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Most Virginians Don’t Want Officials to Resign, Poll Finds

 

By Emily Holter, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginians have low approval ratings of Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, but most people say no one should resign or be impeached, according to a recent poll by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It found that of the state’s three top officials, Attorney General Mark Herring is the best-positioned to remain in office.

Over the past month, the three leaders, all Democrats, have been under scrutiny after several scandals, and some politicians and groups have called for their resignations:

  • Two women have accused Fairfax of sexual assault -- allegations he has denied.

  • Northam has been in hot water after the discovery of a photograph in his medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. Northam initially apologized for the photograph and then denied he was in the picture. He later admitted to putting “a little bit of” shoe polish on his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a 1984 dance competition.

  • After calling for Northam’s resignation, Attorney General Mark Herring apologized for wearing blackface when he was 19 years old to imitate a rapper.

With that backdrop, U.Va.’s Center for Politics asked a representative sample of Virginia adults about their opinions of Northam, Fairfax and Herring.

The poll found that of the three leaders, more people believe Fairfax should quit. Thirty-five percent believe Fairfax should resign, and 28 percent favored impeachment.

Only 17 percent of Virginians approve of the governor’s job performance. However, only 31 percent of respondents say he should resign, and 21 percent believe he should be impeached.
According to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, there was a strong racial divide over whether Fairfax should resign. Thirty-nine percent of white respondents said they favored his resignation, compared with only 8 percent of black respondents.

Of the three officials, Herring had the fewest number of people suggesting he resign (19 percent) or be impeached (14 percent).

The poll involved interviewing 636 adults from Feb. 15-19. It had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax Would Become Governor if Northam Resigns

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — If Gov. Ralph Northam resigns because of the scandal over a racist picture in his medical school yearbook, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would become the 74th governor of Virginia.

That would make Fairfax, 39, the second African-American governor in Virginia’s history and just the fourth to hold the office nationwide in recent years. In 1990, L. Douglas Wilder became the first elected African-American governor in the United States.

Article V, Section 16, of the Constitution of Virginia sets out the succession to the office of governor: “In the case of the removal of the Governor from office or in the case of his disqualification, death, or resignation, the Lieutenant Governor shall become Governor.”

Like Northam, Fairfax is a Democrat. He ran for lieutenant governor in 2017, defeating the Republican nominee, state Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier County. This is Fairfax’s first term in elective office.

Fairfax, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a descendent of Virginia slaves. When he was sworn into office, Fairfax was carrying in his breast pocket the manumission papers that freed his great-great-great-grandfather.

In private life, Fairfax is an attorney with a law firm in Northern Virginia and previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney. He is a graduate of Duke University and Columbia Law School and in 2013 won the National Bar Association’s “Nation’s Best Advocates Award,” which recognizes 40 top attorneys nationwide under the age of 40.

Northam said in public statement Saturday afternoon that he would not resign but instead would work to reconcile the “people he has hurt.” Northam added that Fairfax, who did not attend the governor’s press conference, did not want him to resign.

In a statement following the Northam’s press conference, Fairfax did not join Democratic colleagues calling for the governor’s resignation. Fairfax’s statement said of Northam: “While his career has been marked by service to children, soldiers and constituents, I cannot condone the actions from his past that, at the very least, suggest a comfort with Virginia’s darker history of white supremacy, racial stereotyping and intimidation.”

As lieutenant governor, Fairfax is the presiding officer in the Virginia Senate. Republicans have a 22-19 advantage over Democrats in the Senate. The lieutenant governor votes only in the case of a tie.

Under the Virginia Constitution, if Fairfax does end up succeeding Northam, the Senate’s president pro tempore would serve as the Senate’s presiding officer. That position is currently held by Republican Sen. Stephen Newman of Bedford.

Newman issued a statement Saturday saying that “my wife and I have asked God to give our Governor wisdom in the coming hours, and for the health, clarity and resolve to do the right thing for the people of Virginia.”

“After this dark hour has passed, the President Pro Tempore must be in a position to serve as a healer, bringing all parties back together to work for a better and stronger Commonwealth,” Newman said.

Northam Denies Racist Photo And Says He Won’t Resign

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Resisting pressure to resign, Gov. Ralph Northam said Saturday that he is not one of the individuals in a racist photo found on his medical school yearbook page, but he revealed he once “darkened” his skin as part of a Michael Jackson costume in a dance contest the same year.

At an afternoon press conference, Northam said the costume was not blackface — which is when a non-black person uses makeup or another substance to appear black. At the San Antonio event, which occurred in 1984, the same year the yearbook photo was taken, a 25-year-old Northam put shoe polish on his cheeks. He said he used a small amount because the substance is “hard to get off.”

“I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that,” Northam said.

Blackface in the U.S. originated with 19th-century theatrical performances and was used to perpetuate racist stereotypes.

Northam’s defense centers around the San Antonio event. On Saturday, he said that he had no recollection of attending the party where the racist photo was taken but that he remembers “darkening” his skin to look like Jackson. To Northam, his clear recollection of one event and not the other is the sign he wasn’t “the person in that uniform and I am not the person to the right.”

After conversations with family, friends and former classmates, Northam said he came to the conclusion that he was not in the photo. He said he previously identified himself as being in the image because of all of the “hurt” it was causing.

Northam did not have a specific explanation for how the photo appeared on his yearbook page. He said he submitted three other photos but did not recognize the image in question. It’s possible, he said, that the photo belonged to a classmate and was incorrectly placed on his page.

Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam’s alma mater that produced the yearbook, issued a statement by its president saying the institution shares the “outrage, alarm and sadness voiced by our alumni, the press and many on social media” over the yearbook image.

In Northam’s Virginia Military Institute yearbook, one of his nicknames was listed as “coonman” — “coon” is a racial slur referring to black people. He said two older classmates referred to him as such, but he said that he did not know their motives or intent and that he regrets the fact that the nickname was used in the yearbook.

Since the photo surfaced Friday, Northam has maintained that he will not resign.

“As long as I feel I can lead, I will continue to do that,” Northam said. “If I reach a point where I am not comfortable with that, obviously I will sit back and have that discussion.”

Scores of groups and individuals have called for Northam to step down as governor in response, including Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the NAACP and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. The calls for his resignation still sounded after his denial of the photo.

“It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement released more than 24 hours after the photo first surfaced.

Many Virginians aren’t receptive to Northam’s remorse. Saturday morning, a group of about 25 protesters urged Northam to resign. Next to the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, David Williams stood with a sign that read, “Step down and do VA a favor.” He attended the march with his two young-adult daughters.

“I’m out here, really, to show my kids that you must protest when anything comes up that’s wrong,” Williams said. “The pictures that we saw was very disturbing and very hurtful, especially to African Americans.”

Francesca Leigh Davis, who attended the protest, said she was “appalled” at Northam’s reaction to the backlash.

“You put black people through this shame, the people who voted for you to stand in this office. I’m insulted that black people are used like pawns in this particular party,” Davis said. “Think of each and every black vote that was cast for you. We trusted you.”

Both Democrats and Republicans Demand Gov. Northam’s Resignation

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Across the political spectrum, government officials and advocacy groups are calling for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation after media reports of a racist photo on his page in a college yearbook.

The photo, from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, features two men — one dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe. On Friday, Northam apologized for the photo. On Saturday, he said that it was not him in the picture after all and that he would not resign.

Calls for Northam’s resignation began Friday night and continued throughout Saturday. They came from both sides of the aisle, including Virginia Democrats, House and Senate Republican leaders and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

“When the racist picture first emerged Friday, we were shocked and repulsed. The photo is disturbing and offensive, as unacceptable in 1984 as it is today,” said a statement issued by House Speaker Kirk Cox and other Republicans.

“While we respect the governor’s lifetime of service, his ability to lead and govern is permanently impaired and the interests of the commonwealth necessitate his resignation.”

Democratic leaders agreed.

Susan Swecker, chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia, issued a statement Saturday calling for Northam’s immediate resignation.

“We made the decision to let Gov. Northam do the correct thing and resign this morning — we have gotten word he will not do so this morning. We stand with Democrats across Virginia and the country calling him to immediately resign. He no longer has our confidence or our support.”

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe denounced the photo on Twitter, calling the photos “racist, unacceptable and inexcusable at any age an any time.” He said Northam should resign, deeming the situation “untenable.”

On Saturday afternoon, Attorney General Mark Herring said, “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down.”

Saturday night, more than a dozen progressive groups – including Planned Parenthood, Equality Virginia and environmental and labor organizations – issued a statement reiterating their call for Northam to leave office.

“We heard what the Governor said today and we are not only unmoved but even more disgusted in his actions and changing stories. We reaffirm our demand that he must immediately resign,” the statement said.

New Virginia Majority, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Progress Virginia are among other groups that have called for Northam to step down.

“No matter the era, or the messenger, blackface costumes and Ku Klux Klan regalia have represented terror and fear for communities of color since Reconstruction,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “There is no excuse for wearing them.”

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.

Northam Details Budget Proposals to Boost Education

Gov. Northam signs his proclamation recognizing February 2019 as School Board Appreciation Month while VSBA President R. Tyrone Foster looks on.

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam outlined his budgetary proposals to educators Wednesday: for a 5 percent teacher pay increase, expanded broadband internet, funding for school resource officers and counselors, and a major bump in the state’s rainy day fund.

“There is power in every child out there, and every child needs the same opportunity, and that is access to a world-class education,” Northam said.

Seated at circular tables with their district’s name printed neatly on a card, elected members of school boards from around the state listened to speakers discuss the budget and policy proposals at the 2019 Virginia School Board Association Capital Conference.

VSBA President R. Tyrone Foster said it’s important for attendees “to meet with your local legislators to make sure that we advocate for our children.” On Thursday, the second day of the event, members will do just that — meeting face to face with their representatives at the Capitol.

Northam identified fields in which Virginians will find the “jobs of the 21st century.” He named science, technology, engineering, the arts, math and health care and fields such as cybersecurity, biotechnology, data analysis and artificial intelligence.

“How do we educate our children so that they can be on a pathway for those exciting job opportunities and careers?” the governor asked.

He said Virginia’s growing economy is giving the commonwealth funds that can be put toward educational goals. Northam said changes in the federal tax code and a proposed internet sales tax will contribute to the increase in government revenues.

“The question is: What will we do with it?” he said.

Northam highlighted the importance of the rainy day fund, which he said accounted for $500 million of last year’s budget.

“Our economy right now is doing well, but you never know what it’s going to do next year,” he said.

Northam said he hopes to save 8 percent of the budget by the end of his administration.

For current taxpayers, the governor addressed his plans for a fully refundable earned income tax credit “for those making $54,000 or less” and a raise in the Virginia standard tax deduction.

Lastly, Northam addressed the future.

“We really are at a unique opportunity here to be able to invest some of this revenue into the future of Virginia,” Northam said.

His financial proposals include:

  • $50 million per year over five years “to make sure that everybody across Virginia has access to broadband.” The governor said, “If our children are working on a computer at school during the day and then have an assignment at night, and they don’t have access to broadband, their hands are literally tied.”
  • A 2 percent pay raise for teachers on July 1 in addition to the 3 percent already planned. “That will be the largest one-time pay raise for teachers in over 15 years,” Northam said.
  • $36 million per year for “hiring and supporting” school counselors. “Our children are exposed to a lot of different things these days. They rely heavily on their counselors,” he said.
  • Several million dollars for school resource officers. “I really don’t think it’s a good idea for our teachers to be law enforcement officers,” Northam said. “We pay them to teach, not to be law enforcement.”
  • $80 million for school renovations and new construction.

According to press secretary Alena Yarmosky, the budgetary proposals were based on recommendations from the Children’s Cabinet, “a diverse group of stakeholders focused on enhancing school safety and ensuring the well-being of Virginia’s students,” established by executive order last year.

Lawmakers Have Mixed Reactions to Governor’s Address

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam gives his second State of the Commonwealth Speech before 140 members of the 2019 General Assembly, on Jan. 9. (PHOTO: Livestream)

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – From attracting high-tech businesses to improving access to health care services, Gov. Ralph Northam’s State of the Commonwealth speech touted wins and legislative proposals that both parties celebrated, though Republicans blasted his ideas on taxes and budget spending.

The 2019 General Assembly session marks Northam’s second year in office and the 400th anniversary of the House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected legislative body in the British American colonies. His speech didn’t shy away from acknowledging the state’s “long and complex history” while connecting several of the session’s proposals to health and safety.

“In 2017, 1,028 Virginians died of gun-related causes,” Northam told a joint meeting of the General Assembly at the end of the first day of the 2019 legislative session. “That’s more deaths due to gun violence than the 956 Virginians who died due to vehicle accidents.”

Fellow Democrats said the governor set the right tone.

“It is clear that the commonwealth is coming into 2019 in a strong position. Our economy is thriving, we are attracting major businesses and job creators like Amazon, and the Medicaid expansion we passed last year will boost state revenues and provide hundreds of thousands of Virginians with access to healthcare,” House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, said in a joint statement.

In the Republicans’ official response to Wednesday night’s speech, Del. Robert Thomas Jr. of Stafford and Sen. Stephen Newman of Bedford called for Virginia to balance its books, maintain low taxes and help Virginians reduce high health insurance deductibles.

“Republicans are committed to stopping Governor Northam’s tax hike on the middle class,” Thomas said. “Our tax reform plan will return the tax windfall resulting from the federal tax cuts along to taxpayers, while providing targeted tax relief to middle- and low-income Virginians and protecting our coveted AAA bond rating.”  

Republicans also voiced opposition to Northam’s proposals regarding guns.

The Democratic governor called on the General Assembly to approve an “extreme risk law” -- a legal way for law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from someone who has shown dangerous behavior or who poses a risk to themselves or others. This idea has passed Republican-led legislatures in other states and been signed by Republican governors, such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

In his response to the speech, Thomas, a father of eight, said improving the safety of public schools is more important than hashing out possible firearm regulations.

“Our goal is to employ every means available to keep dangerous individuals out of our schools,” he said.  

Echoing the recommendations of a legislative committee, Thomas proposed using threat prevention technology and improving mental health services.  Northam and Thomas both advocated for improving safety training for school personnel and safety officers. Currently, only grant-funded resource officers go through training approved by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Northam addressed criminal justice reform.  For the third year in a row, Virginia has had the nation’s lowest prison recidivism rate, and Northam said he hopes to maintain that record.

He also plans to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over failure to pay court costs, fees, and non-driving offenses. “When we take away people’s driver’s licenses, we make it harder for them to get to work, and thus make it even more difficult for them to pay their court costs,” Northam said. “We shouldn’t be punishing people for being poor.”

Moreover, Northam called for making simple possession a civil penalty to ease overcrowding in jails and prisons. Current law imposes a maximum of 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.

In his speech, Northam celebrated a budget he had signed in May that expanded Medicaid coverage to 400,000 Virginians.

He also discussed using tolls to fund improvements on Interstate 81 in the western part of the state. The interstate has seen a 12 percent increase in traffic and a 55 percent increase in delays, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In a speech that included the word “together” 32 times, the governor concluded his address by encouraging unity among members of the General Assembly.

“I hope that as we go through the next 46 days together, we give consideration to each other, and to our ideas. It can be tempting to retreat to our corners and shout at each other,” Northam said. “But I believe we all have that internal moral compass, the one that guides us toward the right thing to do. I hope we all follow it this session.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers will consider more than 2,000 bills between now and their scheduled adjournment, Feb. 23.

Virginia Delegation Calls on President Trump to Issue Federal Emergency Declaration Ahead of Hurricane Florence

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, along with U.S. Reps. Rob Wittman (VA-01), Scott Taylor (VA-02), Bobby Scott (VA-03), A. Donald McEachin (VA-04), Tom Garrett (VA-05), Bob Goodlatte (VA-06), Dave Brat (VA-07), Don Beyer (VA-08), Morgan Griffith (VA-09), Barbara Comstock (VA-10), and Gerry Connolly (VA-11), called on President Donald Trump to issue a federal emergency declaration ahead of Hurricane Florence, a tropical storm which was recently upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane and is expected to make landfall somewhere on the southeast or Mid-Atlantic coast Thursday night. Virginia’s congressional delegation wrote to the President in support of a request from Gov. Ralph Northam in advance of the storm’s potentially devastating effects on the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“The health and well-being of my constituents is my top concern, which is why I joined the entire congressional delegation of Virginia to call on President Trump to give full consideration to Governor Northam’s request to issue a federal emergency,” said Congressman Donald McEachin. “If this storm continues as predicted, making federal resources available will help us achieve a speedy recovery.”

“A federal emergency declaration would ensure the full availability of federal resources to support the Commonwealth’s efforts to guarantee public safety and rapid recovery from the direct and indirect effects of Hurricane Florence. Thank you for your consideration of Governor Northam’s request. We look forward to working with you, FEMA, and other relevant federal agencies to ensure that the Commonwealth of Virginia has the resources available to ensure the safety of our constituents,” wrote the Virginia Congressional Delegation.

On September 8, 2018, Gov. Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia in preparation for Hurricane Florence, which is projected to have a significant impact on the Commonwealth in the coming days. It is increasingly likely that Virginia will face damaging winds, heavy rainfall, and potentially life-threating storm surge flooding. Many localities have already ordered mandatory evacuations to prevent potential physical harm or loss of life.

The full text of the letter can be found below.

Dear Mr. President:

We write today to express our support for Governor Ralph S. Northam’s request for a federal emergency declaration in advance of Hurricane Florence’s potentially devastating effects on the Commonwealth of Virginia.

As you may know, on September 8, 2018 Governor Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia in preparation for Hurricane Florence, which is projected to have a significant impact on the Commonwealth in the coming days. It is increasingly likely that Virginia will face damaging winds, heavy rainfall, and potentially life-threating storm surge flooding due to Hurricane Florence. Many localities have already ordered mandatory evacuations to prevent potential physical harm or loss of life.

Governor Northam’s emergency declaration ensures a fully coordinated state response to support local recovery efforts. The Commonwealth has activated the Virginia Evacuation Coordination Team for Operational Response to assess the storm’s potential effects and the Virginia Emergency Operations Center is already coordinating the state’s response with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

A federal emergency declaration would ensure the full availability of federal resources to support the Commonwealth’s efforts to guarantee public safety and rapid recovery from the direct and indirect effects of Hurricane Florence.

Thank you for your consideration of Governor Northam’s request. We look forward to working with you, FEMA, and other relevant federal agencies to ensure that the Commonwealth of Virginia has the resources available to ensure the safety of our constituents.

 

 

Virginians Should Prepare Now for Hurricane Florence Impacts

Please note that while the projected path of Hurricane Florence has changed, the path is still probable. Our area could still be impacted with several inches of rain and wind gusts in the 40 mph range.

Virginia Governor Declares April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Eating disorders, stress, alcoholism, addiction and depression are leading medical problems affecting women and girls, but they are often forgotten because of the way breast cancer and intimate partner violence are highlighted with dedicated months.

Miriam Bender, chair of the group Women’s Health Virginia, commends the efforts of what she calls the “disease organizations.” But Bender said there is a need to raise awareness about the overall well-being of women and girls. So more than 15 years ago, Bender helped establish April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month.

“A lot of days and weeks and months celebrate awareness of diseases, and a lot of issues don’t get highlighted in those individualized months,” Bender said. “They always focus on disease prevention or a problem instead of talking more positively about wellness.”

In July 2002, Bender and other activists pitched Women and Girls’ Wellness Month to 50 health organizations, women’s organizations and other groups.

“It was overwhelmingly positively received,” Bender said. “It was in July, and I thought who was going to show up in the middle of July – and the room was full.”

On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam, like his predecessors, signed a proclamation recognizing April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month.

“It’s an important day and month,” Northam said at a ceremony at the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond. “We have declared the entire month of April so that we can recognize the important contributions girls and women make to our commonwealth and to help you all keep healthy and get a good education and a good job.”

The ceremony was attended by fifth- through eighth-grade female students from the MathScience Innovation Center. Northam encouraged them to get involved, pointing to the pay gap and the lack of women in health care, policy and STEM-related fields.

“That’s why all the girls and the women need to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough – I want to be equal to everyone else,’” Northam said.

Bender said that once people and organizations bought into the idea of Women and Girls’ Wellness Month., they decided it would best be celebrated in April.

“We wanted to do it at a time when organizations who served women and girls could do something. And if it’s too close to the end of the school year, girls’ groups and university groups wouldn’t be involved,” Bender said.

The MathScience Innovation Center was chosen as the location of the proclamation signing to encourage young girls to enter STEM fields.

“We know that health and wellness are tied to the physical attributes of the body, but they’re also tied to the wellness of the spirit and the soul and how we persevere, overcome adversity and how we deal with trauma,” said Hollee Freeman, executive director at the center.

The governor was joined Thursday by Virginia first lady Pam Northam, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson.

Gov. Northam Signs Rear-Facing Car Seat Requirements into Law

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Beginning next year, Virginia will join more than a dozen states that prohibit children under the age of 2, or children who are below the manufacturer's suggested weight limit, to be placed in a forward-facing car seat.

The new law, House Bill 708, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed last month, will go into effect July 1, 2019. It was introduced by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, after she was approached by AAA about the issue.

“I’m very proud to patron this bill because I have always worked on issues about public safety and kids’ safety,” Filler-Corn said. “How could I not introduce a bill that will save lives and protect our most vulnerable Virginians, our children?”

According to Martha Meade, the public and government affairs manager for Virginia’s AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, the association has lobbied for issues of public safety on the roads for decades.

“This is an important change for Virginia because it is confusing for many folks who don’t know when the the right time is to switch their child to be forward-facing in vehicles,” Meade said. “All the major traffic safety organizations — AAA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Highway Safety Administration and the Academy of Pediatrics — recommend a child stays rear-facing until age 2, or until they've reached the minimum weight and height requirement.”

Filler-Corn said she was surprised, but not discouraged, by the intensity of the opposition to what she views as a “common-sense safety measure.” Critics of the bill argued that the government should not have a role in how parents choose to raise and protect their children.

The bill went through several rounds of amendments before passing the House 77-23 and the Senate 23-17. Filler-Corn said she received bipartisan support. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, and Sen Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, were “amazing and very supportive” advocates for the bill.

 “Everyone has the right to raise their children as they see fit, but this really is a safety measure statistically proven to work,” Filler-Corn said. “When I’m faced with opposition, I compare the enforcement of rear-facing child seats to the requirement of everyone having to wear a seat belt. It’s very similar, but one is focused on children who can’t make decisions to protect themselves.”

Northam Vetoes 8 Bills; 1 Would Block Higher Wages

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a flurry of bills Monday, including one to prohibit local governments from requiring contractors to pay their employees more than minimum wage.

House Bill 375, introduced by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, passed the House and Senate on party-line votes during the General Assembly’s 2018 regular session. Northam said he rejected the bill because he believes employee wage and benefit decisions are best left to individual localities, pointing to differences in the cost of living and workforce factors.

“The ability of local governments to make this choice should be supported, not limited,” the Democratic governor said. “Decisions regarding municipal contacts should be made by local leaders who fully understand local needs and the needs of their workforce.”

HB 375 was one of eight bills Northam vetoed Monday. He also rejected:

  • Senate Bill 521, which would require local voter registrars to investigate the list of registered voters whenever it exceeds the estimated number of people age 18 or older in a county or city. The sponsor, Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County, called the measure “a critical election integrity bill.” But Northam said it would unduly burden election officials and that Virginia already has a process to ensure accurate voter registration rolls.
  • HB 1167, which would require jury commissioners to collect information from people who are not qualified to serve on juries and present that information to voter registrars for list maintenance purposes. “There is no evidence or data that jury information is a reliable source for voter list maintenance,” Northam said. He said using this information “could endanger the registrations of eligible voters and prevent them from successfully casting a ballot.”
  • HB 158, which would allow the General Assembly to alter legislative districts outside the constitutional process so they correspond with local voting precinct boundaries. Northam said this would allow members of the General Assembly to adjust districts at their own discretion, threatening Virginians’ rights to equal apportionment.
  • HB 1568, which would assign certain functions of the Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority. Northam said he believes this is an unnecessary move.
  • HB 1257, which states, “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” Northam said the legislation “would force local law enforcement agencies to use precious resources to perform functions that are the responsibility of federal immigration enforcement agencies. It also sends a chilling message to communities across Virginia that could have negative impacts on public safety.”
  • HB 1270, which would forbid state participation in adopting regulations on carbon dioxide cap-and-trade programs. Northam said the bill would limit Virginia’s ability to tackle climate change and provide additional clean energy jobs.
  • HB 1204, which would require Arlington County to assess two private country clubs there as land dedicated to open space rather than its current method of highest and best use. “This is a local dispute over a local government’s method of assessing land for property taxation,” Northam said. “As such, the solution to this dispute should be reached on the local level without the involvement of the state.”

The General Assembly will reconvene for a one-day session on April 18 to consider the vetoes and recommendations issues by Northam. It takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a veto. Democrats hold enough seats in each chamber to prevent an override.

Northam Signs ‘Stop Gun Violence’ License Plate Bill

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation Thursday authorizing a “Stop Gun Violence” specialty license plate.

In a session when gun safety proponents failed to make gains despite concern over recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas, even the license plate bill was controversial.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 287 after one of his constituents, Carol Luten, came up with the idea. Luten is involved in raising awareness about gun violence prevention and gun safety in Falls Church.

“Mostly it was a constituent request that happened to fall in line with one of my priorities anyways,” Simon said. “She said it’s like a moving billboard for her cause.”

The bill was more controversial than Simon expected. What he thought as simple license plate bill turned out to be more, as it drew opposition from the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League.

“The license plate’s proposed wording implies that violence which is not committed with a firearm is somehow acceptable by comparison, or that the inanimate object itself is responsible for human violence,” the league said in its position statement on the bill.

Another controversial portion of the bill came up when Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell, introduced an amendment that would make the plates revenue-sharing rather than simply highlighting an interest. Starting in 2020, the plates will cost $25: $10 will go toward making the plates themselves and $15 will go to the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services

“I am against all gun violence,” Fariss said. “I feel like most gun violence is due to behavioral and mental issues. I wanted to make sure that funding would be directed to and available for the Department of Behavioral Health to help.”

Simon says this was the most controversial portion of the bill.

“Suggesting our gun violence problem is really a mental health problem and a lack of mental health resources really misses the point,” Simon said. “Certainly there are some cases where better mental health care may have prevented certain incidents, but most gun violence doesn't have anything to do with mental health, and most people living with mental illness are not dangerous.”

Simon described the session as a tough year for bills related to guns. More than 70 such measures were filed at the start of the session.

“This is the one piece of legislation on either side that managed to thread the needle and get out of the legislature,” Simon said.

Environmentalists Urge Governor to Oust DEQ Director

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An environmental group reiterated its call Wednesday for Gov. Ralph Northam to fire the head of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, saying David Paylor “has regularly sided with polluters over the environment.”

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network made that statement after Northam signed an executive order instructing the DEQ to conduct an internal review. Northam said the review would include updating regulations, strengthening enforcement of environmental standards, identifying the causes of permitting delays and improving transparency.

“We agree with Gov. Northam that the Department of Environmental Quality needs to be seriously reformed, so we commend him for that,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “However, we are highly skeptical that DEQ Director David Paylor can oversee this internal review in a fair and comprehensive manner. The DEQ is a broken agency, and Director David Paylor is the one that broke it.”

Peter Anderson, Virginia program manager for the group Appalachian Voices, expressed skepticism about the DEQ’s ability to conduct the internal review.

“Gov. Northam’s announcement today calls for vital improvements at DEQ for protecting Virginia communities and the commonwealth’s natural resources,” Anderson said. “But it remains to be seen whether any real changes will occur.”

Anderson said the DEQ has a history of aligning with industries over the public interest. “Nonetheless, we hope DEQ seizes this opportunity to revamp its operations and prioritize the public interest over the interests of the companies it regulates,” he said.

Paylor has served as the director of the DEQ since 2006 when appointed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine.

Since 1973, Paylor has spent his career serving with environmental agencies such as the State Water Control Board and the Environmental Research Institute of the States. The Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute recognized Paylor as the recipient of its 2015 Gerald P. McCarthy Award for Leadership in Environmental Conflict Resolution.

However, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network says Paylor is too close to the companies DEQ regulates.

“We believe David Paylor should be replaced as DEQ director,” Tidwell said. “If Gov. Northam keeps him on, however, Paylor should recuse himself from this much-needed agency review. We hope Gov. Northam will consider turning the review over completely to the Secretary of Natural Resources in order to ensure real and substantive changes at the DEQ.”

Tidwell criticized Paylor’s relationship with energy companies and other businesses.

“In 12 years at the DEQ helm, Paylor has consistently sided with polluting industries over environmental advocacy groups,” Tidwell said. “The director has outraged health and environmental leaders by siding with Dominion on the dumping of coal ash in rivers and, most notoriously, the construction of patently harmful pipelines for fracked gas like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

Tidwell commended Northam for taking “several positive steps” to improve environmental protection and advocacy in Virginia. “He has supported joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and has pushed Dominion Energy to invest more in renewable power and efficiency,” Tidwell said.

But he said the governor “dropped the ball” by reappointing Paylor on Monday.

Tidwell said the timing of the reappointment was painful for landowners living along the route of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Last week, the DEQ gave final approval to begin cutting trees and clearing land for the project, which will run more than 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia.

Virginia Schools Will Teach How to Prevent Child Abuse

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia is taking a step toward teaching children how to recognize and prevent child abuse, abduction, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation after Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill to include age-appropriate instruction in those areas in the state’s family life education curriculum.

Current law already requires age-appropriate education on preventing dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and sexual violence, but child advocates like Patty Hall, the director of community engagement and volunteer services at Hanover Safe Place, have pushed for stronger measures.

“The work that I do with the kids shows that they don’t know often and understand the concept of being able to say no if somebody is touching them or doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Whether it is by a family member, or a friend or a dating partner, many of them do not understand these concepts,” said Hall, who does prevention education with children of all ages in Hanover County.

On Thursday, Northam signed SB 101, which was sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and incorporates proposals by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, and other legislators. Wexton is an advocate for Erin’s Law, a national movement urging states to implement prevention-oriented child sexual abuse programs.

LaTonsha Pridgen, founder of the advocacy group Stomp Out the Silence, also supports Erin’s Law. Pridgen said she was sexually abused from the ages of 8 to 13. Her experience inspired her to start S.O.S., a nonprofit dedicated to preventing childhood sexual abuse through awareness and legislation.

“I know firsthand what it means to be a child and not understand that adults can do you harm – not even know that I could go to my teachers or to another adult outside of my home to report this,” Pridgen said. “So I wholeheartedly support educating our children and giving them the information they need to prevent child sex abuse.”

The final version of SB 101 will create guidelines on age-appropriate programs on the prevention, recognition and awareness of child abuse, abduction, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, but it does not require schools to implement such programs. Still, advocates say it’s a step in the right direction.

“The law gets us one step closer to #ErinsLaw in Virginia,” Wexton stated on her Facebook page after SB 101 passed the House on March 7.

Besides adding child abuse prevention programs, SB 101 clarifies that sexual harassment by digital means will be included in the existing curriculum.

The bill takes effect July 1.

Expanding Medicaid Will Aid Schools, Governor Says

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner are urging the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, saying such a move would free up money to help schools.

On Thursday, the two Democrats sat down with more than 20 teachers, faculty and parents from Richmond Public Schools and surrounding counties to discuss how this would work.

Last week, Northam introduced a new state budget proposal that includes Medicaid expansion and takes a slightly different approach to spending that could shape the debate when lawmakers return for an April 11 special session.

The special session was called because legislators couldn’t reach an agreement on the budget during their regular session. The House of Delegates wants to expand Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income Americans. The Senate opposes that idea.

Because the House’s Medicaid expansion plan would be funded with federal dollars and a new tax on hospitals, budget writers had more money to spend on public education and other services. The Virginia Education Association estimates the House budget allocated $169 million more to K-12 schools than the Senate version.

“We have had the opportunity since January 2014 to expand Medicaid, to give approximately 400,000 working Virginians access to quality and affordable health care,” Northam said at Thursday’s meeting at Albert Hill Middle School. “Morally, it’s the right thing to do in Virginia. No individual, no family, should be one illness away from being financially alive.”

The House version of the budget would increase state aid to $5,617 per student next year and $5,690 in 2020. In the Senate version, state aid per pupil would be $5,583 in fiscal year 2019 and $5,589 in 2020.

“It’s budget time in Virginia, and we, the General Assembly, did work in a bipartisan way,” Northam said. “All of this happened because of folks coming from both sides of the aisle. The most important bill we haven't finished this year is our budget.”

Warner said the commonwealth faces same challenges he encountered as governor in 2002-06.

“Gov. Northam has inherited a challenge that has been around for the last six or seven years,” Warner said. “That is the question of when we talk about education, we also have to talk about health care.”

People at the meeting pointed to numerous funding issues in education, including outdated resources, dilapidated school buildings and overcrowded classrooms. They also said schools don’t have enough full-time staff members such as guidance counselors and nurses,

Northam asked teachers who had full-time nurses at their school to raise their hands. He then asked teachers who did not have full-time nurses. The response was split 50-50.

Rodney Robinson, a social studies teacher at the Virgie Binford Education Center, said the lack of guidance counselors and nurses caused some schools to lose accreditation.

“Instead of just being a teacher, we’re now being a social worker, the counselor,” Robinson said. “If we can get those (guidance counselors and nurses) back in the school systems, I can guarantee you’ll see more teachers in those harder-staffed schools because there is less work burden on them.”

Melinda Lawson, an eighth-grade English teacher at Albert Hill, echoed Robinson’s frustration.

“For Richmond, we have a very difficult time creating 21st-century learners when we don’t have the resources to do so,” Lawson said. “I’ve been in this building for 14 years, and I’ve worn many hats in this time. We’re always trying to get there, and everyone else seems to be where we’re not, and we’re aspiring to get there.”

Northam said “providing a world-class education” is a priority for his administration.

“There is power in every child, and we need to make sure every child in Virginia reaches their maximum potential,” he said.

Over 70,000 Sign Petitions Protesting Pipelines Across Virginia

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Environmentalists on Tuesday dropped on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk petitions signed by more than 70,000 people supporting stricter rules for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines that energy companies plan to build across Virginia.

One petition, signed by 10,000 Virginian residents, demands that the Northam administration immediately halt the tree-felling along the pipeline routes and let the public comment on the companies’ plans to control erosion and stormwater before they are finalized by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Activists also gave Northam an online petition signed by more than 62,000 citizens from around the country calling on Northam to stop the pipelines, which they said would threaten the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail and miles of national forest land. By late Tuesday, the number of signatures on the Change.org petition had topped 65,500.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and other groups held a press conference on the state Capitol grounds the morning after the DEQ approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Outraged by that action, the environmentalists said the DEQ must require the companies to take better precautions when constructing the pipelines. The activists said that will happen only if Northam gets involved.

“It’s time for you to be the leader that we voted for,” LeeAnne Williams, a Virginia Sierra Club volunteer, said, addressing the governor.

Some activists said they have already seen negative effects of the pipeline from the cutting of trees. “The proposed pipelines have altered people’s lives, land value and emotional well-being,” said Lara Mack, Virginia field organizer for Appalachian Voices.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run more than 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. If built as proposed, the pipelines would cross streams and other bodies of water more than 1,400 times, environmentalists say.

David Sligh, conservation director for Wild Virginia, said the state should review the environmental impact at each of those water crossings. He said pollution from the pipeline could cause “permanent damage to the aquatic systems.”

The companies that want to build the pipelines say the projects are crucial to meeting the energy needs of Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region.

“Demand for natural gas is growing across the region – to produce cleaner electricity and support economic development – but there is not enough infrastructure to deliver the supplies needed to meet this demand,” the consortium that has proposed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline says on its website.

The consortium, which includes Dominion Energy, says the pipeline construction would create 17,000 jobs and provide a “major boost to local businesses in every community.”

In a recent monthly newsletter, the company building the Mountain Valley Pipeline said it plans to have the pipeline in service by the end of the year.

Governor Visits SVCC Power Line Worker Training Program

Governor Ralph Northam spent time at the Southside Virginia Community College Power Line Worker Training Program at the Occupational/Technical Center at Pickett Park.  Among those attending are (Left to Right) Andrew Vehorn, Director of Governmental Affairs for Virginia, Maryland, Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives(VMDAEC), Dr. Al Roberts, SVCC President, John Lee, CEO of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, Governor Northam, Jeffrey Edwards, CEO of Southside Electric Cooperative, and Brian Mosier, Vice President of Member and Governmental Relations for VMDAEC.

Virginia’s new Governor, Ralph Northam, spent part of a cold, snowy and blustery day touring the field where power line worker students train for jobs in the Commonwealth.  His visit to the Southside Virginia Community College Occupational Technical Center at Pickett Park wasarranged by Virginia Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives and Andrew Vehorn, Director of Governmental Affairs for VMDAE. 

The Governor spent time watching power line students climb, saw truck driving activity on the range and met the head of the diesel tech program. He also sat down with the CEOs of Mecklenburg and Southside Electric Cooperatives, John Lee and Jeffrey Edwards respectively, and SVCC President Dr. Al Roberts and VP of Workforce Dr. Keith Harkins to learn more about the impact these programs have on the economy of Virginia. Dr. Megan Healy, Chief Workforce Development Advisor to the Governor was also in attendance.       

Governor Northam was at the Blackstone facility to see firsthand the benefits of the Workforce Credentialing Grant Programand discuss issues facing rural Virginia; including broadband deployment and workforce development. Leepresented Governor Northam with a letter, signed by CEOs from all 12 electric cooperatives headquartered in Virginia pledging unified commitment to collaboratively work on a comprehensive solution to rural Virginia’s lack of broadband availability.         

Now in its third year of operation, this 11-week line worker pre-apprentice program provides Level 1 certification from NCCER (the National Center for Construction Education & Research), as well as commercial driver’s licenses, CPR/First Aid certification and OSHA safety training. At the recommendation of its advisory committee, the PLW program recently expanded to include chainsawsafety, with training provided by Penn Line.         

“We’re proud to help launch these young people into a vital career that will enable them to stay in their rural communities,” said Harkins.

For more information about the Power Line Worker Training School, visit https://southside.edu/events/power-line-worker-training-schoolor call SVCC’s Susan Early at (434) 292-3101.  Next Class begins June 4, 2018.

Final Hearing on Carbon Bill; Northam to Veto GOP Measure

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Proposed regulations on power plant carbon emissions to help lower pollution 30 percent by 2030 drew a variety of responses from citizens and environmental advocates at a public hearing by the state Air Pollution Control Board.

The draft was proposed in November, following then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive directive in May to instruct the Department of Environmental Quality  to develop a cap-and-trade proposal. The Republican-majority General Assembly opposed  Gov. Ralph Northam’s bid to make Virginia the first Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and instead narrowly backed HB 1270, which would block such action. Northam’s office said Tuesday he would veto that bill, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Citizens at the hearing  on Monday were split on whether they believed Virginia should join the initiative, with some expressing concern about its impact on the state’s economy. There was also  debate over biomass regulation. While some said biomass is carbon neutral, others countered that it should be regulated if it is co-fired with other fuels.

Janet Eddy, a member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, supported joining the initiative. She said that her patients feel the negative effects of climate change and that health statewide would improve by reducing the emissions under the pact. She said Abt Associates, a social change organization, conducted a study between 2009 and 2014 that estimated the greenhouse gas initiative has averted at least 300 deaths and 35 heart attacks.

Michael Stone of Richmond said he opposes the initiative because the state should focus on creating renewable energy sources rather than finding a way to continue using fossil fuels with less negative effects. He said, however, that he favors reducing carbon.

“I don’t see how we can develop any new fossil fuel infrastructure in Virginia and say that we’re really keeping an eye on the future,” Stone said.

The meeting came after a rally by the Sierra Club, which supports the proposed draft.

“Virginia is taking a step forward while on the federal level, the Trump administration is doing a dangerous dance, reducing lifesaving safeguards,” Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said in a news release.

But Harrison Wallace, Virginia policy coordinator and coastal campaigns manager for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said at the rally that the draft doesn’t go far enough.

He said the state should limit carbon emissions to a total of 30 million tons by 2020 and make continued reductions beyond 2030. The current proposed goal is between 33 to 34 million tons. Wallace also complained that the initiative fails to include biomass as a power-producing carbon fuel that needs to be restricted. He said that gives Dominion Energy “an unfair economic advantage.”

Virginia Governor Calls Special Session to Tackle Budget

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After adjourning last week without passing a budget, members of the Virginia General Assembly will reconvene April 11 for a special session to complete their work on a biennial spending plan.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a proclamation Tuesday calling the special session.

“After a legislative session that was marked by bipartisan progress on issues that matter to people’s lives, I remain disappointed that the General Assembly was unable to extend that spirit of cooperation to its work on the budget,” Northam said in a press release.

The House budget bill, introduced by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, passed in the House 68-32. The Senate insisted on amendments. The bill went to a conference committee, but negotiators could not reach agreement before the session concluded Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, introduced the Senate’s budget bill, which passed the Senate 25-15. It was sent to the House but never made it out of the Appropriations Committee.

The major sticking point is over Medicaid, the health program for low-income Americans. The House wants to expand Medicaid on grounds that the federal government will pick up most of the cost. The Senate opposes that idea because it fears the state may be stuck with the tab.

Like the House, Northam wants to expand Medicaid.

“Virginians sent us to Richmond to work together to make life better for every family, no matter who they are or where they live. We can live up to that responsibility by passing a budget that expands health care to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who need it,” he said in Tuesday’s statement.

“Expanding coverage will also generate savings that we can invest in education, workforce training, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, and a healthy cash balance to prepare for fiscal downturns.”

The General Assembly convened on Jan. 10 for a 60-day session. By the end of the session, more than 870 bills had passed — but none on the budget.

By April 9, Northam must sign, veto or recommend changes on the approved bills. The General Assembly already was scheduled to meet on April 18 to consider the governor’s vetoes and recommendations.

Gov. Northam Signs 300 Bills on Issues From Taxes to Child Abuse

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Before adjourning on Saturday, the General Assembly passed more than 870 bills, and about 300 of them – on subjects ranging from taxes and criminal justice to education and government transparency – have already been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The first bill signed by Northam, a pediatric neurologist who took office on Jan. 13, fit his medical career: Senate Bill 866 will reauthorize a license for a hospital in Patrick County, allowing the facility to reopen. SB 866 took effect immediately – on Feb. 16. Unless a bill contains such an emergency clause, it takes effect July 1.

Here is a rundown of other bills the governor has approved, as well as legislation awaiting action.

Bills Already Enacted

House Bill 154 and SB 230 took effect as soon as the governor signed them in on Feb. 22 and 23. Both conform Virginia’s tax system to changes in the federal tax code that the U.S. Congress approved last year.

Like the GOP-created federal law, both state laws were introduced by Republicans. Unlike the federal legislation, both bills saw bipartisan support in Virginia’s House and Senate.

The state legislation provides tax incentives to fund relief to areas struck by hurricanes. The two bills also feature the first amendments that Northam recommended as governor.

Bills Taking Effect July 1

Northam signed several bills tackling child abuse. They include HB 150 and HB 389, which will require local social service departments to alert schools found to have employed anyone accused of child abuse or neglect at any time.

Young people also will be helped by HB 399 and SB 960, which seek to create new work opportunities for students. The House bill requires school systems to notify students about internships and other work-based learning experiences. The Senate measure will promote partnerships between public high schools and local businesses on internships, apprenticeships and job shadow programs.

HB 35 will add a layer of oversight to the process that puts more violent juvenile offenders in adult detention faculties for the safety of other juveniles. It also will separate these juveniles from adult offenders when confined in adult facilities.

SB 966 will allow monopoly utilities like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to use their “over-earnings” – revenues that state regulators consider as excess profits – to modernize the energy grid and promote clean energy. The bill also removes a rate freeze made law in 2015, restoring some regulatory power to the State Corporation Committee.

HB 907 and 908 will allow greater transparency through public access to government meetings through the Freedom of Information Act. At the same time, Northam approved bills creating more FOIA exemptions: for records relating to public safety (HB 727), certain police records (HB 909) and select financial investment documents held by board members of the College of William and Mary (HB 1426).

Bills on the Governor’s Desk

In criminal justice, HB 1550 would raise the threshold amount of money stolen that would qualify for grand larceny from $200 to $500. The current state threshold, which determines whether the crime is a felony, is one of the lowest in the United States.

Immigration saw the passage of HB 1257, which would bar the creation of sanctuary cities in Virginia by enforcing federal immigration standards on all localities. Its passage in the Senate, like the House of Delegates, came down to votes split along party lines. Northam has already made clear his intention to veto the legislation.

Last year, the General Assembly passed HB 1547, which provides state funding to renovate select historically black cemeteries in Richmond. This year, legislators approved bills focusing on African-American cemeteries in Loudoun County (SB 163), Charlottesville (HB 360) and Portsmouth (SB 198 and HB 527). A fifth, HB 284, would cover every black cemetery in the state while broadening the groups able to receive state funds.

Also awaiting Northam’s signature is HB 1600, which would reduce the maximum length of a long-term school suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days. The bill provides exceptions in extreme cases.

HB 50 would prohibit teachers and other school employees from “lunch shaming” students who can’t afford school meals by making them do chores or wear a wristband or hand stamp.

Northam has until April 9 to sign, veto or recommend changes to the bills sent to him by the General Assembly. Lawmakers will then return to Richmond on April 18 for a one-day session to consider vetoes and recommendations.

One piece of legislation that isn’t on Northam’s desk is a state budget for the 2018-2020 biennium. Legislators adjourned Saturday without reaching agreement on the budget because the Senate rejected the House of Delegates’ plans to expand Medicaid.

So Northam, who supports Medicaid expansion, must call a special legislative session for lawmakers to approve a budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

Governor Signs Bill Reshaping How Energy Giants Operate

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill Friday reshaping the way the state’s monopoly utility companies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, are allowed to spend revenues received from customers.

In approving the bill, the governor turned back late-session pleas by opponents who fear the bill will allow the electric companies to regulate themselves.

Northam, on Twitter, described the legislation as “ending the freeze on energy utility rates, returning money to customers, and investing in clean energy and a modern grid. I am proud that my team and I improved this bill significantly and thank the General Assembly for its continued work on the measure.”

Senate Bill 966, also known as the Grid Transformation and Security Act, was introduced by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and changes the way utilities are allowed to collect and spend “over-earnings” -- what state regulators consider to be excessive profits. The bill also removes a rate freeze imposed by a 2015 law, which made the State Corporation Committee unable to order customer refunds and set utility rates.

The legislation states that utilities may spend excess profits toward modernizing the state’s energy grid as well as for projects focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Before the 2015 rate freeze, ratepayers would have received a percentage refund for over-earnings.

However, legislators opposed to the bill fear it is worded in such a way as to lessen the SCC’s regulating power on the utilities, allowing them to use the excess profits in other ways.

Northam’s signature comes two days after Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, and Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, sent the governor a letter urging him to amend sections of the legislation.

The two senators said they believe that the bill “takes power away from the SCC, and places it into the hands of the General Assembly” and that it deems “a variety of projects, ‘in the public interest,’ including various transmission, generation, and energy storage projects, without full review by the SCC.”

Dominion Energy released a statement thanking the legislation’s supporters.

“We appreciate the hard work put in by the broad coalition of supporters, the governor’s office, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reach consensus on creating a smarter, stronger, greener electric grid with tremendous customer benefits,” said Dominion Energy spokesman Rayhan Daudani.

Gov. Northam Gives a ‘Whoot’ about Reading

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- Gov. Ralph Northam sat down with first-graders at Woodville Elementary School on Friday morning and read Dr. Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” in celebration of Read Across America Day.
 
The national event, created by the National Education Association in 1997, falls on the birthday of the late Theodor Geisel, best known for writing more than 60 children's books under the pen name Dr. Seuss.
 
Teachers, politicians, athletes and celebrities across the nation participate in Read Across America by taking part in activities to encourage children to read.
 
“These babies are the leaders of tomorrow. We want them to learn at an early age that it is important to read because you can’t function in a society if you can’t read or write,” said Shannon Washington, principal of Woodville Elementary.
 
At the school, staff members sported Dr. Seuss hats and costumes and volunteers welcomed parents and family members who joined the students. Visitors were handed Dr. Seuss books as they signed in.
 
Northam joined Tawnya Jones’ first-grade class. The children were excited to share their dreams and goals with Northam, who stressed the importance of reading before starting in on  “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”
 
Washington said that at Woodville, reading is celebrated by students and teachers. “The kids come to my office as a principal for reading, and it’s not punishment– the kids are excited about reading, and they want people to hear them read,” she said.
 
 
“We celebrate reading, and we promote it and encourage students to share their love for reading and the adults to share their love for reading,” Washington said. “We want children to see the importance of literacy. As the adults, we have to show kids our love for reading.”

Lawmakers, Northam, lobbyists go to court — for a good cause

CAPITAL CLASSIC

Use buttons on each side to scroll forward/back through slideshow.

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Bragging rights were on the line as the Virginia governor’s office played the lobbyists and the state Senate took on the House of Delegates in the 10th annual Massey Capitol Classic Challenge basketball games.

Among the team of government officials was Gov. Ralph Northam, who recorded just two points and a reboundMonday night but maintained high spirits.

“It’s great to see everyone here tonight to support a great cause. Thank you all so much for supporting it,” Northam said.

The event at the Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center raises money for the VCU Massey Cancer Center. This year’s game raised more than $34,653 — over $1,000 more than last year. The House of Delegates led the fundraising efforts, raising $12,853 through personal and family donations.

According to the Massey website, the cancer center is one of two in Virginia, designated by the National Cancer Institute. Of the 1,500 cancer centers in the United States, 69 have earned an NCI designation, placing Massey in the top 4 percent of cancer centers nationwide.

To prepare for the Capitol Classic, team members have been practicing on Tuesdays since the legislative session began in January, said Laura Bryant, an intern for Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg. Their hard work, however, may not have been noticeable to the hundreds of fans in attendance.

The first game was a showdown between the Northam administration representatives and lobbyists. The first half was full of sloppy passes and missed open shots. The second half proved to be more fruitful for both sides, but the lobbyists ultimately fell to the governor’s team by a final score of 52-48.

The winning team included Northam aide Seth Opoku-Yeboah and Director of Communications Brian Coy.

Following the governor’s victory, the House and Senate took the court. After a slow 15-minute first half the House held an 18-13 lead.

The game featured some local celebrities, such as former VCU basketball guard Doug Brooks, class of 2017, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. However, even Brooks couldn’t lift the Senate to a victory. In the Senate, Fairfax only votes in case of a tie. On the basketball court, he helped the House seal a 40-31 victory.

Gov. Northam Calls for Raising Teachers’ Salaries

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam told the Virginia School Boards Association on Monday that the state needs to raise teacher pay to attract and keep top talent in the commonwealth’s public schools.

Speaking to the association’s annual Capital Conference, Northam said the state’s teachers make $7,500 less than the national average.

“There are some things that I think need attention, and some of them sooner than later,” he said. “The first is, we need to be able to recruit and retain the best talent out there to teach our children.”

The governor said he also wants to close the skills gap by reaching children earlier in their development. Northam said one way to do that is to build on the STEM acronym of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by adding art and health care.

Northam drew on his experience as a child neurologist when discussing the need to evaluate school start times. He said he understands that adolescents go to sleep later and wake up later than adults.

“We’re asking our teenagers – we’re not asking them, we’re telling them – to start school at 7, 7:30 in the morning. So, if you talk about issues like conduct problems or attention problems or learning disabilities, a lot of those can be related to not getting enough sleep at night,” he said.

The VSBA’s conference represented an early opportunity for the governor to meet with Virginians involved in education.

“I think what’s important with this particular group is you have superintendents as well as school board members,” said Jared Cotton, the superintendent of schools in Henry County, on the North Carolina line.

An educator from another rural area said his region faces different economic challenges than populated areas that make up much of the state’s school spending.

 “When you are living in a rural county, there is not a great deal of economic development with business and industry to help offset,” said Christopher Smith, a member of the Southampton County School Board for more than 32 years. “I think one of the main issues confronting most localities is, how can the state help especially rural areas to develop economically?”

Activists Protest Gov. Northam’s Position on Pipelines

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – About 25 environmental activists demonstrated at Gov. Ralph Northam’s inauguration Saturday to protest his refusal to oppose two natural gas pipelines that energy companies want to build across Virginia.

The demonstrators unveiled a banner saying “our water > pipelines” and waved other signs as they chanted “water is life” through megaphones.

The protesters were with Virginia River Healers and a coalition called “Water is Life. Protect it.” They were demonstrating against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would cut across the western part of the state.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry natural gas 600 miles from West Virginia to North Carolina, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline would run more than 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Dominion Energy and other companies that have proposed the pipelines say they are important for meeting the region’s energy needs and will create jobs.

Tom Burkett, the lead organizer of Saturday’s protest, complained that the pipelines would carry gas extracted from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into the ground – a process that opponents say damages the environment.

“In doing this, there is a lot of water contamination concerns because of the millions of gallons of chemicals that the process uses,” Burkett said. “There is also the concern that with these pipelines being constructed, the fracking companies will have a better infrastructure and will then get a business incentive to continue fracking even more.”

Burkett noted that Northam has accepted campaign contributions from Dominion Energy. He said he wished politicians would pledge to not accept money from energy companies that have a stake in pipelines.

Northam has given mixed signals on whether he approves of the pipeline projects.

During the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Northam avoided taking a firm stand for or against the pipelines – drawing criticism from his opponent, Tom Perriello, and environmentalists.

Northam has said he supports the pipelines if they can be constructed in an environmentally safe way and the rights of property owners are not violated. Last week, Northam said he supports U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s proposal that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reconsider its vote to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

About 10 of the demonstrators at Northam’s inauguration were immigrants’ rights supporters. Wearing their signature orange beanies, they were showing their support for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children.

Dreamers had been protected against deportation by an Obama administration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. President Trump has indicated he may end that policy.

Cold Temperatures Fail to Deter Inauguration Crowd

By Logan Bogert and Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –  Virginians had a lot of reasons to endure biting cold temperatures Saturday to witness Ralph Northam's inauguration as governor. Some of the estimated 5,000 spectators came with a plea of help. Some wanted to witness democracy in action. And others had dedicated themselves to the Northam campaign.

“I’m here to celebrate our way ahead,” Christine Payne of Williamsburg said, referring to Northam’s inaugural theme. “I worked hard for him since his primary, and I am here to continue that support. I hope to see his campaign promises come to fruition, from the environment all to the economy.”

Sophin Sok, a Richmond resident from Cambodia, said she came to the inaugural ceremony in hopes of getting Northam’s attention to pardon her fiance, who has been detained for three months and faces deportation.  

“He  came here at the age of 3, and he’s the biological father to three of my kids.” Sok said. “About a decade ago, he plead guilty to a charge, but he served his time, paid his debt to society and he turned his life around and pretty much put his family as a priority.

“They didn’t prepare him for anything, they just took him. They didn’t allow us to prepare ourselves -- so now it’s kind of hard for me because he is the main provider also and he’s a great father,” Sok said.

Sok said she and her fiance have children ages 1, 2 and 6. They  want Northam to write a pardon letter so he can come home and get a second chance to stay in America.

For Kevin Miller of Danville, the inaugural parade brought a special family meaning. He came to watch his son perform with the George Washington High School marching band. “It’s a great honor for them and an opportunity for them to do something they don’t get to do very often,” Miller said.

The ceremony and parade showcased Virginia's diversity.

The day opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Boy and Girl Scouts from the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center. And it closed with the blessing of the grounds by representatives of Virginia's Indian tribes.

Universities from across the state took part in the parade, as did such groups as Equality Virginia, the Cultural Center of India and the Charlottesville Cardinals Wheelchair Basketball Team.

Inauguration Attendees: ‘I’m Proud of My State’

 

 

 

 

 

By Adam Hamza and Christopher Wood, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Traveling from all parts of the state, thousands of Virginians came to watch Ralph Northam take the gubernatorial oath of office on Saturday. Many traveled to show their support for the new governor – and others to reflect on what the future holds.

‘I’m proud of my state’

Mark and Elizabeth Martin drove 85 miles from Stanardsville to see their son march in the parade with the Virginia Military Institute. Before Northam’s inaugural address, Mark Martin said he believed Virginia was regressing in its politics.

“In the 2016 election, we had the backlash of nationalism and small mindedness, and this was a move in the other direction,” he said.

Both Mark and Elizabeth said they believe Northam will have a progressive impact in Virginia.

“I’m proud of my state for doing the right thing,” Elizabeth Martin said. “Partisan politics aren’t the way to go; we need to look at each issue individually and see what’s best for everyone.”

 

First-time to attend an inauguration

Jaylen Green, a student at the University of Virginia, said she and a friend came to support other friends who had worked for Northam’s campaign. She said she has seen how politics affect people locally, and that she voted for Northam in the gubernatorial primary elections.

“Neither of us had been to an inauguration before,” Green said.

Jill Caiazzo of Arlington attended the inauguration for the first time as well.

“I’m just excited to see Ralph Northam inaugurated. I think he’s going to do great things for this state,” she said.

 

A supporter of women’s rights

Northam’s inaugural address covered a range of issues including Medicaid expansion, gun regulation, women’s rights and the need to end partisan politics.

Elizabeth Martin, a pro-choice supporter, said she thought it was important that the new governor specifically mentioned women’s rights.

 

 

“I’m so happy he hit on women’s rights and is stressing that, and rights for all people,” she said.

 

 

A focus on other issues

 

 

Some attended to voice their causes and gauge what Northam’s goals are. Sheba Williams is the executive director of Nolef Turns, a charity that helps men and women who have been convicted of a felony. She said she went to the inauguration to better understand the direction the administration is taking.

 

 

“We just want to see what the goals are for this administration, and see who they will be focusing on,” Williams said.

 

 

Sam Barker, a student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, said he came to the inauguration to see a friend, Justin Fairfax, take the oath of office as the state’s lieutenant governor. He said he hopes Northam keeps a strong stand on his environmental policy.

 

 

In the past, Northam has worked to preserve water quality and management in the Chesapeake Bay. He has also rejected the idea that environmental regulation and economic growth are mutually exclusive.

 

 

“I just really hope he puts a stop to offshore drilling in Virginia,” Barker said, referring to a recent action by President Trump. “Trump has reinstated offshore drilling on the East Coast, which has been banned since at least the ’70s.”

Northam inaugural ball showcases Virginia regions

By Siona Peterous and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Temperatures in the 20s didn’t deter a steady stream of hundreds of people dressed in fine suits and glamorous gowns from arriving at Main Street Station for Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball.

The ball opened its doors at 8 p.m. Saturday and was the first event held in the station’s newly renovated 47,000 square-foot and 500-foot long train shed.

“I’m happy to see the renovations are done and this is such a great, exciting event. It makes politics a little more fun, you know,” said Margaret Clark, a Henrico resident who teaches high school and works with a local non-profit.

The ball featured a Motown-influenced funk band, Mo’ Sol, whose high-energy twists on classics by Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and dozens more helped create a lively crowd that danced in the 90 minutes between when doors opened and the governor and first lady of Virginia, Pamela Northam, appeared on stage for their first dance.

In keeping with the theme of the Motown glory days, the couple’s first dance was to Otis Redding’s, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Foods and drinks distinct to the Commonwealth's regions were featured at tables set against the hall’s massive glass windows. Diners could sample coastal Virginia’s raw bar, pot pie from the Blue Ridge, charcuterie from Northern Virginia and an apple dessert from the Shenandoah Valley.

The ball’s open bar included a specially made beer, Inaugural-ALE from the  Ashland-based Center of the Universe Brewing Company.

“By brewing this beer with 100-percent Virginia grown ingredients, we hope to show the synergy between the Virginia craft beer manufacturers and our Virginia agricultural partners,” company founder Chris Ray said in a news release.

According to Laura Bryant, who campaigned with Northam, the focus on Virginia’s agriculture is  in line with the new governor’s promise to continue former Gov. Terry McAuliffe's work on showcasing regions outside of the economic powerhouses of Northern Virginia.

“As you can see there is a celebration of areas outside of NOVA -- Southwest Virginia, Blue Ridge Virginia and Richmond,” Bryant said. “I’m just excited because there are voices represented that would usually not be present in an inaugural setting.”

Immigrant-Rights Supporters Protest at Inaugural Ball

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- About a dozen immigrant-rights supporters protested outside Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball, calling on Virginia politicians to back federal legislation protecting many undocumented young adults from deportation.

The protesters urged U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to support a bill to help immigrants who qualified for protection under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. President Trump has indicated he will end the DACA policy unless Congress acts.

The demonstrators shouted their pleas Saturday night outside Main Street Station, where Northam’s inaugural ball was being held.

The protests were organized by CASA in Action, a nonprofit organization operating in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The organization says it has more than 96,000 members and is the largest electoral organization focused on immigrant rights in the mid-Atlantic region.

The president of CASA in Action, Gustavo Torres, said that the protests focused on pressuring Kaine and Warner to require a “clean” DACA bill as part of congressional negotiations over the federal budget. Such a bill would allow DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, to stay in the United States.

The activists have been following Kaine and Warner at various events to protest their previous votes against putting the DACA law in the budget legislation. Congress must take budget action by Friday to avert a government shutdown.

The fate of DACA protections has become a critical issue in reaching a bipartisan deal on a federal budget. Many Democratic leaders have announced they will not support a budget without guaranteeing the security of DACA recipients, Torres said.

“We are still very optimistic based on people’s reactions against the deportation of DACA recipients,” Torres said. “But we have to do our homework. Doing our homework is knocking on doors; it's talking to people. They (Kaine and Warner) say they are our friends, but right now we need them to be our champions. There is a strong difference.”

Luis Aguilera, a DACA recipient and an immigrant rights activist, said it’s not surprising that DACA is under attack.

“Using immigrants is a convenient political tool; however it’s not just Trump,” Aguilera said. “So we are asking Sen. Kaine and Sen. Warner to back up their claims that they are supporters of DACA.”

Though the conversation about DACA is heavily focused on Latinos, Dreamers of other nationalities also are affected.

Esther Jeon, a DACA recipient, is an immigrant rights fellow with the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.

“I don't think many people know how many Asian Americans are affected by DACA. One in six in our Korean-American community have DACA,” Jeong said.

 “We’re all here to let the government know how widespread the effects (of ending DACA protections) are -- because it’s not just Latinos, it’s Asians, and there is even a number of undocumented black immigrants in this country as well.”

As the protest was being held at the inaugural ball, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced some good news for DACA recipients: On Saturday evening, the department said it would continue to process DACA renewals in light of a ruling last week by a federal judge in San Francisco. However, that does not mean DACA is protected for the long term.

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