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General Assembly

Panel Nixes Using Cameras to Catch Speeders in School Zones

Sen. Leslie Adams (R-Pittslyvania) speaks to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on his proposed bill, HB 1021. Adams bill to allow localities to monitor school zone speeding with photo speed monitoring devices was defeated Thursday in a 6-0 vote. Photos by Logan Bogert

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Despite no public opposition, a House subcommittee defeated a bill Thursday to allow the use of cameras to monitor speeding in school zones.

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee voted 6-0 to “pass by indefinitely” House Bill 1021, which would have allowed the installation of cameras to automatically take photos of individuals driving at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit. Twenty-five states including Tennessee and Florida have adopted similar legislation.

“Other than domestic violence situations, traffic stops are the most dangerous situations for law enforcement,” Eric Finkbeiner of American Traffic Solutions told the subcommittee. “In other states that have this legislation, there have been significant decreases both in traffic stops but also in speeding – sometimes between 15 and 20 percent.”

According to Finkbeiner, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported almost 8,000 speeding violations in school zones in 2016 and more than 1,000 crashes in school zones as a result of speeding the following year. Five of the crashes involved fatalities.

HB 1021, introduced by Del. Leslie Adams, R-Pittsylvania, proposed the same photo-monitoring procedures already in use to document red light violations. It would have required a law enforcement officer to monitor the camera and issue tickets via mail to violators.

“I am afraid with legislation like this, we’re going to get a ticket in the mail and the seriousness of speeding in a school zone is going to be negated,” said Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, a member of the subcommittee.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has proposed similar legislation in the Senate. SB 917 would allow law enforcement officers to operate a handheld photo speed monitoring device in or around school crossing zones to record images of vehicles traveling more than 12 mph above the posted speed limit.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-6 Wednesday in favor of Chase’s bill. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate has already passed SB 509, which would allow the Department of State Police to use handheld photo speed monitoring devices in or around highway work zones. Senators approved the bill on a 22-18 vote Tuesday.

On Thursday, SB 509 was assigned to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.

Tethering Bill Moves Forward From Senate.

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill specifying when an animal can be tethered outside passed the Senate on Wednesday with changes aimed at increasing its chances of winning approval in  the House.

The bill, SB 872, is the companion legislation to HB 646, which was killed in a House subcommittee.

Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, the bill’s sponsor, noted that changes had been made in the bill and that he hoped a measure would emerge that could protect animals, especially dogs.

Feedback from animal control officers led to the removal of requirements that prohibited tethering between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., or when the owners aren’t home. A ban on using metal-link chains was also removed.  Critics of the legislation won exemptions for animals while they are working on farms and dogs actively being used in hunting.

Matthew Gray, Virginia state director of The Humane Society of the United States, said earlier the changes were needed for the bill to emerge from the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

But Alice Harrington, legislative liaison for the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders, said after the committee vote that the animal neglect laws currently in place are sufficient.

“If the aim is to just get something passed, then how legitimate is what they’re trying to pass? If it’s really about the animals, it’s really about their welfare, then how can you negotiate all that away?  Then it becomes just about a win,” she said.

“They’re not in bad shape because they’re tethered....  They’re in bad shape because they’re being neglected.” Harrington said.

Kimberly Hawk, a volunteer for the Houses Of Wood and Straw Project, said the legislation would help save the lives of animals, like one dog who she said froze to death two weeks ago after he became tangled in his chain and wasn’t able to reach his shelter. Hawk’s group is a non-profit serving nine counties in central Virginia. The organization provides wooden dog housing as well as straw and bedding.

“We believe that it’s going to help the animal control officers be able to enforce the law better because it’s very tangible,” Hawk said.

The version of the bill that passed the Senate 33-7 is focused on preventing tethering animals in certain weather conditions, including, when the temperature is below 32 degrees or above 85 degrees, and when severe weather warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. The restrictions in the bill do not apply to animals loose in a yard or in a pen. The bill does not specify the type of animal, instead referring to animals and companion animals generally.

SB 872 states tethers must be at least 15 feet long, or four times the length of the animal, and limits the weight to less than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight.

House Considers Allowing Guns in Places of Worship

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After a committee endorsed the proposal on a party-line vote, the House of Delegates is considering legislation to allow people to bring guns and knives into a place of worship in Virginia.

Delegates are scheduled to vote this week on House Bill 1180, which would repeal the state’s ban against carrying weapons into a house of worship while religious services are being held.

Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, said he is sponsoring this bill on behalf of concerned churchgoers.

“Recent shootings in churches have leaders across the country reevaluating their security plans in places of worship,” LaRock said, referring to church attacks in Sutherland Springs, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina.

The existing law states, “If any person carry any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held at such place he shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”

At a meeting of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee last week, LaRock said the law is ambiguous.

“The statute restricts those in charge of places of worship from exercising full control over their own private property,” LaRock said. “By repealing this law, we will remove a barrier to churches forming plans to protect and defend their establishments against malicious attacks.”

Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League testified in support of the bill. He said the current law “is forcing pacifism, if you will, on churches. It’s taking away their ability to do certain ceremonial things.”

Representatives of faith communities disagreed. Bryan Walsh spoke on behalf of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“Faith leaders we have spoken with, and members of our community, don’t feel that this bill makes places of worship any safer,” Walsh said. “We want our places of worship to be places of peace, not violence.”

Amanda Silcox, who also works at the center, echoed Walsh’s testimony, stating, “We believe places of worship should be safe havens for people, not places of violence.”

LaRock said HB 1180 will not invite violence in houses of worship. “Repealing this bill will do nothing more than to allow the formation of sensible security plans for places of worship and the best way to avoid disaster is to plan and prepare,” he said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said he saw no need for LaRock’s legislation.

“If a law is working just fine, and there aren’t really any problems with the law, we should just leave it alone,” Simon said.

Lori Haas, a lobbyist for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, requested more time for public reaction to the bill, which was filed on Jan. 10.

“There are many, many, many members of faith communities across the commonwealth who might have an opinion about this bill, might want to express their support or opposition to the bill,” Haas said.

Despite her plea, the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 12-9 in favor of HB 1180, sending the bill to the full House. The Republicans on the panel voted unanimously for the measure; the Democrats voted against it.

Virginia Likely to Expand Medical Marijuana

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia inched closer to greatly expanding medical marijuana use this week after legislation passed the Senate with unanimous support – three days after its companion bill was likewise approved by the House of Delegates.

SB 726, which passed 38-0 on Monday, would let doctors issue certifications for patients to use cannabis oil to treat the symptoms of diagnosed conditions or diseases. The House version of the bill – HB 1251 – passed 98-0 on Friday.

With similar bills approved in both chambers, the legislation appears likely to be headed to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and physician, who has said he would sign such a measure into law.

Doctors in Virginia currently can issue medical marijuana certifications only to people with intractable epilepsy. If Northam signs the bill, the new law would let doctors issue certifications to treat any condition.

Both bills were a recommendation of Virginia’s Joint Commission on Health Care, which researches health policy options for the state.

The chief sponsors of SB 726 were Republican Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier and Democratic Sen. David Marsden of Fairfax. The chief sponsors of HB 1251 were Republican Dels. Ben Cline of Rockbridge and Glen Davis of Virginia Beach and Democratic Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn and Kaye Kory, both of Fairfax.

“The literature on medical cannabis is going to be evolving rapidly now, and because of this, it is not a decision that should be in the hands of the legislature,” said Dunnavant, who also is a doctor. “Instead, it should be with physicians.”

Virginia is poised to join 29 other states that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three U.S. territories have a similar policy.

The legislation is considered a major victory for marijuana-law reform advocates.

“This will bring relief to thousands of Virginians suffering from cancer, Crohn’s disease and PTSD,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the marijuana law reform advocacy group, Virginia NORML. “We could not be happier with the unanimous passage of these bills.”

An April 2017 poll by Quinnipiac University indicated overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana in Virginia. About 94 percent of Virginian voters polled expressed support; 59 percent backed legalizing small amounts of the drug for recreational use.

2 Rare Diseases May Be Added to Newborn Screenings

Krystal and Haley Hayes spoke to a committee on newborn screenings in December. (Photo courtesy of the Hayes family)

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Like a typical 12-year-old girl, Haley Hayes texts, browses the internet, socializes with friends and family, and loves to sing – especially to Carrie Underwood. What Haley doesn’t typically share with her peers is that she was born with a rare genetic condition called Pompe disease.

Haley has suffered muscle loss and other complications because of the disease. She might have been spared some of those health problems had she been born in a different state.

Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, has introduced a bill that would add Pompe disease and MPS I, another genetic disorder, to Virginia’s newborn screening program. If these diseases are caught early, immediate treatment can make a significant difference in the patients’ quality of life – and may even save their lives.

Pompe disease is a result of a buildup of glycogen in the body’s cells that impairs muscles and organs, including the heart. MPS I is caused by a gene mutation that prevents cells from breaking down glycosaminoglycans, which leads to cell, tissue and organ damage.

The disorders were brought to Pillion’s attention after a baby from his House district, Ruby Kate Leonard, was diagnosed with MPS I. Ruby Kate was born in July in Bristol, Tennessee, where the state tests for conditions like hers. She was diagnosed at just nine days old, and the early treatment she’s receiving allows for the best possible outcome.

“Had she been born in her hometown of Russell County, Virginia, the screening for MPS I isn’t operational yet,” said Tyler Lester, Pillion’s legislative assistant. “It would not have been caught.”

Ruby Kate’s father, Elijah Leonard, set up a Facebook page to share Ruby Kate’s story, provide information regarding fundraisers and keep friends and family updated on her progress. The page has over 2,000 likes.

Haley Hayes was diagnosed at six and a half months with the help of doctors from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Her mother, Krystal Hayes, believes Haley’s life could have been different if she was born in a state that tested for the disease at birth.

“We know with earlier treatment, there’s some issues that could’ve been avoided. Muscles were lost that we can’t get back,” she said.

After Haley was diagnosed, she received three enzyme treatments at VCU and then was transferred to Duke University Medical Center, where her care continues.

Both the Hayes and Leonard families have advocated for Virginia to add these diseases to the newborn screening program. Pillion’s bill, HB 1174, was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions and awaits a vote of the full House.

Krystal and Haley Hayes have traveled to North Carolina to promote the cause, and they told Haley’s story at a meeting of the Virginia Newborn Screening Advisory Committee in December. The advisory committee voted unanimously in favor of adding both Pompe disease and MPS I to the program.

“For families going forward, they can find out at birth and get the child on treatment sooner,” Krystal Hayes said. “We’ve seen very many families over the years whose babies haven’t made it because they had diagnosed them too late – so it can honestly save a baby’s life.”

Experts Call for More Resources in Fighting Opioid Epidemic

By Sophia Belletti , Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An average of 19 people a week overdosed on opioids in Richmond last year, and government agencies and other entities have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways, from dispensing overdose reversal drugs to arresting addicts.

Academic and law-enforcement experts discussed the problem and possible solutions Tuesday in a panel discussion titled "The Opioid Epidemic: Impact on Communities" at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It is our problem, and it is our responsibility,” said Kate Howell, an assistant professor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“Addiction is not new,” Howell said. “What is new is the drugs are more powerful and affordable than they were in the past and easier to get.”

Amy Cook, also an assistant professor in the Wilder School, said there are three approaches to combating the epidemic:

  • Expansion of community-based services

  • Recovery housing

  • Needle exchange programs

In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly legalized needle exchange services -- but no program has been implemented in the commonwealth.

Cook said needle exchanges recognize the multidimensional factors needed to treat addiction. However, she said, there is not a “one size fits all” approach.

“Were looking at a variety of treatment approaches -- community-based, sociological issues, biological issues,” Cook said. “The key part is, you have to be able to address it all and monitor it all -- and when it’s not monitored, that’s where we drop the ball.”

Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard said he uses an “arrest them all” strategy when it comes to preventing overdoses.

“There is no other program for them to get the help they need,” Leonard said. “At least arresting and bringing them in, they’re alive.”  

Leonard said he doesn’t want to arrest addicts, but said the resources they need aren’t accessible in most communities. Through the “arrest them all” strategy, Leonard allows addicts to get off the street and sober.

“In 37 years, I never saw any drug as harmful, as plentiful, as cheap as heroin,” he said. “As a state, we’re failing."

The leading causes of unnatural death in Virginia from 2007 to 2013 were motor vehicle collisions, gun-related deaths and fatal drug overdoses. In 2013, fatal drug overdoses became the leading cause, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

First responders who work with the Richmond Ambulance Authority have seen a spike in the number of opioid overdose patients in recent years. They estimate using about  1,000 doses of the overdose revival drug Naloxone to save people’s lives last year.

In November 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in Virginia.

The opioid crisis has affected people not only in cities but also in suburban and rural areas, especially in Appalachia. That has made the problem hard to ignore.

“It wasn’t a crisis until it hit a group of communities we can’t ignore,” Howell said. ”Once it hit our suburban communities, they called it a problem. It sets up this dichotomy where we expect a certain kind of people. Now it’s different; we say, ‘Oh no, we have to do something.’”

Bipartisan Senate Committee OKs Anti-tethering Bill

By Katrina Tilbury and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a 9-5 bipartisan vote, a Senate committee Thursday endorsed a bill specifying when an animal can be tethered outside. The bill, SB 872, is the companion to HB 646, which was killed in a House subcommittee Monday.

The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee voted in favor of SB 872, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.

Matthew Gray, Virginia state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said changes had to be made to the Senate version for the legislation to pass. The Senate bill removed previous requirements that prohibited tethering between10 p.m. and 6 a.m. or when the owners aren’t home. Additionally, exemptions were added for animals actively working in the agricultural field and dogs actively engaged in hunting activities.

Now the bill focuses on preventing tethering animals in certain weather conditions – namely, when the temperature is below 32 degrees or above 85 degrees.

“My wife and I foster rescue dogs, and have seen time and time again how tethering [in cold weather] hurts and sometimes kills perfectly innocent animals,” Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, who introduced HB 646, said after his bill was killed Monday. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources voted 5-3 to shelve the measure for this legislative session.

“I carried HB 646 because I believe that the voiceless animals need a voice in the Virginia General Assembly, and I will continue this fight until animals are protected.”

Kimberly Hawk, who attended both hearings on the issue, is a volunteer for the Houses of Wood and Straw Project, a nonprofit serving nine counties in central Virginia. The group provides wooden housing to outside dogs in the region, as well as straw and bedding.

Hawk said she was relieved that the committee approved the Senate bill. She said the legislation would help save the lives of animals, like one dog that she said froze to death last week after it got tangled in its chain and wasn’t able to reach its shelter.

However, organizations like the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders are wary of new pet laws. Alice Harrington, their legislative liaison, said the animal neglect laws in place are sufficient.

Harrington said one problem with more laws is that animal control officers can’t effectively enforce them because they receive insufficient training. Officers in Virginia are required to meet 80 hours of training, including 24 hours are basic law enforcement unrelated to animal care. Harrington said more training would be necessary for officers to learn the complexities surrounding what type of shelter is considered adequate for different breeds in various weather conditions.

“I’ve been doing this work for over 10 years; I haven’t seen a whole lot accomplished by law,” Harrington said.

But Hawk said she thinks the added limitations on tethering in weather below 32 degrees and above 85 degrees would be easier to enforce than existing animal cruelty laws that can be vague.

“We believe that it’s going to help the animal control officers be able to enforce the law better because it’s very tangible,” Hawk said.

Harrington disagreed. She said organizations like the HOWS Project have already figured out the solution by helping pets without separating them from their owners. She said she fears the enforcement of new laws would flood animal shelters.

Next, SB 872 will be heard by the full Senate. If it passes, the bill will be sent to the House subcommittee that killed HB 646.

House Panel Rejects ‘Net Neutrality’ Bill

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to prohibit internet service providers from prioritizing or blocking certain websites based on content or hosting platform was killed Tuesday in a House subcommittee.

The House Commerce and Labor subcommittee voted 5-0 against the bill, with one abstention.

HB 705 was introduced by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who argued that Virginia should maintain the principle of net neutrality despite a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to reverse such rules.

“The internet, since its inception, has been run by agreement as content neutral,” Carter said. “In 2015, the federal government set in place regulation to codify what was already being done, and those were overturned in December.”

Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, chair of the subcommittee, argued that the bill would prompt broadband providers to pull out of Virginia.

“We are so desperate in parts of the area that I represent to get broadband, that any barrier to entry in that market that we impose is a risk to prevent them from coming,” Habeeb said. “I can’t imagine supporting a bill that may lead to a broadband provider not considering entering the Craig County market, for example.”

Carter disagreed that net neutrality would discourage internet service providers from providing services to Virginia residents.

“If the broadband providers are willing to forego 8.5 million customers because they can’t impose additional charges on services rather than offering all-inclusive packages,” Carter said, “that would greatly surprise me.”

Habeeb also argued that the FCC ruling would override the bill, restricting Virginia’s ability to create its own net neutrality law. Carter disagreed, saying that instating net neutrality rules is within the state’s purview.

“This is not dealing with interstate commerce,” Carter said. “We are discussing explicitly the point of sale, and the point of sale is between a Virginia resident and a Virginia company offering broadband service.”

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and GreenSmith Energy Management Systems, as well as a few private citizens, told the subcommittee they supported Carter’s bill. They said it will prevent corporations from deciding what online information Virginians receive.

The bill was opposed by representatives of internet service providers such as T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless as well as the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

“This bill will increase cost to consumers,” said Ray LaMura, president of the Virginia Cable of Telecommunications Association. “It will stifle investment in new technologies, and it will stifle investment in rural telehealth, which will also chill investments to unserved areas of the commonwealth.”

House Panel Rejects Suicide Prevention Resolution

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – A resolution urging Virginia schools to increase their suicide prevention efforts has failed as Republicans on a House Rules subcommittee defeated the proposal in a 3-4 vote.

HJ 138, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, would have asked all school boards to offer every employee resources or training on how to identify students at risk of committing suicide.

Roem told the subcommittee she had two reasons for making the resolution a request instead of a requirement. “One, we don’t have to (have) concern for it being an unfunded mandate” – a state-imposed cost that Republicans frequently oppose on principle.

“And second, we make sure this provides as much flexibility at the local level as possible,” Roem said. “This is allowing the people who are on the ground there to identify and figure out what works best for them.”

However, Republican Del. Gregory Habeeb of Salem, a member of the subcommittee, voted against the resolution because he said it doesn’t go far enough.

“This resolution doesn't do anything to force school boards to train their teachers,” Habeeb said. “We need to find a vehicle to actually do it.”

Virginia law requires that teachers and faculty members report any student they suspect to be at risk of committing suicide, but it does not require that school employees be trained on how to identify such students.

A mother whose child committed suicide, Emily Fleming of Manassas, spoke in support of Roem’s resolution. She said training of school employees could have saved her son’s life.

“I’ve heard many times from teachers and friends that they noticed something was wrong with David, but they thought he just wanted to be alone so they left him alone,” Fleming said. “Now imagine if anyone on the staff had recognized those silent signs. My son might still be here today.”

Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, another member of the subcommittee, voted for the resolution at the panel’s meeting last week. He thought it was killed in an effort to keep government small.

“I don’t think we should just willy-nilly get involved in people's lives,” Plum said. “But there are sometimes things that relate to an individual that are bigger than that single person – that have an impact on society – and I think suicide is one of them.”

Bill to Remove ‘Tampon Tax’ Clears First Hurdle

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Women’s rights advocates are applauding a legislative panel for advancing a bill that would remove the sales tax on pads, tampons and menstrual cups.

The House Finance subcommittee voted 7-1 Tuesday to recommend approval of HB 24 and sent it to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, voted against the bill.

“It should be part of a tax reform package,” she said.

Byron said she supports removing the sales tax; however, she would not consider feminine hygiene products eligible under the tax code. Virginia law states that medical products used to treat or prevent diseases can be tax-exempt. Byron said feminine hygiene products do not fall into that category.

Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill, said it’s not fair that both menstrual products and anti-dandruff shampoo are classified as medical supplies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but only the shampoo receives a tax exemption. Byron noted that menstruation is not a disease, but psoriasis – which anti-dandruff shampoo is used to prevent – is.

Still, the committee recommended that the bill advance after removing the line naming it “The Dignity Act” and changing its potential start date from July 31 to Jan. 1.

The sales tax is 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and 5.3 percent in the rest of the state. Removing the tax on feminine hygiene products, as nine other states have done, would cost the commonwealth about $5 million in lost revenues annually, officials say.

The House Finance subcommittee has yet to act on two other bills to remove the so-called “tampon tax”: HB 152 andHB 448. Nor has the panel voted on HB 25, which would include menstrual supplies among the items exempt from taxes during Virginia’s three-day, back-to-school “sales tax holiday” each August.

On Friday, a House Education subcommittee considered HB 1434, which would have required schools to provide students with feminine hygiene products for free. A motion to approve the bill failed on a 5-5 vote.

From Home, Virginians Can Keep an Eye on Legislators

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It may not offer the drama of “House of Cards,” but an initiative at the Virginia Capitol is lifting the curtain on the workings of the General Assembly.

In January, the House and Senate started live-streaming and archiving videos of committee hearings. On a computer or cellphone, Virginians can now watch – from the comfort of their homes or offices – what used to require a trip to the Capitol.

“We’re already hearing about a lot of people watching at home and following these debates you could only follow in Richmond in the past,” said Meghan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The General Assembly was prodded into offering videos of its committee meetings by the liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia.

During the 2017 legislative session, the organization streamed committee and subcommittee hearings using iPads and college interns. The project, called Eyes on Richmond, was part of an effort to hold Virginia’s legislature – notorious for a lack of transparency – to account, said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia.

The videos from Eyes on Richmond weren’t Emmy quality, and the audio sometimes was hard to understand. But the project received an award from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in November.

The General Assembly followed suit and began providing live streams and video recordings – at the committee level only – when the 2018 legislative session opened.

The streams and archives are accessible from each committee’s webpage. Those webpages can be found on the General Assembly’s website.

Eyes on Richmond still webcasts and archives many subcommittee meetings. Scholl said the group will continue to do so until the state provides that service.

That likely will happen when the state opens a replacement for the General Assembly Building in 2021. A spokesperson for House Speaker Kirk Cox said Monday that the commonwealth will provide video of subcommittee meetings in the new facility.

The state has been broadcasting House and Senate floor sessions since the 1970s and putting them online for a decade. But Scholl said the most substantive debate, as well as testimony from citizens, happens at the committee and subcommittee levels in the General Assembly.

“We believe very strongly that transparency is necessary in lawmaking,” Scholl said. “Constituents should have access to the actions that are being taken on their behalf.”

State officials said it cost more than $500,000 to set up video streaming of committees in the House and about half that amount in the Senate.

How to watch

For links to videos of floor sessions and committee meetings, go to the General Assembly’s website – http://virginiageneralassembly.gov/ – and click on “Members and session.”

To watch a committee meeting, drill down to the committee’s webpage and then to the agenda for a specific meeting. There, you will find a video link.

For videos of subcommittee meetings, go to EyesOnRichmond.org, a project of the group Progress Virginia.

Eyes on Richmond has four “channels” – websites featuring a different video stream. The project’s home page includes a calendar listing which subcommittee meetings are being webcast on each channel.

Each channel’s home page also has a link to videos of previously recorded subcommittee meetings.

 

Advocates Will Seek Improvements in Mental Health Services

By Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for improving mental health treatment and education in Virginia will gather in Richmond next week to urge legislators to provide more funding and attention for such services.

Several groups will join in the lobbying effort: the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Voices for Virginia’s Children, Mental Health America of Virginia and VOCAL, a mental health service based in Henrico County. They will host a conference Monday and Tuesday at the offices of Voices for Virginia’s Children, 701 E. Franklin St.

The event organizers have designated Monday as Children’s Mental Health Advocacy Day and Tuesday as Mental Health Advocacy Day.

“We would like the public to know that more than between 20 and 25 percent of individuals, and their families, are affected by mental illness,” said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of NAMI Virginia. “So people with mental illness are all around us – they are our friends, family members and neighbors.”

The conference comes as the Virginia General Assembly is considering a slew of bills regarding mental health. They include proposals to expand access to mental health treatment for prisoners, increase mental health training for emergency officials and include mental health education in Virginia’s high school curriculum.

Mental Health America of Virginia, the state’s oldest mental health advocacy, is hopeful for real legislative change in an area in which the commonwealth compares poorly.

“We need to transform how the system is organized and funded. The current commissioner for behavioral health has avision for how to do this that deserves serious discussion. Virginia ranks 40th of all the states in mental health care. There is a better way,” said the group’s executive director, Bruce Cruser.

The General Assembly has had a special panel studying the issue. The Mental Health Services in the Twentieth-Century Joint Subcommittee has made several recommendations to improve such services.

The recommendations include providing $1.1 million annually for three years to the Appalachian Telemental Health Network Initiative and possibly funding the public behavioral health system through options available under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Legislators also are considering such bills as:

  • HB 252 – It would require high schools to have one mental health counselor for every 250 students.
  • HB 934 – It would establish a process for prison officials to petition courts to authorize mental health treatment for inmates unable to give informed consent.
  • HB 1088 – It would require the Virginia Board of Health to include training for emergency officials in identifying and safely assisting a person experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • SB 669 – This bill would affect people who are ordered to involuntary inpatient or outpatient treatment for a mental illness as a minor. Under the legislation, they would be subject to the same restrictions in firearm possession as an adult who was ordered to involuntary treatment.
  • SB 878 – It would require the Virginia Board of Corrections to adopt standards for mental health and substance services in local and regional correctional facilities
  • SB 953 and HB 1604 – These bills would include mental health in the Standards of Learning for ninth- and 10th-graders. The students would learn about the relationship between physical and mental health.

Cruser said education plays a major role in understanding mental illness. He believes that if people are more educated about mental illness, they will seek treatment sooner.

“There is hope and recovery,” Cruser said. “There are others who have fallen in the same hole and know a way out. Ask for help.”

House OKs ‘Stop Gun Violence’ License Plate

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND – Over the objections of eight Republicans, the House of Delegates on Friday approved the creation of a specialty license plate with the message “Stop Gun Violence.”

The House voted 89-8 with one abstention in favor of a bill to authorize the new plate and earmark proceeds from its sales to mental health and other services.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 287. He said it would draw attention to problems caused by firearms.

“We have a culture in this country where we’ve started seeing gun violence on a daily basis,” Simon said. “It can get people thinking of what they can be doing to improve the gun violence epidemic that we have, unfortunately.”

Virginia has more than 250 types of specialty license plates. They include more than 90 for colleges and universities, more than 50 military-related plates and more than 110 plates promoting sports teams, nonprofit groups, communities and various causes.

Some of the plates are controversial. One says “Choose Life”; another says “Trust Women, Respect Choice.” There’s a plate calling Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “The Virginia Gentleman” and another for the National Rifle Association.

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert and seven fellow Republicans voted against HB 287. During debate this week, Gilbert accused Simon of trying to score political points with his “little ol’ license plate bill.”

“It is him trying to build a narrative that gun violence is somehow different from regular violence,” said Gilbert, a delegate from Shenandoah County.

Like other specialty plates, the “Stop Gun Violence” plate would cost $25 in addition to the regular vehicle registration fee. Most of the money would go to the state’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Fund.

Under HB 287, those funds would be used to enhance “the quality of care and treatment provided to individuals receiving public mental health, developmental, and substance abuse services in Virginia.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

The “Stop Gun Violence” plate is among more than a dozen additional types of specialty license plates under consideration in the General Assembly. Others include:

  • A plate declaring “I Support Women Veterans,” to benefit the Virginia Department of Veterans Services
  • A “National Wild Turkey Federation” plate, supporting the conservation of wild turkeys in Virginia
  • A plate providing funding for the Alzheimer’s Association
  • A plate with the words “E Pluribus Unum” – the U.S. motto of “Out of many, one”

Panel Won’t Remove Sales Tax on Gun Safes

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A legislative subcommittee Friday killed a bill to remove the sales tax on safes where gun owners can store their firearms – a measure the sponsor said would promote gun safety.

Split along party lines, the subcommittee of the House Finance Committee voted 5-3 to reject HB 172, which would have made firearm storage safes that cost $1,000 or less exempt from sales tax.

“We have the ability to save lives and protect innocent children should the guns be found,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.

Supporters said the measure would boost the conversation about gun safety in the community and perhaps give gun owners who do not own a gun safe reason to buy one.

“Our goal here is to prevent death, accidents and to ensure the safety of our citizens,” Filler-Corn said.

The bill’s opponents said many gun owners don’t use safes because trigger locks are cheaper and more effective. A package of three trigger locks can be purchased for $25 or less while a single-gun safe often costs $100 or more.

The House Finance subcommittee also killed bills that sought to offer tax credits to electric vehicle buyers (HB 469), private school scholarship donors (HB 1078) and solar equipment users (HB 256).

However, the panel ran out of time to consider four bills proposing a sales tax exemption for feminine hygiene products. Many members of the audience had come to support the “tampon tax” bills and were frustrated when the meeting adjourned.

“It was definitely a coordinated effort to keep our women’s rights agenda off the record,” said Holly Seibold of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition.

Sexual Consent Remains Optional Topic for Family Life Education

By Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee rejected a bill Friday that would have required high schools to include a discussion about sexual consent in their sex education curriculum.

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 5-5 on a motion to advance House Bill 44. As a result, the motion failed.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that gave public schools permission to include consent as part of a family life curriculum. This year’s bill would have altered that law to make consent education a requirement, not an option.

“The difference here is negligible because family life education is already permissive,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax Station, chief sponsor of the bill.

If the bill had passed, it would not have guaranteed that Virginia public schools would teach students that consent is required before sexual activity. Though Virginia has laws that define sex education curriculum requirements, family life classes are not mandated by law.

However, several localities voluntarily provide the sex education curriculum described by the Board of Education's family life education guidelines. School districts that choose to include family life education must first obtain permission from parents.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate that public schools provide comprehensive sex education; Virginia does not. Virginia is one of three states that require parental consent in order to participate in sex education.

The five subcommittee members who voted in favor of HB 44 were Republican Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield County and Democratic Dels. Jeffrey Bourne of Richmond, Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax, Chris Hurst of Blacksburg and Cheryl Turpin of Virginia Beach.

Republican Dels. Glen Davis of Virginia Beach, David LaRock of Loudoun County, Jay Leftwich of Chesapeake, John McGuire of Henrico County and Brenda Pogge of James City County voted against the bill.

House Passes Sexual Harassment Policy

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After weeks of dispute over how to reform the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy, the House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday that establishes new training requirements.

The bill by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, would require anti-sexual harassment training to be completed every two years by General Assembly members and full-time legislative staff.

A bill by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, that would have included all forms of workplace harassment was killed in committee Friday. Watts’ HB 1053 also called for new mechanisms for victims of harassment to file complaints, aiming to make the process more streamlined.

HB 371 passed 88-10. Watts and nine other Democrats voted in opposition; two House members did not vote.

“I see both sides of the aisle trying to get to the same place, just through different vehicles,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said on the House floor. “Our intention is to continue to take this issue very seriously, as we always have. Especially in this day and age, when we see women feel safe to talk about instances where they have been harassed, or manipulated, or harmed, we want to continue to encourage them to come forward.”

Watts, the longest-serving woman in the House, said in a telephone conference call with reporters later that the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“The bill specifies training, but it has no guidelines for what should be part of it,” she said.  “Republicans say to trust the system. Trusting the system got us where we are today.”

In debate on Wednesday, Robinson defended the legislation’s details.

“It took me about 45 minutes to read through it,” Robinson said, referring to the training course. “And every one of the sections includes what needs to be done if there’s a problem.”

Gilbert said Republicans are committed to addressing the issue.

“We are going to continue to develop this program, if this bill passes … and demand a level of accountability that we would all expect,” Gilbert said.

A similar bill by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond – SB 796 – has been referred to the Senate Rules committee.

Watts told reporters that the accounts of sexual misconduct survivors speaking out during the #MeToo movement of the last few months as well as the growing number of women in politics have represented a major shift.

“We never had more than 19 women serving at any one time,” Watts said. “Now we have 28. #MeToo speaks to decades of women getting around situations, trying to preserve their professional career as well as their own moral integrity. It’s time to have a full and open discussion of protections that are needed to make sure these instances are properly handed and allow due process for all individuals involved.”

Watts said the General Assembly’s history with sexual harassment is “not without a major blemish,” referring to former Speaker of the House Vance Wilkins Jr. The Republican resigned his position in 2002 after allegations of sexually harassing two women and paying one of them a settlement of $100,000 to remain silent.

“This is not only a moral issue, but a policy in law,” Watts said. “We must use our power for good to be sure that whoever is doing this stops immediately.”

Virginia House Democratic Delegates Promote Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives

By Brandon Celentano. Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Democratic members of the Virginia House called on their colleagues Thursday to raise the threshold for grand larceny and allow more professionals to administer medication to someone who has overdosed on drugs.

The legislators discussed proposals to reform the criminal justice system and address the opioid crisis at a news conference Thursday.

Del. Joseph Lindsey of Norfolk urged support for HB 1313, which would increase the threshold for grand larceny, a felony crime, to $500. Currently, the dividing line between misdemeanor and felony theft in Virginia is $200 -- one of the lowest in the nation. It hasn’t changed since 1980.

“Two hundred dollars might have been OK in 1980 when the price of a gallon of gas was 86 cents and a quart of milk was 67 cents, or when the average price of a house was $35,000,” Lindsey said. “But we believe that in 2018, there needs to be an adjustment. That time is now.”

Because the threshold for grand larceny is low, someone convicted of stealing a cellphone or bicycle in Virginia may end up with a felony on their record.

“Time and time again, these wind up being felony offenses, where in so many of our neighboring jurisdictions, they would have just been petty misdemeanors,” Lindsey said.

Del. Michael Mullin of Newport News, a former  prosecutor, discussed HB 202. Under this legislation, courts would have to tell criminal defendants that  they don’t have to pay their court costs and fees out of pocket. Instead, they could do  community service at an hourly rate of $7.25 to offset the costs.

“That’s been on the books for years, but so often people don’t know it,” Mullin said. “There might be hundreds of people who come through on a daily basis, and they get moved through very quickly. The things they can utilize, they are not being told about.”

Also at the news conference, the lawmakers urged support for

  • HB 322, which would  add probation, parole and correctional officers to the list of professionals who may administer naloxone -- a narcotic overdose reversal drug. The bill has passed the House and is before the Senate.

  • HB 131, which would make it easier for providers to prescribe non-opioid painkillers. For instance, if someone has a broken leg and is in recovery from opioid addiction, the person can obtain a non-opioid painkiller to avoid relapse.

“For me the opioid crisis is personal,” said Del. John Bell of Loudoun County. “Last year, with his permission to share his story, my son, Josh, who is 32 years old and is a veteran in the United States Air Force, injured his neck in a car accident. He became addicted to opioids. He walked out of the emergency room with a 90-day prescription for opioids. His addiction lasted seven years.”

Schools May Get Authority to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Summer vacation may be cut short for some Virginia students after two bills rescinding the so-called “Kings Dominion law” – which restricts schools from starting before Labor Day – passed the House this week.

House Bill 372 and HB 1020 would allow school districts to decide whether classes start before or after Labor Day. The difference between the two measures is that HB 372 would require districts to give students a four-day Labor Day weekend. Delegates approved both bills on split votes Tuesday.

Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, a co-sponsor of HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority, said there are academic benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

“We lose roughly two weeks of the school year that other localities get for things like advanced placement testing,” said VanValkenburg, who has been teaching for 12 years and is currently at Glen Allen High School.

Under the current law, school districts are required to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

To get a waiver, school districts must have been closed an average of eight to 10 days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of weather or other emergency situations.

According to the department, 86 public school districts in Virginia have the waiver and already start before Labor Day. They include Virginia’s largest school district, Fairfax County, and most districts in the western part of the state. Other large school districts in Virginia, such as Virginia Beach and Richmond, do not have a waiver to adopt a pre-Labor Day start date.

Opponents of the bill include members of the tourism industry who argue an earlier start date takes away from their business. A later start date means a longer season for attractions like Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens. Both theme parks employ teenagers who would have to quit if school began earlier.

The “Kings Dominion law” was put in place in 1986 and has been challenged several times. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe supported the law and opposed an earlier start date to the school year. Gov. Ralph Northam has yet to take a position on the topic.

“We support the ability of local school boards to determine the start date and the end date of the school year,” said Andy Jenks, director of communication and public relations for Henrico County Public Schools.

Jenks said that while he does support bills that give them this authority, the next step is to consult with the community to see what opening school date will work best for them, a process Jenks said could take up to a year.

HB 372 passed by a vote of 76-22. HB 1020 passed 75-24. The legislation will move to the Senate for consideration.

GOP Lawmaker Wants Governor’s Support to Ban ‘Sanctuary Cities’

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Republican lawmaker is trying to get the Democratic governor’s support on a bill that would ban “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — a topic that was at the forefront of last year’s gubernatorial election.

Earlier this month, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, introduced a bill that would stop localities from not fully enforcing federal immigration laws.  During a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Cline said he won’t move forward with the bill until he reaches out to Gov. Ralph Northam to see whether  the governor could support a version of the bill.

Northam, however, has expressed doubts over whether such legislation is needed without evidence of any sanctuary cities in Virginia.

While there is no agreed-upon classification for what makes a city a sanctuary, the term is generally used to label localities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. No Virginia localities have tried to adopt such policies.

Cline delayed his bill after a back-and-forth with a Northam aide who represented the administration before a House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

The delegate asked Northam’s aide to clarify the governor’s position on sanctuary cities in light of an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch less than a week before November’s election. Northam said he would support a sanctuary cities ban if any Virginia localities tried to adopt the status.

“My understanding is that if there were sanctuary cities, whatever they are, that he would work with you all to address that issue,” said Jae K. Davenport, deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security.

Cline asked Davenport whether the governor would support legislation if a locality tried to adopt sanctuary city policies.

“I think you’re trying to get into specifics,” Davenport said. “All I can tell you is that the administration opposes this bill.”

When Del. Robert Bell, R-Albemarle, asked Davenport if the governor had any suggestions on how the bill could be changed to get his support, the deputy secretary indicated the bill’s language was too broad.

The administration would have to work with Cline to “address a problem if it does exist,” Davenport said.

“I accept,” Cline responded, before asking the committee to give him until next Wednesday to speak with Northam.

Cline struck portions of his proposed bill that would have allowed the state to reduce funding to localities that were found to not fully enforce federal immigration laws.

Sanctuary cities became a hot-button issue last year when Northam’s GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, said a vote the Democrat cast as lieutenant governor proved he would not crack down on MS-13, a criminal gang with roots in El Salvador.

When a bill to ban sanctuary cities came before the Senate last year, Republican Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, broke with his party to oppose the legislation, forcing Northam to cast a vote to snap  a 20-20 tie. Northam voted against the bill to kill it.

When a similar bill came back to the Senate for another vote, Norment voted with his GOP colleagues to pass the legislation. The bill was then vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.  

Less than a week before last November’s election, Northam told a Norfolk TV station he would sign a bill to ban sanctuary cities if a Virginia locality tried to become one. But if no localities tried to do so, Northam later said to The Times-Dispatch, he would veto such legislation.

“It’s just bad legislation for the state to tell the cities what they should do,” said Linda Higgins, an advocate representing the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights at a news conference Wednesday.

Women Call for Action to Help Black Community

By Chelsea Jackson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A group of African-American women called for action Wednesday on issues burdening the black community, including gun violence, lack of health care and inadequate educational opportunities.

Democratic Dels. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg, Roslyn Tyler of Sussex and Delores McQuinn of Richmond were among those who discussed the needs of black neighborhoods, which McQuinn described as “without a shadow of a doubt in a state of crisis.”

“We are demanding that our colleagues both in the party and across the aisle to begin to adopt policies that and legislation that promote equity and opportunity for all,” said McQuinn, a former Richmond City Council member.

Tyler pointed to the growing number of gun-related deaths in predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Richmond like Creighton and Mosby courts, asking where the firearms are coming from.

This legislative session, Tyler sponsored HB 721, which would have required a background check for any firearm transfer, including those at gun shows and online. The bill was killed in a subcommittee last week on a 4-2 vote. Tyler said it will be back next year.

“Requiring background checks for all firearm purchases will keep firearms out of the hands of potential criminals and keep Virginia safe,” Tyler said.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, addressed the issue of health care. She said many African-Americans lack access to quality care because Virginia has not expanded Medicaid coverage as neighboring states have done with incentives from the federal government.

McClellan said lack of access affects whether people seek treatment for health problems.

“You should not make a decision on whether or not to receive quality care based on whether or not you can afford it,” McClellan said.

Aird said lack of funding for schools also is a problem. She is sponsoring a budget amendment that seeks an additional $64.2 million to help at-risk children.

“If we do not provide our students with the resources that they need in the classroom,” Aird said, “we will not be able to move the dial on getting more credentials, more degrees and more training in the hands of our children.”

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, called for sisterhood and solidarity in fighting racial disparities and injustices.

“We cannot continue to allow certain populations to be deprived the rights and privileges freely offered to others,” Price said. “Oppressive systems targeting black and brown Virginians must end.”

Members of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the NAACP attended the news conference. They encouraged people to speak out about these issues.

“When you are silent, folks in the community think you are complicit and that all is well,” said Roslyn Brock, chairman emeritus of the NAACP national board of directors. “And we know that all is not well in our communities.”

Panel Kills Bill Giving Puerto Ricans In-State College Tuition

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee has killed a bill that would have made residents of any U.S. territory hit by a major disaster – like Puerto Rico – eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee took the action Monday by rejecting HB 46, proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.

Krizek urged the subcommittee to envision the devastation still evident in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria in September. It was one of the strongest storms ever to hit the island.

“Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico prepare for hurricanes every year,” Krizek said. “Five months after (Maria), the island is still struggling. The infrastructure damage is unimaginable.”

He said that 38 percent of homes on the island still do not have electricity. As a result, many Puerto Rican college students have had their educational plans disrupted.

President Donald Trump issued a Declaration of Major Disaster for the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 7 and for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on Sept. 21. Krizek’s bill would have made “Any resident of a United States territory for which a major disaster has been declared by the President of the United States in 2017” eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public institutions of higher education. The proposal would have given such citizens a four-year window to apply for the adjusted tuition opportunity.

“I’m sure these struggling students have good academic credentials and will seek to come here for educational opportunities. We can give them this helping hand up,” Krizek said. “Let’s support them in this time of need by allowing them – for the next four years – to apply as in-state students.”

He added, “I’m sure if the shoe was on the other foot, Puerto Ricans would be giving us that same opportunity.”

Anita Nadal, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent and Virginia resident for more than 17 years, spoke in support of the bill at Monday’s subcommittee meeting. Nadal is an assistant professor in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Education is an investment in our future,” Nadal said. “Many young (Puerto Rican) people are very eager to continue their education, and I know they would be more than happy to come to Virginia Commonwealth. The universities here would be a wonderful way to help our fellow citizens that are living a human crisis at this time.”

The vote to have the Krizek’s bill “passed by indefinitely,” effectively killing it for the legislative session, split along party lines:

·       Five Republicans voted in favor of killing the measure: Dels. Nick Rush of Montgomery County, Steven Landes of Augusta County, Charles Poindexter of Franklin County, Christopher Stolle of Virginia Beach and Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield County.

·       Three Democrats opposed killing the bill: Dels. Luke Torian of Prince William County, Betsy Carr of Richmond and Cliff Hayes of Suffolk.

Despite the final vote, Krizek’s office indicated that the subcommittee gave the matter due diligence and that opponents of the bill were concerned about its costs.

“The House Appropriations Committee didn’t feel like there was enough money to be able to grant in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students over Virginian students,” Krizek’s legislative aide said. “But we think everybody was sympathetic to the cause.”

State Legislators Ask Congress to Improve Interstate 81

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than a dozen members of the Virginia General Assembly urged their counterparts in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday to fund improvements in safety and congestion on Interstate 81, which runs from Tennessee to the Canadian border.

The state lawmakers sent a letter to U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as well as to U.S. Reps. Bob Goodlatte, Morgan Griffith and Barbara Comstock, whose congressional districts include I-81.

The letter was signed by three state senators (Charles Carrico, Creigh Deeds and Mark Obenshain) and 14 state delegates, all from the western part of the state. Fifteen of the legislators are Republicans, and two are Democrats. They asked Congress to support several bills to improve I-81.

“I have been and will continue to be a strong advocate for common sense solutions for our pressing safety problems on I-81,” Obenshain, a Republican from Harrisonburg, said in a press release. “We are coming together as a bipartisan group of Senators and Delegates urging our Congressional delegation to fight for funding for I-81.”

Obenshain has two bills on this issue before the General Assembly:

  • Senate Bill 561 would direct the Department of Transportation to conduct a pilot program to establish zones on I-81 where tractor trucks would be required to travel in the right lane. SB 561 has been referred to the Committee on Transportation.
  • SB 971 would direct the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop an I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan that may include tolling heavy commercial vehicles to finance the improvements. SB 971 has been referred to the Committee on Rules.

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, who also signed the letter, has proposed creating a joint subcommittee to study the possibility of adding lanes to I-81 between Wytheville and Bristol.

“There are real safety problems that need real solutions,” Obenshain said, “and I am confident that these legislative proposals will present these solutions.”

Year After Ruling, 1 in 6 Drivers Still Has Suspended License

Manassas resident Greg Ballou was charged with a misdemeanor when he was 19. As a result, Ballou, 28, has had his driver's license suspended for nine years. (Photo courtesy of Greg Ballou)

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Manassas resident Greg Ballou was charged with a misdemeanor for possession of marijuana when he was 19, and he didn’t have enough money to pay the fine. As a result, his driver’s license was suspended.

Nine years later, Ballou, now 28 and working in construction, is thousands of dollars in debt, and his license has been permanently suspended.

“Everything’s a barrier, and it’s incredibly impossible to have a life at all without a license,” Ballou said.

Under Virginia law, when somebody is convicted of violating state or federal law and does not immediately pay the fine, the court suspends the defendant’s driver’s license.

After he lost his license, Ballou said, life went “all downhill.”

“What’s the point?” he asked. “I couldn’t find a job to keep me out of trouble, and from there, I was bored and had no money.”

Ballou is one of more than 15 percent of Virginia drivers whose licenses have been suspended due to court debt, according to a report released last week by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last year, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked the General Assembly to discard the automatic suspension plan, but legislators rejected his request. Last February, though, the Virginia Supreme Court required all courts to offer all defendants unable to pay court fines within 30 days deferred or installment plans before automatically suspending their license.

Now Republican Sen. William Stanley Jr. from Franklin County is pushing SB 181 to eliminate such license suspensions.

It would repeal “the requirement that the driver’s license of a person convicted of any violation of the law who fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment of fines or costs be suspended. The bill provides that the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles shall return or reinstate any person’s driver’s license that was suspended solely for nonpayment of fines or costs.”

Stanley said he was seeing a lot of people lose their licenses – not because of driving violations but because they weren’t able to pay their fines.

“And because of that, it was threatening their ability to work, take their kids to school or [travel for medical reasons], and they were getting arrested basically for trying to survive,” he said.

Ballou said he has no choice but to be flexible in his line of work. He said he purposely designs his life to be able to walk to work and care for his family.

“You really have to battle up hills,” Ballou said. “How the hell am I going to get to work? How the hell am I going to actually get a job that’s worth going to work for? How are you going to do all this without a license?”

The Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for low-income Virginians, reported that as of December, there were 974,349 suspended licenses in the state due at least in part to court debt. Almost two-thirds of the suspensions were solely for court debt.

“What we can do is ramp up our collection efforts on these fines rather than continually hurting people who can’t drive and lose their job, and the next thing you know, they’re not going to be able to pay those fines,” Stanley said. “We’re perpetuating a cycle of nonpayment instead of encouraging payment or seeking payment.”

The number of Virginians with suspended licenses due to court debt has not changed much in the past year despite the Supreme Court’s order. In September 2016, there were 977,891 suspended licenses in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

“It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses,” the justice center’s report said. It said that from November 2016 to last October, an average of 835 more driver’s licenses were suspended each day due to court debt.

Proposal Would Boost Suicide Prevention Efforts in Schools

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – While campaigning door to door, Del. Danica Roem met a constituent who had lost her only child to suicide. The mother had one request – make suicide prevention training available to all school employees.

Now Roem, D-Manassas, has introduced HJ 138, a joint resolution that would request all Virginia school boards provide every employee with resources or training on how to identify students at risk of suicide.

“This is something that is incumbent upon all of us at the General Assembly, regardless of party label, to make sure that we are working together to take care of our kids and working together to make sure that the caretakers of our children, from maintenance professionals all the way up to the principals, are able to see our kids for the lives they are living and identify the struggles that they have,” Roem said.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of deaths for people age 10 to 18. In 2015, 1,097 people in Virginia died by suicide, and 35 of those suicides were carried out by children under 18, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

While school districts would not be required to comply with the resolution, it is meant to motivate them to take steps toward suicide prevention.

“This provides as much flexibility at the local level as possible,” Roem said. “This is allowing the people who are on the ground there to identify and figure out what works best for them.”

The resolution would expand on SB 1250, a 1999 law that required all licensed school personnel to report a child they suspect might be suicidal. However, it did not require those professionals be trained on how to identify students at risk.

When it was passed, SB 1250 also mandated that the Board of Education and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services create a Code of Virginia Suicide Prevention Guidelines.

“An ideal set of training and guidelines for suicide prevention incorporates many aspects of mental health and mental health awareness,” said Dr. Adam Kaul of the Psychiatric Society of Virginia. “Suicide itself is not a source of disease or a specific condition; it is often an end product of mental illness and distress.”

HJ 138 has been assigned to a House Rules Subcommittee and is scheduled to be considered on Friday. Roem’s resolution is co-sponsored by 10 Democrats and one Republican – Del. Matthew Fariss of Appomattox County.

“Anything that would make us smarter about suicide as a society, I think, is something we need to try to do,” Fariss said.

Democrats Vow to Push for Gun Control Laws

Del. John Bell talks about enforcing gun control laws in Virginia. (CNS photo by Aya Driouche)

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic legislators said Tuesday they will continue to fight for gun control laws as Republicans continued to kill bills to restrict firearms.

Six Democratic delegates held a press conference to discuss proposals such as banning weapons from public libraries. Del. Roslyn Tyler of Sussex County said gun violence has been endangering Virginians for years.

“We cannot allow this problem to get worse,” Tyler said. “We cannot stay idle as gun violence leads to more and more empty seats at the dinner tables across the country.”

Del. John Bell of Loudoun County touted his bill to require applicants for a concealed weapons permit to show in-person “competence with a handgun.” Currently, applicants can get a permit by completing a video or online training course.

Bell called HB 91 a “very common-sense bill.” Last week, a House subcommittee killed it on a 4-2 vote.

Bell, who served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 26 years, noted that he went through extensive training to be able to carry a weapon. He said civilians also should receive adequate training in front of a certified instructor before obtaining a concealed carry permit.

“The current online training is far inadequate,” Bell said. “It doesn’t have eyes on from qualified instructors to know if that holster is properly fitted. You have to watch those things in real life, in real time.”

Groups such as the National Rifle Association opposed Bell’s measure. He said they should support it.

“I believe the groups like the NRA and the Virginia Citizens Defense League who oppose this bill are missing a tremendous opportunity to provide low-cost frequent training and to do a public good,” Bell said.

“I believe in the Second Amendment. I’m a gun owner. But I think responsible gun ownership is important, and I believe every gun owner should have a background check and should show they were properly trained before they’re given a concealed carry permit.”

So far this session, Republicans have defeated several gun control bills sponsored by Democrats, including one to require background checks on all gun purchases. On Monday, the Republican majority in the House rejected a resolution to ban firearms from the chamber’s gallery while delegates are in session.

Shortly after the Democrats’ news conference, Republican legislators held one of their own. They argued that citizens should be able to carry weapons in places of worship.

Virginia law prohibits guns in churches and other religious settings. But last week, the Senate voted 21-18 along party lines to repeal that law.

Just as politicians are protected by armed security, members of a congregation should be allowed to arm themselves for self-defense, said Del. Dave LaRock of Loudoun County.

He stood next to a poster of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam speaking to an interfaith group about gun violence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church last week. LaRock pointed out that the governor’s security detail was nearby.

LaRock said it is not fair that the governor gets treated differently than Virginia citizens who are barred from carrying weapons in places of worship. He said it appears to be a double standard.

“The law that’s on the book says that weapons are prohibited in church without good and sufficient reason, which is vague,” LaRock said. “And we don’t believe laws that are vague should be on the books.”

He said Northam signaled that he would veto SB 371, which would rescind that law, if it passes the General Assembly.

“We pose the question,” LaRock said. “He deserves armed protection in church, but others don’t? We’re just asking him to fill in the blank and explain to us why.”

Black Caucus, Bipartisan Group of Legislators Fighting ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus was joined Monday by a bipartisan group of state legislators supporting  bills to combat  the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Expulsion and suspension policies are the targets of several pieces of legislation, including a bill by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. HB 1600 caps long-term suspension at 45 days instead of the current 364.

“We cannot keep using access, or lack thereof, to education as a punishment and continue to expect positive results,” said  Bourne, a former Richmond School Board chairman.

Bourne also endorsed legislation by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, whose SB 170 prohibits expulsion and suspension for students between pre-kindergarten and third grade. Stanley said the reforms sought were a “human issue,” and not partisan.

The Black Caucus said it wanted to highlight how legislators are crossing party lines on the issues. The process of separating students from their environment and ultimately sending them into the criminal justice system has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  A 2015 Study from the Center for Public Integrity said that on average, Virginia refers more students to law enforcement than any other state.

First-year Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge,  described the problem as  “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.” She has introduced HB 445, which would allow school systems to discipline students who commit certain misdemeanors instead of being required to report those crimes to police.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she has proposed budget amendments  to support school programs for  at-risk students, and also to set aside almost $700 million to end a cap on state-funded school support positions.

“If we don’t put our money where our mouth is we will lose an entire generation of students to the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “Policy is only one side of the coin.”

Standing beside these legislators  was Stacey Doss, a mother of two boys in Lynchburg’s public school system. Her older son, who is autistic, drew national attention and the focus of the Center for Public Integrity after being charged with a felony in 2014 as an 11-year-old.

He had struggled with a school resource officer who had grabbed him after he had left class with other students. The same officer had earlier accused him of  a misdemeanor for kicking a trash can. The charges were dropped after an outcry over the case.

Doss said her 5-year-old has speech problems, and both sons have been ostracized and suspended.  The younger boy was currently under suspension for disorderly behavior, she said.

“He asked me, ‘Why can’t I go to school? I really want to go to school. I miss my friends,’” Doss said. “He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he does know that he is being kept away from something he enjoys.”

House Committee Unanimously Kills ‘Netflix Tax’

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill nicknamed the “Netflix tax” was unanimously defeated Monday in the House Finance Committee, ending the possibility of taxing streaming services in Virginia in 2019.

Introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, HB 1051 would have applied the state’s 5 percent communications sales and use tax not just to Netflix but to all online streaming services – among them Hulu, Spotify and HBO Go – that have skyrocketed in popularity, especially among millennials.

While the current communications tax applies to cable TV, satellite radio, landlines, cell phones and even pagers, streaming services are not included.

Watts said her bill was needed to modernize the state’s communications tax. “Obviously, the way we have continued to communicate has changed,” she said.

Watts told the committee that her bill would apply equal taxes to all forms of communication. “The best we can hope for is a fair tax structure,” she said.

According to the bill’s impact statement, the tax would generate nearly $8 million in revenue for the state – potentially allowing Virginia to become less dependent on other forms of taxes, like those collected through income and real estate levies.

The bill is not the first of its kind: Pennsylvania and Florida have passed laws that tax internet transactions and digital streaming services. But the tax has faced opposition from taxpayers, streaming services and industry trade groups.

The Finance Committee voted 22-0 against the bill. Watts voted against her own legislation, acknowledging that while the measure was not ready to be passed, she wanted to spur a larger conversation about Virginia’s tax structure.

Republicans said they were opposed taxing the heavily used services.

“Let’s be real clear in what we’re talking about here,” said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House Republican Caucus. “This is a Netflix tax. This is a Hulu tax. If you’re under 30, this is a tax on how you get your information, how you watch your TV, how you consume everything every day.”

Representatives from T-Mobile, Verizon and Sling TV attended the meeting and spoke against the bill, while the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties were in favor.

Neal Menkes of the Municipal League commented that he had “yet to hear a pager go off,” echoing Watts’ sentiments about the need to modernize tax law around a quickly changing communications landscape.

Salamander Wriggling Its Way Into State Law

 

By Sarah Danial and Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill slithering through the legislative process would designate the red salamander as Virginia’s official state salamander. If the amphibious creature gets the honor, it can thank a group of young nature conservationists.

The Salamander Savers is a 4-H Club based in Fairfax whose members, age 8 to 18, are determined to find solutions for environmental problems. The club started in 2015 when three children wanted to save salamanders from a local lake.

“When our lake was dredged and my kids asked me questions that I could not answer, as a home-schooling mother, I made it my mission to try to find answers to their questions,” said Anna Kim, the club’s adult leader and mother of Jonah Kim, 14, the club’s president.

Her children asked what would happen to the animals living in or near the lake. They were concerned to learn that dredging can disrupt their environment, which could eventually lead to possible extinction. Jonah’s mother recalled her son’s words.

“He once told me that he wanted to give a voice to the animals who couldn’t speak for themselves,” Anna Kim said.

As a result, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, is sponsoring HB 459, which would add the red salamander (officially, Pseudotriton ruber) to the state’s list of official designations. The list currently includes 35 items, from the official beverage (milk) and rock (Nelsonite) to the official television series (“Song of the Mountains,” a PBS program showcasing Appalachian music).

Filler-Corn hopes her bill will inspire the 4H Club members to get involved politically.

“I am excited to introduce these bright young activists to the civic process,” Filler-Corn said. “It is my hope that this is just the beginning of their engagement with government and that they will continue their advocacy for years to come.”

The bill was approved by a subcommittee on a 6-2 vote last week. The House General Laws Committee is scheduled to consider the bill Tuesday.

Jonah Kim and his fellow 4-H’ers thought carefully about which salamander species should represent Virginia.

“We chose the red salamander because it lives in a variety of different habitats throughout Virginia,” he said. “We thought it was easily recognizable and would be interesting to people who have never seen a salamander.”

He said the club hopes the legislation will help raise awareness of salamanders, a species less tolerant of environmental disruptions than frogs and other amphibians. The Salamander Savers are encouraging the public to write a letter to their legislators stating their support.

 

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Republicans Kill Top-Priority Bills Sought by Women’s Advocates

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Women’s rights advocates are disappointed after legislative panels this week killed bills on some of their top-priority issues -- mandating equal pay, reducing restrictions on access to abortion and requiring employers to provide paid medical leave.

The votes, called “anti-woman” by one advocacy group, continued on Friday with  a House Courts of Justice subcommittee defeating the Whole Woman's Health Act. Sponsored by Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax,  HB 1231   stated that, “A pregnant person has a fundamental right to obtain an abortion.”      

The subcommittee also killed a bill by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, to remove what Democrats see as  medically unnecessary barriers to abortion access. HB 450 sought to repeal the statutory requirements that a physician obtain a woman’s written consent and perform a transabdominal ultrasound before an abortion.

On Thursday, a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines against advancing Boysko’s HB 1089, which required equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.

Voting to kill the bill were Republican Dels. Kathy Byron of Bedford; R. Lee Ware, Chesterfield; Israel O’Quinn, Grayson; Margaret Ransone, Westmoreland; and Michael Webert, Culpeper. Supporting the bills were Democratic Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax; Lamont Bagby, Henrico; and Michael Mullin, James City.

“By voting against equal pay for equal work, the message to Virginia women is loud and clear: Our lawmakers in Richmond do not consider us first-class citizens,” said Patsy Quick, co-president of the American Association of University Women of Virginia.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that in 2016, Virginia women working full time made 80 cents for every dollar made by men—a pay gap of 20 percent. As bad as this is, it is even worse for women of color,” Quick said.

For every dollar earned by a white man, black women make  about 63 cents, Latinas 54 cents and white women 78 cents, according to a news release from Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

Progress Virginia and other advocates also criticized lawmakers for killing two bills introduced by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun:

  • SB 709, which sought to eliminate such requirements as a waiting period and an ultrasound before undergoing  abortions.  The Senate Health and Education Committee killed the bill last week at the sponsor’s request -- a move sometimes made when a bill has little or no chance at passage.

  • SB 421, which would have required private employers with 50 or more workers to give full-time employees paid medical leave. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee killed the bill Monday on an 11-4 party-line vote.

Propelled by #MeToo, Groups Seek to Remove ‘Tampon Tax’

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With momentum from the #MeToo movement, several women’s rights groups are supporting legislative calls to remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

Planned Parenthood, the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition and other organizations have been posting on social media, circulating petitions and attending General Assembly meetings to show their support for the idea.

“It’s frustrating that such common-sense legislation is struggling to survive,” said Holly Seibold, a member of the coalition.

Three bills before the General Assembly would exempt products such as tampons, menstrual cups and sanitary napkins and pads from the sales tax:

  • HB 152, introduced by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax
  • HB 24, sponsored by Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who dubbed it “The Dignity Act”
  • HB 448, filed by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico

Boysko also is sponsoring HB 25, which would add menstrual supplies to Virginia’s three-day, back-to-school “sales tax holiday” each August.

Kory said she believes women should not have to pay taxes for a necessity item. All of the bills have been referred to the House Finance Committee.

This is not the first time a “tampon tax” bill has appeared in the General Assembly. But the issue may have more momentum in light of the national conversation about sexual harassment, gender equity and other issues. Moreover, the House of Delegates now has 28 women members – up from 17 last year.

Those factors have generated optimism that the General Assembly may remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

“This is a fairness issue,” Boysko said. “These products need to be more affordable.”

Last year, she introduced a similar measure – HB 1593. In 2016, Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, also sponsored a bill to remove the “tampon tax” – HB 952. Each year, the proposal was tabled by a subcommittee of the House Finance Committee.

Opponents of the legislation worry that it will cost government coffers millions of dollars.

The sales tax rate is 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and 5.3 percent elsewhere in the state. Many retail items – including medicine, eyeglasses and firewood – are exempt from the tax.

With stores charging up to $9 for a box of 36 tampons, women will spend more than $2,000 on feminine hygiene products during their lifetimes. Removing the sales tax would save Virginia women at least $100. However, it would cost the state at least $4.5 million the first year and more than $5.5 million in 2024, the Virginia Department of Taxation said.

According to the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, 14 states do not tax feminine hygiene products. Nine specifically exempt them – Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Connecticut will join this list July 1. The other five – Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana and Oregon – do not have a sales tax.

Making Tampons Available in Schools and Prisons

The sales tax isn’t the only concern regarding feminine hygiene products. Legislators have introduced bills to address these other issues:

  • HB 1434, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, would ensure that students in grades six through 12 have access to free tampons and pads in school.
  • HB 83, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, would provide feminine hygiene products to female prisoners and inmates for free.

On Wednesday, supporters of those proposals met with legislators. Holly Seibold, a member of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition, said the meeting was “well received with bipartisan support.”

But school officials expressed concerns about HB 1434. Officials of Fairfax County Public Schools fear the requirement would cost the district $500,000 a year, Seibold said.

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