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Democrats Roll Out Voting Rights Agenda

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic legislators are pushing for a package of bills to make it easier for Virginians to vote, including proposals to let people register on Election Day and to cast an absentee ballot for any reason.

Del. Debra Rodman of Henrico County has introduced House Bill 449, which would repeal the deadline for registering to vote before an election. Instead, eligible voters could register at any time, including the day of the election.

“I am critically proud for this opportunity, all of these opportunities, that will allow Virginians true access to the ballot,” Rodman said. “Knowledge and access are imperative to the evolution of our democracy.”

So far, Democrats in the House and Senate have filed about 45 bills and a half-dozen constitutional amendments to expand voting rights. They include:

  • HB 835, introduced by Del. Lamont Bagby of Henrico County. It would eliminate the requirement to state a reason in order to vote absentee in person. A registered voter still would have to provide a qualified excuse, such as illness or a long work schedule, to vote absentee by mail.
  • HB 1079, by Del. Delores McQuinn of Richmond. It would repeal the requirement that voters show a photo identification at the polls to get a ballot. Democrats say that requirement is an obstacle for low-income, elderly and minority voters.
  • HB 944, by Del. Alfonso Lopez of Arlington. It would let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote. “Helping young Virginians and Americans register to vote increases the odds that they will make a lifelong habit of electoral participation,” Lopez said.

House Joint Resolution 33, a constitutional amendment proposed by Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke. It would let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in local elections.

On some voting-related issues, Democrats and Republicans share common ground. Members of both parties, for example, want to make it easier for members of the U.S. military to vote.

Del. Steven Landes, a Republican from Augusta County, has introduced HB 1139, which would create a pilot program for military personnel who are registered to vote in Virginia and are deployed overseas to cast an electronic ballot.

Del. Kathy Tran, a Democrat from Fairfax, has a similar measure – HB 1058.

“This is a very valuable and worthwhile investment for the people on the frontlines defending our values and right to vote,” said Tran, whose brother, David, serves in the U.S. Marine Corps.

But generally, Republicans are more focused on ballot security and voting integrity. Many Republican lawmakers believe that voter fraud is a serious problem.

Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg is sponsoring Senate Bill 523, which would require the state to create electronic poll books with photos of registered voters. Poll workers would use those books to verify who can vote. The General Assembly passed such a bill last year, but then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.

Moreover, Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County has filed SB 834, which would require the Virginia Department of Elections to identify people who are registered to vote not only in Virginia but also in another state.

Democrats may face an uphill battle advancing their agenda in the General Assembly, where Republicans hold a majority in both chambers.

On Tuesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee killed several Democratic proposals.

On a party-line vote, the committee spiked SB 452, an attempt by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, to rescind the requirement to show a photo ID at the polling place. All eight Republicans on the panel voted to shelve the bill; all six Democrats voted to keep it alive.

Also, the committee killed two proposed constitutional amendments to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have served their time. One of the amendments was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth; the other was by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County.

After a Paws, Delegate Is Back With Pet Protection Bill

By Katrina Tilbury and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As temperatures across Virginia plunged to the single digits, many pets no doubt have been left in the cold.

The frigid weather in recent weeks prompted Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch to send a memo instructing animal control officers how to respond to calls regarding animals left outside. Pet owners have three options: They can bring the animal inside the house, surrender it to the animal control officer indefinitely or let the officer take temporary custody of the animal.

“They don’t get to let their dogs freeze to death,” Welch said in the memo.

Del. John Bell, D-Fairfax, has introduced a bill to clarify when pet owners could tie up an animal outside. His legislation would prohibit tethering pets outdoors when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below or rises to 85 degrees or above. The restrictions would not apply to farm animals.

Bell, a dog owner whose wife, Margaret, is an avid animal rescuer, said he worked with more than 20 groups, including agricultural and farm bureaus, to find a solution that works for everyone, including farmers, who traditionally keep their working animals outside. The result was House Bill 646, which he filed on Jan. 9.

Last year, Bell introduced a similar bill that was shot down in the General Assembly for being too strict. Planning for this session’s bill began last April when animal advocate Gary Sweeney started a petition on Change.org to introduce a bill that would specify when the weather is considered too extreme for dogs to be left outside.

Sweeney launched the petition after he reported a short-haired dog left outside in Henrico County and was told by Henrico County Animal Control that the pet owner was not breaking the law.

“I went back and read the existing laws thoroughly; I realized that there was nothing in place in Virginia’s law that had anything to do with extreme weather,” Sweeney said. “It does have an adequate shelter provision – but it doesn’t specify by what type of (dog) house is adequate enough.”

The Humane Society of the United States caught wind of Sweeney’s petition after tens of thousands of supporters quickly signed it. The Humane Society worked with Sweeney and Bell to draft something similar to the delegate’s 2017 bill.

Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said this bill is a measured approach to a subject that has long troubled animal welfare advocates.

“It is, I think, impossible to disagree with the idea that people should not tether dogs outside in severe weather conditions,” she said.

Midlothian resident Jamie Ericksen’s neighbors know to call her when they encounter an animal in need. Recently, she reunited a family with their cat that had been missing for two years. Currently, she said she is trying to help a dog that is left outside at all hours in a small pen.

“I just hope that this bill gets passed because I know that the animals suffer,” Ericksen said. “It’s hard to understand how someone can leave their animal outside in extreme temperatures and think that they’re OK or they enjoy it.”

HB 646 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources – the same panel that killed Bell’s legislation last year. The committee is also considering HB 889, introduced by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline. Instead of establishing a statewide law, Orrock’s bill would empower local governments to restrict tethering dogs outside.

The subcommittee is scheduled to meet Monday afternoon.

Virginia House End Secrecy in Committee Votes

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for government transparency are applauding the Virginia House of Delegates for ending its practice of allowing committees and subcommittees to kill legislation on unrecorded voice votes.

In adopting rules for the legislative session that began Wednesday, the House voted unanimously to require panels to record who votes how.

“A recorded vote of members of a committee or subcommittee shall be taken and the name and number of those voting for, against, or abstaining shall be taken upon each measure,” according to the chamber’s new rules, introduced by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

In addition to recorded votes, the new rules provide for more proportional representation on committees and require live-streaming and archiving of committee hearings.

In the past, many bills were approved or rejected at the committee and subcommittee level on voice votes alone. This made it was impossible to know which delegates voted against or for a particular bill.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who founded the Virginia Transparency Caucus, praised the rule change as a major step forward for Virginia.

“This is a victory for transparency and open government for the people of the commonwealth,” Chase said. Levine agreed.

“By having these votes recorded, members will now be responsible for all legislative actions they take. No more will bills be killed in secret without any accountability,” he said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, commended the move. After the change was announced, Rhyne wrote in an email: “Good work from the House leadership!”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, echoed that sentiment. “Everyone needs to know how decisions are made,” she said.

Democrats blamed Republicans for the past secrecy.

“For years, House Republicans have killed critical pieces of progressive legislation through unrecorded voice votes,” House Democratic Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring of Alexandria said in a joint statement. “That era is over, and we welcome a new era of accountability and governance that is more reflective of last year’s election results.”

Democrats picked up 15 House seats in November. As a result, Republicans have only a 51-to-49 majority in that chamber.

Republican leaders acknowledged that the makeup of the House was a factor in changing the rules.

Gilbert said the new rules “reflect the new composition of the House chamber, as well as several new transparency initiatives we are proud to champion.”

Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, said he is proud that the House changed the rules.

“The work we do as public servants should always be open and accessible to an informed citizenry,” he said. “I have always advocated for recorded votes.”

Last year, Cline sponsored a bill to require recorded votes in committees and subcommittees. It died in the House Rules Committee – on an unrecorded vote.

Bills Seek to Disrupt ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Ryan Turk was an eighth-grader in Prince William County when a misunderstanding with a school resource officer over a 65-cent carton of milk escalated to theft charges.

The incident happened in May 2016 when Turk said he forgot his carton of milk that came with his school-issued free lunch. The police said Turk tried to “conceal” the carton of milk. When Turk separated himself from the resource officer, the incident ended with a suspension from school and a summons to juvenile court.

A year ago, the charges against Turk were dropped, but he remains a prime example of what critics call the “school-to-prison pipeline” – a trend to charge students as criminals for what might once have been detention-worthy transgressions. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia charges students more often than any other state.

This trend has triggered a push in the General Assembly to reform criminal justice across the board. One of the latest and most vocal opponents of the pipeline is Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge.

Carroll Foy, who won an open House seat in November, spoke about the problem at an NAACP reception in Richmond last week.

“We send more students from the classroom to the courtroom than any other state in the country,” Carroll Foy said. “Now we lock them up early, and we lock them up at large.”

Carroll Foy plans to sponsor more than 10 criminal justice reform bills this legislative session. They include House Bill113, which would increase the threshold for grand larceny in Virginia from $200 to $1,000.

Virginia’s threshold for that felony crime is one of the lowest in the country and hasn’t changed since 1980. As a result, someone accused of stealing a cellphone or bicycle can be charged with a felony.

Increasing the threshold might protect children who make bad decisions and prevent them from becoming convicted felons, Carroll Foy told the NAACP leadership.

“The punishment should fit the crime,” she said. “Felonies should be reserved for some of the most egregious crimes in the commonwealth of Virginia, and that’s not happening.”

Carroll Foy is carrying legislation that might address cases like that of Ryan Turk, who initially was charged with a misdemeanor after the altercation at Graham Park Middle School in the town of Triangle in Prince William County. Carroll Foy’s district includes parts of Prince William and Stafford counties.

She has introduced HB 445, which would eliminate the requirement for principals to report certain misdemeanor incidents to police. Carroll Foy is not the only one concerned about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” So is the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Allison Gilbreath, the organization’s policy analyst, said other bills before the General Assembly seek to disrupt the pipeline.

For example, HB 296, sponsored by Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Senate Bill170, by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, would prohibit suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade except for drug offenses, firearm offenses or certain criminal acts.

“One in five kids who are suspended in our public schools are pre-K through fifth grade,” Gilbreath said. “We want to really focus on the underlying problems that they’re experiencing.”

Proposals Seek to End Gerrymandering in Virginia

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An assortment of bills designed to revise standards for drawing Virginia’s electoral districts could be the beginning of the end for gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.

Gerrymandering, the practice of politicians redrawing electoral districts to gain an advantage, has drawn attention and disdain in recent years. North Carolina’s congressional map was declared unconstitutional last week by a panel of federal judges, who ruled legislators had drawn it with “invidious partisan intent.”

House Bill 276, proposed by Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, would create a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The commission would determine the criteria for remedial redistricting plans if a court declares any congressional or legislative district unlawful. Under the current system, the legislators themselves determine the criteria for redrawing these lines.

District lines are redrawn every 10 years in accordance with the U.S. census, but a number of federal court cases have the potential to require immediate redistricting in certain Virginia localities.

“I think it favors both parties to be able to make sure that we have the body and the rules available by which we would be able to draw lines should a court case come down a certain way,” Rasoul said. “I look forward to being able to work with Republicans and Democrats to get this done.”

Rasoul said redistricting reform hinges upon a “fundamental question of fairness” that he believes the majority of Virginians agree upon, regardless of party affiliation.

So far this session, legislators – both Democrats and Republicans – have introduced about 20 bills that would affect how political districts are drawn. They include:

  • HB 205, which would establish criteria for remedial redistricting.
  • HB 158, which would authorize the General Assembly to make technical adjustments to existing redistricting standards.
  • Senate Bill 106, which would create a size limit for congressional and state legislative districts.

Additionally, lawmakers have proposed eight constitutional amendments. The amendments – which require approval from the General Assembly this year and next, then approval by voters – would fully prohibit gerrymandering.

But this session, legislators must craft the state budget for the next two years, and it’s not realistic for them to approve a constitutional amendment as well, according to advocates of redistricting reform such as Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021.

However, Cannon is optimistic that measures such as Rasoul’s proposed commission can be steps toward ending gerrymandering. Cannon said support for the initiative is widespread, suggesting “70-some” percent of Virginians desire redistricting reform.

“This could be a dry run for setting up a commission, letting them do their work under good rules and a transparent process,” Cannon said. “By this time next year, if the process is good, we can adopt it; if it needs tweaks, we can do that, too.”

Cannon believes the election of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and an influx of new Virginia legislators reflect a “good-government wave.” Cannon said the political climate is not conducive to incumbent protection schemes like gerrymandering.

“There’s definitely reason for optimism. This is not a nerdy little issue anymore. This is the ethical issue in politics,” Cannon said. “The overall goal here is a constitutional amendment for Virginia so that we can take it out of the hands of the politicians, have good clear rules about keeping communities together and have transparency in the process.”

Although advocates such as Cannon are enthusiastic about the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia, political experts are more skeptical.

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, noted that officials elected under the current redistricting system are not likely to support changes such as interim commissions, much less a constitutional amendment in 2019.

“Despite strong public opinion in favor of redistricting reform, the elected officials who benefited from the current system have so little enthusiasm to change it,” Rozell said.

“Further, not everyone is convinced that a reformed system will do any better than the one that we have now. Public opinion may be in favor (of redistricting reform), but this is not an issue that generates much citizen passion. With no strong public passion on the issue, there isn’t a lot of pressure on elected officials to push major reforms.”

Nevertheless, Rasoul believes there is bipartisan support for tackling gerrymandering in Virginia and establishing new ways to draw political districts.

“What we need is not Republicans or Democrats fighting as to who’s going to draw the unfair lines,” Rasoul said. “It’s once and for all creating rules and boundaries so that districts are drawn fairly given population, political boundaries, common communities of interest, the Voting Rights Act and a number of different criteria that need to be considered.”

Cannon is confident that the bills before the General Assembly can act as stepping stones toward the goal of eliminating gerrymandering in the commonwealth.

“We have a big opportunity this session to have this conversation in preparation for getting the final product ready to go this time next year,” Cannon said. “The reason they’ve been able to get away with this is it’s a dirty deed done once a decade that they think we all forget about. We’re not forgetting anymore.”

Senate Panel Rejects Bill Banning Utility Campaign Donations

By George Copeland, Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A senator’s repeat attempt to prohibit campaign donations from Dominion Energy and other regulated monopolies was struck down by a Senate committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 10 would have banned candidates from soliciting or accepting donations from any public service corporation, and any political action committees those corporations created and controlled.  The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee effectively killed the bill by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, on a 12-2 vote.  Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, opposed.

Petersen’s bill, co-patroned by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, was nearly identical to legislation the Fairfax lawmaker filed last year.

 "Sen. Petersen will continue the fight to keep monopoly money out of Virginia politics," said Alex Parker, the senator’s political director.

In his statement to the committee, Petersen said he sought the ban because of the electricity-rate freeze approved by the General Assembly in 2015 that resulted in “transferring several hundred million dollars in wealth from rate-payers to the profits, the shareholders of these companies.” On Monday, Petersen's attempt to roll back the freeze, which applied to Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., also failed in committee -- though the issue could be pushed in legislation by other lawmakers this session.

 “I felt like one of the root causes why my legislation was not successful, why we passed these underlying bills, was money had corrupted the process,” Petersen said.

Petersen didn’t name any specific corporations during his statement, but the legislation’s largest impact would have been on the role of Dominion, the largest corporate donor to Republican and Democratic legislators, governors and other elected officials in Virginia.

Several committee members critiqued Petersen’s bill and its potential effects.  Petersen himself admitted the bill wasn’t perfect, and was resigned to its failure. But he also made clear that he believed the legislation had broad public support.  Recalling a 2017 town hall meeting where he discussed the bill, Petersen said, “It remains the only time that I’ve been in politics, 20 years, that I’ve gotten a standing ovation.”

He added, “Until you take the money from public service corporations out of this body, you will continue to get flawed legislation like the rate freeze.”

Senate Panel Votes to Ban Bump Stocks

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A survivor of the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas helped persuade a Virginia Senate committee Monday to approve a bill outlawing bump stocks, a device that allows a rifle to mimic an automatic weapon.

After hearing from Henrico County resident Cortney Carroll, who was at the country music concert where 58 people were killed and 546 injured, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 11-4 for SB 1. It would prohibit Virginians from making, selling or possessing “any device used to increase the rate of fire of any semi-automatic firearm beyond the capability of an unaided person to operate the trigger mechanism of that firearm.”

Carroll, 40, recalled being at the Route 91 Harvest music festival when Stephen Paddock opened fire on 22,000 concertgoers. “The only way I could describe it is, it sounded like a machine gun,” she said. That’s because Paddock, who later killed himself, had fitted his rifles with bump stocks to fire at a rate of nearly 10 rounds per second.

“When I found out that just a regular person had changed a semi-automatic rifle into essentially a machine gun, it really hit me hard,” Carroll, who lives in Short Pump, said in an interview. “I had no idea that those things (bump stocks) even existed. So that’s when I knew that I needed to take a stand. I believe that I was saved for a reason, and I need to make a difference.”

Carroll, a mother of two, comes from a family of Republicans who enjoy hunting and support Second Amendment rights.

“I grew up in a household with hunters. My boyfriend’s a hunter. I have no problem with guns. I’m a Republican; I support gun rights,” she said. “Prior to this, I didn’t really know anything about bump stocks.”

Carroll said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety from the massacre. The first thing she does when she enters a room is to identify the exits – and ponder where she would hide if someone started shooting. Carroll said large crowds make her uncomfortable.

On the evening of Oct. 1, Carroll and her aunt were singing along to Jason Aldean when the first shots rang out. Everyone assured her they were fireworks. But seconds later, Carroll recalls hearing the rat-tat-tat sound of “machine gun fire you hear in movies.”

Carroll and her aunt crouched down and huddled closely, covered by other people who were attending the concert. Carroll recalls thinking, “This couldn’t happen to me – not now.”

After five rounds of shooting, as Paddock was reloading his weapons, Carroll said she and her aunt got up and ran. As they tried to find a path to safety, they hit a dead end. At that moment, Carroll’s aunt was grazed by a bullet above her eye. Seeing her aunt’s face dripping with blood is something that Carroll said still haunts her today.

Carroll’s boyfriend attended the Senate committee meeting to offer his support. Carroll had a small orange ribbon pinned to her shirt, symbolizing mass shooting awareness.

All six Democrats on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, along with five Republican members, voted for SB 1. Four Republican senators voted against the bill.

SB 1, which was introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated:

  • SB 2, which would have made it illegal to carry a loaded firearm while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
  • SB 5, which would have required a background check for any firearm transfer. Currently, no checks are necessary for sales at gun shows and between private individuals.
  • SB 112, which would have added disability, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation to the state’s definition of a hate crime. Now, only offenses “motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity” are considered hate crimes.

All six of the Democrats on the committee voted in favor of those bills, and all nine Republican members voted against it.

Afterward, Democratic senators criticized the Republican committee members for voting against background checks.

“We know that if we enact universal background checks, fewer law enforcement officers will be shot and killed, fewer intimate partners will be shot and killed, and there will be fewer gun-related suicides,” said Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun. “Gun violence is an epidemic, and the time has come to act if we are going to keep our communities safe.”

Governor Northam Emphasizes Democratic Priorities, Diversity

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an address Monday night to members of the General Assembly, newly inaugurated Gov. Ralph Northam outlined his vision for the legislative session, calling on lawmakers to expand Medicaid, protect abortion rights, increase funding for education and pass gun control measures.

“If we take these steps, we will answer the charge our voters gave us to make Virginia work better for everyone – no matter who they are or where they are from,” Northam said.

The governor called attention to the diversity of his cabinet – which contains more women than men – and to the growing diversity of the House and Senate. Twelve women were elected to the House last fall.

“This cabinet is led by women,” Northam said. “And like this new General Assembly, it is also one of the most diverse in our history … When people say, ‘We can’t find enough women or enough diverse candidates for leadership roles,’ I say — you’re not looking hard enough.”

Northam also touched on expanding voting rights, such as no-excuse absentee voting, restoring the voting rights of felons who have served their time and raising the threshold for felony larceny.

“There is no excuse for the criminal act of theft,” Northam said. “But a teenager who steals one used iPhone or a pair of boots should not have her entire life defined by that one mistake.”

Democratic issues – such as Medicare expansion, abortion rights and gun control – were met with applause and standing ovations by Democrats, while Republicans largely remained seated and silent during the address.

Despite focusing on partisan issues for most of his speech, Northam cited the need for bipartisanship and for both parties to work together.

“Bipartisanship has been the watchword of the first few days of this session,” Northam said. “For that I am thankful.”

The Republican response to Northam’s address was delivered by newly elected Del. Emily Brewer of Suffolk and Sen. Glen Sturtevant of Chesterfield.

They emphasized the GOP’s priorities of crafting a balanced budget, fixing what they see as a broken health-care system, and improving education in the state.

“Virginia Republicans are committed to a cooperative and collaborative approach to considering legislation and passing a responsible budget,” Sturtevant said. “We will continue our long-standing emphasis on fiscally responsible, conservative budgeting, looking for cost savings and efficiencies to ensure your family gets the greatest possible value out of every tax dollar you send to Richmond.”

Brewer highlighted the need to deliver practical economic solutions to meet citizens’ needs.

“From measures that will protect and provide for the women and men who serve in law enforcement, to long-overdue changes that will grant family leave to state employees who adopt a child,” Brewer said, “we will be advancing changes that will make the commonwealth an even better place to live, to work and to raise a family.”

3 Legislators Call for Stricter Pipeline Standards

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Three Democratic legislators from western Virginia said Thursday they would fight for stricter environmental standards if authorities allow the construction of two natural gas pipelines across the state.

Dels. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke and Chris Hurst of Blacksburg joined Sen. John Edwards of Roanoke at a news conference to discuss their concerns about the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which many environmentalists and rural Virginians oppose.

“We cannot authorize the building of pipelines, but we sure have the right to protect our water,” Rasoul said. He hopes the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will come out against the projects.

“To us it’s clear that we are going to be able to make the case to DEQ moving forward that these pipelines are not safe,” Rasoul said.

Hurst said the Atlantic Coast Pipelines and Mountain Valley Pipeline are not done deals.

“There are still several ways for these pipeline projects to be stalled, delayed or canceled altogether,” Hurst said. “My feeling all along has always been what we need is more rigorous data collection.”

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run 303 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. The companies that have proposed the pipelines say they are important for meeting the region’s energy needs and will create jobs.

The Federal Environmental Regulatory Commission approved the pipeline projects in October, but opponents are continuing efforts to block them.

The Roanoke-area legislators expressed concerns over water-quality standards and procedures that FERC and DEQ applied to the proposed pipeline projects in Virginia.

Hurst has introduced HB 1188, which would require ground-water testing and monitoring of all pipelines of a certain size.

“It would apply to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Hurst said. “That means we’re going to need daily monitoring of these pipelines to make sure that if anything does go wrong, we can put a stop to the transmission of that gas until we fix things.”

The three legislators are optimistic that fellow Democrat Ralph Northam, who will be sworn in as governor on Saturday, will work with them to address concerns about the pipelines. Edwards called Northam an environmentalist who shares their stance on the issue.

“We call on Gov. Northam and the DEQ to immediately take and appreciate the full authority we have as a state to protect our water resources,” Rasoul said. “We think it is very clear, other states have done so, and we need to do the same.”

Rasoul said legislators can’t stop the construction of pipelines but they can erect a firewall of environmental standards to mitigate the potential impact of such projects in the commonwealth.

Hurst said the issue isn’t just about the collective environment but also about the property rights and safety of Virginia citizens.

“What we’re focused on is ensuring that landowners’ rights are protected, and what we can do to try and stave off any potential negative consequence or catastrophe that could happen if these pipelines are constructed.”

Religious Leaders Call for Expanding Health Care

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A statewide group of religious leaders urged the General Assembly on Thursday to expand Medicare and Medicaid.

Organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the team of multi-denominational and multi-religion officials represented 850 faith leaders from across Virginia. They said their goal is to bring health care to the 300,000 Virginians who would benefit from expansion of Medicare and Medicaid.

Expanding access to health care would help alleviate the opioid crisis and create 15,000 jobs in hospitals and clinics, the center said.

“It is not a matter of charity to extend health care to people who do not have access to health care. It is a basic moral law and act of human decency,” said Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia.

Health care in the state has been a hot topic in recent weeks. During a public hearing on the proposed state budget for 2018-2020, over half of the more than 80 speakers supported expanding programs like Medicaid.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to do so during his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday. And Virginia House and Senate Democrats announced Thursday that Medicaid expansion is their top goal for this legislative session.

In past years, Republicans have blocked the idea, fearing it would be a financial burden on state government. But this year may be different, said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“We believe that Medicaid expansion is an opportunity and that we have a great chance to make it happen this year. The legislators on both sides of the aisle are interested in the issue. So we just need to get enough people to say yes,” Bobo said.

Her group has been working to achieve that goal – by circulating petitions, writing letters and meeting with legislators. The Interfaith Center will hold its annual advocacy day on Jan. 23.

“I’m a little worried that we are going to not be able to hold all of the people because so many people want to come and be a part of this,” Bobo said.

Higher Ed Advocates Lobby Legislators

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- College educators and students across Virginia took to the offices of state legislators Thursday to make their case on Higher Education Advocacy Day. Participants met with lawmakers to discuss the importance of higher education and the need for support from the General Assembly.

Justin Moore, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying chemical life sciences and engineering, was among the participants. He met with legislators to remind them to think of college students when they’re “making decisions on the floor.”

“I’ve spoken to representatives about the importance of continuing to finance state institutions to a degree in which it’s affordable for students to pursue higher education and degrees that come along with that,” Moore said.

Representatives came armed with statistics that they handed out to legislators. From 2008 to 2017, they said, spending per student in Virginia decreased by $1,069, putting a greater financial burden on students.

While the advocates generally support Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget regarding higher education, they are seeking a salary increase of at least 2 percent for faculty.

The citizen lobbyists argued that more benefits would attract and help maintain top faculty members. Participants urged lawmakers to support a bill by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, to provide tuition waivers for dependent students of faculty members.

The event drew representatives from universities across the state, including Randolph-Macon College, George Mason University and VCU. They handed out position papers to senators, delegates and their assistants and spoke to them about the issues at hand. The students said they wanted to  put a face on the issue of funding higher education.

The Virginia General Assembly has just begun the 2018 session, so it was difficult for those lobbying to meet directly with a lawmaker. Advocacy Day participants often had to go through an aide or assistant to communicate their positions.

Jennifer Moon, legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, met with a group from VCU: Moore, Ph.D. biochemistry student Briana James and faculty members Sarah Golding and Joyce Lloyd. Lloyd is a professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU as well as the director of training programs for the Center of Health Disparities. She said having students in attendance helped the message get across.

“I want to make sure legislators are keeping in mind that higher education is suffering a little bit and that we need some attention at this moment,” she said.

Golding is a professor of biology and works for the Center of Health Disparities. She said  students have suffered because of VCU’s tight budget.

“We’re at a point where that cannot go on,” she said. “We need our students to be able to pay off their loans, and we also need to be able to retain our best faculty.”

Outgoing Governor Urges Lawmakers to ‘Work Together’

 By Chelsea Jackson and Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe delivered his farewell State of the Commonwealth Address on the opening day of the General Assembly’s 2018 session, making a final plea for legislators to expand Medicaid and saying the state is in good hands as he passes the baton to a fellow Democrat, Ralph Northam.

With a smile, McAuliffe took the podium Wednesday night before a joint session of the House and Senate as he announced his pleasure to address the General Assembly “one final time.” The Republican side of the chamber appeared silent while Democratic lawmakers stood, cheered and banged their desks in appreciation.

Once again, McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for low-income Americans.

“The chief issue that demands your attention is making a clear statement that, in a new Virginia economy, health care is not a privilege for the few – it is a right for all,” McAuliffe said. “Put the politics aside. It’s time to expand Medicaid in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

In his address, McAuliffe said that at his inauguration, he promised to maintain the state’s reputation for strong fiscal management, to make Virginia the greatest place in the world for veterans, military service members and their families, and to be a brick wall to protect the rights of women and LGBT Virginians from discrimination.

“Four years later, we have kept those promises,” McAuliffe said. “And we are a Commonwealth of greater equality, justice and opportunity for all people as a result. That is a legacy we can all be proud of.”

McAuliffe spoke not just to legislators but to everyday Virginians as he recited progress the state had made during his term.

“In the coming years, I hope you will build on that foundation by using your voices and your votes to make Virginia more equal, more just and more prosperous for all people, no matter whom they are, where they live or whom they love,” McAuliffe said.

He took notice of political battles, such as Republicans suing him for contempt when he attempted to restore, in one fell swoop, the voting rights of about 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences.

McAuliffe established the record for the most bills vetoed during his time in office – a total of 120.

“I absolutely hated having to veto a record 120 bills – but those bills took Virginia in the wrong direction,” McAuliffe said. “They attacked women’s rights, equality for LGBT people and access to the voting booth. They hurt the environment, and they made Virginia less safe. I honestly wish they’d never made it to my desk.”

McAuliffe received several standing ovations during his address, but perhaps the loudest followed his statements regarding Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in August. Everyone on the floor took the moment to stand and applaud for the remarks about Heyer.

McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was elected governor in November 2013, defeating Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

During his term, Republicans had a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, making it difficult for McAuliffe to pass his key priorities, such as expanding Medicaid. But Democrats made big gains in last fall’s elections. As McAuliffe leaves office, the GOP holds a slim margin in both the House and Senate.

“Virginia is a different place than it was four years ago, and for that we should all be proud. But there is still more work to do,” McAuliffe said.

He later added, “As I look across this room, I see many new faces. The people of Virginia, in their wisdom, have made significant changes to the composition of this General Assembly with a simple message in mind: work together to get things done.”

In their response to McAuliffe’s speech, Republicans took issue with his rosy assessment of the state’s economy. They said that Virginia has been eclipsed by other states and that McAuliffe has neglected rural areas, especially the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

“With fierce competition between states to attract and retain businesses,” said Del. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge. “Virginia simply cannot afford to stagnate. Our past achievements will not sustain a prosperous future.”

Sen. A. Benton Chafin, R-Russell, said McAuliffe put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with other energy-rich states.

“The last four years has seen some very pitched and contentious battles here in Richmond,” Chafin said. “Gov. McAuliffe began his term by initiating and championing a nearly four-month-long budget stalemate. Now, he is concluding his term by advancing the very same proposals that nearly resulted in our first-ever government shutdown.”

Pastor Preaches Forgiveness at Legislative Breakfast

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Eric Manning, pastor of the Charleston, S.C., church where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners in 2015, delivered a message of reconciliation and unity Wednesday at the 52nd annual Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast.

Republican and Democratic legislators were joined by their families, lobbyists and constituents at the Greater Richmond Convention Center for a time of community and devotion to kick off the opening day of the 2018 General Assembly session.

Gov. Terry McAullife provided opening remarks and a prayer for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, who will be sworn in Saturday.

“Thank you for the honor, privilege and support over the past four years,” McAullife said, adding that serving as governor was the “privilege of my life.”

Northam encouraged legislators to work together during the 2018 legislative season.

“We all have good intentions, and those are to serve our constituents and to serve this great commonwealth,” Northam said. “My prayer to all of you today is that we could root for each other, that we could work together and make Virginia a little bit better today than it was yesterday.”

Among public officials and community members who spoke were Attorney General Mark Herring, who said a prayer for the armed forces and safety personnel, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who gave tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Local music group Urban Doxology also performed a rendition of “Be Thou My Vision.”

It was the Rev. Manning, however, who delivered the main message in which he emphasized forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation as the recipe for a successful General Assembly session.

“When you forgive, something happens,” Manning said. “No longer do you have animosity, no longer do you strive against that person, but you do the best you possibly can do to help that person along the way. Because when you begin to help someone, then you are making a difference.”

Manning urged the legislators to practice forgiveness with each other the same way parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were able to forgive Roof after he murdered nine people at a Bible study session on June 17, 2015. The church, often called Mother Emanuel, was founded in 1816 and is one of the oldest black congregations in the South.

During a court hearing shortly after the slayings, relatives of the murder victims told Roof they were praying for his soul. “I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed by Roof. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Manning challenged the legislators to turn toward what binds them together rather than turning attention to their differences.

“My prayer would be that when they are discussing or debating, or whatever bills they’re working for, just pause for a moment,” Manning said. “In that most high point of the debate, let us learn how to walk together. Let us remember to walk together, to help someone along the way. Because when that happens I believe that the commonwealth becomes that place where God would have them walk together.”

Law requires mental health training for school counselors

By Will Thomas, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND — More than 20 percent of children in the U.S. have or have had depression or other serious mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Soon, school counselors in Virginia will be in a better position to help identify students with such problems. Beginning July 1, a new state lawwill require school counselors to receive more training in the recognition of mental health disorders and behavioral distress.

“Mental health can get better with intervention. Without identifying it, it will only get worse,” said Dr. Donna Dockery,the director of clinical practice in the counseling and special education department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Senate Bill 1117 was sponsored by two Democrats from Northern Virginia – Sen. Jeremy McPikeof Prince William County and Del. Vivian Wattsof Fairfax County. It states that anyone “seeking initial licensure or renewal of a license with an endorsement as a school counselor shall complete training in the recognition of mental health disorder and behavioral distress, including depression, trauma, violence, youth suicide, and substance abuse.”

The law strengthens the Virginia Department of Education’s existing regulations for school counselors. Dockery said it’s important that counselors be able to recognize the signs of mental illness.

“We treat the physical pain; let’s treat the mental pain,” she said.

Dockery said young people today often have a lot of anxiety and must deal with traumatic events. With the help of counselors and families recognizing these situations, students can get the help they need.

McPike’s legislative assistant, Devin Cabot, said that under the new law, the state will establish guidelines for the mental health training that school counselors must complete.

“We are very focused on the new trends of bullying and teen suicide,” Cabot said.

In the past, Cabot said, school counselors in different school districts might have received different training. McPike’s legislation will provide a more uniform approach, she said.

Local school officials are taking measures to educate themselves about the new law.

Chris Whitley is the public information officer for Hanover County Public Schools. Hanover school officials are waiting on guidance from the Virginia Department of Education before moving forward, Whitley said.

School districts will be affected by more than a dozen bills that were approved by the General Assembly during its 2017 session and signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The Virginia Department of Education is working to ensure that school divisions are aware of the new laws.

Veterans center will be named for 2 war heroes

By Coleman Jennings, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A veterans health-care center planned for Virginia Beach will be named for two war heroes from the area, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Wednesday during a ceremony at the Virginia War Memorial. The facility will be called the Jones & Cabacoy Veterans Care Center.

“I am proud to announce that we are naming the new veterans care center after two Tidewater natives who served Virginia and our nation,” McAuliffe told a crowd of about 100 people. The facility – a long-term nursing care center that will be the first of its kind in Hampton Roads – will carry the names of:

  • Col. William A. Jones III, a Norfolk native who received the Medal of Honor for rescuing a fellow pilot in Vietnam in 1968. He died in an airplane accident near Woodbridge in 1969.
  • Army Staff Sgt. Christopher F. Cabacoy, a Virginia Beach native who died in 2010 when insurgents in Kandahar, Afghanistan, attacked his vehicle with a homemade bomb.

The veterans care center will sit on a 26-acre site next to the planned extension of Nimmo Parkway. The land for the site was donated by the city of Virginia Beach. The 128-bed facility will feature all private rooms, organized into households and neighborhoods that surround a central community center.

The center will specialize in caring for patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other chronic illnesses. It will provide both long-term nursing care and short-term rehabilitation.

The center will be operated by the Virginia Department of Veteran Services, which already runs similar facilities in Richmond and Roanoke.

The Jones & Cabacoy Veterans Care Center is expected to open in late 2019. At about the same time, the state plans to open the Puller Veteran Care Center in Fauquier County, which will offer similar services.

Also at Wednesday’s ceremony, McAuliffe signed four bills aimed at helping veterans and their families:

The new laws will take effect July 1.

New laws seek to enhance driver safety

By Yasmine Jumaa, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2015, a driver with severe vision problems hit and killed a bicyclist in Hanover County. The motorist was “basically legally blind,” recalled Del. Hyland “Buddy” Fowler, who represents the county in the Virginia House.

Now the state is about to implement two new laws to help prevent such tragedies. One will require motorists to have a wider field of vision, and the other will encourage health-care professionals to report motorists who have medical problems that may impair their driving. Fowler sponsored both bills, which will take effect July 1.

“The folks at the Virginia Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons took a look at the vision requirements and came to me and said, ‘You need to do better for the public safety issue,’ and wanted to know if I’d carry a bill in the House, which I told them I’d be glad to do,” said Fowler, whose district includes parts of Hanover, Caroline and Spotsylvania counties.

House Bill 1504sets new standards for obtaining and keeping a driver’s license or learner’s permit. It will increase the minimum field of vision that a driver must have in Virginia from 100 degrees to 110 degrees. That means drivers must have a greater ability to see what is on the periphery as well as what is in front of them.

“Being able to see properly and being able to scan the roads is a very important part of safe driving,” said Brandy Brubaker, public relations and media liaison for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

HB 1514,alsocarriedbyFowler, gives doctors and other health-care professionals civil immunity if they report patients who have vision or other medical problems that may impair their ability to drive safely.

The law will protect health-care practitioners from legal action if they tell DMV that they believe someone has a disability or impairment and shouldn’t be driving. For instance, the motorist could not sue the physician for violating practitioner-patient confidentiality.

“With that act of good faith, if they report somebody to the DMV to be examined, and if they suspect that the person shouldn’t be driving for legitimate health reasons, they will be protected from a legal situation,” Fowler said. He believes the law will foster “a greater reporting of folks that probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel.”

DMV officials said they already protect the identity of people who tell the agency that somebody may be an unsafe driver because of vision or health concerns.

“We get these reports from law enforcement, family members, maybe even neighbors, and we are prohibited to release information on the source for those medical reports that we receive,” Brubaker said.

When DMV receives such reports, she said, “We review cases of drivers who may have health or medical conditions that would impair or hinder their safe driving.”

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County sponsored companion bills to Fowler’s legislation: SB 1229was identical to HB 1504,andSB 1024wasthesameas HB 1514. The General Assembly approved all four bills during its 2017 session.

Before they vote, Virginia legislators pray

By Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “May your will be done, dear Lord, this day and each day by these, your servants,” said the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley.

“I pray that at the conclusion of this gathering that all matters whether confirmed, completed or channeled will have been divinely directed while also being considered by your judgment as good and as acceptable,” said the Rev. Carlos Jordan.

“We ask you Lord this day to guide this body in respecting human life from the moment of conception until natural death,” said the Rev. Dennis Di Mauro.

You might expect to hear such religious intonations in a church setting. But Adams-Riley, Jordan and Di Mauro weren’t directing their words to congregants; they were addressing members of the Virginia General Assembly.

Each meeting of the General Assembly begins with a prayer led by a religious leader. The practice dates back to colonial Virginia, and it is common throughout the United States. Almost all state legislatures use an opening prayer as part of their tradition and procedure, and the custom has operated on the federal level since the first Congress convened under the Constitution in 1789.

You may be thinking: Doesn’t this practice violate the separation of church and state? Some people believe it does, but the courts have ruled otherwise.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those provisions, known as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, were written to protect the religious liberties of Americans and prohibit the state from endorsing one religion over another. But they don’t specify what constitutes the establishment of a state religion.

“There’s a pretty robust history of government institutions in this country engaging in practices that one could very plausibly argue is suggestive of, denotes, is the equivalent of establishing a religion,” said Dr. John Aughenbaugh, professor of constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Official symbols and rhetoric often blur the line separating religion and government. Examples include our national currency (which reads “In God We Trust”) and the oath of office taken by elected officials (who place a hand on a Bible and end with “So help me God”).

The constitutionality of legislative prayer was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1983 decision in Marsh, Nebraska State Treasurer v. Chambers. The high court ruled that legislative prayer did not violate the First Amendment because it “has become part of the fabric of our society.”

The issue re-emerged more recently when some residents of the town of Greece, New York, sued the town council for opening its meetings with a predominantly Christian prayer. The lawsuit said such prayers discriminated against people of minority religions and non-religious citizens. However, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, saying the town council had not violated the First Amendment.

Like the town of Greece, prayer in the Virginia General Assembly is overwhelmingly led by Christian faith leaders, who invoke Christian ideas about the will of God and the role of government in addressing legislators.

 
 

During the 2017 legislative session, Christian ministers led 95 percent of the prayers that opened the House and Senate, according to an analysis by VCU Capital News Service.

Fewer than three-fourths of adults in Virginia identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. However, about 90 percent of Virginia legislators identify as Christian, and that is reflected in the religious leaders chosen to address the General Assembly.

The only other faiths invited to address the General Assembly were Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and Islam – the only other religions to which legislators belong.

The largest group excluded from leading the daily invocation at the General Assembly was non-religious people, atheists and agnostics, who make up 20 percent of adults in the state, according to the Pew study.

Over the course of the 2017 legislative session, the General Assembly spent a total of 1 hour, 53 minutes, and 43 seconds praying. Each invocation lasted an average of 1 minute, 38 seconds. To some, this is time well spent.

“I’m glad that it’s a part of our state government,” said Rabbi Dovid Asher, one of two rabbis to lead the General Assembly in prayer this session. “If I’m going to put somebody in office and vote for somebody, I want them to have a moment of reflection, of introspection during the course of the day.”

Other people, like Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state, view prayer in the General Assembly as an inappropriate and inefficient use of time.

“The legislators have a lot better things to put their energy and efforts into. It’s a waste of time. And if they were to want to pray or engage in religious practice, they should do so on their own time, not on taxpayers’ time,” Elliott said.

Religion influences politics but in different ways

By Megan Corsano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Religion plays a role in legislation involving everything from firearms to health care to marriage in the Virginia General Assembly.

Like their constituents, the vast majority of legislators are Christian. Religious lawmakers say that their faith shapes their values and outlook on life – but that they don’t impose their religious beliefs on others.

“We have a very rich, diverse General Assembly, and that’s a good thing in the sense that we have so many people that come from so many types of backgrounds,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach.

He said being raised in the Christian tradition affects his legislative priorities – instilling in him, for example, a strong belief in an individual’s rights.

 

“I think my faith influences my worldview in the sense that every single person is created in the image of God and every single person has worth and has value,” Miyares said. “Every person also has conscience, and I think freedom of conscience is one of the hallmarks of how we were created by our creator: freedom of that choice to make decisions as your conscience dictates. Government should be very careful about forcing people to violate their conscience.”

Miyares said his religious background influenced which bills he supported during the General Assembly’s 2017 session – such as HB 1406, introduced by Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. Although the bill was left in committee, it would have allowed nonviolent felons to carry firearms once their civil rights have been restored.

“I believe in the power of redemption for nonviolent offenders,” Miyares said. “Part of the reason I became a lawyer is that I have a deep appreciation for the law and for how it protects individuals.”

However, Miyares cites more than just religion as a factor on his politics. In 1965, his mother fled Cuba for the United States.

“My story doesn’t begin in Virginia Beach, Virginia; it begins in Havana, Cuba, with a scared 19-year-old girl who got on an airplane with a hope of a better life,” he said. “What I appreciate about this country is the fact that it’s a nation of second chances. My faith, Christianity, is also about second chances and the redemptive power of second chances.”

Based on the religious identification reported by each member of the Virginia General Assembly, about 90 percent identify with some denomination of Christianity. In comparison, about 73 percent of adults in Virginia identify with a form of Christianity, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

At the federal level, the religious makeup of the legislative branch has a similar breakdown. According to an analysis of data about the 115th U.S. Congress conducted by the Pew Research Center in January, 91 percent of congressional members describe themselves as Christians, while 71 percent of U.S. adults do the same.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, agreed that religion plays a role in how a legislator will vote on bills, but she cautions against religious convictions getting out of hand in the legislative process.

Price was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Howard University School of Divinity for her master’s degree in theology. She has paid particular attention to the concept of religion and its role in her own life and the lives of her colleagues.

“When we’re out-rightly infusing religion into something that we’re doing on a policy basis or on a legislative basis, then we have to make sure that it is super-accurate, and we have to be careful about what the unintended implications may be with the words that we choose,” Price said.

Price used HB 2025from this year’s legislative session as an example of a policy coming from a religious basis.

The bill, introduced by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It would have spelled out the right of pastors and other wedding officiants to refuse to “participate in the solemnization of any marriage,” and would have protected this refusal when the marriage contradicts “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

Price said that such a law would impose a “singular Christian view of marriage” into state policy.

“What I see as problematic is when people confuse holy matrimony with marriage,” Price said, referring to “marriage” in the sense of the state function. “That’s when they start to talk about their own values or beliefs. I’m a Christian, and I believe in marriage equality, so how can someone say that the Christian view is against gay marriage? It doesn’t allow for the diversity even within Christianity when people purport to speak from the ‘Christian perspective.’”

Like Miyares, Price said she sees her own religious experience as an influence on the way she conducts herself in her House district in Newport News and in the General Assembly.

“The way I was raised in my home church definitely impacts how I vote for certain legislation,” she said, noting that religion has instilled in her the values of equality and justice and a commitment to “love thy neighbor.”

According the Price, most of the bills she advocates for concern social justice. That emanates not just from religion but also from her family’s history in the civil rights movement.

“I do think my religion has some impact on what it is that I do, but I also know that other areas of my upbringing had that as well,” Price said. “Not all of us are Christian; not all of us subscribe to a religion in general. But we are making laws that impact all of those lives. I would think it silly to think that religion wouldn’t play a part because of what we bring to the table, but it has to play a part in productive ways.”

Polarization over guns leads to surge in legislation

By Tyler Woodall and Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

The 2016 presidential election was one of the most polarizing election cycles in recent memory, as supporters from both sides of the aisle expressed their distaste for the opposing party’s candidate and hot-button issues rose to the front of the United States’ collective political mind.

With tragedies like the Sandy Hook, Pulse nightclub and San Bernardino shootings littering the past several years, the fight to crack down on guns has risen to the forefront of the American political landscape.

According to the Pew Research Center, gun policy was among the five most important issues to the American populace during last year’s election – more important to voters than even immigration, Social Security and education.

However, while guns remained a hot-button issue among Americans, there were some topics that supporters of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were able to agree upon.

For example, according to Pew, at least 75 percent of both candidates’ supporters agreed on mandated background checks at gun shows. At least 82 percent of each group also saw eye to eye when it came to restrictions on gun ownership for people with mental illness.

Even so, voters remained sharply divided over many other gun-related issues.

Nearly 75 percent of Clinton supporters endorsed restrictions on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, while only 34 percent of Trump supporters shared that viewpoint.

 

 

 
 

The distance between the two parties on guns has increased dramatically in recent years. According to Pew, there was a 20 percentage-point difference between the supporters of Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race when it came to controlling gun ownership versus protecting gun rights. That gap more than doubled to 41 points in the 2012 race and ballooned to a 70-point difference between Trump and Clinton supporters last year.

The country’s overall viewpoint on gun rights has flipped since the 2000 election. That year, 66 percent of voters supported restricting gun rights, with only 29 percent looking to protect gun ownership. By 2016, those figures had reversed, with more than half of voters supporting gun ownership.

In addition, Pew found that a majority of the public believes that gun ownership in the United States does more to protect citizens from being a victim of crimes. A little over a third think guns are putting the public in greater danger.

These trends have led to a flood of gun-related legislation at both the state and federal levels.

In Virginia, 111 weapons-related bills were introduced to the General Assembly in 2016 – a 170 percent increase over the previous year. Of those bills, only 14 were signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

 

 

 
 

During his four-year term as governor, McAuliffe witnessed this increase in gun legislation first-hand. McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Bob McDonnell, saw 171 weapons-related bills introduced during his time as governor. McAuliffe has seen 300.

With the 2017 governor’s race heating up, the state’s gun policy hangs in the balance. With a Republican-led General Assembly, a GOP gubernatorial win in November could lead to an expansion of gun rights over the next four years.

Even if a Democrat is elected governor, the trends indicate gun regulation will remain at the forefront of the local and national political landscape.

Gov. McAuliffe keeps a perfect veto record

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Terry McAuliffe not only set a record for the number of bills vetoed by a Virginia governor. He also has a perfect record for the number of vetoes sustained.

Republicans in the General Assembly failed to override any of the 40 vetoes that the Democratic governor issued on bills passed during this year’s legislative session, including measures that sought to increase voting requirements and make it easier to carry concealed weapons.

During his four years in office, McAuliffe has vetoed a total of 111 bills – more than any of his predecessors. None of them have been overturned, Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, noted.

“Whether he is fighting for the rights of women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, Governor McAuliffe has promised to keep Virginia open and welcoming for all its citizens. Thanks to the Democrats who fought to sustain his vetoes, he was able to keep that promise,” Swecker said in a statement.

“With the help of Democrats in the General Assembly, the Governor has formed a wall of reason to protect Virginians from harmful legislation that would hurt our economy and working families.”

Republicans see it differently. They say McAuliffe and Democratic legislators have shunned bipartisanship and blocked common-sense legislation that would prevent voter fraud and let Virginians defend themselves.

For example, McAuliffe vetoed SB 1299, which would have allowed Virginians who are under a protective order to carry a concealed handgun while they wait for their concealed weapon permit to be issued. McAuliffe said, “The bill perpetuates the dangerous fiction that the victims of domestic violence will be safer by arming themselves. It would inject firearms into a volatile domestic violence situation, making that situation less safe, not more.”

On Wednesday, the General Assembly reconvened to consider the governor’s vetoes and legislative recommendations.

The Senate voted 23-17 in favor of overriding McAuliffe’s veto of SB 1299, with Democratic Sens. Chap Petersen of Fairfax and Lynwood Lewis of Accomack County joining the 21 Republican senators in voting yes. However, it takes 27 votes – a two-thirds majority – to override a veto in the Senate.

The bill’s sponsor – Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester – was disappointed. She said the bill would have “allowed law-abiding victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual abuse to carry concealed weapons on an emergency basis so they are not left defenseless while waiting carry permit paperwork. Many other states have passed similar emergency provisions and victims’ lives have been protected. “

Legislators also sustained McAuliffe’s vetoes of bills that would have required more identification for in-person and absentee voting and increased scrutiny of registration lists. Republicans said such measures would make it harder for people to vote illegally. McAuliffe said that voter fraud has not been a problem, that the bills could prevent qualified people from voting and that the legislation would put a financial burden on local governments.

In addition to the vetoes, the governor sent 85 bills back to the assembly with recommendations. More than 80 percent of the recommendations were accepted.

However, the General Assembly rejected McAuliffe’s recommendations to expand Medicaid and to reinstate a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month in Virginia.

“I remain disappointed that Republicans chose to block our efforts to expand Medicaid and reinstate the one-handgun-per-month rule,” McAuliffe said after Wednesday’s session. “Both proposals are common-sense measures that would save lives in Virginia.”

GOP rejects governor’s bid to expand Medicaid

By Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe blasted Republican legislators Wednesday after they rejected his budget amendment to expand Medicaid in Virginia.

“Virginia Republicans block #Medicaid expansion once again,” McAuliffe tweeted after the General Assembly reconvened to consider legislation that the governor vetoed or wanted amended.

“400k Virginians remain w/o healthcare. We’re losing $6.6mil every day,” McAuliffe wrote after the GOP-controlled House of Delegates rebuffed his Medicaid proposal.

McAuliffe and other Democrats reiterated their call for Medicaid expansion after the U.S. House of Representatives last month failed to reach an agreement on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

That federal law, also known as Obamacare, encouraged states to expand Medicaid, the health coverage program for low-income Americans.

The proposed amendment would have given McAuliffe the authority in October to direct the Department of Medical Assistance Services to expand Medicaid if the Affordable Care Act is still in place. State officials say the expansion would cover about 400,000 low-income Virginians.

Every year since he was elected in 2013, McAuliffe has advocated expanding Medicaid. And every year, Republican lawmakers have voted against the idea.

“We rejected expansion in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and again in 2017 because it was the wrong policy for the commonwealth,” the GOP House leadership said in a statement Wednesday. “The lack of action in Washington has not changed that and in fact, the uncertainty of federal health policy underscores the need to be cautious over the long term.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, states can expand Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,640 for an individual. About half of the 31 states that accepted Medicaid expansion have Republican governors. Earlier in the session, Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, outlined the Republicans’ position on the issue.

“Our Republican caucus believes in minimal government, in government doing only what it must,” Massie said.

He said Medicaid is the largest entitlement program in the state and costs are rising.

“As such, we cannot prudently responsibly expand such an entitlement program at this time,” Massie said. “We must reform it and look for the Virginia way. And that is exactly what we’re doing in this house.”

Delegate Massie has since announced his resignation from the Virginia House of Delegates.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a practicing pediatric neurologist, pushed for McAuliffe’s proposed amendment just before the veto session began Wednesday.

“We need to do the right thing here in Virginia. We need to go upstairs, both in the House and the Senate, and pass the governor’s amendment to move forward with Medicaid expansion,” Northam said.

Liberal organizations like Progress Virginia were angered by the GOP’s decision on the matter.

“Health care is a basic human right. It is beyond outrageous that House Republicans have prioritized petty partisan politics over real human lives by refusing to expand Medicaid,” Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said in a press release. “These politicians should look in the eyes of individuals they’ve denied health care access and explain their vote.”

The issue is likely to remain contentious as McAuliffe finishes his term and Virginia elects a new governor in November. Northam is competing with former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello for the Democratic nomination. Three candidates are seeking the Republican nomination: Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee; state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach; and Corey Stewart, who chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

“I will continue to fight for access to quality and affordable healthcare for all Virginians along with the Governor and our administration,” Northam said in a statement.

Assembly reconvenes Wednesday for ‘veto session’

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Legislators will return to the state Capitol on Wednesday to consider 39 bills that Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed during the General Assembly’s 2017 session.

To override a veto, the Republican-controlled Assembly must muster a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. Because the Democrats hold 34 seats in the House and 19 in the Senate, McAuliffe should have the votes to sustain his vetoes.

Legislators will vote on the governor’s vetoes of legislation covering a range of topics, including whether to impose more requirements on voter registration, restrict absentee voting and expand access to handguns.

McAuliffe vetoed a record 40 bills during the legislative session that ended Feb. 25. On the session’s final day, the General Assembly dealt with one of the vetoes – McAuliffe’s rejection of HB 2264, which would have cut off state funds for Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions. The veto was sustained by a 62-33 vote in the House.

McAuliffe warned at the beginning of the session that he would veto any social-issue bills that he believed may harm the rights of women or the LGBTQ community. Republican leaders in the House have said that McAuliffe has reneged on his pledge to be bipartisan and that his office has been “the most disengaged administration we have worked with.”

Among legislation vetoed are six education-related bills, such as SB 1283, which would allow the state Board of Education to create regional charter schools without the permission of local school boards.

McAuliffe also vetoed bills to allow a freestanding agency to offer online education programs to Virginia students (HB 1400) and to require schools to notify parents of sexually explicit material (HB 2191). McAuliffe said these bills collectively would “undermine” the state’s public schools.

The governor also rejected legislation to expand access to weapons. He vetoed HB 1582, which would allow 18-year-old active members of the military to apply for concealed handgun permits, and SB 1347, which would allow concealed carry of a switchblade knife.

McAuliffe also turned down bills that Republicans say would prevent voter fraud but the governor said would be obstacles to voting. They included SB 1581, which would require voter registrars to verify with the Social Security Administration that the name, date of birth and Social Security number of voter registration applications. Another vetoed bill, SB 1253, would require electronic poll books to contain photo identification of registered voters.

Lawmakers will also consider recommendations that McAuliffe made to 74 bills. Notably, the governor has proposed an amendment to the state budget (HB 1500) that would allow him to expand Medicaid, an optional provision of the federal Affordable Care Act. McAuliffe said this has become an urgent issue since Congress rejected President Donald Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act last month.

Virginians in the coverage gap held a press conference Monday to urge legislators to vote for Medicaid expansion. This expansion would mean 400,000 Virginians who don’t currently qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford health insurance will be able to get covered.

“Republicans no longer have an excuse for not passing Medicaid expansion in Virginia,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. “All Virginians deserve to be able to see a doctor when they need one, regardless of income.”

Republican leaders said that their opposition remains the smart move and that they will reject McAuliffe’s proposed budget amendment. They fear that if Virginia expands Medicaid, the state will get stuck with the bills in the future.

Agenda for Wednesday’s reconvened session

McAuliffe vetoed 40 bills from the 2017 legislative session. The General Assembly will take up 39 of those vetoes during Wednesday’s session. They are:

     

Bill number

Description

Sponsor

HB1394

Franchisees; status thereof and its employees as employees of the franchisor.

Head

HB1400

Virginia Virtual School Board; established, report.

Bell, Richard P.

HB1428

Absentee voting; photo identification required with application.

Fowler

HB1432

Switchblade knife; exception to carry concealed.

Ware

HB1468

Incarcerated persons, certain; compliance with detainers, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Marshall, R.G.

HB1578

Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs (Tebow Bill).

Bell, Robert B.

HB1582

Concealed handgun permits; age requirement for persons on active military duty.

Campbell

HB1596

Virginia Public Procurement Act; public works contracts, prevailing wage provisions.

Webert

HB1605

Virginia Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts; established, report.

LaRock

HB1753

Local government; prohibiting certain practice requiring contractors to provide compensation, etc.

Davis

HB1790

Administrative Process Act; development and periodic review of regulations, report.

Lingamfelter

HB1836

Spotsylvania Parkway; VDOT to maintain a certain segment beginning in 2020.

Orrock

HB1852

Concealed handguns; protective orders.

Gilbert

HB1853

Victims of domestic violence, etc.; firearms safety or training course.

Gilbert

HB2000

Sanctuary policies; prohibited.

Poindexter

HB2002

Refugee and immigrant resettlements; reports to Department of Social Services.

Poindexter

HB2025

Religious freedom; solemnization of marriage.

Freitas

HB2077

Emergency Services and Disaster Law of 2000; reference to firearms, emergency shelter.

Wilt

HB2092

Application for public assistance; eligibility, review of records.

LaRock

HB2191

School boards; procedures for handling sexually explicit instructional materials, etc.

Landes

HB2198

Coal tax; limits aggregate amount of credits that may be allocated or claimed for employment, etc.

Kilgore

HB2207

Food stamp program; requests for replacement of electronic benefit transfer card.

Robinson

HB2342

Public schools; Board of Education shall only establish regional charter school divisions.

Landes

HB2343

Voter registration list maintenance; voters identified as having duplicate registrations.

Bell, Robert B.

HB2411

Health insurance; reinstating pre-Affordable Care Act provisions.

Byron

SB865

Furnishing certain weapons to minor; exemption.

Stuart

SB872

Absentee voting; applications and ballots; photo identification required.

Chase

SB1105

Registered voters and persons voting; reports of persons voting at elections.

Obenshain

SB1240

Virginia Virtual School Board; established, report.

Dunnavant

SB1253

Voter identification; photograph contained in electronic pollbook.

Obenshain

SB1283

Public schools; Board of Education shall only establish regional charter school divisions.

Obenshain

SB1299

Concealed handguns; protective orders.

Vogel

SB1300

Victims of domestic violence, etc.; firearms safety or training course.

Vogel

SB1324

Religious freedom; definitions, marriage solemnization, participation, and beliefs.

Carrico

SB1347

Switchblade knife; person may carry concealed, exception.

Reeves

SB1362

Concealed weapons; nonduty status active military personnel may carry.

Black

SB1455

Voter registration; monetary payments for registering for another.

Black

SB1470

Coal tax; limits aggregate amount of credits that may be allocated or claimed for employment, etc.

Chafin

SB1581

Voter registration; verification of social security numbers.

Peake

     

On the last day of the regular session, the House tried but failed to override the veto of one bill:

     

HB2264

Department of Health; restrictions on expenditure of funds related to abortions and family planning.

Cline

     

 

On Wednesday, lawmakers also will consider recommendations that McAuliffe made to 74 bills. The most important is the budget bill (HB 1500). Other legislation cover topics ranging from education and health care to tow trucks and government transparency.

     

Bill number

Description

Sponsor

HB1411

Privately retained counsel; rules and regulations, client’s failure to pay.

Albo

HB1491

Background checks; exceptions, sponsored living and shared residential service providers.

Hope

HB1500

Budget Bill.

Jones

HB1525

Driver’s licenses; revocation or suspension, laws of other jurisdictions.

Albo

HB1532

Fire Programs Fund.

Wright

HB1539

Virginia Freedom of Information Act; public access to records of public bodies.

LeMunyon

HB1663

Northern Va. Community College, et al.; computer science training, etc., for public school teachers.

Greason

HB1671

Natural gas utilities; qualified projects, investments in eligible infrastructure.

Morefield

HB1691

Widewater Beach Subdivision; DCR to convey certain real property.

Dudenhefer

HB1708

Standards of Accreditation; industry certification credentials obtained by high school students.

Filler-Corn

HB1721

Community Colleges, State Board for; reduced rate tuition and mandatory fee charges.

Anderson

HB1791

Conspiracy, incitement, etc., to riot; penalty when against public safety personnel.

Lingamfelter

HB1829

Teacher licensure; certification or training in emergency first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Dudenhefer

HB1846

Death certificates; filing.

Cox

HB1851

Assault and battery against a family or household member; deferred disposition, waiver of appeal.

Gilbert

HB1854

Conflicts of Interests Acts, State & Local Government & General Assembly, lobbyist; filing.

Gilbert

HB1855

Court-ordered restitution; form order, enforcement, noncompliance, etc.

Bell, Robert B.

HB1856

Restitution; supervised probation.

Bell, Robert B.

HB1960

Tow truck drivers and towing and recovery operators; civil penalty for improper towing.

Hugo

HB2014

Standards of quality; biennial review by Board of Education.

Keam

HB2016

Electric personal delivery devices; operation on sidewalks and shared-use paths.

Villanueva

HB2017

Virginia Public Procurement Act; bid, performance, and payment bonds, waiver by localities.

Villanueva

HB2026

Property and bulk property carriers; regulation, combines authorities.

Villanueva

HB2053

Direct primary care agreements; the Commonwealth’s insurance laws do not apply.

Landes

HB2101

Health care providers; data collection.

Byron

HB2105

Investment of Public Funds Act; investment of funds in Virginia Investment Pool Trust Fund.

Byron

HB2149

Aircraft; defines ‘unmanned aircraft’ and requires aircraft to be registered with Dept. of Aviation.

Knight

HB2163

Buprenorphine without naloxone; prescription limitation.

Pillion

HB2168

Virginia Coal Train Heritage Authority; established.

Pillion

HB2201

Failure to drive on right side of highways or observe traffic lanes; increases penalties.

O’Quinn

HB2245

Virginia Research Investment Committee; expands role of Committee.

Jones

HB2289

Divorce or dissolution of marriage; award of life insurance.

Leftwich

HB2297

Oyster planting grounds; Marine Resources Commission to post.

Miyares

HB2324

Jurors; payment by prepaid debit card or card account.

Yost

HB2336

Law-enforcement officer; report of officer involved in accident.

Miller

HB2367

Virginia Port Authority; removal of members on Board of Commissioners.

Lindsey

HB2383

Combined sewer overflow outfalls; DEQ to identify owner of outfall discharging into Chesapeake Bay.

Lingamfelter

HB2386

Unpaid court fines, etc.; increases grace period for collection.

Loupassi

HB2390

Renewable energy power purchase agreements; expands pilot program.

Kilgore

HB2442

Collection fees, local; an ordinance for collection of overdue accounts.

Ingram

HB2471

Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority; membership, powers and duties.

Jones

SB800

Direct primary care agreements; the Commonwealth’s insurance laws do not apply.

Stanley

SB812

Asbestos, Lead, and Home Inspectors, Board for; home inspections, required statement.

Marsden

SB854

Unpaid court fines, etc.; increases grace period for collection.

Stanley

SB864

Electoral board appointments; chief judge of the judicial circuit or his designee make appointment.

Stuart

SB898

Combined sewer overflow outfalls; DEQ to identify owner of outfall discharging into Chesapeake Bay.

Stuart

SB962

Sales and use tax; nexus for out-of-state businesses.

Hanger

SB1008

Barrier crimes; clarifies individual crimes, criminal history records checks.

Hanger

SB1023

Concealed handgun permits; sharing of information.

Stuart

SB1073

Bridgewater, Town of; amending charter, sets out various powers typically exercised by towns, etc.

Obenshain

SB1102

FOIA; records of completed unattended death investigations, definition, mandatory disclosure.

Surovell

SB1116

Public school employees, certain; assistance with student insulin pumps by register nurse, etc.

McPike

SB1178

Buprenorphine without naloxone; prescription limitation.

Chafin

SB1239

Child day programs; exemptions from licensure, certification of preschool or nursery school program.

Hanger

SB1258

Virginia Solar Energy Development and Energy Storage Authority; increases membership.

Ebbin

SB1282

Wireless communications infrastructure; procedure for approved by localities.

McDougle

SB1284

Court-ordered restitution; form order, enforcement, noncompliance, etc.

Obenshain

SB1285

Restitution; supervised probation.

Obenshain

SB1296

County food and beverage tax; referendum.

Vogel

SB1303

Voter registration; deadline for registration by electronic means.

Vogel

SB1312

Conflicts of Interests Acts, State & Local Government & General Assembly, lobbyist; filing.

Norment

SB1315

Foster care; possession of firearm.

Carrico

SB1364

Property and bulk property carriers; regulation, combines authorities.

Newman

SB1371

Virginia Research Investment Committee; expands role of Committee.

Saslaw

SB1398

Coal combustion residuals unit; closure permit, assessments required.

Surovell

SB1415

Virginia Port Authority; removal of members on Board of Commissioners.

Spruill

SB1416

Investment of Public Funds Act; investment of funds in Virginia Investment Pool Trust Fund.

Newman

SB1418

Electric utilities; costs of pumped hydroelectricity generation and storage facilities.

Chafin

SB1486

Law-enforcement officer; report of officer involved in accident.

Stuart

SB1492

Water utilities; retail rates of affiliated utilities, definitions, etc.

Stuart

SB1493

Northern Va. Community College, et al.; computer science training, etc., for public school teachers.

McClellan

SB1574

Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority; membership, powers and duties.

Ruff

 

McAuliffe vetoes 6 more bills; GOP calls him ‘disengaged’

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed six bills, including three Republicans said would help prevent voter fraud but the Democratic governor said would create barriers to voting.

McAuliffe has now vetoed 37 bills from the General Assembly’s 2017 session – and 108 during his four-year term as governor, surpassing any of his predecessors.

Republican legislative leaders say McAuliffe has broken his promise to be bipartisan, calling his office “the most disengaged administration we have ever worked with.” The governor’s supporters say he is a firewall to block bad bills passed by a gerrymandered legislature.

“This new record is the disappointing result of four years of failed leadership by a disengaged governor, and is certainly not something to be celebrated,” Speaker William Howell and other GOP House leaders said in a statement last week. “Divided government has been the norm over the past two decades of Virginia politics, but this governor has brought a new level of animosity and acrimony than we’ve ever seen.”

McAuliffe maintains that it’s Republicans who are playing politics – by sending him bills that he says are unnecessary or dangerous. On Monday morning, he vetoed:

  • SB 1253, sponsored by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, which would have required electronic poll books to include photo identification of registered voters.
  • SB 1455, sponsored by Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, which would have made it a Class 1 misdemeanor to solicit or accept payment in exchange for registering people to vote.
  • SB 1581, sponsored by Sen. Mark J. Peake, R-Lynchburg, which would have required voter registrars to contact the Social Security Administration to verify the name, date of birth and Social Security number of all voter applicants.

McAuliffe said that the state already has strict voter registration laws and that there is no evidence to suggest that voter fraud is a problem in Virginia.

On Monday afternoon, McAuliffe vetoed HB 2000, sponsored by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, which stated that “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” The bill, which took aim at so-called “sanctuary cities,” would “send a hostile message to immigrant communities,” McAuliffe said.

He also vetoed HB 2092, by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, which sought more scrutiny of people seeking public assistance, including whether they have received undeclared winnings from the Virginia Lottery; and HB 1790, by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, which supporters said would streamline government regulations but McAuliffe said would do the opposite.

On Friday, the governor rejected five gun-related bills, including HB 1852, sponsored by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and SB 1299, sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester.

Under that legislation, people protected by a restraining order could carry a concealed handgun for 45 days after the order was issued, provided that they are not prohibited from purchasing, possessing or transporting a firearm.

“It provides petitioners of a protective order the ability to carry a concealed firearm for a limited period time in order to protect themselves as they see fit while they await the issuance of their permanent concealed carry permit,” Gilbert said.

In announcing his veto, McAuliffe said the legislation perpetuates a false narrative that victims of domestic violence are made safer by arming themselves.

“It would inject firearms into a volatile domestic violence situation, making that situation less safe, not more,” McAuliffe said. “I will not allow this bill to become law when too many Virginia women have already fallen victim to firearms violence at the hands of their intimate partner.”

McAuliffe also vetoed two other identical bills by Gilbert and Vogel: HB 1853and SB 1300. Under those bills, the state would have provided funding to businesses that offer free gun safety and training programs for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, stalking or family abuse.

Moreover, anyone who gets a protective order would have received a list of firearm training courses approved by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The fifth gun-related bill vetoed by McAuliffe was SB 1362, sponsored by Black. It would have allowed military personnel who are not on duty to carry a concealed firearm in Virginia, as long as they have their military identification card.

McAuliffe called the bill an unnecessary expansion of concealed handgun carrying rights.

“The bill would create a separate class of individuals who do not require a concealed handgun permit,” he said.

The General Assembly will reconvene on April 5 to consider override McAuliffe’s vetoes.

Governor vetoes Republicans’ ‘educational choice’ legislation

By Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday vetoed several bills that Republicans say would have increased school choice but McAuliffe said would have undermined public schools.

Two bills, House Bill 1400 and Senate Bill 1240, would have established the Board of Virginia Virtual School as an agency in the executive branch of state government to oversee online education in kindergarten through high school. Currently, online courses fall under the Virginia Board of Education.

“In establishing the Virginia Virtual School outside of the jurisdiction of the Board of Education, and most importantly, local school boards, this legislation raises significant constitutional concerns,” McAuliffe stated in his veto statement.

HB 1400 was sponsored by Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and SB 1240 by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. The bills were identical to legislation the governor vetoed last year.

McAuliffe also vetoed HB 2342 and SB 1283, which would have authorized the State Board of Education to allow local school boards to collaborate in establishing regional charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently and are exempt from certain policies regular schools must follow.

“In establishing regional governing school boards that remove authority from local school boards and their members, this legislation proposes a governance model that is in conflict with the Constitution of Virginia,” McAuliffe wrote in his veto statement. “Public charter school arrangements are already available to divisions at the discretion of the local school board.”

HB 2342 was sponsored by Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta. Sen Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, sponsored SB 1283. Obenshain was disappointed in the Democratic governor’s decision.

“Florida has upwards of 500 charter schools; Virginia has just nine that serve 2,000 students,” Obenshain said. “If we’re serious about providing families with meaningful educational choices when faced with failing schools, then that has to change.”

Obenshain said charter schools provide parents with a choice when their local schools are failing.

McAuliffe also vetoed:

  • HB 1605, sponsored by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun. It which would have established “Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts.” The governor said such savings accounts would divert state funds from public schools and redirect them for educational services outside of the public school system.
  • HB 2191, introduced by Landes. It would have required school boards to notify parents of any material assigned to students that could be deemed as sexually explicit. Schools would have had to provide substitute materials if the parents requested.

Ed Gillespie, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in this year’s election, criticized McAuliffe for vetoing the bills.

“I’ve never seen a governor so proud of everything he didn’t get done for the Commonwealth,” Gillespie said. “Unfortunately for Virginians, he’s added to his record by vetoing four pieces of legislation to expand opportunities in education. These were common-sense bills that would have helped all Virginia students.”

Virginia raises a toast to George Washington’s whiskey

By Megan Corsano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – George Washington is recognized as the father of our country, but with a bill signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Washington also will be recognized under another title – distiller of Virginia’s official liquor.

SB 1261, sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, adds a “state spirit” to the list of the commonwealth’s official emblems and designations and crowns George Washington’s rye whiskey with the title.

The bill, which McAuliffe signed last week, highlights George Washington’s contributions to the culture of Virginia as “a native son of Virginia born on February 22, 1732, in Pope’s Creek”; “the first American president, commander of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention”; and “a model statesman ... universally acknowledged as the father of our nation.”

According to the bill, Washington was also a “gentleman planter” who began distilling rye whiskey on his property at Mount Vernon in early 1797 at the suggestion of James Anderson, his farm manager.

Today, the staff at Mount Vernon continues to distill the whiskey for sale at the property’s gift shop.

In a speech on the floor of the Virginia Senate on Feb. 22, Washington’s 285th birthday, Ebbin explained the historical pairing of Washington’s political career and booze.

According to Ebbin’s speech, when Washington first ran for the House of Burgesses in Frederick County in 1755, he lost by a landslide, receiving only 40 of the 581 votes. Ebbin attributed this loss to his failure to provide “bumbo” – a common practice at the time to provide alcohol to voters.

Three years later, Washington tried once more to win over voters and won, but switched his campaigning technique.

“During that election, he supplied 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer and 2 gallons of cider (an impressive 160 gallons of liquor) to 391 voters,” Ebbin said during his commemoration speech. “That’s more than a quart and a half per voter. Washington had clearly learned his lesson, because a key to victory was ‘swilling the planters with bumbo.’”

After retiring from politics, Washington began distilling whiskey at his Mount Vernon property. In the year of Washington’s death – 1799 – the distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons of whiskey.

The Mount Vernon distillery was reconstructed at the original location that Washington used and produces small batches of distilled spirit for sale on site, including the rye whiskey that now holds the state title. The distillery attempts to produce the whiskey through the same techniques that Washington would have used at the time.

Besides declaring the official state spirit, McAuliffe also signed a bill designating the TV show “Song of the Mountains” as Virginia’s official state television series.

SB 1332, sponsored by Sen. Charles Carrico of Galax, noted that “Song of the Mountains” is the first nationwide television program featuring the bluegrass music of Appalachia.

The show was founded in 2003 as a monthly stage concert series hosted by the Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Virginia. “Song of the Mountains” is broadcast on more than 150 PBS stations in about 30 states.

The program “continues to consistently present to the nation the unique musical and cultural heritage of not only the Southwest region of the state but the entire Commonwealth,” the bill stated.

McAuliffe OKs $1.6 million for wrongfully imprisoned man

By Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With a stroke of his pen, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has cleared Keith Allen Harward to receive nearly $1.6 million from the commonwealth of Virginia for the 33 years he spent in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

McAuliffe last week signed House Bill 1650approving the compensation package for Harward.

“On April 7, 2016, the Supreme Court of Virginia granted Mr. Harward’s Writ of Actual Innocence, formally exonerating him of all the crimes for which he had been convicted,” the legislation stated.

Harward, now 60, was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Newport News. According to trial summaries, the rape victim was awakened around 2 a.m. by a loud thumping sound as her husband was being beaten by a man.

The woman was thrown out of bed and repeatedly sexually assaulted as her husband lay dying. Her assailant held a diaper over her head and threatened to harm her children if she did not cooperate.

In 1986, Harward was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life when two forensic odontologists testified that Harward’s teeth matched those of the bites on the woman.

He was released from prison on April 8, 2016 after DNA testing proved he was not the killer. Harward had always maintained his innocence.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, notes that because of his wrongful conviction, Harward “suffers from numerous painful physical injuries, systemic health conditions, and severe mental anguish and emotional distress and has lost countless opportunities, including the opportunity to marry and have children” and that he “is an impoverished man, with no job skills or career prospects and no savings or accumulated pension benefits, and does not qualify for social security benefits.”

The legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by McAuliffe will take effect July 1. To receive the money, Harward must sign documents releasing the state of any present or future claims.

Then, within 60 days, Harward will receive a check for $309,688. By Sept. 30, the state treasurer will buy a $1,238,751 annuity for Harward. He also will be provided up to $10,000 for tuition for career and technical training from the Virginia Community College System.

During his ordeal in prison, Harward received legal support from the Innocence Project.

He is at least the 25th person to have been wrongfully convicted or indicted based at least in part on bite mark evidence, according to the project.

New laws target puppy mills and allow lifetime pet licenses

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia soon will have three new laws that will impact its furry residents and their owners. Gov. Terry McAuliffe has signed bills that will bar pet stores from buying dogs from unscrupulous sellers, allow local governments to offer lifetime pet licenses and change the legal description of a “dangerous dog.”

McAuliffe signed the legislation last week. The bills will take effect July 1.

SB 852, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, is aimed at brokers and breeders who sell dogs to pet shops. The new statute says the seller must have a valid license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Moreover, pet stores may not procure a dog “from a person who has received citations for one critical violation or three or more noncritical violations from the USDA in the two years prior to receiving the dog,” according to a summary of the bill by the Legislative Information System.

Violating the law will be a Class 1 misdemeanor for each dog sold or offered for sale. That is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Tabitha Treloar, director of communications at the Richmond SPCA, said the organization is grateful for the new law.

“SB 852 closed loopholes in a section of code that became law in 2015, making it clear that pet stores may not acquire pets either directly or indirectly from puppy mills,” Treloar said. “While adopting from a reputable shelter or humane society will always be the best way to get a new companion, this is a law that helps to protect Virginia customers, and we are grateful to Sen. Stanley for carrying this bill and to Gov. McAuliffe for signing it into law.”

McAuliffe also signed HB 1477, sponsored by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline County. It will allow local governments to provide lifetime licenses for cats and dogs for a maximum fee of $50. (The cost of an annual pet license will remain at up to $10.)

The lifetime license will be valid if the animal’s owner continues to reside in the locality and keeps up the animal’s rabies vaccinations. If an animal’s tag is lost, destroyed or stolen, the legislation sets a $1 fee for getting a duplicate tag.

The bill also states that local ordinances can require an animal to have an identifying microchip.

Pet owners must get a license for any dog or cat that is 4 months or older. Guide dogs or service dogs that serve disabled people are exempt.

McAuliffe also signed HB 2381, sponsored by Del. Matthew Farris, R-Rustburg. It modifies the legal description of a “dangerous dog.” It’s a designation with big ramifications: If a dog is officially labeled as dangerous, it is listed in an online registry, and the owner must get insurance and pay a $150 annual fee.

Farris wanted to give a dog the benefit of the doubt if it bites a person or another animal. The bill will give animal control officers the option of determining whether a dog should be considered dangerous just because it inflicts a nip, scratch or minor injury on someone, or on another pet.

Matthew Gray, Virginia state director of the Humane Society of the United States, applauded McAuliffe for signing the bills but was disappointed that other legislation failed during the General Assembly’s 2017 session.

“We are grateful that these bills have been signed by Gov. McAuliffe, who has traditionally supported our agenda,” Gray said. “But the House of Delegates defeated nine of 11 bills that would have expanded protections for animals, including bills to protect dogs from living their lives at the end of a chainand to prevent indiscriminate euthanasia in animal shelters. That’s a dismal failure and a profound illustration of the challenge animal welfare advocates face in Virginia.”

McAuliffe vetoes bills he says could restrict voting rights

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Wednesday vetoed a bill that he said could disenfranchise qualified voters but Republican legislators said could reduce voter fraud.

HB 2343, sponsored by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville, would have required the state Department of Elections to provide local registrars with a list of voters who, according to data-matching systems, have been found to be registered in another state.

In support of his proposal, Bell said it would have given localities direct access to information regarding possible voter fraud among residents.

“Information would be provided to the general registrars from each county or city when it’s found that one of their voters is also registered in another state, and it gives them the liberty to do what they want to with that information,” he said.

In a statement explaining his veto, McAuliffe said he believed the bill would have endangered the voting rights of some Virginians and increased the administrative burden on local governments.

“This bill would invite confusion and increase the possibility of violating federal law,” McAuliffe said. “Moreover, it would expose eligible and properly registered Virginians to the risk of improper disenfranchisement.”

The governor said that the measure would have generated confusion and unnecessary stress among localities throughout the state by decentralizing the commonwealth’s process for maintaining voter registration data.

“The commonwealth’s proven and efficient methods of list maintenance serve as a national model,” McAuliffe said. “We should focus on improving this system rather than needlessly increasing administrative burdens.”

HB 2343had passed the House, 68-30, and the Senate, 23-15, during the recent legislative session. To override the veto, supporters of the bill must muster a two-thirds majority in both chambers when the General Assembly returns for a one-day session on April 5.

Also Wednesday, McAuliffe vetoed SB 872, which he said would be an “unnecessary and impractical barrier” to Virginia voters. The bill, sponsored by Del. Amanda F. Chase, R-Midlothian, would have required voters to submit photo identification when applying to vote absentee by mail.

The bill was identical to HB 1428, sponsored by Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Glen Allen. McAuliffe vetoed Fowler’s measure last week.

“The right to vote is a fundamental tenet of our democracy, and we should be doing all we can to facilitate eligible citizens’ access to the ballot,” McAuliffe said. “The requirement would not in any way deter fraudulent voting since it provides no means of verifying the identity of the individual depicted in the submitted photograph.”

The vetoed bills were among about 200 pieces of legislation that McAuliffe acted on this week. He signed into law such bills as:

  • HB 2113, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna, which would help the state Department of Taxation deter identity theft.
  • HB 2119, also by Keam, which would require laser hair removal to be performed under the supervision of a doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner.
  • HB 2217, sponsored by Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, which would aid victims of sexual violence and human trafficking.
  • SB 982, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, which would extend tax breaks for motion pictures being produced in Virginia.
  • HB 1664, sponsored by Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun, which requires state universities to release reports regarding their graduates’ job employment rates.
  • HB 2258, sponsored by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, which would create a task force to raise awareness of suicide prevention services.

Law ensures Virginians can resell tickets

By Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a defeat for Ticketmaster, a new state law will allow Virginians to resell tickets they’ve bought for concerts, football and basketball games, and other public events.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe has signed two bills that would protect people involved in reselling tickets – a practice critics call scalping. The law also says you can’t be turned away if you show up at an event with a ticket you received from someone else.

One of the measures – House Bill 1825– was sponsored by Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax. He had a personal reason for proposing the legislation. It stemmed from a secret that, for a while, he kept even from his wife, Rita.

“One thing she did not know about me when we got married is, she figured Republican, lawyer – you know, straight guy. She does not know I am a metalhead,” said Albo, 54.

One of his favorite bands is Iron Maiden. And when Albo found out they were coming to Virginia to play at Nissan Pavilion (now called JiffyLube Live) in Bristow, he bought two $200 tickets as soon as sales opened up on Ticketmaster.

Rita Albo later broke it to her husband that the Iron Maiden concert was the same week as the family’s vacation. Del. Albo decided he needed to bite the bullet and try to resell the tickets.

But he couldn’t do that on the Ticketmaster website because the show wasn’t sold out. And Ticketmaster prohibits reselling its tickets anywhere else.

Albo said he couldn’t even give the tickets to a friend because Ticketmaster’s policies require the concert-goer to show an ID or credit card of the original ticket purchaser.

After Albo told legislators about his ordeal, the General Assembly passed House Bill 1825 and Senate Bill 1425, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. The bills state that:

  • Tickets to any professional concert, sporting event or theatrical production cannot be sold “solely through a delivery method that substantially prevents the purchaser of the ticket from lawfully reselling the ticket on the Internet ticketing platform of the ticket purchaser’s choice.”
  • “No person shall be discriminated against or denied admission to an event solely on the basis that the person resold a ticket, or purchased a resold ticket, on a specific Internet ticketing platform.”

McAuliffe signed the bills March 3. The law will take effect July 1. Violators could be fined up to $5,000.

Critics say the legislation opens the door for ticket scalping or “touting,” in which people, sometimes using computer software, buy tickets only with the intention of reselling them at a higher price to make a profit.

Ticketmaster did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about Virginia’s new law. However, when Albo’s bill came before the House of Delegates in January, the company issued a statement saying, “This scalper friendly legislation is harmful to every sports and music fan in the Commonwealth, and the bill should be rejected just as it has been in other states across the country.”

Two other states – New York and Colorado – have adopted laws similar to Virginia’s.

On the other hand, ticket vendors like StubHub, a website owned by eBay designed for people to resell and buy second-hand tickets, applauded the new state law.

“This legislation protects Virginia fans and ensures an open and unrestricted ticket marketplace,” said Laura Dooley, senior manager of government relations at StubHub. “We are proud to advocate in support of legislation like the Virginia bills on behalf of our users.”

Gov. McAuliffe expected to sign marijuana reforms

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia probably will ease up a bit in its laws against marijuana by making it easier for epilepsy patients to obtain cannabis extract oils and by relaxing the penalty for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to sign the handful of marijuana-related bills passed by the General Assembly during its recent session. They include SB 1027, which will allow Virginia pharmacies to make and sell marijuana extract oils for treating intractable epilepsy, and HB 2051andSB 1091,which will eliminate the state’s punishment of automatically suspending the driver’s license of adults convicted of simple marijuana possession.

Currently, it is illegal in Virginia to purchase THC-A or CBD oils. In 2015, the General Assembly carved out one exception – for people who suffer from intractable epilepsy. Epilepsy patients and their caregivers are allowed to possess the marijuana extract oils. But they face problems buying the medication.

SB 1027, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, will allow “pharmaceutical processors” – after obtaining a permit from the state Board of Pharmacy and under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist – to grow low-THC cannabis, manufacture the oil and then provide it to epilepsy patients who have a written certification from a doctor.

“Virginia will only be the second state in the nation that has this type of program, the first being Missouri,” said Maggie Ellinger-Locke, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates liberalizing marijuana laws.

“It’s a far cry from an effective medical marijuana program, but it’s still a step in the right direction.”

Ellinger-Locke said 28 states and the District of Columbia have full-fledged programs in which people with cancer, glaucoma and other diseases can get a prescription to use marijuana.

Marsden’s bill includes an emergency clause. So when the governor signs it, the law will take effect immediately.

Del. Les. Adams, R-Chatham, and Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, carried the measures regarding driver’s licenses. Under the legislation, which would take effect July 1, judges will have the discretion to suspend the license of an adult convicted of marijuana possession – but the penalty would not be automatic. Juveniles would still be subject to an automatic six-month suspension of their driver’s license.

Ellinger-Locke said the laws are in step with reforms happening across the country.

“We are optimistic,” she said. “The polling shows that Virginians desperately want their marijuana policy changed and laws reformed in some capacity, and I think that lawmakers are starting to hear the call in Virginia as well as throughout the U.S.”

Those calls went largely unheeded during the 2017 legislative session, as about a dozen proposals, ranging from establishing a medical marijuana program to decriminalizing marijuana possession, failed.

For example, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Winchester introduced bills to make marijuana products available to people with cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and several other diseases (SB 1298) and to create a pilot program for farmers to grow hemp (SB 1306). Both bills cleared the Senate but died in the House.

Marijuana likely will be an issue in statewide elections this year. Vogel, who is seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, has vowed to be an advocate for medical marijuana.

“It has no psychotropic effects, and no one is dealing it on the illicit market. For the people that are sick and really wanted the bill to pass, it was heartbreaking,” Vogel said. “I think this is a little bit of bias and a little bit of lack of education ... The overwhelming majority of the voting public believes having access to that kind of medication is very helpful.”

Medical marijuana bills faced opposition from legislators afraid that expansion may become a slippery slope. Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, recalled returning from serving in the Marines in Vietnam in the 1960s when, he said, marijuana use caused a collapse of “good order and discipline.”

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