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2018 Capital News Service

2018 General Assembly Scorecard

Below is an infographic showing how many bills each legislator passed as a percentage of the number of bills submitted. This infographic was created by Capital News Service reporter Adam Hamza.

 

Foster Care Teens Soon Can Ask to Reunite With Birth Parents

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Teenagers in foster care in Virginia will be able to express their preference on restoring their birth parents’ parental rights under a law that will take effect July 1.

The General Assembly passed and Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation allowing foster care children ages 14 and older to tell a judge whether they want their birth parents to regain custody of them.

HB 1219 was introduced by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who as a child lived in a foster home and was adopted.

“If parents had issues and had to give up their child, the judge asks the guardian ad litem or social worker if the child has expressed a preference,” Reid said.

The guardian ad litem is a lawyer appointed to look after the interests of a child or other people unable to represent themselves.

Reid was born and raised in Rockbridge County outside Lexington, Virginia. When he was 6, Reid said, his mother left the family. His father tried his best to raise Reid, his sister and two brothers, the legislator said. The children ended up being taken to United Methodist Family Services.

“When I went to UMFS, I had indoor pumping, hot water and a bathroom,” Reid said.

When he turned 16, Reid was adopted from the children’s home and moved to Oklahoma with his adoptive parents. In Oklahoma, Reid said he was able to finish high school and thought about going to college for the first time.

“My dad got a ninth-grade education. I was the first person ever in my family to get a college education,” Reid said.

Reid attended Northeastern Oklahoma State University in Tahlequah – “the capital of the Cherokee” – and graduated with a degree in political science in 1984.

“My junior year was when I reflected back on the last 10 years of my life. That’s when it dawned on me that I was living the American dream, which prompted me to get into the Navy Reserve,” Reid said.

Reid served in the Navy Reserve for 23 years as an intelligence officer and in other positions, while also working in Northern Virginia. He earned his master’s degree in 2002 from the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington.

Reid, 55, is the chief strategy officer for Axiologic Solutions, an engineering company based in Fairfax. He was elected last fall to the Virginia House of Delegates.

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

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

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

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

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

Bills Already Enacted

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

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

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

Bills Taking Effect July 1

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

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

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

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

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

Bills on the Governor’s Desk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Gun Bills Fail, Virginia Legislators Look Ahead to 2019

By Charlotte Rene Woods, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Three months before the start of Virginia’s 2018 legislative session, a gunman killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas. Midway through the session, 17 people died in a mass shooting at a high school in Florida. But by the time the session ended on Saturday, the Virginia General Assembly had passed just one bill on the subject.

Virginia lawmakers introduced more than 70 gun-related bills this session. But with Republicans and Democrats sharply divided on the issue, the General Assembly approved only a measure to restrict the firearm rights of people who had mental health problems as teenagers.

In comparison, Florida’s legislature fast-tracked a GOP-backed bill that raises the firearm purchase age to 21, bans bump stocks and requires a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases. The National Rifle Association — headquartered in Virginia, a state with its own historical mass shooting — has since filed a lawsuit arguing  that raising the purchase age is unconstitutional.

During Virginia’s legislative session, the vitriol flew: Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sent his constituents an email with the headline, “How the GOP Makes it Easy to Commit Mass Murder.” Levine blasted Republicans for supporting assault weapons similar to guns “created by Nazi Germany.” In response, Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, delivered a floor speech that went viral, saying Democrats were intent on “gutting the Second Amendment.”

“We’re talking past each other,” Levine said.

Levine sponsored a bill to ban bump stocks, the device Stephen Paddock used on his rifles to fire so rapidly in theOct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas. The bill failed despite testimony from Henrico County  resident Cortney Carroll, who survived the massacre.

“It was such a minor bill that could make a huge impact on saving lives in mass shootings like Vegas,” said Carroll, a Republican. “Bump stocks are not needed to hunt with or for self-defense, so why are we going to continue to make it so easy for people to get them?”

The gun bill that passed was sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County. It would treat minors 14 or older similarly to adults in regard to purchasing firearms after receiving mental health treatment. Deeds is no stranger to gun-related violence and actively advocates for initiatives to improve mental health.  In 2013, his son stabbed him before committing suicide with a firearm.

For this bill, Deeds said he was inspired by a call from one of his constituents whose son once had a temporary detention order yet purchased a gun to commit suicide at 18.

Presently, state law prohibits minors as well as adults who have been committed or detained for mental health treatment from purchasing a firearm. Such adults would not be able to purchase until certified mentally competent, while currently a juvenile who had been previously detained could buy a gun when of legal age.

“We were able to talk to enough legislators — even people who are adamantly opposed to most restrictions on firearms — and convince them that this was a loophole,” Deeds said. “I think for a lot of people, they thought this was already the law.”

Opposing initiatives take action beyond the session

Three days before the session ended, House Speaker Kirk Cox appointed a select committee of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats to focus on school safety. While the forthcoming committee will work in a bipartisan fashion to address school safety, some feel the committee isn’t enough because it will not discuss gun violence. Instead, it will address “emergency preparedness,” “security infrastructure,” and the possibilities of “additional security personnel.”

Though Minority Leader David Toscano feels it’s a good step in school safety, he said it falls short of addressing the larger issue — gun violence.

Therefore, Toscano launched a Democratic initiative to address gun violence specifically. The group will tour the state and hold town hall meetings to discuss the subject and solicit proposed solutions. 

“I think we need to pay much more attention to this issue,” Toscano said. “I’m hopeful that with time, we will be able to pass some good legislation for gun safety.”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, has personal ties to tragedy. While working as a TV journalist, his girlfriend and coworker were shot during work in 2015. One of his bills this session dealt with workplace violence.

The freshman delegate said the conversation about guns is not ending just because the session came to a close. Hurst said his party will continue to listen and investigate what causes gun violence while seeking solutions.

As for the select committee on school safety, Hurst said he doesn’t have much faith in it.

“We don’t need to continue to turn our schools into Army barracks,” Hurst said of the proposed ideas to incorporate more security personnel into schools. “We need to make sure we look at whom we are allowing to purchase guns. I think the broad public would acknowledge that there are some people at certain points in their lives that shouldn’t have access to firearms because of the high likelihood that they would commit an act of violence against someone else, or themselves.

Parties remain divided on guns

Hurst said he is not surprised that just one firearm-related bill survived the legislative session. He said he believes his Republican counterparts oppose gun reform in part due to campaign donation influences like the NRA.

Meanwhile, Freitas, who is vying for the Republican nomination to  challenge Democrat  Tim Kaine for his U.S.  Senate seat, bristles at that insinuation.

“Take a look at how much money the NRA spends and how much Planned Parenthood spends,” he told Democrats in his floor speech on March 2. “When I get up there and I talk about abortion, I don’t assume that you’re all bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood. I don’t assume you’re horrible people because I disagree with you on a policy position; I assume you have deep convictions that we can have an argument and debate about.”

Freitas said he feels Republicans have been the target of “inflammatory” comments, such as being compared to Nazis, for “having a different opinion.”

“Try having an honest debate with someone who has already started off the conversation telling you how evil you are. It’s almost impossible,” he said.

Freitas said he thinks that the two political parties can agree on some policies  and that legislators can make more progress toward safer communities. He said the debate is a fair one, but he is not without his reservations.

“I think what’s missing in this one [debate] is that it’s not simply a philosophical debate; it’s also a practical debate,” Freitas said. “We [Republicans] don’t see gun control policies achieving the kind of results that maybe some of our colleagues assume that they will.”

Freitas feels too much emphasis is placed on guns rather than the “greater conversation about security, or all of the other behaviors that lead to somebody deciding one day that they’re going to go into a school and target a lot of innocent people.”

With the committee on school safety and Toscano’s initiative, state legislators are setting sights on more strides in the next session. While almost all gun reform bills failed this year, Toscano is pleased with some of the progress he has seen because some pro-gun bills failed as well.

“That’s basically because we have 49 Democrats standing up to those issues,” Toscano said.

There may be a Republican majority, but the 2017 general election saw the House of Delegates become closer to even in its composition of party members.

As for future elections, Toscano says he doesn’t think “the blue wave has crested yet.”

General Assembly concludes session, but work remains

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly gaveled the 2018 session to a close on Saturday but remained divided over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, forcing a special session to resolve its differences.

Gov. Ralph Northam said after adjournment that he plans on dealing with the issue “sooner rather than later” by calling a meeting to set the special session, which could take days or weeks. He did not give a specific time for setting the meeting or the special session.

“We’ve left one of our largest missions unfinished,” Northam said to legislative leaders. “As you all know, I want to be done with health-care expansion.”

Northam, who took office in January, ran on a campaign that included expanding Medicaid. But as the legislature wound to a conclusion in its final days, it became apparent that a special session would be needed.  

Northam expressed pleasure over the resolution of a number of issues, including the increase of the grand larceny threshold, strengthening the Metro system that operates in Northern Virginia and reform on policy with Dominion Energy.

 On Medicaid, while the Senate budget has no provisions for such expansion, the House spending plan allows for increased federal funding — which the administration of President Donald Trump opposed earlier this month. Republicans control both chambers by two-member margins, but there were bitter differences over Medicaid.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he is optimistic about the special session.

“We are all committed to completing work on a state budget long before July 1,” said Cox, completing his first session as speaker.

Senate Democratic leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax and caucus chair Mamie Locke of Hampton blamed Senate Republicans for “holding up the entire budget process for political reasons.”  

Senate Republican leader Thomas Norment Jr. of James City responded that his colleagues continued to oppose Medicaid expansion in the budget.

“Senate Republicans remain unanimously committed to passing a clean budget without Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we will continue to work towards that goal in the special session,” Norment said in a statement.

The House and Senate met from 9 a.m. until just before 2 p.m. on their final day, which included action on major legislation to assist the troubled Washington-area Metro system, which is critical to populous Northern Virginia.

Conference reports on Senate Bill 856, which was sponsored by Saslaw, and House Bill 1539, proposed by Del. Timothy Hugo, R-Fairfax, are both multifaceted, containing multiple provisions to improve Metro. These provisions include a dedicated funding stream of  $154 million a year from multiple existing sources, including transportation taxes and revenue from the North Virginia Transportation Authority. They also include the creation of a Metro Reform Commission, and a requirement to send a financial report on the performance of bus and Metro systems to the General Assembly. Neither bill will be enacted unless Maryland and the District of Columbia adopt similar provisions.

“From the start, my position was that a funding package for Metro had to go hand-in-hand with meaningful reforms without raising taxes,” Hugo said in a news release.

The legislature concluded its work the day after Northam signed one of the most-discussed bills of the session. Despite lingering opposition, the governor approved SB 966, which lifts a rate freeze that had been in effect for Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, but allows the utilities’ broad discretion in reinvesting customer revenue. Critics claimed the bill, developed with heavy involvement from Dominion, favors utility interests over those of consumers.

In another utility-related action earlier this session, lawmakers approved SB 807 by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which extended the moratorium on the closure of ponds where Dominion Energy stores its coal ash, allowing the state and utility another year on reaching agreement over how to address environmental concerns.

Legislators left Richmond without approving any of the numerous gun control bills that were submitted after recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas. Among the gun-related bills only one passed — SB 669, which restricts access of weapons to minors 14 and older who had received involuntary mental health treatment. Cox formed a select committee to study school safety, but said the panel would not take up gun issues, angering Democrats.

Governor Signs Bill Reshaping How Energy Giants Operate

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Makes Play Time a Priority in Elementary Schools

By Irena Schunn,Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- The Virginia Senate approved legislation Friday that defines recess as instructional time, responding to concerns from parents worried about a lack of unstructured play over a long school day.
 
“Our children need unstructured play time, preferably outside. Cutting recess to 10 or 15 minutes a day is just not enough for young learners,”  said Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.
 
SB 273 came back for a vote on conference committee changes by the House and Senate negotiators. The Senate also approved HB 1419. Both were sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on 39-1 votes.
 
“The elementary years are a time of immense social and emotional growth and allowing for adequate unstructured play both enables development of these skills, as well as provides a healthy energy outlet for younger students who are not ready to sit still for a full academic day,” Favola said.
 
If approved by the governor, the legislation would require local school boards to count unstructured play time toward the minimum instructional hours public schools must meet each school year, giving an incentive to provide more recess time.
 
The legislation addresses the concerns of parents like Barbara Larrimore, a mother in Prince William County. Larrimore became concerned when her 5 year-old began biting holes into his shirts while at school. After discovering he received only 15 minutes of recess time during a school day of 6 hours and 45 minutes, she co-founded the “More Recess for Virginians” coalition and began pushing for change with the help of bill sponsors Favola; Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax; and Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax.
 
“We’ve been working hand-in-hand with them from the beginning,” said Larrimore. “We wanted it done a very specific way so that it wouldn’t affect the school schedule like art, music and PE because those are important and also part of a healthy diet of education for kids.”
 
Virginia is one of only eight states that require elementary schools to provide daily recess, according to the 2016 Shape of the Nation Report. Though the time allotted for recess varies among districts, Virginia mandates that elementary school students participate in at least 100 minutes of physical activity every week or 20 minutes every day. However, those minutes don’t necessarily go to recess time. Physical education class allows students to exercise in a structured environment and can account for a large amount of required exercise time.
 
But critics say physical education does not have the unstructured play benefit of recess, which allows “elementary children to practice life skills such as conflict resolution, cooperation, respect for rules, taking turns, sharing, using language to communicate, and problem solving in real situations,”  according to the Council on Physical Education for Children and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
 
The Senate bill co-sponsored by Favola and Petersen calls for recess to be counted under instructional time specifically in elementary schools. HB 1419, sponsored by Delaney, allows recess to be counted under instructional time that can come from reductions in the core areas of English, math, science and social studies.
 
“As a mom, I know the benefits our children receive when they are provided time to be active and play. I cannot wait to see how our children will benefit from this new provision,” said Delaney.

Bay Advocate, Omega Proteins Differ Over Menhaden Cap

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Chesapeake Bay advocate says the General Assembly's failure to place a cap on Virginia's lucrative menhaden catch leaves unanswered questions about key elements of the region’s ecology.

Menhaden are a small fish harvested mostly for the production of oil and fish meal, but they also play a role in the ecosystem as food for other species like striped bass and osprey. Virginia harvests the majority of menhaden on the Atlantic Coast, accounting for 80 percent of the total harvest according to the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission.

About 70 percent of that 80 percent is harvested by Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville since the early 20th century.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, tried twice during the 2018 legislative session to reduce the menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay from its current limit of 87,216 metric tons.

Initially, Knight introduced HB 822, which proposed a limit of 51,000 tons. But that bill died in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 13.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration then asked that the issue be reconsidered. So Knight introduced HB 1610, which also sought to cap the menhaden harvest in the bay at 51,000 metric tons but also increase allowable total of the fish caught in the Atlantic by 2,000 tons.

“I personally view this as a little bit more friendly to the industry to mitigate some of their concerns,” Knight said.

On Feb. 28, the committee voted 11-10 in favor of HB 1610, clearing it for a vote by the full House. However, on Tuesday, the bill was sent back to the committee, effectively killing it for the session.

The bill would bring Virginia within limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissions, a compact of 15 coastal states that agree to protecting and better utilizing fisheries.

Ben Landry,  Omega Protein’s public affairs director, said the company opposes the commission’s limits. He said the caps advocated  by the organization and Knight’s legislation unfairly targeted the company without scientific evidence.

“We have been in business for a long time, and we think that we should be fighting against the ASMFC cooperatively,” Landry said. “Virginia was targeted and disadvantaged by this, and we shouldn’t have to take it.”

Landry was referring to the  commission increasing its total quota for fishing menhaden by 8 percent in November but cutting Virginia’s allocation of the total harvest.

Environmental groups including  the Chesapeake Bay Foundation considered  the legislation as a way of protecting menhaden. Reducing the cap by 36,000 metric tons would have had little effect on Omega Protein, said  Chris Moore, a senior scientist for the foundation.

Even with the limit, Moore said, the company “would actually be able to catch a little bit more than their average for the last five years” in the Chesapeake Bay.

Landry said  setting the cap based on the company’s current average yield of menhaden is shortsighted. He said Omega Protein pulled  109,000 metric tons in 2006.

Moore said the impact of the menhaden fishery is wide-ranging and ultimately affects many businesses and communities that depend on the bay in different ways. Moore said, for example, that certain studies have indicated that striped bass had been in danger of starving without a healthy menhaden population, which also provides food for flounder and bluefish.

Virginia Offers Salute to Women Veterans

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than 100,000 women veterans live in Virginia, and in observance of Women’s History Month, the General Assembly has decided to honor them by designating the third week of March each year as Women Veterans Week.

On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing House Joint Resolution 76, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax.

Murphy, a self-described “military brat,” said Virginia has one of the highest populations of women veterans in the country. “We put together Women Veterans Week to honor them,” she said.

A member of the Board of Veterans Services and head of its Women’s Veterans Committee, Murphy will hold a series of discussions around the commonwealth during Women Veterans Week. The goal is to inform women veterans about the resources available to them and discuss their concerns.

“Women are the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, and they face unique challenges both in the military and when they transition to civilian life,” Murphy said. “We’re going to hold a series of roundtables so we can actually hear from these women veterans about what it is they need to ensure that they come back into our workforce and are successful.”

U.S. Army veteran Jeanne Minnix said it’s important to recognize the contributions of women veterans.

“Women have often been underrepresented, often under-acknowledged if you will, but it’s changing, thankfully,” Minnix said. “Anything to bring women’s issues to the forefront is always good.”

Women Veterans Week will be March 18-24. Information about the week’s events can be found on the website of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.

International Women’s Day Ralliers Say ‘Women’s Time Has Come’

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dozens of local activists and community members gathered Thursday for the 109th International Women’s Day rally and march to celebrate solidarity with women across the U.S. and worldwide. This year’s theme was “Press for Progress.”

The International Women’s Strike was organized by the Richmond chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and supported by numerous social justice groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Fight for 15.

The rally began at Abner Clay Park in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. Event leaders ignited the crowd, inviting everyone to sing the “Battle Hymn of the Women,” a feminist rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which dates to the 1860s. Its message resounded: “Women’s time has come.”

Rally speakers highlighted the importance of women of all backgrounds and experiences.

“If all women and femmes went on strike, the world would fall apart,” said Vanessa Bolin, a Native American activist who served as a medic at North and South Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation. “The world needs us. My hope is that each of you will find your voice and use it to change the world.”

Rebecca Keel, a community organizer and 2016 Richmond City Council candidate, called rally attendees to action.

“It is a core tenet of feminism that the personal is political,” Keel said. “Let’s examine not only our movements but ourselves. Let’s vote with our dollars in supporting candidates we believe in that will make our path to liberation easier.”

Some speakers focused on specific political issues such as the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. Jamshid Bakhtiari, Virginia’s field organizer for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, invited community members to send letters to Gov. Ralph Northam to urge him to take action against the pipelines.

After speeches concluded at the park, rally attendees marched as a group to Richmond City Hall and then to the Bell Tower on the grounds of the state Capitol, where Democratic Dels. Elizabeth Guzmán of Prince William and Debra Rodman of Henrico spoke, echoing the messages of unity.

New law tightens bail restrictions for human trafficking defendants

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with human trafficking crimes to post bail.

House Bill 1260, which will take effect on July 1, was sponsored by two Democratic delegates, Mike Mullin of Newport News and Dawn Adams of Richmond. Mullin said they were motivated by their professional experiences handling sexual-based crimes, like trafficking.

“Delegate Adams works as a professional nurse who has seen individuals that have been harmed both mentally and physically through sex trafficking, so this is something near and dear to her heart,” Mullin said.

Mullin is an assistant commonwealth attorney in Suffolk, where he focuses on sexual assault and gang-related cases as a member of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations team. He said the law reflects a recommendation of the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force and creates a presumption against bond for defendants being tried for sex trafficking crimes.

According to a 2017 report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking. Among cities, Richmond is ranked ninth in the country with the highest number of calls to the hotline per capita.

“In Virginia, we have a number of things where we presume you’ll be a flight risk and a danger to the community — like, we assume if you’re charged with murder that you will run,” Mullin said. “So what we [the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force] did is create a presumption against bond. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get bond; it just means you have to show a higher standard of why you’re not going to run, whether it’s that you have a relationship with family in the area or that you’ve been living in the area for 15 years.”

Michael Feinmel, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, said trafficking is a crime requiring constant movement. Efforts to curb that movement are necessary since many times defendants use false addresses and traffickers may use the freedom of bond to contact their victims.

“The bonded pimp can contact the commonwealth’s witness and lay on the guilt trip thick: ‘They are trying to send me to prison, and it’s your fault,’” Feinmel stated in an email. “Even those victim/survivors who have acknowledged that the sex trafficker was taking advantage of them still feel some sort of emotional bond to their trafficker, and it makes things even more difficult for them to continue to want to cooperate.”

Though Feinmel said HB 1260 is an important step in addressing human trafficking crimes, not everyone thinks the legislation will do enough.

Natasha Gonzalez, a clinician at the Richmond-based non-profit Gray Haven, which focuses on comprehensive care of human trafficking survivors, said there is more work to be done.

“My role with Gray Haven is being a first point of contact. When we get a call of a potential trafficking victim it’s my job to decide whether or not it’s trafficking, which can be difficult because, for example, domestic relationships and trafficking can sometimes go hand in hand,” Gonzalez said.

A larger issue, according to Gonzalez, is that sex trafficking victims are not likely to contact police because they often fear law enforcement and sometimes are not aware they are being trafficked.

In the Capitol, however, Mullin said he is hopeful that human trafficking will receive more legislative attention in upcoming years.

“There are only a few things that we handle here in the Capitol that are partisan by nature, and this certainly is not one of them. I’ve worked very closely with Republicans and Democrats on this, and the bill came through the House and Senate without a single no vote,” Mullins said. “This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on.”

Coal Ash Pond Closure Moratorium Bill Heads to Governor

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill extending the moratorium on the permanent closure of coal ash ponds has won House approval and awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become the only legislation on the issue to survive the 2018 session.

The House on Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of SB 807, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Surovell said he was happy for the extension and hopes the bill, which has been supported by Dominion Energy and environmental groups, is a “net positive for everyone.”

“We can come up with a coal-ash solution which not only resolves the problem forever but also creates jobs to clean the environment at the same time,” said Surovell, referring to the positions that would be created to recycle the coal ash.

Robert Richardson, a spokesman for Dominion, said the utility will provide the state with information on coal ash recycling costs.

“We are fully committed to closing these ponds in a manner that is protective of the environment,” Richardson said.

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants.

Among its provisions, the bill requires Dominion to file an RFP, or a request for proposal, to assess the costs of recycling ash in the ponds. Though Dominion already recycles a portion of its total coal ash, it remains in favor of “cap-in-place” measures of permanent closure. This method of closing the ponds with a protective seal has been targeted as unsafe by environmental organizations concerned about groundwater contamination.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which has opposed “cap-in-place” policies, supported the bill. Lee Francis, the league’s communications manager, said the organization has worked with Surovell and that the bill gives legislators the tools needed to make a decision.

“I think this bill will help give us clarity on how to start going forward, and hopefully lawmakers will have more information when we address final closure options,” Francis said.

Lawmakers tried addressing the coal ash issue from many angles this session, but ultimately settled on extending the moratorium as a way to get more information before acting.

Bill Would Let Energy Giant Regulate Itself, Senator Warns

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As the General Assembly begins to wind down, a key opponent to legislation involving Dominion Energy is continuing to warn that a bill that has reached the governor’s desk will tilt the scales in the utility’s favor.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said the legislation may limit the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory power over utilities — and give Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power “a license to overcharge customers for the foreseeable future.”

The legislation consists of two nearly identical bills: SB 966, sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, andHB 1558, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. With amendments, each bill has grown to 29 pages. The bill’s summary alone is more than 1,850 words. A typical bill’s summary in the Legislative Information System is less than 100 words.

The provisions in the latest version that are raising the most eyebrows concern how much profit state-approved monopolies, such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, may earn.

“Typically, the SCC is charged with making sure that rates are not more than is necessary to recover costs plus an allowable return on equity, which is usually 10 percent above costs,” Petersen said. “Normally, Dominion would give refunds based on that excess. This bill would take away that jurisdiction.”

For example, if Dominion made $1.2 billion in revenue in one year, and the company’s expenses were $1 billion, Dominion would have $200 million in profit. Previously, customers would have received a percentage refund for those “over-earnings.”

Under HB 1558, Dominion could keep all over-earnings provided it spends the money on designated projects — such as the Grid Transformation Project, a potentially multibillion-dollar project that includes burying power lines — as well as on investments in renewable energy, such as solar power or wind farms, according to Petersen.

The bill includes some complexities, however. Under the legislation, for example, the SCC would still have the power to review the Grid Transformation Project but would not be allowed to reject Dominion’s proposal, according to Steve Haner, a lobbyist for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

“Dominion basically has written the law in such a way that it will never have to pay refunds, and it will never have to lower its rates,” Petersen said. “That’s why I called them out on it.”

Rayhan Daudani, senior communications specialist at Dominion, said many of these worries are unfounded.

“Environmental groups, like the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the governor’s office, all agree that this bill is good for Virginians, for the environment and for our customers,” Daudani said.

Haner said the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income Virginians, is neutral toward the bill. However, personally he said he thinks the bill may not do what it says.

“It does not really return us to regulation. It leaves the SCC bound up with some very strict accounting rules and gives the utility ways to manipulate its profit margins and manipulate its spending so it will never be found to be excessive. It’ll never be ordered to refunds. It’ll never be ordered to cut its rates,” Haner said. “They’re directed to spend a certain way based on a bill they wrote.”

Dominion’s influence in the General Assembly is well known, according to Corrina Beall, the legislative and political director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

“Dominion is always the gorilla in the room. They are tremendously effective within the building, and their influence within the General Assembly cannot be overstated,” Beall said. “They are the No. 1 corporate campaign contributor to elected officials in the state of Virginia.”

However, Petersen said he believes the tides may be changing in the General Assembly, with Dominion receiving pushback from both Democrats and Republicans.

“This is the first time in my history that Dominion really got a lot of pushback from a diverse array of people, in terms of their agenda,” Petersen said. “Whether or not that will continue over the next couple years — new candidates will push back on Dominion and demand more consumer rights and more accountability, and less sort of a blank check — that remains to be seen. That’ll take three or four years to play out.”

SB 966 initially passed the Senate, 26-13, on Feb 9. The House then passed a substitute bill, 65-30, on Feb. 26. The Senate then agreed to the House substitute, 26-14, on Feb. 28. Now, the governor is expected to act on the bill by midnightFriday.

HB 1558 was approved by the House of Delegates on a vote of 63-35 on Feb. 13. A modified version of the bill then passed the Senate, 27-13, on Thursday. The measure is now back before the House.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, had mixed feelings about HB 1558 but voted for it last month. In an email to constituents, he called it an “imperfect (but greatly improved) bill better for Virginia consumers and the environment than current law.”

The current law, adopted by the General Assembly in 2015, froze Dominion’s electric rates because the company said it faced uncertain costs of complying with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. However, the courts and the Donald Trump administration have since blocked the plan’s implementation.

SB 966 and HB 1558 would lift the rate freeze and allow state officials to see if Dominion is making excessive profits — and, if so, order the company to reduce its rates. That is one reason Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports the legislation.

Northam said he brought together various groups to help craft a compromise on the issue — one that would “give Virginians as much of their money back as possible, restore oversight to ensure that utility companies do not overcharge ratepayers for power, and make Virginia a leader in clean energy and electrical grid modernization.”

However, Petersen fears that the bill won’t do that, and that it will prevent state regulators from doing their job.

“We took away from the State Corporation Commission their very skill set, which is evaluating the utilities and making sure that rates are fair and customers are not overcharged,” Petersen said.

Bill to Restrict Tethering Pets Is Killed for 3rd Time

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to specify when an animal can be tethered outdoors was killed in the House on Wednesday after passing the Senate with a substitute on Tuesday. The Senate substitute on House Bill 889 was the third attempt to pass the legislation.

When HB 889 passed the House in February, the bill would have allowed localities to pass ordinances restricting how long or in what weather conditions a dog can be tethered outside. The Senate passed a substitute making the bill a statewide ban on tethering in certain weather conditions.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, sponsored the original version of HB 889. He spoke against passing the substitute on the House floor Wednesday. He said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lobbied for the Senate substitute to be accepted.

“There was a bill that would’ve allowed PETA to achieve all of their objective we saw in their legislation this session,” Orrock said. “But they would’ve had to go through local government ordinances to effect that change.”

Orrock said the PETA lobbyist claimed the substitute was germane, or relevant to the original, but Orrock disagreed. He then asked House Speaker Kirk Cox for his opinion. Cox ruled the substitute was not germane, thus killing the bill.

The substitute made HB 889 the same as SB 872, which made it through the Senate only to be killed in the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources on Feb. 27. SB 872 was a watered-down version of HB 646, which died in the same committee in January.

The bill would have banned tethering animals in temperatures 32 degrees and below and 85 degrees and above, during a heat advisory or when the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning.

Along with the restrictions on weather conditions, the bill would have restricted the tether itself. The substitute stated tethers had to be at least 15 feet long, or four times the length of the animal, and limited the weight to less than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight. In addition, weights could not be attached to the tether.

Dr. King’s Speech ‘Changed My Life,’ Retired Sen. Marsh Says

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Retired Sen. Henry Marsh, the first black mayor of Richmond, saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1961.

“It brought tears to my eyes to see him in action,” Marsh recalled. “I said to myself, ‘Who is this man?’ I’ve been thinking one way, and he’s saying this crazy stuff about if somebody hits you, don’t hit them back, love them … That speech changed my life.”

Marsh reflected on the Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader during a discussion last week at Virginia Union University. The state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission is hosting such discussions around the commonwealth to document and memorialize visits that King made to Virginia before he was assassinated in 1968.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney opened the conversation at Virginia Union. The theme was “MLK Moving Forward.”

“I love the mission of the ‘King in Virginia’ project – to have these conversations about ‘where do we go next?’” Stoney said. “This is an opportunity to recognize those who continue to perpetuate his work each and every day.”

One of the panelists was the Rev. Jamar Boyd II of Saint Smyrna Baptist Church in Georgia. He is a member of the Georgia NAACP and a Virginia Union graduate.

“In 2018, the honest question is not where we are. It’s still, ‘Where do we go?’ It’s still, ‘What do we have to do?’” Boyd said. “It’s 2018, and you still have Jim Crow” in parts of Virginia.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said progress will depend on young adults like Boyd.

“It is up to young people to be equipped, to be the future drum majors of justice,” McQuinn said. “We need the youth to participate in the political process, through contact with their representatives and becoming officeholders themselves.”

Marsh echoed McQuinn’s statement about youth involvement but laid some blame on older generations as well.

“We need to energize young people, and we need to energize ourselves,” Marsh said. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves” for failing to participate in the political process.

Part of the discussion focused on how to create a beloved community” – King’s vision of a world of peace, equality and prosperity.

The Rev. James Somerville of Richmond’s First Baptist Church offered insight on how to get there.

“We have to believe that the beloved community is possible; I have to believe that the kingdom of heaven can come to Richmond, Virginia,” Somerville said. “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

Chuck Richardson, a former member of the Richmond City Council, was in the audience at Virginia Union. He drew a parallel between a nation and a family.

“Right now, America is without a father. This country is like a family, and that father in that White House is not on the job,” Richardson said. “Nothing that we do today is going to matter until we replace the father in the White House who is no father to the family of America.”

More about the MLK Roundtables

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission is inviting the public to remember King’s life and legacy in a series of roundtables being held in each of the Virginia communities that he visited.

The next event will be 6-8 p.m. on March 13 at Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Panelists will include:

  • Lehman Bates, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church
  • Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
  • Wesley Harris, who as a student in 1963 helped arrange King’s visit to Charlottesville
  • University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan
  • Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker

Discussions also have been scheduled in Farmville on April 24 and Williamsburg on June 6. The commission is planning to hold roundtables in Danville, Hampton, Hopewell, Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg and Suffolk.

Bill Could Lower Some Prescription Costs

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill aimed at helping customers pay the lowest price possible on prescription drugs is headed to Gov. Ralph Northam for his signature.

Identical bills have been passed by the House and Senate.

“I believe these are consumer-friendly, pro-transparency bills that will benefit people across Virginia by ensuring they pay the lowest available price for their medication and provide community pharmacists the protections they need to operate their businesses and serve customers,” said Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington.

HB 1177 was first introduced by Pillion but shortly after, companion bill SB 933 was proposed by Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax.

Current law allows “gag clauses” that  prohibit pharmacies from telling their customers if a prescription would be cheaper without using their health insurance. If pharmacists were to tell the patient, they could be breaching a contract between the pharmacy and its benefit managers.

Pharmacy benefit managers are the middleman between pharmacies, drug manufacturing companies and health insurance providers. They also handle prescription claims and negotiate fees and pricing. However, Pillion said community pharmacists are concerned about the lack of transparency with their patients and the practice of what are known as  “clawbacks” --  when  the customer’s copay that is more expensive than the prescription. Pharmacy benefit managers then profit from the excess that was charged to the patient.

The bill has been backed by such organizations as the Virginia Pharmacists Association, the National Community Pharmacists Association and the Alliance for Transparent and Affordable Prescriptions

If Pillion’s bill is signed  by Northam, it will take effect as soon as July 1.

Monument Honoring Virginia Native Tribes Awaits Ceremony

With the Capitol in the Background, the Square's newest monument - honoring the Native American Tribes in Virginia - awaits dedication. (CNS photo by Yasmine Jumaa)

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After years of planning and several months of construction, a monument honoring the lives, legacy and achievements of Native American tribes in Virginia has been completed and now stands on the grounds of the state Capitol.

State officials are planning a ribbon cutting for the monument on April 17.

“I think everyone who has seen it is very much in awe and approves of what has been installed,” said Del. Christopher Peace, R-Hanover, vice chairman of the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission.

The monument, titled “Mantle,” gets its name from Powhatan’s Mantle, a deerskin cloak said to be worn by the Native American chief. Its spiral shape was inspired by the nautilus, the self-replicating living fossil. Commission member Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield said the design symbolizes the endurance of Native American tribes.

The spiral shape was inspired by the nautilus, the self-replicating living fossil. (CNS photo by Yasmine Jumaa)

“We wanted natural materials but also something that would endure, and that’s how we came up with stone,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said. “Once you get to the center of it, there’s a meditation area with an infinity pool.” Engraved on the infinity pool are the names of the rivers in Virginia that have Native American names, such as Appomattox and Nottoway.

After reviewing submissions from several artists, Broaddus-Crutchfield said the commission appointed Mohawk installation artist Alan Michelson to create “Mantle.”

“We interviewed various artists, and Alan Michelson was the one who had the concept that we thought best represented what we were aiming for, which was the walkway,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said.

Here is how Michelson described the monument on the commission’s website:

“[Mantle] requires the visitor to neither look up nor look down, but invites one to enter – from the east – and participate in it. It is not conceived as a static monument to be venerated but an active one to be experienced by moving off the everyday grid and into the American Indian circle.”

The monument, titled "Mantle," lists the state's Indian tribes. (CNS photo by Yasmine Jumaa)

“We wanted natural materials but also something that would endure, and that’s how we came up with stone,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said. “Once you get to the center of it, there’s a meditation area with an infinity pool.” Engraved on the infinity pool are the names of the rivers in Virginia that have Native American names, such as Appomattox and Nottoway.

After reviewing submissions from several artists, Broaddus-Crutchfield said the commission appointed Mohawk installation artist Alan Michelson to create “Mantle.”

“We interviewed various artists, and Alan Michelson was the one who had the concept that we thought best represented what we were aiming for, which was the walkway,” Broaddus-Crutchfield said.

Here is how Michelson described the monument on the commission’s website:

“[Mantle] requires the visitor to neither look up nor look down, but invites one to enter – from the east – and participate in it. It is not conceived as a static monument to be venerated but an active one to be experienced by moving off the everyday grid and into the American Indian circle.”

Foundation Commemorates Civil Rights Lawyer

By Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Oliver W. Hill Sr. died in 2007, but a foundation is working to preserve his legacy for social justice.

“The primary focus of the foundation has been to foster educational opportunities for young people interested in social justice,” said Ramona Taylor, the nonprofit group’s president. “The foundation has supported various programs and initiatives geared toward exposing youth to the law, legal profession and civil rights.”

The Oliver White Hill Foundation was founded in October 2000 and continues to be inspired by Hill’s desire to help the next generation of social activists. It sponsors activities such as a mentoring program, a weeklong pre-law institute and a writing assessment workshop for students in middle school and high school.

“The foundation’s short-term plans are to build a strong board and re-energize and expand programs for youth interested in the practice of law and social justice,” Taylor said.

Hill directed his own work toward the younger generation. As a civil rights lawyer, he fought tirelessly for racial integration in schools. Hill and his colleague, Spottswood W. Robinson III, represented African-American schoolchildren in Prince Edward County in their lawsuit that became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.

Taylor hopes the foundation will motivate people to challenge all forms of inequality, just as Hill did. She quoted him as saying, “We are all human Earthlings, and we need to constantly work to overcome the artificial barriers that have been erected to create separation among groups of our fellow humans.”

Taylor worked with Hill on his autobiography, “The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond,” when she was a law student at the University of Richmond in 1998. She said she was inspired by his hard work and commitment.

“Knowing what he accomplished and seeing the humble man that I had grown to know inspired and continues to inspire me,” Taylor said. “Men like Hill are not place marks in history but hallmarks.”

The foundation will host its annual Oliver Hill Day on May 4. The event, which will be held in the Oliver Hill Courts Building in downtown Richmond, recognizes community service and exposes students to prominent speakers in the fields of law and social justice.

“I believe the greatest lesson to learn is that (you should) believe in your power as a person to make the world a better place,” Taylor said. “That’s what he did, and it has given me the opportunity to try to do the same.”

Gov. Northam Gives a ‘Whoot’ about Reading

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

Democrats and Republicans Spar as Another Shooting Unfolds

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As the 2018 legislative session heads into its final week, tensions have been running high on an issue that sharply divides Democrats and Republicans: what to do about gun violence.

The chasm between the parties was on full display Friday in the Virginia House of Delegates, where legislators hurled insults at one another – while yet another school shooting unfolded.

Less than an hour after reports that a gunman had killed two people in a dormitory at Central Michigan University, Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, gave a speech on the House floor blaming the Democrats for blocking productive discussions on how to curtail gun violence.

“The other side of this debate will only consider one quote-unquote ‘solution’ to this problem, which is gutting or tearing apart the Second Amendment,” Freitas said.

Later in the day, Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, responded by accusing the Republicans of inconsistency.

“I’d like to know why the Republicans think we want to take their guns,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “I think that they should talk to the president.”

Murphy was referring to a statement by President Donald Trump on Wednesday that police officers should be allowed to confiscate people's guns without due process.

In his remarks on the floor, Freitas said House Democrats had precluded a dialogue with Republicans by using inflammatory language. For instance, after 17 people were killed in a shooting at a high school in Florida on Feb. 14, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sent his constituents an email with the headline, “How the GOP Makes it Easy to Commit Mass Murder.”

“It’s really difficult to have an honest and open debate about this because of [House Democrats] comparing members on this side of the aisle to Nazis,” Freitas said. He also took issue with how he believed the Democrats were portraying Republican’s connections with the National Rifle Association.

“It takes a certain degree of not assuming that the only reason why we believe in the Second Amendment is because the NRA paid us off. I don’t assume that [Democrats] are all bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood,” Freitas said.

During his speech, Freitas suggested that studies have shown mass shooters tend to come from broken homes. Moreover, he insinuated a connection between mass shootings and abortions by saying that certain “left-leaning think tanks will actually say that some of [the reasons for mass shootings] can be attributed to various cultural changes that happened in the ’60s” and that this included “the abortion industry.”

Later Friday, the House minority leader, Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, issued a press release condemning Freitas’ comments.

“The remarks made today by House Republicans, who continue to be unwilling to discuss reasonable gun safety initiatives, were deeply disappointing,” Toscano said. “Del. Freitas cited cherry-picked statistics to paint a picture suggesting that nothing can or should be done.”

The verbal sparring played out at the Capitol as authorities searched for a man in connection with the shooting at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

James Davis Jr., a CMU student and the son of a police officer, was taken into custody early Saturday morning. Authorities said they believe Davis used his father’s gun to shoot and kill both of his parents.

As both sides at the Virginia Capitol debate how to reduce gun violence, the General Assembly session is scheduled to adjourn next Saturday. Republicans have killed most of the gun control legislation proposed by Democrats, including bills to require background checks on all firearm purchases and to ban bump fire stocks, a device that increases the rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons by using recoil to pull the trigger.

Democrats have urged Republicans to revive those proposals, but that is unlikely to happen.

However, a few gun-related bills are still in play during the General Assembly’s final week:

  • Senate Bill 715 would allow firefighters and emergency medical service personnel to carry a concealed handgun while on duty. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday.
  • SB 669 would restrict the firearm rights of Virginians who, as minors 14 years or older, received involuntary mental health treatment or were subject to a detention order. Currently, those restrictions apply only to people who have undergone such treatment as adults. On Friday, the House Courts of Justice Committee recommended that the full House approve the bill.

Panel Kills Bill Allowing Drunken Driving on Private Property

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Senate bill that would have allowed Virginians to drive drunk on their private property was killed unanimously by a House subcommittee Friday after an outcry from traffic safety advocates.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally intended the bill to reduce the likelihood of someone being charged with a DUI while drinking in a vehicle on their own property. He used the example of a man accused of driving under the influence while listening to the radio in his car parked in his driveway.

The bill attracted critics nationwide and beyond. “We defend #DUIs and #IRPs but even we have to admit: this is really dumb,” Acumen Law Corp., a law firm in Vancouver, Canada, posted on Twitter. In Canada, IRP stands for immediate roadside prohibitions.

SB 308 was initially killed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee but was brought up for reconsideration in February by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. The bill then advanced to the floor, where it passed the Senate, 37-3.

Crossing over to the House, the bill was assigned to a House Courts of Justice subcommittee, where anti-drunken driving advocates continued to express their opposition.

Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said a one-day delay in taking up the bill had “frankly, made advocates opposing the bill nervous.” He had urged the bill’s opponents to call on subcommittee members to reject “this slippery slope legislation.”

Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick, recommended the bill be “passed by indefinitely,” essentially killing it for the session. He said the legislation’s concept was flawed, arguing that motorists could park cars on their property after driving under the influence.

The bill was killed, 7-0. Stuart was not present.

“I think it’s good news,” Erickson said. “Its passage would have otherwise been a dangerous precedent to communicate that in Virginia, it is OK to drive drunk here but not there.”

Virginia May Issue ‘Ashanti Alerts’ for Missing Adults

By Irena Schunn and Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The abduction and slaying of a 19-year-old Norfolk woman prompted General Assembly approval of legislation to create an Amber Alert-like system for “critically missing” adults.

The “Ashanti Alert” called for in HB 260, sponsored by Del. Jerrauld Jones, D-Norfolk, was approved by the Senateon Thursday and now awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

Ashanti Billie was abducted in 2017 from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where she worked at a sandwich shop, and later found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because Billie was an adult, she didn’t meet the criteria for an Amber Alert.

Once Ashanti went missing, we became more aware of other situations where something like this had happened but there was no mechanism in place,” said Jones, who represents the 89th House District, where Billie lived. “This is a public safety issue, not a partisan issue.”

Eric Brian Brown, described by authorities as a retired Navy veteran who worked at the base with Billie, has been charged with kidnapping in Virginia and in connection with her death in the Charlotte area.

Members of Billie’s family connected with Jones through their friend Kimberly Wimbish, who had worked with the delegate on his election campaign last year. They asked him to draft a bill to help those who currently don’t qualify for missing persons alerts.

Wimbish, who initially used Facebook to publicize the young woman’s disappearance, said the case raised awareness about missing adults, especially in the Norfolk area where people had connections to Billie.

“Everyone said she would give them her last. That she was always helpful and friendly,” said Wimbish, who serves as the family’s spokesperson. “We have to know and believe her kindness was taken for granted.”

Jones said the bill gives Virginia State Police the power to set criteria for the “critically missing adult alert.”

Currently, Virginia has three alerts for missing persons:

  • Amber Alerts and Endangered Missing Child Media Alerts, for missing persons under age 18.
  • Senior Alerts, sometimes called Silver Alerts, for persons 60 or older.

That leaves a gap for adults between 18 and 60 years old.

If approved by the governor, the Ashanti Alerts will be modeled on the Amber Alerts. An Amber Alert includes issuing emergency messages over public broadcasting networks, displaying electronic messages on highway signs and sending texts to all cellphones within range of the cellular carrier towers in the affected area.

Amber Alerts are also spread voluntarily by other state agencies, the news media and nonprofit organizations. For example, a program called A Child Is Missing can make 1,000 telephone calls with a recorded alert within a minute, according to Virginia’s Amber Alert Plan.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that Amber Alert systems nationwide have helped in the recovery of more than 540 children.

Last year, the General Assembly declared April 29 as “Missing Persons Day” to recognize the 600 Virginians missing at that time, and their families. Advocates are getting ready for the second annual Virginia Missing Persons Day.

Construction May Start Soon on Monument Honoring Women

Rendering of the Monument design by the 1717 Design Group Inc. of Richmond.

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Construction likely will begin this summer on the state Capitol grounds for a monument honoring Virginia women.

The executive committee of the Women of Virginia Commemorative Commission was briefed Wednesday on the timetable for the project, which will feature bronze statues of a dozen historically significant women of various races and backgrounds.

Holly Eve, an administrator in the Virginia Department of General Services, and her assistant, Charles Bennett, told the panel that the construction phase is drawing near.

“I am pleased to report that we have received the permits. The general contractor can now start procuring materials and start the shop drawing phase,” Bennett said. “We should start seeing materials arrive on-site early in the summer.”

The Virginia Women’s Monument, titled “Voices from the Garden,” will be built on the western side of Capitol Square at the top of the western sloping dell.

The commission broke ground on the first phase of the project – the memorial plaza – on Dec. 4. The monument is expected to be completed by October 2019.

State officials said the monument will cost about $3.5 million and will be paid for with private funds. So far, the Virginia Capitol Foundation has raised more than $2.1 million in contributions and pledges, according to figures circulated atWednesday’s meeting.

According to the commission’s website, the monument “will acknowledge the genius and creativity of Virginia women and their presence and contributions to the Commonwealth. The monument is a metaphor for the often unrecognized voices that have been responsible for shaping our culture, country, and state for over 400 years.”

The commission says the monument would be the first of its kind in the nation recognizing the full range of women’s achievements. The project will feature an oval-shaped garden with statues of:

  • Ann Burras Laydon, who arrived in Jamestown in 1608 – one of the first female settlers in the colony.
  • Cockacoeske, a Pamunkey chief who signed a treaty in 1677 establishing the tribe’s reservation.
  • Mary Draper Ingles, who was taken captive by Shawnee Indians during the French and Indian War in 1755, escaped and traveled 600 miles back to her home in Southwest Virginia.
  • Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife. In the monument, she will represent the wives of all eight Virginia-born presidents.
  • Clementina Bird Rind, editor of the Virginia Gazette, an influential newspaper and the official printer for the Colony of Virginia, in the 1770s.
  • Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a slave who bought her freedom, became Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidant and established the Contraband Relief Association, which provided support for freed slaves and soldiers wounded in the Civil War.
  • Sally Louisa Tompkins, who, as a captain in the Confederate army, established a hospital to treat injured soldiers.
  • Maggie Walker, an African-American teacher and businesswoman who became the nation’s first female bank president.
  • Sarah Garland Boyd Jones, the first woman to pass the exam to practice medicine in Virginia. She and her husband, also a physician, established a medical association for African-American doctors and opened a hospital and nursing school in 1903.
  • Laura Lu Copenhaver, who, as director of information for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, expanded southwestern Virginia’s agricultural economy.
  • Virginia Estelle Randolph, an African-American teacher who developed a national and international reputation as a leader in education.
  • Adele Goodman Clark, a suffragist who became president of the League of Women Voters in 1921. She is considered to be one of the founders of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

During its meeting Wednesday, the commission discussed Senate Joint Resolution 85, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House. The proposal would make the Capitol Square Preservation Council’s architectural historian a member of the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission.

The resolution would also allow the governor, the speaker of the House of Delegates, the secretary of administration and the librarian of Virginia to appoint designees to serve in their place and grant ex-officio members voting privileges. Finally, it would ensure that the dedication of the monument be coordinated by the clerk of the Senate, the clerk of the House of Delegates and the secretary of administration.

Advocates Fight to End Gerrymandering in Virginia Supreme Court

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments Thursday in a case alleging that state lawmakers valued partisan politics over constitutional requirements in drawing 11 of the 100 districts for the House of Delegates.

Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021 – the state’s leading redistricting reform group – is heading the charge to end gerrymandering in Virginia both at the General Assembly and in the courtroom. Cannon said the districts in question distort natural political boundaries and ignore state-mandated size and shape regulations.

“Our compactness requirement should be a high priority since it’s in our state constitution,” Cannon said. “Clearly it wasn’t. Clearly partisan politics and discretionary criteria were valued over it.”

Cannon said his camp hopes for a decision to come down within the next two months.

Courts have long been wary of ruling on redistricting matters for fear of the political ramifications of their decisions. Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania last week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the “intentional seizure of the redistricting process” by a state court there.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last month ruled the Republican-controlled legislature had drawn the state’s congressional districts with partisan intent. A remedial plan adopted by the court could swing three or four congressional districts the Democrats’ way. Republicans currently hold 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in Congress.

Bill Oglesby, an associate professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, said courts around the country are having difficulty adjudicating redistricting reform because it is a naturally political process. As in Pennsylvania, Virginia courts are caught in the political crossfires inherent in gerrymandering.

“The parties to this case are dealing with a classic Catch-22,” said Oglesby, who helped produce “GerryRIGGED: Turning Democracy on its Head,” a documentary advocating for an overhaul of Virginia’s redistricting system.

“The state constitution requires the General Assembly to draw compact districts, but lower courts have said the politicians can decide what is compact, and they are the very ones who have a political incentive to stretch the meaning of that term.”

With court proceedings slowed by political ramifications, redistricting reform proponents have been focused on legislation in hopes of establishing immediate criteria for redrawing Virginia’s legislative districts after the U.S. census in 2020:

  • Senate Bill 106 establishes criteria for districts to be redrawn after the 2020 census, including equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, respect for existing political boundaries, compactness and communities of interest. The House of Delegates approved the legislation, 90-9, on Wednesday. HB 1598, a companion bill, was passed by the Senate on Monday, 23-17.
  • House Bill 312 sought to establish a commission to hold public hearings on the redistricting process. It died in a House Rules subcommittee on Feb. 13.
  • HB 205 would have required legislative districts to be redrawn should any state or federal court declare them unlawful or unconstitutional. The bill was left in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee on Feb. 13.

Cannon said redistricting reform concerns a “fundamental question of fairness” he believes most Virginians agree upon.

“Voters should be able to choose their legislators, not the other way around,” Cannon said.

Hundreds of Virginians Rally for Medicaid Expansion

A crowd of protesters raising their posters and banners at the rally for Medicaid expansion on Capitol Square (photo credit: George Copeland Jr.)

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Under the shadow of the Bell Tower on Capitol Square, hundreds of people from across Virginia rallied on a rainy Thursday in support of a state budget that would expand Medicaid to about 400,000 low-income residents.

Medicaid expansion is included in the budget approved by the House of Delegates. It also would add a work requirement for those seeking coverage. The budget passed by the Senate would not expand Medicaid. The two chambers must work out their differences and pass a budget before the legislative session ends March 10.

Speaking at the rally, Gov. Ralph Northam said, “Health care is a right. Morally the right thing to do is to expand coverage.”

Northam and other Democrats note that the federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid with the promise that the federal government would pick up most of the cost. Neighboring states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland have expanded Medicaid. Northam said Virginia is losing more than $5 million a day by failing to follow suit.

Northam was joined at the rally by a number of fellow Democrats including Attorney General Mark Herring and Sens. Jennifer Wexton of Loudoun, David Marsden of Fairfax, Lionell Spruill Sr. of Chesapeake, John Edwards of Roanoke and Jeremy McPike of Prince William.

More than 100 groups were represented at the rally, including the Healthcare for All Virginians Coalition, Planned Parenthood, the Young Invincibles and Progress Virginia.

Health Brigade Executive Director Karen Legato pointed to the bipartisan support for Medicaid expansion in the House. She said the state’s charitable clinics are no substitute for Medicaid expansion. Collectively, the clinics can serve only “152,000 of the 505,000 uninsured eligible for our services,” she said.

“We need our government to stand with us – to work with us side by side,” Legato said. “The time is now to ensure that the commonwealth is pro-health and pro-people.”

Christopher Rashad Green of New Virginia Majority, an advocacy group for working-class communities of color, discussed his experience being “trapped in the gap” between access to Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. He also said he was encouraged to see people at the rally working for “equity and justice and access to affordable health care.”

“I didn’t believe any of this would happen, but now I actually see it happening, and you are proof of that,” Green said. “We have to remain hopeful and vigilant and do uncomfortable things like speaking truth to power. Keep fighting the fight.”

The Rev. Jeanne Pupke spoke on behalf of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and “thousands of faith leaders.” She called for an increase in activism from communities and individuals in the days to follow.

“We can do it if we all go home today and work hard to make our voices heard,” Pupke said. “Our interfaith voices, our unfaith voices, for the commonwealth that is our voice.”

After the rally, members of the crowd walked to legislators’ offices in the nearby Pocahontas Building to urge lawmakers to support Medicaid expansion.

“Keep your energy up, keep your enthusiasm up,” Northam told the people at the rally. “And let’s make sure that in the next week, we expand coverage and make sure that all Virginians have access to affordable and quality health care.”

High Court Rules Against Displaying Noose on Private Property

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the display of a noose on private property violates the state law that bans displaying a noose in a public place with an intent to intimidate.

The high court handed down the decision in upholding the conviction of Jack Eugene Turner, who displayed a noose in a tree, from which he hung a black, life-size mannequin, in the front yard of his home in Franklin County in southwest Virginia. Turner was convicted of a Class 6 felony under existing law.

“Turner argues the display was not proscribed under the statute because, although visible from a public road, it was located on his own property,” the Supreme Court’s ruling stated. However, it added, “Concluding that the noose display was on a public place under our construction of the statute, we affirm the conviction.”

Turner had been convicted of a law that says, “Any person who, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, displays a noose on a highway or other public place in a manner having a direct tendency to place another person in reasonable fear or apprehension of death or bodily injury is guilty of a Class 6 felony.”

In its eight-page ruling, the Supreme Court said the law’s intent is “to criminalize and deter what amounts to a true threat communicated by the display of a noose, i.e., the intention to intimidate another by such display and thereby reasonably place another in fear of death or bodily injury.”

In that context, the court said, the term “public place” would include “private property generally visible by the public from some other location, which was undisputedly the case with the site of Turner’s noose display in his front yard.”

Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office successfully defended Turner’s conviction, hailed the ruling.

Herring said Turner’s display conveyed a racist message and was used “with the intent of intimidating his African-American neighbors.”

“We cannot be complacent about the rise in white supremacist extremism and violence, and we cannot allow hateful displays like this one to go unchallenged,” Herring said.

“The display of a noose is an unmistakable message designed to intimidate and invoke the horrors and disgraceful legacy of lynching. We must make it clear that all Virginians have the right to live, work, and raise their families free of fear and intimidation.”

Turner lived in a neighborhood with two African-American families, including one next door. While he was awaiting his sentencing, Turner placed a handmade cardboard sign against his house that read, “black n***er lives don’t matter, got rope,” Herring said.

Turner was tried and convicted in 2015. Afterward, he challenged the constitutionality of Virginia’s statute and whether the display was in a “public place.” In 2016, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Herring’s office said acts like hanging nooses and burning crosses evoke “a long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence.”

“Lynching had a powerful terroristic effect on the target population, which extended far beyond those who witnessed the violence firsthand,” the brief said. “The use of violence was aimed not just at the individual victim but at the black community generally … As a result, southern blacks lived with the knowledge that any one of them could be a victim at any time.”

Bill Would Compensate ‘Norfolk Four’ Nearly $3.5 Million

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Nearly 20 years after the sentencing of the “Norfolk Four,” a bill before the Virginia General Assembly could provide nearly $3.5 million in compensation for the wrongfully convicted and imprisoned men.

Danial Williams, Joseph Dick, Derek Tice and Eric Wilson — all members of the U.S. Navy at the time — were wrongly convicted in 1999 for the 1997 rape and murder of 18-year-old Michelle Bosko.

Senate Bill 772, proposed by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would award each of the “Norfolk Four” more than $850,000. The bill passed in the Senate, and then in the House with a substitute. The substitute had the same amount of compensation as Surovell’s original bill — but the Senate rejected it Thursday.

Meanwhile, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, proposed House Bill 762. It also compensated the “Norfolk Four” nearly $3.5 million in total. The bill passed the House unanimously. However, the Senate Finance Committee recommended a substitute that lowered the amount of compensation to about $1.9 million. The House rejected that substitute Tuesday.

The legislation will now go to a conference committee to resolve the disagreement.

Representatives for Surovell and Jones were not immediately available to comment on the issue.

The legislation details the circumstances surrounding the “Norfolk Four,” noting that they “spent nearly four decades in prison collectively for crimes they did not commit, and another collective 30 years after release from prison under highly restrictive parole and sex offender registry conditions that imposed onerous barriers to their reentry to society.”

The four defendants were convicted because of their coerced confessions, even though the real rapist and murderer, Omar Ballard, confessed the same year to committing the crime alone and his DNA was found at the crime scene, bills state.

Ballard is currently an inmate at Sussex II State Prison and serving two life terms plus 42 years for capital murder, two rapes, two counts of malicious wounding, and abduction.

In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Kaine granted conditional pardons to Williams, Dick and Tice. The conditional pardon ended their sentences, but the men remained on the sex offender registry. Wilson had already been released from prison in 2005 after serving 8.5 years.

A decade after their convictions, U.S. District Judge John Gibney dismissed the convictions of Dick and Williams.

“Considering the evolution of their admissions, their subsequent recantation and the other physical evidence, the admissions of guilt by Williams, Dick and Tice are far from convincing,” Gibney’s decision stated. “Any reasonable juror considering all of the evidence would harbor reasonable doubt as to whether Williams, Dick, or anyone else, was with Ballard in Bosko’s apartment.”

In March 2017, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted the “Norfolk Four” unconditional pardons. That action fully restored their civil rights and innocence. A 2017 press release from McAuliffe’s office stated, “These pardons close the final chapter on a grave injustice that has plagued these four men for nearly 20 years.”

Besides the “Norfolk Four,” the General Assembly also is considering awarding compensation to Robert Davis, who spent almost 13 years in prison for a murder in Crozet, Virginia, that he did not commit.

On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in passing HB 1010, which would provide about $580,000 in compensation for Davis.

Furthermore, Virginia legislators have passed a bill to help other wrongfully convicted defendants.

On Monday, senators gave final approval to HB 976, which would ensure that Virginians who have been wrongfully incarcerated receive timely payment of a $15,000 grant from the state.

The bill, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, sets a 30-day time frame for those who have been exonerated to receive the existing Transitional Assistance Grant. Currently, there is no time limit for the state to disburse the money.

“It is a small difference that will make a huge difference in the lives of those who are already facing the challenge of getting back on their feet after being wrongfully incarcerated,” Guzman said in a press release.

Democrats Urge Republicans to Reconsider Gun Control Bills

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia House Democrats called on the Republicans who control the General Assembly to revive several guns control bills that they killed earlier this legislative session.

At a press conference Thursday, the Democrats said they want lawmakers to reconsider proposals that would require background checks on all gun purchases, prohibit people under 21 from buying semi-automatic weapons, ban “bump stocks” and allow authorities to take firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.           

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, called for responsible action against gun violence. She said it is time to take responsibility and provide a secure environment to protect children and the community.

“As a minister and former City Council person and legislator, there have been far too many crime scenes that I’ve found myself attending, and I’ve eulogized so many young people that I’ve lost count of that, all due to gun violence,” McQuinn said.

Over the years, Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation requiring background checks at gun shows. This year, he introduced House Bill 1373, which called for required background checks no matter where a gun is purchased. It was killed in the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

“People back home are going to be saying, ‘well, what a terrible crisis we went through in our country with the gun issue. What did you guys do about it?’” Plum said. “I’ll tell you what we did about it. We killed at least 35 bills that were common sense, gun control, safety legislation.”

Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, said she wants to hold semi-automatic weapons to the same standard as handguns. She called for an increase in the age requirement to purchase an assault weapon from 18 to 21. Delaney said this is a sensible and practical solution that needs to be recognized.

“An individual who is seen as too young to purchase a handgun can gain access to an assault weapon, like an AR-15, which can wreak mass havoc on the victims of their choosing,” Delaney said. “This is senseless.”

Delaney said the Democrats are not asking for a ban on guns or to strike anyone’s Second Amendment rights. She said they are asking the House to support legislation that has bipartisan support nationwide.

Working with Brian Moran, the secretary of public safety, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, filed a bill to ban bump stocks — devices used to make semi-automatic rifles fire faster. The bill, HB 819, also died in the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

“Unfortunately, gun safety is a political issue, it’s a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be,” Kory said. “Our neighbors, our friends, our families, our children deserve better. If we can’t even ban bump stocks, what can we do?”

After the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers. Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, a middle school teacher and president of the Hampton Federation of Teachers, said something must be done to secure schools, but arming teachers isn’t the answer.

“It takes a special kind of person to be a teacher, and the first instinct a teacher has is to protect everyone, protect the children, and not engage in a shootout that would place more children in danger,” Ward said. “It would make our classrooms less safe. Classrooms would become armed fortresses instead of a place of learning and a place to explore.”

Ward brought up other questions about arming teachers, including where the guns would be kept, what risks they might pose for students and who would pay for the guns, ammunition and training.

“Right now we have schools that are still looking for school nurses, they need more guidance counselors, they need more resource officers, and there are hundreds of other needs of schools, but we want to use this [money] to arm all teachers?” Ward said.

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 198, which would allow law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant to remove firearms from a person who poses a threat to themselves or others. Friends and family members can report concerns of a potential threat, and officers could then request a risk warrant from a judge. The individual could request the firearms be returned in court. HB 198 was referred to the House Committee for Courts of Justice, where it was never heard.

“What haunts you about HB 198, is that a bill like this, in Florida, just might have stopped Parkland,” Sullivan said. “And a bill like this, in Virginia, just might stop the next one.”

Law Will Provide Free Tampons to Female Prisoners

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Senate joined the House Tuesday in unanimously approving a bill that requires Virginia jails and prisons to provide inmates with free feminine hygiene products such as pads and tampons.

If Gov. Ralph Northam signs it, House Bill 83 would take effect in July.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, also received unanimous approval in the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee.

Other legislation this session to remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, along with bills for exemptions during the state’s three day tax-free period in August and year-round failed to advance past House committees.

“It’s appalling that this was ever even an issue,” said Katrina Reid, a supporter of HB 83.

Currently, the Virginia Department of Corrections and some local and regional jails offer pads to inmates for free; however, tampons must be purchased. The cost to prisons will be included in the department’s budget and was estimated at $33,769. The cost has yet to be determined for jails.

The State Board of Corrections will be responsible for creating the feminine hygiene policy in the correctional facilities. While some states, such as Colorado, offer unlimited menstrual supplies, others, such as Arizona, have a maximum number of free pads and tampons allowed per month. The board has not yet specified a preference.

Hearing-Impaired Teen Inspires Bill Boosting American Sign Language

Senate Page Emma Chupp preparing to raise the state flag over the Capitol prior to floor session.

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia high school students would be able to count American Sign Language as a foreign language credit beginning this fall under a bill that won approval from the General Assembly this week.

House Bill 84, introduced by Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, unanimously passed the Senate on Monday. Now it will go to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

Teenager Emma Chupp, who was selected to work as a Senate page — or legislator’s helper — this General Assembly session, suggested the idea for the bill. Chupp said she is enrolled in a high school Spanish class but finds the language challenging to learn because she is hard of hearing.

“I have had hearing aids since I was 8 years old,” Chupp said. “I’ve always wanted to learn American Sign Language, but never really had the time to do so.”

Chupp attends Cornerstone Christian School, near her home in the Shenandoah Valley town of Broadway. She said her civics class has been following the bill.

“They were really excited when they found out I came up with the idea,” Chupp said. “They just loved watching the bill because it got them as involved with it as I am.”

Chupp said she hopes students will take advantage of the opportunity to take sign language courses.

“When I found out it passed the Senate, I was really excited because it let me know that I can do something in my community to break down the barriers between the deaf and hearing communities,” Chupp said.

HB 84 unanimously passed the House on Feb. 6. It was amended to allow students at schools that currently do not offer American Sign Language courses to take the course at a local community college or from a “multidivision online provider.” Those providers offer online and virtual classes in kindergarten through high school and are approved by the Virginia Board of Education. Bell said Virginia has 20 such programs, each with certified teachers who are reviewed annually.

In 2011, Bell also sponsored legislation requiring colleges and universities to accept high school American Sign Language classes as part of their entrance requirements. Bell said the University of Virginia was one of the first colleges to do so and to offer its own American Sign Language course.

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