administration’s plan to allow drilling off Virginia’s coast, saying it would endanger the environment, the economy and military readiness.

The group held a press conference before the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s public hearing in Richmond on the issue. At the meeting, environmental and business leaders urged the agency to abandon the plan.

“We are here today to protect our waters, the Virginia coast and Atlantic Ocean from dangerous oil and gas development,” said Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River Now in Virginia Beach. “We’re here to make our voices loud and clear that we do not think offshore drilling is good for Virginia.”

U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, said he was honored to speak alongside state officials, environmentalists and retired military and business leaders to express opposition to offshore drilling.

“The Trump administration’s decision to push for drilling in more than 90 percent of our nation’s coastal waters, including off the coast of our beautiful commonwealth, poses serious dangers to our economy and our environment,” McEachin said. “As we learned from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, accidents can be unimaginably destructive, devastating the marine environment and potentially affecting the health of local residents.”

McEachin said an oil spill would have disastrous consequences for communities along the coast and around the Chesapeake Bay. Coastal fisheries, tourism and recreation support 91,000 jobs in Virginia and represent almost $5 billion of the state’s economy, he said.

Even without a spill, oil exploration alone would be damaging, according to Susan Barco, the research coordinator and senior scientist at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.

“One of the tools they use is seismic testing, and that would occur regardless of if there is a spill or drilling for that matter,” Barco said. “Seismic testing produces very, very loud sounds in the ocean in order to understand what is below the strata or layers at the bottom of the ocean. Those sounds are very likely to negatively impact a lot of animals, particularly marine mammals.”

McEachin said the U.S. Defense Department has twice concluded that drilling off Virginia’s coast would compromise the Navy’s ability to effectively operate and train and that this would effectively reduce military readiness and compromise national security.

Gov. Ralph Northam and members of Congress from Virginia’s coastal areas, both Republicans and Democrats, oppose the U.S. Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, a Republican, alsoopposes it.

Wednesday’s meeting at a hotel near Richmond International Airport was the only public hearing that the federal government plans to hold in Virginia to discuss the offshore drilling plan. That irked Northam.

“If the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management doesn’t hold additional hearings in the Tidewater region, I will be one of the few people from a Virginia coastal community who has had the opportunity to share my opposition to the administration’s plan to put our economy, environment, national security, and the health and safety of our residents at risk,” Northam said.

The Democratic governor said he will use every tool he can use to make sure no drilling happens off Virginia’s coast.

Young Lawmakers Form Group to Address Millennials’ Concerns

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bipartisan, nationwide organization seeking to involve young people in politics has established a chapter in Virginia, focusing on such issues as student debt relief and government transparency, officials said Wednesday.

The Millennial Action Project has created the Virginia Future Caucus, consisting of young lawmakers who vowed to work across party lines.

“When we are able to bond together, we are able to see past the tribalism that has divided us for so long,” said Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul, 36, of Roanoke.

Republican Del. Emily Brewer, 33, of Suffolk, said the caucus reflects a generational change in Virginia.

“Going forward, we’ve got to focus on key issues,” such as technology, she said. “We need to make sure we’re looking at providing opportunities for our generation and the next generation to stay here.”

Brewer and Rasoul were among a dozen state legislators who attended a news conference Wednesday to announce the formation of the Virginia Future Caucus.

Steven Olikara, president and co-founder of the Millennial Action Project, said this is the organization’s 22nd state chapter.

“We want to empower the next generation of leaders to make our democracy function better,” Olikara said. “Today the status quo is insufficient. Trust is declining. Partisanship is rampant. We think the next generation can be part of the solution.”

At the news conference, speakers noted that young Americans are more likely to be unaffiliated with a political party. They said these voters are concerned about issues such as:

  • Clean energy
  • The “staggering” cost of college and student loans
  • The “gig economy,” in which temporary employment is common as organizations hire independent contractors for short-term work, such as with Uber drivers

Olikara said 30 members of Congress have joined the project. He said the effort has especially focused on state legislatures, “which is really where a lot of young leaders are taking their first steps in politics including here in Virginia.”

The average age in the Virginia House of Delegates is 52. But several young people were elected to the House last fall, including Jay Jones, 28, of Norfolk; Lee Carter, 30, of Manassas; Chris Hurst, 30, of Montgomery County; and Danica Roem, 33, of Prince William County.

Rasoul and Del. Christopher Peace, R-Hanover, will co-chair the new caucus.

Peace said he was the youngest delegate when he was elected 13 years ago. Now 41, Peace said there can be an “issue of translation” between young legislators and their older colleagues who may be unfamiliar with terms such as Airbnb and Bitcoin.

Peace said the new caucus can “provide some real leadership on policies that would benefit people in the millennial generation.”

Olikara said Virginia has a history of young political leaders making their mark: Thomas Jefferson was just 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Virginia House Democratic Delegates Promote Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives

By Brandon Celentano. Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Democratic members of the Virginia House called on their colleagues Thursday to raise the threshold for grand larceny and allow more professionals to administer medication to someone who has overdosed on drugs.

The legislators discussed proposals to reform the criminal justice system and address the opioid crisis at a news conference Thursday.

Del. Joseph Lindsey of Norfolk urged support for HB 1313, which would increase the threshold for grand larceny, a felony crime, to $500. Currently, the dividing line between misdemeanor and felony theft in Virginia is $200 -- one of the lowest in the nation. It hasn’t changed since 1980.

“Two hundred dollars might have been OK in 1980 when the price of a gallon of gas was 86 cents and a quart of milk was 67 cents, or when the average price of a house was $35,000,” Lindsey said. “But we believe that in 2018, there needs to be an adjustment. That time is now.”

Because the threshold for grand larceny is low, someone convicted of stealing a cellphone or bicycle in Virginia may end up with a felony on their record.

“Time and time again, these wind up being felony offenses, where in so many of our neighboring jurisdictions, they would have just been petty misdemeanors,” Lindsey said.

Del. Michael Mullin of Newport News, a former  prosecutor, discussed HB 202. Under this legislation, courts would have to tell criminal defendants that  they don’t have to pay their court costs and fees out of pocket. Instead, they could do  community service at an hourly rate of $7.25 to offset the costs.

“That’s been on the books for years, but so often people don’t know it,” Mullin said. “There might be hundreds of people who come through on a daily basis, and they get moved through very quickly. The things they can utilize, they are not being told about.”

Also at the news conference, the lawmakers urged support for

  • HB 322, which would  add probation, parole and correctional officers to the list of professionals who may administer naloxone -- a narcotic overdose reversal drug. The bill has passed the House and is before the Senate.

  • HB 131, which would make it easier for providers to prescribe non-opioid painkillers. For instance, if someone has a broken leg and is in recovery from opioid addiction, the person can obtain a non-opioid painkiller to avoid relapse.

“For me the opioid crisis is personal,” said Del. John Bell of Loudoun County. “Last year, with his permission to share his story, my son, Josh, who is 32 years old and is a veteran in the United States Air Force, injured his neck in a car accident. He became addicted to opioids. He walked out of the emergency room with a 90-day prescription for opioids. His addiction lasted seven years.”

Meet the Democratic Socialist Who Ousted a Top Republican from the House

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2015, Lee J. Carter, an information technology specialist from Manassas, was shocked by 245 volts during a work assignment in Peoria, Illinois, when an electrician had incorrectly wired a panel.

He wound up injuring his back; for the next three months, he could not walk more than 50 feet at a time. Yet Virginia rejected Carter’s claim for workers’ compensation, and his employer cut his hours after he got better. That ordeal inspired Carter to run for the Virginia House of Delegates.

Few people thought he stood a chance of carrying the 50th House District, which includes Manassas and part of Prince William County. He was a little-known outsider challenging a powerful incumbent – Republican Del. Jackson Miller, the House majority whip. Though running as a Democrat, Carter said he did not get a lot of formal support from the state Democratic Party.

But on Nov. 7, Carter shocked the naysayers: Like David against Goliath, he won the House race by nine points, unseating Jackson, who had represented the district since 2006.

How did he pull off the upset? For almost two years, Lee said, he went into the community and talked to residents all day, every day. In the end, they decided they wanted him to come to Richmond and represent them.

Carter is a member of the Democratic Party, but he describes himself as a democratic socialist. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America; the group endorsed him in his 2017 election.

“One of the things I came to understand very early in the campaign is, if you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, they’re going to call you a socialist anyway,” Carter said. “So I figured there is no point in hiding it. I am who I am. I believe worker-owned businesses are better for the community than investor-owned businesses.”

Still, the word “socialist” can raise eyebrows in Virginia politics. Scott Lingamfelter, another Republican who lost his House seat last fall, used the label in his final newsletter to constituents on Jan. 5.

“Last November, the state took a sharp turn to the left, electing people who truly do support a socialist agenda. Republicans were routed, including me,” wrote Lingamfelter, who was beaten by progressive Democrat Elizabeth Guzman in the neighboring 31st House District, which includes parts of Prince William and Fauquier counties.

“I believe that in the months and years to come, Virginians will conclude that this election of far-left candidates was not helpful to families, small businesses, and constitutional governance, the things I stood for when I served in the House.”

Carter, who served five years in the U.S. Marines, said he will look out for workers – and that is why he won by such a large margin.

“I just went out there with the help of hundreds of volunteers with a message of ‘I’m a working-class guy,’ and I’m going to go there [Richmond] and represent working-class issues. We knocked on tens of thousands of doors and brought that message directly to people at their homes,” he said.

Since the election, Carter has been deluged with phone calls from constituents and supporters with requests and ideas. He said the constant flood has continued to this day.

One of Carter’s supporters, and the top individual donor to his campaign, is Karl Becker, who works in the defense industry in the Washington area. Becker worked with Carter on Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

“Lee is very passionate about the inability of the government to serve folks,” said Becker, who contributed $6,750 to Carter’s House campaign.

“He experienced a workplace injury and discovered that workers’ compensation was not working for people. That got him involved in looking into other aspects of politics, and he is very much of the opinion that he can make a difference.”

Becker said he admires both Carter and Sanders for supporting universal health care, also known as “Medicare for all.” Carter is sponsoring a resolution to have state officials study the cost of implementing such a system. The resolution has been referred to the House Rules Committee.

Also this session, Carter introduced legislation to more than double the sales tax on watercraft and to provide more protection for workers in the workers’ compensation system – an issue “near and dear to my heart.” One of his bills was aimed at covering Virginia workers who are injured out of state, as Carter was.

All of his workers’ compensation measures, as well as his sales tax proposal, were killed at the subcommittee level in the House.

For his House race, Carter put together a coalition of groups, including Let America Vote, which fights gerrymandering; the Sierra Club, an environmental organization; the Sister District Project, a Democratic effort focusing on swing districts; and Swing Left, a support group for progressive candidates.

Carter said the Democratic Party is in the midst of change.

“I think right now, it is a party that is torn between two visions of what it is supposed to be,” he said.

“I view it as a party that is supposed to be advocating for the issues of working people exclusively. There are a lot of people at the same time who view the party as one that should advocate for compromise between the interests of working people and the interests of their employers.”

Carter, who graduated from the Sorensen Institute of Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said having a party of compromise would be fine in a political system with multiple parties.

“But in our current system, you have the Republican Party, which is unabashedly for the interests of the big corporations. So you need a party that is unabashedly for the workers to balance that out. Otherwise, things don’t function.”

Carter quoted former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell, an independent Democrat nicknamed “Howlin’ Henry” for his progressive populist views: “‘An eagle can’t fly with two right wings.’ We need a left wing.”

Delegates Tout Bills to Improve Prison Workers’ Jobs

By Yasmine Jumaa and Brandon Celentano,Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Correctional officers from across Virginia watched Tuesday as a state lawmaker urged support for legislation aimed at reducing turnover among prison guards and making it easier for them to get workers’ compensation.

“I think currently we have a tremendous injustice going on,” said Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun. “Out of the 14 [categories of] peace officers in Virginia, the only peace officer who does not get the presumption of disability is our correctional officer.”

Bell is sponsoring House Bill 107, which would add correctional officers to the list of public safety employees entitled to receive workers’ compensation under the presumption that hypertension, heart disease and other ailments may stem from their stressful jobs. Bell said some correctional officers develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The stress levels on officers is very high, which could lead to a variety of different heart diseases over prolonged periods of time,” Bell said. “It’s a tough and hazardous job where officers have been measured with PTSD that far exceeds combat veterans.”

Bell has also introduced HB 108, which would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to conduct an exit survey of correctional officers who quit. The survey would ask them about work conditions and other concerns that may contribute to high turnover.

Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, said low salaries may be a factor.

“You have to work two, three jobs sometimes to address your needs and your family’s because your salaries aren’t up to par to make a living,” said Tyler, who is co-sponsoring the two bills. “That is just totally unreasonable.”

According to the Department of Corrections, 1,164 DOC employees, including 698 correctional officers, have salaries so low that they may be eligible for food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

A 2017 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said correctional officers’ difficult jobs and low salaries may hurt attracting and retaining employees. Virginia prison guards had a 17 percent turnover rate over the past two years, and 16 percent of the positions have been vacant, the study said.

HB 107 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. On Tuesday, the subcommittee voted 4-3 to recommend approval of the bill.

HB 108 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

Activists Protest Gov. Northam’s Position on Pipelines

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – About 25 environmental activists demonstrated at Gov. Ralph Northam’s inauguration Saturday to protest his refusal to oppose two natural gas pipelines that energy companies want to build across Virginia.

The demonstrators unveiled a banner saying “our water > pipelines” and waved other signs as they chanted “water is life” through megaphones.

The protesters were with Virginia River Healers and a coalition called “Water is Life. Protect it.” They were demonstrating against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would cut across the western part of the state.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run more than 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Dominion Energy and other companies that have proposed the pipelines say they are important for meeting the region’s energy needs and will create jobs.

Tom Burkett, the lead organizer of Saturday’s protest, complained that the pipelines would carry gas extracted from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into the ground – a process that opponents say damages the environment.

“In doing this, there is a lot of water contamination concerns because of the millions of gallons of chemicals that the process uses,” Burkett said. “There is also the concern that with these pipelines being constructed, the fracking companies will have a better infrastructure and will then get a business incentive to continue fracking even more.”

Burkett noted that Northam has accepted campaign contributions from Dominion Energy. He said he wished politicians would pledge to not accept money from energy companies that have a stake in pipelines.

Northam has given mixed signals on whether he approves of the pipeline projects.

During the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Northam avoided taking a firm stand for or against the pipelines – drawing criticism from his opponent, Tom Perriello, and environmentalists.

Northam has said he supports the pipelines if they can be constructed in an environmentally safe way and the rights of property owners are not violated. Last week, Northam said he supports U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s proposal that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reconsider its vote to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

About 10 of the demonstrators at Northam’s inauguration were immigrants’ rights supporters. Wearing their signature orange beanies, they were showing their support for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children.

Dreamers had been protected against deportation by an Obama administration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. President Trump has indicated he may end that policy.

Women’s Equality Coalition Releases Legislative Agenda

By Sarah Danial and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Women’s Equality Coalition is supporting  a legislative agenda focusing on issues  ranging from Medicaid expansion and birth control to redistricting and no-excuse absentee voting.

Coalition representatives from Progress Virginia, Community Mobilization for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and their supporters called on lawmakers to advance rights and programs for women and families. 

Coalition members said they are focusing on three umbrella issues in legislation they hoped to see filed and considered this session -- women’s health, economic justice and democratic participation.

In addition to Medicaid expansion, no-cost birth control and ensuring a right to abortion, the group supports workplace and economic reforms. It backs legislation to raise  the minimum wage in Virginia to $15 an hour, establish pay equity  and combat employment discrimination. The group additionally wants improvements in paid family and medical leave.

The coalition also supports the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At its news conference Monday, the group also called for non-partisan redistricting reform and no-excuse absentee voting.

‘“Every citizen has the right to make their voice heard, but in too many parts of Virginia, women don’t have a say in choosing their representatives because the election outcome has already been rigged,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia.

 “Non-partisan redistricting reform and no-excuse absentee voting would allow women to more fully participate in our democracy and give responsible Virginians across the Commonwealth the ability to have their voice heard, even if they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day.”

Joyce Barnes,  a home health care worker and a member of the Service Employees International Union, spoke in support of the coalition.

“I work for minimum wage, and I currently have two jobs. I don’t get home until 10 p.m.and I miss time with my family and friends. I never get a vacation or time off  because I have to put food on my table and pay my rent,” she said. “We need to pass these bills so that women like me can live like everyone else and get the compensation they deserve.”

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, noted that Virginia is one  of 19 states that has not expanded Medicaid. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has said that Medicaid expansion will be a priority in the coming legislative session.

Keene said legislation that would confirm abortion as a fundamental right and prioritize birth control said it is “a common sense bill which makes Virginia lives better.”

Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Virginia General Assembly. A spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus declined to comment on the coalition’s goals. Requests for comment to the Family Foundation, which seeks to “empower families in Virginia by applying a biblical worldview” to public policy. were not returned.

More information about the Women’s Equality Coalition and its legislative agenda is at vawomensequalitycoalition.org.

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