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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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McAuliffe vetoes bills he says could restrict voting rights

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law ensures Virginians can resell tickets

By Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gov. McAuliffe expected to sign marijuana reforms

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New laws would help and hurt access to information

By Megan Corsano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – For advocates of government transparency, the General Assembly’s 2017 session was a mixed bag, resulting in bills that both increased and decreased information available under the Freedom of Information Act.

According to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the session saw fewer FOIA-related bills than in past years. Even so, the group stayed busy opposing legislation that Rhyne said would keep important information from the public.

She said one such bill was HB 1678, which would have allowed information on the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to be withheld from mandatory disclosure under FOIA. The bill cleared the House of Delegates but was ultimately defeated in the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee.

Rhyne said the “most concerning” bill this legislative session was HB 2043, which would have made the release of the names of police officers involved in police shooting investigations a Class 1 misdemeanor.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, was narrowly approved by the House General Laws Committee. However, Miller withdrew the measure when it reached the House floor.

Many FOIA-related bills did make it through the General Assembly.

Rhyne was glad to see SB 1102 pass both the House and Senate. It would require that records of “unattended deaths” – in which the dead person is not found for several days or weeks – be accessible to family members of the victims involved.

According to Rhyne, “unattended deaths” usually end up being police-confirmed suicides. Under a current FOIA exemption, family members of the deceased can be denied access to the records in the case.

“Now police will have to give families that information instead of using the exemption that allows them to withhold investigative records,” Rhyne said.

To Rhyne, this reflects a greater awareness among lawmakers about openness in government. “I don’t know that we would have seen that kind of incremental change five years ago,” she said.

The 2017 General Assembly also passed bills requiring a list of FOIA officers to be available online, clarifying where minutes from public meetings should be posted and requiring the Freedom of Information Advisory Council to develop an online form that allows the public to comment on the quality of assistance from that agency.

At the same time, several bills were passed that will result in less access to information under FOIA, Rhyne said. They include HB 1587, which would create a FOIA exemption for engineering and construction plans for single-family homes except when requested by the home’s applicant.

Legislators also passed HB 1971, which would allow government agencies to withhold information on investigations into cases of child abuse, neglect or assault.

And SB 1226 would create a FOIA exemption for certain records when a government agency contracts for solar photovoltaic services or buys solar power equipment. The business involved could specify that certain documents are proprietary information or trade secrets, and they would be exempt from mandatory disclosure under FOIA.

Those bills now go to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for approval.

Other bills that would have opened government to more disclosure failed in the General Assembly. For example, HB 2401, which would have required public bodies to take minutes and make audio recordings of closed meetings, died in the House General Laws Committee.

Although this was a low-key session for bills concerning open government, Rhyne is optimistic for the future.

“It has been encouraging to see a growing number of legislators introducing access-friendly bills and also getting good votes on some of these bills,” she said.

Some female hunters have sights set on pink camo

By Jessica Samuels, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Cassie Crouch of Bedford, Virginia, started hunting when she met the man whom she later would marry. “It was one of our first dates,” she said. In 2010, Crouch and her husband Daniel even celebrated their wedding anniversary by hunting wild hogs.

Crouch, who uses a variety of guns as well as a bow and arrow, likes the fact that hunters soon may have a choice of colors for their hunting safety apparel: Hunters would be able to wear bright pink, instead of being limited to blaze orange, under a bill approved by the General Assembly during its recent session.

Another female hunter – Amanda Bailey of Tazewell County – also is looking forward to the new law.

“I would love having the option of wearing pink camouflage or orange,” said Bailey, who hunts deer, elk, coyotes and bear and uses a variety of firearms.

Crouch and Bailey are among a number of female hunters hoping Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs HB 1939into law. If he does, the bill – which was approved unanimously by the House of Delegates and 35-5 by the Senate – will take effect July 1.

HB 1939, sponsored by Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, states that “every hunter and every person accompanying a hunter shall (i) wear a blaze orange or blaze pink hat … or blaze orange or blaze pink upper body clothing, that is visible from 360 degrees or (ii) display at least 100 square inches of solid blaze orange or blaze pink material at shoulder level within body reach visible from 360 degrees.”

Many female hunters and stores that cater to them already have been considering pink as a camo option. It’s all part of an effort to give women a choice of colors to wear out in the field. Retailers have begun marketing hoodies, hats and T-shirts for hunters – all in pink.

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is among the legislators who voted for the bill.

“My fellow House members who support the addition of blaze pink to be approved hunting clothing explained that blaze pink is more readily seen at a distance than the traditional hunter’s orange,” Kory said. “Therefore, I supported HB 1939.”

Virginia is not the only state offering blaze pink as a substitute for blaze orange for hunters. Wisconsin was the first, and since then, New York, Colorado and Louisiana have followed suit.

Some believe that the color option will draw more women to hunting. About 13,000 women currently are registered to hunt in Virginia.

While some women see the new law as a fashion statement, other female hunters prefer blaze orange to blaze pink.

Tamala Doup, who lives in Midlothian, has been hunting most of her life. She killed her first deer at age 11. Doup hunts every year between November and beginning of January, using a black powder rifle.

“I personally prefer the blaze orange from a safety aspect,” Doup said. “It seems much brighter and easily recognizable in the woods, especially in dense areas.”

Doup has another reason for preferring orange over pink: She is colorblind. Experts say colorblind people may have more trouble seeing pink than seeing orange.

“That bright blaze orange is better for me, personally,” Doup said. “It’s all about safety, not fashion.”

Most House bills die on unrecorded votes

By Jesse Adcock, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – During the recently concluded legislative session, three bills to increase the minimum wagein Virginia died in the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Want to know who voted for or against the measures? Sorry; the votes went unrecorded.

A billrequiring transgender people to use the restroom for the sex on their birth certificate died in the House General Laws Committee. Want to know who voted for or against it? No luck; those votes weren’t recorded, either.

A billprohibiting politicians from converting their campaign funds for personal use died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee. Want to know who voted for or against it? Forget it; that bill was killed on an unrecorded voice vote, too.

Of the 571 House bills that failed during the session, more than two-thirds were anonymously killed on voice votes in subcommittees that went unrecorded, according to data from the Legislative Information System, the General Assembly’s official recordkeeping arm. Proponents of open government say the lack of transparency muddies the waters of Virginia’s democracy.

“For a final disposition on a vote, it is crucial they be recorded,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

People elect their representatives based on how politicians stand on issues vital to voters’ interests, Rhyne said. If they can’t see how public officials have voted on an issue, citizens can’t accurately choose their representatives, she added.

Delegates have said in the pastthat using voice votes keeps the legislative process moving quickly and lessens the burden on lawmakers.

Rhyne disputed that notion. “I really don’t see that with electronic voting measures and small committees,” she said. “It doesn’t hold water.”

Unlike the House, votes by Senate panels are generally recorded.

LIS data showed that 1,086 bills were filed by members of the House for consideration during the legislative session that ran from Jan. 11 through Feb. 25. Of the total, 515 bills passed and 571 failed. Of the failed bills, 390 died on unrecorded voice votes, according to LIS data.

In addition, at least 20 other House bills were simply ignored this session. These measures were assigned to committees, but the panels did not hold hearings on them. As a result, the bills were left in their committees without a vote.

They included a bill to repeal Virginia’s legal prohibitions against same sex-marriage(because they are no longer valid in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling), as well as bills to expandand to restrict abortion rights.

Republican Del. Benjamin Cline of Rockbridge introduced a bill during this session that would have required every bill, budget amendment and resolution to receive a recorded vote. It died in the House Rules Committee – on an unrecorded vote. In 2016, a similar proposal by Cline met the same fate.

House officials say both Democrats and Republicans have supported the system of unrecorded votes in subcommittees.

“It only takes two members to request a recorded vote,” said Christopher West, policy and communications director for House Speaker William Howell and the House Republican leadership. “Based on the ratio that’s set up, there’s almost always two Democrats on a subcommittee.”

West added that when a subcommittee tables or strikes a bill, it is only a suggestion to its parent committee. The full committee can consider any piece of legislation killed in subcommittee.

“The reason we do it is because it doesn’t take final action on the bill,” West said.

On last day of the 2017 session, 85 delegates and senators – members of the Virginia Transparency Caucus – signed a letterseeking more accountability throughout the legislative process.

“The vast majority of debates and decisions determining how bills are crafted occurs in Committee or Subcommittee. Indeed, more than half of all bills die there,” Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, a co-founder of the caucus, said in the letter. “Constituents have a right to know how and why bills they support or oppose ultimately met their fate.”

The caucus sent the letter to the clerks of the House and Senate as the state is preparing to tear down and replace the decrepit General Assembly Building. The letter asked that “the new General Assembly Building (and, if possible, the interim Pocahontas Building) maintain full audio and visual recording capability, as well as transparent vote recording machines for all Committee and Subcommittee hearings rooms in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.”

Legislative highlights: What passed and what didn’t

By Haley Winn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – During their 46-day session, the Virginia General Assembly passed 880 bills and myriad resolutions ranging from constitutional amendments to the designation of Taekwondo Day. Many more pieces of legislation were tossed out before lawmakers adjourned on Saturday. Here are some key issues and laws that legislators addressed in 2017.

Bills that passed and are likely to become law:

Airbnb Regulation

SB 1578 would require most people renting out their homes on short-term rental sites, like Airbnb, to pay a registration fee in an attempt to regulate these rentals. Failure to do so would result in a fine.

Alcohol Sales

HB 1842will allow the state’s ABC stores to sell 151-proof grain alcohol, increasing the proof from 101. Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed the bill into law last week. Like most legislation, it will take effect July 1.

Birth Control

HB 2267would allow doctors to prescribe women 12 months’ worth of contraceptives.

Driver’s License Suspension for Possession of Marijuana

HB 2051, SB 784and SB 1091would revoke the current law requiring a six-month suspension of a driver’s license when a person is convicted of marijuana possession. While adults would no longer face that punishment, juveniles will still be subject to license suspension.

Laser Hair Removal Regulation

HB 2119would limit the practice of laser hair removal to someone under the supervision of a doctor or trained health professional. Virginia and New York are currently the only two states that allow non-licensed professionals to perform laser hair removal.

Opioids

Several bills created to fight against opioid abuse and fatal overdoses were passed. HB 2165will mandate all opioid prescriptions be electronically submitted to pharmacies, while two other bills call for community organization training to treat opioid overdoses.

Bills that failed:

Animal Tethering

HB 1802and HB 1877would have created laws involving how long and when an animal could be tethered outside. HB 1802 would have made tethering a criminal offense.

Electoral College

HB 1425and SB 837would have allocated Virginia’s electoral votes in presidential races by congressional district.

Felon’s Voting Rights

SJR 223would have required convicted felons to pay restitution before they were allowed to vote again. The restitutions would have included the fines and charges associated with their charges.

Hunting Dogs

HB 1900would require hunters to pay a fine if their dog trespasses on private property.

Marijuana Bills

Bills allowing the use of marijuana in Virginia failed. HB 1906, SB 908 and SB 1269called for the decriminalization of simple possession, while HB 1637, HB 2135, SB 841, SB 1298and SB 1452involved the legalization of medical marijuana.

Minimum Wage Legislation

Five bills were killed early on in the session that would have increased the minimum wage in Virginia.

Redistricting

Several bills calling for redistricting in an attempt to end gerrymandering were killed.

School Calendar

HB 1983 would have ended a rule nicknamed the “Kings Dominion Law,” which requires schools to start classes after Labor Day unless they get a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education. SB 1111 attempted to expand the reasons districts could apply for the waiver.

School Suspensions

Bills such as HB 1534 and SB 995 would have limited schools’ use of long-term suspensions to punish students. HB 1536 would have prohibited students in preschool through grade three from being suspended for more than five school days or being expelled except for serious crimes.

Bills that passed but have been (or may be) vetoed:

Anti-Sanctuary Bill

HB 2000would prohibit local governments from designating themselves as “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants. The bill says localities cannot adopt ordinances that would restrict the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Coal Tax

Identical bills HB 2198and SB 1470would have reinstated the Virginia coal employment and production incentive tax credit. It was vetoed for the third year in a row.

Explicit School Materials

The governor plans to veto a bill (HB 2191) that would require parental notification before explicit material was shown in classrooms.

Guns

McAuliffe has vetoed HB 1582, which sought to allow active duty or discharged military service members between the ages of 18 and 20 to apply for a handgun permit.

Planned Parenthood Defunding

The governor vetoed HB 2264, which called for defunding Planned Parenthood. The House tried to override the veto but failed because an override requires a two-thirds majority.

Religious Freedom/Solemnization of Marriage bill

HB 2025and SB 1324would protect religious organizations and ministers who refuse to marry same-sex couples, stating that no person should be required to participate in the solemnization of any marriage.

Tebow Bill

HB 1578, already vetoed by McAuliffe, would have allowed home-schooled students to play sports at their local public high school.

 

Bills that passed but the governor may want to amend

Fines for “Left-Lane Bandits”

HB 1725would impose a fine on drivers going too slowly in the left lane. The bill suggested a $250 fine; McAuliffe suggested making it to $100.

State Budget

HB 1500revised the state budget for 2016-18. It closes a budget shortfall, increases funding for education and gives pay raises to state employees, teachers and law enforcement officers. McAuliffe praised legislators for doing that but said, “I remain concerned that the state budget includes no additional funding to provide local and regional jails with the tools and training to perform mental health screenings and assessments.”

Future public servants observe lawmaking firsthand

By Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – For the past two months, they showed up every day at the state Capitol, dressed in matching blazers and carrying pen and paper at the ready – the next generation of public servants carefully observing their superiors.

These young adults are known as pages. They are middle school and high school students from around Virginia who assist in everyday tasks at the General Assembly to experience firsthand how the legislative process works.

The program dates as far back as 1850, when the one page who worked was paid $2 a day. Now the combined total of House and Senate pages is 85 individuals, all age 13 or 14. Virginia is one of a handful of states that offer this type of program.

“It gives them exposure to the legislative process in a way that is not taught in the classroom,” said Bladen Finch, director of the Senate Page Leadership Program. “We do a little classroom-like instruction, but a lot of it is learned by actually observing the process.”

Many pages said they didn’t know much about how the General Assembly works before becoming a page.

Senna Keesing, an eighth-grader from Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County, learned about the page program from her sister. She said that she made herself flashcards with the names and faces of senators so she could identify them during the session.

“I learned about it (the General Assembly) in seventh grade. I probably just memorized the steps for the test, and then forgot about it,” said Abbey Rice, a ninth-grader from Jefferson Forest High School near Lynchburg. “This is something I’ll never forget because I got to live it every day.”

Pages carry out tasks throughout the day such as fetching items from the legislators’ offices, assisting at the Capitol’s information desk, and getting lunch for the senators and delegates while they’re in session.

Although these may seem like simple tasks that lawmakers can do themselves, the pages know this is an important duty because constituents depend on their legislators being completely focused on business during the session. That can be especially true in the Senate, where the Republicans hold only a slight edge over the Democrats.

“With the majority being 21-19, every vote counts. We have to have people ready to do things for the senators they can’t do for themselves,” Senna said. “Putting something in their office, or taking something from their office, takes a really long time. Which is why they have us do it.”

On most days, the session starts at noon and typically lasts a few hours.

“Would you rather them getting lunch, or would you have them voting on a very contentious bill?” said Stephen Wiecek, an eighth-grader from Chickahominy Middle School in Hanover County.

Even with the time-consuming job of being a legislative page, the students still don’t get off the hook from homework.

“It’s basically like having a full-time job and a full-time school career, all in one day,” Abbey said.

In addition to helping at around the Capitol and keeping up with their homework, pages help out in the community in various ways. This year, they volunteered at the Central Virginia Food Bank, Feedmore. Collectively, the pages put in 154 volunteer hours.

The pages also raised about $7,000 in donations from parents, former pages and legislators. This year, the pages collected items from lawmakers’ offices that were being left behind in the General Assembly Building, which is to be demolished and replaced starting in June. The items were sold at a yard sale, raising about $450.

“As young leaders, and young possible politicians, we have to remember that everything we do is for the service of others,” Abbey said.

Now experts on the state legislative process, all the children have been inspired to work in some form of public service, even if it’s not in politics.

Senna, who before the page program had no plans for politics, found inspiration in the diverse background of Virginia’s political leadership.

“I am really interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), which is probably my future career. That’s why the lieutenant governor is so inspiring to me because he is a pediatric neurologist,” Senna said. “He’s a doctor and the lieutenant governor of Virginia. I find that really cool, and that’s definitely a possibility for me.”

On Friday, the pages held a graduation ceremony. After the legislative session ended on Saturday, the pages prepared to return home, taking along educational experiences and lifelong friendships.

“Trust me, some of these people are going to do great things, and I’m going to want to know them when I grow up,” said Lilly Hallock, an eighth-grader from Tuckahoe Middle School in Henrico County.

A lot of the kids do go on to do great things. Finch, who himself is a former page, said many children who graduate the program go on to careers in public service or politics.

A former page, Thomas Cannella, last year won a seat on the Poquoson Central District City Council at the age of 19. He was part of the page program in 2011.

“This is not a one-time experience. This is something they carry with them forever,” Finch said.

More on the web

For information on how to apply to the page program, see:

http://capclass.virginiageneralassembly.gov/PagePrograms/PagePrograms.html

Pranks ensue on Senate floor on last day of session

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The floor of the Virginia Senate is notorious for its strict rules. Even in the state Capitol’s remote viewing room, a sign warns “No Food or Drink.” However, the end of the legislative session was more like the last day of a school year.

Upon entering the Senate floor on Saturday, you could tell something was amiss. It was probably the stuffed dog at the desk of Sen. William Stanley of Franklin County. Around its neck was a sign that said “Senate hunting dog” – a reference to dog-hunting legislation that Stanley had opposed.

During a break in the proceedings on Saturday, Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar brought down a large stuffed rabbit to play-fight with Stanley’s dog.

“This is why they say ‘idle hands are the devil’s plaything,’” Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier said with a laugh.

As per usual, the speaker’s gavels had been stolen from the podium. This year, they ended up in the desk of Sen. Mark Peake of Lynchburg, who was elected on Jan. 10 – the day before the General Assembly convened. Peake accused Stanley of placing the gavels in his desk.

“If he did not see me place them there, how can he accuse me of placing them there?” Stanley asked in defense. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

The scandal ended with Peake returning the gavels to Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Senate’s presiding officer, while various senators chanted “shame” at Peake.

Sen. Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake made a short speech thanking his colleagues for their kindness. Spruill served in the House of Delegates from 1994 until 2016 before being elected to the Senate.

“At the House, you have a lot of fun and can act crazy, but you can’t be crazy over here most of the time,” Spruill said. He said he told himself, “‘Lord, you have to help me have some fun over here.’ Sen. Stanley was my savior. He pops up and I say, ‘thank God.’”

The fun did not stop Saturday’s session from ending promptly before noon. Senators were told to make sure all food was removed from their desks – “especially cookies.” Hugs were exchanged, photos taken and so ended the 2017 meeting of the Senate of Virginia.

McAuliffe vetoes bill to disclose refugee records

By Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill Friday that would have required the state Department of Social Services to publish non-identifying information for refugees resettled across Virginia.

“Many individuals and families placed in Virginia through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program are fleeing governmental oppression, persecution, and violence,” McAuliffe said in his veto statement.

“Many leave their countries because they are targeted by their home country’s government, often for helping to further American interests. Disclosing such information in this political climate not only sends a message of discrimination and fear, but it also poses a real danger to many of our newest Virginians.”

House Bill 2002, introduced by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, would have required immigrant resettlement agencies, such as the Catholic Diocese and the U.S. State Department, to report demographic information on refugees, including the total number of refugees, the localities in which they have been placed and other facts, to Virginia’s Department of Social Services. Those reports would then be forwarded to other government agencies, including the General Assembly and the governor’s office.

Supporters of the bill argue these reports would give government officials the ability to plan for benefits, health care and other related social costs, as well as lay out education-related expenses that would allow children of refugees to enroll in Virginia public schools.

McAuliffe said those requirements would instead put undue stress on the organizations in charge of resettling refugees.

“House Bill 2002 would create an unnecessary burden for already overworked nonprofit organizations and would limit these organizations’ ability to accomplish their mission of safely settling refugees in the commonwealth,” McAuliffe said.

The governor added that the regulations would also discourage those wanting to relocate from tenuous circumstances in foreign countries to the commonwealth.

“Refugees are in the United States legally,” he said. “They undergo a more rigorous screening process than anyone else allowed into the United States. Creating a publicly available list of these individuals would send a message of exclusion to people looking for the chance to rebuild their lives free of tyranny and oppression.”

“As Virginians, we know the many benefits and contributions that refugees bring to our communities and Virginia’s economy,” McAuliffe added. “House Bill 2002 sets us on the wrong path. It does not reflect Virginia’s values.”

The bill will now return to the General Assembly, where supporters will face an uphill battle in overriding the governor’s veto. In order to successfully countermand McAuliffe’s ruling, supporters would need to gather a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers.

With three Republican delegates already opposing the bill in the House and a 21-19 party-line split in the Senate, supporters would have to persuade more than a dozen legislators to flip their vote in order to enact the legislation.

Assembly passes bill to help dyslexic students

By Dai Ja Norman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia school districts would have to have reading specialists trained in helping students with dyslexia under a bill passed by the General Assembly as its 2017 session drew to a close.

The Senate and House on Friday both voted unanimously in favor of SB 1516, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun. The legislation now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.

The bill requires that if a local school board employs reading specialists, at least one must have expertise in identifying and teaching students with dyslexia or a related disorder. That expert then would serve as a resource for other teachers in the school district.

Experts say about one in 10 children may have dyslexia – a disorder that makes it difficult to learn to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols. To a child with dyslexia, for example, the words “Read this” might look like “Raed tihs.”

Virginia school divisions are not required to employ reading specialists, but most do. Lynn Smith, for example, is a reading specialist for the Henrico County Public Schools. She said students who have dyslexia face significant challenges.

“Reading really is that foundational skill, and students who struggle to read struggle across all academic subjects,” Smith said.

A misconception about dyslexia is that the students with the disorder lack intelligence. In fact, Smith said, “Often those children are extremely bright.” The problem, she said, is “that they’re really struggling with breaking down that code on the page.”

Donice Davenport, director of exceptional education for Henrico schools, said support goes a long way for these students.

“It is important for students with dyslexia to receive targeted instruction directly related to their disability needs,” Davenport said.

“Since dyslexia exists along a continuum of severity and complexity, each student may require a different level of support and service. Many students with dyslexia do well within the general education classroom with only a small level of support. Some students require additional systematic, explicit instruction provided in a multi-sensory way in order to learn to read and make progress in reading.”

House upholds veto of bill to defund Planned Parenthood

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a party-line vote Saturday, the House of Delegates upheld Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto of a Republican bill to defund Planned Parenthood.

On the final day of the 2017 legislative session, the House voted 62-33, with five members not voting, to override the veto of HB 2264. The motion failed because an override requires a two-thirds majority.

The bill, introduced by Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst, sought to “prohibit the Virginia Department of Health from granting funds or entering into contracts with certain health care providers that perform abortion.” It would have removed Title X funding for Planned Parenthood, which providesfamily planning, contraception, testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and cancer screenings as well as abortions.

Earlier this month, Cline’s bill passed 60-33 in the House and 20-19 in the Senate. McAuliffe then vetoed the measure, saying it “would harm tens of thousands of Virginians who rely on the health care services and programs provided by Planned Parenthood health centers, by denying them access to affordable care.”

“Attempts to restrict women’s access to health care will impede the goal of making Virginia the best place to live, work, and run a business,” the governor wrote in his veto message.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, issued a statement saying, “I thank Gov. McAuliffe for standing by his promise to be a brick wall against attacks on a woman’s access to reproductive health care, and I applaud members of the House of Delegates for standing with him and sustaining his veto today.”

For years, Republican lawmakers and anti-abortion groups such as the Family Foundation of Virginia have been pressing to cut off government funding for Planned Parenthood and divert the money to health clinics that they say offer more comprehensive services. McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill last year.

Also Saturday, the General Assembly approved a revised state budget that includes a 3 percent pay raise for state employees as well as increased funding for K-12 education and mental health services. Legislators managed to plug a $1.26 billion shortfall in the two-year budget – the top priority when the legislative session began on Jan. 11.

“We adjourned on time, adopted an amended balanced budget ahead of schedule and offered positive solutions on the issues that matter most to Virginians,” Republican leaders in the House said in a statement. “Our amended budget reflects the priorities facing the Commonwealth. The budget is conservative and responsible, reduces borrowing, eliminates new fees and charts a responsible course.”

McAuliffe also issued a statement, saying the legislative session “was marked by bipartisan cooperation on issues that are important to the people of Virginia.”

“We have had our differences, but we have found ways to work together on important issues that grow our economy and create opportunity for the people we serve,” said McAuliffe, who is serving his last year as governor.

“As our final session working together draws to a close, I want to express my sincere gratitude and admiration for the work the men and women of the Virginia General Assembly do every year. Sessions are grueling experiences that require you to leave your loved ones and your jobs. I know that work will not end when you return home.”

How they voted

Here is how the House voted Saturday on a motion to override Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto of HB 2264 (“Department of Health; restrictions on expenditure of funds related to abortions and family planning”).

Floor: 02/25/17 House: VOTE: SUSTAINED GOVERNOR’S VETO (62-Y 33-N)

YEAS – Adams, Albo, Anderson, Austin, Bell, Richard P., Bell, Robert B., Bloxom, Byron, Cline, Cole, Collins, Cox, Davis, Edmunds, Fariss, Farrell, Fowler, Freitas, Garrett, Gilbert, Greason, Habeeb, Head, Helsel, Hodges, Holcomb, Hugo, Ingram, Jones, Kilgore, Knight, Landes, LaRock, Leftwich, LeMunyon, Lingamfelter, Loupassi, Marshall, D.W., Marshall, R.G., Massie, Miller, Minchew, Miyares, Morefield, Morris, O’Bannon, O’Quinn, Orrock, Peace, Pillion, Pogge, Poindexter, Ransone, Robinson, Rush, Stolle, Villanueva, Ware, Webert, Wilt, Wright, Speaker Howell – 62.

NAYS – Aird, Bagby, Bell, John J., Bourne, Boysko, Bulova, Carr, Filler-Corn, Hayes, Heretick, Herring, Hester, Hope, James, Keam, Kory, Krizek, Levine, Lindsey, Lopez, McQuinn, Mullin, Murphy, Plum, Price, Sickles, Simon, Sullivan, Torian, Toscano, Tyler, Ward, Watts – 33.

NOT VOTING – Campbell, Dudenhefer, Rasoul, Yancey, Yost – 5.

Virginia Airbnb rentals may face increased regulation

By Megan Corsano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – People renting out their homes through websites such as Airbnb could be forced to pay a registration fee to their local government under a bill that passed both chambers of the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1578, proposed by Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, would allow Virginia localities to require many users of short-term rental sites like Airbnb to pay a fee to register their property, with fines up to $500 in the case of a rental without registration.

Airbnb rentals can play a big role in small Virginia towns dependent on tourism as a primary source of income, such as the town of Washington in Rappahannock County. At the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northern part of the commonwealth, Washington funds 95 percent of its annual budget from meals and lodging taxes, said the town’s mayor, John Fox Sullivan.

“That tax is terribly important to us,” Sullivan said. “If Airbnbs are unregulated and drain off tax revenue that we would otherwise receive and need, the town would lose a lot of money.”

According to Sullivan, the town’s bed-and-breakfasts, inns and restaurants must get approval from the town council before starting operations. Sullivan’s concern is that people operating a business out of their home through Airbnb don’t have to meet the same rules and ordinances that other businesses do.

“Airbnb is a great operation,” Sullivan said. “It’s just that they’re not perfect. There’s much debate within our county as well as to what can be regulated.”

While the short-term housing rental websites like Airbnb have gained popularity across the globe, those with ties to the more traditional accommodation business are struggling to adapt. Audrey Regnery, the owner and innkeeper of Greenfield Inn Bed and Breakfast in Washington, said Airbnb homes should have to meet the same regulations that establishments such as hers do.

“I welcome competition as long as it’s fair competition,” Regnery said. “If you’re a business, you’re supposed to pay your taxes. If [Airbnb homes] are going to be a business, then they need to be set up as a business.”

Regnery said there are approximately 18 bed-and-breakfasts, one inn (The Inn at Little Washington) and no hotels in the Washington area. She said the demand for rooms in the area currently exceeds the capacity.

As a result, business at the Regnery’s B&B has not suffered any serious loss because of Airbnb room rentals. However, Regnery worries that could change if Airbnb hosts were to start drastically dropping their prices to compete with bed-and-breakfasts in town.

Airbnb hosts, however, have their own concerns about what a registration fee requirement would have on the way they operate.

Mary Jane Cappello, a Rappahannock County resident who rents out her second home in Washington through Airbnb and TripAdvisor, said she pays a state and local lodging tax to both hosting agents.

“Our county already charged me a registration fee when I applied for the rental license, but it was a one-time charge which, I thought, was a reasonable charge of a few hundred dollars,” Cappello said.

In regards to paying a fee to the individual locality beyond just the lodging taxes – in this case, to join a rental registry – Cappello said it “would make sense only if some service went with the fee such as house inspections for safety.”

The bill says property owners who are already licensed related to the rental or management of property by the Board of Health, the Real Estate Board, or a locality would not be required to register again.

SB 1578 passed the Senate on a vote of 36-4 and the House on a vote of 86-14. It now goes to the governor’s desk to be signed.

Groups laud Virginia for outlawing female circumcision

By Haley Winn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –International groups that work to combat violence against women and girls are praising the Virginia General Assembly for approving legislation that makes female genital mutilation a crime.

“Passing a law that explicitly outlaws the practice sends a clear message that this is human rights abuse and is not acceptable in the U.S.,” said Amanda Parker, interim executive director of the AHA Foundation. The group, based in New York, was founded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist who was subjected to FGM while growing up in Somalia.

According to the AHA Foundation, 24 states have laws criminalizing FGM. Virginia is poised to join the list after lawmakers approved SB 1060. Under the bill, it would be a Class 1 misdemeanor to perform a circumcision or infibulation of the labia majora, labia minora or clitoris of a minor – or for parents or legal guardians to consent to the procedure for a girl in their care.The crime would be punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The bill passed unanimously in the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. It now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“I would like to see (this legislation) in all 50 states,” said Shelby Quast, policy director for Equality Now, an advocacy group for gender equality.

SB 1060, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, was one of two bills this legislative session calling for the criminalization of FGM. The other was SB 1241, introduced by Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an obstetrician in Henrico County. During the committee process, the two bills were merged and went forward as SB 1060.

No law in Virginia bans the specific practice of FGM. The offense falls in the category of malicious wounding, which is a felony.

Black and Dunnavant originally proposed that performing or allowing a female circumcision be a felony punishable by at least five years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

However, incarcerating someone costs money, and the General Assembly has been trying to close a budget shortfall. Because of the fiscal impact of making FGM a felony, the bill’s supporters feared it might fail, according to Mallory McCune, Dunnavant’s legislative assistant. So they agreed to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor.

Quast said she wished SB 1060 “matched the federal penalty,” which calls for five years in prison. However, she noted that still can happen under Virginia law.

Under the legislation, Quast said, a person charged with performing a female circumcision could also be charged with malicious wounding, resulting in harsher penalties than a misdemeanor conviction allows. “It makes it very clear that this law that has just been passed does not preclude prosecution under any other statute,” she said.

Parker isn’t so sure. She said the legislation is a step in the right direction, but Virginia would have the weakest penalty of any state to outlaw the practice of FGM.

But a criminal charge isn’t the only action that can be taken under SB 1060. The bill allows a girl who has been circumcised to sue the person who did it. McCune said Virginia will be one of only two states where victims of FGM have civil recourse. Quast said that is significant.

“It allows the victim of FGM, up to 10 years after her 18th birthday, to actually sue those that subjected her to FGM or did the cutting,” Quast said. “It gives more rights to somebody who may not recognize the violation at the time.”

FGM is common in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is also prevalent in some immigrant communities in North America, Europe and Australia.

A report last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 513,000 females in the United States – including 169,000 minors – were at risk of or have experienced FGM.

“Educating communities about the lifelong psychological and health consequences associated with this practice, as well as its illegality, is needed,” Parker said.

Parker and Quast said teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers and social service providers need training on how to recognize and respond when girls have been subjected to female circumcision.

“We see the law more as a prevention tool than a prosecution tool with regard to FGM,” Quast said.

State building renamed for civil rights activist

By Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A state government building that once served as headquarters of the “Massive Resistance” campaign against racial integration of Virginia’s public schools was renamed Thursday in honor of Barbara Johns, a student activist who played an important and often overlooked role in the civil rights movement.

Johns was only 16 when she led a student protest that would one day become part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Like most segregated schools at the time, the all-black high school Johns attended in Farmville, Virginia, was overcrowded, underfunded and dilapidated in comparison to the white schools in the Prince Edward County. On April 23, 1951, Johns persuaded all 450 of her classmates to stage a strike, and some went downtown to meet with education officialsto protest the school’s substandard conditions.

 

“When she took a stand like that, it was a dangerous time, and I was the one who was worried about what might happen to us. She didn’t seem to have any fear at all,” said Barbara Johns’ sister, Joan Johns Cobb, who marched alongside her.

Johns enlisted the help of the NAACP, which filed a suit on behalf of 117 students against Prince Edward County, challenging Virginia’s laws requiring segregated schools.

“This was before Little Rock Nine, this was before Rosa Parks, this was before Martin Luther King. This was a 16-year-old girl who said that we will not tolerate separate but not equal,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who announced in January that the newly renovated Ninth Street Office Building would be renamed in Johns’ honor.

Located at 202 N. Ninth St., the building was once known as the Hotel Richmond. During the 1950s, members of the General Assembly stayed at the hotel when they came to the capital for the legislative session. The building became the unofficial headquarters of the Byrd Organization, the dominant pro-segregation political machine at the time.

The attorney general at that point, James Lindsay Almond, originally defeated Johns’ case by claiming that segregation was a way of life for Virginians. Now the building, which houses the state attorney general’s office, has been christened the Barbara Johns Building. Current Attorney General Mark Herring said the renaming will serve as a reminder to him and his staff that the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated.

“She saw an injustice for exactly what it was, and she stood up for what was right. She demanded that which the constitution guaranteed her, and which the commonwealth denied her,” Herring said.

The case, Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County, was appealed to the Supreme Court and combined with four similar segregation suits under Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On May 17, 1954, the court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional.

Powerful members of the General Assembly then met in the very building that now bears Johns’ name to plot against the desegregation of Virginia’s public schools.

Led by U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd and his political machine, the state engaged in a campaign of “Massive Resistance” against desegregation. This led to the shutdown of schools across Virginia when lawmakers decided they would rather see them close than integrate. It wasn’t until 1968, when the Supreme Court ruled their plan unlawful, that large-scale desegregation took place in Virginia.

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates joined the Senate in passing a resolution declaring April 23, the anniversary of the strike, as Barbara Johns Day in Virginia.

“The fact that the very General Assembly that passed laws to prevent school desegregation is naming a day for Barbara Johns is a really powerful testament to how far we’ve come,” said Dr. Larissa Smith Fergeson, professor of history at Longwood University. “In many ways, these are symbolic acts, but symbolic acts matter.”

New law lets concession stands sell cans of beer

By Jessica Samuels, Capital New Service

RICHMOND – Beginning July 1, Virginians will be able to buy a can of beer – not just a cup – at indoor and outdoor concession stands that are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages.

That’s the effect of a bill that Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law on Monday. Senate Bill 1469 will add “single original metal cans” to the list of disposable containers that can be used for the sale of beer, wine and mixed alcoholic drinks.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Montgomery, will apply to concession stands at amphitheaters, stadiums, coliseums, convention centers and similar facilities, which currently must dispense alcoholic beverages in plastic or paper cups.

Under the new law, for example, racetrack events like NASCAR racing will be able to sell cans of beer.

Chafin’s measure is the same as HB 1744, which also received unanimous approval from the House and Senate. The House bill’s sponsor, Republican Del. Nick Rush of Montgomery County, called it a “common-sense” law.

“It allows the original metal container to be disposable,” he said.

The legislation is just one of several bills from the 2017 legislative session that may change the state’s alcoholic beverage control laws. Others include:

HB 2433, which would treat cider as wine for all legal purposes. The measure, sponsored by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, has passed both houses and is on McAuliffe’s desk.

SB 1150, which would require the ABC Board to offer training to bartenders on how to recognize and intervene in “situations that may lead to sexual assault.” The bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, received final approval from the Senate on Wednesday.

HB 2220, which would create a new limited mixed beverage license for retail cigar shops. The proposal, sponsored by Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, has passed the House and is awaiting a final vote in the Senate.

Governor signs bills to fight Virginia’s opioid crisis

By Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Capping off a signature issue of the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed five bills Thursday to help arm the fight against opioid abuse and fatal overdoses in Virginia.

The bills address the crisis in various ways. They include SB 848and HB 1453, which allow community organizations to dispense and train individuals to use naloxone, a drug that can treat an opioid overdose in emergency situations.

“We recognize that addiction is a disease, not a moral failing,” McAuliffe said. “Our proposals for this General Assembly session focused on preventing addiction and providing treatment for those who suffer from it.”

The governor also signed HB 2165, which will mandate all opioid prescriptions be transmitted to pharmacies electronically by 2020. It will also create a workgroup to study how to best implement the change.

“The fight against the national opioid abuse epidemic gained more momentum today as Virginia became the most recent state to mandate that care providers use electronic prescribing for controlled substances,” said Dr. Sean Kelly, who is a practicing emergency physician and the chief medical officer of Imprivata, a health care information technology company.

Kelly said that electronic prescribing for controlled substances, or EPCS, helps the health care industry to reduce prescription fraud, drug diversion and drug abuse. Virginia is joining three other states – New York, Minnesota and Maine – in mandating EPCS.

“This is a real ‘all hands on deck’ moment,” said Attorney General Mark Herring. “The heroin and opioid crisis is touching families who never imagines they would confront something like this, and yet now are fighting something that feels so overwhelming.”

In November 2016, McAuliffe joined State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine in declaring the Virginia opioid addiction crisis to be a public health emergency.

Although final numbers are not available, the Virginia Department of Health projects that more than 1,000 people died in Virginia from fatal opioid overdoses in 2016. That would be a 33 percent increase from the previous year.

Here are more details on the bills McAuliffe signed into law:

SB 848, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, and HB 1453, by Del. David LaRock, R-Loudoun, allow community organizations to possess and dispense naloxone to people whom the groups have trained to administer the life-saving drug.

HB 2317, by Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, allows local health departments to administer harm reduction programs in parts of the state with high rates of HIV and hepatitis. These programs will exchange dirty syringes for clean ones, offer testing for hepatitis C and HIV, and connect people to addiction treatment.

HB 1786, by Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, initiates a family assessment and plan of care from local social services if a child is found to have been exposed to substances in utero. This connects the mother to treatment if necessary and provides services to ensure the safety of both the mother and the child.

HB 2165, by Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, mandates that all opioid prescriptions will be transmitted to pharmacies electronically by 2020 and creates a workgroup to study how to implement this policy.

State won’t study ‘fiscal stress’ of local governments

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill ordering a study of the “fiscal stress” of local governments was halted in the House Rules Committee this week.

More than 53 percent of counties and cities in Virginia have reported above-average or high fiscal stress, according to a report by the Commission on Local Government. Petersburg, a city grappling with a severe financial crisis, placed third on the state fiscal stress index behind the cities of Emporia and Buena Vista.

“Petersburg does have some financial challenges, but they’re actually not unique. There are a lot of counties and localities within the commonwealth right now that are facing similar fiscal distressers,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg.

The top priority for this session, according to Aird, is identifying “what we as a commonwealth need to do to put protections into place and allow localities to have tools and resources to prevent this type of challenge from occurring into the future.”

Under SJ 278, a 15-member joint subcommittee would have reviewed local government and state tax systems, local responsibilities for delivery of state programs and causes of fiscal stress among local governments. In addition, the study would craft financial incentives and reforms to promote increased cooperation among Virginia’s regions.

“I believe that this legislation will help address fiscal issues that localities are experiencing,” said Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, who co-sponsored the legislation. “Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially.”

In the case of Petersburg, the city received technical assistance from state officials, including cataloging liabilities and obligations, researching problems and reviewing city funds. However, state intervention could have occurred only if Petersburg invited it, because current law forbids the commonwealth from imposing reactive measures in a struggling locality.

SJ 278 was sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Earlier in the session, the committee killed seven bills relating to state and local tax policy reform. Hanger agreed to reconsider the rejected tax reforms as part of the proposed study mandated by SJ 278.

Hanger’s resolution passed in the Senate but was left in the House Rules Committee. Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, cited the upcoming elections this year of House members and governor as a roadblock for the bill. Moreover, the 2018 legislative session will last 60 days, compared with just 45 days during the current session.

“Regarding tax reform proposals, they are interesting to consider in a short session but unlikely,” said Ware, who chairs the House Finance Committee. He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he is drafting a broad tax reform proposal for next year’s session.

Assembly poised to OK state budget on Friday

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Finishing a day early, House and Senate negotiators agreed on a budget Wednesday that includes employee pay raises and more money for K-12 education and mental health.

The negotiators presented their budget to their fellow lawmakers in time for the required 48-hour review, which could be completed by Friday night with a chance to adjourn their 2017 session before Saturday’s target date.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate praised the spending plan’s conservative fiscal policies.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said, “This conference report responsibly addresses the challenges facing the commonwealth, prioritizes funding for our schools and public safety professionals, and is fiscally conservative.”

The budget was approved early for the third consecutive year, which is a stark contrast to the U.S. Congress, which has been notoriously slow at approving federal spending plans.

“While Washington drowns in debts and is mired in gridlock, the Republican-led General Assembly has produced a conservative budget ahead of schedule for the third time in a row,” said Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta County, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

“We continue to chart a prudent fiscal course for Virginia. The investments in education, health care and public safety will improve the lives of our citizens and make Virginia a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

The new budget allocates $83.1 million for a 3 percent pay raise for state employees and college faculty, in contrast to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal for a one-time, 1.5 percent bonus to employees. The budget also sets aside funds to implement House Speaker William Howell’s Commission on State Employee Retirement Security and Pension Reform.

This means $200,000 will be set aside for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to complete a total compensation study of all state employees, and $140,000 for state agencies to incorporate succession planning and re-hiring in their strategic plans.

This year’s agreed-upon budget exceeds the governor’s investment in K-12 education by approximately $18 million, as well as investing $15 billion for direct aid to public education.

Before the 2010 budget, 35 percent of lottery proceeds were given to local schools. This year’s budget re-establishes that practice, and lottery proceeds will send $191.3 million back to localities to help with public education.

The budget also helps higher education by reducing the governor’s cuts by $20 million. This is part of the General Assembly’s continued effort to make higher education more affordable. The budget will also restore full funding to the Virginia Tech Extension Service, as well as the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. In addition, there will be no reductions in funding to Norfolk State University and Virginia State University.

In the health sector, the conference budget invests $32.2 million to build a stronger healthcare safety net, including funding for substance abuse treatment. It also increases eligibility for the Governor's Access Plan, which is a program that helps provide behavioral health forVirginia's uninsured adults.

The conference budget does not include the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, which might not end up having much of an impact anyway if the Trump administration’s proposal to replace Medicaid with federal block grants to each state is adopted.

The budget also restores the Stanley amendment, which doesn’t let the governor expand Medicaid without approval from the General Assembly.

The conference budget was created to decrease general-fund spending by 5 percent over 10 years when adjusted for population and inflation.

ACLU urges McAuliffe to veto anti-immigration bills

By Rodrigo Arriaza and Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Wednesday to veto Republican-backed legislation banning local governments in Virginia from designating themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. They also said they plan to fight federal and state policies that they believe violate immigrants’ rights.

At a news conference, representatives of the ACLU of Virginia and other civil rights organizations criticized anti-immigrant measures passed by the General Assembly. They also condemned the recent spike in deportation raids on immigrant communities in Virginia by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries.

“We’re here this morning to talk about actions to be taken at the state level that must be understood in this larger context,” said Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

Gastañaga began the news conference by discussing bills that her group has asked McAuliffe to veto. They include HB 2000, which the Republican-controlled Senate passed on a party-line vote Wednesday afternoon.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Charles R. Poindexter, R-Franklin County, would ban any local government in the state from declaring itself as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, meaning that local officials promise not to cooperate with ICE in detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants.

Senate Democrats have also spoken out against the bill, saying it undermines trust-building efforts between communities and local police.

“Whether it is intentional or not, this is a messaging bill sending a message to immigrants, whether they are here legally or not, that they are not welcome,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellen, D-Richmond. “American citizens are being swept up in ICE raids along with undocumented immigrants. We are better than this as a commonwealth.”

Republicans have supported legislation to crack down on sanctuary cities.

Ed Gillespie, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, issued a statement in support of Poindexter’s bill. He called the ban on sanctuary cities a common-sense approach to immigration policy.

“Local governments should not be able to ignore federal immigration laws,” Gillespie said. “As governor, I would support and sign Delegate Poindexter’s HB 2000 because it is a reasonable measure to keep Virginians safe and enforce the law.”

The ACLU also urged McAuliffe to veto:

·         HB 2002, also sponsored by Poindexter. It would require refugee resettlement agencies in Virginia to file annual reports containing personal details about the refugees, including their age, gender, country of origin and where they were resettled.

·         HB 1468, which would allow local sheriffs and jail officials to hold undocumented immigrants for ICE for an additional 48 hours after they are set to be released. Sponsored by Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Manassas, the measure was passed by the General Assembly after a mostly party-line vote in the House of Delegates.

“Supporters of bills such as these that target immigrants point to instances in other parts of the country in which undocumented immigrants were released from custody by local law enforcement and went on to commit crimes in the community,” Gastañaga wrote in a letter to McAuliffe.

Gastañaga’s letter also asked the governor to agree not to sign a 278(g) agreement, which would volunteer state police in apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants. She said the state’s immigration laws already mandate jails and prisons to check the immigration status of everyone taken into custody.

Two days ago, McAuliffe responded to Gastañaga’s letter and agreed that the use of 287(g) agreements would negatively impact public safety and health.

“I have seen no evidence that entering into 278(g) agreements will enhance Virginia’s public safety,” McAuliffe wrote. “I will not endorse the use of these agreements in the absence of any evidence that they will make our communities safer.”

Several speakers from human rights organizations were present at the news conference, including Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. According to Nguyen, the three bills that the ACLU wants McAuliffe to veto are merely “message bills” that will encourage immigrant families to “move further into the shadows.”

“They have no clear definition of a sanctuary city, and there are no sanctuary cities in the commonwealth,” Nguyen said. “These bills just incite fear and a sense of unwelcomeness in the immigrant communities.”

Michelle LaRue, Virginia director of CASA, an advocacy organization for low-income immigrant communities, also spoke. LaRue, herself a refugee from Guatemala after escaping the country’s civil war, said the legislation would make undocumented immigrants more afraid than they already are to report crimes, either as victims or as witnesses.

“These bills are affecting safety at large,” LaRue said. “Parents are having their kids, even kindergarteners, walk to the bus stops themselves in fear of not going outside, or having the children run errands for them … Many times, it’s in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to do so.”

McAuliffe has promised to veto any Republican-backed anti-sanctuary legislation. The governor’s spokesman, Brian Coy, told The Associated Press earlier this month that McAuliffe would veto any measure forcing localities to enforce federal immigration laws. Coy said the governor views the bills as “attempts to divide and demonize people.”

“Throughout my administration, I have advocated to make Virginia a more welcoming and diverse home for all of its residents,” McAuliffe wrote in his letter to Gastañaga. “My administration has advanced this goal without jeopardizing the safety of our citizens.”

Environmentalists disappointed by ‘watered down’ coal ash bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Environmentalists and some legislators are disappointed in the General Assembly’s passage of a “watered down” bill to prevent Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds from polluting rivers and groundwater.

The House last week removed from SB 1398 a provision requiring Dominion to complete environmental assessments of its coal ash ponds before getting state permits to close them. On Tuesday, the Senate adopted the House version of the bill.

“There’s been some talk that this thing has been completely neutered,” said the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “It’s been definitely watered down.”

Surovell said he was “not happy” with the House substitute, but he asked his colleagues to approve it anyway. “I think it’s about as good as we’re going to do at this point in the process. It’s going to go to the governor, and hopefully the governor might fix this up a little bit.”

SB 1398 would require Dominion to identify the risks of heavy metals polluting the groundwater and alternatives methods of disposal when they apply for a permit to decommission a “coal combustion residuals unit,” commonly called a coal ash pond.

Dominion has ponds containing millions of tons of coal ash at four sites around Virginia. The company hopes to close the ponds by treating and discharging the water and then burying the remaining coal ash with a protective seal.

When passed by the Senate two weeks ago, SB 1398 said Dominion had to complete the environmental assessment on a coal ash pond before getting a permit to close it. The director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “shall issue no draft permit to provide for the closure of any CCR unit until he has reviewed and evaluated the complete assessments and all comments received relating to that CCR unit,” that version of the bill said.

However, the House dropped that language in the version of SB 1398 that it passed 96-1 on Friday. The Senate then adopted the House version 37-3 on Tuesday.

Under the bill’s final version, the Department of Environmental Quality would not have to consider the environmental studies when granting permits to close coal ash ponds. It says the DEQ director “shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit” pending the completion of the environmental assessment.

“In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment,” the bill states. The DEQ would not have to certify the information presented in the reports or have a public comment period before granting a permit.

Environmentalists were upset that the House had stripped the stronger language from the Senate’s original version of the bill.

“There were some really important pieces that were removed,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James riverkeeper for the James River Association. He said the group is especially disappointed that, under the bill’s final version, the DEQ wouldn’t have to wait for the environmental reports before granting a permit.

Dominion wants to close its coal ash ponds at Possum Point Power Station on Quantico Creek in Prince William County; Bremo Power Station on the James River in Fluvanna County; Chesterfield Power Station on the James River in Chesterfield County; and Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake.

Two years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds. The EPA issued that order after untreated coal ash flooded rivers in North Carolina and Tennessee, causing environmental damage.

Under the legislation passed by the General Assembly, when seeking a “dewatering” permit, Dominion would have to conduct an assessment that:

  • Describes any water pollution from the coal ash pond and possible solutions
  • Examines the feasibility of recycling the coal ash
  • Evaluates the possibility of removing the coal ash to a lined landfill
  • Demonstrates the “long-term safety” of the closed coal ash pond

Dominion’s plan is to “cap in place” the pits, by covering them with plastic and soil. Company officials say the process will not pollute the water.

State lawmakers pass laser hair removal regulations

By Tyler Woodall, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Laser hair removal in Virginia would have to be done under the supervision of a doctor or other health professional, according to a bill approved this week by the General Assembly.

House Bill 2119, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna, would require that laser hair removal treatments be performed by a medical doctor, physician assistant or nurse practitioner – or by a “properly trained person” working under one of those professionals.

Virginia and New York are the only states that allow people who aren’t health professionals to perform laser hair removal. Thirty states require at least some supervision by a physician during the procedure.

The push for regulation in Virginia began in 2016 when a constituent came to Keam with a horror story about a hair removal treatment performed by a spa employee who turned out to be a janitor.

The problem has affected many people in the Richmond area, according to investigative reports by television stations WWBT and WRIC. They interviewed people who have suffered burns, blisters and scars from local “med spas.” One woman said she feared for her life after receiving a botched laser facial from a spa in Henrico County.

For the 2016 legislative session, Keam introduced a bill that would have required individuals who practice laser hair removal to be licensed by the state Board of Medicine. That measure died in a subcommittee.

The bill Keam carried this legislative session had support from the Virginia Department of Health Professionals and the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation. In a 2016 report, those departments said the state’s regulatory framework governing the use of laser technology for hair removal was not up to their standards.

“The lack of comprehensive regulation over the use of laser technology for hair removal specifically, as well as conflicting oversight regarding minimally invasive cosmetic procedures generally, poses a risk of harm to the public’s health, safety and welfare,” the agencies’ report said. It urged lawmakers to consider increasing the regulation of laser hair removal.

Keam’s bill passed the House of Delegates, 90-7, on Feb. 7 and the Senate, 25-15, on Monday. It now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature. If approved, the law would take effect July 1.

McAuliffe vetoes legislation to defund Planned Parenthood

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed legislation Tuesday that sought to remove state and federal funding for women’s health providers such as Planned Parenthood and any other groups that perform abortions in Virginia.

In this veto statement, McAuliffe said the bill, HB 2264, “would harm tens of thousands of Virginians who rely on the health care services and programs provided by Planned Parenthood health centers, by denying them access to affordable care.”

Planned Parenthood held a veto ceremony on the steps of the Governor’s Mansion. According to the organization, more than 22,000 people in Richmond, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Charlottesville, and Roanoke rely on Planned Parenthood for health care, including cancer screenings, birth control, testing for and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, well-woman exams and legal abortions.

“We are proud to have a governor in Virginia who stands with the women of our commonwealth,” said Paulette McElwain, president and CEO of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. She said McAuliffe “understands how vitally important access to comprehensive reproductive health care provided by Planned Parenthood is for women.”

Pro-life activists lined the steps of the Governor’s Mansion bearing signs reading “All Lives Matter” and “Say No to Planned Parenthood.” In a press release, the Family Foundation of Virginia rejected the assertion that women would no longer have access to health care if the bill had been enacted.

The foundation said the legislation would have redirected non-Medicaid taxpayer funding from organizations that provide abortions to hospitals and health centers that provide more comprehensive services for women.

“Nothing in Virginia right now is more predictable than Terry McAuliffe doing all that he can to ensure that taxpayers are forced to prop up the abortion industry,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation. “If there’s one issue on which Gov. McAuliffe has been ideologically rigid, it is his unwavering support and protection of the same $1 billion abortion industry that contributed nearly $2 million to his election.”

Del. Ben Cline, R-Amherst, sponsored HB 2264. He introduced identical legislation in the General Assembly’s 2016 session. Last year’s bill passed both the House and the Senate but was vetoed by McAuliffe. The House fell one vote short of overriding the governor’s veto.

HB 2264 passed the House 60-33 on Feb. 7 and the Senate 20-19 on Feb. 14.

For women’s rights advocates, McAuliffe’s veto comes as a relief. Republicans would have to muster a two-thirds majority in each chamber – 67 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate – to override the veto.

“Defunding Planned Parenthood is a blatant attempt to deny women access to the full range of reproductive health care services, and Virginia women won’t stand for it,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

“Politicians in Richmond don’t get to decide where women get their health care and what kind of services they receive, and we’re glad that Gov. McAuliffe agrees.”

Assembly amends description of ‘dangerous dog’

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Both the House and Senate have unanimously approved a bill that would change the legal description of a “dangerous dog” and possibly put fewer animals on a state registry.

HB 2381cleared the Senate, 40-0, on Tuesday after winning approval in the House on Feb. 6. The bill now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Del. Matthew Farris of Rustburg, wants to give a dog the benefit of the doubt if it bites a person or another animal. His measure would give animal control officers the option of determining whether a dog should be considered dangerous just because it inflicts a nip, scratch or minor injury on someone, or on another pet.

Current law requires the animal control officer to summon the offending dog’s owner to appear in General District Court to explain why his or her animal should not be considered dangerous.

If the court finds a dog is dangerous, the bill would give its owner 30 days to obtain a dangerous-dog certificate, which carries a $150 fee and places the animal on a state registry. Current law allows the owner a 45-day wait.

When HB 2381 was heard by the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Feb. 1, the Virginia Animal Control Association offered support for the bill.

Virginia Newsome, a Loudoun County animal control officer, said the current law is too strict because it considers every dog that bites as dangerous. The legislation would give animal control officers discretion in making that determination.

“You can accidentally get bit by your puppy; that doesn’t make it a dangerous animal. We want to be able to give officers that discretion to look at the entire totality of each individual situation,” Newsome said.

Kirk Cox to succeed Bill Howell as House speaker

By Haley Winn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Republican delegates on Wednesday are expected to designate Majority Leader Kirk Cox as the next speaker of the House, following William Howell’s decision to retire.

Republican House members will caucus to select Cox, a retired government teacher from Colonial Heights, as the speaker-in-waiting, according to reports published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post and other news outlets.

Cox, 59, will succeed Howell, a Republican from Stafford, who announced that he will not seek re-election this fall to the 28th House District seat that he has held since 1988. Next January, Howell will conclude his term as the 54th speaker of the House of Delegates.

Cox has served in the House of Delegates since 1989 and has run unopposed in the past eight House elections. He is a resident of the 66th House District, which includes the city of Colonial Heights and part of Chesterfield County.

A graduate of Colonial Heights High School, Cox earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and general social science from James Madison University in 1979. He then taught government for 30 years.

Cox lives in Colonial Heights with his wife, Julie Kirkendall Cox. They have four sons.

In his role as majority leader, Cox serves on the House Appropriations Committee and on the conference committee that will help negotiate the state budget with his counterparts from the Senate.

Cox also serves with other senior lawmakers on the House Rules Committee and is a member of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

As speaker, Cox would replace Howell, who was lauded this week by both Republicans and Democrats for his dedication to public service.Howell has served as speaker since 2003.

The Senate majority leader, Sen. Thomas Norment of James City, issued a congratulatory statement calling Howell’s retirement “well-deserved.”

“Speaker Howell’s legacy of accomplishment is extraordinary, as he repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to conservative principles and reform,” Norment said. “On behalf of the entire Senate Republican Caucus, I wish the speaker, Mrs. Howell and their entire family a blessed and prosperous future.”

House Democrats also expressed their respect for Howell.

“Having dedicated the last three decades of his life to the Virginia House of Delegates, Speaker Howell is truly a historic figure in this chamber,” said Katie Baker, the communications director of the House Democratic Caucus. “He has always valued and worked to preserve the integrity of the body.”

In a statement released Monday, Howell thanked his colleagues for almost 30 years of service, describing the House of Delegates as a truly historic institution that he loves dearly.

“I believe [the House] represents the hope, enduring strength and resiliency of our exciting and ongoing experiment in representative self-government,” Howell said.

After retirement, Howell plans to spend his free time with his wife, Cecelia, and their family.

“We are blessed to have two good sons and seven energetic grandkids,” Howell said. “We have our youth. And we cannot wait to take some time together to travel, spend more time with our family and, frankly, just to relax together.”

Delegates offered tributes to Howell in speeches on the House floor. Cox himself said he was “honored to serve with one of the all-time greats.”

Cox declined to comment on speculation that he was in line to replace Howell. “This is the speaker’s day,” he told the Times-Dispatch.

All 100 House seats are up for election this fall. The new speaker would be officially chosen in early 2018. The choice will rest with the Republicans, who currently hold 66 House seats to the Democrats’ 34.

Cox may be well positioned to help Republican candidates in this year’s elections. In his own campaign treasury, he has nearly $400,000, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. In addition, Cox has a political action committee called the Majority Leader PAC with a balance of about $60,000. This money would be available to help House Republican candidates who may be facing Democratic opponents in upcoming elections.

For Third year, governor vetoes ‘Tebow bill’

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed the so-called Tebow bill that would have allowed home-schooled students to participate in high school sports.

“Participation in athletic and academic competitions is a privilege for students who satisfy eligibility requirements,” McAuliffe wrote in vetoing HB 1578, sponsored by Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville. “Opening participation in those competitions to individuals who are not required to satisfy the same criteria codifies academic inequality in interscholastic competition.”

This is the third consecutive year that Bell has shepherded such legislation through the General Assembly only to be stopped at the governor’s office.

The bill was nicknamed after former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who played football for a Florida high school while being home-schooled. The bill would have allowed high schools to join only interscholastic programs that welcomed home-schooled student athletes. If the bill had been enacted, the Virginia High School League would have had to implement policy changes to include home-schoolers alongside their public-school counterparts.

HB 1578 had passed the House 60-38 and the Senate 22-18. Earlier in the session, McAuliffe had announced his intention to veto the legislation. The governor has consistently joined opponents of the bill in saying that home-schooled students are not be held to the same academic expectations set for public school student athletes.

Bell’s latest bill had sought to address that concern. It said home-schoolers would have to pass standardized tests and demonstrate “evidence of progress” in their academic curriculum for two years before qualifying to play in a local high school’s sports team. They would also be expected to meet the same immunization standards set by public schools.

In addition, under HB 1578, each school district would have had the right to decide whether home-school students would be welcome in its high school sports programs. This measure was meant to accommodate schools critical of the change. But opponents like Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said it would only complicate the system even more.

“The bottom line is, once Virginia High School League changes its policy, every school division is going to have to match up with it, because nobody is going to want to compete with half a loaf,” Petersen said. “I’ve got some coaches in the audience that are here for state-winning championship teams, and I know what they would say, not on the merits of the bill, but simply that everyone has to play by the same set of rules.”

As a result of McAuliffe’s veto, the bill heads back to the General Assembly. It will require a two-thirds majority vote from both the House and Senate to override the veto.

Bell has pushed similar legislation since 2005 and says his efforts are to make sure children who thrive in home-schooling environments are not punished for it.

“If you are a parent and your kid doesn’t fit into the public-school curriculum right now, you can go private or you can go home-schooling, except many places, including a county I represent, have very limited private school options,” Bell said. “Yet we’re forcing parents to say, ‘You can have football, or you can have the education that you want.’”

All bills targeting student debt fail this session

By Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Six out of 10 Virginia college students graduate with debt, owing an average of about $28,000 each. More than 1 million Virginia residents owe a combined $30 billion in college loans, state officials say.

Against that backdrop, college students and recent graduates had high hopes that the General Assembly would pass bills to help students refinance loans or increase oversight of lenders. But as the legislative session enters its final days, those hopes have been dashed.

Last week, SB 1053, which sought to establish a “Borrowers’ Bill of Rights,” died in a legislative committee. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would have instituted a licensing process for student loan servicing companies and fined them if they misrepresented the terms of a loan to borrowers.

The legislation passed the Senate 36-4 before it crossed over for consideration in the House. It was killed on a party-line vote in the House Commerce and Labor Committee. Democrats and Virginia21, a college student advocacy group, were disappointed by the bill’s death.

“Education is the key to building a New Virginia economy, but too often crushing student debt prevents our young people from having a fair shot at the American dream,” said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “This bill would have protected young people from predatory lenders seeking to take advantage of their ambition and aspirations.”

According to a 2016 poll conducted by the Progress Virginia Education Fund, about three-fourths of Virginians support establishing a Borrowers’ Bill of Rights, and 60 percent believe state lawmakers should take steps to alleviate student debt.

“The House of Delegates has yet again failed student loan borrowers,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group. “With over 1 million Virginia borrowers and a quickly escalating student debt crisis, it’s outrageous the House of Delegates has rejected yet another bipartisan measure to protect borrowers from predatory practices.”

College debt has emerged as a prominent political issue in recent years. During the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested making tuition free at public colleges and universities and cutting interest rates on student loans.

“This is not a radical idea,” Sanders said during the campaign. “In fact, it’s what many of our colleges and universities used to do.”

He noted that the University of California offered free tuition at its schools until the 1980s. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year public university was about $243, and many colleges, including the City University of New York, did not charge tuition.

Sanders isn’t the only politician with such a plan in mind. On Friday, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello – who is challenging Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination for governor – called for two years of free community college or career and technical training for Virginians.

On the campaign trail last fall, President Donald Trump also proposed tackling the student debt crisis. As the Republican presidential nominee, Trump suggested allowing borrowers to cap their monthly student loan payments at a certain percentage of their income.

“Students should not be asked to pay more on the debt than they can afford,” Trump said at a rally in Ohio in October. “And the debt should not be an albatross around their necks for the rest of their lives.”

Many Virginia lawmakers feel the same way. They filed a total of nine student loan bills for consideration this legislative session.

For example, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, filed legislation to establish the Virginia Student Loan Refinancing Authority, which would have helped students refinance their debt with lower interest rates. Simon also carried a bill like Howell’s to require companies that service student loans to get a license from the State Corporation Commission. In addition, Simon sought to create a student loan ombudsman to help borrowers.

All nine bills failed.

Simon said he will continue to pursue the issue after the General Assembly’s session ends on Saturday.

“Student loan debt is hampering our economy and holding our young people back,” Simon said. “Long after they’ve attained degrees and secured good-paying jobs, workers are still seeing huge chunks of their paychecks being eaten by student loans. That’s money that could have been spent on both large and small purchases that would have bolstered local communities as well as our economy at-large.”

McAuliffe seeks funding for mental health screenings in jails

By Tyler Hammel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged Virginia legislators on Friday to include in the state budget funding to conduct mental health screenings in jails and to hire investigators to examine suspicious jail deaths.

In a meeting with reporters, McAuliffe addressed a topic that many law enforcement and mental health experts say is critical: About 16 percent of Virginia’s jail inmates were “known or suspected to be mentally ill,” according to a study last June.

“We need someone in those jails who can determine if someone has an issue with mental health,” McAuliffe said at a news briefing. In a letter to legislative leaders, he called on the General Assembly to approve his budget request for $4.2 million “to provide for training of jail staff in mental health screening and to provide grants to jails for mental health assessments.”

McAuliffe also asked for $200,000 for the Virginia Department of Corrections to hire two investigators “to review deaths and other major situations in local and regional jails.”

The request for the investigators was spurred by the death of Jamycheal Mitchell in 2015. Mitchell, who suffered from schizophrenia, was placed in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth after stealing about $5 of snacks from a 7-Eleven. Although a judge ordered that Mitchell, 24, be sent to a psychiatric hospital, he ended up staying in the jail for four months, losing 40 pounds, until he was found dead in his cell.

McAuliffe had asked for money for jail death investigators and mental health services in jails in the proposed budget that he submitted to the General Assembly in December. Both the House and Senate eliminated the money for mental health screenings. The House eliminated both investigator positions; the Senate kept one.

To fund the requests, McAuliffe proposed cutting funding for an upcoming commemoration of historical events at Jamestown. In 2019, the state will mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the House of Burgesses at Jamestown, as well as the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies.

The budgets being prepared by the House and Senate would provide $10 million for promoting and hosting the commemorative activities. McAuliffe suggested cutting that amount in half, to $5 million.

McAuliffe generally praised House and Senate leaders on the budgets they have crafted. Lawmakers still must work out differences in a conference committee and have both chambers approval a final budget before the legislative session ends Feb. 25.

Legislators must revise the second year of the $105 billion budget that the General Assembly adopted in 2016. That’s because tax revenues fell short of projections, causing a shortfall of more than $1 billion.

Both legislative bodies and McAuliffe agree that state employees and teachers deserve more compensation; however, they have proposed different ways to achieve this.

McAuliffe suggested a one-time, 1.5 percent bonus for state employees. The House and Senate proposed a 3 percent pay raise for state employees, with a targeted increase for state police, Capitol police and sheriff’s deputies.

The Senate budget sets aside about $83 million to give K-12 teachers a 2 percent raise. In contrast, the House proposed taking $62 million from the state lottery and giving to local school boards to use for teacher pensions or salaries.

“While each chamber has chosen its own method for addressing teacher compensation, I applaud both for keeping our teachers in the mix for discussion during conference,” McAuliffe wrote in his letter.

He said education was another area of agreement.

I am especially pleased to see that we agree on the need to protect public education from any programmatic reductions in funding,” McAuliffe’s letter said. “Public education is the backbone of a growing economy and our collective actions have demonstrated its priority and our shared commitment to protect public education from the effects of slow revenue growth.”

In his session with reporters, McAuliffe said Virginia’s budget situation is complicated by uncertainties in Washington over federal funding for Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Americans.

The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid. But President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to repeal the ACA. This might involve replacing Medicaid with block grants to the states.

Virginia did not expand Medicaid under the ACA. The non-expansion states might receive smaller block grants than the states that expanded Medicaid, McAuliffe said.

“If they block-grant Medicaid, that is very problematic for the commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.

Environmentalists disappointed by House’s coal ash bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill approved by the House on Friday would require Dominion Virginia Power to study whether its controversial coal ash ponds might pollute the water, but environmentalists say the legislation doesn’t do enough.

SB 1398 would requires energy companies to identify the risks of heavy metals polluting the groundwater and alternatives methods of disposal when they apply for a permit to decommission a “coal combustion residuals unit,” commonly called a coal ash pond.

These ponds, a mixture of the byproduct of coal combustion and water, are often near rivers. Dominion has four sites around Virginia containing millions of tons of coal ash. The company hopes to close the ponds by treating and discharging the water and then burying the remaining coal ash with a protective seal.

As passed by the Senate 29-11 on Feb. 7, SB 1398 said Dominion would have to complete the environmental assessment on a coal ash pond before getting a permit to close the facility. The director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “shall issue no draft permit to provide for the closure of any CCR unit until he has reviewed and evaluated the complete assessments and all comments received relating to that CCR unit,” the bill said.

However, that language was dropped in the version of the bill that the House passed 96-1 on Friday. Under the House-approved version, the Department of Environmental Quality would not have to consider the environmental studies when granting permits to close coal ash ponds.

The DEQ director “shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit” pending the completion of the environmental assessment, the House version said. “In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment.”

Environmentalists were upset that the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources had removed the stronger language from the Senate version of the bill.

“There were some really important pieces that were removed,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James riverkeeper for the James River Association. He said the group is especially disappointed that, under the House version, the DEQ wouldn’t have to wait for the environmental reports before granting a permit.

“You might say that the only thing that remains are some of the ashes of the first bill,” Del. Mark Keane, D-Fairfax, said when introducing the bill on the floor.

Dominion wants to close its coal ash ponds at:

  • Possum Point Power Station on Quantico Creek in Prince William County
  • Bremo Power Station on the James River in Fluvanna County
  • Chesterfield Power Station on the James River in Chesterfield County
  • Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake

The James River Association said it found arsenic and other heavy metals in the groundwater near the 13 million tons of coal ash stored at Dominion’s Chesterfield location. But leaving the ash in ponds isn’t an option, either. Both North Carolina and Tennessee have had untreated coal ash flood rivers, causing environmental damage.

Nate Benforado, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that his organization supports the work the General Assembly is doing but that there’s still more to do.

“Most notably, whether it makes sense to continue the closure permitting process while DEQ is waiting to receive more detailed information that would help make sure we get these sites closed right the first time,” Benforado said.

The bill would apply only to coal ash pits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, all of which are owned by Dominion.

Under the legislation, Dominion would have to include in applications for a “dewatering” permit:

  • A description of any water pollution from the coal ash pond and possible solutions
  • The feasibility of recycling the coal ash
  • The possibility of removing the coal ash to a lined landfill
  • A demonstration of the “long-term safety” of the closed coal ash pond

Coal ash rose to the forefront of environmental activism in Richmond a year ago when Dominion received a permit to release the treated wastewater from its coal ash ponds at the Bremo Power Station into the James River. The James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center successfully campaigned to have the requirements of the permit increased.

The process of dewatering Bremo coal ash ponds has started, but the coal ash remains. Dominion’s planis to “cap in place” the pits, by covering them with plastic and soil. Brunkow said there is still risk for contamination in this method. Dominion officials say the process will not pollute the water.

Other options are moving the coal ash to another, more modern lined landfill, or recycling the ash into cinder blocks and concrete.

The move to dewater coal ash ponds came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued rules two years ago calling for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds after the spills in North Carolina and Tennessee.

The bill will now go back to the Senate, where senators will vote on the House version of SB 1398. If the Senate rejects the House version, a conference committee will be formed to work out the differences.

Assembly OKs amendment to help surviving spouses of disabled vets

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A constitutional amendment to expand a tax exemption for surviving spouses of disabled veterans has passed unanimously in the House and Senate.

The amendment cleared the Senate on Friday after winning approval from the House on Feb. 6. It now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who will have until late March to act on the measure.

Currently, surviving spouses of disabled veterans get an exemption on the property taxes for the house in which they and their partner lived. Under HJ 562, the amendment proposed by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, spouses would continue to get the exemption if they move to another home.

Assuming McAuliffe approves the constitutional amendment, it still has a long way to go. By law, it must be approved again by the 2018 General Assembly and then by voters in a statewide election in November 2018.

Moreover, if voters adopt the constitutional amendment, the General Assembly must craft legislation for implementing it, noted Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas. He is vice chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, which held a hearing on HJ 562 on Feb. 3.

During the committee meeting, Miller said the enabling bill could address a concern he has about the tax exemption.

“In the corresponding legislation, could it be written that a spouse of a deceased member of our military couldn’t purchase a far more expensive home in the commonwealth of Virginia? Could the legislation say that the tax value of the home would have to be equal to or lesser than the current home?” Miller said.

“The testimony we kept hearing is people wanted to scale down because they lost a spouse. And when they scale down, they would lose their ability based on the home they are in when their spouse was killed. The concern I have is, someone that would perhaps scale up from a $200,000 house to a million-dollar house and now not paying property taxes.”

The committee voted unanimously – 21-0 – in favor of the amendment. So did the full House (97-0) and Senate (39-0).

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