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Capital News Service

Gov. McAuliffe Touts ‘New Virginia Economy’

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe told an optimistic story about the state of Virginia’s economy, while emphasizing the need to improve education, before a crowd of more than 275 business people from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday.

McAuliffe said more Virginians today have better-paying jobs than before he was elected. Some statistics he quoted implied that the state’s economy is stronger than it has ever been. He said:

  • 568 new economic development projects have occurred during his tenure.
  • $9.34 billion in new capital has come to the state in that time – nearly double the amount under any other governor in Virginia history.
  • Virginia has enjoyed 21 consecutive months of year-over-year job growth.
  • 96,500 new jobs have been created in the past few years.
  • 3,856,100 jobs exist in the state, the most in Virginia history.
  • The state’s unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, the lowest in the Southeast United States and the lowest in Virginia since the recession in 2008.
  • As a result, unemployment claims are the lowest they’ve been in 41 years in Virginia.
  • Personal income per capita over the past 12 months has increased 3.4 percent.

“I’m willing to work with anybody, anytime,” McAuliffe told attendees at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Day at the Capitol.

“I tell folks when they come in my office, does it create a job, does it create economic activity? If it doesn’t, then I really don’t have too much time to waste on it, because I’m driven about growing and diversifying the economy.”

While the governor spoke at length about the current state of the economy, he also discussed the need to improve education and ensure that Virginia has a well-trained workforce to keep up with the demands of a changing economy.

McAuliffe emphasized the need to better fund community college job training programs, while citing the relatively low figure of $5 million a year that Virginia currently spends on such programs. By comparison, North Carolina, one of Virginia’s closest economic competitors, spends $92 million a year on such programs.

“Over the next decade, two thirds of the 1.5 million jobs we will have to fill, here in Virginia, will require the skills and knowledge demonstrated by industry certifications, occupational licenses and other workforce credentials. Not necessarily a four-year degree. But a two-year degree,” he said. “We have to get in the game on this.”

He also emphasized the need to improve K-12 education, through funding and higher standards.

“If you look at my budget, education, I talk about the investment we’ll make, $1 billion to put 2,500 teachers back in the classrooms that had been cut. We’ve got money in it for our community colleges … $800 million for our higher education schools, $200 million for our community colleges.”

McAuliffe was among several state officials who addressed the annual Chamber Day gathering.

At the event, the Chamber of Commerce elected Tom Palmer of Wells Fargo & Company to serve as chairman of the organization’s board of directors. Palmer served as first vice chair of the board in 2015. He succeeds 2015 chairman Stacy Mendler, chief operating officer of Alion Science and Technology.

Palmer is a senior vice president and regional vice president for the Central Virginia regional commercial banking office of Wells Fargo, based in Richmond. He also oversees the Eastern Virginia commercial banking office.

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House Passes ‘Tebow Bill’ to Help Home-Schoolers

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – For the third year in a row, the Virginia House of Delegates has passed a version of the “Tebow bill,” opening the door for home-schooled students to participate in after-school sports and other activities sponsored by their local public schools.

The House on Wednesday voted 58-41 in favor of the legislation, nicknamed for star quarterback Tim Tebow, who excelled playing high school football in Florida in the early 2000s while being home-schooled.

House Bill 131, sponsored by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, would prohibit Virginia public schools from joining interscholastic organizations that ban home-schoolers from participating. This would put pressure on the Virginia High School League to allow home-schooled students. The bill does not require local school boards to let home-schooled students participate in sports or other activities.

The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers supports such initiatives.

“There is a group of young, hardworking, disciplined, American citizens, who are discriminated against because they choose to home educate,” Joshua Pratt, a Campbell County resident and father of a home-schooled ninth-grader, said in testimony on the group’s website.

According to Pratt, his son Micah can’t compete in state cross country competitions, despite excelling in the sport in privately held competitions. “This is wrong and should be changed.”

Bell said HB 131 would apply only to home-schooled students who meet age and academic requirements. It would not guarantee that those who try out will make the cut. Bell emphasized that the bill would allow students to play sports only within the school district that they would have attended if they were in public school.

He also said that it will be up to localities to determine if they want to let home-schoolers participate.

“If Madison County said, ‘We want our home-schoolers; we need them for the team,’ and Greene County said, ‘We don’t want ours,’ Greene County would have none and Madison County would have theirs,” Bell said.

Moreover, the bill would authorize school divisions to charge home-schoolers reasonable fees to participate.

HB 131 would sunset, or expire, after five years – in 2021. So if it were enacted and state legislators later determined that they made a mistake, the law could be changed. Bell found this scenario unlikely.

“I will tell you that no state that has taken this step, and a majority of states have, have ever reversed themselves,” he said. “The parade of horribles we hear every year has never turned out to be the case, and I predict that in five years from now, we would pass it without any objection.”

HB 131 still has a long way to go. Similar versions of the bill have been kicked around the General Assembly for years. Last year, the assembly passed such legislation, but Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.

Much of the opposition to the bill has to do with the “choice provision” of the bill. Some fear the law may be used unequally by different districts, thereby creating an unequal playing field.

“The fact that it’s described as local option doesn’t assure that everybody can play by the same rules,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

“What this bill says is that [school districts] may not participate … in the Virginia High School Athletic League, unless they change their policies to allow home-school kids because we in the General Assembly don’t like the policies that the VHSL has set up.”

The bill next goes to the Senate. An identical bill – SB 612, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, is awaiting action by the Senate Committee on Education and Health.

How They Voted

Here is how the House of Delegates voted Wednesday on HB 131 (Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs).

Floor: 01/27/16 House: VOTE: PASSAGE (58-Y 41-N)

YEAS – Adams, Austin, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Byron, Campbell, Cline, Cole, Collins, Cox, Davis, Dudenhefer, Edmunds, Fariss, Farrell, Fowler, Freitas, Garrett, Gilbert, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Hodges, Ingram, Jones, Kilgore, Knight, Landes, LaRock, Leftwich, LeMunyon, Lingamfelter, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Massie, Miller, Minchew, Miyares, Morefield, Morris, O'Bannon, O'Quinn, Peace, Pillion, Pogge, Poindexter, Ransone, Robinson, Rush, Stolle, Taylor, Ware, Webert, Wilt, Wright, Yancey, Mr. Speaker – 58.

NAYS – Aird, Albo, Bagby, Bell, John J., Bloxom, Boysko, Bulova, Carr, Filler-Corn, Helsel, Heretick, Herring, Hester, Hope, Hugo, James, Keam, Kory, Krizek, Levine, Lindsey, Lopez, Mason, McClellan, McQuinn, Murphy, Orrock, Plum, Price, Rasoul, Sickles, Simon, Spruill, Sullivan, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Villanueva, Ward, Watts, Yost – 41.

NOT VOTING – Anderson – 1.

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Bill Would Remove Sales Tax on Tampons

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia’s sales tax covers almost everything you buy, from athletic socks to zippers. But it doesn’t apply to medicine, contact lenses and certain other personal health items. Now, the General Assembly is considering adding feminine hygiene products to the list of exemptions.

Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna, introduced House Bill 952, which seeks to remove the sales tax on tampons and sanitary napkins in Virginia. Currently these items are taxed at the standard rate, like most other items: 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and 5.3 percent in the rest of the state.

“I think that most people, Republican and Democrats, would agree that this is an unfair tax,” Keam said Wednesday in an interview in his office at Capital Square. “It’s not equitable for women to have to pay a tax on something that guys don’t have to spend money on.”

Virginia is one of 40 states that tax tampons and sanitary napkins. Of the 10 states that don’t tax these products, five deliberately changed their laws specifically to end the policy. The other five do not have a sales tax at all.

“I believe this is such an essential product for women that in the code of Virginia, we have a discriminatory impact on one gender and not on the other,” Keam said. “From a policy perspective, I don’t think it makes sense for us to treat women differently from men in terms of what they have to buy as an essential product.”

The tax on tampons by many states has generated controversy and discussion on the Internet recently. President Obama weighed in on the issue in an interview with YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen for the news organization AJ+.

Obama said he has no idea why states would tax feminine hygiene products. “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

Keam’s bill would add feminine hygiene products to the list of miscellaneous sales tax exemptions in Virginia. The list currently includes such things as firewood, eyeglasses and hearing aids.

“My goal is to make this a parity issue, and not turn it into a partisan fight over who supports women more,” Keam said. “I want to make this about making our tax law equitable for everyone.”

HB 952 has been sent to the House Finance Committee. Keam, who is a member of the committee, said the panel is awaiting the results of the economic impact study on the bill. The study would estimate how much revenue the state would lose by exempting tampons and sanitary napkins from the state’s sales tax.

Despite the fact that Keam is a man, he believes changing the policy is something all Virginians should care about: “I like nontraditional messengers. I want men to say, ‘This isn’t just a women’s issue, but we as men should have responsibility for policy making that deals with these issues as well.’”

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Governor’s Star ‘TURN’ Reflects Support for Hollywood

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The governor’s schedule doesn’t leave much room for watching television, but Terry McAuliffe makes time for AMC’s Revolutionary War series “TURN: Washington’s Spies.” While it piques the governor’s interest because of his interest in the time period, he has doggedly followed and promoted the series because it’s filmed in Richmond.

Nearing the end of filming for the third season, McAuliffe put his public speaking skills to the test in a brief cameo as Gen. Robert Lawson for the show. Dressed in period costume, he only delivered one line and a dark look at Benedict Arnold, but his appearance underscored his support for both the show and the filmmaking industry in Virginia.

To make Virginia a destination for shooting movies and television shows (and to enjoy the tourism buzz they generate), the state government provides grants for productions that film in the state. State Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, is a long-time supporter of the tax credit program. He said it is an important way to grow the state’s economy.

“We need to start looking at film like any other manufacturing industry that we’re trying to attract to Virginia,” Kilgore said.

While Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” created the most buzz with the use of the Virginia State Capitol as a set for Civil War-era Washington, D.C., other productions have brought the magic of the movies to Virginia.

Over the course of two seasons of “TURN,” the show has received $13 million in grants and tax rebates from Virginia. According to a study by Mangum Economics, “TURN” generates $8 for the Virginia economy for every dollar spent on rebates for filming. Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, says film production benefits all aspects of the local economy – not just the movie industry.

“When a movie company comes to town, they touch all parts of the economy,” said Edmunds. “It’s not just the jobs of the people who work on the film, but what they buy while they are there.”

Starting with Louisiana in 1992, 39 states now have film tax credit programs. Louisiana has offered unlimited funds for productions, with a 35 percent reimbursement rate (the highest in the country).

While some states are pressing for more funding, others have elected to cut back. Due to steep declines in oil and gas revenue, Alaska chose to discontinue its program. Massachusetts also has debated whether to cut its incentives.

Virginia’s program is growing, but it is still modest compared with other states. Virginia reimburses productions 15-20 percent of their costs. In return, the state requires production companies to create promotional materials for the state. Virginia currently budgets $2.4 million a year for its program – but that would rise to $3 million annually under the new budget proposed by McAuliffe and being considered by the General Assembly.

In a political climate where the two parties often disagree, the issue of subsidizing the film industry in Virginia has bipartisan support.

“Virginia is getting the most bang for its buck out of this policy,” Kilgore said. “For every dollar we spend, we get so much more back because these companies are marketing Virginia.”

In addition to all of the materials purchased and people hired during the shoot, the tourism impact cannot be ignored. In exchange for the grant money, Virginia requires the company that receives the money to produce Virginia tourism commercials featuring the show or film shot here.

“Before and after each episode of ‘TURN,’ a Virginia tourism commercial airs urging viewers to visit our state,” Edmunds explained. “The amount of money in the grant is much less than the price of a commercial production, without the added benefit of the shoot, making it pay for itself.”

Besides “TURN” and “Lincoln,” the new PBS-produced Civil War drama “Mercy Street” was filmed in Richmond and Petersburg. With several million viewers, the state is hoping the show becomes as popular as the PBS drama “Downton Abbey.”

Other period pieces shot in the state include the miniseries “John Adams” and the 1970s-era romantic comedy film “Big Stone Gap,” filmed in Southwest Virginia.

“Here in Virginia we’ve got a great story to tell,” Kilgore said. “Because of our wide variety of climates, there’s plenty of great places to film movies.”

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House Republicans Outline Education Agenda

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – House Republicans outlined their agenda for education on Tuesday, saying they want to expand early education and charter schools and give parents more options on where to send their children to school.

Speaking before the House, Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, lauded his colleagues for a successful bipartisan effort in 2015 that brought “more money into the classroom.”

Landes, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he hopes to continue to work across the aisle to improve what Education Week ranked as the fourth best public education system in the nation.

Republican legislators believe that charter schools are a great option for parents. Charter schools are public schools that are free from certain regulations and provide alternative programs, often with an innovative focus. Students must apply to these schools and are enrolled through a selective lottery process.

Landes noted that while New York operates 187 charter schools and Washington, D.C., operates 115, Virginia has only nine.

The Republicans also are striving to increase early education access statewide by removing barriers between public and private early education institutions. Landes cited legislative proposals from Del. Thomas Greason, R-Loudoun, to establish an Early Education Workforce Committee (House Bill 46) and Del. James Massey, R-Henrico, whose HB 1019 would extend education scholarship eligibility to pre-kindergarten programs.

The GOP agenda stipulated that the party does not support universal pre-kindergarten schooling because of the expense.

Landes also highlighted a bill he is sponsoring (HB 516) that would allow students and their parents to opt out of exposure to sexually explicit material.

The final part of the GOP education agenda for 2016 is directed at improving access to, and reducing the financial burden of, higher education. Proposed legislation would aim to implement a state-guaranteed assistance program and provide options for flat-fee degrees.

In response, Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, expressed appreciation for the bipartisan efforts of the House regarding education. She indicated that the Democrats would like to do more – by making early education universal, for example.

“We don’t want to close the door to early education,” Herring said. But she applauded the improved efficiency that freed funding from the mire of bureaucracy, agreeing that “rubber meets the road in the classroom.”

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Environmentalists Blast Dominion’s Response to Energy Plan

By Diana Digangi and Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an open letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a coalition of environmental activists and other community leaders said Tuesday that Dominion Virginia Power’s response to the federal Clean Power Plan is “fundamentally contrary” to President Obama’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy.

The letter is signed by about 50 individuals who represent organizations including the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Richmond and Northern Neck chapters of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

“Never in history has a Virginia governor had greater authority, greater responsibility and a greater opportunity to combat harmful carbon pollution,” the letter states. “We implore you to deliver to the people of Virginia a Clean Power Plan that lowers carbon pollution and ensures the health and safety of Virginians for generations to come.”

Coincidently, across Capitol Square, the General Assembly considered a bill that would restrict the governor’s authority for implementing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

Amid partisan debate, the House of Delegates voted to move forward on a bill that could present a roadblock to implementing the Clean Power Plan. House Bill 2 would require approval from the General Assembly of the state’s response to the federal plan. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 21, is moving through the Senate.

If such legislation becomes law, the General Assembly would take precedence over the governor’s administration and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in approving the state’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

Support and opposition to HB 2 split along party lines. The bill’s sponsor – Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol – introduced entreated the legislative body to “get this particular piece of the puzzle right.” He argued the measure would ensure a balance between encouraging economic vitality and reducing fossil fuel energy sources.

Republican sentiment largely followed suit, with some lawmakers citing the State Corporation Commission’s estimate of a 40 percent increase in utility costs under the Clean Power Plan.

Other voices stressed the need to address the economic depression in southwest Virginia, a region with deep ties to the coal industry.

Across the aisle, Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, urged House members to reflect on the effects of carbon emissions on the environment. “Climate change is having an impact in our day-to-day lives,” Lopez said.

He said that HB 2 is a stalling tactic encouraged by special interests and that it infringes on the governor’s authority.

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, encouraged his colleagues to “embrace the energy revolution” by pointing to the growth of a renewable energy industry in bordering states including North Carolina and West Virginia.

The bill was engrossed after a contested vote. It will return to the House floor for its final reading soon. SB 21 is on a similar track to becoming law. That prospect has alarmed environmentalists.

“We absolutely support his (the governor’s) authority in this manner and are very concerned about the general lack of respect for the severity of the issue of climate change among the General Assembly,” said Kate Addleson, conservation director of the Sierra Club.

Addleson helped lead the efforts to draft and distribute the letter to the governor.

“Our concern is that Dominion Power has a great deal of influence over many of our politicians,” she said. “And we feel that that influence has been used to misinform many of our legislators about what the economic impacts of this new Clean Power Plan would be.”

Dominion Power denied the letter’s claims.

“Contrary to what the letter says, Dominion has not put forth a plan. It is clearly up to the state to develop a CPP implementation plan,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins stated in an email. “We are involved in a Department of Environmental Quality stakeholder’s group process working with the state as it determines its best path forward.”

Botkins said Dominion is worried that complying with the federal plan would cause big increases in consumers’ utility bills.

“Dominion supports an approach that builds on our cleaner power generation sources compared to our neighboring states and preserves our state’s key advantages of low customer rates and strong reliability while allowing for economic growth,” Botkins said.

But Addleson disputed that argument.

“Dominion always likes to say Virginia has some of the lowest energy rates in the country overall per megawatt hour, but what they don’t want to tell you is that Virginians actually pay some of the highest energy bills in the country ... because we’re not implementing energy efficiency programs,” she said.

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Mixed Views about Bills to Increase Alcohol Sales

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia restaurant owners have mixed perspectives on legislation that would allow their establishments to sell more alcoholic beverages.

Two Republican lawmakers from Virginia Beach – Sen. Bill DeSteph and Del. Scott Taylor – have proposed changing the 20-year-old requirement that restaurants and caterers with liquor licenses limit their alcohol sales to 55 percent of their total revenue. This means that under the current law, a little less than half of all sales in restaurants must come from food. Wine and beer sales are not considered in this ratio.

The bills proposed by DeSteph and Taylor would raise the maximum percentage of revenue from liquor sales to 75 percent of total sales per restaurant. Many restaurateurs believe they would benefit from such an increase.

“There’s a lot of things out there that people are doing wrong, just so they can stay ahead of that law, so they can maintain their bills as a restaurant or bar or nightclub,” said Johnny Giavos, owner of Richmond mainstays Stella’s and Kuba Kuba as well as the recently opened Continental Westhampton.

“Just let people open a bar and charge them more for the liquor license. Just let them be bars ... The state makes more money, nobody has to fudge their numbers or steal money to make their numbers work, and everybody benefits from it,” Giavos said.

Terrence O’Neill, owner of Penny Lane Pub in downtown Richmond, agreed.

“I don’t understand why that’s a big deal,” he said. “If you go to other states, they seem to manage fine just having bars … I think it’s time to lower [the required percentage of food sales] again. I think that’s the right move.”

Other interested parties – like the Downtown Business Group, a confederation of hotels, restaurants, retailers and apartments in Richmond – disagree. They feel that such a rule change would cut into profits at other restaurants by opening up a market for businesses to promote cheap alcohol as their main source of revenue.

“They’re trying to fundamentally change the way the entire state of Virginia works from a hospitality standpoint,” said Michael Byrne, director of operations at the Tobacco Company Restaurant and Properties and a leader in the business group. “They’re putting alcohol center stage, because you make more money off of liquor than you do anything else. If all you need to sell is liquor, why would you worry about selling food?”

When asked about the creation of a specific license for bars, as Giavos suggested, Byrne said, “The nightclub-only license is a dangerous license. Look at the places that operate as bars, and you’ll find the highest amount of crime, the highest number of visits from the police department … So it definitely is a public safety issue.”

Other business owners are still on the fence.

“I could go either way. I own a restaurant, not a bar. I have a bar in the restaurant, said Ron Joseph, owner of Strawberry Street Cafe in Richmond’s Fan neighborhood.

He said the legislation “won’t hurt me. It may open up more opportunities for somebody that may want to open up a [music] venue. But I don’t think it will do any more damage than the breweries do to restaurants.”

This is not the first time such legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly. Just last year, when DeSteph was a member of the House, he sponsored an almost identical bill. It failed, largely as a result of lobbying by the Downtown Business Group.

In an interview at the General Assembly this week, DeSteph said he believes the measure has a better chance of passing during the current legislative session.

“Before, there were about eight restaurants opposed to the bill, with three different owners,” he said. “This year, on the other side, we have the Fan Restaurant Group and about 600 different restaurants in support of the bill.”

DeSteph is carrying two proposals – SB 488 and SB 489 – to change the food-beverage ratio for Virginia restaurants. The bills have been assigned to the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services.

Taylor’s bill – HB 219 – has been assigned to Subcommittee 3 of the House Committee on General Laws.

DeSteph said he expects the committees to take up the legislation in the next week or two.

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GOP Lawmakers Seek Crackdown on Domestic Abuse

By Brian Williams, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Legislators want tougher penalties for domestic violence.

Dels. Rob Bell of Albemarle and Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah – both Republicans – said Thursday that their proposals would impose tougher penalties for habitual domestic violence offenders while empowering women with methods that protect them during vulnerable moments.

Bell is sponsoring House Bill 609 and HB 610, which he hopes will deter abusers from committing repeat offenses. The bills would make assault and battery resulting in bodily injury and stalking of a person protected by a protective order a Class 6 felony.

Under the current law in Virginia, when an individual obtains a protective order that is then later violated, the penalty is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a mandatory one-day minimum sentence. A Class 6 felony carries a mandatory minimum term of confinement of six months.

“We also want to change the laws for stalking,” Bell said.

“The issue with stalking that makes it hard is, at what point does it become stalking? What we are going to do is allow her (the victim) to tell him (the stalker), ‘I don’t want you to contact me; I don’t want you to follow me.’ ”

If an individual continues the behavior after being told to stop, Bell’s proposal would define that as sufficient evidence that the person intended to place the other person in fear.

“This is a comprehensive effort to address the most serious offenders – the offenders who are most likely to represent a threat to the women in the commonwealth. By relegating them to the status of felon, we actually will improve the ability to protect women,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert is proposing a zero-tolerance approach regarding assault and battery against a family or household member. His legislation – HB 765 – would punish first offenders at the same level as individuals with prior convictions.

This bill would directly contest Virginia’s first offender statute for domestic violence. Under this existing law, a judge may find evidence sufficient for a conviction, but the conviction is entered only if the defendant violates the terms of his probation.

“Having this be the standard disposition, which is what it has become in most courts in the commonwealth, is just wrong,” said Gilbert, a former prosecutor.

Gilbert also is sponsoring HB 768, which would provide funding for firearms safety or training courses for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, stalking and family abuse.

The bill would allow the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, using the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Victim Fund, to reimburse entities that offers such training for free to abuse victims.

“But we will see what the governor does. This one is where we might be able to get a consensus,” Bell said.

Gilbert ended by saying, “We wouldn’t be doing this if this wasn’t a serious effort with funding to back it up.”

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Lawmaker Asks Governor to Delay Revoking Gun Permits

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Republican state legislator is urging Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to delay the revocation of reciprocal agreements Virginia has with 25 states on whether to honor their concealed handgun carry permits.

Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter of Woodbridge made the request in a letter this week to McAuliffe.

“Given the fact that the State Police has told me that they have no records of any out-of-state individual with a concealed carry permit committing crimes in Virginia, I think a few months’ delay hardly represents a threat to our citizens,” Lingamfelter said.

His letter comes a month after Attorney General Mark Herring announced that beginning Feb. 1, Virginia would no longer recognize concealed handgun permits from 25 states, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Herring, a Democrat, said an audit showed that those states did not meet Virginia’s standards for issuing concealed carry permits.

“To ensure Virginia’s law and safety standards for concealed handgun permits are applied evenly, consistently and fairly, I have recommended the State Police terminate the reciprocity agreements with 25 states whose laws are not adequate to prevent issuance of a concealed handgun permit to individuals that Virginia would disqualify,” Herring said in a statement on Dec. 22.

“The State Police has accepted that recommendation and has begun sending letters to the 25 states informing them that as of Feb. 1, their permits will no longer be recognized by Virginia.”

In his letter, Lingamfelter suggested that the revocation be put on hold until July 1. He said the five-month delay would give the General Assembly time to address the issue.

If implementation of Herring’s decision is not delayed, Lingamfelter said, there could be a domino effect.

“Just last week, we learned that our neighbor Tennessee has initiated a legislative process to revoke the reciprocity it has with Virginia as a result of our pending revocation of the agreement we have with Tennessee,” Lingamfelter said.

“Other states will surely follow as their legislatures take note of the action taken by the Virginia State Police and the Office of the Attorney General.”

In a press release, Lingamfelter said Herring’s decision “impacts the legal right of over 420,000 Virginians who possess a concealed carry permit to have a concealed weapon when they travel to other states.”

“This revocation action is very hurtful to law abiding citizens who possess a valid concealed carry permit and desire to travel to other states who recognize Virginia’s permit. The action by the State Police and the Attorney General damages the ability of Virginians to protect themselves.”

Lingamfelter represents House District 31, which includes parts of Fauquier and Prince William counties. He said he hopes McAuliffe will respond to the letter next week.

McAuliffe has said he supports Herring’s decision. On radio station WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program on Dec. 23, he said the 25 states whose permits will no longer be recognized in Virginia have lower standards than Virginia for who can carry a concealed handgun.

“There are states that don’t have the disqualifiers that we have on undocumented folks who are in this country, on spousal/domestic abuse,” the governor said.

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Bills Seek ‘Religious Freedom’ to Reject Same-Sex Marriage

By Brian Williams, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A group of Republican lawmakers on Monday touted a bundle of legislation that they said would ensure religious freedom but that critics said would sanction discrimination against gay couples seeking to marry.

Led by Sen. Charles Carrico Sr. of Galax and Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah, the GOP legislators held a press conference at the Capitol to discuss their bills. The proposals were prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to legalize same-sex marriages.

The Republican-sponsored bills would allow ministers and groups to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings on the basis of their religious convictions. Otherwise, some Virginians would be forced to offer services that go against their core beliefs, according to supporters of the legislation.

“The heavy hand of government is coercing businesses to participate in same-sex unions,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.

“Religious nonprofits, ministries and schools are the next target of discrimination – something that even the Obama administration acknowledged during its oral arguments.”

Under Carrico’s Senate Bill 41, a marriage officiant wouldn’t be required to marry same-sex couples. The bill also states that no religious organization would have to provide accommodations, facilities, goods or other services for a wedding or marriage if the action would violate the group’s religious beliefs. The legislation is awaiting action by the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology.

“Our founders got it right,” Carrico said.

“They didn’t want to infringe upon those deep held beliefs. They didn’t expect the government to step in and say to an individual, because you have this deep held belief that you have to do X, Y and Z.”

Caleb Dalton, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, says court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage is problematic.

“Policies that marginalize and punish diverse views create intolerance, disrespect and strife amongst citizens,” Dalton said.

Gilbert has introduced HB 773, which he calls the Government Nondiscrimination Act. It would prevent state and local governments from discriminating against a person or organization that believes marriage is between a man and a woman.

The bill also would prevent the denial of government grants, licenses, contracts and tax breaks for those who, based on their religious beliefs, deny services to same-sex couples. HB 773 has been assigned to the House General Laws Committee.

“Fundamentally, I think all Americans agree that nobody should be forced to adhere to a particular belief system if they don’t choose to,” Gilbert said.

Also at the press conference, lawmakers discussed:

  • HB 19, filed by Del. Christopher Head, R-Roanoke. Under this bill, ministers and other people authorized to perform marriages would not be required to take an oath, and they would not be considered an officer of the commonwealth. The bill is pending in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • HB 791, sponsored by Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham. It asserts that religious rights are “the natural and unalienable rights of mankind and this declaration shall remain the policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Last week, a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee unanimously recommended approval of this measure.

“These bills are targeted to protect that religious freedom that each and every person has and believes in that spirit within them that drives them to do the moral right things,” Carrico said.

However, some critics say the term “religious freedom” is nothing more than a license to discriminate.

Equality Virginia, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Virginians, fears that the civil rights of gay citizens would be violated as a result of the “religious freedom” proposals. The group says the laws like SB 41 are too vague and would harm both the LGBT community and Virginia’s economy.

“Houses of worship and clergy already have the constitutionally protected freedom to decide which marriages they will and won’t perform in their faith traditions,” Equality Virginia said in a statement on its website.

“Under current law, no church or pastor could be forced to perform a marriage that goes against their religious teaching or beliefs – including, for example, marriages of same-sex couples, interfaith marriages, or marriages of people previously divorced.

“Broad religious exemptions open the door for people to claim they have a right to decide which laws they will and won’t obey, creating uncertainty for law enforcement and making it difficult for officers to enforce the law.”

Equality Virginia said SB 41 “could open the floodgates to legal chaos and frivolous lawsuits at taxpayer expense.”

“The unintended consequences of this bill may cost Virginia’s taxpayers large sums of money, which could be used towards improving our schools or building our economy,” the group said.

Air Max

Here’s a Bill Beer Drinkers Might Celebrate

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Do you have an expensive bottle of wine you’ve been holding onto – one that you’d love to uncork at your favorite restaurant on a special occasion? What about a special case of beer or cider?

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Virginians to bring a bottle of wine into a restaurant and have it uncorked to be served with their meal, usually for a fee at the restaurateur’s discretion. Now legislators are considering a bill to expand the corkage law to beer and cider.

“Beer seems to be the new thing if you will, and cider is the excitement of what the future will bring,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News. “Virginia is in a great position because we have outstanding apples, and we’ve got young people that are really excited about the possibilities that beer has.”

His measure, House Bill 706, was approved 7-0 last week by a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee. The full committee will now consider it.

When the corkage law was initially proposed five years ago, it was opposed by the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association. The association raised concerns that restaurants would face pressure from patrons to offer corkage, as has happened in other states.

The group’s fears did not come to pass in Virginia after the 2011 legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, took effect. Instead, the issue with the state’s corkage law seems to be a lack of awareness that it exists.

“What we’ve seen since the Virginia legislation was passed is that therereally are only a small number of people that take advantage of the ability to bring their own wines into a restaurant,” said lobbyist Thomas Lisk, who represents the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association and helped shape the 2011 law.

A small sample of restaurateurs in Virginia seemed to agree. Some were not aware of the law. Most offered a small corkage fee but said they don’t have many customers requesting the service.

“We usually charge the price of whatever the cheapest bottle of wine is on our list – like 20 bucks,” said Bruce Rowland, co-owner of Rowland Fine Dining in Richmond.

“For me, corkage law is such a non-issue because it’s so rare that someone does bring in their own wine. But I’d certainly want to charge corkage for beer and cider as well, because I’ve got beer and cider and I want to sell them.”

Yancey said he had not seen an ambivalence regarding corkage. He said his bill was inspired by the booming craft brewing industry in Virginia and the potential for growth in the cider industry.

“The appreciation for well-made beer, for many people, is the equivalent of the appreciation people have for well-made wines,” Yancey said.

Lisk expressed doubts that the bill would be a net gain for small brewers in Virginia.

“I don’t speak for them, but from the brewery perspective, I’m not sure how advantageous it would be,” he said. “Frankly, we’re seeing so many of the craft breweries – particularly Virginia craft breweries – with their beers on tap in lots of restaurants and really squeezing out a lot of the major brewers.”

Hombre

‘Stay off Roads,’ Gov. McAuliffe Tells Virginians

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As a winter storm blanketed the state with snow, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Saturday begged Virginians to avoid driving until the roads are clear.

“Please stay off of the roads tomorrow and Monday if you can and let us do our job to keep you safe and our community safe,” McAuliffe said during a media briefing on the commonwealth’s response to the severe winter weather.

McAuliffe and Virginia emergency response officials said they are working with hundreds of state and local employees statewide to minimize the number of weather-related issues.

One storm-related fatality has been confirmed in Chesapeake. Two other deaths, in Whitfield (in Pittsylvania County) and in Grayson County, are being investigated by the medical examiner to determine if they are weather-related as well.

As of mid-Saturday, more than 4,600 Virginia residents were without electricity. Officials said 60 teams from around the country have come to Virginia to assist Dominion Virginia Power in restoring power.

“We are working very closely with Dominion to make sure that power is restored as soon as possible,” McAuliffe said at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center.

Every part of the commonwealth has been affected by the storm. But McAuliffe said his biggest concern is for coastal areas like Chincoteague, Hampton Roads, Norfolk and Newport News.

“Tonight high tide is at 7:36 p.m. We’re concerned about the high winds and the major coastal flooding that can occur,” McAuliffe said.“We have teams down there working on that, andwe’ll monitor to see where we are when we get closer to high tide.”

Another top concern is keeping open the major road arteries, including Interstate 81.

“Trucks have to continue to move their commerce, and we’re doing everything we can, working with VDOT and State Police to make sure that the trucks can go about their business,” McAuliffe said.

“The primary roads that keep the commerce of Virginia moving – that is what we’re hitting. We’re hitting it hard.”

McAuliffe said the state began preparing for winter storm Jonas before the first sight of snow.

“We were the first state to declare a state of emergency. On Wednesday, we had our first snow emergency meeting, and later that afternoon, we deployed 500 trucks to NOVA to get ready for the first storm,” McAuliffe said.

The crews have tried to make the roads safe.

“As of this morning, we had dropped 69,000 tons of salt; 304,000 gallons of liquid salt and 14,000 tons of sand has been put on our streets,” McAuliffe said.

He said the Virginia State Police have responded to more than 4,400 calls and 1,100 car accidents.

In addition, as of Friday, about 700 members of the National Guard had been deployed throughout Virginia to assist with responding to the storm.

Virginia has $200 million in its snow response budget. That amount must cover plowing and other expenses for both the Virginia Department of Transportation and state contractors. With a storm of this magnitude, the response can cost $2 million to $3 million per hour, officials said.

“To me, cost doesn’t matter,” McAuliffe said. “We are going spend whatever it takes to make sure our roads are safe for our communities.”

Richmond could see up to 4 more inches of snow before midnight.

“With the prediction of the sun coming out tomorrow, many may be tempted to go outside, but the roads will be very icy and treacherous,” McAuliffe warned. “Let us do what we need to do – continue to plow and get salt down so we can get on top of this situation.”

Air Max 90 Ultra 2.0 Essenti

Go Global, Governor Tells Business Leaders

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe emphasized the importance of reaching out to global markets and expanding Virginia’s economy in a speech Wednesday to a group of business representatives graduating from the Virginia Leaders in Export Trade program in downtown Richmond.

“Ninety-five percent of the world’s customers live outside the United States of America, so we are going where the customers are,” McAuliffe said, echoing a theme from his State of the Commonwealth address last week. “With our great Virginia businesses, I know we can do business in any country on the globe.”

The VALET program aims to do just that. Sponsored by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, it is a two-year training program to assist Virginia businesses in reaching international markets.

Global trade is crucial because Virginia's economy has been highly dependent on federal government spending. As the No. 1 recipient of grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, Virginia was hit especially hard by the government's sequestration cuts following the recession in 2008. Despite the return of funding, McAuliffe stressed the need to diversify Virginia’s economy to prepare for the future.

“Our whole goal is to build the new economy on trade. Our economy has weathered the first round of sequestration, but it’s coming back when the extension runs out,” McAuliffe said.

The Democratic governor also said he hoped for bipartisanship in working with the General Assembly, which is controlled by Republicans.

“I do not get involved in these petty, partisan, political battles that really don’t help grow the economy,” he said. “I do not have time for it. I am really focused on taking our economy to the next level.”

Air Max

Founded by Slaves, Church Lets Freedom Ring

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

On a Sunday morning in the late 1700s, a Williamsburg plantation owner was walking his lands when he heard the sounds of worship coming from a nearby arbor: A group of slaves was holding a Baptist service. The landowner was so moved by their songs and prayers that he decided to give them use of a carriage house in which to gather.

Now, this congregation is celebrating its 240th anniversary. Known today as First Baptist Church, it is one of the oldest black congregations in the United States and an important part of American history.

First Baptist has been a symbolof African American resilience and deep faith. For February – Black History Month – the church is partnering with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to share its story with the world.

In particular, First Baptist invites members of the community to ring its newly restored church bell. The church had acquired the massive steel bell in the late 19th century, but it has been inoperable since the days of racial segregation. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has returned the bell to working condition so it can be rung every day in February.

“Bells call people to faith. They send folks forth to do good work in the world,” said Reginald Davis, the pastor of First Baptist Church. “But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who prayed in our church, also said that freedom rings. A silent bell represents unfinished work of freedom and equality. This bell, in this sacred and historic church, will be silent no more.”

Davis has led the congregation for the past 12 years. He says the history of First Baptist Church is an essential part of U.S. history.

“We want the American people to know that black history is American history,” Davis said. “You just cannot tease out one part of history and leave the other part out.”

First Baptist Church of Williamsburg had humble beginnings. It started as a group of slaves and free blacks in 1776. Five years later, after the previous preacher left, a slave named Gowan Pamphlet stepped up and began delivering Baptist sermons.

Religion was central to the slave community, said James Ingram, who portrays Pamphlet at the Colonial Williamsburg Museum.

“They realized that the religious teaching of the Bible was different than what they had been told,” Ingram said. “It was through the stories in the Bible that literally became the medicine that could heal their wounded souls.”

The Church of England and other white religious institutions preached that the Bible condoned slavery. But black preachers taught that in their humanity, blacks were equal to – and deserved the same rights as – whites.

“The lashings, beatings and the crucifixion of Jesus were especially important,” Ingram said. “They related to that because that’s what’s happening in their lives every single day.”

Black Baptist congregations were viewed with extra suspicion because they were associated with slave rebellions. According to Linda Rowe, a Colonial Williamsburg historian who has done extensive research on the religious life of colonists, the congregation spent a significant time meeting in wooded areas instead of inside a building.

“In the early 1800s, Gowan Pamphlet’s congregation was still meeting in a secluded area on the outskirts of Williamsburg,” Rowe said. “A local citizen heard the congregation singing and praying. This moved him to offer them a meeting place downtown.”

As the congregation grew, it gathered the resources to build a brick church in 1856. The women’s auxiliary of First Baptist raised the money to purchase a church bell for ringing during services and other special events.

In 1956, First Baptist moved to its current location at 727 Scotland St. But for the past 60 years, the church bell has been inoperable.

“There was a crack in the yoke from which it was suspended and possibly some issues with where it was mounted,” Rowe said. “The rope to pull it was in an out-of-the-way place, so it gradually fell out of disuse.”

Last year, First Baptist reached out to Colonial Williamsburg to restore the bell and highlight the church’s history. The result is the Let Freedom Ring project, in which citizens are invited to proclaim their belief in freedom and equality by ringing the restored bell.

First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg have created a website – www.letfreedomringchallenge.org– for the project. There, visitors can reserve a time to go to the church and ring the historic bell. (Spots are available on weekdays and Saturdays from Feb. 1 through 29.)

After making a reservation to ring the bell, participants are urged to spread the word on social media. Recent tweets include:

·         #WhyIWillRingfor Rosa Parks. It takes courage to change. America needs change.

·         #WhyIWillRing– for our first black@PotusPresident Obama. It took too long to have one but we finally did it.

·         #WhyIWillRingbecause I HAVE A DREAM too!

During its history, First Baptist Church has hosted such civil rights icons as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. The Let Freedom Ring Project allows visitors and community members to recommit to black history and American values, Davis said.

“We invite people from every faith, racial group, economic group, educational group to come here and make that commitment again,” Davis said. “I believe our issues can be solved, but we have to make a commitment as a nation that we’re going to correct the wrongs.”

jordan

Transparency Caucus Urges Open Government

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Two freshmen legislators, a Republican and a Democrat, announced the formation of a new bipartisan caucus Monday, one targeted to make the Virginia General Assembly more accessible to the public.

The Virginia Transparency Caucus is the brainchild of Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian. They want their colleagues to follow their lead in giving the public access to what happens in legislative committees and subcommittees.

“We have agreed to videotape the entire proceedings for every one of our bills – subcommittees and committees. Our constituents have a right to know what happened with our bills,” Levine said. “To become a member of the Transparency Caucus, you just have to agree to commit to make public your votes in subcommittee and committee hearings.”

Delegate Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, supports the new caucus. “We’re very proud to continue in that tradition and push for more transparency in the House and throughout the General Assembly.”

At the press conference, Chase voiced her opinion on the Senate rule change that moved the media from the chamber’s floor to the upper gallery, away from lawmakers.

“I don’t have a problem with the press being there on the floor, personally,” she said.

Chase indicated that the policy might be changed.

“There is a discussion going on in (the Republican) caucus right now that is private and confidential,” Chase said. “There are a number of grassroots senators who are OK with the press being on the floor, but we want to have a united front.”

Levine has already made moves to have his staff videotape the subcommittee and committee proceedings involving his bills.

“We’re just doing my bills. If other people want to videotape their bills, that’s completely up to them. Amanda and I obviously encourage them to do that. We want them to join this standard and do that ... but we’re not going to presume to tape other people’s bills,” Levine said.

“For all of my bills, my staff is going to come in, we’re going to take it, we’re going to put it on YouTube … That’s as accessible to the public as we know. Every bill that goes before subcommittee or committee, whether it lives or dies – people will know what happened to the bill and why.”

Chase said she also will post the videos on Facebook and on her own website.

Delegate John Bell, D-Chantilly, also supports the caucus.

“I believe in transparency,” he said. “My service here will be based on three things: integrity first, service before self and excellent in all we do.

“I believe integrity is absolutely the foundation of good government. While we may disagree sometimes on issues, I think we all must be transparent in what we do and what we believe.”

Bell said it’s crucial to open legislative panels to people “who can’t always travel to Richmond. It’s critically important. I’m a big believer in transparency. I applaud my colleagues and others who are taking steps towards transparency. It’s just good government.”

Legislators from both sides of the aisle are supporting the Transparency Caucus. They include Democratic Dels. Mark Keam of Vienna and Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and Republican Sen. Thomas Garrett of Hadensville.

“I have reached out to many, many others, and as names come in, I’ll let you know. But obviously this is the seed. And from the seed, we hope grows a very large oak tree,” Levine said. “Our hope is that 140 people join. But it has to start somewhere, and we’re glad to be that start.”

Garrett said transparency ensures that the government “works for the people, not the other way around.”

Adidas

200 Rally at Capitol for ‘Common-Sense Gun Laws’

By Jazmen Townsend, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND – About 200 people huddled on the Capitol grounds Monday to urge the General Assembly to pass legislation they hope will curb gun violence.

Lawmakers, students and others spoke at the rally on Martin Luther King Day, calling for what Gov. Terry McAuliffe termed “common-sense gun laws.” They also showed their support for President Barack Obama’s recent executive action to expand background checks on firearms sales.

Laurie Haas, state director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, kicked off the rally.

“Take a deep breath in honor of the victims lost to gun violence,” Haas said. “Every time you exhale, say a prayer. We will forever remember those who have fallen victim to firearms.”

Many people attending the event held signs demanding immediate action by legislators.

“Almost once an hour, someone dies from a gunshot wound,” said Charles McKeon, one of the participants. “Ninety percent of Americans want gun control. Legislators need to give us what we want.”

In Virginia and across the country, guns are a contentious issue. On Monday afternoon, several Virginians with concealed carry permits also gathered in Capitol Square to show their support for the Second Amendment.

“Firearms can be used to protect a life – my family’s life,” said Laura Johnson, a Charlottesville resident.

Lydia Mitchell, another gun rights supporter, agreed. “Having a gun makes me feel protected, and protection is much needed in this world we live in.”

The Virginia General Assembly, which convened last week for a 60-day session, is considering dozens of laws regarding guns. Some seek to restrict who can have guns or where they can carry firearms; other proposals seek to expand gun rights.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe closed Monday’s vigil by discussing his recent executive order banning firearms from state office buildings. He said he supports limiting access to guns by people who have mental health problems or previous felony convictions or are under a current protective order to stay away from an ex-partner.

“There is a law that says you don’t have to get rid of a gun you already own if you’re a felon,” McAuliffe said. “But you can’t buy a new one. Where’s the logic? We need common-sense gun laws here in the commonwealth of Virginia.”

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Poll Find Support for Sex Assault Reporting Laws

By Brian Williams, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Most Virginians support the state’s new law on reporting sexual assaults on campus, according to a poll released Monday by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute.

In the CEPI’s latest findings, 86 percent of Virginians support the current law, which was approved by the 2015 General Assembly and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Support for the law was greatest among parents and among Virginians age 34 to 44.

“Over 80 percent are very supportive of the legislation that came out of last year’s General Assembly requiring that all employees of the institutions be required to report sexual assaults to their Title IX coordinator,” said Dr. Robyn McDougle, interim executive director of the institute, based at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The poll, conducted Dec. 15-20, also found that 67 percent of Virginians believe that state’s college and university campuses are safe or very safe – about the same proportion as last year.

The results varied by region. For example, 75 percent of the respondents in Northern Virginia felt that college campuses were safe or very safe; however, in South-Central Virginia, the proportion was just 62 percent, and in Tidewater, only 61 percent.

For the first time, the annual poll asked participants how much they felt public colleges and universities contribute to the economic development of their communities. The CEPI found that 60 percent of Virginians felt such institutions drive economic development.

Responses varied significantly among regions of the state as well as among people with different levels of education. For example, 70 percent of respondents with a college degree believed that the presence of a college or university drives economic development, but just 54 percent of participants who have a high school diploma and have not gone to college agreed.

In Northern Virginia, 67 percent of residents said a college or university provided an economic boost to the community; however, in Tidewater, only 55 percent felt that way.

The poll involved telephone interviews with a representative sample of 801 Virginians age 18 or older. The margin of error was 4.2 percentage points.

Accessories

Bills Would Ban Disputed Conversion Therapy

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With confidence and high spirits, Democratic lawmakers and gay rights advocates on Monday kicked off their third consecutive year of fighting for an end to conversion therapy for minors in Virginia.

The controversial treatment, also known as reparative therapy, is aimed at turning homosexuals into heterosexuals and is based on the view that homosexuality is a mental disorder. Conversion therapy is also performed on those questioning their gender identity.

“This is snake oil,” Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said. “Conversion therapy can’t work, it never has worked, it’s not based on any science whatsoever. The physicians, the medical community – they have told us that. This is damaging to minors, specifically to minors.”

The practice is currently legal in Virginia. It is banned in Washington, D.C., and four states – most recently in New Jersey, with the support of Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

In recent years, conversion therapy has been denounced by several mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association. A 2010 study at San Francisco State University concluded that LGBTQ youth who experienced rejection of their identity by their family were on average eight times more likely than other adolescents to attempt suicide.

For the General Assembly’s current session, which began last week, Hope has filed House Bill 427, which would prohibit health care professionals in Virginia “from engaging in conversion therapy with any person under 18 years of age.”

Two similar bills have been filed in the Senate: SB 262, by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon; and SB 267, by Democratic Sens. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg and Donald McEachin of Richmond.

Hope and Surovell held a press conference Monday, saying their bills would protect minors from a therapy that many medical experts see as harmful. The legislators said their goal is to protect children who are not mature enough to choose the treatment for themselves.

“If this were adults that were consciously choosing to go through this kind of therapy, to some extent to me, that’s a little different,” Surovell said. “But this (conversion therapy) is largely applied to children.”

The two Democrats said they hope to reach across the aisle on this issue in the 2016 legislative session.

“If you do support protecting children, there’s no reason this should not pass,” Hope said. “I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that this is the year where this law finally passes.”

Speakers at the news conference continually referred to conversion therapy as a form of consumer fraud – the same rationale for making it illegal in New Jersey. Hope called the therapy “fraudulent, a hoax, anti-consumer.” Surovell added, “To me, this is akin to bleeding people to cure them of a fever – to putting leeches on people’s bodies.”

President Obama last year backed the call to end conversion therapy. In response, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, which supports the practice, released a statement defending conversion therapy.

“No ethical licensed professional would agree to counsel with an adolescent client who was being forced into therapy,” the organization stated. “No one is asking or expecting contented gay citizens to change anything. The freedom of a gay teen to choose a therapist that honors his or her goals and values is unchallenged.”

Matthew Shurka would dispute that. Originally from New York, he underwent conversion therapy from age 16 to 21 in four different states, including Virginia, because his father objected to his sexual orientation.

Shurka now travels the country as an advocate for ending conversion therapy. At the press conference, he questioned how much freedom adolescents truly have when it comes to the decision to undergo such treatment.

“Minors who love their parents and trust their parents are being brought to state-licensed doctors who say they can cure them of homosexuality,” Shurka said. “And children then go into it, like myself, and give it their best to cure this, so they can be loved by their family and loved by their community and accepted, which is what every child really wants.”

Shurka, now 26, has stated in interviews that he has forgiven his father for reacting to his homosexuality with conversion therapy. He believes conversion therapists play on parents’ fears.

Banning this type of therapy should not be a partisan issue, Shurka said.

“It’s not about Republicans and Democrats; it’s not about party lines,” he said, “It’s about having workability for an entire population, for an entire state, for all Americans to be able to live together and be safe. Not a single medical curriculum in the country teaches conversion therapy.”

James Parrish, executive director for Equality Virginia, phrased the need for bipartisan cooperation in a more urgent way.

“It’s amazing to me that in year three, we are still talking about this bill,” he said. “Youth who undergo conversion therapy kill themselves. It’s that simple. Anyone in the General Assembly who says they support child safety or children should support these bills.”

Surovell and Hope said they hope that this will be the year their bills make it into law. Legislation banning the therapy died last year in committee on a 7-8 vote.

“This is the third year in a row, and in regard to gays and lesbians, hearts and minds are changing on a daily basis,” Surovell said. “Every year, I see more and more crossover votes on this issue.”

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Despite Protests, State OKs Drainage of Coal Ash Ponds

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A procession of more than 100 disappointed citizens filed out of a Virginia State Water Control Board meeting late Thursday afternoon after the agency approved permits for Dominion Virginia Power to begin draining water from coal ash ponds on sites in Fluvanna and Prince William counties into the James and Potomac rivers.

Over the past few months, the permit applications have stirred opposition against Dominion Virginia Power by local and regional environmental groups such as the James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Although Thursday’s meeting was brimming with opponents to the plan, the board approved the permits supported by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

State Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, joined opponents at the meeting. He said Dominion’s plan was unsettling to more than just hard-core environmentalists.

“You’re not just hearing concerns from the environmental community,” Surovell said. “You’re hearing concerns from major institutions saying, ‘Let’s slow this down; let’s get this right.’ ”

Surovell suggested that the board consider delaying its decision to allow further study into harm that water from draining coal ash ponds might pose to the creeks and rivers – especially Quantico Creek, which is already impaired due to high concentrations of nickel in the creek bed.

The controversy even drew attention from outside the commonwealth. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources submitted a comprehensive letter to Virginia’s DEQ that contested Virginia’s standards for heavy metal concentration concerning the protection of the shared waters of the Potomac River.

Approval of the permits allows Dominion to begin discharging water immediately from coal ash ponds at Bremo Power Station, roughly 50 miles upstream of Richmond on the James River, and the Possum Point Power Station, located 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., at the confluence of the Potomac River and Quantico Creek.

Coal ash is the problematic residuum left over from burning coal and is commonly stored in retaining ponds generally on site of coal burning power plants. Potentially toxic concentrations of heavy metals inherent to coal ash include arsenic and mercury.

Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s director of Electric Environmental Services, ensured the board of her company’s consideration for human and environmental health. Before the vote, she said Dominion’s plan met all applicable laws and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“This approach complies with all current federal and state regulations, including the newly promulgated EPA rule,” Taylor said.

Board member Roberta A. Kellam cast the sole dissenting vote on both permit approvals. She expressed concern over the complexity of the issue and said there should be more time for review and public comment.

The permits are the first step in Dominion’s plan to close 11 coal ash ponds sited on four power plants around the state at an estimated cost of $325 million. Once the approximately 500 million gallons of contaminated water is treated and drained from these two sites, the utility must obtain further permits to bury the remaining solid coal ash with layers of protective lining, soil and vegetation.

Last September, federal regulations from the EPA set new pollution limits concerning the discharges from electric power plants into the nation’s waterways. That forced state utilities across the U.S., including Dominion Virginia Power, to reconsider their disposal of coal ash.

Most Dominion Virginia Power plants, including the sites at Bremo and Possum Point, have been converted from coal to natural gas and therefore no longer produce coal ash. Permits for draining coal ash ponds at the Chesapeake Energy Center and the coal-burning Chesterfield Power Station will be considered later this year.

Air Max 95

Legislators Get Lesson from Higher Education Advocates

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Most weekdays, Carmen Rodriguez, a biology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, addresses an auditorium of about 400 students. On Thursday, her audience was more personal: She was visiting state legislators’ office and educating lawmakers about issues important to higher education.

Rodriguez was among the faculty and staff members from colleges and universities across Virginia who joined together Thursday to advocate for such issues as a 2 percent pay raise and more financial aid for undergraduate students.

Participants in this year’s Higher Education Advocacy Day focused on five items that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has included in his 2016-2018 biennial budget:

  • A 2 percent salary increase for higher education faculty and staff, costing $25.7 million. The raise would be effective on July 1, 2017 – the second year of the budget; there is no plan for a pay increase in 2016.
  • In-state financial assistance for undergraduates, costing about$48 million.
  • Access and completion initiatives, costing $50 million. McAuliffe’s budget proposals would provide incentives for institutions to educate and graduate more in-state students and underrepresented students.
  • Tuition Assistance Grants, at a cost of $2 million. This would boost the individual undergraduate grant award for students attending independent colleges to $3,400 (from the current $3,100).
  • The proposed budget also includes $40 million in one-time incentive packages for research; $8.1 million for an online degree completion initiative; and $24.6 million for noncredit workforce development to be offered through the Virginia Community College System.

Matthew Conrad, VCU’s executive director of government and board relations, said McAuliffe has been a friend of higher education.

“The governor has been very generous to higher education and education in general. He’s made about a billion dollars in investments in education,” Conrad said.

He said VCU’s top priority is a faculty salary increase “to keep us competitive not only among our current institutions in the state but also outside of the state.”

“We also are very much concerned with the capital bond package that the governor has included,” Conrad said. This would fund a new building for VCU’s School of Allied Health, “which aligns very closely to the governor’s goal of creating jobs.”

Besides VCU, other institutions represented at Higher Education Advocacy Day were Norfolk State University, George Mason, James Madison, Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Mary Washington, the University of Richmond, Randolph-Macon College and the College of William and Mary.

At an organizational meeting before going to the Capitol, Susan Hagedorn, an associate professor of English at William and Mary, passionately discussed problems in the Virginia Retirement System’s optional retirement plan for higher education. Hagedorn has created an “Occupy VRS” website about her concerns.

“There are many problems with VRS. Right now, it’s only 65 percent funded. Those of you who opted for defined benefit plan, if you’re lucky, when you retire they’ll have enough money in the system but right now, they really don’t,” Hagedorn said.

At the morning meeting, faculty members received sheets about the legislators they were going to target first. Many paired up or formed small groups to focus on certain issues together.

Two VCU faculty members, Allen Lee and Carmen Rodriguez, joined Bob Andrews, a retired VCU professor, and traveled the halls of the crowded General Assembly Building. They approached Glen Sturtevant, a newly elected senator from Chesterfield County, first.

Allen Lee, a professor in VCU’s School of Business, discussed the importance of helping students afford their education.

“I’d like to put in a special plea for assistance for students who are undergraduates,” Lee said. “I have some students who are going to school full time and working full time. These are the ones who really need assistance.”

In many instances, the professors found a receptive audience.

Jediah Jones, the legislative assistant to Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, said the senator supports the Tuition Assistance Grants. Jones promised to relay the faculty members’ information to McEachin.

The Higher Education Advocacy Day participants caught Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County briefly in the hall on her way to a meeting. They found that she also supports more funding for the TAG program.

Claudrena Harold, a history professor at U.Va., said faculty members also benefit from the day’s activities. It galvanizes their commitment to common concerns, such as academic freedom, shared governance and the issues of rising tuition and financial aid.

“With tuition increasing every year, there is concern at times that we are pushing certain folks out of the market,” Harold said. “It’s important to provide an affordable, quality education.”

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Judge OKs GOP’s ‘Loyalty Oath’ for Now

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A federal judge Thursday denied a request by African American community leaders for an injunction preventing the Virginia Board of Elections from mailing out absentee ballots for the Republican presidential primary that require a so-called “loyalty oath.”

U.S. District Judge Hannah Lauck said in her ruling that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to allow the injunction. However, she said a trial still must be held to rule on the constitutionality of the requirement.

The decision to deny the injunction, which the plaintiffs plan to appeal, concerns a new requirement that Virginians interested in voting in the Republican primary on March 1 sign a pledge of affiliation to the GOP. This is especially relevant to voters who support the nomination of Donald Trump for president but don’t self-identify as being members of the Republican Party.

Lauck called the requested injunction “an extraordinary remedy.” She said the “plaintiffs did not present evidence sufficient to show a likelihood of success on the merits on their constitutional claims.”

The lawsuit was filed after the Virginia Board of Elections last month approved a request by the state GOP that voters in the Republican presidential primary be required to sign a statement saying, “My signature below indicates that I am a Republican.”

In the suit, three Virginia ministers and leaders in the African American community argued that the requirement would violate minority voters’ civil rights by discouraging people who don’t typically vote as Republicans from casting ballots in the state’s normally open primary.

While some states register voters by party and allow only party members to vote in primaries, until now Virginia has not done so.

“To be Republican ... the Republicans are considered racist. Anyone [in the African American community] who would sign this, great persecution would fall on them,” said Stephen Parson, one of the plaintiffs.

Parson also said such a requirement would create delays in voting. In his opinion, many people would be caught off guard about the requirement and hesitate or abstain from voting entirely.

The defense disagreed.

“Dr. Parson admitted that, other than himself and perhaps his fellow plaintiffs, he was unaware of any voter who did not intend to vote in the Republican Party presidential primary because of the RPV’s decision to require execution of the voter statement,” the defendants said in a brief filed Wednesday.

The brief argued that Parson’s testimony was hearsay and that it “simply repeated” allegations contained in the initial complaint.

“They offered no more than naked, conclusory statements that such detrimental effects might occur, and provided no evidence (or even well-pleaded factual allegations) that any of these hypothetical injuries plausibly would occur as a result of the Republican Party of Virginia’s voter statement,” the brief said.

Lauck agreed with the defense in issuing her decision.

However, in a ruling filed late Thursday, she said that the case “does raise concern as to the State Board of Elections duties to avoid voter confusion and to preserve the integrity of, and order in, the electoral process.”

Lauck said the in-person voting procedure remains poorly organized, citing the Board of Elections’ recent disclosure that the in-person voting procedure will include the use of a provisional ballot. While this is not inherently illegal, it would potentially create confusion for unaffiliated voters who did not want to declare their affiliation with the Republican Party.

The judge concluded that the parties involved should make preparations to schedule the forthcoming court case. It remains unclear how these proceedings will affect the Republican primary results in the state.

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McAuliffe Emphasizes Cooperation with Lawmakers

By Margaret Carmel and James Miessler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe is urging the General Assembly to join him in a bipartisan effort to create jobs in the commonwealth.

“If we work together during the next 60 days, we can expand economic opportunities for everyone in the Commonwealth,” McAuliffe said in his State of the Commonwealth Address on the first night of the 2016 legislative session. “We will show that we in Virginia don’t back down from a challenge.”

With the relationship between the Democratic governor and the Republican-led General Assembly as contentious as ever, McAuliffe touted economic growth and investment across all sectors.

McAuliffe just returned from a trip to Cuba, where he brokered a trade deal. (In the middle of Wednesday night’s speech, he gave Republican House Speaker William Howell of Stafford a Cuban cigar.) The governor also noted other international trade agreements, such as Virginia apples being sold to India and poultry being shipped to Oman.

Continuing the theme of the need for bipartisan job creation, McAuliffe called attention to the state’s efforts to boost solar power and other alternative energy sources. Such moves will attract companies and offer manufacturing opportunities, he said.

Also in his speech, McAuliffe directly challenged Republican lawmakers by again prodding them to expand Medicaid, the health care program for low-income residents. He said even conservative states such as Utah and Louisiana have elected to do so under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“I am convinced that we can find a bipartisan, Virginia solution that totally protects our commonwealth’s finances while taking advantage of this historic opportunity to make our state a better place to live,” McAuliffe said.

Following a national trend to roll back the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the governor also advocated limiting standardized testing in schools while maintaining quality education.

“You cannot build an economy for 2050 with a 1950s approach to education,” he said.

In the Republican response to governor’s speech, Del. Rob Bell of Albemarle and Sen. Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg said the GOP would use its majority in the House and Senate to challenge McAuliffe on key issues.

Ruff said Republicans will fight McAuliffe’s efforts to expand Medicaid as part of President Obama’s new health care law.

“One area where we will not be in agreement with Gov. McAuliffe is Obamacare,” Ruff said. “While the governor’s budget again includes the federal program’s Medicaid expansion scheme, we believe this initiative threatens critically important priorities like education.”

Medicaid costs are rising even without expansion, Ruff said.

“Even without the optional federal expansion, mandated spending on Medicaid will take an even higher share of state spending in the new budget,” he said. “Expanding the program further would not be prudent, and would only increase the funding pressures on other state core services.”

Bell addressed Republican grievances over executive actions taken by McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring. In recent months, the governor banned firearms from state buildings, and Herring declared that Virginia would no longer honor concealed handgun permits from 25 states that he said do not meet the commonwealth’s standards.

“Our system of government is founded on the constitutional principles of a separation of powers,” Bell said. “As has become all too common in Washington, here in Richmond we have seen Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General Herring use executive actions and appointments to circumvent these constitutional limitations and undermine the balance envisioned by our founders.”

The Republican response to McAuliffe’s speech included areas of agreement with the governor.

Ruff said Republicans want to prepare Virginians for the changing economy and create an environment that will draw employers.

“To better prepare our workforce for the demands of a rapidly changing economy, the budget we approve will include initiatives to encourage more Virginians to complete educational programs that lead to certification in high-demand fields,” he said.

“By investing in workforce training targeted to growing industries, we can make Virginia even more attractive to employers.”

The senator acknowledged common interests the Republicans share with McAuliffe.

“As a member of one of the two legislative committees that will consider the governor’s proposed budget, I know we will find common ground with him on efforts to increase funding for our public schools, for mental health care, for public safety, and for our veterans.”

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Legislative Session Begins by Ousting Media from Senate

By Sarah King and Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia General Assembly opened Wednesday, introducing 18 novice legislators, squabbling briefly across party lines and courting a fight with the media.

Curiously, the press tables located on the Senate floor as recently as Tuesday afternoon were no longer available for use by the press. According to published reports, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County, made the decision to relegate the press to the upper balcony.

“You’ll get used to this refrain during this session: I have no comment,” Norment told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Little mention was made by legislators about the unusual decision to restrict the media’s access, except by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.

“We need more transparency in the General Assembly, not less,” Northam, a Democrat who serves as the Senate’s presiding officer, said in a statement. “Removing members of the press from the floor only makes their jobs more difficult and, in the end, is a disservice to Virginians.”

Another dispute also emerged in the Senate over rules governing committee appointments, presented by the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover.

According to Democrats, the new rules would allow the majority party in the Senate to stack committees with its members. The Senate currently has 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats.

As a result, Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, presented Senate Resolution 22, which would have based committee assignments on merit and given the minority party more representation.

Norment opposed the resolution, saying “areas of expertise are already considered” in committee assignments. Senate Resolution 22 was voted down along party lines, 21-19.

Apart from the squabbles over committee appointments, the mood in the Senate remained light.

Seven new senators took their oaths of office:

  • Republicans Amanda Chase and Glen H. Sturtevant of Chesterfield County, Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County, William DeSteph of Virginia Beach and David Suetterlein of Roanoke
  • Democrats Jeremy McPike of Woodbridge and Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon

The Senate voted unanimously to make Sen. Stephen B. Newman, R-Lynchburg, its president pro tempore. Susan Clarke Schaar was re-elected as clerk of the Senate.

Howell Re-elected as House Speaker

In the House, proceedings ran incredibly dry until Democratic Del. Mark Sickles of Fairfax, nominated Republican Del. William Howell of Stafford to continue as speaker of the House.

Republican outnumber Democrats in the House, 66-34. So it was a foregone conclusion that the GOP would hold the most powerful position in the chamber. Sickles and other delegates seemed intent on making light of the partisanship that often plagues the legislature.

“It can seem like we’re always waiting for the body on the other side of the hall to do something -- to do anything, really,” Sickles said in his introduction, which on several occasions garnered laughs from both sides of the aisle.

Sickles said the House has a responsibility to serve the commonwealth in a fiscally responsible manner. He urged his colleagues to push the “green button” for Howell, who he said would forge a “dynamic plan” and work with “bipartisan spirit.”

“We may not be able to resolve our differences, but our future is as bright as we make it,” Sickles concluded.

Howell was re-elected with a 99-0 vote and a standing ovation. Donald Lemons, chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, administered the oath of office.

“I’m humbled by the trust you’ve placed in me to lead this distinguished body again,” Howell said, adding, “None of us are entitled to the seats we hold.”

Howell reiterated that his position, as well as any other elected office, comes with significant responsibilities and duties to not just one party, but the people of the commonwealth.

He then welcomed 11 new House members to “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol,” and alluded to James Madison and Patrick Henry as “constant reminders” of the legislative body’s responsibilities.

Howell then turned his remarks toward the House’s priorities this session, beginning with the budget.

Republicans have ideological differences with Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats over health care, gun laws, gay marriage and abortion. But Howell chose to focus on issues on which the left and right share common ground.

“We need to be focused on real solutions to our fellow citizens,” Howell said, before he addressed the importance of the state economy, business and entrepreneurial opportunities.

He also stressed the importance of a “strong education system and providing flexibility and choice to parents and students,” before tipping his hat to President Obama’s support of charter schools empowering students of all backgrounds.

Howell noted that twice, McAuliffe has been shot down by the General Assembly for trying to expand Medicaid in Virginia. However, the speaker stressed that the legislature should aim to improve access to health care and strengthen the mental and behavioral health systems in a “fiscally responsible” manner.

“We’re not always going to agree, but we will exchange lengthy dialogue on how to move Virginia forward,” Howell said, “We have a long road ahead, and I’m confident we will find success.”

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Legislative Showdown Looms Over Guns

By Rachel Beatrice and Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

The political battle over guns in Virginia is shifting to the state Capitol as the General Assembly convenes Wednesday for its 2016 session.

The state’s leading Democrats fired the latest shots: In October, Gov. Terry McAuliffe banned weapons from state buildings. Then last month, Attorney General Mark Herring announced that the commonwealth would no longer recognize concealed handgun permits issued by 25 states that he said do not meet Virginia’s standards.

Those moves outraged Republican legislators. Del. Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah, for example, accused Herring of having a “partisan, political goal of denying law-abiding citizens the right to protect and defend themselves.”

So it’s no surprise that the General Assembly will take up the issue. As of Tuesday, legislators had filed almost 70 bills about firearms, guns or other weapons.

Republicans are sponsoring several measures to expand Virginians’ right to carry weapons. For example, with House Bill 593, Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, seeks to invalidate McAuliffe’s Executive Order 50, which prohibits the carrying of firearms in buildings occupied by executive branch agencies.

Marshall also is carrying HB 83, which would prevent Virginia state employees from enforcing new federal firearms laws, including criminal background checks in gun sales or other transactions.

And Marshall’s HB 79 would allow full-time faculty members at public colleges and universities carry a handgun on campus if they have a concealed weapons permit.

Along the same lines, newly elected Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, is sponsoring HB 761, which “prohibits public institutions of higher education from adopting or enforcing any rules prohibiting a female who possess a valid Virginia concealed handgun permit from carrying a concealed handgun on campus.”

Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, is taking aim at Herring’s decision to reject the concealed handgun permits of more than two dozen states. Under Senate Bill 178, sponsored by Garrett, the General Assembly – not the attorney general – would determine whether Virginia should honor other states’ concealed carry permits.

Democratic legislators, who are in the minority in both the House and Senate, also are sponsoring a bevy of gun-related measures. Generally, they want to make it harder for people to buy or carry firearms.

For instance, Del. Kaye Kory of Falls Church has filed HB 482, which would require background checks on firearms sales at gun shows. Currently, gun-show vendors don’t have to perform such checks unless they are federally licensed gun dealers.

Newly elected Del. John Bell, D-Chantilly, wants to tighten the rules for getting a concealed handgun permit in Virginia. Current law allows applicants to complete an online or video course in firearms training or safety; Bell’s HB 617 would require that the course be taken in person.

Under SB 214, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and HB 425, by Del. Marcus Simon of Falls Church, Virginians who are in the federal Terrorist Screening Database could not buy or possess guns. (At the federal level, Republicans have opposed such proposals because they say the database is flawed.)

To a large extent, the gun debate at the Virginia Capitol echoes the controversy over firearms in the nation’s capital.

Last week, President Obama, with tears in his eyes, gave a speech lamenting gun violence. He said he was taking executive actions to address the problem by requiring all businesses that sell guns – including at firearms shows – to be licensed and conduct background checks.

Herring, who attended Obama’s announcement, called the president’s action “important steps to promote public safety, prevent gun violence and keep guns away from criminals and other dangerous people.”

Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, criticized Obama’s speech.

“We are all touched by attacks like the one in San Bernardino, and we all grieve for those who have lost so much as a result. But to end this kind of violence, we need to address the real, underlying causes of these attacks,” Wittman said on Facebook.

“Limiting our constitutionally guaranteed rights is never the answer. That is why it’s so important for us to affirmatively protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens by advancing legislation like the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2015.”

That federal legislation would allow anyone with a valid concealed weapons permit from any state to carry firearms “in accordance to restrictions within that state.”

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More on the Web

To track or comment on legislation involving firearms or other issues, visit the Richmond Sunlight website: www.richmondsunlight.com/

Here is a list of all bills before the Virginia General Assembly whose descriptions mention guns, firearms or weapons:

Billr

Description

Patron

HB12

Concealed handgun permits, out-of-state; photo identification.

Ware

HB51

Weapons other than handguns; purchase by certain officers.

Miller

HB76

Concealed handguns; authorization and training for persons designated to carry on school property.

Marshall, R.G.

HB79

Concealed handguns; possession by full-time faculty members at higher educational institutions.

Marshall, R.G.

HB83

Federal firearms laws; enforcement.

Marshall, R.G.

HB90

Virginia National Guard; possession of handguns by members at certain facilities.

Taylor

HB119

Virginia National Guard; possession of handguns by members.

Webert

HB128

Weapons; possession prohibited in state legislative buildings, penalty.

Hope

HB132

Risk management plan; coverage for injury or death on state property, concealed handgun prohibition.

Marshall, R.G.

HB133

Risk management plan; coverage for injury/death on college property, concealed handgun prohibition.

Marshall, R.G.

HB149

Concealed handgun permits; individuals on federal Terrorist Screening Database.

Simon

HB167

School board employees; possession of firearms by employees who are former law-enforcement officers.

Cole

HB187

New public school buildings; plans or blueprints, indoor active shooter gunshot detection and alert.

Taylor

HB206

Firearms, certain; identification requirement.

Webert

HB260

Firearms; law-enforcement certification of transfer.

LaRock

HB273

Transfer of certain firearms; identification requirement.

LaRock

HB332

Concealed handgun permit; judges exempt.

Miller

HB368

Firearms; disposition of those acquired by localities.

Davis

HB377

Felons; restoration of firearms rights, report to State Police.

Rush

HB382

Firearms; control by state agencies, etc.

Fowler

HB422

Firearms businesses; local regulation of dealers in proximity of schools.

Murphy

HB423

Firearms; possession in school zone, penalty.

Simon

HB424

Firearms; possession in school zone; regulation by locality.

Simon

HB425

Firearms; prohibits person in Terrorist Screening Database to purchase, etc.

Simon

HB433

Concealed handguns; revocation of permit.

Villanueva

HB439

Firearm; use or display while committing a felony increases penalty.

Lingamfelter

HB443

Carrying a concealed handgun; permit not required.

Campbell

HB482

Transfer of firearms; criminal history record information check; penalties.

Kory

HB560

Brandishing a firearm; intent to induce fear, etc., penalty.

Lingamfelter

HB563

Firearms; disposition by locality, licensed dealer right of action.

Lingamfelter

HB593

General Services, Department of; regulation of firearms.

Marshall, R.G.

HB599

Transfer of firearms; criminal history record information check; penalties.

Plum

HB617

Concealed handgun permit; demonstration of competence.

Bell, J.J.

HB632

Transfer of firearms; criminal history record information check, penalties.

Bell, J.J.

HB658

Protective orders; possession of firearms; penalty.

Filler-Corn

HB761

Possession of concealed handguns; females at public institutions of higher education.

Freitas

HB766

Carrying concealed handguns; protective orders.

Gilbert

HB768

Victims of domestic violence, etc.; firearms safety or training course.

Gilbert

HB783

Brandishing a firearm; law-enforcement officer; penalty.

Adams

HB784

Possession of firearms by persons adjudicated delinquent; military service exception.

Adams

HB804

Reporting lost or stolen firearms; penalty.

Lingamfelter

HB809

Sale of firearms; persons not lawfully present in United States; penalty.

Lingamfelter

HB810

Transfer of assault weapon; proof of citizenship.

Lingamfelter

SB48

Concealed handgun; person may carry concealed without permit if otherwise eligible to obtain permit.

Black

SB49

Protective orders; prohibits person who is subject to order from possessing firearms, penalty.

Howell

SB95

Use of firearm in commission of crime; civil liability.

Marsden

SB96

Protective orders; possession of firearms; penalty.

Marsden

SB97

Handguns; establishes limitation on purchases, penalty.

Marsden

SB138

Firearms retailers; local regulation, proximity to schools.

Favola

SB156

Concealed handgun permit; family member who resides with applicant may submit statement to court.

Favola

SB175

Concealed handgun permits; sharing of information.

Stuart

SB178

Concealed handgun permits; reciprocity with other states.

Garrett

SB184

Firearms magazines, certain; prohibition of sale, transfer, etc., penalties.

Marsden

SB185

Firearms, loaded; prohibits carrying certain firearms in public places, exception.

Marsden

SB186

Concealed handgun permits; proof of competence, training courses.

Marsden

SB187

Transfer of firearms; permit required.

Marsden

SB198

Concealed weapons; adds any employee with internal investigations authority designated by DOC.

Lucas

SB199

Transfer of firearms; criminal history record information check, penalties.

Lucas

SB205

Handguns; purchase by certain officers.

Edwards

SB214

Firearms; Terrorist Screening Database check prior to purchase.

Favola

SB217

Firearm or pneumatic gun; allowing access by children, penalty.

Marsden

SB220

Firearm transfers; penalties.

McEachin

SB260

Concealed handgun permit; disqualifications, residential mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Surovell

SB263

Firearms; purchase by persons intending to commit act of terrorism, penalty.

Surovell

SB300

Firearms; alcohol; penalties.

Ebbin

SB301

Transfer of firearms; criminal history record information check; penalties.

Ebbin

SB302

Firearms; access by children; penalty.

Ebbin

SB323

Possession or transportation of firearms; protective orders; penalty.

Favola

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Democrats’ Priorities: Job Training, School Funding

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates vowed Monday to fight for prison and health-care reforms, more education funding and better job training during the General Assembly’s 2016 legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

At a press conference, 18 of the 33 Democratic delegates detailed their caucus’ plan to support Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s workforce initiative, called “the New Virginia Economy.”

“We support the governor’s initiative so that we can invest in Virginia,” said Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “Together we can pave the way forward creating programs and job training for jobs that exist today, so that people can get the training that they need, jobs they desperately need, to be filled right here at home.”

The House minority leader, Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, agreed.

“Workforce training is significant, but it’s not just workforce training to give people a certificate for a job that exists,” Toscano said. “Otherwise we’re wasting people’s time, and putting people more in debt, and then people are not getting good jobs that pay them a living wage.”

The delegates expressed confidence that they would also be able to accomplish their goals despite being outnumbered by Republicans, who make up 67 of the 100 House members.

“I think by nature, the general sense of this group is we’re pretty optimistic people, and we believe in the power of rational argument,” Toscano said. “And we do believe that when you look at the financial elements of this, it has to appeal to people who look at things financially.”

As part of a “wide variety of public safety and criminal justice reforms,” Toscano said Virginia Democrats also support laws they believe will reduce gun violence.

“It’s important at least in our view that we get mandatory universal background checks, that we close the gun-show loophole, that we provide better protection for those who have gotten protective orders against folks who might hurt them,” he said.

Toscano said Democrats would support Senate Bill 49, proposed by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston. It would prohibit anyone who is subject to a protective order from possessing a firearm; currently, such individuals are prohibited only from purchasing or transporting firearms.

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Poll: Most Virginians Support Higher Taxes for Schools

By Sarah King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than two-thirds of Virginians think public schools aren’t adequately funded, and most residents of the commonwealth would support paying more in taxes to enhance student performance, according to a statewide poll released Monday.

The Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute released the findings as the General Assembly prepared to convene on Wednesday. According to the CEPI’s 15th annual Commonwealth Education poll:

●       67 percent of Virginians say public schools do not have enough funds to meet their needs

●       71 percent think funding substantially affects the quality of education

●       56 percent would pay higher taxes to improve K-12 schools

●       63 percent would be supportive if the funding targeted low-performing schools

“We try to put our poll out every year at the start of the General Assembly so that all the members, the governor and his executives can have an idea of what the opinions by region are around the Commonwealth,” said Robyn McDougle, interim executive director of the institute, based at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The survey could prove a valuable resource as legislators evaluate Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget for 2016-2018.

Although Virginians support increasing, or at least maintaining, the current status of K-12 funding, McDougle said the breakdown varies by political party, with Democrats being more supportive of education funding even if it requires tax increases.

Under McAuliffe’s proposed budget, education and health and human services would receive the most sizable portions of state funding in the upcoming biennium.

“I don’t know that it’ll help things go over more smoothly, but it’s always good to have nonpartisan data,” McDougle said.

The state’s Direct Aid to Public Educationcurrently totals about $5.56 billion. The proposed budget would boost that to $5.83 billion in 2017 and $6.14 billion in 2018. Most of the money would fund initiatives such as school breakfast programs for low-income children, higher salaries for educators and alternatives to disciplinary actions such as suspensions for at-risk youth.

McDougle said that in creating the poll, the CEPI collaborated with Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and Anne Holton, Virginia’s secretary of education.

“We showed them the questions and got some feedback on what questions they’d like to include,” McDougle said. “We like them to be stakeholders just like other members of the community.”

The poll also found that most Virginians have concerns about high-stakes testing such as the state’s Standards of Learning assessments.

“They believe the purpose of SOLs are to improve performance and achievement,” McDougle said. “But the way we’re testing, the majority feel teachers are spending too much time focusing on the testing.”

According to the CEPI findings, constituents feel that because of the test-centric classroom environment, important material gets bypassed and that the SOLs put too much pressure on students.

The poll also asked about how safe people believe their K-12 schools are. Most Virginians – especially in the western and northern parts of the state – said their schools were “safe” or “very safe.” The biggest concern was in the Tidewater area, where 28 percent of respondents felt their schools were not safe.

“Especially with everything we’re seeing across the country right now, it’s really nice to see our citizens feel where their children are going is safe,” McDougle said. She said respondents thought increased school security and mental health services would help bolster safety in schools.

The governor’s proposed budget would add $35 million to enhance mental health treatmentcenters and services in 2017.

McDougle said her team will provide copies of the poll data to all members of McAuliffe’s cabinet and the education and health committees in the House and Senate. She said she will most likely present the results directly during committee meetings as well.

The Commonwealth Education Poll used a representative sample of 801 Virginia adults, interviewed by landline and cell phone. The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from Dec. 15-20. The margin of error was 4.2 percentage points.

More on the Web

For the complete findings of the Commonwealth Education Poll, visit http://cepi.vcu.edu/publications/polls/

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Most Domestic Violence Deaths Involve Guns

By Ashley Jordan and Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira, Capital News Service

It was a sleepy Tuesday morning in February 2014 when Kevin Dale Palmer broke into the home of his in-laws, Nancy and Terry Griffin, in the town of Glade Spring in far southwestern Virginia.

The day before, Palmer had been served a protective order filed by his wife, Kristin. But the court document could not protect the family from the storm of rage and bitterness that would end four lives.

Kristin Palmer moved into her parents’ home with her son, Griffin, less than a week before her death. In an affidavit, Kristin Palmer chronicled an eight-year saga of fear and abuse imposed on her and her son by Kevin Palmer.

“He is extremely volatile toward us whenever we do not adhere to his control,” the affidavit stated. “He has controlled us for years. I am continuously scared ...”

Everyone’s worst fears were realized when Kevin Palmer committed his final act of control by killing his wife, their son and his mother-in law and then turning the gun on himself.

The shooting death of Kristin and her family may not be entirely surprising. According to Virginia’s chief medical examiner, almost two-thirds of intimate partner homicides in the commonwealth in 2013 involved firearms. About 85 percent of the victims were women.

In a study released in March, the medical examiner’s office said there were 2,037 deaths related to domestic violence in Virginia from 1999 through 2013. “A person died in a family or intimate partner homicide every three days in Virginia during the fifteen-year study period,” the report said.

It said guns were used in 55 percent of those deaths. “Across Virginia, firearms continue to be the fatal agent most often involved in family and intimate partner homicides.”

This is why advocates for the victims of domestic violence have been calling for gun-control legislation.

“When you look at the effects of domestic violence and guns on that intersection, it leads to women getting killed,” said Luisa Caro, a volunteer for the Virginia chapter of Moms Demand Action.

During this year’s legislative session, the General Assembly considered two bills that sought to restrict access in hopes of curbing domestic violence:

  • SB 909, filed by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, would have prohibited a person who had been served a protective order from possessing a firearm. Existing law prohibits such a person only from purchasing or transporting a firearm.
  • Senate Bill 943, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, would have prohibited a person who has been convicted of stalking, assault and battery of a family or household member, or sexual battery from possessing or transporting a firearm.

During a February press conference, Favola explained why she introduced her legislation: “This is a domestic violence prevention bill. If you vote against this bill, you are sending a very, very bad message to – I think – women and families, everybody in the commonwealth.”

Despite her appeal, both bills failed. SB 943 died in the Senate Finance Committee. SB 909 was killed by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

It is no coincidence that the chief sponsors of both bills were women: A recent poll by the Roanoke Institute for Policy and Opinion Research found that women were more likely than men in Virginia to favor gun laws such as requiring background checks for all firearm purchases.

Tina Wilson-Cohen, founder and CEO of a group called SHE CAN SHOOT, feels that way. Her organization teaches women to become proficient in firearms and self-defense. Wilson-Cohen has a history in firearm instruction and training. According to her résumé, she has worked in the U.S. Secret Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and as a federal air marshal.

She said her ultimate goal in creating SHE CAN SHOOT was to arm women with competence. She is among the many Virginia women who favor certain firearm restrictions. During the legislative session, Wilson-Cohen was in full support of Favola’s bill, SB 943.

Wilson-Cohen said people often stereotype people who wish to be proficient in firearms, assuming they are “gun crazy.” However, Wilson-Cohen said not everyone deserves access to a firearm.

“A person who already demonstrated [crimes of stalking, sexual assault or domestic violence] and been convicted in the court of law should not be able to have firearm,” Wilson-Cohen said. “The court has convicted such persons of acting out such crimes ... Combining this with a firearm only empowers the perpetrators, and it is dangerous.”

Working in law enforcement, Wilson-Cohen said, she got a first-hand look at domestic violence and other crimes.

“It’s very humiliating and embarrassing, and no one wants to talk about it,” she said. “I have found that even law enforcement are not highly educated when it comes to domestic violence or stalking.”

Wilson-Cohen advises women who are interested in protecting themselves with a firearm to meet with an instructor before they commit to a purchase.

“It is a very personalized item; it’s not ‘one size fits all,’” she said. “It’s like buying shoes: It has to fit the person’s needs and capabilities.”

When a gun is in the wrong hands, horrible things can happen – as evidenced in Kristin Palmer’s case.

Kristin endured years of physical and mental abuse from her husband. “He has kicked me, strangled me, tried to drown me, slapped me and dragged me by the hair during arguments,” Kristin said in her affidavit.

Kevin Palmer was reportedly a “survivalist” with more than 47 firearms in his possession.

On Feb. 8, 2014, Kevin Palmer inflicted severe abuse upon his son, Griffin Palmer, by grabbing his neck and striking him on the side head several times, according to a police report.

Griffin told authorities that on Feb. 14, 2014, his father asked him if he still planned on going to the military after he graduated high school. After Griffin responded “yes,” his father reportedly said, “I hope they don’t send you overseas – I want to kill you myself.”

Nine days later, Kevin Palmer carried out that threat, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.

A similar situation took place in Chesterfield County six years ago. Lisette Johnson was making arrangements to leave her abusive marriage when her husband of 21 years shot her in their home.

As she ran outside, Johnson yelled for her children to get out of the house and call 911. After being shot several times in the chest and back, she collapsed on her neighbor’s yard. Her husband then shot himself.

Unlike Kristen Palmer, Lisette Johnson survived. She is now an advocate for domestic violence victims.

Johnson urged Virginia lawmakers to pass SB 909. She said the most dangerous time for a family is when a spouse is trying to leave the household and seeks a protective order. Under SB 909, if a court granted such an order, the alleged abuser would have to give up his firearms.

“To remove firearms from the perpetrator at that time gives the measure of safety,” Johnson said. “I would love to see that. I am not sure that is going to happen anytime soon.”

Such a law would protect more than women. Johnson noted that children and bystanders often are caught in the crossfire of domestic violence.

“By the grace of God, my children were not killed,” Johnson said. “It is a family issue at its core. So it’s a public safety issue – it is not a women’s issue.”

Susan Greenbaum Blasts State Song Decision

By Cort Olsen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Musician Susan Greenbaum, whose tribute to Virginia lost out in the competition to be the official state song, says the selection process by the General Assembly was rigged from the start.

Greenbaum said that House Speaker Bill Howell showed blatant favoritism in promoting a friend’s song and that Howell’s staff resorted to “the nastiest, most juvenile tricks” to sabotage her entry, “Virginia, the Home of my Heart.”

“They were setting up all these completely artificial obstacles,” Greenbaum said in her first lengthy interview since the ordeal. “They are changing the rules to further bolster their already completely impervious position of strength.”

“Virginia, the Home of my Heart” was one of three songs in the running to be the official state song during the 2015 legislative session. The General Assembly ultimately chose “Our Great Virginia,” Howell’s preference, as “the official traditional state song” and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as “the official popular state song.”

Greenbaum questioned not only the fairness of the selection process but also the appropriateness of “Our Great Virginia.” That song combines the melody of “Shenandoah,” a ballad about the Missouri River, with words by New York lyricist Mike Greenly.

The General Assembly had been seeking an official state song to replace “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” which was retired in 1997 for its racist lyrics, in which an “old darkey” reminisces about working for “old Massa.”

But the original lyrics for “Shenandoah” were equally offensive, says Liz Foreman, a Greenbaum supporter.

“I think we are getting rid of one song, ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,’ and yet we now have a song that is questionably about Virginia but also has lyrics that talk about redskins, firewater and implying the kidnapping and more or less rape of an Indian maiden,” Foreman said.

Greenbaum and her song

Greenbaum is a singer-songwriter from Kansas City, Mo. She attended Harvard University, graduated with high honors in English and American literature and eventually settled in Richmond.

Over the past two decades, she has released five CDs, established herself as a local favorite and built a national fan base. She has won several national songwriting awards, including one from the Smithsonian, and has performed with Jason Mraz, Jewel, Dave Matthews and other stars.

Greenbaum said she wrote “Virginia, the Home of my Heart,” as a love song to her husband, who was born and grew up in Virginia.

For several years, Greenbaum said, she has been asking her legislative representatives – Del. John O’Bannon and Sen. Walter Stosch, both Republicans from Henrico County – to sponsor “Virginia, the Home of my Heart” as the new state song.

Bills filed to designate a state song

On Dec. 31, Howell filed a bill (HB 1472) to propose “Our Great Virginia” as the state song. Howell said he was carrying the legislation as a favor to a friend – Dr. James Robertson, an award-winning history professor at Virginia Tech and executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission. Howell also called “Our Great Virginia” a “beautiful song” that could be sung with pride and affection.

HB 1472 was assigned to the House Rules Committee, which Howell chairs.

Greenbaum saw Howell’s bill as a sign that the General Assembly was serious about choosing a new state song. So she contacted O’Bannon again, and he agreed to sponsor a bill (HB 2203) to designate “Virginia, the Home of my Heart” as the state song.

After HB 2203 was filed, Greenbaum met Foreman, a former marketing and public relations expert.

Foreman said she liked the song so much that she volunteered to be Greenbaum’s unofficial social media representative. “I really don’t have any official title other than ‘interested citizen,’” Foreman said. “I did it for the song.”

Foreman put Greenbaum in touch with Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, and other members of the House Rules Committee to hear her song. Greenbaum said she got good reviews from those legislators.

“We were trying to play by the rules,” Greenbaum said. “I called everyone on the House Rules Committee to ask if I could meet with them.”

Greenbaum said one member of the House Rules Committee – Del. Lee Ware, R- Powhatan – was so moved by her performance of “Virginia, the Home of my Heart” that he shook her hand and said, “You have my vote.”

After O’Bannon agreed to sponsor her song in the House, Greenbaum said she tried to contact Stosch to represent it in the Senate.

“I didn’t hear back from the senator for several days,” Greenbaum said.

The night before the deadline to file bills, Greenbaum said, Stosch’s assistant wrote to her saying that the senator was going to represent a different candidate for state song: “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” a pop tune by Richmond musicians Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett. Stosch’s bill (SB 1362) was assigned to the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee.

That committee also received SB 1128, sponsored by Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas. It sought to designate “Our Great Virginia” as the state song.

House Rules Committee

A bill must be approved by a legislative committee before the entire chamber can vote on it. Greenbaum wondered when the House Rules Committee would consider the state song bills.

Foreman said she and Greenbaum cleared their schedules every Friday – the day the Rules Committee was scheduled to meet – because they couldn’t get a definite date as to when panel would vote on a state song.

It didn’t happen until Feb. 6 – the deadline for committee action to keep bills alive for the 2015 session.

Before the Rules Committee meeting, Greenbaum and Foreman said they were told they would not be permitted to lobby for HB 2203 in the panel’s chambers by performing the song or handing out promotional material.

“I had sent the YouTube link to the speaker three times – not to promote the song but once for the Rules Committee to review and then the other two times for when I wrote to the other members of the committee informing them about my song,” Greenbaum said. “I had also sent the song link three times to [O’Bannon].”

On Feb. 6, Greenbaum said, she arrived at the meeting room a half hour before the hearing was to start. Greenbaum said Howell’s chief of staff, Kathryn Roberts, approached her and told her that the committee had not received the video and would not have time to review her submission.

It was then, Greenbaum said, that she realized her song had no chance from the beginning.

“They had already stacked the deck so far in [Howell’s] favor,” Greenbaum said.

After Greenbaum’s confrontation with Roberts, the songwriter said she went to O’Bannon, who had just entered the room, and recounted the exchange.

“He was exasperated,” Greenbaum said. “He left the room to talk to Kathy, and he came back in a few minutes later and said they were going to play my video.”

Foreman said that as the House Rules Committee meeting got underway, something seemed off.

“From Speaker Howell’s office side of the room, all the delegates over the House Rules Committee walk in along with Howell,” Foreman said. “How I saw it as ‘Jane Q citizen,’ it looked like a bad prison movie.”

Greenbaum said she had met with 12 of the 15 members of the Rules Committee and none of them would look at her – not even Ware.

“That’s when I knew it was over,” Greenbaum said.

‘I wrote this as a love song’

Because Howell was the sponsor of the bill supporting “Our Great Virginia,” he was not allowed to preside over the state song vote. Instead, House Majority Leader Kirk Cox was appointed to lead the committee.

Cox asked Robertson, who had proposed “Our Great Virginia” to Howell, to speak on behalf of HB 1472. Robertson then distributed information packets about his song – something Greenbaum and Foreman had been told was not permitted.

While Robertson was making his case for “Our Great Virginia,” Del. Lionell Spruill, D-Norfolk, asked questions about the racial references in the original lyrics to “Shenandoah.” Then Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, questioned the accuracy of the song’s opening line, “You’ll always be our great Virginia, you’re the heartland of the nation.”

(As Greenbaum noted later, “I’m from Kansas City, and that is what is known as the heartland of the nation.”)

To address the geographical reference, Howell made a motion to change the word “heartland” to “birthplace.”

After Robertson discussed “Our Great Virginia,” Greenbaum was asked to speak on behalf of her song. She said that request caught her off guard.

“I live in Virginia by choice,” Greenbaum told the committee. “I wrote this song as a love song to my husband, to talk about all the wonderful adventures we had all over our beautiful state and the experiences we shared.”

The committee then watched and listened to the video of “Virginia, the Home of my Heart.” Afterward, many people clapped in favor of her song, while few had applauded for “Our Great Virginia,” Greenbaum said.

After listening to the songs, Cox said, “I believe we can only put one song forward for a vote to go to the floor of the House.” He made a motion to advance HB 1472. It passed 12-3, with Toscano, Spruill and Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Reston, voting no.

Ware was contacted to ask why he voted to move “Our Great Virginia” forward, but declined to comment.

2 state songs, neither of them Greenbaum’s

After approving HB 1472, the committee never took up HB 2203 – O’Bannon’s bill to designate “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” as the state song. The bill ended up dying in the committee without any vote.

The full House of Delegates went on to approve HB 1472 on a vote of 72-28.

While the House Rules Committee was advancing “Our Great Virginia” as the state song, the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology also was dealing with the issue.

On Feb. 9, it folded Colgan’s SB 1128 into Stosch’s SB 1362. The bill approved by the Senate panel sought to designate “Our Great Virginia” as the official traditional state song and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as the official popular state song.

The Senate voted 38-1 in favor of the revised SB 1362.

During the second half of the legislative session, the House approved the Senate bill – and the Senate amended HB 1472 to make it identical to SB 1362. On March 26, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed the legislation designating the two state songs.

Greenbaum said the issue may seem minor, but it meant a lot to her. She also has a question for Howell: “How does the speaker justify turning a song into the state song and willingly announcing that he is doing it as a favor to a friend? That is such a slap in the face of any Virginian who has an interest in this subject.”

Nike

Watchdog Group Blasts Assembly’s ‘Murky Practices’

By Michael Melkonian, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Transparency Virginia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan legislative watchdog group, released a report Tuesday highlighting “murky practices” and “disturbing” findings from the 2015 General Assembly session with regard to unrecorded votes and short notices for committee meetings.

The principal author of the report, Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the system is devised for insiders and “the short sessions and the rapid-fire scheduling of committee meetings undermine participation by and accountability to the citizens of Virginia.”

Transparency Virginia formed in December to study legislative practices in three areas: advanced notice of committee meetings, consideration of bills and recorded votes on bills.

In the House of Delegates, Transparency Virginia’s report revealed that 76 percent of almost 825 bills that died in a committee died without a recorded vote or without any vote at all. In the House’s Rules Committee, 95 percent of bills died this way.

Ironically, that was the committee that could recommend changing the chamber’s procedures.

No legislators were identified or chastised in the report, and political parties weren’t accused of wrongdoing. Transparency Virginia said this was because all legislators should be held accountable for the practices.

Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate. Consequently, one party controls who will chair committee and subcommittees.

The House Rules Committee, for example, is chaired by House Speaker Bill Howell, a Republican from Fredericksburg. The Rules Committee has three subcommittees: Joint Rules, Standards of Conduct and Studies. The subcommittees are chaired by Republicans Howell, Del. Barry Knight of Virginia Beach and Del. Bobby Orrock of Thornburg.

Sixty of the 63 bills killed in the Rules Committee and its subcommittees died without recorded votes or any vote at all.

The report is mostly anecdotal, with bullet points for the most dubious practices. Rhyne wondered what it must be like for citizens to try to participate in their government when even professionals like herself and her colleagues are confused by the procedural jargon.

“When engaged observers are physically present in the committee room and yet still cannot completely pick out which members of a 22-person committee shouted out aye or nay, imagine a citizen’s confusion back home when the disposition of a bill is listed online only as ‘subcommittee recommends laying on the table by voice vote,’” Rhyne said.

Michael Jackson, president of Richmond First Club, said that the system works – but only for those on the inside.

“It works if you’re a legislator – maximum flexibility and minimum accountability. It works if you own a business – access and influence,” Jackson said.

But it doesn’t work for citizens because of a lack of predictability and consistency, Jackson said. Meetings can be called on a whim, or docket changes can be made without notice to the general public.

Though some committee rooms are equipped with electronic voting boards, they are often unused. Transparency Virginia brainstormed solutions to its complaints, including digital video streams for committees and subcommittees – something other state legislatures have introduced. House and Senate floor sessions already can be viewed online.

Jackson said Transparency Virginia is “simply holding up a mirror to the General Assembly legislators and asking them, ‘Is this the form of democracy that the Virginia citizens elected you to uphold?’”

Anne Sterling, president of the League of Women Voters in Virginia, chaired Transparency Virginia. She said the group’s mission is to open a dialogue.

“This is just the first volley. Now we are waiting for a response from citizens, from the press and from legislators,” Sterling said.

Mens Trainers

Assembly Rejects McAuliffe’s Drone Recommendations

By Cameron Vigliano, Ashley Jordan and Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The General Assembly has rejected Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recommendation to give police a freer rein in using unmanned aircraft.

Both the House and Senate rejected changes that the Democratic governor proposed to legislation regarding when law enforcement agencies must get a warrant to use a drone. McAuliffe’s amendments drew opposition from members of both parties.

SB 1301, introduced by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, and HB 2125, sponsored by Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, originally said that government agencies would need a search warrant to use drones for “law enforcement” activities.

But McAuliffe changed “law enforcement” to “active criminal investigations.” Some privacy advocates said this could open the door for law enforcement officials to use drones without a warrant for surveillance and other purposes outside of active investigations.

The House voted 28-69 to reject McAuliffe’s amendments of HB 2125, and the Senate voted 12-27 against the governor’s recommendations concerning SB 1301.

The votes occurred Wednesday as Virginia lawmakers gathered for a one-day marathon session to consider McAuliffe’s vetoes and recommendations of legislation passed during the General Assembly’s 2015 session.

Many of McAuliffe’s amendments were meant to fix technical errors; they passed without debate. But bills involving personal privacy and new technology generated a lot of discussion in the House and Senate.

One such bill was HB 1673, proposed by Delegate Richard L. Anderson-R. Among other things, it sought to restrict law enforcement and regulatory agencies from using “any surveillance technology” to collect or maintain personal information without a warrant.

McAuliffe recommended replacing the term “any surveillance technology” with “license plate readers.” That amendment had delegates reaching across the aisle to express disapproval.

“It’s not often that Dels. Bob Marshall and Betsy Carr advocate on the same side of an issue,” said Carr, a Democrat from Richmond. “However, there are some important nonpartisan principles that both ends of the political spectrum join to come together. Our right of privacy and maintaining a free democracy is one of these places.”

But other delegates like fellow Democrat Vivian E. Watts of Annandale supported the governor’s amendments. Watts said lawmakers should target how law enforcement officials use the data they collect – not whether they can collect it in the first place. The data “could be used for protecting our public safety,” she noted.

The General Assembly should not legislate based on “the suspicion that if the data exist, it will be used for no good,” Watt explained.

Both the House and the Senate upheld some of the governor's recommendations concerning HB 1673, while defeating others.

To the surprise of many, the General Assembly must reconvene Friday to consider changes McAuliffe made to the ethics reform package that emerged from this year’s legislative session.

As passed, the ethics bill would prohibit legislators and other public officials from accepting a gift worth more than $100. McAuliffe wanted to make this a yearly aggregate cap, so that lawmakers couldn’t take more than $100 in gifts annually from a single donor. However, his amendment was worded as a lifetime aggregate cap of $100.

Legislators hope to hash out the wording on Friday.

During Wednesday’s session, the General Assembly upheld all 17 of McAuliffe’s vetoes. As a result, these bills passed in January and February won’t become law after all:

●       SB 724 and HB 1752, which would have prohibited the State Board of Education from adopting any common core standards without approval from the General Assembly.

●       SB 948, which sought to prohibit Virginia from sharing records of who holds a concealed weapons permit with certain out-of-state police agencies.

●       HB 1628, known as the “Tebow Bill.” It sought to allow home-schooled students to play sports and participate in other extracurricular activities at their local high school.

●       SB 1059, which would have placed limitations on how the Office of the Attorney General or the governor hires special counsel.

L?pning & Utbildning

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