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GREENSVILLE/EMPORIA DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

LOCAL BOARD MEETING

The Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services Administrative Board will hold its regular meeting Thursday, June 20, 2019, at 3:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services located at 1748 East Atlantic Street.

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Virginia Offers Salute to Women Veterans

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than 100,000 women veterans live in Virginia, and in observance of Women’s History Month, the General Assembly has decided to honor them by designating the third week of March each year as Women Veterans Week.

On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing House Joint Resolution 76, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax.

Murphy, a self-described “military brat,” said Virginia has one of the highest populations of women veterans in the country. “We put together Women Veterans Week to honor them,” she said.

A member of the Board of Veterans Services and head of its Women’s Veterans Committee, Murphy will hold a series of discussions around the commonwealth during Women Veterans Week. The goal is to inform women veterans about the resources available to them and discuss their concerns.

“Women are the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, and they face unique challenges both in the military and when they transition to civilian life,” Murphy said. “We’re going to hold a series of roundtables so we can actually hear from these women veterans about what it is they need to ensure that they come back into our workforce and are successful.”

U.S. Army veteran Jeanne Minnix said it’s important to recognize the contributions of women veterans.

“Women have often been underrepresented, often under-acknowledged if you will, but it’s changing, thankfully,” Minnix said. “Anything to bring women’s issues to the forefront is always good.”

Women Veterans Week will be March 18-24. Information about the week’s events can be found on the website of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.

New law tightens bail restrictions for human trafficking defendants

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with human trafficking crimes to post bail.

House Bill 1260, which will take effect on July 1, was sponsored by two Democratic delegates, Mike Mullin of Newport News and Dawn Adams of Richmond. Mullin said they were motivated by their professional experiences handling sexual-based crimes, like trafficking.

“Delegate Adams works as a professional nurse who has seen individuals that have been harmed both mentally and physically through sex trafficking, so this is something near and dear to her heart,” Mullin said.

Mullin is an assistant commonwealth attorney in Suffolk, where he focuses on sexual assault and gang-related cases as a member of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations team. He said the law reflects a recommendation of the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force and creates a presumption against bond for defendants being tried for sex trafficking crimes.

According to a 2017 report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking. Among cities, Richmond is ranked ninth in the country with the highest number of calls to the hotline per capita.

“In Virginia, we have a number of things where we presume you’ll be a flight risk and a danger to the community — like, we assume if you’re charged with murder that you will run,” Mullin said. “So what we [the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force] did is create a presumption against bond. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get bond; it just means you have to show a higher standard of why you’re not going to run, whether it’s that you have a relationship with family in the area or that you’ve been living in the area for 15 years.”

Michael Feinmel, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, said trafficking is a crime requiring constant movement. Efforts to curb that movement are necessary since many times defendants use false addresses and traffickers may use the freedom of bond to contact their victims.

“The bonded pimp can contact the commonwealth’s witness and lay on the guilt trip thick: ‘They are trying to send me to prison, and it’s your fault,’” Feinmel stated in an email. “Even those victim/survivors who have acknowledged that the sex trafficker was taking advantage of them still feel some sort of emotional bond to their trafficker, and it makes things even more difficult for them to continue to want to cooperate.”

Though Feinmel said HB 1260 is an important step in addressing human trafficking crimes, not everyone thinks the legislation will do enough.

Natasha Gonzalez, a clinician at the Richmond-based non-profit Gray Haven, which focuses on comprehensive care of human trafficking survivors, said there is more work to be done.

“My role with Gray Haven is being a first point of contact. When we get a call of a potential trafficking victim it’s my job to decide whether or not it’s trafficking, which can be difficult because, for example, domestic relationships and trafficking can sometimes go hand in hand,” Gonzalez said.

A larger issue, according to Gonzalez, is that sex trafficking victims are not likely to contact police because they often fear law enforcement and sometimes are not aware they are being trafficked.

In the Capitol, however, Mullin said he is hopeful that human trafficking will receive more legislative attention in upcoming years.

“There are only a few things that we handle here in the Capitol that are partisan by nature, and this certainly is not one of them. I’ve worked very closely with Republicans and Democrats on this, and the bill came through the House and Senate without a single no vote,” Mullins said. “This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on.”

Coal Ash Pond Closure Moratorium Bill Heads to Governor

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill extending the moratorium on the permanent closure of coal ash ponds has won House approval and awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become the only legislation on the issue to survive the 2018 session.

The House on Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of SB 807, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Surovell said he was happy for the extension and hopes the bill, which has been supported by Dominion Energy and environmental groups, is a “net positive for everyone.”

“We can come up with a coal-ash solution which not only resolves the problem forever but also creates jobs to clean the environment at the same time,” said Surovell, referring to the positions that would be created to recycle the coal ash.

Robert Richardson, a spokesman for Dominion, said the utility will provide the state with information on coal ash recycling costs.

“We are fully committed to closing these ponds in a manner that is protective of the environment,” Richardson said.

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants.

Among its provisions, the bill requires Dominion to file an RFP, or a request for proposal, to assess the costs of recycling ash in the ponds. Though Dominion already recycles a portion of its total coal ash, it remains in favor of “cap-in-place” measures of permanent closure. This method of closing the ponds with a protective seal has been targeted as unsafe by environmental organizations concerned about groundwater contamination.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which has opposed “cap-in-place” policies, supported the bill. Lee Francis, the league’s communications manager, said the organization has worked with Surovell and that the bill gives legislators the tools needed to make a decision.

“I think this bill will help give us clarity on how to start going forward, and hopefully lawmakers will have more information when we address final closure options,” Francis said.

Lawmakers tried addressing the coal ash issue from many angles this session, but ultimately settled on extending the moratorium as a way to get more information before acting.

Bill Would Let Energy Giant Regulate Itself, Senator Warns

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As the General Assembly begins to wind down, a key opponent to legislation involving Dominion Energy is continuing to warn that a bill that has reached the governor’s desk will tilt the scales in the utility’s favor.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said the legislation may limit the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory power over utilities — and give Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power “a license to overcharge customers for the foreseeable future.”

The legislation consists of two nearly identical bills: SB 966, sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, andHB 1558, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. With amendments, each bill has grown to 29 pages. The bill’s summary alone is more than 1,850 words. A typical bill’s summary in the Legislative Information System is less than 100 words.

The provisions in the latest version that are raising the most eyebrows concern how much profit state-approved monopolies, such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, may earn.

“Typically, the SCC is charged with making sure that rates are not more than is necessary to recover costs plus an allowable return on equity, which is usually 10 percent above costs,” Petersen said. “Normally, Dominion would give refunds based on that excess. This bill would take away that jurisdiction.”

For example, if Dominion made $1.2 billion in revenue in one year, and the company’s expenses were $1 billion, Dominion would have $200 million in profit. Previously, customers would have received a percentage refund for those “over-earnings.”

Under HB 1558, Dominion could keep all over-earnings provided it spends the money on designated projects — such as the Grid Transformation Project, a potentially multibillion-dollar project that includes burying power lines — as well as on investments in renewable energy, such as solar power or wind farms, according to Petersen.

The bill includes some complexities, however. Under the legislation, for example, the SCC would still have the power to review the Grid Transformation Project but would not be allowed to reject Dominion’s proposal, according to Steve Haner, a lobbyist for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

“Dominion basically has written the law in such a way that it will never have to pay refunds, and it will never have to lower its rates,” Petersen said. “That’s why I called them out on it.”

Rayhan Daudani, senior communications specialist at Dominion, said many of these worries are unfounded.

“Environmental groups, like the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the governor’s office, all agree that this bill is good for Virginians, for the environment and for our customers,” Daudani said.

Haner said the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income Virginians, is neutral toward the bill. However, personally he said he thinks the bill may not do what it says.

“It does not really return us to regulation. It leaves the SCC bound up with some very strict accounting rules and gives the utility ways to manipulate its profit margins and manipulate its spending so it will never be found to be excessive. It’ll never be ordered to refunds. It’ll never be ordered to cut its rates,” Haner said. “They’re directed to spend a certain way based on a bill they wrote.”

Dominion’s influence in the General Assembly is well known, according to Corrina Beall, the legislative and political director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

“Dominion is always the gorilla in the room. They are tremendously effective within the building, and their influence within the General Assembly cannot be overstated,” Beall said. “They are the No. 1 corporate campaign contributor to elected officials in the state of Virginia.”

However, Petersen said he believes the tides may be changing in the General Assembly, with Dominion receiving pushback from both Democrats and Republicans.

“This is the first time in my history that Dominion really got a lot of pushback from a diverse array of people, in terms of their agenda,” Petersen said. “Whether or not that will continue over the next couple years — new candidates will push back on Dominion and demand more consumer rights and more accountability, and less sort of a blank check — that remains to be seen. That’ll take three or four years to play out.”

SB 966 initially passed the Senate, 26-13, on Feb 9. The House then passed a substitute bill, 65-30, on Feb. 26. The Senate then agreed to the House substitute, 26-14, on Feb. 28. Now, the governor is expected to act on the bill by midnightFriday.

HB 1558 was approved by the House of Delegates on a vote of 63-35 on Feb. 13. A modified version of the bill then passed the Senate, 27-13, on Thursday. The measure is now back before the House.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, had mixed feelings about HB 1558 but voted for it last month. In an email to constituents, he called it an “imperfect (but greatly improved) bill better for Virginia consumers and the environment than current law.”

The current law, adopted by the General Assembly in 2015, froze Dominion’s electric rates because the company said it faced uncertain costs of complying with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. However, the courts and the Donald Trump administration have since blocked the plan’s implementation.

SB 966 and HB 1558 would lift the rate freeze and allow state officials to see if Dominion is making excessive profits — and, if so, order the company to reduce its rates. That is one reason Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports the legislation.

Northam said he brought together various groups to help craft a compromise on the issue — one that would “give Virginians as much of their money back as possible, restore oversight to ensure that utility companies do not overcharge ratepayers for power, and make Virginia a leader in clean energy and electrical grid modernization.”

However, Petersen fears that the bill won’t do that, and that it will prevent state regulators from doing their job.

“We took away from the State Corporation Commission their very skill set, which is evaluating the utilities and making sure that rates are fair and customers are not overcharged,” Petersen said.

Bill to Restrict Tethering Pets Is Killed for 3rd Time

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to specify when an animal can be tethered outdoors was killed in the House on Wednesday after passing the Senate with a substitute on Tuesday. The Senate substitute on House Bill 889 was the third attempt to pass the legislation.

When HB 889 passed the House in February, the bill would have allowed localities to pass ordinances restricting how long or in what weather conditions a dog can be tethered outside. The Senate passed a substitute making the bill a statewide ban on tethering in certain weather conditions.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, sponsored the original version of HB 889. He spoke against passing the substitute on the House floor Wednesday. He said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lobbied for the Senate substitute to be accepted.

“There was a bill that would’ve allowed PETA to achieve all of their objective we saw in their legislation this session,” Orrock said. “But they would’ve had to go through local government ordinances to effect that change.”

Orrock said the PETA lobbyist claimed the substitute was germane, or relevant to the original, but Orrock disagreed. He then asked House Speaker Kirk Cox for his opinion. Cox ruled the substitute was not germane, thus killing the bill.

The substitute made HB 889 the same as SB 872, which made it through the Senate only to be killed in the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources on Feb. 27. SB 872 was a watered-down version of HB 646, which died in the same committee in January.

The bill would have banned tethering animals in temperatures 32 degrees and below and 85 degrees and above, during a heat advisory or when the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning.

Along with the restrictions on weather conditions, the bill would have restricted the tether itself. The substitute stated tethers had to be at least 15 feet long, or four times the length of the animal, and limited the weight to less than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight. In addition, weights could not be attached to the tether.

Democrats and Republicans Spar as Another Shooting Unfolds

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As the 2018 legislative session heads into its final week, tensions have been running high on an issue that sharply divides Democrats and Republicans: what to do about gun violence.

The chasm between the parties was on full display Friday in the Virginia House of Delegates, where legislators hurled insults at one another – while yet another school shooting unfolded.

Less than an hour after reports that a gunman had killed two people in a dormitory at Central Michigan University, Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, gave a speech on the House floor blaming the Democrats for blocking productive discussions on how to curtail gun violence.

“The other side of this debate will only consider one quote-unquote ‘solution’ to this problem, which is gutting or tearing apart the Second Amendment,” Freitas said.

Later in the day, Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, responded by accusing the Republicans of inconsistency.

“I’d like to know why the Republicans think we want to take their guns,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “I think that they should talk to the president.”

Murphy was referring to a statement by President Donald Trump on Wednesday that police officers should be allowed to confiscate people's guns without due process.

In his remarks on the floor, Freitas said House Democrats had precluded a dialogue with Republicans by using inflammatory language. For instance, after 17 people were killed in a shooting at a high school in Florida on Feb. 14, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sent his constituents an email with the headline, “How the GOP Makes it Easy to Commit Mass Murder.”

“It’s really difficult to have an honest and open debate about this because of [House Democrats] comparing members on this side of the aisle to Nazis,” Freitas said. He also took issue with how he believed the Democrats were portraying Republican’s connections with the National Rifle Association.

“It takes a certain degree of not assuming that the only reason why we believe in the Second Amendment is because the NRA paid us off. I don’t assume that [Democrats] are all bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood,” Freitas said.

During his speech, Freitas suggested that studies have shown mass shooters tend to come from broken homes. Moreover, he insinuated a connection between mass shootings and abortions by saying that certain “left-leaning think tanks will actually say that some of [the reasons for mass shootings] can be attributed to various cultural changes that happened in the ’60s” and that this included “the abortion industry.”

Later Friday, the House minority leader, Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, issued a press release condemning Freitas’ comments.

“The remarks made today by House Republicans, who continue to be unwilling to discuss reasonable gun safety initiatives, were deeply disappointing,” Toscano said. “Del. Freitas cited cherry-picked statistics to paint a picture suggesting that nothing can or should be done.”

The verbal sparring played out at the Capitol as authorities searched for a man in connection with the shooting at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

James Davis Jr., a CMU student and the son of a police officer, was taken into custody early Saturday morning. Authorities said they believe Davis used his father’s gun to shoot and kill both of his parents.

As both sides at the Virginia Capitol debate how to reduce gun violence, the General Assembly session is scheduled to adjourn next Saturday. Republicans have killed most of the gun control legislation proposed by Democrats, including bills to require background checks on all firearm purchases and to ban bump fire stocks, a device that increases the rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons by using recoil to pull the trigger.

Democrats have urged Republicans to revive those proposals, but that is unlikely to happen.

However, a few gun-related bills are still in play during the General Assembly’s final week:

  • Senate Bill 715 would allow firefighters and emergency medical service personnel to carry a concealed handgun while on duty. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday.
  • SB 669 would restrict the firearm rights of Virginians who, as minors 14 years or older, received involuntary mental health treatment or were subject to a detention order. Currently, those restrictions apply only to people who have undergone such treatment as adults. On Friday, the House Courts of Justice Committee recommended that the full House approve the bill.

Panel Kills Bill Allowing Drunken Driving on Private Property

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Senate bill that would have allowed Virginians to drive drunk on their private property was killed unanimously by a House subcommittee Friday after an outcry from traffic safety advocates.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally intended the bill to reduce the likelihood of someone being charged with a DUI while drinking in a vehicle on their own property. He used the example of a man accused of driving under the influence while listening to the radio in his car parked in his driveway.

The bill attracted critics nationwide and beyond. “We defend #DUIs and #IRPs but even we have to admit: this is really dumb,” Acumen Law Corp., a law firm in Vancouver, Canada, posted on Twitter. In Canada, IRP stands for immediate roadside prohibitions.

SB 308 was initially killed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee but was brought up for reconsideration in February by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. The bill then advanced to the floor, where it passed the Senate, 37-3.

Crossing over to the House, the bill was assigned to a House Courts of Justice subcommittee, where anti-drunken driving advocates continued to express their opposition.

Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said a one-day delay in taking up the bill had “frankly, made advocates opposing the bill nervous.” He had urged the bill’s opponents to call on subcommittee members to reject “this slippery slope legislation.”

Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick, recommended the bill be “passed by indefinitely,” essentially killing it for the session. He said the legislation’s concept was flawed, arguing that motorists could park cars on their property after driving under the influence.

The bill was killed, 7-0. Stuart was not present.

“I think it’s good news,” Erickson said. “Its passage would have otherwise been a dangerous precedent to communicate that in Virginia, it is OK to drive drunk here but not there.”

Virginia May Issue ‘Ashanti Alerts’ for Missing Adults

By Irena Schunn and Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The abduction and slaying of a 19-year-old Norfolk woman prompted General Assembly approval of legislation to create an Amber Alert-like system for “critically missing” adults.

The “Ashanti Alert” called for in HB 260, sponsored by Del. Jerrauld Jones, D-Norfolk, was approved by the Senateon Thursday and now awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

Ashanti Billie was abducted in 2017 from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where she worked at a sandwich shop, and later found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because Billie was an adult, she didn’t meet the criteria for an Amber Alert.

Once Ashanti went missing, we became more aware of other situations where something like this had happened but there was no mechanism in place,” said Jones, who represents the 89th House District, where Billie lived. “This is a public safety issue, not a partisan issue.”

Eric Brian Brown, described by authorities as a retired Navy veteran who worked at the base with Billie, has been charged with kidnapping in Virginia and in connection with her death in the Charlotte area.

Members of Billie’s family connected with Jones through their friend Kimberly Wimbish, who had worked with the delegate on his election campaign last year. They asked him to draft a bill to help those who currently don’t qualify for missing persons alerts.

Wimbish, who initially used Facebook to publicize the young woman’s disappearance, said the case raised awareness about missing adults, especially in the Norfolk area where people had connections to Billie.

“Everyone said she would give them her last. That she was always helpful and friendly,” said Wimbish, who serves as the family’s spokesperson. “We have to know and believe her kindness was taken for granted.”

Jones said the bill gives Virginia State Police the power to set criteria for the “critically missing adult alert.”

Currently, Virginia has three alerts for missing persons:

  • Amber Alerts and Endangered Missing Child Media Alerts, for missing persons under age 18.
  • Senior Alerts, sometimes called Silver Alerts, for persons 60 or older.

That leaves a gap for adults between 18 and 60 years old.

If approved by the governor, the Ashanti Alerts will be modeled on the Amber Alerts. An Amber Alert includes issuing emergency messages over public broadcasting networks, displaying electronic messages on highway signs and sending texts to all cellphones within range of the cellular carrier towers in the affected area.

Amber Alerts are also spread voluntarily by other state agencies, the news media and nonprofit organizations. For example, a program called A Child Is Missing can make 1,000 telephone calls with a recorded alert within a minute, according to Virginia’s Amber Alert Plan.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that Amber Alert systems nationwide have helped in the recovery of more than 540 children.

Last year, the General Assembly declared April 29 as “Missing Persons Day” to recognize the 600 Virginians missing at that time, and their families. Advocates are getting ready for the second annual Virginia Missing Persons Day.

Advocates Fight to End Gerrymandering in Virginia Supreme Court

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments Thursday in a case alleging that state lawmakers valued partisan politics over constitutional requirements in drawing 11 of the 100 districts for the House of Delegates.

Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021 – the state’s leading redistricting reform group – is heading the charge to end gerrymandering in Virginia both at the General Assembly and in the courtroom. Cannon said the districts in question distort natural political boundaries and ignore state-mandated size and shape regulations.

“Our compactness requirement should be a high priority since it’s in our state constitution,” Cannon said. “Clearly it wasn’t. Clearly partisan politics and discretionary criteria were valued over it.”

Cannon said his camp hopes for a decision to come down within the next two months.

Courts have long been wary of ruling on redistricting matters for fear of the political ramifications of their decisions. Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the “intentional seizure of the redistricting process” by a state court there.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month ruled the Republican-controlled legislature had drawn the state’s congressional districts with partisan intent. A remedial plan adopted by the court could swing three or four congressional districts the Democrats’ way. Republicans currently hold 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in Congress.

Bill Oglesby, an associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, said courts around the country are having difficulty adjudicating redistricting reform because it is a naturally political process. As in Pennsylvania, Virginia courts are caught in the political crossfires inherent in gerrymandering.

“The parties to this case are dealing with a classic Catch-22,” said Oglesby, who helped produce “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on its Head,” a documentary advocating for an overhaul of Virginia’s redistricting system.

“The state constitution requires the General Assembly to draw compact districts, but lower courts have said the politicians can decide what is compact, and they are the very ones who have a political incentive to stretch the meaning of that term.”

With court proceedings slowed by political ramifications, redistricting reform proponents have been focused on legislation in hopes of establishing immediate criteria for redrawing Virginia’s legislative districts after the U.S. census in 2020:

  • Senate Bill 106 establishes criteria for districts to be redrawn after the 2020 census, including equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, compactness and communities of interest. The House of Delegates approved the legislation, 90-9, on Wednesday. HB 1598, a companion bill, was passed by the Senate on Monday, 23-17.
  • House Bill 312 sought to establish a commission to hold public hearings on the redistricting process. It died in a House Rules subcommittee on Feb. 13.
  • HB 205 would have required legislative districts to be redrawn should any state or federal court declare them unlawful or unconstitutional. The bill was left in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee on Feb. 13.

Cannon said redistricting reform concerns a “fundamental question of fairness” he believes most Virginians agree upon.

“Voters should be able to choose their legislators, not the other way around,” Cannon said.

Hundreds of Virginians Rally for Medicaid Expansion

A crowd of protesters raising their posters and banners at the rally for Medicaid expansion on Capitol Square (photo credit: George Copeland Jr.)

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Under the shadow of the Bell Tower on Capitol Square, hundreds of people from across Virginia rallied on a rainy Thursday in support of a state budget that would expand Medicaid to about 400,000 low-income residents.

Medicaid expansion is included in the budget approved by the House of Delegates. It also would add a work requirement for those seeking coverage. The budget passed by the Senate would not expand Medicaid. The two chambers must work out their differences and pass a budget before the legislative session ends March 10.

Speaking at the rally, Gov. Ralph Northam said, “Health care is a right. Morally the right thing to do is to expand coverage.”

Northam and other Democrats note that the federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid with the promise that the federal government would pick up most of the cost. Neighboring states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland have expanded Medicaid. Northam said Virginia is losing more than $5 million a day by failing to follow suit.

Northam was joined at the rally by a number of fellow Democrats including Attorney General Mark Herring and Sens. Jennifer Wexton of Loudoun, David Marsden of Fairfax, Lionell Spruill Sr. of Chesapeake, John Edwards of Roanoke and Jeremy McPike of Prince William.

More than 100 groups were represented at the rally, including the Healthcare for All Virginians Coalition, Planned Parenthood, the Young Invincibles and Progress Virginia.

Health Brigade Executive Director Karen Legato pointed to the bipartisan support for Medicaid expansion in the House. She said the state’s charitable clinics are no substitute for Medicaid expansion. Collectively, the clinics can serve only “152,000 of the 505,000 uninsured eligible for our services,” she said.

“We need our government to stand with us – to work with us side by side,” Legato said. “The time is now to ensure that the commonwealth is pro-health and pro-people.”

Christopher Rashad Green of New Virginia Majority, an advocacy group for working-class communities of color, discussed his experience being “trapped in the gap” between access to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. He also said he was encouraged to see people at the rally working for “equity and justice and access to affordable health care.”

“I didn’t believe any of this would happen, but now I actually see it happening, and you are proof of that,” Green said. “We have to remain hopeful and vigilant and do uncomfortable things like speaking truth to power. Keep fighting the fight.”

The Rev. Jeanne Pupke spoke on behalf of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and “thousands of faith leaders.” She called for an increase in activism from communities and individuals in the days to follow.

“We can do it if we all go home today and work hard to make our voices heard,” Pupke said. “Our interfaith voices, our unfaith voices, for the commonwealth that is our voice.”

After the rally, members of the crowd walked to legislators’ offices in the nearby Pocahontas Building to urge lawmakers to support Medicaid expansion.

“Keep your energy up, keep your enthusiasm up,” Northam told the people at the rally. “And let’s make sure that in the next week, we expand coverage and make sure that all Virginians have access to affordable and quality health care.”

Bill Would Compensate ‘Norfolk Four’ Nearly $3.5 Million

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Nearly 20 years after the sentencing of the “Norfolk Four,” a bill before the Virginia General Assembly could provide nearly $3.5 million in compensation for the wrongfully convicted and imprisoned men.

Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derek Tice and Eric Wilson — all members of the U.S. Navy at the time — were wrongly convicted in 1999 for the 1997 rape and murder of 18-year-old Michelle Bosko.

Senate Bill 772, proposed by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would award each of the “Norfolk Four” more than $850,000. The bill passed in the Senate, and then in the House with a substitute. The substitute had the same amount of compensation as Surovell’s original bill — but the Senate rejected it Thursday.

Meanwhile, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, proposed House Bill 762. It also compensated the “Norfolk Four” nearly $3.5 million in total. The bill passed the House unanimously. However, the Senate Finance Committee recommended a substitute that lowered the amount of compensation to about $1.9 million. The House rejected that substitute Tuesday.

The legislation will now go to a conference committee to resolve the disagreement.

Representatives for Surovell and Jones were not immediately available to comment on the issue.

The legislation details the circumstances surrounding the “Norfolk Four,” noting that they “spent nearly four decades in prison collectively for crimes they did not commit, and another collective 30 years after release from prison under highly restrictive parole and sex offender registry conditions that imposed onerous barriers to their reentry to society.”

The four defendants were convicted because of their coerced confessions, even though the real rapist and murderer, Omar Ballard, confessed the same year to committing the crime alone and his DNA was found at the crime scene, bills state.

Ballard is currently an inmate at Sussex II State Prison and serving two life terms plus 42 years for capital murder, two rapes, two counts of malicious wounding, and abduction.

In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Kaine granted conditional pardons to Williams, Dick and Tice. The conditional pardon ended their sentences, but the men remained on the sex offender registry. Wilson had already been released from prison in 2005 after serving 8.5 years.

A decade after their convictions, U.S. District Judge John Gibney dismissed the convictions of Dick and Williams.

“Considering the evolution of their admissions, their subsequent recantation and the other physical evidence, the admissions of guilt by Williams, Dick and Tice are far from convincing,” Gibney’s decision stated. “Any reasonable juror considering all of the evidence would harbor reasonable doubt as to whether Williams, Dick, or anyone else, was with Ballard in Bosko’s apartment.”

In March 2017, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted the “Norfolk Four” unconditional pardons. That action fully restored their civil rights and innocence. A 2017 press release from McAuliffe’s office stated, “These pardons close the final chapter on a grave injustice that has plagued these four men for nearly 20 years.”

Besides the “Norfolk Four,” the General Assembly also is considering awarding compensation to Robert Davis, who spent almost 13 years in prison for a murder in Crozet, Virginia, that he did not commit.

On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in passing HB 1010, which would provide about $580,000 in compensation for Davis.

Furthermore, Virginia legislators have passed a bill to help other wrongfully convicted defendants.

On Monday, senators gave final approval to HB 976, which would ensure that Virginians who have been wrongfully incarcerated receive timely payment of a $15,000 grant from the state.

The bill, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, sets a 30-day time frame for those who have been exonerated to receive the existing Transitional Assistance Grant. Currently, there is no time limit for the state to disburse the money.

“It is a small difference that will make a huge difference in the lives of those who are already facing the challenge of getting back on their feet after being wrongfully incarcerated,” Guzman said in a press release.

Democrats Urge Republicans to Reconsider Gun Control Bills

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia House Democrats called on the Republicans who control the General Assembly to revive several guns control bills that they killed earlier this legislative session.

At a press conference Thursday, the Democrats said they want lawmakers to reconsider proposals that would require background checks on all gun purchases, prohibit people under 21 from buying semi-automatic weapons, ban “bump stocks” and allow authorities to take firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.           

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, called for responsible action against gun violence. She said it is time to take responsibility and provide a secure environment to protect children and the community.

“As a minister and former City Council person and legislator, there have been far too many crime scenes that I’ve found myself attending, and I’ve eulogized so many young people that I’ve lost count of that, all due to gun violence,” McQuinn said.

Over the years, Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation requiring background checks at gun shows. This year, he introduced House Bill 1373, which called for required background checks no matter where a gun is purchased. It was killed in the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

“People back home are going to be saying, ‘well, what a terrible crisis we went through in our country with the gun issue. What did you guys do about it?’” Plum said. “I’ll tell you what we did about it. We killed at least 35 bills that were common sense, gun control, safety legislation.”

Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, said she wants to hold semi-automatic weapons to the same standard as handguns. She called for an increase in the age requirement to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21. Delaney said this is a sensible and practical solution that needs to be recognized.

“An individual who is seen as too young to purchase a handgun can gain access to an assault weapon, like an AR-15, which can wreak mass havoc on the victims of their choosing,” Delaney said. “This is senseless.”

Delaney said the Democrats are not asking for a ban on guns or to strike anyone’s Second Amendment rights. She said they are asking the House to support legislation that has bipartisan support nationwide.

Working with Brian Moran, the secretary of public safety, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, filed a bill to ban bump stocks — devices used to make semi-automatic rifles fire faster. The bill, HB 819, also died in the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

“Unfortunately, gun safety is a political issue, it’s a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be,” Kory said. “Our neighbors, our friends, our families, our children deserve better. If we can’t even ban bump stocks, what can we do?”

After the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers. Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, a middle school teacher and president of the Hampton Federation of Teachers, said something must be done to secure schools, but arming teachers isn’t the answer.

“It takes a special kind of person to be a teacher, and the first instinct a teacher has is to protect everyone, protect the children, and not engage in a shootout that would place more children in danger,” Ward said. “It would make our classrooms less safe. Classrooms would become armed fortresses instead of a place of learning and a place to explore.”

Ward brought up other questions about arming teachers, including where the guns would be kept, what risks they might pose for students and who would pay for the guns, ammunition and training.

“Right now we have schools that are still looking for school nurses, they need more guidance counselors, they need more resource officers, and there are hundreds of other needs of schools, but we want to use this [money] to arm all teachers?” Ward said.

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 198, which would allow law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant to remove firearms from a person who poses a threat to themselves or others. Friends and family members can report concerns of a potential threat, and officers could then request a risk warrant from a judge. The individual could request the firearms be returned in court. HB 198 was referred to the House Committee for Courts of Justice, where it was never heard.

“What haunts you about HB 198, is that a bill like this, in Florida, just might have stopped Parkland,” Sullivan said. “And a bill like this, in Virginia, just might stop the next one.”

Law Will Provide Free Tampons to Female Prisoners

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Senate joined the House Tuesday in unanimously approving a bill that requires Virginia jails and prisons to provide inmates with free feminine hygiene products such as pads and tampons.

If Gov. Ralph Northam signs it, House Bill 83 would take effect in July.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, also received unanimous approval in the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee.

Other legislation this session to remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, along with bills for exemptions during the state’s three day tax-free period in August and year-round failed to advance past House committees.

“It’s appalling that this was ever even an issue,” said Katrina Reid, a supporter of HB 83.

Currently, the Virginia Department of Corrections and some local and regional jails offer pads to inmates for free; however, tampons must be purchased. The cost to prisons will be included in the department’s budget and was estimated at $33,769. The cost has yet to be determined for jails.

The State Board of Corrections will be responsible for creating the feminine hygiene policy in the correctional facilities. While some states, such as Colorado, offer unlimited menstrual supplies, others, such as Arizona, have a maximum number of free pads and tampons allowed per month. The board has not yet specified a preference.

Bill Banning Sanctuary Cities Heads to Senate Floor on 7-6 Vote

By George Copeland Jr.,Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- A bill to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia advanced to the Senate floor Tuesday on a 7-6 committee vote that split along party lines.
 
Introduced by Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, House Bill 1257 would restrict localities from passing sanctuary policies, which limit cooperation with national immigration enforcement efforts to improve relations with immigrant communities.  The legislation would require localities to follow immigration standards set by federal law, including collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
 
When the bill was under consideration in the House of Delegates, it was nearly struck down due to a tie vote.  However, reconsideration led to a second vote, with the bill passing 51-49, sending it to the Senate Committee on Local Government.
 
Gov. Ralph Northam is opposed to the bill and has said that sanctuary cities have not been a problem in the state; similar legislation last year was vetoed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
 
Sens. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, voiced concerns over how ICE’s presence would impact future business opportunities, state autonomy and the ability and community trust of local law enforcement.
 
Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Grayson, who supported the bill, cited the presence of violent gangs in the state  including MS-13.
 
“Without a law such as this,” Carrico said, “if a locality wants to create a sanctuary city, then what you’re doing, in essence, is protecting those gang members from ever being deported.”
 
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, countered that the legislation is “a message bill.”  She said there are already laws to check the immigration status of those jailed or imprisoned.
 
“This bill is not about MS-13,” McClellan said, “although I know that is what gets trotted out all the time as the boogeyman.” She added, “This bill sends a message to certain people: ‘You’re not welcome here.’”
 
There were no comments from the public in support of the bill.  Among those opposed were representatives from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
 
"It would increase the policing in our communities, it would make police officers quasi-federal immigration agents, which we don't want, right," said Diego Arturo Orbegoso, an immigrant from Peru and a member of the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.  
 
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brain Moran cited the “many unintended and even intended” effects of the bill in reiterating the governor’s opposition.
 
Voting in favor: Charles Carrico Sr., R-Grayson; Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield; William DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach; Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico; Emmett Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), William Stanley Jr., R-Franklin; and Glen Sturtevant Jr., R-Richmond.
 
Opposed: Barbara Favola, D-Arlington; Lynwood Lewis Jr., D-Accomack; David Marsden, D-Fairfax; Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond; Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William; and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

As College Tuition Rises, Senate Panel Kills Bill Mandating Public Input

By Lia Tabackman and Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In Fall 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University increased annual tuition by almost 24 percent, tacking $1,700 on to each in-state student’s bill in one fell swoop.

While that jump may seem like an outlier, tuition increases have been the norm at the state’s institutions of higher education during the past decade.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia have increased tuition by an average of 82 percent over the past 10 years. While various factors, including state budget cuts, contribute to tuition increases, these decisions take place at board meetings where it can be difficult for students and members of the public to make their voices heard.

Even so, a bill by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, to mandate public input on proposed tuition increases – as required in 10 other states – appears to be dead for this session.

HB 1473, which sought to require university trustees to hold a public comment period, unanimously passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 6. After the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 14-1 in favor of the bill, it then was sent to the Senate Finance Committee – which supporters saw as a bad omen.

They were right. On Tuesday, the Finance Committee killed the bill on a 6-4 vote. The next day, the committee reconsidered the matter – but the bill again was “passed by indefinitely,” 7-6.

The committee heard testimony from representatives of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, as well as from representatives of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a progressive advocacy agency for college affordability.

“It’s bad enough that the cost of higher education in Virginia is spiraling out of control,” said James Toscano, president of the affordability group. “But failing to ensure the voices of students and parents are heard before public appointees set tuition is a blow to good governance and transparency.”

While Toscano argued that Miyares’ bill is important for transparency, Betsey Daley, U.Va.’s associate vice president for state governmental relations, said the measure was unnecessary, as emails from board members, the president and other officials are already available online.

“One public hearing is not a substitute for year-round input we have at U.Va.,” Daley said.

According to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia, there is an inverse relationship between state funding and the rate at which tuition increases at public colleges and universities. When the state provides support for these institutions, the colleges themselves are better able to control fluctuating tuition costs.

In 2010, for example, VCU felt the impact of a $40 million budget cut, the same year tuition increased by 23 percent.

Virginia has established a cost-share goal of the state funding 67 percent of university operations and students fronting the remaining 33 percent; however, the state is expected to pay only 47 percent in 2018. Students will carry 53 percent, a record high.

According to SCHEV, it would take more than $660 million in additional state revenue to reach the 67/33 cost-share goal. But doing so could lower tuition costs by $2,700.

In the meantime, Virginia students owe more than $30 billion in student loan debt.

SB 394, a bill that would create a state ombudsman for student loan issues, has unanimously passed in the Senate and appears to be on its way for House approval.

Virginia Prisoners a Step Closer to Free Feminine Hygiene Products

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Prisons and jails in Virginia would have to start providing female inmates with free feminine hygiene products under a bill making its way through the General Assembly.

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee unanimously backed HB 83, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, on Friday. The bill won unanimous approval in the House on Feb. 13. It now goes to the full Senate.

The Virginia Department of Corrections already offers pads at no charge, but tampons are only available through commissaries, meaning inmates have to pay for them. Officials said the previously estimated $33,769 annual cost to supply the products could be covered within the department’s budget. The State Board of Corrections has yet to determine how local and regional jails who don’t already provide free products will pay for them.

“This is a great way to start a Friday,” Kory said after the morning meeting

Last week, Kory’s HB 152, which called for removing the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, was killed in the House along with the remaining “tampon tax” bills, which proposed tax exemptions on the items during the state’s three day tax-free period in August and year-round.

Holly Seibold, a member of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition, said although the group is disappointed the legislation failed, they are encouraged by progress toward free products for women who are incarcerated.

Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced two bills this year and one last year proposing tax-exemptions for feminine hygiene products, but none of the bills were approved. Still, she said she plans to introduce similar legislation moving forward.

Senate Panel Votes to Ban ‘Lunch Shaming’ in Virginia

By Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Senate committee Thursday unanimously approved a bill to prohibit “lunch shaming” – the practice of singling out students who owe the school cafeteria money or cannot pay for their lunch.

The Senate Education and Health Committee voted 15-0 in favor of House Bill 50, which would bar schools from giving students a hand stamp or wristband when their lunch account is empty, or ask students to do chores or throw away their meal if they cannot pay. The bill specifies that any concerns regarding students’ lunch debt must be taken up directly with their parents or guardians.

The bill, which unanimously passed the House last week and now goes to the full Senate, would address the concerns of parents like Adelle Settle, a mother in Prince William County. She started fundraising to help students settle lunch debts after hearing about the lunch shaming phenomenon on the radio. Last year, she helped raise over $20,000 for students with meal debt in Prince William.

“A child has no control over their family finances, and a child should have no involvement in the discussion between a school and the parent to collect for meal debt,” Settle said. “Our kids deserve to be treated equally and with compassion at school.”

The price of a school lunch in Virginia public elementary schools averages $1.88, but it can be as high as $3.05 in Loudoun County and $3 in Fairfax County and Falls Church, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.

As in all states, schools in Virginia participate in a federal program that provides free or reduced-price lunches to children from low-income families. Eligibility depends on income and household size. A four-person household must have an annual income of $44,955 or less to qualify for free lunches.

Students who receive free lunches are not at risk of being shamed by school staff because their meals are provided by government funding; the students cannot incur debts. Of the 1.29 million students in Virginia’s public schools, almost 572,000 – or 44 percent – qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But lunch shaming can affect the remaining students who pay for their lunch out of pocket and occasionally may not have the money.

Reports of meal-debt shaming vary across the country but include practices such as stamping “I need lunch money” on students’ hands, asking students to wipe down tables or throwing away the lunch that can’t be paid for.

In Virginia, procedures handling school lunch debt vary by school district. Some school districts allow students a certain amount of debt before refusing to provide them with a standard meal. Other districts treat all students the same, regardless of whether they owe money.

“Students unable to pay for their meal at the time of meal service are allowed to charge a breakfast and lunch,” said Shawn Smith, director of government, policy and media relations for Chesterfield County Public Schools. “This may result in a debt to the student’s meal account with the expectation that the parent or guardian is responsible for full payment.”

Virginia’s strides to abolish lunch shaming aren’t the first. Last year, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced a bill that would make it illegal to shame a student who doesn’t have lunch money.

Virginia Teenagers May Rescue Volunteer Fire Departments

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to allow teenagers to join volunteer fire and rescue squads may save many operations around Virginia that have seen an increase in service calls but a decrease in volunteers.

Volunteers make up more than 65 percent of Virginia’s firefighting services – but according to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, “retention and recruitment of new members has never been more challenging.”

However, the General Assembly approved – unanimously in both the House and Senate – a bill that might rescue some of these operations.

Currently in Virginia, 16- and 17-year-olds can join a volunteer fire department only with parental or guardian consent and proper certification. SB 887, if signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, would allow these teens to join a volunteer fire department and participate in non-hazardous activities such as training exercises without consent or certification. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds still would need consent and certification to participate in a fire department’s or rescue squad’s potentially hazardous activities.

“The commonwealth recognizes the need to reach out to Virginia’s youth and engage them in non-operational roles within emergency departments,” Mohamed Abbamin, policy manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, said by email. “Reaching out to people when they are young has long-range effects, and encouraging youth to take part in the emergency services is extremely beneficial to local communities and departments.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, introduced the bill after a meeting with the VDFP in the fall.

“It’s just like anything else: If you can get young people involved, there’s a better chance they’re going to stick with it,” Deeds said. “This bill is just about encouraging and making sure that young people can be as involved as possible.”

The legislation directs the Virginia Fire Services Board, which oversees the VDFP, to adopt a junior member policy to provide guidance to fire and rescue departments in developing and administering non-hazardous training courses and programs.

“If we can get young people that are high school age involved at least on an auxiliary basis helping out, they might be interested in eventually becoming a fireman. So that’s the idea behind the legislation,” Deeds said.

Delegate Tyler Sponsors Bill to Protect Correctional Officers

Correctional Officers from across the Commonwealth gathered for a Press Conference and lobbying day on Capitol Hill in Richmond to Voice their concerns for increased salaries, improved working conditions and officer’s turnover along with Delegate Roslyn Tyler (Sussex) and Delegate John Bell (Loudon). Delegate Tyler’s District includes the following state correctional centers in Greensville County, Sussex I and II, Deerfield, Lunenburg and the private prison in Lawrenceville.  HB 1418 introduced by Delegate Tyler for the Creation of Procedural Guarantee Act for Correction Officers has passed the House of Delegate’s and has now crossed over to the Senate. Additionally, she was recently appointed to serve on the House of Appropriations, Sub-Committee on Public Safety which funding allocations are recommended for public safety officers including the state police, sheriffs, deputies, emergency services and state correctional officers.

In the budget released this week, the Correctional Officers are winners. The House of Appropriations budget includes a $1,100 salary adjustment in January 2019 and 2% increase in salary in July 2019 and 1% merit pay in July, 2019. This funding will increase the starting salaries of Correctional Officers to approximately $33,000. This is one giant step towards funding correction officers for the work they do in protecting our community from harm and danger.

The officers, Donald Baylor, the NCPSO representative and I have addressed this issue for a long time and we are pleased of our accomplishment. Our work is not over. The final budget has not been passed by the House and the Senate. The two budgets will be in conference before final passage for negotiations. Therefore, contact the House and Senate Conferee to maintain funding in the budget for final approval.  Please feel free to contact me in Richmond at 804 698-1075.

Two Bills May Save Babies’ Lives

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On July 1, Tennessee added a rare genetic disorder called MPS I to its newborn screening program. On July 13, Ruby Kate Leonard, whose parents live in Russell County, Virginia, was born in Bristol, Tennessee. Nine days after that, Ruby Kate’s parents received a call that she tested positive for MPS I. Treatment for the infant began immediately.

Had Ruby Kate been born in Russell County, early detection and treatment would not have been possible — because Virginia does not test for MPS I. When state Del. Todd Pillion, a Republican whose House district includes Russell County, heard Ruby Kate’s story, he introduced a bill to rectify the situation.

HB 1174 would add MPS I and Pompe disease, another rare genetic disorder, to Virginia’s newborn screening program. On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing a version of the bill. The two chambers still must work out minor differences before the legislation goes to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

The law would be welcome news to Ruby Kate’s family.

“We had heard of the disease, but we didn’t really know what it was,” said Ashley Keene, Ruby Kate’s mother. “She’s the first baby in Tennessee to be diagnosed with the disease through the new screening program.”

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

Other conditions also require immediate attention. Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, introduced HB 1362 after a baby boy in his district died after being diagnosed with a condition called MCADD too late. Since he was born on a Saturday and labs are closed on the weekends, the test results didn’t come in until the following Monday and the baby didn’t make it. The bill asks The Division of Consolidated Services and any other contracted labs by the Department of Health to screen newborns and children for time-critical disorders seven days a week.

“Had the labs been open on weekends the child would’ve been healthy,” Austin said.

A Senate Education and Health subcommittee approved HB 1362 on Tuesday. Monday’s Senate approval of HB 1174 included a substitute saying the bill can go into effect so long as funds are appropriated for it.

“This legislation will move Virginia in the right direction to make this critically important early detection possible, which is a crucial first step toward better health outcomes and lower long-term health costs,” Pillion said in a press release.

Ruby Kate has been receiving treatment at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., since September and has recently recovered from a fever. The family is now dealing with possible complications with her kidneys, according to the Ruby Kate’s Fight Facebook page.

“In the midst of everything we’re going through it’s just nice to know that this could help other babies like Ruby Kate,” Keene said.

Delegate Aims to Rein in ‘Predatory Loans,’ to No Avail

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “You’re pre-approved!” CashNetUSA, a Chicago-based company, exclaimed in a letter to Alexandria resident Mark Levine. “$1,000 is waiting!” Smaller print at the bottom of the solicitation noted that the annual interest rate would be 299 percent. As a result, the interest on a $1,000 loan, repaid over a year with monthly payments of $268, would total $2,213.

Levine wasn’t just any name on CashNetUSA’s direct-mail list. He’s also a state delegate. In his weekly newsletter to constituents, he said the interest on the loan would be far higher than the company’s figures. Surprised and outraged by the ad, he introduced a bill this legislative session to ban high-interest loans.

“If someone needs money in an emergency, then they shouldn’t have to be straddled with obscene debt for years,” Levine said. “I would love to see how many people actually are able to pay back these offensive interest rates – because the goal of these predatory loans isn’t to get people to pay them back in full; it’s to make sure they are declaring bankruptcy so the company can get everything they own.”

A CashNetUSA spokesperson disputed Levine’s characterization, saying that it is not the company’s practice to file proofs of claim against consumers in bankruptcy in Virginia and that its product is an unsecured credit offering regardless.

According to the National Consumer Law Center, Virginia is one of four states that do not regulate interest rates and borrowing requirements on open-credit loans offered by in-store or online lenders.

Dana Wiggins, director of outreach and consumer advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said open-credit loans, which critics call predatory loans, do not take into account a borrower’s ability to repay. These loans typically have fee costs and interest rates of more than 100 percent, she said.

House Bill 404, introduced by Levine, a Democrat, in January, sought to cap the interest rate at 36 percent and give borrowers up to 25 days to pay back their loan before it would accrue interest. The bill was co-sponsored by Republican Dels. Gordon Helsel of Poquoson and David Yancey of Newport News and Democratic Dels. Paul Krizek and Kathleen Murphy, both of Fairfax.

However, the measure died last week in the House Commerce and Labor Committee after a subcommittee voted 6-2along party lines to kill it. Robert Baratta, representing the lender Check Into Cash Inc., spoke in opposition to the bill at the subcommittee’s meeting, saying it would hurt consumers by limiting their options for borrowing money.

In recent years, Virginia has cracked down on payday loans, forbidding them from charging more than 36 percent annual interest.

“I still feel like 36 percent is still too high,” Levine said. “But at least then, borrowers have a chance to pay these loans back. Because right now, if anyone were to take one of these (open-credit) loans out, my advice to them would be for them to declare bankruptcy the next day.”

According to Wiggins, the problem regulating high-interest loans can be traced to 1998 when Virginia first allowed payday loans to operate in the state.

“It’s like regulatory whack-a-mole,” Wiggins said. “Every time you put a restriction on them, these companies morph their product to be just enough different and just outside the law that’s trying to rein them in, so that they end up getting around that state statute and then another statute.”

Attorney General Mark Herring has been working on the issue of predatory loans since 2014.

“Virginians who resort to Internet loans are often exploited by their own circumstances – in need of money for groceries, rent, or car repairs,” Herring said in a press release after settling a case against a Las Vegas-based internet lending company, Mr. Amazing Loans, in October.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received more than 1,270 complaints about CashNetUSA or its parent company, Enova International. Complainants said the company had raised its interest rates, sought extra payments, threatened legal action against borrowers and made fraudulent claims of debt owed.

However, the CashNetUSA spokesperson said most of the claims were the result of fraud or criminal activity by fake debt collectors.

Wiggins said it’s possible to create government regulations that allow lenders to make a profit and protect borrowers from unscrupulous practices. She said Arkansas, North Carolina and other states have done so.

Officials at the Virginia Poverty Law Center were not surprised that Levine’s bill died in committee.

“We didn’t necessarily work with him or ask for him to put the bill in,” Wiggins said. “But not because we don’t agree with the policy itself – but because there is no political will to make that happen in the General Assembly.”

Citizen Groups Voice Concerns Over Medicaid Expansion

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A few days after the Republican-controlled House of Delegates reached a bipartisan compromise on Medicaid expansion, both conservative and progressive citizen groups are voicing their concerns.

The proposal, HB 338, would require “able-bodied adult” individuals seeking Medicaid to fulfill a work requirement – to pursue training, employment, education, or “other community engagement opportunities” – in order to obtain health care coverage. The work requirement would not apply to children, or to adults who are over 65, have certain disabilities or are the primary caregiver for a dependent.

The Family Foundation, a Richmond-based grassroots conservative organization, urged residents in a blog post on Tuesday to contact their delegates and voice their opposition to the notion of expanding Medicaid.

“After eight years of holding the line and refusing to ‘take the bait’ for a massive federal power grab, corresponding spikes in healthcare costs, and virtually guaranteed new tax liabilities for hardworking Virginians, the House plan would now capitulate to the specious promise of ‘free money’ from the federal government to pay for healthcare,” the post said.

The organization acknowledged that more Virginians will receive care under the plan but argued that it would come at a cost to taxpayers. “While tax increases may not be immediate, they are inevitable if this policy goes through,” the post said.

Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy organization, also spoke out against the proposal, but for different reasons. It argued that while the House plan to expand Medicaid is a step in the right direction, the work requirement is a cause for concern.

“From the outset, we have opposed attempts to put punitive barriers between Virginians and access to care,” the organization stated in a press release on Sunday. “We have serious reservations about language in the House budget that puts financial restrictions on families’ access to care, premises access to care on the ability to find a good-paying job, or locks our friends and neighbors out of access.”

In a blog post, Progress Virginia argued that work requirements are ineffective and ultimately make health care harder to obtain. The organization also urged progressives to contact their delegates in support of a “clean Medicaid expansion” – Medicaid expansion without the work requirement.

“People have to be healthy in order to work, but that isn’t possible when they don’t have health insurance and can’t see a doctor when they need to,” Progress Virginia said. “Work requirements don’t create jobs or raise wages – they put onerous and punitive requirements between our friends and neighbors and the healthcare they need.”

Gov. Ralph Northam said that while he supports a more “straightforward” expansion of Medicaid, he is willing to compromise with Republicans.

“I respect the priorities of the House majority and I am encouraged by and supportive of our work together to bring about a new ‘Virginia Way’ on Medicaid,” Northam said in a statement on Sunday.

“I look forward to working with the House and Senate to finalize this proposal, ensure its passage and pursue an implementation plan that will provide the benefits of expanded coverage to Virginia families.”

At Session’s Midpoint, Black Lawmakers Hail Success

Senators Rosalyn Dance, D- Richmond, and Louise Lucas, D- Chesapeake, discuss legislation at a VBLC press conference.

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – African-American lawmakers said Monday they have been successful this legislative session in addressing the problem of food deserts, funding apprenticeships for high school students and relaxing overly harsh school disciplinary policies.

At a press conference, members of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus said they generally are pleased with how the session has progressed as it enters the second half.

“In the House and Senate, we have seen legislation advanced to address the long overdue need for an increase in felony threshold so that people are not harmed for life for relatively small mistakes; stop the suspension of drivers’ licenses, which makes it even harder for people to pay for their fines and court fees; reduce the imposition of counterproductive school suspensions for younger students; and tax credits for businesses that train Richmond high school students for good jobs,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the caucus chair.

The lawmakers said they were pleased that several bills were moving forward:

  • SB 937 would provide a $2,500 tax credit to businesses offering apprenticeships for Richmond high school students. “Once that pilot is successful, we will expand it across the commonwealth because we realize that not everyone is going to college,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
  • HB 1600 would reduce the maximum school suspension from 364 days to 45 days with exceptions for aggravating circumstances. “We can’t continue to use access to education as punishment and expect to change the outcomes for our young people,” said Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. “This is just one important step in dismantling and disrupting the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”
  • SB 37 would fund construction and improvements of grocery stores and food retailers in underserved communities known as food deserts. Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, said the bill would help prevent diabetes, heart disease and other health problems related to diet.
  • HB 1550 and SB 105 would raise the threshold for grand larceny – a felony crime – from $200 to $500. The current threshold hasn’t been changed since 1980.

“You just don’t know how many kids and college students, as a part of a dare, or pressure from peer groups go and commit dumb mistakes,” said Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk. He said young people convicted of felony theft under the existing threshold suffer lifelong consequences “keeping them away from the ballot box, keeping them away from business opportunities, keeping them away from educational opportunities.”

Despite those legislative successes, caucus members expressed disappointment about the fate of bills such as SB 909. It would have made it illegal in the housing industry to discriminate against people based on their “source of income,” including whether they receive government assistance. A Senate committee voted to put off the bill until next year.

“When I talk about low-income housing, I’m also talking about middle-class housing for our firefighters, our police officers, our teachers that too often can’t afford to live in the communities that they serve,” McClellan said.

House Panel Next to Consider Senate Coal Ash Legislation

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate bill extending the moratorium on permanently closing coal ash ponds appears to be the only legislation on the issue poised to move forward from this General Assembly session.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, introduced six pieces of legislation on coal ash, and coal ash ponds, where stored ash potentially risks contaminating groundwater.

The lone survivor is SB 807, which  passed in the Senate 37-3 last week. Co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, the bill would extend the moratorium on closing ponds where coal ash is stored until after the next legislative session, and would also require that Dominion Energy, the owners of the coal ash ponds, submit reports  to the General Assembly and governor on the cost of recycling the material. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants

The bill’s next step is to go before a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

Surovell said he has doubts about Dominion Energy estimates that recycling the utility’s ash would cost more than  $4 billion.

“I'm not convinced that Dominion’s numbers are accurate. I’m hopeful that with the new process we put in place, that the cost assessments for recycling will come down.” Surovell said.

According to Surovell, the Dominion utility rate cap bill  has dominated the session to the point that other legislation, including his own, suffered.

The moratorium  passed with support from environmental groups and Dominion Energy.

Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson said that Dominion has taken several actions to protect the environment since it was ordered in 2015 to resolve the coal ash issue.

Richardson said that Dominion plans to reduce the number of coal ash ponds at the Bremo power station in New Canton to just one within the next six months. The utility has already reduced the number of ponds at Possum Point in Dumfries from five to one. Overall, Richardson said, Dominion will have reduced the number of coal ash ponds under federal regulation from 11 to four.

Richardson also said that Dominion is currently recycling over 700,000 tons of coal ash a year, and is draining water from its Chesterfield power station ponds. He said Dominion stands by “cap in place” practices and that it has followed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.    

“What we are hoping first as far as a priority, is closing these ponds in a way that is fully protective of the environment.” Richardson said

Environmental groups have been skeptical, however, especially after Dominion was found guilty in federal court of violating the Clean Water Act for contaminating Virginia’s Elizabeth River with arsenic in 2017. The judge in the case, however, said the leak was considered small enough that it didn’t pose a threat to public health.

The Virginia branch of the Sierra Club, which filed the Elizabeth River suit, considers “cap in place” unsafe, The organization supports Surovell’s bill.

“Removing the ash or potentially recycling are the only responsible way to deal with toxic waste,” said Kate Addleson, director of the club’s Virginia chapter.  “We feel it’s important to make sure there are ways to evaluate the best way to dispose of the ash properly before moving forward.”

New Law Would Bring Public Meetings into the Digital Age

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bringing government further into the digital age, the General Assembly has given final approval to two bills that aim to modernize how members of city councils, school boards and other public bodies can attend and hold meetings using electronic technologies.

HB 906 and HB 908 would make it easier for public officials and citizens to attend meetings remotely and restrict public officials from texting each other during meetings. Both bills were introduced by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and would amend Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which ensures that citizens have access to public records upon request and the right to attend public government meetings.

On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in unanimously passing the two bills. They now go to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

The measures were recommended by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that resolves FOIA disputes. The council consulted the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that works to improve public access to government records and meetings. The coalition’s executive director, Megan Rhyne, said her group didn’t have any objections to the legislation.

HB 908 would remove a requirement for public officials attending a meeting remotely to have that remote area be open to the public. This would allow officials to call in from their home or a hotel room without making that area open to the public.

Alan Gernhardt, the executive director and senior attorney at the Virginia FOIA Council, said the current law dates back before people had cellphones and had to call in remotely from places such as community colleges and conference rooms.

“Of course, today, everyone’s got a cellphone,” Gernhardt said. “People can literally call in from anywhere. It just doesn’t make sense to require those to be open to the public in the same way, as if you were at a conference facility or something.”

To ensure transparency, however, the bill states that members of the public must have access to a “substantially equivalent” electronic means to witness the meeting.

“I think that [HB] 908 was trying to strike a balance between members of a public body using technology to participate as a member, but also preserving public right of access to meetings that may not all be in one place,” Rhyne said.

Gernhardt said the bill will enable people who can’t otherwise attend a public meeting to keep track of the meeting on their cellphone or computer.

“Especially for some people who are at work or are watching their kids and they can’t physically come to Richmond,” Gernhardt said, “this gives them a little more chance to actually observe and witness the operation of government, and that is extending the purpose of FOIA.”

HB 906 clarifies the definition of electronic communication in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Gernhardt said that previously, the definition didn’t cover methods of communication such as text messages, and that started to create problems at public meetings.

“They had a public meeting going on, but people were text messaging each other,” Gernhardt said. “And we said ‘Wait a second. Isn’t that kind of like having an electronic meeting within a regular meeting?’ It made everyone uncomfortable, at the very least.”

Rhyne said that in addition to supporting these pieces of legislation, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government also supports upcoming bills such as SB 336, which requires every elected public body to allow the opportunity for public comment during any open meeting.

After Shooting, Democrats and Republicans Mourn But Disagree Over Guns

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have expressed frustration over Republicans’ refusal to take up gun control legislation in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Florida.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, but our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” House Minority Leader David Toscano and Del. Charniele Herring, who chairs the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead and 14 injured. It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“These tragedies are not inherently inevitable; rather, they are enabled by the continued failure of policy-makers to act,” Toscano and Herring stated. “We have been entrusted by the public to institute policies to keep our communities safe, and we are failing the people who elected us to do so.”

Republican legislators said that they too are concerned about gun violence but that lawmakers should not be rash.

“It seems like we’re playing whack-a-mole,” said Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico. “Every time there’s a problem in society, we want to have a quick reaction. That’s why I say we need to stand back and see what’s going on.”

Democrats chided Republicans for such statements, including a comment by Del. Thomas Wright, R-Lunenberg, who said of the Florida shooting: “My heart goes out. But when it comes to the constitutional right to defend yourself and your family, that’s something that’s guaranteed.”

On the Senate floor, Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, said shootings happen at schools because they are gun-free zones. “The idea that we disarm our people in the schools – we forbid our teachers and our staff from carrying concealed firearms – is a mistake,” he said.

This legislative session, Virginia Republicans proposed bills to repeal the state’s prohibition on bringing weapons to houses of worship. Such a measure passed the Senate on a party-line vote and is awaiting action in the House.

Virginia Democrats also have proposed several bills regarding guns, including:

  • Banning bump stocks, a device that allows a semi-automatic rifle to mimic the firing speed of a fully automatic weapon. Bump stocks were used by the shooter who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a concert in Las Vegas in October.
  • Instituting universal background checks on people who want to buy guns, including in private sales and at gun shows. Democrats said opinion polls show that most Virginians support such a law.
  • Keeping guns away from individuals who may present a threat to themselves or others. Legislationintroduced by Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr., D-Arlington, would have allowed prosecutors and law enforcement officers to seek a court order to remove firearms from such individuals.

All of those bills were killed in committees controlled by Republicans.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that he would visit the site of the Florida massacre and make school safety a priority when he meets with the nation’s governors next month.

“To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain,” Trump said. “Your suffering is our burden also.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Americans to come together and not politicize the shooting. “This is pure evil,” he said.

The shooter has been identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School for disciplinary reasons. Students who knew Cruz said he openly talked about his infatuation with guns. The FBI was warned in January that Cruz was a potential threat but did not act on the information.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin, a teacher from Virginia Beach, discussed the shooting on the floor of the Virginia House. Like Ryan, she urged people to refrain from playing politics with the tragedy. But Turpin said that should not prevent legislators from enacting gun laws.

“Our call to action is not a political one but a plea for mercy, a plea that we will put politics aside and address this crisis head-on,” Turpin said.

“Waiting around for the right time to have this conversation, yet again, will only put more lives at risk. There are too many empty chairs in dining rooms across America due to our inaction on gun reform.”

​​Schools Still Need State’s OK to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Legislation allowing Virginia school districts to start classes before Labor Day is dead for this session of the General Assembly. ​

A Senate committee on Thursday postponed until 2019 consideration of the remaining two bills that would have given local school boards the power to decide when to begin classes.

The Senate Committee on Education and Health folded House Bill 1020 into House Bill 372 and then voted 9-6 to put off the legislation until next year.

Supporters of the bills 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 Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, who has been teaching for 12 years and is currently at Glen Allen High School.

VanValkenburg co-sponsored HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority. That measure did not get out of the House Education Committee.

Under the current law, in place since 1986, school districts are required to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

School districts can get the waiver if they have been closed an average of eight 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.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 372 as part of her platform for education reform. She said she believes in giving school boards the authority to make decisions instead of state government bureaucrats.

At Session’s Midpoint, 40% of Bills Are Still Alive

By George Copeland Jr. and Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly’s 2018 session has reached its midpoint, with more than 1,000 bills passing between the House and Senate, including potential changes to health care, criminal justice and transportation.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City, was pleased with what his party has accomplished this session.

“From measures that will make healthcare more accessible and affordable, to meaningful legislation to grow our economy, Republican senators have been unified in their commitment to improving the lives of all Virginians,” Norment said.

But more than 1,500 pieces of legislation on issues like marijuana decriminalization and gun violence have failed, having never made it out of committee.

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, criticized the GOP majority in the House for killing legislation such as his proposal to create a legal process to temporarily remove the firearms of someone who, according to family members or friends, is a risk to himself or others.

"These bills never received a subcommittee assignment, let alone a hearing,” Sullivan said.

Tuesday was “crossover day,” the deadline for bills to clear their house of origin:

●      Of the 1,609 House bills, delegates passed 589, or 37 percent. They now will be considered by the Senate.

●      Of the 994 Senate bills, senators approved 469, or 47 percent. They have been sent to the House for consideration.

Here is a rundown on the status of key legislation:

Bills that have ‘crossed over’ and are still alive

Immigration: HB 1257 would require Virginia to follow the immigration laws set by the federal government, potentially prohibiting so-called sanctuary cities. The measure was briefly defeated in the House on a tie vote. But then delegates reconsidered and voted 51-49 to send the bill to the Senate.

Education: HB 1419 would increase students’ recess time at school “to develop teamwork, social skills, and overall physical fitness.” HB 50 targets “lunch-shaming” by teachers — an unofficial practice in which students who can’t afford or owe money for school meals must do work or wear a special wristband or stamp.

African-American cemeteries: Several bills would allow qualifying groups to collect state funds for maintaining historically black cemeteries in Loudoun County (SB 163), Charlottesville (HB 360) and Portsmouth (SB 198 and HB 527). Last year, the General Assembly approved such funding for select Richmond cemeteries. Another proposal (HB 284) would cover every black cemetery in Virginia.

Medical Marijuana: HB 1251 would allow wider certification for medical marijuana usage, and increases the amount of medical marijuana dispensed by providers from a 30-day to 90-day supply.

Energy conservation: SB 894 would establish the Virginia Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund. It would give no-interest loans to public institutions for energy conservation and efficiency projects. Its passage comes after several bills focused on expanding solar energy and capping carbon dioxide emissions in the commonwealth failed in the House and Senate.

Transportation: HB 1539 and HB 1319 would create a reform commision for the Washington Metro and provide more money for mass transit in Northern Virginia. SB 583 would raise the motor vehicle fuels tax by 2.1 percent in the western part of Virginia to fund improvements on Interstate 81.

Economic development: HB 222 would offer tax breaks to companies that create jobs paying at least twice the minimum wage in certain localities. The localities are mostly rural areas in southern and western Virginia and along the Chesapeake Bay but also include Petersburg.

Criminal justice: HB 1550  and SB 105 aim to raise the threshold for grand larceny from $250 to $500. The new limit would keep people who steal amounts under it from being branded as felons. The current threshold, implemented in 1980, is one of the lowest in the country.

Health care: HB 338 could open the door to Medicaid expansion in Virginia — an issue championed by Democrats but historically opposed by Republicans. The bill, which outlines work requirements for Medicaid recipients, made it through the House in the final days before crossover.

Government transparency: SB 592 would prohibit the personal use of any campaign funds. Candidates guilty of converting campaign assets for personal use would be forced to repay the amount exploited to the State Board of Elections and could face additional fines.

Prisons: Under HB 83, correctional facilities would have to ensure that female inmates have free access to feminine hygiene products. The bill comes less than a year after Congress passed similar legislation for federal prisons.

Bills that have failed for this session

Bump stocks: A bill banning the use of bump stocks — mechanical devices that increase the rate of fire of rifles — failed in a House subcommittee. HB 41 was introduced in response to the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, where 58 people died and over 500 were injured.

Civil Rights: Attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in SJ 4HJ 2 and HJ 4 failed to advance beyond their original chambers.

Childbearing: HB 67 would have prohibited any employer in Virginia from discharging an employee on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition, including lactation. The bill was killed by a House subcommittee. Existing law applies only to employers with five to 15 employees.

Tampon tax: Feminine hygiene products will continue to be taxed after HB 152 died in the House.

Marijuana decriminalization: SB 111, which aimed to allow simple possession, was rejected in a 6-9 vote by a Senate subcommittee. HB 974, which would have legalized the possession and distribution of medical marijuana, also failed.

Mental health: HB 252 would have required at least one mental health counselor for every 250 students in each high school in Virginia. HB 174 would have established protocols for police officers when communicating with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities.

In a press release, Gov. Ralph Northam commended the General Assembly’s efforts, calling the 2018 session “the most productive period I have seen since I came to the General Assembly in 2008.”

“I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to continue this progress and meet the challenges our fellow Virginians have asked us to solve.”

Virginia May Create Ombudsman to Help with Student Loans

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia legislators are seeking to mitigate the personal and economic consequences of their constituents’ student loan debt by creating a state-level ombudsman to troubleshoot problems and educate borrowers regarding college loans.

In 2017, more than 1 million Virginians owed more than $30 billion in student loan debt, state officials say. Nationally, student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and climbing.

“Virginians owe more on student loans than we do on credit cards or car loans, but only student loans lack consumer protections,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

This week, the Senate and House each passed bills to create the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman and establish a Borrower’s Bill of Rights. SB 394 passed the Senate unanimously on Monday; HB 1138 cleared the House, 94-5, on Tuesday.

Supporters say the ombudsman’s office would help college students secure loans and understand how to pay them off. They said the office also would establish a culture of transparency, fairness and open communication between loan providers and borrowers.

Besides reviewing and resolving borrower complaints, the ombudsman would educate loan borrowers about their rights and responsibilities and about potential problems such as late payments.

By December 2019, the ombudsman would develop a course for borrowers, half of whom are under 25.

“Too many student borrowers sign their names on the dotted line at only 18 or 19 years old without fully comprehending their rights and responsibilities associated with that debt, but also knowing that without those loans they would not be able to earn their degrees,” said Del. Maria “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored HB 1138.

In addition, the Senate unanimously approved SB 362, which would require companies that handle the billing and other services on student loans to obtain a license from the State Corporation Commission.

Virginia is not the first jurisdiction to experiment with measures to protect student loan borrowers. Washington, D.C., established a student loan ombudsman and Borrower’s Bill of Rights a year ago.

The bipartisan approval of the legislation marks a win for Gov. Ralph Northam, who included the creation of a student loan ombudsman among his top priorities for the 2018 session.

Price also sponsored a bill that aimed to create a state agency to help Virginians refinance their student loan debt. HB 615 was killed on a 5-3 party-line vote in a House Appropriations subcommittee.

High Schools May Offer American Sign Language As Foreign Language Credit

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — American Sign Language may soon be offered as a foreign language credit in Virginia high schools.

In 2011, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring colleges and universities to accept high school American Sign Language classes as part of their entrance requirements. Now, Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, who sponsored that bill, has introduced HB 84, which would give students high school credits for those classes as well.

Bell described American Sign Language as a way for the deaf or hard of hearing to communicate wherever they go. He said most larger colleges and universities offer a course on the topic.

"University of Virginia has an American Sign Language program where they teach it,” Bell said. “They’ve had a pretty robust program.”

Bell said the idea for HB 84 was brought to his attention by a young lady and her aunt.

“The young lady wrote me a letter asking that, if high schools don’t offer American Sign Language, students be allowed to take a virtual learning class or community college class to American Sign Language,” he said.

HB 84 was amended to allow the American Sign Language courses to be taught by multidivision online providers, which are approved by the Virginia Board of Education and offer online and virtual classes to K-12 students. Bell said Virginia has 20 such providers, each with certified teachers who are reviewed annually.

HB 84 passed the House unanimously on Feb. 6. A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Friday in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

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