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Farms Feed Food Banks to Fight Hunger

In the above infographic provided with this Capital News Service Article, please notice that EMPORIA IS THE SECOND MOST FOOD INSECURE LOCALITY IN THE COMMONWEALTH. 24.4% of our neighbors do not have reliable access to nutritious foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

By Kathleen Shaw and Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Lettuce, turnips and beets — oh my! Vegetables and flowers sprout side by side in a bountiful garden in Northside Richmond. But the harvest is not going to a grocery store or market stand. Instead, all of the crops will be donated to local food banks so low-income communities have access to fresh foods.

The Kroger Community Kitchen Garden, situated within Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, is a major contributor to Feed More, the parent organization for food banks and other agencies fighting hunger in 34 counties and cities in Central Virginia.

In the past, food banks relied on nonperishable donations from supermarkets and other businesses. Today, many of the contributions are not rejects from retail but fresh picked from local farms.

Farm-to-food-bank programs bring healthier options to people facing “food insecurity” — living without means or access to nutritious food. Such programs also offer producers an alternative market for the fruit and vegetables they have grown.

A national organization called Feeding America partners with food banks across the state, including Feed More in Richmond and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank in Charlottesville, to create a network of hunger relief. Annie Andrews, director of operations at Feed More, said the movement has redefined the support food banks can provide for struggling communities.

“Ten, 15 years ago, food banks were reliant on shelf stable product; you looked at it as a pantry. We’ve absolutely converted to fresh and perishable food,” Andrews said.

The need for food is not solved by a corner store that sells chips and hot dogs. Farm-to-food-bank programs aim to supply better quality food that doesn’t just fill hungry bellies but also provides nutrition to prevent health problems.

Last year, Feed More received nearly $45 million in donated food — almost 30 million pounds of groceries. While retailers contributed more than 60%, about 12% came directly from growers. Produce accounted for 29% of all donated food.

Greg Knight, food sourcing manager for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, said most people who rely on food banks are not unemployed but rather underemployed. Often, they must choose between which basic needs they can afford, he said.

“We hear from clients that sometimes they have to make decisions between ‘Is it going to be gasoline today, or will it be groceries? Will it be the medication that my son or daughter needs, or will it be groceries or the electric bill?’” Knight said.

“There’s not enough funds to cover the immediate basic needs — so that’s where we step in. At least we can provide a good supplemental box of food that will then be nutritious and alleviate some of the other pressures.”

The state and federal governments have encouraged farmers to help out.

In 2016, Virginia instituted a tax credit as an incentive for farmers to donate crops to regional, nonprofit food banks. In exchange for the donation, farmers receive a 30% tax credit equal to the market value up to $5,000 yearly.

Knight said the tax credit is a great way to support farmers and provide food for those in need.

“What I’m paying for the box is only a portion of what the farmer would get at market. So he can take the difference between the two — market price and what I’m paying — and that difference then becomes a donation for him,” Knight said.

On the national level, Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 to allocate $867 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years to support farmers harmed by fluctuating markets or poor harvests. The food purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from farmers is often resold to food banks like Feed More at a reduced cost.

Community plants seeds for change

The USDA reported that since 2012, about 10% of households in Virginia qualified as “food insecure.” Andrews said the definition of that term is constantly evolving and varies by area.

In a densely populated urban area, she said, it means “there are no grocery stores within a mile.” But in a rural area, food insecurity (or a “food desert”) means “there’s not a grocery store within 10 miles,” Andrews added.

“The gentrification of cities coming into play and people moving into the suburbs — that’s where you’re kind of pushing some of that working poor out,” Andrews said. She said Feed More is seeing a rising need for help in the suburbs — “what you wouldn’t think of as a food insecurity area.”

The Kroger Community Kitchen Garden at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and Shalom Farms in Midlothian are among the biggest farm donors to Feed More.

Laurel Matthew, senior horticulturist at Lewis Ginter, oversees the community garden and decides what to grow in collaboration with Feed More.

“We have six varieties of summer squash. We have four varieties of eggplant. Lettuce, beans, peas, you name it — we’re trying to get it in the ground,” Matthew said.

The Kroger Community Kitchen Garden is an urban gardening program that has harvested and donated over 50,000 pounds of produce to Feed More since it began in 2009.

The community garden is one-third acre funded in part by Kroger Mid-Atlantic under the company’s “Zero Hunger | Zero Waste” initiative. A volunteer base of 700 worked last year with on-staff horticulturalists to practice organic management of the garden and sustain a healthy harvest for the food bank.

Food banks tackle food-related health disparities

Feed More’s agency network involves almost 300 nonprofit organizations such as soup kitchens and emergency shelters. Healthy Harvest Food Bank joined the network in 2010 and last year became Feed More’s first Partner Distribution Organization, which aims to distribute food across 24 of Virginia’s rural agencies. The agency network distributed 19.3 million pounds of food during the past fiscal year.

Healthy Harvest Food Bank serves 12,000 people every month through 25 locations across six counties. In 2012, the food bank conducted a survey and found that 32% of its clients had diabetes.

The food bank partnered with Northern Neck-Middlesex Free Health Clinic and Virginia Cooperative Extension to begin a Healthy Food Pharmacy to teach clients with Type 2 diabetes how to prepare flavorful, nutritious meals to combat health issues. Participants in the eight-week class on average lowered their blood pressure by 17% and low-density lipoproteins cholesterol by 26%. (LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol because of its artery-clogging properties.)

Mark Kleinschmidt, president and CEO of Healthy Harvest Food Bank, said the Northern Neck and Upper Middle Peninsula region suffers from a culture of genetics and a lack of resources to escape the health crisis trap.

“We got a Food Lion and a Walmart, and there’s not that healthy options to eat at whatsoever,” Kleinschmidt said.

He said people want to eat healthy foods but often can’t.

“For one, it’s not available. And two, it’s a cost issue,” Kleinschmidt said. “I think there is always going to be this issue. The Northern Neck will never be big enough to have a Kroger or a Harris Teeter or a Wegman that does have healthier options.”

Legislation to create the Virginia Grocery Investment Program and Fund was introduced to the General Assembly this session. It aimed to provide financial incentives for grocery stores to expand in food deserts.

After passing unanimously in the Senate, the bill died in the House of Delegates. A similar House bill was killed in a House subcommittee early in the session.

Food banks rescue food from waste

According to the USDA, 30-40% of food is wasted in the U.S. annually. Grocery chains such as Lidl have joined the movement against food waste by selling 10-pound crates of “ugly” produce for $2. Food banks are incorporating the “ugly food” movement into their means of sourcing quality food for people living in food insecure areas.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative was created by Feeding America and stretches from New England to Virginia, providing nearly 1.5 million pounds of produce to food banks each month. The cooperative works to minimize food waste by purchasing “ugly,” rejected food at a large produce market. That produce is then sold back to a network of 23 food banks, including Feed More, for a reduced price.

Andrews said the rescued, unsold produce purchased from large companies along the East Coast saves the stores money, reduces food waste and increases food bank access to resources.

“We offer the opportunity for [grocery stores] not to have an increased trash bill and to be able to do something good with the things that they aren’t able to use and sell,” Andrews said.

Governor’s Amendment Would Ban Using a Phone While Driving

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Drivers in Virginia would face penalties for using a phone behind the wheel under legislation that Gov. Ralph Northam has amended and sent to the General Assembly for approval.

“The time has come for the Commonwealth to implement an effective and fair law to combat distracted driving,” Northam said. “Too many families have lost loved ones as a result of a driver paying more attention to their phone than to their surroundings. This bill, as amended, will be a significant step forward in promoting traffic safety across the Commonwealth.”

The governor amended SB 1768, sponsored by Sen. Montgomery “Monty” Mason, D-Williamsburg.

As approved by the House and Senate last month, Mason’s bill would prevent drivers from holding a handheld personal communications device in highway work zones. Violators would face a mandatory $250 fine.

Northam announced Tuesday that he has revised the bill to extend beyond work zones and prohibit distracted driving on all Virginia roads.

The General Assembly will consider the governor’s recommendation when lawmakers reconvene on April 3.

Current Virginia law prohibits drivers from texting or emailing on the road; however, it is legal to hold a cellphone to check social media and make phone calls. Northam said curbing Virginia’s distracted driving death rates is a priority for his administration.

“Virginia’s traffic fatalities have risen every year since 2014,” Mason said. “Distracted driving caused by cellphone use — whether it’s dialing, texting or checking email — is clearly the reason. I’m proud to be a part of a safety measure that will undoubtedly save the lives of many Virginians.”

The fight against distracted driving in Virginia is not a new battle for legislators.

During this past legislative session, two bills — HB 1811, sponsored by Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, and SB 1341, introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George — sought to make it illegal to drive while holding a cellphone.

Both bills died when a conference committee could not agree on legislative language during the session’s final days.

In amending Mason’s legislation, Northam recommended that organizations such as DRIVE SMART Virginia and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police develop resources for law enforcement agencies and the general public about the law against using a phone while driving.

The governor also wants to require annual reports on distracted driving violations and the demographics of motorists cited for such offenses.

April will be Virginia’s 13th year of recognizing Distracted Driving Awareness Month. According to the American Automobile Association, 131 people died in 2018 from distracted driving in Virginia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nine people die daily in the U.S. from roadway accidents involving a distracted driver.

Collins and Stuart both issued statements supporting Northam’s amendment to SB 1768.

“We see too many traffic crashes and tragedies caused by distracted driving,” Collins said. “This is affecting everyone, from road workers to law enforcement officials and first responders trying to keep us safe, to highway workers who are maintaining and improving our roadways. It’s time for us to take action to protect those using our roads in order to save lives in the Commonwealth.”

Stuart added, “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 dangerous recipe on the highway.”

Legislators Delay Decision on Funding I-81 Improvements

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Interstate 81’s heart pumps through rural Virginia with veins that run from Tennessee to the Canadian border — a vital roadway for manufacturers, farmers and commuters.

With a long track record of crashes and congestion, Virginians looked to legislators for solutions to improving the interstate. But Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the General Assembly passed only “a shell of a bill.”

At the beginning of the session, Gov. Ralph Northam met with legislators to announce bipartisan support for finding a revenue source for improvements to Virginia’s 325-mile stretch of I-81, which accounts for 42 percent of statewide interstate truck traffic.

“Making these improvements will take money. Finding money requires tough choices,” Northam said.

Legislators ended their session Sunday without finding the money. So Virginians will have to wait another year before seeing a plan to pay for improvements to the highway.

In December, the Commonwealth Transportation Board released a study that identified $4 billion in construction needs for I-81, including $2.2 billion in priority projects. Officials floated various ideas, from taxes to tolls, to finance the improvements.

As the General Assembly convened in January, lawmakers filed six bills seeking to address the problem. They included HB 2718, sponsored by Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, and SB 1716, introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. Those bills sought to impose tolls on I-81, with the revenues designated for improvements on the interstate.

The House and Senate each passed different versions of the measures. When a conference committee met to resolve the differences, legislators switched gears and approved the twin bills without a drop of funding for the interstate improvements.

The legislation was reworked to remove any language about tolls. Instead, the bills would simply create an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Transportation Committee and an unfunded Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund.

“The Committee shall conduct regional public meetings on options for funding and improvements” and offer recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by Dec. 15, the legislation states.

Stephanie Kane, communications director of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, said the bills were changed because of the public outcry against tolls. She said tolls are harmful to commuters and threaten economic development by forcing businesses to increase prices.

“Tolls can be a politically convenient way to raise taxes without having to vote for that three-letter word,” Kane said. “The I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund just creates the existence of the fund, but it’s like creating the bank account without the money to go in it — there’s no revenue source.”

In late 2018, the polling firm Public Opinions Strategies conducted a survey of 500 residents in the I-81 corridor. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents supported a $2 billion plan for improvements needed on the stretch of I-81 that state officials have designated a high priority. Those improvements would include a third lane and signage to deter congestion.

Sens. Edwards and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, proposed raising the motor fuels tax to fund transportation improvements statewide and especially on I-81. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House of Delegates.

Edwards said the measure seemed to have bipartisan support at first, but some lawmakers backpedaled because all legislative seats are up for election in November.

“My impression was that there was pressure from leadership in the House. The House leadership says, ‘We can’t have a tax this year because that’s wrong — it’s an election year,’” Edwards said. “It’s nice to have a fund on paper, but with no money, you can’t do anything with it. It’s just a shell of a bill.”

Music Therapy Remains an Uncertified Medical Practice in Virginia

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Patients who rely on music therapy to overcome trauma may remain susceptible to receiving unqualified care after a House subcommittee watered down a bill by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel.

Vogel, a Republican from Fauquier County, introduced Senate Bill 1547 in early January. It unanimously passed the Senate last week and was considered Tuesday by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions.

Vogel’s bill aims to create one year of registration through the Board of Medicine for music therapists to ensure the practice is only administered by trained professionals.

Music therapy as medical practice is recognized in nine states through a board of certification. Currently, there are 227 board-certified music therapists in Virginia, but the service can be provided without qualifications.

Becky Watson, owner of Music for Wellness in Norfolk, was in the Navy for 25 years and now treats a variety of patients, including veterans, at her music therapy clinic. Watson said allowing untrained musical therapy practices can have harmful effects on patients.

“Music is made up of many elements ... There are many benefits of using rhythm as a therapeutic intervention,” Watson said. “Music also has the potential to be harmful by causing extreme anger, irritability, physical violence and depression as the music selected can be connected or a reminder of a traumatic effect.”

Del. Robert Orrock Sr., R-Caroline, is a member of the subcommittee who opposed SB 1547 as originally written. He said the Virginia Department of Health Professions needed time to develop a certification process for the industry.

The subcommittee approved a substitute bill that directs the department to “evaluate whether music therapists and the practice of music therapy should be regulated and the degree of regulation to be imposed.” The board would have to report its findings to legislators by Nov. 1.

The subcommittee adopted the substitute bill on a 6-0 vote. It now will go to the full committee and, if approved, to the entire House of Delegates.

“The department is going to come back with a recommendation which may be adverse or it may be requiring more than just a registration, true certification. The intent is not to do harm to the underlying premise that the profession has merit in the service,” Orrock said.

Virginia native Forrest Allen suffered brain injuries from a snowboarding accident when he was 18. Doctors predicted he could remain in an indefinite coma with major physical and cognitive trauma. Within three years, Allen had made large strides in his recovery through music therapy, which was the subject of a story in The Washington Postand the documentary “Music Got Me Here.

Vogel said state oversight is important in ensuring that music therapists are qualified to help people.

“Music therapy has a clinical setting, a school setting, a rehabilitation setting — sometimes life-changing, life-saving impacts,” she said.

Republicans, Democrats Clash Over ‘Disturbing’ Abortion Bill

By Kathleen Shaw and Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Republicans voiced outrage Thursday to a failed proposal by Democrats that would have expanded abortion rights -- even moments before birth -- as one GOP legislator shed tears and another called the proposal “extremely disturbing.”

“I didn't quite arrive on time, but I lived. Had this legislation been in place, who knows how things could have turned out,” said Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, sponsored HB 2491, which would have eliminated certain requirements before undergoing an abortion, such as approval from three physicians and an ultrasound. At Monday’s subcommittee hearing on the bill, a Republican lawmaker asked Tran whether the bill would allow for an abortion to occur when a woman is in labor and about to give birth; Tran said yes. The subcommittee voted 5-3 to table the measure.

On Thursday, Tran corrected herself. “I should have said: ‘Clearly, no because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.’”

Republicans seized on Tran’s initial comments -- and Gov. Ralph Northam’s support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion -- as evidence that the Democrats would allow infanticide.

In an unorthodox move on Monday, House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, stepped down from the House chamber dais to speak in opposition to Tran’s legislation. Cox, who has advocated anti-abortion legislation since 1990, said 61,012,997 abortions have been performed since 1973.

“It was extremely disturbing that essentially you have legislation that does not protect the unborn at all, that you can have an abortion up to the point of birth. And I guess what truly disturbed me was that the other side almost seems to be celebrating that position,” Cox said.

Originally, 23 Democrats co-sponsored Tran’s bill, but some, including Del. Dawn Adams of Richmond, said they would pull their support. The controversy has made national headlines and drawn widespread condemnation from Republicans. President Donald Trump criticized Northam for speaking in favor of Tran’s bill.

Northam and Democratic legislators held a press conference of their own Thursday to respond to the Republicans and to reiterate support for abortion rights.
“We believe legislators, most of whom are men, should not be making decisions about women’s choices for their reproductive health,” Northam said. “We can agree to disagree on this topic, but we can be civil about it.”

Northam said some Republicans were attempting to use the issue to score political points.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who also spoke at the press conference, called Republican efforts to discredit Democrats “desperate” and “ugly.”

“Their political games have exposed a member of the House of Delegates to violent personal threats,” Herring said. “And now, Kirk Cox has taken his caucus completely off the deep end accusing Gov. Northam of supporting infanticide.”

The House minority leader, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, said Virginia women wouldn’t be intimidated by House Republicans’ scare tactics.

“House Republicans have used their majority to try to shame women -- to try to bully and dictate to women what we can and cannot do with our bodies,” Filler-Corn said. “Virginia women are watching, and Virginia women are paying attention.”

Abortion rights groups such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and Progress Virginia continue to support Tran. Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said that Tran was a champion for women and that Republican legislators are taking her remarks out of context.

“We trust women to make decisions about their health care needs. Shame on politicians like Todd Gilbert and Kirk Cox for trying to distract us from the real issue here: getting politics out of the doctor’s office,” Scholl said.

Del. Gilbert, a Republican from Shenandoah County, is the House majority leader. At the Republicans’ press conference, he equated abortion to murder. Gilbert said Democrats would allow late-term abortions out of concern not just for a woman’s physical health but also for her mental health.

“It has nothing to do with saving a woman's life. A mental health concern could include anything that you can name that has an identifiable mental health issue -- depression, anxiety, feelings that one gets when one is about to have to care for a child,” Gilbert said.

Brewer co-chairs the Foster Care Caucus and is an outspoken advocate for improving Virginia’s adoption and foster care systems. She received a tissue and support from Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, while tearing up at the news conference. Brewer said her birth-mother could have chosen to abort her but instead saved her life and fulfilled the life of her adoptive parents.

“61,012,997. How many of those were delegates that never had a chance to serve? How many of those were precious children who would’ve made an adoptive parent like mine -- a first-time mom or dad?” Brewer said.

Legislators Shift Gears to Test Drive ‘Green’ Vehicles

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Midway through this bustling General Assembly session, legislators shifted gears from cruising through bills to testing out electric vehicles on Conservation Lobby Day.

Drive Electric RVA and the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter hosted the second annual Electric Vehicle Ride & Drive event at the Capitol, where the fleet featured EVs like the Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Volt and Tesla Model X.

Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, took a joyride Wednesday in a Tesla Model 3. Last session, he proposed a bill offering tax credits to EV drivers. Reid said such legislation would benefit both the environment and the economy.

“I believe there’s opportunity for Virginia to demonstrate that we are electric vehicle friendly, and that can be done through a tax credit and installing the infrastructure. I’d like us to be a destination for manufacturers,” Reid said. “Really one of the main objectives is to create new electric vehicles jobs here in Virginia.”

Currently, only private entities can charge for the electricity to power EVs. Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 1934 to encourage electricity sales by any state agency, which he said would help normalize EV driving.

“The industry is ready to grow significantly, and we need to make sure they are able to do that, so we can let market forces get out there and spawn the innovation,” Bulova said.

Robin Mackay, an Arlington resident, has owned Tesla EVs since June 2015. The latest eco-friendly ride is equipped with radar and visual sensors for the Tesla’s Autopilot feature. Mackay said he enjoyed the transition from his 14-year-old Nissan pickup truck to the Tesla Model S.

“It was like going from Sputnik to the space shuttle; I get in my car and I love to drive,” Mackay said.

Those who oppose the EV industry say the vehicles are no more environmentally conscious than fuel-dependent vehicles because the electricity to power them may be generated from burning coal.

Mackay said nuclear power stations and coal plants run constantly regardless of any changes in demand, so increases in overnight charging for EVs — while average consumption is lower — could actually be environmentally efficient. With a deal from Dominion, EV drivers receive discounted electricity during off-peak hours, which Mackay said allows him to fuel his car on 90 cents per day.

“To encourage people to absorb demand in the middle of the night when there’s not much load from, like, residential or industrial customers, they put electricity on sale. They sell me electricity at half price,” Mackay said.

Advocates want an increase in EV sales because large-scale production would lower the cost per unit. Standard market price for a Tesla Model 3 is $44,000, but manufacturers hope to reduce the price to $35,000 and make it a more feasible option for all income brackets.

HB 1934 awaits the House floor after receiving approval from the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday on an 18-4 vote.

“I’m very happy that we have a strong coalition of environmental groups but also industry groups that are coming together and making sure that we remove barriers to electric vehicles,” Bulova said.

Governor Calls Bipartisan Effort to Clean Coal Ash ‘Historic’

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginians could see an additional $5 charge on their power bills after Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox and a bipartisan group of legislators announced an agreement Thursday to clean up large ponds of toxic coal ash throughout the state.

The $3 billion plan is to remove coal ash -- the residue from power plants -- from sites near Virginia’s waterways within 15 years. Democratic Sens. Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Amanda Chase of Chesterfield began the team effort to address the problem three years ago. Chase, Surovell and Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, are sponsoring legislation to close the coal ash sites, clean them up and prohibit further construction.

Surovell’s Senate Bill 1533 specifically targets the ponds in Prince William, Chesterfield  Fluvanna counties and the city of Chesapeake. Dominion Energy, which operated the coal-fired power plants responsible for the ash, would pass along the cost of the cleanup to customers. The company would be required to use local labor and resources when practical to remove the material.

Chase has filed two bills -- SB 1009 and SB 1743 -- prohibiting coal ash ponds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and requiring the closure of existing ponds. She said she is excited to work with her colleagues to solve this problem.

“Clean water is a bipartisan issue,” Chase said. “If you think of the cost of cancer and compare it to $5 a month, that's nothing.”

If the legislation becomes law, that amount would begin appearing on Dominion customers’ bills starting in 2021.

Virginia has been storing coal ash in ponds since the 1930s. Dominion Energy’s website states that it has 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills totaling about 27 million cubic yards of coal ash statewide. The plan requires the power company to recycle a minimum of 7 million tons by the 15-year mark.

In a statement, Dominion Energy representative Dan Genest said the company “supports the comprehensive agreement reached by the Governor, legislative leaders, and members of the General Assembly that accomplishes clean closure, minimizes truck traffic, and prudently manages customer costs for the closing of ash ponds at our power stations.”

Northam described the bipartisan agreement as historic and said the plan is a breakthrough in protecting the people and environment of Virginia.

“Our effort will ensure we are disposing of coal ash in the safest, most environmentally responsible way. As they exist now, we run the risk that they could contaminate the drinking water supply, our tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay,” the governor said. “I think the environmental impact far outweighs those costs.”

Northam said 25 percent of the coal ash must be recycled into concrete, asphalt or other construction materials. Coal ash that isn’t recycled would be moved to landfills certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or into modern pits at the site of power plants whose lining will prevent contamination.

Democratic Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy lives near the Possum Point Power Station, which has four coal ash ponds, in Prince William County. She said she commends her colleagues, constituents and the power company for compromising on a solution.

“Coal ash is something that's very personal to me, having Dominion’s coal ash pond in my backyard,” Foy said. “Arsenic, lead and mercury needed to be removed from the community so it would not disturb and have poison in our playgrounds and lead in our water.”

The bills addressing the issue have been referred to the Coal Ash Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor.

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.

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.

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.”

Conservative Activists Urge Lawmakers to Reject ERA

The Family Foundation and other groups that oppose abortion urge Virginia legislators to oppose ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say the ERA, which is currently before the full Senate, is anti-women, anti-American and "a smokescreen for abortion." Photo by Kathleen Shaw.

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The Family Foundation and other groups that oppose abortion are urging Virginia legislators to oppose ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say the ERA, which is currently before the full Senate, is anti-women, anti-American and "a smokescreen for abortion."

Conservative activists held a news conference and met with legislators this week to voice concerns about the ERA, which they refer to as the “Everything Related to Abortion Act.” They said the proposed constitutional amendment uses women as pawns to push forward an abortion-rights agenda.

Patrina Mosley, director of a group called Life, Culture and Women’s Advocacy, criticized the amendment with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the feminist movement.

“The ERA is really a smokescreen for abortion,” Mosley said. “This is not really about women. Women are continually used as a prop to push an agenda, and the ‘Time’s Up’ on that.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 8-6 in favor of SJ 284, which would add Virginia to the 37 states that have already ratified the ERA. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the resolution next week.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, would then need approval from a House committee and a House of Delegates majority. ERA supporters hope that with ratification by Virginia, they would have the three-fourths majority of the states needed to amend the U.S. Constitution.

But some experts say it’s too late to ratify the ERA because Congress set the original ratification deadline to 1982.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is sponsoring what she views as an alternative to the ERA -- SJ 275, or the  Equal Rights Affirmation. Chase’s resolution “reaffirms that all persons residing in Virginia are afforded equal protection under the law. The resolution cites numerous guarantees of equality that currently exist in both federal and state law while refuting the necessity, utility, and viability of the Equal Rights Amendment,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The ERA declares that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” Chase said that wording is vague and could have unexpected repercussions.

“It's concerning to me that the ERA treats women identically to men, not equally to men -- lending to it the current fad of gender-fluidity,” Chase said. “Until you change that word to female, then I cannot support this legislation.”

Tina Whittington, executive vice president of Students for Life of America, said the ERA isn’t needed because women are already treated as equals in laws and courts. Further, Whittington said prohibiting gender bias would affect previously passed federal laws and be harmful to women.

“Many protections designed specifically for women, for mothers, would be impacted,” Whittington said.

Some women who spoke against the ERA at Thursday’s press conference said they’ve had a hard fight against the measure. Eva Scott, the first woman elected to the Virginia Senate, voted against the ERA in the 1970s as a delegate and senator. Scott said feminists do not need a constitutional amendment to be successful and rise to power.

“Women are really selling themselves short,” Scott said. “All these women really need is to embrace the truth that equality is already theirs and the whole world is at their -- and our --  fingertips.”

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