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Legislators designate Suicide Prevention Week

By Haley Winn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Joshua Alburger grew up in a large, supportive family in Goochland, Virginia, says his sister, Marcie Allen. “We were nurtured, loved, respected and made to feel safe.”

Their parents had five children of their own while raising an additional five, Allen said. She said that later in life, Alburger developed a mental illness and struggled with suicidal thoughts. In 2013, at age 32, he died by suicide, leaving behind a wife of 10 years and three children.

“Joshua’s death broke my heart,” said Allen, who now works to raise awareness about how to prevent suicide.

The General Assembly will be joining her in that effort. Legislators have passed resolutions to designate the week of Sept. 10 as National Suicide Prevention Week in Virginia.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, taking more than 43,000 lives each year. The CDC estimates that more than 1 million Americans attempt suicide annually.

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in Virginia, resulting in more than 1,100 deaths a year.

Two identical resolutions on the subject are moving through the General Assembly:

●     HJR 548, which was approved by the House last month and passed the Senate on Tuesday.

●     SJR 251, which was approved by the Senate on Feb. 3 and is awaiting approval in the House.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, was the only House member to vote against HJR 548. He did so because the House refused to incorporate his proposed amendments about the relationship between suicides and guns.

“Almost 50 percent of all successful suicide attempts involve a firearm, such attempts being successful more than 82 percent of the time, making suicide by firearm the most common and most lethal means nationwide,” one of Simon’s amendments stated.

The other amendment noted that “the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention endorses incorporating suicide prevention education as a basic tenet of firearm safety and responsible gun ownership.”

“I don’t think you can have an honest conversation about suicide prevention without acknowledging the dangers of improperly stored and secured firearms,” Simon said.

Although the House rejected Simon’s amendments, the House and Senate resolutions both recognize the stigma associated with mental illness. The stigma is “discouraging persons at risk for suicide from seeking life-saving help and further traumatizes survivors of suicide loss and people with lived experience of suicide.”

Del. Richard Bell, R-Augusta County, sponsored the House resolution at the request of a constituent who had a sibling commit suicide. Bell said he believes establishing a week each year to focus on the issue will help prevent suicide.

“Raised awareness will hopefully help provide some folks who might be at risk with a way to manage their suicidal thoughts and seek help,” Bell said. “I also hope it will raise general awareness across the commonwealth that this is a form of mental illness that is often untreated and undiagnosed.”

The resolutions aren’t the General Assembly’s only efforts to curb suicides. The House has unanimously passed HB 2258, which would order a study about Virginia’s suicide prevention efforts. On Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee unanimously voted in favor of the bill.

In addition, both chambers have passed and sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe HB 1777, which would require hospital psychiatric units to speak to a patient’s referring physician before denying services for the patient. However, HB 2042, which sought to make suicide prevention a part of continuing education for health care workers, died in committee.

When Joshua Alburger struggled with mental illness, his family did everything they could to help, his sister said.

“Some would say in order to have a heart for others, or at all, you have to have your heart broken – broken wide open,” Marcie Allen said. She said her brother’s death“allowed me to love beyond where I could before.”

Now, Allen makes a point of talking to others who may be at risk of suicide.

“I ask if that person is speaking with a therapist,” she said. “I tell that person the impact he or she has on me and my life. I let that person know he or she is not alone – he or she is loved and wanted. I listen when someone says he or she is struggling. I will let that person talk.”

Suicide prevention resources

If someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, support is available.

The American Foundation for Suicide Preventionhas resources online at https://afsp.org. The phone number for the foundation’s Virginia chapter is 646-632-5189.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifelineis 1-800-273-8255. Or text “HELLO” to 741-741.

Over Democrats’ objections, Senate OKs ‘religious freedom’ bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic officials and the American Civil Liberties Union blasted Republican senators after they passed a “religious freedom” bill that would protect people who refuse to marry same-gender couples.

HB 2025, sponsored by Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, cleared the Senate on Thursday on a party-line vote of 21-19. The bill protects organizations and their employees who refuse to participate in the “solemnization” of marriage based on a “sincerely held religious belief.”

Freitas said the legislation was a response to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order that prohibits state contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“This is simply about preventing the government from punishing a religious organization because it doesn’t fit with a current governor or anyone else’s interpretation of social standards,” Freitas said when introducing the bill in committee.

The bill would protect a religious organization from losing a state contract or its tax-exempt status because of the group’s beliefs regarding marriage. It also would protect individuals from losing state employment, grants or acceptance into a public university if they refuse to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple.

Democrats, who unanimously voted against the measure, contended it would sanction discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam celebrated the third anniversary of a federal court ruling in the Bostic v. Rainey case legalizing same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, criticized the Senate for approving HB 2025.

“We cannot go backwards. We need to continue to be open and welcoming to all, no matter who you are or who you love,” Northam said in a press release.

Claire Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, urged her group’s supporters to oppose HB 2025 and SB 1324, an identical bill that passed the Senate last week and is now before the House Committee on General Laws.

“If these bills are signed into law, same-sex couples could be denied services at church-run facilities, hotels or resorts affiliated with religious organizations, or at hospitals owned by religious groups, even if the services are funded by taxpayers,” Gastanaga said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, argued on the House floor that HB 2025 is unnecessary because the Religious Freedom Restoration Act already makes it illegal for public bodies to discriminate against faith-based organizations on the basis of their religious beliefs.

A similar bill was introduced last year and failed in part because of the argument articulated by Simon.

However, Republicans said they fear that McAuliffe’s executive order could lead to discrimination against faith-based organizations that object to same-sex marriage.

“We had the governor’s executive order, which I believe does just that, or at least creates a mechanism where that can be accomplished,” Freitas said.

Democrats expressed concerns over the bill’s potential economic consequences. North Carolina experienced economic losses after its government passed a similar law last year.

At the beginning of the legislative session, McAuliffe vowed to veto any bill he considered discriminatory. Northam said the governor would veto HB 2025.

At his news conference Tuesday, Northam vowed to protect gay and lesbian Virginians from discrimination.

“Just before the holidays, I completed a seven-city tour that ended in Salem, Virginia, where I was pleased to welcome the NCAA soccer tournament,” Northam said.“That championship was relocated from North Carolina after the state passed anti-LGBT legislation, as was the NBA All-Star game and major businesses. As long as I’m here, as long as Gov. McAuliffe and Attorney General (Mark) Herring are here, Virginia will be inclusive. We will not be like North Carolina.”

Carol Schall, one of the plaintiffs in the Bostic v. Rainey case, also spoke at the news conference. She discussed HB 1395, which would have repealed language in state law that bans same-sex marriage. Even though the language is no longer valid, the bill, sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax County, died in a House committee.

“Names matter. Names like ‘mom’ and ‘wife’ make all the difference in the world,” Schall said. “In past years such as this year, Del. Sickles proposed to repeal outdated constitutional amendment encoding discrimination in our great Constitution.”

Sickles called for a full House vote on the issue. He also discussed HJ 538, his proposal to repeal a constitutional amendment adopted by voters adopted in 2006 that defines marriage as being between “one man and one woman.” Sickles’ resolution died in a House committee on an unrecorded vote.

Constitutional amendments require approval in two legislative sessions before they can be presented to voters on a November ballot.

“If this constitutional were passed and it passed again next winter, by the time it got to the voters in November of ’18, 1.2 million people in our state will have come of age,” Sickles said. “They want to speak to this. They do not want the people of the 2006 cultural and societal milieu to speak forever.”

CNS reporter Tyler Hammel contributed to this report.

Assembly passes bill to allow sale of 151-proof liquor

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The General Assembly has given final approval to a bill that would allow the sale of 151-proof liquor in Virginia – a choice available in almost all other states, but one some fear could increase binge drinking and other problems on college campuses.

“I am glad to see Virginia join the ranks of 48 other states that have legalized clear, 151-proof alcohol. The law banning the legislation is a law left over from the days of Prohibition,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, who sponsored the bill.

Under HB 1842, state-controlled liquor stores will be able to sell neutral grain spirits up to 151 proof (75.5 percent alcohol), an increase from the previous limit of 101 proof (50.5 percent alcohol).

Knight sponsored similar legislation in 2016, but it was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who echoed the concerns of university officials about 151-proof liquor. “A prime market for these products is young people who are attracted to their high proof and low cost,” McAuliffe wrote in his veto message last spring.

A McAuliffe spokesman said the governor has not taken a stand on HB 1842.

This year’s bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 36-4 in the Senate on Tuesday. Last month, the House approved the measure, 83-14.

To assuage concerns from organizations such as the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council, Knight cooperated with Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, to include a five-year sunset clause in HB 1842. The legality of 151-proof grain alcohol would expire on July 1, 2022, and lawmakers then would decide whether to renew the law.

In addition, under the bill, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could choose not to sell 151-proof alcohol products near college campuses.

Some university officials have expressed concerns about highly potent liquor. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan has likened it to a “date rape” drug because of the correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault.

A popular 151-proof liquor is Everclear, which also comes in a 190-proof variety. It is made by Luxco, a clear liquor producer based in St. Louis. Vectre Corp., a lobbying firm in Richmond, represents Luxco.

Vectre officials said 151-proof clear alcohols were used mostly for culinary purposes rather than for straight consumption. An Everclear study conducted in 2015 found that 64 percent of product purchases were made by consumers over age 31.

Virginia and Vermont are the only states that ban sales of 151-proof liquor. Despite such restrictions, Virginia residents could easily cross into neighboring states to purchase strong neutral-grain alcohols.

According to Knight, the motivation behind HB 1842 is economic. A House workgroup report showed ABC sold more than $13,000 in grain alcohol during the 2016 fiscal year to purchasers holding special permits for industrial, commercial, culinary or medical purposes.

“Now Virginians do not have to drive to other states, and give their tax money, to purchase this spirit,” Knight said. “This legislation will allow Virginians the same purchasing power as 48 other states, have the taxes come to the commonwealth, and provide restaurants with 151 (proof) for cooking purposes.”

Bill lets women get 1 year of birth control pills

By Amelia Heyman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Senate on Thursday passed legislation allowing pharmacists to provide women a full year of birth control pills at once if prescribed by a doctor.

HB 2267, was sponsored by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield. The bill, titled the Birth Control Access Act, will now be sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to be signed into law.

Women’s right activists praised the measure’s passage. Many insurance policies currently limit women to a 90-day supply of birth control pills.

“Passing the Birth Control Access Act is a huge victory for women. Women lead busy lives, and going back and forth to the pharmacy every few weeks to get the birth control they need isn’t necessary, so we’re thrilled that the General Assembly has passed this common-sense solution,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. “Everyone in a community benefits when women are able to take control of their own bodies, and passing this bill is a step in the right direction.”

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam agreed.

“I applaud the Senate for supporting expanded access to contraception for Virginia women. Extending oral contraceptive prescriptions to 12 months will ensure that more women have reliable access to reproductive health care,” Northam said.

“As a doctor, I know that having prescription options is important for the best patient care. Moving forward, I would urge members of the General Assembly to support measures to promote access to the full-range of reproductive health care services for all Virginia women.”

The bill states, “Any health benefit plan that is amended, renewed, or delivered on or after January 1, 2018, that provides coverage for hormonal contraceptives shall cover up to a 12-month supply of hormonal contraceptives when dispensed or furnished at one time for a covered person by a provider or pharmacy or at a location licensed or otherwise authorized to dispense drugs or supplies.”

The bill – which had been approved by the House, 94-1, on Feb. 7 – passed the Senate on a vote of 34-6.

Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans, said current insurance policies allow 90 days’ worth of prescription to be mailed at a time. People can check an “automatic refill” box and automatically receive a refill as a prescription starts to run out.

The existing law for prescription contraceptives does not specify the amount that can be prescribed at once. Filler-Corn’s bill would solve that vagueness.

“We applaud the bipartisan vote,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “It’s a rare moment in Richmond when a pro-choice, proactive women’s health bill is advanced on a bipartisan basis.”

Research has shown that women who receive a one-year supply of oral contraceptives are more likely to continuously and consistently use contraceptives than women who get only a one- or three-month supply.

Studies show that unintended pregnancy is reduced by 30 percent and abortion is reduced by 46 percent when women have access to a full year’s supply of birth control, according to Progress Virginia.

The group noted that the average cost to an insurer of birth control for one year is $160-$600. A birth can cost an insurer between $18,000 and $28,000.

Supporters say Planned Parenthood is for everyone

By Jessica Nolte, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Pink signs, chants, “pussy hats” and a Wednesday afternoon rally served as a reminder to Planned Parenthood supporters that their fight is not over.

About 60 people attended the Stand With Planned Parenthood rally in the Virginia Commonwealth University Student Commons Plaza. The rally came one day after the Senate narrowly passed HB 2264, a bill some see as an effort to defund Planned Parenthood.

“We are bracing ourselves for the attack we are sure to see over the next four years on women’s health care,” said Elizabeth Childress, Richmond City chair of the Young Democrats. “We must be committed to protecting women’s access to quality affordable health care in Virginia, and that’s care we know Planned Parenthood provides.”

Childress said Planned Parenthood helps people in poverty, people in rural areas, people of color and people in the LGBTQ community.

The one bright spot in the General Assembly’s approval of the legislation, Childress said, is that Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vowed to veto the bill as he did last year.

Next year, McAuliffe will no longer be the governor because Virginia prohibits the immediate re-election of governors.

“The House – the House that voted to defund Planned Parenthood, 60-33 – all 100 of their seats are up for grabs. All 100 of their seats are in your hands,” Childress said.

The bill does not directly reference Planned Parenthood and would not eliminate family planning services. The bill instead dedicates funding to health-care services provided by public entities, non-public hospitals and federally qualified health centers.

“The reality is that most of the money Planned Parenthood receives is from Medicaid, which this bill doesn’t address, and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be affected by this bill is relatively small,” according to Chris Freund, vice president of the Family Foundation, which opposes Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions.

In a blog post, Freund wrote that the amount is “small enough that it would have no bearing on whether or not a facility would close.”

However, Paulette McElwain, CEO of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, said the legislation “would undermine the health of thousands of our patients who count on us for comprehensive care.” She added that “scores of Virginia women would no longer have access to STI (sexually transmitted infections) testing, a subsidized service utilized by nearly 2,000 of our patients last year.”

While many supporters of Planned Parenthood advocate for a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion, supporters also often argue that Planned Parenthood’s other health services should make the organization worth protecting even for those who are pro-life.

Hunter Madden, a member of Planned Parenthood Generation Action at VCU, said that as a high school student, the negative stigma around Planned Parenthood discouraged him from getting involved.

Madden grew up in Stafford, in Northern Virginia. He said that as a gay man, he found public school sex education lacking. The curriculum was very heteronormative, he said.

“The extent of our sex education was ‘don’t have sex.’ Great. OK. So we learned a little bit about how to not have sex and STDs and STIs,” Madden said.

When he wanted more comprehensive information about sex, he went to Planned Parenthood.

“Without a resource like Planned Parenthood, I don’t know where I would be. They’re just such an important group for so many people – women, LGBT people, men and everyone is affected by Planned Parenthood.”

Assembly passes bill to prevent identity theft

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill that seeks to protect Virginians from losing their income tax refunds to identity thieves won final approval Wednesday in the General Assembly.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna, said thieves can steal information from the payroll system of an employer or payroll service and use it to claim a state income tax refund before the real taxpayer files a legitimate return.

“Incidents of cyber hacking and data breach are becoming way too common, and criminals are using every opportunity to prey on innocent Virginians,” Keam said.

His legislation, HB 2113, passed unanimously in the state Senate on Wednesday. The bill, which was approved by the House on Feb. 2, now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.

The measure would require employers to notify the attorney general’s office if they discover that sensitive information about their employee payroll has been compromised. The attorney general’s office then would work with the Virginia Department of Taxation to make sure employees don’t lose their tax refunds to identity thieves.

“To give the government a fighting chance against these criminals, it’s critical that employers notify the attorney general’s office as soon as they discover a breach of their employees’ payroll data so that the Tax Department can prevent fraudulent income tax refunds from being processed,” Keam said.

According to the Department of Taxation, more than 160 fraudulent refunds were issued during the first six months of 2016 as a result of 18 payroll breaches. Once a fraudulent tax refund is issued, it often is impossible to recover, state officials said. Annually, the state loses about $800,000 due to such cases of fraud involving tax refunds.

Paige Tucker, communications specialist with the Virginia Department of Taxation, said identity theft has been a serious problem but her agency is working to stop it.

“We are committed to doing our part to prevent refund fraud,” Tucker said. “With the increased sophistication of our fraud models and increased resources devoted to our refund fraud prevention program, we’re seeing positive results.”

To prevent refund fraud, Tucker said, taxpayers should refrain from sending personal information, such as their Social Security number, to unknown people through email or text.

Small businesses may get break on tax penalties

By Tyler Woodall, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – New small businesses that fall behind on their state taxes would get a break under a bill passed by the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

SB 793 would waive the penalties for small businesses that are in arrears in paying their taxes during their first two years in operation.

The legislation was introduced by Republican Sens. Glen Sturtevant and Amanda Chase, both of Chesterfield. It would waive any penalties related to taxes administered by the Virginia Department of Taxation as long as the small business has signed an installment agreement to complete payment of its taxes.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill in January, and on Wednesday, the House voted 94-5 to approve it as well. However, the House amended the bill so that the tax penalty waiver would expire on June 30, 2022. The measure now goes back to the Senate.

The legislation defines a small business as “an independently owned and operated business that has been organized pursuant to Virginia law or maintains a principal place of business in Virginia and has 10 or fewer employees.”

Small businesses with 10 or fewer employees made up nearly 72 percent of the businesses in the commonwealth in 2012, according to the fiscal impact statement accompanying the bill.

Delegates argued briefly about the sunset amendment, which was offered by Del. James Massie, R-Henrico.

Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, asked why the change had not been proposed earlier when the House Finance Committee held a hearing on the bill.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, questioned whether the amendment was needed. He said the House could pass the bill in its original form and eliminate the tax penalty waiver program later on if it’s not beneficial to the commonwealth.

But Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, supported the amendment. He fears that a business may get behind on its taxes, enter into an installment plan, get the tax penalty waived but never finish paying its taxes.

Toscano said the bill “doesn’t say ‘complete’ -- it says ‘enters into.’ So you have this situation where a person can enter into their agreement but never perform it, and then the taxpayer is on the hook.”

Small businesses may get break on tax penalties

By Tyler Woodall, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – New small businesses that fall behind on their state taxes would get a break under a bill passed by the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

SB 793 would waive the penalties for small businesses that are in arrears in paying their taxes during their first two years in operation.

The legislation was introduced by Republican Sens. Glen Sturtevant and Amanda Chase, both of Chesterfield. It would waive any penalties related to taxes administered by the Virginia Department of Taxation as long as the small business has signed an installment agreement to complete payment of its taxes.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill in January, and on Wednesday, the House voted 94-5 to approve it as well. However, the House amended the bill so that the tax penalty waiver would expire on June 30, 2022. The measure now goes back to the Senate.

The legislation defines a small business as “an independently owned and operated business that has been organized pursuant to Virginia law or maintains a principal place of business in Virginia and has 10 or fewer employees.”

Small businesses with 10 or fewer employees made up nearly 72 percent of the businesses in the commonwealth in 2012, according to the fiscal impact statement accompanying the bill.

Delegates argued briefly about the sunset amendment, which was offered by Del. James Massie, R-Henrico.

Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, asked why the change had not been proposed earlier when the House Finance Committee held a hearing on the bill.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, questioned whether the amendment was needed. He said the House could pass the bill in its original form and eliminate the tax penalty waiver program later on if it’s not beneficial to the commonwealth.

But Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, supported the amendment. He fears that a business may get behind on its taxes, enter into an installment plan, get the tax penalty waived but never finish paying its taxes.

Toscano said the bill “doesn’t say ‘complete’ -- it says ‘enters into.’ So you have this situation where a person can enter into their agreement but never perform it, and then the taxpayer is on the hook.”

Senate passes bill to defund Planned Parenthood

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Senate on Tuesday narrowly passed a bill to curtail funding for Planned Parenthood and other health centers that perform abortions.

The Senate voted 20-19 along party lines in favor of HB 2264, sponsored by Del. Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst.

The bill states that the Virginia Department of Health “shall not enter into a contract with, or make a grant to, any entity that performs abortions that are not federally qualified abortions or maintains or operates a facility where non-federally qualified abortions are performed.”

That means the state would cut off funds for organizations that offer abortions that are not eligible for matching funds under Medicaid. This would include any abortion outside of cases of rape, incest or “gross fetal anomalies.”

Essentially, the bill would shift funding from the five Planned Parenthood clinics in Virginia to federally funded hospitals and rural clinics.

The House passed the legislation, 60-33, on Feb. 7. With the Senate’s approval, the bill now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe has said he will veto the measure.

Paulette McElwain, CEO of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, said the bill represents the state-level version of a national vendetta to defund Planned Parenthood.

“We are, of course, very disheartened that members of the Senate have turned their backs on underserved women of Virginia,” McElwain said. “This bill specifically targets Planned Parenthood and, if passed into law, would undermine the health of thousands of our patients who count on us for comprehensive care.”

McElwain said that as a result of the legislation, “Virginia women would no longer have access to free STI (sexually transmitted infections) testing, a subsidized service utilized by nearly 2,000 of our patients last year.”

“In their single-minded focus on damaging our organization, these Virginia senators are causing direct and possibly lasting damage to the health of Virginia women,” McElwain said.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, agreed. “The clinics our colleagues are targeting help women treat infections like Hepatitis B to make sure these infections are not passed on to newborns through no fault of their own,” she said.

Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said “apologists for abortion centers” incorrectly blamed Cline’s bill for endangering women’s health.

“Virginia has a duty to steward taxpayer money in a way that ensures funds are distributed by priority to the most effective point-of-service health-care providers,” Cobb said. “This legislation simply ensures that hospitals, federally qualified health clinics and rural health clinics are funded over abortion centers.”

She said that more than 140 federally qualified and rural clinics in Virginia offer comprehensive services to women and that many of them are in areas where Planned Parenthood doesn’t have clinics.

Schools still can’t start before Labor Day

By Jessica Samuels, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Students in Virginia’s largest public school districts can continue enjoying summer vacation through the Labor Day weekend after a Senate panel killed a bill that would have allowed school districts to start classes earlier.

House Bill 1983,whichsought to end a rule nicknamed the “KingsDominionLaw,” had been approved by the House in January. But the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 9-6 that the bill be “passed by indefinitely.”

Under current state law, public schools cannot start before Labor Day unless they get a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education because of harsh winter weather or other “good cause.” The bill would have removed the waiver requirement and allowed school systems to decide when to resume classes.

“Each local school board shall be responsible for setting the school calendar and determining the opening date of the school year,” stated the legislation, which was sponsored by Sen. Thomas “Tag” Greason, R-Loudoun.

Greason noted that this was the eighth year in a row that he had carried a bill “giving local control to the localities on their school calendar.”

“It’s commonly referred to as the Labor Day bill, the Kings Dominion bill. We are just allowing the localities to set their date on their own,” he said.

The Senate Education and Health Committee killed the bill at its meeting last Thursday. In January, the panel had voted down a Senate bill (SB 1111, by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke) to expand the reasons that school districts could receive a waiver to open before Labor Day.

More than 75 school districts in Northern Virginia and the western half of the state already have waivers to hold classes before Labor Day. That is usually because they have a history of having to close schools during the winter because of snow or other weather conditions.

About 55 school systems do not have waivers. They include many of Virginia’s largest districts, such as the public schools in Fairfax, Virginia Beach, Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond.

Supporters of the current law say that it helps protect Virginia’s tourism industry and that parents prefer to have schools on vacation until after Labor Day, the traditional end of summer.

Theme parks like Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens have advocated keeping schools from starting before Labor Day. That holiday weekend can be a last chance for families to visit the parks for the summer. The theme parks also rely on teenage workers who would have to quit before the season ends if schools started early.

Critics of the current law say local school boards should be able to set the calendar. Some also believe that starting classes before Labor Day would boost students’ academic performance.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate Education and Health Committee voted on HB 1983 (“School calendar; opening day of school year”).

02/09/17 Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Education and Health (9-Y 6-N)

YEAS – Newman, Saslaw, Lucas, Barker, Black, Carrico, Cosgrove, Lewis, Dunnavant – 9.

NAYS – Howell, Locke, Petersen, Chase, Suetterlein, Peake – 6.

Senate approval sends ‘Tebow Bill’ to McAuliffe

By Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia Senate narrowly approved a bill Monday that would allow home-schooled students across the commonwealth to play high school sports.

HB 1578, commonly known as the “Tebow Bill,” would eliminate a statewide ban prohibiting home-schooled students from participating in high school athletics and other interscholastic activities.

The Senate voted 22-18 in favor of the measure. Democratic Sen. Lynwood Lewis of Accomac joined the 21 Republican senators in voting for the bill, which had been approved by the House last month.

The bill, introduced by Del. Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, will be sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature. Sam Coleman, an aide to the Democratic governor, said McAuliffe plans to veto the legislation.

The bill is nicknamed for former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, who was allowed to play football for a high school in Florida while he was being home-schooled. Bell has introduced similar legislation each year since 2005.

In 2015 and 2016, Bell’s bills were passed by the General Assembly only to be vetoed by McAuliffe. The legislation’s supporters were unable to override the vetoes.

Opponents of HB 1578 say home-schoolers don’t have to meet the same academic standards as public-school students, so it would not be right to let them play alongside regular students in high school sports.

McAuliffe cited that rationale when he vetoed Bell’s legislation last spring.

“Opening participation in those competitions to individuals who are not required to satisfy the same criteria upends Virginia’s extracurricular framework and codifies academic inequality in interscholastic competition,” the governor wrote in his veto message.

Bell counters that this is not the case with his newest iteration of the bill.

Under the legislation, any student who wants to participate in a local high school’s athletic programs would have to pass standardized tests and demonstrate “evidence of progress” in their academic curriculum for at least two years. Bell said the students also would have to meet the same immunization standards as their public-school counterparts.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, argues that, in his experience, it wouldn’t be fair to students who already participate in their high school’s athletic programs.

“I played high school athletics,” Petersen said. “I know a little bit about it. I know you have to have a certain GPA to play on Friday nights. I know you had to basically comply with classroom conduct rules in order to play, and I think those are good rules. They’re good rules for kids, and that’s what this is about.”

Bell’s bill also states that each local school district would get to decide for itself whether to allow home-schoolers to participate in high school sports. Districts that consider such a policy as unfair would not be forced to allow home-schoolers to participate.

Petersen argued that this caveat would create more problems than it would help solve.

“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,” he 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.”

“You can’t have one set of rules down-state, one set of rules in Northern Virginia and one set of rules in Hampton Roads,” Petersen added. “The bottom line is, if we’re going to have this, it’s got to be a state-wide policy. It can’t be halfway.”

Bell argued his bill would simply allow home-schooled students who might not fit the typical public-school mold the same freedoms as all other students.

“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.’”

How they voted

Here is how the Senate voted Monday on HB 1578 (“Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs (Tebow Bill)”).

Floor 02/13/2017 Senate: Passed Senate: (22-Y 18-N)

YEAS – Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Dunnavant, Hanger, Lewis, McDougle, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Reeves, Ruff, Stanley, Stuart, Sturtevant, Suetterlein, Vogel, Wagner – 22.

NAYS – Barker, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, McPike, Petersen, Saslaw, Spruill, Surovell, Wexton – 18.

Bill lets domestic violence victims carry concealed guns

By Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Victims of domestic violence would get early access to concealed handgun permits under a bill approved Monday by the state Senate.

HB 1852 would allow those with protective orders to carry a concealed handgun after they apply for a permit. It was introduced by a Republican coalition of delegates including Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, Nick Freitas of Culpeper, Rick Morris of Suffolk, Ron Villanueva of Virginia Beach and Michael Webert of Fauquier County.

The bill was passed by the Senate Monday on a 27-13 vote after approval by the House of Delegates on Feb. 3. It will now be sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to seek the governor’s signature. McAuliffe vetoed similar legislation last year and plans to do the same with this iteration, according to Sam Coleman, an aide.

Under current Virginia law, it is illegal to carry concealed handguns until a permit is granted – a process that can take up to 45 days after the application is filed. Gilbert said that, for the victims of abuse, that time can be the difference between life and death.

To address the issue, the bill would allow those with protective orders to carry a concealed handgun for up to 45 days without a permit as long as they have applied for one. Gilbert said this would give victims of abuse a means to defend themselves from their attackers.

“The essence of this is that we want to empower people, especially women, who find themselves in a position where they are in fear of their lives, to be able to protect themselves in a manner that they see fit,” he said.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, argued the bill would lead to unintended circumstances that could put victims in even greater danger.

“We already have a victim who’s vulnerable and very concerned and anxious, and we’re going to allow this person to bypass whatever requirements we might have for concealed handgun permits – one of which is training – to go ahead and get the gun,” she said.

“We should base public policy on evidence-based research. Folks who have studied this issue, folks who have advocated for the rights of women, folks who have spent many years evaluating domestic violence situations tell us that it is not wise to interject more firearms into a situation that is already volatile,” Favola added. “In fact, when a firearm exists in a situation of domestic violence, it’s actually the woman who is five times more likely to die.”

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester, argued this bill would not introduce a firearm into a situation where it wouldn’t have already existed, but that it would instead give victims greater freedom to protect themselves by carrying concealed.

“I would just like to point out that in this circumstance, a victim can already open carry if they are lawfully allowed,” she said. “In this case, this would simply allow them, in that window of time where they are most vulnerable, to conceal carry. I just want to make that point because I think sometimes people overlook that piece of this, and I think that’s an important measure.”

How they voted

Here is how the Senate voted Monday on HB 1852 (“Concealed handguns; protective orders”).

Floor: 02/13/17 Senate: Passed Senate with substitute (27-Y 13-N)

YEAS – Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, Dance, DeSteph, Dunnavant, Edwards, Hanger, Lewis, McDougle, McPike, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Petersen, Reeves, Ruff, Saslaw, Stanley, Stuart, Sturtevant, Suetterlein, Vogel, Wagner – 27.

NAYS – Barker, Deeds, Ebbin, Favola, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, Spruill, Surovell, Wexton – 13.

Is it gerrymandering – or Democratic clustering?

By Maura Mazurowski and Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – David Toscano, the minority leader in the Virginia House, did the math and didn’t like the results.

“All five statewide offices are held by Democrats, and the presidency has been won by Democrats in Virginia for the last three cycles,” he said. “Yet 66 percent of the House of Delegates are Republicans.”

The Democrats do better in the Virginia Senate, where they are outnumbered just 21-19 by Republicans. Almost as lopsided as the state House of Delegates is Virginia’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representative: It has seven Republicans and four Democrats.

Toscano and other Democrats blame that imbalance on gerrymandering – the drawing of political districts to favor the party in power.

“We face a real uphill struggle, and it shows in the legislation that is getting defeated as well as the legislation that they are getting passed,” Toscano said.

Last week, for example, the General Assembly marked “crossover day” – the deadline for bills to pass their chamber of origin or be declared dead for the legislative session. Of bills sponsored by Republican delegates, 59 percent have won House approval and are still alive, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the Legislative Information Service. Of bills sponsored by Democratic delegates, just 25 percent survived crossover.

However, many legislators dispute the notion that unfair redistricting practices have disadvantaged Democrats and ensured Republican legislative dominance.

“It has nothing to do with gerrymandering. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jeff Ryer, communications director for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus. He said the Republican majority in the General Assembly simply reflects where people live: Republicans tend to live in rural areas while Democrats tend to cluster in more densely populated areas, such as Tidewater and Northern Virginia.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, agrees. In an op-edthis month in the Richmond-Times Dispatch, he discussed what Democrats see as evidence of manipulated districts: “A state in which Republicans have lost seven statewide races in a row has a majority Republican congressional delegation and legislature.”

McDougle wrote, “That is not the result of gerrymandering, but an easy to understand consequence of Democrat voters living in communities surrounded by other Democrat voters.” In other words, he explained, “Democrat voters often reside in clusters, living in localities that vote overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates.”

Last fall’s presidential election was a case in point, McDougle said. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won only 40 of Virginia’s 133 localities. But by winning the most populous localities, often by “staggeringly large” margins, Clinton captured the statewide vote over Republican Donald Trump.

However, Bill Oglesby, an assistant professor in VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, says gerrymandering explains why Democrats have so little power in the General Assembly.

“Even a conservative editorial page like the Richmond-Times Dispatch has said in a state that votes blue statewide on a consistent basis, there’s no justification for having two-thirds of the House be Republican,” said Oglesby, who recently directed and produced a PBS documentary titled “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on Its Head.”

John Aughenbaugh, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said both Democrats and Republicans have used gerrymandering, depending on which party is in the majority when political lines are redrawn every 10 years.

“In Virginia, like a majority of the states in the country, the state legislature controls the redistricting process after every census is taken,” Aughenbaugh said. “It puts a heavy premium on which political party is actually in control of the General Assembly after the census results come out.”

When the Democrats controlled the General Assembly, they drew the lines to benefit their party, Aughenbaugh said. He said no one is innocent, but it is a problem that must be fixed.

“Most political scientists would like to see greater competitive races, whether we are talking about state legislative seats or House of Representatives,” Aughenbaugh said. “We would like to see greater competition.”

The lack of competition is evident in statistics compiled by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. When the 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates were up for election two years ago, 61 of the races were uncontested – with just one name on the ballot.

Despite being in the minority in the House and Senate, Democratic legislators have an ace up their sleeve. They can play it when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoes legislation, as he has done to 71 Republican-supported bills since taking office in 2014.

Republicans need a two-thirds majority in both chambers – 67 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate – to override a veto. They’ve never been able to muster that. As a result, not one of McAuliffe’s vetoes has been overturned.

But Democrats’ ultimate goal is to change the way political districts are drawn.

At the start of the legislative session, legislators – including some Republicans – introduced 13 bills and proposed constitutional amendments intended to take the politics out of redistricting. All of the proposals originating in the House died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

But three redistricting proposals won approval in the Senate and have been sent to the House for consideration:

  • SJ 290 is a proposed constitutional amendment that states, “No electoral district shall be drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or other individual or entity.” It is sponsored by Sens. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, and Janet Howell, D-Reston.
  • SJ 231, another constitutional amendment, would create an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts after each census. It is sponsored by a group of Republicans and Democrats.
  • SB 846, sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would require Virginia to use an independent commission if a court declares a legislative or congressional district unlawful or unconstitutional.

All of those measures have been assigned to the House Privileges and Elections Committee, the House graveyard for its own bills that would have changed redistricting.

Republicans divided on redistricting reform

By Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Redistricting reform has Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly divided.

Three redistricting reform proposals that passed the Senate are scheduled to come before the House Elections Subcommittee on Tuesday morning. The measures – SJ 290, SJ 231 and SB 846– gained bipartisan support and passed the Senate with overwhelming majorities last week.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, who is running for lieutenant governor, co-sponsored SJ 290, a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit electoral districts from being drawn for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or individual. She held a press conference Monday with OneVirginia2021, a non-profit organization that advocates for nonpartisan redistricting.

Vogel said the biggest obstacle to redistricting reform has been lack of public information.

“Once folks truly start to appreciate that perhaps it isn’t them who are selecting their legislators but in fact the legislators who are selecting them, that actually really makes people stop and take a second look,” Vogel said.

Vogel herself represents seven different localities, including slivers of Culpeper County and Stafford County that were added to her district as a result of the 2011 redistricting. She says gerrymandering undermines the ability of legislators to serve their constituents.

“That was deliberately drawn that way, and that doesn’t mean that I’m less engaged, but certainly it dilutes my ability to have an impact,” Vogel said.

District lines in Virginia are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census and are constitutionally required to be composed of “contiguous and compact territory” and to represent the population of the district. Critics of the system have argued that the process is used for political gain and has been corrupted by partisanship.

“Gerrymandering is simply rigging the outcome of an election before the very first vote is cast. Rather than stuffing the ballot box, incumbents are stuffing their districts,” said Chuck McPhillips, a Republican lawyer and Tidewater regional co-chairman of OneVirginia2021.

So far this session, the House has defeated eight redistricting reform bills, most of which were proposed by Democrats. The debate over redistricting comes just a week after the House Privileges and Elections Committee was booed by the audience for refusing to reconsider five redistricting proposals that one of its subcommittees had killed.

“The House has taken a much more aggressive posture than the Senate has vis-a-vis their willingness to entertain these bills, and in my view, I think a fair and open hearing is critical,” Vogel said.

SJ 231, proposed by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, would establish a seven-member bipartisan commission composed of both party leaders and independent public officials to redraw congressional and General Assembly district boundaries after each decennial census. SB 846, which was proposed by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would establish an Interim Redistricting Commission to assume control of redistricting if any state or federal court declared the districts drawn by lawmakers to be unconstitutional.

At least one member of the Elections Subcommittee said he is skeptical about having a special commission redraw political lines.

“I don’t think it is wise to hand over constitutional obligations and duties of elected people to unelected people,” said Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Glenn Allen.

Two of the bills before the House are constitutional amendments, and if passed would alter Article 2 Section 6 of the Virginia Constitution. The executive director of OneVirginia2021, Brian Cannon, criticized House Republicans for assigning these bills to the Elections Subcommittee instead of the Constitutional Subcommittee. He believes the proposed amendments would have a better chance of passing in the Constitutional Subcommittee.

“They’re very deliberate about exactly what they’re doing here,” Cannon said.

Chris West, policy communications director for House Speaker William Howell, said the constitutional amendments were moved to the Elections Subcommittee to “show the wide support that the Republican caucus has against redistricting reform.”

Bill would outlaw female circumcision

By Haley Winn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The General Assembly is considering a bill that would make the practice of female genital mutilation a misdemeanor – but that penalty is much less than the sponsors originally intended.

The bill, which has cleared the Senate and is now in the House, would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor to perform any 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. A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

When the legislation was introduced, it proposed making it a Class 2 felony for parents or guardians to allow a minor to undergo female genital mutilation, or FGM, which is practiced in certain cultures in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Someone who performed the procedure would have faced at least five years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

At the beginning of the legislative session, two bills in the Senate called for the criminalization of FGM: SB 1060introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun County, and SB 1241,by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico County, who is also an obstetrician.

During the committee process, the two bills were merged and went forward as SB 1060. While in committee, the proposed penalties were changed to misdemeanors. And that is how the bill read when it was passed unanimously by the Senate on Feb. 2. The legislation is now being considered by the House Courts of Justice Committee.

No law in Virginia specifically bans the practice of FGM. The offense falls in the category of malicious wounding and aggravated malicious wounding, both of which are felony offenses.

FGM is common in such countries as Somalia, Egypt, Mali and Nigeria, as well as in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. It is also common in some immigrant communities in North America, Europe and Australia.

A common misconception about FGM is that it is practiced by only Muslims. In fact, experts say, the practice is not specific to any religion and is rooted in culture and tradition. According to Human Rights Watch, FGM is practiced by some members of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Under the legislation sponsored by Black and Dunnavant, people charged with practicing or allowing FGM could not claim as a defense that it was “required as a matter of custom, ritual, or religious practice” or that the minor had consented.

Largely because it is home to people from other countries, Virginia is listedas one of the states where women and girls are at the highest risk of being victims of FGM.

FGM has been a crime under federal law since 1996. In 2013, President Obama signed the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act, which outlawed “vacation cutting” – sending a minor abroad to undergo the procedure.

According to the AHA Foundation, which works to oppose violence against girls and women, 24 stateshave laws criminalizing FMG. They include Maryland, Tennessee and Delaware.

In 2016, a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 513,000 females were at risk of, or have experienced, FGM. About 169,000 of those individuals were minors.

In January, Black released a statement calling FGM “barbaric.”

“This physical torture of little girls is a violation of the rights of children,” he said.

Snakehead infiltrates Virginia waters and legislation

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Lurking in the depths of the Potomac River is a wriggly monster that can grow to four feet long. With its sharp teeth, the snakehead devours other fish, and biologists fear it could spread across the country. It may not be the second coming of “Jaws,” but Virginia officials view the invasive species as a possible threat.

To keep the snakehead in check, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, has introduced a bill to increase the penalty for people who introduce the non-native fish into state waters.

Currently, the law only prohibits bringing snakeheads into Virginia; the penalty can be a fine of up to $500. SB 906would make it illegal to take a snakehead that is already in Virginia and introduce it into another body of water. Under the legislation, violators would be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Surovell’s bill easily passed the Senate last month and won a unanimous endorsement Wednesday from a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources. Now it will go to the full committee and then the House of Delegates.

Surovell said the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries came to him last fall and told him that people were trying to move snakeheads around the commonwealth. VDGIF officials believed the threat of jail time would be a stronger deterrent than a fine.

John Odenkirk, a marine biologist who has studied the effects of the snakehead fish on the Potomac, agrees.

“We convicted someone three years ago, but that was a Class 3 misdemeanor, which was only a $50 fine,” said Odenkirk, who works for the VDGIF.

The snakehead, which is native to Eastern Asia, was first discovered in the U.S. in 1977. In 2004, the species was found in the Potomac River, where it spread to Maryland and Virginia.

Surovell said that so far, the species has not had a negative impact on the Potomac’s ecosystem. They have been feeding mostly on bluegill fish. Raptors, like hawks and eagles, have started hunting snakehead fish for food, coexisting with the invasive species.

“I think snakeheads are a much-maligned fish,” Surovell said. “They’ve got kind of a bad reputation when they first showed up, but they taste pretty good.”

Odenkirk said it’s too soon to determine if the species is benign or a threat to the ecosystem.

“There’s still a big unknown. We are down this road a little ways, but we still have a ways to go,” Odenkirk said. “They are coming into equilibrium, which often happens with a new species. We are hoping they run their course, but we are still not sure. There could be damage to the ecosystem if their numbers increase.”

The main problem, officials said, is people trying to introduce the snakehead into other areas of the state. Many people enjoy fishing for snakeheads because they require different lures and are trickier to catch.

While the species may be able to coexist in a large and busy body of water like the Potomac River, experts worry that it could do a great deal of damage in a smaller river or lake.

“The concern is that snakeheads have been completely untested in much smaller environments,” Surovell said. “So if you put one of these things in Smith Mountain Lake, it has an entirely different (effect) than it does in the Potomac.”

According to a fact sheet by USGS, snakeheads can threaten an ecosystem by eating up the fish population or becoming a direct competitor for food. Additionally, snakeheads can carry parasites and diseases that could kill local species.

Another invasive species that could threaten Virginia waters is the zebra mussel, which is banned under existing law.

According to VDGIF, the zebra mussel is native to Eastern Europe and first appeared in the United States in 1988. It wasn’t until 2002 that the mussels invaded Virginia waters. Odenkirk was the first person to verify that zebra mussels had infested the Millbrook Quarry in Prince William County, where people go scuba diving.

The problem was caught soon enough that zebra mussels were eradicated from the area. It was suspected that the mussels were placed there purposely to make the water clearer for better diving conditions. Odenkirk believes this because there would have been no natural way for the mussels to have gotten into the quarry. The evidence was only circumstantial, and no one was ever convicted.

The zebra mussel is harmful to ecosystems because it filters out microorganisms that smaller fish eat and can cover hard surfaces, including endangered freshwater mussels. Zebra mussels also cling to pipes in electric power plants and municipal water systems and destroy boat rudders.

Town seeks state law to putter around in golf carts

By Jessica Nolte, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Not everyone is interested in living life in the fast lane. For some residents of the sleepy town of Jarratt in Southside Virginia, a golf cart is just the right speed. At least it was – until other residents complained to the sheriff.

Now, at the town’s request, state legislators will settle the matter: The House has passed a bill that would allow golf carts on public roadways in Jarratt. HB 2423, sponsored by Del. Roslyn Tyler, a Democrat from Jarratt, passed the House unanimously on Tuesday.

“It seems like a trivial matter, but it is really neat to see a row of golf carts parked at the ballpark on Friday nights where residents have come over to cheer on the local rec league team, or a group of carts parked near the playgrounds and parks with families enjoying play time,” said Kenneth Warf, the mayor of Jarratt.

Whether taking a trip to the playground, visiting a neighbor or running errands, Jarratt residents were using golf carts to cruise around town. At first, that wasn’t a problem. But then other people in Jarratt, which straddles Greensville and Sussex counties, started complaining.

They weren’t trying to ban golf carts; no one in town actually opposes using them, the mayor said. Instead, the concerned citizens wanted to ensure there are rules to protect the safety of cart owners and the public.

Under state law, Jarratt doesn’t have the authority to set such rules. That’s because the town (population 638) doesn’t have a police department. And Virginia law says a town without a police department may not authorize the use of golf carts on its streets.

For law enforcement, Jarratt depends on the sheriff’s offices in Greensville and Sussex counties. The people who complained about golf carts in Jarratt worried about safety when children were driving the vehicles. Others were concerned about golf carts without proper reflective hardware or safety lighting, which made it difficult to see the carts at night, Warf said.

To address the concerns, Greensville County Sheriff Timothy Jarratt (yes, his name is the same as the town’s) attended the Jarratt Town Council meeting on Nov. 8. He reminded residents about the importance of safely operating golf carts and all-terrain vehicles, according to the minutes of the meeting.

After investigating the complaints, Sheriff Jarratt warned residents that law enforcement would begin enforcing the Virginia code that prohibits people from driving golf carts or ATVs on public roadways in Jarratt. Violators would receive a warning for a first offense and a ticket on a second offense, the minutes stated.

The law in Virginia is clear – “No town that has not established its own police department ... may authorize the operation of golf carts or utility vehicles” – but it has a loophole: The law exempts six towns from that provision – Claremont, Clifton, Irvington, Saxis, Urbanna and Wachapreague.

So Jarratt’s mayor, town council and the sheriff asked state legislators to add Jarratt to the list. Tyler, who has represented the 75th House District for more than a decade, obliged by sponsoring the legislation.

If the Senate passes the bill, the state will not be responsible for the costs of legalizing golf carts in Jarratt. The town would have to pay for installing and maintaining the required signs. For Jarratt residents, the costs just might be worth it.

“Life in town moves at a pretty slow pace, and a golf cart is just the right speed to keep up,” Warf said.

Bishops join to pray for unity in the commonwealth

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As the General Assembly starts the second half of its 2017 session, Virginia’s two Catholic bishops joined together Thursday to offer an evening prayer for the commonwealth, urging people to treat each other with respect even when they disagree.

On a cold evening, people of all faiths gathered at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart for the Virginia Vespers service, which was led by Michael Francis Burbidge, bishop of the Diocese of Arlington, and Francis Xavier DiLorenzo, his counterpart for the Diocese of Richmond.

The evening’s message was unity. Burbridge discussed not only loving thy neighbor but also respecting them.

“No matter how harsh the political climate can get, we are called to recognize the dignity of each other,” Burbridge said.

He said respect includes speaking to each other without “name calling” or “generalizations.” The bishop said one of the most important things that Pope Frances is teaching the world is how to dialogue.

“He’s trying to remind us that it is OK within the church, within politics, to have different opinions,” Burbridge said. “But are we really listening to one another? Do we know how to listen to one another? Do we know how to respect one another? Quite frankly, it’s what our political world is in need of right now.”

That message struck a chord with the audience, which included several state lawmakers and other public officials. This is the second year that the state’s two Catholic dioceses have held the Virginia Vespers, timed with the midpoint of the legislative session.

Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant, R-Midlothian, was one of the legislators in attendance.

“I think it’s doing things like this that help folks come together,” Sturtevant said. “Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, my experience is most people want to find ways where they can compromise. We can always do better to be constructive when we disagree. You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

The evening wasn’t just about state politics. Burbridge also made a reference to President Donald Trump’s ban against admitting refugees as well as visitors and immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries. Trump has said that the ban is temporary and that it is a necessary step to keep terrorists from entering the United States.

The Arlington bishop quoted Pope Francis as saying, “To change the world, we must be good to those who cannot repay us.”

“The Lord teaches us every man and woman and child, whether they be refugees or immigrants – they all merit our respect,” Burbridge said.

Senate OKs bill to expand concealed handgun permits

By Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Senate has approved a bill that would allow members of the military to apply for and receive concealed handgun permits at age 18.

House Bill 1582, introduced by Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Marion, passed the Senate by a vote of 24-15 on Wednesday. It originally passed the House of Delegates on a 78-19 vote on Jan. 18.

The bill now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature. McAuliffe has not announced his stance on the legislation. He will review it once the bill reaches his desk, according to Sam Coleman, a press aide.

If signed into law, the bill would allow active-duty members of the military and those with honorable discharges between the ages of 18 and 21 to receive concealed handgun permits, provided they have completed basic training. Under current Virginia law, no one under the age of 21 is eligible for a permit.

While it is currently illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase a handgun from a licensed firearm dealer, Virginians between the ages of 18 and 21 can legally buy a handgun in a private sale or receive one as a gift.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, cited that reason in opposing the bill during its discussion on the House floor last month.

“We don’t think it’s smart to let 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds who can’t legally purchase a firearm from carrying concealed,” he said when the bill was debated.

Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, disagreed with Simon’s characterization.

“I see no harm at all in trusting young men and women who were ready to give their lives for our freedom” to have a concealed handgun permit, he said.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, echoed Lingamfelter’s statements.

“We don’t seem to have any problem putting a gun in their hands when they’re going to go overseas to get shot at,” he said. “So this whole idea that we can’t trust them when they come back to exercise the very constitutional amendment they went overseas to defend seems a little bit ridiculous to me.”

Campbell also said the bill would increase concealed-handgun permit reciprocity with other states.

Currently, Virginia permits are recognized throughout the Southeast except in Georgia. Campbell said his bill would change that by “removing the sole impediment to recognition of Virginia concealed carry permit holders by the state of Georgia,” thereby granting permit holders full passage throughout the southern I-95 corridor.

“As a practical matter, this is a good bill for those of us who like to travel out of state on the East Coast,” Lingamfelter said.

Campbell said the bill is another step toward his party’s goal of concealed handgun permit reciprocity across all 50 states. Currently, Virginia permits are recognized in 32 states.

Simon said he feared that in expanding reciprocity, Virginia may be headed down a slippery slope.

“We’re going to have to lower our standards in state after state after state to make sure that our laws are just as generous to concealed carry permit holders and that we have the lowest standards of any state in the country,” Simon said. “It is the first step in having us liberalize our concealed carry permits to go to the lowest common denominator.”

Permit reciprocity has been a hot-button issue among Virginia officials over the past year. In December 2015, Attorney General Mark Herring revoked Virginia’s permit reciprocity agreements with 25 states.

However, during its 2016 session, the General Assembly passed legislation reversing Herring’s decision and restoring all previous reciprocity agreements.

Since the election of President Donald Trump, the issue of permit reciprocity has risen to prominence at the federal level.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., introduced HR 38, otherwise known as the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017, to the 115th Congress.

Hudson’s proposal would force all 50 states to recognize permits from all other states. The bill is awaiting hearing in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.

How they voted:

Here is how the Senate voted Wednesday on HB 1582 (“Concealed handgun permits; age requirement for persons on active military duty”).

Floor: 02/08/17 Senate: Passed Senate (24-Y 15-N)

YEAS – Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Dunnavant, Edwards, Hanger, Lewis, Mason, McDougle, McPike, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Reeves, Ruff, Stanley, Stuart, Sturtevant, Suetterlein, Vogel – 24.

NAYS – Barker, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Favola, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, McClellan, Petersen, Saslaw, Spruill, Surovell, Wexton – 15.

NOT VOTING – Wagner – 1.

Bluegrass program picked as state’s official TV series

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –Virginia has square dancing as the state folk dance and milk as the state beverage. Now it may boast “Song of the Mountains” as the state television series. On Thursday, the Senate passed a bill to add the bluegrass concert TV program to Virginia’s official list of emblems and designations.

The measure, approved by the House of Delegates on Jan. 25, now heads to the governor’s desk.

Del. Jeffrey Campbell, who introduced HB 1927, hails from Marion, where “Song of the Mountains” is taped. Nearly every month, country music artists and a live audience converge at the historic Lincoln Theater in Marion for bluegrass, old-time and Americana jams.

The concert series is taped live and distributed by PBS to more than 120 public television outlets across the country. The show is on its 13th season and has featured local, national and international guest performers.

The Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, which owns the rights to “Song of the Mountains,” called the series “a strong attraction for visitors from out of town, an economic engine for Historic Downtown Marion and a significant contributor to downtown Marion’s renaissance – a phenomenon that is the envy of so many small towns throughout Virginia and beyond.”

However, “Song of the Mountains” has faced financial problems in the past. The program was once owned by the Lincoln Theatre, and in 2015, the theater’s board began a restructuring of the show in the face of funding troubles. Tim White, longtime host of “Song of the Mountains,” was fired, leading to an outcry from fans and Marion business owners who expressed fears for the future of the program. Eventually, “Song of the Mountains” was acquired by the Appalachian Music Heritage Foundation, and White was reinstated as host.

“Song of the Mountains” draws tourists to Marion and the Lincoln Theatre every season, but bluegrass aficionados in Virginia say the music genre is not just limited to the southwest region of Virginia.

“You take people like the Seldom Scene, and they were from around Washington, D.C., and they were instrumental in bringing bluegrass a long way,” said Mike Nicely, a bluegrass musician and board member of the Virginia Folk Music Association.

“There’s bluegrass throughout Northern Virginia and D.C., and there’s a lot of roots that come out of that area. I’m not saying it doesn’t come out of Southern Virginia and it doesn’t come out of the mountains, because it does, but it really comes from all over,” Nicely said.

Virginia has two state songs – “Sweet Virginia Breeze” (the official “popular” song) and “Our Great Virginia” (the official “traditional” song). “Song of the Mountains” would be the only representation of bluegrass and country music on the state’s list of “official emblems and designations.”

It would join such symbols of Virginia as the northern cardinal (the state bird) and dogwood (tree) as well as the big-eared bat (Virginia’s official bat), Nelsonite (the state rock) and performances of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in Big Stone Gap (the official outdoor drama).

For Nicely, the General Assembly’s designation of “Song of the Mountains” as Virginia’s official television series is part of an upward trend of bluegrass music’s popularity, spurred by the genre’s humble roots.

“A lot of bluegrass music is based on true stories that’ve happened to people over the last couple hundred of years,” Nicely said. “A lot of songs have been written about different things that have happened – tragedies and so on that people have written about. That’s a lot of bluegrass, a lot of storytelling. It’s just an interesting part of history of the nation.”

House Bill 1900 – Hunter’s Fine For Stray Dogs Defeated

House Bill 1900 was a bill that would fine hunters a $100 fee for their dogs straying onto neighboring landowner properties. The legislation was opposed by Rural Legislators and the Hunting Dog Alliance.

Delegate Roslyn Tyler, 75th District House of Delegates Representative, spoke against HB1900 on the General Assembly House Floor wearing a blaze orange hat and vest attire in support of hunter’s rights. With the help of Delegate Tyler, the bill was defeated by 48-47, a party line vote.

Gov. McAuliffe vows to veto anti-LGBT legislation

By Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe vowed to veto any bill that discriminates against LGBTQ people at a reception hosted Tuesday night by Equality Virginia. McAuliffe has vetoed 71 bills during his two years as governor, none of which have been overturned.

“It’s not about doing the most vetoes of any governor in Virginia history,” McAuliffe said. “We’re stopping people from doing things that discriminate against people’s basic rights.”

The governor said he had slated another 35 bills for veto this session.

“They’ve slipped a few bills through, but they’re not going to slip through the governor’s office. I’m going to veto them,” said McAuliffe, a Democrat in the final year of his term.

Democrats criticized Republicans for approving SB 1324, which passed the Senate on a 21-19 party-line vote Tuesday.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Grayson. Supporters describe it as a religious freedom bill, saying it would protect people and organizations that oppose same-sex marriages. However, Democrats say the measure would give people and organizations the right to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has absolutely no place in the commonwealth, and I am disappointed that a Republican-majority in the Senate approved SB 1324 today,” said Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor this year.

“I recently took a seven-city tour across the commonwealth that ended in Salem, where I was proud to welcome the NCAA soccer tournament. That championship was relocated from North Carolina, as was the NBA All-Star game and major businesses. To be economically competitive, we have to be open and welcoming to all. I will continue to advocate for equality for all.”

Clay Xix attended the Equality Virginia reception as a representative of Access AIDS Care and the LGBT Center of Hampton Roads. Earlier during Equality Virginia’s annual Day of Action, Xix tried to persuade legislators to oppose SB 1324 and a companion bill, HB 2025, sponsored by Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper.

“It’s our people who have been constantly discriminated against time and again – barred access to jobs, one wrong hand motion in an interview and you’re out, one ‘hey, girl, hey’ in the office and you’re fired. I mean, this is what we live with,” Xix said.

Twenty-seven members of the Virginia General Assembly attended the reception, including Del. Mark Levine, D-Fairfax, whose bill prohibiting LGBT discrimination in public employment, public accommodations and housing (HB 2129) was recently defeated in the House. This was the second year in a row Levine has proposed the legislation, and he says it won’t be the last.

“I think it’s really important for the people I represent to know I’m out there fighting even when it’s not going to succeed, because if you give up before you try, you never succeed,” Levine said.

As one of two openly gay men in the Virginia House of Delegates, Levine said such bills are important even when they fail because they can change the way LGBT people are thought of and treated.

“It’s not just about the rare lawsuit,” Levine said. “It’s about having people be confident enough that if they do choose to come out, they’re not going to be kicked out in the street, they’re not going to lose their employment, they’re not going to lose their job.”

Del. Mark Sickles, D-Alexandria, the other openly gay Virginia delegate, also proposed pro-LGBT legislation this session that was defeated in committee. HB 1395would have repealed the statutory prohibitions on same-sex marriages and civil unions in the Code of Virginia, and given the public the opportunity to vote on same-sex marriage in 2018.

Even though the laws Sickles is trying to repeal are no longer valid after the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, his bill was defeated by the House Courts of Justice Committee.

“The only way we’re going to get fair treatment, gay and lesbian people, is to let the people speak out. And it’s not going to be through this gerrymandering system that we have here. The system is rigged – it truly is,” Sickles said.

Live or recorded in Richmond, it’s ‘On the Lege’

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – There is nothing more entertaining than politicians being snarky to one another, save for maybe a YouTube video of a sneezing panda. Now you too can watch the drama and eye rolls as they happen at Capitol Square.

All committee meetings and floor sessions at the General Assembly are open to the public. However, you don’t have to be in Richmond to watch what is going on. Thanks to the internet, you can view legislative deliberations and debates online.

The Senate of Virginia and Virginia House of Delegates each offer a daily live-stream of their floor sessions, which usually begin at noon. They have been doing that for about a decade. What’s new is that both chambers now are archiving the videos so you can watch the recordings if you miss the live shows.

You can find the links to the House and Senate floor-session videos by going to the General Assembly’s website – http://virginiageneralassembly.gov– and clicking on “Members and Session.”

Since January, for the first time in Virginia, committee meetings also can be viewed online, thanks to the nonprofit group Progress Virginia. It has launched a video service called Eyes on Richmond (eyesonrichmond.org).

On that webpage is a calendar listing the House and Senate committee meetings scheduled on any given day. Eyes on Richmond can broadcast four different live-streams simultaneously. The calendar shows which committee meetings will be on each stream.

The project’s home page displays the live or most recent broadcast on each of the four stream. Archives of all the committee meetings that the project has recorded are available on the service Ustream(ustream.tv).

Alan Gibbs, an intern with Progress Virginia, has been recording legislative committee meetings since Jan. 9 – the week the General Assembly convened.

“When it first started, it was dicey. People were uncomfortable, because they hadn’t been filmed before,” said Gibbs, a political science major at Virginia Commonwealth University. “After the first week, it was normal.”

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said transparency has always been a priority for the group. She believes legislators are likely to act differently when they know they are being recorded.

Scholl said tens of thousands people have watched the Eyes on Richmond streams, but to her organization, it’s not about numbers. “I think we are always hoping to increase it, but for us to even have five people watching is worth it,” Scholl said.

Republican leaders in the House said transparency is what motivated them to create an online archive of their daily floor sessions this year. The Senate followed suit at the urging of Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, who had been advocating for such a system for nine years.

“Sometimes things take a long time to get updated around here, but I’m glad we finally got this through,” Petersen said. “Having the video online is all about transparency. Not everyone can come down to Richmond to watch the Senate floor. And not everyone can watch us live. With the online video archive, constituents can hold us accountable, and we can share what’s happening in Richmond with the people back in our districts.”

Before this year, if citizens, journalists or legislators wanted a recording of what had happened on the House or Senate floor, they had to buy a DVD from each chamber for $12 – and it contained the video for just one day. For a 60-day session, it cost more than $1,400 to have videos of every floor session.

For years, Waldo Jaquith, who established the website RichmondSunlight.com, purchased the General Assembly’s DVDs and uploaded them for the public to view. Jaquith tweeted about his relief after the House and Senate decided to archive the videos of their floor sessions.

“It took me nine years, but I am done buying Virginia legislative DVDs,” Jaquith wroteon Twitter. “I’m chalking this up as complete victory.”

Advocates applaud governor’s vow to veto anti-’sanctuary’ bills

 

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for undocumented immigrants are praising Gov. Terry McAuliffe after his promise to veto Republican-backed legislation prohibiting local governments from becoming “sanctuary cities.”

Progress Virginia and New Virginia Majority, which advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrants, criticized bills passed by the House and Senate on party-line votes this week. The bills state that localities must not restrict the enforcement of federal immigration laws and must cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The governor’s spokesman, Brian Coy, told The Associated Press on Tuesday 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.”

Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, praised that statement.

“In the face of attempts from D.C. to divide our communities, it’s more important than ever that we celebrate diversity and remain open and welcoming to immigrants,” Nguyen said.

“People come to America from around the world to seek a better life and flee war, persecution, poverty and so much more. Thank you to Gov. McAuliffe for standing up for every Virginian and pledging to veto these outrageous attacks.”

McAuliffe vowed to veto two immigration-related bills:

  • HB 2000, sponsored by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, would prohibit any city in the state from declaring itself as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary cities like New York City, Chicago and San Francisco have promised not to cooperate with ICE in detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. The House passed the bill, 66-33, on Tuesday.
  • SB 1262, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, would make a sanctuary city liable for “tortious injury to persons or property caused by an illegal alien within such locality.” The Senate approved the measure, 21-19, on Monday.

In defense of his bill, Black said that he believes sanctuary policies serve as a “shield” for undocumented criminals.

“Under this bill, if you have a jurisdiction that’s deliberately gone out to harbor whatever murderers, robbers, drunk drivers – people who are subject to deportation by federal immigration law, and they set up a shield for them to avoid federal law – then the victims who suffer from that policy will have the opportunity to be reimbursed by that locality,” Black said.

Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County disputed Black’s statement.

“The reference that all these counties are harboring all these murderers and armed robbers and rapists and the variety – implying that basically that’s what undocumented people are – to put it mildly is sheer nonsense,” Saslaw said.

Black said the intent of his bill is to make sure federal laws are being enforced.

“What it does is, it prevents the situation that is becoming increasingly common throughout the country, where you have localities that say, ‘We don’t care what the federal law says, we don’t like federal immigration law, and we invite people to come here and we’re going to shield you from legal process,’” Black said.

The governor’s statement to veto such legislation comes days after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, former secretary of the commonwealth under McAuliffe, signed a directive affirming that the Richmond Police Department will not consent to participate with ICE and will not ask suspects and detainees about their immigration status.

“In our interactions as representatives of our city, all employees will focus on the needs and safety of our residents, not on their legal status, and will advocate and promote their wellbeing,” Stoney said in his mayoral directive.

Anna Scholl, executive director for Progress Virginia, said McAuliffe’s promise to veto the anti-sanctuary legislation shows that Virginia will not follow in the footsteps of anti-immigrant policies being put in place by the Trump administration.

“While politicians in D.C. try to slam the door shut on immigrants and refugees, Gov. McAuliffe is clearly standing up to say, ‘You are welcome here,’” Scholl said. “We applaud the governor for rejecting divisive proposals born out of fear that would close our doors to friends and neighbors.”

Democrat Jeff Bourne is elected to Virginia House

 

By Tyler Hammel, Capital News Service

 

 

 RICHMOND – Jeff Bourne, a member of the Richmond School Board, easily won a special election Tuesday for the Virginia House of Delegates. Bourne, the Democratic nominee in the race, will represent the 71st House District, which includes parts of Richmond and Henrico County.

 

 

With all precincts reporting, Bourne received 3,708 votes, almost 90 percent of the ballots cast. The second-place candidate, Libertarian John W. Barclay, got about 7 percent. Regie Ford, an independent candidate, received about 3 percent.

 

 

Bourne fill the seat vacated by a fellow Democrat, Jennifer McClellan, who was elected to the state Senate last month.

 

 

At an election party at Southern Kitchen in Shockoe Bottom, Bourne thanked God. He also thanked Attorney General Mark Herring, among others, for their support, and he expressed gratitude to his wife and children.

 

 

Bourne said his children inspired him to run. He said his goal is to help children who don’t have the same parental engagement his children are lucky enough to have.

 

 

“It is incumbent on us as public servants and as leaders of our community to make sure that they have every opportunity to succeed,” Bourne said. “And so that’s what’s going to be my focus – public education and finding common-sense solutions.”

 

 

As a member of the Richmond School Board for the past five years, Bourne campaigned on a promise of supporting education.

 

 

“It really is a way to address some of the most systemic issues,” Bourne said. “We have some of the most significantly concentrated poverty in our city, and education could help break that up.”

 

 

House Democratic Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville congratulated Bourne on his win. Bourne will be decidedly in the minority in the House of Delegates: Republicans hold 66 seats; Democrats, 34.

 

 

“Republicans this session killed Democratic bills that would have raised the minimum wage, established paid family leave and helped borrowers refinance student loan debt. Meanwhile, the Republican Caucus focused its efforts on divisive social issues that target women and other marginalized populations,” Toscano said. “Jeff’s voice will provide a much-needed breath of fresh air, and I look forward to working with him as he joins us for the remainder of the session.”

 

 

Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, also congratulated Bourne.

 

 

“Jeff is a respected community leader who has honorably served as a deputy attorney general and as a member of the Richmond School Board,” Del. Herring said. “He is committed to expanding economic opportunity for all Virginians, and his service to Richmond’s public schools is testament to that commitment. I congratulate Jeff on his win, and I look forward to working alongside him in the House.”

 

 

Bourne will serve the remainder of McClellan’s term, until January 2018. The seat will be up for election again in November.

 

 

The 71st House District stretches from Bryan Park, Scott’s Addition, the Fan and the Virginia Commonwealth University campus on the west, to Church Hill, Fulton Hill, Richmond’s East End and the Ratcliffe area of Henrico County.

Environmentally minded businesses may get tax breaks

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Businesses that operate in energy-efficient buildings or make products that benefit the environment could receive tax incentives under a bill headed toward approval in the General Assembly.

The House has already passed HB 1565, and the Senate Finance Committee unanimously endorsed the measure on Tuesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, said it was requested by economic development officials in his district to attract green businesses.

“The bill would authorize local governing bodies to create by ordinance one or more green development zones inside which localities would be permitted to grant tax incentives and provide certain regulatory flexibility to attract green businesses,” Webert said.

A “green development business” would be defined as a business “engaged primarily in the design, development or production of materials, components or equipment used to reduce negative impact on the environment.”

As incentives, local governments could offer such businesses a reduction in permit fees, user fees and gross receipts taxes.

In addition, localities would be authorized to provide regulatory flexibility within a green development zone. That could mean special zoning, faster permit processing and exemption from certain ordinances. Localities could offer these incentives for up to 10 years.

The bill would expand on Virginia’s existing Enterprise Zone Grant Program. That program allows localities to apply for grants from the Department of Housing and Community Development for an enterprise zone designation that also offers tax and regulatory incentives.

Webert’s bill would apply the same ideas to green development zones. Under the program, as the value of real estate, machinery and tools within a zone increases, a percentage of the rising tax revenues would be used for grants aimed at attracting businesses or enhancing governmental services within the zone.

The legislation is part of a “green agenda” that Republican legislators touted at a news conference last week.

“The word ‘conservation’ and the word ‘conservative’ comes from the same piece of Latin,” said Del. J. Randall Minchew, R-Loudoun. “No conservative should ever be disappointed to call themselves a conservationist.”

Pet lifetime license bill passes in General Assembly

Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill allowing local governments to provide lifetime licenses for cats and dogs has been approved unanimously by the General Assembly.

House Bill 1477, by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline County, would add the lifetime licensing provision to existing state law on dog and cat licenses.

The Senate approved the bill 40-0 on Tuesday, after a nearly identical version cleared the House of Delegates on a 98-0 vote on Jan. 30. The two chambers still must work out minor differences before the legislation can go to Gov. Terry McAuliffe to be signed into law.

The lifetime license would be valid if the animal’s owner resides in the locality and keeps up the animal’s rabies vaccinations. The bill also states that local ordinances can require an animal to have an identifying microchip.

The bill would remove the minimum annual tax for a dog or cat, making it no more than $10 each year or a maximum tax of $50 for a lifetime license.

In addition, if an animal’s tag is lost, destroyed or stolen, the legislation sets a $1 fee for getting a duplicate tag. To get another tag for the animal, an owner must apply to the treasurer or agent who issued the original license and show the original license receipt. With an affidavit from the owner, the treasurer can then issue another license tag that the owner must immediately put on the animal’s collar.

The time for an owner to pay the required license tax would be changed from before Feb. 1 for the year to within one month after the due date. If the owner fails to pay, the court can order confiscation and disposition of the animal.

Owners must start paying the tax no later than 30 days after their animal has aged four months, or no later than 30 days after they adopt an animal 4 months old or older. The tax is then paid each year during the animal’s life.

Owners with trained guide dogs or service dogs that serve disabled people continue to be exempt from paying the license tax.

Local ordinances may establish different tax amounts for owners with spayed or neutered dogs or cats versus animals that aren’t spayed or neutered. With the amendment, ordinances can’t tax more than $10 a year on either.

House amends description of ‘dangerous dog’

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House has unanimously approved a bill to change the description of a “dangerous dog” in a way that could put fewer animals on a state registry.

Del. Matthew Farris, R-Rustburg, wants to give a dog the benefit of the doubt if it bites a person or another animal. So he introduced HB 2381, which 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.

The House voted 97-0 on Monday to approve the legislation. It now goes to the Senate.

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 a 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 last week, Virginia Newsome, a Loudoun County animal control officer, said that she and a group of fellow officers support the bill because they see minor accidents frequently with non-dangerous dogs.

“The intent of this bill was never for animal control officers to have to go out and get summons for every dog that bites,” said Newsome, who represented the Virginia Animal Control Association.

“There are certainly injuries that occur when you’re playing with your puppy,” she said.

“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. There are certainly animals out there that do bite, and are dangerous. Those types of situations do deserve to go in front of a court and have a judge make a decision,” Newsome said.

“There are a lot of animals in a lot of situations that are simply just accidents. This bill will give us the ability to have clarification, for the officers and the courts. I also think it gives a much better relationship between animal control officers and the public and to be able to teach the public what the actual criteria is for a dog bite.”

Bill seeks to ban outdoor smoking at performances

By Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians may have to put out their cigarettes before entering an outdoor performance because of a bill that emerged from the state Senate on a tiebreaker vote Tuesday.

Senate Bill 938would allow local governments to designate nonsmoking areas in an outdoor amphitheater or concert venue. It cleared the Senate on the last day bills could be approved in the chamber where they originated.

The bill, proposed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, met opposition and split the Senate, 20-20. Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican from Augusta County, joined the 19 Democrats in voting for the legislation. The other 20 Republican senators voted against it.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, then cast the deciding vote to pass the bill.

Edwards said he introduced the legislation on behalf of Roanoke city officials who received complaints from parents about people smoking near children in Roanoke’s outdoor amphitheater, Elmwood Park.

The bill originally would have applied to any outdoor public area, including parks and greenways. But the Senate Local Government Committee amended it last week to restrict its reach to outdoor amphitheaters or venues owned by local governments.

Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, spoke against the bill, saying it would open the door for more anti-smoking laws.

“It’s just going to have a rolling effect if we allow this to happen,” Cosgrove said.

Any person violating the proposed law would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $25. It would go into the Virginia Health Care Fund, which assists the state’s uninsured and medically underserved residents.

“The American Lung Association in Virginia is pleased that the Senate has voted to take the first step in protecting the public’s health from tobacco smoke,” said Deborah P. Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic.

According to State of Tobacco Control, a report issued by the association, $3.1 billion is spent annually on health care costs associated with tobacco use in Virginia.

Edwards’ legislation does not apply to vapes or electronic cigarettes. The Code of Virginia defines “smoke” and “smoking” by “carrying or holding of any lighted pipe, cigar, or cigarette of any kind, or any other lighted smoking equipment.”

The bill will now be considered by the House of Delegates.

How they voted

Here is how the Senate votedTuesday on SB 938 (“Smoking in outdoor public place; locality regulation”).

Floor: 02/07/17 Senate: Passed Senate (20-Y 20-N)

YEAS – Barker, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Hanger, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, McPike, Petersen, Saslaw, Spruill, Surovell, Wexton – 20.

NAYS – Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Dunnavant, McDougle, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Reeves, Ruff, Stanley, Stuart, Sturtevant, Suetterlein, Vogel, Wagner – 20.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam: Yea

After wrongful imprisonment, man will get $1.6 million

By Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Keith Allen Harward, who served 33 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, will receive nearly $1.6 million from the commonwealth of Virginia under a bill approved Monday by the House of Delegates.

Harward was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Newport News. He was released from prison last year after DNA testing proved he was innocent. The House unanimously passed HB 1650 to provide relief to Harward, now 60.

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

Under the legislation, Harward will receive an initial lump sum of $309,688, and then he will get $1,238,751 to purchase an annuity. In exchange, Harward must release the state from any “present or future claims.”

The legislation, sponsored by Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, also provides Harward up to $10,000 for tuition for career and technical training from the Virginia Community College System.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a companion bill, SB 1479, which the same provisions. The House and Senate still must pass each other’s bills before the legislation can be sent to Gov. Terry McAuliffe for his signature.

Harward was convicted of a rape and murder that occurred on Sept. 14, 1982. According to trial summaries, the rape victim was awakened around 2 a.m., by a loud thumping sound as her husband was being beaten by a man.

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

The assailant also bit the woman’s legs. The attack came to be called the “bite-mark case” in light of testimony that Harward’s teeth matched the marks. In 1986, Harward was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Harward had always maintained his innocence.

In late 2015 and early 2016, DNA testing by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science failed to find Harward’s genetic profile in sperm left by the assailant. Instead, the testing implicated Jerry Crotty, a shipmate of Harward’s on the USS Carl Vinson at the time of the attack.

Crotty died in prison in Ohio in 2006. He was being held for attempted burglary, abduction and other charges. Attorney General Mark Herring said the new evidence showed that Harward was not guilty of the crimes that had kept him in prison, and the Virginia Supreme Court agreed.

On April 8, 2016, Harward was released from prison as a free man.

In 1983, Harward was initially convicted of capital murder, robbery, sodomy and rape. In 1985, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that, under state law, he could not be tried for capital murder in the commission of a rape because the murder victim was not the rape victim. Harward was tried again in 1986, convicted of first-degree murder and again sentenced to life.

The rape victim told police that the man was wearing a sailor’s uniform. A dentist reviewed the dental records of Marines stationed to the USS Carl Vinson at the time and initially excluded Harward.

However, he became a suspect six months later when his then-girlfriend, Gladys Bates, reported to police that Harward had bitten her in an altercation. Harward later admitted biting her on the hand and shoulder during the dispute.

Police had the 1982 rape victim attend court when Harward was there for the unrelated case involving Bates to see if she could identify him. The victim could not identify Harward as her attacker then or later during his trial.

According to HB 1560, a shipyard security guard was the only individual to identify Harward at trial. Two forensic odontologists testified that Harward’s teeth matched those of the bites on the woman.

The Virginia Court of Appeals dismissed Harward’s appeal in 1988, “finding the circumstantial evidence sufficient.”

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

“Despite the fact that for decades courts have permitted forensic dentists to testify in criminal trials, there is a complete lack of scientific support for claims that a suspect can be identified from an injury on a victim’s skin,” the Innocent Project’s websitestates.

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Comment Policy:  When an article or poll is open for comments feel free to leave one.  Please remember to be respectful when you comment (no foul or hateful language, no racial slurs, etc) and keep our comments safe for work and children. Comments are moderated and comments that contain explicit or hateful words will be deleted.  IP addresses are tracked for comments. 

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and is provided as a community service by the Advertisers and Sponsors.
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Submit Your Story!

Emporia News welcomes your submissions!  You may submit articles, announcements, school or sports information using the submission forms found here, or via e-mail on news@emporianews.com.  Currently, photos and advertisements will still be accepted only via e-mail, but if you have photos to go along with your submission, you will receive instructions via e-mail. If you have events to be listed on the Community Calendar, submit them here.

Contact us at news@emporianews.com
 
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