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January 2019

Governor and Others Vow to Protect Women’s Reproductive Rights

By Arianna Coghill and Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Dozens of women packed into the state Capitol Thursday to stand beside Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and General Assembly members who issued a statement in solidarity with women’s reproductive rights.

Representatives of several advocacy groups, including the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, joined public officials, all Democrats, to discuss abortion rights and promote better access to comprehensive reproductive health care.

“I’m going all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to in order to protect Virginians’ health care,” Herring said.

Meanwhile, two bills calling for greater reproductive health rights failed to leave the Senate Committee on Education and Health. Committee members voted 8-7 twice, along party lines, not to advance the bills.

Public officials and advocates who support abortion rights promised to remember Thursday’s votes at the next election.

“When we can’t change people’s minds, we change seats,” Northam said.

Herring added, “As saw in committee this morning, in order to really truly protect women's rights and their reproductive rights, we need a pro-choice majority in the General Assembly.”

SB 1637, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, sought to establish a woman’s reproductive choice as a right. Also called the Virginia Human Right Act, the bill stated, “Every individual who becomes pregnant has a fundamental right to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, give birth to a child, or terminate the pregnancy.”

Boysko expressed concerns that the current political climate could jeopardize women’s reproductive rights.

“We must codify our national rights into Virginia state law,” she said, “to ensure that the reproductive rights of Virginians are dependable, secure, and no longer in danger from changing political tides.”

SB 1451, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also failed in committee. The bill would have eliminated the state’s requirements women get an ultrasound before an abortion, that a second trimester abortion must be performed in a hospital and that two doctors are needed to certify a third-trimester abortion.

“It’s time we stop criminalizing a woman’s choice and expand access to care for all Virginians,” McClellan said.

When McClellan served in the House of Delegates, she was the first member to give birth while in office. She said pregnancy opened her eyes to the scope of women affected by current regulations and prompted her to submit her bill.  

“One [woman] who had a hole in her heart, who was on birth control but got pregnant anyway, had to make the terrible decision to terminate that pregnancy or risk her life,” McClellan said. “I have always been pro-choice. This took on extra passion for me because so many people have told me in the grocery store, ‘That’s my story.’”

HB 2491, sponsored by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, is identical to McClellan’s bill and currently sits in the House Courts of Justice committee. Tran said the current medical requirements are unnecessary and impact low-income Virginians and women of color.

“For women seeking reproductive care, the additional costs and obstacles imposed by existing regulation could potentially include unpaid time off from work, hospital fees and other emotional distress,” Tran said. “These restrictions harm women and have disproportionate effects on low-income women and women of color in Virginia.”

Bipartisan Group Launches Initiative for Racial Reconciliation

Richmond City Mayor Levar Stoney speaking before fellow members of Virginians for Reconciliation at a press conference Wednesday.

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Four centuries after enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, a diverse group of public officials, business executives and religious leaders has opened a yearlong dialogue about racial justice and healing.

The group, Virginians for Reconciliation, detailed its plans at a press conference Wednesday afternoon with words from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam; his Republican predecessor, Bob McDonnell; and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

The goals are straightforward: “To get people to know, respect and care for one another, to break down racial barriers of prejudice and mistrust, and build a stronger basis to solve problems for the common good,” McDonnell said. “But talk is cheap, and results matter.”

The initiative comes as the Virginia General Assembly marks its 400th anniversary, which began when the House of Burgesses convened in Jamestown in 1619 — the first European legislative body in the American colonies.

Northam said Virginians must reflect on the grim part of history as well.

“Talk about what was good about our history — the pursuit of liberty — and what was not good — the pursuit of enslavement,” said the governor, who recently proclaimed 2019 the Year of Reconciliation and Civility.

“This is an opportunity for us to review that and move forward together.”

The organization has proposed more than 20 activities, including encouraging Virginians to read “The Color of Law,” which shows how government contributed to racial segregation.

“Slavery didn’t end, it just evolved,” said David Bailey, quoting the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson.

Bailey is executive director of Arrabon, a Christian group promoting reconciliation. He said the Christian faith community has an important role to play in racial reconciliation because much of slavery was carried out “in the name of Jesus.”

As part of a clergy pulpit exchange, Virginians for Reconciliation will encourage pastors to preach at “churches of different faiths/races.” The group also will urge Virginians — including members of the General Assembly — to walk the Richmond Slave Trail, which includes sites where slaves were imprisoned, bought and sold.

“The physical chains are gone,” Stoney said. “But we all know that many people of color today are still bound by the chains of poverty, inadequate access to health care and shut out from opportunity by the criminal justice system.”

At the news conference, McDonnell was asked whether Virginians for Reconciliation would address difficult issues such as Confederate monuments that are prevalent throughout Virginia.

McDonnell said the group was focused on building relationships but might “begin recommending some of these policy changes” after a civil dialogue has taken place.

“This is a start,” McDonnell said. He said the organization’s work could “hopefully be a model for America.”

Energy Donors Have Given Democrats More Than Republicans

 

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats have received more campaign cash from top natural gas, coal and electric utility donors this election cycle than Republicans, according to recently filed campaign finance reports posted online by the Virginia Public Access Project.

For the past several decades, the opposite had been true: Republicans have typically received the lion’s share of contributions from Virginia’s wealthiest energy companies.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said energy companies might be reacting to the shifting political landscape in Virginia.

“It’s clear that Dominion and many other energy industries are trying to win more friends in the Democratic Caucus,” Farnsworth said. “This is particularly important in 2019 because there may be Democratic majorities in the House and Senate next year.”

So far this election cycle, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, has given $108,027 to Democrats and $100,913 to Republicans. This is the first time since 2000 that Dominion has donated more to Democrats than Republicans.

Dominion contributed $25,000 to the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus and $20,750 to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus this election cycle, according to VPAP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that shines a light on money in politics.

EQT Corporation, a Pittsburgh-based natural gas company, this election cycle has donated $40,750 to Democrats and $24,000 to Republicans. EQT Corporation is one of several companies involved in the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia.

EQT Corporation donated $25,000 to the Northam Inaugural Committee in 2018.

Virginia Natural Gas has given $22,000 to Democrats and $21,000 to Republicans. In the last campaign season, Virginia Natural Gas gave $52,000 to Democrats and Republicans $84,803.

United Coal Company, the state’s top coal industry donor thus far, has given Democrats $112,500 compared with $105,000 for Republicans. The last time United Coal Company donated more to Democrats than to Republicans was 2002. The company’s largest-ever single contribution, $100,000, was to Ed Gillespie’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2017.

Clyde E. Stacy, former head of Rapoca Energy, is the second-biggest coal industry donor. Stacy has given $112,500 to Democrats and $80,000 to Republicans. Stacy is currently serving as CEO of Par Ventures in Bristol, Virginia, and is the owner of Bristol Mall, the site of a proposed casino and resort.

“This year will likely be a very expensive year for a lot of interests in Richmond,” Farnsworth said. “They basically have to donate to Republicans and Democrats, not knowing which party is going to be in control next year.”

All seats in the General Assembly are up for election in November.

Senate Panel Kills Stricter Seat-belt Law

By Adrian Teran-Tapia, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia will continue to have one of the weakest seat-belt laws in the country after a Senate committee killed a bill to require rear-seat passengers in a motor vehicle to wear safety belts and to make violating the state’s seat-belt law a primary offense.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-5 Wednesday to “pass by indefinitely” SB 1282, which sought to expand Virginia’s seat-belt requirements. Currently, only the driver and front-seat passengers must wear a safety belt (or children must be secured in a child restraint device). Violations are a secondary offense, meaning officers cannot pull drivers over and ticket them simply for not wearing a seat belt.

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill, shared his concerns over passenger safety with the committee.

“After years of decline in traffic fatalities, we are now seeing an increase number of traffic fatalities — to some extent related to distracted driving issues,” Barker said. “This bill is something that can help address that and something we need to do to help ensure the safety of those riding a vehicle in Virginia.”

Since 2014, Virginia has seen a 20 percent increase in traffic-related fatalities and a 20 percent increase in fatalities related to unrestrained passengers and drivers, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2017, the latest year for which data are available, 308 unbelted drivers and passengers died in crashes.

Traffic safety groups supported Barker’s bill calling for primary enforcement to seat-belt usage for both front and rear passengers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that states with primary seat-belt enforcement laws “consistently have higher observed daytime belt use rates and lower fatality rates than secondary law states.” Virginia is among 16 states where seat-belt violations are a secondary offense. If someone is ticketed for the offense in Virginia, the fine is $25.

The Senate Transportation Committee split along party lines over the bill. The six Republicans on the panel voted to kill SB 1282; the five Democratic committee members voted to keep the bill alive.

Republican Sens. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield and John Cosgrove of Chesapeake questioned how police officers would enforce the seat-belt statute as a primary law.

After the vote, Georjeane Blumling, vice president of public affairs for AAA Tidewater Virginia, said she was disappointed but not surprised that the committee killed the bill.

“We knew that moving to a primary enforcement law was going to be a challenge,” Blumling said. “It has been [a challenge finding] balance between personal liberty and public safety for many years, and we appreciate Sen. Barker putting forth a bill to try to increase that safety by making seat belts both in the front and back required and a primary offense.”

Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which promotes traffic safety, said he would continue to push for stronger seat-belt laws. “The bottom line is that the routine wearing of seat belts is the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries,” Erickson said.

Erickson and Blumling will now wait for the House of Delegates to decide on a similar bill proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.

Krizek’s bill, HB 2264, calls for primary enforcement of the seat-belt requirement for drivers and front-seat passengers but secondary enforcement for rear-seat passengers. The measure has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate Transportation Committee voted Wednesday on SB 1282 (Safety belt systems; use by rear passengers):

01/16/19 — Senate: Passed by indefinitely in Transportation (6-Y 5-N)

YEAS — Carrico, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Chase, Suetterlein, Peake — 6.

NAYS — Deeds, Marsden, Favola, Edwards, McClellan — 5.

New Takeout Food Concept in Scott’s Addition

BIG KITCHEN

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A renovated diesel engine repair shop is home to a new food concept in Scott’s Addition. The Big Kitchen opened its takeout and delivery-based business on Wednesday, with the vision of creating meals from scratch that people can enjoy at home.

Restaurant co-owner Susan Davenport said they’ve been working on the space for a little over a year now.

The renovations include a storefront where customers can come in and pick up their order, as well as a walk-in cooler and a smokehouse in the back.

“This was the original bay where the semis would come through and drop their engines to be repaired,” Davenport said.

Customers can choose to drive through the covered garage to pick up their order from an employee or peruse the storefront options inside.

The menu offers a variety of items ranging from nacho kits and wood-fired frozen pizzas to bottles of wine and packs of beer.

“We have a really great team of chefs behind it,” Davenport said. “We have a lot of great sourcing with local purveyors, whether it’s our cheese or our meats, or especially in the growing season, the farms that we work with.”

The four partners behind The Big Kitchen formed Big Kitchen Hospitality, a local group that also operates Tazza Kitchen in the West End along with an outpost in Scott’s Addition.

The group said it has a staff of more than 300 employees working in its six full-service restaurants, three which are located in the Carolinas. Davenport said the online ordering technology and experienced food staff distinguishes The Big Kitchen from other carry-out concepts.

“You can order ahead and order several meals for a few days or some sides or frozen pizzas, and when you select your time for it to be ready, all you have to do is pull into our bay and we bring your order out,” Davenport said.

The Big Kitchen plans to launch food delivery service next month and will use refrigerated vans to keep the food fresh. Each item comes with heating instructions on the top label.

Jeff Grant, a BKH partner, said numerous people were involved in many trial runs to test recipes, along with the process of packaging and heating the prepared meals.

“Wood-fired cooking is still prominent, and we’ve included a few Tazza favorites, but we are excited about the new dishes and flavors that this team has put together,” Grant said.

Davenport said The Big Kitchen will offer customers the option to bring back used packaging for the staff to compost.

“I hate plastic, and so most of our packaging is compostable, and we actually compost everything organic here at this kitchen,” Davenport said. “Every month, we compost almost two tons of materials.”

The grab-and-go style market in the storefront offers freshly prepared items including sandwiches, smoked meats and salads. Storefront hours are 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 2:30-6:30 p.m. on Sunday. The Big Kitchen is located at 1600 Altamont Ave.

Panel OKs Bill to Restrict Tethering Animals

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A House committee Wednesday advanced a bill requiring Virginians who tether dogs outside to give the animals more room to move.

It was one of three animal welfare bills the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources sent to the full House of Delegates for consideration.

All three measures were sponsored by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline. Last year, Orrock unsuccessfully sponsored legislation authorizing local governments to restrict how long animals can be tethered outside and to prohibit tethering during freezing weather.

Under current law, if an animal is tethered outside, the rope or chain must be at least three times the length of the animal as measured from nose to tail. HB 1827 would make the requirement four times the length of the animal or 15 feet, whichever is longer. Moreover, the tether could not weigh more than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight.

The measure would not apply to a leash used in taking an animal on a walk.

The committee voted 19-2 in favor of the bill.

Also, the panel unanimously approved a proposal to change the legal definition of “adequate shelter for animals” in the Code of Virginia.

Currently, adequate shelter is defined as a space that protects animals from “the adverse effects” of heat or cold. HB 1625 would change the definition to specify protection “from exposure to” heat or cold.

“A very simple, three-word change,” Orrock said. “But I think it gives significant additional powers to animal control to intervene before the suffering of an animal occurs.”

At the suggestion of the state attorney general’s office, Orrock is also sponsoring HB 1626, which takes aim at cockfighting. The bill says that when animal control officers find domesticated birds, such as roosters, tethered, they can presume that the birds are being used for animal fighting.

Del. Debra H. Rodman, D-Henrico, raised concerns about farmers who may tether fowl.

“Are we sure tethering is when people are cockfighting?” Rodman asked when the bill was discussed during a subcommittee meeting Monday. “I had chickens in Guatemala … and you tether your chickens on the way to market.”

The bill would allow Animal Control to investigate at their discretion, said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach. A court hearing would take place within 10 days, and the animal would be released to its owner if no evidence of animal fighting was found. This may help protect the rights of farmers while giving animal control officers more authority in animal fighting investigations, legislators said.

The committee approved the bill, 16-2.

Poor People’s Campaign Delivers Demands to Legislators

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, a revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 campaign to tackle poverty, gathered Wednesday at the Capitol, urging state and federal lawmakers to expand voting rights, raise the minimum wage, promote renewable energy and curb military aggression.

About 25 people attended the meeting, delivered demands regarding issues they said are rarely represented in the political arena.

“It’s very important for us to understand the power of voting and to not be manipulated into thinking our votes are insignificant,” said Carroll Malik, a representative from the Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia.

Malik said one of the most inspiring moments of his life was when his voting rights were restored 27 years after he was released from prison.

“We are not useless. We are not worthless. We can do something,” Malik said.

The group’s demands include restoration and expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act, an end to gerrymandering in drawing legislative districts, fully funded welfare programs, free tuition at public colleges and universities, more public housing, a ban on assault rifles and an immigration system that prioritizes family reunification.

Community organizers spent the morning discussing issues and strategy, and then participants spent the afternoon delivering letters to their elected representatives.

For the 2019 General Assembly session, the Poor People’s Campaign voiced support for several pieces of legislation:

  • HB 1902, sponsored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, promotes renewable energy. It would make “$1 billion in grants available over three years to religious institutions, public schools, institutions of higher education, and localities” to help finance the installation and operation of solar energy systems, according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.
  • HB 1651, sponsored by Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, would raise from $500 to $750 the threshold for a theft to be considered grand larceny.
  • SB 1200, sponsored by Del. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021.

The group stated it “vigorously opposed” SB 1156, a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, to prohibit “sanctuary cities” for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

“We have come together because Virginia is in a moral crisis,” the Poor People’s Campaign stated. “We will continue to organize, mobilize and educate residents across this state around our Moral Agenda, until all our demands are satisfied.”

Richmond Public Schools Rallies Community with Advocacy Training during GA session

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Amidst fast paced agendas that can be inundated with political rhetoric and obscured by legislative processes, the General Assembly often remains an enigma to many Virginians. Even to some Richmonders, who dwell within the same city limits of the Capitol building, the first months of the year dedicated to the state's legislative system can pass by in a blur of headlines.

Matthew Stanley’s job is to bring that fuzzy grasp of public understanding into a civically energized focus.

As Richmond Public School’s Director of Advocacy and Outreach, Stanley held three public meetings in January, training over 40 community members how to advocate and interact with their legislative body for the betterment of Virginia’s public education.

Stanley asked the handful of community members gathered at the Peter Paul Development Center gym Tuesday night, “In what ways have you already advocated in your life?”  

Cheryl Burke, RPS School Board member of the Seventh District, said she has advocated for Richmond’s East End children for over 40 years, “as an educator, and as a parent.”

Taikein Cooper said his advocacy roots date back to middle school, with the uncomfortable onslaught of puberty. After feeling mistreated by his teachers, Cooper reached out to his parents for guidance.

When they set up a meeting to sort out the grievance, Cooper said it went differently than he expected. “I thought [my parents] were going to advocate for me,” Copper said to two roundtables of listeners. “But instead they let me advocate for myself. They gave me a platform and empowered me to use my voice.”

Now in his early 30s, Cooper is executive director of Virginia Excels, an education advocacy platform for communities across Virginia. He said he came to the meeting in support of the RPS mission to encourage community advocacy in the 2019 General Assembly session.

As a liaison between the worlds of educational priorities and legislative bureaucracy, Stanley presented a condensed slide show that bulleted a tangible step-by-step process for citizen involvement.

“The most important people for you to communicate with are your representatives, you have a delegate and a senator, and you’re their constituent,” Stanley said, outlining the basis of the political relationships at hand. “What you say to them matters. Your voice does matter.”

Subsequent slides listed resources for finding legislators, and tips for contacting them via phone or email. There were also suggestions for navigating personal, face-to-face conversations with politicians: "be confident," "stay positive," assertive-not aggressive."

"And be excited," Stanley said. "Really, advocacy is being excited about helping people."

That's the word Holly Jones used when asked how she felt about starting her new job as a mental health professional at Armstrong High School next week. "I'm excited," Jones said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders.  

Just 25 years old, and newly graduated in 2017 with a master’s degree in social work, Jones said she is bringing a lot of energy into her position. "There are a lot of challenges to overcome, but... yeah, I'm excited," she said again.

Stanley said one of those challenges is the counselor to student ratio in public schools. The state currently funds a ratio of one school counselor to every 425 students, nearly double the nationally-recommended best practice of one to 250 students.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed a three-year strategy with a $36 million investment to eventually reduce the state's ratio to the national best practice.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, released a memo in November with priority recommendations from the House Select Committee on School Safety, which included realigning school counselor's responsibilities so that "the majority of their time [is spent] providing direct student services." This would not, however, decrease the ratio.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 1735, which would review the current ratios and consider whether such a proposed alignment "is improving schools' ability to provide counseling services to students."

“It's a lengthy list… nobody has the answer to fix everything," Stanley said of the district’s list of priority recommendations and its "hashtaggable" goal to secure "more money to make better schools for stronger students."

Stanley handed out postcards at the end of the event and encouraged participants to write and begin fostering relationships with their legislators.

In white script on a red and blue background, some cards read “I support your position,” while others, in a more dissenting tone, read, “I disagree with your position.”  

Senate Panel Kills Bill Designating Election Day as a Holiday

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Senate bill to designate Election Day as a state holiday in Virginia is dead for this legislative session.

On a 5-7 vote Monday, the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology defeated SB 1291, which also would have removed Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday so that the number of holidays would stay the same.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, sponsored the bill seeking to make Election Day — the Tuesday after the first Monday in November — a state holiday.

“There have been cases where voters had to leave polls before casting their votes, simply because they had to return to work,” Lucas said. “Making Election Day a state holiday would make it easier for Virginians to vote.”

In November, voters in Chesterfield County said they waited more than two hours in line to vote — a situation that occurred throughout the nationResearch shows that the U.S. has lower voter turnout than most developed countries — many of which hold elections on weekends or designate the day as a national holiday.

In Virginia in November, voter turnout was below 60 percent.

“This legislation will help protect and expand the right to vote,” Lucas said.

Asif Bhavnagri, Gov. Ralph Northam’s assistant secretary of administration, said the administration supports the bill. There were no comments from the public in opposition to the bill.

Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, who chairs the committee, questioned why Lucas proposed removing Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday. That holiday, which marks the birthdays of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, is observed on the Friday immediately before Martin Luther King Jr. Day (the third Monday in January).

“People who are used to getting four-day holidays that particular weekend, with Lee-Jackson on a Friday and King on Monday — don’t you think they would be a little upset?” Ruff asked.

“Well, I’m sure they would,” Lucas said. “But Mr. Chairman, I think this goes a long way towards helping to expand the number of voters, and that’s more significant to me than having a long weekend.”

Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, also voiced concerns about removing Lee-Jackson Day as a holiday.

“I have unease about the movement to erasing history,” Black said. “Maybe next time, it’ll be Martin Luther King. I would be opposed to erasing something in his honor.”

Lee-Jackson Day is observed only in Virginia. Various localities, including Richmond, Charlottesville, Fairfax and Norfolk, do not observe the holiday.

Lucas’ bill is not the only legislative attempt to declare Election Day as a holiday. In the House of Delegates, Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, has filed a similar proposal – HB 1984. It is awaiting action by a House subcommittee.

In 2016, Donald McEachin — then a state senator and now a member of Congress — also introduced a bill to designate Election Day as a holiday instead of Lee-Jackson Day. The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee defeated McEachin’s bill on a 7-8 vote, with seven Democrats in favor of the bill and eight Republicans opposed to it.

Six of those Republican senators, with the addition of Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, voted against Lucas’ bill Monday afternoon, while five of the same Democratic senators — once again — voted for it.

“As expected,” Lucas said, as her bill was defeated. “But I’ll see you again next year.”

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee voted Monday on SB 1291 (Legal holidays; Election Day).

01/14/19 Senate: Failed to report (defeated) in General Laws and Technology (5-Y 7-N)

YEAS — Locke, Barker, Ebbin, Surovell, McPike — 5.

NAYS — Ruff, Vogel, Black, Reeves, DeSteph, Suetterlein, Dunnavant — 7.

Bipartisan Support Behind Bills to Curb Distracted Driving

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — For Roxanne Gabel and Tabitha Clark, advocating for “hands-free driving” in Virginia is about more than statistics; it’s a family memorial effort.

In November 2017, Gabel’s 21-year-old daughter, Lakin Ashlyn, was killed in a traffic accident when she was using Snapchat on her phone while driving, Clark, the young woman’s cousin, said at a Wednesday press conference held by the group Drive Smart Virginia.

Distracted by social media while heading to work, Lakin Ashlyn drove off the road and lost control of her vehicle, according to authorities. The young woman was not wearing her seat belt, and when she overcorrected, her car overturned several times. She was ejected and killed, leaving behind her 3-month-old son, who was not in the car.

Roxanne Gabel stood by the podium, tearfully holding the last Snapchat image her daughter took before the accident. Lakin Ashlyn’s eyes were large and round with a set of bear ears and a nose superimposed on her face by a Snapchat filter.

“What she was doing was not illegal. Snapchatting is not illegal, Facebook is not illegal,” said Del. Chris Collins, R-Fredrick. He and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, are leading a legislative effort to prohibit cellphone use while driving.

Under current law, only texting while driving is a primary offense in Virginia. It can draw a fine of $125 for first offenders and $250 for recurring offenses.

HB 1811 and its companion SB 1341 would make any interaction with a cellphone while driving a primary offense, with the same fines applied.

“Traditionally I’ve resisted these [bills], I’ll be honest with you,” Stuart said at the press conference. “But it has come to the point where people are so totally engrossed in their phones that they are almost oblivious to the world around them, and that’s just a really dangerous recipe on a highway.”

The House and Senate bills have bipartisan support: They are co-sponsored by Del. Michael Mullen, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

Legislators said the rising number of distracted driving fatalities shows the need for such legislation.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, there were 208 distraction-related traffic fatalities last year, an 18 percent increase compared with 2016. During the same time frame, alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell more than 5 percent.

“In some respects, driving with a phone in your hand can be just as dangerous as driving with a .15 blood alcohol level,” Collins said. “When this is something that law enforcement takes seriously and something the courts take seriously, people will change their behavior.”

Bill Seeks Insurance Coverage for More Virginians with Autism

By Kathleen Shaw and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Legislation introduced by Del. Robert Thomas, R-Stafford, would expand autism insurance coverage to nearly 10,000 Virginians and lift the cap that excludes those over the age of 10.

Under current law, individuals with autism can get insurance only from ages 2 through 10. Autism is the only medical condition that has an age-based coverage limit, Thomas said. His bill, HB 2577, would eliminate the restriction.

“No other health impairment including asthma, diabetes or cancer has such age limits imposed on them,” Thomas said Tuesday at a press conference about the bill. “And we believe that coverage for all of these health conditions is based on medical necessity, and autism should be treated no differently.”

House Speaker Kirk Cox joined Thomas at the event and expressed his support for the bill.

“This announcement has been a long time coming in Virginia,” Cox said. He noted that according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “autism impacts 1 in 59 children in our country. This number is growing 15 percent a year.”

A 2013 report from the Autism Center of Excellence at Virginia Commonwealth University said that on average, children are diagnosed as having autism at 6 or 7 years old. As a result, those families have only about four years of access to affordable insurance.

After a child with autism turns 11, individuals can access affordable care only if they receive a “Developmentally Disabled Waiver” from the state. But there aren’t enough waivers to meet the demand, parents say.

The “Fighting Fletchers,” a Midlothian family with three autistic sons, joined advocates from the Virginia Autism Project at the press conference. Kate Fletcher, the boys’ mother, said the Developmentally Disabled Waiver waitlist of nearly 13,000 has left her family feeling abandoned by the state.

“All three of my boys are on that waitlist. Matthew’s been in the most urgent category for seven years now,” Fletcher said. “If we can’t access waiver supports, and we can’t access insurance past the age of 10, the state has effectively shut doors in our face the whole way.”

Individuals with autism who can get the insurance receive pharmaceutical, psychological and therapeutic care.

“Our children did not choose to be born with autism, and we feel that we should do everything we can to continue to learn about the causes of autism, but more importantly, to provide the treatment that we know is having a meaningful effect for these children regardless of their age,” Thomas said.

State officials estimate that it would cost about $237,000 a year to extend autism insurance coverage to nearly 10,000 more people. But advocates said the future benefits far outweigh the costs.

By having insurance and receiving treatment, a person with autism will require less in social services later on. The insurance “will save the state $1-2 million per person covered over their lifetime,” Fletcher said.

MARCH OF DIMES AWARDS GRANT TO CMH WOMEN’S HEALTH SERVICES

JOINING IN THE FIGHT FOR THE HEALTH OF ALL MOMS AND BABIES IN SOUTHSIDE VIRGINIA

(SOUTH HILL, VA, DECEMBER 2018) – March of Dimes Virginia has awarded a grant to CMH Women’s Health Services, a practice of VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital, to support Centering Pregnancy Group Prenatal Care, aimed at serving maternal and child health needs here in Southside Virginia. This program will serve pregnant women in our area by providing prenatal care in a group setting that facilitates interaction and discussion and allows women to be more involved in their care. Centering Pregnancy has been shown to have an array of benefits for moms who participate, including lowering the occurrence of preterm birth and low birth weights.

This grant is one of many that March of Dimes awards in pursuit of its mission to lead the fight for the health of all moms and babies.  This grant is made possible through a partnership with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation.

“We will use the March of Dimes grant to help meet our objective to expand our Centering program, which allows us to offer quality group prenatal care to expecting moms in our area,” said Terry Wootten, Certified Nurse Midwife at CMH Women’s Health Services.  “We are grateful to those in our community who support March of Dimes by participating in events like March for Babies and who donate in other ways.  That participation and those donations make this grant possible,” she said.

CMH Women’s Health Services reinstated the CenteringPregnancy program in January of 2017. In November of that same year, we moved to a brand new hospital with a Labor and Delivery unit and, since then, have delivered more than 170 babies. It is our goal to provide the women in our area with the support they need to have a healthy pregnancy and birth experience.

Louise Harrell “Bootsie” Grant

Louise Harrell “Bootsie” Grant, 93, of Jarratt, passed away Tuesday, January 15, 2019. She was preceded in death by her husband of 63 years, J. Linwood Grant and her brother, Edward “Pete” Harrell. Mrs. Grant taught fourth grade for 41 years with the Sussex County School System and she considered all of her students “her babies”. She was a longtime member of High Hills Baptist Church serving in many capacities including teaching Sunday School for over 30 years. She and Linwood worked together through the years in numerous civic organizations and countless projects to better the community.

Mrs. Grant is survived by a sister-in-law, Peggy Harrell; nieces, Rhonda Harrell, Alison Reickard, Alice Whitby (Dennis), Suzanne Ivey, Alicia Milam (Bob) and Ann Marie Taylor; nephew, Curtis Barnes (Sherry) and several great-nieces and great-nephews.

The family will receive friends 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 17 at Owen Funeral Home, 303 S. Halifax Rd, Jarratt. The funeral service will be held graveside 1 p.m. Friday, January 18 at High Hills Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to Jarratt Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 562, Jarratt, Virginia 23867 or to Greensville Volunteer Rescue Squad, P.O. Box 108, Emporia, Virginia 23847.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com.

Immigrant Advocates Bash Bill Blocking ‘Sanctuary Cities’


Two years ago, immigrant rights activists held a rally to urge Richmond to designate itself as a "sanctuary city." (File photo by Jessica Nolte of Capital News Service)

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Immigrant rights groups were outraged after a Senate committee advanced a bill to prohibit localities from restricting federal enforcement of immigration laws.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-6 Monday for SB 1156, which states, “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” Opponents say the measure would require local police officers to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities.

“We feel this bill would create havoc for families and first responders by giving ICE agents free rein to continue inflicting psychological and other cruelties against immigrant communities throughout the commonwealth without accountability,” said Vilma Seymour, the president of the Richmond chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

SB 1156, introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, is awaiting a vote this week by the full Senate. To become law, the bill must also pass the House and secure the governor’s signature. Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a similar bill last year.

According to Black, the bill would not require localities to assist federal immigration law enforcement. However, it would preclude localities from enacting laws that restrict the “traditional” cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

“Throughout law enforcement, there is a sort of customary interaction on all levels,” Black said at Monday’s committee meeting. “Most of these cooperative agreements arise, not out of statute … but local comity between organizations that are concerned about similar things.”

Also present was the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, representing 12 organizations that oppose the bill, including the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.

Leonina Arismendi Žarković from the Latino coalition offered a prayer before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

“Dear Lord ... I thank you for every single person in this room speaking power to people that most need it right now,” Žarković began. “I ask you, Lord, to please touch Sen. Black’s heart … Ask him to drop this right now. We know that you have brought every single person to these shores, and we know that you have a plan for each and every one of them.”

“This bill, if it goes forward,” she added, “is going to be a complete stumbling block onto your people. And that is not what I want.”

Black’s bill is viewed as an attempt to prevent “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — localities that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement activities. Some jurisdictions in California, for example, have refused federal requests to detain people for deportation from the U.S.

Proponents of sanctuary cities say they foster good relations between local police and immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Such immigrants often are afraid to report crimes, for instance, if they know local police cooperate with ICE, immigrant rights advocates say.

Panel Kills Bill to Shield Older Kids from Secondhand Smoke

By Rodney Robinson and Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A legislative subcommittee has killed a bill intended to shield older children from the effects of secondhand smoke.

Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted 5-3 to indefinitely postpone consideration of HB 2091, which sought to outlaw smoking in a motor vehicle containing minors under age 16. Currently, it’s illegal to smoke in a car if there are passengers under 8.

The five Republicans on the subcommittee voted in favor of killing the measure; the three Democrats on the panel voted against killing it.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William.

“As a mother, it was of great surprise to me to learn that children over the age of 8 can be exposed to secondhand smoke in vehicles,” Guzman said in a press release when she introduced the bill on Jan. 7. “Virginia needs to update its code to reflect the evidence-based results of medical studies.”

According to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke is the cause of more than 41,000 deaths per year, and about 37 percent of children in the U.S have been exposed to such smoke.

Guzman’s bill would have applied not only to tobacco smoking but also to vaping.

“Children under the age of 16 should also be protected from the smoke originated from vaping,” she said. “It is so popular right now in high schools.”

Current state law does not address protecting minors from nicotine vapor emitted through the use of electronic cigarettes.

As a social worker and a mother of four, Guzman said protecting children is her No. 1 priority. She said teenagers 16 and older can speak up or remove themselves from a car where the driver or passengers are smoking. However, younger children do not have that power, Guzman said.

Other states have changed their laws on secondhand smoke.

In Kansas, it’s illegal to smoke in a vehicle with minors under 14, and in Louisiana, under 13.

Changing the law could reduce smoking, she said.

“In Kansas, for example, in 2011, 27 percent of adults say that they were smoking,” Guzman said. “In 2016, after this law passed, the amount of adults smoking reduced to 23 percent.”

Guzman said smokers “need to understand that secondhand smoke is the most dangerous part. And it is not fair that children are voiceless, that they cannot do anything to protect themselves.”

Although Guzman’s bill is likely dead for the session, Virginia legislators will have another chance to consider the issue. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is sponsoring a bill similar to Guzman’s.

Rasoul’s proposal, HB 1744, would make it illegal to smoke in a motor vehicle in the presence of minors under 18. It also has been assigned to Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

Virginia Legislators Seek Refund for Utility Customers

 

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill to return millions of dollars to Virginia residents who they say have been overcharged by the state’s utility companies.

Bill sponsors say Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the largest energy providers in the state, are charging residents more than they should for utility costs.

“Virginia consumers have suffered long enough,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. “My constituents have said their utility bills are too high, and we need to have a strong group advocating for consumers to ensure that ratepayers are not being taken advantage of.”

Rasoul is the chief sponsor of the "Ratepayers Earned these Funds, Not Dominion" (REFUND) Act. He said it seeks to compensate ratepayers for years of excess spending by utility companies.

The bill comes a month after Clean Virginia, an environmental advocacy group, issued a report that claimed Virginia utility companies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power use ratepayer money for nonessential spending like political contributions, advertisements and excessive executive compensation.

“Energy bills in Virginia have stopped reflecting the fundamental principle that ratepayers should only pay for the underlying cost of their energy and its delivery,” the report said.

It alleged that most Virginia residents are being overcharged by an average of $250 on their utility bills every year due to nonessential spending by utility companies — an excess payment that Clean Virginia has dubbed the “Dominion tax.”

The proposed legislation aims to refund that money as a credit on customers' bills over a period of six to 12 months.

“It ensures that we as ratepayers do not pay for Dominion’s lobbying activities,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. “These nonessential costs should never be subsidized by ratepayers, and refunding this money ensures ratepayers get back every cent that is rightfully theirs.”

Under the proposed legislation, the State Corporation Commission would conduct annual proceedings to determine whether each electric public utility used revenue collected from its customers to pay for nonessential expenditures and would determine the amount and type of expenditure found to be improper.

If any nonessential expenditures are found, the commission would have the authority to order the company to refund an equal amount to its customers.

Additionally, if a utility company is found to have used ratepayer money to pay for any advertisements, the company would be required to refund customers 10 times the cost of the advertisement. Exceptions would be made for advertisements that promote conservation or more efficient use of energy.

Dominion Energy has denied charging their customers for any nonessential expenses and maintains that the average bill for its customers is more than 20 percent below the national average.

“Our customers never pay for our lobbying, political contributions or most of our advertising,” Dominion Energy spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said. “They are getting a great value on their power bills and have been for years.”

The REFUND Act is one of several bills targeting Dominion on environmental and regulatory issues this year:

  • A bill introduced by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, seeks to limit Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
  • Bills sponsored by Carroll Foy and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian, would require the closure and cleanup of Dominion’s coal ash landfills in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Legislators Introduce Journalist Protections

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Two delegates, both former journalists, introduced legislation Monday to protect student journalists from censorship and shield reporters from having to disclose confidential sources.

Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Danica Roem, D-Prince William, urged the General Assembly to pass such legislation.

“Journalism matters. Facts matter,” Roem said. “We have to get this right.”

Sponsored by Roem, House Bill 2250 — introduced for the second year in a row — would protect members of the press from being forced by courts to reveal the identity of anonymous sources.

“The whole point of the shield law is to protect reporters from being jailed for protecting confidential sources,” said Roem, a former reporter with The Prince William Times.

In 1990, Roem’s former editor Brian Karem served jail time  for withholding the names of anonymous sources while reporting in Texas.

“He did it to protect his sources’ confidentiality,” Roem said, “and to keep his word.”

Virginia is one of 10 states that does not implement shield protections for members of the press; Roem also pointed out that a federal shield law does not exist. HB 2250 includes a clause requiring sources to be revealed when there is an “imminent threat of bodily harm,” Roem said.

In addition to shield laws, Hurst said it’s urgent the legislature also pass HB 2382, which he is sponsoring. The bill would safeguard the work of student journalists from administrative censorship.

If the bill passes, Virginia would join 14 other states in providing protections for high school or college students. Half of the states with current protections for student journalists passed legislation in the last four years.

“Thorough and vetted articles and news stories in student media shouldn’t be subject to unnecessary censorship by administrators,” Hurst said.

Hurst has advocated for measures close to his heart since election to office in 2017. A former anchor and reporter for WDBJ 7 news in Roanoke, Hurst was dating Alison Parker, a fellow WDBJ reporter who was fatally shot on live TV in 2015, along with photojournalist Adam Ward.

The bill would create the freedom for student journalists to publish what they please without fear of administrative retaliation.The institution would be allowed to interfere only if  content violates federal or state law, invades privacy unjustifiably, creates clear danger or includes defamatory speech.

While the current legislation focuses on implementing protections for student reporters in public schools and universities, Hurst said he wants the protections to eventually encompass private institutions. He said the legislation was “something that would, as fast as possible, put protections in place for student journalists at our public schools, our public colleges and universities.”

These pieces of legislation come at a time when professional journalists are increasingly targets of violence. A 2018 report by Reporters Without Borders — a nongovernmental organization that promotes journalistic free speech worldwide — found nearly 350 journalists were detained, 80 killed and 60 held hostage by November. More than 250 reporters globally were jailed in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Bill Would Exempt Mentally Ill from Death Penalty

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate committee has agreed to advance a bill that would protect individuals with a severe mental illness from the receiving the death penalty.

On a 8-6 vote Monday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved SB 1137, which states that “a defendant in a capital case who had a severe mental illness as defined in the bill, at the time of the offense is not eligible for the death penalty.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington, is being considered by the full Senate this week.

The bill would establish procedures for determining mental illness (such as expert evaluators), would require judges and juries to take illness into account in sentencing procedures and would mandate that it is the responsibility of the defendant to prove his severe mental illness by a “preponderance of evidence.”

Under current Virginia law, the jury can take mental illness into consideration when deciding to apply the death penalty.  This bill aims to remove the option of the death penalty for those with a proven severe mental illness.

“This is really a sentencing bill,” Favola. “It doesn’t say that the person would have to be ruled not guilty.”

Thirty states have the death penalty. According the  Death Penalty information Center, Virginia carried out the second highest number of executions, 113, since 1976, coming in second to Texas, which carried out 558 executions.

In 2017, Virginia executed two inmates and has three prisoners on death row.

“The U.S Supreme Court over time has issued decisions that really talk about culpability and the fact that the death penalty should only be applied when an individual has full understanding of his actions and consequences,” Favola said.

In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the court maintained that the legal execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that applying the death penalty to defendants 18 years of age or younger was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the U.S Constitution.

However, there is no federal law or ruling that extends that protection to individuals who have been deemed to have a severe mental illness, despite pressure from medical associations and human rights groups.

Mental illness “is a whole category that has never really been dealt with by the courts and needs to be dealt with by this legislation,” Sen. John Edwards, D–Roanoke, told the Courts of Justice Committee. “I think this is an important bill.”

Organizations supporting the legislation included the Virginia Catholic Conference, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Mental Health America of Virginia and the Disability Law Center of Virginia.  

Speaking in opposition to the bill was John Mahoney of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys. Mahoney said the measure is equivalent to “attacking the death penalty from the sides” and would “take things out of the hands of the jury.”

“We see this as making cases unendable,” Mahoney said. “The whole focus, then, is going to be mental health and what is a mental illness.”

Democrats’ Priorities: LGBT Rights, Environment, $15 Minimum Wage

House Democratic Leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn gives her opening statement at the House Democratic Caucus press meeting Tuesday. She spoke about past party victories and new challenges in the 2019 session. (Photo Benjamin West)

 

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — LGBT rights legislation, environmental protection and a push for a $15 minimum wage are among the goals House Democrats have for the 2019 legislative session.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus held a press conference Tuesday to outline their priorities for the session, which runs until Feb. 23.

House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, a delegate from Fairfax, celebrated the party’s recent victories at the polls, including the election of 15 new Democratic delegates in 2017 and two consecutive Democratic governors. Filler-Corn said she hoped her colleagues would keep pushing forward.

“There is so much more that we can do, and that’s why we are here today,” she said. “If we are to successfully pass this legislation, we’ll continue to move Virginia forward.”

The list of policy priorities is not “comprehensive or exhaustive,” Filler-Corn said, noting, for example, that it did not include gun safety legislation.

But she said the goals would help workers, children, teachers, the middle class and other groups. Filler-Corn said she hoped her Republican colleagues would join her “to successfully pass some of these bills.”

Speakers at the news conference included:

·         Democratic Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, a delegate from Alexandria, who said the party would push for no-excuse absentee voting and other changes in voting laws. “No right is more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote, yet that right is under attack across the country,” Herring said.

·         Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy of Woodbridge, who discussed legislation to protect the LGBT community from discrimination. “Virginia has been on the wrong side of history too many times,” Foy said. “We have fought against interracial marriage, women's right to vote, women being able to receive a higher education. We fought against desegregation. And now it’s time for us to be on the right side of history.”

·         Del. Jeion Ward of Hampton, who touted bills to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour and to help firefighters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “We cannot strengthen our economy without strengthening our neighbors,” Ward said.

·         Del. Wendy Gooditis of Clarke County, who called for environmental legislation that she said would benefit both urban and rural Virginians. “Constituents on both ends of my district need clean drinking water,” she said. “We all need fresh air. We all want a healthy future for our children.”

Gooditis said Democrats want laws to make sure the state’s electric utilities are investing in clean energy and to ensure that all residual coal ash from power plants is recycled.

“Farmers need green space and thriving waterways,” Gooditis said. “Parents want clean air and water so their children can flourish. Communities want prosperous local economies. The people of Virginia want us to move energetically toward a new, greener way of life.”

In her closing words at the news conference, Del. Vivian Watts of Fairfax said the House Democratic Caucus would work for the “the dignity of the individual.”

“We are determined to make this House the house for all Virginians,” she said.

Lawmakers Call for Improvements in Foster Care


Delegate Emily Brewer (R) and Senator Monty Mason (D) chaired the first-ever Foster Care caucus. Photo by Madison Manske.

By Kathleen Shaw and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The first-ever bipartisan foster care caucus convened Tuesday to provide legislators the opportunity to learn about the various demanding issues in child welfare.

Nine bills and two budget amendments before this year’s General Assembly session seek to improve Virginia’s foster care services. The co-chairs of the caucus — Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and Sen. Montgomery ‘Monty’ Mason, D-Williamsburg — said the group is committed to putting the commonwealth’s children first.

“It’s going to be a long-term solution through legislation, through advocacy and working through partnership groups to make sure that we’re making every single Virginia foster care youth have the most normalized experience, achieving normalcy as part of our goal,” Brewer said.

The urgent focus on Virginia’s foster care system comes after a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s research arm, ranked the state’s social service policies as among the worst nationally. Virginia spends $500 million annually on the 5,300 children in foster care. The budget amendments call for another $3 million, which sponsors believe would reduce the number of youths in the Virginia Department of Social Services system by encouraging families to take over guardianship after children are removed from their primary home.

In terms of legislation, Brewer is sponsoring measures such as HB 2208, which would make it easier for relatives to adopt children. AndMason has introduced SB 1678 and SB 1679, which would align the Code of Virginia with the federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018.

Some legislators have personal ties to the issue: Brewer and Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick, were adopted; and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince Williams, is a foster parent. Carroll Foy has filed HB 2162, which would ensure that families are notified when a child enters the Virginia Department of Social Services system.

“Virginia has one of the lowest kinship placements of only 6 percent while nationally it’s 30 percent,” Carroll Foy said. “And we all know that when a child is placed with family, that lessens the amount of trauma and instability that that child has to encounter.”

When children are removed from their first familial residence, their options include foster care or going to a relative in a practice called kinship divergence. HB 2162 is a move toward increasing familial guardianship. Kinship divergence in Virginia is at a low because the families do not receive any financial assistance, while foster families receive a maintenance payment of $700 a month.

The Family First Prevention Services Act was adopted last year as part of the federal Bipartisan Budget Act. The law’s goals are keeping children safe, strengthening families and reducing the urgency for foster care when needed. Virginia would be the first state to implement the act.

Voices for Virginia’s Children is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group concerned about the foster care system. The group conducted a kinship care tour across Virginia last year to hear what kind of issues foster care families encounter.

“We learned that the majority of children who are going to live with a relative are doing so because of substance abuse,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst for the organization. “I know that we see the statistics, but it was one thing to see almost every single family that raised their hand said that their child was using opioids.”

Youth in foster care face various obstacles, including financial assistance, mental health services and legal restrictions such as access to an attorney. It can be difficult, for example, for young adults in foster care to get a driver’s license — a problem Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, hopes to address with her bill, SB 1139.

“We want our children when they age out of foster care to be able to have a normal experience and to have opportunities for jobs and education, and part of that is really gaining a driver’s license,” Favola said.

Lake Gaston Booker’s Club Donates Books To Jackson-Feild

For eighteen of their thirty years in existence, members of the Lake Gaston Bookers Club have been donating books to Jackson-Feild.  Last month, just in time for the holidays, the members donated a number of books to the Gwaltney School at Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services (JFBHS).

At the request of the Bookers Club, faculty and staff at JFBHS provided a list of titles that appeal to the residents.  Several members of the Bookers Club visited the JFBHS campus and presented the books to school staff. The books are housed in the school library, and are available to students through a typical library check-out system.

Over the years, the Bookers Club has hosted other events and activites depending upon the needs and interests of the children. The Gwaltney School students enjoy reading, and are most grateful to the club members for their kindness in donating books that satisfy their reading appetites.

Virginia Lawmakers Eye Paid Family Leave

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that would provide Virginia workers up to three months of paid family and medical leave every year.

The bills would create a paid leave program, effective Jan. 1, 2022, for workers who are new parents, family of active duty military personnel, have serious medical conditions, or care for family members with serious medical conditions.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, sponsor of House Bill 2120, made her case for paid family and medical leave in Virginia at a press conference Monday.

“Spending time with a dying relative, giving birth to a child, caring for a sick parent, these should not be privileges reserved just for wealthy Virginians,” Carroll Foy said. “Hard-working, middle-class Virginians deserve to spend time with their families like everyone else does.”

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate, spoke about the economic benefits of paid leave for businesses.

“Paid leave programs have been shown to benefit businesses, making it more likely that employees will return to work, ready to work, rather than struggling financially,” Boysko said.

Under the paid leave program workers would be eligible to receive up to 70 percent of their average weekly wage, without exceeding $850 per week. Self-employed workers would also be provided the option of participating in the program.

The maximum combined amount of paid leave per year for qualifying workers would be 12 weeks.

In order to qualify for paid leave benefits, an employee would need to meet the administrative requirements in the bill, the requirements laid out in the state’s benefit eligibility conditions, and submit an application to the Virginia Employment Commission.

Funding for the proposed program would be provided by a family and medical leave insurance fund established by the Commission and financed through payroll taxes.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is sponsoring a related bill that would provide a parental leave tax credit to small businesses that would begin in 2021. SB 1376 aims to create an income tax credit for a portion of the salary or wages paid by small businesses to full-time employees while on leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

The bill requires small businesses to provide full-time employees with at least eight weeks of paid parental leave.

In June, Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order offering eight weeks of leave at full pay to state employees for the birth or adoption of a child.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 2234 last week to increase the amount of paid parental leave for state employees to 12 weeks.

During the press conference, advocates for paid family leave spoke about the importance of the proposed legislation for working families in Virginia. Carroll Foy shared a personal account of the hardship she experienced in the absence of paid leave.

“I’m standing here as a middle-class, working mother, and I implore all Virginians to support this,” Carroll Foy said. “It’s not only an economic issue. It is a human rights issue.”

Minimum Wage Boost, Backed by Women’s Groups, Passes Committee

Organizations at rally included Progress Virginia and the Campaign for a Family-Friendly Economy. Below left: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spoke in favor of paid family and medical leave. Photo by Georgia Geen.

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — After dozens of women rallied at the Capitol on Monday, a legislative committee passed one of their key priorities — a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Virginia.

SB 1200 would take effect July 1, initially raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, then to $13 an hour in 2020 and $15 an hour in 2021. The bill, which passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on a 6-4 vote, will advance to the full Senate for a vote.

Currently, the minimum wage in Virginia is the federal minimum — $7.25 an hour. Raising the minimum wage was one of a number of legislative items — including access to reproductive health and paid family and medical leave — supported by the women’s advocacy groups at the rally.

Tara Gibson, Virginia director of the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, said at the rally that raising the minimum wage would benefit women and their families.

“How many of you work multiple jobs just to provide for your families, or worry whether you can afford to put food on the table or make next month’s rent?” Gibson asked. “We’re all better off when everyone has the tools to build a good life.”

In most states, including Virginia, women make up more than half of minimum wage workers. Nationally, women consist of 47 percent of the workforce as of 2017. Across all races, women make up a larger portion of minimum wage workers than men.

To Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia — one of the groups present at the rally — supporting an increase in the minimum wage contributes to a “holistic” approach to gender equality.

“We know all of those things are important for women and families to thrive,” Scholl said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spoke briefly at the rally in favor of paid medical and family leave. SB 1639 would allow state employees 12 weeks of family and medical leave per year. The benefit amounts to 70 percent of the employee’s wage, capped at $850 per week. Last year, a bill passed in Virginia granting state employees two months of parental leave.

“We want to make sure all Virginians have access to parental leave,” Northam said. “There is nothing more important than for a mother and father to be able to stay home with their new baby, or if there is an adoption or a foster child involved.”

Advocates also supported two bills that would prevent insurance companies from discriminating based on gender identity or transgender status. SB 1287 and HB 1864 are awaiting a vote at the legislative committee level.

Rebecca Barwick, a transgender woman who attended the rally, said the bills would help her get both prostate care and breast care. Currently, she said, her gender is listed as male on her insurance because if it were changed, she might be denied prostate care if she needed it in the future.

“However, having this marker set to male puts me at risk of being denied breast health if I ever need that,” Barwick said.

Barwick also discussed the difficulties she experienced when undergoing hormone treatments in 2015. There weren’t any nearby health centers offering hormone therapy that accepted her insurance, requiring her to make a three-hour trip to Washington, D.C. every three months. Then, the Planned Parenthood location in her city began offering hormone treatments.

“This changed my travel for health care from three hours to 10 minutes,” Barwick said.

Rally Urges Legislators to Reinstate Parole in Virginia

 The Virginia Prison Justice Network advocated on Saturday in favor of legislation that would instate criminal justice reform.

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Dozens turned out for a rally hosted Saturday at the Capitol in support of bills introduced to the General Assembly that would reinstate parole for some incarcerated Virginians.

Virginia ended discretionary parole in 1995, but those sentenced before the law went into effect are still eligible. HJ 644, introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, would direct a study into the reinstatement of discretionary parole, which releases an offender before he/she completes his/her sentence.

The study is a start, said Lillie Branch-Kennedy, founder of Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged and Disenfranchised, a statewide support group for prisoners and their families. But she says she doesn’t want to see it stop there.

“We don’t want it to go to a study and just die away, go away, fade away,” Branch-Kennedy said.

A portion of the rally addressed the “Fishback” cases, incarcerated Virginians who were sentenced after the abolishment of parole but before a Supreme Court ruling that jurors had to be made aware that their sentences would be carried out fully.

“The jurors were not told that parole was abolished [prior to the ruling], thereby giving them sentences thinking they would be eligible for parole,” Branch-Kennedy said.

SB 1437, introduced by Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, would make those prisoners eligible for parole. Branch-Kennedy said this would apply to about 300 incarcerated people in Virginia.

Other bills supported by the Virginia Prison Justice Network — which organized the rally — address data collection on solitary confinement and the reinstatement of felon voting rights. On Wednesday, a Senate committee killed two measures to amend the Virginia Constitution to give people convicted of a felony the right to vote, but a similar bill remains. SJ 283 would reinstate voting rights for felons that made restitution and completed their sentences.

“The biggest part [of getting legislation passed] is going to be trying to get people to show up for the committee meetings,” said Joseph Rogers, an organizer for the Virginia Prison Justice Network.

Rogers noted the rally’s increased attendance from a similar event last year, despite Saturday’s forecast of a late-afternoon winter storm.

“I am hoping that we do get the opportunity to have people testifying at the General Assembly committee meetings,” Rogers said. “Just as we saw how powerful these statements from prisoners impacted the crowd here, we can only imagine how much that can actually impact the legislators.”

Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, is sponsoring HB 1745, which would make people in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles eligible for parole after having served 25 years of their sentences.

James Braxton, who spoke at the rally, is a director for juvenile justice reform group RISE for Youth.

“But today, I’m speaking with you as someone who was formerly incarcerated,” Braxton said.

Braxton, whose charges included attempted robbery, was one of several formerly incarcerated people to speak at the rally, and representatives read statements from prisoners serving sentences in facilities throughout the state.

Braxton recalled his experience in prison. He said that upon entering, he was given a bucket with two small bars of soap, a toothbrush and a little bit of toothpaste meant to last months. He said when he left prison, he was given few resources — similar to his situation prior to being incarcerated, when he “barely” graduated high school and found himself without a support system.

“I had to start from scratch [upon release], sleeping on my grandmother’s floor,” Braxton said. “It wasn’t until an opportunity was offered to me that changed my life. But it had nothing to do with the system, and the system had the opportunity to do that. That has to change.”

Lawmakers Tout Plan for Casinos in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth

State Legislators from Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville, during a Monday morning press conference, introduced a plan to build casinos in the hopes of creating new jobs and improving past economic problems.

By Kathleen Shaw, Arianna Coghill and Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Members of the General Assembly from Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville urged their colleagues Monday to approve legislation to allow casino gambling in those cities. They said the plan would create jobs and boost the economy.

Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Bristol, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, joined delegates from each locality at a news conference to push for a state law authorizing casinos. They said that in seven years, such gambling operations could generate a total of nearly $100 million in local revenue and create about 16,000 jobs.

Under the legislation, a referendum would be held in each of the cities, and voters would have to agree whether to allow casinos to be built.

“This is an opportunity for not only us but for southwest and Danville to join forces and give the citizens a choice,” said Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth. “A choice to bring a revenue streak, to help pay for schools, give teachers raises and do the things we need to do.”

Republicans and Democrats from Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville have partnered on the legislative initiative, saying their cities face similar financial problems.

“We’re struggling, and our economies are struggling,” Carrico said. “And for me, I want to see Bristol do well. But I also see that Sen. Lucas and Del. Marshall are struggling as well.”

The median annual household income is about $49,000 in Portsmouth, $38,000 in Bristol and $35,000 in Danville — far below the statewide median of $69,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In contrast, the average household income in Fairfax County is more than $117,000.

“The city of Danville had two Fortune 500 companies that at one point had 60,000 jobs. We’ve had to close four schools in the area due to the lack of population,” Marshall said. “But Danville is working hard to rebuild, and we are having some successes.”

Four bills to authorize casino gambling have been introduced for this legislative session. They are SB 1126, sponsored by Lucas; SB 1503, proposed by Carrico; HB 1890, filed by James; and HB 2536, carried by Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, who represents Bristol and surrounding counties.

While casino gambling bills have failed in the past, Lucas and Carrico said requiring community input through a referendum gives this year’s legislation the advantage needed to pass the General Assembly.

In a Q&A session, officials were asked about potential issues that could come from introducing casino gambling, such as crime and addiction. They said authorities would use tax revenues from casinos to address public needs like school facilities, law enforcement and social services.

“We’re going to appoint so much money to addiction abuse and public safety and keep it a safe, industrial way to produce revenue,” Carrico said. “This is a tightly regulated industry.”

At the news conference, legislators also were asked about religious objections some citizens have to casinos. The lawmakers said their proposals would impose regulations on the industry to safeguard the community.

Carrico, a religious man himself, met with pastors and said they were open to the suggestion of casinos. The religious leaders appreciated the ability to vocalize their concerns in the public referendum, the senator said.

Two Bristol businessmen plan to fund construction of the casino in the city.

Jim McGlothlin, CEO of the United Company, and Clyde Stacy, owner of Par Ventures, are long-time partners and coal barons. At the news conference, McGlothlin said the project will not need government funding. McGlothlin said the region’s economic problems are significant and need a ‘big, bold’ project to compete with neighboring states.

As a result, the legislation needs only to pass the General Assembly and garner majority support in a local referendum for the dice to start rolling.

Lucas said casinos are the most efficient way to pull Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol out of an economic rut.

“We just want to create economic development in these three parts of the state,” Lucas said. “It’s plain and simple.”

General Assembly to Consider Legalizing Sports Betting

By Andrew Gionfriddo and Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia would become the ninth state to legalize sports betting under legislation being considered by the General Assembly this session.

Lawmakers have introduced three bills to legalize sports betting, license betting operations and tax their revenues. Under the proposals, people would be able to bet only on professional sports; betting on college and youth sports would be prohibited.

Many legislators seem to agree that legalized sports betting is inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a federal law prohibiting such gambling in most states.

“Sports gaming is going to be legal across the United States. There is no reason to keep it illegal, when our neighboring states are already moving to legalize,” stated Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, sponsor of SB 1238.

Petersen’s measure would create the Virginia Sports Betting Department to regulate betting operations, which would be located only in localities that agree to allow gambling.

Under SB 1238, operators would pay an application fee of $5,000 and a tax of 10 percent of adjusted gross revenues. The department would keep 2.5 percent of the tax revenue to defray its administrative costs and help problem gamblers. The remaining money would be split between the locality where it was generated and a fund to help community college students.

Two Democratic delegates from Fairfax County also have filed bills to legalize sports betting.

Under HB 1638, sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, the Virginia Lottery would regulate sports betting. Betting operators would pay a $250,000 application fee and a 15 percent tax on adjusted gross revenues. The lottery would retain 2.5 percent of the revenues to cover administrative costs and assist problem gamblers. The rest of the money would go toward a new initiative called the Virginia Research Investment Fund.

Besides sports betting, Sickles’ bill also would authorize the Virginia Lottery to sell tickets over the internet — a practice now prohibited.

The third bill allowing sports betting is HB 2210, by Del. Marcus Simon. It would direct the Virginia Lottery to regulate electronic sports betting (and, like Sickles’ legislation, to sell lottery tickets over the internet). Simon’s bill would impose a 10 percent tax on the gross adjusted revenue of operations that receive a permit to conduct sports betting. The lottery would keep 3 percent of the tax receipts; the rest would go into a fund to help problem gamblers.

HB 2210 would provide protections for people who may be susceptible to compulsive gambling. For example, people could voluntarily add themselves to a list of individuals who are excluded from engaging in electronic sports betting or buying lottery tickets.

Simon’s bill includes a section on “Sports Bettors Rights” and details procedures to ensure that people who win their bets receive their money, to intervene in instances of problem or at-risk bettors, to protect bettors’ privacy and to provide “transparency of sports betting,” such as the odds of winning a bet.

“I am introducing a Sports Bettors Bill of Rights to make sure that consumers and participants are part of that conversation from the very beginning,” Simon stated.

His “bill of rights” includes provisions to prohibit underage betting and prevent marketing sports betting to minors. Under all of the legislative proposals, sports betting would be limited to Virginians 21 and older — unlike the legal age to purchase lottery tickets, which is 18.

Simon’s bill has been applauded by an organization of sports fans.

“This bill is the most consumer-friendly sports betting bill the Sports Fans Coalition has seen at any level of government,” stated Brian Hess, the group’s executive director. “It is the only piece of legislation that hits all five of our Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights.”

The coalition’s five principles are “integrity and transparency; data privacy and security; self-exclusion; protection of the vulnerable; and recourse.”

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to legalized sports betting in May when it overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. That federal law prohibited sports betting except in states like Nevada that had previously permitted such gambling.

Besides Nevada, sports betting is legal in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Mississippi.

Live-Streaming Fosters Transparency in the General Assembly

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As legislators gather in Richmond for the 2019 General Assembly session, citizens in the far corners of the commonwealth might feel distanced from their elected representatives. But any computer or cellphone user with internet access can watch live and recorded video of state lawmakers in action.

The House and Senate each live-stream their committee meetings and floor sessions. And the advocacy group Progress Virginia broadcasts subcommittee meetings over the internet.

ProgressVA launched its Eyes on Richmond project in 2017 before the legislative session. Initially, the program live-streamed both committee and subcommittee meetings — because at the time, the House and Senate provided video only of their floor sessions. Since then, state officials have started live-streaming the committees; so ProgressVA now focuses on subcommittees.

The importance of public access to subcommittee meetings cannot be overstated, as many important pieces of legislation are often killed at that level. Anna Scholl, executive director at ProgressVA, said the results of subcommittee votes would often remain unknown to the public.

“When we started Eyes on Richmond,” Scholl said, “it was standard for bills to pass or fail on unrecorded voice votes, and it was often impossible to know how a particular legislator voted on important bills unless you were in the room when it happened.”

That is why ProgressVA has put “legislative fellows” – college interns – in the room, equipped with a cellphone and tripod to provide live online video of government meetings.

Program Director Ashleigh Crocker said live-streaming the subcommittee-level meetings allows citizens to engage with their representatives as they decide the fate of legislation.

“We thought it was really important that citizens from across the Commonwealth be able to know how legislators were voting when they were coming to Richmond to represent them,” Crocker said.

In its first year, the Eyes on Richmond program won the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Laurence E. Richardson’s Citizen Award. The coalition, along with ProgressVA, is a part of Transparency Virginia, a collection of advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations assembled to promote transparency in the General Assembly on every level.

Both the House and Senate began recording and archiving committee meetings during the 2018 session in response to a bipartisan effort from the Virginia Transparency Caucus, co-founded by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Likewise, the House of Delegates began recording subcommittee votes in 2018 following a push from the Transparency Caucus.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the General Assembly has done a commendable job retrofitting meeting rooms to allow for the recording and streaming of committee meetings. But the work of ProgressVA to give citizens insight into subcommittee meetings has been vital to the cause of transparency in the state government, Rhyne added.

“General Assembly transparency is important because it is the work of the people,” Rhyne said. “They are making decisions that affect us as individuals and as workers and as members of various organizations and groups.”

How to watch the General Assembly online

House floor sessions:

https://virginiageneralassembly.gov/house/chamber/chamberstream.php

House committee meetings:

https://publications.virginiageneralassembly.gov/display_publication/209

Senate committee meetings and floor sessions:

https://virginia-senate.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=3

Subcommittee meetings covered by ProgressVA:

https://eyesonrichmond.org/

 

Dual Enrollment Opens Diverse Doors

By Dr. Al Roberts

At the end of the last school year, in addition to their high school diplomas, 741 graduating seniors received credentials from Southside Virginia Community College. Awards included 287 Associate Degrees, 300 Career Study Certificates, and 154 other Certificates documenting the completion of job readiness training. These achievements were made possible through collaborative dual enrollment partnerships with 14 public and private high schools across SVCC’s service region.

Dual enrollment programs offer students an opportunity to get an early start on postsecondary education pursuits. For students in transfer associate degree programs or enrolled in courses designed to satisfy general education requirements at senior institutions, dual enrollment credits can shorten the time required to complete a bachelor’s degree, resulting in tuition cost savings. For students with plans to enter the workforce in technical areas, dual enrollment offers a chance to receive training necessary to pursue more advanced opportunities, enter apprenticeships, and embark on career pathways with family-sustaining earnings.

Standards adopted by the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges safeguard the quality and rigor of college courses offered to high school students. These rules ensure that high school students meet the same academic challenges faced by on-campus college students and that the students be held accountable to the same criteria of achievement. In addition, instructors who teach college-level courses to high school students must hold the same qualifications as instructors who teach older college students.

Brent Richey, Chair of the Mecklenburg County School Board, says “The dual enrollment partnership between Mecklenburg County Schools and Southside Virginia Community College offers our students a wide range of higher education opportunities. Some students will complete a degree, certificate, or industry-recognized certificate that they can use to move immediately into the workforce, while others take their credits with them as they matriculate at a university. It also provides the rigor needed to give Mecklenburg County a talented and well-qualified workforce, which helps us attract new industries to our area.”

Shanley Childress Dorin, a dual enrollment (DE) instructor at Kenston Forest School, says her work with college-bound students equips them for success. “As an instructor I try to prepare my students for college life. Students leave a DE class with college credits and a glimpse into meeting college deadlines, learning various teaching styles, and mastering time management.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia first opened the door to dual enrollment opportunities in 1988. Since that time, course offerings have expanded to provide young adults with multiple pathways to achieve wide-ranging academic goals. SVCC’s most recent Annual Report highlights the diverse successes made possible through collaborative partnerships between the college and regional high schools. For more information about dual enrollment or to view the Annual Report, visit the college’s website at http://southside.edu/parallel-pathways-svcc-annual-report

Dr. Al Roberts is president of Southside Virginia Community College, an institution of higher learning that provides a wide variety of education opportunities to a diverse student population within a service area that spans ten counties and the city of Emporia. He can be reached via email at al.roberts@southside.edu.

Herring Chastises Panel for Rejecting Hate Crime Bill

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring expressed disappointment Monday after a legislative committee rejected a bill to expand Virginia’s definition of hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.

“The General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them,” Herring stated after the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated the bill with a vote 8-6 along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it.

“The update to Virginia’s hate crimes definition is long overdue and would have offered needed protections for women, the LGBT community and Virginians with disabilities. I am disappointed to see this commonsense bill die in a party line vote. At a time when communities in Virginia and around the country are confronting a rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric, the General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them" - Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia

Currently, the Code of Virginia refers only to individuals or groups targeted on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background or national origin as being victims of hate crime.

SB 1375, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, sought to expand that definition to include other marginalized groups. Herring called it a “common sense” bill and said he was disheartened that it was defeated on a party-line vote.

The bill would have brought Virginia closer to the federal definition of a hate crime, which includes “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

Virginia State Police said bias-motivated crimes in the commonwealth rose from 137 in 2016 to 202 the following year.

The statistics for 2017, the most recent year available, include 89 incidents related to race, 44 to religion, 20 to ethnicity, 38 to sexual orientation and 11 to disability.

Virginia’s statistics reflect a larger national trend that shows a rise of hate crimes in the U.S. According to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, 7,175 hate crimes were reported nationwide in 2017. That is an increase of more than 1,000 reports from 2016.

Despite the defeat of the hate crimes bill, Herring remains optimistic about legislation that aims to impede activity by white supremacist militias and similar militant groups.

SB 1210, sponsored by Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, was approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee by a 7-6 vote and referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure, which died in committee last year, was first introduced following the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. During that event, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd protesting the rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other counter-demonstrators.

SB 1210 “provides that a person is guilty of unlawful paramilitary activity if such person assembles with another person with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device or any components or combination thereof,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

Such unlawful paramilitary activity would be punishable as a Class 5 felony, under the bill.

“Referring it to the Senate Finance Committee is a step in the right direction,” Herring stated. “It is time for the General Assembly to take action to protect Virginians and make sure that we prevent the kind of paramilitary activity that we saw in Charlottesville from ever happening again.”

Advocates Seek More Access to Medical Marijuana

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As other states have relaxed their laws against marijuana, citizens across Virginia gathered here Saturday to discuss how to persuade the General Assembly to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the commonwealth.

About 150 people, including health care providers and attorneys, attended the Virginia 2019 Cannabis Conference, held by the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Virginia NORML advocates decriminalizing possession of marijuana and regulating medical and recreational-use production and sales of the substance.

Members of NORML are hopeful after Gov. Ralph Northam voiced support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana during his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, the first day of the General Assembly’s 2019 session.

“We want to keep people safe. But we shouldn’t use valuable law enforcement time, or costly prison space, on laws that don’t enhance public safety,” the governor said in his speech. “Current law imposes a maximum 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.”

So far, lawmakers have proposed six bills to decriminalize simple marijuana possession. For example, HB 2371, sponsored by Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, and HB 2373, by Del. Lee Carter, D-Prince William, would legalize marijuana for Virginians 21 and older and have the state operate retail marijuana stores. Under such proposals, Virginians under 21 who are caught with marijuana would have to pay a civil penalty.

Most attendees at the conference, held at the Delta by Marriott hotel, seemed particularly interested in medical marijuana and how to access it without traveling to another state.

Lorene Davidson of Richmond works in anesthesia as a nurse practitioner. She came to the conference because of her ongoing struggle with antidepressants, which she found were bad for her liver.

“I’m looking mostly for a way to find out more about getting a medical card and furthering getting that taken care of,” Davidson said.

As a speaker at the event, Melanie Seifert Davis of Richmond shared the story of her 10-year-old daughter Madison, who was diagnosed with ependymoma brain cancer in 2014.

“Although I’m not new to the world of cannabis, I’m brand new to the world of cannabis reform,” Davis said.

Madison is on four different cannabis-based products including CBD, THC, THCA and FECO (full extract cannabis oil) to help with seizures and the cancer itself, Davis said.

“Today and for every tomorrow I’m given, I will fill seven capsules with high doses of four different cannabis medications and watch as Madison swallows each one,” Davis said. “Science, research and experience in my heart all know that it can and will and has helped her.”

At the conference, Davis said the family recently received good news about Madison’s cancer: Four of the five tumors were gone.

“Cannabis is an important and essential part of why she is still here and still her, five years into this battle for her life,” Davis shared. “Cannabis is why she has never, not even once, suffered from the nausea, vomiting or seizures that are expected side effects of her chemo.”

Not only does Davis’ daughter suffer from cancer, but her son, Aiden, has Crohn’s disease. Aiden also uses cannabis to ease the pain of everyday life, Davis said.

“I fight because when I told my son about today, the first thing he said with legitimate fear in his voice was, ‘Mom, you can’t tell them those things. You can’t tell them about Maddie’s medicine. Cannabis is illegal. I need you; you can’t go to jail,’” Davis said.

Madison has been on cannabis products since June 2017. Davis said she gets Madison and Aiden’s cannabis from a licensed doctor in California.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for Virginia NORML, said progress had been made in getting the state to expand access to medical cannabis.

According to the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, patients and their legal guardians can register to obtain such products if they have a certification issued by a physician.

“In 2016, we passed a bill that let us go forth and write a regulatory program that was based on Connecticut’s then-program, which was also low-THC, extraction-based products only and served to a small set of patients,” Pedini said.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a law allowing practitioners to issue certifications for the use of cannabis-based products to alleviate symptoms “of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.”

The Board of Pharmacy has given approval to pharmaceutical companies to open five dispensaries across the state where CBD and THC-A oils will be sold to authorized patients.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, has filed a bill (HB 2245) to double the number of medical cannabis dispensaries.

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