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General Assembly

Community Lenten Services

Luncheon will be served after each Wednesday Noon Service for a small donation.

March 27 - 12 Noon First Presbyterian Church Rev. Dr. Rick Hurst

April 3 12 - Noon Calvary Baptist Church Rev. Dr. Doretha Allen

April 10 - 12 Noon St. Richard’s Catholic Church Rev. Tom Durrance

April 18 - 7 pm Elnora Jarrell Worship Center Rev. Harry Zeiders

April 19 - 11 am Calvary Baptist Church (Radio Baptist) Various Pastors and Leaders Hour of Prayer

The offering: we have given two $500 scholarships to seniors in the past. We will contact these two students and if they are still at their schools with passing grades, we will give them another $500 each and any money above $1000.00 we be given to Thomas Family Boots On the Ground Outreach.

As Redistricting Plans Advance, Advocates Slam House GOP Bill

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the General Assembly’s session enters its second half, both the House and Senate have passed competing plans on how to redraw legislative districts. But groups that have been fighting gerrymandering prefer the Senate’s proposal, saying it would do more to take politics out of the process.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are concerned that without the proper provisions, the General Assembly may be doomed to repeat mistakes made in 2011 when legislators gerrymandered several Virginia districts for their own benefit by diluting the voting power of African-Americans. Those districts were later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and had to be redrawn.

Some legislators say there’s an easy fix to make sure it doesn’t happen again: Create an independent commission to redraw the lines, and take the process out of the hands of politicians.

At the start of the legislative session, lawmakers offered nine different proposals to establish independent redistricting commissions. They have now been narrowed down to two.  

Senate Joint Resolution 306, sponsored by Democratic Sen. George Barker of Alexandria, sailed through the Senate last week with unanimous support. House Joint Resolution 615, sponsored by Republican Del. Mark Cole of Spotsylvania County, was narrowly approved by the House on Monday on a party-line vote, 51-48.

Both resolutions would amend the Virginia Constitution to create bipartisan commissions tasked with redrawing district lines in 2021, but the plans have some key differences:

  • SJ 306 would create a 16-member commission made up of eight General Assembly members and eight citizen members. Of the eight legislative members, four would come from the Senate, and four would come from the House, with equal representation given to each political party. Any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizen members. The plan would then be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The General Assembly would not be able to make any amendments to the plan.

  • HJ 615 would create a 12-member commission consisting of six Democrats and six Republicans, none of whom could be members of the General Assembly or U.S. Congress. The members would be selected by the speaker of the House, the Senate Rules Committee and the governor, and any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least eight of the 12 members. The plan would then be introduced in the General Assembly as a bill, and legislators would vote on the plan. The governor would be removed from the process and would not have the power to approve or veto the bill.

Barker’s amendment has garnered support from fair redistricting advocates, but they have concerns about Cole’s commission.

Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan redistricting group based in New Jersey, issued a statement Sunday saying that Cole’s constitutional amendment could “backfire” and increase the possibility of partisan gerrymandering in the commonwealth -- the opposite of its intended effect.

“It’s sold as nonpartisan reform. But we find that it’s more likely to entrench whatever party is already in control,” director Sam Wang wrote.

Voting rights advocacy groups Progress Virginia and New Virginia Majority issued a joint statement slamming Cole’s amendment after it was sent to the House floor last week: “The GOP’s proposal simply replaces one bad system with another,” said Progress Virginia executive director Anna Scholl.

The editorial board of Lynchburg newspaper The News & Advance has come out in support of Barker’s amendment. In an op-ed published Thursday, the board wrote that, while both plans signal the General Assembly’s willingness to change the current system, SJ 306 was “far preferable” to HJ 615.

Advocacy group One Virginia 2021, which has pushed for a nonpartisan approach to redistricting in Virginia, has also expressed support for SJ 306, as has former Virginia Gov. George Allen, a Republican. Allen and One Virginia 2021 have teamed up for a five-city town hall tour to highlight the need for bipartisan redistricting reform.

Advocates are watching anxiously as the two amendments head off to the House and Senate. If either is approved by the General Assembly, it will face a long road to be added to the Virginia Constitution. Constitutional amendments must pass in two legislative sessions and then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

Lawmakers will have to act quickly to ensure that an independent commission is in place by 2021 when the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population and demographic data. If not, the same process used in 2011 will be used again in 2021.

House OKs Letting Parents Review School Materials

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Thirteen Democratic delegates split from bipartisan support of a House bill that allows parents to review anti-bullying or suicide prevention materials at their children’s school that may include graphic sexual or violent content.

HB 2107, carried by Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, “requires local school boards to develop and implement policies that ensure parents the right to review any audio-visual materials that contain graphic sexual or violent content used in any anti-bullying or suicide prevention program,” according to the bill summary.

Parents could excuse their children from viewing the materials. The school would be required to provide written notice of a parent’s right to review the material and their right to excuse their child from participating in that part of the program, the bill says.

The bill heads to the Senate after passing the House, 86-13, on Tuesday.

Willie Deutsch, a member of the Prince William County School Board, supported the bill, saying, “Parental involvement is essential to a child’s academic success.”

“We need more parents involved in their children’s education,” Deutsch stated in a press release.

Deutsch used the opportunity to blast Del. Lee Carter of Manassas, who voted against the bill along with a dozen fellow Democratic delegates. “Sadly, Del. Carter made it clear that he opposes the important role of parents in their children’s education,” Deutsch said.

Carter declined to respond to Deutsch’s statement.

In 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill that passed the House and Senate. That legislation required schools to notify parents of any sexually explicit teaching material used in the classroom. If parents chose not to allow their children to view the material, teachers would have to provide alternative assignments.

The House fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to override McAuliffe’s veto.

Bill Would Allow ‘Medical Aid in Dying’ for Terminally Ill

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, has firsthand experience witnessing a loved one battling a terminal illness: her father.

Kory said she wants to give patients and their families options to deal with the harsh realities of a terminal sickness. She said that is why she has introduced a bill that she calls the “Death with Dignity Act.”

Under the measure, an adult “who has been determined by the attending physician and consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal condition and has voluntarily expressed his wish to die may request medication for the purpose of ending his life in a humane and dignified manner.”

“The ability for an individual to decide when suffering becomes unbearable should be a basic human right,” Kory said. “We should respect the wishes of terminally ill adults who have weeks or days to live.”

Kory filed HB 2713 on Jan. 15. The bill has been referred to the House Courts of Justice Committee. However, that panel has not assigned the bill to a subcommittee or scheduled a hearing on it. If the proposal does not win approval from the House of Delegates by Tuesday, it will be dead for the legislative session.

Under Kory’s bill, a terminally ill patient’s request for life-ending medication must be given orally on two occasions and in writing, signed by the patient and two witnesses. The patient also must have an opportunity to rescind the request.

Such laws are called “medical aid in dying” statutes. Currently, MAID is legal in seven states and Washington, D.C.

At Kory’s request, the Joint Commission on Health Care, a study group created by the Virginia General Assembly, looked at how MAID is working in those states. According to the commission’s research, MAID has had a small impact on the total number of deaths.

For example, Oregon had 37.2 MAID deaths per 10,000 total deaths in 2016. That is about one-third of 1 percent of all deaths.

Oregon and the neighboring state of Washington each have had fewer than 200 MAID deaths per year.

For Virginia, “it is likely that the number of people requesting MAID would be quite small for the first few years, gradually increasing to approximately 242 individuals dying from MAID medications,” the health care commission’s study said.

Jud Richland, Kory’s legal assistant, said the legislator is a “strong believer that people have a right to decide themselves how to address their own pain and suffering in their final days.”

MAID laws have stirred controversy. Opponents equate them with assisted suicide and say the laws can be abused, resulting in the deaths of people who are not terminally ill.

The Virginia Catholic Conference, which represents the Diocese of Richmond and the Diocese of Arlington on public-policy matters, strongly opposes assisted suicide or euthanasia.

Jeff Caruso, the conference’s executive director, said he believes that if the General Assembly approves a MAID law, Virginians will be more inclined to think of suicide.

On Nov. 7, after receiving nearly 3,000 public comments, the Joint Commission on Health Care voted 10-6 to take no action concerning physician-assisted suicide, according to Caruso. Comments against assisted suicide outnumbered those in favor 8 to 1, he said.

“Government should prevent — not promote — suicide,” Caruso said. “The purpose of the medical profession is to heal lives, not end them.”

Legislators and Victims Plead for Expansions on Distracted Driving Bill

Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Teary-eyed parents and supporters of legislation to curb distracted driving filled a small room at the Capitol, some wearing neon yellow traffic vests in solidarity as they offered emotional testimony.

Others held framed pictures of loved ones who died in distracted driving crashes. The press conference was to advocate for HB 1811, introduced by Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick. Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, is sponsoring a companion bill, SB 1341, in the Senate.

On Wednesday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved Stuart’s bill on a 13-2 vote with bipartisan support. A co-sponsor of that measure, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, also attended Thursday’s press conference.

Jennifer Smith, whose mother died in a traffic accident caused by a distracted driver, was among the speakers. Smith tearfully read a letter aloud from another mother whose young son was killed when a driver ran over his stroller.

“Every day, I watch drivers too busy on their smartphones to pay attention to their surroundings,” Smith read from Mindy Schulz’s letter. “Each time I see them, I feel the impact of that SUV ripping my son’s stroller out of my hand as I was helpless to stop one from killing my baby.”

Other stories shared were from a father who suffered brain trauma in a crash and a mother who lost her 19-year-old son.

Collins’ bill would expand current state laws regulating the use of a handheld device while driving. The current law prohibits only the reading of any email or text message and manually entering letters or text in the device as a means of communication, according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The legislation promotes a “hands-free” approach and would make it illegal for a driver to use any handheld device while operating a vehicle unless the device is specifically designed to allow hands-free and voice operation, such as using the speaker option on a cellphone. The measure would also require driver’s license examinations to include questions on distracted driving.

“As a former police officer, what’s so hard about enforcing the laws we have now is that I don’t know if you’re texting or Facebook-ing,” Collins said. “I can’t write you for Facebook-ing, but I can write you for texting.”

Advocates encouraged members of the House and Senate to pass the legislation in order to “defend and protect” Virginians.

A subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee last week recommended approval of Collins’ bill. The full committee has scheduled the measure for consideration Friday.

Stuart’s bill may go to the Senate floor on Monday.

If neither bill wins approval in the Senate or House by Tuesday, the issue likely will be dead for the legislative session.

Republicans, Democrats Clash Over ‘Disturbing’ Abortion Bill

By Kathleen Shaw and Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Republicans voiced outrage Thursday to a failed proposal by Democrats that would have expanded abortion rights -- even moments before birth -- as one GOP legislator shed tears and another called the proposal “extremely disturbing.”

“I didn't quite arrive on time, but I lived. Had this legislation been in place, who knows how things could have turned out,” said Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, sponsored HB 2491, which would have eliminated certain requirements before undergoing an abortion, such as approval from three physicians and an ultrasound. At Monday’s subcommittee hearing on the bill, a Republican lawmaker asked Tran whether the bill would allow for an abortion to occur when a woman is in labor and about to give birth; Tran said yes. The subcommittee voted 5-3 to table the measure.

On Thursday, Tran corrected herself. “I should have said: ‘Clearly, no because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.’”

Republicans seized on Tran’s initial comments -- and Gov. Ralph Northam’s support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion -- as evidence that the Democrats would allow infanticide.

In an unorthodox move on Monday, House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, stepped down from the House chamber dais to speak in opposition to Tran’s legislation. Cox, who has advocated anti-abortion legislation since 1990, said 61,012,997 abortions have been performed since 1973.

“It was extremely disturbing that essentially you have legislation that does not protect the unborn at all, that you can have an abortion up to the point of birth. And I guess what truly disturbed me was that the other side almost seems to be celebrating that position,” Cox said.

Originally, 23 Democrats co-sponsored Tran’s bill, but some, including Del. Dawn Adams of Richmond, said they would pull their support. The controversy has made national headlines and drawn widespread condemnation from Republicans. President Donald Trump criticized Northam for speaking in favor of Tran’s bill.

Northam and Democratic legislators held a press conference of their own Thursday to respond to the Republicans and to reiterate support for abortion rights.
“We believe legislators, most of whom are men, should not be making decisions about women’s choices for their reproductive health,” Northam said. “We can agree to disagree on this topic, but we can be civil about it.”

Northam said some Republicans were attempting to use the issue to score political points.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who also spoke at the press conference, called Republican efforts to discredit Democrats “desperate” and “ugly.”

“Their political games have exposed a member of the House of Delegates to violent personal threats,” Herring said. “And now, Kirk Cox has taken his caucus completely off the deep end accusing Gov. Northam of supporting infanticide.”

The House minority leader, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, said Virginia women wouldn’t be intimidated by House Republicans’ scare tactics.

“House Republicans have used their majority to try to shame women -- to try to bully and dictate to women what we can and cannot do with our bodies,” Filler-Corn said. “Virginia women are watching, and Virginia women are paying attention.”

Abortion rights groups such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and Progress Virginia continue to support Tran. Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said that Tran was a champion for women and that Republican legislators are taking her remarks out of context.

“We trust women to make decisions about their health care needs. Shame on politicians like Todd Gilbert and Kirk Cox for trying to distract us from the real issue here: getting politics out of the doctor’s office,” Scholl said.

Del. Gilbert, a Republican from Shenandoah County, is the House majority leader. At the Republicans’ press conference, he equated abortion to murder. Gilbert said Democrats would allow late-term abortions out of concern not just for a woman’s physical health but also for her mental health.

“It has nothing to do with saving a woman's life. A mental health concern could include anything that you can name that has an identifiable mental health issue -- depression, anxiety, feelings that one gets when one is about to have to care for a child,” Gilbert said.

Brewer co-chairs the Foster Care Caucus and is an outspoken advocate for improving Virginia’s adoption and foster care systems. She received a tissue and support from Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, while tearing up at the news conference. Brewer said her birth-mother could have chosen to abort her but instead saved her life and fulfilled the life of her adoptive parents.

“61,012,997. How many of those were delegates that never had a chance to serve? How many of those were precious children who would’ve made an adoptive parent like mine -- a first-time mom or dad?” Brewer said.

Legislators Shift Gears to Test Drive ‘Green’ Vehicles

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Midway through this bustling General Assembly session, legislators shifted gears from cruising through bills to testing out electric vehicles on Conservation Lobby Day.

Drive Electric RVA and the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter hosted the second annual Electric Vehicle Ride & Drive event at the Capitol, where the fleet featured EVs like the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt and Tesla Model X.

Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, took a joyride Wednesday in a Tesla Model 3. Last session, he proposed a bill offering tax credits to EV drivers. Reid said such legislation would benefit both the environment and the economy.

“I believe there’s opportunity for Virginia to demonstrate that we are electric vehicle friendly, and that can be done through a tax credit and installing the infrastructure. I’d like us to be a destination for manufacturers,” Reid said. “Really one of the main objectives is to create new electric vehicles jobs here in Virginia.”

Currently, only private entities can charge for the electricity to power EVs. Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 1934 to encourage electricity sales by any state agency, which he said would help normalize EV driving.

“The industry is ready to grow significantly, and we need to make sure they are able to do that, so we can let market forces get out there and spawn the innovation,” Bulova said.

Robin Mackay, an Arlington resident, has owned Tesla EVs since June 2015. The latest eco-friendly ride is equipped with radar and visual sensors for the Tesla’s Autopilot feature. Mackay said he enjoyed the transition from his 14-year-old Nissan pickup truck to the Tesla Model S.

“It was like going from Sputnik to the space shuttle; I get in my car and I love to drive,” Mackay said.

Those who oppose the EV industry say the vehicles are no more environmentally conscious than fuel-dependent vehicles because the electricity to power them may be generated from burning coal.

Mackay said nuclear power stations and coal plants run constantly regardless of any changes in demand, so increases in overnight charging for EVs — while average consumption is lower — could actually be environmentally efficient. With a deal from Dominion, EV drivers receive discounted electricity during off-peak hours, which Mackay said allows him to fuel his car on 90 cents per day.

“To encourage people to absorb demand in the middle of the night when there’s not much load from, like, residential or industrial customers, they put electricity on sale. They sell me electricity at half price,” Mackay said.

Advocates want an increase in EV sales because large-scale production would lower the cost per unit. Standard market price for a Tesla Model 3 is $44,000, but manufacturers hope to reduce the price to $35,000 and make it a more feasible option for all income brackets.

HB 1934 awaits the House floor after receiving approval from the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday on an 18-4 vote.

“I’m very happy that we have a strong coalition of environmental groups but also industry groups that are coming together and making sure that we remove barriers to electric vehicles,” Bulova said.

Bill Allowing Removal of Confederate Monuments Dies In House

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Tension filled the room Wednesday as a House subcommittee voted to kill a bill that would have let localities decide whether to remove or modify Confederate monuments in their jurisdictions.

Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, introduced House Bill 2377, which sought to change the current law that makes it illegal to disturb or interfere with war monuments. His bill would have given cities and counties authority to remove Confederate or Union monuments. This is the second year Toscano has sponsored such legislation.

“We give localities the ability to control the cutting of weeds. But we haven’t yet given them the control over monuments that might have detrimental effects on the atmosphere and the feeling of the community,” Toscano said. “If you weren’t in Charlottesville in August of 2017, it would be hard to understand all of this.”

He said people across Virginia want the ability to decide what to do with the monuments in their towns.

Toscano said the monuments were erected during the “lost cause” movement, which viewed the Confederacy as heroic and the Civil War as a conflict not over slavery but over “states’ rights.”

He addressed a subcommittee of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. The subcommittee’s chair, Del. Charles D. Poindexter, R-Franklin, gave those on each side of the debate five minutes to state their case. With a packed audience filling the small committee room, each person had little more than one minute to speak.

Supporters of Toscano’s legislation held up blue signs with messages such as “Lose The Lost Cause” and “Local Authority for War Memorials” printed in black ink.

Lisa Draine had tears in her eyes as she spoke of her daughter, Sophie, who was severely injured when a white supremacist, James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowd of people demonstrating against racism in Charlottesville.

Fields, who was sentenced to life in prison last month for killing Heather Heyer, was part of the “Unite the Right” rally protesting the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park.

“I couldn’t imagine that a statue had brought this to our town,” Draine said. “My daughter could have been your daughter.”

A member of the Charlottesville City Council, Kathy Galvin, spoke in favor of the bill, citing the need for local legislators to have authority over the monuments.

Matthew Christensen, an activist from Charlottesville, said it was an issue of “basic human decency” and the right of local governments. “They own the land, they own the statue, they should be able to decide what to do with it,” he said.

Ed Willis, an opponent of Toscano’s bill, said it violates provisions in the Virginia Constitution prohibiting discrimination. “It’s painfully clear discrimination based on Confederate national origin is the basis of this bill,” he said.

Like other opponents, Willis said his ancestors served in the Civil War. Some spoke of their families’ long heritage in Virginia and opposed what they felt was the attempt to sanitize or alter their history.

Frank Earnest said he blamed the “improper actions” of the Charlottesville city government for the mayhem that took place in August 2017.

“Just like the other socialist takeovers,” Earnest said, “it’ll be Confederate statues today, but don’t think they won’t be back next year to expand it to another war, another time in history.”

The subcommittee voted 2-6 against the bill. Dels. John Bell and David Reid, both Democrats from Loudoun County, voted to approve the bill. Opposing that motion were Democratic Del. Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and five Republicans: Dels. Poindexter, Terry Austin of Botetourt County, Jeffrey Campbell of Smyth County, John McGuire of Henrico County, and Robert Thomas of Stafford County.

Supporters of the bill met with Toscano in his office after the meeting. He said he knew the bill’s defeat was a “foregone conclusion.” HB 2377 was heard last in the meeting, giving little time for debate or discussion.

People who want to remove the monuments asked Toscano, “How do we make this happen?”

Toscano picked up a glass candy dish from his desk and placed a chocolate coin wrapped in blue foil in each person’s hand. This represented his desire for a Democratic majority in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold 51 of the 100 seats.

Toscano said he fought for years to get from 34 Democratic delegates to the 49 now serving. He urged the group to vote for those who share their concerns this November.

“It’s all about the General Assembly,” he said.

Legislative Proposals Address Costs of College

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Since 2007, tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities has increased an average of 80 percent, with schools like Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William & Mary more than doubling their tuition.

The rising cost of a college education prompted Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, to file a bill to cap increases in tuition and mandatory fees at state institutions. Reid, the first college graduate in his family, which has lived in Virginia since the 1700s, said he is worried about young people and their future.

“I want to make sure that college remains affordable for other students and they have the same opportunities,” Reid said. “I know that having a college degree was instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty that my family had lived in for generations.”

Reid’s bill, HB 2476, would prohibit tuition increases by schools that have raised their tuition more than the state average over the preceding 10 years. At other schools, tuition could not increase more than the inflation rate. The House Education Committee approved Reid’s measure and sent it to the House Appropriations Committee for a look at the financial impact.

That proposal is among about 20 bills filed this legislative session to hold down the cost of college for students in general or for specific groups of students or to ensure that Virginians have more notice about proposed tuition increases.

Republican Sens. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach and Glen Sturtevant of Richmond both filed measures like Reid’s to limit tuition increases. And Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, proposed that public colleges and universities be required to set a four-year fixed tuition rate for incoming freshmen.

Those Senate bills all have been shelved, but still alive are proposals to require schools to give more notice and take public comment about tuition increases. That is the focus of legislation introduced by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, and Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta.

Miyares’ bill, which the House unanimously approved on Tuesday, would require the governing board of each public institution of higher education to establish policies for the public to comment during a board meeting on any proposed increase in undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees.

Under Landes’ measure, which won a unanimous endorsement Wednesday from the House Education Committee, governing boards would have to explain the reasons for a proposed tuition increase and take comments at a public hearing at least 30 days before voting on whether to raise tuition.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, also has a bill stating that “the governing board of each public institution of higher education shall permit public comment on the proposed increase at a meeting.” His legislation has been approved by the Senate Education and Health Committee and is before the Senate Finance Committee.

Also moving forward are bills to offer reduced tuition to students from the Appalachian region who are enrolled in the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, is sponsoring this legislation in the House, and Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, has a companion bill in the Senate.

Kilgore’s measure, HB 1666, passed the House unanimously and has been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee. Carrico’s bill is awaiting action by the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Miyares also proposed a bill to give tuition grants to students coming from the foster care system. A subcommittee unanimously endorsed the bill, and it is pending before the House Appropriations Committee.

A bill by Del. Paul Krizek, D- Fairfax, would offer in-state tuition for foreign service officers and their dependents. It has passed the House unanimously and been sent to the Senate.

In addition, several bills were filed to offer in-state tuition to college students who are in the process of applying for permanent residency in the United States. The House bills on this issue -- by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and by Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington -- were killed in a subcommittee. But a Senate bill by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, is still alive. It’s awaiting a decision by the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Virginia Sports Betting Bills Advance

By Andrew Gionfriddo and Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The odds of Virginia legalizing professional sports betting are improving as bills to authorize sports gambling are advancing in the Virginia General Assembly.

However, legalizing online sports betting may need a little push from companies that wish to bring their business to the commonwealth.

Senate Bill 1238, which would establish the Virginia Sports Betting Department and authorize sports betting, cleared the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology on Tuesday and is now heading to the Senate Finance Committee.

Also making its way to the Finance Committee is Senate Bill 1356, which would change the name of the Virginia Lottery Board to the Virginia Lottery and Sports Wagering Commission. The department would be allowed to accept sports betting wagers.

SB 1238 would prohibit betting on youth and collegiate sports, while SB 1356 would allow betting on youth and collegiate sports outside of Virginia.

The Virginia Sports Betting Department established in SB 1238 would allow for betting entities to apply for a three-year license if a locality votes to approve gambling facilities.

The Virginia Lottery and Sports Wagering Commission of SB 1356 would operate its own facility. While SB 1356 would create an online platform operated by the Lottery, neither bill would legalize private online sports betting.

Still, the push for online sports betting remains alive and well.

Last week, sports betting websites FanDuel and DraftKings lobbied the General Assembly to legalize mobile gambling in addition to sports betting, saying the move would generate millions in tax revenue and help curb illegal gambling in Virginia. Mobile gambling is done on a cellphone, tablet or a remote device with a wireless internet connection.

Sarah Koch, director of government affairs for DraftKings, and Cory Fox, counsel for policy and government affairs for FanDuel, detailed the benefits of sports betting to the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology on Jan. 18.  

Both companies currently operate mobile and web-based fantasy sports, allowing the sites to operate legally as a game of skill, not chance. That’s an important distinction in Virginia, where there’s more flexibility built into the Code of Virginia for games of skills than games of chance. Since there are a number of facets for players to consider, such as statistics or injuries, the operators contend that fantasy sports gambling is more about finesse than luck.

If online and mobile gambling were legalized, DraftKings and FanDuel would be able to open up their sportsbook facets of their websites and apps in Virginia. Both FanDuel and DraftKings sportsbooks act as traditional Vegas style gambling entities and operate in all states where sports betting is legal.

According to Koch, legalizing mobile gambling would help curb illegal sports gambling in the commonwealth.

“Mobile betting allows for advanced age and identity verification, tracking of bet activity, and the ability to restrict or exclude bettors to a greater degree,” Koch said.

Supporters also said the state could get a financial boost if such laws are passed. Fox said Virginia could match New Jersey’s success. He said over $94 million in revenue was generated in the first six months since electronic and in-person sports betting was legalized in New Jersey.

SB 1238 states that 50 percent of the revenue would go to the locality in which it was generated, whereas in SB 1356, 95 percent of the revenue generated from sports gambling would go into the state’s general fund.

Fox said fair tax rates could also assist in the decrease of illegal betting.

“Reasonable tax rates also help attract illegal betters to legal platforms because it allows the operators access to a viable marketplace, while also providing bettors more favorable payouts, further dis-incentivizing betting on illegal platforms,” he said.

Those who oppose sports betting, such as the Family Foundation, have voiced concerns about gambling addiction and collegiate sports betting. Both SB 1238 and SB 1356 aim to mitigate fears of facilitating gambling addiction by funding programs to help compulsive gamblers.

A study was recommended to be completed prior to the passing of any gambling bills. Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne spoke about the study last week, stating it would be about the public policy and regulatory structure of such bills.

“We have significant questions to answer regarding financial impacts,” he said. The study would look into the revenue sharing between state and local governments and what social impacts legalizing such gambling could bring.

Panel OKs Rules for Using ‘Dangerous’ Room Dividers at Schools

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On an afternoon last spring, Wesley Lipicky, a third-grader at Franconia Elementary School in Fairfax County, was helping his teacher in the gymnasium when he became caught between a motorized room partition and a gym wall. The 9-year-old boy suffered traumatic head injuries and died that night.

On Monday, a legislative subcommittee unanimously approved a bill calling for additional safety measures on using mechanized room dividers in public schools in hopes of preventing similar accidents in the future.

“Children’s lives are precious, and we as a society must do everything in our power to protect them,” said Kathy Cole, who runs a business that specializes in gymnasium equipment for schools. “These tragic situations can and must be prevented.”

House Bill 1753 would require schools across the commonwealth to take precautions when using motorized room partitions. These mechanisms, also called electronic partitions or doors, are used in schools to divide rooms into smaller spaces. They are heavier and larger than garage doors and most commonly used in school gymnasiums.

Sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, HB 1753 would give public schools that use motorized room partitions one of two options:

  • Install safety sensors that automatically stop the partition if a body passes between the partition and the edge of the wall

  • Or operate the partition only when there are no students in the building

Wesley’s death prompted Sickles to sponsor the legislation.

“These dangerous dividers that are in a lot of our schools,” Sickles said, “need to have technology applied to them that will prevent this kind of thing from occurring.”

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee voted 8-0 in favor of the bill. It now goes to the full committee and then to the House of Delegates for consideration.  

Putting safety sensors on a motorized room partition could cost $3,000 to $6,000, Sickles estimated. He said such sensors would be a useful investment for partitions that must be used multiple times a day, such as in the gymnasium.

Mindful of the costs, the subcommittee suggested that schools have the option of using the partitions only when students aren’t around.

The legislation also would require annual training for school employees on operating the room dividers.

Wesley’s death on May 18 is not the sole case of a student or teacher killed by an electronic partition.

“Unfortunately, this kind of thing has happened before,” Sickles said, citing deaths in 1973, 1991 and 2001, as well as several injuries caused by partitions.

New York is the only state that requires safety devices on motorized room partitions and training for school staff to operate the doors. That state passed its law after two deaths caused by electronic partitions.

“History has taught us that these accidents happen more frequently than most people realize,” Cole said. “No parent should have to lose his or her beautiful son or daughter due to this safety error ever again.”

Northern Virginia Road Projects Get $1 Billion Investment

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia and private partner Transurban will invest over $1 billion in four transportation projects in Northern Virginia andFredericksburg, state officials announced Tuesday. The projects are designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve connectivity on Interstates 495 and 95.

“Creating opportunity for all Virginians no matter who they are or where they live depends on having a safe, reliable transportation network,” Gov. Ralph Northam said. “People need good transportation — be it road, transit or other options — to get to work and businesses need it to move goods.”

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said the projects include a two-and-a-half mile extension of the express lanes of I-495 north to the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland border. The Capital Beltway Express Lanes Northern Extensions, or Project NEXT, will require no public funding from the state, Valentine said.

She said the project will address one of the “worst bottlenecks in the region” and reduce cut-through traffic in nearby McLean neighborhoods.

Valentine, who oversees the Virginia Department of Transportation, said Project NEXT will connect Virginia to Maryland by creating direct access to the American Legion Bridge, the George Washington Parkway and the Dulles Toll Road.

Officials also announced a new auxiliary lane that would seek to reduce bottleneck traffic on the Occoquan Bridge.

“The I-95 bottleneck at the Occoquan Bridge has been a source of personal frustration and time stuck in traffic—valuable time that could be spent with family,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike of Prince William County. “With funding now in place, VDOT will begin the design and construction that our community has sought for years.”

The Occoquan Auxiliary Lane will connect the southbound Route 123 ramp onto I-95 with the westbound off-ramp of Prince William Parkway.

Also announced was the addition of a new reversible ramp that would improve access Potomac Mills and Sentara Virginia Medical Center. The ramp would connect existing I-95 express lanes directly to Opitz Boulevard where the facility is located.

Lastly, a plan was finalized to extend the I-95 express lanes in Fredericksburg — a 10-mile extension expected to increase the highway’s capacity by 66 percent during peak hours. The Fredericksburg Extension Project, or Fred Ex, was initially announced in January 2018. Construction will begin later this year and is expected to be finished by the fall of 2022.

Transurban President Jennifer Aument spoke about her company’s long history working with Virginia to solve “major transportation challenges.”

“With expanded capacity and new connections to commuter routes and commercial centers,” Aument said, “we are committed to delivering transportation solutions that keep travelers moving faster and safer throughout Northern Virginia.”

ERA Supporters to Protest Daily After Resolutions Killed in Va.

 

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

 

RICHMOND — Women’s rights advocates started a daily protest Tuesday at the Capitol, urging Republican legislators to change their minds and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Inside the Capitol, members of the group VA Ratify ERA began their protest by standing “silent sentinel.” The organizers said they will do this daily starting at 10:45 a.m.

A leader of VA Ratify ERA, Kati Hornung, said all is not lost despite resolutions to ratify the ERA having been killed.

The women’s rights advocacy group adopted Friday the plan to hold a daily protest, after the House Privileges and Elections Committee followed  the subcommittee recommendation to kill resolutions to ratify the ERA. The proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution would guarantee equal rights regardless of sex. 

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy,  D-Prince William, said Virginia must continue efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, even if that means getting new legislators in office. “If we can’t change their minds, we will change their seats,” Carroll Foy said.

Del. David E. Yancey, R-Newport News, supported the ERA in a floor meeting Monday. “Like my mother, there are so many women in my district who all want a level playing field,”  Yancey said. “It’s time we stand up and fight for all women struggling to raise a family and make ends meet.”

If Virginia becomes the 38th state to ratify, the ERA would hit the requirement of having three-quarters of states onboard, for the amendment to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Dana Hawkins, an advocate for the ERA, said that this is a cornerstone of many things.  “The message that’s sent to woman in this country that they are not worthy of the Constitution equality is awful,” Hawkins said. “Treating women fairly can solve so many of the issues we have in this country.”

Hawkins, like many others --  mostly women -- came to the Capitol Tuesday, protesting and holding signs on the stairway of the Capitol gallery. Many ERA advocacy groups stood alongside VA Ratify ERA in the protest.

Hawkins said she thinks it’s important that women equality is written into the Constitution and reflected in laws.

“This is an ongoing effort, so today is just another day in the fight,” Hawkins said. “I think everybody knows how important we feel about constitutional equality for women.”

State Lawmakers Kill Legislation to Protect Student Journalists

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A legislative panel rejected a bill protecting student journalists from administrative censorship on a tie vote Monday.

House Bill 2382, sponsored by Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, would have protected free speech for student journalists in public elementary, middle and high schools, as well as public institutions of higher education.

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 3-3 on the bill after hearing testimony from students and faculty advisers from high schools and colleges across the commonwealth.

Kate Carson, a former writer and editor for The Lasso, the student newspaper at George Mason High School in Falls Church, said her school’s administration censored several controversial topics the publication attempted to cover, including bathroom vandalism, absence policy abuse and a sexting scandal.

“As student journalists, we were perfectly positioned to report on these issues and separate fact from rumor,” Carson said. “Instead, The Lasso was censored when we attempted to cover the vandalism and policy abuse. We didn’t even attempt to cover the sexting scandal.”

One teacher told the panel how her students’ paper was shut down and she was removed as adviser after the students published an article about renovating the school.

“We have seen an increasing number of censorship cases in the commonwealth,” Hurst said. Hurst said the bill seeks to reapply the Tinker standard to student free speech, which was established in a 1969 Supreme Court case. This standard requires administrators to have reasons for censoring content, Hurst said.

In 1988, the Tinker standard was overruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which laid out that school administrations have the right to censor school-sponsored media if they wish.

“All this bill does is protect against what we call the ‘making-the-school-look-bad censorship,’ the image-motivated censorship,” said Frank LoMonte, former executive director of the Student Press Law Center and head of the New Voice Initiative, a campaign network for anti-censorship laws. “Anything a school can stop you from saying on a T-shirt or ball cap, they can stop you from saying in a newspaper.”

Two people voiced concerns with the legislation, saying the protections should not apply to school-sponsored speech or to young student journalists.
“We’re not talking about an 18- or a 19-year-old; we’re talking about possible a 14- or 15-year-old writing a story,” said Thomas Smith with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. “There are many instances in the code where they treat college students and post-secondary students different from secondary students.”

The legislation would have protected “school-sponsored media,” which includes any material “prepared, substantially written, published or broadcast” by student journalists and is distributed or available to the student body. The bill prohibited administrative censorship or disciplinary action unless content:

  • Is libelous or slanderous material
  • Unjustifiably invades privacy
  • Violates federal or state law
  • Creates or incites students to create a clear and present danger

If HB 2382 had passed, Virginia would have been the 15th state to provide protections for high school or college journalists. Half of the states that have passed similar legislation to Hurst’s bill did so in the last four years. Five other states introduced bills in 2019 to protect student journalists.

Here is how the House Education subcommittee voted on HB 2382:

01/28/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (3-Y, 3-N)

YEAS — Davis, Tyler, Bagby — 3.

NAYS — Bell, Richard P., Helsel, Bulova — 3.

Amid Protest, Legislators Announce 5% Pay Raise for Teachers

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As hundreds of teachers and supporters from around the state marched to the Virginia Capitol to call for higher salaries and more funding for public schools, legislative leaders announced Monday that they would include a 5 percent pay raise for teachers in the state budget.

Armed with red coats, scarves and signs, participants of all ages gathered in Monroe Park for a small rally. Then they marched to the Capitol as a girl riding in the back of a small red wagon used a microphone and handheld speaker to lead their chants.

The marchers gathered on the Capitol grounds to hear community leaders protest what they see as inadequate funding for public education.

Rodney Robinson, Virginia’s Teacher of the Year, said Amazon will receive nearly $3.5 billion in public subsidies from New York, Virginia and Tennessee to locate facilities in those states. Virginia’s state government and Arlington County offered more than $570 million in direct subsidiesand about $220 million in transportation improvements to entice Amazon to put an East Coast headquarters near Reagan National Airport in Crystal City.

Robinson said the money Amazon will get could “pay for more teachers, counselors and 21st-century school buildings that are not infested with roaches, rats and mold.”

The Virginia Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, organized the “Red4Ed” rally. The VEA says Virginia ranks 34th among the states in teacher pay. The average annual teacher salary in Virginia is $51,265 — more than $9, 200 below the national average, according to the association.

According to the Richmond School Board, 1 in 5 educators must take a second job to make ends meet.

Liz Holmes, a second-grade teacher at Greenville Elementary School in Warrenton, said she has not had a raise in 11 years. Holmes came to the march to express her frustration over the lack of “fair compensation” in her workplace.

“We are losing qualified teachers every year to surrounding counties that pay higher wages,” Holmes said, holding a picture of her and her students. “Enough is enough.”

As the teachers held their demonstration, Republican lawmakers who control the House of Delegates announced that they would include a 5 percent raise for teachers in the state budget they plan to release on Sunday. Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, made the announcement in a speech on the House floor.

“Virginia has some of the finest teachers in the country and that has led to Virginia students consistently outperforming nationwide peers on standardized tests, college admissions, and graduate rates,” said Landes, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “To maintain that success we must ensure our teachers are fairly compensated and know the hard work they do each and every day is greatly appreciated.”

The committee’s chairman, Republican Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk, said the proposed budget would increase teachers’ salaries without raising taxes. “Under conservative leadership in the House of Delegates, this will be the fourth teacher pay raise in the last six years,” he said.

“I am proud of Chairman Jones and Vice Chairman Landes for the hard work and dedication they have shown to ensuring our teachers know how much they are appreciated in the Commonwealth,” said House Speaker Kirk Cox, a retired high school government teacher.

“As a public school teacher for 30 years, I know how hard teachers work to educate Virginia’s future leaders. We must make it a priority to keep great teachers in the classroom and that starts with making sure our teachers a fairly compensated.”

Democrats are already on board with the 5 percent pay raise for teachers. In the two-year budget adopted by the General Assembly in 2018, teachers were scheduled to receive a 3 percent salary increase on July 1. In his proposed revision of the budget, Gov. Ralph Northam recommended awarding teachers an additional 2 percent raise.

Northam, a Democrat, reiterated that proposal at a meeting of the Virginia School Board Association last week, calling it “the largest one-time pay raise for teachers in over 15 years.”

But Virginia teachers say that their salaries are more than 10 percent below the national average — and that the planned raise does not close the gap.

“It’s a start,” Holmes said. “But it’s not enough.”

Senate OKs Bill to Boost IT Jobs in Southwest Virginia

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- More information technology jobs could come to rural Virginia under a bill unanimously passed by the state Senate on Monday.

SB 1495 is a Republican effort that would provide $600,000 beginning in 2020 to establish an apprenticeship program for small technology businesses in rural southwest Virginia.

The program would provide IT workers on-the-job, mentored training at a company with guaranteed job placement at the end of the 18-month apprenticeship.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County, said the program aims to provide IT job opportunities in rural southwest Virginia.

The bill would target the counties of Alleghany, Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe and the cities of Bristol, Danville, Galax, Martinsville and Norton.

“If you look at southwest Virginia, they have great institutions of higher education training our young people in information technology,” Chase said, “but it’s really hard for them to find meaningful employment after they graduate.”

According to Chase, the region’s young IT workers are currently drawn to areas of the commonwealth with more job opportunities, especially northern Virginia.

The apprenticeship program, Chase said, would provide an incentive for them to “stay in the community they grew up in instead of leaving southwest Virginia to move to another place where they can actually find work.”

The bill would create a fund in the state treasury to award grants to small, rural information technology businesses to employ IT workers in the region.

The General Assembly would provide $600,000 to the program starting in 2020.

Businesses that receive a grant from the program would be eligible for funding for up to five years or until the business employs 100 individuals. The amount of money given to a business to employ an apprentice wouldn’t exceed the entry-level salary of an IT worker.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County, said that the program would be housed at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia, and coordinated with area community colleges.

David Matlock, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, was optimistic that the program would help meet the employment needs in the region.

“Southwest Virginia is always looking for ways to enhance our workforce,” Matlock said. “We want to keep our graduates here, and we want to help these new businesses and attract more businesses like them.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

Panel Kills Ban on Gender-Based Pricing at Dry Cleaners

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Kinsey Liebsch asked state legislators a question often raised by women who take their clothes to a dry cleaner or laundry service.

“Given that a woman’s long sleeve blouse isn’t much different from a man’s shirt, why am I being charged more than two and half times the amount just because the buttons are on the opposite side?” she asked a legislative subcommittee. Liebsch said dry-cleaning and laundry services can charge more to clean women’s clothing than comparable men’s clothing.

Liebsch initially took her concerns to her local legislator — Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. Then Levine filed a bill to ban gender-based price discrimination by apparel-cleaning services.

“Every woman I’ve talked to about this bill has said it was necessary,” Levine said. “Every man I’ve talked to about it didn’t realize it was an issue. And to be fair, I didn’t realize it was an issue until Kinsey brought it to me.”

But last week, Levine’s legislation was hung out to dry: Subcommittee No. 2 of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted unanimously to table HB 2423.

Liebsch and two other women testified before the subcommittee in support of the bill.

One of the women was Dr. Elizabeth Hendricks, an Alabama native who moved to Virginia two years ago. She recalled her experience getting a dress-suit cleaned at an Alexandria dry cleaner.

Hendricks described the article of clothing as a “dress and jacket that matched as a suit.” The price listed for a suit cleaning was $13.50, but Hendricks was charged $22 because her dress was not considered “short.”

“Slacks and a suit are not short either,” said Hendricks, who stands 5 feet, 2 inches tall.

HB 2423 would have ensured that prices for cleaning services for similar items do not vary because of a person’s gender. The bill said price differences are acceptable if one item takes longer to clean or poses more difficulty than another.

“Everyone understands that a wedding dress is going to cost more to clean than a groom’s tux,” Levine said.

The Virginia Retail Federation opposed the bill and said apparel-cleaning services do not base their prices on a customer’s gender.

“They base their pricing on material,” said Kate Baker, the federation’s director of government affairs. “Our members feel like they should be able to determine their own prices.”

The all-male subcommittee voted 6-0 to kill Levine’s bill. It happened the day after a proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment died in the House of Delegates. Levine said his bill was “just one tiny example of why we need the ERA.”

Virginia Legislators Consider Letting Governors Seek Re-election

 

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia is the only state where a governor cannot serve two consecutive terms. But if voters think their governor is doing a good job, why shouldn’t he or she be re-elected?

Democrats, who have won the past two gubernatorial elections, generally support allowing governors to succeed themselves. Republicans generally oppose it. Political experts say Virginia’s one-term policy for governors is rooted in history.

Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, called the policy, which is enshrined in the Virginia Constitution, a “detriment to the commonwealth.” She is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 608, which would let governors elected after 2021 serve two terms in a row.

“Now is the time we should look to pass a constitutional amendment for consecutive but limited governor terms,” she said.

Last week, the Senate defeated an identical amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 250, on an 18-22 vote. Fifteen Democrats and three Republicans voted for the measure, and 18 Republicans and four Democrats voted against it.

On Monday, Adams’ resolution is scheduled for a vote by a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee. The panel also plans to consider HJ 627, an identical proposal by Del. Mark Levine, D-Arlington.

Similar resolutions have been introduced since 2013 in the General Assembly but have never made it out of committee — which is why supporters were happy that SJ 250 even made it to the Senate floor. They say limiting the governor to one term doesn’t make sense given that Virginia operates on a two-year state budget.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, a Republican from James City County, voted against the amendment. In urging his colleagues to do the same, he mentioned two past governors — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Jim Gilmore — whom he wouldn’t have wanted in office for more than four years.

“I would very succinctly and ecumenically say two words: Gilmore and McAuliffe,” Norment said, drawing laughter from some fellow legislators.

Norment said the term restriction balances the governor’s executive power to amend and veto bills, appoint officials and order a special legislative session.

Supporters of amending the constitution compare term limits on the governor to a business that gets a new boss every four years.

“What real challenge can any company overcome when its leader is but a blip on the trajectory of an employee’s career?” Adams asked.

Under Virginia’s biennial budget system, each new governor begins under the predecessor’s budget. The governor must wait until the second legislative session before proposing a budget that covers the second and third years in office. In the fourth year, the governor submits a plan for another two-year budget that a successor might or might not endorse but has little power to change.

Adams said the lack of continuity in leadership has led to “inefficiency, waste, duplication of services, low morale and low productivity.”

Opponents of changing the constitution note that while governors cannot seek re-election, they can still serve nonconsecutive terms. However, only one governor has done that since the Civil War. Mills Godwin Jr. was elected as a Democrat in 1965 and again as a Republican in 1973.

Virginia’s prohibition on governors serving consecutive terms has survived more than 160 years. Virginians did not directly elect their governor until 1851, according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia. Before that, the state constitution held the General Assembly responsible for choosing a governor.

Virginia’s anxiety over a powerful executive branch has roots in the American Revolution. The first Constitution of Virginia was enacted in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence. After declaring war on one king, Virginia was not eager to create another in the form of a powerful governor.

Matt Pinsker, a professor of constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University, said it all comes down to “tradition.” He said that although Virginia’s current system is “a unique anomaly among the states,” he believes it provides a well-functioning government.

Pinsker said that even if the amendment passes, it would likely make little difference in the day-to-day operations of Virginia government or the policies being pushed by the governor’s office.

That is because Virginia’s governors have typically used the position as a stepping stone for higher office, Pinsker said. Both of Virginia’s U.S. senators — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine — first served as governors.

“Our historical ties do have an impact,” said Robyn Diehl McDougle, director of the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

McDougle said the General Assembly is reluctant to give up power to the executive branch, especially when partisan politics come into play.

“If I’m in the party opposite of who’s in the Governor’s Mansion, I’m less likely to vote for the possibility of their re-election,” she said.

Republicans control both the House and Senate, and Gov. Ralph Northam is a Democrat. Of the dozen legislators sponsoring HJ 608 and HJ 672, just one is a Republican: Del. Mark L. Cole of Fredericksburg. That could spell trouble for those measures to make it out of committee.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible,” McDougle said, “but I am saying it is an uphill battle.”

Panel OKs Bill Seeking Data on Solitary Confinement

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House committee voted unanimously Friday to require reports on solitary confinement in prisons across Virginia.

House Bill 1642 would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to submit semiannual reports to the General Assembly and governor detailing the DOC’s use of solitary confinement.

The House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety approved the bill, 21-0. The panel sent the measure to the House Appropriation Committee for a look at its financial impact before it goes to the House floor.

Also referred to as “restrictive housing,” solitary confinement is defined as isolation in a cell for 22-24 hours of the day with little to no human interaction. The DOC does not currently report statistics on the number of inmates held in restrictive housing.

Sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, the legislation would provide the state legislature and governor statistics on the department’s use of restrictive housing in correctional facilities. The information would also be posted online.

The semiannual report would include:

  • Demographics such as age, race, ethnicity and status of mental health
  • The average daily population held in restrictive housing
  • The number of offenders placed in and released from restrictive housing
  • Documentation of self-harm and suicide incidents or attempts
  • The number of days each offender spent in confinement
  • The number of full-time mental health staff

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia called on Gov. Ralph Northam in May to ban solitary confinement and limit its use to rare and exceptional cases. The ACLU said inmates should remain in restrictive housing for no more than 15 consecutive days, which aligns with international human rights standards. Currently, Virginia inmates placed in restrictive housing spend an average of 2.7 years in confinement, according to a 2018 ACLU report.

Nationally, about 88,000 inmates — or approximately 5 percent of all prisoners — are held in solitary confinement, according to a study done at Yale Law School.

Virginia has implemented reforms for restrictive housing before. The number of inmates held in solitary confinement at Red Onion — a maximum-security prison in Wise County — dropped 85 percent in the last decade. The facility, known for its use of restrictive housing, currently houses about 70 inmates in solitary confinement compared to 500 at the start of the decade, according to a Washington Post article.

The House Appropriations Committee could address HB 1642 as soon as Monday.

In the Senate, two Fairfax Democrats have offered similar legislation. Sen. David Marsden has proposed SB 1085, and Sen. Richard Saslaw has filed SB 1777.

On Friday, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee folded Marsden’s bill into Saslaw’s and then unanimously approved SB 1077.

Panel Wants Prisons to Modify Tampon Ban

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia Department of Corrections would have to modify its official but unenforced policy of barring women from wearing feminine hygiene products when they visit a state prison, under a bill approved Friday by a House committee.

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 19-1 in favor of House Bill 1884 and sent the legislation to the full House of Delegates for approval next week.

HB 1884 would require the DOC to modify the policy it announced in September for visitors wearing menstrual cups and tampons.

The rule banned the feminine products in an attempt to prevent people from smuggling contraband into facilities.

“If someone chooses to visit a Virginia Department of Corrections inmate, he or she cannot have anything hidden inside a body cavity,” a DOC spokeswoman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch at the time. “There have been many instances in which visitors have attempted to smuggle drugs into our prisons by concealing those drugs in a body cavity, including the vagina.”

Soon after the announcement, Brian Moran, Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, suspended the policy until further review.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, would require the DOC to rewrite the restrictions. As amended by the committee, the measure would require the DOC to:

  • Notify visitors about the policy prohibiting menstrual cups and tampons ahead of their visit.
  • Provide visitors the option of removing any prohibited menstrual product and replacing it with a state-issued one in order to have a contact visit with an inmate.
  • Allow visitors who do not want to remove prohibited menstrual products the option of a no-contact visit with an inmate.

Virginia Redistricting Amendment Advances to the Senate

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A constitutional amendment aiming to create an independent redistricting commission in Virginia has reached the Senate floor and may come up for a vote next week.

Under the amendment, an independent commission — instead of legislators — would redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Senate and House of Delegates in 2021 after the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population and demographic data.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, who is sponsoring the amendment, said SJ 306 would reduce the influence that politicians have in the redistricting process and would limit their ability to draw racially and politically gerrymandered districts.

“It doesn’t give the legislature the type of control in the process that it has now and that it’s had for many years,” Barker said.

During the 2011 redistricting process, the General Assembly redrew several districts in the House of Delegates and U.S. House of Representatives that have since been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court because they diluted the voting power of African-American voters. Those racially gerrymandered districts had to be redrawn by a court-appointed expert.

Barker said Virginia needs an independent redistricting commission to ensure that this won’t happen again.

“I think that’s critical for making us the most effective General Assembly that we can be,” Barker said.

The 16-member commission would consist of eight legislative members and eight citizen members.

Of the eight legislative members, four would come from the Senate, and four would come from the House, with equal representation given to each political party.

The eight citizen members would be chosen this way: First, a committee of five retired judges of the circuit courts of Virginia would nominate 16 people — four Democrats, four Republicans and eight independent voters. Then, House and Senate leaders would pick eight names from the list to be on the commission — two Democrats, two Republicans and four independents.

Any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizen members. The plan would then be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The General Assembly would not be able to make any amendments to the plan.

The commission would be required to submit its plans for the Senate and House of Delegates districts within 45 days of the release of census data and plans for the U.S. House of Representatives within 60 days.

If the commission fails to submit a plan by its deadline, the General Assembly fails to adopt a plan by its deadline or the governor vetoes a plan, districts would be decided by the courts.

“We think this a fair and balanced approach,” Barker said. “We think it provides a lot of protections, and there are a lot of checks and balances in there to get to the best decision for the commonwealth.”

Barker’s proposal faces a long road to be added to the Virginia Constitution. Constitutional amendments must pass in two legislative sessionsand then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

A similar amendment, SJ 274, was killed in committee earlier this week. That amendment also would have created an independent redistricting commission, but the makeup of the commission differed slightly from Barker’s amendment.

SJ 274, proposed by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta and Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, would have required a 10-member commission of citizens to establish legislative and congressional districts following a 2020 census. No legislators would serve on the commission.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 9-5 to kill the proposal.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they support redistricting reforms, and an advocacy group called One Virginia 2021 has pushed for a nonpartisan approach to redistricting.

Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, said it was disappointing that SJ 274 wouldn’t move forward, but he was excited that Barker’s amendment had made it to the Senate.

“If passed, this amendment could significantly change the way districts are drawn in Virginia,” Cannon said.

In a speech Thursday at the University of Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe called gerrymandered congressional districts one of the “worst things to happen to democracy.”

“I support all 50 states having independent, nonpartisan commissions draw these lines,” McAuliffe said.

Senate Panel Rejects Ban on Offshore Oil Drilling

By Serena Fischer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bipartisan bill to ban oil drilling off Virginia’s coast was shot down on a 9-6 vote in a Senate committee Thursday.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources killed SB 1573, which sought to prohibit permits for oil and gas exploration or drilling “in the beds of any waters of the Commonwealth.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, also would have repealed a section of the Code of Virginia that supports federal efforts for natural gas exploration up to 50 miles offshore. Current law allows for the authorization of oil and gas leases on state-owned bottomlands (subaqueous lands within three miles of the shore).

“We rely on having clean beaches,” DeSteph said.

The bill was co-sponsored by two Democrats — Sens. Monty Mason of Williamsburg and Lionell Spruill Sr. of Chesapeake.

DeSteph and several speakers, including small-business owners and environmental lobbyists, said offshore drilling impacts more than just Virginia’s wildlife. They said Virginia Beach’s two biggest industries, tourism and the military, could be threatened by pollution and unsightly oil rigs.

Virginia Beach hotel owner Diana Burke said offshore drilling could hurt her business.

Groups such as the Virginia Petroleum Council and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce voiced opposition to DeSteph’s bill.

A spokesperson for the petroleum group called the legislation “premature” and suggested that state officials “wait until more information can be gathered.”

Governor Calls Bipartisan Effort to Clean Coal Ash ‘Historic’

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginians could see an additional $5 charge on their power bills after Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox and a bipartisan group of legislators announced an agreement Thursday to clean up large ponds of toxic coal ash throughout the state.

The $3 billion plan is to remove coal ash -- the residue from power plants -- from sites near Virginia’s waterways within 15 years. Democratic Sens. Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Amanda Chase of Chesterfield began the team effort to address the problem three years ago. Chase, Surovell and Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, are sponsoring legislation to close the coal ash sites, clean them up and prohibit further construction.

Surovell’s Senate Bill 1533 specifically targets the ponds in Prince William, Chesterfield  Fluvanna counties and the city of Chesapeake. Dominion Energy, which operated the coal-fired power plants responsible for the ash, would pass along the cost of the cleanup to customers. The company would be required to use local labor and resources when practical to remove the material.

Chase has filed two bills -- SB 1009 and SB 1743 -- prohibiting coal ash ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and requiring the closure of existing ponds. She said she is excited to work with her colleagues to solve this problem.

“Clean water is a bipartisan issue,” Chase said. “If you think of the cost of cancer and compare it to $5 a month, that's nothing.”

If the legislation becomes law, that amount would begin appearing on Dominion customers’ bills starting in 2021.

Virginia has been storing coal ash in ponds since the 1930s. Dominion Energy’s website states that it has 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills totaling about 27 million cubic yards of coal ash statewide. The plan requires the power company to recycle a minimum of 7 million tons by the 15-year mark.

In a statement, Dominion Energy representative Dan Genest said the company “supports the comprehensive agreement reached by the Governor, legislative leaders, and members of the General Assembly that accomplishes clean closure, minimizes truck traffic, and prudently manages customer costs for the closing of ash ponds at our power stations.”

Northam described the bipartisan agreement as historic and said the plan is a breakthrough in protecting the people and environment of Virginia.

“Our effort will ensure we are disposing of coal ash in the safest, most environmentally responsible way. As they exist now, we run the risk that they could contaminate the drinking water supply, our tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay,” the governor said. “I think the environmental impact far outweighs those costs.”

Northam said 25 percent of the coal ash must be recycled into concrete, asphalt or other construction materials. Coal ash that isn’t recycled would be moved to landfills certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or into modern pits at the site of power plants whose lining will prevent contamination.

Democratic Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy lives near the Possum Point Power Station, which has four coal ash ponds, in Prince William County. She said she commends her colleagues, constituents and the power company for compromising on a solution.

“Coal ash is something that's very personal to me, having Dominion’s coal ash pond in my backyard,” Foy said. “Arsenic, lead and mercury needed to be removed from the community so it would not disturb and have poison in our playgrounds and lead in our water.”

The bills addressing the issue have been referred to the Coal Ash Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor.

New Redistricting Maps Favor Democrats

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Democrats could have a better shot picking up seats in this year’s legislative elections under a redistricting map that a U.S. District Court has selected for the Virginia House of Delegates.

If enacted, the new map would place at least five Republican delegates in districts where a majority of voters chose Democrat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election — including the 66th House District represented by Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.

Democratic districts affected by the maps appear less likely to change hands based on those election results.

In a statement issued shortly after the court’s decision, Cox said that the maps chosen by the court aimed to give Democrats an advantage.

“The [maps] selected by the Court target senior Republicans, myself included, without a substantive basis in the law,” Cox said.

In 2012, 37 percent of voters in Cox’s district voted for Obama. Under the new map, that number is much higher — 53 percent.

The new maps would affect a total of 25 districts primarily in the eastern part of the state between Richmond and Hampton Roads and could present favorable conditions for Democrats to gain control of the House in 2019.

Currently, Republicans hold a slim majority in the House, 51-48. All 100 seats are on the ballot in this year’s election.

Democrats have not had a majority in the House since 1998.

Under the new map, the 94th House District, a majority-blue district represented by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, would become even more Democratic. The 2017 election between Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds ended in a tie, and Yancy was awarded the seat after his name was drawn from a bowl.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would also see his district become more Democratic. In 2012, 44 percent of the voters in Jones’ 76th House District voted for Obama. That number is 58 percent under the proposed redistricting map.

The U.S. District Court’s decision is the latest in a years-long redistricting case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. The high court ruled that 11 districts in Virginia had been racially gerrymandered by the 2011 General Assembly to dilute the voting power of African-American voters.

The court has asked the “special master” appointed to oversee the redistricting process to integrate the new districts into the statewide map and to submit the final plan by next Tuesday.

Republicans have appealed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and asked the court to delay the redrawing until it hears their appeal later this spring. The Supreme Court denied that request, giving the U.S. District Court the green light to complete the redistricting process before this year’s election.

On Wednesday, the Virginia NAACP issued a statement in support of the maps selected by the court.

“While we think the court could have done more to fully remedy the effects of the 2011 unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, we are overall pleased that voters will have fairer maps when they vote later this year,” NAACP spokesman Jesse Frierson said.

“We are pleased that the court sees the need to incorporate another district where voters of color will be able to elect a candidate of their choice.”

The District Court’s map selection will impact only the 2019 election. District lines will be redrawn statewide after the U.S. Census Bureau releases new demographic data in 2020.

Instead of Cooking Up Laws, Politicians Enjoy Stew

Capital News Service Reporter Arianna Coghill struggles to stir 85 gallon pot of stew.

By Arianna Coghill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. --  The rich aromas of Brunswick’s famous stew pour from the tent, tempting passing legislators to poke their heads inside Wednesday, eager for Stew Day to begin. But they’re shooed away like children peeking under the tree on Christmas Eve.

When Stew Day begins, it’s a hustle of activity. Long lines of clerks and lawmakers stretch and wrap around corners. Legislative pages -- the smartly dressed boys and girls who run errands for members of the General Assembly -- scurry out of the tent to deliver containers of stew to legislators who couldn’t make it but desire a little taste of Brunswick.

Usually, politicians are hungry for change, but today, they’re hungry for stew.

Besides legislators, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring dropped by, happily cradling their own steaming cups of stew. Even Gov. Ralph Northam took a turn stirring the pot.

“It’s a great tradition. Wonderful people,” Fairfax said. “We’re huge fans of not only the stew but the people of Brunswick.”

Brunswick Stew -- named for Brunswick County, along Virginia’s border with North Carolina -- traces its origin to a hunting party in 1828. In 2002, the General Assembly passed a resolution officially designating the fourth Wednesday of each January as Brunswick Stew Day. The resolution called the stew a "gastronomic miracle" and "celestial sustenance.”

“Brunswick stew is a big thing in the rural areas,” Del. Thomas Wright, who introduced the legislation back in 2002, said, “It was something that I thought deserved recognition.”

Most of the people in the tent where the stew was being served Wednesday could recite the dish’s history.

 

Inside the tent, four burly men stood around an elevated, 85-gallon cauldron overflowing with a hearty stew so thick that the paddle used to stir it sticks straight up at attention. The men pushed that paddle around as if it were second nature. And to most of them, it was.

It took five cooks to make the stew, starting at midnight. They cooked all the way through the morning until 8:30 a.m. At the helm of it all was Tracy Clary, the stewmaster.

Clary was the 2017 winner of the Brunswick Stew Cook-Off, a competition ordinarily held each October to determine which recipe of Brunswick stew would reign supreme. The winner is crowned “Stewmaster” and provides the stew for Brunswick Stew Day at the Virginia Capitol in January.

Unfortunately, last October’s cook-off was canceled due to inclement weather. But luckily, Clary was there to step in.  

Making stew has been in Clary’s family for generations. He had started making soup as a teenager with his grandmother, who was steadfast in her recipe that she kept on a 3-by-5 index card. As he has grown older, Clary has confessed to tweaking her recipe just a bit to suit his own tastes.

Now he cooks for his community, making about 600-800 quarts at a time.  “We make money for a lot of civic organizations. I cook for churches, individuals. We raise a lot of money,” Clary said.

He hopes his 12-year-old grandson will carry on the tradition.

“We have to keep the tradition alive. Twenty-five years from now, no one’s going to know how to cook Brunswick stew,” Clary said, his eyes beginning to tear up. “And that’s bad.”

Panel OKs Qualifying Drug Offenders for Food Stamps

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A legislative subcommittee voted 6-4 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would make food stamps available to people convicted of drug-related felonies.

The panel recommended that the full House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee approve House Bill 1891, which would expand eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, to any drug offender.

“We are a nation of second chances,” said Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth, who sponsored the bill. “This is an issue we need to think about … repealing the lifetime ban on food stamps.”

Under current law, only people who are convicted of drug possession felonies can be eligible for food stamps and temporary assistance, if they comply with the court and complete a substance abuse treatment program.

James said the legislation serves as a “safety net for felons who have done their time, paid their prices.”

In 2018, more than 4,000 SNAP applicants were denied food stamps because of drug-related charges, according to the bill’s impact statement. If passed, HB 1891 would provide SNAP to more than 600 new Virginians who do not reside in SNAP homes and are not currently eligible for SNAP because of drug-related crimes.

Eighteen states have dropped the restrictions prohibiting drug offenders from receiving SNAP, and 26 states — including Virginia — have reduced prohibitions by offering benefits if specific requirements are met. Virginia requires compliance with criminal court and Department of Social Services obligations, and the completion or active engagement in a substance abuse treatment program. Only three states implement a full lifetime ban on SNAP for drug offenders, James said.

“I could have a felony as serious as homicide and be eligible for SNAP benefits,” said Pamela Little-Hill, director of social services for the city of Portsmouth. “There is something incredibly wrong with that.”

James’ proposal would modify Virginia law to include any drug-related felonies, not just those related to possession. It also sought to remove the additional requirements for drug offenders to meet — court compliance and drug rehabilitation — in order to be eligible. But the subcommittee amended the bill to keep the requirements.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, sponsored legislation similar to James’ food stamp bill. HB 2397 would prohibit denying Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, to individuals who have been convicted for drug-related felonies as well. The subcommittee voted 4-5 to reject Lopez’s legislation.

“Parents re-entering their communities after incarceration routinely require public benefits to reunite their families, pay rents and buy food, clothing and other necessities,” Lopez said. “Denying access to such families as they attempt to rebuild their lives is counterproductive. Family members who are innocent of any wrongdoing are being punished for the crime of a parent.”

TANF is a federal welfare program that provides monthly cash assistance to families to help meet basic needs. Lopez’s TANF bill would assist more than 100 families across the commonwealth, he said, and provide approximately $79 a month to each household.

“Through this process, we’re going to be helping families, helping stabilize communities,” Lopez said.

Both HB 1891 and 2397 focus on re-incorporating drug offenders into society and reducing recidivism, or offenders relapsing into a continuous cycle of crime.

“These bills seek successful re-entry,” said Salaam Bhatti, attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “Studies show that 91 percent of people who are leaving prison don’t have access to food. This will help. Eligibility for these programs significantly decreases recidivism.”

The House Health, Welfare and Institutions committee might consider HB 1891 when it meets Thursday.

How they voted

Here is how the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted on HB 1891 (Food stamps; eligibility, drug-related felonies.)

01/22/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (6-Y, 4-N)

YEAS — Stolle, Edmunds, Hope, Aird, Rasoul, Rodman — 6.

NAYS — Bell, Robert B., Pogge, Hodges, Head — 4.

Here is how the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee voted on HB 2397 (TANF; eligibility, drug-related felonies.)

01/22/2019 House: Subcommittee failed to recommend reporting (4-Y, 6-N)

YEAS — Hope, Aird, Rasoul, Rodman — 4.

NAYS — Bell, Robert B., Pogge, Stolle, Hodges, Edmunds, Head — 6.

Panel OKs Bill to Move Virginia Away From Fossil Fuels

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On a split vote, a legislative committee has approved a bill to halt the construction of power plants that use fossil fuels and pipelines that carry such fuels after 2020 and to develop a plan for Virginia to rely totally on renewable energy for generating electricity by 2036.

The House Commerce and Labor Committee voted 9-7 on Wednesday in favor of HB 1635, which would place a moratorium effective Jan. 1, 2021, on issuing permits for electrical generating facilities that use fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. The moratorium also would apply to pipelines, refineries and other facilities associated with fossil fuels.

Moreover, the bill mandates that beginning in 2036, all electricity sold by public utilities in the state must be generated from clean energy resources.

“It challenges Virginia to come up with an aggressive 100 percent renewables plan in the next 15 years,” said the measure’s sponsor, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. “We clearly have heeded the warning that we are in an environmental crisis that could lead to an economic crisis.”

There are more than 97,000 jobs in the solar, wind and other renewable-energy industries in Virginia, Rasoul said. He said the bill would create more jobs and boost the economy, especially in impoverished areas, while helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.

But the bill’s opponents argue that the timetable to switch electricity production from fossil fuels to renewable energy is too short.

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, said that he supports renewable energy but that the plan would have negative consequences on the state.

“People are reading too much into the tea leaves,” Wilt said. “Moving from A to Q in a short amount of time could be devastating.”

Rasoul’s bill initially called for imposing a moratorium on the construction of fossil-fuel power plants, pipelines and other facilities on Jan. 1, 2020. The House Commerce and Labor Committee changed the date to 2021 before voting on the legislation.

Republican Del. Tim Hugo of Fairfax joined eight Democrats on the committee in voting for the bill. Five Republicans and two Democrats voted against the measure. Six committee members — all Republicans — did not vote.

In an interview Wednesday, Rasoul acknowledged that it would be difficult for the bill to pass the full House of Delegates. But he said that he is glad people are talking about moving away from fossil fuels — and that he is hopeful for his proposal in the long term.

“It is time for Virginia to be bold if we want to move in the right direction,” Rasoul said.

How they voted

Here is how the House Commerce and Labor Committee voted Wednesday on HB 1635 (Fossil fuel projects moratorium; clean energy mandates).

01/22/19 House: Reported from Commerce and Labor with amendment (9-Y 7-N)

YEAS — Hugo, Ward, Keam, Filler-Corn, Kory, Bagby, Toscano, Mullin, Bourne — 9.

NAYS — Kilgore, O’Quinn, Ransone, Wilt, Head, Lindsey, Heretick — 7.

NOT VOTING — Byron, Ware, Marshall, Bell, Robert B., Yancey, Webert — 6.

Bill Offering Tuition Refunds for Unhealthy Veterans Gets Revised

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The House Committee on Education recommended an amended bill Wednesday that would refund tuition for veteran students who need to withdraw during a semester due to a medical condition.

Legislators requested an amendment to HB 2113, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, to make its provisions more specific. The bill did not originally state what kind of medical condition and what causes would make a veteran eligible for reimbursement for a leave of absence.

“They can withdraw for the first time due to a service-connected medical condition,” Murphy said. “We wanted to clarify that.”

Qualifying medical conditions include PTSD-related trauma along with physical ailments, according to Murphy.

Additionally, student veterans must have their condition “certified in writing to the institution by a physician licensed to practice medicine,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The amended bill requires the institution to reimburse the student veteran for the semester tuition, along with any mandatory fees. The student veteran can only qualify for a tuition refund the first time they withdraw due to a medical condition.

The refunded tuition would go back to the student’s GI Bill benefits, Murphy said.

Carrie Ann Alford, the policy director of the Department of Veterans Services in Virginia, said the department supports the bill.

The withdrawal would not affect the student's ability to re-enroll at the institution, according to the bill summary.

The House Education Committee passed the bill with an 20-1 vote, the only nay vote being the Committee Chairman R. Steven Landes, R-Albemarle.

The amended bill was referred to the Committee on Appropriations.

Senate Panel Kills Bill To Update Law For Same-Sex Parents

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Senate committee has killed a bill to remove gender-specific pronouns from parentage laws. The legislation would have made state laws more inclusive of same-sex couples, while also reflecting federal law.

“Our code is out of compliance,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill. “The commonwealth, I think, is subject to due process challenge because we haven’t changed things.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

The court ruled that the 14th Amendment “guarantees the right to marry as one of the fundamental liberties it protects, and that analysis applies to same-sex couples in the same manner as it does to opposite-sex couples.” Federal laws were then updated to reflect the court’s decision.

The gender-neutral language of SB 1544 was taken from the most recent version of the Uniform Parentage Act, a set of rules for determining a child’s legal parentage without discriminating against same-sex couples.

The bill also sought to ensure that same-sex couples would no longer have to go through the adoption process when using assisted conception. Currently, the non-biological parent must go through an adoption process to be considered a legal parent of the child.

For example, if a lesbian woman uses assisted conception to conceive a child, that woman’s wife would have to go through an adoption process to be considered a legal parent of the child under current Virginia law. Under this bill, adoption would not be required.

“I’ve had people contact me in Northern Virginia that actually make arrangements to have their child born in D.C., so they don’t have to go through legal adoption in Virginia,” Surovell said. “This [bill] is needed to bring our law up to speed.”

Joseph D. Wilson, from the law firm of Kelley Drye & Warren, voiced his support of the bill during the floor debate.

“We need to do this to comply with what the Constitution is now,” Wilson said. “I represent a same-sex lesbian couple, and I’m here to speak principally to you. I support the provisions in SB 1544.”

On a 7-8 vote, Surovell’s bill was defeated Monday in the Senate Committee of Courts and Justice. An identical bill also failed to advance out of committee in 2018.

Some legislators who opposed the bill raised concerns about the legal parental and financial ambiguities that could result from a scenario in which someone decides to conceive a child without consent from that person’s spouse.

Wilson said this concern already exists with current Virginia law. He said the bill would not resolve this issue but would only update the language to include non-gender-specific terms.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate Committee of Courts and Justice voted Monday on SB 1544 (Assisted conception; parentage presumption).

01/21/19 Senate: Failed to report (defeated) in Courts of Justice (7-Y 8-N)

YEAS — Saslaw, Howell, Lucas, Edwards, Deeds, Sturtevant, Petersen — 7.

NAYS — Obenshain, Norment, McDougle, Stuart, Stanley, Reeves, Chafin, Peake — 8.

Panel Takes Step Toward Legalizing Casino Gambling

By Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee approved legislation this week to allow casino gambling in five cities in Virginia. Next stop: the Senate Finance Committee.

The General Laws Committee modified SB 1126 to allow the possible establishment of a casino not just in Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville but also in Richmond and Norfolk. The panel then voted 9-3 in favor of the measure, which supporters say would increase jobs and tax revenues in economically distressed areas.

But the bill won’t go immediately to the full Senate for consideration. Instead, the General Laws Committee sent the legislation to the Finance Committee for a look at its fiscal impact.

Under SB 1126, a city could have a casino if it meets certain criteria of economic need, such as high unemployment and poverty levels. Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville meet those criteria.

The General Laws and Technology Committee incorporated into SB 1126 aspects of two other bills -- SB 1503 and SB 1706. SB 1706 said cities with more than 200,000 residents also could have a casino if it is operated by a federally recognized Indian tribe. The Virginia Pamunkey tribe has expressed interest in establishing a casino and could consider Portsmouth, Norfolk or Richmond under the bill.

“The one thing I’ve pushed for the most is that it puts the ultimate decision in the hands of the people in the jurisdiction directly impacted, including those associated to the Pamunkeys,” said Sen. Charles Carrico Sr., R-Grayson.

Under the bill, local voters would have to approve a casino gaming establishment in a referendum before it could get a license from the Virginia Lottery Board. The measure that emerged from the General Laws and Technology Committee also specifies that only one license can be issued per city.

Gov. Ralph Northam previously called for a study on casino gambling. The committee’s substitute bill adopted that idea and said a “review of casino gaming laws in other states” would be conducted concurrently with local efforts toward possible referendums. No casino license could be issued until July 1, 2020, according to the legislation.

“It doesn’t look like it’s a study to me. It looks like it’s just a first step in a few-year process to making it happen,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, a member of the General Laws and Technology Committee. “This is a gambling bill that has a small provision for a study in it, so that’s why I will be against advancing the bill at this time.”

SB 1126 would require that counseling and other services be made available for problem gamblers. It would also create a “voluntary exclusion program" in which people could sign up for a list to be barred from casinos.

As outlined in the bill, Virginia would collect a casino tax of 10 percent --  a lower tax rate than in every state but Nevada and New Jersey, according to Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. That’s an issue the Finance Committee will discuss.

“MGM has been sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of this state up in Maryland, right across the river from my house, for four or five years now,” Surovell said. “I’ve been saying for four years, since I’ve gotten to the Senate, supporting my colleague from Portsmouth, that we need to do something about it.”

How they voted

Here is how the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee voted on SB 1126 (Lottery Board; regulation of casino gaming, penalties).

01/21/19  Senate: Reported from General Laws and Technology with substitute (9-Y 3-N 1-A)

YEAS--Ruff, Locke, Barker, Vogel, Ebbin, Surovell, McPike, Dunnavant, Mason--9.

NAYS--Black, Reeves, Suetterlein--3.

ABSTENTIONS--DeSteph--1.

Senate Passes Bill To Address Virginia Food Deserts

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — More grocery stores might open in areas of Virginia lacking easy access to healthy food options under a bill unanimously passed by the state Senate.

SB 999, which cleared the Senate on Monday, is a bipartisan effort that would establish the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to provide $5 million for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the commonwealth.

The bill’s chief sponsors are Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County and Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg. Stanley said the absence of grocery stores in low-income areas is a health issue for the state.

“Right now, we have 1.7 million Virginians — almost a half a million of those are children — who live in what we call food deserts and have limited access to nutritious and healthy foods,” Stanley said.

Legislators are asking for the General Assembly to provide $5 million for the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund over the next two years. The money would be distributed by the state treasurer with approval from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Legislators have requested that the annual interest earned and any remaining money stay with the program. Up to 10 percent of the fund can be used to pay administrative and operation costs.

Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as parts of the country that don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods, usually because those areas don’t have grocery stores, farmers’ markets or healthy food providers close by.

According to the USDA, nearly 18 percent of Virginians live in food deserts.

Dance said eliminating food deserts was especially important for children living in indigent communities.

“What we found is that when children are given choices, when healthy foods are available, they select healthy foods,” Dance said. “I think the cost [of the grocery fund] is outweighed by the benefits that the children will receive.”

The bill sponsors cited food deserts as a contributor to the state’s health problems, saying that residents of areas without grocery stores often rely on local convenience stores that primarily sell sugary, fat-laden foods.

“Those are not as healthy as the opportunities in regular grocery stores,” Stanley said. “We have higher rates of diabetes. We have higher rates of those kind of chronic illnesses, which then puts pressure on our healthcare system, which is already under enough pressure.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

A similar House bill, HB 1858, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, was killed by a subcommittee Jan. 16.

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