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Capital News Service

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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Law Would Let Dominion Hike Electric Bills

By Matt Leonard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dominion Virginia Power would be allowed to avoid state regulation for eight years while having the ability to raise consumers’ electric bills, if the General Assembly passes a bill before the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor.

The legislation would require Dominion to maintain its base rate for eight years beginning in 2013 – when the state last reviewed the company’s rates – until 2020. While the base rate would stay the same, the company would retain the authority to increase fuel surcharges and other “riders” that are added to customers’ utility bills.

The base rate typically makes up just over half of a customer’s bill, said Ken Schrad, director of information resources at the State Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities.

The riders – also known as rate adjustment clauses, or RACs – still would require approval from the SCC. But when approving them, the agency does not take into account Dominion’s “costs, revenues, investments, or earnings.” That is information the SCC examines during biennial reviews.

Under current state law, the SCC performs a review of Dominion Power every two years to ensure that the company is not “overearning” by overcharging customers, Schrad said. But Senate Bill 1349, introduced by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, would prohibit the SCC from conducting its reviews until after 2020.

Under the bill, the SCC would be “barred from adjusting the utility’s rates until the conclusion of the 2023 biennial review, with certain exceptions,” according to a summary of the measure by the Legislative Information Service, the General Assembly’s staff.

The bill stipulates that “no adjustment to a Phase II Utility’s rates shall be made” – meaning Dominion’s base rate would not change; however, it says nothing to limit riders.

Wagner approached Dominion for help with wording part of the bill, and the company provided “some draft language,” said Rob Richardson, a senior communications specialist for Dominion.

Asked who would benefit most from the bill, Richardson said customers would. He said federal and state regulation, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to reduce carbon emissions, could endanger “low electric rates and reliable service.”

However, consumer advocates say SB 1349 could benefit Dominion at the expense of consumers.

The Virginia attorney general’s office, which represents consumers in rate cases, said that the bill would eliminate SCC oversight, freeing Dominion to raise fees on consumers.

“We oppose bills like this that limit the attorney general’s ability to advocate on behalf of consumers for the lowest rates possible or that tie the hands of the State Corporation Commission in setting appropriate rates,” said Michael Kelly, director of communications for Attorney General Mark Herring.

Schrad said current Virginia state law binds Dominion’s rate changes to the biennial reviews. Changes can be made only after the review process.

This became customary after a 2007 law ended a 10-year period aimed at creating competition in the electric industry. The 10-year experiment failed, and Dominion maintained a monopoly over Virginia utilities, Schrad said.

The 2007 legislation brought back regulation of the electric industry.

Under settlements reached after the SCC’s first review of Dominion, the company had to refund $726 million, with the average customer receiving $153.

As a result of the SCC’s review in 2011, Dominion had to refund customers $78.3 million due to overearnings. The most recent review by the SCC resulted in a lower base rate.

Wagner served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1992 through 2000, when he was elected to the Senate.

Since 1997, Wagner has received $43,100 in donations from Dominion, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit group that compiles campaign finance data. Dominion gave Wagner $10,500 in 2013-14, VPAP records show.

Wagner did not respond to a request for comment. But he told The Virginian-Pilot that he proposed SB 1349 because the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will impose costly pollution standards on Virginia.

The bill has been referred to a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee that is examining the EPA plan. Wagner chairs the subcommittee.

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Virginia Infrastructure Earns Grade of C-Minus

By Sarah Drury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia’s bridges, roads and other infrastructure have earned a grade of C-minus from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

That is slightly better than the state’s previous assessment – a D-plus in 2009, ASCE officials said this week in releasing the 2015 Report Card for Virginia’s Infrastructure.

“The question is whether a C-minus grade is good enough for Virginia,” said Don Rissmeyer, who chaired the latest assessment effort. “Think about your children’s report card when you celebrate a C-minus. For me, a C-minus isn’t good enough for Virginia today, and it’s certainly not good enough for us tomorrow.”

The report card covered 10 infrastructure categories, and each received its own grade:

  • Bridges – C
  • Dams – C
  • Drinking water – C
  • Parks and recreation – C-plus
  • Rail and transit – C-minus
  • Roads – D
  • Schools – C-minus
  • Solid waste facilities – B-minus
  • Stormwater facilities – C-minus
  • Wastewater facilities – D-plus

Those categories were averaged for a cumulative grade of C-minus.

At a press conference on the Capitol grounds Tuesday, Rissmeyer explained the reasons for the grades. Virginia’s roads got the lowest grade, for example, largely because of traffic congestion in areas such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

The state’s dams received a C because many of them lack emergency action plans: 141 of Virginia’s high-hazard dams – 45 percent of the total – do not meet current dam safety standards.

Although the grade for the commonwealth’s drinking water has improved, the report card estimates that this infrastructure category needs an investment of $6.1 billion over the next 20 years.

Virginia’s stormwater facilities received a grade of C-minus primarily because state and local governments lack funding to implement regulations to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and other impaired waters.

“Clean water is the backbone for maintaining public health in Virginia, but it can also improve our economy,” Rissmeyer said. “In fact, a cleaner Chesapeake Bay has been estimated to generate $8.3 billion in economic benefits annually to Virginia.”

The press conference also was an opportunity for ASCE officials to explain the role of civil engineers.

“Civil engineers are responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of our vital public work,” said Christina Ammens, president of the society’s Virginia section.

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Panel OKs Law to Protect Bicyclists

By Margo Maier and Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND – The House Transportation Committee approved a bill Tuesday to make it illegal for the operator of a motor vehicle to follow a bicycle or moped too closely.

The committee voted 20-2 in favor of House Bill 1342, sponsored by Del. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

Under current law, motorists are forbidden to tailgate other motorized vehicles. HB 1342 would prohibit motorists from following non-motorized vehicles – such as bicycles, scooters and electric-powered mobility devices – “more closely than is reasonable and prudent.”

“When you’re comparing the damage of a car rear-ending another car versus a car rear-ending a bicycle or motorized scooter, there simply is no comparison,” DeSteph said in a statement.

“What is an inconvenience for the driver of a car getting bumped from behind can be a life-altering catastrophe for a bicyclist or person on an electric scooter. Everyone on the roadway deserves an equal share of protection from the unsafe actions of others. How we get there is to apply the same standards to everyone.”

The Virginia Bicycling Federation supports the measure.

“This bill gives bicyclists in Virginia the same legal protection from tailgating as given to drivers. If passed by both houses, I’m confident it will reduce crashes and ultimately save lives,” said Champe Burnley, a Richmond bicyclist and president of the federation.

“I think the overwhelming support we saw by the House Transportation Committee this morning shows how serious they are about making Virginia’s roads safer for all users and reduce needless injuries.”

Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, is sponsoring an identical proposal – SB 1220 – in the Senate. It is scheduled to come before the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

More on the Web

To see more bike-related proposed legislation, visit the Virginia Bicycling Federation’s website, vabike.org. To track or comments on the bills’ movement through the Virginia General Assembly, visit RichmondSunlight.com.

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Committee Rejects Minimum Wage Hike

By Cameron Vigliano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Voting along party lines, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday killed a bill to raise Virginia’s minimum wage to $8 an hour and then gradually to $10.10 an hour.

The committee voted 11-3 to “pass by indefinitely” Senate Bill 681, meaning it probably is dead for this legislative session. The Republicans on the panel voted to kill the measure; the Democrats voted to keep it alive.

Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, sponsored the bill and argued for it.

“Today’s minimum wage workers are adults who are working multiple minimum-wage jobs and struggling to raise a family,” he said.

The federal minimum wage, which is in effect in Virginia, is $7.25 per hour. It hasn’t been increased since 2009.

Supporters of SB 681 say that the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and that too many people must rely on minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. They say raising the minimum wage would be good for the economy by providing more Americans money to spend.

“If Virginia’s minimum wage was raised to $10.10 an hour by 2017, almost 700,000 Virginia workers would get a raise. Out of these workers, close to 90 percent would be age 20 or older, and close to half would have at least some college education,” said Michael Cassidy, president of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a watchdog group.

“So most are not teenagers working after school, but workers who rely on their earnings to pay their bills.”

Several business groups showed up in opposition to SB 681. They included the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

“This legislation disproportionately hits small business owners,” said Nicole Riley of the NFIB. “Many have told us that it would lead to them hiring older and more experienced workers and would not help those who the minimum wage was for -- the young, those with less skills and experiences.”

Riley said workers who start at the minimum wage quickly advance to higher pay.

“Two-thirds of them within the first year have seen an increase in their wage,” she said. “So our members feel as time progresses with experience and skill, they do raise the wages when they can for their employees.”

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, was one of the three members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee who supported SB 681. Before the vote occurred, he urged his colleagues to think about the people who would benefit.

“Let’s take the hotel industry,” Saslaw said. “I can’t remember the last time I went into a hotel anywhere in the United States, at least where I’ve been, where I’ve seen an employee who cleans rooms and jobs like that, who look like my wife or I.”

SB 681 would have raised the minimum hourly wage in Virginia to $8 this July, $9 in July 2016 and $10.10 the following year.

Similar bills passed the Senate last year before dying in the House of Delegates.

Three bills to boost the minimum wage currently are pending in the House.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted Monday on SB 681, which sought to raise the minimum wage in Virginia.

01/19/15 Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Commerce and Labor (11-Y 3-N)

YEAS – Watkins, Norment, Stosch, Wagner, Newman, Obenshain, Stuart, McWaters, Stanley, Cosgrove, Chafin – 11.

NAYS – Colgan, Saslaw, Alexander – 3.

(Editor's Note: While the Minimum Wage for most employees is $7.25 per hour, the Minimum Wage for Tipped Employees is only $2.13 per hour.)

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Coalition Seeks More Open Government

By Ali Mislowsky, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Seventeen organizations that support open government in Virginia have formed a coalition to increase transparency in the General Assembly and foster greater citizen participation.

The coalition, called Transparency Virginia, wants legislators to give more advance notice of committee and subcommittee meetings and to record the votes when panels quietly kill bills.

“Citizens who want to testify on bills need lead time so they can plan child care or days off from work to travel to Richmond,” said Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. When committees and subcommittees call or cancel meetings quickly and with little notice, she said, it’s hard for citizens to participate.

Rhyne also said recorded votes are important.

“It is impossible for citizens back home to monitor their representatives when a bill’s history, as entered into the Legislative Information System, simply states that it was tabled or ‘passed by’ without any indication of who supported that decision and who did not,” Rhyne said.

She spoke last week at a press conference at which leaders of Transparency Virginia discussed the coalition and its goals.

Anne Sterling, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, said Transparency Virginia is made up of 17 organizations, including the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Center for Public Safety, AARP Virginia and the Richmond First Club.

“We are non-partisan, non-ideological, and we intend to be non-confrontational. We expect to work with legislators to make things better,” said Sterling, who thanked Delegates Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Jim LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, for their support and attendance at the press conference.

The Virginia General Assembly convened Wednesday for a six-week session. Sterling noted that this is a short session and that lawmakers will consider a lot of bills: Almost 2,000 have been introduced so far. But that’s no excuse for legislative panels to avoid the coalition’s suggestions, Sterling said.

“We think that nothing less than 100 percent compliance with fair procedure is what we should be aiming for,” she said. “Our plan is to work with the leadership of both houses. We want people to know we’re here. We’re not there to find villains or to point an accusing finger; we’re here to help point out problems that we think together we can solve.”

Another concern of coalition leaders is overlapping committee meetings – when two panels meet at the same time. This is a problem not only for citizens but also for lawmakers, said Ben Greenberg, legislative coordinator of Virginia Organizing, an advocacy group for low-income people and a member of Transparency Virginia.

“I’ve personally had to actually inform legislators that a bill that they are concerned about is about to be heard in another committee, and I’ve seen those legislators rush from the first floor to the ninth floor to have an opportunity to speak on those committees and vote on those bills,” Greenberg said.

“This is a concern because it makes it almost impossible for a citizen to cover all the meetings they want to cover and participate in.”

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2 Bills Target Human Trafficking

By Sarah Drury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Two bills before the General Assembly would impose harsher penalties on people convicted of human trafficking and fund services to help victims of the crime.

Senate Bill 710, introduced by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, would designate new felonies for trafficking people for forced labor or sexual servitude. It also would establish the Virginia Prevention of Human Trafficking Victim Fund.

House Bill 1964, introduced by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, would make the trafficking of a minor for commercial sexual activity a Class 2 felony. The mandatory minimum punishment would be 10-20 years in prison, based on the age of the minor.

Hugo was unavailable for comment about HB 1964, but he has stated in the past that he is “dedicated to ensuring child sex traffickers remain behind bars for such horrific behavior, so that no child in Virginia falls prey to predators who seek to do them harm.”

SB 710 would establish an anti-trafficking committee under Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security. The committee would include representatives from such agencies as the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, the Virginia State Police and the attorney general’s office.

The committee would seek to improve the way the commonwealth responds to human trafficking. For example, it might help agencies share and analyze information about the crime. And agencies might identify and remove barriers keeping victims of human trafficking from receiving assistance such as emergency and transitional housing or mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Under the legislation, the committee would gather each December to discuss its activities, accomplishments and possible recommendations.

The bill also seeks to establish the Virginia Prevention of Human Trafficking Fund. It would help commonwealth’s attorneys hire more prosecutors to work on human trafficking cases. Law enforcement agencies also could access the fund to provide services for victims.

Moreover, SB 710 would force people convicted of trafficking to pay restitution to their victims for each day they were held.

“We must send traffickers, buyers and facilitators the message that they are not welcome in our state,” Hugo says on his website. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the General Assembly to continue the fight against human trafficking.”

HB 1964 focuses specifically on the trafficking of people for commercial sexual activity. It states that anybody “who recruits, transports, harbors, receives, provides, obtains, isolates, maintains, patronizes, solicits, or entices another person to engage in commercial sexual activity” is guilty of a Class 2 felony.

Moreover, it would be a Class 3 felony to receive money knowing it came from such a crime.

HB 1964 was filed Tuesday and is awaiting assignment to a committee. SB 710 has been referred to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

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McAuliffe Sets the Stage for General Assembly

By Cort Olsen and Michael Melkonian, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe called on Virginia legislators Wednesday to address the problem of sexual assaults on college campuses and to make it easier for some undocumented immigrants to attend public colleges and universities.

McAuliffe laid out those goals in his State of the Commonwealth speech to a joint session of the General Assembly, which kicked off its 2015 session earlier in the day.

McAuliffe, who is beginning his second year as Virginia’s chief executive, wants the assembly over the next six weeks to pass several measures concerning education. One would address how institutions of higher education handle sexual violence.

“I am proposing that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia develop a unified sexual misconduct policy for all of Virginia’s public colleges and universities by July 31 of this year,” McAuliffe said.

“I am also proposing that Virginia public colleges and universities place a notation on academic transcripts where a student is dismissed from that institution for violation of the school’s sexual misconduct policy, student code of conduct or the university’s honor code.”

In addition, McAuliffe asked the assembly to pass a Virginia version of the so-called DREAM Act, which would help young adults who are illegal immigrants and were brought to the United States as children. The proposed law would allow such individuals to pay in-state tuition to attend college in Virginia.

“Let Virginia lead the way and pass the Virginia DREAM Act, and I will sign it into law,” McAuliffe said.

Moreover, McAuliffe wants to expand free breakfast and lunch programs for low-income students in kindergarten through high school. “I am proud to say that already 89 Virginia public schools have already enrolled in a brand new school nutrition initiative which enables qualified schools to serve every student breakfast and lunch at no cost to the school.”

Education wasn’t the only topic on McAuliffe’s agenda. In his hourlong speech, he also discussed ethical standards for government officials. The governor proposed capping the amount of money public officials can receive as gifts.

“I am confident by the time we adjourn, we will have made a $100 cap on all gifts the standard for all Virginia public officials,” said McAuliffe, whose predecessor, Bob McDonnell, was sentenced to two years in prison last week for corruption committed while in office.

McAuliffe also said public officials should not vote on issues if they have a conflict of interest. “This session is our opportunity to adopt a common-sense position – that people who are on boards and commissions should be prohibited from voting on matters that benefit their family members, themselves or their business partners.”

Also during his speech, McAuliffe called for a 2 percent pay raise for state employees, provided that it does not require cuts in education, health care or other essential services.

And he listed what he sees as his administration’s accomplishments, such as sealing 267 economic development deals, negotiating with 20 foreign ambassadors, including Cuba’s, regarding trade with Virginia and boosting exports of the state’s agricultural and forestry products.

Following the address by the Democratic governor, two Republican legislators – Del. Del. Margaret Ransone of Westmoreland County and Sen Jeff McWaters of Virginia Beach – gave their party’s response.

Ransone said that McAuliffe’s first year as governor was “characterized by partisanship and stalemate” and that the tone in the Virginia Capitol was “indistinguishable from the tone in Washington.”

She said McAuliffe continues to promote “divisive issues,” including the expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Virginia. Ransone said Republicans would use the legislative session to promote issues they believe enjoy “broad agreement,” including improving schools, providing affordable higher education and ensuring support for veterans.

McWaters promised that Republicans, who make up a majority of both the House and the Senate, would approve a state budget on time and without increasing taxes.

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2015 General Assembly Session Begins

‘Public Service Is a Privilege,’ House Speaker Says

By Morgan White, Capital News Service

Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, William Howell (R-Stafford) opens the 2015 Session of the Virginia General Assembly.  The General Assembly is the oldest continually meeting legislative body in the United States.  Photo Credit Michael Melkonian, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As the Virginia House of Delegates convened Wednesday for the General Assembly’s 2015 session, House Speaker William Howell welcomed newly elected delegates, set out the chamber’s goals and reminded legislators of their position as public servants.

“It is said quite often – public service is a privilege. None of us are entitled to the seats we hold in this body,” said Howell, a Republican from Fredericksburg.

He told lawmakers to live up to the standards expected by their constituents.

“Perhaps now more than any time in recent memory, we must be mindful of the trust that our fellow citizens have placed in us – and the expectations, duties and obligations inherent to the positions we hold,” said Howell, who has been a member of the House since 1988 and its presiding officer since 2003.

“Our fellow citizens demand honor, integrity and civility. I would encourage all of us – Republicans and Democrats alike – to renew our commitment to meet those standards.”

Howell’s address came eight days after former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s sentencing for corruption. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in federal prison after being convicted of exchanging the prestige of the governor’s office for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr.

The House opened with a handful of newly elected members, including Democratic Dels. Joseph Preston of Petersburg and Kathleen Murphy of Fairfax and Republican Del. Todd Pillion of Abingdon.

Also in attendance was Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, who had served seven years in the House as a Democrat, resigned in December after a sex scandal and then won re-election Tuesday as an independent.

Morrissey, 57, was charged with a misdemeanor of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after investigators said he had sex with a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm, had nude pictures of her on his cellphone and shared them with a friend.

The young woman is now pregnant. She said she did not have sex with Morrissey. Morrissey, who says his phone was hacked, entered an Alford plea. That meant he did not admit wrongdoing but acknowledged there was enough evidence for a conviction.

He was sentenced to 12 months in jail with six months suspended. A work-release arrangement has allowed Morrissey to practice law and campaign for re-election by day and serve his time at night.

On Tuesday, voters in the 74th House District, which includes Charles City County and parts of Henrico County and the city of Richmond, returned Morrissey to the House. Running as an independent, he won 42 percent of the votes in defeating Democrat Kevin Sullivan and Republican Matt Walton.

At the Capitol on Wednesday, Morrissey told reporters he was in it for the long haul as a member of the General Assembly.

“I’m confident in Joe Morrissey and that things will work out exactly the way they’re supposed to, just like the election,” Morrissey said.

(Editor's Note: With the beginning of this year's General Assembly session, Emporia News will bring you coverage of of the Legislature that has an effect on the Emproia-Greensville community.  These articles are provided by Virginia Commonwealth University's Capital News Service.  These stories are written by students in the Journalism Program at VCU.)

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Transparency Efforts Would Help Citizens (and Legislators)

By Ali Mislowsky, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Delegate Dickie Bell faces a quandary every Monday. As a member of the House Education committee, he has a weekly meeting at 8:30 a.m. He’s also a member of the House Finance committee, which meets at the same time.

“I’m often forced to miss one committee meeting, depending on whose agenda is more important,” said Bell, R-Staunton.

Sometimes he’ll try to catch some of each hearing, climbing the stairs between the first and ninth floors of the General Assembly building, where the meetings are held.

“I’ve tried to get some adjustment, but I enjoy being on both,” Bell said.

He isn’t the only delegate with a sticky scheduling situation. Republican Delegates Mark Cole of Spotsylvania, Peter Farrell of Henrico and Brenda Pogge of James City County, as well as Democratic Delegate Mark Keam of Fairfax, also serve on both the House Education and House Finance committees.

Many citizens are put in the same position when they want to attend or speak at their legislative committee meetings.

This is one issue that a coalition of organizations for open government aims to address during the upcoming General Assembly session. The collaboration, called Transparency Virginia, outlined its goals at a press conferenceTuesday.

Ben Greenberg, legislative coordinator of Virginia Organizing, a non-partisan grassroots group and member of Transparency Virginia, was concerned about overlapping committee meetings for legislators and citizens.

“I’ve personally had to actually inform legislators that a bill that they are concerned about is about to be heard in another committee, and I’ve seen those legislators rush from the first floor to the ninth floor to have an opportunity to speak on those committees and vote on those bills,” Greenberg said.

“This is a concern because it makes it almost impossible for a citizen to cover all the meetings they want to cover and participate in.”

Transparency Virginia aims to improve citizen participation and understanding of the General Assembly. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the group’s goals include the fair consideration of all legislation and advance notice of committee and subcommittee meetings.

“Citizens who want to testify on bills need lead time so they can plan child care or days off from work to travel to Richmond to do so,” Rhyne said. When committees and subcommittees call or cancel meetings quickly and with little notice, citizens are disadvantaged. 

Rhyne also noted the importance of recorded votes.

“It is impossible for citizens back home to monitor their representatives, when a bill’s history, as entered onto the Legislative Information System, simply states that it was tabled or passed by without any indication of who supported that decision and who did not,” Rhyne said.

Anne Sterling, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, said Transparency Virginia is made up of 17 organizations, including the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Center for Public Safety, AARP Virginia and the Richmond First Club.

“We are non-partisan, non-ideological, and we intend to be non-confrontational. We expect to work with legislators to make things better,” said Sterling, who thanked Delegates Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Jim LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, for their support and attendance at the press conference.

Sterling said the pressures of a short session and the abundance of legislation that committees must hear shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid the group’s suggestions.

“We think that nothing less than 100 percent compliance with fair procedure is what we should be aiming for,” Sterling said. “Our plan is to work with the leadership of both houses, we want people to know we’re here, we’re not there to find villains, or to point an accusing finger; we’re here to help point out problems that we think together we can solve.”

Delegate Bell is supportive of the group’s goals.

“We’ve got some work to do, but it needs to be done. Too much business is conducted out of the sunlight,” he said, adding that “a bipartisan effort has much better chance of success.”

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Women’s Equality Coalition Announces Agenda

By Ali Mislowsky and Craig Zirpolo, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – ProgressVA, the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network and other women’s rights and health advocacy groups launched the Women’s Equality Coalition on Thursday, announcing their legislative agenda for the 2015 General Assembly session.

With support from the Virginia chapters of the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women, the coalition faces an uphill battle in the Republican-led General Assembly on women’s health care issues as well as bills promoting equality in economic and civic opportunities.

“Our vision is to create an environment in Virginia for all women to have the economic means, social capital and political power to make and exercise decisions about their own health, family and future,” said Margie Del Castillo, field coordinator for the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network.

The coalition is founded around a shared belief in supporting women’s right to:

  • Decide when and if to have a family and access the full range of health services necessary to support that decision without interference from government, organizations, or individuals;
  • Secure the education and resources necessary to support and better themselves and their families without sacrificing economic security;
  • Live, work, and attend school free from intimidation, abuse, discrimination, harassment, and violence;
  • Understand how the political process affects them personally and be empowered and motivated to participate and make their voices heard.

The centerpiece of the legislative agenda seeks ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment was first introduced in 1923 and passed Congress in 1972. But it has not been ratified by Virginia and 14 other states, leaving it three states short of approval as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Another of the coalition’s goals is to repeal a Virginia law requiring women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. The groups also support House Bill 1430, which would provide domestic violence victims with unemployment benefits. That measure is being sponsored by Delegate Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.

“Women need protection from their abusers and support from their communities to have the courage and resources to safely leave their abusers,” Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said during the press conference.

The coalition also backs Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget amendments pushing for Medicaid expansion in Virginia.

“For millions of women, Medicaid makes the difference between access to cancer screenings and birth control or going without,” Keene said.

A bill to be filed in the coming days, nicknamed the Bad Bosses Bill, would prevent employers from taking action against female employees who use contraception. The proposal is a direct response to the Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The coalition also called for legislation seeking equal pay for men and women, guaranteed access to paid sick days and a raise of the minimum wage.

“Women who work hard and play by the rules should be able to afford to live with dignity and raise a family,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA.

The agenda also seeks to promote women’s participation in the democratic process with a bill allowing absentee voting before Election Day for any reason.

“Women play a central role in our society and must have real democratic participation,” said Quan Williams, a policy associate with the New Virginia Majority, a liberal political advocacy group.

“Expanding absentee voting will ensure every eligible Virginia voter, including working people and including single parents, has the opportunity to go to the polls, participate in democracy and make their voices heard.”

The coalition shared quotes of support from state Democrats including Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and Sen. Donald McEachin, who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.

“Some of these measures are new responses to recent abridgements of women’s rights, and some of them are decades-old,” Herring said. “All reflect common values Virginians share.”

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Parent Seeks Funding for Mental Health Services

Steve VanHuss of Hanover County urged legislators to provide more funding to help children with mental and physical disabilities.

By Cameron Vigliano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Central Virginia residents packed a legislative committee hearing Wednesday to call for more funding for child mental health services, more help for individuals with intellectual disabilities and tighter regulations of private homes providing day care.

Parents and other citizens voiced those concerns at a joint meeting at Capitol Square of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees. It was one of five public hearings held across the state on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed amendments to the state budget.

Several citizens called for more funding for child psychiatric services. They said flaws in the state mental health system led to two tragedies in Virginia in recent years: the 2013 attack on Sen. Creigh Deeds by his son, who then committed suicide; and the massacre of 32 people by a deranged student at Virginia Tech in 2007.

“I am here today to ask that you expand the budget to provide increased availability of child mental health services to all of our children,” said Beth Hilscher, whose daughter was among those murdered at Virginia Tech.

Another issue was expanding funding for the state’s Medicaid Intellectual and Developmental Disability waiver program. It provides home and community-based services for individuals with mental disabilities.

Steve VanHuss of Hanover County said that without an ID waiver, he or his wife would have to stay home and care for their 24-year-old daughter, who has Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes and is autistic. The waiver provides financial relief for intellectually challenged people and their families.

“She’s had the waiver now for two years, and it’s basically saved our family,” VanHuss told lawmakers. “I’ve got two other boys in college, which we would not be able to afford to do that with the economy the way it is.”

According to The Arc of Virginia, an advocacy group for people with special needs and their families, about 8,500 Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities are on the waiting list to receive an ID waiver. Some states like Michigan and Kentucky, as well as the District of Columbia, provide enough waivers so that they don’t have a waiting list.

The last issue brought an especially somber mood to the meeting room in the General Assembly Building. The parents of a 1-year-old boy killed in a home day care fire in Chesterfield advocated tighter regulations of such home services.

Jacquelyn Allen, the mother of the boy killed, called for legislation requiring private day care providers to have an emergency response plan and a list of the children under their care for first responders. Allen also wants more severe penalties for day care providers who break the law.

The person who ran the at-home day care in Chesterfield, Laurie F. Underwood, has been charged with a class 1 misdemeanor in the death of Allen’s son, Joseph. Authorities say Underwood did not have a license to provide day care for eight or more unrelated children. The state requires providers to have a license when they have five or more unrelated children under their watch.

The General Assembly will convene next Wednesday to consider amendments to Virginia’s state budget and other legislative matters.

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Corrupt Former Governor to Spend Two Years in Federal Prison

Corrupt former Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, on-time rising star of the Republican Party answers questions after being sentenced to only two years in Federal Prison on 11 counts of Felony Corruption.  Photo courtesy of the VCU Capitol News Service.

By Benjamin May and Sean CW Korsgaard, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Former Gov. Bob McDonnell was sentenced Tuesday to 24 months in prison after being convicted of 11 felony corruption charges in September.

At a packed hearing at the federal courthouse, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer sentenced McDonnell, 60, to two years in prison followed by two on probation.

McDonnell's defense team asked that he be incarcerated at a federal facility in Petersburg. The Federal Bureau of Prisons must determine by Feb. 9 where McDonnell will carry out his sentence.

McDonnell said he was “blinded by the busy-ness of life,” as he accepted responsibility for his actions as governor. He asked that Spencer be lenient with his wife, Maureen McDonnell, at her sentencing Feb. 20.

“A lot of blame was assessed in the case of the defendant’s predicament,” Spencer said before reading the sentence. He said the McDonnells received a fair trial and had ample opportunity to present a rigorous defense.

The defendants filed dozens of motions and were afforded intense examination of witnesses. In short, Spencer said McDonnell was given “all the process that was due him.”

“The defendants had good advice and good counsel all over the place,” the judge said, “but Mrs. McDonnell brought the serpent Jonnie Williams into the mansion, and Mr. McDonnell let him in and out of his finances.”

The McDonnells were convicted of accepting gifts and loans from Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific Inc., in exchange for lending the support of the governor’s office for the company’s dietary supplements.

McDonnell will be under supervised release at the end of his sentence. No fines were imposed because Spencer said “the defendant would be unable to pay them.” However, McDonnell must pay an assessment of $1,100 and may not incur or apply for credit during his probation.

The sentencing began with arguments from the defense on the assessed value of the bribes the McDonnells received from Williams. McDonnell’s lawyers presented the figure of $69,640.53 as opposed to the indictment’s estimate of $177,000. Spencer ultimately said “the government has the best analysis” on how much the gifts and loans were worth.

The defense was able to remove an obstruction enhancement from the sentencing guidelines. This dropped the maximum possible prison term from 12 years to eight years. The prosecution recommended that McDonnell be sentenced to 78 months in prison.

The defense asked that McDonnell be assigned 6,000 hours of community service – about three years of 40-hour work weeks. Operation Blessing International, a nonprofit based in Virginia Beach, said it would welcome McDonnell to work in Haiti or Bristol, Va. The Catholic Diocese of Richmond also said it would welcome McDonnell to work in Southwest Virginia.

The defense introduced nearly 500 letters of support from sources ranging from Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Each of the McDonnells’ children also submitted letters.

In addition, nearly a dozen character witnesses asked for leniency for the disgraced governor.

“If Bob McDonnell were to get 50 years (in prison), he wouldn’t be any more punished,” said former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat. Wilder earned applause when he pointed out that Williams, who instigated the corruption charges, will walk away a free man.

McDonnell once was considered a possible running mate for the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, and a possible presidential candidate for 2016. McDonnell delivered the 2010 Republican response to the State of the Union address and was chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2011.

“I stand before you as a humbled and heartbroken man,” McDonnell said in a final statement to the court before his sentencing. “I hold myself fully accountable for my actions as governor.”

The McDonnell trial put Virginia in the national spotlight, and has sparked calls to reform the state’s ethics laws – a campaign promise of the current governor, Terry McAuliffe.

After the federal court hearing, McAuliffe said that the sentencing “brings an end to one of the most difficult periods in the history of Virginia state government.”

“Like many Virginians, I am saddened by the effect this trial has had on our commonwealth’s reputation for clean, effective government,” McAuliffe said. “As we put this period behind us, I look forward to working with Virginia leaders on both sides of the aisle to restore public trust in our government.”

McDonnell was the first Virginia governor in state history to be indicted or convicted of a felony, His defense team already has filed an appeal.

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Timeline of the McDonnell Case

By Janeal Downs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bob McDonnell was elected in a landslide and took office as the commonwealth’s 71st governor in January 2010. On Tuesday, just five years later, he was sentenced to prisonfor corruption. Here are key dates as McDonnell went from a rising star in the Republican Party to the first Virginia governor convicted of a felony.

Nov. 3, 2009: With the campaign slogan “Bob’s for Jobs,” McDonnell won 59 percent of the statewide vote in defeating Democrat Creigh Deeds in the gubernatorial race.

Jan. 16, 2010: McDonnell was inaugurated.

April 2011: Jonnie R. Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific Inc., paid for more than $15,000 of Maureen McDonnell’s items on a shopping trip. Star Scientific, now called Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, sold products such as a dietary supplement called Anatabloc.

May 2011: Williams wrote Maureen McDonnell a $50,000 check.

June 2011: Cailin McDonnell, one of the McDonnells’ daughters, got married at the Executive Mansion. Beforehand, Williams wrote a $15,000 check to cater the wedding. Maureen McDonnell told investigators the $50,000 and $15,000 checks were both loans. The same month, before her daughter’s wedding, Maureen McDonnell spoke at a meeting with doctors and investors in support of Anatabloc.

August 2011: Bob McDonnell and Williams met to discuss the use of Anatabloc as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Williams bought a $6,500 Rolex watch. The Executive Mansion hosted an event for Anatabloc.

December 2011:With “71st Governor of Virginia” engraved on the back, Maureen McDonnell gave her husband the Rolex watch Williams had purchased.

March 2012: Williams gave a $50,000 check to MoBo, a company formed by the former governor, his wife and his sister, also named Maureen.

February 2013: After being questioned by law enforcement officers about accepting gifts, Maureen McDonnell wrote a note to Williams implying that they had an agreement for her to return items he had purchased.

July 2013: Bob McDonnell apologized to the public and said he repaid $120,000 in loans to Williams. On Twitter, he wrote, “I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens.” The governor said his daughter Cailin repaid Williams for the $15,000 spent on catering her wedding. He and his sons had also previously charged to Williams’ account while golfing.

Jan. 11, 2014: Bob McDonnell left office as Democrat Terry McAuliffe was inaugurated as governor.

Jan. 21, 2014: Bob and Maureen McDonnell were indicted on charges of illegally accepting gifts and loans from Williams.

July 28-29, 2014: The jury trial began. Bob McDonnell’s attorneys began to use marital problems as a defense. They said Maureen McDonnell had a “crush” on Williams, which resulted in the numerous expensive gifts he gave to the McDonnells.

Aug. 12, 2014: A cardiologist from Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school said he went to a reception honoring Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie “Lincoln” in Virginia, at the Executive Mansion. The physician said Williams brought him to the event to try to persuade him to do research on Anatabloc.

Aug. 13, 2014: Testimony revealed that Bob and Maureen McDonnell had almost $75,000 of credit card debt when he took office and that the debt later grew to $90,000.

Aug. 20-21, 2014: Bob McDonnell testified that Maureen McDonnell had struggled with her role as first lady. He said the couple had marital issues.

Aug. 26, 2014: McDonnell said that he regretted accepting gifts from Williams but that he never promised any favors from his office for the gifts.

Sept. 4, 2014: Bob McDonnell was found guilty on 11 of 13 counts and Maureen McDonnell was found guilty on nine of 11 counts. (One of the counts against Maureen McDonnell was later thrown out.)

Jan. 6, 2015: U.S. District Judge James Spencer sentenced Bob McDonnell to two years in prison.

Feb. 20, 2015: Maureen McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced.

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U.Va. President Seeks Leniency for McDonnell

By Morgan White, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan is among the more than 400 letter writers urging a federal judge to be lenient Tuesday in sentencing former Gov. Bob McDonnell for corruption.

Writing as a citizen, not in her official capacity, Sullivan told U.S. District Judge James Spencer that McDonnell was always ethical in his dealings with U.Va. “I hope that you will consider a lenient sentence,” the letter said.

McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in September of multiple counts of influence peddling while he was governor. Spencer could sentence McDonnell to more than a decade in prison, as prosecutors have requested. McDonnell’s attorneys have asked that he be required to perform 6,000 hours of community service but not be imprisoned.

The McDonnells were convicted of lending the prestige of the governor’s office to Richmond businessman Jonnie Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods. Williams, then CEO of Star Scientific Inc., wanted the governor’s support for his company’s tobacco-based dietary supplement, Anatabloc.

In her letter, which was dated Oct. 11 and filed in federal court late last month, Sullivan said McDonnell never prodded U.Va. to conduct research that might have helped promote Anatabloc.

Sullivan and McDonnell, once a rising star in the Republican Party, worked together during the four years he held office. Sullivan said that McDonnell phoned her several times a year on official business and that they met occasionally in person.

“If Governor McDonnell had wanted to put pressure on the University of Virginia to conduct research on a particular subject, he had the access and opportunity to do so through me,” Sullivan wrote, noting that U.Va.’s medical school and research officials report to her.

“Never, at any time, was there any pressure put on me of this sort. To the contrary, I found that the Governor was interested in good higher education policy and sought to learn more about the Commonwealth’s public institutions.” the letter said.

Besides Sullivan, more than 400 people have written letters supporting McDonnell and asking Spencer for leniency. They have come from his children, other relatives, friends, charitable organizations and public officials, including Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

The former governor, who left office last January, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday morning. Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing is set for Feb. 20.

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