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Senate Kills Bill to Raise Minimum Wage in a Party-Line Vote

More than two dozen advocates gathered outside of the Capitol on Monday morning to rally in support of SB 1200, a bill to raise the minimum wage in Virginia.

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate bill that would have raised Virginia’s minimum wage is dead -- much to the dismay of more than two dozen advocates who braved the cold to rally for the bill Monday morning.

Introduced by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, SB 1200 would have increased the minimum wage to $10 on July 1 and eventually to $15 in July 2021. It was defeated Monday afternoon in a 19-21 party-line vote.

“It’s been 10 years since Virginia workers received an increase in wages,” Dance said. “Meanwhile, the price of everyday goods continues to go up. In 2009, the average price for a gallon of gas in America was $1.78 -- today, it’s $2.41.”

There are 30 states with a minimum wage higher than Virginia’s $7.25 -- which is the federal minimum wage.

Speaking in opposition of the bill, Sens. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Thomas Norment, R-James City, argued that SB 1200 would hurt businesses and working Virginians.

Norment voted last week in the Committee on Commerce and Labor to advance the bill, but voted against it Monday. He said that raising the minimum wage to $12 would cost Virginia 24,000 jobs.

“If we raise the minimum wage in the manner described in this bill, those jobs, opportunities and learning experiences are gonna disappear,” Obenshain said. “And we’re not gonna be able to provide that to the kids graduating from high school, people entering the workforce. We’re gonna hurt an awful lot of businesses that depend on providing those opportunities to those just entering the workforce.”

Countering Obenshain’s view, Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, said there is a misconception that the majority of workers who earn less than $15 an hour are teenagers working part-time jobs.

“In fact, many of these workers are adults working full time, trying to earn enough to support their families and their futures,” McPike said. “Without the opportunity to earn a living wage, these workers have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet. That means time away from their kids.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average age of workers who would be affected by a minimum wage increase is 35 years old.

McPike was one of 10 Democratic senators who spoke in favor of the bill, sharing stories of their constituents who are unable to meet their needs, as well as research conducted on states with higher minimum wages.

            Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said that a recent study shows that Arizona raised its minimum wage but did not lose any jobs.

Before the Senate convened Monday afternoon to vote on the bill, constituents rallied outside the Capitol in support of HB 1200. Organized by the labor union SEIU Virginia 512 and the organization New Virginia Majority, the rally drew more than two dozen people.

“You can’t survive on 7.25,” the group chanted, as senators passed by to enter the Capitol.

There are several other bills this session that would also increase the minimum wage:

  • HB 1850 would raise the minimum wage to $9 on July 1 and eventually to $15 in 2023.
  • HB 2157 would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in 2020.
  • SB 1017 would raise the minimum wage to $8 on July 1 and eventually to $11.25 in 22.

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted Monday on SB 1200 (Minimum wage; increase to $10 per hour effective July 1, 2019):

01/21/19 — Senate: Defeated by Senate (19-Y 21-N)

YEAS — Barker, Boysko, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Mason, McClellan, McPike, Petersen, Saslaw, Spruill, Surovell — 19.

NAYS — Black, Carrico, Chafin, Chase, Cosgrove, DeSteph, Dunnavant, Hanger, McDougle, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Peake, Reeves, Ruff, Stanley, Stuart, Sturtevant, Suetterlein, Vogel, Wagner — 21.

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.”

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.

Air Board Approves Permit for Buckingham Compressor Station

Pipeline

There are 25 images in this slideshow

The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community in Buckingham County – a decision that left environmentalists and residents of the Union Hill community in tears. (All photos by Maryum Elnasseh)

By Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The State Air Pollution Control Board voted 4-0 Tuesday to approve a permit for a natural gas compressor station in a historic African-American community in Buckingham County — a decision that left environmentalists and residents of the Union Hill community in tears, with at least one protester hauled off in handcuffs.

The proposed Buckingham Compressor Station is a component of the $7 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline running through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Since finding out about the proposed ACP in 2014, Buckingham residents — along with environmentalists across the state — have fiercely opposed the project. They said the pipeline would pose a threat to air and water quality and to people’s health.

However, state officials have said the project would be built and operated safely.

“The final draft permit has more stringent requirements than any similar compressor station anywhere in the United States,” said Richard Langford, who chairs the Air Control Board.

Langford’s comments drew several outcries from attendees — many of whom turned around with their backs to the Air Control Board in silent protest.

With a heavy Virginia State Police presence in the building, Langford was quick to ask officers to escort out of the room audience members who spoke up during the meeting. Attendees who resisted orders were forcibly removed.

Following comments by Langford, Air Control Board member William Ferguson said there is a proven need for the pipeline, which would be built by a consortium led by Richmond-based Dominion Energy. Supporters say the project is needed to provide a low-cost supply of energy for Virginia and neighboring states.

Critics dispute that. In March, attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed litigation on behalf of the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Wild Virginia, challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s “failure to demonstrate that the pipeline is actually needed by the public.”

“The groups contend that the overwhelming evidence shows the true purpose of the ACP is to provide profits for the shareholders of the pipeline’s financial backers, Duke and Dominion, at the expense of those utilities’ ratepayers,” the Sierra Club stated in a press release.

In a 2016 report, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates found that the “region’s existing natural gas infrastructure is more than sufficient to meet expected future peak demand.”

“Making money for Dominion is not your job,” a member of the audience said in response to Ferguson’s comments.

Opponents of the pipeline have voiced concerns regarding Dominion’s influence over Virginia’s politicians.

In November, Gov. Ralph Northam removed two of the Air Control Board’s seven members — Samuel Bleicher and Rebecca Rubin — after they raised questions about the compressor station’s “disproportionate impact” on Union Hill.

Both members’ terms had expired in June, but they had been allowed to remain on the board until they resigned or the governor removed them. There are over 200 other people whose terms also expired in June still serving on Virginia boards and commissions.

Shortly after being removed, Bleicher questioned on his Facebook page if Dominion was involved in the decision. “You decide for yourself,” Bleicher wrote.

Dominion donated about $100,000 to Northam’s gubernatorial campaign in 2017. Last week, Dominion co-hosted a fundraiser for Northam’s political action committee, “The Way Ahead.”

David Paylor, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, accepted gifts from Dominion in 2013 — including a trip to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia. He was seated next to the four Air Control Board members while they voted Tuesday morning.

As the meeting adjourned, attendees burst into chants of “protect our children” and “shame, shame, shame.”

Legislators Host Town Hall for Henrico Constituents

By Kaytlin Nickens and Maryum Elnasseh, Capital News Service

HENRICO -- With the federal government shut down over an impasse between Democrats and Republicans, state legislators from both parties emphasized bipartisanship at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening at Tuckahoe Library.

“This is the year that Virginia needs to come together,” said Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico.

More than 100 constituents came to hear Rodman, fellow Democratic Dels. Schuyler VanValkenburg and Dawn Adams, and Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant discuss taxes, education and the polarized political climate.

‘Conforming’ to federal tax overhaul

A key issue when the General Assembly convenes next week for its 2019 session is “tax conformity” — whether Virginia should adjust the state tax code to align with the federal tax overhaul approved by Congress in 2017.

VanValkenburg called conformity “a good thing.” He said it would simplify the tax-filing process and help maintain Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state.

Virginia would see an increase in state tax revenues through the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. A related issue is what to do with that money. Rodman and VanValkenburg want to increase state spending on education.

“In terms of investing, our schools need funding,” VanValkenburg said.

However, Dunnavant said she favors returning to taxpayers the additional state tax revenues that result from tax conformity. She said she will propose legislation to double the standard deduction when filing state income taxes.

“We still have plenty of money to live within our means and make the investments we need to make, but we really shouldn’t be taking money that isn’t ours,” Dunnavant said. “We should be returning that to the individuals that surrendered it.”

Dunnavant’s comments were the only ones to draw the audience’s applause.

School counselors and other education priorities 

VanValkenburg, a teacher at Glen Allen High School, said he supports increasing the number of school counselors as well as school resource and safety officers.

Dunnavant agreed about the need for more school counselors. She also suggested adding behavior analysts — specially licensed individuals who go into classrooms and help manage students.

“When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot of that has to do with kids being sent out of the classroom because they’re having behavioral problems,” Dunnavant said.

She proposed funding one behavior analyst for every five schools so that the analyst could spend one day a week at each school.

Adams expressed concern about school shootings. After the shooting in Parkland, Fla. in February, Adams said she conducted research on school shootings since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Adams said the most common thread is that the average shooter is a white male with no prior mental health diagnosis, and that an age in the ballpark of 17 years old is not uncommon.

“Many of the shootings — more than 50 percent — were as a result of some kind of emotional upset,” Adams said. “It all speaks to the idea that we need to teach our children how to communicate, how to deal with their problems, how to cope better with life.”

Rodman, who serves on the House Education Committee with VanValkenburg, said she is sponsoring a bill to address the teacher shortage in Virginia. It would require the Virginia Department of Education to monitor and address the number of teacher vacancies each year.

“If there’s nothing we can come together on in a bipartisan way, it is for us to come together for our teachers,” Rodman said.

Bipartisanship in an age of increasing polarization

The legislators were asked how they will work together to continue making Henrico a place where constituents want to raise their families.

“I think we all work bipartisan all the time,” Dunnavant said.  Last year, for example, she co-sponsored with Democrats a bill expanding access to cannabis-based oils to treat or alleviate the symptoms of diseases and other diagnosed conditions.

Adams agreed, emphasizing the importance of listening to people who have different ideas.

“I think that’s the only thing you can do to be a good delegate or a good senator is to communicate well and try to come up with solutions,” Adams said.

VanValkenburg said he hopes to have Republicans co-sponsor his education bills.

“There’s compromise to be had on all of this stuff,” VanValkenburg said. “And I think there’s a coming together that’ll happen.”

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