Capital News Service

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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VCU, RICHMOND TACKLING YOUTH-SUICIDE PREVENTION

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND-- According to clinical studies, college-aged students are two times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than any other age group, according to clinical studies. And Virginia Commonwealth University students are no exception. The university just recently lost two students, within a five-day period, to suicide.

On a campus as large as VCU, it’s easy for students to feel lost or helpless. For students these feelings were apparently too much to bear and the two Rams were lost to suicide.

Before the two incidents occurred, VCU hadn’t suffered a student suicide in several years. Despite this face, some students, such as freshman Sophie Juola, say feelings of anxiety, depression-and even suicide- are often commonplace throughout campus.

“I think it’s very easy for students to feel depressed on campus,” Juola said. “Schoolwork, more often than not, just becomes a long list of that never really end. That can become really stressful.”

However, students suffering from these feelings do have help and resources available to them. The VCU University Counseling Services is just one of the many organizations offering a beacon of hope for students struggling with mental, emotional and psychological problems.

Counseling Services Director Dr. Jihad Aziz says the counseling services are staffed with licensed, clinical psychologists as well as social workers that are available to students.

“We provide individual and group therapy, as well as psychiatric medication for students,” Aziz said. “They’re free and confidential. And I have some really great clinical staff members working with us.”

Along with providing therapy and medical consultations, The counseling services also focus on prevention and preventative measures. One of these measures is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year crisis hotline for students who are feeling emotionally unstable or desperate and need immediate assistance. Still, Aziz says there is always room for improvement.

“We need to think about what we’re doing,” Aziz said. “And we need to think about what more we can do in the means of preventative measures.”

However, some students say they think the counseling services need to improve in other ways than just prevention.

“It’s easy to get the first appointment,” Juola said. “Follow up appointments-not so much. I’ve had to wait weeks just for my second appointment. I think they need to work on fixing that.”

Aziz said the waiting periods for follow up appointments can be lengthy, but it’s generally the same wait time a person would find at a private therapist or psychiatrist office. He also said that although the waiting time for a scheduled appointment can take up to weeks, the counseling service does take immediate walk-ins for extreme scenarios in which the student is highly distressed and/or has potential to harm themselves or others.

Similar to VCU’s counseling services, ROSMY is an organization in the Richmond area that provides emotional support and resources to Virginia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning LGBTQ youth. Research has found that attempted suicide rates and suicide ideation are comparably higher among this group of teens and young adults than with heterosexual youth.

“ROSMY continues to be the only organization in the area that directly addresses the unique needs and the healthy social development of LGBTQ youth ages 11-20,” the ROSMY website states.

The organization says it offers weekly youth support meetings, sensitivity training for professionals, educational resources, youth leadership initiatives and a safe place where all youth are encouraged to value the diverse individuals who make our community a dynamic, exceptional place.

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Medicaid Expansion Would Cover 25,000 Va. Veterans

By Kate Miller, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As Virginia legislators continue to debate whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in the state’s two-year budget, some Medicaid expansion supporters claim more than 25,000 Virginia veterans and their spouses could receive health care coverage if the General Assembly allows expansion.

In March, hundreds of people gathered at the Virginia State Capitol to rally in support of Medicaid expansion.

Mercedies Harris, a former Marine from Waynesboro, Va., spoke at the rally.  Harris, who does not have health care coverage and would benefit from Medicaid expansion, told the crowd he has glaucoma and struggles to pay more than $400 a month for his medication.  “Like all veterans, I was proud to serve our country,” Harris said. “So I’m asking you to please don’t turn your backs on us now. We have a shared responsibility to protect and expand opportunity for this generation and for the future generations. The time is now to close the coverage gap.”

Massey Whorley, a senior policy analyst for The Commonwealth Institute of Fiscal Analysis, co-authored a report called “Left Behind,” which explains the benefits of Medicaid expansion for Virginia veterans.

Whorley said Virginia currently ranks 48th in per-capita Medicaid spending.  “Virginia has one of the stingiest Medicaid programs in the country,” Whorley said. “It is just hard for adults to get coverage in Virginia to begin with.”

According to Whorley, veterans health benefits are not guaranteed for all veterans because veterans must have incomes below a certain level, serve for at least 24 months and be honorably discharged to be eligible for VA benefits.  Whorley also said it can be difficult for veterans who have faced traumatic situations abroad to navigate the application process to receive VA benefits.  “They come back and they have a whole host of mental issues they are working through,” Whorley said. “And when you’re dealing with those kinds of things, it can be very hard to navigate a bureaucratic process like the VA benefits enrollment program. I think that makes it all the more necessary for that person to get that care they need. So they’re not living on the streets, and they can contribute and really move ahead.”

Whorley said veterans can face mental issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead them to be dishonorably discharged and not be eligible for VA benefits.  Veterans who are eligible for VA benefits still can struggle to receive medical care because there are only three VA hospitals in the state, Whorley said.

Although there are outpatient clinics in Virginia where veterans can receive some VA benefits, Whorley said VA health options still are limited for Virginia veterans, who may have to travel 50 to 75 miles to be treated at an outpatient facility.  “That is no substitute for having access to a primary care physician in your community,” he said.

Medicaid expansion also would help Virginia’s veterans receive preventative care, Whorley said. According to the report, more than 41 percent of veterans without coverage communicate that they have untreated health needs, and more than a third delay receiving care because of the cost. The report also states that slightly more than 12 percent of veterans with coverage have untreated health needs.  “Veterans who don’t have health coverage, they often go without the care they need,” he said.

Whorley said Medicaid expansion also would benefit the spouses and dependents of Virginia veterans. The dependents, he said, only are eligible for VA benefits under certain circumstances, such as when a veteran dies in the line of duty or becomes permanently and totally disabled.  “We’re talking about really severe cases for the spouse and dependents to (currently) qualify,” Whorley said.

According to the report, more than half of veterans’ family members without coverage have untreated health needs and 44 percent delay care because of cost. Sean Lansing, the Virginia state director of Americans for Prosperity -- an advocacy group that promotes the individual right to economic freedom -- says expanding Virginia’s Medicaid program would be unwise.    “We’d be doing a disservice to the most vulnerable citizens in Virginia if we double down on a policy we all know is failing,” Lansing said. “We think it makes sense to take a look at the program, find out what works, find out what doesn’t, and then learn how we can best deliver health care to the people who need it most.”

According to Lansing, the federal government will not be able to provide the promised funding for Medicaid expansion in Virginia because the federal government is currently more than $17 trillion in debt.  “I have no faith in the ability of the federal government to keep writing checks to Virginia for billions and billions of dollars when they can’t even balance their own budget,” Lansing said. “I think it’s disingenuous of the other side to argue that there’s free money just lying around for the taking. There’s obviously no such thing as free money.”

Lansing said he and many others do not believe the federal government will fund the commonwealth’s Medicaid program for three years and fund 90 percent of the program after the three year period ends.  “Time and time again, all sorts of government programs, especially at the federal level, start out with good intentions but then, a couple years down the road, somebody has to pay for it,” he said. “A couple years down the road, this program, by expanding it blindly, is going to cost likely billions of dollars.”

If the General Assembly does not determine a budget by July 1, the Virginia government will shut down.  Lansing said a government shutdown will have a “devastating impact” on the commonwealth, including on the quality of public education and public safety.  “If the governor and those 23 state senators continue to hold the budget hostage over Obamacare and continue to threaten a shutdown,” he said. “It’s going to have a horrible impact on our local governments. It’s going to have a horrible impact on our schools. And it’s going to have a horrible impact on our communities.”

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Medicare Expansion Debate Rages on Social Media

By Dana Carlson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Social media acts as the latest mouthpiece to the General Assembly stalemate, which has left the state budget in limbo and 400,000 Virginians wondering if Medicaid expansion will grant them access to health care.

With two budget bills still in play more than a month after the General Assembly adjourned, Facebook and Twitter are serving as platforms for Democrats and Republicans to criticize the Medicaid standoff and reach out to the electorate for support.

"If Twitter is any guide, both sides are milking social media for all they can," tweeted Jeff Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch political columnist.

Looking for someone to blame for the budget impasse, politicians are turning to social media to blame each other and garner public support.

"We could have had our work done on time, if not for the governor's new Washington-style tactics in doing business in Richmond," Delegate Steve Landes, R-Verona, vice-chairman of the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission, stated on Facebook.

Meanwhile, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, accused Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Twitter of holding Virginia's budget "hostage.”  "Over 14,000 Virginians have signed the petition calling for a clean budget. Add your name," Howell tweeted when the governor refused to separate Medicaid expansion from the state budget.

However, Senate Democrats blame the budget impasse on House Republicans, who rejected the Marketplace Virginia proposal that was meant to be a bipartisan compromise created by the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission. "The refusal of the House Republicans to accept federal money to insure 400,000 working Virginians has brought everything to a halt," Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, stated on Facebook. "We are giving up 5 million dollars a day in funds that we Virginians have paid in fees and taxes intended to provide healthcare coverage in Virginia."

The trending hashtag #IAmTheCoverageGap is being used by Democrats and Medicaid expansion supporters to promote the digital story library, iamthecoveragegap.com. The site gives a face to the healthcare crisis by allowing Virginians to share personal healthcare struggles online.

Among these stories is that of Lori Piper, a former business executive who lost her health, career and income to an auto-immune disease. "After losing my job I lost my health insurance, and I wasn't able to seek treatment to maintain my condition or improve it," Piper said. "I was so sick, I literally couldn't hold a job."  As a single adult with no income, Piper currently does not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford the treatment she needs to maintain her health.

Meanwhile, a new Christopher Newport University poll stated that the majority of Virginians now oppose Medicaid expansion and fear a government shutdown. The poll is serving as new ammunition in the House GOP arsenal to pressure Democrats into removing Medicaid from the budget.

The House GOP Twitter feed cited the poll and stated, "71 percent of Virginians want a compromise to avoid a government shutdown -- that means passing a clean budget."

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Hospitals Urge Lawmakers to Expand Medicaid

By Eric Luther, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia’s two largest university health systems could forfeit millions of dollars in federal funding if lawmakers do not expand health care coverage to as many as 400,000 uninsured residents as part of the $96 billion biennial budget.

Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes extensive reductions to supplemental funding, otherwise known as Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments, which help cover the cost of caring for the commonwealth’s most impoverished patients.

Without some form of Medicaid expansion to offset the cuts embedded in the PPACA, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services estimates safety net hospitals such as Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Virginia health systems could lose approximately $423 million between the 2015 and 2022 fiscal years.

DSH payments were reduced under the belief that more patients would be covered through Medicaid expansion at the state level, according to a U.Va. Health Systems spokesman.

Sheryl Garland, VCU Health System’s vice president for community outreach, says depending on how those cuts are allocated, VCUHS’s potential financial loss could total nearly $300 million between 2017 and 2022.  “It is important for the public to know that the Affordable Care Act contains mandatory cuts to providers — many of which are already occurring today,” Garland stated in an email. “If there is no coverage expansion to counteract these cuts, then VCU Health System will be placed in a perilous financial position.”

Garland also said it is crucial for Virginians to recognize that taxpayer dollars already are being sent to Washington in order to pay for the national coverage expansion effort. If the commonwealth does not expand or adopt an alternative coverage model, these dollars amount to nothing more than “sunk” costs.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe this past month echoed the reality of foregoing taxpayer dollars during an address on Capitol Square, which signified the beginning of the General Assembly’s special session that was called in order to reach a compromise on Medicaid expansion as part of the state budget.  “We’re talking about tax dollars that our Virginia residents have already paid and have sent across the Potomac River to Washington,” McAuliffe said during his address. “I want to bring those dollars back. It is the right thing to do morally and it is the right thing to do economically.”

During his address, McAuliffe also stressed the greater impact a failure to expand Medicaid services would have on hospitals all across Virginia. According to the governor, many hospitals he visited over the course of the legislative session will cease to exist if the General Assembly does not bring those taxpayer dollars back to Virginia.  “What do we say to those people in that room who are looking at me with tears running down their eyes? They expect us to help them,” McAuliffe said. “That is our job. That is what we were elected to do.”

VCU and U.Va. Health System representatives have provided testimony to state government leaders, including members of the Senate Finance Committee, House Appropriations Committee and the Medicaid Innovation Reform Commission to address the “perilous” shortfall facing research and safety-net health systems. 

Additionally, Garland says VCUHS has been actively engaged in the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association’s advocacy efforts. The system also has met individually with key members of the legislature to caution them about the wide-reaching implications for health systems across the commonwealth moving forward.

While safety-net providers such as community health centers and free clinics work diligently to support those who fall into the coverage gap, Garland says the number of uninsured individuals seeking care in the commonwealth has increased.

Without insurance, the growing number of disadvantaged patients likely will delay treatment until their condition has worsened, or patients will seek care at emergency rooms, which are the most expensive health care providers, according to Eric Swenson, public information officer for U.Va Health Systems.

Hospitals initially will absorb these costs, Swenson says, but those costs ultimately will be passed on to businesses, insurers and other Virginia residents — who will pay for uninsured patients through higher insurance premiums. 

Multiple reports have been commissioned by VHHA and other health care advocacy groups to study the economic ramifications of opting in — or out — of Medicaid expansion.

One such study, published by Chmura Economics and Analytics, concluded that a state budget, which accepts federal funds to help Virginia’s most indigent residents gain access to subsidized health care, could save localities millions of dollars currently being spent to care for uninsured patients.

The independent fiscal and economic evaluation states implementing some form of Medicaid expansion would secure new money for Virginia’s health care industry, add roughly $3.9 billion in new annual revenue to the state’s economy and create more than 30,000 jobs from 2014 to 2019.

Spokespersons say each university health system has started examining operational changes that may be needed if Medicaid expansion does not occur and how best to absorb costs.

According to a presentation given by the Senate Finance Committee, each day the commonwealth waits to provide health care for low-income Virginians, the state loses as much as $5 million taxpayers and businesses are sending to Washington D.C.  “The introduction of a coverage option — Medicaid expansion or Marketplace Virginia — would close the existing coverage gap, which is critical to the financial health of many health systems and providers in the commonwealth,” Garland stated.” “Since the VCU Health System is the largest provider of safety net services in the commonwealth, any changes to the levels or complement of services … will create a gap in the state’s service delivery system for the most vulnerable citizens.”

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Understanding Student Suicide

By Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, behind alcohol and drug overdoses. Twenty-four Virginia college students died from suicide in 2012, according to the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System. 

A student death has a ripple effect on the community that should be addressed, according to Jihad Aziz, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University’s counseling services director.  “Whenever you lose a student, it has a significant impact on the community in a multitude of ways,” Aziz said.

Stephan Martin, 21, a junior at Christopher Newport University, said he was in a relationship with a VCU student who died from suicide March 30.

Hobie Kopczynski, an 18-year-old freshman from York County, Va., wanted to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, according to his hometown newspaper, the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily.  Martin said he and Kopczynski began dating in January of 2014 and were very close. Martin recently began weekly grief counseling sessions through CNU's counseling services.  “(Hobie) was such a perfectionist. It seemed like everything in his life went well for the most part,” Martin said. “Everyone liked him a lot. I think he was very kind-hearted ... Sometimes things happen in your life -- or situations -- when you’re not getting the emotional support you need, (and) it overshadows everything else that's going on in your life.”

This is not the first time Martin has struggled with a tragic death. Martin participated in the Out of the Darkness Walk through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention last year in honor of a friend he said died in 2013.  “Be more upfront about your feelings,” Martin said to those struggling with negative thoughts. “Focus on the positives. I think that whatever it is that you're not getting the support with … (know) someone cares about you and someone wants you to live.”

VCU’s university counseling services saw almost 2000 students in the 2012-2013 academic year. Aziz said young adults aged 18 to 24 still are developing and mental-health issues may arise during this time. Students, as well as the general population may turn to suicide if overwhelmed by psychological pain, he said.  “We become instillers of hope,” Aziz said. “If we can help instill hope, then it gives students or others, who are struggling with suicidal ideations, options.”

At- risk people think there are no other options except one that will make the pain go away, according to Aziz.  College communities may offer more support than the general population when dealing with personal issues, he said.  “You have all these people here in a sense of community,” Aziz said, “It (college communities) actually serves as a protective factor to help with students who might be struggling with mental health concerns.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention works to create understanding and prevention with research, education and advocacy, according to its website. Untreated mental illness and substance abuse may be contributing risk factors to suicide, according to Maggie Mortali, director of the Interactive Screening Program for the AFSP.

“If you think a friend is at risk for suicide ask them,” she said. “I would encourage all students to open the dialogue about mental health.”  Martin, who plans on attending pharmacy school, is also president of his fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi described how he copes with his mourning.  “I have a hope that I will somehow see (Hobie) again, and that hope will guide me through the rest of the world,” Martin said. “Be cause right now it kind of feels like it's over for me, and I know it's not,”

If you or someone you know is in imminent danger, you are encouraged to call police. 

Those struggling with thoughts of suicide also may call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-784-2433.

Editor's Note-This is part of a series of Articles from the Capital News Service after the VCU community suffered the loss of two students to suicide, and is included on this site to encourage all members of this and every community to be vigilant of the signs.  If you see changes in behavior of a student (even High School students can feel stressed, depressed, unloved and unwanted), a friend, a neighbor or a coworker start a conversation.

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Numerous Animal-Related Bills Pass General Assembly

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- With the 2013-2014 Virginia General Assembly session officially complete, animal activists and lovers around the state can celebrate the legislative passage animal-related bills received over the past few months.

Four bills dealing with animal/pet welfare and rights were passed this session, including the heavily talked about Senate Bill 228, which also known as Bailey’s Law.  

The bill, proposed by Sen. Chapman Petersen’s, D-Fairfax, passed unanimously through the Virginia General Assembly and requires pet dealers to fully disclose all source, breeder and health information for each animal sold. This safeguard potentially prevents people from unknowingly purchasing dogs bred in cruel and inhumane puppy mills.

Sen. David Marsden’s, D-Burke, Senate Bill 42 passed this session as well, making it a Class 1 misdemeanor for anyone in the state to erect or maintain an enclosure for the purpose of pursuing, hunting or killing fox and/or coyote with dogs. The Humane Society of the United States’ Virginia State Director Laura Donahue released a press statement applauding the states’ legislators for passing a bill that is of upmost importance to part of Virginia’s wildlife.  “We applaud the House of Delegates for the passage of this critical bill to crack down on this cruel and inexcusable practice,” Donahue stated.

The Humane Society also was vocally supportive of House Bill 972. After five years of ongoing debate, the bill was passed this session, stating that protective orders may grant possession of the family pet to the petitioner and prohibit further violence directed toward the pet in domestic violence situations.  The bill strives to not only save pets from domestic abusers but also will save victims who, before the bill’s passing, would rather suffer through abuse than leave beloved animals behind.

“As a former prosecutor of domestic violence,” chief patron of the bill, Delegate Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst, told the United States Humane Society. “I have seen firsthand the hesitation of victims to leave their abusers without their family pet. This important bill will help provide victims with the security they need to take that important step and successfully escape an abusive relationship.”

Last, but certainly not least, HouseBill 558 also passed this session, allowing pets and owners to be buried together in the same cemetery under certain circumstances. While this bill doesn’t specifically deal with animal welfare or rights, it brings peace to many owners throughout the commonwealth that wish to be laid to rest with their pets.

While the passing of this bill is a definite win for pet owners, it also is conscious and respectful to those not wanting to be buried near deceased animals. The bill clearly specifies that owner-pet gravesites must be completely separated and segregated from the cemetery plots devoted to traditional interments.

“Some people have an extreme aversion to animals, and others have a strong affection for them," the bill’s chief patron, Delegate Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, told The Washington Post. "There are some people who do not want pets or any furry animal buried near them, and that is their right."

The Virginia General Assembly made great progress this session with legislations dealing with animal welfare issues.  The victories that accompany the passing of these bills are made possible not only by legislators and politicians, but also by animal activists and advocates throughout the state, country and world.  “When we stand together,” said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and CEO, “we can make a tremendous difference for animals.”

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SWVA Teens Build Robots with Engineering, Physics Concepts

By Lauren McClellan, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND – The road from Southwest Virginia to Richmond might not be paved with yellow bricks, but that did not stop a Wizard of Oz-themed robotics team from leading their “Emerald Scorpion” robot –complete with a red bottom, reminiscent of Dorothy’s famed shoes— up that road to compete in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics Competition at the Siegel Center on March 21 and 22.

This Southwest Virginia team 388 -- “Maximum Oz” -- is composed of students from the four different high schools in the Buchanan County school system: Grundy, Council, Hurley and Twin Valley high schools. 

Maximum Oz brought their 110-pound robot -- the “Emerald Scorpion” – from the heart of coal country to compete at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center for the team’s 15th year of competition. At the competition, the team participated in a basketball and volleyball-like game called “Aerial Assist,” where “the objective is to score as many balls in goals as possible during a 2-minute and 30-second match,” according to FIRST Robotic’s website.

In order to build the Emerald Scorpion, these students had to learn different physics and engineering concepts during after-school meetings, according to team mentor Kayla Cantrell, a technology and keyboarding teacher at Riverview Middle School.  “For this particular robot, the students had to learn about pneumatic systems and air-pressure sensors,” Cantrell said. “They also had to learn about dead-reckoning systems.” Dead reckoning is a method of calculating position during navigation.)

The students built their robot out of a kit they were sent from FIRST Robotics.  They also used other materials, such as a large black drain pipe for the claw that is used to pick up the ball. In past competitions, Cantrell said other robots had similar mechanisms made out of Frisbees and Tupperware pieces.

According to student team leader and Hurley High School student Brandon Sturgill, the robot uses a series of jacks, compressors and pistons in order to move the claws and the back tail.   “The scorpion arm, which catches the ball, is driven by two CIM (a motor used in robots) motors attached to a ToughBox (gearbox) -- which is attached to a sprocket chain, which leads to a larger gear -- allowing us to rotate the robot smoothly, quickly and with enough power to do whatever we want,” said Dustin Stiltner, the team’s robot driver from Grundy High School.

The robot also uses light sensors to help the team members know if it is safe to shoot the ball. “The sensor will detect the reflective tape on the corners of the goals that surround the ring,” Sturgill said. “The light is bounced back to the sensor and will set off a green strip of LEDs on the back center of our robot that will tell us whether or not we are in shooting distance of the goal.”

Some of the students joined the team after being in a FIRST Tech Challenge team.  The FTC teams are sometimes feeder teams into the larger, more advanced FRC teams.  According to Cantrell, FTC teams are thought to be junior varsity-level while FRC teams are thought to be varsity-level. “I got involved with this program in sixth grade when one of my teachers told me about it,” said Harlos Stollings, a team member from Grundy High School. “I started on the FTC team and then went to the FRC team.”

Other Southwest Virginians were at Saturday’s competition. Chris Owens, a science teacher from Haysi High School, helped out with the demonstration area that allowed young children to play with some of the small robots.  “It’s good to see kids excited about math and science,” Owens said. 

Owens is a team mentor for the Bionic Tigers, an FTC team from Haysi, Va. The Bionic Tigers are funded by Upward Bound, a college preparatory program to help disadvantaged students.

Some of the Maximum Oz team members want to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) fields. “Before I got into FIRST robotics, I wanted to be an accountant,” Sturgill said. “I really want to become an engineer now.”

Samantha Helton, another Maximum Oz team member from Council High School, wants to go into a science-related field. “I want to become a pharmacist,” Helton said, “and then go back and maybe do some teaching.”

Other team members have not chosen to pursue a STEM-related career, but say they enjoy the program nonetheless.  Maximum Oz team member and Grundy High School student Gracie Bedsole says she would like to major in music education in college, but she said she still has gained valuable experience from the program. “(This program) is not just about robotics,” Bedsole said.  “You meet so many new people, and you become well-rounded.

Future plans for the Maximum Oz team and its Emerald Scorpion robot involve an activity called “pumpkin chuckin’ ” since the design of the robot lent itself to the activity. “The mentors have guaranteed us at least one day that they will allow us to shoot pumpkins,” Sturgill said.

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High Schoolers Visit VCU For Annual Robotics Competition

By Chris Suarez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Dozens of robots gathered at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in late March with their high school creators, competing in Virginia’s largest youth robotics tournament.  Celebrating its 15th anniversary, VirginiaFIRST held its annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition, inviting students from high schools all over the Atlantic coast to compete in the “varsity sport of the mind,” with all the flash of an NCAA sporting event. 

Teams composed of either single or combined high schools had students in their respective robotics clubs making highly sophisticated robots for this year’s game. The student-constructed robots can be up to 120 pounds and 5 feet tall, built with no assembly instructions and only minor assistance from team mentors.  U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine spoke at the second day of the tournament, expressing his appreciation for the organization and mentioning his family’s prior experiences attending the competition.  “It’s all about taking the curriculum and making it real,” Kaine said. “I’ve already met with a number of former FRC competitors, who are now team mentors, and have gone on to have wonderful careers with companies or the military because they got excited about the work they can do in the math, science, technology and engineering fields.”

The teams were first tasked with building their robot in January this year, given only two months to design and build their robot for this year’s game, “Aerial Assist.” The game divides teams into two alliances, where students’ robots are challenged to collect and shoot two-foot diameter exercise balls through goals on the ground and suspended on a truss above robot operators. Points are given based on goals and assists made by the alliances during the two minute and 30 second rounds.

Don Brobst, a mentor for the team from George Mason High School in Falls Church, Va. supported the team throughout the design and build of its robot, bringing 30 years experience in software and systems engineering.  Brobst says the dedication of the 25 students on George Mason team demonstrate their potential as future engineers and scientists.  “We’ve been staying after school every day until 8 o’clock during build season,” said Abhijit Narain, a George Mason High School senior. “That’s been the key to this: Everyone’s been working really hard.”

Despite being a rookie on the team, Narain says he has learned an immense amount about coding, electronics, physics, design and hardware while competing with his team. Narain also says he plans to study engineering in college and is waiting for a response from Virginia Tech, but already has received acceptance letters from George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

VirginiaFIRST Executive Director Pattie Cook praised all the students and the teams for accepting the challenge and performing at a high level. Cook says high-tech firms and business sponsors notice the ambition and promise student competitors show.  “It’s been the culmination of weeks and weeks of hard work and collaboration; facing challenges from all the snow days, not enough funding and all the dynamics of working as a team. It’s intricate layers of problem solving,” Cook said. “It’s an exciting time for youngsters to see what they’ve learned in school and on their team.”

Cook said programs initiated by FIRST are setting up young people to become future innovators by gaining team-building skills and encouraging children to become interested in technology.  “It’s not just a competition, but it’s become messaging and outreach,” Cook said. “We take our robots out -- all over the state -- to let kids touch technology. We went from one big event to a pipeline of many programs and activities throughout the year.”

Because the robots are designed and built with sophisticated equipment and machinery, teams are required to meet a budget of $9,000 to $12,000. FIRST and participating teams are supported by sponsors such as VCU School of Engineering, NASA, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Booz Allen Hamilton.  Teams also are encouraged to find private sponsors as well, generating interest and support on a smaller community level.

Genworth Financial Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President Scott McKay says financial institutions also have an interest in FIRST.  “As a financial services company, we are very dependent on technology,” said McKay, who is also acting chairman for VirginiaFIRST. “We are always challenged to find enough information technology people, especially in the U.S. where there aren’t enough IT graduates to fill the positions we have.”      

FIRST began in 1992 as an organization encouraging young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers. VCU has played host to the competition since the inception of VirginiaFIRST, the Virginia-based affiliate of FIRST. 

The initial FIRST Robotics Competition came to Virginia in 1999 under the moniker of the NASA Langley-VCU Regional. Since its foundation, the competition has become a staple for high school robotics clubs in the commonwealth looking to participate in a tournament with all the pomp and fanfare of a large sporting event.  “There is something for everyone on the FIRST team,” Cook said. “Sometimes people think they need to be invited. When you walk through the door, you’re family. You could help make a business plan. You could be a project manager. You could build a robot. We need leadership.”

High school teams who ranked high enough at the end of the competition were invited to the FIRST World Robotics Championship, which will take place at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Mo. on the last weekend of April.

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McAuliffe Proposes Fed Funded Medicaid Program

 

By Eric Luther, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Gov. Terry McAuliffe addressed critics of Medicaid expansion as part of Virginia’s biennial budget by proposing a two-year pilot program he says would close the commonwealth’s healthcare gap without financial penalty to the state.

McAuliffe’s 45-minute address signified the beginning of the General Assembly’s special session, which was scheduled in effort to reach an agreement on the roughly $96 billion two-year budget currently at odds over expanding Medicaid coverage to more than 400,000 currently uninsured Virginians.

McAuliffe says the federally funded pilot program would allow Virginia to once again “lead the way” by helping its sickest citizens gain access to healthcare, keep hospitals and clinics afloat, and bring taxpayer dollars back to the commonwealth.  “Opponents have thrown up road block after road block,” McAuliffe said in the Monday address on Capitol Square. “But their arguments have been overcome by simple facts.”

Detractors said closing the healthcare coverage gap would cost Virginia millions of dollars. However, according to McAuliffe, expanding Medicaid would in fact save Virginia’s state budget more than $1 billion between now and 2022.

The proposed pilot program is backed by a letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and states if Virginia implements an expansion of Medicaid coverage for two years, and then drops such coverage at the end of that time period, there would be no financial drawback and no reduction in federal dollars otherwise available to Virginia for its Medicaid program.

The letter is significant, McAuliffe says, because it opens the door for a pragmatic and balanced approach to closing the healthcare coverage gap that all sides should find reasonable.  “There can be no more excuses,” McAuliffe said. “Hundreds of thousands of working families throughout Virginia are counting on us to set aside partisan politics and get the job done.”

McAuliffe harked back to the days of former Gov. Bob McDonnell to further the notion of setting aside partisan disagreements, and urged delegates and senators alike to reach a compromise in the coming weeks.  “Gov. McDonnell included funding in his budget for the Affordable Care Act as early as 2012,” McAuliffe said. “And please let us not forget that the Medicaid Innovation Reform Commission itself was a creature of the budget.”

In addition to Medicaid expansion, McAuliffe highlighted some of the other elements of his biennial budget, including $1.8 million for mental health initiatives, $4.8 million for extended school year grants and $17 million to fund the Line of Duty Act with the Virginia Retirement System.

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General Assembly Braking on DUI Legislation

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –Virginia passed landmark DUI legislation in 2012, requiring anyone convicted of a DUI in the commonwealth -- whether it’s a first or 31st offense -- have an ignition interlock device installed in their car.  After the passage of the milestone law, advocates are not surprised that further DUI legislation has been stunted in the past two sessions.

President of the non-profit organization Washington Regional Alcohol Program Kurt Erickson says this stunting of DUI legislation is to be expected, but says he is disappointed in the fact that only one bill dealing with DUIs made it to the governor for signing this session.  “Once you pass something so landmark around this issue,” Erickson said, “it’s sometimes means the sessions after it don’t really have an appetite for (more) DUI legislation. “

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 229 persons were killed and 5, 861 persons were injured in alcohol-related car accidents in 2012.  This number is a reminder that preventable accidents still are happening, despite previously passed laws.  “There’s still a need for DUI legislation,” Erickson said.  “We expect there not to be as much as legislation after such a landmark year, but that doesn’t mean that the problems has gone away. “

This year there were about 2,700 bills introduced in the Virginia General Assembly. Virginia lawmakers only have 40-60 days to deal with proposed legislation, depending on the session. So it’s understandable how some issues may get put on the sidelines. But Erickson says he hopes future sessions will yield more DUI legislation.  “They (lawmakers) need to know that what’s happened in the past hasn’t been a cure-all” Erickson said. “Issues are still there and need to be dealt with.”

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