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2017 Capital News Service

GREENSVILLE/EMPORIA DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

LOCAL BOARD MEETING

The Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services Administrative Board will meet on Thursday, August 17, 2017, at 3:30 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Greensville/Emporia Department of Social Services located at 1748 East Atlantic Street.  The public is welcome to attend.

When supply exceeds demand, wages for Langley Park day laborers suffer

By GABY GALVIN, Capital News Service

LANGLEY PARK, Maryland – Each weekday morning, contractors in need of day laborers to paint, mulch or hammer pull their trucks into a small strip mall here and begin negotiating with job seekers. It takes just a few minutes for the price of human labor to decline – often below the state’s minimum wage – as men desperate for work underbid each other.

On a recent weekday, eight trucks pulled in over a two-hour period and separately negotiated with about 10 workers at a time. The bidding started at $12 an hour. But because there were more laborers than employers, the price frequently fell to as little as $5 per hour, significantly lower than the state’s mandated $8.75 minimum hourly wage and Prince George’s County’s minimum wage of $10.75 an hour. Although several workers cut deals at that low rate, Jose, a construction worker who moved to the U.S. from Guatemala 21 years ago, held out for higher pay – a decision that cost him a job at the time.

Even though Jose sometimes works for less than the $16 an hour he thinks he should be earning, he won’t bid himself down as low as the other workers. Day laborers make so little, he said, that they “have to work sometimes day and sometimes day and nights.” (Capital News Service is withholding the last names of day workers to protect them from possible retaliatory actions from employers.)

Scenes such as this have become a common part of the American informal job market and are especially prevalent in heavily immigrant areas such as Langley Park, a small community in Prince George’s County that is home to many families that have come to the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries in Central America and Africa.

Immigrant day workers say these informal markets serve a good purpose by allowing them to find work easily and without signing paperwork or governmental oversight. But worker advocates argue that these markets actually work against the long-term interest of immigrants by pulling wages down so low that families struggle to break out of poverty. The average annual income for day laborers in Langley Park, many of whom are in the U.S. illegally, is between $10,000 and $15,000, according to CASA de Maryland, the largest Latino and immigrant advocacy organization in the Washington, D.C. area.

Moreover, some economists believe these trends have trickled down to the broader job market and could partly explain why wages for some low-skilled workers – both native-born and immigrants – have remained stuck at the same level for decades and in some cases have fallen.

“The theory says that increased supply [of workers] should lower wages,” said Nicholas Montgomery, a labor economist at the University of Maryland. Montgomery says that while native-born Americans might frown at the idea of working for less than minimum wage, many immigrants calculate their earnings differently. “I do believe these workers are thinking, ‘What is the way that I can make the most amount of money?’ And that’s not necessarily holding out for a higher wage. And I would rather bid myself down to $8 an hour, and have an 80 percent chance of getting a job, than having a 10 percent chance at $15 an hour.”

Between March 2006 and March 2016, average weekly wages adjusted for inflation for all U.S. production workers rose 8.2 percent to $309.68, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That category includes workers in construction, manufacturing and service jobs and those who are not primarily employed to supervise others. But average weekly wages for workers in some industries haven’t kept pace and in some cases have declined.

For example, average weekly wages for workers in the janitorial services industry declined 1.8 percent from March 2006 to March 2016 to $144.56; wages for employees in the house painting industry declined 3.3 percent to $307.46 and average wages for workers in the house and office furniture moving industry were down 11.5 percent to $235.76. Average weekly wages for workers in landscaping services rose 6.2 percent, but remained relatively low at just $252.85 in March 2016.

“It’s been tough” to convince workers not to underbid their labor, says Delia Aguilar, the senior manager of workforce development for CASA de Maryland. She says that workers believe that jobs are more plentiful in the informal markets, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re getting fair payment.”

Since 1985, CASA has tried to push back against falling wages by establishing so-called “welcome” centers where employers and potential employees can meet and CASA mediators will help negotiate wages and working conditions. CASA’s welcome center in Langley Park opened in 2008 and handles between 20 and 40 workers daily.

CASA sets a wage floor of $10 per hour, though Aguilar said employers often pay at least $12 an hour. Higher-skilled workers earn between $15 and $20 per hour, a sharp increase from the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and Maryland’s $8.75 hourly minimum wage. The state’s hourly wage is set to increase to $9.25 in July.

In return for paying higher wages, contractors that hire via CASA take on workers who have received job and safety training. CASA offers classes on building maintenance, drywall, heating and cooling and other occupational skills, and instructs workers on professional dress and behavior.

Still, some employers “are going to try to save money, and they see it as a business opportunity to do that,” Aguilar said of contractors who hire non-CASA workers for cheaper wages. “Some employers are conscious, they understand, what we have over here is a little bit different. They pay a little bit more, but they understand that the process is more viable.”

CASA operates with a first-in, first-out system: When workers arrive, as early as 6 a.m., they sign in and wait for the first employer to show up with work. The second worker to arrive then moves up a slot, and so on, with the rotation carrying over to the next day. When employers pick up laborers, they sign documentation agreeing to what CASA’s staff refers to as a “living wage.” If employers don’t pay, CASA’s legal services team comes knocking.

Felix, an immigrant from Cameroon in Central Africa, appreciates CASA’s tactics. “CASA is looking out for everybody, not for a particular person,” said Felix, who has been finding jobs through the welcome center for the past three years. He said he rarely participates in the informal markets because he isn’t willing to work for less than $10 per hour and he doesn’t like the way workers undermine each other. “Everybody up there is everybody for themselves.” 

At least as many workers choose to look for work outside of CASA, though. For those laborers, it’s better to work for less pay than to not work at all, a risk with CASA’s one-in one-out system. With no way to collectively enforce CASA’s higher pay, wages end up dropping for all workers, according to Montgomery.

“There’s only going to be so many people who are willing to hire people at $15 an hour,” Montgomery said. “And however many people that is, it is fewer than the number of people who are willing to hire people for $10 an hour. If you underbid, that increases your probability of getting a job.”

Workers who operate outside of CASA underbid themselves because they think in terms of accrued wages, not hourly, Montgomery and Aguilar agree. Although CASA workers earn more hourly, the probability of not getting work in a given day is higher. Non-CASA laborers, conversely, might work more often but make less money hourly.

CASA encourages employers to request workers through an online form and telephone calls so they don’t have to physically go to center and be “harassed” by outside workers, Aguilar said. Langley Park is the only of CASA’s five welcome centers with this issue because it is located in a strip mall’s basement. It is easy for outside workers to intercept employers on their way to CASA, offering to work for less than those waiting downstairs, she said.

“We understand at the same time, [non-CASA laborers] are in need,” Aguilar said. “They’re trying to do as much as they can to be able to make that money that they need to support their families. At the same time, they are changing the environment in the area.”

Illegal voting in Virginia? Yes. Massive? Doubtful.

By Mary Lee Clark and Tyler Hammel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – For years, Republicans have loudly proclaimed that voter fraud is widespread in U.S. elections – and just as adamantly, Democrats have insisted that such allegations are nonsense.

Last fall, a pair of groups supported by conservatives released a report with the sensational title “Alien Invasion in Virginia: The discovery and coverup of noncitizen registration and voting.” It said illegal voting is a “massive problem”:

“In our small sample of just eight Virginia counties who responded to our public inspection requests, we found 1046 aliens who registered to vote illegally,” the study said.

“The problem is most certainly exponentially worse because we have no data regarding aliens on the registration rolls for the other 125 Virginia localities. Even in this small sample, when the voting history of this small sample of alien registrants is examined, nearly 200 verified ballots were cast before they were removed from the rolls. Each one of them is likely a felony.”

The report’s startling claims gained traction on some conservative websites as evidence of a rigged election system but were dismissed by Democrats as fiction from the far-right. The study made a splash in Virginia media but was quickly lost in the partisan noise of the presidential election.

In recent weeks, Capital News Service attempted to replicate the study’s methods and found that some noncitizens have indeed voted in Virginia, though not on a massive scale. Using the Freedom of Information Act, voter registration records and voter history data, CNS found that:

  • About 240 people who weren’t citizens had been registered to vote in 10 localities, mostly in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area.
  • 28 of these noncitizens actually voted in an election before they were removed from the voter registration rolls.
  • They cast a total of more than 100 ballots.

CNS did not find evidence that noncitizens voted in massive numbers or tipped an election, as some Republicans have alleged. Indeed, half of the noncitizens who voted in a party primary voted in a Republican primary. However, the records seem to contradict Democrats’ assertion that voter fraud is nonexistent.

Origins of the ‘Alien Invasion’ report

The “Alien Invasion” study was produced by the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm based in Indiana, and the Virginia Voter Alliance, which describes itself as a nonpartisan group “dedicated to free and fair elections.”

Logan Churchwell is the foundation’s communications director and founding editor of Breitbart News Texas, a division of the far-right news network. In an email, Churchwell explained the process the foundation used in its study to determine whether noncitizens had voted.

Citing the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the foundation requested documents on people who were registered to vote but later pulled off the voter rolls after officials discovered they were not citizens.

“Once we knew that more than 1,000 voters fit this description, and knew their names, we were able to see in voter files that roughly 200 ballots had been cast from this sample,” Churchwell said.

He believes that is just the tip of the iceberg, since the study covered only a handful of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities.

“After our first survey of 10 jurisdictions, we’re now sweeping statewide,” Churchwell said. “We’re finding more voter registrations that were swept under the rug without calling the cops. We’ll be releasing an update to our study this year.”

To replicate the investigation, CNS sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the 10 localities mentioned in the foundation’s report: the counties of Prince William, Loudoun, Stafford, Bedford, Hanover, Fairfax and Chesterfield and the cities of Alexandria, Roanoke and Manassas.

The requests asked for the names of individuals who were taken off the voter registration rolls since 2015 after it was determined that they were not citizens.

The FOIA requests yielded names and other information on 243 individuals who were removed from the voter rolls because their citizenship had been questioned. Four of them were later reinstated, resulting in a final list of 239 noncitizens who had been registered voters.

But did these individuals actually vote? The answer lies in the state’s voter history database, which shows whether someone has cast a ballot in a particular election.

Reporters do not have access to that database. However, it is available to political campaigns and groups. One such group is NGP VAN, which manages data for Democrats. CNS asked a contact with access to the organization’s database to look up the voter histories of the individuals who had been dropped from Virginia’s voter rolls for not being citizens.

Of the 239 individuals, the voter history database indicated that 28 had voted in an election. In fact, 26 of them voted in last year’s general election.

For about half of these individuals, 2016 was the only election they voted in. But others had been voting for years – including one with a voting history back to 1996. In all, the 28 noncitizens were recorded as having cast a total of 120 ballots.

The CNS research did not corroborate the contention in the “Alien Invasion” report that “nearly 200 verified ballots” were cast by noncitizens before they were removed from the voter rolls. However, it seemed certain that some noncitizens have voted.

Can a noncitizen accidentally register to vote?

It’s possible for noncitizens to get on the voter registration roll by mistake. It can happen when they go to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to get a driver’s license or register an automobile.

Under the federally mandated “motor voter” system, people who go to DMV have an opportunity to register to vote. They receive a form with two checkoff questions:

  1. “Are you a citizen of the United States?”
  2. “Will you be 18 years of age on or before the next General Election day?”

People who answer “yes” to either question and fill out of the rest of the form will automatically have their name put on the voter rolls. Forms obtained by CNS show that some people who checked the “no” box on the citizenship question but completed the remainder of the form were added to the voter registration rolls.

“When it comes to registration, it’s mostly an honor system whether it’s at the DMV or not,” said Edgardo Cortés, commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections. “There is no comprehensive list of U.S. citizens that is available anywhere.”

Thus, getting on the voter registration rolls is fairly easy. If election officials later learn that someone’s citizenship is in question, they send the person a written warning. The individual then has 14 days to verify his or her citizenship.

Cortés said law enforcement and other government agencies keep in close touch with the Virginia Department of Elections. 

Some statistics suggesting fraud seemed false

Most of the “Alien Invasion” report focused on assertions that noncitizens have registered to vote and actually voted. But the study included another alarming statement: “In some Virginia jurisdictions, the number of people registered to vote exceeds the number of citizens eligible to vote.”

State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, highlighted that claim in February in a press release to promote legislation requiring Virginians to show additional identification in order to vote. Echoing fellow Republicans at the state and national level, Obenshain said such laws are needed because voter fraud may be widespread.

“There are actually eight localities where the total number of registered voters is greater than the voting age population – the total number of Virginia citizens 18 and older – according to the census data just updated in June of 2016,” stated Obenshain, a Harrisonburg attorney. “Moreover in fifteen other localities, the number of registered voters exceeds 95% of the voting age population of those jurisdictions. Something is clearly wrong.”

It’s the purported statistics that are wrong, according to a researcher at the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, the state’s official source of population and demographic data.

Kathryn Piper Crespin, a research and policy analyst for the Weldon Cooper Center, compared the population data for the U.S. Census Bureau to voter registration data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

“I could find no instance where voter registration in a locality exceeded that locality’s adult population,” Crespin said.

Trump claims there’s voter fraud in Virginia

Obenshain, who lost a 2013 election for attorney general to Democrat Mark Herring by 165 votes of more than 2.2 million cast, isn’t the only government official alleging voter fraud in Virginia. President Donald Trump has tweeted about the issue.

“Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!” Trump tweeted on Nov. 27.

Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by roughly 2.8 million votes last fall. However, Trump administration officials say that’s because 3 million to 5 million noncitizens voted. (Clinton beat Trump by 212,000 votes in Virginia.)

“We know for a fact, you have a massive number of noncitizens registered to vote in this country,” White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Last week, Trump signed an executive order creating a commission to investigate voter fraud. The panel will review “vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”

Vice President Mike Pence will chair the commission. As vice chairman, Trump named Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. Critics say Kobach’s agenda is to suppress the vote of minorities and other people who tend to vote Democratic.

Others have praised Virginia’s voter registration system

It is somewhat ironic that Virginia should find itself in the crosshairs over alleged voter fraud. The commonwealth has been called a model in terms of elections. According to the Election Performance Index developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Virginia is one of the top five states in the country for keeping complete voter registration rolls.

“We have a really comprehensive system in place in Virginia to help identify people who have moved or have died, people who are no longer eligible,” Cortés said. “We spend a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort maintaining clean and accurate registration lists here. I think Virginia has been a model in those respects.”

Despite such record-keeping, Republican politicians and groups such as the Virginia Voter Alliance say the system is rife with fraud. While it seems clear some noncitizens have illegally cast votes, there’s no evidence yet of widespread fraud. But in the meantime, Republicans will continue to push for voter ID laws and other requirements that they believe would prevent noncitizens from voting.

Political parties at odds over voter ID laws

By Tyler Hammel and Mary Lee Clark, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Voter identification laws are a hot issue in Virginia and across the country. Republicans say such laws combat voter fraud, which they insist is widespread. Democrats say the laws discourage voting by minority and elderly citizens who may be less likely to have a photo ID.

 

The debate has played out in Virginia, where Republicans control the General Assembly and a Democrat is governor, with few signs of a compromise.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1256, which required Virginia voters to present a driver’s license, passport or other photo ID in order to cast a ballot. The bill – which was signed into law by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican – also provided free photo IDs to citizens who needed one.

Democrats challenged the law, but in December, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it. “Not only does the substance of SB 1256 not impose an undue burden on minority voting, there was no evidence to suggest racially discriminatory intent in the law’s enactment,” the Richmond-based appellate court ruled.

However, the ruling was hardly the last word on the subject.

During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers introduced 11 bills concerning voter ID. Democrats submitted six measures to roll back the ID requirements or expand the types of IDs acceptable to election officials. Republicans sponsored five bills to make the requirements stricter, including proving citizenship before voting.

Of the bills, four Republican proposals passed. Those measures were all vetoed by the current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, and Republican legislators could not muster the two-thirds majority vote to override any of the vetoes.

The vetoed bills were:

Senate Bill 1253, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. It sought to require electronic pollbooks to include photographs of registered voters. In rejecting the bill, McAuliffe cited administrative and privacy concerns.

House Bill 2343, by Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville. It would have made the Virginia Department of Elections provide local registrars with a list of voters registered in multiple states. McAuliffe said this bill also would create an administrative burden.

HB 1428, filed by Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Glen Allen, and SB 872, by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian. They sought to require voters applying for an absentee ballot to submit a copy of a photo ID.

When a House subcommittee held a hearing on HB 1428, Fowler said it was an effort to plug a hole in the existing voting system.

“We require folks to have a photo ID to cast a ballot here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Of course, we do not require that for an absentee ballot,” Fowler said. “I think that kind of seems like a hole in the wall, and I think with the number of people who vote absentee, we should also require a photo ID for voting absentee.”

Opponents of the legislation said it would unfairly target localities where a lot of people vote absentee, like Falls Church.

“The city had the largest turnout of absentee voters in the state in the presidential election at 25 percent. So I come here with some knowledge of how the implementation of this bill would affect us,” David Bjerke, voter registrar for Falls Church, told lawmakers. “It would do more to discourage absentee voting by mail than it would do to protect a vote.”

Not everyone involved in the election process agreed.

Clara Belle Wheeler, the vice chair of the Virginia Board of Elections, supported Fowler’s bill. She also opposed legislation that would add IDs from out-of-state colleges and state-run nursing homes to the list of identification cards acceptable at the polls.

Wheeler would like to see people present a photo ID and proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. That is the only way for registrars to verify whether the person filling out the application is a citizen, she said.

“Voter registration is based on the honor system. So if someone fills out an application and they mark that they are a citizen, the general registrar has no means of checking whether or not that person is a citizen,” Wheeler said.

She noted that photo IDs provide a means to verify citizenship because most of the documents accepted by the State Board of Elections cannot be obtained by noncitizens.

HB 1428 subsequently won approval on party-line votes in the House, 65-31, and the Senate, 21-19. But in March, McAuliffe vetoed the bill.

“The requirement would not in any way deter fraudulent voting since it provides no means of verifying the identity of the individual depicted in the submitted photograph,” McAuliffe said in his veto message.

“The right to vote is a fundamental tenet of our democracy, and we should be doing all we can to facilitate eligible citizens’ access to the ballot. This bill would undoubtedly result in the disenfranchisement of qualified eligible Virginian voters and increase the potential for costly and time-consuming litigation.”

Racial disparities in marijuana arrests seen across Virginia

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Hanover County, just north of Richmond, has about 88,000 white residents, and in an average year, 246 whites are arrested there for marijuana possession. That represents a rate of 280 white arrests for every 100,000 white residents.

About 9,600 African-Americans also live in Hanover County, and in an average year, 171 blacks are arrested there for marijuana possession. That represents a rate of 1,779 black arrests for every 100,000 black residents.

Statistically, that means African Americans are more than six times as likely as whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana in Hanover County.

That is an extreme example of a pattern throughout Virginia: Statewide, blacks are about three times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the Virginia State Police.

The analysis looked at records on more than 160,000 arrests by local and state law enforcement agencies from 2010 through 2016. It found that the racial disparity in marijuana arrest rates has increased over the years: In 2010, the arrest rate for blacks was 2.9 times the arrest rate for whites; in 2016, blacks were 3.2 times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana charges.

The statistics suggest that in many localities, the enforcement of marijuana laws has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans – even though studies show that blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

Previous studies by other groups also found differences in marijuana arrest rates between blacks and whites. In 2015, for example, the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalizing marijuana, issued a report on “racial disparities in marijuana arrests in Virginia” between 2003 and 2013.

“Black Virginians have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana law enforcement despite constituting only 20% of the state’s population and using marijuana at a similar rate as white Virginians,” the study found.

The report was written by Jon Gettman, a criminal justice professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, and a researcher and analyst of marijuana policy issues. In explaining the racial disparities, he said marijuana possession is a crime of indiscretion, meaning people get arrested because they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It’s not necessarily that the minority group of blacks are targeted for increased arrests but that the areas where they live have a lot more police patrols and a lot more police activity,” Gettman said. “I think it may have a lot to do with where police patrols are more frequent and where policing is more aggressive – and that may very well be because there’s more crime in particular regions.”

Arresting disproportionate numbers of blacks

The Virginia localities with the biggest differences between black and white arrest rates for marijuana were communities with relatively few African-Americans, such as Carroll County in the southwestern part of the state and the city of Poquoson, north of Hampton.

In those localities, a handful of arrests of blacks can make the arrest rate seem astronomical. In Colonial Heights, for example, the marijuana arrest rate for blacks was more than 7,000 per 100,000 population – compared with less than 800 per 100,000 residents for whites.

But even in Virginia’s more populous localities with sizable African-American populations, blacks were much more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges:

  • In Fairfax County, for every 100,000 African-American residents, 861 were arrested for marijuana possession during an average year. In contrast, for every 100,000 white residents, 265 were arrested. This means that the black arrest rate was 3.2 times the arrest rate for whites.
  • An even larger disparity exists in Arlington, where blacks were arrested at a rate of 1,173 per 100,000 population, while whites were arrested at a rate of just 145 per 100,000 population. There, the black arrest rate is eight times the white arrest rate.
  • In Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Alexandria and Newport News, the black arrest rate was four to five times the white arrest rate.

In Hanover County, where the black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 6.4 times the white arrest rate, officials from the local NAACP have met with representatives of the county sheriff’s department and the Ashland police to discuss various issues – but not marijuana law enforcement.

“The last time we met, we had a complaint that African-Americans are being stopped on (Route) 360 more so than whites, and they do acknowledge that more African-Americans are stopped based on profiles that they’re looking for,” said Robert Barnette, who chairs the political action committee of the Hanover County branch of the NAACP.

“We are on the (Interstate) 95 corridor for drug traffic ... Hanover is between Richmond and D.C. The typical person that may go on to travel on 95 going north to D.C will get on Highway 301 or 295 and try to avoid some of the attention.”

The apprehension of people from out of town may explain the disparity in arrest rates, law enforcement officials say.

Lt. Kerri Wright of the Hanover County Sheriff’s Department noted that not everyone arrested in the county is a Hanover resident. The state of Virginia as a whole, in addition to the Hanover County area, is often seen as a drug corridor with its placement between New York and Florida, Wright said.

She said she couldn’t give an opinion on any racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the county.

“Our community is very supportive of us, and that’s one thing we’re very proud of,” Wright said. “There’s no push (to crack down on marijuana), but the law is the law. So we cannot state what laws we’re going to enforce and what laws we’re not going to enforce. If there’s a law and we know there’s a violation of a law, then we need to take appropriate law enforcement action.”

Some people who have been arrested for marijuana possession suspect that socioeconomic factors may influence where marijuana laws are enforced.

Gray Marshall, 19, was arrested on marijuana charges twice while attending Varina High School in the east end of Henrico County. Although Marshall is white, the school’s population is predominantly black. He said being a young person in a “bad” part of town might increase the chances of being arrested.

“The second time I was in a bad area, and the cops said I just stuck out like a sore thumb. I was in a Honda sitting in an apartment complex. I got possession with intent to distribute,” Marshall said. “I feel like I was definitely more likely (than blacks) to talk a cop out of something whenever we would get in a situation. But it felt pretty much the same.”

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have laws that legalize marijuana in some form. Three other states will soon join them – but not Virginia, where the General Assembly recently rejected most proposals to liberalize marijuana laws.

While marijuana possession arrests have decreased nationally, Gettman found that arrests in Virginia increased steadily from 2003 to 2013. He said this might have been a reaction from Virginia law enforcement because of more liberal marijuana laws around the country. They may want to send a message to counterbalance the idea that marijuana is acceptable.

It was the arrests of blacks that made up most of the overall increase in marijuana arrests, Gettman said.

“It’s sort of now an accepted fact that there’s a tremendous disparity in arrests between whites and blacks. In some respects, it doesn’t matter why there’s a racial disparity. The numbers show us that there is one, and consequently it’s clear that we’re not able to enforce these laws evenly, equally, fairly – and that’s a problem, and people are upset about it,” Gettman said.

“We can all have opinions about why this is the case, but the reality is this is the case.”

Richmond police address concerns over rising crime

Lieutenant John McRoy, First Precinct Section 111, tells the audience at the final forum of the month about the actions his precinct are taking to ensure Richmond stays safe.  Photo by Becca Schwartz.

By Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Already this year, Richmond has seen three double homicides:

  • On Feb. 16, Deborah Walker, 55, and her daughter Shaquenda Walker, 24, were shot and killed in their home on Coalter Street.
  • On March 29, a triple shooting in Mosby Court left Mikkaisha Smoot, 16, and Taliek Brown, 15, dead after both were taken off life support at VCU Medical Center.
  • And on April 10, Kejuan Goode, 18, and Terrell Thomas, 20, were shot and killed in South Richmond.

“This seems to be once again a senseless act, but something that’s not random,” Mayor Levar Stoney said at the crime scene at the Walker home. “It seems very isolated, like some of the acts that happened in the past.”

So far in 2017, the city has had 20 homicides, according to the Richmond Police Department’s tally. (That may be an undercount. A list kept by WTVR shows 23 murders to date.) During the corresponding period of 2016, there were 23 homicides. That is a worrisome trend, because 2016 was the deadliest year in Richmond in a decade: The city ended the year with 60 murders.

Crime overall is up this year, according to the Richmond Police Department’s Crime Incident Information Center. Through April 30, Richmond police received reports of more than 11,000 violent crimes and property crimes. That’s 1,000 more than during the corresponding period of last year.

Most reported violent crimes are gun-related, said Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham.

“We’re seeing a lot of gun violence in the city,” Durham said. “A lot of our young folks are illegally possessing firearms.”

Gun violence was a key topic at recent forums held throughout the city by the Richmond Police Department. Such town halls have become an annual tradition for the department since Durham became chief in 2015. But this year’s forums had a specific focus: What is causing an increase in crime in Richmond – and what can the community do to help?

More than 100 people attended the first forum at the Southside Plaza Community Center on April 18 to express frustration with the spike in crime. At that point, Richmond had seen 1,432 violent crimes so far in 2017 – 39 more than during the same period last year, according to the department’s Crime Incident Information Center.

 

 

 
 

Despite the numbers, Durham assured the crowd that crime is “not out of control.” However, this was a tough bit to sell to Karen Norwood, whose 30-year-old daughter Noony was shot and killed on Hull Street on Nov. 6 and died nine hours later at a nearby hospital. Noony was an African-American transgender woman — the 21st trans person reported to be killed in America last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT civil rights advocacy group.

Norwood said she has been in touch with police, but no new developments have come to light despite surveillance cameras near the crime scene. “There’s cameras out there, but the images on the camera – they can’t see it because it’s too dark for them to see it,” she said.

Durham stood by his word at the final town hall of the season on April 27. He said crime across the city is not out of control; rather, certain neighborhoods have seen a “significant increase” in crime – especially in East Richmond, public housing communities and several communities in Southside.

“We know where the crime is,” Durham said.

He proceeded to go through a detailed presentation including crime statistics, the proliferation of firearms in the city, department staffing levels and how the community can help.

The first slide cited statistics that the department sends the FBI for its Uniform Crime Report, which is divided into two categories: violent crime and property crimes. Violent crimes include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crimes, which are more common, range from shoplifting to burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.

“We have been concentrating our efforts on these areas because we know where the violent crime is committed,” Durham said. “Crime is not out of control. But we do have violent crime in this city, and we have a small population of folks committing those criminal acts.”

He emphasized the need for “transparency” between community members and the police department in improving public safety.

“We can’t do our job if we don’t know your expectations of your police department,” Durham said. “We are having some challenges this year, but the most important keys on how we’re going to resolve those issues are sitting right in this room.”

Durham said crime can be difficult to manage because the department is understaffed. It is authorized to have 750 sworn officers but has only 688, including cadet recruits who don’t graduate from the academy until this summer.

The Second Precinct in South Richmond is short 13 officers alone.

“How do we make up for that?” Durham said. “Through minimal staffing overtime. When we’re making them work, they get burned out.”

Crime rates are increasing outside of Richmond as well. According to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which collected data from 61 metropolitan police agencies, U.S. cities saw 6,407 homicides in 2016 – an 11 percent increase from the year before. Dallas, Las Vegas and Phoenix – as well as Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; and San Jose, California – all saw rises in killings in 2016.

Smaller cities that typically have low murder rates saw a jump as well, including Arlington, Texas, which had four homicides in 2015 but 18 in 2016, and Salt Lake City, which had six in 2015 compared with 14 last year.

Richmond had 43 homicides in 2015. The city’s murder rate that year was 19.5 per 100,000 population. Last year, with 60 homicides, Richmond’s murder rate was 27 per 100,000. That’s an increase of more than 38 percent.

 

 

 
 

The FBI has not yet released 2016 crime statistics for all of the nation’s cities and states. However, even before the 2016 spike in homicides, Richmond compared poorly to other cities.

Of the 290 U.S. cities with at least 100,000 people, Richmond ranked 20th in the murder rate in 2015 and had the highest murder rate of all large cities in Virginia. Norfolk, which has a slightly larger population than Richmond, had 28 murders in 2015.

Meantime, the chief is asking the community to partner with him and his department, reminding residents that his officers do all they can to keep the city safe. But at the end of the day, “we all play a role.”

“Police are the only people in society paid to do public safety, but public safety is a shared responsibility,” Durham said. “What more can we do?”

Some community members are already doing their part. Carolyn Johnson, president of the McGuire Civic Association, said she has been dubbed president of the “Snitch Club” in her neighborhood. She encourages others to take photos if they witness crime and call the police directly – not 911 – when reporting wrongdoers.

“This is my block, and I’m taking it back,” she said at the first forum on April 18.

Charles Wes, another town hall attendee, said he would like to form a coalition of people who want to get youths involved in activities like recreation leagues and community events to keep them off the streets. His suggestion was met by loud applause; Nicole Fields suggested that the forum attendees come up with activities themselves.

Such community involvement is what the police need, the mayor said.

“We have an awesome department … And although they are great, they are not superheroes,” Stoney said. “They will tell you they are only better with better neighbors and citizens. They’re great because of you all.”

Colleges seek to improve graduation rates

By Ashley Luck and Jessica Nolte, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia was recognized by Time magazine in 2014 for having several of the best colleges in the country. While the state boasts some noteworthy institutions, many of the commonwealth’s colleges and universities are still striving to improve their graduation rates.

According to the latest federal data, the University of Virginia graduates 93 percent of its students within six years – the highest rate of any public school in the state. William and Mary comes close with 90 percent. James Madison University and Virginia Tech have graduation rates of 83 percent.

 

But the rates are lower at Virginia Commonwealth University (62 percent), Radford University (59 percent) and Old Dominion University (53 percent). And Norfolk State University’s graduation rate is just 33 percent.

Those statistics reflect the percentage of students who started at an institution and graduated within six years. The data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System does not include transfer students.

Among Virginia’s private institutions, Washington and Lee University has the highest graduation rate at 91 percent, followed by the University of Richmond at 88 percent.

Not all private schools maintain such high graduation rates. The rate is 47 percent at Liberty University, and several schools including Mary Baldwin University (previously called Mary Baldwin College), Ferrum College, Averett University, University of the Potomac and Virginia Union University all have rates under 40 percent.

Advising may help students succeed

Dr. Sybil Halloran, interim vice provost in VCU’s Division of Strategic Enrollment and Management, said VCU is always trying to find ways to improve its graduation rate.

“I think we have done some things to improve, and I think we can do some more,” Halloran said. “In 2001, VCU was at a graduation rate of 47 percent, whereas the statewide graduation rate was at 67 percent, so VCU was 20 percent lower. But if you go to 2008, VCU was at a 59 percent and the state only increased to 70 percent. The state only increased three percentage points and VCU increased by 12. It’s important to acknowledge the work that has been done.”

Halloran said the university recently revamped its advising and is continuing to look at ways to make things easier for students.

“I think there are things that we are starting to do and can continue to do,” Halloran said. “We are acknowledging how important advising is. We’ve done some restructuring of advising even just this year. We’ve got pretty strong freshmen advising. One thing we need to look at and should look at it is course scheduling.

“It would be really nice if we could say to a student coming in, here’s the next four years, these courses are scheduled then. Right now, you can know what courses there are, but not necessarily how they are scheduled. That could really help a student prepare for the next four years.”

In 2013, VCU launched a campaign called “Do the Math,”urging students to take 15 credits per semester so they can graduate in four years with 120 credit hours. According to the campaign, graduating in four years instead of six will save in-state students an estimated $50,000.

“We are continuing to encourage students to continue to take 15 credits a semester when possible,” Halloran said. “Now, that doesn’t work for everyone. There are a lot of students that come here and don’t really understand why that’s important. As much as we want students here, we want them to come here, enjoy themselves, get a great education, but we want them to leave with a degree.

“We are also continuing to encourage students to take classes during the summer. You can really knock out some courses during the summer.”

How tuition compares at different schools

In-state tuition, room and board cost about $25,000 a year at VCU, as well as at Virginia Tech. A year at U.Va. is about $30,000, while at James Madison, it’s just under $20,000, according to the schools’ websites.

VCU will likely increase tuition again next year. The Board of Visitors is reviewing proposals for a tuition hike between 3 percent and 6 percent.

According to VCU’s Reporting Center, the university admitted more than 4,200 freshmen last fall – its largest freshman class in six years. In 2010, VCU’s freshman class numbered 3,615.

Halloran doesn’t expect admissions to increase any time soon.

“I don’t envision us going bigger and bigger for freshman classes,” Halloran said. “You have to look at the applicant pool, what the right size is for VCU and everything from housing to advisers. It’s not my understanding that we will be bigger in numbers next year. I don’t think it’s our goal is to get bigger every year. Whether our freshman class is 100 students, 1,000 students or 5,000 students, for those students we always look at what we can do to improve the graduation rate.”

Halloran wants to know more about the 38 percent of VCU students who fail to earn an undergraduate degree within six years.

“Based on what research and data that we do have, I think some may go somewhere else, some may stay here longer and some may never get a degree,” Halloran said. “I think we will always have some people in those groups. I don’t think we will ever be at 100 percent; that’s not realistic, although we’d like to get close.”

Halloran expressed concern for students who take out loans to attend college.

“It’s one thing to leave with a degree and debt, because you actually have something in hand,” she said. “It’s not ideal for students to leave here with debt and no degree.”

The data used for this story may be found here.

Virginia ABC stores register record profits

 

By Amelia Heymann and Jessica Samuels, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It’s Saturday night, and it’s busy at the Oxbridge Square ABC store on Hull Street Road. Alone and in groups, shoppers are picking up libations for the evening.

For some customers, this is a once-in-a-blue-moon trip; for others, it’s a regular occurrence. Nadia Goldman says she goes about once a month, while Nicole Booth says she goes every weekend for herself and others.

“My purpose is to party and to get ripped,” Booth said.

Thanks to customers like her, Virginia’s state-owned liquor stores rang up record profits in 2016, according to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Last year, the 359 ABC stores across the commonwealth had gross sales of about $895 million – $106 for every resident of Virginia. The stores sold 11.4 million gallons of alcoholic beverages, or 1.4 gallons per capita.

For Virginia officials, what counts most is how much money the stores produce in net profit and state taxes. In 2016, the total was $315 million. That represents a profit margin of more than 35 percent of gross sales.

The amount that the ABC stores funneled into the state treasury has increased by more than one-third over the past five years. (In 2011, the stores’ net profits plus state taxes totaled $235 million.)

Valerie Hubbard, a public relations specialist for the ABC, said an increase in stores might have boosted sales during fiscal year 2016, which ended on June 30.

During the fiscal year, the ABC opened eight new locations across the commonwealth, including one in Floyd County, which had been dry until 2014. In addition, the agency remodeled eight stores and relocated 10 others.

ABC sales may see another increase this year. Since July, stores across the commonwealth began opening at noon on Sundays rather than 1 p.m. Longer hours, of course, mean more opportunity to make a profit.

Which stores sold the most in 2016?

To see how much your local ABC store sold in 2015 and 2016, click on the map

The ABC stores in Fairfax County sold the most alcohol beverages – nearly 1.3 million gallons. Then came Virginia Beach with about 830,000 gallons. But that is to be expected: Fairfax County has 40 ABC stores and a population of about 1.1 million people; Virginia Beach has 14 stores and more than 450,000 residents.

In terms of sales per capita, the top locality was Lexington. The city’s lone ABC store sold a modest 43,340 gallons of alcoholic beverages – but that represented 6.2 gallons for each of Lexington’s 7,045 residents. (Caveat: Lexington is surrounded by Rockbridge County, which doesn’t have an ABC store. Many Rockbridge County residents no doubt buy liquor from the Lexington store, inflating the per-capita statistic.)

Emporia, in Southside Virginia, and Norton, in the state’s southwest corner, had ABC sales of more than 5 gallons per capita. Then came the cities of Williamsburg and Franklin, at about 4 gallons per capita, followed by Charlottesville at 3.8 gallons per capita.

Astute observers may detect a pattern: Lexington is home to the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University; Williamsburg, to the College of William and Mary; and Charlottesville, to the University of Virginia.

The 10 ABC stores with the highest gross sales last year included one near U.Va. and another near Virginia Tech:

  • 1612 Laskin Road, Virginia Beach – $9,202,992 in gross sales
  • 405 30th St., Virginia Beach – $8,399,650
  • 3333 Virginia Beach Blvd., Virginia Beach – $7,699,741
  • 8413 Old Courthouse Road, Fairfax County – $7,621,199
  • 4312 Wheeler Ave., Alexandria – $7,133,652
  • 10 N. Thompson St., Richmond – $6,979,359
  • 1902 Emmet St., Charlottesville – $6,617,752
  • 2400 Cunningham Drive, Hampton – $6,442,135
  • 1332 S. Main St., Blacksburg – $6,428,867
  • 4320 S. Laburnum Ave., Henrico County – $6,126,451

Virginia has 360 ABC stores. State officials say 92 percent of Virginia’s population lives within 10 minutes of an ABC store.

Fourteen localities in Virginia don’t have an ABC store; several of them are dry, meaning they prohibit the retail sale of distilled spirits. However, such “wet” localities as Rockbridge County (population 22,000) and Manassas Park (population 16,000) don’t have an ABC location.

How does state-controlled liquor affect prices?

According to the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, in 2015 Virginia had the third-highest distilled spirits tax in the United States. The Virginia tax averaged $19.18 per gallon of spirits. The tax was higher only in the states of Washington ($35.22 per gallon) and Oregon ($22.72).

All of Virginia’s border states have lower spirit taxes. North Carolina’s tax is $12.30 per gallon; the other neighboring states tax spirits at less than $5 a gallon – and just $1.89 in West Virginia.

In Virginia, revenues from liquor sales go into the state government’s general fund, which supports schools, law enforcement and other public services. In 2016, the ABC transferred over $24 million more revenue into the general fund than during the previous year.

Money made by ABC stores also goes toward the agency’s education and training programs to help prevent alcohol abuse and underage drinking.

As lucrative as ABC operations have been for Virginia, some Republican officials have wanted to privatize the sale of alcohol. Virginia is one of only nine states where the government controls liquor stores.

In 2012, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed that the state sell off the ABC stores. The attempt failed because many legislators weren’t willing to lose the revenue that the liquor monopoly generated for the government.

In contrast, Gov. Terry McAuliffe has used his tenure to increase ABC revenues. During his administration, the ABC has opened 19 new stores. Moreover, McAuliffe signed legislation allowing ABC stores to sell 151-proof alcohol such as Everclear. (The existing limit is 101-proof.) The law will take effect July 1.

The ABC projects that during the 2017 fiscal year, alcohol sales will rise more than 4 percent.

Convenient store locations, such as the Hull Street Road shopping center, make liquor shopping easy for Nicole Booth and her friends.

“I actually shop at the closest one to me at the time,” Booth said. “Oxbridge Square is the closest to my house. I buy Hennessy, or Grey Goose vodka.”

For-profit colleges under scrutiny as students default on loans

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently rolled back several Obama-era initiatives that would increase protections for student loan borrowers and curtail loan servicer misconduct.

The initiatives were the result of three memos issued by the Obama administration to reform debt repayment. They involved creating a single platform system for loan repayment and banning collection fees for defaulted borrowers.

DeVos rescinded the memos on April 11, explaining that the reform process “has been subjected to a myriad of moving deadlines, changing requirements and a lack of consistent objectives.”

In response, 22 state attorneys general wrote a letter to DeVos criticizing her withdrawal of the memos and calling for the Education Department to reconsider the impact on student borrowers.

“Too many students across the country graduate college saddled with thousands of dollars in student loan debt and fall victim to gross misconduct by loan servicers,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a press release. “These critical reforms had been put into place to protect our students and their families, and it’s downright irresponsible for the Education Department to roll them back.”

 

College loan debt and default rates have become a focus in education policymaking as student loans have eclipsed auto loans and credit cards as the largest form of consumer debt after mortgages. Americans now owe more than $1.4 trillion in loans for their education, and for-profit colleges are under scrutiny for their role for the financial burden.

Low graduation rates, high loan default rates

Enrollment at for-profit institutions of higher education tripled from 766,000 in 2001 to 2.4 million in 2010. Yet only 27 percent of students nationally graduate within six years from for-profit institutions, while the graduation rate for public and private nonprofit schools is more than 50 percent. From Virginia for-profits, the University of Phoenix-Virginia and Stratford University report the lowest graduation rates of 12 percent.

According to Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy at American Student Assistance, students who enroll in school but fail to receive a degree are the most susceptible to defaulting on student loans. Students from for-profit colleges make up 35 percent about student loan defaults.

For-profit schools’ low graduation rates and high loan default rates have not gone unnoticed by the Education Department. Enrollment at for-profit institutions has declined in most recent years because of an improved economy with more young adults heading straight to the workforce, but also due to regulatory and financial pressures while Barack Obama was president.

ITT Technical Institute shut down last September, stranding more than 40,000 students with lost semesters of transferable credits and student loans to pay. The for-profit college closed after state and federal departments investigated the school’s recruitment practices, high student loan default rates and contested job placement rates. Eventually the Education Department banned students from using federal financial aid at ITT Tech branches, leading ITT to declare bankruptcy.

Like other for-profit institutions, ITT relied on federal financial aid from the Education Department and military and veterans’ benefits for at least 70 percent of the school’s revenue. For-profits are legally prohibited from receiving more than 90 percent of total revenue from federal aid, but this “90/10” rule does not include veterans’ benefits in its calculations.

Data produced by the Education Department together with the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs showed that about 200 for-profits were almost entirely supported by the federal government when military and veterans’ benefits are added into the total revenue.

In Richmond, Chester Career College was fined $5 million in a class-action settlement filed by former students in 2013. The lawsuit accused Chester Career College of targeting minorities in an enrollment scheme to reap from federal student loan programs, and failing to provide students with an adequate education.

Proprietary schools provide ‘a motherly sort of experience’

Proprietary schools tend to cater to non-traditional college students: people from low-income families, underrepresented minorities, single mothers and veterans. The reason why for-profit schools such as South or Stratford University are able to attract these demographics is because of their accessibility, says Tressie McMillan Cottom, an assistant sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

“It was interesting how little paperwork there is – almost none, and certainly nowhere near the sheer volume we produce on the traditional side,” said Cottom, who researched the enrollment process at nine for-profit schools.

“Much of the admissions process was shaped by women who were heavily concentrated in these jobs as enrollment officers, so there was almost a motherly sort of experience at times. When you experience the for-profit college process on the ground, it doesn’t feel very corporate at all.”

Educational institutions are well aware that non-traditional students benefit from greater support throughout the application process.

“What for-profit colleges do is not innovative, actually,” Cottom said, adding that traditional colleges simply don’t have the funds to spend money on people before they enroll as students. Nevertheless, small touches such as having a person, rather than a voice prompt, answer the phone and conducting application workshops could give traditional higher education institutions the approachability that non-traditional students seek in their learning.

For-profit sector may rebound under Trump

Still, the for-profit school sector is not so easily replaced. Even as for-profit college enrollments have slipped from their peak in 2010, community colleges have also experienced a drop in students. Rather than choosing traditional higher education over for-profit schools, potential students are skipping school altogether.

While negative publicity and tightening federal regulations have dampened the for-profit enrollment and revenue numbers, the market sector has found optimism in President Trump.

Under the Obama administration, the Education Department policed predatory practices by for-profit colleges including false advertising and substandard educational guidelines. ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges both collapsed under legal challenges during the Obama era as well.

In the same month he was elected president, Trump settled three lawsuits – one stemming from the New York attorney general’s office – against his for-profit education company, Trump University.

DeVos, Trump’s appointee for secretary of education, has championed competition within the educational sphere and holds investments in for-profit education corporations. Since Election Day, DeVry University, a leader in the for-profit sector, has recorded a steady rise of 52 percent in stock price, and other large for-profit educational organizations like Grand Canyon Education and Strayer have reported equally strong increases of 37 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

In Virginia, Trump has asked Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell Jr. to head an education task force meant to pare down “overreaching regulation.” While categorized as a private nonprofit, Liberty University operates an online division of the university that has experienced explosive growth in enrollment and revenue starting in 2006, rivaling for-profit colleges as a competitive business model. Liberty University also received an estimated $775 million in federal financial aid as student loans and grants in 2011 – the highest amount received in Virginia, according to data from the Education Department.

Everyone got an A because the teacher didn’t show

For-profit institutions are not a new fixture in Virginia’s academic landscape, but neither are issues surrounding the credibility and educational responsibility of these proprietary schools. In 2011, a group of students filed a class action complaint against the Richmond School of Health and Technology seeking damages as victims of a “deceptive and dishonest scheme.”

“In my computer class, the teacher did not show up for the final exam. After sitting in the classroom for nearly two hours, an instructor from another program came in and informed us that we would all receive A’s since the teacher was absent. We never took the exam for that class,” student plaintiff Melissa Blaney testified in her declaration.

“Many employers do not want to hire RSHT graduates because they know that RSHT does such a poor job of educating and training its students,” wrote another student plaintiff. “This bad reputation, combined with my lack of experience in the field, has prevented me from getting a job despite having passed the certification exam.”

Virginia has enacted consumer protections for former students of for-profit colleges that have closed.

After Corinthian Colleges Inc. declared bankruptcy, Attorney General Herring announced that Virginians enrolled at the company’s schools were eligible for loan forgiveness.

Not all for-profit colleges meet a messy legal demise, though the slew of alarming news stories and sly marketing tactics can confuse the prospective students looking to earn new certifications and skills.

In her examination of the predatory nature of certain for-profit colleges, Cottom found that some specialty schools provide value – notably programs that are community focused, much in the way hair cutting or truck driving schools operate to train workers without the flashy advertisements or branding.

She advises students thinking about enrolling at a for-profit college to ask questions that can differentiate between the principled and the predatory.

 “I would ask them whether or not the credit hours you might earn there would transfer to a different university,” Cottom said. “Underneath that question when you’re asking, ‘Hey, are my credit hours going to transfer?’ what you’re asking is, ‘Do other colleges and universities value the classes I have taken here?’ And that’s a good proxy for whether or not people in the broader society and community will value your degree.”

35 million pounds of toxic chemicalss released into Virginia’s environment

By Julia Rothey, Dai Ja Norman and Haley Winn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Factories, power plants and other facilities in Virginia released about 35 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the state’s water, air and land in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than half of the pollution came from just five facilities, the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory showed.

Most of the pollution in Virginia involved nitrate compounds released into the water and ammonia, hydrochloric acid and methanol released into the air, an analysis of the TRI data found. The releases included more than 1 million pounds of carcinogens – cancer-causing chemicals such as acetaldehyde, styrene and lead.

The TRI database details which chemicals are released by which facilities, how much is released and where the pollution goes. The latest data is for 2015.

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant, located along the New River in Montgomery County, emitted more toxic chemicals into the environment than any other facility in Virginia. The plant, the U.S military’s primary gun and rocket propellant provider, released more than 10 million pounds of pollutants, mostly nitrate compounds going into nearby waters.

Prolonged exposure to nitrates can lead hypertension and other cardiovascular problems, birth defects and headaches, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Radford plant was the second biggest water polluter in the nation in 2015, the data showed. Only the AK Steel Corp. operation in Rockport, Indiana, emitted more toxins into the water – over 13 million pounds. In terms of total on-site releases (including air and land), the ammunition facility ranked 35th nationwide.

According to the TRI data, after the Radford plant, the Virginia facilities with the most on-site releases in 2015 were:

·         MeadWestvaco’s paper plant in Covington – 3 million pounds of chemicals.

·         Honeywell International’s chemical plant in Hopewell – more than 2.3 million pounds.

·         The Chesterfield Power Station in Chester – almost 2 million pounds.

·         International Paper’s mill in Franklin – 1.3 million pounds.

Two other facilities – Jewell Coke Co. in Buchanan County and the Clover Power Station in Halifax – also had on-site emissions exceeding 1 million pounds.

Ladelle McWhorter, who chairs Virginia Organizing, which advocates for a clean environment and other issues, said she finds the amount of pollution deplorable.

“It kills people,” McWhorter said. “It sickens and disables people. It causes birth defects. It decreases property values, so it impoverishes people. And it makes our surroundings ugly and depressing.”

Virginia Organizing has participated in an array of campaigns to combat pollution and climate change.

The group helped get CSX to stop parking train cars filled with hazardous materials near a low-income neighborhood in Fredericksburg. Currently, the organization is working with other groups to oppose the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which McWhorter said would threaten water supplies.

“We have been working and are continuing to work on reducing air pollution, and of course that has benefits beyond reduction of greenhouse gases,” McWhorter said. Her organization tries to practice what it preaches: The group’s central office runs on solar power and uses hybrid fleet cars.

Details from the TRI database

The Radford Army Ammunition Plant released 10 different chemicals into the environment. Although nitrate compounds going into the water made up more than 95 percent of the emissions, the plant also reported air releases of hydrochloric acid (283,000 pounds), sulfuric acid (75,000 pounds), nitroglycerin (58,000 pounds) and ammonia (24,000).

The ammunition facility’s 2015 emissions were up 9 percent from the previous year but down 19 percent from 2010.

The MeadWestvaco plant in Covington released more than 20 chemicals into the environment. The most prominent was methanol, with 1.6 million pounds emitted into the air from a smoke stack.

Methanol can take a toll on the nervous system if ingested, the CDC says. Side effects include brain fog, difficulty breathing, visual impairment, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

The paper plant also released into the air more than 370,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid and about 221,000 pounds of ammonia, the TRI data indicated. It said the emissions included two carcinogens: nearly 54,000 pounds of acetaldehyde and 20,000 pounds of formaldehyde, released mostly into the air.

The 2015 releases from the MeadWestvaco plant were down 16 percent from 2014 and 8 percent from the emissions in 2010.

Honeywell International’s Hopewell plant produces nylon for carpets and chemicals used in fertilizer. It released more than 2 million pounds of ammonia into the air in 2015. Exposure to high levels of ammonia can cause difficulty in breathing, eye irritation, burning of skin, visual impairment and loss of consciousness, according to the CDC.

The facility also released more than 13,000 pounds of acetaldehyde and about 8,700 pounds of benzene, another carcinogen.

The Hopewell plant was owned by Honeywell until October, when it was spun off to another company called AdvanSix. According to Debi Lewis, the communications officer for AdvanSix, the plant has spent more than $50 million on health, safety and environmental improvements since 2010.

“AdvanSix takes all environmental compliance matters seriously, and our team focuses on these issues every day,” she said in an email.

The Honeywell plant in 2015 released 29 percent more than it emitted in 2010. However, emissions dropped 21 percent from 2014 to 2015.

“We are focused on decreasing pollutants in the air. The plant is spending $110 million in projects to be completed by 2019 designed to reduce overall air emissions and to cut some air emissions by 50 percent from 2014 levels,” Lewis said.

About half of the Chesterfield Power Plant’s releases were air emissions – mostly hydrochloric and sulfuric acids. The other releases involved substances such as barium, vanadium and manganese compounds found in coal ash. Dominion Resources, which owns the power station, stores the coal ash in surface impoundments.

Excessive amounts of barium may cause gastrointestinal disturbances and muscular weakness, as well as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, difficulties in breathing and other problems, the CDC says.

According to the TRI, on-site releases at the Chesterfield Power Plant jumped about 8 percent from 2014 to 2015; however, they were 44 percent lower than in 2010.

International Paper’s plant in Franklin and Isle of Wight County released 17 chemicals. The main one was methanol (800,000 pounds), followed by hydrogen sulfide and ammonia – all released into the air. The plant released two carcinogens: acetaldehyde (about 27,000 pounds) and formaldehyde (12,000).

Emissions from the paper plant tripled from 2010 to 2015. However, emissions dropped 10 percent during the most recent year.

Overall, facilities in Virginia have made progress in reducing toxic emissions. Statewide, on-site releases have fallen from more than 49 million pounds in 2010 to about 38.5 million in 2014 and 35 million in 2015. That is a 29 percent drop during the five years – and a 9 percent reduction from 2014 to 2015.

Since 2010, several facilities have slashed their on-site releases dramatically, such as the Tyson Farms operation in Accomac County (down 97 percent) and Perdue Farms’ Accomac Processing Plant (down 82 percent). Emissions also plunged at the Philip Morris USA’s Commerce Road site in Richmond (down 93 percent), at Dominion Resources’ Yorktown Power Station (down 85 percent) and at the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico (down 73 percent).

Fined for violating environmental rules

The TRI database includes reports on 440 facilities in Virginia. They provided information on more than 140 toxic chemicals. Almost all of the chemicals are legal in certain amounts under certain circumstances under the federal Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other regulations enforced by the EPA.

However, the agency has fined Virginia companies for violating environmental rules. The EPA lists all inspections, violations and fines on its Enforcement and Compliance History Onlinedatabase. The EPA rates violations as high-priority violations, significant violations or noncompliance, based on the violation and the applicable regulation.

For example, the Honeywell International in Hopewell has been in high-priority violation of the Clean Air Act for particulate matter and other pollutants since July 2014.

“The Hopewell plant is currently in compliance for particulate emissions, and issues in previous years were related to specific equipment malfunctions,” Lewis said. “AdvanSix has invested a significant amount of capital to address these issues, and we will continue to evaluate and invest as appropriate.”

In the past five years, the Hopewell plant has received 10 informal notices of violations and has paid more than $700,000 in fines for violations of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. After a lawsuit in 2013, Honeywell International paid $3 million in penalties, plus millions more to bring its facility into compliance.

The Radford Munitions Plant has been in high-priority violation of the Clean Air Act since October 2015 for visible emissions and intermittently in violation of the Clean Water Act for biologic oxygen demand.

Biological oxygen demand is not a measure of one chemical, but of the dissolved oxygen in water. Aquatic plants and animals need oxygen dissolved in water to survive. Certain chemicals reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen, which reduces the amount of aquatic life.

The Radford Munitions Plant was fined almost $270,000 in 2016 for violations of the Clean Air Act and has received two informal letters of violation so far this year.

The Chesterfield Power Station has not paid fines in the last five years. However, Virginia Power, a Dominion subsidiary, paid more than $5 million in penalties to the federal government in connection with a 2003 lawsuit that involved alleged violations at the Chesterfield generating station and eight other facilities. EPA records say a final order in the case was entered in 2016; as a result, the fine is listed in the five-year history of the Chesterfield power plant. However, Dominion officials said the case actually was settled and the fine paid in 2003.

The International Paper Franklin Mill paid almost $11,000 in fines for violations of the Clean Water Act in 2014 for a discharge without the proper permit but has no recent violations.

Daniel Carr, a professor in the environmental studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that it is often easier for companies to pay the fines than bring their factories into compliance.

If meeting regulations could lead to bankruptcy but companies can cover the fines associated with violations, there may be no motivation for them to comply, he said.

New Munitions Facility May Reduce Pollution

By Julia Rothey, Dai Ja Norman and Haley Winn, Capital News Service

After 80 years of service, the U.S. Army Radford Ammunition’s nitrocellulose facility is set to retire, and a more modern facility will take its place.

In 2015, the Radford plant was the 35th biggest polluter in the United States, with more than 10 million pounds of on-site releases of chemicals, according to the federal government’s Toxic Release Inventory.

The vast majority of the plant’s releases involved nitrate compounds disposed of into bodies of water. Only one other facility nationwide – a steel mill in Indiana – reported more water emissions.

The Radford facility is located on the New River in Montgomery County. Despite the chemical emissions, local bodies of water were classified as safe by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in a 2015 report.

Over the years, the Army facility has run afoul of environmental regulators. One of the plant’s violations was exceeding capacity on biological oxygen demand – the amount of oxygen dissolved in nearby streams. Certain chemicals reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen, which aquatic plants and animals need to survive.

The plant has continued to be in violation of the Clean Air Act for visible emissions since October 2015, and no action has been taken by the state or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While Radford’s releases have decreased by 19 percent since 2010, the plant still has by far the most chemical emissions in Virginia.

Congress passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act about four decades ago, noted Ladelle McWhorter, who chairs the governing board of Virginia Organizing, an activist group for the environment and other issues. “Companies know by now what they must do to comply with the law and have internal systems for doing so,” she said.

The Radford plant hopes to reduce its toxic releases with the new nitrocellulose facility. It is expected to be more compact and better for the environment, a change Lt. Col. Alicia Masson, the commander of the plant, thinks is long overdue.

Masson took command of the plant in 2015, and in interviews with the media, she has voiced concerns about the pollutants released from the facility. Her goal is to make sure it is more environmentally friendly.

Besides releasing chemicals into the water, the Radford plant also burns toxic wastes. In 2015, the facility’s air emissions – including hydrochloric and sulfuric acids, nitroglycerin, ammonia and lead compounds – totaled about 480,000 pounds.

While she describes herself as an environmentalist at heart, Masson also recognizes that completely eliminating open burning as means of disposal at the plant is impossible.

The current plant has been operational since 1941. It was first created to support war efforts in the United States and hired more than 23,000 people to help produce ammunition at the peak of the plant’s manufacturing during World War II. The plant is still the only North American manufacturer and seller of nitrocellulose, a highly flammable compound used in the production of ammunition and explosives.

This year, the Army received a $100 million grant to complete a new nitrocellulose facility at the Radford plant. It has been in planning since 2012 after an initial contract of $240 million.

The new facility is set to be fully operational by the end of 2018 and will completely replace the current nitrocellulose facility by 2019.

Appeals court hears suit against travel ban

By Sarah King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A panel of 13 federal judges on Monday interrogated lawyers for President Donald Trump and plaintiffs challenging his revised executive order banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the high-profile case, in which the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the order as unconstitutional on the basis of religious freedom.

The Richmond-based appellate court will decide whether to uphold an injunction issued by a federal judge in Maryland blocking Trump’s executive order.

At issue in Richmond on Monday was the tension between securing national security interests and ensuring the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which guarantees freedom of religion. Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall squared off against ACLU immigration attorney Omar Jadwat on the first-ever live broadcast of the 4th Circuit Court on C-SPAN.

“In this highly unique case, the record provides strong indications that the national security purpose is not the primary purpose for the travel ban,” the U.S. District Court’s opinion states. It said evidence “suggests that the religious purpose was primary, and the national security purpose, even if legitimate, is a secondary post hoc rationale.”

On Jan. 27, shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries. After the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked that order, Trump revised it. The revised order, issued on March 6, banned travel from six predominantly Muslim countries. (Iraq was dropped from the list of banned nations due to “ongoing cooperation between Iraq and the United States in fighting ISIS.”)

The revised order, intended to take effect March 16, also halted Syrian refugee admissions for 120 days. Unlike the initial executive order, green-card and visa holders would be exempt from the ban.

Although a randomly selected panel of three judges typically hears cases in appellate courts, the ACLU successfully filed a motion for a full panel, or “en banc” hearing, last month. Ten of the 13 judges Monday were appointed by Democratic Presidents Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Two conservative judges – J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who is Wall’s father-in-law, and Allyson Duncan – recused themselves from the case.

During oral arguments, Wall said Trump’s travel restrictions were not religiously motivated but were intended to better screen “all nationals” from the cited countries who might present terrorism and national security threats.

The order included citizens from Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran and Libya – each of which appeared on a 2015 State Department list of “high risk” states for terrorism.

“(Trump) made clear in the months leading up to the election … what he was talking about was threats from specific countries,” Wall said. “He made clear he wasn’t talking about Muslims all over the world – and that’s why it’s not a Muslim ban.”

Several judges expressed skepticism at the assertion that the ban was issued for reasons of national security. They pointed to evidence in the District Court’s opinion citing multiple statements Trump made at various stages of his presidential campaign last year. During the campaign, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States, stating that “Islam hates us.” He repeatedly promised to impose a Muslim ban if elected.

“The president never repudiated the campaign statements he made,” said Judge Robert B. King. “He changed it from religion to nationality … and (New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) advised him to do it that way. But he’s never repudiated what he said.”

Wall countered by stating Trump could not be held accountable for what he said on the campaign trail before taking official government office.

“(Trump) was elected … he took an oath to uphold the constitution,” Wall said. “What he was saying was, ‘I want a brief opportunity – as the last president had – to make sure the vetting procedures we have in place are adequate.’”

Judge Barbara Keenan asked Wall if barring millions of nationals was perhaps too broad, or even effective.

“It really is about 200 million people caught in this net when you add up these six countries,” Keenan said. “Does that affect the facial legitimacy of the order when it has such a broad sweep of 200 million people?”

Judge Henry F. Floyd asked Wall if there was “anything other than willful blindness” that would bar Trump’s previous comments from qualifying as an “animus” – hostile motivation – against Muslims. He cited in particular a statement by presidential press secretary Sean Spicer that the principles of the second order “remain the same” as the first executive order, which was ruled unconstitutional in February.

In contrast, Judge Dennis Shedd asked Jadwat if, even in the presence of a proven animus, the president is barred from acting in the interest of national security.

“If, in this hypothetical, the president has a clear animus against a religious group and it becomes clear to everybody that group presents a clear national security threat and everybody agrees to that – can that president take action against that threat or is the president disqualified from acting on that threat because of that animus?” Shedd asked.

According to the U.S. District Court ruling, 10 former national security, foreign policy and intelligence officials, four of whom were aware of the available terrorism intelligence as of Jan. 19, 2017, stated “there is no national security purpose for a total bar on entry for aliens” from the listed countries.

“The officials note that no terrorist acts have been committed on U.S. soil by nationals of the banned countries since September 11, 2001, and that no intelligence as of January 19, 2017 suggested any such potential threat,” according to the opinion.

Jadwat noted that Trump’s executive order did not include all of the countries on the State Department’s 2015 list but targeted Muslim-majority states. He added that before signing the order, Trump did not consult any of the relevant agencies regarding whether those countries actually posed a threat domestically.

“So he offended the bureaucracy? That’s a constitutional crisis? He offended the bureaucracy?” Shedd asked rhetorically.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which barred Trump’s first immigration executive order, will consider Trump’s second travel ban Tuesday, also live on C-SPAN.

ICE activity in Virginia spikes under Trump

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND – The Trump administration’s immigration policy has left a cloud hanging over the heads of many undocumented immigrants living in Virginia.

While the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it is enforcing existing laws, critics say the agents are doing so with a vengeance.

“Their mission is basically to separate families, and because of that, they are very easily antagonized,” said Camille Brenke, a member of ICE Out of RVA, a collective advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants living in Richmond.

President Donald Trump has not dismantled legal protections such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain groups of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. But advocates for immigrant rights fear he eventually will eliminate DACA.

Even so, Trump has taken other actions that have made many people anxious because of the increased presence of ICE agents in communities where undocumented people live.

Shortly after taking office in January, Trump signed executive orders that greatly expanded ICE agents’ power to target and detain undocumented immigrants. While President Barack Obama’s administration insisted it targeted only convicted criminals, Trump gave ICE broader discretion to detain immigrants based on suspicion alone. This has led to the arrests of many people with no criminal record at all, even ICE officials acknowledge.

 

 

 
 

One of Trump’s executive orders allows ICE to arrest undocumented immigrants if they are suspected of having “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” In the weeks after the order was put into place, ICE carried out a series of raids across the United States and arrested at least 683 undocumented immigrants.

According to statistics released by U.S. Department of Homeland Security, from January through mid-March of this year, ICE arrested more than 21,000 undocumented immigrants, including more than 5,400 with no criminal records.

The Obama administration carried out more deportations than any previous president, removing more than 2.4 million undocumented immigrants from 2009 to 2014 and arresting thousands with no criminal record in the process. However, toward the end of his second term, Obama targeted undocumented immigrants with a proven criminal history. During the first three months of 2016, ICE detained about 14,500 undocumented immigrants, including more than 2,500 with no criminal records.

Bottom-line comparison: Under Trump, overall detentions increased by about 32 percent – and detentions of undocumented immigrants without a criminal record doubled.

In Virginia, there have been reports of ICE agents stopping people for minor offenses and detaining people in and around churches, schools and hospitals. In the past, ICE has officially recognized such venues as “sensitive locations” and forbidden agents from arresting people there. Advocates for undocumented immigrants fear that policy has changed.

Their fears were heightened in February when seven men were stopped and arrested by ICE after leaving a hypothermia shelter located inside a church in Arlington.

Germaine Wright Sobral, a partner at Montagut & Sobral Law Office in Falls Church, has been working with undocumented immigrants in Virginia for more than 30 years. She says the recent spike in ICE activity is due to the new administration’s feeling emboldened to pursue immigrants for minor offenses.

“Under Obama, if you had an order of deportation but you weren’t committing any bad acts, they were basically not enforcing the order of removal,” Sobral said. “But now, with the direction of the new attorney general and President Trump, they are. They feel liberated to be able to do that.”

While Sobral has not heard reports of ICE conducting mass raids on homes or worksites in Virginia since Trump’s election, she said she has seen other ways in which agents have stepped up their activity over the past few months.

“This week, I have had three people come into the office who have been picked up on drunk-in-public charges, which is a Class 4 misdemeanor – it is punishable by a fine only,” Sobral said. “What they have done is, they have picked them up, taken them to the police station and had them processed by ICE with detainers, which is absurd because the offense doesn’t require the officer to take someone to jail; they could just ticket them and let them sleep it off.”

As a result of the increased ICE activity in the state, Gov. Terry McAuliffe met with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. McAuliffe said he came away from the meeting with positive results, stressing that Kelly assured him that only undocumented immigrants involved in “criminal enterprises” would be targeted.

Brenke, a member of ICE Out of RVA, questioned the assurances Kelly gave McAuliffe. She said the newfound freedom that ICE has been given under the executive order has left undocumented immigrants in Richmond reeling.

“Obama created this system of really targeting certain individuals and finding out, ‘OK, who has a criminal history? How can we find them?’” Brenke said. “But now, they’ll just go to a random place and see who’s undocumented and just take whoever’s around. So that way, it’s definitely more visible, and there’s definitely more fear in our communities.”

Both Sobral and Brenke also said ICE agents have misrepresented themselves as a means of attracting undocumented immigrants. They cited instances in which ICE agents presented themselves as local police rather than federal officers.

“They were saying that they were the police, and they’re not,” Sobral said. “That is a misrepresentation. They are not the police – they are ICE.”

In response to critics, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has cited criminal and public safety threats as their top priority in immigration enforcement efforts.

Sobral and Brenke suggest that undocumented immigrants know their rights if they find themselves in an encounter with ICE.

“People are more aware of the fact that they have to follow police instructions,” Sobral said. “But if an ICE officer stops me and asks me for ID, unless he has an articulable suspicion that I am an undocumented immigrant, there’s absolutely nothing that I need to do to answer him.

“You can remain silent,” Sobral said. “Whether or not you’re documented, you have these rights.”

Before they vote, Virginia legislators pray

By Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “May your will be done, dear Lord, this day and each day by these, your servants,” said the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley.

“I pray that at the conclusion of this gathering that all matters whether confirmed, completed or channeled will have been divinely directed while also being considered by your judgment as good and as acceptable,” said the Rev. Carlos Jordan.

“We ask you Lord this day to guide this body in respecting human life from the moment of conception until natural death,” said the Rev. Dennis Di Mauro.

You might expect to hear such religious intonations in a church setting. But Adams-Riley, Jordan and Di Mauro weren’t directing their words to congregants; they were addressing members of the Virginia General Assembly.

Each meeting of the General Assembly begins with a prayer led by a religious leader. The practice dates back to colonial Virginia, and it is common throughout the United States. Almost all state legislatures use an opening prayer as part of their tradition and procedure, and the custom has operated on the federal level since the first Congress convened under the Constitution in 1789.

You may be thinking: Doesn’t this practice violate the separation of church and state? Some people believe it does, but the courts have ruled otherwise.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those provisions, known as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, were written to protect the religious liberties of Americans and prohibit the state from endorsing one religion over another. But they don’t specify what constitutes the establishment of a state religion.

“There’s a pretty robust history of government institutions in this country engaging in practices that one could very plausibly argue is suggestive of, denotes, is the equivalent of establishing a religion,” said Dr. John Aughenbaugh, professor of constitutional law at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Official symbols and rhetoric often blur the line separating religion and government. Examples include our national currency (which reads “In God We Trust”) and the oath of office taken by elected officials (who place a hand on a Bible and end with “So help me God”).

The constitutionality of legislative prayer was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1983 decision in Marsh, Nebraska State Treasurer v. Chambers. The high court ruled that legislative prayer did not violate the First Amendment because it “has become part of the fabric of our society.”

The issue re-emerged more recently when some residents of the town of Greece, New York, sued the town council for opening its meetings with a predominantly Christian prayer. The lawsuit said such prayers discriminated against people of minority religions and non-religious citizens. However, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, saying the town council had not violated the First Amendment.

Like the town of Greece, prayer in the Virginia General Assembly is overwhelmingly led by Christian faith leaders, who invoke Christian ideas about the will of God and the role of government in addressing legislators.

 
 

During the 2017 legislative session, Christian ministers led 95 percent of the prayers that opened the House and Senate, according to an analysis by VCU Capital News Service.

Fewer than three-fourths of adults in Virginia identify as Christian, according to the Pew Research Center. However, about 90 percent of Virginia legislators identify as Christian, and that is reflected in the religious leaders chosen to address the General Assembly.

The only other faiths invited to address the General Assembly were Judaism, Unitarian Universalism and Islam – the only other religions to which legislators belong.

The largest group excluded from leading the daily invocation at the General Assembly was non-religious people, atheists and agnostics, who make up 20 percent of adults in the state, according to the Pew study.

Over the course of the 2017 legislative session, the General Assembly spent a total of 1 hour, 53 minutes, and 43 seconds praying. Each invocation lasted an average of 1 minute, 38 seconds. To some, this is time well spent.

“I’m glad that it’s a part of our state government,” said Rabbi Dovid Asher, one of two rabbis to lead the General Assembly in prayer this session. “If I’m going to put somebody in office and vote for somebody, I want them to have a moment of reflection, of introspection during the course of the day.”

Other people, like Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state, view prayer in the General Assembly as an inappropriate and inefficient use of time.

“The legislators have a lot better things to put their energy and efforts into. It’s a waste of time. And if they were to want to pray or engage in religious practice, they should do so on their own time, not on taxpayers’ time,” Elliott said.

Religion influences politics but in different ways

By Megan Corsano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Religion plays a role in legislation involving everything from firearms to health care to marriage in the Virginia General Assembly.

Like their constituents, the vast majority of legislators are Christian. Religious lawmakers say that their faith shapes their values and outlook on life – but that they don’t impose their religious beliefs on others.

“We have a very rich, diverse General Assembly, and that’s a good thing in the sense that we have so many people that come from so many types of backgrounds,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach.

He said being raised in the Christian tradition affects his legislative priorities – instilling in him, for example, a strong belief in an individual’s rights.

 

“I think my faith influences my worldview in the sense that every single person is created in the image of God and every single person has worth and has value,” Miyares said. “Every person also has conscience, and I think freedom of conscience is one of the hallmarks of how we were created by our creator: freedom of that choice to make decisions as your conscience dictates. Government should be very careful about forcing people to violate their conscience.”

Miyares said his religious background influenced which bills he supported during the General Assembly’s 2017 session – such as HB 1406, introduced by Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem. Although the bill was left in committee, it would have allowed nonviolent felons to carry firearms once their civil rights have been restored.

“I believe in the power of redemption for nonviolent offenders,” Miyares said. “Part of the reason I became a lawyer is that I have a deep appreciation for the law and for how it protects individuals.”

However, Miyares cites more than just religion as a factor on his politics. In 1965, his mother fled Cuba for the United States.

“My story doesn’t begin in Virginia Beach, Virginia; it begins in Havana, Cuba, with a scared 19-year-old girl who got on an airplane with a hope of a better life,” he said. “What I appreciate about this country is the fact that it’s a nation of second chances. My faith, Christianity, is also about second chances and the redemptive power of second chances.”

Based on the religious identification reported by each member of the Virginia General Assembly, about 90 percent identify with some denomination of Christianity. In comparison, about 73 percent of adults in Virginia identify with a form of Christianity, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

At the federal level, the religious makeup of the legislative branch has a similar breakdown. According to an analysis of data about the 115th U.S. Congress conducted by the Pew Research Center in January, 91 percent of congressional members describe themselves as Christians, while 71 percent of U.S. adults do the same.

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, agreed that religion plays a role in how a legislator will vote on bills, but she cautions against religious convictions getting out of hand in the legislative process.

Price was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Howard University School of Divinity for her master’s degree in theology. She has paid particular attention to the concept of religion and its role in her own life and the lives of her colleagues.

“When we’re out-rightly infusing religion into something that we’re doing on a policy basis or on a legislative basis, then we have to make sure that it is super-accurate, and we have to be careful about what the unintended implications may be with the words that we choose,” Price said.

Price used HB 2025from this year’s legislative session as an example of a policy coming from a religious basis.

The bill, introduced by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It would have spelled out the right of pastors and other wedding officiants to refuse to “participate in the solemnization of any marriage,” and would have protected this refusal when the marriage contradicts “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.”

Price said that such a law would impose a “singular Christian view of marriage” into state policy.

“What I see as problematic is when people confuse holy matrimony with marriage,” Price said, referring to “marriage” in the sense of the state function. “That’s when they start to talk about their own values or beliefs. I’m a Christian, and I believe in marriage equality, so how can someone say that the Christian view is against gay marriage? It doesn’t allow for the diversity even within Christianity when people purport to speak from the ‘Christian perspective.’”

Like Miyares, Price said she sees her own religious experience as an influence on the way she conducts herself in her House district in Newport News and in the General Assembly.

“The way I was raised in my home church definitely impacts how I vote for certain legislation,” she said, noting that religion has instilled in her the values of equality and justice and a commitment to “love thy neighbor.”

According the Price, most of the bills she advocates for concern social justice. That emanates not just from religion but also from her family’s history in the civil rights movement.

“I do think my religion has some impact on what it is that I do, but I also know that other areas of my upbringing had that as well,” Price said. “Not all of us are Christian; not all of us subscribe to a religion in general. But we are making laws that impact all of those lives. I would think it silly to think that religion wouldn’t play a part because of what we bring to the table, but it has to play a part in productive ways.”

After soaring under Obama, gun industry drops under Trump

 

By Nick Versaw and Tyler Woodall, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Earlier this year, gun rights groups and gun control advocates met at Capitol Square to face off in dueling rallies and seek support for their views. Gun rights advocates held blaze orange signs that read “Guns save lives.” Their adversaries preached stricter regulation with a sea of yellow signs that proclaimed the opposite – “Background checks save lives.”

This wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, that the opposite ends of the gun spectrum would meet to express their perspectives on firearms.

The Second Amendment has remained at the forefront of the American consciousness for decades. According to the Pew Research Center, gun policy was one of the five most important issues for voters during the 2016 presidential campaign.

As the country has become more partisan, opinions on guns have become increasingly polarizing. “The gap in how candidates’ supporters view overall priorities for the nation’s gun policy is much wider today than it has been in any presidential campaign dating to 2000,” Pew stated.

This polarization in Americans’ views on guns has created a climate where the firearms industry and the political landscape of the day share a closer relationship than one might think.

During the eight-year term of Democratic and gun-control-minded President Barack Obama, firearm sales soared.

In 2016, the number of queries to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System required to purchase a gun topped 27 million – a 116 percent increase from 2008, the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Moreover, in the first six years of the Obama presidency, the number of guns manufactured in the United States more than doubled.

As much as firearm manufacturers may not like to admit it, the anti-gun ideology of the Obama administration provided a massive boost to business. The stock prices of two of the premier firearm manufacturers – American Outdoor Brands (formerly called Smith & Wesson) and Sturm, Ruger & Co. – experienced tenfold increases during the eight years following Obama’s 2008 election.

However, this close-knit relationship wasn’t always the case. For example, the last time a Democrat was in the White House, this connection was not as apparent. During President Bill Clinton’s second term in office from 1996-2000, the number of guns manufactured took a slight dip. During Clinton’s final two years in the Oval Office, sales followed a similar trend.

During George W. Bush’s eight years in office, the industry saw a 48 percent increase as the post-9/11 fear of terrorism spread across the country, but the rise paled in comparison to what the industry experienced during Obama’s presidency.

However, the industry began a swift downturn following the election of Republican Donald Trump, a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment, in November.

In the first three months of 2017, coinciding with Trump’s first 100 days in office, gun sale background checks dropped nearly 13 percent compared with the previous year. Taking those figures into consideration, the United States is on pace to sell nearly 1 million fewer guns than in 2016.

Virginia gun dealers have not been immune to these trends. Peyton Galanti, marketing manager for Richmond’s Colonial Shooting Academy, said the Broad Street gun range has witnessed this firsthand.

“Sales have been much slower since Election Day,” Galanti said. “The economy is still slow, especially in retail. Customers are not yet comfortable spending money. Without the panic of losing their (Second Amendment) rights, customers are making more calculated, prudent spending decisions.”

In addition to a drop in sales, overall consumer confidence in the firearms industry has plummeted since the Nov. 8 election. Stock prices of Vista Outdoor Inc. – owner of many of the most popular ammunition companies in addition to gun makers Savage Arms and Stevens – have dropped by nearly 50 percent.

This trend has led to layoffs at major manufacturers of firearms ammunitions and gun-related accessories.

In March, firearms manufacturer Remington – one of the top producers of guns in the country – laid off more than 120 workers in an upstate New York manufacturing plant the company has operated since the 19th century.

That same month, Federal Premium Ammunition cut 110 jobs in Minnesota.

Magpul – a top weapons accessories manufacturer – laid off 85 workers in April from a Wyoming-based plant. The workers were part of a hiring increase to help meet the market demands of the company’s products throughout the Obama presidency. The layoffs came after the company saw a return to normal demand in the first quarter of 2017.

Galanti believes the fear created by the Obama administration’s anti-gun ideology led to an oversaturation of the firearms market over the course of the past eight years.

“This industry was flooded with people who wanted a piece of the pie, and these fly-by-night companies probably will not weather the storm of 2017,” Galanti said. “There have already been many layoffs around the country, and companies are restructuring. The suppressor business has been especially hurt.” Suppressors, or silencers, can be attached to gun muzzles to reduce the noise of firing.

Galanti blames the Obama administration for uncertain economic conditions that have caused an unwillingness of Americans to spend their hard-earned money on guns.

“People are reluctant to spend because American incomes have been hit so hard over the last eight years,” Galanti said. “Given much change under the current president, the economy will become unchained and roll like a steam engine again in the future. We just don’t know how long it will take.”

Many within the industry believe the economic policies of the pro-gun Trump administration will lead to stability in the gun market after what they saw as eight years of uncertainty under Obama.

“The industry is expecting to normalize over 2017 and get back to steady consistent sales, instead of the yo-yo/panic buying of the past, where supply and demand were so off balance,” Galanti added.

However, it is unknown where that “new normal” will lie or when the market will stabilize after the distinctive surge under Obama. The pro-Second Amendment policies of the current president may stave off the fear of further control and regulation after what Trump called an “eight-year assault” on guns.

At the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting last week, Trump proclaimed that gun-owners now “have a true friend and champion in the White House.” Whether that will lead to a strong market for firearms remains to be seen.

Polarization over guns leads to surge in legislation

By Tyler Woodall and Nick Versaw, Capital News Service

The 2016 presidential election was one of the most polarizing election cycles in recent memory, as supporters from both sides of the aisle expressed their distaste for the opposing party’s candidate and hot-button issues rose to the front of the United States’ collective political mind.

With tragedies like the Sandy Hook, Pulse nightclub and San Bernardino shootings littering the past several years, the fight to crack down on guns has risen to the forefront of the American political landscape.

According to the Pew Research Center, gun policy was among the five most important issues to the American populace during last year’s election – more important to voters than even immigration, Social Security and education.

However, while guns remained a hot-button issue among Americans, there were some topics that supporters of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were able to agree upon.

For example, according to Pew, at least 75 percent of both candidates’ supporters agreed on mandated background checks at gun shows. At least 82 percent of each group also saw eye to eye when it came to restrictions on gun ownership for people with mental illness.

Even so, voters remained sharply divided over many other gun-related issues.

Nearly 75 percent of Clinton supporters endorsed restrictions on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, while only 34 percent of Trump supporters shared that viewpoint.

 

 

 
 

The distance between the two parties on guns has increased dramatically in recent years. According to Pew, there was a 20 percentage-point difference between the supporters of Al Gore and George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race when it came to controlling gun ownership versus protecting gun rights. That gap more than doubled to 41 points in the 2012 race and ballooned to a 70-point difference between Trump and Clinton supporters last year.

The country’s overall viewpoint on gun rights has flipped since the 2000 election. That year, 66 percent of voters supported restricting gun rights, with only 29 percent looking to protect gun ownership. By 2016, those figures had reversed, with more than half of voters supporting gun ownership.

In addition, Pew found that a majority of the public believes that gun ownership in the United States does more to protect citizens from being a victim of crimes. A little over a third think guns are putting the public in greater danger.

These trends have led to a flood of gun-related legislation at both the state and federal levels.

In Virginia, 111 weapons-related bills were introduced to the General Assembly in 2016 – a 170 percent increase over the previous year. Of those bills, only 14 were signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

 

 

 
 

During his four-year term as governor, McAuliffe witnessed this increase in gun legislation first-hand. McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Bob McDonnell, saw 171 weapons-related bills introduced during his time as governor. McAuliffe has seen 300.

With the 2017 governor’s race heating up, the state’s gun policy hangs in the balance. With a Republican-led General Assembly, a GOP gubernatorial win in November could lead to an expansion of gun rights over the next four years.

Even if a Democrat is elected governor, the trends indicate gun regulation will remain at the forefront of the local and national political landscape.

A Guide to Richmond Music

​Richmond is quickly becoming known as a music town, but for those new to the area or to the scene, knowing where to look can be a bit daunting. This map shows some of the best venues and record stories in the city and is great for newbies. Theaters and bars that often feature live music, as well as thrift stories that sell vinyl, were left off to avoid confusion. (Map by Tyler Hammel of VCU Capital News Service)

​​http://tinyurl.com/rva-music-map

Meet the men running for Governor

Megan Schiffres, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia will elect a new governor this year.

The governor’s position is one of great power and influence, as the current officeholder, Terry McAuliffe, has demonstrated by breaking the record for most vetoes in Virginia history.

However, during the last gubernatorial race in 2014, the voter turnout was less than 42 percent, compared with 72 percent during last year’s presidential election.

While not as publicized as the presidential campaign, the governor’s race will have just as much, if not more, influence over the everyday lives of Virginians. That’s why it’s important to stay informed about who is running and what they stand for.

The state Democratic and Republican parties will each hold a primary on June 13 to choose a nominee for governor. The general election will be Nov. 7.

Here is a brief summary of each candidate’s qualifications. We also have developed a quiz to help determine which candidate best reflects your political views.

Democrats

     

Democrats Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello

Ralph Northam is lieutenant governor of Virginia and a pediatric neurologist at the Children’s Specialty Group in Norfolk. He served in the U.S. Army and as state senator for the 6th Senate District, before joining McAuliffe’s gubernatorial ticket in 2013. Northam hopes to continue the work he started with McAuliffe and is focusing his campaign on economic progress. He said his priorities are affordable health care and education and has introduced a plan to make community colleges and workforce training free for what he calls “new-collar” jobs in high-demand fields like health care, cybersecurity and skilled construction trades.

Tom Perriello, a former congressman, is a lawyer whose early career focused on prosecuting atrocities in Africa. He was special adviser to the prosecution of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and served as special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo under the Obama administration. Perriello’s campaign has focused on his resistance to what he calls the hateful politics of President Trump. He has proposed a plan to make community college debt-free for two years. Perriello has been endorsed by former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont.

Republicans

          

Republicans Ed Gillespie, Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner

Ed Gillespie is a political strategist and former chair of the Republican National Committee. He is deeply connected in both national and Virginia politics and has spent his career working for high-profile Republicans including presidential candidate John Kasich, George W. Bush and former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. He served as counselor to President Bush during Bush’s second term of office, co-founded a bipartisan lobbying firm and in 2014 narrowly lost a bid for Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat to Democratic incumbent Mark Warner. Gillespie vows to pursue “timeless conservative principles,” including a 10 percent cut in state income tax rates.

Corey Stewart is a self-proclaimed “Trump before Trump was Trump.” He co-chaired Virginia’s Trump for President campaign and currently chairs the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, where he implemented “the nation’s toughest crackdown on illegal immigration” and helped remove local fees for getting a concealed weapons permit. Stewart said he is running for governor “to take back Virginia from the establishment and political elites in Richmond.” An international trade attorney, he has vowed to protect Confederate monuments such as statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. “I’m proud to be next to the Confederate flag,” he said.

Frank Wagner portrays himself as the only Republican candidate who “has built multiple successful, manufacturing businesses in Virginia” and has significant legislative experience. Wagner has represented the 7th Senate District (Virginia Beach and Norfolk) since 2002 and was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1992-2001. He is a Navy veteran and until recently owned two ship repair firms. Wagner supports reducing regulations on businesses and wants to focus on career technical education for high school students and college affordability. A top priority for him is infrastructure development, including transportation projects to create jobs and reduce traffic congestion in Virginia.

 

Editor's Note: This story, which originally sent by the Capital News Service on Monday, erred in listing Emmanuel Peter as a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor; he did not make the ballot for the primary. The CNS deleted that information from the article and adjusted the quiz.

Online Quiz: How well do you know Virginia's official emblems?

State budget targets localities in fiscal distress

By Amy Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –While a study for local government finances was canned this past legislative session, the new state budget has revived the focus on fiscal stress in Virginia cities and counties.

Motivated by the city of Petersburg’s financial crisis, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, filed a bill to study the fiscal stress of local governments during the 2017 session. SJ 278 proposed the creation of a joint subcommittee to review local and state tax systems, as well as reforms to promote economic assistance and cooperation between regions.

Ultimately, the bill was rejected in the House Finance Committee as members deferred consideration of tax reform for next year’s longer session.

However, the state budget adopted this February has already begun to enact two fiscal stress preventive measures originally introduced in Hanger’s bill.

“Currently, there is no statutory authority for the Commission on Local Government to intervene in a fiscally stressed locality, and the state does not currently have any authority to assist a locality financially,” said Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D- Petersburg, who co-sponsored the fiscal stress bill.

To escalate state intervention, the budget has set guidelines for state officials to identify and help alleviate signs of financial stress to prevent a more severe crisis. A workgroup established by the auditor of public accounts will determine an early warning system for identifying fiscal stress. The system would consider such criteria as a local government’s expenditure reports and budget information.

Local governments that demonstrate fiscal distress will be notified and may request a comprehensive review of their finances by the state. After review, the state is expected to draft an ‘action plan’ detailing purpose, duration, and the anticipated resources required for the intervention. The governor also has the option to channel up to $500,000 from the general fund toward relief efforts for the local government in need.

The new state budget also called for the creation of a Joint Subcommittee on Local Government Fiscal Stress, with members drawn from the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations and House Finance committees. The subcommittee will study local and state financial practices such as regional cooperation and service consolidation, taxing authority, local responsibilities in state programs, and root causes of fiscal stress.

“It is important to have someone who can speak to first-hand experience dealing with issues of local government fiscal stress,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “This insight will be essential in forming effective solutions that will be sustainable long-term.”

While all states hold limited authority to intervene in struggling localities, the level of involvement they actually play in fiscally stressed communities varies greatly. For Virginia, the new budget aims to widen the commonwealth’s powers to intervene, as well as more effectively spot fiscal red flags in an area.

“Prior to now, Virginia had no mechanism to track, measure, or address fiscal stress in localities,” Aird said. “Petersburg’s situation is not unique, and it is encouraging that proactive measures are now being taken to guard against future issues. This is essential to ensuring that Virginia’s economy remains strong and that all communities can share in our commonwealth’s success.”

You have until Tuesday to file federal taxes

By Haley Winn, Capital News Service

Usually, April 15 is the filing deadline hanging over the heads of U.S. taxpayers. But this year, Americans have been granted a slight reprieve: They have until April 18 – this Tuesday – to submit their federal income taxes.

By law, individual tax returns are typically due on April 15. But when that falls on a weekend or holiday, as it does this year, the deadline is automatically extended.

In this case, it has been extended to Tuesday because Monday is a holiday in Washington, D.C.: That’s when the district observes Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

The Internal Revenue Service offers a number of tips for people still working on filing their 2016 federal taxes. These tipscan help taxpayers avoid errors and ensure that refunds are received as quickly as possible.

Last-minute filers who still need more time have the option to request a tax-filing extension to avoid late-filing penalties. While this gives taxpayers more time to file their federal taxes, it does not give them more time to pay what they owe.

State taxes are still due as scheduled on May 1. The Virginia Department of Taxation has online advicefor filing state returns.

In 2014, the most recent year for which the IRS has provided data, Virginians filed nearly 3.9 million individual federal tax returns. The total amount of income reported was about $284 billion – or approximately $73,000 per return.

In Virginia, the average income per return ranged from less than $35,000 in Petersburg and Emporia to more than $130,000 in Falls Church and Goochland County.

 

Gov. McAuliffe keeps a perfect veto record

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Terry McAuliffe not only set a record for the number of bills vetoed by a Virginia governor. He also has a perfect record for the number of vetoes sustained.

Republicans in the General Assembly failed to override any of the 40 vetoes that the Democratic governor issued on bills passed during this year’s legislative session, including measures that sought to increase voting requirements and make it easier to carry concealed weapons.

During his four years in office, McAuliffe has vetoed a total of 111 bills – more than any of his predecessors. None of them have been overturned, Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, noted.

“Whether he is fighting for the rights of women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, Governor McAuliffe has promised to keep Virginia open and welcoming for all its citizens. Thanks to the Democrats who fought to sustain his vetoes, he was able to keep that promise,” Swecker said in a statement.

“With the help of Democrats in the General Assembly, the Governor has formed a wall of reason to protect Virginians from harmful legislation that would hurt our economy and working families.”

Republicans see it differently. They say McAuliffe and Democratic legislators have shunned bipartisanship and blocked common-sense legislation that would prevent voter fraud and let Virginians defend themselves.

For example, McAuliffe vetoed SB 1299, which would have allowed Virginians who are under a protective order to carry a concealed handgun while they wait for their concealed weapon permit to be issued. McAuliffe said, “The bill perpetuates the dangerous fiction that the victims of domestic violence will be safer by arming themselves. It would inject firearms into a volatile domestic violence situation, making that situation less safe, not more.”

On Wednesday, the General Assembly reconvened to consider the governor’s vetoes and legislative recommendations.

The Senate voted 23-17 in favor of overriding McAuliffe’s veto of SB 1299, with Democratic Sens. Chap Petersen of Fairfax and Lynwood Lewis of Accomack County joining the 21 Republican senators in voting yes. However, it takes 27 votes – a two-thirds majority – to override a veto in the Senate.

The bill’s sponsor – Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester – was disappointed. She said the bill would have “allowed law-abiding victims of domestic violence, stalking and sexual abuse to carry concealed weapons on an emergency basis so they are not left defenseless while waiting carry permit paperwork. Many other states have passed similar emergency provisions and victims’ lives have been protected. “

Legislators also sustained McAuliffe’s vetoes of bills that would have required more identification for in-person and absentee voting and increased scrutiny of registration lists. Republicans said such measures would make it harder for people to vote illegally. McAuliffe said that voter fraud has not been a problem, that the bills could prevent qualified people from voting and that the legislation would put a financial burden on local governments.

In addition to the vetoes, the governor sent 85 bills back to the assembly with recommendations. More than 80 percent of the recommendations were accepted.

However, the General Assembly rejected McAuliffe’s recommendations to expand Medicaid and to reinstate a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month in Virginia.

“I remain disappointed that Republicans chose to block our efforts to expand Medicaid and reinstate the one-handgun-per-month rule,” McAuliffe said after Wednesday’s session. “Both proposals are common-sense measures that would save lives in Virginia.”

GOP rejects governor’s bid to expand Medicaid

By Maura Mazurowski, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe blasted Republican legislators Wednesday after they rejected his budget amendment to expand Medicaid in Virginia.

“Virginia Republicans block #Medicaid expansion once again,” McAuliffe tweeted after the General Assembly reconvened to consider legislation that the governor vetoed or wanted amended.

“400k Virginians remain w/o healthcare. We’re losing $6.6mil every day,” McAuliffe wrote after the GOP-controlled House of Delegates rebuffed his Medicaid proposal.

McAuliffe and other Democrats reiterated their call for Medicaid expansion after the U.S. House of Representatives last month failed to reach an agreement on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

That federal law, also known as Obamacare, encouraged states to expand Medicaid, the health coverage program for low-income Americans.

The proposed amendment would have given McAuliffe the authority in October to direct the Department of Medical Assistance Services to expand Medicaid if the Affordable Care Act is still in place. State officials say the expansion would cover about 400,000 low-income Virginians.

Every year since he was elected in 2013, McAuliffe has advocated expanding Medicaid. And every year, Republican lawmakers have voted against the idea.

“We rejected expansion in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and again in 2017 because it was the wrong policy for the commonwealth,” the GOP House leadership said in a statement Wednesday. “The lack of action in Washington has not changed that and in fact, the uncertainty of federal health policy underscores the need to be cautious over the long term.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, states can expand Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,640 for an individual. About half of the 31 states that accepted Medicaid expansion have Republican governors. Earlier in the session, Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, outlined the Republicans’ position on the issue.

“Our Republican caucus believes in minimal government, in government doing only what it must,” Massie said.

He said Medicaid is the largest entitlement program in the state and costs are rising.

“As such, we cannot prudently responsibly expand such an entitlement program at this time,” Massie said. “We must reform it and look for the Virginia way. And that is exactly what we’re doing in this house.”

Delegate Massie has since announced his resignation from the Virginia House of Delegates.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a practicing pediatric neurologist, pushed for McAuliffe’s proposed amendment just before the veto session began Wednesday.

“We need to do the right thing here in Virginia. We need to go upstairs, both in the House and the Senate, and pass the governor’s amendment to move forward with Medicaid expansion,” Northam said.

Liberal organizations like Progress Virginia were angered by the GOP’s decision on the matter.

“Health care is a basic human right. It is beyond outrageous that House Republicans have prioritized petty partisan politics over real human lives by refusing to expand Medicaid,” Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said in a press release. “These politicians should look in the eyes of individuals they’ve denied health care access and explain their vote.”

The issue is likely to remain contentious as McAuliffe finishes his term and Virginia elects a new governor in November. Northam is competing with former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello for the Democratic nomination. Three candidates are seeking the Republican nomination: Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee; state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach; and Corey Stewart, who chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

“I will continue to fight for access to quality and affordable healthcare for all Virginians along with the Governor and our administration,” Northam said in a statement.

Lawmakers blast Trump budget that would cut Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Photo by TOM HAUSMAN      

By BRIANA THOMAS,  Maryland Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers from states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday expressed bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s proposal to end federal support for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

“The president’s budget that would zero out the Chesapeake Bay Program is outrageous,” Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill meeting with members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said cutting investments for the bay clean up will not help the economy.

“Our Chesapeake Bay is an economic engine and the cleaner it is the more it produces economically,” he said.

The nonprofit coalition hosted its fifth annual lobbying day, centered around saving the federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program after Trump last month proposed a “skinny budget” thatwould eliminate the $73 million bay restoration project.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides the program with monetary support to restore the bay’s ecosystem and reduce pollution.

Started in 1983, the program is conducted under a six-state partnership with Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia.

Advocates from each state attended the meeting with lawmakers.

“We know how important the Chesapeake Bay is for the entire region,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “We are going to fight harder and harder and harder.”

Ruppersberger said the bay generates more than $1 trillion annually and the restoration of oysters, tributaries and streams is a project that needs to be continued.

The bay is a source of drinking water for 75 percent of the region’s 17 million residents, according to the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

The Chesapeake also is the largest estuary in the United States serving as aplace for recreational water activities, as well as a workplace for the commercial fishing and crabbing industry.

Made up of 225 local, state, and national groups, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has been advocating for a healthy Chesapeake watershed since 2009.

“The Coalition will work to continue to push back on the president’s proposed budget, and secure the essential funding that is necessary to return clean water to the Chesapeake Bay,” coalition spokeswoman Kristin Reilly said in a statement Wednesday.

Members of the House and Senate said they were pleased to have bipartisan support for clean water.

“The Chesapeake Bay is the perfect thing to come together around and serve energetically,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, last year’s Democratic vice presidential nominee.

He said everyone has to work together to make sure checks and balances are implemented.

“We have an EPA administrator who doesn’t accept science. If you don’t accept climate science, it’s a fair question to ask if you accept science,” Kaine said, referring to Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA.

Trump signed an executive order last week to shut downthe Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a program aimed at reducing climate change by cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

“We are faced with a tough budget battle, but an attitude from the EPA that says we can ignore science,” Kaine said.

The bay is a valuable natural resource and if Trump wants more jobs, then he should work to rehabilitate the bay, Wittman said.

The congressman said he was deeply concerned about Trump’s budget plan and wrote a letter to the administration asking to restore resources to the bay.

Wittman wants more money to help revitalize wetlands.

“Our wetlands are the nursery for everything that lives in those ecosystems...mother nature is the sponge that absorbs what man puts in it,” he said.

Assembly reconvenes Wednesday for ‘veto session’

By SaraRose Martin, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Legislators will return to the state Capitol on Wednesday to consider 39 bills that Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed during the General Assembly’s 2017 session.

To override a veto, the Republican-controlled Assembly must muster a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. Because the Democrats hold 34 seats in the House and 19 in the Senate, McAuliffe should have the votes to sustain his vetoes.

Legislators will vote on the governor’s vetoes of legislation covering a range of topics, including whether to impose more requirements on voter registration, restrict absentee voting and expand access to handguns.

McAuliffe vetoed a record 40 bills during the legislative session that ended Feb. 25. On the session’s final day, the General Assembly dealt with one of the vetoes – McAuliffe’s rejection of HB 2264, which would have cut off state funds for Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions. The veto was sustained by a 62-33 vote in the House.

McAuliffe warned at the beginning of the session that he would veto any social-issue bills that he believed may harm the rights of women or the LGBTQ community. Republican leaders in the House have said that McAuliffe has reneged on his pledge to be bipartisan and that his office has been “the most disengaged administration we have worked with.”

Among legislation vetoed are six education-related bills, such as SB 1283, which would allow the state Board of Education to create regional charter schools without the permission of local school boards.

McAuliffe also vetoed bills to allow a freestanding agency to offer online education programs to Virginia students (HB 1400) and to require schools to notify parents of sexually explicit material (HB 2191). McAuliffe said these bills collectively would “undermine” the state’s public schools.

The governor also rejected legislation to expand access to weapons. He vetoed HB 1582, which would allow 18-year-old active members of the military to apply for concealed handgun permits, and SB 1347, which would allow concealed carry of a switchblade knife.

McAuliffe also turned down bills that Republicans say would prevent voter fraud but the governor said would be obstacles to voting. They included SB 1581, which would require voter registrars to verify with the Social Security Administration that the name, date of birth and Social Security number of voter registration applications. Another vetoed bill, SB 1253, would require electronic poll books to contain photo identification of registered voters.

Lawmakers will also consider recommendations that McAuliffe made to 74 bills. Notably, the governor has proposed an amendment to the state budget (HB 1500) that would allow him to expand Medicaid, an optional provision of the federal Affordable Care Act. McAuliffe said this has become an urgent issue since Congress rejected President Donald Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act last month.

Virginians in the coverage gap held a press conference Monday to urge legislators to vote for Medicaid expansion. This expansion would mean 400,000 Virginians who don’t currently qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford health insurance will be able to get covered.

“Republicans no longer have an excuse for not passing Medicaid expansion in Virginia,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. “All Virginians deserve to be able to see a doctor when they need one, regardless of income.”

Republican leaders said that their opposition remains the smart move and that they will reject McAuliffe’s proposed budget amendment. They fear that if Virginia expands Medicaid, the state will get stuck with the bills in the future.

Agenda for Wednesday’s reconvened session

McAuliffe vetoed 40 bills from the 2017 legislative session. The General Assembly will take up 39 of those vetoes during Wednesday’s session. They are:

     

Bill number

Description

Sponsor

HB1394

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

Head

HB1400

Virginia Virtual School Board; established, report.

Bell, Richard P.

HB1428

Absentee voting; photo identification required with application.

Fowler

HB1432

Switchblade knife; exception to carry concealed.

Ware

HB1468

Incarcerated persons, certain; compliance with detainers, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Marshall, R.G.

HB1578

Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs (Tebow Bill).

Bell, Robert B.

HB1582

Concealed handgun permits; age requirement for persons on active military duty.

Campbell

HB1596

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

Webert

HB1605

Virginia Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts; established, report.

LaRock

HB1753

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

Davis

HB1790

Administrative Process Act; development and periodic review of regulations, report.

Lingamfelter

HB1836

Spotsylvania Parkway; VDOT to maintain a certain segment beginning in 2020.

Orrock

HB1852

Concealed handguns; protective orders.

Gilbert

HB1853

Victims of domestic violence, etc.; firearms safety or training course.

Gilbert

HB2000

Sanctuary policies; prohibited.

Poindexter

HB2002

Refugee and immigrant resettlements; reports to Department of Social Services.

Poindexter

HB2025

Religious freedom; solemnization of marriage.

Freitas

HB2077

Emergency Services and Disaster Law of 2000; reference to firearms, emergency shelter.

Wilt

HB2092

Application for public assistance; eligibility, review of records.

LaRock

HB2191

School boards; procedures for handling sexually explicit instructional materials, etc.

Landes

HB2198

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

Kilgore

HB2207

Food stamp program; requests for replacement of electronic benefit transfer card.

Robinson

HB2342

Public schools; Board of Education shall only establish regional charter school divisions.

Landes

HB2343

Voter registration list maintenance; voters identified as having duplicate registrations.

Bell, Robert B.

HB2411

Health insurance; reinstating pre-Affordable Care Act provisions.

Byron

SB865

Furnishing certain weapons to minor; exemption.

Stuart

SB872

Absentee voting; applications and ballots; photo identification required.

Chase

SB1105

Registered voters and persons voting; reports of persons voting at elections.

Obenshain

SB1240

Virginia Virtual School Board; established, report.

Dunnavant

SB1253

Voter identification; photograph contained in electronic pollbook.

Obenshain

SB1283

Public schools; Board of Education shall only establish regional charter school divisions.

Obenshain

SB1299

Concealed handguns; protective orders.

Vogel

SB1300

Victims of domestic violence, etc.; firearms safety or training course.

Vogel

SB1324

Religious freedom; definitions, marriage solemnization, participation, and beliefs.

Carrico

SB1347

Switchblade knife; person may carry concealed, exception.

Reeves

SB1362

Concealed weapons; nonduty status active military personnel may carry.

Black

SB1455

Voter registration; monetary payments for registering for another.

Black

SB1470

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

Chafin

SB1581

Voter registration; verification of social security numbers.

Peake

     

On the last day of the regular session, the House tried but failed to override the veto of one bill:

     

HB2264

Department of Health; restrictions on expenditure of funds related to abortions and family planning.

Cline

     

 

On Wednesday, lawmakers also will consider recommendations that McAuliffe made to 74 bills. The most important is the budget bill (HB 1500). Other legislation cover topics ranging from education and health care to tow trucks and government transparency.

     

Bill number

Description

Sponsor

HB1411

Privately retained counsel; rules and regulations, client’s failure to pay.

Albo

HB1491

Background checks; exceptions, sponsored living and shared residential service providers.

Hope

HB1500

Budget Bill.

Jones

HB1525

Driver’s licenses; revocation or suspension, laws of other jurisdictions.

Albo

HB1532

Fire Programs Fund.

Wright

HB1539

Virginia Freedom of Information Act; public access to records of public bodies.

LeMunyon

HB1663

Northern Va. Community College, et al.; computer science training, etc., for public school teachers.

Greason

HB1671

Natural gas utilities; qualified projects, investments in eligible infrastructure.

Morefield

HB1691

Widewater Beach Subdivision; DCR to convey certain real property.

Dudenhefer

HB1708

Standards of Accreditation; industry certification credentials obtained by high school students.

Filler-Corn

HB1721

Community Colleges, State Board for; reduced rate tuition and mandatory fee charges.

Anderson

HB1791

Conspiracy, incitement, etc., to riot; penalty when against public safety personnel.

Lingamfelter

HB1829

Teacher licensure; certification or training in emergency first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Dudenhefer

HB1846

Death certificates; filing.

Cox

HB1851

Assault and battery against a family or household member; deferred disposition, waiver of appeal.

Gilbert

HB1854

Conflicts of Interests Acts, State & Local Government & General Assembly, lobbyist; filing.

Gilbert

HB1855

Court-ordered restitution; form order, enforcement, noncompliance, etc.

Bell, Robert B.

HB1856

Restitution; supervised probation.

Bell, Robert B.

HB1960

Tow truck drivers and towing and recovery operators; civil penalty for improper towing.

Hugo

HB2014

Standards of quality; biennial review by Board of Education.

Keam

HB2016

Electric personal delivery devices; operation on sidewalks and shared-use paths.

Villanueva

HB2017

Virginia Public Procurement Act; bid, performance, and payment bonds, waiver by localities.

Villanueva

HB2026

Property and bulk property carriers; regulation, combines authorities.

Villanueva

HB2053

Direct primary care agreements; the Commonwealth’s insurance laws do not apply.

Landes

HB2101

Health care providers; data collection.

Byron

HB2105

Investment of Public Funds Act; investment of funds in Virginia Investment Pool Trust Fund.

Byron

HB2149

Aircraft; defines ‘unmanned aircraft’ and requires aircraft to be registered with Dept. of Aviation.

Knight

HB2163

Buprenorphine without naloxone; prescription limitation.

Pillion

HB2168

Virginia Coal Train Heritage Authority; established.

Pillion

HB2201

Failure to drive on right side of highways or observe traffic lanes; increases penalties.

O’Quinn

HB2245

Virginia Research Investment Committee; expands role of Committee.

Jones

HB2289

Divorce or dissolution of marriage; award of life insurance.

Leftwich

HB2297

Oyster planting grounds; Marine Resources Commission to post.

Miyares

HB2324

Jurors; payment by prepaid debit card or card account.

Yost

HB2336

Law-enforcement officer; report of officer involved in accident.

Miller

HB2367

Virginia Port Authority; removal of members on Board of Commissioners.

Lindsey

HB2383

Combined sewer overflow outfalls; DEQ to identify owner of outfall discharging into Chesapeake Bay.

Lingamfelter

HB2386

Unpaid court fines, etc.; increases grace period for collection.

Loupassi

HB2390

Renewable energy power purchase agreements; expands pilot program.

Kilgore

HB2442

Collection fees, local; an ordinance for collection of overdue accounts.

Ingram

HB2471

Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority; membership, powers and duties.

Jones

SB800

Direct primary care agreements; the Commonwealth’s insurance laws do not apply.

Stanley

SB812

Asbestos, Lead, and Home Inspectors, Board for; home inspections, required statement.

Marsden

SB854

Unpaid court fines, etc.; increases grace period for collection.

Stanley

SB864

Electoral board appointments; chief judge of the judicial circuit or his designee make appointment.

Stuart

SB898

Combined sewer overflow outfalls; DEQ to identify owner of outfall discharging into Chesapeake Bay.

Stuart

SB962

Sales and use tax; nexus for out-of-state businesses.

Hanger

SB1008

Barrier crimes; clarifies individual crimes, criminal history records checks.

Hanger

SB1023

Concealed handgun permits; sharing of information.

Stuart

SB1073

Bridgewater, Town of; amending charter, sets out various powers typically exercised by towns, etc.

Obenshain

SB1102

FOIA; records of completed unattended death investigations, definition, mandatory disclosure.

Surovell

SB1116

Public school employees, certain; assistance with student insulin pumps by register nurse, etc.

McPike

SB1178

Buprenorphine without naloxone; prescription limitation.

Chafin

SB1239

Child day programs; exemptions from licensure, certification of preschool or nursery school program.

Hanger

SB1258

Virginia Solar Energy Development and Energy Storage Authority; increases membership.

Ebbin

SB1282

Wireless communications infrastructure; procedure for approved by localities.

McDougle

SB1284

Court-ordered restitution; form order, enforcement, noncompliance, etc.

Obenshain

SB1285

Restitution; supervised probation.

Obenshain

SB1296

County food and beverage tax; referendum.

Vogel

SB1303

Voter registration; deadline for registration by electronic means.

Vogel

SB1312

Conflicts of Interests Acts, State & Local Government & General Assembly, lobbyist; filing.

Norment

SB1315

Foster care; possession of firearm.

Carrico

SB1364

Property and bulk property carriers; regulation, combines authorities.

Newman

SB1371

Virginia Research Investment Committee; expands role of Committee.

Saslaw

SB1398

Coal combustion residuals unit; closure permit, assessments required.

Surovell

SB1415

Virginia Port Authority; removal of members on Board of Commissioners.

Spruill

SB1416

Investment of Public Funds Act; investment of funds in Virginia Investment Pool Trust Fund.

Newman

SB1418

Electric utilities; costs of pumped hydroelectricity generation and storage facilities.

Chafin

SB1486

Law-enforcement officer; report of officer involved in accident.

Stuart

SB1492

Water utilities; retail rates of affiliated utilities, definitions, etc.

Stuart

SB1493

Northern Va. Community College, et al.; computer science training, etc., for public school teachers.

McClellan

SB1574

Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority; membership, powers and duties.

Ruff

 

Endorsed by Sanders, Perriello campaigns in Richmond

By Tyler Hammel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In his bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, Tom Perriello says he would make community college free, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and confront the Trump administration over its policies on immigration and other issues.

Perriello – who has won an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – discussed those topics Monday night at a town-hall style meeting at Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Promising to combat President Donald Trump’s administration and help create a “community of conscience,” the Charlottesville native received consistent applause from the crowd.

He touted his support of the Affordable Care Act when he served in the U.S. Congress in 2009-11. Trump, who succeeded Barrack Obama as president in January, has vowed to repeal and replace the ACA. Perriello gave credit to demonstrations such as the Women’s March on Washington for preventing that from happening.

“Five months ago, people could have curled up on the couch and cried, and I’m sure all of us did. But instead, people decided to say, ‘No, this isn’t who we are as a commonwealth; this is not something we are going to stand by passively and watch,’” Perriello said. “Because of these efforts, because of the marches, because of the protests, because of the stories, today the Affordable Care Act remains in place.”

Perriello also discussed his hope to provide free community college to Virginia residents, calling it a good investment. He said trickle-down economics – the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy will generate benefits for poorer people – doesn’t work.

“What the evidence does show you is when you actually increase wages and invest in people, then you do get growth locally, and more growth for small business,” Perriello said. “This is not something we’re doing out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re doing this because it’s a good investment strategy.”

A big part of Perriello’s speech was establishing himself as a viable candidate in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Perriello announced his candidacy in January, when it appeared that Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam would be uncontested in seeking the nomination.

Perriello encouraged supporters to knock on doors and volunteer on his behalf to spread the word about his campaign. That was a critical strategy at the time: Only one in five Virginians even knew his name, according to a poll published in February by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Last week, a survey by the center showed that Perriello and Northam were tied: Each had support from 26 percent of Democratic-leaning voters; almost half of the people polled were undecided.

At the event at Virginia Union University, Perriello had few critical things to say about Northam. Instead, he mentioned issues on which the two candidates agreed – but Perriellosaid he was the first to take those positions.

“We came out and led the way on standing up for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. A few weeks later, we saw Ralph and others court that decision,” Perriello said. “Same thing with criminal justice reform and debt-free community college. I think what we need right now is someone who’s actually leading a policy agenda.”

Perriello echoes many of the positions that Sanders espoused during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. On Tuesday, Sanders issued a statement endorsing Perriello.

“We need to elect progressives at every level of government if we are going to beat back the dangerous agenda of the Trump Administration and its Republican allies,” the statement said. “Tom is committed to fighting the rigged economy and income inequality. He was the first major statewide candidate in Virginia to run on a $15 minimum wage and the first to say two years of community college should be tuition-free.”

Perriello will face off against Northam in the Democratic primary election on June 13. Northam has the support of outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and most Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly and the state’s congressional delegation.

On the Republican side, three candidates are vying for the GOP nomination for governor: Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee; state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach; and Corey Stewart, who chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

‘My illness is not larger than my world’ Despite pain, student excels in class and in life

By Dai Já Norman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Pictures of family members and friends and a British flag cover the walls of her dorm room at Virginia Commonwealth University. Anatomy textbooks, note cards and a Himalayan pink salt crystal lamp occupy her desk.

On Majesta-Doré Legnini’s nightstand is an assortment of prescription and over-the-counter pill bottles. She takes six pills every evening and one in the morning, along with three vitamin supplements. “I am in pain every second of my life,” the 19-year-old sophomore says.

Legnini describes the feeling this way:

“Imagine your legs are stuck between a bed frame and a box spring. And they are under the box spring, and then there’s a mattress, and then there’s an anvil, and then there’s a 500-pound-man sitting on top of the anvil playing a grand piano. That’s what it feels like.”

Legnini was recently diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a rare disorder that afflicts connective tissues and joints. But she has been fighting through the pain as an honors student, a double major (health science and political science) and a community volunteer, working with homeless and mentally ill people.

Although EDS tries to slow her down, Legnini (pronounced lay-NEE-nee) lives a fast-paced life.

On campus, she is a member of the VCU Honors College and VCU Globe, a living and learning program that focuses on global education and international experiences. She helps arrange campus tours for the Undergraduate Admissions Office and leads Their Home RVA, a website and student organization dedicated to improving community relations – especially between VCU students and the homeless population.

Off campus, Legnini is an intern at the Daily Planet, which provides health care and other services to homeless individuals and other people in need. She also is a writer for The Mighty, a website for people with disabilities, diseases, mental illness and other challenges to share their stories.

Susan Sereke, advancement coordinator for the Daily Planet, said Legnini is a testimony to the power of passion.

Legnini is driven by “her passion about the issues of health care and homelessness, and a desire to improve the lives of others,” Sereke said.

About Ehlers Danlos syndrome

EDS is genetic. Symptoms can range from mildly loose joints and hyperelastic skin to debilitating musculoskeletal pain and aortic dissection, a life-threatening heart condition. At least one in 5,000 people have some form of the illness, according to the Ehlers Danlos Society, a support group.

Legnini says she has been wracked by pain from her earliest memories. As a child, she remembers crying when she went on long walks. She was always prone to injuries when playing sports.

Growing up, she sought medical attention numerous times, but doctors dismissed her complaints, attributing them to growing pains. Last May, Legnini’s condition worsened, and she decided to try her luck again by seeing another physician.

“Pain became more frequent,” Legnini recalled. “I felt weaker. I was getting exhausted by seemingly simple activities. It started to become difficult to concentrate, and most importantly PAIN, PAIN, PAIN. It got more intense, more frequent, and made my life much more difficult.”

After almost a year of doctor visits and road trips between Richmond and Manassas, a rheumatologist diagnosed Legnini as having EDS. Legnini was already familiar with the illness: Her best friend also has a form of EDS.

In fact, during high school, Legnini did a lot of research about the disease and even helped raise money for theEDS research center in Maryland. While researching the disease, Legnini thought she might have the symptoms but then rejected that notion as a projection of her friend’s situation.

Many people, even physicians, are unfamiliar with EDS. So Legnini brings a binder explaining the illness whenever she goes to see a doctor.

There is no cure for EDS; however, patients can take medication to reduce their pain and lower their blood pressure. (High blood pressure is associated with the disease.)

Living with pain: ‘I see outside of my illness’

Because of the constant pain, Legnini often must gauge whether she is well enough to leave her bedroom. When the answer is no, she stays in her dorm and tries to get as much homework done as she can.

Walking, cooking and writing are things that many people take for granted. But for EDS patients, these tasks are not effortless. However, Legnini has found ways to overcome adversity.

She is enrolled in some online classes. Also, her older brother, Luciano Legnini, lives across the hall in VCU Globe and can assist her with everyday tasks, such as lifting heavy objects, grabbing items from a high shelf, cooking and cutting up food.

“She doesn’t want to portray herself as like this dependent,” Luciano Legnini said. “But I am here to help, and I am always willing to help her.”

Majesta-Doré Legnini begins each day with an elaborate morning routine. It starts with her cracking every joint in her body – a laborious process that alleviates some of the pain.

“I crack my back first, and then I move my knees and ankles so that they crack a little bit,” Legnini said. “I crack my toes, and then my hands just crack constantly.”

Then she stretches for 10 minutes, showers and wraps her knees, ankles, and shoulders in KT tape – a tape used for muscle, ligament and tendon pain relief and support. She gets dressed and grabs breakfast that meets her diet restrictions – gluten free, sugar free and dairy free – before heading out.

Legnini says it would be easy to play the victim and wallow in self-pity. She refuses to do so.

“I am not able to do some things,” she said. “And I know those things, and I don’t do those things. But I am able to learn.”

Legnini plans to get a joint degree between VCU and the University of Richmond with a master’s in health administration and a specialty in civil rights law. After college, she intends to advocate for inclusive and accessible health care.

Her goal is to ensure that people from all walks of life have access to the health care system. She won’t let her own disease define her.

“I see outside of my illness,” Legnini said. “But my illness is inside of everything I do. And so, the world is larger than my illness, but my illness is not larger than my world.”

More Virginians have health insurance, data show

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The percentage of Virginians without health insurance fell by 2 percentage points in 2015, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. All but two localities in Virginia saw a drop in the number of uninsured residents.

The uninsured population of Virginia fell from 12.4 percent in 2014 to 10.4 percent in 2015, the data showed. Nationwide, the proportion of Americans lacking health insurance went from 13.5 percent to 10.9 percent.

Health insurance has been the subject of political debate at the federal and state levels. The goal of the Affordable Care Act, informally known as Obamacare, was to get more people insured. Republicans say the law has been a disaster; Democrats say it’s working but needs improvement.

Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Virginia ranked No. 28 in its percentage of uninsured residents in 2015. Massachusetts had the lowest uninsured population (3.2 percent); Texas had the highest (19.2 percent).

From 2014 to 2015, the uninsured population dropped in all states except South Dakota, where the percentage rose 0.2 percent.

Among Virginia localities, the city of Lexington showed the biggest decrease in uninsured residents: Its percentage fell from 15 percent to 10.2 percent. The uninsured rate also dropped significantly in Highland County, Cumberland County and Roanoke.

The city of Richmond also had a sizable decline: Its proportion of uninsured residents declined from 18.4 percent in 2014 to 14.5 percent the following year.

Despite the improvements, more than 15 percent of the population was uninsured in a dozen localities in Virginia, including Harrisonburg, Accomack County and Manassas Park.

In many states, the reason for the decrease in uninsured residents could be the expansion of Medicaid, the government-funded health program for lower-income Americans. The Affordable Care Act offered states federal funding to expand Medicaid. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have done so, according to the Census Bureau.

Other states, including Virginia, declined to expand Medicaid for fear that they would be saddled with the costs down the road.

On Monday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe again urged Virginia legislators to expand Medicaid.

“Failing to expand Medicaid has cost Virginia $10.4 billion and has left 400,000 of our residents without health care,” McAuliffe said. “President Trump’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed, and even Speaker (Paul) Ryan has said that Obamacare is the law of the land for the foreseeable future. The time has come for us to bring our taxpayer dollars back to serve the individuals who need them the most.”

Republicans, who control the Virginia General Assembly, are likely to reject McAuliffe’s request.

Limit handgun purchases to 1 a month, McAuliffe says

By Amelia Heymann, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed an amendment to restore Virginia’s “one handgun a month” law. The amendment would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor for anyone other than a licensed firearms dealer to purchase more than one handgun within a 30-day period.

Virginia limited handgun purchases to one a month in 1993 when Democrats controlled the General Assembly and Douglas Wilder was governor. Back then, McAuliffe said, Virginia had the reputation of being “the gun-running capital of the East Coast.”

The law was repealed in 2012 when Republicans controlled the House and Senate and Bob McDonnell was governor. As a result, McAuliffe said Monday, “Virginia is once again becoming the go-to state for criminals to purchase weapons in bulk.”

Earlier this month, 24 people, including 22 from Virginia, were arrested on gun-smuggling charges. They transported more than 200 weapons north on Interstate 95 to New York, law enforcement officials said.

According to prosecutors, one of the suspects was recorded as saying, “There’s no limit to how many guns I can go buy from the store. I can go get 20 guns from the store tomorrow. . . . I can do that Monday through Friday. . . . They might start looking at me, but in Virginia, our laws are so little, I can give guns away.”

New York officials have urged Virginia to take action.

“When you hear a trafficker boasting about the weak gun laws in Virginia, it is crystal clear that this needs to be addressed,” Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez told The New York Times.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said he supports reinstating the “one handgun a month” law.

“This is a great step to restore a common-sense measure that never should have been repealed in the first place,” Herring said. “Virginia’s weak gun laws make it too easy for guns to get into the hands of criminals, making our families, communities, and especially our law enforcement officers less safe, not to mention the heartbreak and damage these guns cause in neighboring states.”

McAuliffe proposed amending Senate Bill 1023 to include a one-a-month limit on handgun purchases in Virginia. The bill would prohibit Virginia from sharing information about its concealed handgun permit holders with states that do not recognize Virginia’s permits as valid within their borders.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, sponsored SB 1023. He called the governor’s amendment disingenuous.

“He’s just making a game out of it,” Stuart told The Washington Post. “It’s disheartening to me that the governor is more concerned about the people in New York City than he is about Virginia citizens who are actually . . . playing by the rules.”

The General Assembly will reconvene on April 5 to consider McAuliffe’s vetoes and recommendations. Republicans control the House and Senate and are unlikely to agree to the “one handgun a month” proposal, Stuart said.

McAuliffe vetoes 6 more bills; GOP calls him ‘disengaged’

By Rodrigo Arriaza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed six bills, including three Republicans said would help prevent voter fraud but the Democratic governor said would create barriers to voting.

McAuliffe has now vetoed 37 bills from the General Assembly’s 2017 session – and 108 during his four-year term as governor, surpassing any of his predecessors.

Republican legislative leaders say McAuliffe has broken his promise to be bipartisan, calling his office “the most disengaged administration we have ever worked with.” The governor’s supporters say he is a firewall to block bad bills passed by a gerrymandered legislature.

“This new record is the disappointing result of four years of failed leadership by a disengaged governor, and is certainly not something to be celebrated,” Speaker William Howell and other GOP House leaders said in a statement last week. “Divided government has been the norm over the past two decades of Virginia politics, but this governor has brought a new level of animosity and acrimony than we’ve ever seen.”

McAuliffe maintains that it’s Republicans who are playing politics – by sending him bills that he says are unnecessary or dangerous. On Monday morning, he vetoed:

  • SB 1253, sponsored by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, which would have required electronic poll books to include photo identification of registered voters.
  • SB 1455, sponsored by Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, which would have made it a Class 1 misdemeanor to solicit or accept payment in exchange for registering people to vote.
  • SB 1581, sponsored by Sen. Mark J. Peake, R-Lynchburg, which would have required voter registrars to contact the Social Security Administration to verify the name, date of birth and Social Security number of all voter applicants.

McAuliffe said that the state already has strict voter registration laws and that there is no evidence to suggest that voter fraud is a problem in Virginia.

On Monday afternoon, McAuliffe vetoed HB 2000, sponsored by Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, which stated that “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” The bill, which took aim at so-called “sanctuary cities,” would “send a hostile message to immigrant communities,” McAuliffe said.

He also vetoed HB 2092, by Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, which sought more scrutiny of people seeking public assistance, including whether they have received undeclared winnings from the Virginia Lottery; and HB 1790, by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, which supporters said would streamline government regulations but McAuliffe said would do the opposite.

On Friday, the governor rejected five gun-related bills, including HB 1852, sponsored by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and SB 1299, sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester.

Under that legislation, people protected by a restraining order could carry a concealed handgun for 45 days after the order was issued, provided that they are not prohibited from purchasing, possessing or transporting a firearm.

“It provides petitioners of a protective order the ability to carry a concealed firearm for a limited period time in order to protect themselves as they see fit while they await the issuance of their permanent concealed carry permit,” Gilbert said.

In announcing his veto, McAuliffe said the legislation perpetuates a false narrative that victims of domestic violence are made safer by arming themselves.

“It would inject firearms into a volatile domestic violence situation, making that situation less safe, not more,” McAuliffe said. “I will not allow this bill to become law when too many Virginia women have already fallen victim to firearms violence at the hands of their intimate partner.”

McAuliffe also vetoed two other identical bills by Gilbert and Vogel: HB 1853and SB 1300. Under those bills, the state would have provided funding to businesses that offer free gun safety and training programs for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, stalking or family abuse.

Moreover, anyone who gets a protective order would have received a list of firearm training courses approved by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The fifth gun-related bill vetoed by McAuliffe was SB 1362, sponsored by Black. It would have allowed military personnel who are not on duty to carry a concealed firearm in Virginia, as long as they have their military identification card.

McAuliffe called the bill an unnecessary expansion of concealed handgun carrying rights.

“The bill would create a separate class of individuals who do not require a concealed handgun permit,” he said.

The General Assembly will reconvene on April 5 to consider override McAuliffe’s vetoes.

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