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February 2020

SBA Launches National 2020 SBIR Road Tour to Connect Tech Entrepreneurs with Federal R&D Funding

WASHINGTON, D.C. –The U.S. Small Business Administration announced today the launch of its 17-state SBIR Road Tour. The Road Tour will stop at cities in the Southeast, Midwest, Rockies and the Central South.  It will connect entrepreneurs working on advanced technology to one of the country’s largest source of early stage funding – the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.

  “SBA is focused on helping small businesses grow and expand. The $4 billion in federal early stage funding is often a critical piece to maturing an entrepreneur’s research idea into a product or service. The Road Tours bring the federal managers to the entrepreneur and target areas and individuals that are underrepresented when it comes to receiving federal R&D funding,” said SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. “This tour reflects our continued commitment to ensure those innovators are aware of SBIR/STTR program resources.” 

This will be the sixth year of the SBIR Road Tour, led by the SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation together with 11 participating federal agencies.

NATIONAL SBIR ROAD TOUR SCHEDULE 2020:

The Southeast Tour will run from April 13-17, with stops in Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and Atlanta/Athens, Georgia.

The Midwest Tour will run from June 1-5, with stops in Omaha, Nebraska; St. Louis, Missouri; Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and Bloomington, Indiana.

The Rockies Tour will run from August 10-14, with stops in Bozeman, Montana; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Laramie, Wyoming.

Finally, the Central Southern Tour will run from November 2-6, with stops in Jackson, Mississippi; Shreveport, Louisiana; Dallas, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Small technology firms, innovators, scientists or researchers seeking more information on the SBIR Road Tour, including a schedule of stops and participating agencies should visit: https://www.sbirroadtour.com/.

For more information about SBIR/STTR programs, please visit https://www.sbir.gov/ or follow us on Twitter.

Social Security Modernizing its Disability Program Decades Old Rule Updated to Reflect Today’s Workforce

Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul announced a new final rule today, modernizing an agency disability rule that was introduced in 1978 and has remained unchanged.  The new regulation, “Removing the Inability to Communicate in English as an Education Category,” updates a disability rule that was more than 40 years old and did not reflect work in the modern economy.  This final rule has been in the works for a number of years and updates an antiquated policy that makes the inability to communicate in English a factor in awarding disability benefits.

“It is important that we have an up-to-date disability program,” Commissioner Saul said.  “The workforce and work opportunities have changed and outdated regulations need to be revised to reflect today’s world.”

A successful disability system must evolve and support the right decision as early in the process as possible.  Social Security’s disability rules must continue to reflect current medicine and the evolution of work.

Social Security is required to consider education to determine if someone’s medical condition prevents work, but research shows the inability to communicate in English is no longer a good measure of educational attainment or the ability to engage in work.   This rule is another important step in the agency’s efforts to modernize its disability programs.

In 2015, Social Security’s Inspector General recommended that the agency evaluate the appropriateness of this policy.  Social Security owes it to the American public to ensure that its disability programs continue to reflect the realities of the modern workplace.  This rule also supports the Administration’s longstanding focus of recognizing that individuals with disabilities can remain in the workforce.

The rule will be effective on April 27, 2020.

General Assembly passes bills to combat human trafficking of minors

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly has passed two identical bills intended to help social workers in the fight against minor-involved human trafficking. The bills, introduced by House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, were recommended by the Virginia State Crime Commission.

“I am thrilled that this bill passed,” Fay Chelmow, president of ImPACT Virginia, an organization that aims to prevent human trafficking, said in an email. “Family controlled human trafficking is so much more common than people think.”

The legislation allows local social services departments to interview the reported child victims or their siblings without the consent and presence of a parent or legal guardian, school personnel or an individual standing in place of a parent.

“This bill not only increases a minor’s chance to access safety but acknowledges their autonomy, resiliency and capacity for self-determination,” Chelmow said. “A minor’s assent is crucially important for their healing from the polyvictimization sustained at the hands of their traffickers and buyers.” 

Human trafficking, considered modern-day slavery, involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sex trafficking is when a trafficker exhibits control over the victim and the victim receives something of value in exchange for performing sex acts. Traffickers recruit at locations such as middle and high schools, courthouses, foster care, group homes, bus stations, shelters, bars, restaurants, shopping malls and social media sites, according to the Virginia State Crime Commission. The agency concludes that child sex trafficking intersects with other problems such as drug addiction, runaway youth, child abuse, domestic violence and gang activity. 

Human trafficking victims are forced into a wide range of labor sectors, ranging from sweat shops and field work to domestic service, according to ICE. By U.S. law, a person under the age of 18 engaged in prostitution is a victim of trafficking, the agency said.

As of June 30, 2019, there were 98 human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline that mentioned Virginia, according to the organization. In 2018, the hotline received 198 human trafficking reports that referenced Virginia, up from 158 cases that mentioned the commonwealth the previous year. The commonwealth’s location along major highways and its international airports make it vulnerable to human trafficking activity, according to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. In 2017, Virginia ranked No. 4 in the top 10 of federal court districts where criminal sex trafficking cases were prosecuted involving children. 

The legislation also changes the name from sex trafficking assessments to human trafficking assessments. This evaluation helps identify potential and existing victims of human trafficking. According to Kristen J. Howard, executive director for the Virginia State Crime Commission, human trafficking is a more accurate word because this assessment also can include evaluation of labor trafficking victims. 

Howard said Herring and Obenshain’s bills change the classication from sex trafficking to human trafficking, to “more accurately describe the assessments since they also involve labor trafficking victims and not just victims of sex trafficking.”

An assessment is conducted to determine the immediate safety needs of the child, the extent of needed protective and rehabilitative services, and risk of future harm to the child.

Howard said she is “very happy” to see the legislation pass both chambers. In 2018, the commission conducted a large, comprehensive study defining sex trafficking, detailing how victims wind up in the sex industry, and making overall recommendations on how Virginia should change legislation to combat human trafficking. 

This study led to a 2019 legislative package of eight bills. Legislators passed a total of seven bills -- two in the Senate and five in the House -- to help tackle sex trafficking. The bills included the establishment of the Virginia Prevention of Sex Trafficking fund, allowed for the use of two-way closed-circuit television in testimony by child victims and witnesses in sex trafficking cases, established class 6 felony charges for sex trafficking offenses involving a minor, and created a sex trafficking response coordinator within the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Groups split over proposed overdose immunity bill

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Groups, including former drug users, are split over a Senate bill that would give immunity to both someone reporting or experiencing an overdose. 

In a recent unanimous vote, the Senate passed Senate Bill 667, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. The bill expands on the current protection offered only to the person reporting the overdose, who can be charged with a crime but has an affirmative defense, which leads to dropped or reduced charges when proven they reported an overdose. 

This new bill would offer immunity to both the person reporting the overdose and experiencing the overdose, meaning no charges would be filed. The bill protects individuals from arrest or prosecution for the unlawful purchase, possession or consumption of alcohol, controlled substances, marijuana or having drug paraphernalia. 

The legislation also states that no officers acting in good faith will be found liable for false arrest if it is later determined the individual arrested was immune from prosecution because they overdosed or reported an overdose.

“In Virginia, friends often do not call for help for fear of being arrested,” Boysko said at the committee hearing for the bill.

Boysko told Senate members that every second matters in an overdose and that data show bystanders are three times more likely to call 911 when there is a safe reporting law such as her proposed bill. She also said that the state needs to stop criminalizing individuals that are attempting to seek urgent help for themselves or others. 

“Virginia's death toll from opioid overdoses continues to rise despite state and local government spending millions of dollars to make naloxone available,” Boysko said. “More than 1,500 died just in 2019 in Virginia from drug overdoses.”

According to the Virginia Department of Health, overdose is the leading cause of unnatural death in the state since 2013, followed by motor vehicle related and gun deaths.

“With the new law we’re looking at a healthcare solution for a healthcare crisis,” said Nathan Mitchell, who said he was previously addicted to drugs. Mitchell now serves as the community outreach and advocacy coordinator at the McShin Foundation. Mitchell said the proposed bill does not provide protection for crimes such as distribution or a firearm at the scene of the overdose, only drug and paraphernalia possession. 

According to Mitchell, drug incarceration is inconsistent in the commonwealth. He said after his first drug-related arrest he wasn’t introduced to a recovery program. But, after his second arrest, he received treatment through the help of the McShin Foundation. He said that inconsistency is an example that not all individuals who overdose will have access to the same treatment. 

Drug courts are specialized courts where individuals plead guilty and agree to complete the drug court program. Not every locality in the commonwealth has a drug court, though state law authorizes any locality to establish one with the support of existing and available local, state and federal resources. 

Mitchell said that individuals may not report an overdose to help protect the individual overdosing from being charged with a crime. He said that’s why a bill granting immunity to both parties is important. 

John Shinholser, president and co-founder of the McShin Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on recovery education and recovery, testified in favor of Boysko’s bill.

“This is evidence-based, data-driven proof that this bill will reduce deaths in Virginia during this crisis,” Shinholser said.

Goochland County resident Micheal McDermott spoke in opposition of Boysko’s bill during the Senate committee meeting. McDermott said he’s been in recovery from substance abuse disorder for over 28 years. The bill has good intentions but immunity should only be given to the person reporting, not overdosing, McDermott said. 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said. 

There’s no guarantee that an overdose victim treated by paramedics will find recovery, McDermott said. If the person overdosing is on probation, they should receive a probation violation, and perhaps get the needed court-mandated treatment.

Westmoreland County Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Sichol spoke last month at a House subcommittee in opposition to similar legislation that failed to advance, on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Sichol said she thinks a bill offering immunity “can also cause harm to lives” because it keeps the person overdosing from being charged with a crime and could possibly prevent them from receiving court-mandated treatment.

“Drug treatment is extremely expensive and sometimes the only way to get the treatment for the individuals is through the court system,” Sichol said. “If you take away the ability for individuals to be charged who have overdosed they are not eligible to participate in drug treatment program, they are not eligible to go through the court system under mandated treatment.”

On Friday, SB 667 was assigned to a House subcommittee.

Bill allows renters to make certain repairs if landlord doesn’t respond

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia Senate and is expected to advance in the House. 

Senators voted unanimously in committee and on the floor to pass Senate Bill 905, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, which gives a tenant the right to seek repairs that constitute a fire hazard or serious threat to the life, health or safety of occupants. Such conditions include the infestation of rodents and lack of heat, hot or cold running water, light, electricity, or adequate sewage disposal facilities. 

Tenants would have the right to secure a contractor to fix the issues and deduct the cost from their rent.

First, the tenant would submit a written complaint to their landlord and allow them 14 days to fix the issue before the tenant secures a licensed contractor to complete the repairs. The tenant must provide documentation and itemized receipts of the repair to the landlord. The tenant would be allowed to deduct the costs of the repairs, not exceeding one month’s rent, from subsequent rent payments.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, proposed an amendment that was rejected during the Senate committee hearing, requiring the tenant to obtain two repair estimates. 

Currently, state law allows the landlord more time to fix issues that compromise the health and safety of the tenant. The tenant can file a detailed, written complaint and give notice that the rental agreement will terminate on or after 30 days, if the landlord hasn’t fixed the issue within 21 days. If the problem is fixed, the tenant can’t break the lease. 

A tenant, though legally empowered under current law to terminate the rental agreement would still, in most cases, need to have a deposit plus first month’s rent to secure a new place, which can present a roadblock for renters.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center noted its support of the bill and stated that in addition to speeding up the repair process, the proposed bill would reduce the number of cases in Virginia’s courts, because tenants are given the opportunity to handle issues themselves instead of having to take landlords to court. Christine Marra, the group’s director of housing advocacy, said that the bill benefits tenants by allowing them to deduct the cost of donated repairs.

“There are a number of nonprofits across the commonwealth that do home repair for homeowners, but will not do them for renters because they don’t want to unjustly or unduly enrich the landlord,” Marra said. “I hope this will encourage them to start doing repairs for tenants.”

According to Elizabeth Godwin-Jones, a Richmond attorney who represents landlords, the original bill was too vague about what would constitute an emergency condition and how the tenant was allowed to go about getting the work done.

Now that the tenant is required to hire a licensed contractor and provide the necessary documentation, she said there’s little a negligent landlord could do to challenge their tenant in court and force them to pay their rent in full.

 “To me, the landlord already has a bit of a black eye, if it was something really serious and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Godwin-Jones said.

Stanley patroned another renter’s rights bill, one which didn’t advance. The bill would have given tenants the right to use their landlord’s failure to maintain the property as a defense if they were taken to court for failure to pay rent.

Virginia’s eviction rates are among the highest in the country. Princeton University’s 2016 Eviction Lab study showed that five of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the U.S. are in Virginia, and Godwin-Jones believes the problem is rooted in poverty more than it is in landlord-tenant legislation.

“To me, the biggest thing to help the eviction problem would be to raise the minimum wage and have more affordable housing options, but that’s terribly underfunded, and the funding hasn’t kept up with the increase in the rent,” Godwin-Jones said.

After making it to the House of Delegates, the bill was assigned to a General Laws subcommittee, which recommended advancing it. A committee on Thursday postponed hearing the bill because Stanley was still in the Senate and could not speak to the bill.

Help Children by Having Fun Golfing

Help children at Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services who suffer from mental health and/or substance use disorders while having fun golfing.

Jackson-Feild will host its 25th Annual Golf Tournament on May 4 at the Golf Club at the Highlands in Chesterfield County.  Over the past 24 years, this tournament has raised $538,520 to meet a variety of operating and capital needs that benefitted its children.

The proceeds this year will be used to improve upgrade much-needed infrastructure projects on campus.

 Jackson-Feild seeks raise $30,000 from the tournament to meet these needs.

The cost to pay is $150 per player, or $600 for a team.  Lunch is provided at noon, and a banquet at the close of play. Play begins at 1:00 p.m.  with shotgun start.

Jackson-Feild’s mission is to provide high-quality evidence-based services for children who have suffered severe emotional trauma, mental illness, and/or struggling with addiction. The goal is to restore wellness so that children can successfully return home to their community.

For more information, call Tod Balsbaugh at 804-354-6929 or tbalsbaugh@jacksonfeild.org.  You may register by phone or on our website at www.jacksonfeild.org.

USDA Reminds Producers of Feb. 28 Deadline for Conservation Reserve Program General Signup

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 18, 2020 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reminds agricultural producers interested in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) 2020 general signup that there is less than two weeks before the enrollment deadline of February 28, 2020. This signup is available to farmers and private landowners who are either enrolling for the first time or re-enrolling for another 10- to 15-year term.

Farmers and ranchers who enroll in CRP receive yearly rental payments for voluntarily establishing long-term, resource-conserving plant species, such as approved grasses or trees (known as “covers”), which can control soil erosion, improve water quality and develop wildlife habitat on marginally productive agricultural lands.

CRP has 22 million acres enrolled, but the 2018 Farm Bill lifted the cap to 27 million acres.

Signed into law in 1985, CRP is one of the largest private-lands conservation programs in the U.S. It was originally intended to primarily control soil erosion and potentially stabilize commodity prices by taking marginal lands out of production. The program has evolved over the years, providing many conservation and economic benefits. Marking its 35th anniversary in 2020, CRP has had many successes, including:

  • Preventing more than 9 billion tons of soil from eroding, enough soil to fill 600 million dump trucks;
  • Reducing nitrogen and phosphorous runoff relative to annually tilled cropland by 95 and 85 percent respectively;
  • Sequestering an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to taking 9 million cars off the road;
  • Creating more than 3 million acres of restored wetlands while protecting more than 175,000 stream miles with riparian forest and grass buffers, enough to go around the world 7 times; and
  • Benefiting bees and other pollinators and increased populations of ducks, pheasants, turkey, bobwhite quail, prairie chickens, grasshopper sparrows and many other birds.
     

The CRP continuous signup is ongoing, which enables producers to enroll for certain practices. FSA plans to open the Soil Health and Income Protection Program, a CRP pilot program, in early 2020, and the 2020 CRP Grasslands signup runs from March 16, 2020 to May 15, 2020.

To enroll in CRP, contact your local FSA county office or visit fsa.usda.gov/crp. To locate your local FSA office, visit farmers.gov/service-locator.

McEachin and Spanberger Bring FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks to Central Virginia for a Conversation on Rural Broadband

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-04) and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (VA-07) today co-hosted a Conversation on Rural Broadband with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, local officials, community leaders, and broadband advocates to discuss federal solutions to barriers expanding broadband access to unserved areas. Held at Prince George Central Wellness Center in central Virginia, the roundtable was moderated by Jeffrey Stoke, Deputy Administrator of Prince George County, and included leaders from the Prince George Electric Cooperative, VCTA The Broadband Association of Virginia and the Office of the Governor of Virginia.

A member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Congressman McEachin last week led 22 of his committee colleagues in issuing a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai outlining their concerns that last-minute language changes to the commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Order might inadvertently undermine the ability of states, including Virginia, to effectively provide their residents with accessible, reliable broadband infrastructure. Building on that work, today’s roundtable discussion centered around the critical importance of access to high-speed internet and provided participants with the opportunity to voice their concerns and connect on solutions to mitigate communities’ lack of access.

 “The problems we face in Washington working to ensure every community has access to the high-speed internet needed to grow small businesses, create good-paying jobs, and promote digital equity are complex and cannot be tackled successfully in silos,” added Rep. McEachin. “Today’s conversation with rural broadband experts and stakeholders from Prince George County proves the power and possibility of solution-building between federal, state, and local government, and offers a successful blueprint for future collaboration to provide broadband to unserved and underserved communities throughout the country.”

“Access to opportunity in America shouldn’t be dictated by zip code. In the digital age, fast and secure internet access is a necessity for Central Virginia families, students, and businesses—but in many of our rural Virginia communities, unreliable high-speed broadband internet drastically limits the scope of opportunities for growth and success,” said Spanberger. “Today’s conversation on rural broadband in Congressman McEachin’s district was an opportunity to put our heads together and discuss how we can expand broadband access here in Central Virginia. I’d like to thank the many local and state officials who joined for today’s conversation, and I’d especially like to thank Commissioner Starks for coming to our region to share the FCC’s perspective on current broadband issues—like the need for strengthened investment in local infrastructure and updated broadband connectivity maps. At a time when infrastructure remains a key topic of conversation on Capitol Hill and within the administration, these community conversations emphasize the importance of keeping up the drumbeat on connecting our rural communities and closing the digital divide.”

Since arriving in the U.S. House, Spanberger has worked to expand high-speed broadband internet access across Central Virginia’s rural communities, including through the work of the FCC. Last year, Spanberger introduced and passed an amendment to improve FCC broadband internet data. In August 2019, Spanberger hosted her 2019 Rural Broadband Summit in Louisa County to hear about how a lack of reliable broadband internet access is impacting families, farmers, first responders, and small business owners across Central Virginia.

“I was pleased to work with my colleague, Congresswoman Spanberger, to bring together federal, state, municipal and industry leaders for this critical conversation on rural broadband” said Congressman McEachin. “Too frequently, constituents across the country struggle to ensure their voice is heard and their needs are addressed in Washington, and at the same time, Washington acts without engaging with impacted communities. Facilitating connections is where we do our best work,” McEachin continued. “Today’s roundtable discussion is another example of delivering that access for the people of Virginia’s Fourth District.”

Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

A coalition of groups lobbying for immigrant rights at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 16, in support of bills to grant driver licenses and in-state tuition to people without documentation. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition. 

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee. 

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said. 

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring. 

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia. 

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said. 

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester. 

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future. 

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”

Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard holds town hall in Richmond

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hawaii congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard greeted an audience of hundreds Tuesday at the Hofheimer Building on West Broad Street with her signature “aloha” before a brief speech and an audience question and answer session.

“The clock is running out as we are heading very quickly toward Super Tuesday,” Gabbard said. “There’s nothing I love more than to be here in rooms like this with people like you because this is why I fight.” 

Gabbard is the first female combat veteran to run for U.S. president. She also is the first Hindu and one of two female combat veterans to serve in Congress. Elected to the U.S. House in 2012, Gabbard has served on the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. 

Gabbard is campaigning on policies that include a green economy based on renewable energy, a single-payer health care system and ending American warfare where foreign regimes are removed by force. 

Audience members asked the candidate questions about school choice, the Second Amendment and term limits, among others. In response to Hanover County resident Dalton Luffey's question about her top priorities, Gabbard said she believes nuclear war is the biggest threat to the world. Gabbard, who said she joined the Army National Guard after 9/11, campaigns on ending the arms race. 

“I like Tulsi because she’s willing to have civil discourse and reach across the aisle,” said Whittney Hooks, a middle school teacher from Montross. “A lot of Democrats want a candidate who reflects the country but most of the frontrunners are old white men.”

Gabbard is seen as a divisive figure within the Democratic Party. After Hillary Clinton allegedly suggested that Gabbard is a “favorite of the Russians,” the Hawaii congresswoman filed a lawsuit against Clinton for defamation. Gabbard resigned as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee so that she could endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for president.

Gabbard’s campaign hasn’t fared well in the early Democratic primaries. The candidate received less than 1% of total votes in the Iowa caucuses while she received 3.3% of total votes in the New Hampshire primary. Gabbard has not received any delegates. 

Richmond resident Tim Gabbard, who supported President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, said he attended the town hall after becoming aware of Tulsi Gabbard’s podcasts.

“I love her service to the country. She's honorable; she fights; she doesn't back down and she didn't give into the DNC,” said Tim Gabbard. “She reminds me of Trump, although I wish Trump would speak as eloquently as she does, but at the end of the day they both put our country first.”

Before Virginia Democrats cast their ballot on March 3 to help determine Trump’s opponent in the 2020 general election, the Nevada caucus will be held on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary will take place Feb. 29. 

During the town hall, Tulsi Gabbard asked by a show of hands how many audience members were Democrats, Republicans or neither with a seemingly even amount of respondents for each choice. 

“Look around,” said Tulsi Gabbard. “This is the representation of America.”

Bill banning handheld cellphone use while driving clears House, Senate

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a phone while driving a motor vehicle on Virginia roadways and which implements a penalty for the traffic violation.

House Bill 874 will head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has voiced support for prohibiting the use of handheld cellphones while driving. The measure, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would go into effect at the start of 2021.

“I’m happy that HB874 passed 29-9 in the Senate,” Bourne said in an email. “HB874 will make our roadways safer for all Virginians by prohibiting drivers from holding a cell phone while driving a motor vehicle.”

The House of Delegates approved the bill Feb. 5 with a 72-24 vote after incorporating four bills with similar proposals. Violations of the measures in HB 874 would result in a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses. If a violation occurs in a highway work zone, there would be a mandatory fee of $250.

Bourne said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, of which he is a member, supports making Virginia roadways safer without risking “disparate application of law.”

“We were happy to work with Drive Smart Virginia to improve the legislation to ensure that the new law is applied fairly and equitably,” Bourne said.

Hands-free driving garners bicameral and bipartisan support, according to Brantley Tyndall, director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA. He said the defeat of previous bills with similar measures in past years was deflating, but that Bourne’s latest proposal reworked the language to make it successful.

“Bike Walk RVA is happy to see leadership from our area, namely chief patron Delegate Jeff Bourne, choosing to lead this issue on the House side with his bill HB 874,” Tyndall said in an email.

Tyndall called Bourne’s bill a “commonsense safety measure” and said he was glad to see support for the bill from old and new leadership in the General Assembly.

“We can all feel a part of saving dozens or hundreds of lives over the next few years, including the one out of every six traffic fatalities that is a person walking or biking,” Tyndall said.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill would not apply to emergency vehicle drivers, such as police officers and firefighters, nor employees of the Department of Transportation while performing official duties. It would also exempt drivers who are parked legally or at a full stop.

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. With a signature from Northam, HB 874 would make the same policy statewide law.

Senate Bill 932 proposed adding school zones to the list of areas where holding a phone while driving is prohibited, which is more limited than HB 874’s proposal. SB 932 failed to advance from a House subcommittee on Monday. 

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during a press conference in January that his department supports HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

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Analysis: Over 1,000 Democrat-backed bills pass by crossover, Republican tally trails

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A record number of bills passed in the House of Delegates ahead of the “crossover” deadline, considered the halfway point in the session when a bill has to pass its chamber or it dies.

 Democrat-led efforts like marijuana decriminalization, removal of war memorials, and an assault weapons ban squeezed past in the homestretch. Republican bills, like one that gave the Virginia Lottery Board the ability to regulate casino gambling, also continued to advance.

Delegates filed more than 1,700 bills this session, and 828 bills passed. A Virginia House Democrats release said the House has passed 37% more bills than it did during the 2019 General Assembly session. The release stated the House passed around 600 bills each year from 2016 to 2019.

“We listened to Virginia and are moving together, forward,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said in a press release. “Voters called for major change in the Commonwealth and we are delivering by passing practical, necessary legislation aimed at substantially improving the lives of Virginia residents.”

In the House, Democrats passed 642 bills, more than half of the 1,193 bills they introduced. Republicans filed fewer bills this session — 541 bills were filed and 34% of them passed. These numbers reflect bills, and do not include resolutions or joint resolutions. Bills incorporated into other bills are classified as failing.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, filed and passed more legislation than any other delegate. Out of 50 filed bills, 32 have passed in the House. His bills eliminated the co-payment program for nonemergency healthcare services for prisoners, created provisions on conversion therapy, and granted excused absences to students who miss school because of mental and behavioral health.

Other delegates weren’t as fortunate, like Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, who filed two bills which didn’t pass. He passed one House resolution, which does not have the full force of law and does not require the governor’s signature. Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, didn’t file any bills other than a House joint resolution. 

Four Republican lawmakers each only passed one bill: Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford; Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin; Del. Jeffrey Campbell, R-Smyth; and former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.

While Democrats have applauded their party’s success, Republicans have mostly focused on the possible impact of the new majority. Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, said recently passed legislation attacked the Second Amendment, tore down the economy, and made it easier to “take the lives of our unborn.”

“I offered legislation that would have greatly benefited the 23rd House District, specifically allowing people of faith to defend themselves in a place of worship, assisting new hunters be educated in the ways of the craft, and supporting our farmers,” Walker said in an email. “Unfortunately, these items did not fall within the majority’s agenda.”

In the Senate, 60% of the 1,095 bills filed succeeded. Democrats passed 440 bills, 64% of what they filed. Republicans passed 223 bills, 54% of the legislation they filed.

In total, more Democrat bills failed than Republican bills, 243 and 189 respectively.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, filed and passed more bills than any other senator. He filed 60 bills, and was successful in passing 42.

 Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, passed 32 bills in the Senate, and his chief of staff said they are expected to be successful in the House.

“Senator Edwards has been in the Virginia Senate since 1996, and with the Democratic Party in the minority for the bulk of that time, he had a lot of ideas for good legislation that didn't pass in prior years,” said Luke Priddy, Edward’s chief of staff.

Out of 412 bills filed by Senate Republicans, 223, roughly half of them, passed. 

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, did not pass any of her sponsored bills. Her 21 filed bills included the creation of a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have prohibited abortion after 20 weeks unless under extreme medical circumstances. Chase did not respond to a request for comment.

Chase said Wednesday on Facebook, where she often posts to her constituents, that her bills didn’t advance in committees because of her decision in November to leave the Senate Republican Caucus. 

“If you don’t pay thousands (pay-to-play) to join one of their caucuses, they will deny you of committee assignments and suspend your bills, not giving each bill a fair hearing,” Chase wrote.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said “it’s very clear there’s a new party in charge” and that Democrats are focusing on legislation that wouldn’t have been considered during a Republican majority.

“Issues that would have been dispensed by a Republican majority in two minutes are now not only getting full hearings, but discussion on the floor of at least one chamber of the legislature,” Farnsworth said. “The people in the previous Republican majority who are used to calling the shots, are now subjected to the same treatment that they themselves dealt out in the past.”

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said bills that include increasing the gas tax, energy requirements, the ability of localities to increase taxes, and $15 minimum wage would make living in Virginia more expensive.

“These policies are not free market, they’re not good for Virginia businesses, but they’re not good for Virginia workers either,” McDougle said Wednesday on WRVA’s Richmond Morning News program. “We want there to be competition. When the economy’s moving up, we want to be able to get jobs.”

House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, called the legislation passed “long overdue,” in a statement released Tuesday.

 “We have kept our promise to truly be the ‘People’s House’ by passing long overdue legislation to protect Virginians from exploitation, discrimination and senseless violence,” Filler-Corn said.

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Senate Advances Bill Expanding Access to Renewable Energy

Residential rooftop solar panels in the Fulton neighborhood in Richmond. Photo by Jeffrey Knight

By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – A bill that would allow state residents, nonprofits and schools to more easily seek and secure alternative energy sources such as rooftop solar recently passed the Senate by a vote of 22-18.

Senate Bill 710, patroned by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, cleared the hurdle on crossover day, the last day for each chamber to advance its own legislation before it dies. 

McClellan’s amended bill helps remove some barriers that make it harder for individuals and organizations to access energy alternatives outside of public utility providers such as Dominion Energy.

One of those barriers makes it difficult for nonprofits to reap the rewards of private renewable energy generation under current law. Nonprofit entities like churches and some schools don’t qualify for a 26% federal tax credit to implement solar systems. This deters some nonprofits and those who don’t qualify for the tax incentive from generating their own renewable energy because of the up-front price of these projects. 

Many of these organizations are opting for third-party solar contracts, to either lease a system or to pay for energy use. A customer can lease a solar energy system from an installer or developer and pays to use it for a period of time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Alternatively, a power purchase agreement allows customers to pay a solar developer an agreed-upon rate for energy use, usually a lower price than what the local utility charges. 

“The beauty of the third-party solar contract is that the third party is not only installing the panels, they are usually helping to finance it too,” said Bob Shippee, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter legislative chair. “This means the schools or governmental agencies do not have to go through the capital budgeting process and they start seeing savings on electricity from day one.”

The current law caps third-party power purchase agreements on renewable energy generation at 50 megawatts in Dominion territory and seven megawatts for Appalachian Power territory. Dominion would have a tenfold increase to 500 megawatts, while Appalachian Power would have a limit of 40 megawatts, according to the bill.

“We support our Virginia customers using more renewable energy and hope any legislation would ensure the fair and equitable distribution of energy cost to consumers across our footprint,” Rayhan Daudani, Dominion Energy spokesman said in an email. 

Consumer solar prices have dropped 36% over the past five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s recent data. Virginia residents get 1% of their power from solar energy, the association said. 

Homeowners have been joining “solar cooperatives” to help households convert to solar power, but churches, schools and other municipal buildings are not allowed to generate their own power outside of energy provided by Dominion -- except on rare occasions such as weather emergencies.

The average monthly consumption of energy for Virginia residents is 1,165 kilowatt hours per month according to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A kilowatt hour is the measurement of how much energy is used when a 1,000-watt appliance runs for an hour, according to an OVO Energy article. One megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts. 

The proposed legislation would allow non-residential customers to increase their system capacity from one to three megawatts of energy. By law residential customers can generate up to 20 kilowatts. 

Shippee said the current cap on third-party renewable energy generation projects impacted savings and jobs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. 

“That is savings those taxpayers can’t get until those laws are changed,” Shippee said. “The savings flow right to the taxpayer.” 

The bill also raises the cap from 1% to 6% on the amount of solar or renewable energy that can be net metered in a utility service area. Net metering is when an individual who produces their own electricity from solar power uses less electricity than they generate. The excess electricity is then sold back to the utility grid in exchange for a reduction in the customer’s power bill, according to the SEIA

Some lawmakers also want the State Corporation Commission to regulate third-party renewable energy developers. The current bill does not give the commission jurisdiction to regulate the terms and conditions of third-party power purchase agreements. 

“We are putting a lot of additional costs that we are unsure of on the backs of our ratepayers and this is another one of those costs,” said Sen. William DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach during a Senate floor meeting ahead of the vote. 

Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, introduced a similar bill in the House that passed with a 67-31 vote.

Many renewable energy bills survived crossover including the Clean Economy Act (HB1526 and SB851), the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act (HB981 and SB1027) and HB234, which would develop an offshore wind plan.

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Bloomberg Finds Support and Opposition in Richmond

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Roughly two weeks before Super Tuesday, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was in Richmond looking for support from voters and from many of the lawmakers whose campaigns he helped fund.

The day after Valentine’s Day, the Democratic presidential candidate campaigned around the city, stopping first for an afternoon speech at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. The event attracted about 900 people, according to his campaign staff. In the evening, Bloomberg attended the Blue Commonwealth Gala at Main Street Station in downtown Richmond. The gala is an annual fundraiser hosted by the Democratic Party of Virginia. 

“This is the event that keeps the lights on,” said Andrew Whitley, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia. 

During the Hardywood and Blue Commonwealth Gala events, Bloomberg apologized for the controversial stop-and-frisk policy in place when he was New York’s mayor. He said the policy disproportionately affected young men of color. Stop and frisk is a procedure where a police officer stops a person on the street if they believe they’re armed and pats them down to search for weapons. In 2011, during Bloomberg’s ninth year as mayor, the New York City Police Department stopped over 685,000 people under the stop-and-frisk policy, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. A majority of those searches were performed on Black or Lantinx people (87%). The NYCLU said that 88% of people stopped were innocent. 

“I defended it for too long, I think, because I didn’t understand the unintended pain it caused to young black and brown kids and to their families,” Bloomberg said. “And for that, I have apologized.”

Bloomberg pledged that if elected, he’d prioritize dismantling systems of bias and oppression. He did not elaborate what those systems were or how he would change them. 

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights advocacy group, protested at both of Bloomberg’s Richmond events. VCDL protesters, who are opposed to Bloomberg’s gun control policy, entered Hardywood brewery and called Bloomberg a fascist while he was speaking. They were removed from the brewery by Bloomberg supporters and staff and resumed their post outside. They did not enter Main Street Station but lined the street outside, where other anti-Bloomberg protesters were gathered. 

Anti-Bloomberg sentiment was also visible inside the gala. Jasmine Leeward, a board member of Richmond For All, approached the podium while Bloomberg was speaking and attached a sign that read: “He protects racist systems, will you?” It was quickly taken down and Leeward was escorted away from the stage. Richmond For All is a coalition that fights for housing, education, environmental rights and racial justice.

Leeward explained the sign, saying that Bloomberg protects racist systems by only offering an apology and “not actually repaying for the harms that were caused by his stop-and-frisk policies.”

“I saw a lot of politicians, both at the city and state level, kind of forgiving or not being truthful and honest about how dangerous he would be as a president,” Leeward said. “And so I did what I felt like I needed to do, which was to talk to the people who have the power to get him elected and ask them if they support racist systems and protect them, as I feel Mike Bloomberg does.”

After the sign was removed, Bloomberg said, “It’s always nice to be welcomed.”

At the gala, six Democratic candidates for president were represented by surrogates, influential people who campaign for candidates at events, but Bloomberg was the only candidate who appeared. Virginia’s key leaders were in attendance, including Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Virginia Congresswomen Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton. 

Bloomberg received support from Filler-Corn during her speech at the gala.

“I want to thank Mayor Bloomberg for helping to turn Virginia blue,” Filler-Corn said.

Bloomberg said winning in Virginia is a key part of his electoral strategy.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group largely funded by Bloomberg, has spent $3.8 million since 2017 to help usher in Democratic legislators. After the 2019 elections, the Democrats gained a majority in Virginia’s executive and legislative branches for the first time since the early ’90s. 

Bloomberg said that defeating President Donald Trump is one of the main reasons he entered the race. 

Charles Bissett, an Army veteran who is leaning toward voting for Bloomberg, said that he thinks that Bloomberg will have the best chance of implementing Democratic policy. In particular, Bissett supports how Bloomberg handled education reform as mayor of New York.

Under Bloomberg’s administration, the graduation rate for high school students went from less than half to nearly two-thirds, according to a 2013 article by The Atlantic. Bloomberg also said he raised teacher salaries in New York by 43%.

Bloomberg ranks third in an average of national polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to polling data from RealClearPolitics that also has Sen. Elizabeth Warren closely trailing him.

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House advances bill to allow food stamp benefits at certain restaurants

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House advanced a bill this week that will help individuals in Virginia with an annual income of less than $3,600 get a hot meal with their food stamps, from certain restaurants.

House Bill 1410 passed the House Tuesday 54-41. The bill requires the Department of Social Services to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, or RMP, of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by Jan. 1, 2021.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, is one of five patrons on the bill and said that this bill is within the interest of the state.

“I witnessed firsthand how sometimes the lack of public education with regards to nutrition can lead individuals of lower income to use money to purchase foods that are not as nutritious as that which would be provided by a restaurant,” Samirah said.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a federal program that provides benefits to eligible low-income households. 

In 2015, SNAP helped 4.6 million people living in poverty, according to the Coalition Against Hunger which helps people apply for the benefits. 

A recipient is given an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that can be used to buy any food item except prepared or hot food. The bill would allow participants to purchase prepared meals from participating restaurants.

“The state would have to figure out exactly what restaurants would be able to access food stamp money as a form of payment for food provided,” Samirah said.

Chief patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said she hopes the proposed legislation will make hot meals accessible to the disabled, elderly and homeless populations, the groups of people the program is limited to.

“My ultimate goal with this is making sure that we are taking care of people who need to eat and that they eat nutritious whole meals, or they eat at whatever restaurants that like to participate,” Roem said.

Arizona and Rhode Island allow individuals to use their benefits card to purchase meals at approved restaurants. In Arizona, participating retailers include mainly fast food options: Subway, Jack in the Box, Papa John’s and Taco Bell.

“This is actually great for the restaurants because when someone actually swipes their SNAP benefit card in the first place, that money goes directly to the restaurant; it's guaranteed income,” Roem said.

The Virginia Department of Social Services must implement two parts of the legislation. The first part is reaching out to restaurants to encourage them to participate in the program, and the second part is informing current SNAP recipients of the participating restaurants and outline the conditions.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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Bills fail to snuff out flavored tobacco this session

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Yan Gleyzer was watching via livestream when the state Senate voted Tuesday to defeat a bill that would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. As the owner and CEO of Vape Guys, an e-cigarette distributor with three stores in Virginia, Gleyzer has been keeping his eye on tobacco legislation in the General Assembly.

Prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products including menthol was also proposed in the House of Delegates, but a committee voted last week to delay the two bills until 2021. Gleyzer called that a good thing, and said the delegates will now have more time to research and discuss proposed legislation.

“We can work with them to come up with the legislation that works for everybody,” Gleyzer said. 

Gleyzer, a board member of the Virginia Smoke Free Association, said if a flavor ban did become law, more than 400 vape shops would be forced to shut down. He said flavored products are meant to help adult smokers quit, and he doesn’t believe prohibition is necessary to prevent them from falling into the hands of teenagers.

“We definitely don’t want to have kids have those products,” Gleyzer said. “It’s not meant for kids, it’s meant for adults. So whatever we can do to prevent kids having those products, we’re definitely gonna help.”

Despite Virginia earning an “F” from the American Lung Association regarding its tobacco-control programs for the fifth year in a row, the General Assembly won’t be voting on whether or not to ban flavored tobacco products until the next session.

Aleks Casper, the American Lung Association’s director of advocacy in Virginia, said her organization supported bills that would prohibit flavored tobacco and vaping products as well as require retailers to obtain a license for the sale of tobacco.

“In light of the vaping epidemic that is occurring and the youth usage that is occurring, the time is now to act,” Casper said. “I think the sponsors of these bills are very committed to getting this work done and pulling stakeholders together to talk about how we get this done in Virginia.”

Casper said she was disappointed that the proposals were delayed but is hopeful for 2021.

“I think what it does give us is the opportunity to kind of regroup,” she said. “Talk about it, you know, talk with our sponsors. Again, the sponsors are truly committed to getting the work done.”

The following five bills concerning tobacco and vapor were continued into next year this month by the finance committee of the House of Delegates:

  • House Bill 93: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes;

  • HB 1119: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products with lower maximum penalties than HB 93;

  • HB 1120: Increase the tax on tobacco products, except cigarettes, to 39% of the wholesale price of other tobacco products;

  • HB 1185: Limit the sale of flavored and high-nicotine vapor products to licensed retailers who require identification from customers; 

  • HB 1283: Require retailers to obtain a permit from the state in order to sell any tobacco products; prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a “youth-oriented facility.”

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is the sponsor behind HB 93, which would create a civil penalty of $1,000 for the initial offense of selling flavored tobacco products and $5,000 on subsequent offenses.

Flavored tobacco products are defined in the bill as cigarettes, vapors or alternative nicotine devices with a taste or aroma of something other than tobacco. Menthol, mint, vanilla and fruit are among examples listed in the bill.

“As a long-time advocate for protecting the health of Virginia’s children, I proposed HB 93 to bring attention to the vaping crisis affecting so many of our young people,” Kory said.

Kory said she knew HB 93 was “overly broad” when she filed it, but she also knew that such a sweeping proposal would get stakeholders working together toward solving underage vaping. She also said she was pleased to work with vape-shop owners and the tobacco industry representatives on amending the bill so that it could be brought forward in this session, but time was a constraint.

“There are many more factors to be considered than time allowed,” Kory said. “I believe that continuing HB 93 under Rule 22 was an appropriate decision because this issue is extremely complex, and the solution will be difficult to legislate.”  

Rule 22 allows any bill or resolution introduced in an even numbered year and not reported out of committee to be continued for hearings and committee action during the interim between regular sessions.

Kory said she intends to focus on putting the legislation in the “proper posture for re-introduction in 2021.”

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Amended Assault Firearm Bill Squeaks out of House

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A controversial bill banning assault firearms passed the House this week along party lines, and after several amendments whittled away at certain requirements that had caused the loudest opposition. 

The House of Delegates passed HB 961 this week 51-48, which bans the sale of assault firearms and other firearm accessories. Sponsored by Del. Mark H. Levine, D-Alexandria, HB 961 is one of the many gun control efforts being introduced this session and backed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The bill has been amended several times, and because of this Levine believes that lawmakers have reached the best compromise. Levine also said he wants to counter misinformation being used by pro-gun groups.

“There have been a lot of scare tactics being used,” Levine said. “No one is going to send the police to kick down your door to take away your firearms.”

Amendments to the bill include striking the requirement that current owners of firearms categorized as assault weapons register them with the state police. Also removed was a section that banned suppressors, also known as “silencers.” Originally the bill required that the suppressors be destroyed, moved out of state, or surrendered to law enforcement by January 2021. Now the bill only restricts future sales of assault firearms and suppressors.

The bill in its current form would ban the sale and transfer of new assault rifles, as well as restrict the size of a magazine’s capacity to 12 rounds. An earlier version of the bill would have made possessing any large-capacity firearm magazine a class 6 felony violation, but that penalty was amended and reduced to a class 1 misdemeanor. 

“I have been talking to and listening to the concerns from law abiding citizens,” Levine said. “I have also worked with my colleagues across the aisle; Sen. Amanda Chase was instrumental in helping with these amendments.”

Former Arizona congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords on Monday urged Virginia lawmakers to “act with courage,” in a statement released the day before the vote.

Statewide opposition has swelled in response to proposed gun control legislation that the Democrats promised after gaining control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1993.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is a leading voice against the gun control bills that have been introduced.

“We will be working to kill the bills that crossed over,” Van Cleave said. “Expect VCDL to have a presence in all the subcommittee and committee rooms on gun bills, we will fight hard to stop it in the Senate.”

 Van Cleave and the VCDL held a massive pro-Second Amendment rally on Jan. 20, that drew over 22,000 people to Capitol Square and the surrounding areas. Northam declared a state of emergency before the event, citing concerns over safety and threats of violence.

Van Cleave said his group hasn’t planned another rally but that is something that could change on short notice.

“We are watching the gun bills,” Van Cleave said. “What happens with those bills will have bearing on our next move.” 

With Levine's bill inching closer to becoming law, many gun store owners statewide have reported an uptick in sales from state residents buying anything that would be banned under the bill. 

Eric Tompkins, owner of Paladin Strategic in Mechanicsville, said that the legislative gun control push has helped sales at his gun store, but predicted that his business probably won’t last if HB 961 were signed into law.

“It’s been a double-edged sword, because the past few months since the election have been great,” Tompkins said. “I have had a ton of customers each day, but I know that’ll drop off, and I don’t know whether my business will continue.”

The bill now heads to the Senate. Firearm bills passed earlier by the Senate include SB 70, which requires a universal background check when people sell firearms. SB 69 limits handgun purchases to one a month, while SB 35 allows localities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event. SB 240 allows authorities to take away the firearms of someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, a measure known as a red flag law. SB 543 makes background checks mandatory at gun shows.

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House passes bill giving state’s electoral votes to popular vote winner

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House of Delegates passed a bill this week that would allocate the commonwealth’s electoral college votes to the candidate who received the national popular vote.

The bill would join Virginia into the National Popular Vote Compact, which ensures the presidential candidate with the most votes nationally is elected once states comprising 270 out of 538 electoral votes sign onto the pact. The House passed the bill by a vote of 51-46. 

Passage of House Bill 177, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, comes less than two weeks after the bill was originally defeated in the Privileges and Elections committee by a vote of 10-12. After being reconsidered in the same committee last week, the bill reported out on a 12-9 vote. The bill incorporates HB 199, introduced by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, and Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, who initially voted against the bill voted in favor of it the second time. Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, who initially also voted against the bill did not vote the second time.

“The people of the United States should choose the president of the United States, no matter where they live in each individual state,” Levine said when questioned during the committee hearing. “It gives every American equal weight under the law.”

Levine tried to pass similar legislation the past three consecutive sessions.

A similar Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, was pulled from consideration by Ebbin, who did not identify the reason he pulled the bill. 

Since the campaign began in 2006, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote bill -- a total of 196 electoral votes. If the bill passes the state Senate, Virginia’s 13 electoral votes would bring that total to 209. That leaves 61 electoral votes needed for the compacte to take effect. At least one chamber in eight additional states, with a combined 75 more electoral votes, have passed the bill. 

“We are grateful to our sponsors in the Virginia General Assembly, and to citizens across the state who are making it clear that they prefer a national popular vote for president,” said John Koza, chairman of National Popular Vote, in a released statement. 

A candidate winning the electoral votes and the presidential race despite losing the national popular vote has occurred five times in American history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harris in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

“It is really hard to predict how campaigns would respond to this change,” said Alex Keena, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “We would probably see less campaigning in the smaller swing states and there would be less emphasis on winning states, per se.”

The bill stipulates that a state can exit the compact, but a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a president's term shall not become effective until a president or vice president have been qualified to serve the next term.

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Bill Preventing License Suspension Over Court Debt Unanimously Passes Senate

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- When Brianna Morgan’s driver’s license was suspended due to court debt in 2014, her life became more challenging. Morgan was pregnant at the time and had two children, which made it difficult to get around without a car. 

“It completely changed my day to day life at the time,” said Morgan, who lives in Petersburg. “I had a high-risk pregnancy, so I had to go to the OB-GYN every week for ultrasounds. And trying to get that done without my license was a nightmare.” 

Morgan said she had to rely on other people for rides, which wasn’t always dependable, or risk getting behind the wheel of her car without a license in order to keep her appointments.

Senate Bill 1, which repeals from state law the requirement that an individual’s driver’s license be suspended if they don’t pay court dues, unanimously passed the Senate last week. Sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, the bill also repeals a provision of state law requiring that defendants present a summary provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles that states which courts the defendant owes fines and costs to. The bill incorporated three other Senate bills.

“License suspensions in Virginia for court debt is really Virginia’s form of debtor’s prison,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit based in Virginia that litigates on behalf of low-income individuals. A 2017 report released by the Legal Aid Justice Center found that nearly 1 million Virginians’ licenses had been suspended due to court debt. 

Levy-Lavelle said that people get their licenses suspended because they are too poor to pay. He noted that license suspensions due to court debt makes it harder for people to keep their jobs, go to school or take care of their kids. 

“It really impairs people in their daily lives,” Levy-Lavelle said. “It’s unfair, unconstitutional and wrong.”

Last year, the General Assembly voted to approve a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that reinstated driver’s licenses to over 600,000 Virginians who had their licenses suspended. Because this policy went into effect via a budget amendment, the policy is only in place until the budget expires in July 2020. 

“The legislation this year takes essentially what was a temporary fix last year and makes it a permanent legislative repeal,” Levy-Lavelle said. 

Stanley introduced similar legislation in the past two General Assembly sessions that would have ended the suspension of driver’s licenses due to court debt, but SB 1 is the first that has not died in a Republican-led committee. Levy-Lavelle attributed the bill’s success to the new makeup of the General Assembly. 

“Last year and in previous years, the leadership of the House Courts Committee was different and they were able to stop what was frankly a common sense piece of reform,” Levy-Lavelle said. 

Morgan said she is grateful that Virginia is taking steps to reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended due to court debt.

“I think this is by far one of the most appropriate actions that the commonwealth could take to ensure a positive quality of life for its residents,” Morgan said. 

She added that regardless of why a person would need to pay any court fees in the first place, she believes that being able to get around is a right, not a privilege. 

“It gives us the opportunity to get back to where we were and to grow and flourish,” Morgan said.

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Bill advances to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to possess a driver’s license advanced in the Senate Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 34, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would allow immigrants to obtain a driver’s license regardless of legal status. The applicant must prove they don’t have a social security or individual taxpayer identification number and submit a certified statement that their information is true. The bill had several amendments this legislative session.

House Bill 1211 introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, is an identical bill that also extends these rights to undocumented immigrants. Tran introduced a similar bill that died in subcommittee last year. If approved, the bills will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. 

Nayeli Montes said she came to the United States illegally from Mexico in 2005 for a chance at a better life. She worked 12 hour shifts at a restaurant back home earning the equivalent of $6.50 a day. Today, Montes is involved with the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which lobbies lawmakers for immigrant rights.

Driver’s licenses can be required to obtain certain resources such as credit cards and car insurance. Currently, 13 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. VACIR believes providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make roads safer because drivers will be educated, trained and tested. The three states that adopted these measures the earliest experienced a 30% decrease in traffic fatalities, compared to a nationwide 20 percent drop, according to The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which studies issues affecting low-income residents.

The coalition said the bill will increase state revenue through vehicle registration, license plate fees and title fees. According to The Commonwealth Institute, allowing undocumented immigrants to drive would produce between $11 million and $18 million in revenue from car registration fees, title fees and license plate fees. The institute estimated that between 124,500 and 160,800 drivers would seek Virginia licenses within the first two years if immigration status was not a factor.

Humberto Rodriguez, the owner of a painting company and an immigrant from Mexico, said he came to the U.S. for better opportunities for him and his family. He said his son is the only person in his household who can legally drive and he would like for this privilege to be extended to all immigrants. His son is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. DACA allows undocumented children who entered the U.S. before they turned 16 to work, attend college or university and obtain a driver’s license. 

“I just want to make it clear that we came here to make a living for ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “Undocumented immigrants will go out and work no matter the weather conditions and we do our work with dignity.” 

The House bill has received more support this year than last year, but one representative worries it may misrepresent an immigrant’s legal status. 

Del. Terry L. Austin, R-Botetourt, said he voted against the House bill because the driver’s license that would be issued to an undocumented immigrant is identical to a citizen’s driver’s license and could misrepresent the legal status of an immigrant. 

“I think we need to be very careful with this,” Austin said. “This could misrepresent an individual’s identity and could compromise the safety in the United States.” 

Undocumented immigrants also have concerns. They worry the DMV could potentially release their information to the federal government and that they could get arrested or deported. However, both bills state that an individual’s name won’t be released unless ordered by a court. Additionally no photograph would be released to law enforcement or federal authorities unless a name or sufficient evidence was presented; the commissioner could still decline to release the photograph. 

Tran also sponsored HB 1700 which limits the release of information such as proof documents, photographs of an individual and signatures from the DMV to government agencies. Additionally, the bill would prohibit a federal immigration law enforcement agency from accessing information stored by the DMV without a court order or warrant. A subcommittee shelved that bill Tuesday. 

The fate of HB 1211 hasn’t been determined. The bill has been shuffled among House panels, with two recommendations, and is currently in an Appropriations subcommittee that meets next week.

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House of Delegates Passes HB972 to Decriminalize Marijuana

Richmond, VA - The Virginia House of Delegates has approved HB972 from Majority Leader Charniele Herring to decriminalize simple marijuana possession and create a $25 civil penalty for simple possession, which will not result in any court costs or criminal record and further seals all previous simple possession of marijuana arrests, criminal charges, and convictions.

This will reduce the burden on the criminal justice system and public safety agencies by allowing agencies to focus their limited resources on more serious offenses and will establish a work group to study the impact on the Commonwealth of legalizing the sale and personal use of marijuana, to complete its work and report its recommendations by November 1, 2021.

This legislation would make Virginia the 27th state (plus the District of Columbia) to decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts.

"This bill decriminalizes simple marijuana possession in the Commonwealth. Since this issue disproportionately affects people of color, it is an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal justice system. The reality is we are not ready for equitable legalization of marijuana in Virginia. We will continue to work on our regulations and laws regarding the use of marijuana, but today is a huge step forward for the Commonwealth" said Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria).

"I see how the criminalization of marijuana impacts our communities every day. This bill is not what some of us want, but this bill will decriminalize a lot of actions that have led to unfair policing. To say we should do nothing rather than doing something is ridiculous, and that's why I support this bill" said Delegate Don Scott (D-Portsmouth).

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Dr. Madan Vallem Joins VCU Health CMH

Dr. Madan Vallem, Orthopedic Surgeon

South Hill – VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill would like to welcome Dr. Madan Vallem to our family of health care providers.  Dr. Vallem specializes in Orthopedics.

Dr. Vallem earned a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree from Osmania Medical College in Hyderabad, India and his residency in Orthopedics at Gandhi Medical College in Hyderabad, India.  He has completed additional education training including:  an Orthopedic Research Fellowship from Harbor Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland; a Hand Surgery Fellowship from Beth Israel Medical Center in New York; an Adult Joint Reconstruction Fellowship from UVA in Charlottesville, Virginia; and an Orthopedic Trauma Fellowship from VCU in Richmond, VA.

Dr. Vallem comes to South Hill from Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare in Utica, New York, where he was an Orthopedic Surgeon for the last nine years.  Dr. Vallem is married and has two sons, ages eight and three.  In his free time he enjoys traveling, playing tennis, hiking and biking with his kids and just spending time with his family.

Dr. Vallem is currently working at CMH Orthopedic Service located inside the C.A.R.E. Building, 1755 N. Mecklenburg Avenue in South Hill.  He is accepting new patients; to schedule an appointment call (434) 584-2273 (CARE).

Dr. Vallem joins Dr. Niraj Kalore, Orthopedic Surgeon; Mari Adams, Physician Assistant; and Vicky Kennedy, Family Nurse Practitioner to provide a complete range of medical and surgical services in orthopedics and sports medicine to the entire family.  To view a full list of services visit:  VCU-CMH.org

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Announcing Regional Job Fair

Emporia/Greensville Social Services, Job Assistance Center, and Virginia Employment Commission are sponsoring a Job Fair on Thursday, April 2nd from 10:00 am to 2:30 pm at the Golden Leaf Commons, 1300 Greensville County Circle, Emporia, Virginia. This event will offer Emporia, Greensville County, and the surrounding communities the opportunity to meet with employers and explore employment opportunities. Job seekers should be prepared to complete applications and for on-site interviews.

Employers registered to attend the Job Fair include Halifax Works Healthcare Express, Melvin L. Davis Oil Company, GEO Lawrenceville Correctional, Byrne Acquisition Group, Dinwiddie Health & Rehabilitation, Virginia Linen Services, Vidant North Hospital, Greensville Correction, Greensville Public Schools, Personal Touch Home Care,  Virginia State Police, Integrity Staffing, Holden Temporaries, Peoplelink Staffing, United States Army, Penmac Staffing, Peopleready, VCU Health System, Smithfield Production, Jakafi Behavioral Care, Sussex 1 & 2, Lowes and more.

For employer registration information, please contact Sherry Pearson at spearson@jacinc.net, (804) 445-5710 or suzannedtaylor57@yahoo.com

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Sexual abuse reporting bills gain momentum in General Assembly

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Two bills recently passed the House unanimously that aim to change the state’s statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse.

One bill gives victims a two-year window to file sexual abuse claims, if the statute of limitations have passed. The other extends the statute of limitations in adult civil sexual assault cases from two to 20 years.

House Bill 610 was introduced by Del. Jason S. Miyares, R-Virginia Beach. This bill creates a two-year time period, from after July 1 but before July 1, 2022, in which persons can file a claim for injury from sexual abuse occurring before the age of 18, regardless whether the statute of limitations expired. 

“My hope is that this will enable you to have your day in court, and that’s my sincere hope,” Miyares said to victims who have suffered “unspeakable crimes.”

Miyares, a former prosecutor, said that “being in the court system, you can’t help but see” sexual abuse cases. Miyares said that he sponsored the legislation after reading a report from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. The report compiled the results of a two-year grand jury investigation into the claims of sexual abuse of children within six Pennsylvania dioceses. Some of the cases included dated back to 30 to 40 years ago and victims were not able to file a lawsuit because the statute of limitations had expired.

“That’s really what first kind of peaked my interest,” Miyares said. “I just thought that was a travesty.” 

Miyares introduced a similar bill in 2019. HB 1888 proposed to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for injury resulting from sexual abuse occurring during childhood or incapacity. The bill died in committee. Originally, there was some concern about the 2019 bill being broadly written, Miyares said. 

“I looked at how other states have tackled it and saw that a lot of states were doing a temporary, two-year sub gap where they allowed time-barred claims to be filed,” Miyares said. “And I thought two years was probably an appropriate amount of time to get the word out.”

HB 870, introduced by Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne, D-Richmond, establishes a procedure for victims to come forward in the future and extends the time frame they have to report sexual abuse.

Bourne’s bill allows the accuser 20 years to report sexual abuse that occurs on or after July 1. This expands the statute of limitations to 20 years from when the sexual abuse was discovered, for example in counseling. Currently, this 20-year window applies only if the act occurs while the person is under the age of 18, according to lawyer Eliott Buckner who helped create the bill.

The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association is a voluntary bar association with approximately 2,000 members. The group works to improve the state’s justice system.

The VTLA wrote HB 870 and searched for a patron, according to president-elect Buckner. Buckner, a lawyer for the Breit Cantor law firm in Richmond, said he was interested to help prepare a bill like this after an experience with a prospective client. He said his client had “the courthouse doors shut on her” because of the current law. 

Buckner said that his client was groomed as a minor and that there were "repeated and specific acts" that mentally and emotionally conditioned her for the sexual abuse that occurred later.

“Because there was no sexual abuse when she was a minor, there was no extension of statute of limitations to bring a claim and there should have been,” Buckner said. 

Buckner said his client was never able to have her day in court.

Both bills are now in a Senate judiciary committee.

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House committee tackles consumer protections and cybersecurity

By Macy Pressley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- In one of the more modern meeting rooms at the over two centuries old State Capitol, 22 lawmakers gather on Mondays to confront the increasing cybersecurity threats looming over Virginia residents. 

This session the House Committee on Communications, Technology and Innovation will consider a variety of issues, including managing data in an increasingly digital world, regulating devices for children in schools and enabling consumers with the right to access their data and determine if it has been sold to a data broker. 

The committee will also hear proposals on a range of cybersecurity issues. These include House Bill 322 which seeks to create a cybersecurity advisory council. HB 524 aims to create a volunteer group of tech industry professionals to help localities and school divisions address information technology and cybersecurity issues. HB 954 requires businesses to take reasonable steps to dispose of customer records when the company no longer needs those documents. 

The committee leadership has a host of expertise in technology and cybersecurity. The chair, Del. Cliff Hayes Jr., D-Chesapeake spent over 25 years working in the cybersecurity field, including time as the director of information technology for the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office. Hayes Jr. said he was optimistic about Virginia’s future in cybersecurity, but did not understate the risks.

“Anywhere in the world is at a high risk in this day in age,” Hayes said. “We have to make sure we do everything we can to protect our infrastructure and those devices that are connected to it.”

Vice Chair Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, spent over 15 years working as a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security. She said the committee will work with the federal government to prevent cyber attacks from hostile foreign adversaries.

When it comes to cybersecurity, Virginians have reason to be cautious. Some of the biggest companies in the world such as Amazon store data in the state. Seventy percent of the world’s daily internet traffic is routed through Loudoun County, according to Loudoun’s department of economic development. Since 2010, Microsoft continues to expand its data center operations in Mecklenburg County. Facebook recently opened a 1 million square foot data center in Henrico, with plans to add another 1.5 million square feet. 

Hayes said the committee plans to be proactive when it comes to dealing with the increasing cybersecurity threats. 

“Historically, most of the cyber, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, and all of those types of issues were referred to other committees for some reason,” he said. “But now, those bills are going to be coming to this committee and we have an abundance of expertise in this area.”

Virginia’s cyber investments aren’t invulnerable, especially given the growing threat of hostile foreign powers such as Iran. The Iranians have spent years cultivating a skilled team of hackers that could potentially threaten U.S. cybersecurity, according to a recent Washington Post survey of leaders from government, academia and the private sector.

“We’re trying to make steps at the federal level to strengthen our security infrastructure,” Ayala said.

At the state level, Ayala said the committee plans to protect consumers against potential breaches and advocate for consumer privacy. 

“You’ll see a lot of privacy legislation come out,” she said. “We want to strengthen consumer data and protection.”

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, said the key to protecting Virginians against cybersecurity threats will be education.

“It’s critical that we continue to train young people so we have the workforce and workforce skills to be able to help companies,” Byron said. 

Byron also said there were a number of steps Virginians could take to protect themselves from identity theft. 

“Check daily for activity from your financial institutions to make sure someone hasn’t used that information,” Byron said. 

Ayala said there are a number of ways to protect your online activities as well. 

“Change your passwords every 60 to 90 days,” Ayala said. “I use something called LastPass to encrypt passwords.”

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February 2020 Update from Congressman McEachin

This month I was pleased that a member of my staff could attend the American Legion meeting in Emporia. While I cannot be everywhere, it is important for my staff to be at community and organization meetings. They are my eyes and ears throughout the district and they uniformly report how much they learn from and enjoy interacting with constituents. My office and I are eager to continue to be active and involved in the community. Please let us know about any events in which we can participate and be helpful. The nature of Congress is that I spend significant time in Washington, DC, but when possible, I want to be in the district, meeting and interacting with residents. You can request my attendance or invite a staff member by filling out this form: https://mceachin.house.gov/contact/request-appearance.

I am also pleased to continue helping my constituents with federal issues. Tax season is now upon us and I know many of you, like me, are starting to think about preparing your taxes and making sure you do not miss the April 15th deadline to file. If you choose to use a professional preparer, please make sure to check their qualifications, history and ask in advance about any fees. To speed up the process, ask them to eFile and, if possible, request direct deposit for your refund. Please also consider the below helpful information before filing:

  • Active duty military members can prepare and file using brand name tax preparation software for free. This is a service provided by the IRS to thank our men and women in uniform.
  • The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax help to people who made $56,000 or less in 2019, persons with disabilities, and limited English-speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to those who qualify.
  • In addition to VITA, the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program offers free tax help for all taxpayers, particularly those who are 60 years of age and older, specializing in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues unique to seniors.

As always, if you have an issue or a problem with a federal agency, such as a missing tax return, needing a visa or passport, unreceived benefits or issues with mail delivery, my office is happy to help. Just go to my website, mceachin.house.gov, to get started.

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Fornication Repeal One Step Closer to Law

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Lawmakers are closing a legal loophole that could charge unmarried people with a crime for having consensual sex. The House of Delegates passed a bill this week that aims to repeal the crime of fornication, which makes it illegal for people to have consensual sex outside of marriage.

Currently, fornication is a Class 4 misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $250. 

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, introduced House Bill 245 to repeal what he called a Victorian-era law. The Virginia Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 2005. 

Levine said the bill was necessary because keeping unconstitutional laws on the books can cause confusion.

“No one should think they can be prosecuted for this common practice,” Levine said.

The lawmaker added that people are rarely convicted for fornication, but it can be charged in conjunction with other crimes such as indecent exposure. 

“Charge the crime that occurred, don’t just pile on with things that shouldn’t be a crime anyway,” Levine said.

 The bill received bipartisan support on the floor. The seven votes against it came from Republican lawmakers. One Democrat abstained. 

“Now that the Democrats are in power, I’m thrilled to get it off the books,” Levine said.

Levine pointed out that this is a crime a majority of Virginians have probably committed at some point in their life. 

“It’s a stupid law. It’s crazy,” Levine said.

This is Levine’s second attempt to repeal the law, and the third by Democrats since 2014. 

“I had that fornication bill before, it couldn’t get out of committee. The world has changed,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said Thursday from the House floor. Sickles introduced the bill that failed in 2014. 

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said she was unaware of anyone in the city being charged in years with fornication on top of other crimes. When asked how many fornication convictions there were in 2019, the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office did not have any records to report. There were eight convictions of fornication in 2013, a lawmaker told The Virginian-Pilot in 2014. 

JoAnne Sweeny, a University of Louisville law professor who has written about fornication and adultery laws, said most people don’t think about being charged with fornication. That doesn’t change its status as a criminal act.

“In the U.S., if it’s on the books, it’s enforceable,” Sweeny said.

Fornication is part of Virginia law that outlines crimes involving morals and decency

Sweeny said fornication law in the United States dates back to Colonial times and was enforced in the 1960s, with a sharp dropoff in enforcement in the 1980s. 

Levine believes most Virginians, even those who don’t agree with sex outside of marriage, want this bill to become law. 

“How is Virginia for lovers, if lovers can’t love each other,” Levine said.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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Does Southern VA Need More Coworking and Makerspace?

Online Survey Will Determine Direction of Major Innovation Strategy for Region

Attention all small business owners, freelancers, entrepreneurs, remote workers, craftspeople, and creatives. Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC), in partnership with Longwood University, is calling for community input on proposed innovative office space in Southern Virginia.

The study is designed to gauge whether or not there is a need for additional coworking and makerspaces, the spaces’ desired offerings, and also the amount people would be willing to pay as a member or occasional user of such a space.

Coworking spaces are generally for those seeking office-type space for continuous or occasional use. Coworking spaces can offer a sense of community among solo workers and amenities such as high speed internet, video conferencing capabilities, printing/scanning/copying, meeting space, etc.

Makerspaces can provide access to design software and shared production equipment, such as 3-D printers, laser cutters, drill presses, sewing machines, commercial kitchen equipment, food storage, etc.

“The survey results will guide the planning process for designing high-tech, coworking spaces that provide the tools for success for all types of entrepreneurs in Southern Virginia,” said Lauren Mathena, Director of Economic Development and Community Engagement at MBC.

This region-wide study of market demand for coworking and makerspaces is being conducted by The Institute for Service Research, a full service market research and economic modeling firm with extensive experience in Southern Virginia. The study is part of a larger innovation and entrepreneurship strategy being developed by MBC and Longwood University supported by funding by GO Virginia Region 3.

Those who take the survey have the option to remain anonymous or to be entered to win a $50 Visa gift card.

The survey is available exclusively online at www.investsova.com/survey. MBC and Longwood are urging people who plan to relocate or who currently work or live in the Southern Virginia Tobacco Region to complete the survey. The region includes three cities (Danville, Emporia, Martinsville) and twenty counties (Amelia, Appomattox, Bedford, Brunswick, Buckingham, Campbell, Charlotte, Cumberland, Dinwiddie, Franklin, Greensville, Halifax, Henry, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Prince Edward, Sussex).

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Hundreds of LGBTQ Advocates Lobby Lawmakers for Protections

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By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The day after hundreds lobbied lawmakers on behalf of LGBTQ rights during Equality Virginia's Day of Action, two significant bills advanced in the General Assembly to further protections for the state’s LGBTQ residents. 

The House passed a bill from Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, on Wednesday to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, insurance and banking. 

A Senate bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, reported from committee that adds gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability as reportable hate crimes. Victims would be able to bring civil action to recover damages against their offender. 

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, was “cautiously optimistic” at the start of the legislative session but said Tuesday during the organization’s annual lobby event that there is much to celebrate.

Lamneck noted that most of the bills supported by Equality Virginia, a group that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community, are still alive and advancing. Last session most of those bills failed to pass from Republican-led subcommittees.

“This legislation will ensure that people are not discriminated against in housing, employment, public spaces and credit,” Lamneck said.

LGBTQ youth showed up to make their voices heard too. Side by Side, a group dedicated to creating supportive communities for LGBTQ youth, helped sponsor the event.

 “We want them to see that it's easy and accessible and what it's like to actually be involved in the legislative process,” said Emma Yackso, director of youth programs and services for Side by Side. “A lot of them for many, many reasons don't feel like they belong in government, don't feel like their voices are actually ever going to be listened to.”

Groups visited legislators to discuss LGBTQ-related causes such as conversion therapy, housing instability, religious liberty, protection from discrimination and the vulnerability of African American transgender communities. 

“We know that people who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities often face the most discrimination, harassment, and, unfortunately, sometimes violence as well,” Lamneck said.

The lobbying event was followed by an afternoon of workshops at the Library of Virginia and a reception to thank lawmakers. 

 Some of the legislation that has advanced in the General Assembly — mostly with bipartisan support — includes two bills introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. Senate Bill 657 would make it easier to change a person’s name and gender on a birth certificate. SB 161 would make the Department of Education create and implement policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public schools; a duplicate bill in the House also passed.

The Senate also passed SB 245, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which would ban the practice of conversion therapy in Virginia on patients under age 18. A similar bill introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, recently passed the House. On Tuesday, the House passed a health care bill introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or status as a transgender individual. 

Advocates also celebrated that two bills referred to as the Virginia Values Act have made it to the floors of their respective chambers: SB 868, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and HB 1663, introduced by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. Both would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, credit transactions, employment and public spaces.

“We speak with many individuals from across the Commonwealth who have shared with us their experiences of discrimination,” Lamneck said. “And not just that, but the fact that they live in fear, day to day experiencing discrimination and so the Virginia Values Act will have a profoundly positive impact on the community.”

Gov. Ralph Northam and Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, attended an evening reception to wrap up the Day of Action. 

“This session we are going to ensure it is no longer legal in Virginia to discriminate against someone because of who they love,” Filler-Corn tweeted. 

Two House bills that add gender, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation as reportable hate crimes and a House bill replacing terms such as “husband and wife” with gender-neutral terms have yet to advance through their respective committees prior to crossover day on Feb. 11.

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Bill Aims to Save Lives During Overdose

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Cullen Hazelwood died of an overdose last year 2 miles from the hospital because his friend was scared to call for help, according to his mother Christy Farmer. 

Farmer wants to see legislation passed in the General Assembly that would extend immunity from prosecution to people reporting an overdose. 

In 2019, the General Assembly passed a law that offered individuals an affirmative

defense from prosecution for purchasing or possessing drugs, meaning the charges could be reduced or cleared. The bill also struck the requirement that the individual reporting an overdose participate in a criminal investigation. Senate Bill 667, patroned by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, proposes immunity for people who report overdoses, meaning no charges would be filed. 

Fatal drug overdose has been the leading method of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013, driven by opioid use, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The other two in the category are motor vehicle related and gun deaths. Fentanyl accounts for a majority of fatal overdoses, followed by heroin and prescription opioids, respectively.

House Bill 532, introduced by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, sought to achieve the same goal as SB 667. However, it was tabled last week in a 5-3 subcommittee vote. Carr said that fear of legal consequence is the most common reason for not contacting emergency services during an overdose. The legislation was intended to make reporting emergencies easier for all parties involved. 

“The people most directly impacted by this legislation are those who experience an overdose as well as those friends or family members who are present when an overdose occurs,” Carr said. 

Farmer said that her 18-year-old son died of an overdose on May 7, 2019. She said he had recently finished a recovery program and had been clean for several months before his relapse. She said when her son overdosed he was with a friend who took him to someone’s apartment but they were not home. 

“A neighbor said he was yelling, ‘I can't get in trouble, I can't get in trouble, I can't get in trouble,’” Farmer said. “Where my son ended up dying was less than 2 miles from a hospital, less than 2 miles from my house, and less than 3 miles from his grandmother’s house.”

Marianne Burke also had a family member that overdosed on heroin but didn’t die. That overdose wasn’t reported due to fear of prosecution, Burke said. 

“It's obvious that the bill that we have called safe reporting has not done the trick in Virginia,” Burke said.

 Westmoreland County Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Sichol spoke last week in opposition to the House bill, on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Sichol said she thinks Carr’s bill “can also cause harm to lives” because immunity would keep individuals who report an overdose from being charged with a crime and possibly prevent them from obtaining treatment.

“Drug treatment is extremely expensive and sometimes the only way to get the treatment for the individuals is through the court system,” Sichol said. “If you take away the ability for individuals to be charged who have overdosed they are not eligible to participate in drug treatment program, they are not eligible to go through the court system under mandated treatment.”

Drug courts are specialized courts where individuals plead guilty and agree to complete the drug court program, Sichol said. Patients in the program are on probation and can live at home, she explained. They are screened for drugs three times a week, attend drug treatment counseling, have a curfew and can receive visitors.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, voted against tabling the House bill, saying she objected to “the contention that we can incarcerate ourselves out of addiction” and that treatment simply should be more accessible. 

“It is the fact that we don’t allow them to get the treatment until we incarcerate them,” she said. “And that’s a failure of us and our system and the way that we think of substance abuse.” 

SB 667 will be heard Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary committee.

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