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2018 Capital News Service

Bill Banning Sanctuary Cities Heads to Senate Floor on 7-6 Vote

By George Copeland Jr.,Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- A bill to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia advanced to the Senate floor Tuesday on a 7-6 committee vote that split along party lines.
 
Introduced by Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, House Bill 1257 would restrict localities from passing sanctuary policies, which limit cooperation with national immigration enforcement efforts to improve relations with immigrant communities.  The legislation would require localities to follow immigration standards set by federal law, including collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
 
When the bill was under consideration in the House of Delegates, it was nearly struck down due to a tie vote.  However, reconsideration led to a second vote, with the bill passing 51-49, sending it to the Senate Committee on Local Government.
 
Gov. Ralph Northam is opposed to the bill and has said that sanctuary cities have not been a problem in the state; similar legislation last year was vetoed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
 
Sens. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, voiced concerns over how ICE’s presence would impact future business opportunities, state autonomy and the ability and community trust of local law enforcement.
 
Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Grayson, who supported the bill, cited the presence of violent gangs in the state  including MS-13.
 
“Without a law such as this,” Carrico said, “if a locality wants to create a sanctuary city, then what you’re doing, in essence, is protecting those gang members from ever being deported.”
 
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, countered that the legislation is “a message bill.”  She said there are already laws to check the immigration status of those jailed or imprisoned.
 
“This bill is not about MS-13,” McClellan said, “although I know that is what gets trotted out all the time as the boogeyman.” She added, “This bill sends a message to certain people: ‘You’re not welcome here.’”
 
There were no comments from the public in support of the bill.  Among those opposed were representatives from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.
 
"It would increase the policing in our communities, it would make police officers quasi-federal immigration agents, which we don't want, right," said Diego Arturo Orbegoso, an immigrant from Peru and a member of the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.  
 
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brain Moran cited the “many unintended and even intended” effects of the bill in reiterating the governor’s opposition.
 
Voting in favor: Charles Carrico Sr., R-Grayson; Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield; William DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach; Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico; Emmett Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), William Stanley Jr., R-Franklin; and Glen Sturtevant Jr., R-Richmond.
 
Opposed: Barbara Favola, D-Arlington; Lynwood Lewis Jr., D-Accomack; David Marsden, D-Fairfax; Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond; Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William; and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.

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

CAPITAL CLASSIC

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

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Athletes’ Artwork Scores Big at ‘Abstract’ Exhibit

By Zachary Joachim and Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis says art has been an inspirational factor in his athletic career.

“When I was a kid, I’d pick up fabric paint and draw cartoon characters on my jeans and shirts,” Davis said. “I don’t know where it came from; it was just something that followed me through the rest of my life.”

Art and athletics came together Friday when 1708 Gallery welcomed “The Abstract Athlete,” the first exhibition in Richmond to feature Davis and other professional athletes who have maintained an active art career.

“The Abstract Athlete” explores work centered on the collision of art, sports and science. It includes pieces by Brett Tomko, a former Major League Baseball pitcher, and Larry Sanders, a Virginia Commonwealth University basketball star who later played in the NBA, as well as by U.S. Army veterans such as Alicia Dietz and Joe Olney.

Their artwork will be on display at the gallery, 319 W. Broad St., until March 17.

Before the opening of the exhibit, the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center hosted a symposium to discuss the benefit of art in sport. It focused on the effects that creating art has on the mind and body.

Speakers included Davis, Dietz, former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Percy King and David Cifu, associate dean for innovation and system integration in VCU’s School of Medicine.

“Art can follow you, and you don’t even know it’s following you. Art will always come first to me, and sports will follow,” Davis said. “Not saying I don’t love sports; I enjoy the creative opportunities it gives me. But art is the best combination in my life.”

Within the first three minutes of the gallery’s opening, Davis’s pieces – “The Sea #1” and “The Sea #2” – sold, with proceeds benefiting the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts. The works feature bright-colored triangles laid over a monotone rectangular base, creating an eye-popping effect designed to have viewers diving into the deep blues and copper hues of the sea.

King’s two works use hand-carved wood segments in a variety of shapes and colors. King stacks the pieces upon one another, creating a 3-D effect that interprets shadows and lines through the shapes of wood. His first piece on display, “The Boxer,” features a pair of blue boxing gloves. His second piece, “Heavy is the crown,” is a portrait of Barack Obama.

King said art is integral to his performance on the football field.

“It helps with healing, athletic performance, rest – it’s really adding an efficiency element,” King said. “I do things in a more complex and rich way. Art adds that layer of complexity to our hardworking bodies and brains.”

Cifu echoed King’s message, saying art is therapeutic for people who have experienced mental or physical trauma.

“I’m an artist at a very small level,” Cifu said. “But maybe I’m a healing artist.”

Olney, who served in Iraq as a sergeant and combat engineer, also had one of his pieces sell within 30 minutes.

U.S. bobsledder Hillary Werth takes inspiration from the streets of New York through her painting “Escape.” The landscape features dark purple, red and yellow spray-painted graffiti art and textured backgrounds.

Tomko sticks to his roots in his two pieces, re-creating iconic moments in the history of Major League Baseball. His first, “The Great Bambino,” features New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth. His second, “Color Line,” depicts Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the major leagues, running the bases.

Other artists participating in the exhibit include professional soccer player Jay DeMerit and painter Ridley Howard.

“The Abstract Athlete” is the name not only of the exhibit but also of an organization that brings together artists and professional athletes.

Business partners Ron Johnson and Chris Clemnar founded the group and spent two years planning the exhibit. Clemnar is a toy designer, and Johnson has been an art professor at VCU since 2003. Johnson hopes to display the exhibit internationally.

More information on the web

For more information about the artists, see www.theabstractathlete.com. The 1708 Gallery, a nonprofit space for new art, is located at 319 W. Broad St. Its website is at www.1708gallery.org, and the phone number is 804-643-1708.

As College Tuition Rises, Senate Panel Kills Bill Mandating Public Input

By Lia Tabackman and Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In Fall 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University increased annual tuition by almost 24 percent, tacking $1,700 on to each in-state student’s bill in one fell swoop.

While that jump may seem like an outlier, tuition increases have been the norm at the state’s institutions of higher education during the past decade.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia have increased tuition by an average of 82 percent over the past 10 years. While various factors, including state budget cuts, contribute to tuition increases, these decisions take place at board meetings where it can be difficult for students and members of the public to make their voices heard.

Even so, a bill by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, to mandate public input on proposed tuition increases – as required in 10 other states – appears to be dead for this session.

HB 1473, which sought to require university trustees to hold a public comment period, unanimously passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 6. After the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 14-1 in favor of the bill, it then was sent to the Senate Finance Committee – which supporters saw as a bad omen.

They were right. On Tuesday, the Finance Committee killed the bill on a 6-4 vote. The next day, the committee reconsidered the matter – but the bill again was “passed by indefinitely,” 7-6.

The committee heard testimony from representatives of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, as well as from representatives of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a progressive advocacy agency for college affordability.

“It’s bad enough that the cost of higher education in Virginia is spiraling out of control,” said James Toscano, president of the affordability group. “But failing to ensure the voices of students and parents are heard before public appointees set tuition is a blow to good governance and transparency.”

While Toscano argued that Miyares’ bill is important for transparency, Betsey Daley, U.Va.’s associate vice president for state governmental relations, said the measure was unnecessary, as emails from board members, the president and other officials are already available online.

“One public hearing is not a substitute for year-round input we have at U.Va.,” Daley said.

According to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia, there is an inverse relationship between state funding and the rate at which tuition increases at public colleges and universities. When the state provides support for these institutions, the colleges themselves are better able to control fluctuating tuition costs.

In 2010, for example, VCU felt the impact of a $40 million budget cut, the same year tuition increased by 23 percent.

Virginia has established a cost-share goal of the state funding 67 percent of university operations and students fronting the remaining 33 percent; however, the state is expected to pay only 47 percent in 2018. Students will carry 53 percent, a record high.

According to SCHEV, it would take more than $660 million in additional state revenue to reach the 67/33 cost-share goal. But doing so could lower tuition costs by $2,700.

In the meantime, Virginia students owe more than $30 billion in student loan debt.

SB 394, a bill that would create a state ombudsman for student loan issues, has unanimously passed in the Senate and appears to be on its way for House approval.

Virginia Prisoners a Step Closer to Free Feminine Hygiene Products

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Prisons and jails in Virginia would have to start providing female inmates with free feminine hygiene products under a bill making its way through the General Assembly.

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee unanimously backed HB 83, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, on Friday. The bill won unanimous approval in the House on Feb. 13. It now goes to the full Senate.

The Virginia Department of Corrections already offers pads at no charge, but tampons are only available through commissaries, meaning inmates have to pay for them. Officials said the previously estimated $33,769 annual cost to supply the products could be covered within the department’s budget. The State Board of Corrections has yet to determine how local and regional jails who don’t already provide free products will pay for them.

“This is a great way to start a Friday,” Kory said after the morning meeting

Last week, Kory’s HB 152, which called for removing the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, was killed in the House along with the remaining “tampon tax” bills, which proposed tax exemptions on the items during the state’s three day tax-free period in August and year-round.

Holly Seibold, a member of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition, said although the group is disappointed the legislation failed, they are encouraged by progress toward free products for women who are incarcerated.

Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, introduced two bills this year and one last year proposing tax-exemptions for feminine hygiene products, but none of the bills were approved. Still, she said she plans to introduce similar legislation moving forward.

Dr. Grace Harris Is Remembered for ‘Her Spirit of Hope’

By George Copeland Jr and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dr. Grace Harris, whose life and career stretched from the roads of rural Halifax County to the halls of the Virginia State Capital, was celebrated Saturday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Nearly 200 people, including family, friends, legislators and educators, assembled to remember Dr. Harris, who died Feb. 12 at age 84. She was praised as a “thoughtful, forward-thinking leader” by Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao. Dr. Harris remains the highest-ranking African-American woman in the college’s history.

Rao cited her 48-year tenure at the school, where she served as a dean, provost and acting president, as fundamental to VCU’s community and culture.

“I’ve talked a lot about VCU and its commitment to public good. That’s Grace,” Rao said. “VCU is committed to excellence and inclusion. That’s Grace.”

Rao also made clear that those present “must never forget” how racism initially barred Dr. Harris from attending VCU (the Richmond Professional Institute at the time) during her college years. As a result, Harris had to start graduate school out of state – at Boston University, where her classmates included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Members of the Harris family shared memories and personal stories of how they viewed her legacy.

In the course of their life together, Dr. Harris and her husband, James W. “Dick” Harris, had two children – James and Gayle. James Harris described the work ethic his mother instilled in him growing up in a letter read by his wife, Noelle Harris.

“She showed me what hard work, talent and dedication can do,” James Harris wrote. “And I’m glad to say and show her that I listened.”

Gayle Harris reminisced about the openness, kindness and respect her mother showed her throughout their life together.

“How wonderful it has been to have such support, encouragement, acceptance and love,” she said.

Recalling his time working with Dr. Harris on VCU’s Board of Visitors, Roger Gregory, chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, remembered the “prescription of life” she brought during her tenure.

“She gently wove her spirit of hope into the tapestry of every professional endeavor she had and every professional encounter,” Gregory said.

A number of political leaders, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, attended the service. U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were unable to attend but wrote letters sending their regards. Dr. Harris served on Warner’s transition team for his term as Virginia governor in 2001. When Kaine was governor, she helped him choose appointees to university boards of trustees.

Former Gov. Douglas Wilder noted the challenges Dr. Harris faced and overcame as a woman of color in a racially segregated state and society. He also spoke of the importance of her legacy at a time of national upheaval and change for women.

Quoting Dr. Harris directly, Wilder left the audience with words of inspiration: “I will persist until I succeed, for I was not delivered into this world in defeat.”

That inspiration was evident in those in attendance. Leon Sankofa, president and founder of Family and Youth Foundations Counseling Services in Hampton, said Dr. Harris’ outreach efforts led him to enroll in VCU’s School of Social Work, where she served as assistant professor from 1967 to 1976.

“She was my idol,” Sankofa said. “She still is.”

Dr. Harris’ legacy of compassion extended beyond the funeral’s speakers and audience. Band leader Rudy Faulkner, during the opening musical selection, briefly mentioned the kindness the Harris family showed him one Christmas many years ago.

It was this compassion and kindness that Jullian Harrison, Dr. Harris’ grandson, saw as her greatest quality.

“Yes, she was smart. Yes, she was kind. But also, she was empathetic,” he recalled. Harrison said that is what made his grandmother so special.

“In a day and age when leadership and power is so synonymous with the focus on self, the fact that she could build a legacy and foundation based on kindness and to have it be successful is what made her.”

Senate Panel Votes to Ban ‘Lunch Shaming’ in Virginia

By Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Senate committee Thursday unanimously approved a bill to prohibit “lunch shaming” – the practice of singling out students who owe the school cafeteria money or cannot pay for their lunch.

The Senate Education and Health Committee voted 15-0 in favor of House Bill 50, which would bar schools from giving students a hand stamp or wristband when their lunch account is empty, or ask students to do chores or throw away their meal if they cannot pay. The bill specifies that any concerns regarding students’ lunch debt must be taken up directly with their parents or guardians.

The bill, which unanimously passed the House last week and now goes to the full Senate, would address the concerns of parents like Adelle Settle, a mother in Prince William County. She started fundraising to help students settle lunch debts after hearing about the lunch shaming phenomenon on the radio. Last year, she helped raise over $20,000 for students with meal debt in Prince William.

“A child has no control over their family finances, and a child should have no involvement in the discussion between a school and the parent to collect for meal debt,” Settle said. “Our kids deserve to be treated equally and with compassion at school.”

The price of a school lunch in Virginia public elementary schools averages $1.88, but it can be as high as $3.05 in Loudoun County and $3 in Fairfax County and Falls Church, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.

As in all states, schools in Virginia participate in a federal program that provides free or reduced-price lunches to children from low-income families. Eligibility depends on income and household size. A four-person household must have an annual income of $44,955 or less to qualify for free lunches.

Students who receive free lunches are not at risk of being shamed by school staff because their meals are provided by government funding; the students cannot incur debts. Of the 1.29 million students in Virginia’s public schools, almost 572,000 – or 44 percent – qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But lunch shaming can affect the remaining students who pay for their lunch out of pocket and occasionally may not have the money.

Reports of meal-debt shaming vary across the country but include practices such as stamping “I need lunch money” on students’ hands, asking students to wipe down tables or throwing away the lunch that can’t be paid for.

In Virginia, procedures handling school lunch debt vary by school district. Some school districts allow students a certain amount of debt before refusing to provide them with a standard meal. Other districts treat all students the same, regardless of whether they owe money.

“Students unable to pay for their meal at the time of meal service are allowed to charge a breakfast and lunch,” said Shawn Smith, director of government, policy and media relations for Chesterfield County Public Schools. “This may result in a debt to the student’s meal account with the expectation that the parent or guardian is responsible for full payment.”

Virginia’s strides to abolish lunch shaming aren’t the first. Last year, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced a bill that would make it illegal to shame a student who doesn’t have lunch money.

Virginia Teenagers May Rescue Volunteer Fire Departments

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to allow teenagers to join volunteer fire and rescue squads may save many operations around Virginia that have seen an increase in service calls but a decrease in volunteers.

Volunteers make up more than 65 percent of Virginia’s firefighting services – but according to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, “retention and recruitment of new members has never been more challenging.”

However, the General Assembly approved – unanimously in both the House and Senate – a bill that might rescue some of these operations.

Currently in Virginia, 16- and 17-year-olds can join a volunteer fire department only with parental or guardian consent and proper certification. SB 887, if signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, would allow these teens to join a volunteer fire department and participate in non-hazardous activities such as training exercises without consent or certification. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds still would need consent and certification to participate in a fire department’s or rescue squad’s potentially hazardous activities.

“The commonwealth recognizes the need to reach out to Virginia’s youth and engage them in non-operational roles within emergency departments,” Mohamed Abbamin, policy manager for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, said by email. “Reaching out to people when they are young has long-range effects, and encouraging youth to take part in the emergency services is extremely beneficial to local communities and departments.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, introduced the bill after a meeting with the VDFP in the fall.

“It’s just like anything else: If you can get young people involved, there’s a better chance they’re going to stick with it,” Deeds said. “This bill is just about encouraging and making sure that young people can be as involved as possible.”

The legislation directs the Virginia Fire Services Board, which oversees the VDFP, to adopt a junior member policy to provide guidance to fire and rescue departments in developing and administering non-hazardous training courses and programs.

“If we can get young people that are high school age involved at least on an auxiliary basis helping out, they might be interested in eventually becoming a fireman. So that’s the idea behind the legislation,” Deeds said.

Exhibits Commemorating WW I Reflect Contemporary Concerns

WWI EXHIBIT

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Women across the country demanding equality. African Americans protesting racism. Government officials worried about Russian interference.

Those descriptions may reflect today’s headlines. But they also mirror what was happening a century ago – as America was coming out of World War I.

To commemorate the war’s centennial, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture is showcasing two exhibits – “WW1 America” and “The Commonwealth and the Great War.”

“WW1 America” is a traveling exhibit from the Minnesota Historical Society; Richmond is the exhibit’s only stop on the East Coast. “The Commonwealth and the Great War” was created by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture to highlight Virginians in the war.

“Every museum in the country has a collection of World War I posters,” said Brian Horrigan, curator of “WW1 America.”

“They’re beautiful, they’re brilliant, but they don’t tell the story. They tell a visual story of a story, a story about persuasion and propaganda, but where’s the underbelly of that story?”

Horrigan started the project three years ago with the desire to “look more broadly at America and Americans.” He wanted to focus less on the horrors of the trenches and propaganda and instead examine the turmoil at home.

“There were darker sides of the American experience during this time,” Horrigan said. “Entire swaths of U.S cities [were] engulfed in racial conflagrations; more race riots and more violent race riots [occurred] in 1919 than any single year in the 1960s.”

Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed for societal reforms in recent years, African-Americans were fighting intense racism during World War I: The U.S. military then was segregated; blacks were relegated to menial jobs, and there were only two African-American combat units – both commanded by white officers. After the war, black soldiers returned to a segregated society; their heroism was ignored.

The exhibit also highlights issues of women’s suffrage – the #MeToo movement of its time – as well as workers’ rights and care for disabled veterans. In addition, during World War I, Americans were terrified of Russia, believing that the Bolsheviks were preparing to invade America. The exhibit shows how this fear developed into the Cold War.

Horrigan’s favorite part of the exhibit is a glass bowl used to pick men for the draft.

“The importance of this bowl as [a] national icon cannot be overstated,” Horrigan said. “I was fascinated by this draft bowl because I thought, there is a real turning-point moment where people began to feel that they are being counted, pinpointed and tracked by the United States government, and they could become just a number.”

Americans had never seen the government conduct such a massive call to arms. All men age 18 to 45 had to enter the draft. By the end of the war, nearly 20 percent of all draft-age men had served in the military.

The second exhibit, “The Commonwealth and the Great War,” focuses on the men drafted from Virginia and the families they left behind. Approximately 100,000 Virginians fought in World War I, and 3,700 died in service.

With the exception of Fort Myer and Fort A.P. Hill, all of Virginia’s major military bases were built during World War I. The exhibit includes pictures and stories from the men at these bases and highlights some of Virginia’s accomplished soldiers.

However, the exhibit honors more than Virginia’s soldiers. Pictures and artifacts reflect the significant role Virginia women played. Many women were nurses, helped organize fundraisers and made items to send to troops.

Horrigan said the Virginia Museum of History and Culture did an outstanding job complementing the traveling exhibit.

“What it has done with the second exhibit really makes this whole thing much more significant, giving it a personal Virginia side,” Horrigan said.

He also sees parallels between the museum’s contents and contemporary America.

“Every time you turn around in that exhibit, you see some connection to today,” Horrigan said.

If You Go

“WW1 America” will be on display at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, 428 N. Boulevard in Richmond, until July 29. “The Commonwealth and the Great War” will be available until Nov. 18. Museum admission is $10.

Activists Oppose Drilling Off Virginia’s Coast

    

    

Business, military, fishing and environmental leaders unite at the Four Points hotel by the Sheraton Richmond Airport to publicly oppose allowing oil and gas development off of Virginia’s coast as the Trump Administration’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management holds one of its first public hearings in Richmond. This opposition is joined by growing bi-partisan calls from Virginia leaders, including Governor Ralph Northam, Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Scott Taylor, to remove Virginia from this newly proposed oil and gas leasing program.

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — About 75 people, including activists and lawmakers, rallied Wednesday against the Trump administration’s plan to allow drilling off Virginia’s coast, saying it would endanger the environment, the economy and military readiness.

The group held a press conference before the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s public hearing in Richmond on the issue. At the meeting, environmental and business leaders urged the agency to abandon the plan.

“We are here today to protect our waters, the Virginia coast and Atlantic Ocean from dangerous oil and gas development,” said Karen Forget, executive director of Lynnhaven River Now in Virginia Beach. “We’re here to make our voices loud and clear that we do not think offshore drilling is good for Virginia.”

U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 4th Congressional District, said he was honored to speak alongside state officials, environmentalists and retired military and business leaders to express opposition to offshore drilling.

“The Trump administration’s decision to push for drilling in more than 90 percent of our nation’s coastal waters, including off the coast of our beautiful commonwealth, poses serious dangers to our economy and our environment,” McEachin said. “As we learned from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, accidents can be unimaginably destructive, devastating the marine environment and potentially affecting the health of local residents.”

McEachin said an oil spill would have disastrous consequences for communities along the coast and around the Chesapeake Bay. Coastal fisheries, tourism and recreation support 91,000 jobs in Virginia and represent almost $5 billion of the state’s economy, he said.

Even without a spill, oil exploration alone would be damaging, according to Susan Barco, the research coordinator and senior scientist at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.

“One of the tools they use is seismic testing, and that would occur regardless of if there is a spill or drilling for that matter,” Barco said. “Seismic testing produces very, very loud sounds in the ocean in order to understand what is below the strata or layers at the bottom of the ocean. Those sounds are very likely to negatively impact a lot of animals, particularly marine mammals.”

McEachin said the U.S. Defense Department has twice concluded that drilling off Virginia’s coast would compromise the Navy’s ability to effectively operate and train and that this would effectively reduce military readiness and compromise national security.

Gov. Ralph Northam and members of Congress from Virginia’s coastal areas, both Republicans and Democrats, oppose the U.S. Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms, a Republican, alsoopposes it.

Wednesday’s meeting at a hotel near Richmond International Airport was the only public hearing that the federal government plans to hold in Virginia to discuss the offshore drilling plan. That irked Northam.

“If the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management doesn’t hold additional hearings in the Tidewater region, I will be one of the few people from a Virginia coastal community who has had the opportunity to share my opposition to the administration’s plan to put our economy, environment, national security, and the health and safety of our residents at risk,” Northam said.

The Democratic governor said he will use every tool he can use to make sure no drilling happens off Virginia’s coast.

Two Bills May Save Babies’ Lives

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On July 1, Tennessee added a rare genetic disorder called MPS I to its newborn screening program. On July 13, Ruby Kate Leonard, whose parents live in Russell County, Virginia, was born in Bristol, Tennessee. Nine days after that, Ruby Kate’s parents received a call that she tested positive for MPS I. Treatment for the infant began immediately.

Had Ruby Kate been born in Russell County, early detection and treatment would not have been possible — because Virginia does not test for MPS I. When state Del. Todd Pillion, a Republican whose House district includes Russell County, heard Ruby Kate’s story, he introduced a bill to rectify the situation.

HB 1174 would add MPS I and Pompe disease, another rare genetic disorder, to Virginia’s newborn screening program. On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing a version of the bill. The two chambers still must work out minor differences before the legislation goes to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

The law would be welcome news to Ruby Kate’s family.

“We had heard of the disease, but we didn’t really know what it was,” said Ashley Keene, Ruby Kate’s mother. “She’s the first baby in Tennessee to be diagnosed with the disease through the new screening program.”

MPS I is caused by a gene mutation that prevents cells from breaking down glycosaminoglycans, which leads to cell, tissue and organ damage. Pompe disease is a result of a buildup of glycogen in the body’s cells that impairs muscles and organs, including the heart. Early detection of these disorders is crucial in saving babies’ lives.

Other conditions also require immediate attention. Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, introduced HB 1362 after a baby boy in his district died after being diagnosed with a condition called MCADD too late. Since he was born on a Saturday and labs are closed on the weekends, the test results didn’t come in until the following Monday and the baby didn’t make it. The bill asks The Division of Consolidated Services and any other contracted labs by the Department of Health to screen newborns and children for time-critical disorders seven days a week.

“Had the labs been open on weekends the child would’ve been healthy,” Austin said.

A Senate Education and Health subcommittee approved HB 1362 on Tuesday. Monday’s Senate approval of HB 1174 included a substitute saying the bill can go into effect so long as funds are appropriated for it.

“This legislation will move Virginia in the right direction to make this critically important early detection possible, which is a crucial first step toward better health outcomes and lower long-term health costs,” Pillion said in a press release.

Ruby Kate has been receiving treatment at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., since September and has recently recovered from a fever. The family is now dealing with possible complications with her kidneys, according to the Ruby Kate’s Fight Facebook page.

“In the midst of everything we’re going through it’s just nice to know that this could help other babies like Ruby Kate,” Keene said.

Delegate Aims to Rein in ‘Predatory Loans,’ to No Avail

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “You’re pre-approved!” CashNetUSA, a Chicago-based company, exclaimed in a letter to Alexandria resident Mark Levine. “$1,000 is waiting!” Smaller print at the bottom of the solicitation noted that the annual interest rate would be 299 percent. As a result, the interest on a $1,000 loan, repaid over a year with monthly payments of $268, would total $2,213.

Levine wasn’t just any name on CashNetUSA’s direct-mail list. He’s also a state delegate. In his weekly newsletter to constituents, he said the interest on the loan would be far higher than the company’s figures. Surprised and outraged by the ad, he introduced a bill this legislative session to ban high-interest loans.

“If someone needs money in an emergency, then they shouldn’t have to be straddled with obscene debt for years,” Levine said. “I would love to see how many people actually are able to pay back these offensive interest rates – because the goal of these predatory loans isn’t to get people to pay them back in full; it’s to make sure they are declaring bankruptcy so the company can get everything they own.”

A CashNetUSA spokesperson disputed Levine’s characterization, saying that it is not the company’s practice to file proofs of claim against consumers in bankruptcy in Virginia and that its product is an unsecured credit offering regardless.

According to the National Consumer Law Center, Virginia is one of four states that do not regulate interest rates and borrowing requirements on open-credit loans offered by in-store or online lenders.

Dana Wiggins, director of outreach and consumer advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said open-credit loans, which critics call predatory loans, do not take into account a borrower’s ability to repay. These loans typically have fee costs and interest rates of more than 100 percent, she said.

House Bill 404, introduced by Levine, a Democrat, in January, sought to cap the interest rate at 36 percent and give borrowers up to 25 days to pay back their loan before it would accrue interest. The bill was co-sponsored by Republican Dels. Gordon Helsel of Poquoson and David Yancey of Newport News and Democratic Dels. Paul Krizek and Kathleen Murphy, both of Fairfax.

However, the measure died last week in the House Commerce and Labor Committee after a subcommittee voted 6-2along party lines to kill it. Robert Baratta, representing the lender Check Into Cash Inc., spoke in opposition to the bill at the subcommittee’s meeting, saying it would hurt consumers by limiting their options for borrowing money.

In recent years, Virginia has cracked down on payday loans, forbidding them from charging more than 36 percent annual interest.

“I still feel like 36 percent is still too high,” Levine said. “But at least then, borrowers have a chance to pay these loans back. Because right now, if anyone were to take one of these (open-credit) loans out, my advice to them would be for them to declare bankruptcy the next day.”

According to Wiggins, the problem regulating high-interest loans can be traced to 1998 when Virginia first allowed payday loans to operate in the state.

“It’s like regulatory whack-a-mole,” Wiggins said. “Every time you put a restriction on them, these companies morph their product to be just enough different and just outside the law that’s trying to rein them in, so that they end up getting around that state statute and then another statute.”

Attorney General Mark Herring has been working on the issue of predatory loans since 2014.

“Virginians who resort to Internet loans are often exploited by their own circumstances – in need of money for groceries, rent, or car repairs,” Herring said in a press release after settling a case against a Las Vegas-based internet lending company, Mr. Amazing Loans, in October.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received more than 1,270 complaints about CashNetUSA or its parent company, Enova International. Complainants said the company had raised its interest rates, sought extra payments, threatened legal action against borrowers and made fraudulent claims of debt owed.

However, the CashNetUSA spokesperson said most of the claims were the result of fraud or criminal activity by fake debt collectors.

Wiggins said it’s possible to create government regulations that allow lenders to make a profit and protect borrowers from unscrupulous practices. She said Arkansas, North Carolina and other states have done so.

Officials at the Virginia Poverty Law Center were not surprised that Levine’s bill died in committee.

“We didn’t necessarily work with him or ask for him to put the bill in,” Wiggins said. “But not because we don’t agree with the policy itself – but because there is no political will to make that happen in the General Assembly.”

Citizen Groups Voice Concerns Over Medicaid Expansion

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A few days after the Republican-controlled House of Delegates reached a bipartisan compromise on Medicaid expansion, both conservative and progressive citizen groups are voicing their concerns.

The proposal, HB 338, would require “able-bodied adult” individuals seeking Medicaid to fulfill a work requirement – to pursue training, employment, education, or “other community engagement opportunities” – in order to obtain health care coverage. The work requirement would not apply to children, or to adults who are over 65, have certain disabilities or are the primary caregiver for a dependent.

The Family Foundation, a Richmond-based grassroots conservative organization, urged residents in a blog post on Tuesday to contact their delegates and voice their opposition to the notion of expanding Medicaid.

“After eight years of holding the line and refusing to ‘take the bait’ for a massive federal power grab, corresponding spikes in healthcare costs, and virtually guaranteed new tax liabilities for hardworking Virginians, the House plan would now capitulate to the specious promise of ‘free money’ from the federal government to pay for healthcare,” the post said.

The organization acknowledged that more Virginians will receive care under the plan but argued that it would come at a cost to taxpayers. “While tax increases may not be immediate, they are inevitable if this policy goes through,” the post said.

Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy organization, also spoke out against the proposal, but for different reasons. It argued that while the House plan to expand Medicaid is a step in the right direction, the work requirement is a cause for concern.

“From the outset, we have opposed attempts to put punitive barriers between Virginians and access to care,” the organization stated in a press release on Sunday. “We have serious reservations about language in the House budget that puts financial restrictions on families’ access to care, premises access to care on the ability to find a good-paying job, or locks our friends and neighbors out of access.”

In a blog post, Progress Virginia argued that work requirements are ineffective and ultimately make health care harder to obtain. The organization also urged progressives to contact their delegates in support of a “clean Medicaid expansion” – Medicaid expansion without the work requirement.

“People have to be healthy in order to work, but that isn’t possible when they don’t have health insurance and can’t see a doctor when they need to,” Progress Virginia said. “Work requirements don’t create jobs or raise wages – they put onerous and punitive requirements between our friends and neighbors and the healthcare they need.”

Gov. Ralph Northam said that while he supports a more “straightforward” expansion of Medicaid, he is willing to compromise with Republicans.

“I respect the priorities of the House majority and I am encouraged by and supportive of our work together to bring about a new ‘Virginia Way’ on Medicaid,” Northam said in a statement on Sunday.

“I look forward to working with the House and Senate to finalize this proposal, ensure its passage and pursue an implementation plan that will provide the benefits of expanded coverage to Virginia families.”

Virginia Honors MLK with Community Conversations

 

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission will commemorate the 50thanniversary of its namesake’s assassination through 12 “Community Conversations” beginning in March, each one at a location the Rev. King visited in Virginia.

At these conversations, community leaders, religious leaders, historians, educators and residents will join members of the commission in reviewing King’s legacy and his time spent in the commonwealth. According to spokesperson Lilly Jones, the conversations will reflect on King’s vision of a “Beloved Community” in each location today and ponder the question he penned in his 1967 book, “Where do we go from here?”

The Perkins Living and Learning Center at Virginia Union University in Richmond will host the first conversation from 6-8 p.m on March 1. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who chairs the commission, will moderate the panel discussion.

The panel will include Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond; VUU Vice President Corey Walker; VUU graduate student Jamar Boyd II; the Rev. Jim Somerville of First Baptist Church in Richmond; the Rev. Janie Walker of Richmond Hill; and Benjamin Ragsdale, a Richmond resident who met King twice while working in civil rights and anti-war movements.

The roundtable discussions are part of the commission’s larger project, titled “King in Virginia.” In that project, historians, researchers and community members will gather and present information on King’s dozens of visits to Virginia.

King, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent campaign against racism, spent lengthy time in Richmond, often speaking at VUU. In 1960, he led a march on the Virginia State Capitol where he pushed for the reopening of public schools that had closed due to resistance of desegregation.

The “King in Virginia” project will create a public online archive bookmarking the activist’s time spent in Virginia.

Other Community Conversations will be held:

●      At the University of Virginia’s Old Cabell Hall on March 13

●      At First Baptist Church in Farmville on April 24

●      At First Baptist Church of Williamsburg on June 6

●      And on dates to be announced in Danville, Hampton, Hopewell, Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg and Suffolk.

All events are free and open to the public. Visit the commission’s website — http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/ — for more information.

MLK III Speaks Out Against Gun Violence

By Aya Driouche and Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Decrying America’s “culture of violence,” the oldest son of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. praised the survivors of last week’s school shooting in Florida for demanding that government officials implement restrictions on guns in the U.S.

Speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University, Martin Luther King III commended students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot and killed on Valentine’s Day, for taking a stand and calling on elected officials to act on gun control.

“Once again, children, young people, lives interrupted forever, of all ages and every ethnic group,” King said. “We could say it’s mental illness, but maybe it’s the climate that exists in our nation. We have certainly created and sustained a culture of violence.”

King spoke Sunday at an event that had been rescheduled from Jan. 21, during VCU MLK Celebration Week, due to inclement weather.

The event came four days after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, according to authorities, opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing three adults and 14 students. It was the ninth deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

King accused Congress of remaining silent after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where Adam Lanza gunned down 26 teachers and students.

King pointed to the movement to end sexual harassment that has swept the country as an example of positive cultural change. He said he is optimistic that America will soon see the same results with gun control.

“Every week, someone is losing a job because of the tragedy of sexual harassment that should never have happened,” King said. “So I would say even on this issue where people tragically lost their lives, we don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I am hopeful.”

King said he has personally experienced gun violence not once, but twice. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Five years later, King told the VCU audience, his grandmother, Alberta King, was shot and killed in Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta by a man who intended to kill her husband.

“It did not deter me or distract me because I had to learn to dislike the evil act but still love the individual,” King said.

He also addressed last August’s chaos in Charlottesville, where white supremacists participated in a “Unite the Right” rally against the removal of a Confederate statue. A counter-protester was killed by a man authorities have described as a neo-Nazi.

King said that, in the pursuit of ratings and revenues, the media magnify the number of Americans who commit hate-motivated violence.

“There were 200 white men who marched in Charlottesville, not 200,000,” King said. “But the media would have you think that every white male American was marching with those 200 because they kept, over and over again, running the story on every channel.”

Like his father, King urged people to avoid violence even if it’s to raise awareness for an issue.

“The moment an individual commits violence even for a good cause, that person’s credibility is shredded,” he said. “The quickest way to surrender your dignity and credibility is to engage in violence.”

King wrapped up by encouraging people to not let others discourage them from following their dreams.

“Remember – every great leader, including Martin Luther King Jr., was once a young person who had doubts about what he or she could do, but they persevered with courage. Be courageous. Don’t let anyone make you feel like there’s nothing you can do. Be guided by your dreams, not distracted by your peers.”

At Session’s Midpoint, Black Lawmakers Hail Success

Senators Rosalyn Dance, D- Richmond, and Louise Lucas, D- Chesapeake, discuss legislation at a VBLC press conference.

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – African-American lawmakers said Monday they have been successful this legislative session in addressing the problem of food deserts, funding apprenticeships for high school students and relaxing overly harsh school disciplinary policies.

At a press conference, members of the Virginia Black Legislative Caucus said they generally are pleased with how the session has progressed as it enters the second half.

“In the House and Senate, we have seen legislation advanced to address the long overdue need for an increase in felony threshold so that people are not harmed for life for relatively small mistakes; stop the suspension of drivers’ licenses, which makes it even harder for people to pay for their fines and court fees; reduce the imposition of counterproductive school suspensions for younger students; and tax credits for businesses that train Richmond high school students for good jobs,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the caucus chair.

The lawmakers said they were pleased that several bills were moving forward:

  • SB 937 would provide a $2,500 tax credit to businesses offering apprenticeships for Richmond high school students. “Once that pilot is successful, we will expand it across the commonwealth because we realize that not everyone is going to college,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
  • HB 1600 would reduce the maximum school suspension from 364 days to 45 days with exceptions for aggravating circumstances. “We can’t continue to use access to education as punishment and expect to change the outcomes for our young people,” said Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. “This is just one important step in dismantling and disrupting the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”
  • SB 37 would fund construction and improvements of grocery stores and food retailers in underserved communities known as food deserts. Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, said the bill would help prevent diabetes, heart disease and other health problems related to diet.
  • HB 1550 and SB 105 would raise the threshold for grand larceny – a felony crime – from $200 to $500. The current threshold hasn’t been changed since 1980.

“You just don’t know how many kids and college students, as a part of a dare, or pressure from peer groups go and commit dumb mistakes,” said Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk. He said young people convicted of felony theft under the existing threshold suffer lifelong consequences “keeping them away from the ballot box, keeping them away from business opportunities, keeping them away from educational opportunities.”

Despite those legislative successes, caucus members expressed disappointment about the fate of bills such as SB 909. It would have made it illegal in the housing industry to discriminate against people based on their “source of income,” including whether they receive government assistance. A Senate committee voted to put off the bill until next year.

“When I talk about low-income housing, I’m also talking about middle-class housing for our firefighters, our police officers, our teachers that too often can’t afford to live in the communities that they serve,” McClellan said.

House Panel Next to Consider Senate Coal Ash Legislation

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate bill extending the moratorium on permanently closing coal ash ponds appears to be the only legislation on the issue poised to move forward from this General Assembly session.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, introduced six pieces of legislation on coal ash, and coal ash ponds, where stored ash potentially risks contaminating groundwater.

The lone survivor is SB 807, which  passed in the Senate 37-3 last week. Co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, the bill would extend the moratorium on closing ponds where coal ash is stored until after the next legislative session, and would also require that Dominion Energy, the owners of the coal ash ponds, submit reports  to the General Assembly and governor on the cost of recycling the material. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants

The bill’s next step is to go before a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

Surovell said he has doubts about Dominion Energy estimates that recycling the utility’s ash would cost more than  $4 billion.

“I'm not convinced that Dominion’s numbers are accurate. I’m hopeful that with the new process we put in place, that the cost assessments for recycling will come down.” Surovell said.

According to Surovell, the Dominion utility rate cap bill  has dominated the session to the point that other legislation, including his own, suffered.

The moratorium  passed with support from environmental groups and Dominion Energy.

Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson said that Dominion has taken several actions to protect the environment since it was ordered in 2015 to resolve the coal ash issue.

Richardson said that Dominion plans to reduce the number of coal ash ponds at the Bremo power station in New Canton to just one within the next six months. The utility has already reduced the number of ponds at Possum Point in Dumfries from five to one. Overall, Richardson said, Dominion will have reduced the number of coal ash ponds under federal regulation from 11 to four.

Richardson also said that Dominion is currently recycling over 700,000 tons of coal ash a year, and is draining water from its Chesterfield power station ponds. He said Dominion stands by “cap in place” practices and that it has followed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.    

“What we are hoping first as far as a priority, is closing these ponds in a way that is fully protective of the environment.” Richardson said

Environmental groups have been skeptical, however, especially after Dominion was found guilty in federal court of violating the Clean Water Act for contaminating Virginia’s Elizabeth River with arsenic in 2017. The judge in the case, however, said the leak was considered small enough that it didn’t pose a threat to public health.

The Virginia branch of the Sierra Club, which filed the Elizabeth River suit, considers “cap in place” unsafe, The organization supports Surovell’s bill.

“Removing the ash or potentially recycling are the only responsible way to deal with toxic waste,” said Kate Addleson, director of the club’s Virginia chapter.  “We feel it’s important to make sure there are ways to evaluate the best way to dispose of the ash properly before moving forward.”

Hockey Player Has Chance for Own ‘Miracle on Ice’

Garrett Roe (Photo courtesy of Team USA)

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

When the NHL closed the door on its players competing in the Winter Olympics, it opened a door for Virginia native Garrett Roe to represent the U.S. on the men’s ice hockey team in the sport’s biggest international event.

In April, the NHL announced that it would not participate in the Winter Games in South Korea. “The overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players,” the league said.

So the U.S. hockey team turned to Americans who weren’t playing for the NHL – like Roe, a 5-foot-9 center for the team EV Zug in the Swiss national hockey league. Roe, who is from the Northern Virginia town of Vienna, is the team’s leading scorer.

In December, Roe woke up in his apartment in Zug to a missed phone call from USA Hockey general manager Jim Johnson. Johnson was prepared to ask Roe to do something many top athletes can only dream of – to represent his country in the Olympics.

Roe and Johnson eventually connected – and that’s how Roe now finds himself in South Korea ready to face off against players from Russia in the U.S. team’s first game on Feb. 17.

Roe was born into a hockey family. His father, Larry, played and coached hockey; his two older brothers played the sport, too.

“When we first started coaching him, you could tell he had that extra little sense for the game,” Larry Roe told The Washington Post. “Some players have a sense for the game. Some players are talented. Some players have both, and that’s Garrett.”

After high school, Roe played for the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League, the country’s top junior ice hockey league. Then he attended and played NCAA hockey for St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. When he graduated in 2011, he was the school’s all-time leader in assists and third all-time in points scored.

After college, Roe played for the Adirondack Phantoms in the American Hockey League, which serves as the primary developmental league for the NHL.

Two years later, Roe signed with EC Salzburg of the Austrian elite league EBEL for the 2013-14 campaign. Since then, he has played for pro teams in Germany, Sweden and now Switzerland.

Looking back, Roe, now 29, wonders if his decision to abandon the American minor leagues and play overseas was rash. It effectively ended any chance he had of making the NHL, his boyhood dream.

“If I could do it all over again, I’d probably make a different decision,” Roe said in an interview withThe Washington Times. “I’d try to stay at home and try to better myself and believe in myself.”

In his biography on the national team’s website, Roe said his favorite moment in USA Hockey history is the “TJ Oshie shootout and the Miracle on Ice.” At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, Oshie scored on a penalty shot after overtime as the Americans beat the Russian team, 3-2.

Next week, Team USA will face the Russians again. Roe has high hopes.

“I like the team we have; I think we have a lot of blue-collar-type guys,” he told radio station WTOP. We’re going to be a team that’s extremely hard to play against and hopefully extremely hard to beat. That’s the goal.”

Homeland’s Record Spending Boosts Economy, Highlights VA’s Film Incentive Programs

Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam recently praised the American spy thriller series “Homeland” for bolstering Virginia's film industry and boosting the state’s economy. Recent studies add context to how Virginia attracts these productions through tax incentives and how such productions benefit the state.

Northam announced that season seven of SHOWTIME's “Homeland” is on track to produce about $45 million in direct spending in Virginia — the largest single production expenditure in the state’s history. Factor in the film’s effect on secondary businesses, and the economic impact may be nearly double that, at $82 million, he said.

Filming for season seven began in the fall and is scheduled to finish early this spring. Northam expressed his excitement to see Virginia portrayed in the new season.

“We have been delighted to host this iconic show in the Commonwealth,” he said in a press release. “‘Homeland’ has had an incredible impact on Virginia's economy and created an excitement that is impossible to measure.”

Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, and Esther Lee, Virginia’s secretary of Commerce and Trade, said the decision to film in the state has several economic benefits for the commonwealth.

“Cast members have dined and raved about Virginia's food scene; our beautiful scenery and cultural assets are in the national spotlight,” Edmunds said. “Virginia's status as a competitive film location has been bolstered.”

Lee said the commonwealth's film production industry has grown consistently over the last several years.

“‘’Homeland’s’ record estimated spend shows the remarkable potential this industry holds for Virginia,” she said. “This series has and will continue to contribute millions to Virginia's economy, and provide high-income jobs to our industry workers.”

Impact of Virginia’s Film Industry

Despite the praise, studies examining the impact of film productions and film tax incentives on Virginia's economy offer somewhat mixed results.

Mangum, an independent economics firm, found that the film industry has boosted Virginia’s economy significantly. Data compiled by the firm revealed that in 2016 the film industry contributed to Virginia's economy 4,287 full-time-equivalent jobs, $215 million in labor income, $697 million in economic output and $27 million in state and local tax revenue.

This includes the impact of productions such as documentaries, long-form specials, television series or mini-series, commercial ads and music videos.

Season three of AMC's “Turn” and season two of PBS's “Mercy Street” were filmed in Virginia from September 2015 to July 2016. A separate Mangum study said the two productions had a “sizable impact” on Virginia's economy.

Those two series generated 530 full-time-equivalent jobs, $29 million in wage and salary and $40 million in economic output. They also generated more than $2 million in state and local tax revenue.

A study published by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in 2017 evaluated Virginia’s film incentive programs from 2012 to 2016. It found that although incentives positively impacted economic growth, that impact was smaller than the impact of similar programs in other states.

The programs Virginia offers have a low return on investment at 20 or 30 cents per dollar. But Edmunds said the return on investment appears low because the study doesn't take every factor into account.

“If infrastructure investment and local business expansion, local resident career advancement and the added value of a broadcast platform related to tourism advertising were taken into account, the return on investment would likely be much higher,” Edmunds said in a written response to the study.

The study also found that incentives do influence production companies to film in the state, but they are not significant factors in the decision. Additionally, growth in Virginia's film industry has been small overall, despite increased spending through incentives. The film industry is being concentrated in metropolitan areas and is overshadowed by other states like California and New York.

Virginia's Motion Picture Incentives

Virginia is one of 31 states and U.S. territories that offer motion picture incentives, alongside Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The state offers two major incentives for filmmakers: The Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and the Motion Picture Tax Credit Fund.

According to the Code of Virginia, the Motion Picture Opportunity Fund is a grant to help cover the costs of production companies and producers who make their projects in Virginia using Virginia employees, goods and services.

This grant is awarded at the discretion of the governor and there is no minimum required expense. The legislature appropriated more than $3 million for the grant each of the last two fiscal years.

The Motion Picture Tax Credit fund provides a tax credit of “15 percent of the production company's qualifying expenses or 20 percent of such expenses if the production is filmed in an economically distressed area of the Commonwealth,” according to the Code of Virginia.

The JLARC study recommended eliminating or simplifying the tax credit and creating a point-based scoring system to evaluate applications for the grant. There was no legislation introduced in the 2018 session to address either recommendation.

“Homeland” is eligible to receive a Virginia film tax credit and grant. The exact amount will be based on the number of Virginia workers hired, Virginia goods and services purchased and intangible products including Virginia tourism promotions.

New Law Would Bring Public Meetings into the Digital Age

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bringing government further into the digital age, the General Assembly has given final approval to two bills that aim to modernize how members of city councils, school boards and other public bodies can attend and hold meetings using electronic technologies.

HB 906 and HB 908 would make it easier for public officials and citizens to attend meetings remotely and restrict public officials from texting each other during meetings. Both bills were introduced by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and would amend Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which ensures that citizens have access to public records upon request and the right to attend public government meetings.

On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in unanimously passing the two bills. They now go to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

The measures were recommended by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that resolves FOIA disputes. The council consulted the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that works to improve public access to government records and meetings. The coalition’s executive director, Megan Rhyne, said her group didn’t have any objections to the legislation.

HB 908 would remove a requirement for public officials attending a meeting remotely to have that remote area be open to the public. This would allow officials to call in from their home or a hotel room without making that area open to the public.

Alan Gernhardt, the executive director and senior attorney at the Virginia FOIA Council, said the current law dates back before people had cellphones and had to call in remotely from places such as community colleges and conference rooms.

“Of course, today, everyone’s got a cellphone,” Gernhardt said. “People can literally call in from anywhere. It just doesn’t make sense to require those to be open to the public in the same way, as if you were at a conference facility or something.”

To ensure transparency, however, the bill states that members of the public must have access to a “substantially equivalent” electronic means to witness the meeting.

“I think that [HB] 908 was trying to strike a balance between members of a public body using technology to participate as a member, but also preserving public right of access to meetings that may not all be in one place,” Rhyne said.

Gernhardt said the bill will enable people who can’t otherwise attend a public meeting to keep track of the meeting on their cellphone or computer.

“Especially for some people who are at work or are watching their kids and they can’t physically come to Richmond,” Gernhardt said, “this gives them a little more chance to actually observe and witness the operation of government, and that is extending the purpose of FOIA.”

HB 906 clarifies the definition of electronic communication in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Gernhardt said that previously, the definition didn’t cover methods of communication such as text messages, and that started to create problems at public meetings.

“They had a public meeting going on, but people were text messaging each other,” Gernhardt said. “And we said ‘Wait a second. Isn’t that kind of like having an electronic meeting within a regular meeting?’ It made everyone uncomfortable, at the very least.”

Rhyne said that in addition to supporting these pieces of legislation, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government also supports upcoming bills such as SB 336, which requires every elected public body to allow the opportunity for public comment during any open meeting.

After Shooting, Democrats and Republicans Mourn But Disagree Over Guns

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have expressed frustration over Republicans’ refusal to take up gun control legislation in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Florida.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, but our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” House Minority Leader David Toscano and Del. Charniele Herring, who chairs the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead and 14 injured. It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“These tragedies are not inherently inevitable; rather, they are enabled by the continued failure of policy-makers to act,” Toscano and Herring stated. “We have been entrusted by the public to institute policies to keep our communities safe, and we are failing the people who elected us to do so.”

Republican legislators said that they too are concerned about gun violence but that lawmakers should not be rash.

“It seems like we’re playing whack-a-mole,” said Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico. “Every time there’s a problem in society, we want to have a quick reaction. That’s why I say we need to stand back and see what’s going on.”

Democrats chided Republicans for such statements, including a comment by Del. Thomas Wright, R-Lunenberg, who said of the Florida shooting: “My heart goes out. But when it comes to the constitutional right to defend yourself and your family, that’s something that’s guaranteed.”

On the Senate floor, Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, said shootings happen at schools because they are gun-free zones. “The idea that we disarm our people in the schools – we forbid our teachers and our staff from carrying concealed firearms – is a mistake,” he said.

This legislative session, Virginia Republicans proposed bills to repeal the state’s prohibition on bringing weapons to houses of worship. Such a measure passed the Senate on a party-line vote and is awaiting action in the House.

Virginia Democrats also have proposed several bills regarding guns, including:

  • Banning bump stocks, a device that allows a semi-automatic rifle to mimic the firing speed of a fully automatic weapon. Bump stocks were used by the shooter who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a concert in Las Vegas in October.
  • Instituting universal background checks on people who want to buy guns, including in private sales and at gun shows. Democrats said opinion polls show that most Virginians support such a law.
  • Keeping guns away from individuals who may present a threat to themselves or others. Legislationintroduced by Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr., D-Arlington, would have allowed prosecutors and law enforcement officers to seek a court order to remove firearms from such individuals.

All of those bills were killed in committees controlled by Republicans.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that he would visit the site of the Florida massacre and make school safety a priority when he meets with the nation’s governors next month.

“To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain,” Trump said. “Your suffering is our burden also.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Americans to come together and not politicize the shooting. “This is pure evil,” he said.

The shooter has been identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School for disciplinary reasons. Students who knew Cruz said he openly talked about his infatuation with guns. The FBI was warned in January that Cruz was a potential threat but did not act on the information.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin, a teacher from Virginia Beach, discussed the shooting on the floor of the Virginia House. Like Ryan, she urged people to refrain from playing politics with the tragedy. But Turpin said that should not prevent legislators from enacting gun laws.

“Our call to action is not a political one but a plea for mercy, a plea that we will put politics aside and address this crisis head-on,” Turpin said.

“Waiting around for the right time to have this conversation, yet again, will only put more lives at risk. There are too many empty chairs in dining rooms across America due to our inaction on gun reform.”

​​Schools Still Need State’s OK to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Legislation allowing Virginia school districts to start classes before Labor Day is dead for this session of the General Assembly. ​

A Senate committee on Thursday postponed until 2019 consideration of the remaining two bills that would have given local school boards the power to decide when to begin classes.

The Senate Committee on Education and Health folded House Bill 1020 into House Bill 372 and then voted 9-6 to put off the legislation until next year.

Supporters of the bills said there are academic benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

“We lose roughly two weeks of the school year that other localities get for things like advanced placement testing,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, who has been teaching for 12 years and is currently at Glen Allen High School.

VanValkenburg co-sponsored HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority. That measure did not get out of the House Education Committee.

Under the current law, in place since 1986, school districts are required to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

School districts can get the waiver if they have been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of weather or other emergency situations.

According to the department, 86 public school districts in Virginia have the waiver and already start before Labor Day.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 372 as part of her platform for education reform. She said she believes in giving school boards the authority to make decisions instead of state government bureaucrats.

At Session’s Midpoint, 40% of Bills Are Still Alive

By George Copeland Jr. and Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly’s 2018 session has reached its midpoint, with more than 1,000 bills passing between the House and Senate, including potential changes to health care, criminal justice and transportation.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City, was pleased with what his party has accomplished this session.

“From measures that will make healthcare more accessible and affordable, to meaningful legislation to grow our economy, Republican senators have been unified in their commitment to improving the lives of all Virginians,” Norment said.

But more than 1,500 pieces of legislation on issues like marijuana decriminalization and gun violence have failed, having never made it out of committee.

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, criticized the GOP majority in the House for killing legislation such as his proposal to create a legal process to temporarily remove the firearms of someone who, according to family members or friends, is a risk to himself or others.

"These bills never received a subcommittee assignment, let alone a hearing,” Sullivan said.

Tuesday was “crossover day,” the deadline for bills to clear their house of origin:

●      Of the 1,609 House bills, delegates passed 589, or 37 percent. They now will be considered by the Senate.

●      Of the 994 Senate bills, senators approved 469, or 47 percent. They have been sent to the House for consideration.

Here is a rundown on the status of key legislation:

Bills that have ‘crossed over’ and are still alive

Immigration: HB 1257 would require Virginia to follow the immigration laws set by the federal government, potentially prohibiting so-called sanctuary cities. The measure was briefly defeated in the House on a tie vote. But then delegates reconsidered and voted 51-49 to send the bill to the Senate.

Education: HB 1419 would increase students’ recess time at school “to develop teamwork, social skills, and overall physical fitness.” HB 50 targets “lunch-shaming” by teachers — an unofficial practice in which students who can’t afford or owe money for school meals must do work or wear a special wristband or stamp.

African-American cemeteries: Several bills would allow qualifying groups to collect state funds for maintaining historically black cemeteries in Loudoun County (SB 163), Charlottesville (HB 360) and Portsmouth (SB 198 and HB 527). Last year, the General Assembly approved such funding for select Richmond cemeteries. Another proposal (HB 284) would cover every black cemetery in Virginia.

Medical Marijuana: HB 1251 would allow wider certification for medical marijuana usage, and increases the amount of medical marijuana dispensed by providers from a 30-day to 90-day supply.

Energy conservation: SB 894 would establish the Virginia Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund. It would give no-interest loans to public institutions for energy conservation and efficiency projects. Its passage comes after several bills focused on expanding solar energy and capping carbon dioxide emissions in the commonwealth failed in the House and Senate.

Transportation: HB 1539 and HB 1319 would create a reform commision for the Washington Metro and provide more money for mass transit in Northern Virginia. SB 583 would raise the motor vehicle fuels tax by 2.1 percent in the western part of Virginia to fund improvements on Interstate 81.

Economic development: HB 222 would offer tax breaks to companies that create jobs paying at least twice the minimum wage in certain localities. The localities are mostly rural areas in southern and western Virginia and along the Chesapeake Bay but also include Petersburg.

Criminal justice: HB 1550  and SB 105 aim to raise the threshold for grand larceny from $250 to $500. The new limit would keep people who steal amounts under it from being branded as felons. The current threshold, implemented in 1980, is one of the lowest in the country.

Health care: HB 338 could open the door to Medicaid expansion in Virginia — an issue championed by Democrats but historically opposed by Republicans. The bill, which outlines work requirements for Medicaid recipients, made it through the House in the final days before crossover.

Government transparency: SB 592 would prohibit the personal use of any campaign funds. Candidates guilty of converting campaign assets for personal use would be forced to repay the amount exploited to the State Board of Elections and could face additional fines.

Prisons: Under HB 83, correctional facilities would have to ensure that female inmates have free access to feminine hygiene products. The bill comes less than a year after Congress passed similar legislation for federal prisons.

Bills that have failed for this session

Bump stocks: A bill banning the use of bump stocks — mechanical devices that increase the rate of fire of rifles — failed in a House subcommittee. HB 41 was introduced in response to the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, where 58 people died and over 500 were injured.

Civil Rights: Attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in SJ 4HJ 2 and HJ 4 failed to advance beyond their original chambers.

Childbearing: HB 67 would have prohibited any employer in Virginia from discharging an employee on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition, including lactation. The bill was killed by a House subcommittee. Existing law applies only to employers with five to 15 employees.

Tampon tax: Feminine hygiene products will continue to be taxed after HB 152 died in the House.

Marijuana decriminalization: SB 111, which aimed to allow simple possession, was rejected in a 6-9 vote by a Senate subcommittee. HB 974, which would have legalized the possession and distribution of medical marijuana, also failed.

Mental health: HB 252 would have required at least one mental health counselor for every 250 students in each high school in Virginia. HB 174 would have established protocols for police officers when communicating with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities.

In a press release, Gov. Ralph Northam commended the General Assembly’s efforts, calling the 2018 session “the most productive period I have seen since I came to the General Assembly in 2008.”

“I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to continue this progress and meet the challenges our fellow Virginians have asked us to solve.”

Virginia May Create Ombudsman to Help with Student Loans

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia legislators are seeking to mitigate the personal and economic consequences of their constituents’ student loan debt by creating a state-level ombudsman to troubleshoot problems and educate borrowers regarding college loans.

In 2017, more than 1 million Virginians owed more than $30 billion in student loan debt, state officials say. Nationally, student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and climbing.

“Virginians owe more on student loans than we do on credit cards or car loans, but only student loans lack consumer protections,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

This week, the Senate and House each passed bills to create the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman and establish a Borrower’s Bill of Rights. SB 394 passed the Senate unanimously on Monday; HB 1138 cleared the House, 94-5, on Tuesday.

Supporters say the ombudsman’s office would help college students secure loans and understand how to pay them off. They said the office also would establish a culture of transparency, fairness and open communication between loan providers and borrowers.

Besides reviewing and resolving borrower complaints, the ombudsman would educate loan borrowers about their rights and responsibilities and about potential problems such as late payments.

By December 2019, the ombudsman would develop a course for borrowers, half of whom are under 25.

“Too many student borrowers sign their names on the dotted line at only 18 or 19 years old without fully comprehending their rights and responsibilities associated with that debt, but also knowing that without those loans they would not be able to earn their degrees,” said Del. Maria “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored HB 1138.

In addition, the Senate unanimously approved SB 362, which would require companies that handle the billing and other services on student loans to obtain a license from the State Corporation Commission.

Virginia is not the first jurisdiction to experiment with measures to protect student loan borrowers. Washington, D.C., established a student loan ombudsman and Borrower’s Bill of Rights a year ago.

The bipartisan approval of the legislation marks a win for Gov. Ralph Northam, who included the creation of a student loan ombudsman among his top priorities for the 2018 session.

Price also sponsored a bill that aimed to create a state agency to help Virginians refinance their student loan debt. HB 615 was killed on a 5-3 party-line vote in a House Appropriations subcommittee.

High Schools May Offer American Sign Language As Foreign Language Credit

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — American Sign Language may soon be offered as a foreign language credit in Virginia high schools.

In 2011, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring colleges and universities to accept high school American Sign Language classes as part of their entrance requirements. Now, Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, who sponsored that bill, has introduced HB 84, which would give students high school credits for those classes as well.

Bell described American Sign Language as a way for the deaf or hard of hearing to communicate wherever they go. He said most larger colleges and universities offer a course on the topic.

"University of Virginia has an American Sign Language program where they teach it,” Bell said. “They’ve had a pretty robust program.”

Bell said the idea for HB 84 was brought to his attention by a young lady and her aunt.

“The young lady wrote me a letter asking that, if high schools don’t offer American Sign Language, students be allowed to take a virtual learning class or community college class to American Sign Language,” he said.

HB 84 was amended to allow the American Sign Language courses to be taught by multidivision online providers, which are approved by the Virginia Board of Education and offer online and virtual classes to K-12 students. Bell said Virginia has 20 such providers, each with certified teachers who are reviewed annually.

HB 84 passed the House unanimously on Feb. 6. A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Friday in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Bill Would Provide More Resources to Help Those With Spinal Cord Injuries

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians with recent spinal cord injuries soon may receive more resources, if a bill sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan passes in the House.

Senate Bill 287 would make information regarding spinal cord injuries in the Statewide Trauma Registry available to the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. The data would allow the department to develop and implement programs and services to those suffering from spinal cord injuries.

“This is essentially a clean-up bill,” McClellan, D-Richmond, told the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions on Thursday. The committee unanimously approved the measure, sending it to the full House for a vote.

Sharon Drennan, mother of a son with a spinal cord injury and founder of the United Spinal Association of Virginia, spoke in favor of the bill.

 “Without the data that is needed, we are unable to provide the resources to individuals across the commonwealth that are newly injured,” Drennan said.  “They can become isolated, and we want to help them become active members of our community. With this data, we can do the outreach we need.”

Colleen Miller, executive director of the Disability Law Center of Virginia, said her center supports SB 287 as well.

Last month, the bill passed in the Senate, 40-0.

Civil Liberties Groups Oppose Agreement on Theft Threshold

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Minority and low-income advocacy groups are joining the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the General Assembly’s bipartisan compromise that would increase the threshold at which a theft is considered a felony.

Bill Farrar, a spokesman for the Virginia ACLU, said the proposal is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.

Under current law, a person who steals an item valued at more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny.HB 1550 and SB 105 would raise that threshold to $500 – an increase Democrats have advocated.

Republicans agreed to the legislation because it also would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision.

Farrar said that the $500 threshold still would be too low and that the legislation could lead to poor people being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t make restitution.

“It is a racial justice issue, a women’s rights issue and an economic justice issue,” said a statement issued by the ACLU and other groups. “The ‘compromise’ as agreed to would continue to affect women and people of color disparately, as well as keep many poor people under indefinite looming threat of additional consequences under the criminal justice system.”

Justice Forward, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Loudoun County Branch of the NAACP, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Virginia Organizing joined the Virginia ACLU in opposing the agreement.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, as well as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, announced the agreement to raise the felony theft threshold last week. Northam hailed it as a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform” as members of both parties in the General Assembly agreed to push through legislation their counterparts previously blocked.

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates voted 98-2 in favor of HB 1550. It has been referred to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Last month, the Senate passed SB 105, 36-3. It is now before the House Rules Committee.

Powhatan Bobsledder Represents Team USA

Hakeem Abdul-Saboor (Photo credit: Kent Meister)

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

Hakeem Abdul-Saboor will compete for Team USA in South Korea in about a week. But before he could call himself an Olympic bobsledder, the 2005 Powhatan High School graduate was a triple-threat athlete and bodybuilder.

He served as captain of the track and field team, played basketball and excelled at football, leading his team to a career record of 36-3. He went on to accept a scholarship to play Division II football for the University of Virginia at Wise.

“Hakeem is probably the best all-around athlete I have ever coached,” UVa-Wise head coach Dewey Lusk said onAbdul-Saboor’s website.

Abdul-Saboor played running back for Wise until 2009 when he tore his ACL four games into his senior season. He said that injury ended both his college and potential professional football career.

In an interview with NBC Olympics, Abdul-Saboor said he stayed on campus and focused on the gym. A friend told him he should consider entering a bodybuilder contest. His first competition was the 2012 Bodybuilding.com FIT USA Event in Boise, Idaho.

“I think they picked 16 or 20 of us from the nation,” Abdul-Saboor told NBC Olympics. “I ended up winning the people’s choice award. So that was everybody over the nation voting for which contestant they liked, their physique best.”

Abdul-Saboor was invited to compete in bigger shows but didn’t have the money. He moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he worked for Performance Training Inc. as a personal trainer and speed-agility quickness coach. In 2014, a Facebookvideo of Abdul-Saboor got the attention of Dr. Brad DeWeese, a professor at Eastern Tennessee State University and former head of physiology for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“Having coached a large portion of Olympians in the sport, it was obvious that Hakeem had the power and physical build to be successful in bobsled,” DeWeese told NBC Olympics.

DeWeese invited Abdul-Saboor to Johnson City, Tennessee, for a dryland bobsled combine. He performed flawlessly on each event. DeWeese went on to coach Abdul-Saboor to three national team designations and finally to the U.S. Olympic team.

Abdul-Saboor’s bobsledding career launched in 2015 when he competed in the Minor League North American Cup. By January 2016, he had competed in three World Cups.

In December, Abdul-Saboor and two-time Olympian Nick Cunningham placed fifth in the two-man bobsled at the World Cup in Austria – the best finish for any U.S. sled at an international event this season.

On Jan. 15, Abdul-Saboor shared via Instagram that he would continue to represent the United States – but this time at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I am honored to announce that I was named to the 2018 Olympic bobsled team and will be representing Team USA in February,” Abdul-Saboor said. “I’m still at a loss for words right now but am excited to continue to grind it out and work hard to be my best at the Olympic Games.”

Abdul-Saboor, 30, will compete in the two-man and four-man bobsledding events, which begin Feb. 19.

Young Lawmakers Form Group to Address Millennials’ Concerns

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bipartisan, nationwide organization seeking to involve young people in politics has established a chapter in Virginia, focusing on such issues as student debt relief and government transparency, officials said Wednesday.

The Millennial Action Project has created the Virginia Future Caucus, consisting of young lawmakers who vowed to work across party lines.

“When we are able to bond together, we are able to see past the tribalism that has divided us for so long,” said Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul, 36, of Roanoke.

Republican Del. Emily Brewer, 33, of Suffolk, said the caucus reflects a generational change in Virginia.

“Going forward, we’ve got to focus on key issues,” such as technology, she said. “We need to make sure we’re looking at providing opportunities for our generation and the next generation to stay here.”

Brewer and Rasoul were among a dozen state legislators who attended a news conference Wednesday to announce the formation of the Virginia Future Caucus.

Steven Olikara, president and co-founder of the Millennial Action Project, said this is the organization’s 22nd state chapter.

“We want to empower the next generation of leaders to make our democracy function better,” Olikara said. “Today the status quo is insufficient. Trust is declining. Partisanship is rampant. We think the next generation can be part of the solution.”

At the news conference, speakers noted that young Americans are more likely to be unaffiliated with a political party. They said these voters are concerned about issues such as:

  • Clean energy
  • The “staggering” cost of college and student loans
  • The “gig economy,” in which temporary employment is common as organizations hire independent contractors for short-term work, such as with Uber drivers

Olikara said 30 members of Congress have joined the project. He said the effort has especially focused on state legislatures, “which is really where a lot of young leaders are taking their first steps in politics including here in Virginia.”

The average age in the Virginia House of Delegates is 52. But several young people were elected to the House last fall, including Jay Jones, 28, of Norfolk; Lee Carter, 30, of Manassas; Chris Hurst, 30, of Montgomery County; and Danica Roem, 33, of Prince William County.

Rasoul and Del. Christopher Peace, R-Hanover, will co-chair the new caucus.

Peace said he was the youngest delegate when he was elected 13 years ago. Now 41, Peace said there can be an “issue of translation” between young legislators and their older colleagues who may be unfamiliar with terms such as Airbnb and Bitcoin.

Peace said the new caucus can “provide some real leadership on policies that would benefit people in the millennial generation.”

Olikara said Virginia has a history of young political leaders making their mark: Thomas Jefferson was just 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

VCU Athletics Highlights Sexual Assault Resources After Nassar Trial

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia Commonwealth University’s athletics department is seeking to ensure that student-athletes are aware of its resources to prevent and report sexual assault and misconduct in light of the Larry Nassar trial and related congressional inquiries.

Nassar, a former sports physician at Michigan State University and for USA Gymnastics, is facing multiple sentences totaling more than 100 years in federal prison after decades of sexual abuse.

Three congressional inquiries targeting Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee are underway to determine if they ignored or enabled Nassar’s crimes. Michigan State’s Athletic Department is also under NCAA investigation, which has prompted athletic departments in universities nationwide to reevaluate their sexual assault policies.

In a report released last week, VCU Athletics said its program works closely with the university to maintain a culture conducive to reporting sexual assault or misconduct and raising awareness of their prevalence. The department conducts annual education, training and workshops, and brings in guest speakers for student-athletes.

"We take pride in working with our Office of Equity and Access Services and VCU Police to create a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault, harassment or gender discrimination,” said VCU Vice President and Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin. “We are fortunate to have such wonderful resources on our campus to educate our student-athletes.”

The department has actively participated in the It’s On Us movement, a national campaign against sexual assault on college campuses. As part of the initiative, VCU Athletics has hosted an assortment of events aimed at educating students and staff on the university’s protocol for handling instances of sexual misconduct.

For instance, Scott Lewis of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management spent a day with VCU Athletics during the fall semester, providing sexual assault education training for all staff and student-athletes.

The department has also collaborated with The Wellness Resource Center at VCU to provide two training workshops for student-athletes – the One Love Escalation workshop, which aims to educate athletes on the signs of relationship abuse, as well as a consent workshop.

“We take pride in knowing that we are leaders on our campus in creating a safe and supportive culture for all students,” McLaughlin said.

These resources available to athletes are in addition to existing sexual assault training requirements. All VCU students and employees are required to complete Not Anymore training, an online module that shares the university’s policies, reporting options and resources through real stories told by survivors.

The VCU Title IX office said the number of reports it receives has grown significantly over the last two years, signaling greater awareness of the university’s resources.

“Units such as Athletics and the Office of the Provost conduct additional education for faculty and staff in these key areas,” the Title IX office said in a statement. “We are a bystander-engaged community where we care and look out for one another and a broad culture of reporting, where people who see something say something.”

Additional information and resources can be found on the VCU Title IX website.

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