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Capital News Service

‘It’s All About Energy,’ Governor Tells Symposium

By Margo Maier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched the 2015 Energy & Sustainability Conference on Tuesday with a briefing on Virginia’s energy plan.

“My goal is to fund Virginia with clean, abundant and affordable Virginia energy,” McAuliffe told the conference, which the Virginia Chamber of Commerce held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

McAuliffe said members of the General Assembly worked together this year to advance a number of energy-related projects in the commonwealth. “You want to talk about jobs, economic development – it’s all about energy.”

Last fall, McAuliffe unveiled his energy plan, which takes an “all of the above” approach to both fossil fuels and renewable energy resources.

“The first thing I stated when I announced my plan last October was that we need to grow, strengthen and diversify our economy,” he told Tuesday’s gathering. “That is crucial to my strategic vision.”

That means diversifying energy sources as well.

McAuliffe noted that Virginia is the first state to receive a federal wind energy research lease in federal waters.

State officials are planning a wind farm 26 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. The turbines and towers used in the project will be built in-state, providing economic opportunities for Virginians, the governor said.

Moreover, the General Assembly recently created the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority, the governor said. Its purpose is to deploy solar energy initiatives throughout the state, boosting not only the environment but also the economy.

McAuliffe also recounted that last October, he signed an executive order titled “Conserving Energy and Reducing Consumption in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Under that order, he said, officials will do “everything we can to reduce energy consumption” and “promote energy efficiency in state government.”

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Batting Averages Vary Among Virginia Legislators

By Janeal Downs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As baseball season gets underway, here’s a question worth pondering: Who were the heavy hitters in the 2015 General Assembly?

For a lead-off hitter, your fantasy team might include Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg: He sponsored seven bills during the recent legislation session – and all of them passed. You can’t bat any better than 1.000.

On deck might be Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason, R-Lansdowne. Eleven of his 12 bills passed, for a batting average of 0.917. A fraction behind was Del. Edward T. Scott, R-Culpepper: He batted 0.889, passing eight of his nine bills.

For a clean-up hitter, try Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, with a batting average of 0.833. Of the 24 bills that Norment filed, 20 passed – more than any other legislator.

Capital News Service calculated the batting averages for every Virginia legislator using data from the General Assembly’s Legislative Information Service. CNS tabulated how many bills each lawmaker filed for the 2015 session and then computed what percentage of those bills passed.

Overall, the Senate had a batting average of 0.434: Of the 793 Senate bills introduced, 344 (or 43.4 percent) were approved by both the Senate and the House.

The House of Delegates had a batting average of 0.404. At the start of the session, delegates filed 1,125; by the end of the session, 455 (or 40.4 percent) of them passed.

CNS looked at only bills – not resolutions, which are often ceremonial. The comparisons are admittedly simplistic. For example, some bills technically failed, but their ideas were incorporated into other legislation that got passed by the General Assembly.

Moreover, the analysis did not distinguish between bills that addressed controversial issues and bills that addressed mundane topics. Certainly, it’s easier to pass some bills than others.

Even so, the analysis revealed large disparities among lawmakers.

At one end were legislators like:

  • Republican Dels. Keith Hodges of Urbanna and Chris Jones of Suffolk, who each hit 0.833. (Both legislators sponsored 12 bills, and 10 passed).
  • Sen. Emmett Hanger Jr., R-Mount Solon, who had a batting average of 0.739 (17 of his 23 bills passed).
  • Sen. John Cosgrove Jr., R-Chesapeake, who hit 0.727 (16 of his 22 bills passed).
  • Sen. Ken Alexander, D-Norfolk, with a batting average of 0.667 (passing 10 of his 15 bills).

At the other extreme were legislators like Del. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg. He introduced 14 bills this session, and none of them passed.

The only other lawmaker batting 0.000 was Democrat-turned-independent Joe Morrissey, who recently quit his Richmond-area House seat to run for the Senate amid a scandal.

Morrissey sponsored 10 bills; they all died in committee. Where have you gone, Joe?

Not all of the bills passed by the General Assembly have been signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The governor vetoed 17 bills and recommended amendments to 68 others. Legislators will reconvene in Richmond on Wednesdayfor their “veto session” to consider whether to overturn or uphold the governor’s actions.

Delegate Roslyn Tyler submitted 5 bills, 4 of which passed.  The passed bills are Special License Plates for Disabled Veterans, an amendment to the Branchville Town Charter, conveyance of DOC property to the Town of Lawrenceville (containing a water booster station and storage tank maintained by the Town of Lawrenceville) and a bill conforming the budgeting process of Counties to that of Municipalities.  The failed bill would have increased the membership of the Broadband Advisory Committee.  Delegate Tyler also authored four House Resolutions this session; two celebrating the lives of citizens of the 75th District (William Rohimbox Morrison, Jr., M.D. and Michael Trenton Rose), one commending the Mercy Seat Reformed Zion Union Apostolic Church and one commending the Improvement Association.

Senator Louise Lucas was Chief Patron of 17 Bills, six of which passed.

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Richmond Reflects on Emancipation, 150 Years Later

RICHMOND – A day dedicated to the Fall of Richmond became one celebrating its liberation, and just as much about challenges in Virginia’s future as celebrating its past.

More than 5,000 people gathered in Capitol Square on Saturday to watch Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and several other speakers commemorate the liberation of Richmond by U.S. troops, the emancipation of the city’s slaves and the end of the American Civil War.

“Richmond’s Journey From the End of Slavery and Civil War to Today” was the theme for four days of events that ended Saturday. Capping off re-enactments, exhibits and ceremonies, a series of speakers on the steps of the Capitol building concluded Richmond’s part in the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Most used the occasion to celebrate the end of slavery, commend progress made in civil rights and call for further progress.

McAuliffe began his speech by recalling some of the lesser-known stories of triumph from the Fall of Richmond, including tales of reunited slave families and a promise made by President Abraham Lincoln that was forgotten as segregation and Jim Crow laws took hold in the American South.

“Not 30 yards from this podium, President Lincoln addressed a crowd of freed slaves, telling them that now ‘you belong to no one but God,’” McAuliffe said. “Those early ideals gave way to a system that was separate and clearly unequal, and thank goodness the civil rights era helped us move closer to those earlier ideals.”

The governor was the first of several speakers to point out for all of the progress made, there is still more work to be done, with McAuliffe citing education and voting rights specifically.

“Today’s ceremony is a reminder that we still have unfinished business in our nation and that we need to do a better job,” McAuliffe said. “We need to think of what folks did here 150 years ago and have the courage to ask what kind of commonwealth do we want to be in another 150 years.”

McAuliffe was followed by Jones, who commended the progress made by the city in the century and a half since it served as the capital of the Confederacy.

“We look back today at Richmond as a city transformed,” the mayor said. “Where once there were antebellum houses and slave pens, our city now hosts restaurants, shops, schools and universities that serve all of Richmond’s residents.”

That last point was an especially personal one for Jones. He is an alumnus of Virginia Union University, a historically black college in Richmond whose origins trace back to the liberation of Richmond, when Lumpkin’s Jail – where slaves were imprisoned before being sold – was converted into a school for Richmond’s newly freed African-American residents.

“I stand before you today as testament to Richmond’s journey, a product of my alma mater, Virginia Union University,” said Jones, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond.

“What began as a symbol of slavery became a place of education and has become an enduring symbol of emancipation.”

A choir from Virginia Union University accompanied the ceremony. Its performance of “I Can Only Imagine” was referenced by several speakers.

Christy Coleman, co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum, spoke of the changing ways of remembering the war.

“It’s about time that we found a way to tell our stories in truth, in wholeness and in togetherness,” Coleman said. “We did that under a banner called ‘the future of Richmond’s past’ because we believed that such a thing was important to the future of a city that we love.”

Saturday’s events were largely celebratory, focusing on the end of the Civil War and slavery, rather than on the defeat of the Confederacy as past commemorations might have.

John Coski, historian and vice president at the American Civil War Museum, said that the shift in focus from one of loss to one of liberation means Virginia and Richmond may have turned a corner.

“The idea of Blue Coats in a Gray City would have once elicited a good deal of anger,” Coski said. “This event is a pretty good indication of how people feel today, and I could not have said that 15 years ago.”

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Commemorating the End of Civil War, and Slavery

By Sean CW Korsgaard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It was the night they drove old Dixie down, and the American Civil War came to a close.

After four years of bloody fighting, the war that had torn apart the United States and Virginia finally reached its conclusion in the commonwealth. In one of the most eventful and fateful months in American history, April 1865 would see the fall of Richmond to Union troops, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Confederacy, the Civil War and slavery.

Now, 150 years later, the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War is reaching its own closing days in Richmond and across the state. Virginians are once more reflecting on the end of the war and how it shaped the state’s history and culture even to this day.

Not surprisingly, Richmond, as both Virginia’s capital and the former capital of the Confederacy, finds itself at the center of many of the commemorative events.

“Richmond was more than the capital of the Confederacy – it was where both United States and Confederate soldiers fought throughout the entire war,” said Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a historian of the American South.

“Think of Richmond as the Normandy of the United States, for over 40 percent of the men who died in the Civil War died within 150 miles of Richmond.”

This week, Richmond has been hosting a series of events commemorating the fall of the city to U.S. troops – and the liberation of African Americans from slavery.

For example, a “Living History Public Theatre” was held Thursday at various sites in downtown Richmond. The event was called “A Scene of Indescribable Confusion.” Small teams of living history interpreters appeared at various sites in the city depicting what was happening in that place 150 years earlier. The interpreters represented evacuating Confederates, civilians caught in the turmoil and slaves hopeful for emancipation.

On Thursday night, the buildings in downtown Richmond were illuminated with projected images to represent the evacuation fires. Lantern tours took visitors through the heart of the burned district; along the way, living historians shared the stories of individuals who experienced the fires first-hand.

More events were scheduled on Friday and Saturday. (They are listed athttp://richmondsjourney.org.) Participating groups range from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy, to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the Elegba Folklore Society and the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

Other participants include the American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar, the Library of Virginia, the National Park Service, the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Virginia Historical Society and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

On Saturday at the state Capitol, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and others “will join together to remember the sacrifices of those who came before us and to recognize our own responsibility to protect and foster freedom, opportunity, and equality in our own time.”

More events are planned April 8-12 in Appomattox, about 90 miles west of Richmond, to commemorate the surrender of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The American Civil War Museum is sponsoring those events, which are listed at www.tredegar.org.

“We've gone to great detail to ensure the surrender is depicted as close to it actually would have happened as possible,” said Sam Craghead, the museum’s public relations manager. “In terms of even the Civil War re-enactment community, there’s been a scale of attention to detail that’s never been done before that makes the events at Appomattox of particular interest.”

Other commemorative events are being held across the state:

●     Events in Petersburg and Hopewell, just south of Richmond, will focus on the end of slavery, including Juneteenth celebrations on June 19. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, marks the date when slaves were belatedly told that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were free.

●     Exhibits in Danville, near the North Carolina line about 150 miles southwest of Richmond, will highlight that city’s role as the last capital of the Confederacy.

●     Re-enactments and demonstrations will be held at several national and state parks through October.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration will come to an official close with the Sesquicentennial Finale Concert at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on Memorial Day (May 25). The event will be free to the public, with a performance by the Roanoke Symphony and narration by historian James I. Robertson Jr.

Beginning in 2011, the sesquicentennial commemoration has been a boost not just for history but also for tourism in states such as Virginia. Craghead said the American Civil War Museum estimates that Virginia’s Civil War sites have experienced an average increase in visitors of more than 30 percent.

Nobody knows whether those tourism numbers will hold as the sesquicentennial itself fades into memory. But Craghead believes the commemoration has served a far more important purpose.

“The sesquicentennial, just like the centennial did, has ensured another generation remembers this critical chapter of American history – the good parts and the bad parts both,” Craghead said. He then quoted an Italian historian who wrote insightfully about the U.S.:

“Raimondo Luraghi perhaps said it best when he said, ‘If you don’t understand its Civil War, then you don’t understand anything else about America.’”

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Republicans Praise McAuliffe for Signing Budget

By Margo Maier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Republican legislators applauded Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision Thursday to sign the 2014-2016 state budget without amendments or vetoes. It was the first time since 1998 that a governor has approved a budget in toto.

The budget that the General Assembly passed ahead of schedule this year reduces general fund spending by about $1 billion but includes pay raises for teachers and state employees.

“Today I was proud to sign a budget bill that provides a strong foundation for our future – a foundation built on collaboration and a shared commitment to building a new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said.

“This budget closes our revenue shortfall responsibly, avoids cuts to core programs like education and invests in key priorities that are essential to economic growth. It also includes my top priorities of increasing funding for economic development; offering health-care services to more Virginians who need them; giving Virginia state employees a much-needed raise; funding the first lady’s school breakfast initiative; and supporting efforts to end homelessness across the commonwealth.”

GOP leaders were pleased by McAuliffe’s approval of the budget.

“Through the budget shortfall last year, the House of Delegates worked very hard to prevent any cuts to K-12 education. Not only were we able to do that again this year, but we were also able to provide our teachers with a pay raise,” said Del. Tag Greason, R-Loudoun.

“This is the second pay raise in three years. It reflects our commitment to attracting and retaining the best and brightest teachers. The budget also provides funding to continue our efforts to reform and improve the State’s Assessment System and the Standards of Learning tests.”

Additional praise came from such Republicans as House Speaker William J. Howell; Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Del. Steve Landes of Weyers Cave, the committee’s vice-chairman.

“This has been one of the smoothest budget processes in recent memory and it was punctuated today by Gov. McAuliffe’s signature,” Jones said.

“Since last summer, the House, Senate and the administration have developed a renewed commitment to bipartisanship and cooperation, allowing us to show that once again Virginia is a model for the nation. This is a good budget that reflects our priorities.”

Landes said the budget was crafted “with remarkably little controversy or disagreement.” He then raised a point of contention in the early budget discussions: McAuliffe’s request that the General Assembly expand Medicaid, the health program for low-income residents, as encouraged by the federal government’s health care law. Republican legislators rejected Medicaid expansion.

“I have said many times that Medicaid expansion is the wrong approach for Virginia. The document signed today offers an alternative approach that emphasizes providing targeted care to those who need it most, rather than a one-size-fits-all, government-run entitlement program,” Landes said.

“We are helping the seriously mentally ill, strengthening our free clinic system and building on past efforts to improve community behavioral health services.”

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General Assembly Salutes the Troops

By Sean CW Korsgaard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Nearly 800,000 Virginians, about 10 percent of the commonwealth’s population, are veterans – one of the highest concentrations of veterans among the 50 states. During the General Assembly’s recent session, lawmakers showed their appreciation to the men and women who have served in the U.S. military.

Legislators passed a bevy of veterans-related bills. If signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, they will fund veterans care centers in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, expand employment opportunities for veterans and authorize a study of the state’s services for veterans.

The assembly’s salute to the troops coincided with a visit to Richmond by Robert McDonald, the U.S. secretary of veterans affairs. He met with McAuliffe and other state officials on Feb. 25 to discuss ways that Virginia and the Veterans Administration can work together.

The meeting followed an announcement by the governor that over the previous three months, Virginia had reduced homelessness among veterans by 75 percent. Moreover, last November, Virginia held a summit on how to improve health care for veterans.

“Virginia is pulling out all the stops to support our veterans,” said John Harvey, the state’s secretary of veterans and defense affairs.

Legislation approved by the General Assembly would build on those efforts. Here is a rundown of key bills that passed – and some that didn’t.

Health Care

Legislators passed bills authorizing $66.7 million in state funding for veterans care centers in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. The bills were HB 1275 and HB 1276, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights; and SB 675 and SB 676, sponsored by Sen. Linda “Toddy” Puller of Mount Vernon.

The money represents the state’s 35 percent share of the construction costs; the federal government would pick up the rest and cover the operational expenses. Both centers would have up to 230 beds.

Education

Virginia community colleges would provide academic credit to students who successfully completed military training courses, under SB 1335, sponsored by Sen. John Cosgrove of Chesapeake, and HB 2354, sponsored by Del. David Yancey of Newport News.

The military courses would have to be applicable to the students’ degree requirements and be recommended for academic credit by a national higher education association.

Help for Military Families

SB 930, sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell of Reston, would allow members of the Virginia National Guard and other Virginians in the U.S. armed forces to receive benefits from the Virginia Military Family Relief Fund after they’ve been deployed for more than 30 days. The fund helps families with electric and phone bills, auto repairs and other household expenses.

Employment

HB 1641, sponsored by Del. Christopher Stolle of Virginia, would ensure that all state agencies and public colleges and universities participate in the Virginia Values Veterans Program. The program encourages employers to hire veterans.

Study of Veterans Services

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s investigative arm, would conduct an audit of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, under Senate Joint Resolution 243, sponsored by Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, and House Joint Resolution 557, sponsored by Del. John O’Bannon of Henrico.

The audit would examine whether the state is adequately meeting the needs of veterans and their families in terms of health care, education and other services.

Other Bills and Resolutions

The General Assembly allows passed measures to ensure that members of the military receive personal property tax breaks on their vehicles; allow all veterans receiving disability pensions to receive disabled veteran license plates; and commend Japanese Americans who served in the U.S. military during World War II.

Proposals That Failed

At the same time, several bills intended to help veterans, military personnel and their families were defeated during the legislative session. They included legislation to:

  • Allow all members of the Virginia National Guard to pay in-state tuition to attend public colleges and universities.
  • Offer college scholarships to the children and spouse of any Virginian who is killed or severely wounded during military service.
  • Provide grants to businesses that hire veterans. The Senate unanimously passed a bill creating the Veteran Employment Grant Fund and Program, but it died in the House Appropriations Committee.
  • Create a special court for veterans accused of crimes that may stem from trauma, mental illness or other service-related problems. The Senate unanimously approved this bill, but it died in the House Courts of Justice Committee.

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‘Extraordinary Justice’ Sworn In To High Court

By Craig Zirpolo, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – D. Arthur Kelsey was sworn in Friday as a justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, succeeding retired Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser.

Born into a family of lawyers and judges, including his father, uncle, grandfather, sister and half-brother, Kelsey rose from private practice – in the Norfolk office of the Hunton & Williams law firm – to a 12-year term on Virginia’s highest court.

At his investiture ceremony in Richmond, Gov. Terry McAuliffe called Kelsey a “fair, knowledgeable and gracious judge” known for his intellect and deep faith.

McAuliffe joked that Kelsey’s last vacation surfing in Maui went slightly better than the Democratic governor’s own holiday vacation in Africa, which left McAuliffe with seven broken ribs and other injuries after a horseback riding accident.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, said Kelsey has an “enormous appreciation for the separation of powers.” Norment quoted John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as comparing a judge to an umpire who does not create the rules but just applies them.

“I don’t think I have come across a more articulate and impassioned judge,” Norment said.

Delegate Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, played a key role in starting Kelsey’s career behind the bench. In 2000, Jones asked Kelsey to leave private practice at the peak of his career to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Virginia, an offer Kelsey accepted after days of prayer and discussion with his family.

Jones, who worked with Norment to gain support for the state Supreme Court nomination, described Kelsey as “patient, gracious and unpretentious.”

William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III called Kelsey, an adjunct professor at the college’s law school, a “marvelous teacher” who brings a “stunning constellation of relevant experience” to the court.

“An extraordinary justice has come to the Supreme Court,” Reveley said.

After high praise from colleagues and legislators, Kelsey said he was blessed by the opportunity to serve on the Supreme Court but has not forgotten that the greatest blessing is his family.

Kelsey and his wife, Jane, have three children: Jeffrey, 24, a lieutenant in the Air Force; Mark, 21, a student at Cedarville University in Ohio; and Jenna, 17, a student at Norfolk Christian School.

“Your comments describe the man I aspire to be rather than the man I am,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey graduated from Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in 1978. He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Old Dominion University in 1982 and his law degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in 1985.

Kelsey began his career as a law clerk to U.S. District Judge John MacKenzie, where he worked for two years. He then became a partner at Hunton & Williams in Norfolk, where he practiced for 13 years before his appointment to the 5th Circuit Court, serving Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and the cities of Suffolk and Franklin.

In 2002, Kelsey was appointed to the Virginia Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Mark Warner.

Kelsey has been considered for the Supreme Court three times. In 2008, he was passed over for the seat filled by LeRoy Francis Millettee Jr., and in 2011, he was passed over in favor of William Cleveland Mims.

Originally, Kelsey was the only candidate for the seat being vacated by Kinser, but the Virginia Senate delayed his election while it sought other candidates. The General Assembly appointed Kelsey to the Supreme Court of Virginia in January.

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Officials Toast New Distillery in Petersburg

By Matt Leonard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –With help from a state grant, a malting facility and craft distillery will open in Petersburg and use large quantities of Virginia-grown feedstock in making alcohol, officials announced Wednesday.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers joined the owners of Big Trouble Malting and Spirits at an event in Petersburg to make the announcement.

“The demand for malted barley is huge, and the market is vastly underdeveloped,” said Tony Kvasnicka, co-owner of Big Trouble. “Our goal is to support Virginia craft brewers and create an operation where growers can confidently raise barley and other alternative crops for the craft beer industry.”

McAuliffe approved a $50,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund to assist the City of Petersburg with the project. Big Trouble has agreed to buy more than 40,000 bushels of barley, wheat, rye and fruit from local producers.

“Big Trouble brings together multiple aspects of economic development – agriculture, entrepreneurship, manufacturing, tourism, and community revitalization – in one operation and is another excellent example of leveraging some of the commonwealth’s greatest assets to build a new Virginia economy,” McAuliffe said in a press release.

State Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg also spoke at the event. She said that agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry and that the state should support it.

“I am also pleased with the company’s commitment to our region’s farm families,” Dance said. “Thanks to this announcement, we have another business utilizing Virginia-grown products and providing more opportunities for our farmers for years to come.”

Barley farmers could use the help. Casey Engle, chief information officer of Engle Family Farms in Henrico, said his operation has decreased production of barley over the past few years because of low prices.

“It sells for about half the price of production,” Engle said.

He said he would welcome the opportunity to sell barley to brewing or malting operations – something his farm has not done before. Engle said he has been talking with a malting facility in North Carolina that was offering significantly more for barley than previous buyers.

Elaine Lidholm, the director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the barley used in alcohol production is different from barley used for feed or other uses. She said grain purchases by Big Trouble would benefit the state’s farmers.

“We’re interested in helping farmers diversify, and that’s what a project like this does,” Lidholm said.

When the craft brewery scene emerged a few years ago, Lidholm said, many brewers had to import most of their grain from out of state. Now, more of those resources are being grown in Virginia, she said.

At the announcement in Petersburg, Todd Haymore, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, said the growing production of alcoholic beverages in the commonwealth has been a focal point for the McAuliffe administration.

“With more than 260 wineries and cideries, 100 craft breweries and 20 craft distilleries, Virginia is quickly emerging as a significant craft beverage player on the East Coast,” Haymore said. “In addition to jobs created, investments made and tourism generated by craft beverage makers, they are providing new production and revenue streams for local producers.”

Big Trouble plans to invest about $1 million and create nine jobs as part of its operation in downtown Petersburg.

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House Rejects Lethal Injection Secrecy Bill

By Victoria Zawitkowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday defeated a bill that would have kept secret the lethal injection process used in executing death row inmates, even under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Senate Bill 1393 sought to keep confidential the names of pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the chemicals used for lethal injections. Many of these foreign companies have been under public scrutiny for facilitating the death penalty and stopped selling the drugs for executions in the U.S.

The bill, which had passed the Senate 23-14 on Feb. 10, failed in the House on a 42-56 vote.

Virginia gives inmates the choice between death by the electric chair or lethal injection, which involves a three-drug compound. The bill would have provided a FOIA exemption for the execution process “except information relating to the name or amounts of the materials or components used to compound drug products.”

Critics of the death penalty and advocates of open government opposed SB 1393, which comes in the wake of botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona. In those executions, the lethal injection drugs administered to inmates did not work properly.

On Feb. 12, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an advocacy group for journalists, wrote a letter to Virginia legislators, saying that the FOIA exemption would “make it impossible for Virginians to evaluate whether the decisions of their government in choosing execution drugs, as well as the source of those drugs, are proper.”

The letter said SB 1393 “appears intended to shield from public scrutiny information that is especially crucial for citizens of the Commonwealth to receive – namely, information regarding whether such pharmacies are conducting their businesses in accordance with state and federal law, and whether they are taking required measures to ensure the quality of drugs to be used in executions.”

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax (pictured on the Senate Floor), who introduced the measure, said the bill’s critics were being inconsistent. He said that during his 35 years in the Senate, he has never seen anybody question the origins or construction of the electric chair, for example.

Saslaw likened SB 1393 to federal laws that protect sensitive information.

“When the Department of Defense – and there’s a federal Freedom of Information Act – you know who builds the B-1 bomber, who builds the F-14 and the F-16,” Saslaw said. “What you don’t know is who manufactures and assembles our thermonuclear warheads. There’s a reason for that.”

The reason, Saslaw said, is to protect those companies from public outcry or acts of terrorism.

Del. David B. Albo, R-Springfield, drafted an amendment to SB 1393 in the House Courts of Justice Committee. The amendment sought to allow inmates set for execution and their defense attorneys access to the information regarding the drugs used for lethal injection.

“If I was being executed, I’d want to make sure that they’re following the law,” Albo said. “If this all remains secret, then there’s no way to make sure people are following the law.”

With Albo’s amendment, SB 1393 was endorsed on a 12-6 by the House Courts of Justice Committee. It also had the support of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Even so, the bill failed on the House floor when numerous Republicans, including House Speaker Bill Howell, joined Democratic delegates in voting against it.

During a meeting last week of the House Courts of Justice Committee, Kevin Walsh, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, called the bill premature, citing ongoing death penalty litigation in Florida.

“The Supreme Court’s going to decide the constitutionality of the protocol that Virginia wants to model its protocol on,” Walsh said. “The stay out of Florida is the stay of an execution that would use the same three drugs. So no matter what happens, you’re going to be back dealing with this stuff next year.”

To read the letter from from Reporter Committee for Freedom of the Press, click here.

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Charter School Amendment Passes This Session

By Michael Melkonian, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A proposed constitutional amendment empowering the Virginia Board of Education to create charter schools has cleared this year’s final hurdle – approval from the House of Delegates.

Now the resolution and its sponsor, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, must wait out another election season before the measure can return to the General Assembly floor for the next step.

On Tuesday, the House voted 58-42 in favor of Obenshain’s resolution, SJ 256. It had already passed the Senate 21-17 on Feb. 4.

If the resolution passes both chambers next year as well, it will go on the ballot in November 2016 for a popular vote. Unlike bills passed by the General Assembly, proposed constitutional amendments cannot be signed or vetoed by the governor.

Charter schools are public schools that have been granted autonomy to operate outside local school district policies. Obenshain said charter schools provide flexibility and specialized instruction for students who would otherwise be left behind in poor-quality schools.

“New York City has 197 public charter schools while Virginia only has seven statewide,” Obenshain said. “If we’re serious about providing families with meaningful educational choices, then that has to change.”

Under existing law in Virginia, a charter school can be authorized only by a public school division. The proposed constitutional amendment would give the Virginia Board of Education “authority to establish charter schools within the school divisions of the Commonwealth.”

The amendment’s opponents say charter schools divert money from already ailing public school districts. They also liken getting into a charter school to playing the lottery, because only a lucky few students will be admitted.

According to the most recent estimates, the United States has about 6,000 charter schools enrolling more than 2 million students. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted methods similar to SJ 256 for creating charter schools. These states account for 80 percent of charter schools in the U.S.

A companion bill, HJ 577, introduced by Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, has also passed the House of Delegates. However, on Monday, it failed in the Senate on a 20-20 vote. The amendment needed 21 affirmative votes for passage.

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Budget Amendment Puts Brakes on Speed Traps

By Sean CW Korsgaard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The highway through Hopewell may not be paved in gold, but that hasn’t stopped the city from making a mint off it.

Taking advantage of a two-mile stretch of Interstate 295 that passes through the city, the Hopewell Sheriff’s Department issues about 1,000 speeding tickets a month, according to AAA, the advocacy group for motorists. It says the speed trap generates over $1.8 million annually for city government.

But a state budget amendment approved by the General Assembly would help curb such practices by Hopewell and other localities, AAA says. The amendment reduces the financial incentive for local police to write excessive numbers of tickets.

“This amendment adjusts the formula by which local collections of fines and fees based on local ordinances may not exceed a certain threshold of the total collections of fines and fees beginning in fiscal year 2016,” according to a legislative note explaining the amendment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which serves more than 3.4 million members from New Jersey to Virginia, has made Hopewell’s “Million Dollar Mile” the focal point of its effort against “policing for profit.”

Currently, localities must return a portion of excess fine revenues to Virginia’s Literary Fund, which supports public education. Hopewell, for example, this year had to give the Literary Fund $86,000 – twice as much as any other locality, according to the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts.

However, under the existing formula, the amount of money that localities must remit is so small that it has little impact curbing “policing for profit,” AAA says.

A new formula was included in House Bill 1400, a package of state budget amendments approvedThursday by the General Assembly. It is contained in amendments 3-6.05 #1c and 37 #1c, which were initially proposed by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax, and Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth.

The new methodology will lower the threshold for determining whether local fine collections are excessive and will require localities to remit more of that money to the Literary Fund. The new formula will take effect July 1.

AAA lobbied for the amendment. It sent emails to its 200,000 Virginia members, with a link to send emails to Virginia lawmakers – in particular to budget conferees – “to let them know policing for profit shouldn’t be happening, and to please shut it down.”

“AAA has advocated for the safety of the traveling public for over a century and does not wish to condone speeding in any way,” said Martha Mitchell Meade, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “AAA simply feels that speed enforcement should be conducted in areas where speeding is a documented problem or other safety concerns exist.”

Hopewell employs 11 sheriff’s deputies working in 14-hour shifts to patrol 1.7 miles of interstate highway. Nearly three-fourths of the tickets were issued to out-of-state motorists, according to AAA. “These motorists are unlikely to come back to the area to fight their tickets but rather simply pay the associated fines and fees,” the group said in a statement last week.

The Hopewell Sheriff’s Department could not be reached for comment. The Office of the State Inspector General looked at the situation in 2013 and reported, “The sheriff has stated that his intent is to slow down traffic on the interstate and make it safer for the traveling public.”

Virginia ranks seventh in the nation for the number of traffic tickets issued per year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In addition, the agency says, Virginia is tied with Illinois for having the nation’s highest speeding fines – up to $2,500. Moreover, under Virginia law, reckless driving is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

“When the commonwealth raised its interstate speed limits a few years back, it failed to adjust the reckless driving threshold accordingly. So now, anyone caught going 11 mph over the posted speed on the interstate is subject to a reckless driving charge,” John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, said in an interview with Watchdog.org.

“Congestion, coupled with speed traps, red-light cameras and aggressive traffic enforcement make Virginia a very difficult place to drive.”

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Virginia Designates Jan. 30 as Fred Korematsu Day

By Kelsey Callahan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The General Assembly has passed a resolution to designate every Jan. 30 as “Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution,” in honor of the Asian American civil rights leader who challenged injustice during World War II.

The Senate this week joined the House in unanimously passing House Joint Resolution 641, which establishes Fred Korematsu Day beginning next year.

“Our nation’s history is full of unsung heroes who stood up to injustice to ensure that the promises embedded in our Constitution are not just empty words on paper,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, who introduced the resolution.

After the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941, Korematsu refused to comply with a presidential order that “required 120,000 permanent residents and American citizens of Japanese descent to leave their homes to be incarcerated in American concentration camps,” the resolution stated.

It noted that Korematsu “was arrested and convicted, but fought his conviction because he believed it violated the basic freedoms guaranteed to him by the United States Constitution.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1944. But the case was reopened and overturned in 1983.

“The decision influenced the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which recognized that a grave injustice was done by forced relocation and incarceration of Americans citizens and civilian residents because of wartime prejudice,” the resolution said.

In 1998, Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States given to an individual who has made a contribution to the security and national interest of the U.S.

“Fred Korematsu was an American hero whose actions deserve a prominent place in our history. By recognizing his birthday in Virginia – a state that played such a crucial role in drafting our Constitution – we will remind future generations of what Thomas Jefferson warned, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” Keam said.

Virginia will encourage schools to observe Fred Korematsu Day and use it to teach the importance of preserving civil liberties.

Korematsu died in 2005. His daughter Karen heads the Korematsu Institute in San Francisco. She suggested that Keam sponsor the resolution.

Six states – California, Hawaii, Utah, Illinois, Georgia and now Virginia – recognize Fred Korematsu Day.

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Senate OKs Limits on Use of License Plate Data

By Kevin Lata, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would limit police retention of license plate data to seven days in an attempt to restrict government stockpiling of personal information.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, proposed Senate Bill 965 as part of a broader effort to clamp down against government overreach into personal lives, an area he has targeted the past two legislative sessions.

“The state should not use surveillance technology to collect information on its citizens where there is no discrete reason to do so,” Petersen said.

Under current law, there is no limit on how long government agencies can store passive data collected by license plate readers.

LPRs are typically mounted to police vehicles and standing structures such as traffic lights and bridges. They work by rapidly taking photos of license plates – at a rate of one per second, according to an LPR manufacturing company’s website. The technology can capture the data when vehicles are moving as fast as 100 mph.

The devices help law enforcement agencies track down stolen motor vehicles and people connected to criminal investigations, including theft and kidnapping.

Some police departments store their LPR data for up to a year. Civil liberties organizations believe that poses the potential for abuse. Supporters of the legislation included the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and the American Civil Liberties Union – unlikely bedfellows who disagree on many issues but share concerns about unwarranted government surveillance.

“The issue here is the limitations of the Fourth Amendment,” Petersen explained in a Facebook status. “It was written for a low-tech agrarian society, not today’s data heavy internet age.”

He warned citizens to be careful because “we’re one click away from being watched.”

Petersen received input from law enforcement agencies when drafting the legislation but encountered what he called a “philosophical difference about limits on state power.” The Virginia Sheriffs Association, the State Police, the Prince William County Police Department and other law enforcement groups opposed his bill.

Petersen said he believes SB 965 strikes a balance between personal liberty and public safety.

“This bill will protect Virginians from unnecessary and indiscriminate police data collection and retention,” Petersen said.

A companion bill, HB 1673, was introduced by Del. Rich Anderson, R-Prince William. The House Militia, Police and Public Safety endorsed the measure on a 17-4 vote Friday. It is now before the full House of Delegates.

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Bill Would Help Taxpayers, Habitat for Humanity

By Morgan White, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Delinquent property owners could settle their tax bills by donating their property to Habitat for Humanity or a similar nonprofit, under legislation moving through the General Assembly.

The Greater Fredericksburg Habitat for Humanity has pushed for the measure (HB 2173), which won unanimously approval from the House of Delegates last week.

Known as the Habitat Bill, it would enable delinquent taxpayers to exchange their property for the taxes they owe, explained the legislation’s sponsor, Del. Robert Orrock Sr., R-Thornburg.

“When the taxes exceed the value of the property, it’s awfully hard to get the property owner to come forward to do anything with it because he’s going to owe more than whatever he gets for the property,” Orrock said.

He represents the 54th House District, which includes parts of Caroline and Spotsylvania counties. Orrock said a few situations in his district have underscored how donating a house in arrears on taxes to Habitat for Humanity can be a win for everybody – the property owner, the local government and the nonprofit group.

“The delinquent taxpayer wins because he gets out from underneath and walks away at least clean. The county or city wins because they’re going to get properties back on the tax roll. And the Habitat for Humanity type group wins because they now have properties,” Orrock said.

“They can just go forward with the construction project because they didn’t have to buy the land for it.”

The Greater Fredericksburg Habitat for Humanity has endorsed the bill.

“This legislation will be particularly helpful to the greater Fredericksburg community, including the City, Stafford, King George, and Spotsylvania Counties, as condemned or undesired land can be put to good use in building Habitat homes, or other non-profit builders, with far less red tape helping the affiliate to achieve its 2020 vision,” the group said last week in a press release.

The Greater Fredericksburg Habitat for Humanity’s 2020 vision is to construct 20 news homes by that year. This would increase affordable housing in the area and would contribute to a healthy housing market. Habitat officials say the initiative would attract businesses and serve as a catalyst to transform neighborhoods and lives.

The Greater Fredericksburg Habitat for Humanity was one of 10 affiliates recognized by Habitat for Humanity International for legislative advocacy. (There are more than 1,500 Habitat affiliates in the U.S.)

HB 2173 passed the House 100-0 on Feb. 10. It is now before the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill is being co-sponsored by seven other legislators, including House Speaker William Howell of Fredericksburg.

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Assembly OK’s a 2-Song Solution

By Cort Olsen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates joined the Senate on Tuesday in approving both “Our Great Virginia” and “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as official state songs. But will Gov. Terry McAuliffe sign the legislation into law?

The House voted 81-15 in favor of a bill to designate:

  • "Our Great Virginia” as “the official traditional state song.” The song combines the melody of “Shenandoah,” a ballad from the 1800s, with words by New York lyricist Mike Greenly. This song is the preference of House Speaker Bill Howell.
  • “Sweet Virginia Breeze” as “the official popular state song.” This is an up-tempo pop tune by Richmond musicians Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett.

The measure designating the state songs is Senate Bill 1362, which was approved 37-1 by the Senate on Feb. 10. It represents a compromise: Originally, SB 1362, sponsored by Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, included only “Sweet Virginia Breeze.” But it was amended to incorporate SB 1128, which sought to designate “Our Great Virginia” as the state song.

A third song – “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” by Richmond singer-songwriter Susan Greenbaum – had been in the running. But the bill promoting that song died in the House Rules Committee two weeks ago.

Greenbaum said she is still hopeful for her song. “It isn’t over, from what I have been told,” Greenbaum said. “The governor still hasn’t signed any of the songs into law yet.”

Virginia has been without a state song since “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was retired in 1997 for its racist lyrics.

When it comes to the songs, the votes at the Capitol don’t exactly mirror the votes on social media.

On YouTube, for example, “Sweet Virginia Breeze” has been played more than 42,000 times, with about 200 likes and three dislikes. The folksy “Virginia, the Home of My Heart” has been played about 12,000 times, garnering 140 likes and five dislikes. “Our Great Virginia” also has been played about 12,000 times, with 50 likes and 21 dislikes.

About 4,800 people responded to an online poll in which Capital News Service asked, “What’s your No. 1 choice to be Virginia’s next state song?” About 56 percent preferred “Sweet Virginia Breeze”; 41 percent, “Virginia, the Home of My Heart”; and 2 percent, “Our Great Virginia.”

The remaining 1 percent of the respondents suggested other songs, like “Virginia Pride” by David Tuck, “Rolling Home to Old Virginia” by The Press Gang and even “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.

Several people who took the unscientific poll criticized “Our Great Virginia,” saying it evokes Missouri rather than Virginia. A plurality of the comments extolled “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” calling it heartfelt and dignified. Many other people said they enjoyed “Sweet Virginia Breeze” because it is upbeat and catchy.

Some respondents said Virginia voters should decide the issue. “Please put this on a ballot and let the PEOPLE NOT THE POLITICIANS decide what their state song should be. After all it’s THEIR state song isn’t it?” one person wrote.

But a few respondents supported the two-song solution. One person commented, “Why not two state songs? I vote for ‘Sweet Virginia Breeze’ for the fun one and ‘Our Great Virginia’ for the one to play at funerals.”

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Rep. Scott: Let Independent Panel Draw Districts

By Ali Mislowsky, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, says the General Assembly should take some of the politics out of redistricting by having an independent commission redraw political boundaries.

When legislators themselves do redistricting, they have a personal interest in protecting their political future and their party, Scott said. That’s why he’d prefer that redistricting be done by a bipartisan or nonpartisan panel.

“It would still be partisan, but the difference is that it’s not personal,” Scott said in an interview after speaking to political science students and faculty Monday at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“When you’re doing it in the General Assembly and the people affected are sitting right across the aisle from you or right in front of you ... interpersonal relationships start getting into it.”

The boundaries of Virginia’s only African American majority district were declared unconstitutional last year by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“The unconstitutionality was, they found that race was a prominent factor in drawing the lines,” said Scott, who has represented the 3rd District since 1993. He added that the district was challenged for violating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, “which says you can’t dilute minority representation.”

Scott’s district has been challenged for doing just that. Its shape resembles a Rorschach inkblot: The 3rd District includes Portsmouth and Petersburg and parts of Newport News, Norfolk and Richmond – all areas with large African American populations. As a result, black voters have a smaller presence and less influence in surrounding districts.

The General Assembly has been tasked with drawing new district lines. Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, plans to wait until the Supreme Court makes a decision in the case. Scott said that could take a while.

“The Supreme Court has not taken action on it because there is a similar case in Alabama,” Scott said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We just have to wait for that Alabama case.”

During this legislative session, more than a dozen measures were introduced to address the problem of “gerrymandering,” a term to describe the manipulation of district boundaries to suit partisan political interests.

Several sought to establish an independent redistricting commission, either by law or through a constitutional amendment. Other bills tried to prohibit the General Assembly from using political data or election results in redistricting.

The Senate passed three redistricting reform measures – but every attempt died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Partisanship may always be a part of the redistricting process. But an independent panel may offer a better shot than legislators at producing a fairer outcome, Scott said.

“Anybody that would be interested in it usually has some political interest,” he said. “It’s just hard to get politics out of it, but you can get the personalities out of it. And you can get kind of objective standards, which makes it a little more likely that you’re going to get a result that better reflects the community.”

The U.S. District Court has given the General Assembly until Sept. 1 to redraw the 3rd District – unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules earlier. If the Supreme Court rules before then, the deadline will be 60 days after its decision.

“It is wasteful for the General Assembly to devise a redistricting plan without the views and instructions of the Supreme Court,” the District Court said.

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McAuliffe Signs Dominion Bill into Law

By Matt Leonard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After weeks of debate, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law Tuesday a bill that will allow Dominion Virginia Power to forgo biennial base rate regulation by the State Corporation Commission while freezing electric rates for five years.

Dominion and other advocates of the legislation say it will help Virginia comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which requires states to cut carbon emissions by 2030.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored Senate Bill 1349, which was approved 32-6 by the Senate and 72-24 by the House. Wagner issued a statement thanking McAuliffe for signing the bill.

“I also encourage the governor to stand strong for Virginia and oppose any effort by the EPA to hold Virginia to a higher or different carbon dioxide emission standard than our neighboring states,” Wagner said.

He said Virginia is more severely affected by emission cuts than its neighboring states. The EPA has called on Virginia and nearby states to reduce emissions by these amounts:

  • Kentucky: 18.3 percent
  • Maryland: 36.5 percent
  • North Carolina: 39.7 percent
  • Tennessee: 38.8 percent
  • Virginia: 37.5 percent
  • West Virginia: 19.8 percent

Under SB 1349, Dominion will agree to freeze its base rates, which make up just over half of customers’ electric bills, for five years. During this period, the State Corporation Commission will not be able to conduct biennial reviews to see if the company has earned excessive profits. Past reviews have resulted in refunds to customers.

While critics say the legislation benefits the utility more than consumers, supporters say it will help keep electric rates stable during a time of uncertainty.

“This legislation will keep Virginia’s electric rates the lowest in the mid-Atlantic and among the cheapest in the nation, it will protect thousands of jobs and will provide certainty as businesses plan to locate, grow and expand in the commonwealth,” Wagner said.

He also said the bill calls for completion of a solar power facility in Virginia by 2020. McAuliffe cited that aspect of the legislation in a statement Tuesday.

“When this bill was introduced, I expressed concerns about several of its provisions. However, after working with the General Assembly to make several key changes, I have concluded that this legislation represents a net positive benefit to Virginians and to our economy,” McAuliffe said.

“This bill will make a dramatic expansion of Virginia’s renewable energy economy possible and will lead to lower energy bills for many families who may be struggling to keep up with their energy costs today.”

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Proposed Budget Boosts Employees’ Pay

By Morgan White, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia teachers, state troopers and other state employees would all receive pay raises thanks to a state budget agreement moving toward approval in the General Assembly.

Teachers would see a 1.5 percent pay raise while State Police officers and other state employees would receive a 2 percent increase under the conference report crafted over the weekend by House and Senate negotiators seeking to amend the state’s 2014-16 budget. Final votes may be held as early asThursday, General Assembly leaders announced Monday.

Sen. John Watkins, R-Chesterfield, said Virginia was fortunate to have thousands of committed state employees whose day-to-day work is integral to the efficient and effective operation of government.

“This conference report provides them with a well-deserved pay raise and includes funding to address compression for senior employees. It is my hope that this budget shows we are just as committed to them as they are to Virginia.” Watkins said.

The final budget conference report will be put on members’ desks and online Tuesday morning, allowing for a 48-hour review period that House and Senate leaders established as a goal earlier in the session. The report:

  • Includes a $129.5 million prepayment to the state’s rainy-day fund, which would restore the balance to $429 million
  • Provides $153.5 million in funding for a comprehensive compensation package for state employees, State Police officers, state-supported local employees, teachers and college faculty
  • Includes $42 million in additional funding for higher education
  • Spends about $1 billion less in general funds than the two-year budget originally adopted last year
  • Eliminates $11.7 million in fees proposed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (including restaurant inspection and saltwater fishing license fees)

The negotiators included Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Chairman S. Walter A. Stosch, R-Henrico, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Jones and Stosch issued a joint statement saying, “Since the end of last summer’s budget stalemate, we have sought to develop a new sense of collaboration and candor in the budget process. We worked together to adopt a supplemental budget last fall, taking unprecedented action to protect our state’s AAA bond rating during a period of deep uncertainty.”

They said they hoped the agreement can gain broad, bipartisan support in both chambers.

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House OKs Transporting Loaded Shotguns

By Ashley Jordan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians who have a concealed handgun permit could legally transport loaded shotguns in vehicles under a bill that passed the House of Delegates on a split vote Thursday.

Delegates voted 62-34 in favor of Senate Bill 1137, which would exempt concealed carry permit holders from local ordinances that bar the transportation of loaded shotguns or rifles. Republicans generally favored the measure, while Democrats opposed it.

State law now says, “The governing body of any county or city may by ordinance make it unlawful for any person to transport, possess or carry a loaded shotgun or loaded rifle in any vehicle on any public street, road, or highway within such locality. Any violation of such ordinance shall be punishable by a fine of not more than $100.”

Existing law exempts law enforcement officers, military personnel and “any person who reasonably believes that a loaded rifle or shotgun is necessary for his personal safety in the course of his employment or business.”

SB 1137, introduced by Republican Sen. Thomas A. Garrett of Hadensville, would add, “The provisions of this section shall also not apply to lawful concealed carry permit holders.” The bill cleared the Senate on a 25-13 vote on Feb. 2.

Supporters of the legislation said it would be beneficial to hunters who might want to travel from one site to another with their rifles pre-loaded.

Opponents, like Democratic Del. Scott A. Surovell of Mount Vernon, said the bill is potentially dangerous.

During Wednesday’s House session, Surovell said the legislation conflicts with safety advice from gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association.

He said loaded shotguns on the road could be problematic in high traffic areas like Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. He cited several occurrences in which loaded shotguns were used in road rage incidents around the country.

“We are legislating a policy here that the manufacturers disagree (with), that our hunter education courses disagree with, that has been proven to cause altercations and death in traffic situations,” Surovell said. “It’s just bad policy, and we are basically legislating people to do something other than we teach them.”

Kevin Carroll, president of the Virginia State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, also opposed the bill. He said that for him, the issue was not about guns in traffic but about a locality’s right to set policy.

“The localities should have an opportunity to pass an ordinance as to whether or not they feel it is appropriate,” Carroll said. “They are the ones who are issuing the concealed weapons permits. They should be the ones to determine whether or not they feel it’s appropriate.”

Carroll said loaded long guns in vehicles represent a threat to officers’ safety. He referred to an incident in which a rifle accidentally went off and shot a state trooper while he was assisting a vehicle in an accident. The loaded rifle was jostled during the crash and went off, killing the officer.

“We think it’s a safety issue for the public,” Carroll said. “It’s a safety issue for the law enforcement officers. And we think the law is fine the way it is and should say the way it is.”

How They Voted

Here is how the House voted Thursday on SB 1137 (“Loaded rifle or shotgun; regulation of transportation”).

Floor: 02/18/15 House: VOTE: PASSAGE (62-Y 34-N)

YEAS – Adams, Anderson, Austin, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Berg, Bloxom, Byron, Campbell, Cline, Cole, Cox, Davis, DeSteph, Edmunds, Fariss, Farrell, Fowler, Garrett, Gilbert, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Helsel, Hodges, Ingram, Joannou, Jones, Kilgore, Knight, Landes, LaRock, Leftwich, Lingamfelter, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Massie, Miller, Morefield, Morris, O’Bannon, O’Quinn, Orrock, Peace, Pillion, Pogge, Poindexter, Ramadan, Ransone, Robinson, Rush, Scott, Stolle, Taylor, Villanueva, Ware, Webert, Wilt, Wright, Yost, Mr. Speaker – 62.

NAYS – Albo, BaCote, Bulova, Carr, Filler-Corn, Futrell, Herring, Hester, Hope, James, Keam, Kory, Krupicka, LeMunyon, Lindsey, Mason, McClellan, McQuinn, Morrissey, Murphy, Plum, Preston, Rasoul, Rust, Sickles, Spruill, Sullivan, Surovell, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Ward, Watts, Yancey – 34.

NOT VOTING – Hugo, Lopez, Minchew, Simon – 4.

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Governor Signs Law Allowing Uber, Lyft to Operate

By Kevin Lata, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After operating under a temporary agreement for the better part of a year, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft now have a law allowing them to transport passengers in Virginia after Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that sets licensing procedures and standards for drivers.

“I am proud to sign this legislation, which supports innovation in our transportation system while also protecting the safety of citizens across the commonwealth. Virginia is leading the way on attracting and supporting innovative companies in every sector of our economy,” McAuliffe saidTuesday.

The signing of House Bill 1662 and Senate Bill 1025 formalizes an interim agreement that the governor and Attorney General Mark Herring reached with the taxi-like companies last summer. The agreement allowed the services to conduct business until the General Assembly could reach a consensus on how to regulate them.

Del. Tom Rust, R-Herndon, one of the sponsors of HB 1662, said, “Now that this legislation will become law, Virginians can take advantage of this new technology with assurance that reasonable safety and liability measures are governing its use.”

To request a ride, users open the company’s app on their phone and select a pickup and drop-off location. Within minutes, a driver can be at their door ready to drive them to their destination.

The law requires that drivers be screened to ensure they pass criminal background checks, have a clean driving record and aren’t in the sex registry database. Drivers must be 21 and have at least a $1 million liability insurance policy.

Those requirements are nearly identical to the process the company uses to screen prospective drivers around the world.

Herring said Virginia can serve as a model to states looking to develop their own regulations for transportation network companies.

“As other states grapple with regulation of TNCs and the emerging sharing economy, they should look to Virginia, where we have found the balance between safety, passenger protection and innovation,” Herring said.

“This law will strengthen our economy, give consumers more transportation options, and further cement Virginia’s reputation as a national leader for pro-business policies and reasonable regulation.”

The new law represents a welcome turn of events for ride-sharing services, which were banned by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles last spring. The DMV fined Uber $26,000 and Lyft $9,000 and threatened to fine their drivers up to $1,000 for not complying with the ban.

The standoff between the companies and the DMV prompted McAuliffe and Herring to forge the interim agreement.

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House Passes Ethics Bill

By Benjamin May, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates on Tuesday passed a bill that would limit gifts accepted by Virginia politicians to $100.

Delegates voted 93-6 for the measure, which was sponsored by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

HB 2070 is the House’s answer to problems concerning ethics rules for public officials. Gifts accepted by politicians became a hot topic after former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted of corruption charges in 2014.

“This legislation builds on the substantial reforms passed last year,” Gilbert said. “It will improve transparency, hold elected officials more accountable and hopefully restore some of the public’s trust in government.”

The $100 cap on gifts would apply to travel and other “intangible” items as well.

“We set a $250 gift cap last year, but it was clear after hearing from citizens across the commonwealth that the public demanded more,” Gilbert said. “The $100 gift cap is a reasonable and clear limit that is easy for the public and elected officials to understand.”

Limiting gifts is not the only thing the bill does. HB 2070 requires public officials to electronically file their disclosure forms. Electronic filing would save money and time for the politicians and the state’s Conflict of Interest Advisory Council, an ethics panel legislators created in 2014.

“We are enacting a strict gift cap, strengthening independent oversight and making our financial disclosure system more accessible and transparent,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford.

HB 2070 includes a measure that Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed last year. It would prohibit the governor from accepting campaign contributions from companies knowingly seeking grants from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund, which provides incentives for businesses moving Virginia.

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate are considering ethics bills. They have similarities but also differences.

For example, under HB 2070, knowingly filing false information through the electronic database would be a class 5 felony. This is a harsher punishment than the Senate bill provides. Under SB 1424, knowingly filing false information through the database would be a class 6 felony.

How They Voted

Here is how the House voted Tuesday on HB 2070 (“State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act, General Assembly Conflicts of Interests Act”).

Floor: 02/10/15 House: VOTE: PASSAGE (93-Y 6-N)

YEAS – Adams, Albo, Anderson, Austin, BaCote, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Berg, Bloxom, Bulova, Byron, Campbell, Carr, Cline, Cole, Cox, Davis, DeSteph, Edmunds, Farrell, Filler-Corn, Fowler, Futrell, Garrett, Gilbert, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Helsel, Herring, Hester, Hodges, Hugo, Ingram, James, Joannou, Jones, Keam, Kilgore, Knight, Kory, Landes, LaRock, Leftwich, LeMunyon, Lindsey, Lingamfelter, Lopez, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Mason, Massie, McClellan, McQuinn, Miller, Minchew, Morefield, Morris, Morrissey, Murphy, O'Bannon, O'Quinn, Orrock, Peace, Pillion, Pogge, Poindexter, Preston, Ramadan, Ransone, Robinson, Rush, Rust, Scott, Sickles, Spruill, Stolle, Sullivan, Taylor, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Villanueva, Ward, Ware, Watts, Webert, Wilt, Wright, Yancey, Yost, Mr. Speaker – 93.

NAYS – Hope, Krupicka, Plum, Rasoul, Simon, Surovell – 6.

NOT VOTING – Fariss – 1.

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House OKs Parental Choice Savings Accounts

By Sarah Drury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates passed a bill on Tuesday to permit the parents of special-needs students to obtain state funds that could be used toward private school tuition or home instruction.

Delegates voted 57-42 for the measure, which proponents touted as empowering parental choice but critics saw as a step toward a voucher system.

HB 2238, sponsored by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, initially applied to children with disabilities, children in foster care and children of active-duty military personnel. The version that was passed applies only to a student who “is identified as having a disability and is receiving or is eligible to receive services from a school division.”

Under HB 2238, the parents of such students could open a Virginia Parental Choice Education Savings Account. Their local school board then would deposit into the account an amount equal to 90 percent of the state’s portion of the division’s per-pupil expenditure – the cost of educating the child in a public school setting.

This money could be put toward private school tuition, fees, textbooks, college entrance exams, tutoring services or educational therapies.

“While we have excellent public schools in Virginia, they are not always the best option for children with special learning needs or unique challenges. Cost is the biggest factor preventing families from choosing a better option for their child,” LaRock said.

“Education savings accounts give families facing that cost barrier other choices so that they can best meet the educational needs of their children.”

Under the legislation, parents of eligible students would access the money with a debit card. If money remained in the account when the student graduates 12th grade, it could be put toward college. Any funds not used for educational purposes within four years of the child’s high school graduation would be returned to the state.

LaRock’s bill was co-sponsored by 17 fellow delegates and four senators – all of them Republicans. The Virginia Education Coalition, an alliance of conservative activists and organizations, also supported the measure.

Opponents included the Virginia School Board Association and the Virginia Education Association, representing the state’s teachers. They fear that the bill would divert money from public schools to fund private education. Some have likened the bill to an education voucher system.

How They Voted

Here is how the House voted on Feb. 10 on HB 2238 (“Virginia Parental Choice Savings Account; established”).

Floor: 2/10/15 House: VOTE: PASSAGE (57-Y 42-N)

YEAS – Adams, Albo, Anderson, Austin, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Berg, Byron, Cline, Cole, Cox, Davis, DeSteph, Edmunds, Fariss, Farrell, Fowler, Garrett, Gilbert, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Hodges, Ingram, Joannou, Jones, Knight, Landes, LaRock, Leftwich, LeMunyon, Lingamfelter, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Massie, Miller, Minchew, Morefield, Morris, O’Bannon, Orrock, Peace, Pogge, Poindexter, Ramadan, Ransone, Robinson, Scott, Stolle, Taylor, Villanueva, Ware, Webert, Wilt, Wright, Mr. Speaker – 57.

NAYS – BaCote, Bloxom, Bulova, Campbell, Carr, Filler-Corn, Futrell, Helsel, Herring, Hester, Hope, James, Keam, Kilgore, Kory, Krupicka, Lindsey, Lopez, Mason, McClellan, McQuinn, Morrissey, Murphy, O’Quinn, Pillion, Plum, Preston, Rasoul, Rush, Rust, Sickles, Simon, Spruill, Sullivan, Surovell, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Ward, Watts, Yancey, Yost –42.

NOT VOTING – Hugo – 1.

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The Countdown’s On for the Next State Song

Listen to each of the contenders here:

“Our Great Virginia” – at http://youtu.be/pa9u5HwBm_Y

“Sweet Virginia Breeze” – http://youtu.be/NAQ_W_M8oQ0

“Virginia, the Home of My Heart” – http://youtu.be/0n14yDv2V3Q

After you listen, take the Capital News Survey  at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/va-state-song and vote for  your choice!

By Cort Olsen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The curtain is closing on the General Assembly’s chance to select a new state song for Virginia this legislative session.

At the start of the session, three tunes were proposed as Virginia’s official song. But the bills that would designate a new state song are languishing in committees, and if they’re not acted on byTuesday, they’re dead for this session.

The General Assembly has been holding auditions for a new state song since “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was retired in 1997 for its racist lyrics. The entries currently before the assembly are:

  • “Our Great Virginia,” by Mike Greenly – That is the choice of House Bill 1427, sponsored by House Speaker Bill Howell, and Senate Bill 1128, introduced by Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas. The song is a ballad that evokes “Shenandoah.”
  • “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” by Susan Greenbaum – Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, is pushing for this song in HB 2203. It is a folk song by Greenbaum, a popular Richmond-based singer-songwriter.
  • “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” by Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett – Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, is seeking to designate this as the state song in SB 1362. It is an upbeat pop song by a pair of professional musicians, also based in Richmond.

The Senate bills are before the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee; the House bills have been assigned to the House Rules Committee. Neither panel has held hearings, and a crucial deadline is approaching: By Tuesday, any bill that has not been passed by its house of origin is dead.

If a song had the inside track, it might be “Our Great Virginia”: The House speaker rarely sponsors legislation – and when he does, it typically concerns weighty issues like the state budget. This is Howell’s only bill for 2015. Moreover, Howell chairs the House Rules Committee.

In an interview in his office, Howell said he was carrying HB 1427 as a favor to a friend – Dr. James I. Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech and executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission.

Robertson explained in a telephone interview that he raised the idea at a meeting of state officials: “I brought the subject up that Virginia badly needs a state song. Several of the state’s legislators encouraged me to move forward with it.”

Robertson felt only one melody could make someone think of Virginia – the song “Shenandoah” (often called “Oh Shenandoah”).

“It’s a folk song. It has been in Virginia for over 200 years. It’s so old, nobody knows who wrote it or where it started,” Robertson said. “It’s a part of Virginia’s culture and its folklore, so we had to use it.”

Through networking, Robertson contacted a lyricist in New York named Mike Greenly. Greenly, a former executive for Avon Products, is a freelance speechwriter for corporate executives.

“I discovered I had a passion for writing song lyrics, because back when I was at Avon, we used to use songs for our sales meetings,” Greenly said.

He found that writing song lyrics was more fun than doing corporate marketing. He has since worked with two composer-partners to write songs for the public – and some of his songs, such as “I Will Carry You,” have landed on the Billboard Music Dance Charts.

Greenly has written lyrics for songs that have benefited charitable causes such as the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. He was the lyricist for “Always My Angel,” which honored the victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Greenly said a state song should express pride in one’s state. And when it comes to feeling proud about where they live, “I’m guessing Virginians would be at the upper end of the scale,” he said.

But pride may not prod Virginia lawmakers into picking a state song this legislative session. If all the state song bills die by the middle of the next week, maybe the tune that sums up the issue best would be by Simon and Garfunkel – “The Sounds of Silence.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Budget Amendment Would Boost Guards’ Pay

By Kelsey Callahan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Joined by a group of prison guards, two legislators Tuesday called for a budget amendment to increase the salaries of correctional officers in Virginia.

Democratic Dels. Patrick Hope of Arlington and Kaye Kory of Falls Church said officers at the state’s correctional facilities deserve a pay increase and better working conditions. The lawmakers said their proposed amendment to the state budget would boost correctional officers’ salaries by 5 percent.

The last pay increase officers received was in 2007, Hope said at a press conference. He said he has seen firsthand what the officers must endure and the dangers they face dealing with potentially violent offenders.

“There is no reason why we have people in law enforcement that should be eligible for food stamps or other types of government programs,” Hope said.

Don Baylor, an organizer for the Virginia chapter of the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, also spoke at the press conference in support of the budget amendment. He said correctional officers who take on more than one job to make ends meets are putting themselves at risk because they get tired and working at a prison requires their full concentration and attention.

Baylor also said the men and women in the profession are dealing with higher stress levels and have higher suicide rates than most veterans returning from war.

Also at the news conference were three officers from Sussex II State Prison of the Virginia Department of Corrections. All three officers said they struggle with financial obligations and all have children to care for.

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House OKs Bill Inspired by #SaveJosh

By Morgan White, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates on Tuesday unanimously passed legislation aimed at making it easier for terminally ill patients to obtain investigational drugs before they have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

House Bill 1750, sponsored by Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Kinsale, was inspired by Josh Hardy, a Fredericksburg boy battling a rare disease.

“This legislation was inspired by the Hardy family’s #SaveJosh campaign, as they fought to get their 7-year-old boy access to a lifesaving treatment that wasn’t yet approved by the FDA,” Ransone said.

“Josh eventually got the treatment, and he’s looking forward to celebrating his ninth birthday next month, but this fight isn’t just his and it’s not over. This legislation will give other families who have exhausted all other treatment options the opportunity to access developmental drugs that could save the life of their loved ones.”

Josh’s family sought brincidofovir, which was developed by Chimerix, a biopharmaceutical company in Durham, N.C. The company initially said it couldn’t give Josh the drug because it hadn’t been adequately tested in clinical trials and approved by the FDA. Thanks to a social media campaign that prompted about 17,500 from around the world to sign an online petition, the drug was given to Hardy to help combat an infection.

House Speaker Bill Howell, who represents the Fredericksburg area, agreed with Ransone’s comments.

“I have heard heartbreaking stories from families and patients struggling to get access to a potentially life-saving treatment and sometimes, tragically failing. This legislation will help them in their fight, and I’m proud to support it,” Howell said.

Aimee Hardy, Josh’s mother, was the main force behind the #SaveJosh campaign. She said she was hopeful that the legislation would help families in need of investigational drugs.

“No family should have to suffer a loss if there is a drug in existence that could make a difference,” Hardy said.

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, is sponsoring a companion measure – SB 1222 – in the upper chamber. His bill is awaiting action by a subcommittee of the Senate Education and Health Committee.

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Restricted Drivers May Go to Job Interviews

By Benjamin May, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – License restricted? You still would be able to drive to a scheduled job interview under a bill approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and sent to the full chamber for consideration.

The committee Wednesday approved a bill allowing Virginians with restricted driver’s licenses to travel to and from scheduled job interviews and the Virginia Employment Commission for the purpose of seeking employment.

Senate Bill 1148, sponsored by Sen. Richard H. Stuart, R-Montross, received a unanimous endorsement from the panel.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee killed a measure that would have created harsher penalties for repeat offenders who have been convicted of drunken driving and are caught driving without a license.

SB 958, introduced by Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis, Jr., D-Accomac, called for a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 30 days for repeat DUI offenders driving without a license. Under the bill, the vehicle owned by the offender would have been subject to seizure and forfeiture.

However, the committee defeated the bill, 4-9.

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GOP Chairman Hopes to Unite Party

By Matt Leonard, Capital News Service

As the newly elected chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, John Whitbeck wants to unite a frayed political organization and increase its fundraising efforts.

Whitbeck, an attorney in Loudoun County, was elected by the party’s State Central Committee at its Jan. 24 meeting in Falls Church. He ran unopposed after Aaron Wheeler, pastor of a Baptist church in Chesapeake, dropped his bid for state party chairman.

Upon his election, Whitbeck took over immediately, saying he had long been preparing for the job.

“As some of you know, I have already started my work on behalf of the RPV,” Whitbeck said in his acceptance speech. “In the last few weeks, I have traveled around Virginia meeting with grassroots folks, leaders in the business community and Republicans from every corner of our party.”

From that traveling and his early days in office, Whitbeck said, two priorities emerged: party unity and fundraising.

Whitbeck is taking the reins of a party that has at times seemed torn between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party. He hopes the “Republican creed” will help unite these two groups.

The creed voices support for free enterprise, frugal budgeting, a strong military and other issues popular with conservatives.

“That’s why Dave Brat had so much support from all around the party,” Whitbeck said of the new congressman who knocked off Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in Central Virginia. “Because he campaigned simply on the Republican creed.”

Whitbeck said winning an election is much easier with a united party, but another important factor is fundraising.

During 2016, a presidential election year, he hopes to boost fundraising by the RPV to between $4 million and $5 million. He said fundraising fluctuates from year to year, but the party anticipates bring in about $3 million in 2015.

As a swing state, Virginia will be an important battleground for those campaigning for president.

The Republican National Committee “will be helping us a lot in setting up our structure in Virginia,” Whitbeck said.

He hopes Virginia will draw a lot of big names for fundraising. Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, has already been announced as keynote speaker at the RPV Commonwealth Dinner on Feb. 24 in Richmond.

“That is going to raise a ton of money for the party,” Whitbeck said.

Technology will also be a key component in the party’s success in Virginia, he said. In the U.S. Senate race last fall, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie made effective use of technology in almost upsetting incumbent Democrat Mark Warner.

“If you look at the exceptional campaign run by Gillespie, you had innovative digital technology being used and innovative ideas on how to use technology,” Whitbeck said.

Whitbeck said he has already begun reaching out to donors who in the past supported Republicans like Gillespie, Bob McDonnell and George Allen.

Pat Mullins, 77, preceded Whitbeck as party chairman. He announced his retirement just after the November election; it took effect after Whitbeck was elected.

“We’ve had our highs and lows – winning elections and losing elections – and regardless of the outcome,” Mullins said in an email that publicly announced his retirement. “I’m more convinced than ever … that the people of Virginia and the citizens of the United States are desperately seeking consistent conservative governance.”

Whitbeck is looking forward to the 2016 presidential race. As the new face of Virginia’s GOP, he said a financially strong RPV will be crucial in turning Virginia red after it voted twice for Barack Obama.

“A strong RPV could’ve made the difference for Ken Cuccinelli,” Whitbeck said. “A strong RPV could’ve made the difference for Mitt Romney.”

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Most Virginians Say Bullying Is Serious

By Kevin Lata, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Half of Virginians view bullying and harassment as a “very serious problem” at school, and another third think it is “somewhat serious,” according to a statewide poll.

The Commonwealth Education Poll, conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University, found that most respondents think the problem is worse today than when they were younger.

Certain groups were more likely than others to see bullying as a very serious problem. They included minorities, women, residents of South Central Virginia and Tidewater, lower-income individuals, people with a high school education or less, and Democrats.

Robyn McDougle, interim executive director of VCU’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute, said people often answer these questions with their own experiences in mind. Bullying might be viewed more seriously by people who have been bullied or whose children have been bullied.

In recent years, state officials have taken bullying more seriously.

In 2013, the Virginia Board of Education released a report advising school districts on how to combat bullying. It defined bullying as “the systematic and chronic inflicting of physical hurt or psychological distress.”

The General Assembly has addressed the issue as well. In 2013, for example, legislators directed school boards to include in their student codes of conduct a prohibition against bullying.

In the current legislative session, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, introduced a bill authorizing school principals to request a meeting with parents so they can receive bully prevention training. House Bill 1537 also sought to allow juvenile courts, at the request of the school board, to mandate that parents receive such training.

However, on Jan. 19, a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee shelved McQuinn’s proposal.

McDougle can understand why. She said such laws can be hard to implement: “The question becomes, what happens if the parent doesn’t comply? You can’t deny the child education.”

Like the state, the federal government also has taken steps to curb bullying. Among other things, it has created a website called www.stopbullying.gov.

According to the site, victims of bullying are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and academic problems. These effects can be long-lasting and even follow children into adulthood. Both youth bullies and their victims are at a greater risk for suicide-related behavior.

Is Bullying a Serious Problem in School?

Respondents

Very serious

Somewhat serious

Not too serious

Not at all serious

All adults

50%

37%

8%

3%

Whites

44%

41%

9%

3%

Minorities

61%

29%

5%

3%

Women

57%

34%

4%

2%

Men

41%

40%

12%

4%

High school education or less

56%

34%

5%

3%

College degree or more

43%

43%

9%

2%

Northwest Virginia

42%

40%

11%

4%

Northern Virginia

45%

39%

9%

3%

Western Virginia

49%

40%

6%

3%

South Central Virginia

56%

34%

6%

1%

Tidewater

56%

32%

8%

4%

Family income below $50,000

57%

33%

2%

6%

Family income $100,000 or more

42%

41%

11%

3%

Democrats

55%

37%

5%

2%

Republicans

42%

40%

11%

4%

 

Source: Commonwealth Education Poll 2014-2015. It involved interviewing 806 Virginians 18 or older by telephone between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3. The poll has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points. Complete results of the poll are at  www.cepi.vcu.edu/publications/polls/

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Give Caregivers Training They Need, Supporters Say

By Noura Bayoumi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for people who take care of elderly parents and other family members are urging the General Assembly to provide support for family caregivers.

Robert Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, said two bills before the assembly would do that: HB 1413, sponsored by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax Station, and SB 851, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington.

Under those measures, hospitals would have to provide a family member or other designated individual with information and instructions about follow-up care or treatment when a patient is being discharged.

Information and training would be a big help to family caregivers as their loved ones transition home after a hospital stay, Blancato said at a press conference Tuesday. “There has to be a solid handoff from the hospital to the family in order for the patient to be in good care.”

About half of all caregivers do not receive the training they need for the medical and nursing tasks they must perform, and more than two-thirds never receive a home visit by a health care professional after the patient is discharged, Favola said.

“There is a problem that needs to be solved,” she said. “We want to give caregivers the knowledge and support they need that comes with training.”

Pamela Bingham of Petersburg has been a full-time family caregiver since 2011. She is taking care of her mother, who has dementia.

“Caregiving is the hardest job I have ever had,” Bingham said.

Upon discharge, elderly patients often get paper instructions and prescriptions that they can’t read or decipher, Bingham said – and yet they are expected to know how and when to take medication.

“I also have a five-shelved bookcase in my home filled with medical supplies that basically turn me into a home medical nurse with no medical training,” Bingham said.

Amy Becker, a registered nurse, attended the press conference to show her support for caregivers. She said caregivers in Virginia are stepping forward in increasing numbers to take responsibility for providing complex medical care to their loved ones.

“They are my heroes,” Becker said.

On Tuesday, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions voted unanimously in favor of Filler-Corn’s bill. HB 1413 now will be considered by the full committee.

SB 851 is pending before the Senate Committee on Education and Health.

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Health Secretary Urges Medicaid Expansion

By Margo Maier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia’s secretary of health and human services, William A. Hazel, wants legislators to put aside their political differences and ensure that every resident of the commonwealth has access to affordable health care.

Hazel is urging the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, the health coverage program for low-income people, as states are encouraged to do under the federal Affordable Care Act. Hazel made his case again in a recent talk to students at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.

Although the Affordable Care Act made it easier and cheaper for many people to buy health insurance, Hazel said coverage gaps still exist.

“We had about 1 million Virginians who were uninsured in 2010,” he said. “Probably two-thirds of the people who came to a community health center last year to try and get coverage were told, ‘You do not qualify for a benefit in an exchange because you do not make enough money.’ Also, we do not cover single adults. We have all these people at lower incomes who are not eligible.”

That’s why Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats are pushing for the state to offer Medicaid to about 400,000 more Virginians. Under the Affordable Care Act, states can extend Medicaid to people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government has promised to pick up most of the cost, which would be about $2 billion annually for Virginia.

“Last year, we made a big effort to get Medicaid expanded ... I think the political odds are this year that the House Republicans will not change their position, but I think this is something that we can do,” said Hazel, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and reappointed by McAuliffe.

Republican legislators in Virginia oppose Medicaid expansion because the program’s costs have been growing and they fear the state eventually will be stuck with the bills. Republicans blocked several efforts by Democrats in the General Assembly to expand Medicaid in 2014.

Hazel spoke at the VCU Medical Center, just blocks from the state Capitol, as the General Assembly’s 2015 session got underway.

He told students that 18 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product goes toward health care – more than in any other nation. Switzerland has a universal health care system, and only 11.5 percent of its GDP in 2012 was spent on health care.

“How can we justify spending so much more money than Switzerland?” Hazel asked. “They are spending two-thirds of what we are spending, and we have people who are not cared for. I’m asking how that happens.”

Much of the problem, he said, is that many Americans lack health coverage and forgo preventive medical care, such as physical exams and screenings. When they have a dire need, they go to hospital emergency rooms, which must treat everyone regardless of insurance status.

Hazel, an orthopedic surgeon, said he wants to change that: “We’re trying to go from ‘fix it when it’s broken’ – which has been my life’s work – to find out how to invest in healthier people who can be more productive.”

McAuliffe has asked the General Assembly to consider expanding Medicaid when it revises the state budget during the legislative session, which runs through Feb. 28. Republican lawmakers so far have rebuffed that request.

Other Medicaid-related proposals before the assembly include:

·         HJ 520, a constitutional amendment sponsored by Del. Patrick A. Hope, D-Arlington. It would exempt nonprofits serving indigent people from paying property tax.

·         HJ 637, by Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Verona. It would authorize a study on how to reduce Medicaid costs and improve patient services. A House subcommittee approved the resolution last week.

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