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General Assembly

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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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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Bill fails that would award electoral votes to popular vote winner

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislation seeking to guarantee the presidency to candidates who earn the popular vote in national elections has again failed to advance in the General Assembly. 

Senate Bill 399, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would’ve joined Virginia into the National Popular Vote Compact and awarded its electoral votes to the presidential ticket that receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Ebbin withdrew the bill from consideration Tuesday without identifying the reason. 

House Bill 177, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, was defeated Friday in the Privileges and Elections committee by a 10-12 vote, despite narrowly clearing subcommittee. The bill incorporated HB 199, introduced by Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News. Three Democrats joined Republican members to vote no.

“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.”

Opponents disagree over his premise.

 “One of the things that was in place was to try to ensure that certain large states like California and New York, now, don’t have all the control in making a decision for president,” Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, told ABC 8 News last week. 

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

“The Electoral College is an outdated institution that creates an undemocratic system for deciding who holds the most important office in the land,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, a co-patron of HB 177. “Call me crazy, but I think the person who wins the most votes is the person who should win an election.”

Under the Electoral College, each state is granted a number of electoral votes based on their representation in the U.S. House and Senate. A majority of states award electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes in their respective states. The candidate receiving at least 270 electoral votes wins the election. 

After Donald Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the popular vote, numerous states signed the NPVC. The NPVC would ensure the candidate who wins the popular vote becomes president when states possessing 270 electoral votes sign onto the pact and give their electoral votes to the candidate through presidential electors. 

The compact has been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which equal 196 electoral votes, according to National Popular Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for the compact. The pact will go into effect once states with at least 74 more electoral votes enact it. At least one chamber in eight additional states with 75 more electoral votes have passed the bill. 

“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.”

Americans have historically opposed the Electoral College method and prefer naming winners based on the popular vote, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

“They favor an amendment to the Constitution to make that happen, but are more reluctant to have states make changes to how they award their electoral votes,” Gallup said in a summary of its finding. 

Five presidential candidates have won the electoral college without receiving a majority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harris in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

Without the compact, a constitutional amendment is required to switch from the Electoral College to the popular vote. 

In 1969, Rep. Emanuel Celler introduced House Joint Resolution 681 to abolish the Electoral College and instead require a president-vice president pair of candidates to win at least 40% of the popular vote. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support but failed on the Senate floor, according to congressional records.

“The compact does not require a constitutional amendment, so that route is obviously a lot easier than going through the amendment process,” Keena said.

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House bill protecting student journalists advances, Senate bill tabled

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By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – Students, faculty and advocates lined up at the podium Wednesday to voice support and concern for a bill that would extend free speech protection to student journalists. Some students traveled from Northern Virginia and Culpeper to snag a spot in the crowded House subcommittee room in support of First Amendment rights and to meet with legislators on National Student Press Freedom Day. 

House Bill 36, patroned by former WDBJ journalist Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, advanced out of subcommittee on a 5-3 vote. The bill grants student journalists in school-sponsored media at public middle, high and higher education institutions the right to exercise freedom of speech and the press. The bill also protects advisers working with the student journalists. 

Hurst’s bill would allow schools to intervene and exercise restraint only in situations of slander, libel, privacy, danger or violations of federal or state law. 

“We’ve been very lucky,” said Joseph Kubicki, a senior at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford. “Our current principal, school board and superintendent have been very supportive of the student press.” 

Margaret Vaillant, former student and editor in chief of Madison County High School’s newspaper, shared her reasons for supporting the bill. 

“The lesson I learned as a high school newspaper editor is that facts only matter when it’s not embarrassing to the people in charge,” Vaillant said at the podium. 

Vaillant wrote an editorial in 2011 about the disrepair of Madison County High School’s facilities, which she said led to the newspaper adviser’s ouster.  

Stacy Haney, chief lobbyist of the Virginia School Boards Association, voiced opposition to the bill.

 “I want to point out to the committee that this legislation also applies to students who are in middle school,” Haney said. “I ask that you think about the maturity level and where we need to be with middle school students.”

Haney referenced the landmark 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines which allows students First Amendment rights as long as it does not disrupt learning. 

“Tinker already applies,” said Haney. “Student are protected in their speech under the Tinker standard.”  

 Still, some public school boards have been able to censor school-sponsored student media.

Last year, the Frederick County School Board approved a policy that designates the principal of the school as the editor of student publications. The board declared that school publications must have “curriculum approved by the school board” and are not “intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, commended student journalists for their work.

“I think student journalists play the same role that professional journalists play and that is to hold people in power accountable and to make sure that tax dollars get spent the way they should,” Edwards said in a phone interview.

She added that middle and high school student journalists “are more mature than we probably give them credit for.” The maturity level of middle and high school student journalists was a major opposition point during the meeting. 

The bill is similar to several across the country known as “New Voices” bills that aim to protect student media from censorship. New Voices is a student-led grassroots movement that aims to negate the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which ruled that schools may censor student media to an extent. 

Currently 14 states have passed New Voices legislation and 11 have bills in motion, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Senate Bill 80, a companion bill, patroned by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, was recently tabled to the 2021 session in a 1-13 vote.

Hurst was optimistic his bill will move forward during this session. He first introduced the bill in the 2019 session with co-patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, but the bill died in a subcommittee vote, 3-5. 

“I think the fate of this bill will be good,” said Hurst. “The General Assembly will see that this is an important provision to put into our code to protect journalists whether you are in high school, college or a professional.”

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Nonprofit Urges Lawmakers to Protect Domestic Worker Rights

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- After a 15-hour work day, Lenka Mendoza is tired but she prepares to do it all over again the next day.

 Mendoza spoke Tuesday at a Care in Action press conference in support of several General Assembly bills, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The nonprofit advocates for fairness and dignity for U.S. domestic workers, including 60,000 domestic workers in Virginia, according to director Alexsis Rodgers. The bills would increase the quality of life for a group of workers that includes house cleaners, cooks, waiters, nannies and caregivers who provide services in a private home.

“Virginia is actually dead last when it comes to workers’ rights across the country,” Rodgers said. “I would say we're not even on the list.”

Care in Action announced its support of Senate Bill 804, introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill guarantees domestic service workers to not be excluded from employee protection laws, laws regarding payment of wages and other laws regarding the workforce.

“It is time for us to cut the last vestiges of Jim Crow by expanding worker protections to the best workers,” McClellan said. “Laws that ensure minimum wage, safe workplace and protection and against discrimination currently are not extended to domestic workers due to minimum employee thresholds, as well as specific exclusions from wage compensation and workplace saving laws.”

Currently under the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, minimum wage laws do not apply to employers with less than four employees at any given time. McClellan’s bill removes this exemption. It also allows an employee to bring an action against their employer if they are in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act, regardless of the number of people employed.

McClellan cited statistics from the Economic Policy Institute that 17% of domestic workers live in poverty. In Virginia, personal care aides make an average of $21,240 a year, while home health aides earn an average of $23,440 per year, according to the same data.

“While we have the opportunity to create new jobs, we need to ensure that those jobs come with protections that those workers so desperately need,” McClellan said.

Del.Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, introduced House Bill 1730, which is similar to McClellan’s bill. She says it’s time to care for the people who have cared for others over the years.

Gooditis said she decided to introduce a bill focused on domestic workers because of a personal experience. Both her parents have dementia, and they are taken care of by two "amazing women," Gooditis said. She said domestic workers deserve minimum wage protections and other benefits. 

HB 1200, introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, also may help domestic workers. The bill says no employer can discriminate against workers based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, childbirth, age or pregnancy or related medical conditions.

Mendoza has been a domestic worker for the past 18 years. With a Spanish translator by her side, Mendoza said she lives without the benefits for which she now fights. 

“We are here to petition to our legislators to support the domestic labor laws,” she said.

She said domestic workers don’t get the luxury of having sick days or being able to go to doctor’s appointments, because they are there to care for others.

“Not only are we caring for your children, older people in your homes and preparing your food, we're also a pivotal point in education for those young people who will eventually grow to be very active members and contributors to our society,” Mendoza said. 

Both bills have yet to advance to the House or Senate floor.

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Bill to allow physician-assisted suicide sparks discourse

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Opponents of assisted suicide held a press conference Wednesday to reject legislation allowing patients with terminal conditions to request a life-ending substance from a physician.

While supporters of the proposal say the choice to end one’s own life is a human right, speakers at the event called the practice unethical.

“Suicide is incredibly sad,” said Dr. Mary Lopez during the press event held at the Pocahontas Building. “As a nation, we do not want to see our people killing themselves, unless you’re one of those who’s so passionate we fight for bills to allow doctors and others to prescribe deadly drugs to their patients.”

Lopez is the executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing options for people with disabilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, and she spoke with others in opposition to House Bill 1649. 

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, would allow adults with terminal conditions that will result in death within six months to request from a health care provider a self-administered, controlled substance for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. Such a request would need to be made twice orally by the patient, along with a statement signed by the patient and a witness.

Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for Patients’ Rights Action Fund, spoke first.. Her organization is a nonprofit which aims to “oppose efforts to make suicide a legal medical treatment option,” according to the group’s website.

She said her husband, J.J., lived three and a half years after doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. If assisted suicide had been legal at the time of J.J.’s diagnosis, Hanson said her husband could have accessed a life-ending substance “during his darkest days.”

“Thankfully, J.J. didn’t end his life,” Hanson said in her statement. “But if he had suicide pills with him, he said he might have taken them. And you can’t undo that. There’s no going back.” 

Hanson said allowing suicide as a medical treatment could subject families to government pressure and the decisions of insurance companies, and that the state should improve other health care options instead.

Dr. Tom Eppes, a 40-year family practitioner from Lynchburg, said pain medication and hospice care are good alternatives. He spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of Virginia, of which he is a former president. 

Eppes criticized the bill, saying assisted suicides are “impossible to study” and not always successful. He said it “stretches credulity” to ask that physicians and nurse practitioners, as the bill proposes, be able to make such a judgement.

“Predicting death is not easy,” Eppes said. “Six months to live would include untreated Type 1 diabetes.”

He also criticized a policy outlined in the bill that would prohibit death certificates for patients who receive the treatment from listing suicide or homicide as the cause of death, saying it would allow “false reporting.”

“Assisted suicide is like cut flowers,” Eppes said. “They look beautiful on the base, but they wither because they have no roots. Physicians need a code of ethics like the original one that was written 2,500 years ago that includes a promise not to purposely take the life of the patient.”

Kate Vasiloff attended the press conference as a volunteer for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group dedicated to educating the public about end-of-life options.

Vasiloff said she “absolutely” believes the choice to take one’s own life is a human right. She referenced her father, who she said had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which attacks motor neurons and cells that control muscles. What kept him up at night, she said, was how the disease was going to end.

ALS received national attention when the “ice bucket challenge” went viral in 2014. Vasiloff said that trend, which involved pouring ice on one’s self to promote awareness for the disease, didn’t show people the reality of ALS. 

“You either asphyxiate from not being able to swallow properly, you suffocate because your lungs stop working, or you starve to death because the feeding tube has to be removed.”

She agrees with the policies outlined in HB 1649 because the bill is backed by advocates in the medical community and because similar legislation has found success in Oregon and other states.

“I think we owe people who serve our country and our families and our communities a better option,” Vasiloff said. “If they want to have one sliver of control over a situation where they’ve been dealt the worst hand possible, I don’t think that it’s our businesses to stand in the way of that.”

Sara Stern said her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he wished to receive a life-ending treatment while in hospice care. But because his caretakers were against the idea, Stern said her husband opted to voluntarily stop eating and drinking.

Stern watched as her husband died of thirst over the course of two weeks. After this, she said she wanted to advocate for end-of-life options like that in the House proposal.

“My promise to him was to take up this cause,” Stern said, “so that other people would not have to elect that same route if that was their strong wish.”

HB 1649 is currently in the Courts of Justice Committee, which next meets Friday.

Kory did not respond to multiple requests for further comment on the proposal.

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Tethering bill adds new protections for animals kept outside

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Animal rights advocates want lawmakers to advance legislation that expands on a tethering bill passed last year by the General Assembly. The new legislation would increase the minimum length of a tether and adds conditions that include temperature, severe weather and require the animal to be brought inside when the owner isn’t home.

Senate Bill 272, introduced by Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, would increase the required length of the tether from 10 feet or three times the length of the animal to 15 feet or four times the length of the animal. Under the bill, pets can’t be tied during a heat advisory or if a severe weather warning has been issued, including hurricane, tropical storm or tornado warnings. The bill outlaws tethering in temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower or 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and when an owner is not home. Last session, a bill expanded the law from a 3-foot tether to 10 feet. That bill, introduced by Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, originally carried the same language as Bell’s current bill, but it was amended by a Senate committee.

Robert Leinberger, animal control supervisor for Richmond Animal Care and Control, said that some parts of the bill may be difficult to enforce. Still, if the legislation gets passed, Leinberger said, it will make a difference because people will be forced to be more aware of the law. He said more people will call to report instances of animals being improperly tethered.

“For example if it’s inclement weather, when it’s really super cold or really super hot, then we do occasionally see more calls for service because of the animals left out,” Leinberger said.

Kate Riviello, a New York-based animal rights activist who also works in Virginia, supports that the bill outlaws outdoor tethering when the temperature is below 32 degrees. Virginia law currently requires that an animal must have access to water, but the water doesn’t make a difference if it freezes, she said.

Riviello also supports “Tommie’s Law,” legislation passed last year that made animal cruelty a felony in Virginia. The law is named after a pit bull that died after he was set on fire. Riviello said she is happy to see the changes Virginia is making to protect the rights of animals but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to continue in the right direction.

“With ‘Tommie’s law,’ I think it was really tremendous that they took that step,” Riviello said. The key also is to enforce animal rights’ laws, Riviello said, which isn’t always the case.

Leinberger said implementing animal rights’ legislation is important because it enables people to better care for their pets. Tethering is just one issue that needs to be addressed, he said.

The bill is awaiting action by the Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

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Subcommittee advances bill allowing voters to choose multiple candidates

By Macy Pressley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill allowing Virginia voters to choose more than one candidate on the ballot narrowly advanced through subcommittee Monday.

House Bill 1103, introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D- Charlottesville, would open a pilot program for ranked-choice voting in local elections, such as city council or school board contests.

 “Rank choice voting is a small change to ballots that makes a big difference for democracy,” Hudson said. “In a ranked-choice election, you don't just vote for one candidate, you get to rank them from most to least favorite.”

According to Hudson, after the votes are ranked, they are counted in a process similar to a traditional election. If one candidate wins more than half of the first choice votes, they win the election. If no candidate emerges as the majority winner in the first round, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and the losing candidate’s votes are transferred to the voters’ second choice. The elimination process continues until a candidate earns more than half of the votes.

Hudson said diverse groups of people want to run for office, but that can sometimes lead to overcrowding in elections and a winning candidate who does not have much support, but who was able to eke out a win. She thinks this bill is the answer to that problem.

“It makes sure that we can have a leader who represents a broad swath of the community, no matter how many candidates run,” Hudson said.
Ranked-choice voting is not new, at least 20 cities in the United States have adopted it. In 2018, Maine began using it for federal elections. Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, is the chief co-patron for the bill.

“We have found that in other places where this is practiced, it leads to more positive campaigns,” Hope said. “It means that candidates are working, so if they can't be a voters’ first choice, they can be their second choice, and not the negative campaigning that we've seen lately.”

Localities opt to use the voting method, and according to Hope, it would be up to them to fund it as well.

“We've worked that out, the locality will bear the cost, not the state,” he said.

While Hope does not believe ranked-choice voting will happen at a state level, he said Arlington residents are excited about this measure.

 “I know that there's also a bill floating around to do this statewide,” Hope said. “I thought if the rest of the state is not ready for that, I know Arlington certainly is.”

Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, is a Republican co-patron for HB 1103. He said he supports the legislation because it gives localities more freedom to govern.

 “I always believe that localities should have the option to run elections the way that they think are most efficient, and create the most involvement from the voters,” Davis said. “A lot of studies have shown that voters are more involved when there's more opportunity for the candidates, when there's a ranked election system.”

“So if there are localities out there that would like to try it in Virginia, they should be allowed to give it a shot,” he added.

Davis said that legislation had worked well in other districts and he signed on to encourage voter participation and make the electoral process better.

“I think any way that we can run elections that provide more information, more access to voters in manners that get them more engaged, the better off our our democratic process is,” he said.

HB 1103 reported out of subcommittee, 4-3. Delegates voting yes include: Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach; Mark Levine, D-Alexandria; Marcia Price, D-Newport News and Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

Delegates voting no include: Dawn M. Adams, D- Richmond; Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania and Chris Runion, R-Augusta.

The bill will now move to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections, which meets Friday.

Another bill that deals with ranked-choice voting proposed an open primary for all state-wide elections. A single ballot would list all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and the four most popular candidates would continue to the general election. The vote on HB 360 was continued to 2021, and will not be heard this year in the General Assembly.

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Hundreds rally at Virginia Capitol for education reform

Crowd Picture

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Bells chiming through Capitol Square were drowned out Monday as hundreds of education advocates dressed in red chanted for lawmakers to “fund our future.” 

The Virginia Education Association and Virginia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations organized the rally to restore school funding to pre-recession levels, increase teacher pay and reinstate collective bargaining. The VEA is made up of more than 40,000 education professionals working to improve public education in the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO advocates for laws that protect current and retired workers. 

An estimated 600 to 800 people attended the rally, according to The Division of Capitol Police. Participants wore red in support of Red for Ed, a nationwide campaign advocating for a better education system. 

Speakers took to the podium, including VEA President Jim Livingston and Vice President James Fedderman.

“We do this for our children, they are the reason we are here,” Livingston said. “They are the reason we put our blood, sweat and tears into this profession that we call public education.”

 Stafford Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kinzer and Fairfax County School Board member Abrar Omeish also spoke along with teachers from multiple counties.

Richmond Public Schools announced last week that it would close for the rally after a third of teachers, almost 700, took a personal day to participate. 

“We are proud that so many of our educators will be turning out to advocate for RPS and all of Virginia’s public schools,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras stated in a press release.

The 2020 budget puts average RPS teacher salary projections back near the 2018 level of $51,530. Richmond teachers had a 22% salary bump to $63,161 in 2019. They are projected in 2020 to earn on average $51,907, an almost 18% decrease from the previous year. 

“Last year we demonstrated our power to tell the General Assembly that it is time, it is past time, to fund our future,” Livingston said.

A rally held last year called for higher teacher salaries and better school funding. Legislators announced that teachers would receive a 5% salary increase in the state budget.

The Virginia Department of Education stated that the budgeted average salary for teachers statewide in 2020 is $60,265; however, teachers in many counties and cities will be paid less than that, with the lowest average salary in Grayson County Public Schools at $39,567. Arlington County Public School teachers will have the highest average salary in the state at $81,129, with other Northern Virginia schools close behind. 

The VDE report showed that in 2017, Virginia ranked 32nd in the country with an average teacher salary of $51,994, compared to the national average of $60,477. 

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“We are often putting our own money into things and we need help,” said Amanda Reisner, kindergarten teacher at E.D. Redd Elementary School. “We have buildings that are falling apart, we don’t have enough supplies, we don’t have enough technology.”

The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based organization that analyzes fiscal issues, reported that state funding per student has dropped 7.6% since 2009, from $6,225 to $5,749. In addition, public schools in Virginia since 2009 have lost over 2,000 support staff and over 40 counselors and librarians, while the number of students has increased by more than 52,000. 

HB 582, patroned by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, proposes the reinstatement of collective bargaining for public employees. According to the VEA, Virginia is one of three states that does not allow collective bargaining, the power to negotiate salaries and working conditions by a group of employees and their employers. 

The bill would also create the Public Employee Relations Board, which would determine appropriate methods of bargaining and hold elections for representatives to bargain on behalf of state and local government workers. 

“Collectively we bargain, divided we beg,” said AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays. “The Virginia AFL-CIO and the VEA, we stand hand in hand together.”

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Subcommittee Advances Bill Prohibiting LGBTQ Discrimination

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A General Assembly subcommittee advanced a bill Thursday that would prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, public accommodations, employment and credit applications.

Lawmakers suggested expanding the focus of a bill introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, that would update the Virginia Fair Housing act to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing.

McQuinn’s bill was rolled into HB 1663, patroned by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. Sickles’ bill, called the “Virginia Values Act,” includes additional protections against discrimination for LGBTQ Virginians in employment, public spaces and credit transactions and also outlines a process for civil action in a discrimination case.

The Virginia Fair Housing Law currently prevents housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status and disability. Sickles’ bill would add “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity” or status as a veteran, to current law.

“As an African American woman, I have personally been subjected to discrimination all my life because of my race and my gender,” McQuinn said in an email interview with Capital News Service. “This will be another step toward dismantling systematic discrimination and creating fairness and equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality, said the legislation is a step in the right direction and praised the delegates’ work.

“These protections are long overdue and an important step forward for Virginia’s LGBTQ community,” Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement.

Similar bills have been introduced by both chambers in previous sessions. Though praised by the ACLU and LGBTQ advocacy groups, such bills passed the Senate with support from some Republican senators, but never could advance out of Republican-led House subcommittees.

Capital News Service reached out to Republicans who voted against previous legislation to gauge their support for the current bill, but none responded.

Earlier this week the Senate passed a bill to allow a person who changed their sex to receive a new birth certificate. Introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, SB 657 aims to eliminate problems for the transgender community that occur when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition, such as renting a home or applying for a credit line.

The Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia is a nonprofit that works to end transgender homelessness by providing individuals with resources to find emergency shelter, food and referrals to housing programs. De Sube, chairperson of the organization, said any nondiscrimination bill will help the transgender community.

The resource is needed, Sube said, because many clients are kicked out of their homes after they tell family, loved ones or roommates that they are transgender. Then they run into discrimination while seeking housing.

“Many transgender people apply for housing, apartments, rental homes, etc., and they’re just denied because of their transgender identity,” Sube said.

Sickles said in a statement that discrimination has no place in Virginia.

“All Virginians deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, including LGBTQ people,” Sickles said.

Advocates expect HB 1663 to be heard in committee Tuesday. The companion bill sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, is expected to be heard in a Senate committee the following day.

"In Virginia, although a gay couple can get married on Sunday, the sad reality is they can get fired on Monday, evicted on Tuesday morning and denied a hotel room Tuesday night,” Ebbin said in a press release. “This isn’t a theoretical issue, discrimination is happening today.”

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League of Women Voters push lawmakers for criminal justice reform

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every Wednesday during the legislative session, the Virginia chapter of the League of Women Voters hosts a roundtable featuring legislators and speakers before members head to the State Capitol and lobby lawmakers. 

Deb Wake, president of the Virginia chapter, considers education a priority for the nonpartisan political organization and utilizes the member’s experience and knowledge to cultivate different perspectives.

“We’re always trying to learn and take advantage of the power of our membership,” Wake said. 

The group started with a discussion of gun control bills, citing the recent massive gun rights rally as a wake-up call to create stricter legislation.

“There's the right to gun ownership, but there's also the right to be free from intimidation by the people who show up with their firepower for the express purpose of intimidation,” Wake said.

The league was joined this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and the groups promoted criminal justice reform legislation. Both want lawmakers to eliminate the use of solitary confinement, calling it “inhumane.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring state prisons to report data on prisoners placed in solitary confinement, including information on their sex, ethnicity, race, age, mental health and medical status. Prisons also must report why and how long a prisoner has been placed in solitary confinement and the security level of the confinement. The ACLU feels that it is not enough. 

“Solitary confinement jeopardizes public safety, wastes taxpayer dollars, and can cause serious lifelong psychological harm and trauma,” the ACLU stated. 

Justin Patterson, a correctional officer at Sussex 1 State Prison in Sussex County, said the mental health effects of solitary confinement depends on the situation.

“I've seen offenders who have been in solitary confinement for years thriving in population now. I've seen people who have been in there for weeks and start to lose it,” Patterson said. “It's a case by case basis in my experience.”

House Bill 1284, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would “prohibit the use of isolated confinement in state correctional facilities and juvenile correctional centers.” It is currently sitting in a subcommittee.

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, short-term solitary confinement was reduced by 66% from January 2016 to June 2019 as a part of their Restrictive Housing Pilot Program. 

Patterson argues that solitary confinement is necessary within the prison system.

“We are dealing with very dangerous individuals in an environment which breeds violence,” Patterson said. “Solitary confinement isn't just used as a disciplinary procedure, it's also used for safety purposes.”

The ACLU also wants to change the definition of petit larceny, thefts less than $500, which they said is one of the lowest in the country. It wants to raise the threshold to $1,500, according to Ashna Khanna, legislative director. A House bill proposing that change died last year in a committee. 

“We're seeing this entire system of how people are becoming disenfranchised, how people are becoming incarcerated, and we know that it disproportionately is black or brown people,” Khanna said.

Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, proposed HB 101, which would increase the grand larceny minimum to $750 but a Courts of Justice subcommittee voted down the measure Friday. 

Gov. Ralph Northam has voiced support for current legislation to raise the grand larceny threshold to $1,000, doubling the threshold that it was raised to in the previous session.

The League of Women Voters and the ACLU also are working on reforming the pretrial system, which the ACLU said largely affects communities of color who may not be able to afford bail. Other topics discussed at the round table included no-excuse absentee voting and legalization of marijuana. The ACLU has voiced opposition to current legislation proposing the decriminalization of marijuana, in favor of legalization.

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Virginia Senate Passes Bill for Schools to Provide Menstrual Products

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday requiring public schools to include free menstrual products in their bathrooms. 

Senate Bill 232 applies to schools that educate fifth-to-12th graders. According to the Virginia Department of Education, this encompasses 132 school districts and almost over 630,000 female students

“I would like to see that the supplies are available, just like other supplies that we keep in the bathroom,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, the legislation’s chief patron.

An earlier version of the bill applied the stipulation to the aforementioned schools where at least 40% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. 

Boysko introduced the bill to make it more convenient for students to access menstrual products and help them avoid accidents.

“This is a necessity and girls can't carry out their school day without it,” Boysko said. “Some girls are missing school time and end up going home and missing classes because of these kinds of challenges.”

According to Boysko, school budgets currently cover menstrual product expenses, but they are often kept in the nurse’s office, making it inconvenient for students. 

Karen Keys-Gamarra believes menstrual products need to be more accessible at Fairfax County Public Schools, where she is a school board member.

“We typically provided menstrual supplies in the nurse's office, which was, in my opinion, inappropriate in that we were treating this bodily function as something you need to see a nurse for,” Keys-Gamarra said. 

The district began a pilot program last fall providing free menstrual products in school bathrooms to improve access to menstrual products. 

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Dignity Act sponsored by Boysko, which standardized taxes on hygiene products, such as pads, tampons and diapers to 2.5% statewide, in effort to make feminine hygiene products more affordable. The tax previously varied from 2.5% to 7%, depending on the part of the state.

“The essential nature of personal health care products is not up for debate and I commend the General Assembly for coming together to ensure these savings for Virginians,” Northam said at the time in a press release.

Boysko also introduced a bill this session to eliminate the tax on menstrual products. 

“Women don't have a choice about these products. They've been treated just like any other luxury product,” Boysko said. “There are a lot of people who feel like it's actually an unfair taxation on women.”

Menstrual products are not covered by government grocery assistance programs, and some families can't afford sanitary products.

“There are students here in Virginia, and all over the world, who are not able to get to school because they don’t have the products, they can’t afford them,” Boysko said during the committee meeting. 

Four states, California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire, currently require schools to provide free menstrual products in women’s bathrooms. Boysko hopes to make Virginia the fifth state to have that requirement. 

Boysko believes the House will pass the bill. Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, sponsored a similar House bill.

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Bill Defining Milk Aims To Give Dairy Farmers Supermarket Advantage

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As people drink less dairy milk and some turn to plant-based alternatives such as oat, soy and almond milk, dairy farmers say they're struggling. That’s why Virginia is the latest state to advance legislation restricting the use of the word milk for marketing purposes.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 119, which defines milk as the lacteal secretion “obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved animal.” The bill prohibits plant-based milk alternative products from marketing their products as milk. Knight, a pig farmer, said agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, and the state government has to protect it. The bill reported out of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources committee Wednesday, and heads to the House floor.

Virginia produced about 1.6 billion pounds of dairy milk in 2018, and the number of permits issued to dairy farmers is on the decline, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau.

“We’re losing about one dairy farm a week in the state of Virginia, and farmers are struggling hard,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘well, maybe these plant-based fluids are capitalizing on the good name of milk.’”

HB 119 was amended to say that 11 out of the following states need to pass similar legislation for the law to go into effect: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. A bill that passed the North Carolina legislature carried a similar stipulation.

Michael Robbins, a spokesperson from the Plant Based Foods Association, believes the bill is unnecessary, and the dairy industry has created a “bogeyman” in plant-based milk, instead of addressing the tangible issues the dairy industry faces.

“We view these bills as a solution in search of a problem,” Robbins said. “There is no consumer confusion on plant-based dairy alternatives versus dairy coming from a hooved animal. Consumers know exactly what they’re purchasing.”

Mississippi and Arkansas passed their own “truth in labeling” laws for plant-based meat alternatives such as tofu dogs and beyond burgers, which were challenged and overturned on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. Robbins said if milk labeling bills become law, the plant-based food industry will fight them in court.

“Right now, because none of those bills are in effect, there’s no standing to challenge them in court, but step one would be to file an appropriate lawsuit,” Robbins said.

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Senate advances bill allowing transgender people to change birth certificate

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would allow a person who changed their sex to have a new birth certificate issued, something that the transgender community said will help eliminate problems experienced when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition.

Senate Bill 657 would allow a person to receive a new birth certificate to reflect the a change of sex, without the requirement of surgery. The individual seeking a new birth certificate also may list a new name if they provide a certified copy of a court order of the name change.

“I just think it’s important to try to make life easier for people without being discriminated [against] or bullied,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “Allowing an individual who is transgender to change their birth certificate without having to go through the full surgery allows them to live the life that they are due to have.”

The bill requires proof from a health care provider that the individual went through “clinically appropriate treatment for gender transition.” The assessment and treatment, according to Boysko’s office, is up to the medical provider. There is not a specific standard approach for an individual's transition. Treatment could include any of the following: counseling, hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery, or a patient-specific approach from the medical provider.

A similair process is required to obtain a passport after change of sex, according to the State Department.

 Once the paperwork is complete, it is submitted to the Virginia Department of Health vital records department, Boysko said.

Boysko said her constituents have reported issues when they need to show legal documents in situations like leasing apartments, opening a bank account or applying for jobs.

This is the third year that Boysko has introduced the bill. Neither bill made it out of subcommittee in previous years, but Boysko believes the bill has a better chance of becoming law this year.

“I believe that we have a more open and accepting General Assembly then we’ve had in the past, where people are more comfortable working with the LGBTQ community and have expressed more of an interest in addressing some of these long overdue changes,” Boysko said.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality, said the organization is “really pleased that this bill is moving through.”

“This bill is really important for the transgender community,” Lamneck said. “Right now many transgendered people do not have identity documents … this is really problematic when people apply for jobs or try to open a bank account.”

There are 22 other states in America that have adopted legislation similar to this, including the District of Columbia, Boysko said. The senator said that “it’s time for Virginia to move forward and be the 23rd state."

The Senate also passed Tuesday Boysko’s bill requiring the Department of Education to develop policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools, along with a bill outlawing conversion therapy with any person under 18 years of age.

The bills now advance to the House, where they must pass before heading to the governor’s desk.

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Republican-backed gun bills fizzle on heels of massive rally

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

Democrats halted a slew of Republican-backed gun legislation Tuesday, including bills that would not require concealed carry permits, allow firearms in places of worship, and enable state employees to bring concealed guns to work.

One day after 22,000 gun rights advocates flooded the State Capitol in support of Second Amendment rights, 11 gun bills failed to advance out of a Democratic-majority legislative subcommittee.

House Bill 162 would have allowed those injured in established gun free zones to file a civil claim for damages. The bill states that if a locality or the commonwealth creates a gun free zone, it also waives its sovereign immunity in relation to injuries in that zone. Sovereign immunity protects government entities and employees against certain lawsuits.

Jason Nixon addressed the panel of delegates in support of the bill while wearing a Virginia Beach Strong T-shirt. His wife, Katherine Nixon, was killed in the May mass shooting in a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 dead and four injured.

“If you tell my wife that she has to go into gun free zones under city policies or state policies, and you can't protect her, and you harbor her right of protecting herself, is that fair?” Nixon said.

Nixon said his wife expressed safety concerns the night before the shooting — and contemplated bringing a gun in her purse — but decided against it to comply with the law.

“This bill probably should be called the ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico, said. “If you are in a gun free zone, you should be able to hold the local government accountable for preventing you from doing anything in self defense.”

During a block vote of HB 162 and HB 1382, which supported similar measures, the bills were tabled in a 6-2 vote. Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, broke party lines to vote alongside Democrats.

HB 161, sponsored by McGuire, would have changed the law to not require a permit for a concealed handgun.

Louisa county resident Myria Rolan supported the bill, saying she had to obtain a concealed carry permits because winter clothing often covers her firearm. 

“But the reason I needed it isn't because I was going to do anything crazy. It's because I wear a coat or sweatshirt,” Rolan said. “Do you know how easy it is for current clothing to cover your firearm, and now you're committing a crime just because you are being fashionable or warm?”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, sponsored HB 596, which would repeal the law banning dangerous weapons in a place of worship. It was tabled in a 5-3 vote.

Steve Birnbaum, the head of a volunteer security team at his local synagogue, said he supports the bill. 

Birnbaum said it took law enforcement 10 minutes to respond during the mass attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He said churches should have the option to protect themselves before officers arrive.

“There are some synagogues that don't even want paid security, because they don't like firearms, they don't always want off-duty officers, they don't want to pay for security, and that's their choice,” Birnbaum said. “But there are synagogues that understand that law enforcement are not coming, and that they're on their own for 10 minutes, if not longer, especially in rural parts of the state.”

One attendee said that church and state were separate, and legislators shouldn’t control whether people bring guns in churches. Current law allows armed security guards in places of worship.

The subcommittee tabled HB 596, HB 373 and HB 1486, all in a 5-3 vote. The bills would have allowed guns in places of worship. 

HB 669, patroned by Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, would have allowed state employees with a valid concealed handgun permit to carry a concealed handgun to their workplace. 

Other bills tabled Tuesday include :

  • HB 1470 would have allowed a landowner with property in multiple localities to extend the firearm ordinance of the country where the largest parcel was located to anyone hunting on site.

  • HB 1471 would have given property owners the ability to use HB 1470 in their legal defense.

  • HB 1175 would have increased the penalty for use or display of a firearm while committing certain felonies. It would raise the mandatory minimum sentence for first offenses from three years to five years, and second and subsequent offenses from five years to 10 years.

  • HB 1485 said that no locality shall adopt or enforce any workplace rule preventing an employee from carrying a concealed handgun if the employee has a valid concealed handgun permit.

  • HB 976, patroned by Del. Matthew Fariss, R-Campbell, was not heard today and will be consulted by the subcommittee at a later date.

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Bills to make voting easier advance in Virginia General Assembly

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers have advanced Senate bills that make voting easier, including not requiring an excuse to vote absentee and recognizing Election Day as a state holiday. Other legislation that would extend citizen access to voting -- part of the 11-point “Virginia 2020 plan” put forward by Gov. Northam -- has yet to clear committees.

Senate Bill 601 designates Election Day as a state holiday to give more citizens the chance to cast their ballot. The bill also would strike from current law Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates the birthdays of Confederate generals. The legislation, introduced by Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed the Senate Tuesday.

“Even on Election Day, people have to go to work, people have to handle childcare, people have to go to class and often it can be hard to make it to the polls,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Herndon. “It just makes sense that those folks should be given the opportunity to come out and vote in a time window that works for them.”

A bill that removes the need for an excuse to cast an absentee ballot passed the Senate Monday. SB 111, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, permits any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote.

Several other bills that facilitate ease of absentee voting are SB 46, removing the requirement that a person applying for an absentee ballot provide a reason to receive the ballot; SB 455, extending the deadline when military and overseas absentee ballots can be received; SB 617, authorizing localities to create voter satellite offices to support absentee voting; and SB 859, making absentee voting easier for people who have been hospitalized.

Legislation in the House includes a bill that would also allow for no excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration. In the Senate, a bill would pre-register teens 16 years old and older to vote and one bill in the House would reduce the period of time registration records must be closed before an election. All House bills are in an Elections subcommittee.

“Restrictive voting provisions almost always disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals because those are the groups that move more frequently, work multiple jobs and have less spare time,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The House and Senate also introduced bills that would remove requirements that voters present a photo ID when voting. Under the legislation, voters can show voter registration documents, bank statements, paychecks or any government document that shows the name and address of the voter. Neither bill has made it past committee.

Virginians currently must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, to vote in person. According to a 2012 study by Project Vote, an organization that works to ensure all Americans can vote, approximately 7% of the U.S. population lacks photo ID. This is especially true of  lower-income individuals, those under the age of 20 and ethnic minorities.

Voters can provide their social security number and other information to get a free Virginia Voter Photo Identification Card, but some legislators said that service is unknown to many.

“Before the photo ID requirement voters had to sign the affidavit to say they are who they say they are, and I think that was enough,” said House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I feel the photo ID was a way to suppress the vote because not everyone has one.”

Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 1256 into law mandating voters have a form of ID with a photograph. Virginia is one of the 18 states with such voting requirements, according to the National Conference of Legislature.

In 2016, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ID requirement after attorneys for the state Democratic Party challenged the law, arguing it had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.

“People are fed up with our overly restrictive and racist voting policies, and the legislature is finally getting rid of some of the biggest roadblocks to progressive reform,” said Glass. “This has been a long time coming.”

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‘The end is in sight’: ERA moves closer to ratification in Virginia

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By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

ERA introduced

RICHMOND, Va. -- Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment swiftly passed the General Assembly Wednesday. The House version passed 59-41 and the Senate bill cleared with a 28-12 vote. The next step will be for each resolution to pass the other chamber, sometime in February.

“As the House sponsor of the bill, it is an honor to lead the effort in this historic moment for women,” said Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, in a released statement. “This vote demonstrates how greater female representation in government can significantly improve the lives of women across the country. We are here and will be heard.”

VAratifyERA, a campaign focused on the state’s ratification tweeted shortly after passage of the resolutions: “The end is in sight!”

First lady Pam Northam and daughter Aubrey Northam appeared at the House gallery to witness the moment. They joined a crowd of mostly women who cheered loudly when the measure passed.

The governor and Democratic legislators have championed the ERA as a legislative priority, promising this year the amendment wouldn’t die in the House as it has in past years.

“Today is an absolutely historic day for our Commonwealth and a major milestone in the fight for equality in this nation,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement.  “Women in America deserve to have equality guaranteed in the Constitution and Virginians should be proud that we will be the state that makes it happen.”

Though Virginia passage of the ERA is seen as a symbol of the new Democratic leadership, the effort may be too late. The Department of Justice announced last week that the ERA can no longer be ratified because its deadline expired decades ago.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel agreed that the deadline cannot be revived.

“We conclude that Congress had the constitutional authority to impose a deadline on the ratification of the ERA, and because that deadline has expired, the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the states,” Engel said.

Carroll Foy said in an interview last week that she believes the DOJ legal counsel’s opinion will not stop the ERA’s progress.

“I am more than confident that this is just another effort by people who want to stop progress and who don't believe in women's equality,” Carroll Foy said. “This is another one of their concerted efforts to deny us fundamental rights and equal protections. But the time has come; we are unrelenting. We will not be deterred, and we will have our full constitutional equality.”

The amendment seeks to guarantee equal rights in the U.S. Constitution regardless of sex. It passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. Efforts to ratify the ERA gained momentum in recent years when it passed in Nevada and Illinois.

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Five states --Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota -- have stated their intent to rescind their ratification, which ERA opponents say could prevent it from being added to the constitution, according to VAratifyERA. The ERA organization said that “Article V of the Constitution authorizes states to ratify amendments but does not give states the power to rescind their ratification.” The organization points out that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments were added to the Constitution despite some state efforts to rescind ratification.

Herring said that he is “preparing to take any steps necessary to ensure that Virginia is recognized as the 38th ratifying state, that the will of Virginians is carried out, and that the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be.”

Female-led groups united at the General Assembly last week, urging representatives not to pass legislation ratifying the ERA. Groups such as The Family Foundation of Virginia, Eagle Forum, Students For Life of America and Concerned Women for America said they oppose ERA ratification because the amendment does not explicitly support women’s equality.

“The ERA does not put women in the Constitution,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, chairman of Eagle Forum, a conservative and pro-family group. “It puts sex in the Constitution, and sex has a lot of different definitions.”

President of the Virginia chapter of the The Family Foundation Victoria Cobb believe women have already achieved equality.

“Today I am different than men and yet equal under the U.S. Constitution, and Virginia Constitution and Virginia laws,” Cobb said.

A statement released last week by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that certifies ratification of amendments, indicated that the agency will follow DOJ guiERA its about timedance that the deadline to ratify has passed "unless otherwise directed by a final court order."

Still, enthusiasm was palpable Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“The people of Virginia spoke last November, voting a record number of women into the House of Delegates and asking us to ratify the ERA,” said Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring in a released statement. “It is inspiring to see the amendment finally be considered, voted on, and passed – long-awaited recognition that women deserve.”

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Virginia student-athletes receive further concussion protection

Governor’s Amendment Would Ban Using a Phone While Driving

Governor Signs Law Slashing Sales Tax on Personal Hygiene Products

General Assembly Acknowledges, with Profound Regret, the Existence and Acceptance of Lynching Within the Commonwealth.

SENATE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 297

Acknowledging with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth.

Agreed to by the Senate, February 5, 2019


Agreed to by the House of Delegates, February 20, 2019

WHEREAS, the year 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival to the Jamestown settlement of the first Africans in what would become the United States, where they were enslaved, marking the beginning of nearly 250 years of slavery in the British colonies and in the new nation; and

WHEREAS, throughout America’s history of slavery, segregation, and inequality, thousands of African Americans were lynched across America, particularly throughout the southern United States, to perpetuate racial inequality and white supremacy and to terrorize African American communities; and

WHEREAS, during Reconstruction, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified, abolishing slavery, granting citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States, and guaranteeing the rights to due process of law and equal protection under the law and the right to vote for African American men; and

WHEREAS, in outright defiance of the Reconstruction Amendments, people across the nation acted outside of the law, deliberately, violently, and brutally, against African American citizens in retribution for alleged or invented crimes and faced few or no consequences; and

WHEREAS, the Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings that took place throughout the South between 1877 and 1950, over 80 of which took place in Virginia; other scholarship documents more than 100 lynchings in Virginia; and

WHEREAS, African American men, women, and children lived in fear that their lives and the lives of loved ones could end violently at any time and in any place; and

WHEREAS, lynchings were often widely known and publicly attended; some were witnessed by crowds that numbered in the thousands, reflecting community acceptance, and many leaders and authorities and much of society denied and enabled the illegal and horrific nature of the acts; and

WHEREAS, Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell, Jr., exposed lynchings in Virginia as they occurred and led the state’s antilynching campaign; however, despite his efforts and other accounts, historians believe still more lynchings remain undocumented; and

WHEREAS, at the urging of Norfolk Virginia-Pilot editor Louis Isaac Jaffe and other antilynching activists, and to curtail mob violence in Virginia, the General Assembly passed an antilynching measure that was signed into law on March 14, 1928, declaring lynching a state crime; and

WHEREAS, the extreme racial animus, violence, and terror embodied in the act of lynching did not die with the criminalization of the act, and few, if any, prosecutions occurred under the measure; and

WHEREAS, the legacy of racism that outlived slavery, enabled the rise and acceptance of lynching, facilitated segregation and disenfranchisement, and denied education and civil rights to African Americans has yet to be uprooted in Virginia, the South, and the nation, and this dark and shameful chapter of American history must be understood, acknowledged, and fully documented and the seemingly irreparable breach mended; and

WHEREAS, the most abject apology for past wrongs cannot right them; yet the spirit of true repentance on behalf of a government and, through it, a people can promote reconciliation and healing and avert the repetition of past wrongs and the disregard of manifested injustices; and

WHEREAS, in 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative began investigating thousands of racial terror lynchings in the American South in an effort to understand the terror and trauma this sanctioned violence against the African American community created, resulting in the report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in 2015 and the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 26, 2018, as the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence; and

WHEREAS, the Equal Justice Initiative created the Community Remembrance Project to create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynchings and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation by working with communities to commemorate and recognize the traumatic era of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites across the country and erecting historical markers and monuments in these spaces; and

WHEREAS, the General Assembly established the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission in 1992 to continue the work of Dr. King, himself a victim of violence, as he sought to realize his dream of a “Beloved Community” in which love, peace, and justice prevail over hatred and fear; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED by the Senate, the House of Delegates concurring, That the General Assembly hereby acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth and call for reconciliation among all Virginians; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission make as complete a record as possible of each documented lynching that occurred in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including the names of the victims and the locations and circumstances of each occurrence, to be preserved on the Commission’s website, and develop programming to bring awareness and recognition of this history to communities across the state, that such awareness might contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation in Virginia’s still-wounded communities and for families and descendants affected by lynchings; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission coordinate with the Department of Historic Resources to identify sites for historic markers to recognize documented lynchings and assist the Equal Justice Initiative in its Community Remembrance Project in the Commonwealth; and, be it

RESOLVED FINALLY, That the Clerk of the Senate transmit a copy of this resolution to the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission, requesting that it further disseminate copies of this resolution to its constituents so that they may be apprised of the sense of the General Assembly of Virginia in this matter.

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