Capital News Service

Improving Economy May Reduce State Education Funding

By Eric Luther, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia’s rural localities may receive less state funding for public education than anticipated under this year’s budget proposal, resulting from a calculation used to determine a school division’s ability to cover educational costs.

Deemed the Local Composite Index, the formula determines a locality’s ability to pay for educational costs considered essential to the commonwealth’s Standards of Quality for public schools.

Sen. William Stanley, R- Moneta, says the Local Composite Index, when lowered, benefits rural and less affluent areas, but when a locality’s income increases – state funding decreases.  “You want financial success and prosperity for your area,” Stanley said. “But that financial success and prosperity does come at a cost because it does sometimes reduce funding from the state to locality for the purposes of education.”

According to the Department of Education’s website, the Local Composite Index calculates a localities ability to pay based on three criteria: true value of real property, adjusted gross income and taxable retail sales. 

Delegate Thomas Rust, R- Fairfax, says every locality across the commonwealth is treated equally under the Local Composite Index, which has been in place for nearly 30 years. Rust says because of the improving economy and real estate values, most localities will be responsible for a higher contribution margin over the next two years.  “I know that Loudoun and Fairfax –which I represent -- are both in the range of .68 or something like that,” Rust said. “That means Fairfax and Loudoun are putting 68 cents of every dollar into the education system … and both of them went up a little bit this year.”

Sen. George Barker, D- Alexandria, says areas in Southside Virginia actually benefit from the Local Composite Index calculation based on their ability to pay. He says there are some jurisdictions where the state provides only 20 percent of funding for education, and the locality covers the remaining 80 percent.  “All across (the) Southside, a lot of the school divisions are providing basically somewhere (between) 15 percent and 30 percent of the funding that the state determines is necessary for the minimum level,” Barker said. “And the state is providing between 70 percent and 85 percent.”

The increased obligation placed on some localities by the Local Composite Index does not suggest the proposed budget will negatively impact the state’s educational system.  Legislators have used this year’s proposed budgets to modify funding at all levels of education, ranging from pre-K-services expansion, addressing disadvantaged public school districts, revising Standards of Learning testing and making college more affordable.

According to Barker, education is a top priority of the McAuliffe administration, and Barker says he expects a number of initiatives on those same issues in the coming year.

However, time has run out for Virginia lawmakers to reach an agreement on the proposed $96 billion state budget plan. The General Assembly session adjourned on  Saturday, March 8, 2014, without a budget.  “I think what our school systems need to realize is because we are not going to accomplish a budget within the time frame of adjourning on March 8, we may go into overtime,” Stanley said. “That is a real problem because (localities) are going to start getting nervous … and it’s based on what we’ve done here in Richmond.”

Rust echoes Stanley’s concerns. He says not finalizing a budget by the end of the session will have a negative impact everywhere throughout the commonwealth.  “Local boards of supervisors and school boards right now are in the process of setting budgets for the coming year,” Rust said. “Until they know how much money we’re going to send them it is difficult.”

The standoff between House and Senate members revolves around whether or not to expand Medicaid and provide subsidized health coverage to a sizable number of uninsured Virginians as part of the official budget.

(Editor's Note: With no State Budget in place, City, County and School Board officials will have a very difficult time preparing their own budgets.  The lack of a budget is a very big deal that will effect all of us in Emporia/Greensville.)

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GOP House Leaders Request Special Session on Medicaid Expansion

By Colin Kennedy, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates have proposed a special legislative session to address the debate on Medicaid expansion just three days before the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn.

The House and Senate are less than one-tenth of one percent (or $26 million) apart from compromising on a two-year, $96 billion state budget agreement, but GOP leadership reinforced its position Tuesday that Medicaid Expansion does not belong in the budget bill. 

Majority Leader Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said the commonwealth’s local governing bodies need budgeting information by Saturday’s deadline, and urged the General Assembly to pass a clean budget and reconvene at a later date to discuss Medicaid Expansion as a separate issue. “We need a solution at this point, and our solution is to call for a special session,” Cox said. “We (House Republicans) have been clear that (Medicaid Expansion) has no business being a part of this process. Let’s free the hostage (the budget) and do what’s right for our schools, teachers, college students and first responders.”

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe publicly has refused to sign a budget bill that does not include some form of Medicaid expansion, and the Democratic Senate has yet to budge on its plan to provide up to 400,000 additional Virginians with health coverage under a private provider known as Marketplace Virginia.

On Tuesday, House Democrats fired back at the Republican proposal for a special session, insisting the idea is a delay tactic and that the GOP is at fault for the government impasse.  “It’s very clear that a number of folks on that (Republican) side of the aisle have just been saying no to basically everything,” House Minority leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said. “’Just say no’ isn’t a policy. (It’s) a recipe for a government shutdown.”

Toscano refused to address Cox by name on the floor and said Democrats wouldn’t consider a special session without assurance the time would be used to work out the details of Marketplace Virginia or some other form of Medicaid expansion. “We (House Democrats) agree with the gentleman (Cox) from Colonial Heights,” Toscano said in reference to avoiding a government shutdown. “But we can’t leave $1.7 billion on the table. We can’t discuss a budget without including this money.”

As members of both parties continue to point fingers across the aisle, one Republican legislator suggested the GOP has differences within its own caucus.

Delegate Thomas Davis Rust, R-Herndon, said he doesn’t agree with House Republican leadership on all details of potential Medicaid expansion, but Rust did agree the legislature’s top priority should be passing a state budget on time.   “We can’t afford to go home Saturday without a budget,” Rust said. “And I think the fact that the two have been tied together is very detrimental to Virginia.”

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, R-Manassas, went one step further, suggesting that Democratic President Barack Obama is “falsely taking credit” for federal deficit reductions. He said it’s the states like Virginia rejecting Medicaid expansion that are responsible for lowered national deficit projections.

A joint budget conference committee containing six delegates and seven senators has until Saturday to come up with a compromise before the session is extended. If an agreement isn’t finalized by July 1, the state government will shut down until terms can be negotiated.

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Sunday Hunting Bill Signed into Law

By Jackson McMillan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians will have the right to hunt on Sunday beginning July 1, 2014 according to a bill signed into law this week by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

House Bill 1237, introduced by Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, gives private landowners and their family members lawful authority to hunt and kill wild birds and nuisance species on their property, provided the land is not within 200 yards of a “place of worship.”

An exemption in the law gives landowners and their family members the right to hunt outside of 200 yards of a place of worship “any wild bird or wild animal, including any nuisance species, on the landowner’s property.” That exemption means deer and bear may be hunted on Sunday in addition to wild birds and nuisance species.

However, HB 1237 specifically prohibits hunting deer or bear with “with the assistance or aid of dogs, on Sunday.”

Non-landowners also may hunt on Sundays, with the written permission of the landowner.

Lee Walker, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said biologists with the Bureau of Wildlife Resources need to examine game species affected by the additional hunting day and make recommendations for when hunting seasons should begin and end.

“The Bureau of Wildlife Resources will recommend setting (season) dates that will make sure additional hunting days will not negatively impact those hunted species (mentioned in the legislation),” Walker said. “We’re trying to make as few changes possible.”

Walker said the new hunting regulations should be posted on the department’s website by July 1. The new regulations also will be included in the new hunting and trapping handbook, which will be released Aug. 1, 2014.

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Sunday Hunting Bill Expected to be Signed into Law

By Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Weekend hunters in Virginia may be able to enjoy more hunting opportunities if Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs a law lifting the traditional ban on Sunday hunting within the commonwealth.

House Bill 1237, patroned by Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, passed the General Assembly and now is in the hands of the governor. A similar bill, Senate Bill 154, is expected to pass the General Assembly later this week.

Both bills would allow for Sunday hunting of deer and wild animals only on private property. Hunting would be prohibited, however, within 200 yards of a house of worship.

Although seen as a bipartisan bill, some lawmakers did not approve of lifting the ban on Sunday hunting.

Delegate Thomas Wright, R-Victoria, said the bill will act like a Christmas tree in the legislature, a bill that allows for amendments, like ornaments, to be added on to over time.  Wright predicts the General Assembly gradually will chip away at some of the restrictions in the current bill to eventually make hunting on Sundays equitable to any other day.  “This time it was just private land and still hunting,” Wright said. “In the future I think there are going to be other bills amending this bill allowing eventually … the same hunting like on any other day of the week.”

Forty other states do not have prohibitions on Sunday hunting, according to the Coalition to Lift State Bans on Sunday Hunting. Only Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia have kept these laws intact. 

Both Wright and Gilbert are regular hunters in the commonwealth. Gilbert told Capital News Service earlier this month that the legislation is meant to counter a decline in hunting license purchases in Virginia.  "Virginia has such a strong hunting heritage that we thought this would be a great opportunity to attempt to reverse that trend," Gilbert said. "The high-powered rifle season for deer is only two weeks long. So if you're a hardworking person, you really only have two Saturday's in which to engage in that activity all year. This would simply give you a couple extra days to enjoy a sport you love and be able to put food on the table."

Governor McAuliffe could not be reached for comment.

(Editor's Note: The Greensville County Board of Supervisors oppose Sunday Hunting and recently passed a resolution against abolishing the current restriction.)

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VCU Students Lead Charge in Living-Wage Fight

By Gregory Wise, Special Correspondent, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The fight for a living-minimum wage has garnered a lot of attention in Virginia thanks to student-led groups at Virginia Commonwealth University that have used their school’s status in the local community to spearhead a fight for change.

The Living Wage Campaign of VCU and Students for Social Action, two student led activism groups, have used a variety of tactics including silent protests and marches, to increase awareness for providing wages all Virginia workers can live on.  These groups have attempted to make their point known by first focusing on their school, which happens to be one of the most powerful employers in the city.

VCU, the largest employer in the city of Richmond, currently employs more than 19,000 people and is the key to the living-wage debate within the city according to Dr. Mark Wood, director of VCU’s School of World Studies.  “The university prides itself on being a model community, and one of the principles in supporting the health and well being of its community,” Wood said. “So, modeling that (principle) by providing everyone with a wage to provide for their own health is vital.”

To those involved in the Living Wage Campaign and Students for Social Action, being a model community would mean raising every employee’s wage above the designated “living-wage line,” which is the hourly wage a person working a 40-hour week would have to make in order to meet basic expenses in a designated area. This number, according to the living-wage calculator at, is currently $10.39 for one single individual living in Richmond, Va., which is a $3.14 difference from the current minimum wage in Virginia. “We're appealing to that strong sense of belonging, because we know VCU wants to do right by Richmond,” said Kathryn McNeal, a member of the Living Wage Campaign, “and as the largest employer in a city with a high poverty rate, (VCU) is in a strong position to do so.”

 One of the main sources of argument thus far has been the company ARAMARK, which currently is VCU’s food service vendor and which pays many of its employees around $8.25 an hour. This wage led students to conduct a march on the employees’ behalf this past May. The protesters argument was these employees should be making around $15.  The march received state-wide attention and led to a meeting with David Hanson, VCU’s chief operating officer.

Since that event, the student groups have continued their quest by holding protests and rallies as frequently as they can, contributing to what Wood calls a “much more organized set of demonstrations.”  These events have included a silent protest and a living-wage forum, which have been held within the past two weeks.

While there still hasn’t been implementation of a living wage in Virginia or Richmond, there have been signs of progress.  For one, the Virginia Senate passed a bill designed to raise the minimum wage to $9.75 by 2015, but the House of Delegates killed the bill in the crossover process.

For students involved in the Living Wage Campaign and Students for Social Action just getting people to recognize the issue is a start. However, the activists don’t think their work will be done until workers are paid a living wage.   “I do not think it’s right at all,” Living Wage member Kaitlin Sine said, “and I’m passionate about issues that are immoral.”

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Committee Considers Teacher Relocation Incentive Bill

By Eric Luther, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – One Southside senator has proposed legislation aiming to improve Virginia’s public education system by providing cash incentives to qualified teachers who transfer to disadvantaged school districts throughout the commonwealth. 

Senate Bill 168, proposed by Sen. William Stanley Jr., R- Moneta, would establish a “Teacher Relocation Incentive Grant Fund” to embolden elementary and secondary school teachers to relocate to Virginia localities where the population is less than 50,000 or at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Under the proposed program, to be administered by the Department of Education, approximately 200 qualified teachers could receive up to a $5,000 grant for accepting positions at specified schools.

SB 168 is meant to encourage teachers to move to Southside Virginia and other rural areas where the educators can make a meaningful difference in a child’s life, Stanley says.  “I think they came to the profession of teaching because they have a cause greater than themselves,” Stanley said. “And a calling to educate children and give them the opportunity to --not only have a quality education-- but achieve the American dream.”

Stanley says SB 168 is not a magic-bullet answer for saving failing schools, but one of many parts meant to bring the best-of-the-best to areas where top educators are needed most.  “A lot of the bills I’ve proposed are anti-poverty bills … not to give (people) a handout, but a hand up,” Stanley said. “We know there are children that may not be getting the best opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.”

Shaina Carter, a third-grade teacher in Fairfax County, is familiar with the obstacles faced by low-performing schools.   Carter says she worked in a struggling school district before moving to Northern Virginia. She says poor performing schools generally struggle with high poverty rates, which can have a major impact on the education, learning and the overall well-being of a child   “I don’t necessarily think it’s the teachers … there may be some bad ones, but a lot of it has to do with the background a child is coming from,” Carter said. “I work with a high Spanish population whose parents don’t speak English.  So, there’s no one at home to read or help students with their homework.”

Carter says the $5,000 grant offered by SB 168 is not enough for her to pack her bags and leave Northern Virginia.  “I would relocate if legislators agreed to forgive my school loans,” Carter said.

Margi Roseberry, a kindergarten teacher for Richmond City Public Schools for more than 16 years, says an income-tax incentive would influence where she decides to teach.  “I think I am pretty open-minded about poorly performing school districts,” Roseberry said. “For me to relocate, I would have to be eligible to get credit for my years in Richmond and not have my retirement money affected adversely.”

Roseberry says there are more factors contributing to poorly performing schools than just money. She says school districts can have unrealistic expectations of teachers and students.

According to the Department of Education’s 2013-2014 National School Lunch Program Free and Reduced Price Eligibility Report, 54.4 percent of Pittsylvania county students qualify for free or reduced lunches, making the district a good candidate for SB 168 benefits.

Lilian Holland, assistant superintendent of administration for Pittsylvania County Public Schools, says the proposed incentive sounds like a good idea, but she is not sure if $5,000 is enticing enough for teachers to relocate from a thriving school district.  “If you look at the difference in the salaries … from northern Virginia’s school division versus ours,” Holland said. “I don’t know if $5,000 would be enough of an incentive.”

Holland, who has nearly 30 years’ experience working in education, says schools in Pittsylvania County offer a competitive beginning salary for that region of the state. However, budget cuts have led to a decrease in available positions in recent years.  Nonetheless, Holland says teachers who are on the fence about relocating owe it to themselves to experience the beauty of Southside Virginia. She says the small friendly communities with proximity to larger areas such as Greensboro and Raleigh, and lower cost of living make Southside Virginia a great place to live.  “We have a strong support network within our schools to help individuals transition,” Holland said. “Our students are nice children, and we have very supportive administrators.”

Stanley says SB 168 is one facet of a larger plan to ensure all schools in the commonwealth are on a level playing field.  “We’re trying to create a rising tide that floats all ships,” Stanley said. “For those teachers who would relocate, I can tell you that our areas would appreciate them the most.”

SB 168 passed the Senate in early February in a 40-0 vote, and currently is awaiting deliberations in the House subcommittee on appropriations.

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Legislation Safeguards Pets Against Domestic Violence

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – At least 71 percent of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters have reported their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets, according to the American Humane Association.  

Delegate Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst, says he hopes to give solace to these pets and their owners with House Bill 972.  The bill states that a protective order may grant possession of the family pet to the petitioner and prohibit further violence directed toward the pet.  If passed, Virginia will join the 23 states that already have laws protecting companion animals.   “As a former prosecutor of domestic violence,” Cline told the U.S.  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.”

According to sexual and domestic abuse statistics, abusers often go after pets because the animals offer a target for revenge and can be used to psychologically control the abuser’s victims.   

Virginia director for the HSUS, Laura Donahue says stories about this type of incidents are common and that abused pets deserve as much justice and protection as the victims.  “These abusers are very calloused and will do anything to control their victims,” Donahue said. “It’s a fact that people love pets, and that most owners consider them part of their family. The abusers know this and will threaten to hurt the animal if the victim leaves, which ultimately prevents them (the victim) from escaping the domestic abuse.”

The bill hopefully will help to protect domestic abuse victims and their pets, as well as keep them together.  Sharon Adams, executive director for the Virginia Beach SPCA, says the society regularly takes in animals involved in domestic violence situations so that owners can seek help at a shelter. She also said almost 70 percent of the time, the victim comes back for the pet once the victim has left the abuser and is a healthy, safe environment.   The animals that cannot be reunited with their owners are put up for adoption within the shelter or other organizations.

Supporters of the legislation say they are hopeful that it will not only save owners from having to give up their pets, but the law also will save the lives of victims and animals who otherwise, wouldn’t be able to survive or leave the abuse.  “This is honestly a life-saving bill,” Donahue said. “Often times there aren’t a lot of bills where you can say for every animal life it’s saving, it’s also saving human life. It (the law) would help allow victims and their pets to get out of dangerous and abusive situations … together.”

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Bill Gives Officers More Options, Dogs More Chances

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND --  A bill giving animal control officers flexibility in dealing with livestock-injuring dogs is heading to the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe for signature, after passing the Senate unanimously this week.

Under current law if a dog is found chasing, injuring or killing poultry and livestock, animal control and police officers have a duty to kill the dog, whether it has tags or not. 

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, proposed House Bill 740 this session to not only give officers more flexibility, but also to give pet owners peace of mind about their dogs.

McClellan says that this bill is particularly necessary in the city because of recent ordinances that allow up to four hens to be kept in people’s backyards.  “A woman in Hanover, whose dog was killed by her neighbor for allegedly chasing her chickens, contacted me and (Richmond City) Councilman Charles Samuels about this issue,” McClellan said. “She said ‘Hey, you probably didn’t know about this law when you passed the chicken ordinance, but you should know now.’ So I met with the City Council and we all agreed that if someone’s dog was shot in the city because of chasing chickens, there would probably be a lot of problems.”

When enacted, the bill will give responding officers the choice to seize the dog, instead of automatically killing it.  Although the bill states that officers can still legally kill the dog on site, McClellan says that most of animal control officers will opt to seize them and take them to the pound, depending on the severity of the situation.  

Ellen Pedersen, dog owner and former VCU student, says this bill would alleviate some of her stress dealing with her dog and neighbors.  “My neighbors across the street just moved three chickens into their backyard,” Pedersen said. “I was really worried about what would happen if Bacardi (her yellow Labrador mix) got out of the house and went to investigate the new fluffy neighbors. He’d never chase or hurt the chickens -- just show some curiosity, so I’m relieved to know that he won’t have to be shot down if that ever happens.”

If an officer does in fact kill the dog on site, there are laws that provide monetary compensation to the owner. McClellan says that one of these laws actually increased the amount of compensation that the dog owner would get in such a situation.

Earlier this month HB 740 passed in the house with a 96-2 vote and crossed over to the Senate. The bill passed the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee with a 15-0 vote and was sent to the Senate floor, where it passed 40-0.

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Whistle-Blower Protection Advances In Senate

By James K. Galloway, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Whistle-blower protection moved forward this week after a Senate committee voted 36 to 1 in favor of House Bill 728, which would make it illegal to terminate an employee for reasons related to that person’s exposure of waste, fraud or abuse.  “Intimidation and threats are a problem when it comes to quashing the willingness of a public employee to look after the taxpayers,” said Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, who introduced three bills on this topic—House Bills 728, 731 and 739. “So I think going forward, my intent is to correct a defect in the law because under current law it's not clear what a court does when there is a 'mixed motive' for the dismissal of an employee.”

The legislation is important to people like Henry Lewis, a former Alexandria architect who won his whistle-blower case against the city last year, after a jury decided his 2011 termination violated the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, passed shortly before Lewis lost his job. Lewis is represented by attorney Zachary Kitts, who claims on his website to be the principal architect behind the 2011 amendments to the FATA.

Kitts said he told legislators, including Lingamfelter, he thought the legislation was needed.  “There's a risk that a defendant can say '99 percent of the reason that we terminated this person's employment was because they complained about fraud against the government,'” Kitts said, “but they could say one percent was a lawful reason and they could win the case based on that.”

Lingamfelter repeated Kitts' assertion that whistle-blowers can be unjustly fired if the person who fired them for exposing fraud also claimed to have legitimate reasons to do so. Moreover, he introduced House Bill 731, which could shift liability onto the agent who illegally terminates a whistle-blower, in addition to the institution itself.

HB 731 was defeated twice in the Courts of Justice Senate committee by tie votes that fell, by the majority, along party lines. Different members failed to register votes for each session. However, if the committee had voted on the bill again – and all members voted the same as they did previously – the bill would have passed, making supervisors liable for illegal terminations, in addition to the institutions they represent. On the bill’s final consideration, one member was not present: Sen. Thomas K. Norment, R-Williamsburg. Although Norment favored the bill, the absence of his vote caused its defeat. Norment did not respond to inquiries regarding his absence.

“An abusive supervisor can escape any judgment in a court and it's the city, town or county that bears the full cost,” Lingamfelter said. “Shouldn't that supervisor bear some of the wrongdoing, since they're the one who committed it?”  Director of General Services for the City of Alexandria Jeremy McPike is one such supervisor, according to Lingamfelter. McPike made the recommendation that Lewis be terminated as city architect during construction of a police station. He also ran against Lingamfelter in the 2013 election for a seat in the House.

“This language in this legislation coming from Lingamfelter doesn't surprise me at all,” McPike said. “He invited a trial attorney to our debate last fall to try to intimidate me. He sat in the front row. It's petty politics.”  The legislation, as introduced by Lingamfelter, states that a whistle blower may not be discharged, threatened or otherwise discriminated against, “in whole or in part,” for reasons connected to the exposure of fraud, waste or abuse.

“If it were in a township that I was in charge of, (McPike) wouldn't have his job,” Lingamfelter said, “because I think that anybody who intimidates someone whose greatest sin is they're just trying to point out taxpayer fraud should not be supervising other people.”

McPike said Richmond is beginning to operate like Washington, D.C.  “It's legislation driven, frankly, by the trial attorneys again,” McPike said. “Obviously, they're in cahoots with one another.”

Kitts said one of the bills adds the words “in whole or in part” to the motivation section of the statute.  “Any employee shall be entitled to all relief necessary if that employee is discharged, demoted, suspended, threatened, harassed, or in any other manner discriminated against,” Kitts said, “'in whole or in part,' because of lawful acts done by the employee.”

The purpose of existing fraud and abuse law is to “make whole” any person fired in retaliation for exposing fraud. When Lewis won his case against the city under the new law, he was then entitled to recovery in the form either of reinstatement of his job as city architect, or front-pay to match the number of years he could have worked; however, he had to appeal for that money. The city was denied its request for an appeal by the Virginia Supreme Court. Instead, the court heard Lewis' appeal for owed equities and benefits pay.

At the hearing, the court asked Alexandria City Attorney Jonathan Mook how his city can ignore language in the FATA that says a person fired in retaliation “shall” be compensated for lost wages and benefits.  “How can you ignore the 'shall' in the law?” Justice William C. Mims asked. “How can reinstatement or front-pay not be required to make Henry Lewis whole?”

Mook said Lewis is not entitled to back pay because any estimations on how long Lewis might have worked for the city would be speculative, to which Mims responded by asking, “Wouldn't any estimation be speculative?”

Lingamfelter's legislation would turn the city's defense into an argument against itself.

Mook told the court that Lewis was fired for at least two reasons: insubordination, or failing to maintain a harmonious work relationship with co-workers and supervisors; and Lewis' refusal to sign false invoices at McPike's request. Therefore, the city's estimation of how long Lewis might have stayed on differs by at least seven years when compared to what Mook called “abusive” and “punitive” estimations by Lewis and Kitts.

Lingamfelter agrees there is an effort to politicize his whistle-blower legislation.  “I know that people like (Charlottesville Democratic Delegate David) Toscano want to politicize this. I got it. I understand that. That goes on down here all the time.”

Toscano did not respond to requests for comment.

Co-Chairs of the Senate Committee on Courts of Justice Henry L. Marsh, D-Richmond, and A. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, did not respond to requests for clarifications as to whether the bill would be voted on for a third time early this week.

HB728 awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffeHB739 was left in committee.

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Full-time governor’s schools ask for almost $3 million

By Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Full-time governor’s schools in Virginia are requesting an additional $2.9 million from the state this year to correct a funding disparity in the budget formula between part-time and full-time governor’s schools.

Parent-Teacher-Student Association members of the Appomattox Regional Governor's school and the Maggie Walker Governor's School are leading an advocacy effort proposing the amendments.

The funding formula currently in place gives full-time governor’s schools in Virginia only 15 percent more funding than part-time schools, which is not enough to encourage growth or continued much-needed programs, according to Marianne Macon, advocacy chair of the Maggie Walker PTSA.  "In effect, the current formula discourages full-day programs," Macon said. "The state has been providing planning grants for new governor's schools -- new full-day schools -- and the planning is in the works, but the actual realization of the schools -- and the continued possibility of the schools being financially viable for their region -- is really, in my opinion, dependent on the correction of the formula."

House budget item 136 1H and Senate budget item 136 2S are patroned by Delegate Tag Greason, R-Lansdowne, and Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, respectively. The items were spearheaded by concerned parents of the schools.  “When this was brought to my attention I thought, wow, these are supposed to be the best and brightest of our schools, but yet we’re underfunding them,” Greason said. “I think literally the mechanics of the funding formula have shortchanged the schools so we put in a budget amendment to try and fix that.”

The House version of the budget item requests a study of the funding formula for the schools for a long term solution, Greason said.  The budget amendments aim to correct the funding disparity between full-time governor’s schools and part-time governor’s schools in the state, which has been in place for more than a decade, Macon said.  If the amendment is added to the budget, $2.9 million would be allotted to the schools for school year 2014-2015 between the three schools.

The budget problems at the schools have been building since 2009, and Maggie Walker still is down about 15 percent in overall revenue funding from state and local funding since 2009, Macon said.  "There is such great demand for these schools I think there would be progress in establishing more if the funding was stabilized and equalized," said PTSA advocacy committee member Laura O'Brien.

The additional money would be put towards updating technology, textbooks and needed security changes around the schools, Macon said.  The Maggie Walker School has had to cut its part-time security staff and does not have a full-time school resource officer, Macon said.  "We've had to cut back in that area," Macon said.  The school also has had to pay for recent updates in its security cameras.

Bringing additional funding from the state will allow programs at the Appomattox governor’s school to strengthen, said Sherrill Hankins, PTSA advocacy chair at the Appomattox Regional Governor's School. The funding may go to "maintaining key teachers who will come or are attracted to come teach in these focus areas," she said.

Teacher salaries must be approved by the regional school boards, which vote on their own budgets annually.

The amendments were not included in the governor’s original proposed budget

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Medicaid Expansion Battle Foreshadows Potential Government Shutdown

By Colin Kennedy, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND -- Virginia’s Republican-dominated House of Delegates and Democratic Senate both passed competing versions of a two-year, $96 billion state budget bill this past week, but not before the GOP reinforced its stern opposition to Medicaid expansion. 

The Senate’s version (Senate bill 30) would allow the commonwealth to use federal money to help provide health coverage for an estimated 250,000 uninsured Virginians through a private marketplace. But Republican legislators responded with a symbolic vote that supports a position the GOP has held for months.

In what was the latest move in an endless case of party politics at the state Capitol, House Appropriations Committee Chairman S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, proposed an amendment to add expanded Medicaid to budgetary House Bill 30 just moments before the chamber approved its version of the state budget.  As expected, the amendment that mirrored the Senate’s Medicaid expansion plan was rejected. However, Jones and the Republicans hope 67 votes against the provision strengthen their stance against federally-backed health care expansion.

The emblematic move came less than a week after Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe openly criticized the House budget for failing to accept Medicaid expansion. The maneuver continues a partisan battle legislators on both sides of the aisle have warned may cause government impasse.

An 11-person conference committee will meet to attempt to reconcile differences between the two budgets and will have until the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 to come up with a compromise. If nothing is settled by July 1, the state government will effectively shut down.

 Republicans hinted at the prospect of a government shutdown last year when McAuliffe insisted he wouldn’t approve a state budget that didn’t include Medicaid expansion during his campaign. And less than two weeks before the General Assembly’s scheduled conclusion date of March 8, some legislators are confident the battle over Medicaid expansion will prolong the session at the very least.  “If it’s not the biggest issue, it is one of the biggest issues,” Delegate Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, said. “I will be surprised if we get out of here on March 8. I’ll be surprised if we’re out of here by April 15.”


Petersburg, Chesterfield Negotiate School Acquisitions

By Eric Luther and Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Petersburg City Public Schools may circumvent a state takeover, pending a Senate budget proposal aiming to provide Chesterfield County the authority to intervene and essentially manage the city’s worsening schools.

Proposed by Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, the proposal allots more than $1.6 million to Petersburg and Chesterfield over the next two years for the purpose of developing a school-services cooperative agreement and tuition contract.

The budget item is modeled after an agreement between Fairfax County Public Schools and Fairfax City, under which the schools are operated y the county but the buildings are maintained by the city.  Nicole Bell-Van Patten, a Petersburg Public Schools spokeswoman, stated in a press release that the division is aware of the budget amendment but was surprised to learn of the proposal.  “We will stay abreast of developments from the General Assembly regarding this issue,” Bell-Van Patten stated.

According to a report from the Senate subcommittee on education, funding would allow for $1 million in the first year and $600,000 in the second year to alter a per-pupil funding disparity between the two districts.  The recommendation of the Senate subcommittee states the proposal is meant to avoid routing Petersburg’s failing schools to the Opportunity Educational Institution Plan … effectively avoiding a complete state takeover to solve the schools' problems.

Petersburg schools, which receive funding from federal School Improvement Grant allocations, spent an average of $10,655 a pupil in fiscal year 2012, while Chesterfield schools spent $8,755 a student, according to a state senate report. 

Norment spokesman Jeff Ryer says the proposal is an agreement between two localities within the same region, as opposed to the state imposing some other solution.  “I would look at it as an administrative change,” Ryer said. “I think everybody is looking for some kind of solution that occurs relatively soon. Every day a child is in a failing school is a serious problem.”

Peabody Middle School and A.P. Hill Elementary were denied accreditation by the State Board of Education this academic year for poor performance. Other schools, including J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, Robert E. Lee Elementary, Walnut Hill Elementary, Vernon Johns Junior High and Petersburg High School, were allowed accreditation with a warning.

Passing rates on the English test of the Virginia Standards of Learning in Petersburg schools decreased from 77 percent in 2010-2011 school year to 52 percent in 2012 - 2013. On the mathematics test, only 50 percent of students passed this past year, and only 56 percent of students passed the writing exam.


GA Delaying Individual School Grading System

By Chris Suarez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The House Education Committee approved a bill delaying the implementation of a new grading system for schools this past week, but some delegates are questioning if the new system meets the needs of Virginia schools, parents and communities.  This past November, the State Board of Education approved a new A-to-F grading system for individual state schools to supplement the current accreditation system.  The bill passed the House committee and delays incorporating the new grading system for one year, moving the deadline for grades to Oct. 1, 2015.

The idea of introducing a grading system for state schools was rolled out last year as part of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “All Students” K-12 education reform. The grades would be assigned to schools based on students’ “demonstration of proficiency, academic growth and college and career readiness,” according to a November 2013 press release from the Virginia Board of Education. 

The report cards are slated for release Oct. 1, 2014, but some legislators and teacher’s unions say more time is needed to assess how grades should be assigned.  “The A-through-F grading only grades poverty,” said Sen. John C. Miller, D-Newport News. “It doesn’t give a true indication of what goes on in schools.”

This past week Senate Bill 324, the bill introduced by Miller, which would delay implementing the new grading system by three years, was combined with a companion bill, House Bill 1229, by the House Committee on Education.  Miller said he introduced the three-year delay after State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Patricia Wright requested it. Wright says data still needs to be collected to make a fair assessment, according to Miller.

Miller’s bill sought to include grades for experience and qualifications of teachers, funding per pupil, extracurricular activities, percentage of children eligible for free or reduced cost lunch, percentage of English language learners and other factors.  “The criteria need to include more factors that impact a child’s education,” Miller said. “If we’re going to give a grade, we ought to give a grade that properly reflects what’s happening in our schools.”

While Miller’s bill outlined other factors that should be considered when assigning grades, the amended House bill leaves standards for what may or may not be graded up to further legislation. The House bill states the process would grade schools’ performances based on “standards of accreditation, state and federal accountability, and student growth indicators.”   “I think the Department of Education made it more complicated than it needs to be,” said Delegate Steve Landes, R-Verona, the chief patron of HB1229. “The criteria they came up with are convoluted and complicated. It’s not easy for the school systems, teachers or parents to understand what the grades mean.”

Landes says he’s undecided on whether a single grade or a more comprehensive report card would be more beneficial for educators and families, but the year-long delay would provide more time for debate.  “I think he’s (Miller) doing the exact thing we’re trying to avoid: complicating it,” Landes said. “We need to make it simpler, more transparent and easier for people to understand.”

While some legislators debate the time frame and manner of grading, other state officials and education organizations are strongly opposed to a letter-grade system.  The Virginia Education Association has come out in opposition to the letter-grade system. VEA President Meg Gruber says schools with high numbers of English language learners, low-income students, special education participants and other factors may affect a school’s grade and cause further disparity with high-grade schools.

Earlier this month, Delegate Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County, told the Virginian-Pilot the new grading system is similar to painting schools with a “scarlet letter.” 

The bill that approved the letter-grade system last year was introduced by Delegate Thomas Greason, R-Lansdowne. According to a Loudon Times report, Greason drafted the legislation after attending events hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that has lobbied for letter-grade systems in several states.   “Research will show you that there is not one state that has implemented an A-to-F grading system of their public schools that has been accurate or successful,” Gruber said. “Florida right now is looking at placing a moratorium on it because it’s so flawed ... Why are we putting in place a system that isn’t working anywhere else?”

The bill is awaiting its third reading this week and is expected to meet a verdict before the General Assembly adjourns on March 8.


Student Power Descends Upon General Assembly

By Lauren McClellan and Jackson McMillan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- College students from across Virginia met at the General Assembly this past week to lobby legislators about progressive issues, such as Medicaid expansion, women’s reproductive rights and education for undocumented students.

University of Virginia alumna Clair Wyatt founded the Virginia Student Power Network in fall 2013 after she saw a need for students across the state to organize and come together to discuss and act on issues important to the state’s higher education students.  “The main student coordinators of the Virginia Student Power Network decided last fall that we wanted to have a statewide student lobby day during the 2014 General Assembly session,” Wyatt stated in an email. “We went to the General Assembly to tell our legislators to prioritize educational access, as well as social, economic, and environmental justice, because they need to be beholden to the interests of Virginian citizens – particularly us as the next generation – not private and corporate interests.”

Grassroots movements can have a significant influencing effect on issues, says Kate Miller, a University of Virginia student.  “It’s really easy to be bogged down and feel like you can’t do anything once you realize how many problems the communities are facing,” Miller said. “Just reaching out to other people and finding a way to work with the system and to help fix some of these issues and just generally make a difference is a really, really wonderful thing.”

Former student Jordan Gregory of Petersburg said healthcare issues are what attracted him to participate with Virginia Student Power Network.  “I fall in that percentile that doesn’t have healthcare,” Gregory said. “If I was to break my leg right now, I would have to pay out of pocket and that’s steep.”

Around 15 students from Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, Virginia State University and Virginia Commonwealth University met up in Richmond to talk with their respective legislators.  The day started with a training session in the Capitol where Cathy Woodson from Virginia Organizing, a progressive grassroots advocacy organization, led the students in a roleplaying exercise.  Students had the chance to learn how to best go about speaking to their local legislators.  Addie Alexander, an event organizer, played different legislators to help prepare the students.

After the role-playing exercise, Delegate Alfonso Lopez, D- Arlington, talked to the students about issues he has been working on this General Assembly session. His talking points included women’s reproductive health, Virginia’s proposed version of the DREAM Act and environmental conservation.  “Virginia should be the leader in renewable energy,” Lopez said. “but we’re not.”

Students then were given schedules for their meetings with legislators and went to watch the session.  Rachel Sine, a Virginia Commonwealth University student, met with aides for Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond, and Sen. John Watkins, R- Midlothian.

McClellan legislative aide Abbey Philips said McClellan shared similar position with the students on higher education, Medicaid expansion and reproductive health issues.   Philips also said McClellan supports Medicaid expansion because it would afford coverage to many people who live in her district.  “She (McClellan) has close to 30,000 constituents in her district that are currently uncovered,” Philips said. “There is a possibility that we will be holding some educational forums about Medicaid for our constituents so they know about it, and so they know what their options are with the health exchange.”

Sine said she thought her meetings with legislators went well.  “They (the legislators) agreed with us on the policies we went in there to talk about,” Sine said, “and they were open to have a discussion with us and hear us out.”

Virginia Tech student Claire Wicklund met with an aide from the office of Sen. John Edwards, D- Roanoke, and Delegate Joseph Yost, R- Pearisburg.  “We knew going in that Edwards would be really supportive, so it was cool going in to talk about how we can work together in the future as a student group with a legislator,” Wicklund said. “We were kind of surprised talking with Yost because we actually did have his support in some of the issues we were talking about up to an extent.”

Miller met with aides for Sen. Creigh Deeds, D- Charlottesville, and Delegate David Toscano, D- Charlottesville.  “The two of them were very supportive,” Miller said.  “Both of them were mindful of the issues we talked about, which were reproductive rights, the environmental legislation on solar energy and the DREAM Act.”

David Brown, the special assistant to Democratic Leader Toscano, said he and the students discussed a wide range of issues.  “It was very interesting and helpful to get the input of students who are very concerned about contemporary issues,” Brown said. “I think it’s really important for him (Toscano) to understand where all of his constituents stand on issues including students.”

The students said they were happy with their experience and thought it helped them to get a better prospective of Virginia’s legislature.  “Engaging within that system was really interesting because you read about it in textbooks in class and you hear about how it works, but it’s very different up close and personal,” Miller said. “It was quite interesting to see how everything was shifting around.”

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Federal Farm Bill Cracks Down on Animal Fights

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Patrons of animal fights will face harsher consequences thanks to the Agricultural Act of 2014, which recently was signed into law by President Barack Obama.  The legislation – also known as the “Farm Bill” -- includes provisions that not only make being a spectator or bringing a child under the age of 16 to animal-fighting events as federal crimes.

Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, was the force behind the passing of this legislation, and she says these laws will help protect children from being traumatized or desensitized by the cruelty and suffering happening at animal fights.  Cantwell and supporters say they are hopeful the provisions also will help to prevent children and spectators from mimicking such heinous acts on humans.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund stated on its website that animal abusers are five times more likely to harm a person.  This means animal-fight hosts and spectators -- including children -- are more at risk for developing domestic violence tendencies, than people who do not attend these bloody events.  U.S. Human Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle stated he thinks the bill will promote prevention while also giving law enforcement more tools to further shut down the illegal animal-fight industry.     “The farm bill gives us a new hammer in breaking up dogfighting and cockfighting rings,” Pacelle stated in a HSUS news brief, “allowing law enforcement (more legal options to) crack down on the entire cast of characters involved in these sickening enterprises.”

Along with these provisions, the law also omits the controversial King Amendment, which according to the humane society, attempted to nullify state laws and strip states of the rights to ensure the health and welfare of citizens.  This means the law will authorize the purely local sale and consumption of “any agricultural product,”  no matter how dangerous, unethical, environmentally destructive or of concern.  “The farm bill also drives a stake in the heart of the overreaching and destructive King amendment,” Pacelle stated, “which threatened so many state and local laws against inhumane farming practices.”

Because the King Amendment was omitted from the final draft submission, state laws on health, safety and animal welfare currently are safe from nullifications and law changes.


Red Light Cameras Remain Legal

 By Quinn Casteel, Capital News Serviice

RICHMOND – Red light cameras will remain legal in Virginia for at least another year, as the House Transportation Committee defeated a bill this past week that would have forced the discontinuation of such photo-monitoring systems.  The committee voted 13-8 against House Bill 973, sponsored by Delegate Benjamin Cline, R – Amherst, which would have repealed local authority to operate the systems known as “photo red” or “red-light cameras.”

Virginia police from several localities attended this past week’s meeting to lobby in favor of keeping the cameras, citing safety as the number one concern. Localities that have implemented the systems have reported decreases in red-light violations as high as 33 and 40 percent.

 Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn, D – Springfield, and committee chair Delegate Thomas Rust, R – Herndon, were among the House members voting against the bill.  “My main reason for voting against it: safety,” Rust said.  “A lot of people were saying it saves lives and stops crashes.”  Filler-Corn, a fellow Fairfax County delegate, echoed Rust’s opinion.   “In Fairfax County we don’t have red-light cameras,” Filler-Corn said, “but I do feel strongly that we need to retain the option and flexibility because I do believe it (cameras) saves lives.”

Among those opposing the monitoring systems and voting for the bill was Delegate Timothy Hugo, R – Centreville, who questions the localities’ motivation.  “You’ve seen what they’ve done in D.C. – they shorten the lights to basically increase the revenue,” Hugo said. “I’m very hopeful -- right here in the House -- we’ve passed a bill to set a standard for the yellow light.”

House Bill 116, sponsored by Delegate Joseph Morrissey, D – Richmond, would tighten regulations on the photo systems in regards to the timing of yellow lights and how law enforcement uses the cameras to monitor right turn lanes. “What you don’t want to see is these lights being used as a revenue builder,” Hugo said.

Virginia Beach is home to the state’s longest-running photo-monitoring program.  The city reported it netted $3.3 million on 12 cameras from 2009 to 2012. Fairfax City has made $500,000 in profit on just three cameras since 2011 and has plans to add three more, according to a report by WTOP-FM.

Other localities with red-light-camera monitoring include Richmond, Albemarle County, Norfolk, Newport News, Chesapeake, Petersburg, Charlottesville, Blacksburg, Centreville, Arlington, Vienna and Woodbridge.

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Measure Could Amend Zero-Tolerance Policy

By Chris Suarez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The federal statute requiring students, who bring firearm or drugs to elementary or secondary schools, be expelled for a full year might see a change in Virginia if state Senate Bill 441 passes.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Thomas Garrett, R-Hadensville, seeks to offer leniency under certain circumstances to children facing expulsion or suspension.  “We have a bunch of wonderful professional educators in the commonwealth of Virginia, but they’re not lawyers,” Garrett said. “When you have a federal bill that dictates ‘zero-tolerance policy’ you end up with administrators and educators who think their hands are tied, and they have to expel.”

Federal mandate states students who bring firearms or drugs on to school property “shall” face a suspension or expulsion. The bill, written to clarify the mandate seeks to substitute  the word “may” for “shall,” when there is no real firearm or drugs involved Garrett said.  Examples of children across the country who’ve faced expulsion for imitating weapons with objects such as pencils, or fingers, or passing off kitchen spices for illicit drugs is the reason why Garrett says he’s introducing the bill.   “Where there’s a real gun or real narcotics, I can see a zero-tolerance threshold,” Garrett said. “But when there’s a kid with a Pop Tart, a pencil or his finger saying ‘pow,’ it’s nuts.”

This past September, two Virginia Beach minors were suspended for shooting an airsoft gun near a school bus stop. The families of the two 13-year old students suspended by the Virginia Beach Public School System appealed the decision saying the minors shot the pneumatic gun on private property.  The language of Garrett’s measure states pneumatic guns do not fit under the federal zero-tolerance policy because a firearm is described as a weapon that fires a projectile by means of an explosion.  

Garrett cited the Virginia Beach story as the reasoning behind the bill because both teens could face future repercussions having expulsions on their respective permanent records.  “It’s gotten to a point, frankly, that I might expect this from other states,” Garrett said. “But when it starts happening in Virginia, something needs to be done,”  Garrett’s measure has seen little opposition, being passed by the Senate and the House committee on Education unanimously the past two weeks.

The Virginia School Boards Association supports the bill and says amendments made by Garrett influenced the association’s decision to back the legislation. “The amendment was very straightforward and clear; saying nothing in the section should be construed to require expulsion regardless of the facts and circumstances,” said Pat Lacy, a special counsel to the school board association.

The measure will be heard by the House of Delegates in the next week.

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Pro-Choice Coalition Lobby (Snow) Day

By Dana Carlson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A winter snowstorm didn't stop the Virginia Pro-Choice Coalition's Day of Action from bringing women's issues to the Capitol, but the weather did force the group to improvise its lobbying tactics.  The lobby day was revamped as a (Snow) Day of Action taking place online after Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a "state of emergency" the previous evening.

Organizations such as Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, Virginia NOW and others took to the Internet to reach out to General Assembly members.  With the roads slick with snow and ice, the coalition turned to social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter to begin discussions about women's health care issues on the legislative agenda this session.  "I don't have data to quantify the Day of Action because we used links from multiple organizations," grassroots advocacy manager of Planned Parenthood, Tara Gibson, stated in an email.  "It might not have been our original plan, but supporters across the state took to the phones and the Internet to stand up for women's health."

Volunteers and activists were encouraged to reach out to their representatives by contacting legislators who would be voting on women's health bills.  Senate Bill 617, which would repeal the ultrasound mandate for women seeking an abortion, was a subject of interest for the Day of Action.  "I just emailed my delegate to repeal Virginia's mandatory ultrasound law and you should too!" Sandra Sanchez tweeted in the #4HealthVA tweet chat.

The measure, however, was laid on the table by a voice vote in the Criminal Law committee on Valentine's Day.  "SB617 would've removed a chance for women to see an ultrasound before abortion," tweeted Olivia Gans Turner, director of Americans Victims of Abortion. "Why protect abortionists before women?"

Senate Bill 618, which would have removed the abortion prohibition from health insurance coverage, was defeated by an 18 - 22 vote on the bill’s third reading in the Senate before crossing over to the House. "SB 618 simply respected that most Americans don't want their taxes paying for abortion," Turner stated. "The GA's vote got that right."

Medicaid expansion was another focus for the coalition lobbyists who circulated an online Medicaid expansion petition seeking 1,000 supporters on the Day of Action.  "If Virginia fails to expand Medicaid," Planned Parenthood Virginia tweeted, "112,642 women of reproductive age will fall into the coverage gap."

In a Planned Parenthood advocacy meeting this past week, Medicaid expansion took center stage after Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, proposed an amendment called Marketplace Virginia.  The legislation would require recipients of health insurance expansion to pay a premium that would be collected and applied against the state's share of the cost once the federal government no longer incurs 100 percent of the expense.

Watkins sits on the Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission but is the only Republican to propose a plan of action involving extending health care services.  During the advocacy meeting, Gibson and other grassroots advocates outlined a plan to contact Watkins' constituents encouraging them to reach out to the senator about  Medicaid expansion.

"The Day of Action really is an opportunity to talk about Medicaid expansion because it impacts so many people," said Cianti Stewart-Reid, the Planned Parenthood PAC liaison. Other Day of Action lobbying efforts have been rescheduled to a later date.    A reception with Lt.Gov. Ralph Northam, who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the ultrasound repeal, and a happy hour meeting with the Reproductive Health Caucus, have been postponed.  "Virginia's women's health supporters are passionate and engaged," Gibson stated. "A little snow couldn't keep us from ensuring legislators hear our voices."

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Senate, House Debating Student Concussion Policy

By Chris Suarez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Student-athletes in youth-sports programs could be included under new concussion policies if a bill seeking to add guidelines for non-interscholastic teams passes.  House Bill 441 patron Delegate Richard Anderson, R-Woodbridge, said the bill was introduced in memory of Austin Trenum, a student from Brenstville High School in Prince William County. In August 2011, Austin -- the son of Prince William County School Board member, Gil Trenum -- took his own life after experiencing a concussion during a high school football game late that summer.

Paul McShane, a senior at Centreville High School, who suffered a concussion the same month as Austin, has yet to be medically cleared for any contact sport  McShane says suffering a concussion is a unique injury because typical remedies do not work. While many players combat injury by taking rehabilitative services or medicine, McShane says there is no concrete treatment for concussions.  “Not knowing is the worst part. I don’t know when the day will be that I don’t wake up with a headache,” McShane said. “I don’t know what it’s not like to have one.”

Virginia public-schools instituted new policies for managing student-athlete concussions in the wake of Austin’s death, but youth sports organizations, which use public-school property, are not legally held to the same standard, Anderson said.  “There’s a well-defined body of guidance for scholastic teams, but there is no requirement right now for non-interscholastic teams to comply with any sort of concussion protocol.” Anderson said.

While the procedure will require extra work for non-interscholastic youth sports programs, Anderson said he thinks the policy should be an easy transition if the groups work in conjunction with the schools.  “If they’re going to practice or play on school property, they’ll have to either develop their own concussion protocols in accordance with school policies or adopt an existing policy that’s been authored and blessed by the state Board of Education,” Anderson said.

The bill was rejected by the House of Delegates this past week after coming back from the Senate. Amendments made by the Senate struck down a clause in the bill encouraging the tracking of students’ academic performance after suffering a concussion.

A Senate companion bill without the academic-effects clause currently is making its way through the House, but Anderson says any related bill that passes the House will include the provision.  “When we go to conference committee, we’ll make the agreed upon version between the House and Senate include the statement about the effects of concussions on student-athletes academically,” Anderson said.        

McShane, who had to drop out and become home schooled after his injury, says the provision to educate coaches, students and their families about the adverse effects on academic performance would be welcomed.  “I think the coaches of whatever sport and training staff are fully responsible and should be held accountable,” McShane said. “A child’s future and development as a person is rooted in their programs ... and they’re responsible for that.”


Herring Supports Court’s Gay-Marriage Decision

By Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples in Virginia continues to progress through the courts this week after a federal judge ruled the state’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.

Federal District Judge Arenda Wright Allen struck down the law used in the controversial Bostic v. Rainey case as unconstitutional in Norfolk’s federal court this past Thursday. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring declared his support of the ruling against the same-sex marriage ban in the commonwealth.  "The ruling by Judge Arenda Wright Allen is yet another step forward in the long road toward ensuring that all Virginians are treated fairly and equally under the law," Herring said.

Herring announced just days after coming into office his administration would not support the commonwealth's law in federal court.

In her 41-page opinion, the judge cited violations of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as factors that ultimately reversed the ban. "What Judge Wright Allen affirmed is that couples like them who are committed to sharing the marital bond deserve to be treated equally under the law," Herring said.  Opponents of the decision are expected to support an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Approximately 57 percent of voters ratified the same-sex marriage ban, known as the Marshall-Newman Amendment or the Virginia Marriage Amendment, in 2006. The law strictly defines marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman, and refuses to recognize similar legal status for other couples.

While the appeal progresses, same-sex couples will not be able to marry in Virginia because of a stay on the execution of the decision issued by Wright Allen.

Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael argued the case on the behalf of the commonwealth. Timothy Bostic, Tony London, Carol Schall and Mary Townley acted as plaintiffs in the case before the Norfolk court.

Herring reversed Virginia's legal position on its stance in Bostic v. Rainey upon entering office in late January. During his 2013 election campaign, Herring said publicly he would investigate the constitutional issues of Virginia's law before changing the commonwealth's political position.  "When I ran for the office of attorney general I promised the people of Virginia that regardless of my personal support for marriage equality I would conduct a rigorous independent analysis of the constitution’s questions before determining the state's legal position in this case," Herring said. "I concluded that based on extensive court precedent ... marriage is a fundamental right protected by the United States constitution."

A class action lawsuit challenging the same-sex marriage ban still is pending review in a federal court in Harrisonburg.

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By Dana Carlson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Republican sponsored law that presently mandates ultrasounds for women seeking abortion services may face repeal after Senate Bill 617, patronized by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, passed this past week through The Virginia Health and Education Senate Committee. The bill narrowly passed with a tie-breaking vote from Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam as senators demonstrated the pro-choice and pro-life rift, which divides the General Assembly along party lines.  The measure will make its way to the House where a number of similar measures to eliminate the ultrasound requirement died in various committees.

Among the bills to be tabled this week is House Bill 546, supported by Delegate K. Rob Krupicka, D-Alexandria. The bill would have made the ultrasound procedure optional but died in the Courts of Justice subcommittee of Constitutional Law by a party-line voice vote.  Cianti Stewart-Reid, the Planned Parenthood PAC liaison, credited the defeat of the House bills to the dramatically different composition of the chambers.  "There is no reason why politicians in the General Assembly should be deciding very personal, very difficult decisions that women need to make with their family, their faith and their medical provider," Krupicka said.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, ultrasounds only are considered necessary if there is a medical concern. The procedure is not a requirement of prenatal care for women who plan to continue their pregnancies to term.  "If a doctor doesn't think it's safe, or a doctor doesn't think it's necessary, the years and years of medical school go out the window because a politician has a different point of view," Krupicka said.

Pro-life protester Karin Jewell spends some of her Saturday mornings outside of the Richmond Medical Center for Women offering prayers to patients entering the clinic.  "I think (ultrasounds) are a very good thing because then women can recognize what is going on in their belly and maybe would decide against abortion," Jewell said. "You can recognize the heart beat and recognize that the baby is already alive and not just a blob of tissue."

In Virginia the average cost of an ultrasound at a private physician’s office is $345 and $602 at a hospital-outpatient provider, according to the Virginia Health Information website.  "This mandate seems to contradict claims that we need to manage health care costs better," Krupicka said.

In 2012 the Virginia Department of Health recorded 22,916 terminated pregnancies throughout the state, but a 2012 law also prohibits insurance companies from covering the cost of abortions. "I think we are in a time where we are talking about expanding access to health care,” Stewart-Reid said. “But when you talk about things like the cost of an ultrasound, that narrows the number of people who can access care,"

Senate Bill 618 also passed The Virginia Health and Education Senate Committee this past week and would add abortion procedures to health care coverage.  The original legislation to ban abortion from insurance plans was proposed by former Governor Bob McDonnell in 2011. A contrasting bill, House Bill 1417, patronized by Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, would prevent insurance companies from providing any form of contraception drug or device.  While SB 618 may make reproductive health services more affordable, the impact of last year's Virginia Board of Health abortion hearings has forced a number of the state's abortion providers to close.

The regulations championed by former Virginia Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli force abortion providers to meet the building-code standards of hospitals… at a cost most clinics cannot afford.  "The clinics that are being forced to close provide services beyond abortion," Krupicka said. "When they are forced to close they deny women access to a number of health services … and that's the tragedy in this."

Among the clinics scheduled to close was NOVA Women’s Healthcare in Fairfax City -- the busiest abortion provider in the state.  “Babies and their mothers are safer in Northern Virginia because this deadly facility has been closed," said Olivia Gans Turner, director of Americans Victims of Abortions in a Virginia Society for Human Life press release. "Abortion is often a dangerous procedure for women and always a deadly one for their innocent unborn children." 

As the deadline to meet the new regulations looms, more clinics may be pressured to close in the coming months.  Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading reproductive health care advocate, also has been targeted with legislation meant to restrict the organization’s services.

Although House Bill 531, which would have eliminated state funding for Planned Parenthood, was defeated in the Health and Human Resources committee an identical measure in the budget bill remains in consideration.  "In 2012 we served 24,000 men and women at Planned Parenthood," Stewart-Reid said.

Stewart-Reid said people who depend on high quality care at an affordable cost would be left without resources like STD screening, family planning, reproductive education, birth control and more.  "The public has been clear that they think women should be able to make their health care decisions with their family and their doctors," Krupicka said. "For some reason we keep revisiting these issues, and it really distracts from all the work we can do collaboratively and (in a) bipartisan (manner)."


No Snow Days For Virginia Legislators

By Lauren McClellan and Jackson McMillan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Despite multiple days of slushy snow and freezing temperatures, the General Assembly still has held session without taking any days off this winter.  Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced this past week that Virginia was under a state of emergency because of Wednesday’s snowstorm. According to the National Weather Service’s website, Richmond saw around 4 inches of snow.  Many area schools and local government offices closed because of the inclement weather. 

Delegate Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, said members of the General Assembly still have been coming to work despite the weather conditions.  “We’ve had sessions go on,” James said.  “We don’t take days off.”

However, the snow made it more difficult for constituents to come to Richmond to meet with General Assembly members.  “I try to meet with as many constituents as I can while I’m in Richmond so I can hear their voices. So I think the biggest impact that I can see is that (the snow) has maybe made it harder for constituents to get to Richmond,” James said.  “They’re worried about traveling on the icy roads, or they’re worried about getting back home and taking care of their family and friends. I think that’s been the biggest impact that I can see.”

Delegate Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, also said snowy or icy conditions could make it difficult for those without professional interests to attend session. “(Snow) may impact people coming to Richmond to testify, but all of the professional lobbyists and groups with interests in the General Assembly are here,” Mason said, “and we didn’t miss a beat,”. 

Mary Beth Washington, legislative assistant for Delegate Roslyn Tyler, D- Jarrat, said the General Assembly has not been very busy this past week.  “It’s the beginning of the crossover, and we’re gearing up for that,” Washington said. “So there’s not that many meetings being held right now.  Next week we’ll be in full force, but this week there’s not that much going on right now.”

Washington also said that the despite the snow, aide staff still showed up to work.  “It took (some of the aides) who live locally in the Richmond area longer to get to work because the streets were not clear in their communities,” Washington said, “but they all showed up, the ones that could get here.”

Mason said the General Assembly meets “regardless of circumstances.”  “(Inclement weather) doesn’t affect the inner workings of the General Assembly in the least,” Mason said. “This really is a show-must-go-on situation. The toughest part for me was the four blocks between the (downtown) Marriott and here, but once you’re in the door it’s business as usual.”

The last time the General Assembly was closed because of inclement weather was February 2010.

Photographs courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University's Capital News Service.

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Bill Seeks Compensation for Dog-Ravaged Livestock

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Livestock and poultry owners in rural areas of Virginia may find some solace in the coming weeks if Senate passes House Bill 54, which guarantees monetary compensation for owners whose livestock and poultry that have been killed or injured by dogs.

Virginia is currently home to more than 46,000 farms and a large percentage of those farms house livestock of some form.  According to Dr. Dan Kovich, program director for the Office of Animal Care and Health Policy, there is currently no statewide recording mechanism for the number of livestock or poultry killed on these farms by dogs each year … but that does not mean these incidents are not occurring.

Mike and Dianne Taylor own and operate Empress Farm in Hanover, which raises free-range poultry to sell at local markets.  Dianne Taylor says she and her husband have had several incidents in which their turkeys and chickens have either disappeared or were found maimed.

The livestock owners eventually caught a neighbor’s dog in the act, but the couple was not pleased with the legal options available to them upon reporting the losses.

“The game lawyers said there wasn’t a whole lot that they could do,” Dianne Taylor said.  “We could take them (the neighbors) to court, but you know, there’s a lot of hassle in that.”

If passed, HB54 will ensure the Taylors and other rural Virginians receive the reparation upon any future dog attacks on livestock and poultry; even if the livestock owners do not know who owns the dog.

According to the bill’s chief patron, Delegate Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, the funds for the compensation will come from collections of dog and cat license taxes by the treasurer of each locality.  These taxes are put into a separate account made for the precise purpose of damaged livestock.       

“Certainly this bill can benefit producers who are suffering losses (of livestock or poultry),” Kovich said. “Especially when the owner of the dog can’t be found. They (owners) are still going to be compensated.”      

HB54 passed unanimously in the House earlier this week and is currently awaiting the Senate’s vote.

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Bill Seeks Adjacent Graves for Pets, Owners

By Jessi Gower, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia codes currently prohibit animals and humans from being buried together in the same cemetery, but one delegate hopes to change that with House Bill 588.

Delegate Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, proposed HB588 and if passed it would allow pets and owners to be buried together under certain circumstances. Inspired by a retired police officer wanting to be buried alongside his dogs, the bill is already gaining support from pet lovers and cemetery owners.

Sharon Lucas, who works at Richmond’s Greenwood Memorial Gardens, says many of the cemetery’s clients have shown interest in this type of arrangement.  “Many people who come to (Greenwood to) ask about it when they’re pre-planning,” Lucas said. “They’ll ask if they can have Fluffy or Spot buried with them, and I have to tell them no, that is state law that you can’t.”

O’Quinn says he recognizes that not everyone will want to be buried near deceased animals and his bill clearly specifies that owner-pet gravesites must be completely 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," he 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 bill also specifies that companion animals are not to be buried in the same grave as their deceased owners, but rather in a separate grave adjacent to the owner‘s, which is close enough for pet owners wanting to make these arrangements.

If passed, the bill also could monetarily benefit struggling cemeteries. According to the 2012 Cremation Association of North America annual report, more and more people are choosing to be cremated because it is cheaper than a traditional burial. If pet owners were able to rest alongside their furry friends, more people might consider burial as an option, despite the price-which would, in turn, bring more business and money to the cemetery and funeral industry.

Currently only two locations in the United States offer owner-pet burials; Hillcrest Memorial Park in Pennsylvania and Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Maryland. If HB588 passes, Virginia could be the third.

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By Eric Luther, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A resolution allowing government agencies to examine employment conditions of penitentiaries statewide was tabled this week by the General Assembly’s Committee on Rules.  The resolution, proposed by Delegate Roslyn C. Tyler, D- Jarratt, would have directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study employee health and safety concerns at the Virginia Department of Corrections. The resolution also would have inspected adequacy of staffing levels and turnover rates at correctional facilities across the Commonwealth.  Tyler says the committee acknowledged the study was needed.  However, JLARC is already three years behind in completing other studies.  “There are 30,000 inmates in prisons that (corrections officers) protect us from each day,” Tyler said. “They deserve the right to be kept safe and compensated as any other law enforcement officer.”

Don Baylor, an organizer for the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers’ Virginia chapter, spent nearly 30 years at the DOC before retiring in 2007. During his time with the department, Baylor worked as a corrections officer and watch commander at facilities throughout the state.  Baylor personally conveyed DOC health and safety concerns to Tyler. He says it is time to address the burden understaffing and budget cuts has placed on frontline correctional officers.  “There are a number of reasons why we need this study,” Baylor said. “The stress on these individuals who provide security and protection in these facilities is widespread and increasing.”

According to Baylor, studies by the U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Justice Services and other organizations illustrate deteriorating health conditions among DOC personnel.  “We’re talking about a group of employees who are carrying one of the highest suicide rates, divorce rates and mortality rates of any other employees in this nation,” Baylor said. “Studies show that these folks are reaching stress levels of epidemic proportions.”

One such study was presented at the 2011 American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a nonprofit organization seeking to improve health and safety of corrections staff through data-driven analysis.  The study sampled more than 3,500 corrections professionals’ from 49 states and three U.S. territories to assess the prevalence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and comorbid PTSD/depression among workers.

Desert Waters also explored the relationship between specific disorders and job type, according to official documents. Indices of health and well-being such as doctor visits, work absences and substance use also were measured.  Results show depression and PTSD rates among corrections personnel far exceed those of the general population. Overall, PTSD prevalence was estimated to be about 27 percent, according to the study. More than three times the rate of U.S. adults. 

Additionally, Desert Waters determined corrections officers’ risk of suicide is 39 percent higher than all other professions combined.  Baylor says residents and legislators alike need to be aware of the long-term physical and mental issues DOC working conditions can create.  “We need to take a look at these professionals and understand that if we get to a breaking point -- not only are correctional officers and the (incarcerated) people they are in charge of at risk,” Baylor said. “But the public at large.”

The results highlighted in Desert Waters’ study suggest the need for a comprehensive screening of employee health in corrections.

 According to official documents, system-wide interventions to address elevated levels of depression, PTSD and comorbidity also are necessary.  HJ31 stated all agencies of the commonwealth shall provide assistance to JLARC for this study, upon request. JLARC’s chairman then would submit a summary of its findings and recommendations no later than the first day of the 2015 General Assembly session.

Co-patron Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Annadale, and NCPSO President Richard Hatch did not respond to requests for comments.

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Grant Would Fund Active-Shooter Training

By James Galloway, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill is advancing through the House that would grant “active shooter” training funds to smaller police forces, which currently have no budget to accommodate the over-time pay to prepare for mass shootings.  Delegate Mike Webert, R-Marshall, said the Fauquier County Sheriff Department recently integrated an active shooter program. To do so, he said the department brought in experts from Fairfax, which has a larger police force.  “(Fairfax) has one of the best task forces in the nation,” Webert said. “A lot of their guys end up training our smaller localities. So, we want to be able to provide our localities with the tools to help keep our children safe.”

Webert said the initial training cost Fauquier County money that was not in the police budget, which is why he introduced legislation calling for a $500,000 training grant. His bill would grant funding up to $50,000 per locality to provide overtime pay for police officers to be trained to respond in the event of a shooting.

Lt. James Hartman, of the Fauquier County Sheriff Department, said his department is “very much in favor of the bill and (supports) it 100 percent.”

Hartman said it is obvious the active shooter and training grant fund is needed in jurisdictions like Fauquier County. He described his department as “too small to be big, and too big to be small,” adding that the force has about 125 sworn officers covering patrols and stationed in schools.  Hartman said overtime pay for active-shooter training exceeds the police budget. He said over-time costs between $16,000–$17,000 for each training session and consists of about 22 officers.

The training covers response tactics leading to the neutralization of an active shooter. Usually, Hartman said, his department will go into a school when students are out and stage a simulation using actors. County schools even have color-coded doors so officers easily can communicate their locations from within a building.  Although his department trains for the first critical minutes of a public school incident, Hartman said “active shooter” applies to more than just school shootings.  “Active shooter incidents across the country mainly have just been in schools,” he said. “But we’ve also seen active shooters in workplaces, such as the Navy Yard shooter (and) movie theaters.”

Hartman said his department already has conducted four training sessions and had a fifth planned in January.

Chief John Venuti of the VCU Police Department would not discuss specific training.  "The VCU Police Department provides active shooter training to the campus community,” Venuti stated in an email. “We do not discuss specific information pertaining to training, technology or tactics."

Webert said he hopes to convince the appropriations committee to create a grant from the currently unappropriated federal fund, which he said is about $15 million.

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Sunday Hunting Bills Progress Through General Assembly

By Liz Butterfield, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND — Two bills seeking to allow Sunday hunting of deer and wild animals on private Virginia property and state waters are progressing through the General Assembly.

However, hunting with dogs or hunting within 200 yards of a house of worship would be prohibited.  The House passed House Bill 1237 this past week and sent the legislation to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources. Senate Bill 154 is expected to go before the full Senate next week. Although seen as a bipartisan bill by many in the General Assembly, the bills are facing unanticipated pushback from some rural area representatives and the Virginia Farm Bureau.

Delegate Tommy Wright, R-Victoria, said the majority of people t supporting HB 1237 are not the ones most affected by the legislation.  "The people that are affected the most don't have the majority of the votes," Wright said. "You're not going to have much hunting going on in Fairfax, Va. You may have people coming from Fairfax into the rural areas that want to hunt, but this is going to affect the rural areas. It's going to affect hunting and it's going to affect the Lord's day."  A self-proclaimed “avid” hunter and lifelong NRA member, Wright said he doesn't believe the extra day of hunting will have a positive economic impact on his community.  "We hear that argument over and over again," he said. "The statistics show there has been no (economic) improvement and (increase in) hunting-license sales in states that have had Sunday hunting."

Wright said more than 95 percent of his constituents who contacted him about the bill do not support Sunday hunting legislation.  "It'll be a big impact negatively on hunting in general, “Wright said, “and on the lifestyle we've enjoyed … the peace and quiet in rural Virginia we've enjoyed."  Patron of the House bill, Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said the legislation is meant to counter the decline of hunting-license purchases in Virginia. Gilbert said license purchases have decreased by 50 percent over the past 30 years.  "Virginia has such a strong hunting heritage that we thought this would be a great opportunity to attempt to reverse that trend," Gilbert said. "Where I live the rifle (and) the high-powered rifle season for deer is only two weeks long. So if you're a hardworking person, you really only have two Saturdays in which to engage in that activity all year. This would simply give you a couple extra days to enjoy a sport you love and be able to put food on the table."

The Virginia Farm Bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

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Tunnel Construction Relief Bills Killed

By Lauren McClellan, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND -- Two bills that would have provided monetary relief to Hampton Roads area businesses affected by construction on the Downtown Tunnel have been killed in the General Assembly.  Senate Bill 292, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D- Portsmouth, would have established the Downtown Tunnel Construction Relief Grant Fund. The fund would have provided each local business affected by construction with $10,000 for economic hardship experienced because of the project.  SB 292 was passed by indefinitely in committee this past week.

House Bill 351, like SB292, aimed to establish the same fund, but would have given businesses $1,500 instead of $10,000.  HB 351, which was introduced by Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, was killed Jan. 20.  “If you have a company, or you are an employee and depend on people coming to your place for dinner or something like that, (tunnel construction) would be disruptive to your business,” James said. “People would naturally make a decision sometimes and say ‘Well, I don’t know if the tunnel’s open or closed.  So, I’m going to go to another (business).’”

According to James, a survey done by the General Assembly and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership found many businesses in the area were suffering severely because of the construction.  President Tony Goodwin of the Portsmouth Olde Towne Business Association is concerned with how the construction and new tolls will affect downtown Portsmouth. He said construction essentially “isolates” the area.  “I don’t think I would wish (this situation) on anyone, as my competitors or my enemies,” Goodwin said.  “Until people start adjusting their habits -- and things balance themselves out -- it’s going to be a little bit of a tough road.”

Goodwin also expressed concern about the state not releasing pertinent economic information about the overall Elizabeth River tunnel projects.  “As they (the state and contractors) were coming up to the point of financing and signing the contract, we (the business association) demanded they do a full-blown economic impact study,” Goodwin said, “which was never released to the businesses nor the public because it was supposedly proprietary information.” 

Opponents of the bill were concerned about the future ramifications the fund might have on other communities.  “I was told that the bill was a creative fix, and that they were sympathetic,” James said. “But (opponents of the bill) told me that they were worried about the precedent, even though we had a sunset that once the tunnel opened, the grant would not be available.”

Both bills would have required local business owners to submit applications to prove the Downtown Tunnel construction had affected their business.  Downtown Norfolk Council President Mary Miller said some of the information in the bills was unclear.  “Was it really supposed to be the Downtown Tunnel and the Midtown Tunnel?  Or just one?” Miller said. “Because the Elizabeth River tunnel project involves two tunnels.”

Miller said she was not sure the bill would have helped businesses in Norfolk because of its vague language.  “You have to have a pretty clear -- I think -- idea of who’s impacted,” Miller said. 

Two impact statements were released estimating the costs of the projects outlined in each bill.  "The potential number of applicants for a grant under the program is indeterminate," the impact statement stated. "The impact estimate … anticipates that VEDP will receive and review several thousand applications during the grant period established in the bill."

The Virginia Economic Development Partnership estimated that the cost of creating the fund would have been around $538,000.  According to the impact statement, multiple positions would have had to be created in order to administer the funds.   The positions needed included one marketing representative that would explain the program to those potentially affected by the tunnel construction, three grant processors and performance monitors, and an administrator to oversee the project.  Salary and benefits for these positions ranged from $50,000 to $140,000 apiece.

If passed, both bills' provisions would have sunsetted in July 2015.  Tolling for the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels in the Hampton Roads area begins Feb. 1.


Virginia Senate Committee Says ‘No’ To Dreamers

By Chris Suarez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Senate legislation designed to give in-state tuition to undocumented childhood arrivals was defeated this past week by a Health and Education Committee vote of 6-7.   Senate Bill 249, patroned by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, and known as the Virginia DREAM Act, sparked heated rhetoric  on whether state or federal legislators should be held responsible for immigration-related measures.  “Shame on the federal government and people from both parties,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett, R-Hadensville. “Whether it’s a failure to secure the borders or failure to acknowledge 12 million living, breathing human beings who are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I can’t vote on the bill because it’s unconstitutional. We can’t do this. It’s stupid.”

Republicans on the committee questioned the legal status of Virginia residents who’ve received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a memorandum that advises U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grant undocumented people momentary pardon from being deported. The order was enacted by The Department of Homeland Security in 2012.

When the bill was first debated this month during the higher education subcommittee meeting, Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke, pointed out wording within the Homeland Security directive, which only provides, “relief from removal from the country,” but does not clarify lawful status.  “I understand Senator Garrett’s position, but I think it’s not well-founded,” McEachin said. “This legislation wasn’t made to confer citizenship. All we’re trying to do is give them access to the public university system at an in-state cost.”

Smith said undocumented arrivals could enroll in the commonwealth’s community college system as an alternative to enrolling immediately in a public four-year university.  Senate Democrats were unamused with that notion.  McEachin said such a suggestion was “draconian,” and designates a number of residents as “second-class citizens,” because they would be financially barred from attending more prestigious in-state universities.

Members of the committee expressed frustration with similar measures repeatedly failing when introduced to the state legislature.   “We’ve been asking the federal government to do their job, but they’re not,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston. “Meanwhile, we have a generation of students who’ve been deprived of a reasonably priced, higher-quality education. How long do they have to wait for the federal government to do its job? I think it’s our obligation to step forward and do ours.”

Interest groups, such as the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, were vocal in their support of the bill. Many still are vested in the issue, planning to support similar legislation in the House of Delegates and looking toward next year.  American Civil Liberties Union paralegal Joseph Montana assured the ACLU’s support of the bill in the future, saying it is the commonwealth’s responsibility to support its residents and uphold social justice.  “If we wait around for someone else to do our work for us, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” Montana said.

The official legal status of residents who’ve received federal deferred action is unclear, but Montana said he believes other Virginia statutes are evidence that a bill such as McEachin’s could exist and be constitutional.  “We weren’t asking for something that people with deferred action status don’t already have,” Montana said. “People with TPS (temporary protected status) are afforded in-state tuition and have the same rights as those with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status have. They’re allowed to have a driver’s license, they’re allowed to work in the United States and they’re lawfully present.” 

Two other bills seeking in-state tuition await hearing in House committees. House Bills 59 and 88 are patroned by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, and Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, respectively.

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Bills Seek E-cig Ban for Minors

By Dana Carlson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Electronic cigarettes could be banned from the hands of minors as Virginia legislators in the House and Senate push for regulation.  In response to the growing number of young people experimenting with smokeless tobacco products, Virginia lawmakers have introduced House Bill 1111, House Bill 26, House Bill 218, Senate Bill 96 and Senate Bill 17 to prohibit people under the age of 18 from purchasing or possessing e-cigarettes.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press release stated the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use electronic cigarettes more than doubled to 4.7 percent between 2011 to 2012.   

Data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey stated more than 1.78 million middle school and high school students had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.          "We have to start thinking about what we need to do as a society, what e-cigarette manufacturers need to do, what state municipalities and the federal government need to do," stated Dr. Tim McAfee of the CDC in an Associated Press interview.

While the language of each proposed provision is slightly different, each bill summary defines electronic cigarettes as a vehicle of nicotine delivery.  HB1111, HB218 and SB96 specifically call for electronic cigarettes to be grouped beneath the umbrella of "tobacco products," which may lead to regulation similar to that of traditional cigarettes.

HB26 has been incorporated into the Reeves bill, HB218, by a voice vote in the House along with SB17. Meanwhile, HB1111 has been assigned to the House Courts of Justice Criminal Law sub-committee for review.

While lobbyists for the Medical Society of Virginia were poised to publicly endorse the ban of e-cigs to minors, a press release stated the group was pleased to see when bill patron Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg, presented SB 96. The bill -- which would prohibit minors from purchasing or possessing e-cigarettes or vapor products -- faced no opposition and was unanimously supported by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Additionally, HB218, introduced by Delegate Dave Albo, was endorsed by the House Courts of Justice Civil subcommittee and will next be considered by the full committee, stated MSV.  Delegate David Ramadan, R-South Riding, patron of HB26, stated in a WRIC interview that his bill was inspired by concerned parents who saw more young people experimenting with e-cigs. "Under 18 children were able to buy these cigarette looking products in malls and they have seen a trend in children starting to use it," Ramadan stated.

The exploding e-cigarette industry is predicted to have earned more than $1 billion in annual sales for 2013, according to statistics verified by the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association. Some local e-cig retailers already have prepared for the repercussions of growth by carefully marketing their products.  "As a company we welcome legislation," said Donovan Phillips, co-owner of the electronic cigarette specialty store and lounge, Avail Vapor in Richmond. "As far as the 18 and under situation, this industry needs this kind of legislation as it moves from the state of a novelty to a mainstream product."

Avail Vapor, which has several store locations throughout Virginia, practices self- regulation to remain ahead of the curve. The brick-and-mortar business currently labels its products detailing all chemicals contained in e-cigarette cartridges, includes a warning label noting the risks of nicotine consumption. The label pointedly claims smokeless tobacco is addicting and is not an aid for smoking cessation. In addition to these precautions, Avail Vapor does not sell electronic cigarettes to minors.

Ian Rawls, an e-cig user, stated on Facebook that the "vaping" trend has blown up in the Hampton Roads area during the last few months.  “Most of the places I go to when I pick up materials typically ID me," Rawls stated, adding that most of these shops have a sign reading: "Under 18 not allowed."

"We know that nicotine is not good for the developing adult's brain, and we are concerned that experimentation with e-cigarettes may put our children also at risk for using cigarettes," McAfee stated. 

Phillips said e-cigarettes offer a lifestyle alternative to a wide demographic of people whether it's a mother who is worried about second-hand smoke when driving her kids to school or someone in the military who doesn't want to smell like smoke.

Chip Anderson, co-owner of RVA Vapes stated on Facebook that Big Tobacco has failed at buying itself into the e-cigarette market. As a result, Philip Morris USA (Altria), Reynolds American (RJR), and Lorillard, want to see e-cigs taxed the same way as cigarettes.

Placing restrictions on the sale to minors could be the first step in stricter regulation and enforcement similar to that of traditional cigarettes.  "Big Tobacco has seen a 25-percent drop in sales in the last two years," Anderson stated. "And with "loyal customers" dying by the thousands daily, they don't wanna lose anymore."       



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