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Grant Smith

Lawmakers Reconvene for ‘Veto Session’

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia legislators will return to the state Capitol on Wednesday to consider whether to uphold or override Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s vetoes and recommendations of legislation passed during their 2016 session.

The Democratic governor vetoed 32 bills approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. That is the most vetoes since 1998, when Jim Gilmore, a Republican, was governor and most legislators were Democrats.

McAuliffe objected to a slew of hot-button bills – from a measure that would allow some school security officers to carry guns on the job, to the so-called “Tebow Bills” that would allow home-schoolers to participate in high school sports.

In addition, McAuliffe recommended changes to more than 50 bills. While many of the recommendations are minor, several involve the state budget, ethics rules and other major issues.

For example, the General Assembly passed a bill to make the electric chair the default form of capital punishment if the state cannot obtain the drugs to administer a lethal injection. Instead, McAuliffe recommended authorizing the Department of Correction to mix the drugs – using products from pharmacies that would remain anonymous.

Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. That is unlikely, because Republicans hold just 21 of the 40 seats in the Senate.

Gubernatorial recommendations must be approved by only a simple majority in both chambers. If the General Assembly rejects a recommendation, the governor then can veto the entire bill.

Here are some of the more controversial bills vetoed by McAuliffe.

SB 41 – Exempting Ministers from Non-Traditional Marriages

This bill would allow any minister or religious organization to refrain from participating in any marriage that goes against their religious beliefs such as same-sex marriages.

In his veto message, McAuliffe wrote, “Although couched as a ‘religious freedom’ bill, this legislation is nothing more than an attempt to stigmatize.” The governor also said the measure would be bad for the economy: “Businesses and job creators do not want to locate or do business in states that appear more concerned with demonizing people than with creating a strong business climate.”

HB 70 – Protecting Police Officers from Misdemeanors

This legislation would protect officers from being charged with a misdemeanor offense while on the job. It would require a judge to get authorization from a law enforcement agency or the commonwealth’s attorney to issue an arrest warrant for a misdemeanor offense, unless the alleged offense was reported by another police officer.

McAuliffe said: “Virginia enjoys outstanding law enforcement officers at all levels. They are not, however, perfect.” He said the bill could prevent judges from acting on “valid citizen complaints of police abuse.”

HB 766 and SB 626 – Concealed Permits for Protective Orders

These bills would allow domestic violence victims under a protective order to carry a concealed handgun for 45 days.

McAuliffe said the legislation “encourages victims of domestic violence to introduce deadly weapons into an already dangerous situation, an approach that I believe could have significant negative public safety consequences.”The governor proposed expediting the process of issuing concealed weapons permits to domestic violence victims if they receive firearms training; however, lawmakers have rejected that idea.

HB 131 andSB 612 – the “Tebow” Bills

Under this legislation, nicknamed for quarterback Tim Tebow, public schools could allow home-schooled students to compete in interscholastic competitions.

McAuliffe noted that public school students must meet certain academic criteria to participate in extracurricular activities. There would be no guarantee that home-schoolers meet the same criteria, McAuliffe said. “Participation in athletic and academic competitions is a privilege for students who satisfy eligibility requirements.”

HB 516 – “Sexually Explicit” Instructional Material

This bill would require elementary and secondary schools to notify parents before teachers provide children any “sexually explicit content.” Schools would have to let parents review the material and provide a non-explicit alternative. The bill was in response to a complaint by the mother of a Fairfax high school senior about Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel “Beloved,” which includes graphic scenes of slavery, rape and murder.

McAuliffe said that “open communication between parents and teachers is important” but such issues should be decided by local school boards. He said the Virginia Board of Education has been examining the matter and working with parents and local officials.

HB 2 and SB 21 – Approval of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has ordered states to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. This bill would require the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to receive approval from the General Assembly before responding to the EPA’s regulations.

McAuliffe wrote, “The interjection of required legislative approval into the Clean Power Plan process is an impermissible breach of Virginia’s constitutional separation of powers. Federal law provides that it falls to the Governor to submit required plans and submissions under the Clean Air Act, including plans to comply with the Clean Power Plan. … Requiring DEQ to obtain the approval of each chamber of the legislature before submitting a plan to comply with the Clean Power Plan constitutes legislative participation in a purely executive process.”

HB 9 – Voting Information

This legislation would require officials to reject voter registration forms that lack a full name, date of birth, Social Security number, citizenship status, address or previous voter registration information. Applicants also would be rejected if they fail to check a box indicating that they will be at least 18 before the next general election.

McAuliffe said, “The Voting Rights Act expressly prohibits denying applications for omissions that are not material to determining voter eligibility. … The checkbox is not material to determining whether the applicant meets the age requirements to register to vote because the applicant is already required to provide his or her date of birth.

“Government works best when as many citizens have a voice in our democracy as possible. We should be seeking ways to make it easier for qualified Virginians to participate in elections, not disenfranchising them over technicalities.”

On the Agenda for the Veto Session

Here is the complete list of bills vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. For more information on each bill, visit the Legislative Information Service (https://lis.virginia.gov/).

Bill number

Catch line

HB 2

Clean Power Plan; state implementation plan, General Assembly approval.

HB 8

Virginia Virtual School; Board established.

HB 9

Voter registration; required information on application form.

HB 18

Franchisees; status thereof and its employees as employees of the franchisor.

HB 70

Warrants; issuance of arrest warrants for law-enforcement officers.

HB 131

Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs.

HB 143

Alcoholic beverage control; neutral grain spirits or alcohol sold at government stores, proof.

HB 145

Virginia Public Procurement Act; public works contracts, prevailing wage provisions.

HB 254

House of Delegates districts; technical adjustment.

HB 259

SOL; Bd. of Education prohibited from adopting revisions that implement Common Core State Standards.

HB 264

Local government; prohibiting certain practices requiring contractors to provide compensation, etc.

HB 298

Coal tax; limits aggregate amount of credits that may be allocated or claimed for employment, etc.

HB 382

Firearms; control by state agencies, rights of employees.

HB 389

Virginia Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts; established, report, effective clause.

HB 481

Compliance with detainers; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

HB 516

Education, Board of; policy on sexually explicit instructional material.

HB 518

School boards, local; to provide students with option to transfer to another school division.

HB 560

Brandishing a firearm; intent to induce fear, etc., penalty.

HB 587

Memorials and monuments; protection of all memorials, etc.

HB 766

Concealed handguns; carrying with a valid protective order.

HB 1090

Health, Department of; expenditure of funds related to abortions and family planning services.

HB 1096

Firearms; regulation by state entities prohibited.

HB 1188

Senate districts; changes assignments of two census precincts in Louisa County.

HB 1234

School security officers; carrying a firearm.

HB 1371

Local government; prohibition on certain mandates upon employers.

SB 21

Clean Power Plan; state implementation plan; General Assembly approval.

SB 41

Religious freedom; marriage solemnization, participation, and beliefs.

SB 44

Coal tax; limits aggregate amount of credits that may be allocated or claimed for employment, etc.

SB 270

Sanctuary policies; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.

SB 612

Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs.

SB 626

Carrying concealed handguns; protective orders.

SB 767

Form of ballot; party identification of candidates.

Activists Are Teed Off at Dominion’s Gift to Environmental Official

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A score of environmental activists practiced their putting Wednesday outside the headquarters of the state Department of Environmental Quality, highlighting the recent controversy over Dominion Virginia Power’s paying for DEQ Director David Paylor’s trip to the Masters golf tournament in 2013.

The protesters, dressed in golf attire, displayed a Masters-inspired banner that read “Dominion & DEQ, a tradition unlike any other.” Meanwhile, other protest members boarded golf carts, shuttling between the DEQ office and Dominion’s headquarters several blocks away.

On March 14, WAMU, a public radio station in Washington, reported that Dominion paid for Paylor to attend the Masters Tournament on April 13-14, 2013, in Augusta, Ga. On his financial disclosure statement filed with the secretary of the commonwealth, Paylor estimated the trip’s value at $2,370.

Neither DEQ nor Dominion intervened in connection with the protest event that lasted for several hours Wednesday morning.

“There was some activity in front of the building today. It did not cause any disruption,” said DEQ spokesperson Bill Hayden. “We really don’t have much to say other than to reiterate that Mr. Paylor’s golf trip had nothing to do with the Dominion permits that were recently issued.”

But the protesters disagree.

“Virginia’s top environmental regulator should never have considered accepting gifts, let alone a golf vacation, from Virginia’s top polluter,” said Drew Gallagher, field organizer at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Over the past few months, the approval of two DEQ permits that would allow Dominion to discharge treated water from coal ash ponds into the Potomac and James rivers has drawn opposition from environmental groups, concerned citizens and some state legislators.

The disclosure of Paylor’s 2013 trip to the Masters has become a focal point for environmentalists who perceive the approval of the coal ash permits as an indicator of the influence Dominion has over politicians and regulators alike.

“I think what people see is business as usual – Dominion proposes something, and they get it despite massive overwhelming opposition,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher went on to explain the inspiration for the satirical, golf-themed protest. He cited the sit-in demonstration earlier this month when 17 students from the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition were arrested after occupying the DEQ lobby for three hours.

“We have seen several arrestable actions recently, where people have been willing to put their body in harm’s way to highlight what they see as a flawed process,” Gallagher said.

“That’s certainly an important part of effecting change, but sometimes people need to have a smile and a laugh. We thought that it would be good to take (the issue) in a lighter direction.”

Paylor has declined to comment specifically on the WAMU story. However, in an earlier statement, he said, “The people who work at DEQ take their environmental stewardship obligations seriously, and recent accusations against DEQ’s integrity are baseless.

“The quality of Virginia’s rivers and streams has improved dramatically over the years. DEQ will continue to write and enforce permits that protect Virginia’s environment in the consistent, thorough and responsible manner that Virginians deserve.”

Environmental Official Got Gifts from Dominion

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The water might drain from Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds, but the plot has thickened. Documents brought to light this week show that the director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, David Paylor, accepted gifts from Dominion in 2013, including a trip to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia.

WAMU, a public radio station in Washington, reported Monday that Dominion paid for Paylor to attend the Masters Tournament on April 13-14, 2013, in Augusta, Ga. On his financial disclosure statement filed with the secretary of the commonwealth, Paylor estimated the trip’s value at $2,370.

Dominion also paid for a $1,200 dinner for Paylor and nine other people at O’Tooles Irish Pub in Augusta on April 13, 2013, WAMU reported.

Data from the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project confirmed that Dominion reported providing gifts to Paylor in 2013. Dominion reported spending $4,492 for Paylor and Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, to attend the Masters. Both men also were at the dinner at O’Tooles. The cost of the dinner was $1,236, Dominion’s gift disclosure said.

Armed with this new information, environmental activists are demanding action against what they perceive as a problematic relationship between Dominion and Virginia government.

The activists want the state to revoke permits that Paylor’s agency granted to Dominion to drain treated wastewater from the utility’s coal ash pits in Fluvanna and Prince William counties into the James and Potomac rivers. Environmental groups also are calling for an investigation into the release of untreated coal ash water into Quantico Creek last spring.

“For months, Paylor misinformed the public about Dominion’s secretive and potentially illegal dumping of nearly 30 million gallons of untreated coal ash wastewater into Quantico Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, in May 2015,” the Chesapeake Climate Action Network alleged.

Coal ash is the residue left over from burning coal. It is commonly stored in retaining ponds on site of coal-fueled power plants. Potentially toxic concentrations of heavy metals inherent to coal ash include arsenic and mercury.

“Dominion’s influence over Virginia’s General Assembly has been apparent for years, but now it appears to extend to the same regulators entrusted to police the company’s pollution,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “David Paylor vacationed on Dominion’s dime while he was simultaneously entrusted with protecting the public from Dominion’s pollution. This is a stunning conflict of interest.”

Paylor and the DEQ have declined to comment specifically on the WAMU story. However, the agency referred Capital News Service to a statement DEQ released last week after two lawsuits challenging the management of coal ash wastewater in Virginia were settled.

“The people who work at DEQ take their environmental stewardship obligations seriously, and recent accusations against DEQ’s integrity are baseless,” Paylor said in the statement.

“The quality of Virginia’s rivers and streams has improved dramatically over the years. DEQ will continue to write and enforce permits that protect Virginia’s environment in the consistent, thorough and responsible manner that Virginians deserve.”

DEQ and Dominion officials maintain that the company’s plan for treating and releasing the water in the coal ash ponds is environmentally sound.

“DEQ is pleased that Dominion has voluntarily agreed to go beyond federal and state regulatory requirements to further enhance protections for Virginia waters,” Paylor said in last week’s statement.

“DEQ has full confidence that its discharge permits fully protect water quality, aquatic life and human health. The permits issued for Dominion’s Bremo and Possum Point power stations, like thousands of similar permits DEQ has written in the past four decades, meet strict federal and state requirements for water quality.”

Despite such assurances, environmental activists questioned the ethics of Paylor’s acceptance of the gifts.

“The decisions Paylor is making now will have a huge impact on the health of Virginia waterways and citizens for years to come,” Tidwell said. “How can we trust he is putting the health of Virginians above the profits of Dominion?”

The Virginia Student Environmental Coalition also criticized the relationship between Paylor and Dominion.

“A majority of communities, ourselves included, who organize against these environmental injustices do not have the political or monetary power to send politicians to the Masters, or pick up their bar tabs,” said Laura Cross, a student at the University of Virginia.

Last week, 35 members of the coalition occupied the lobby of the Department of Environmental Quality in downtown Richmond for three hours, demanding a meeting with Paylor. Cross and 16 other students were arrested.

In 2014, the General Assembly passed an ethics reform bill that limited gifts for public officials to $100. The law apparently would have prohibited the size of the gifts Paylor received from Dominion in 2013.

Dominion officials defended the company’s practices.

“Politics is not a spectator sport,” David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion, told WAMU, which is based at American University. “Our employees and our company participate in [it] just like every other industry, business, nonprofit and organization out there. That’s how democracy works.” He added that “Folks who lose on the policy side will tend to throw rocks at us because of the political contribution issue. I think it’s unfair.”

Since 2005, Dominion has contributed about $7 million to political parties, candidates, and political action committees in Virginia, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The week before the 2016 legislative session began on Jan. 13, Dominion contributed $105,000 to Virginia political party committees – $55,000 to Republicans, $50,000 to Democrats.

During the session, which ended last week, Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, introduced a bill to require coal ash to be excavated and moved off site to landfills away from major water sources.The measure, Senate Bill 537, died in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. The vote was 7-7 vote, with Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, abstaining.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dance has received about $23,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion during her 12 years in the General Assembly.

In January, the State Water Control Board, part of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, approved permits for Dominion to begin draining millions of gallons of treated water from coal ash ponds in Fluvanna and Prince William counties.

Surovell was in attendance along with about 100 opponents to the permits during the vote. He said Dominion’s plan was unsettling to more than just hardcore environmentalists. “You’re not just hearing concerns from the environmental community,” the senator said. “You’re hearing concerns from major institutions saying, ‘Let’s slow this down, let’s get this right.’”

Nissa Deanwas one of the State Water Control Board members who voted to grant the permits to Dominion. She is the Virginia director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. WAMU reported that in 2015, Dominion’s charitable foundationgave the alliance two grants – one for $25,000 and the other for $20,000.

After the board approved Dominion’s permits, environmental groups such as the James River Association and Potomac Riverkeepers continued to protest. Represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, these groups planned to appeal the permits for the “dewatering” of coal ash ponds at the Bremo Bluff and Possum Point stations.

Last week, the James River Association agreed not to appeal the Bremo permit after receiving assurances from Dominion that the utility will take extra steps to ensure that wastewater will contain little if any heavy metals or other hazardous chemicals. In 2015, the association received a $50,000 environmental grant from Dominion.

Smoking in a Car With Kids Soon May Be Illegal

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – If the governor adds his signature, Virginians could be fined $100 for smoking in a car in the presence of children.

The Senate joined the House by giving final approval to a bill that would make smoking in a motor vehicle with passengers younger than 8 a violation punishable by a civil penalty of $100.

The violation would be a secondary offense, meaning it would affect only individuals who have already been pulled over by police for a traffic violation or other offense.

The Senate passed House Bill 1348 in a vote of 27-12 on March 3. The bill is now in the hands of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. If signed, the law would take effect July 1. McAuliffe has until April 11 to act on the legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Todd E. Pillion, R-Abingdon, is a pediatric dentist. In support of the legislation, he has cited the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially on developing lungs.

When the bill was debated before the House, some delegates voiced opposition to the measure. “We have a tendency here to tell everybody how to live. We tell them what to do, how to act,” said Del. Riley E. Ingram, R-Hopewell.

The legislation defines smoking as any lighted cigarette, pipe or cigar.

“It is unlawful for a person to smoke in a motor vehicle, whether in motion or at rest, when a minor under the age of eight is present in the motor vehicle,” the proposed law states.

Pillion said the bill covers passengers younger than 8 years old because these children already are legally required to be put in car seats. He said this requirement could assist police officers in determining a child’s age.

The House voted 59-38 in favor of the bill on Feb. 12.

Though subject to a $100 fine, individuals found guilty of violating the law would not face court costs or demerit points on their driving record.

Revenue from the fines would go into the state’s Literary Fund. This program provides for low-interest loans for school construction, technology funding and support of teacher retirement.

 

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted on HB 1348 (“Smoking in motor vehicles; presence of minor under age eight, civil penalty.”)

Floor: 03/03/16  Senate: Passed Senate (27-Y 12-N)

YEAS– Alexander, Barker, Chafin, Chase, Dance, Deeds, DeSteph, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Hanger, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, McEachin, McPike, Miller, Norment, Petersen, Saslaw, Stuart, Sturtevant, Surovell, Vogel, Wexton – 27.

NAYS– Black, Carrico, Cosgrove, Dunnavant, Garrett, McDougle, Newman, Obenshain, Ruff, Stanley, Suetterlein, Wagner – 12.

RULE 36 – 0.

NOT VOTING – Reeves – 1

Senate Panel OK’s Bill to Defund Planned Parenthood

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an 8-7 vote along party lines, a Senate committee on Thursday approved a bill to prohibit the Virginia Department of Health from funding Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill Monday.

The eight Republicans on the Senate Committee on Education and Health voted in favor of House Bill 1090; the panel’s seven Democratic members voted against it.

HB 1090 states that the Health Department “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.”

The bill has been amended so that it would not affect licensed hospitals that perform non-federally qualified abortions.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Benjamin Cline, R-Amherst, has said his bill would “defund Planned Parenthood and redirect funds to more comprehensive health care for women.”

Dozens of supporters of Planned Parenthood attended the Senate committee meeting on Thursday to testify in opposition of HB 1090. The committee limited public comment and requested that individuals submit written testimony instead.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a nonprofit advocacy group, spoke out against the committee’s decision. “No politician should decide for a woman which health care provider she can or cannot see, but today eight state senators decided they know better than women and their doctors,” Scholl said.

The Virginia Department of Health does not fund abortions for any reason outside of the Medicaid exceptions. Supporters of Planned Parenthood say HB 1090 would effectively cut off state funding for its services such as family planning counseling, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

The House passed the bill on a 64-35 vote on Feb. 16. Afterward, Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, called on senators to reject it.

“This bill cannot become law,” she said. “The intent of this bill is clear – to shame and coerce women from accessing safe and legal abortion and ban access to Planned Parenthood.”

House OKs Amendment to Increase Charter Schools

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – By a 52-47 vote, the Virginia House of Delegates on Friday approved a constitutional amendment that could open the doors for more charter schools in the state.

House Joint Resolution 1, introduced by Delegate Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, would allow the State Board of Education to authorize such schools if the local school board refuses. Republicans have championed the issue, saying Virginia school districts have thwarted attempts to create charter schools, which are public schools that are freed from certain regulations and often offer innovative or specialized programs.

Increasing the number of charter schools was a priority on the GOP education agenda for this legislative session. Virginia has nine charter schools; several states have hundreds. Nationwide, there are more than 6,400 charter schools.

“Public charter schools are some of the nation’s most successful public schools,” said Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, who chairs the House Education Committee.

If both houses of the General Assembly approve the proposed constitutional amendment and related legislation, the issue would be put on the ballot in this November’s general election for a statewide vote.

Delegates also are considering House Bill 3, which would authorize a referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment. This bill was engrossed Friday and will return to the House floor for a final vote next week.

Opposition to the charter school initiative was vocalized during the debate over HB 565, which was also on the floor Friday. The bill would set rules for the establishment and operation of charter schools – specifying, for example, that such schools must be managed by a nonprofit education organization under the control of a governing board.

Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, offered an amendment to HB 565 stating that “the Commonwealth or the public charter school applicant will pay for the construction of such public charter school.”

“The problem I have with the concept of these charter schools is not that I don’t like charter schools, but I want to know who is going to pay for it,” Albo said.

Republican Dels. Bob Marshall of Manassas and Tag Greason of Loudoun County criticized the amendment. They voiced concern over its exacting terms: funding the construction of new schools but not the renovations of existing buildings. House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, commented that the amendment was “inartfully drawn.”

Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, spoke in its favor: “Without the gentleman from Fairfax’s amendment, it is possible that the state could override the locality and have a charter school go in place with no plan for the building it's going to be in,” she said. “Then the locality will be on the hook to build it.”

Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, responded in opposition to the amendment. “We have seen step after step after step to try to take charters of the table,” he said. “I’m not sure she (Delegate McClellan) would vote for the underlying bill.”

Indeed, after the amendment was approved in a vote of 66-28, McClellan spoke in opposition to HB 565. She cited the period of Massive Resistance, when Virginia shut down public schools to block racial integration, as the only time since Reconstruction when the General Assembly encroached on local control of public education.

“That is why there are a large number of people who do not believe it is a good idea to take control away from the locality in deciding whether and how to implement charter schools,” McClellan said.

She cited studies that found charter schools have not improved academic performance across the country, noting that the charter school in Richmond failed to be accredited this year.

HB 565 and HB 3 will return to the floor next week for a final vote.

Meanwhile, the issue also is before the Senate: Senate Joint Resolution 6 would amend the Virginia Constitution the same way HJR 1 would; and SJR 93 and Senate Bill 588 would authorize a statewide referendum on the amendment. All of those measures are to be voted on in the Senate next week.

Under the proposed constitutional amendment, a group that wants to start a charter school would first apply to the local school board. If the school board denies the application, the decision could be appealed to the State Board of Education. The State Board would be limited to hearing five appeals per year.

“Charter schools provide parents and students with additional opportunities,” Bell said. “Not every child is a good fit for traditional public schools, but every child deserves the opportunity to succeed.” He cited studies showing that charter schools “help to close the achievement gap, giving children in minority and underserved communities the opportunity to succeed.”

But public school teachers oppose charter schools. They fear that such programs will divert money and resources from regular public schools.

Howell hailed the House vote in favor of HJR 1.

“The fact that this legislation is House Joint Resolution 1 demonstrates how important this amendment is to the House of Delegates and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” he said. “We have an historic opportunity to bring about a meaningful change in our education system.”

House Republicans Outline Education Agenda

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – House Republicans outlined their agenda for education on Tuesday, saying they want to expand early education and charter schools and give parents more options on where to send their children to school.

Speaking before the House, Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, lauded his colleagues for a successful bipartisan effort in 2015 that brought “more money into the classroom.”

Landes, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he hopes to continue to work across the aisle to improve what Education Week ranked as the fourth best public education system in the nation.

Republican legislators believe that charter schools are a great option for parents. Charter schools are public schools that are free from certain regulations and provide alternative programs, often with an innovative focus. Students must apply to these schools and are enrolled through a selective lottery process.

Landes noted that while New York operates 187 charter schools and Washington, D.C., operates 115, Virginia has only nine.

The Republicans also are striving to increase early education access statewide by removing barriers between public and private early education institutions. Landes cited legislative proposals from Del. Thomas Greason, R-Loudoun, to establish an Early Education Workforce Committee (House Bill 46) and Del. James Massey, R-Henrico, whose HB 1019 would extend education scholarship eligibility to pre-kindergarten programs.

The GOP agenda stipulated that the party does not support universal pre-kindergarten schooling because of the expense.

Landes also highlighted a bill he is sponsoring (HB 516) that would allow students and their parents to opt out of exposure to sexually explicit material.

The final part of the GOP education agenda for 2016 is directed at improving access to, and reducing the financial burden of, higher education. Proposed legislation would aim to implement a state-guaranteed assistance program and provide options for flat-fee degrees.

In response, Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, expressed appreciation for the bipartisan efforts of the House regarding education. She indicated that the Democrats would like to do more – by making early education universal, for example.

“We don’t want to close the door to early education,” Herring said. But she applauded the improved efficiency that freed funding from the mire of bureaucracy, agreeing that “rubber meets the road in the classroom.”

Environmentalists Blast Dominion’s Response to Energy Plan

By Diana Digangi and Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an open letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a coalition of environmental activists and other community leaders said Tuesday that Dominion Virginia Power’s response to the federal Clean Power Plan is “fundamentally contrary” to President Obama’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy.

The letter is signed by about 50 individuals who represent organizations including the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Richmond and Northern Neck chapters of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

“Never in history has a Virginia governor had greater authority, greater responsibility and a greater opportunity to combat harmful carbon pollution,” the letter states. “We implore you to deliver to the people of Virginia a Clean Power Plan that lowers carbon pollution and ensures the health and safety of Virginians for generations to come.”

Coincidently, across Capitol Square, the General Assembly considered a bill that would restrict the governor’s authority for implementing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

Amid partisan debate, the House of Delegates voted to move forward on a bill that could present a roadblock to implementing the Clean Power Plan. House Bill 2 would require approval from the General Assembly of the state’s response to the federal plan. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 21, is moving through the Senate.

If such legislation becomes law, the General Assembly would take precedence over the governor’s administration and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in approving the state’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

Support and opposition to HB 2 split along party lines. The bill’s sponsor – Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol – introduced entreated the legislative body to “get this particular piece of the puzzle right.” He argued the measure would ensure a balance between encouraging economic vitality and reducing fossil fuel energy sources.

Republican sentiment largely followed suit, with some lawmakers citing the State Corporation Commission’s estimate of a 40 percent increase in utility costs under the Clean Power Plan.

Other voices stressed the need to address the economic depression in southwest Virginia, a region with deep ties to the coal industry.

Across the aisle, Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, urged House members to reflect on the effects of carbon emissions on the environment. “Climate change is having an impact in our day-to-day lives,” Lopez said.

He said that HB 2 is a stalling tactic encouraged by special interests and that it infringes on the governor’s authority.

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, encouraged his colleagues to “embrace the energy revolution” by pointing to the growth of a renewable energy industry in bordering states including North Carolina and West Virginia.

The bill was engrossed after a contested vote. It will return to the House floor for its final reading soon. SB 21 is on a similar track to becoming law. That prospect has alarmed environmentalists.

“We absolutely support his (the governor’s) authority in this manner and are very concerned about the general lack of respect for the severity of the issue of climate change among the General Assembly,” said Kate Addleson, conservation director of the Sierra Club.

Addleson helped lead the efforts to draft and distribute the letter to the governor.

“Our concern is that Dominion Power has a great deal of influence over many of our politicians,” she said. “And we feel that that influence has been used to misinform many of our legislators about what the economic impacts of this new Clean Power Plan would be.”

Dominion Power denied the letter’s claims.

“Contrary to what the letter says, Dominion has not put forth a plan. It is clearly up to the state to develop a CPP implementation plan,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins stated in an email. “We are involved in a Department of Environmental Quality stakeholder’s group process working with the state as it determines its best path forward.”

Botkins said Dominion is worried that complying with the federal plan would cause big increases in consumers’ utility bills.

“Dominion supports an approach that builds on our cleaner power generation sources compared to our neighboring states and preserves our state’s key advantages of low customer rates and strong reliability while allowing for economic growth,” Botkins said.

But Addleson disputed that argument.

“Dominion always likes to say Virginia has some of the lowest energy rates in the country overall per megawatt hour, but what they don’t want to tell you is that Virginians actually pay some of the highest energy bills in the country ... because we’re not implementing energy efficiency programs,” she said.

Despite Protests, State OKs Drainage of Coal Ash Ponds

By Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A procession of more than 100 disappointed citizens filed out of a Virginia State Water Control Board meeting late Thursday afternoon after the agency approved permits for Dominion Virginia Power to begin draining water from coal ash ponds on sites in Fluvanna and Prince William counties into the James and Potomac rivers.

Over the past few months, the permit applications have stirred opposition against Dominion Virginia Power by local and regional environmental groups such as the James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center. Although Thursday’s meeting was brimming with opponents to the plan, the board approved the permits supported by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

State Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Fairfax, joined opponents at the meeting. He said Dominion’s plan was unsettling to more than just hard-core environmentalists.

“You’re not just hearing concerns from the environmental community,” Surovell said. “You’re hearing concerns from major institutions saying, ‘Let’s slow this down; let’s get this right.’ ”

Surovell suggested that the board consider delaying its decision to allow further study into harm that water from draining coal ash ponds might pose to the creeks and rivers – especially Quantico Creek, which is already impaired due to high concentrations of nickel in the creek bed.

The controversy even drew attention from outside the commonwealth. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources submitted a comprehensive letter to Virginia’s DEQ that contested Virginia’s standards for heavy metal concentration concerning the protection of the shared waters of the Potomac River.

Approval of the permits allows Dominion to begin discharging water immediately from coal ash ponds at Bremo Power Station, roughly 50 miles upstream of Richmond on the James River, and the Possum Point Power Station, located 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., at the confluence of the Potomac River and Quantico Creek.

Coal ash is the problematic residuum left over from burning coal and is commonly stored in retaining ponds generally on site of coal burning power plants. Potentially toxic concentrations of heavy metals inherent to coal ash include arsenic and mercury.

Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s director of Electric Environmental Services, ensured the board of her company’s consideration for human and environmental health. Before the vote, she said Dominion’s plan met all applicable laws and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“This approach complies with all current federal and state regulations, including the newly promulgated EPA rule,” Taylor said.

Board member Roberta A. Kellam cast the sole dissenting vote on both permit approvals. She expressed concern over the complexity of the issue and said there should be more time for review and public comment.

The permits are the first step in Dominion’s plan to close 11 coal ash ponds sited on four power plants around the state at an estimated cost of $325 million. Once the approximately 500 million gallons of contaminated water is treated and drained from these two sites, the utility must obtain further permits to bury the remaining solid coal ash with layers of protective lining, soil and vegetation.

Last September, federal regulations from the EPA set new pollution limits concerning the discharges from electric power plants into the nation’s waterways. That forced state utilities across the U.S., including Dominion Virginia Power, to reconsider their disposal of coal ash.

Most Dominion Virginia Power plants, including the sites at Bremo and Possum Point, have been converted from coal to natural gas and therefore no longer produce coal ash. Permits for draining coal ash ponds at the Chesapeake Energy Center and the coal-burning Chesterfield Power Station will be considered later this year.

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