Capital News Service

VCU Makes NCAA Tournament as a 10-seed

By Bryant Drayton and Sarah King, Capital News Service

NEW YORK — Just hours after St. Joseph’s robbed VCU of its second consecutive Atlantic 10 Tournament title in a double-digit loss, the Rams had an opportunity to celebrate in Brooklyn.

VCU’s season isn’t over yet — the Rams made the NCAA tournament for the sixth year in a row as a 10-seed on Selection Sunday, following a tough 87-74 loss to the Hawks  in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. The Rams now face 7-seed Oregon State on Friday in Oklahoma City.

“We feel a lot better even though the loss is still kind of fresh,” said senior and Oklahoma native Korey Billbury. “I’m excited to get back and play in front of my home town.”

Billbury’s tone was markedly different after the team learned they were an automatic bid in the tournament than just hours prior after the A-10 championship loss.

The transfer player was one of the Rams’ prime offensive assets against St. Joe’s, registering 19 points and a spot on the A-10 All-Championship Team.

“We knew what we were supposed to do,” Billbury said after Sunday’s final game. “It wasn’t them, it was us.”

First-year head coach Will Wade was confident his team would make it to the tournament, even just minutes after the loss in the A-10 final, but said he was thrilled to know the team would be competing in Oklahoma next week.

“Give our guys credit they rallied,” Wade said. “Korey came to us for one season now he gets to play in the tournament in his home state.”

While for Billbury, the first round of the NCAA tournament signifies a homecoming and for Wade, a big moment as a first-year coach -- it is perhaps most symbolic for senior Melvin Johnson, who will be competing in his fourth-straight NCAA tournament.

“Hearing our name called, guys were excited and smiling again,” Johnson said. “It’s a relief to see our name up there as an automatic bid. You have to be really fortunate to be in this position.”

Former head coach Shaka Smart’s team, 6-seed the University of Texas Austin, will also be competing in Oklahoma City on Friday against 11-seed Northern Iowa — meaning if VCU and Texas were to brush paths it could potentially happen in a Sweet 16 matchup.

In the meantime, the Rams are preparing one day at a time. Wade said the team will be sure to get some well deserved rest before turning its attention to March Madness.

“It’s nothing special as the way you prepare,” Johnson said. “It’s not like it’s the World Series. It’s just big time basketball.”

Oregon State finished 19-12 on the season and Beavers return to the tournament after a 26 year hiatus from being selected.

“They are a good team, we will need to play well but we are excited about the opportunity,” Wade said.

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Smoking in a Car With Kids Soon May Be Illegal

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – If the governor adds his signature, Virginians could be fined $100 for smoking in a car in the presence of children.

The Senate joined the House by giving final approval to a bill that would make smoking in a motor vehicle with passengers younger than 8 a violation punishable by a civil penalty of $100.

The violation would be a secondary offense, meaning it would affect only individuals who have already been pulled over by police for a traffic violation or other offense.

The Senate passed House Bill 1348 in a vote of 27-12 on March 3. The bill is now in the hands of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. If signed, the law would take effect July 1. McAuliffe has until April 11 to act on the legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Todd E. Pillion, R-Abingdon, is a pediatric dentist. In support of the legislation, he has cited the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially on developing lungs.

When the bill was debated before the House, some delegates voiced opposition to the measure. “We have a tendency here to tell everybody how to live. We tell them what to do, how to act,” said Del. Riley E. Ingram, R-Hopewell.

The legislation defines smoking as any lighted cigarette, pipe or cigar.

“It is unlawful for a person to smoke in a motor vehicle, whether in motion or at rest, when a minor under the age of eight is present in the motor vehicle,” the proposed law states.

Pillion said the bill covers passengers younger than 8 years old because these children already are legally required to be put in car seats. He said this requirement could assist police officers in determining a child’s age.

The House voted 59-38 in favor of the bill on Feb. 12.

Though subject to a $100 fine, individuals found guilty of violating the law would not face court costs or demerit points on their driving record.

Revenue from the fines would go into the state’s Literary Fund. This program provides for low-interest loans for school construction, technology funding and support of teacher retirement.


How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted on HB 1348 (“Smoking in motor vehicles; presence of minor under age eight, civil penalty.”)

Floor: 03/03/16  Senate: Passed Senate (27-Y 12-N)

YEAS– Alexander, Barker, Chafin, Chase, Dance, Deeds, DeSteph, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Hanger, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, McEachin, McPike, Miller, Norment, Petersen, Saslaw, Stuart, Sturtevant, Surovell, Vogel, Wexton – 27.

NAYS– Black, Carrico, Cosgrove, Dunnavant, Garrett, McDougle, Newman, Obenshain, Ruff, Stanley, Suetterlein, Wagner – 12.

RULE 36 – 0.

NOT VOTING – Reeves – 1

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VCU Offense Stalls in A-10 Tournament Loss

By Bryant Drayton and Sarah King, Capital News Service

NEW YORK – VCU’s lack of offensive tempo put an abrupt halt to head coach Will Wade’s dream scenario of accomplishing an Atlantic 10 tournament title in his first championship game against Saint Joseph’s on Sunday.

The Hawks defeated VCU, the reigning A-10 tournament champions, in an 87-74 game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn – a tough conclusion to VCU’s wins against UMass in the Friday quarterfinals and Davidson in the semis on Saturday.

“Our guys have fought all year,” Wade said. “To St. Joe’s credit, they showed up ready to go.”

The Hawks came out firing, led by Isaiah Miles and DeAndré Bembry. The St. Joe’s offense shot 64.8 percent from the field, connecting on 35-54 shot attempts. VCU’s usually stingy defense couldn’t find an effective answer to stopping the two A-10 studs.

“Miles and Bembry were phenomenal tonight,” Wade said. “They absolutely killed us.”

Miles registered 26 points and 12 rebounds on the afternoon. The 6-foot-7 athletic forward was named the most outstanding player of the tournament. His frontcourt partner Bembry went on to tally 30 points, five rebounds and four assist, and was named to the A-10 All-Championship Team.

Offensively, VCU senior Korey Billbury and junior JeQuan Lewis were the Rams most productive assets.

Lewis recorded 19 points and seven assists – his best outing of the weekend. Billbury continued his hot tournament shooting with 19 points and a spot on the A-10 All-Championship Team.

Matched against Bembry for the majority of his time on the court, Billbury found himself in a dogfight to gain position on drives to the basket.

“We knew what we were supposed to do,” Billbury said. “It wasn’t them, it was us.”

The Rams’ offense shot a promising 41.2 percent from the field, but another poor shooting day from 3-point territory was the reason VCU was unable to shorten the Hawks’ lead for the entirety of the game. The Rams connected on only seven of their 29 attempts.

At the 8:32 mark in the second half, the Hawks’ Papa Ndao was given a flagrant-1 for mouthing-off to the official after a foul was called against him. As he walked to the bench, Ndao raised his arm in dismay at the official, said something again and was thrown out of the contest.

Ndao ejection was the break VCU fans were waiting for all game.

“We were able to get (the point deficit) within single digits and I was proud of the way our guys battled,” Wade said. “Maybe if one of those three’s had fallen when we got it back to seven or nine might have been a different deal.”

Two questions face a dejected VCU awaiting the Selection Sunday decision: what seed and location will the Rams get, and how is the health of senior Melvin Johnson, who limped off the court as the buzzer sounded during Friday’s quarterfinal matchup against Davidson?

Johnson had only five points on 2-7 shooting from the field. VCU will need their top assassin at 100 percent to fortify the Rams’ hopes of making a NCAA tournament run.

VCU is rumored to be an eighth seed in the tournament, and the Rams could find themselves playing in the ideal Raleigh East Coast region.

“We’ll be ready to go wherever they send us,” Wade said. “We need to rest a little bit and get ready to go later on this week.”

Selection Sunday, when the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee reveals which 68 teams have made the field for the basketball championships, airs on CBS at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.


Children’s Pavilion Consolidates Pediatric Care

By Sarah King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Brianna Burke was one of the youngest people at a ceremony outside a new facility of the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU on Wednesday – but the gregarious 10-year-old undoubtedly had one of the most important jobs.

Alongside Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao and other public officials, Brianna unabashedly cut the pink ribbon at the grand opening for the Children’s Pavilion at 1000 E. Broad St.

The $200 million, 15-story facility boasts 640,000 square feet, 83 exam rooms and 600 parking spaces. It will have more than 350 doctors, nurses and other experts specializing in the care of young patients. The pavilion will open to children and families on March 21.

“It was awesome,” Brianna said grinning after the ceremony. She especially likes the pavilion’s playful features, such as an interactive floor and kid-friendly lighting.

“When you’re in the waiting room, you can step on the fish and they’ll run away,” Brianna said. “And there are chandeliers you can bang on and they make music. And there’s an outside part, and lots of windows and really big comfy chairs in the infusion room.”

The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU is a network of facilities, some located on Brook Road in North Richmond and others on the VCU Medical Center campus in downtown Richmond. The Children’s Pavilion, five years in the planning, is the newest part of that network. The facilities are part of VCU Hospitals, the teaching hospitals associated with the Medical Center.

John Duval, the chief executive officer of VCU Hospitals, said the vision for the pavilion was informed by a changing health-care landscape. Experts saw that the demand for outpatient children’s health services has outpaced the need for inpatient care. Indeed, outpatient services make up 90 percent of all pediatric care.

The pavilion is divided into more than 10 clinical and diagnostic pods, each specializing in a different area of care. The facility consolidates a number of outpatient services – such as specialty clinics, surgery, radiology, dialysis, lab testing and infusions – under one roof.

“Why come to Virginia? Because we now have the best children’s outpatient facility in the United States of America,” McAuliffe said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The connection between healthy children, a healthy workforce and a healthy economy cannot be overstated.”

VCU officials say the pavilion is the largest and most advanced outpatient facility in the region. It will provide comprehensive care for children with medical problems and more flexibility for parents like Nicole Houser, Brianna Burke’s mother. Houser and Brianna have been traveling to Richmond from their home in Hampton for the past two and a half years.

“We come to the hospital about once a month – sometimes a little more than that,” Brianna said. “Then I get my infusions, and I go to dermatology, and sometimes they check my heart.”

Houser said until now, Brianna’s appointments required a long day of travel in the car, then more commuting back and forth across the VCU Medical Center campus for various appointments. Houser said this is especially taxing for Brianna, who uses a wheelchair, and at times proved dangerous in poor weather or bad traffic.

“But my sisters always help me and play with me,” Brianna said. “Sometimes I play teacher because they say, ‘Brianna, can you teach me math?’ But now they have a waiting room where they can play while me and mommy go to the doctor.”

The Children’s Pavilion includes the Ronald McDonald House Sibling Center. It will accommodate the brothers and sisters of young patients – like Brianna’s 8-year-old twin sisters, who often take part in her daylong trips to Richmond.

VCU officials said the pavilion will enhance the reputation of the university’s medical school and hospitals.

“It is part of the recognition that ours is a nationally premier medical center that’s on par with the best in the country,” Rao said. “But most importantly, it is a place that makes a profound difference in the lives of children and their families.”

Houser said her daughter has come a long way since coming to the Children’s Hospital of Richmond.

“I know Brianna’s medical condition is not by the textbook and her team’s collaborative efforts show that they’re dedicated to her,” Houser said. “(They) are much more than nurses, patient advocates and physicians – (they’re) a godsend and Brianna’s guardian angels.”

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Senate Panel OK’s Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an 8-7 vote along party lines, a Senate committee on Thursday approved a bill to prohibit the Virginia Department of Health from funding Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill Monday.

The eight Republicans on the Senate Committee on Education and Health voted in favor of House Bill 1090; the panel’s seven Democratic members voted against it.

HB 1090 states that the Health Department “shall not enter into a contract with, or make a grant to, any entity that performs abortions that are not federally qualified abortions or maintains or operates a facility where non-federally qualified abortions are performed.”

That means the state would cut off funds for organizations that offer abortions that are not eligible for matching funds under Medicaid. This would include any abortion outside of cases of rape, incest, or “gross fetal anomalies.”

The bill has been amended so that it would not affect licensed hospitals that perform non-federally qualified abortions.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst, has said his bill would “defund Planned Parenthood and redirect funds to more comprehensive health care for women.”

Dozens of supporters of Planned Parenthood attended the Senate committee meeting on Thursday to testify in opposition of HB 1090. The committee limited public comment and requested that individuals submit written testimony instead.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a nonprofit advocacy group, spoke out against the committee’s decision. “No politician should decide for a woman which health care provider she can or cannot see, but today eight state senators decided they know better than women and their doctors,” Scholl said.

The Virginia Department of Health does not fund abortions for any reason outside of the Medicaid exceptions. Supporters of Planned Parenthood say HB 1090 would effectively cut off state funding for its services such as family planning counseling, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

The House passed the bill on a 64-35 vote on Feb. 16. Afterward, Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, called on senators to reject it.

“This bill cannot become law,” she said. “The intent of this bill is clear – to shame and coerce women from accessing safe and legal abortion and ban access to Planned Parenthood.”

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House Panel Blocks Equal Rights Amendment

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A handful of men and women who want Virginia to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment rallied outside a committee meeting room at the General Assembly, holding signs that read “Equal Means Equal” and “ERA.”

But the House Privileges and Elections Committee decided to shelve the ERA, which would guarantee women and men equal rights, for another year.

“This is the fifth year in a row we have passed [the amendment] with bipartisan support in the Senate. And on crossover, you see that it’s not only ignored but completely obstructed,” said Eileen Davis, co-founder of the group Women Matter. “At what point are you simply obstructing the democratic process? We’re not giving up.”

The ERA would put in the U.S. Constitution a guarantee that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Congress proposed the amendment in 1972 and gave the states 10 years to ratify it. It was never added to the Constitution because it was not ratified by the necessary 38 states.

Virginia would have become the 36th state to approve the ERA under Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon and Jennifer Wexton of Leesburg.

The resolution, which cleared the Senate on a 21-19 vote on Jan. 26, maintained that the ERA still could be ratified despite the expiration of the 10-year ratification period set by Congress.

After its approval by the Senate, SJR 1 crossed over to the House, where it was assigned to the House Privileges and Elections Committee. That panel already had killed an identical measure – House Joint Resolution 136, sponsored by Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax. On Friday, it did the same to the Senate counterpart.

Sickles and other ERA supporters were disappointed.

“I’m for equality for everybody,” Sickles said. “The only sure way to have secure equality is through the Constitution.”

According to Sickles, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia “said that women aren’t protected under the Constitution.”

“He was a big supporter of amendments and amending the Constitution: If you wanted to change something or find some right you didn’t think was there, amend the Constitution. This is the way we need to go under his philosophy,” Sickles said.

Opponents of resolutions to ratify the ERA say the measures are pointless because the ratification deadline passed on June 30, 1982. But the resolutions’ supporters disagree.

“There are other constitutional amendments that have lain dormant for years and years,” said Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon. “And they have gotten traction and eventually passed as well.”

In particular, ERA supporters cite the 27th Amendment, about compensation for members of Congress. That amendment was submitted to the states in 1789 and wasn’t ratified until 1992.

“We shouldn’t have to wait for any of our fundamental rights,” Sickles said. “But it’s been our history. Look how long it took us to stop Jim Crow and segregation – and we’re still having lingering effects of that today.”

Another issue is that many young women do not even know the ERA hasn’t been ratified, Davis said. “Many think everything is fine.”

But everything is not fine, Boysko said. “There are studies that show that a man and a woman – equal in grades in graduate school – get out, go to the same firm and within five years, the man is making 20 percent more than she is.”

Davis said that more than 70 percent of Americans believe the ERA has already been ratified. That misconception is even more prevalent among people under 40.

“When we get the word out, there’s going to be a huge outcry,” said Davis, who has urged members of the House of Delegates to approve the resolution. “But part of the reason word’s not getting out is because it’s being suppressed in this chamber.”

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, supports the ERA and its ratification. “In 2016, what kind of signal are we sending that we do not want women to be equal in the eyes of the Constitution as men? We should be well past this debate.”

Danette Fulk, a Republican and military veteran who was among the ERA supporters at Friday’s hearing, likened the issue to the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including newly freed slaves.

“The 14th Amendment was passed in 1868,” Fulk said. “But it took 100 years to come up with the walls – the legislation that supported that foundation. We’re a little bit flipped. We’ve had some of these walls built that can be torn down, but we don’t have the foundation. The ERA would be that foundation.”

Sickles is unsure whether he will continue to sponsor an ERA ratification resolution next session. But he assured the activists, “It doesn’t matter who the patron is” as long as someone keeps pushing the issue.

Sickles is confident the ERA will eventually be ratified. “A big shift is coming in our country,” he said. “We have a cultural grand canyon now on so many social issues.”

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Clinton, Trump Win in Virginia

By Diana DiGangi, James Miessler, Matt Chaney and Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trounced Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary election on Tuesday, and billionaire businessman Donald Trump narrowly defeated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican contest.

With almost all precincts reporting, Clinton received more than 64 percent of the 780,000 votes cast in the Democratic primary. Sanders got 35 percent.

More than 1 million Virginians voted in the Republican primary. Trump got nearly 35 percent of the votes, followed by Rubio at almost 32 percent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at about 17 percent and Ohio Gov. John Kasich at about 9 percent.

Interviews at polling places in Richmond underscored the issues and other factors that motivated voters to support or oppose certain candidates.

Young and old voters turned out in droves at the Randolph Community Center polling place (Precinct 504), about 10 minutes from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus. Several voters cited fear of a Trump nomination as their reason for coming out to vote.

“Honestly, as a woman, I’m terrified of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becoming president,” said Kirsten Schlegel, a VCU senior who voted for Clinton. “I’m terrified of our rights being taken away.”

Paula Johnson voted for Clinton as well, and said it was important to her to “select someone who’s going to represent us well, like when it comes to picking the new Supreme Court justice.”

At the Dominion Place polling station (Precinct 206), also near the VCU campus, many young people supported Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist.

“It’s my first time being able to vote, and so I wanted to come out because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Brianna Frontuto, a VCU student, said. “I voted for Bernie Sanders because his policy platform lines up exactly with what I believe in. He’s defending students, and that’s hard to find in candidates.”

Among Republican voters at the Dominion Place, several young people came out in support of Rubio.

“Rubio is the only one I feel morally conscious to support,” Adam Stynchula said. “He’s a safe bet.”

Voters at the Tabernacle Baptist Church polling location (Precinct 208) voiced similar sentiments.

Chelsea, a woman in her 20s who declined to give her last name, said, “I voted for Marco Rubio because he’s a very optimistic candidate. He’s very articulate about a lot of values that I believe in and I hate Donald Trump. And so, I really wanted to get my voice out there for a positive candidate who has a real vision for America’s future.”

Some voters said they usually cast ballots in the Democratic primary, but they participated in this year’s Republican election because of their dislike for Trump.

“I normally vote Democratic, but I actually voted Republican in this because I wanted to make sure that Donald Trump is not on the ballot,” said a student named Jamie. “I just think it’s kind of tight this year with the way things are playing out ... At first I started out thinking, that’s kind of a joke, Donald Trump. But now it’s looking close.”

Statewide, however, Trump topped Rubio by winning Hampton Roads and the southern and southwestern parts of the state.

Virginia Republican leaders gathered in Old Town Alexandria just outside of the nation’s capital as the votes rolled in. As a battleground state that has voted blue in the last two election cycles, all eyes are on Virginia.

“Republicans cannot win the White House without winning Virginia,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “We’re looking at how our candidates performed tonight to see how they turned out voters, what the enthusiasm is, and what their ground game looks like. We’re going to have to fight to win Virginia.”

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who made a stab at running for president himself, said this election will set the tone that the Republican Party will take moving forward.

“The leading candidates are going to have to demonstrate to the American people that they can govern,” Gilmore said. “Or maybe not. Maybe this year they’ll just have to demonstrate that they can be a voice for anger or resentment.”

Regardless of how they voted, many Virginians said it’s important for people to exercise their voice at the ballot box.

“Honestly, it’s just every vote counts,” VCU student Sean Barnett said at the Dominion Place polling station. “People think that because so many people are voting at one time that your vote is insignificant because it’s such a small percentage. If everyone’s thinking that, there’s a lot of people that aren’t getting their voice heard. It does seem insignificant, but it does count.”

At Tabernacle Baptist Church, Kyle, a doctor in her early 30s, said, “I don’t think you can complain unless you pick a choice.”

After casting his vote at Dominion Place, William Smith added, “It’s a privilege and a pleasure. I feel it’s my duty as an American.”


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Primary

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

I personally sent for an absentee ballot for the Virginia primary election. However, I quickly became ambivalent. I have to have a witness? Wait … can this witness be anyone?

Then came the paranoia: Will my ballot actually arrive at the election office on time, or even at all? Will my vote actually count?

The pressure was too much. I had to vote in person.

The instructions clearly stated that if I changed my mind and wished to vote in person, I could still do so as long as I did not open envelope A – the actual casting of my ballot.

I followed the instructions for when one changes their mind.

On Tuesday morning – Election Day – I was in line at the Earlysville Fire Department, at 283 Reas Ford Road in Albemarle County, ready to vote. I had my absentee envelope ballot in hand and unopened.

“State your name and address,” the woman declared.

I did so as I handed her the envelope and explained the situation.

She nodded and smiled and said I needed to speak to the chief election official.

I sat in a chair next to another voter who had his back to me. The chief was next to him on the phone. Another woman was on the other side of the chief.

I asked myself, are they both waiting for the chief?

This seemed to be taking longer than I expected. Much longer. And I needed to get back to Richmond and to class.

After about 10 minutes, I asked, “Excuse me, what exactly is happening here?”

The chief muttered something, half-glanced at me, then got back on the phone. This time it was about my voting, or lack of voting, situation.

I quickly realized that the chief election official at the Albemarle County District 5 polling office had no idea what he was doing.

Neither did three other election officials who were present. “Maybe it’s this bottom,” one official asked the other –referring to the computer screen in front of them. Apparently, according to their computer, I had already cast a ballot.

“Will that vote count then?” I asked.


I have to admit that I did not maintain complete composure. It had been 20 minutes.

The election official told me to calm down and that he was trying to figure out the situation.

“People face disenfranchisement in this country, and this is starting to border on that,” I told him.

By this time, another woman at the polling station also was denied the right to vote and asked to sit where I was sitting.

Is this the twilight zone? I asked myself.

The election officials were smiling and not really concerned that I am concerned that I may not get the chance to exercise my right to vote. It seemed that no one in the entire building could figure out a glitch in the computer matrix to allow me to actually cast my ballot in-person at this very moment.

After 30 minutes, the chief was more livid at the situation than I originally was. Turns out the tech guy was overwhelmed with calls and wasn’t available.

After 45 minutes, I was finally able to cast a provisional ballot and assured that it would count in the election results that day.

And the chief election official ended up hugging me.

It’s a happy ending to my voting nightmare, but many others are not as lucky. I just hope my vote counted.

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Chamber of Commerce Joins Suit Against EPA Rules

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Chamber of Commerce has joined 166 other business organizations in supporting a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s Clean Power Plan, which would require states to cut carbon emissions.

The move puts the chamber on the opposite side of the issue from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. He has joined 17 other states in filing a brief supporting the regulations.

Since its unveiling by President Barack Obama in August 2014, the Clean Power Plan has been a contentious issue across the nation. It aims to reduce carbon emissions in the United States by 30 percent by 2030, mostly by regulating coal-burning power plants.

Like many other business groups, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce worries that the regulations would hurt economic development, especially in rural areas.

The plan “threatens to drive jobs overseas and force businesses to close, causing harm to communities that provide the workforce for this industry,” the chamber said last week in a friend of the court brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

“Poor and rural communities will suffer disproportionately because they are served by smaller utilities that will be compelled to shut down or purchasing allowances and credits in renewable energy technologies, the costs of which will be borne by their relatively small base of ratepayers.”

In November, Herring filed a friend of the court brief in support of the regulations, which would be implemented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m proud to stand up for cleaner air and cleaner energy in Virginia,” Herring said. “Our pollution reduction goal is ambitious and achievable, and it gives us a real opportunity to improve the health of our people, our environment, and to grow jobs and businesses in our clean energy sector. We should seize this opportunity.”

Fighting climate change and sea level rise has been a priority of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration. Officials have been especially concerned about Hampton Roads, home to Norfolk Naval Base and Langley Air Force Base.

In the Virginia General Assembly, Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the Clean Power Plan, while Democrats generally support it. Voting along party lines, legislators passed a bill requiring the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to get the assembly’s approval on any state efforts to implement the federal rules. McAuliffe has until midnight Tuesday to sign or veto the legislation (Senate Bill 21).

Legislators representing Virginia’s coalfields fear that the plan would put many miners out of work. Another major concern is that the regulations would cause a spike in electricity rates. According to an independent study commissioned by National Economic Research Associates, the Clean Power Plan could push electricity prices up between 11 and 14 percent nationwide.

West Virginia and 28 other states have sued to block the plan. On Feb. 9, in an unprecedented move, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on the regulations until the D.C. Court of Appeals rules later this year. The case is expected to return to the Supreme Court.

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Panel Kills Bill to Keep Officers’ Names Secret

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After nearly an hour of debate, a legislative panel killed a bill that would have exempted law enforcement officers’ names and training records from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

A subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee tabled Senate Bill 552 for the General Assembly’s current session. State officials plan to study the issue as part of a review of the state’s FOIA law.

FOIA allows any citizen to gain access to government documents, including names and salaries of public employees. Currently, personal information such as health records, home addresses, Social Security numbers and bank account information is exempt.

SB 552, proposed by Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, would have exempted the names and other information about police officers as well. Cosgrove said his measure sought to protect law enforcement officers.

“Once this information is received by a media outlet, a lawyer or anybody, there’s no controlling that information anymore,” Cosgrove told the subcommittee. “Anybody can FOIA information. It can even be the council of MS-13,” or Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious criminal gang.

Speaking on the behalf of the Virginia Press Association, attorney Craig T. Merritt stressed the importance of transparency and emphasized the safeguards in existing law to protect police officers.

“The express purpose of this bill is to take away names produced in bulk – to take away the ability for the public to associate with individual officers with the information that you can get everybody else,” Merritt said. “If you take all of the names out of the database, you can’t tell what a particular officer’s position is or what they’re being paid.”

Current Virginia law already exempts the identities of undercover officers, mobile phone numbers and tactical plans from FOIA.

Several high-ranking law enforcement administrators and officers came to speak in support of the bill. Kevin Carroll, president of the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police of Virginia, expressed concerns about someone using FOIA to get a database of officers’ names digitally in bulk and then posting it on the Internet.

“I agree the public has a right to know who their police officers are,” Carroll said. “My concern goes beyond Chesterfield County. This is the World Wide Web when this stuff gets posted.”

Carroll described several unsolved shooting deaths of off-duty police officers – all assumed to be in retaliation for arresting or testifying against gang members. But Merritt said FOIA wasn’t involved in such incidents.

“One thing we know for sure is, it could not have been because of a FOIA request, because had there been a FOIA request, there would have been a record,” Merritt said. “The idea that people would use FOIA to accomplish that outcome and identify themselves doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

M. Wayne Huggins of the Virginia State Police Association cited the need to protect law enforcement officers from new threats, both international and domestic.

“I never thought I would see the day when a terrorist attack in Paris, France, would cause police officers in Virginia to be threatened,” Huggins said. “I also never thought I would see the day when American citizens marched in the street chanting for dead cops.”

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Home-schoolers Ask Governor to ‘Let Us Play’

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Supporters of home-schooled students playing sports in public schools unleashed their secret weapon at the Virginia Capital on Wednesday – home-schoolers themselves.

Home-schooling advocates and their children gathered in the state Capitol to hear remarks from Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, and Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Lynchburg, the sponsors of legislation commonly called the “Tebow bill.”

Afterward, the home-schoolers and parents signed a large card urging Gov. Terry McAuliffe to sign the legislation into law. The group presented the message to the front gate guard at the Governor’s Mansion.

The legislation is named after star quarterback Tim Tebow, who played football for a public high school in Florida while being home-schooled. The General Assembly has passed two identical bills that would allow home-schooled students in Virginia to participate in interscholastic sports and other programs at their local public school:

·         Senate Bill 612, proposed by Garrett, passed the Senate 22-17 on Feb. 2 and then the House 58-40 on Feb. 19. McAuliffe must decide whether to sign, veto or amend the bill by Monday.

·         House Bill 131, introduced by Bell. It cleared the House 58-41 on Jan. 27 and the Senate 23-17 on Monday. McAuliffe’s deadline to act on the measure is next Thursday.

The bills 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 legislation does not require local school boards to let home-schooled students participate in sports or other activities.

Moreover, the legislation states, “Reasonable fees may be charged to students who receive home instruction to cover the costs of participation in such interscholastic programs, including the costs of additional insurance, uniforms, and equipment.”

Republicans favor the Tebow bill concept, while Democrats generally oppose it. McAuliffe vetoed similar legislation last year.

Public school teachers oppose the Tebow bill on grounds that students who do not attend a school should not represent that school on the athletic field. They say there is no way to verify whether home-schoolers have the grades and meet other criteria required of regular school students.

Garrett said home-schoolers in Virginia deserve the right to participate in school activities.

“There are home-schoolers in science labs,” he said. “There are home-schoolers on stages. There are home-schoolers in college credit courses. Why aren’t there home-schoolers on our playing fields?”

Bell added, “For 21 years, we have brought the Tebow bill here to Virginia. There is now only one man who is stopping this from becoming law in Virginia, and that is Gov. McAuliffe.”

The governor has not indicated what action he might take on the legislation. Home-schooling parents like Polly Seymour from Fluvanna said it was important to come and let their voices be heard.

“I have a younger son coming up who is excited about sports,” Seymour said. “I’m hoping that by the time he gets to high school, he’ll be able to play in the public schools. Sports is very important in our family, and opportunities to play disappear as they get older.”


Poll: Virginians Think Prisons Cost Too Much

By Sarah King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Most Virginians agree that the prison population costs too much money, according to a recent poll by the Charles Koch Institute, an educational public-policy organization, and Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

On Wednesday, the two groups hosted a panel of experts to discuss the poll results and fiscally responsible ways to both reform the prison system and make communities safer.

“In Virginia, there are actions that can be taken in the short run to dramatically improve our current justice system,” said Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the Koch Institute. “We can improve public safety, reduce costs and respect each individual’s dignity.”

According to the poll:

●       36 percent of Virginians rate criminal justice reform among the top five issues most important to them.

●       75 percent agree or strongly agree that the prison population is costing too much money.

●       80 percent believe people with felony records should have the right to get work certification licenses after their release.

●       80 percent agree that the theft of $200 of goods from a retail store should be a misdemeanor offense (not a felony, as under current law).

●       By a 3-to-1 margin (64 percent to 21 percent), Virginians support reinstating a parole system.

●       Self-described conservative or very conservative Virginians support reinstating parole by a 2-to-1 margin.

Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran were among the attendees at Wednesday’s panel.

“We’ve been working on these issues since we took office with Gov. (Terry) McAuliffe,” Moran said. “We’ve had a number of legislation before the General Assembly, and the governor appointed a parole review commission.”

The discussion was moderated by Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a former member of the Fairfax School Board and a past president of the Virginia Board of Education.

“For a long time, criminal justice reform was considered something center-left, but recently there’s been some morphing on this issue,” Braunlich said as he opened the panel discussion. “Why are conservatives shifting, and how did Ken Cuccinelli and the ACLU end up in bed together?”

Braunlich’s question garnered laughs around the room, but Joe Luppino-Esposito had a straightforward answer.

“A lot of these ideas are based on civil liberties and public safety, which are issues I don’t think anyone’s going to oppose,” said Luppino-Esposito, a policy analyst for the conservative criminal justice initiative Right on Crime.

Luppino-Esposito pointed at the 75 percent recidivism rate among juvenile offenders at the cost of $150,000 per juvenile.

“The ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric doesn’t work anymore,” Luppino-Esposito said.

Eric Alston, the senior policy and research analyst for the Charles Koch Institute, agreed. He cited the added difficulties of re-entry into society when job opportunities are scarce following a conviction.

“There’s a startling consensus for the need for reform on this issue,” Alston said. “There are 854 collateral consequences for a conviction in Virginia,” Alston said. “For felons alone, there are 404 collateral consequences – 404 routes of opportunity that are now closed.”

Alston said that he’s not suggesting the elimination of all collateral consequences but that the number of them severely limits an individual’s ability to secure gainful employment.

“I’m not going to want to invest with someone convicted of a ponzi scheme, but 404 things you generally can’t do? That’s a driving force behind recidivism,” Alston said.

Craig DeRoche, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, referred to the 75 percent recidivism rate among juveniles as a “failure rate” and stressed the importance of smaller, more accountable facilities to rehabilitate offenders.

“This is a values discussion,” DeRoche said. “Money is a value, but more importantly is the value of human life. These polling results tell us that the commonwealth has an appetite for a system of criminal justice that truly restores.”

Martin Brown, former commissioner for the Virginia Department of Social Services and special advisor to the governor, said services must be more family-oriented and help offenders transition back into living their best lives.

“Fathers, in particular,” Brown said. “There are things I would do for my daughters I would never do for myself. And incarcerated individuals are no different.”

Brown said it is important to reform the corrections system so it respects both the perpetrators and victims of crime.

“The state gets everything they can out of the offender,” Brown said. “Often, the victim is looking for a restorative process while the state plays this kabuki dance.”

The Koch Institute and Prison Fellowship poll was conducted by Survey Sampling International in December. All participants were Virginia residents and were surveyed by use of an opt-in Web-based panel. The survey had 1,000 total respondents with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.


GOP Presidential Candidate Kasich Speaks at VCU

By Sterling Giles, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Ohio Gov. John Kasich, often seen as a moderate among the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination, brought his campaign Monday night to Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was greeted by hundreds of supporters and a handful of protesters.

“I like to call it how I see it,” Kasich said during a town hall meeting on VCU’s Medical College of Virginia campus. During the event, he discussed topics such as immigration – something GOP frontrunner Donald Trump adamantly opposes. Kasich said he does not condone illegal immigration but wasn’t opposed to having illegal aliens pursue legalization.

Kasich’s visit came eight days before Super Tuesday, when Virginia and nine other states will hold their presidential primary elections.

Kasich received less than 2 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 – far behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But Kasich made a strong showing in the Feb. 23 New Hampshire primary: He received about 16 percent of the vote, finishing second to Trump’s 35 percent.

In Saturday’s South Carolina primary, Kasich finished fifth with less than 8 percent of the vote. Trump won that primary with more than 32 percent of the vote; Rubio and Cruz each received about 22 percent.

Despite his poor showing in opinion surveys, Kasich remains tenacious, Barney Skladany, a longtime friend of the Ohio governor, said in an interview at VCU.

“He woke up for 120 mornings and worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then, he would come home and tune in to CNN and see that he is at 1 percent in the national polls. But he kept waking up each day,” Skladany said.

The College Republicans at VCU hosted the town hall at the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building. In the adjacent courtyard, a small group of college-aged protesters shouted criticisms of Kasich and his positions.

Emily Bolton, communications director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said Kasich “claims he is a moderate but he really is a Republican. He is anti-women, he doesn’t give them the right to choose and he has been cutting funding to abortion clinics. He also said that ‘women left the kitchen’ to campaign for him.”

That was a reference to a remark Kasich made earlier Monday at a town hall at George Mason University in Fairfax. Describing how he got elected to the Ohio Legislature in the 1970s, Kasich said, “I didn't have anybody for me. We just got an army of people who, um, and many women, who left their kitchens to go out and go door-to-door and to put yard signs up for me.”

A few hours before the VCU event, Kasich apologized for the comment on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”

“Without the power of all the women who helped me out early in my career to give me a chance to hold public office, I wouldn’t have made it – and I’m grateful for all the work they put in for me and many of them that still do,” Kasich said on the news program.

In one of the most memorable moments at the VCU meeting, a woman told Kasich that five members of her family – including her 16-year-old son – had committed suicide. She asked the candidate how he would improve mental health care. Kasich said the government must help people who “live in the shadows.” He also reminisced on the death of his parents, who were killed by a drunken driver.

One of Kasich’s top campaign issues has been to balance the federal government’s budget and pay down the national debt. He said that as a result of his reforms, Ohio was able to rebound from recession. The state budget has climbed out of the red and is currently balanced, Kasich said, and the unemployment rate is at 4.7 percent – the lowest in more than a decade.

Unlike most of his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, Kasich has not bashed the other candidates and their policies. That approach appeals to his supporters.

Jordan Gray, a student assembly delegate at Christopher Newport University, said he appreciated how empowering Kasich was. “He is a man who isn’t going to attack for personal gain. He is about building up the common people.”


What’s Alive and Dead as Bills ‘Cross Over’

By Sarah King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Wednesday marked the midpoint of the General Assembly’s session – colloquially referred to as “crossover day.” From this day forward, the House can consider only bills passed by the Senate, and the Senate can consider only legislation passed by the House.

That is why lawmakers were in a frenzy through Tuesday trying to get their bills through their chamber of origin. Now is a good time to take stock of what measures have “crossed over” and are still alive – and what proposals are dead for the session.

Still alive: These bills may become law

Passed in the House

Of the 1,391 House bills introduced at the start of the session, 575 have passed the House. Here is a sampling.

Home Schooling: HB 131 would allow home-schooled students to participate in afterschool activities – including sports – as long as they qualify academically and live in the school district where they are participating.

Aircraft Regulation: HB 412 would prevent Virginia localities from creating laws to regulate drones unless explicitly given that power by the General Assembly.

International Trade: HB 858 would create the Virginia International Trade Authority to promote trade with other nations. Officials hope it would lead to an increase in Virginia exports.

Corkage Law: HB 706 would allow customers bring their own beer or cider to a restaurant and drink it there; the restaurant could charge the customers a corkage fee. The existing corkage law applies only to wine.

Government Nondiscrimination Act: HB 773 would prohibit government agencies from taking “any discriminatory action” against someone who has “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” opposing same-sex marriage.

Freedom of Information Act: HB 220 states any resumes or applications submitted by people appointed by the governor should be available to the public upon request.

Passed in the Senate

Of the 781 Senate bills introduced at the start of the session, 383 have passed the Senate. They include:

Alcohol at Restaurants: SB 488 would change the rules on how restaurants calculate the percentage of alcohol-to-food sale requirement. Currently, restaurants must make 55 percent or more of their sales from food products and a maximum of 45 percent of sales from liquor and mixed drinks. SB 488 would let restaurants calculate the percentages based on the costs they pay for food and alcohol, instead of on the sales.

Loyalty Oaths: SB 686 would prohibit political parties from requiring loyalty oaths as a requirement to vote in Virginia’s traditionally open presidential primary.

Drug Offenses / Suspended Licenses: SB 327 would change the existing law that motorists lose their driver’s license for six months when convicted of a drug offense. Under the bill, the law would no longer apply to simple possession of marijuana.

Unmanned Aircraft Regulation: SB 729 would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly use a drone to commit a crime or interfere with police or emergency medical personnel.

Spirit Consumption / Licensure: SB 536 would increase from 1.5 ounces to 4.5 ounces the quantity of spirits a licensed distiller may serve a consumer at a tasting event.

Sex Offender Registry: SB 11 would remove the name and address of the employer of a sex offender from the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry that the Virginia State Police post on the Internet.

Dead for this year: These bills stalled in their house of origin

Most of these bills never made it out of committee; some were defeated on floor votes.

Same-Sex Marriage: Democrats were pushing for HB 5 and SB 10, as well as Senate Joint Resolutions 2, 9 and 32. These bills and proposed constitutional amendments sought to remove the prohibitions in state law and the Virginia Constitution against same-sex marriage.

School Calendar: HB 93 would have allowed local school board to start classes before Labor Day. Under current law, schools must open after Labor Day unless state officials grant the local district a waiver.

Voting Rights / Nonviolent Felons: HB 107 would have provided the automatic restoration of voting eligibility for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes, with the exception of drug offenses and election fraud.

Abortion: HB 43 would have removed the requirement for women to undergo fetal transabdominal ultrasounds before getting an abortion.

Conceal Carry: HB 443 would have allowed anyone to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.

Cigarette Taxes: HB 419 would have allowed all counties to impose a cigarette tax; currently only Fairfax and Arlington counties can do so.

Texting While Driving: HB 73 would have increased the fines for texting while driving from $125 to $250 for the first offense and $250 to $500 for subsequent offenses.

Fireworks: SB 208 would have legalized the sale and use of fireworks in Virginia.

Marijuana: SB 104 sought to decriminalize simple marijuana possession and instead provide a civil penalty of no more than $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second violation and $500 for a third or subsequent violation. Currently, first offenders face up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.

Casinos: SB 32, 33 and 34 would have legalized casino gambling in localities where at least 40 percent of the land is government-owned and exempt from local property taxes.

License Plates / Sons of Confederate Veterans: SB 45 would have allowed the Sons of Confederate Veterans to use its logo on specialty license plates.

Hate Crimes: SB 82 would have expanded the definition of hate crimes to include criminal acts committed because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Handguns: SB 97 would have prohibited anyone who is not a licensed firearms dealer from purchasing more than one handgun in a 30-day period.

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Eight Arrested in Protest Against Dominion

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Eight people were arrested for trespassing on the Capitol steps Saturday, following a rowdy march of environmental activists against Dominion Power’s plans to release treated water from coal ash ponds into the James River.

The event – “Dump Dominion, a march for our rivers” – was sponsored by the group No ACP. That abbreviation stands for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Dominion plans to build across western Virginia to carry natural gas. Many environmentalists oppose the pipeline as well as the company’s plans for disposing of coal ash.

Hundreds of environmental activists and other citizens rallied at noon at the Bell Tower in the Capitol Square, protesting what they see as Dominion’s environmentally destructive practices. The environmentalists want the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to rescind state permits that Dominion has received to release treated water from the coal ash ponds into waterways.

According to the organization’s pamphlet, “spreading toxic coal ash throughout our communities and poisoning our water is not a solution. The DEQ must repeal these discharge permits immediately and rewrite them to ensure that Dominion complies with their own promises to treat the wastewater to drinking quality standards.”

After hearing from guest speakers, the protesters were lined up at the entrance to Capitol Square on Ninth Street by the event’s organizers. The group included trained legal observers, media liaisons and liaisons to communicate specifically with police officers.

Participants in the march wrapped around the block and to the entrance to the visitor center under the state Capitol building. Many of the protesters were dressed in costumes or wore anti-coal-ash logos on their shirts.

They carried signs painted with such messages as “Poisoning waters will poison you” and “Dominion, we see you power here, but what about your conscience?” In the crowd were large-scale puppets, dogs with protest signs around their necks, and men beating drums.

People with megaphones led chants, including “Dump Dominion, protect our children” and “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like.”

There were about 700 to 800 protesters in all, and they spanned the entire block. They included young children on the shoulders of their parents and other youth helping to hold signs.

After marching past both the headquarters of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion Power, the protesters returned to Capitol Square. They branched off into two groups at the fork in the sidewalk leading to the steps of the Capitol.

Encouraged by the crowd, more than 110 protesters ascended and stood on the Capitol steps, with their banners and signs. They continued to shout until the time for the march permit ran out at 3 p.m.

Evan Hoffman, a Richmond native, shared his reason for staying on the stairs until the permit time expired.

“I am on the stairs because I care deeply about the river. It has nourished us in many different ways, and we’re just being irresponsible with our future. It’s mind-blowing,” Hoffman said. “I’m here to offer my support and show that there are many people who want alternatives for the environment. With enough people power, we can hopefully make it right.”

By 3:30, more than 40 police officers assembled on the Capitol steps or around the Capitol building, ready to take action against the handful of protesters who remained. The police gave the demonstrators a five-minute warning.

The demonstrators on the Capitol steps linked arms and waited until the warning was up. Police officers un-linked the protesters one by one and removed them from the steps. They were led around the side of the Capitol, where all of them signed a summons to appear before a local court for trespassing.

In all, eight people were arrested, including this reporter, who was on the Capitol steps interviewing demonstrators.

Before the arrests, during the march through downtown Richmond, speakers from several organizations talked about a variety of topics. Camille Spencer, of the Virginian Student Environmental Coalition, used a bullhorn to discuss the connection between climate change and colonialism.

“Climate change is economic injustice, it’s colonialism. Right now, our government values profit from the fossil fuel industry over human life,” Spencer said. She cited as an example “what we’re experiencing right now with them (Dominion) trying to dump coal ash in rivers and lakes.”

Dennis Williams, the mobile market manager at Shalom Farms, said environmental destruction and racism are linked.

“The constellations of oppression in our society depend on the ethics of domination and neglect passed down through the generations from land-owning whites of the 15th century to today’s corporation owners and politicians whose power grows from social inequality and environmental degradation,” Williams said.

“Today, we stand in that tradition. We are holding corporations and governments accountable for the segregation of communities and of environment. We will shine light on the accumulated cause and the embedded destruction of greed and capitalism, the inhalation of coal dust and the drinking of lead water is on their tab.”

Drew Gallagher, field organizer for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, shared his thoughts on Dominion before the march began.

“When I think of Dominion, I think of a company that’s really good at two things,” Gallagher said. “I think of a company that’s really good at finding anything and everything they can to stick their name on – including ironically, a festival designed to celebrate life on a river which they want to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic coal ash into. I also think of a company that’s really good at giving money to politicians – the No. 1 campaign contributor to everyone that works in the General Assembly Building.”

Representatives for Dominion said that there has been misinformation about the coal ash issue.

“No coal ash will be released into Virginia’s waterways. In fact, our plan is designed to safeguard against that,” said Janell Hancock, senior communications specialist and media relations for Dominion Virginia Power.

“The Virginia State Water Control Board in January approved strict permits regulating the discharge of water from the Possum Point and Bremo ponds. The de-watering of these impoundments is a key part of the closure process. The water will be thoroughly processed in treatment facilities to make sure it meets or surpasses all permit requirements and protects human health and the environment.”

Hancock added: “We are committed to keeping the public informed about this important project, including regularly posting information about the plan on our website at The project will be transparent – the public will have access to the results of the water quality tests and can see for themselves that the water meets the permit requirements and will protect human health and the environment.”

David Botkins, director of media relations and communications for Dominion Virginia Power, said environmentalists have distorted the company’s actions to alarm the public and raise money.

“Our employees love and cherish the rivers and environment as much as they do. The difference is we aren’t going to spread misinformation and distort the truth as part of a larger fundraising campaign. We’ll continue to do the right thing of keeping the lights on and securing Virginia’s energy future,” Botkins said.

“While we respectfully appreciate the right to peaceful protest, there is a lot of misinformation out there being perpetuated about our closure of coal ash pond.”

Botkins said that the federal government has required Dominion to close the coal ash ponds and that “we are going about it in a very safe and environmentally responsible way.”

“Oftentimes, the organizations such as the ones that are protesting at the Capitol today get people riled up and unnecessarily worried and concerned, creating anxiety and panic – by spreading misinformation all in an effort to raise funds and generate media attention for their organization or nonprofit.”

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10 Communities Get ‘Main Street’ Grants

By Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Before the rise of chain discount stories and online shopping, all across the country Main Street was the place where a town’s residents would come together. Now, many of these once-cherished areas have fallen by the wayside as stores and restaurants turned to shuttered storefronts and empty office buildings.

To help revitalize these downtowns, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday awarded $150,000 in community development grants to 10 towns and small cities around the state as part the Virginia Main Street program. They can use the money to renovate buildings, revitalize historic neighborhoods and attract businesses to aging downtowns.

“Main Street communities play an important role in building a new Virginia economy by energizing our downtowns, providing access to capital and creating very unique places for entrepreneurs to work and grow their businesses,” McAuliffe said.

The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development administers the Virginia Main Street funding. Grant recipients can use the money in different ways.

The city of Hopewell and the towns of Altavista, Blackstone and Saint Paul were awarded financial feasibility grants, which help communities conduct engineering studies and construction evaluations to repurpose specific buildings. (Hopewell will receive $15,000; Altavista and Blackstone, $10,000 each; and Saint Paul, $2,500.)

The cities of Bristol and Staunton and the towns of Bedford, Culpeper, Luray and Marion were awarded downtown investment grants. These funds help communities implement a long-term strategy for growing downtown business districts. (Staunton will get $25,000; Bedford, Bristol and Marion, $20,000 each; Luray, $15,000; and Culpeper, $12,500.)

As a past recipient of a downtown investment grant, the Hopewell Downtown Partnership used $100,000 to help new businesses launch in the downtown business district.

“We were able to launch four new businesses: a restaurant, pizzeria, fitness center and a candy store,” said Evan Kaufman, the executive director of the Hopewell Downtown Partnership. ”We’ve taken an area that used to see a 50 percent vacancy rate, and now we’re turning it around through a combination of historical renovation, façade improvements and planning new events and festivals.”

Hopewell will use its financial feasibility grant to repurpose an empty city office building into a maker space – a workshop where residents can come and design prototypes for new business ideas.

“It’s like a gym, but for people who like to work with their hands. It offers them a place to work with tools and make things,” Kaufman explained. “We want to put a new use to a historic building that’s been vacant to bring a new vitality to the district.”

Staunton will use its grant for business retention. The city will put the money toward improving the connections between downtown businesses and the surrounding communities, said Julie Markowitz, executive director of the Staunton Downtown Development Association.

“The whole idea is to connect and reconnect the community with downtown,” Markowitz said. “We’re going to be implementing a campaign called ‘Shop Staunton’ and launching our downtown discount card.”

Staunton will also launch an event called “Staunton Stories” where residents bring in items and tell stories about their communities. The items and stories will be digitized and displayed in a downtown exhibit in June.

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House OK’s Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood

By James Miessler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a swipe at Planned Parenthood, the House on Tuesday passed a bill to prohibit the Virginia Department of Health from funding clinics that provide abortions except in the case of rape or incest or if the mother’s life is endangered.

Delegates voted 64-35 along party lines for House Bill 1090, which would cut off state funding for programs or facilities that offer abortions that would not be reimbursed under Medicaid, a federal-state program for low-income Americans. Republicans supported the measure; Democrats opposed it.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst, states, “The Department shall not enter into a contract with, or make a grant to, any entity that performs abortions that are not federally qualified abortions or maintains or operates a facility where non-federally qualified abortions are performed.”

Except in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment of the mother, abortion is not a Medicaid service.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood say HB 1090 is aimed at that organization. Planned Parenthood clinics provide an array of health-care services, including abortions.

“This bill cannot become law. The intent of this bill is clear – to shame and coerce women from accessing safe and legal abortion and ban access to Planned Parenthood,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

“We need to trust and respect women to make their own private, personal health-care decisions, and that includes selecting their own health care providers.”

Cline said his bill would “defund Planned Parenthood and redirect funds to more comprehensive health care for women.” Planned Parenthood could continue receiving state funds if it stopped offering abortions, he said.

“It’s up to them whether they want to provide non-Medicaid funded abortions,” Cline said.

However, according to an analysis of HB 1090 by the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, the bill would affect more than Planned Parenthood.

The department’s impact statement said the legislation would prevent the Virginia Department of Health from doing business with many hospitals, including those operated by Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia.

“The provisions of the bill would require VDH to cancel all agreements with entities such as VCU Health Systems, the UVA Medical Centers, and most other hospitals throughout the Commonwealth that maintain or operate facilities where non-federally qualified abortions are performed,” the statement said.

After being passed by the House, HB 1090 now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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House OKs Amendment to Increase Charter Schools

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – By a 52-47 vote, the Virginia House of Delegates on Friday approved a constitutional amendment that could open the doors for more charter schools in the state.

House Joint Resolution 1, introduced by Delegate Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, would allow the State Board of Education to authorize such schools if the local school board refuses. Republicans have championed the issue, saying Virginia school districts have thwarted attempts to create charter schools, which are public schools that are freed from certain regulations and often offer innovative or specialized programs.

Increasing the number of charter schools was a priority on the GOP education agenda for this legislative session. Virginia has nine charter schools; several states have hundreds. Nationwide, there are more than 6,400 charter schools.

“Public charter schools are some of the nation’s most successful public schools,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who chairs the House Education Committee.

If both houses of the General Assembly approve the proposed constitutional amendment and related legislation, the issue would be put on the ballot in this November’s general election for a statewide vote.

Delegates also are considering House Bill 3, which would authorize a referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment. This bill was engrossed Friday and will return to the House floor for a final vote next week.

Opposition to the charter school initiative was vocalized during the debate over HB 565, which was also on the floor Friday. The bill would set rules for the establishment and operation of charter schools – specifying, for example, that such schools must be managed by a nonprofit education organization under the control of a governing board.

Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, offered an amendment to HB 565 stating that “the Commonwealth or the public charter school applicant will pay for the construction of such public charter school.”

“The problem I have with the concept of these charter schools is not that I don’t like charter schools, but I want to know who is going to pay for it,” Albo said.

Republican Dels. Bob Marshall of Manassas and Tag Greason of Loudoun County criticized the amendment. They voiced concern over its exacting terms: funding the construction of new schools but not the renovations of existing buildings. House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, commented that the amendment was “inartfully drawn.”

Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, spoke in its favor: “Without the gentleman from Fairfax’s amendment, it is possible that the state could override the locality and have a charter school go in place with no plan for the building it's going to be in,” she said. “Then the locality will be on the hook to build it.”

Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, responded in opposition to the amendment. “We have seen step after step after step to try to take charters of the table,” he said. “I’m not sure she (Delegate McClellan) would vote for the underlying bill.”

Indeed, after the amendment was approved in a vote of 66-28, McClellan spoke in opposition to HB 565. She cited the period of Massive Resistance, when Virginia shut down public schools to block racial integration, as the only time since Reconstruction when the General Assembly encroached on local control of public education.

“That is why there are a large number of people who do not believe it is a good idea to take control away from the locality in deciding whether and how to implement charter schools,” McClellan said.

She cited studies that found charter schools have not improved academic performance across the country, noting that the charter school in Richmond failed to be accredited this year.

HB 565 and HB 3 will return to the floor next week for a final vote.

Meanwhile, the issue also is before the Senate: Senate Joint Resolution 6 would amend the Virginia Constitution the same way HJR 1 would; and SJR 93 and Senate Bill 588 would authorize a statewide referendum on the amendment. All of those measures are to be voted on in the Senate next week.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, a group that wants to start a charter school would first apply to the local school board. If the school board denies the application, the decision could be appealed to the State Board of Education. The State Board would be limited to hearing five appeals per year.

“Charter schools provide parents and students with additional opportunities,” Bell said. “Not every child is a good fit for traditional public schools, but every child deserves the opportunity to succeed.” He cited studies showing that charter schools “help to close the achievement gap, giving children in minority and underserved communities the opportunity to succeed.”

But public school teachers oppose charter schools. They fear that such programs will divert money and resources from regular public schools.

Howell hailed the House vote in favor of HJR 1.

“The fact that this legislation is House Joint Resolution 1 demonstrates how important this amendment is to the House of Delegates and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “We have an historic opportunity to bring about a meaningful change in our education system.”

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2 Divergent Views on ‘Conversion Therapy’

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “For fifteen years of my life, I experienced unwanted same-sex attractions,” Christopher Doyle said.

Doyle grew up with strained relationships with his parents. He said he couldn’t bond with his father, whom he characterizes as “not a bad man” but emotionally absent: “It set me up on a trajectory of not really being able to bond and connect with my peers and my male friends.”

Doyle’s mother, on the other hand, was “always emotionally needy” because of his father’s distance. “And then when I was about 8 years old,” Doyle said, “I was sexually abused by an older female cousin for about a year, which created a lot of fear of the opposite sex.”

At around 9 years old, Doyle began to experience what he refers to as “unwanted same-sex attractions.”

“I was very confused because in my heart, I didn’t really believe I was a gay person. But of course, as an 8 year old or 9 year old, I didn’t really understand,” Doyle said. “And I had interest in girls and attractions toward girls, and dated girls, too. But for me, having a healthy relationship with either a boy or a girl was simply impossible because of these early experiences of trauma.”

At 23, still searching for a resolution to the traumas he had experienced as a child, Doyle entered therapy with a counselor. After making peace with those issues, Doyle says he no longer experienced same-sex attraction.

“I was using sex with men to fill an emotional void, when what I really wanted was healthy relationships with guys,” Doyle said. “And that was my story. And ever since that time, I haven’t struggled with same-sex attractions at all.”

Over the years, Doyle sought out a variety of counseling methods to address what he refers to as “the issues underneath same-sex attractions and sexual identity.”

“I didn’t feel this was who I really was,” he said. “It was in conflict with my faith; it was in conflict with who I really thought I was for a person.”

Doyle has been married to a woman for nine years, and they have five children. He is now a licensed psychotherapist in Arlington whose methodologies include talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – all of them standard therapeutic tools.

He describes his work as therapy that specializes in sexual identity and orientation, helping gay-identified clients deal with the stigma of being gay while addressing the unwanted same-sex attraction of his other clients.

Doyle’s detractors have a more succinct label for what he does: conversion therapy, a controversial practice that has been banned for minors in four states – California, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon. Some Virginia lawmakers wanted to add Virginia to the list. That effort failed during this year’s session of the General Assembly.

* * *

“I believe Chris Doyle when he says that he’s not doing harm using outlandish methodology,” Apryl Prentiss says. “What their new term of rhetoric is – it’s to say, ‘Oh no, it’s just talk therapy; we’re not doing any damage.’ And the bottom line is, talk therapy is actually the most insidious of all of those methodologies.”

Prentiss and Doyle have several things in common. They have both struggled to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious beliefs. They had negative experiences with religious leaders as same-sex attracted people. They have both been through therapy that specifically addresses sexual orientation.

And they both now describe themselves as happily married to women.

The major difference between them is that Prentiss identifies proudly as a lesbian and is an outspoken opponent of the type of therapy Doyle and his colleagues perform.

Prentiss is the deputy director for the Alliance for Progressive Values, a Richmond-based nonprofit that advocates for “economic fairness, social justice and good government.” She was instrumental in developing legislation to ban conversion therapy in Virginia.

Three bills, all sponsored by Democrats, tried to do that. HB 427 died in a House subcommittee; SB 262 and SB 267 were killed by the Senate Education and Health Committee. The legislative hearings drew both proponents and critics of the therapy.

The Senate hearing was a lightning rod for media attention, as Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax, compared homosexuality to childhood cancer and John Linder, a self-described former homosexual, said he considers the therapy successful but still experiences same-sex attractions.

Prentiss speaks freely about her experiences with conversion therapy because, she says, “There are many survivors that are not able to stand up and advocate this way because of the harm done to them.”

Prentiss was raised Christian. When she began to realize she might be gay, she feared losing her religious community as well as the acceptance of her family. These fears, she said, caused her to deny her sexuality and seek out therapy to help her move past her same-sex attraction.

Prentiss spent months in an ex-gay ministry that used ascetic methods, as well as time with a psychotherapist who she said used methods similar to Doyle’s.

“Conversion therapy is predicated on the belief that you’re not born gay – there has to be a cause for it,” Prentiss said. “So there’s abuse in your past, or a mother issue, or a father issue, or something like that. The first thing that a conversion therapist does is dig and dig and dig for that cause – to the point where some people, myself included, have felt pressure to create one.”

Prentiss said the therapy she underwent prompted her to fixate on her sexuality to a distressing degree.

“If I were to go to lunch with a female friend, my conversion therapist would be say, ‘Well, why did you want to go to lunch with her? Did you have any sexual thoughts while you were sitting there talking to her?’” Prentiss recalled.

“And I’d say, ‘No, we were just hanging out.’ But it teaches you to overanalyze everything, to perseverate on everything that’s coming through your head. And that in itself just causes severe introspection. When you’re already depressed, as anyone in that situation would be, it can be really dangerous.”

* * *

So far, what is referred to in law as conversion therapy has been banned in four states and Washington, D.C. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York recently said he will take steps toward a ban there as well.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution expressing concerns about “sexual orientation change efforts.”

“Recent studies of participants in SOCE identify a population of individuals who experience serious distress related to same sex sexual attractions. Most of these participants are Caucasian males who report that their religion is extremely important to them,” the resolution said.

The APA ultimately concluded that “results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE.”

The association cited a study that “some individuals modified their sexual orientation identity (i.e., group membership and affiliation), behavior, and values.”

“They did so in a variety of ways and with varied and unpredictable outcomes, some of which were temporary,” the resolution reported.

Prentiss and Doyle have diverging opinions on the success of SOCE.

“I would say that in my personal experience of the people I know who have been through conversion therapy or other ex-gay efforts, my personal experience would be that 95 percent of those people are now living happy lives as gay people,” Prentiss said.

“The people that I know who have gone through conversion therapy and ex-gay programs and are now living a heterosexual life, most of those people were really abused as children. So I don’t know that their orientation was ever homosexual, as much as they were having trauma that was leading them to act out in a homosexual way or be confused about their sexuality.”

Doyle describes his therapeutic efforts as effective for clients who are distressed by their same-sex attraction. But he said some of his conflicted clients do end up ultimately identifying as gay.

“Not all times where someone comes in conflicted with same-sex attraction, is that person is going to go toward the heterosexual spectrum,” Doyle says. “That’s a reality that we don’t dispute, and it’s not necessarily even the point. ... I work with clients like that, and I advocate for a lot of gay and lesbian minors who have parents who are unaccepting of their sexual orientation.”

Doyle was asked if unwanted same-sex attraction was something that could be addressed in a more general therapeutic context, instead of by a specialist. He expressed reservations.

“Let’s just say this therapist is a gay-identified therapist that is adamantly against the idea that there is any fluidity in sexuality,” Doyle said. “Then that therapist may actually steer that client against his or her will into embracing a gay identity when the client didn’t want that.”

Doyle went on to say that he has personal biases, as all therapists do, but that he would refer a client to another therapist if he felt he could not help them.

Prentiss disputed the idea that the average therapist who identifies as gay would counsel clients in a biased way.

“A real therapist would never make a judgment and then encourage someone one way or the other based on their own judgment. A real therapist lets the client say, ‘I think I’m gay’; lets the client say, ‘I think I’m straight but I have these fractions’; or lets the client be the one to say, ‘I’m going to try to choose to be gay or straight,’” Prentiss said.

“Good therapists don’t have an agenda; that’s not what’s happening in real therapy sessions. That is what happens with conversion therapists.”

Prentiss stressed that the bill she worked on was aimed at protecting children under 18, not banning the therapy for adults.

“You’re talking about a minor who is still in the normal phase of identity formation, period – not just sexual identity, but their overall identity being formed,” she said.

Doyle challenged the suggestion that his therapy methods might be harmful to children.

“I am the last person that would ever force a teenager to go through therapy,” he said. “But in my experience, that doesn’t really happen that much.”

Is “unwanted opposite sex attraction” really a common concern for people? Not according to Google. A search for that exact phrase turns up only 106 results, most of which are tongue-in-cheek.

In an email, Doyle said he doesn’t even know any therapists who specifically help clients who are gay resolve unwanted opposite-sex attractions.

“But I have had cases where a client had trauma from females and experienced unwanted sexual compulsions/attractions for the opposite sex that they felt were unhealthy and destructive, while also experiencing unwanted same-sex attractions,” he said.

Though they disagree on many points, Prentiss and Doyle agree on one thing: “Sexual orientation change efforts” can be dangerous when left up to religious leaders.

“The therapy that we do isn’t the same thing as maybe some of the bad experiences that people have had,” Doyle said. “And it really grieves my heart that they’ve had those bad experiences, because I had the same bad experiences with a pastor when I was their age. And if I had worked with a licensed professional who knew what they were doing, it could have saved me years of heartache.”

The attempt to ban conversion therapy for minors in Virginia failed in part because some legislators feared it might infringe on freedom of religion. They said such a ban could stop clergy from counseling young members of the congregation who are gay. Prentiss expressed frustration with this argument.

“There is definitely a gray area over here, which is hugely dangerous, which is these pastors who are acting like counselors and maybe even pastors who are licensed as counselors. We can’t do a lot about that legislatively,” she said.

“What we’re trying to avoid right now is parents with good intentions going and desperately looking someone up online, saying, ‘Oh, this is a licensed therapist; this person can help my kid.’ And going to them in the most dire of circumstances, and having this person say, ‘Oh, absolutely, I can help you with that.’ I mean, it’s predatory.”

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Panel Backs ‘Religious Freedom’ to Reject Same-Sex Marriage

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Government officials who are authorized to perform marriages could refuse to marry same-sex couples under a bill approved Monday by the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee over the objections of LGBT advocates.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Virginia and other groups opposed Senate Bill 41, which also states that religious organizations and their employees may deny “services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges” for a marriage if it would “violate a sincerely held religious belief.”

Splitting along party lines, the committee voted 8-7 in favor of SB 41, which was sponsored by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax. All of the Republicans on the panel voted for the bill; all of the Democrats voted against it.

Carrico filed the legislation in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to legalize same-sex marriages. He said it would protect “religious freedom” by letting people and groups who have religious objections to same-sex marriage refuse to participate in such ceremonies.

“Our founders got it right,” Carrico said at a press conference last month. “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.”

But opponents of SB 41 said it would allow discrimination against same-sex couples even by government officials who are supposed to uphold the law.

“We think that it is unconstitutional in that respect because it allows public officials to deny services to groups of people based on their personal beliefs,” Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, told the Senate committee.

The Human Rights Act in Virginia already forbids discriminate based on religion. And under the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ministers already have the right to refuse to marry a couple based on their religious beliefs.

“That’s what the legislators supporting SB41 are saying they are concerned about, but that’s not true. This bill is in conflict of existing law,” Gastañaga said. “It also extends beyond existing law by specifically allowing even judges to limit what they do by saying that it conflicts with their religious beliefs.”

Equality Virginia, an advocacy group for gay Virginians, and Right Way Forward Virginia also oppose SB 41, according to statements they have posted on Richmond Sunlight, a legislative information website.

Right Way Forward Virginia said the bill would “help perpetuate a commonly-held misconception that equal treatment under law of same-sex couples who wish to marry imposes obligations on houses of worship and clergy.”

The members of the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee who voted for SB 41 were Republican Sens. Frank Ruff of Clarksville, Dick Black of Leesburg, Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach, Tom Garrett of Lynchburg, Bryce Reeves of Spotsylvania, Richard Stuart of Westmoreland, David Suetterlein of Salem and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Winchester.

The committee members who opposed the bill were Democratic Sens. George Barker and Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, Mamie Locke of Hampton, Jeremy McPike of Dale City, Chap Petersen of Fairfax, Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon and Jennifer Wexton of Leesburg.

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‘Eli’s Law’ Would Publicize Child Abusers

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Hanover County mother, whose son suffered brain damage and other injuries when he was abused by a man in 2010, urged state lawmakers Monday to expand who must be listed on Virginia’s Sex Offender and Crimes against Minors Registry. A legislative subcommittee appeared receptive to the idea.

Courtney Maddox told the panel about her son Elijah’s harrowing ordeal: “My son suffered a brain injury, a stroke and was left paralyzed and with two broken legs” after he was abused by a family friend. The abuser was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. But under the state’s current laws, the offender’s name won’t be on the public registry when he is released.

That is why Maddox is pushing for House Bill 672, also known as Eli’s Law. It would add malicious wounding (if the victim is under 13 and the perpetrator is an adult) to the crimes that require offenders to be listed on the registry.

“I think that common sense tells you that if you’re going to take an infant child and bash its brain in, then you’re going to be pretty likely to commit some other type of crime later. I think public notice is the minimum that we would expect in certain circumstances such as that,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Christopher Peace, R-Mechanicsville.

Peace and Maddox spoke Monday to the Criminal Law Subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

When her son nearly died, Maddox explained, she looked into whether the assailant would be listed on the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry. However, under the existing law, the registry lists only offenders who have murdered children or been convicted of certain sex crimes. So Maddox reached out to Peace and the commonwealth’s attorney for Hanover County.

“We came up with a solution that we believe will help our community – Eli’s Law,” she said.

“Here I am fighting, and I believe that the public needs to be made aware of those that commit violent crimes against children. I know it’s going to make the public more aware of those who are violent around us. We’re better able and equipped to determine who we can trust and who we can’t trust around our children. That’s the important thing. It’s not just sex offenders that hurt our children.”

At the meeting, the Criminal Law Subcommittee tabled HB 672 but agreed to incorporate its purpose into other legislation. There were two other bills that sought changes in the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry:

  • HB 604, which would include in the registry the crimes of “receiving money for procuring a person for prostitution” and “receiving money from the earnings of a person engaged in prostitution” if they involve a minor. This bill was sponsored by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville.
  • HB 177, which would list on the registry “any person convicted of having carnal knowledge of a brute animal.” This bill was filed by Del. David Albo, R-Springfield.

The subcommittee tabled both Eli’s Law and HB 604 but decided to fold their intentions into Albo’s bill. The panel then voted 10-1 in favor of HB 177.

The subcommittee recommended that the amended HB 177 be sent to the House Appropriations Committee for funding. State officials estimate it would cost $50,000 to expand the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry.

Steve Royalty, senior assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Hanover County, testified in support of Eli’s Law at the subcommittee hearing.

“In a nutshell, it would protect children from becoming victims of criminal offenders by helping to suspend such individuals from being allowed to work directly with children,” Royalty said.

“If that person is on a registry, it becomes a matter of public record, so to speak, and people in the public have access to that registry. They will know in a way that they may not have known before that this person has engaged in a very violent crime against a child.”

Though Eli is too young to understand what happened to him, his mother promised him that something good would come of the traumatic events.

“I tell him he’s a hero,” Maddox said. “And he is.”

Only six months after the abuse, Eli took his first steps. Now 5 years old, Eli has some weakness in his left arm and a scar on his head, but his mother is extremely grateful that he is no longer paralyzed.

Maddox is optimistic that the House Appropriations Committee will endorse the concept of Eli’s Law. “It’s $50,000 – a small price for such an impactful cause.”

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Poll Finds Support for More School Funding

By Brian Williams, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a poll conducted by the Virginia Education Association, most Virginians say the state budget doesn’t adequately cover the needs of the state’s public schools or properly compensate teachers. The poll found that 66 percent of respondents feel that the current budget for public schools is not enough.

“The public is squarely behind the need to improve funding for our public schools,” said Meg Gruber, president of the VEA. “Members of the House and Senate deliberating the budget need to know that as it stands now, Virginia is 41st in the country on funding public schools.”

According to the latest “National Report Card” by the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University and the Education Law Center, teacher salaries and benefits make up the bulk of school budgets. The report said Virginia teachers are paid $6,700 below the national average. And according to the poll, residents of the commonwealth agree that teachers aren’t paid enough. That sentiment was expressed by:

  • 66 percent of adults with children currently in public school
  • 67 percent who have had children in public school in the past
  • 65 percent who have never had children in public school

“When Rutgers University ranked all states on wage competitiveness of its teachers’ pay compared to other professionals, Virginia ranked worst in the country,” Gruber said.

The General Assembly is drafting a state budget for the next two years. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed a $139 million appropriation to add 2,000 teachers to schools around the commonwealth. McAuliffe also is seeking a 2 percent pay increase for teachers, but Gruber says it’s not enough.

“The governor’s biennial budget has zero percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second. We believe that when it’s been six out of eight years for zero, we don’t need to see seven out of nine to be a zero,” Gruber said.

The VEA poll surveyed 600 Virginia adults between Jan. 4 and 7. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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Elections Board Removes GOP’s ‘Loyalty Oath’

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – State officials agreed Thursday to honor the Republican Party of Virginia’s request to remove a requirement that voters sign a “loyalty oath” before voting in the March 1 presidential primary.

The State Board of Elections voted 2-0 to remove the requirement despite objections from the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Much as we decry and dispute the original decision to implement an affirmation requirement, simply said, two wrongs don’t make a right,” Hope Amezquita, staff attorney and legislative counsel at ACLU-VA, told the board.

The ACLU initially opposed the requirement that voters in the GOP primary sign a statement that “I am a Republican.” However, now that the pledge has been in place for absentee voters, removing it would be illegal, Amezquita said.

“The Republican Party is before this board asking to have a voter requirement rescinded after an election has begun and ballots have been cast,” Amezquita said. “Voters have a constitutional right to experience the election process uniformly and equally. If there is an affirmation requirement, it must be equally applicable to all voters regardless of when they vote.”

According to the State Board of Elections, more than 1,300 absentee ballots have already been cast.

Meanwhile, in the General Assembly, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, has proposed a bill to make it illegal for parties to require voters to “sign any pledge” when voting in a primary. His measure, Senate Bill 686, is currently before the Senate. The bill cleared the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee on an 11-1 vote Tuesday.

Committee members voting for the bill were Republican Sens. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Winchester, Bryce Reeves of Fredericksburg, Ben Chafin of Lebanon, Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach, Amanda Chase of Midlothian and Glen Sturtevant of Midlothian, as well as Democratic Sens. Janet Howell of Reston, John Edwards of Roanoke, Donald McEachin of Richmond, John Miller of Newport News and Adam Ebbin of Alexandria.

Voting against SB 686 was Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County. Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, abstained.

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Panel Seeks to Expand Law Against Texting While Driving

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

A legislative panel Monday approved a bill to expand Virginia’s law against texting while driving to other distracting activities, such as reading social media postings.

Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Transportation Committee voted 6-1 in favor of House Bill 461, which would make it illegal for a driver to “manually select multiple icons” on a cellphone or other handheld personal communication device.

The bill also would prohibit the driver from reading “any information displayed on the device”; the current law applies only to email and text messages. The measure would not apply to making a cellphone call or navigating with GPS.

Moreover, HB 461, proposed by Del. Richard Anderson, a Republican representing Prince William County, would prohibit drivers from texting or reading on their cellphones even when the vehicle is stopped. The existing law applies only to moving vehicles.

Anderson is passionate about the issue: His brother-in-law was injured in an automobile accident involving a driver who was texting. “It should be called impaired driving, not distracted driving,” Anderson said.

Texting and driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol, Anderson said. He suggested that, as with laws mandating seatbelts, it will take time for the public to come around. Eventually, people will realize that the ban on texting while driving saves lives, Anderson said.

Between January and July of 2015, 68 people died in crashes involving distracted driving in Virginia, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We don’t worry about drunk drivers anymore,” Lt. Robert Marland of the Richmond Police Department told the subcommittee. Texting while driving is a bigger concern, he said. This is especially true after officers have pulled over a vehicle for a violation: The officers then are in danger of getting hit by an oncoming motorist who is texting.

That is what happened to Heather Munsterman, who has worked for the Manassas City Police Department for the past 11 years. During a routine traffic stop, she was hit by someone who was texting while driving, Munsterman told legislators.

She tearfully admitted to being in the hospital for two months and suffering brain damage. Munsterman has not yet been able to return to her former position and is currently on light duty.

“I support this bill with all my heart,” Munsterman said.

Also in support of HB 461 was Madeline Abbitt, a lobbyist representing AT&T. She listed statistics about what people do while behind the wheel of a car: Seven out of 10 drivers text; 33 percent email; 28 percent browse the Internet; 17 percent of people take a selfie; 14 percent post on Instagram and Twitter; 12 percent of people make videos; and 11 percent use Snapchat.

“This is a good and necessary bill,” Abbitt said.

But some questions were raised about HB 461. Del. James LeMunyon, a Republican from Fairfax and Loudoun counties and a member of the subcommittee, wondered whether taking a picture would constitute as a violation of HB 461. Anderson responded by saying his bill was focused more on decreasing the number of distracted drivers immersed in social media on their phones.

In the end, six subcommittee members voted for HB 461. Besides Anderson and LeMunyon, they included Republican Dels. Les Adams of Chatham and Todd Pillion of Abingdon and Democratic Dels. Kenneth Plum of Reston and Jeion Ward of Hampton.

The subcommittee chairman – Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg – voted against HB 461 because of uncertainty over what would constitute “multiple icons.”

HB 461 now will be considered by the full House Transportation Committee. If the committee endorses the bill, it will advance to the full House of Delegates for a vote.

Also at its meeting on Monday, the subcommittee:

  • Tabled HB 73, which would have increased the fines for texting while driving from $125 to $250 for a first offense and from $250 to $500 for a repeat offense. The bill had been proposed by Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico.
  • Tabled HB 569, which would have required vehicles to display lighted headlights at all times – not just from sunset to sunrise or during low visibility. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, had introduced the measure.
  • Approved HB 1360, which require every bicyclist under 18 in Virginia to wear a helmet. Currently, local governments may require bicyclists under 14 to wear helmets. The proposal by Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, would make helmets a statewide requirement for all bicyclists under 18. The subcommittee voted 6-1 in favor of HB 1360, with Garrett dissenting. The bill now goes to the full committee.

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Lawmakers Honor Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer

By James Miessler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After a successful career at Virginia Tech, Frank Beamer won’t be forgotten any time soon. On Thursday, both houses of the General Assembly honored the recently retired football coach with a center-aisle ceremony.

Legislators presented Beamer with a resolution to express their “admiration for his achievements and best wishes on a happy retirement.”

“We’re here today to honor one of the greatest football coaches in all America on his retirement,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, whose district includes the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg.

With the former coach and his wife Cheryl standing by, Edwards delivered a speech praising Beamer.

“He is one of the most successful and respected college football coaches in the entire country,” Edwards said. “He coaches the way that he is as a person – with character and decency – which is part of the reason for his remarkable success.”

Edwards shared the accolades that comprise Beamer’s illustrious career at Virginia Tech.

“At Virginia Tech, he’s had 23 consecutive winning seasons and Bowl game appearances and a national championship football game appearance,” Edwards said. “The team’s very first season with the ACC in 2004, the Hokies won the ACC title and an appearance in a Bowl championship series game, and Frank Beamer was named the ACC Coach of the Year. Altogether, the Hokies have won four ACC championships since 2004.”

Beamer was well known for getting all of his players involved in scoring. This style of play was successful enough to garner its own nickname.

“Coach Beamer pioneered an aggressive style of special-teams play that has come known far and wide as ‘Beamer Ball,’ ” Edwards said.

But Beamer didn’t just see success on the field. Throughout the years, he saw many of his players earn their degrees.

“Of particular pride to Frank Beamer and to Virginia Tech is that over 94 percent of his senior football players from 2001 to 2014 earned their college degrees,” Edwards said.

Edwards drove home Beamer’s impact on college football at the end of the speech: “Frank Beamer has finished his career as the winningest active football coach in all of the NCAA.”

Lawmakers presented Beamer with House Joint Resolution 75, which they had passed last month. The primary sponsors of the resolution were Republican Dels. Joseph Yost of Pearisburg, Greg Habeeb of Salem and Nick Rush of Christiansburg.

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Business Leaders Support Bill to Boost International Trade

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, along with business leaders from across Virginia, promoted a bill Tuesday afternoon that they say will make it easier for businesses in Richmond and elsewhere in the state to export goods internationally.

“This could really be a game changer for Virginia; promoting our exports and getting international companies to come into Virginia and do trade with us,” Landes said at a press conference in the General Assembly Building.

Landes’ proposal, House Bill 858, would create the Virginia International Trade Authority. It would be formed by reorganizing existing programs within the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, another state agency. Thus, the proposal would not affect the state budget, according to Landes and leaders from the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and the Virginia Maritime Association.

As a result, Landes said, the new authority would not cost taxpayers anything, while devoting more resources toward helping state businesses sell their products abroad.

According to a press release distributed by an alliance of more than 100 Virginia businesses and trade associations, the proposed International Trade Authority will help Virginia meet its goals of adding “14,000 international trade-supported jobs and increase Virginia exports of products and services by $1.6 billion by 2020.”

Van Wood, a professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, said creating an authority devoted to expanding international trade will “help businesses expand overseas, generate more revenue, and put the Virginia brand name out into the world.”

“I want when people to walk into a grocery store in France, and they see French wines, South African wines, Napa Valley wines … I want them to say, ‘We got Virginia wines.’ You got to be out there. That’s what we’re doing,” Wood said in an interview after the press conference.

Wood has a great deal of experience working within the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. He is one of several Virginia college professors who have been asked by the governor to help local businesses find an international market for their products.

“There’s a small distillery located in Richmond, Virginia, in Scott’s Addition called Reservoir Distillery. It makes excellent rye whiskey and bourbon – $150 a bottle,” Wood said. He said that with globalization, such products might find a demand in emerging markets such as India, China, Brazil and Turkey.

“They have a middle class now that these prestige products like American bourbon are going to resonate with,” Wood said.

Landes’ bill has been assigned to the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Commerce, Technology and Natural Resources.


Attorney General Targets Patent Trolls

By Matt Chaney, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Matthew Osenga, an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and patent prosecution, said that in all his years of practicing law, he has had only one case in which somebody came to him fearing a lawsuit about a fraudulent patent claim. What happened?

“We chose to not do anything, and nothing came of it,” Osenga said Monday from his office at the Richmond law firm of Goodman, Allen and Donnelly.

But some experts say fraudulent claims filed by so-called “patent trolls” are a major problem. That’s why Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring recently created a “Patent Troll Unit” to go after people who try to extort money by fraudulently claiming that someone has stolen their patent.

According to a studycited by Herring’s office, patent trolls cost the U.S. economy about $29 billion a year, with individuals and companies bearing the brunt of the loss. At this point, it is unclear how much patent trolls cost the Virginia economy.

“One of the things that could be really valuable about the Patent Troll Unit is that by having a more centralized unit working on the issue, we can get a better feel for which businesses are at risk, and how much of a problem this is in the commonwealth,” said Michael Kelly, the director of communications for Herring’s office.

“Right now, there’s no one really looking at this issue in a coordinated way to establish the scale or impact of patent trolls at the state level.”

Kristen Osenga, a University of Richmond law professor who specializes in patent law, said there are a few problems with establishing a “Patent Troll Unit.”

“By calling it a ‘Patent Troll Unit,’ basically [Herring is] saying, ‘Hey, let’s go after these people who are bad because they don’t make anything,’ ” said Professor Osenga, the wife of attorney Matthew Osenga.

Osenga said she understands there are people who send letters falsely alleging that a company or individual has committed patent infringement. But at the same time, she said, there are other people who have a solid legal basis for suing for copyright infringement. She cited the company Conversant.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, they developed, manufactured and sold semiconductor chips. They were a real company, manufacturing and selling real things,” Professor Osenga said. “In the ’90s, it turned out that the semiconductor industry was full of rampant infringement … So they were losing significant amounts of market share to all of these infringers, until they faced the choice: Do we sue all these people, or go out of business?”

According to Osenga, the company eventually began licensing its patents to the infringing companies, which were better at manufacturing products. Conversant then became a research and development firm that licensed its patents instead of selling them. As a result, the company became known for its patent lawsuits and developed a bad rap among some people in the patent community.

Osenga said she fears that Herring’s office might unfairly prosecute similar companies that look like patent trolls but don’t do anything unethical. Herring’s office found her concerns unwarranted.

“Of course the Unit will not pursue action against companies that make legitimate claims of patent infringement,” Kelly said in an email response. “In fact, these efforts will strengthen the overall patent system by weeding out some of the bad actors that are abusing it.”

Regardless, as a result of legislation passed last year, Herring’s office now has the power to investigate and prosecute patent trolls and impose financial penalties for misdeeds.

In an open invitation to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business advocacy group, Herring asked business people who think they may have been victims of patent trolling to report it by:

“Because my office is authorized to seek injunctions against that kind of behavior,” Herring said, “we can identify and bring action against a few of these bad actors and really send a strong message that these kind of abusive tactics will not be tolerated in Virginia.”

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Virginia Officials Reach Compromise on Gun Laws

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – State officials from both political parties have reached a sweeping compromise on gun laws that would continue Virginia’s agreements with other states regarding concealed carry permits, prevent the subjects of protective orders from possessing guns and encourage, but not require, background checks at gun shows.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe – accompanied by Democratic and Republican lawmakers – announced the agreement Friday, calling it “the first meaningful steps on preventing gun violence in 23 years.”

“I have always believed that these gun issues are nonpartisan issues and there is room for more bipartisan cooperation in reaching this goal,” McAuliffe, a Democrat.

House Speaker William Howell, a Republican from Fredericksburg, agreed. He credited McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring and Brian Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety, as well as GOP leaders such as Sen. Bryce Reeves of Fredericksburg and Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter of Woodbridge.

“This is not an area where many people would have predicted an accord, but we are here because of their hard work,” Howell said.

In the deal, each side got something: Republicans got Herring to reverse his decision to revoke the reciprocal agreements Virginia has with 25 states on honoring one another’s concealed handgun permits. And Democrats got Republicans to restrict access to firearms in domestic violence situations and possibly expand criminal background checks at firearms shows.

“Protecting reciprocity for Virginia’s law-abiding citizens was a major priority for the House of Delegates,” Howell said. “We have achieved an agreement that will ensure the constitutional rights of Virginians are protected. We are also sending a clear signal about the mutual willingness of both parties to protect victims of domestic violence. This a good deal for the commonwealth.”

McAuliffe and other officials discussed the agreement at a press conference at the state Capitol. The atmosphere was lighthearted and joyful – leaving little room for disagreement.

“I have been elected to the Senate of Virginia for the last 25 years, and this is the best press conference I have attended,” Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said as she was leaving the event. “This is historic. This is something we have been working on ever since I have been here. So I am just so grateful that I survived long enough to see it.”

McAuliffe praised the bipartisan spirit of the agreement.

“No one wants to see guns in the hands of domestic abusers or other dangerous individuals. It is our responsibility as elected leaders to work together in a commonsense way to provide public safety,” he said.

“The measures we are announcing today will save lives. It is that simple.”

Added Reeves: “When you shelve politics and put it aside, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”

The agreement came about a month after Herring said Virginia would revoke its agreements to recognize the concealed weapons permits issued by 25 states, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Herring said those states did not meet Virginia’s standards in deciding who qualifies for a concealed carry permit.

Herring’s decision outraged Republicans. Just last week, Lingamfelter sent an open letter to McAuliffe, urging him to delay revocation of the reciprocal agreements.

Under the pact announced Friday, McAuliffe agreed to sign Senate Bill 610, a bill Reeves is sponsoring to reverse Herring’s decision. SB 610 would continue “reciprocity for all states with a concealed carry permitting process.”

But McAuliffe said it also would prevent “state shopping”: “If a person has ever been revoked in Virginia, they cannot go to another state to get a permit and have that permit be recognized in Virginia.”

Also as part of the agreement, the Republican-controlled General Assembly would pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston. SB 49 would prohibit a person subject to a permanent protective order from possessing a firearm for the duration of the order. Failing to comply with the law would be a class 6 felony.

McAuliffe said the legislation would plug a “gaping loophole that needed to be filled.” Current law states that a person who is the subject of a protective order may not buy a firearm but still may possess one.

In 2014, Virginia recorded 112 deaths involving family or domestic disputes. Sixty-six of the victims were killed were by guns.

“If we can save just one life, we need to do so,” McAuliffe said.

Under the third part of the agreement, the General Assembly would pass and McAuliffe would sign HB 1386, sponsored by Lingamfelter, and SB 715, by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. These bills address voluntary background checks at firearms shows.

Currently, only federally licensed firearms dealers must perform background checks on people who want to buy guns. The legislation would authorize the Virginia State Police to perform background checks on behalf of private citizens selling guns at the shows.

“This bill requires the Virginia State Police to be present at every firearms show in the Commonwealth to perform background checks on a voluntary basis,” the agreement stated.

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Legislator Withdraws Bill Raising Oyster Leases

By Kyle Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia watermen can heave a sigh of relief after a legislator withdrew his bill to increase the cost to lease the bottom of state-owned waterways for growing oysters and clams.

Perhaps one of Virginia’s best bargains, the annual right for leasing oyster planting grounds will remain only $1.50 per acre. Senate Bill 298, proposed by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, would have raised the annual rent to $5,000 per acre for leasing planting grounds within 1,000 feet of shoreline residences.

DeSteph withdrew the bill Thursday at a meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. SB 298 is one of several bills introduced by DeSteph that were prompted by waterfront homeowner complaints that oyster farms have encroached on their properties and recreational use of the water.

To work out these issues, the Virginia Marine Resource Commission decided this week to enact a seven-month pause on new and pending lease applications for commercial and riparian leases within the Lynnhaven River system. The VMRC is forming a task force to study conflicts between commercial aquaculture leaseholders and other users of the waterways. The study will look at include recreational uses, navigation issues, privacy issues, property rights and property values.

“The No. 1 job of elected officials is the safety and security of our citizens,” DeSteph said in a statement Friday.

“We must find a balance between public safety, commercial and recreational use of our waterways. To do this, we need to devote the time necessary to have a discussion with all interested parties and determine the appropriate course of action.”

The VRMC action partially accomplishes what DeSteph and a fellow Republican, Del. Jason Miyares of Virginia Beach, sought in a bill they had co-sponsored: SB 254. It proposed suspending until July 1, 2017, the assignment or transfer by the VRMC of general oyster grounds in the Lynnhaven River or its tributaries.

“My goal with introducing this legislation was to get this conversation started,” DeSteph said. He withdrew SB 254 on Thursday.

Miyares said, “Through the VMRC task force, I am confident we can create an appropriate balance among all stakeholders in the Lynnhaven River system for the betterment of our community.”

People who work in Virginia’s seafood industry were happy to see SB 298 withdrawn.

Lake Cowart is the owner of Cowart Seafood Corp. in Lottsburg, a community in Northumberland County, which borders the Chesapeake Bay. He said he knew SB 298 would never pass.

“To begin with, there’s not an acre of oyster lease in the state of Virginia that anybody would be willing to even pay $5,000 an acre in long term, much less $5,000 a year to lease one acre,” Cowart said. “It would put the oyster industry totally out of business. The number is so ridiculous it’s not even funny.”

Cowart said the VMRC task force has potential for allowing oyster growers and property owners to work out their differences.

“If in fact the VMRC can help the property owners and the oyster growers in Lynnhaven work through their problems, we shouldn’t have bills like this in the future,” Cowart said.

“The goal is for MRC to intervene, which it already has done, and set up a work group that can give and take, work out their differences. Not everyone is going to come away happy, but at least they’ll hopefully be happier than they were to start with.”

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How Good Was the Stew? It Ran Out Fast!

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The 80-gallon cauldron of Brunswick stew was empty after just an hour and a half on Wednesday morning, feeding members of the General Assembly and Richmond residents who arrived early enough to indulge in the thick, creamy dish.

The spicy and complex aroma drifted from the small tent positioned between the General Assembly Building and the state Capitol. People didn’t need directions where to go: They could just follow their nose across the Capitol grounds.

“Better get there early,” said lobbyist Mark Hubbard, who did not arrive early enough to receive a bowl of stew and saltine crackers, “And I do work for Brunswick County.”

Brunswick Stew Day is an annual event at Capital Square, celebrating the signature dish of Brunswick County, located in southern Virginia bordering North Carolina.

The stew is free to the public but mostly serves state legislators. Several pounds were packaged to take directly to the House and Senate.

“I think we needed two pots this year,” said volunteer Bernard Jones, a member of the Town Council of Lawrenceville, the seat of Brunswick County. Jones said this is the first time in his 12 years of volunteering at Brunswick Stew Day to see the stew run out so quickly.

Brunswick Stew Day features the first-place winner from the Taste of Brunswick Festival, which is held every October in Brunswick County. Last October, Clark Bennett received that honor (for the second time). And so he was the stew master for Brunswick Stew Day 2016.

The winning stew crew from the Taste of Brunswick Festival receives a small cash prize and a large wooden paddle to stir the pot. The winners also cook their recipe for the General Assembly on the fourth Wednesday in January during its legislative session.

The Taste of Brunswick Festival can have more than 30 stew crews competing, and every year the winning stew tastes different. B.K. Roberts, Brunswick County’s sheriff for the past eight years, is also a stew judge. At last fall’s festival, Roberts voted for Bennett’s stew crew because “it packed a little heat” – a quality the sheriff especially appreciates while judging stews.

Bennett’s stew crew for Brunswick Stew Day consisted of three friends: Caleb Hinkle, Michael Wright and Kyle Gee. They called themselves the Danieltown Stew Crew, from Alberta, Va.

Bennett’s father, Billy, who was also a stew master, tragically died in a car accident in 2004, but Bennett has pushed forward and continued his father’s culinary legacy. On a banner in the tent on Wednesday, the Danieltown Stew Crew dedicated the stew “in loving memory of Billy Bennett.”

Bennett would not disclose his secret ingredients. While cooking, he meticulously watched the stew for any imperfections, such as bruised potatoes or clumped spices. He would point them out, and one of his three sous-chefs would remove the offending items with a cooking tong. Bennett wanted his stew immaculate.

It should also be mentioned that the stew had been marinating for a good eight hours before it was served and had to be stirred constantly. “Or else it will burn,” Bennett said, “and I’m not planning on it burning.”

What’s the history of Brunswick stew? The story around the campfire goes like this:

In the 1820s, Dr. Creed Hoskins, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and several friends were out hunting in Brunswick County while their camp cook, Jimmy Mathews, made their supper. Mathews grabbed what he had and put it in a pot: squirrel meat, butter, onions and stale bread. The rest is history.

Some of the original ingredients have since been replaced with more common items, like poultry and vegetables. Brunswick County proudly stakes claim to the original birthplace of the thick, historic stew.

Just as oysters are to New Orleans, said Bobby Conner, project manager for the Brunswick County/Lake Gaston Tourism Association, the group that organizes Brunswick Stew Day. “Brunswick stew is unique to Virginia.”

But as a location, the word Brunswick is not unique. There is a Brunswick County in North Carolina and a city named Brunswick in Georgia.

“Georgia always wants to take credit for Brunswick stew,” laughed Lawrenceville Mayor Bill Herrington, who volunteered his time at Wednesday’s event. But rest assured, he said, Virginia is the real birthplace of the stew.

Virginia legislators think so, too. In 1988, the General Assembly proclaimed Virginia as the stew’s “place of origin” and the stew itself as an “astonishing gastronomical miracle.”

“I don’t care where it’s made,” Bennett said. He said Georgia’s Brunswick stew contains more meat products such as steak, beef and Boston butt (a cut of pork) and has a very barbeque flavor. “The two stews are just different – pizza and noodles.”

Bennett began serving his stew at 11 a.m., and people quickly started lining up outside the tent. One early arrival was Anne Holton, Virginia’s secretary of education. She is a “huge fan” of Brunswick stew.

Holton said she often travels with her husband – U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Virginia governor – to Brunswick County, and not only for political reasons. “It’s mainly for the stew,” Holton admitted, laughing.

The General Assembly officially established Brunswick Stew Day on the Capitol grounds in 2002 by passing House Resolution 2. It was sponsored by Del. Tommy Wright, who is from Lunenburg County, Brunswick’s next-door neighbor.

Wright dropped by the tent on Wednesday to stir the pot, literally, and of course enjoy a cup of stew.

“We all at the General Assembly really look forward to this,” Wright said, smiling. “We intend on doing this forever.”

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