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2018 Capital News Service

Richmond City Council Votes 7-2 to Increase Meals Tax

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- Richmond restaurant, fast food and movie theater customers will pay an extra 1.5 percent with their food starting in July, following the City Council's decision to raise the meals tax to help fund school construction and improvement.
 
Over the course of a five-hour meeting, the council voted 7-2 Monday to approve increasing the local meals tax from 6 percent to 7.5 percent.  Combined with the sales tax, this will bring the total tax on a restaurant check to 12.8 percent.
 
Tessa McKenzie, one of the citizens who supported the increase, called its passage "one step in a larger solution towards a more equitable system" for Richmond's public schools.
 
“This seems like a great, low-hanging fruit to really galvanize excellent movement for our students,” said McKenzie, who works for Bridging Richmond, a group that advocates for improvements in education and workforce development.
 
Councilman Parker Agelasto, 5th District, voted for the tax increase but expressed concerns.  He promised greater scrutiny of financial issues as the council drafts the next city budget.
 
“Million-and-a-half subsidies for Main Street Station? Gone!” Agelasto said.  “The Redskins training camp?  They want to renegotiate and renew this by July 1?  Well, you know what, Redskins? Go!”
 
The action capped a contentious evening, one set in place after Mayor Levar Stoney rallied his City Council allies to push for the vote last week.  Stoney has said that the increase will raise $9 million a year, eventually allowing the city to borrow $150 million for the construction and improvement of Richmond's public schools over the next five years.
 
While council deliberation over the vote was long and passionate, the loudest voices came from Richmond residents who spoke.  Comments supporting and opposing the tax increase extended well past the 30-minute limit allowed for both. They represented a diverse mix of citizens, including parents, movie theater owners, restaurant managers, teachers and students.  The latter two made up a significant part of the comments urging passage of the tax increase.
 
Thomas Jefferson High School student Alexis Gresham said that the higher tax would help her younger sister’s school environment without straining the family’s budget.
 
“As an RPS student, I can’t wait,” Gresham said. “Please vote for the meals tax.”
 
Opponents of the tax increase offered several reasons, including a lack of trust in the council and School Board. Some said the tax hike represented "economic discrimination" against restaurants and movie theaters. A few even felt the increase didn't go far enough and would only succeed in keeping the public schools "afloat" in their current state.
 
“I’m for the schools,” said Jason Thrasher, owner and operator of The Local Eatery and Pub.  “If this doesn’t go into effect until July 1st, why can’t you take another 30 days to sit down, plan it out, map it out and give the city and its citizens and taxpayers a way to see that you’re actually going to use the money for its purpose?”
 
Councilwoman Kristen Larson, 4th District, objected to what she saw as a lack of transparency and accountability expected of a body that served "as a check and balance to the mayor."  
 
"If we don't honor the duty given to us by the voters and the Virginia Constitution, we have no purpose in this process," Larson said.
 
Larson and Councilwoman Kim Gray, 2nd District, voted against raising the meals tax.
 
Earlier in the meeting, Larson called for a delay to the vote; her request was rejected 8-1.  A second attempted delay was made by Agelasto and was rejected 5-4.
 
Several opponents of the tax increase cited legislation approved earlier Monday by the Virginia Senate as part of their objections.
 
Senate Bill 750 would require Stoney to present to the council by Jan. 1, 2019, a plan “to modernize the city's K-12 educational infrastructure consistent with national standards” without raising taxes -- or else the mayor must “inform city council such a plan is not feasible.”
 
The bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant, a former member of the Richmond School Board. It passed the Senate 40-0 and now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.

Proposals seek to spur growth in Virginia distillery industry

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia distillers ​may soon be toasting the General Assembly after the Senate passed a bill to let ​liquor manufacturers keep more of the money from selling their spirits in tasting rooms.

Currently, distilleries must sell their bottles to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, then buy them back at full retail price before pouring samples inside their tasting rooms. The markup averages 69 percent and can be as high as 93 percent, according to ABC.

But distilleries could keep the price markup under Senate Bill 803, introduced by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg. The Senate voted 23-16 in favor of the measure Friday. It is now before the House Appropriations Committee.

ABC currently takes about 55 percent of the gross revenues that distilleries make in their tasting rooms, said Scott Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in the Loudoun County town of Purcellville. After overhead and worker pay, he said, most Virginia distilleries lose money on such operations.  

Distilleries are a growing enterprise in Virginia, which considers itself the birthplace of American spirits. After serving two terms as president, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon to brew his own whiskey.

The industry does more than $160 million a year in business in terms of creating jobs, buying agricultural products and selling spirits, according to the Virginia Distillers Association.

Still, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared with neighboring Kentucky. Distilleries there have an annual economic impact of $8.5 billion, the Kentucky Distillers Association says.

Kentucky is one of the country’s largest producers of distilled spirits and, unlike Virginia, the industry is not controlled by the state government. Harris said Virginia distilleries are hampered by a “punitive landscape.”

Curtis Coleburn, a lobbyist for the Virginia Distillers Association, said SB 803 could  spur major growth in the commonwealth’s spirits industry.

“When the distilleries make a sale, half of the money goes to the state through taxes and profits because it’s managed through ABC,” Coleburn said. “Senate Bill 803 would allow the distillers to keep more of the proceeds for sales at the distillery stores and will enable them to hire more Virginians and expand their plans and grow the industry.”

Virginia distillers say they would like to make and sell their products on their premises at the cost of production. This would allow them to have profitable tasting rooms and generate tourism, said Amy Ciarametaro, executive director for the Virginia Distillers Association.

“We have to educate our legislators that, in order for the distilled spirits industry to really be a powerful economic generator for the commonwealth -- and it can be -- we’ve got to make these distillery stores profit generators for their operators,” Ciarametaro said.  

Belle Isle Moonshine in Richmond does not have a store on premise, but co-founder and CEO Vince Riggi said reducing the regulations on tasting room sales would benefit all distillers in the commonwealth.  

“We want to market Virginia spirits,” Riggi said. “We want to elevate the brand and showcase it to the consumers in the state.”

Trailblazing Educator Dr. Grace Harris Dies at 84

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dr. Grace E. Harris, the highest-ranking African-American and highest-ranking woman in the history of Virginia Commonwealth University, died Monday at age 84, leaving a legacy that stretches throughout and beyond the state of Virginia.

In an email to the VCU community, university President Michael Rao called Harris “a giant in legacy and in character, a woman whose contributions to VCU and to the countless lives we touch are truly immeasurable.”

“She was one of the wisest, kindest, and most generous people I have ever met,” Rao wrote.

Harris was born Grace Victoria Edmondson on July 1, 1933, in Halifax County to a family of preachers and educators in segregation-era Virginia. Harris had five siblings. One sister, Mamye BaCote, went on to become a member of the Virginia House of Delegates; another, the late Sue E. Wilder, was a NASA data analyst referenced in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

Graduating as class valedictorian from Halifax Training School in 1950, Harris attended several institutions of higher education, including Grinnell College in Iowa as an exchange student. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and graduated with highest honors from Hampton University, then named Hampton Institute.

When Harris was a graduate student in 1954, Virginia Commonwealth University – then known as Richmond Professional Institute – refused to admit her because of her race. Undeterred, Harris spent two years at Boston University, alongside classmates such as Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1960, she returned to the newly named VCU to complete a master’s degree in social work. She served as an assistant professor in VCU’s School of Social Work from 1967 to 1976. For the next 30 years, Harris was a rising presence in the school’s ranks, becoming a dean in 1982, provost in 1993 and acting president in 1995.

Along the way, Harris earned accolades and awards. In 1999, the VCU Board of Visitors established the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute in her honor. In 2007, VCU renamed the former School of Business building as Grace E. Harris Hall.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a longtime friend, celebrated Harris’ achievements, saying in a statement that her “connection to the needs of the community and its citizens had a dramatic impact on the identity of VCU and the way it engaged people.”

Though she retired from VCU in 2016, Harris’ social work never stopped. She assisted nonprofit organizations across the commonwealth, including serving on the advisory board of the Virginia Health Care Foundation. Deborah Oswalt, executive director of that group, described her as “small in physique, but she was a giant in all other respects.”

“Grace helped the Virginia Health Care Foundation flourish during a time of transition and fiscal uncertainty,” Oswalt said. “She brought a thoughtful, intelligent, kind approach to everything she did and to all with whom she engaged.”

Harris was vice chair for Mark Warner’s transition team after he was elected governor in 2001. The following year, Warner appointed her to the Virginia Commission on Higher Education.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia praised the “keen insight into university administration” Harris provided when he appointed members of Virginia’s public college boards during his governance.

“Dr. Harris used her lifetime of groundbreaking service to help cultivate and elevate emerging leaders,” Kaine said.

She is survived by her husband, James W. “Dick” Harris; her two adult children, Gayle and James; and her grandson, Jullian, who earned a master’s degree in sociology from VCU in 2016.

Senate OKs Raising Fuel Tax in Western Virginia to Improve I-81

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An additional fuel tax of 2.1 percent would be levied in western Virginia under a Senate bill approvedTuesday creating a regional transportation fund to help pay for improvements on busy Interstate 81.

The legislation sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, passed the Senate 24-16. It would create the Western Virginia Transportation Fund to improve conditions on the state’s longest interstate, stretching from Bristol to Winchester – mostly two lanes in each direction.

The road is packed with long-haul truckers, many more than the capacity for which the highway was designed.

The Senate also passed a bill proposed by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, directing the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop a plan for improving I-81 corridor improvements, possibly using tolls.

Obenshain joined 15 other Republicans in voting against Hanger’s SB 583, which would impose the extra tax in 32 counties and 13 cities.

“While Sen. Hanger and I agree that we need to do something to improve Interstate 81 and to make it safer, we disagree about how to do it. I do not agree that we should impose a higher gas tax on residents along the 81 corridor to pay for it,” Obenshain said earlier this session.

“I have been working on a bipartisan plan with the administration to develop a plan that would focus on tolling long distance interstate traffic, including heavy trucks without burdening those who depend on the Interstate for travel to and from work,” Obenshain said.

Obenshain’s bill, SB 971, passed unanimously. Both bills now move to the House of Delegates.

Under Hanger’s bill, the staff of the Blacksburg-Christianburg-Montgomery Area and Roanoke Valley planning organizations, along with Virginia Department of Transportation, would organize the Western Virginia Transportation Commission.

The additional fuel tax would affect:

  • The counties of Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Bland, Botetourt, Buchanan, Carroll, Clarke, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Franklin, Frederick, Giles, Grayson, Highland, Lee, Montgomery, Page, Pulaski, Roanoke, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Russell, Scott, Shenandoah, Smyth, Tazewell, Warren, Washington, Wise and Wythe.
  • The cities of Bristol, Buena Vista, Covington, Galax, Harrisonburg, Lexington, Norton, Radford, Roanoke, Salem, Staunton, Waynesboro and Winchester.

 

Virginia Skier Prepares for her Third Olympics

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

While most of Virginia shuts down at the threat of snow, Ashley Caldwell thrives in it.

Caldwell, 24, started practicing gymnastics at 4, and after watching the freestyle skiers in the 2006 Winter Olympics, she was inspired to take her talents to the snow. Now, Caldwell is competing in her third Olympic Games.

An Ashburn native, Caldwell and her parents quickly realized suburban Northern Virginia was not the best place to start a career in skiing. So at 14, she moved to Lake Placid to train with the U.S National Development team. Two years later, Caldwell was the youngest American to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“We’ve been together from the beginning, through all the new tricks, hard workouts, crashes, injuries and victories,” Caldwell said. “It’s an honor to be competing alongside my teammates knowing that they are my friends and that we all are genuinely cheering each other on.”

Among five freestyle skiing events in the Winter Olympics – moguls, aerials, ski halfpipe, ski cross, and ski slopestyle – Caldwell competes in ladies’ aerials, in which she skis off a 2- to 4-meter jump and attempts tricks such as flips and twists.

Caldwell is best known for her trick – the full, full, full – which involves three somersaults while twisting her body. This trick is traditionally performed by men; at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Caldwell was the only female to attempt the trick, and she completed it.

“I’ve said over the years that when I started this sport, I always wanted to ‘jump like the boys,’ but I don’t believe that anymore,” Caldwell said. “I don’t like qualifying my goals with a gender expectation. I want to jump my best, regardless of gender. I want to be treated like Ashley. I’m proud of being a female, but I don’t want to let that define my expectations as an athlete.”

Caldwell’s career stalled in December 2011 when she tore the ACL in her right knee and a year later when she tore her ACL in her left knee. Those injuries didn’t stop her from skiing, though: In 2014, she competed in the Sochi Games.

“One of my biggest struggles in preparing for this Olympics has been injury and doubt,” Caldwell told Capital News Service. “I push myself very hard, and that motivation has led to several heartbreaking injuries over the years, but also mild injuries that can make it so much harder to compete your best.”

Caldwell’s most recent triumph was at the 2017 Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships in Spain, where she took first place.

Caldwell’s first appearance in Pyeongchang will be Thursday in the ladies’ aerials qualification. She is looking forward to the event.

“I’m prepared to be unprepared. I’m ready for anything that comes at me during this Games,” Caldwell said.

Lovings’ Story Provides Inspiration for Valentine’s Day

By Chelsea Jackson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving met in high school and fell in love in Caroline County in the 1950s. They decided to marry when Mildred became pregnant at 18.

At the time, they couldn’t wed in Virginia: Mildred was of African American and Indian descent, Richard was white and the state prohibited interracial marriages. So the couple married in Washington, D.C. Later, they challenged Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act – prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down such laws across the country.

Valentine’s Day can be an opportune time to reflect on the Lovings and their perseverance in the face of legal and societal pressures. The Lovings’ ordeal resonates especially with interracial couples like Brittany Young and Josh Landry of Richmond.

“Josh and I have had plenty of people tell us we shouldn’t be together based solely on racial tension,” Young said. “I think if more people could see that stories like the Lovings’ are how we should look at love, the world would be a better place.”

The backdrop for the Lovings’ struggle was the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made interracial marriage illegal in Virginia. After they married in D.C. on June 2, 1958, the couple returned to Caroline County.

After an anonymous tip to authorities that the couple was living together, Richard and Mildred faced ostracism, threats of violence and jail time. Originally sentenced to one year in jail, the judge decided to suspend their sentences if they agreed to leave Virginia for 25 years.

The newlyweds left their home and families for a new life in Washington. Eventually, they went to court to challenge their home state’s miscegenation law. On June 12, 1967, that case – Loving v. Virginia – resulted in a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down laws in 16 states prohibiting interracial marriage.

Ken Tanabe, a designer, art director and teacher in New York, has promoted the anniversary of that decision asLoving Day – a day to celebrate multicultural unions.

“Without the Lovings, I may never have been born,” said Tanabe, whose mother is from Belgium and father from Japan. “I’m humbled by their struggle and grateful for their perseverance.”

Today, interracial relationships are relatively common. One in six newlyweds married outside their race in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

Mildred Loving was widely described as being African American, but later in life, she identified as Indian. Richard Loving died in 1975 and Mildred Loving in 2008, but their story lives on. The 2016 award-winning film “Loving” was shot in Virginia, and law students still study the case, which also figured in the debate over same-sex unions.

Last June, on the 50th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia case, a historical highway marker was installed outside the old Virginia Supreme Court building, 1111 E. Broad St. in Richmond, to commemorate the Lovings’ triumphant love story. Caroline County is working on the placement of its own historical marker.

6 Months After Charlottesville, Mother of Slain Activist Shares Message of Tolerance

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Six months after Heather Heyer was killed protesting a neo-Nazi rally, a memorial at the site of her death is still being showered with gifts, mementos and flowers. But it has also been vandalized, according to Heyer’s mother – a reminder of the hatred that took her daughter’s life.

For many, the riot triggered by far-right protesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 exposed the underbelly of hatred and racism in America, and the months since then have been about coming to terms with that reality. But for Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, the half-year has been hallmarked by efforts to promote the values Heyer stood for – and eventually died for – in Charlottesville.

“She wanted everybody treated equally and fairly. That was a lifelong passion for her,” Bro said Sunday.

Bro said she is getting used to a new lifestyle after her daughter’s death. She has had speaking engagements and preached a message of empowerment at the MTV Video Music Awards and on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Reporters have constantly been at her door. She is working with a public relations firm and is hiring a press agent and speaker’s bureau to help her manage the demands.

She said she has been surprised that people want to hear what she has to say. But she hopes to empower them to fight prejudice and intolerance.

“It’s not about me, and it’s not really about my daughter. It’s more that people are horrified to realize how entrenched the hatred is,” Bro said. “I think that addressing people in a calm and rational manner not only reassures people but gives them a little bit of hope about how we can fix this.”

The nation is still reeling from the events of Aug. 11-12, when far-right activists gathered in Charlottesville for what they claimed was a protest opposing the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.

It quickly devolved into mayhem when the so-called “alt-right” protesters clashed with those who showed up to oppose them. One far-right protester drove a car into a group of counterprotesters – killing Heyer, who was 32 years old, and injuring 19 others.

Immediately after Heyer’s death, Bro started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to help pay for her daughter’s funeral costs. When the funeral was over, the fund still had more than $200,000.

Using her daughter’s story to amplify a positive message, Bro then established the Heather Heyer Foundation, which will give scholarships to high school students.

“I said, ‘There’s no way people think we need this kind of money for the funeral itself.’ That tells me people want to be a part of whatever they feel Heather was doing,” Bro said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do something responsible with this money.’ All this money was coming in, and I wanted to be held accountable for it.’”

The foundation will grant scholarships to students at Charlottesville High School and William Monroe High School, which Heyer attended, in nearby Stanardsville.. Bro said the money will go to students who want to advocate for social justice.

“We’re not looking to create new advocates. We’re looking to help advocates who are already in activism to further their education,” Bro said.

In the face of it all, Bro is a mother deeply grieving the loss of her daughter.

She remembers her daughter as a young adult who was trying to be the best grown-up she could be, including working three jobs to be self-sufficient. Heyer was a paralegal and worked as a bartender and waitress in the evening.

“She was a go-getter, and I was proud of her for that,” Bro said.

Bro visited her daughter’s impromptu memorial Sunday. The street has been named “Heather Heyer Way,” and the words “no more hate” – among other messages – are written in chalk on the side of a building next to the spot.

Bro said she thinks America has made moves toward love and understanding since last summer’s violent demonstration.

“This was not a wonderful day, but I feel like we’re moving forward in the world. We’re taking this as a rallying point, and people are stepping up to the plate,” Bro said.

“A lot of white people were like, ‘Well this doesn’t really apply to me.’ And this time, it slapped them in the face and showed them this applies to everybody.”

White supremacists have not yielded in their vileness since the rally, Bro said. She has kept her daughter’s ashes in a hidden location so they won’t be tampered with by racists.

“From what I’ve learned, they crave either silence – where everybody ignores when they come to town so they feel vindicated because no one seems to care,” Bro said. “Or they crave violence, so they will pick a progressive city like Charlottesville that’s not accustomed to having a violent outburst like that.”

In some ways, the “Unite the Right” rally united the country, Heyer said, but it also further divided Americans.

“We’re trying to find ways to bridge some of that gap with difficult conversations,” Bro said. “I’ve seen people, from both sides, to work to bridge that gap. That’s been encouraging to me.”

Reston Teen Skates Her Way to Olympic Winter Games

Maame Biney (center) and other skaters, Courtesy of Maame Biney

 

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

Eighteen-year-old Maame Biney of Reston is breaking ice, and records, as the first African-American woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic short-track speedskating team after two 500-meter victories at her December trials.

Born in Ghana, Biney came to the U.S. when she was 5 to visit her father, Kweku, and never left. It didn’t take long before Biney was drawn to an ice rink, after her father pointed out a sign that advertised figure skating classes.

“We were driving down this street right here – Sunset Hills Road,” Kweku Biney told The Washington Post. “I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, ‘Learn to skate.’ I asked her, ‘Maame, you want to try this?’”

Biney jumped at the opportunity. She was so fast the instructor suggested she try speedskating.

Biney started in Kids on Ice, a beginner speedskating program in Washington. That meant the Bineys had to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena by 6 a.m. The practices were led by three-time Olympian Nathaniel Mills, who said he was in awe of Maame Biney’s dedication.

“She wasn’t deterred by the fact that she was taking up a difficult sport,” Mills told Capital News Service. “She came to the rink every Saturday morning eager to learn.”

Mills, who now runs DC Inner City Excellence, a year-round skating-based youth development program, said Biney’s passion and perseverance distinguish her from other skaters.

“She’s more explosive of a skater than many of her peers in the United States, and her tenacity as a competitor also sets her apart,” Mills said. “Her own drive, her father’s sacrifices and her love of skating and competing are the three biggest factors to any athlete’s success – and Maame’s got all three.”

Mills said Biney’s father played a significant role in his daughter’s success, putting “every penny he made into her career and into her opportunities.”

Biney is the youngest woman on the U.S. short-track team. At this year’s games, she is up against competitors who have the home turf advantage: 21 of South Korea’s 26 winter gold medals have come from short-track speedskating.

Biney will compete in the 500- and 1,500-meter races. She has an upper hand at the shorter distance since setting a personal record at the Olympic trials of 43.161 seconds in the 500-meter race.

This is just the beginning for Biney, Mills said.

“I think the confidence that came with her performance at the trials, coupled with the experience she’s going to get at these games, will lead to her being among the favorites in the next Olympics in Beijing, China,” Mills said. “She’ll be one of the marquee athletes because her personality is real and her talent is next level.”

Biney has garnered fans across the country and even the world. It’s because she’s so relatable, Mills said.

“I know who she is and what she’s doing means a lot to a whole lot of people that identify themselves by their nation’s state of Ghana, or by being a woman, or because of her skin color, or being from Northern Virginia,” Mills said. “Maame’s pretty easy to root for.”

According to her profile on the Team USA website, Biney is wrapping up her senior year of high school through online courses and plans to study chemical engineering in college. At South Lakes High School in Reston, Biney is best known for her happy-go-lucky demeanor.

“She is so funny and takes everything so positively,” Biney’s former classmate Kriti Shukla said. “She is the most open and happy person in the class.”

New Book Honors Legacy of 2 Civil Rights Lawyers

Margaret Edds speaking at her book launch at the Library of Virginia. (Photo by CNS reporter Sarah Danial)

By Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Oliver W. Hill Sr. was the energetic driving force in fighting for African-Americans’ civil rights while Spottswood W. Robinson III was the meticulous craftsman who designed detailed legal arguments. Together, the two Richmond lawyers paved the way to end racial segregation not only in Virginia but throughout the United States.

The legal fight led by Hill and Robinson is chronicled in a new book, “We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow,” by Richmond journalist and author Margaret Edds. About 100 people gathered at the Library of Virginia last week to celebrate the book’s release by the University of Virginia Press.

In their legal work, Hill and Robinson fought for equality in voting, education, housing, transportation and pay. Their most famous case was Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. It went on to be one of the five pivotal cases in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare school segregation unconstitutional in 1954.

For five years, Edds (pronounced EEDS) conducted research for her book, perusing archival documents and interviewing people who knew Hill and Robinson. She hopes that by looking into the influence of these legal giants, we can better understand how far our nation has come and how much further we still need to go.

“These lawyers have never been recognized as they should’ve been and should be,” said former Gov. Douglas Wilder. “It’s a part of history that’s not taught but should be taught. There’s no excuse for this to not be taught in schools.”

Wilder, who attended Thursday’s book launch, knew Hill and Robinson. He said he hopes Edds’ book will make people more aware of the work the two men accomplished.

The first African-American to be elected governor in the U.S., Wilder said he wants people to understand that the only way to make real change is to act. Wilder recalled learning a lot from Hill and Robinson and their passion for justice.

“You stick to it, you perfect it, you don’t do just ‘good enough to get by,’” Wilder said. “You make it so it’s unassailable, and so when you walk into a courtroom, you believe that you are indeed in charge of your case and your client.”

Edds’ book isn’t the first about Hill, who died in 2007 at age 100. In fact, Hill wrote an autobiography, “The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond,” which was published in 2000.

Ramona Taylor said she knew nothing about Hill or Robinson until she was in law school at the University of Richmond and was asked to be a student editor for Hill’s book.

She was fascinated by the legendary lawyer’s story and is now the president of the Oliver White Hill Foundation, which is dedicated to continuing his fight for social justice.

“Beyond that he was a brilliant litigator, beyond that he was a humble man, I want people to recognize that he was one of the first true social engineers of our time. What I mean by social engineer is someone who actually changed the social landscape,” said Taylor, who is legal counsel for Virginia State University.

Hill stopped practicing law at age 91 in 1998, the same year Robinson died. A year later, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Edds was a reporter and editor for 34 years for The Virginian-Pilot. She has written four other books, including “Free at Last: What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics.”

Edds will hold a book reading and signing at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. in Richmond, at 6 p.m. Monday. She said her latest book is just a conversation starter about the legacy of Hill and Robinson.

“They faced up to Jim Crow segregation; they created a legal basis for change. They did not solve racial inequities for all time, as we sadly know – not even close – but they advanced the cause,” Edds said. “The challenge they pose to us is to do the same with equal resolve in our time.”

Bipartisan Deal Will Raise Felony Theft Threshold

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia is one of two states where people convicted of stealing items valued at $200 become felons. But a bipartisan deal to raise the threshold and improve restitution will help some people recover from an otherwise life-altering mistake, a delegate says.

The agreement announced Thursday by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would increase Virginia’s felony theft threshold – the lowest in the nation – to $500 and improve assurances that victims would receive restitution.

In a compromise Northam called a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform,” members of both parties in the General Assembly will get legislation their counterparts previously blocked.

Republicans agreed to advance bills to raise the bar for what is considered grand larceny theft. In exchange, Democrats agreed to bills that would stiffen laws to give crime victims their court-ordered restitution.

Under current Virginia law, a person who steals an item valued more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny. That threshold is tied with New Jersey for the lowest in the nation, according to a 2015 report by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The new threshold would be $500; anything less would be a misdemeanor under HB 1550 and SB 105, introduced by Del. Leslie Adams, R-Pittsylvania, and Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, respectively.

“At $200, Virginia’s current felony larceny threshold is the most severe in the nation,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. “By raising it, we are sending a clear message that theft is a serious crime, but stealing one phone or pair of boots should not ruin a person’s life.”

Republicans would not have agreed to a deal on raising the threshold without changes to restitution laws, said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox. HB 483 would require the state locate victims of crimes and pay them restitution. HB 484would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision. Both were introduced by Del. Robert Bell, R- Albemarle.

The Virginia ACLU, which supports raising the grand larceny threshold, is reluctant to support the agreement. Spokesperson Bill Farrar said a $500 bar – which would be the first change to the law since 1980 – would still be too low compared to inflation. Additionally, Farrar said, Bell’s legislation could put poor people in a position of being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t pay restitution.

Crime victims in Virginia's state courts are owed more than $400 million in outstanding restitution, according to a 2016 Crime Commission report.

“This is money that crime victims need to pay their bills and rebuild their lives,” Bell said. “They have to come to court, testify under oath, and many have to describe the most frightening moment of their life to strangers, only to be cross-examined and scrutinized in the media. The least we can do is ensure that they receive the restitution that the justice system promises to them.”

Fight against gerrymandering advances at Capitol

Sen. Glenn Sturtevant with OneVirginia2021 advocates. (Photo courtesy of OneVirginia2021)

 

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Two bills moving forward in the General Assembly, and two court cases challenging how political districts are drawn in Virginia, could chip away at gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.      

Gerrymandering, in which politicians redraw electoral districts to their favor, is under fire in legislatures across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to stop a Pennsylvania state court from requiring lawmakers there to redraw districts it had declared were products of the practice.

In Virginia, the Senate has passed a redistricting bill -- SB 106, introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. On Friday, a similar measure -- HB 1598, sponsored by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk -- cleared the House Privileges and Elections Committee 21-1 and will be considered next week by the full House.

Both bills seek to provide standards for drawing districts, with attention to equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, and respect for existing political boundaries, borders, size and communities of interest. Jones said lawmakers  must avoid the extreme configurations that have been used by political parties to gain an advantage in the past.
Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021, the state’s leading redistricting reform group, said he was encouraged by the progress of the legislation. He sees it as a step toward the ultimate goal of redistricting reform -- a constitutional amendment to establish an independent redistricting commission.

Under the group’s timeline, the amendment could receive required legislative approvals in 2019 and 2020, before being submitted to voters that fall. Districts could then be redrawn in 2021 with 2020 census data.

“The most important thing they (the bills) do is define some sort of good-government criterion, such as respect for local political boundaries,” Cannon said. “As a building year for us, this conversation is excellent. This is exactly where we want to be.”

But Cannon said the bills don’t go far enough. He said they “are missing explicit anti-gerrymandering language, though, and that’s a big miss.”

According to a poll by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, over 60 percent of Virginians support amending the state constitution to put a nonpartisan commission in charge of drawing political lines.

Although legislation establishing test-run redistricting commissions has died this session, Cannon said there is still a chance for the governor to appoint an advisory commission with the same responsibility as result of two court cases:

  • One, in the federal courts, centers on whether black voting strength was diluted when Republicans placed too many African American voters in certain districts. The U.S. Supreme Court last year ordered a lower court to re-examine the case. Cannon said he has been expecting a decision for weeks.

  • The other case, pending in the state court system, focuses on whether some districts were drawn in a partisan way. In many cases, for example, a city or county is divided between one or more legislative districts.  The case will be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court in March.

Cannon said decisions in those cases  could “put a wind under the sails” of the fight against gerrymandering by requiring  some districts to be redrawn.

Courts have historically been reluctant to strike down redistricting plans because of concerns over favoring a party in a political process. But recent decisions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina have been cause for optimism, Cannon said.

“I think the odds of real redistricting reform this time next year are pretty high,” Cannon said. “We’ll see what the governor does, we’ll see what the courts do, we’ll see how much further the House Republicans are willing to go -- but the conversation is great.”

House Panels Reject LGBTQ Anti-Discrimination Bills

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Subcommittees in the House of Delegates killed several bills this week that would have expanded protections for LGBTQ Virginians in housing and the workplace.

Two bills had passed the Senate late last month. Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored SB 202, which would have prohibited public employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, sponsored SB 423, which would have included discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as unlawful housing practices under the Virginia Fair Housing Law.

Both bills were tabled Thursday on 5-2 party-line votes by a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee.

“It is painfully evident today that Virginia is not for all lovers,” Wexton said afterward. “Simple access to a place to live without discrimination is a basic fundamental right of all people. It is shameful that the House Republicans killed this in subcommittee when it passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

Also on 5-2 votes, the General Laws subcommittee rejected HB 401, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and HB 1547, by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. Those bills aimed to add the same protections in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Simon, who introduced his legislation for the fourth consecutive session, said the National Association of Realtors amended its code of ethics in January 2014 to guarantee nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That guarantee should be included in Virginia’s Fair Housing Law to protect individuals seeking housing from people who aren’t Realtors, he said.

Bill Janis of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a faith-based nonprofit, said such anti-discrimination bills were unnecessary because of existing regulations.

“The largest employers in the Richmond area, Capital One and Virginia Commonwealth University . . . already have good hiring policies involving these issues,” he said. “They’re already hiring, in large measure, based on the qualifications and merits of the applications of the positions, not based on other criteria.”

Another bill regarding nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity was killed Tuesday in a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee. HB 1466, sponsored by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, would have prohibited health insurance providers from denying or limiting coverage to transgender Virginians.

Rodman’s bill was rejected on a 5-3 vote, also along party lines.

Senate Bill Passes Quietly, Allowing Drunken Driving on Private Property

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Leaders in the fight against drunken driving were appalled after a Senate bill flew under the radar and quietly passed with a 37-3 vote, allowing Virginians to lawfully drive while intoxicated on their own property.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally introduced SB 308 to clarify that the state law against driving under the influence applies only to public roadways and that people can’t be charged for drinking in a vehicle on their property. Existing law simply says you can’t operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated and does not distinguish between public and private property.

During the Senate Courts of Justice Committee meeting on Jan. 31, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys and advocacy organizations spoke against the bill.

“Is a driver with a .14 BAC (blood alcohol content) operating a motor vehicle across Kings Dominion’s parking lot any less of a threat than if he or she were similarly doing so on a neighboring roadway?” asked Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

SB 308 was then essentially killed, or passed by indefinitely, on a 7-5 vote.

Although thought to be dead, the legislation was abruptly brought up for reconsideration by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, halfway through a committee meeting on Monday. Peake had voted to kill the bill at the previous meeting.

After speaking with members of the committee and Waynesboro Commonwealth’s Attorney David Ledbetter, Stuart said he wanted to change the language of the bill.

“The bill had to do with a DUI on your private property or current property. And by trying to define where you could actually be charged with it, I think my bill went a little too broad,” Stuart said.

By narrowly defining the bill to exempt getting charged with DWI at home or other private property, it would eliminate cases of those found drinking in a parked car in their driveway, Stuart said.

Ledbetter said he made the suggestion to Stuart about changing the language, but remained unsure it would be successful.

“I’m afraid we are going to exempt someone that we should not,” Ledbetter said.

The legislation was approved 14-1 by the committee, with only Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, voting against it. The legislation had been changed to add: “This section shall not apply to any person driving or operating a motor vehicle on his own residential property or the curtilage thereof,” essentially allowing people to lawfully drive drunk on their own property.

“Inasmuch, the bill throws Virginia down the slippery slope of bifurcating the state’s DUI laws, effectively communicating that it’s OK to drive drunk here but not there – a dangerous precedent,” Erickson said. “The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Washington Regional Alcohol Program remain opposed to this legislation.”

The bill flew through its second and third reading and passed the Senate three days after it was resurrected.

Nonpartisan Initiative Targets ‘Legalized Corruption’ In Virginia Politics

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Efforts to fight what some call “legalized corruption” in the Virginia General Assembly were announced Thursday by the Clean Virginia Project, a new nonpartisan initiative seeking to curb Dominion Energy’s financial influence on Virginia lawmakers.

The group called on lawmakers to refuse donations from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and offered to make political contributions to those who pledge to do so. The project’s organizers said they hope to curb the energy giant’s political influence and hold lawmakers accountable for “representing their constituents - not corporate interests.”

Delegates who sign the pledge would receive an annual political donation of $2,500 while senators would receive $5,000 — a fraction of what they might otherwise receive from Dominion.

Donating more than $11 million over the past decade to Democratic and Republican candidates alike, Dominion’s influence on the Virginia’s General Assembly is unparalleled by any other corporations. For comparison, Altria — one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and headquartered in Henrico — donated less than $7 million over the same period of time.

Legislators from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, received donations from Dominion throughout the 2017 election season. While Northam accepted more than $100,000 in campaign and inaugural donations from the company in 2017 alone, Cox has accepted donations totaling more than $220,000 between 1998 and 2017.

Dominion’s funding efforts are primarily derived from the corporation’s political action committee but often come together with donations by corporate executives like Tom Farrell II, the company’s chairman, president and CEO, and Thomas Wohlfarth, the senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

Michael Bills, a Charlottesville-based investor and prominent Democratic donor, is the key funder behind the nonpartisan group, which is housed within former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello’s new political action committee, New Virginia Way.

The Clean Virginia Project is only one instance of a statewide attitude change toward the relationship between major corporations and lawmakers. It coincides with national efforts to encourage politicians to reject financial support from the energy industry.

This pushback has caused tension between Dominion officials and the group, with officials arguing that their company is being unfairly targeted for making campaign donations that are legal.

“Isn’t democracy great?" Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "People can do whatever they want to with their money — as long as it’s transparently disclosed on Virginia’s Public Access Project website, which we helped start in 1997 and have supported ever since."

But Bills calls the initiative “common sense” that will level the playing field in politics.

“Virginians should no longer have to pick up the tab for backroom deals like the one Dominion and its allies are trying to ram through our legislature,” Bills said.

The announcement comes in the wake of Senate Bill 966, a quickly moving bill that would repeal a hotly debated 2015 rate freeze and provide Virginia customers with a refund on what Northam has called an “overcharging” for power rates.

In addition, SB 966 would require Dominion to reduce power rates by an additional $125 million as well as investmore than $1.1 billion in energy-efficiency projects and energy assistance to low-income communities throughout the next 10 years.

The text of the Clean Virginia Pledge reads:

“I will take no money or gifts from Dominion Energy or its Political Action Committees (PAC), lobbyists or executives; and will divest from any personal stocks or investments in Dominion Energy.”

As of Tuesday, Activate Virginia reported that 21 Democrats running for Congress this year have signed the pledge.

“Everyone will tell you that Dominion’s money doesn’t impact their vote, but given the fact that almost nobody says no to Dominion, I think that’s pretty obvious it has a large aggregate effect,” said freshman Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas.

Talking to Students, Former CIA Director Criticizes Trump’s Foreign Policy

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a conference call with Virginia Commonwealth University students, former CIA Director John Brennan slammed several national security moves by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Brennan said some aspects of foreign relations are the same under Trump as they were under President Barack Obama. They include progress on defeating ISIS in Iraq, a stagnation on counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and strained relationships with Iran and North Korea.

However, Brennan, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, criticized the Trump administration for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem. He said the move undermines efforts toward a two-state solution that would give both Israelis and Palestinians equal access to land.

“It’s inconsistent with our votes in the United Nations that would leave Jerusalem’s status to negotiation for both parties,” Brennan said Wednesday. “Though that may have received immediate accolades from some corners, I do think it’s going to be a setback for prospects for a viable peace process in the two-state solution.”

The conference call was hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank that specializes in U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Brennan was critical of the Trump administration’s decision to suspend aid to Afghan and Pakistani counterinsurgency forces. He also said U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017 ceded ground to China’s growing international influence.

“Right now, Venezuelan stability and security depends on continued Cuban and Chinese support,” Brennan said in a response to a question about civil strife in the South American country. “If the Chinese are becoming more involved and engaged in our hemisphere or if we’re distracted, then we can’t fulfill what I believe is our hemispheric obligations.”

In May, the Trump administration signed America’s largest arms deal giving Saudi Arabia $350 billion over 10 years. Since then, the U.S. has been accused of funding a proxy war in Yemen, which Brennan said exacerbates American security in the region.

“I don’t know what the Trump administration is doing on this front, but I do hope they are counseling restraint so that the Saudis don’t feel they have carte blanche as far as bombing in Yemen,” Brennan said.

Brennan said the most significant security threats in the year ahead are a lack of leadership in the State Department, distractions caused by the investigations into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential elections led by special counsel Robert Muller, and a combination of increasing political partisanship and nationalism.

In recent days, Trump announced his support for the Pentagon to plan a military parade through Washington. The last military parade in the capital was in 1991 following the victory of the First Gulf War. According to Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers, the plans are in their “infancy.”

“This idea of a military parade in Washington – I just shake my head in disbelief. These are the things I’ve seen in third-world dictatorships and authoritarian regimes,” Brennan said.

“I feel pretty strongly that the United States is strong and respected because of who we are and what we are and how we conduct our foreign policy on national security, but this very bombastic rhetoric is very antithetical to our values, to our history, to who we are.”

Despite concerns with the current administration’s national security efforts, Brennan remained hopeful as a new generation of national security professionals enters government agencies.

“I do hope that there are many aspiring national security professionals out there because your country and your governance need you,” Brennan said. “We need the best talent to deal with the challenges we face ahead.”

House OKs Limiting School Suspensions to 45 Days

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia students who break school rules may no longer face the possibility of a yearlong suspension under legislation approved by the House of Delegates to address what some lawmakers call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

House Bill 1600, which passed 84-15 on Tuesday, would reduce the maximum length of a suspension from 364 days to 45 days. It is one of several measures lawmakers introduced in response to complaints that Virginia schools overreact to minor infractions – and sometimes charge students as criminals for transgressions that should draw a detention.

“At the end of the day, if our students are out of school, they’re not learning,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Del. Jeffrey Bourne, who previously served on the Richmond School Board. “We should not continue to use access to education as a punishment and expect positive results.”

On its way toward passage, the bill was amended to allow school officials to impose a suspension of up to 364 days if “aggravating circumstances exist” or if the student is a repeat offender.

Del. R. Lee Ware Jr., R-Powhatan, said he historically had reservations about limiting schools’ options in disciplining students. However, he called HB 1600 “a responsible middle course.”

“It allows a considerable amount of latitude to educators with the responsibility of maintaining order in schools,” Ware said.

HB 1600 was among a slew of proposals introduced this legislative session to address how Virginia schools discipline students. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported that Virginia has one of the highest rates in the nation for referring students to law enforcement. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, has called the situation “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.”

Several of the bills never made it out of committee. They included:

  • HB 445, which sought to end a requirement that principals report certain misdemeanor crimes to law enforcement. The bill, proposed by Carroll Foy, was rejected in a 5-2 vote by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • HB 296, which would have prohibited suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade, except for violent crimes, drugs or other serious offenses. The House Education Committee voted 12-10 vote to kill the legislation. The bill was sponsored by the panel’s vice chair, Del. Richard Bell, R-Staunton.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, opposed Bell’s measure, saying it would “make our classrooms less safe.”

“I don’t think it's up to us to try to micromanage discipline issues in the local schools. That's why we have local elected school boards,” Cole said.

While such legislation met opposition in the House, the Senate has been more receptive.

On Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee approved SB 170, which, like Bell’s legislation, would bar suspensions and expulsions in third grade and below. The committee voted 11-4 in favor of the measure. SB 170, sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin County, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed SB 476, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania. Like Carroll Foy’s bill, it would give school principals the discretion not to call police on students who commit misdemeanors or other minor crimes.

Reeves’ measure has been assigned to the House Courts of Justice Committee –the same panel ​whose subcommittee killed Carroll Foy’s proposal.

Panel Nixes Using Cameras to Catch Speeders in School Zones

Sen. Leslie Adams (R-Pittslyvania) speaks to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee on his proposed bill, HB 1021. Adams bill to allow localities to monitor school zone speeding with photo speed monitoring devices was defeated Thursday in a 6-0 vote. Photos by Logan Bogert

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Despite no public opposition, a House subcommittee defeated a bill Thursday to allow the use of cameras to monitor speeding in school zones.

The House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee voted 6-0 to “pass by indefinitely” House Bill 1021, which would have allowed the installation of cameras to automatically take photos of individuals driving at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit. Twenty-five states including Tennessee and Florida have adopted similar legislation.

“Other than domestic violence situations, traffic stops are the most dangerous situations for law enforcement,” Eric Finkbeiner of American Traffic Solutions told the subcommittee. “In other states that have this legislation, there have been significant decreases both in traffic stops but also in speeding – sometimes between 15 and 20 percent.”

According to Finkbeiner, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported almost 8,000 speeding violations in school zones in 2016 and more than 1,000 crashes in school zones as a result of speeding the following year. Five of the crashes involved fatalities.

HB 1021, introduced by Del. Leslie Adams, R-Pittsylvania, proposed the same photo-monitoring procedures already in use to document red light violations. It would have required a law enforcement officer to monitor the camera and issue tickets via mail to violators.

“I am afraid with legislation like this, we’re going to get a ticket in the mail and the seriousness of speeding in a school zone is going to be negated,” said Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, a member of the subcommittee.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has proposed similar legislation in the Senate. SB 917 would allow law enforcement officers to operate a handheld photo speed monitoring device in or around school crossing zones to record images of vehicles traveling more than 12 mph above the posted speed limit.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-6 Wednesday in favor of Chase’s bill. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate has already passed SB 509, which would allow the Department of State Police to use handheld photo speed monitoring devices in or around highway work zones. Senators approved the bill on a 22-18 vote Tuesday.

On Thursday, SB 509 was assigned to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.

Tethering Bill Moves Forward From Senate.

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill specifying when an animal can be tethered outside passed the Senate on Wednesday with changes aimed at increasing its chances of winning approval in  the House.

The bill, SB 872, is the companion legislation to HB 646, which was killed in a House subcommittee.

Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, the bill’s sponsor, noted that changes had been made in the bill and that he hoped a measure would emerge that could protect animals, especially dogs.

Feedback from animal control officers led to the removal of requirements that prohibited tethering between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., or when the owners aren’t home. A ban on using metal-link chains was also removed.  Critics of the legislation won exemptions for animals while they are working on farms and dogs actively being used in hunting.

Matthew Gray, Virginia state director of The Humane Society of the United States, said earlier the changes were needed for the bill to emerge from the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

But Alice Harrington, legislative liaison for the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders, said after the committee vote that the animal neglect laws currently in place are sufficient.

“If the aim is to just get something passed, then how legitimate is what they’re trying to pass? If it’s really about the animals, it’s really about their welfare, then how can you negotiate all that away?  Then it becomes just about a win,” she said.

“They’re not in bad shape because they’re tethered....  They’re in bad shape because they’re being neglected.” Harrington said.

Kimberly Hawk, a volunteer for the Houses Of Wood and Straw Project, said the legislation would help save the lives of animals, like one dog who she said froze to death two weeks ago after he became tangled in his chain and wasn’t able to reach his shelter. Hawk’s group is a non-profit serving nine counties in central Virginia. The organization provides wooden dog housing as well as straw and bedding.

“We believe that it’s going to help the animal control officers be able to enforce the law better because it’s very tangible,” Hawk said.

The version of the bill that passed the Senate 33-7 is focused on preventing tethering animals in certain weather conditions, including, when the temperature is below 32 degrees or above 85 degrees, and when severe weather warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. The restrictions in the bill do not apply to animals loose in a yard or in a pen. The bill does not specify the type of animal, instead referring to animals and companion animals generally.

SB 872 states tethers must be at least 15 feet long, or four times the length of the animal, and limits the weight to less than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight.

House Considers Allowing Guns in Places of Worship

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After a committee endorsed the proposal on a party-line vote, the House of Delegates is considering legislation to allow people to bring guns and knives into a place of worship in Virginia.

Delegates are scheduled to vote this week on House Bill 1180, which would repeal the state’s ban against carrying weapons into a house of worship while religious services are being held.

Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, said he is sponsoring this bill on behalf of concerned churchgoers.

“Recent shootings in churches have leaders across the country reevaluating their security plans in places of worship,” LaRock said, referring to church attacks in Sutherland Springs, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina.

The existing law states, “If any person carry any gun, pistol, bowie knife, dagger or other dangerous weapon, without good and sufficient reason, to a place of worship while a meeting for religious purposes is being held at such place he shall be guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”

At a meeting of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee last week, LaRock said the law is ambiguous.

“The statute restricts those in charge of places of worship from exercising full control over their own private property,” LaRock said. “By repealing this law, we will remove a barrier to churches forming plans to protect and defend their establishments against malicious attacks.”

Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League testified in support of the bill. He said the current law “is forcing pacifism, if you will, on churches. It’s taking away their ability to do certain ceremonial things.”

Representatives of faith communities disagreed. Bryan Walsh spoke on behalf of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“Faith leaders we have spoken with, and members of our community, don’t feel that this bill makes places of worship any safer,” Walsh said. “We want our places of worship to be places of peace, not violence.”

Amanda Silcox, who also works at the center, echoed Walsh’s testimony, stating, “We believe places of worship should be safe havens for people, not places of violence.”

LaRock said HB 1180 will not invite violence in houses of worship. “Repealing this bill will do nothing more than to allow the formation of sensible security plans for places of worship and the best way to avoid disaster is to plan and prepare,” he said.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said he saw no need for LaRock’s legislation.

“If a law is working just fine, and there aren’t really any problems with the law, we should just leave it alone,” Simon said.

Lori Haas, a lobbyist for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, requested more time for public reaction to the bill, which was filed on Jan. 10.

“There are many, many, many members of faith communities across the commonwealth who might have an opinion about this bill, might want to express their support or opposition to the bill,” Haas said.

Despite her plea, the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee voted 12-9 in favor of HB 1180, sending the bill to the full House. The Republicans on the panel voted unanimously for the measure; the Democrats voted against it.

Virginia Likely to Expand Medical Marijuana

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia inched closer to greatly expanding medical marijuana use this week after legislation passed the Senate with unanimous support – three days after its companion bill was likewise approved by the House of Delegates.

SB 726, which passed 38-0 on Monday, would let doctors issue certifications for patients to use cannabis oil to treat the symptoms of diagnosed conditions or diseases. The House version of the bill – HB 1251 – passed 98-0 on Friday.

With similar bills approved in both chambers, the legislation appears likely to be headed to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat and physician, who has said he would sign such a measure into law.

Doctors in Virginia currently can issue medical marijuana certifications only to people with intractable epilepsy. If Northam signs the bill, the new law would let doctors issue certifications to treat any condition.

Both bills were a recommendation of Virginia’s Joint Commission on Health Care, which researches health policy options for the state.

The chief sponsors of SB 726 were Republican Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier and Democratic Sen. David Marsden of Fairfax. The chief sponsors of HB 1251 were Republican Dels. Ben Cline of Rockbridge and Glen Davis of Virginia Beach and Democratic Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn and Kaye Kory, both of Fairfax.

“The literature on medical cannabis is going to be evolving rapidly now, and because of this, it is not a decision that should be in the hands of the legislature,” said Dunnavant, who also is a doctor. “Instead, it should be with physicians.”

Virginia is poised to join 29 other states that allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three U.S. territories have a similar policy.

The legislation is considered a major victory for marijuana-law reform advocates.

“This will bring relief to thousands of Virginians suffering from cancer, Crohn’s disease and PTSD,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the marijuana law reform advocacy group, Virginia NORML. “We could not be happier with the unanimous passage of these bills.”

An April 2017 poll by Quinnipiac University indicated overwhelming support for the legalization of medical marijuana in Virginia. About 94 percent of Virginian voters polled expressed support; 59 percent backed legalizing small amounts of the drug for recreational use.

2 Rare Diseases May Be Added to Newborn Screenings

Krystal and Haley Hayes spoke to a committee on newborn screenings in December. (Photo courtesy of the Hayes family)

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Like a typical 12-year-old girl, Haley Hayes texts, browses the internet, socializes with friends and family, and loves to sing – especially to Carrie Underwood. What Haley doesn’t typically share with her peers is that she was born with a rare genetic condition called Pompe disease.

Haley has suffered muscle loss and other complications because of the disease. She might have been spared some of those health problems had she been born in a different state.

Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, has introduced a bill that would add Pompe disease and MPS I, another genetic disorder, to Virginia’s newborn screening program. If these diseases are caught early, immediate treatment can make a significant difference in the patients’ quality of life – and may even save their lives.

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

The disorders were brought to Pillion’s attention after a baby from his House district, Ruby Kate Leonard, was diagnosed with MPS I. Ruby Kate was born in July in Bristol, Tennessee, where the state tests for conditions like hers. She was diagnosed at just nine days old, and the early treatment she’s receiving allows for the best possible outcome.

“Had she been born in her hometown of Russell County, Virginia, the screening for MPS I isn’t operational yet,” said Tyler Lester, Pillion’s legislative assistant. “It would not have been caught.”

Ruby Kate’s father, Elijah Leonard, set up a Facebook page to share Ruby Kate’s story, provide information regarding fundraisers and keep friends and family updated on her progress. The page has over 2,000 likes.

Haley Hayes was diagnosed at six and a half months with the help of doctors from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Her mother, Krystal Hayes, believes Haley’s life could have been different if she was born in a state that tested for the disease at birth.

“We know with earlier treatment, there’s some issues that could’ve been avoided. Muscles were lost that we can’t get back,” she said.

After Haley was diagnosed, she received three enzyme treatments at VCU and then was transferred to Duke University Medical Center, where her care continues.

Both the Hayes and Leonard families have advocated for Virginia to add these diseases to the newborn screening program. Pillion’s bill, HB 1174, was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions and awaits a vote of the full House.

Krystal and Haley Hayes have traveled to North Carolina to promote the cause, and they told Haley’s story at a meeting of the Virginia Newborn Screening Advisory Committee in December. The advisory committee voted unanimously in favor of adding both Pompe disease and MPS I to the program.

“For families going forward, they can find out at birth and get the child on treatment sooner,” Krystal Hayes said. “We’ve seen very many families over the years whose babies haven’t made it because they had diagnosed them too late – so it can honestly save a baby’s life.”

Experts Call for More Resources in Fighting Opioid Epidemic

By Sophia Belletti , Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An average of 19 people a week overdosed on opioids in Richmond last year, and government agencies and other entities have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways, from dispensing overdose reversal drugs to arresting addicts.

Academic and law-enforcement experts discussed the problem and possible solutions Tuesday in a panel discussion titled "The Opioid Epidemic: Impact on Communities" at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It is our problem, and it is our responsibility,” said Kate Howell, an assistant professor at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

“Addiction is not new,” Howell said. “What is new is the drugs are more powerful and affordable than they were in the past and easier to get.”

Amy Cook, also an assistant professor in the Wilder School, said there are three approaches to combating the epidemic:

  • Expansion of community-based services

  • Recovery housing

  • Needle exchange programs

In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly legalized needle exchange services -- but no program has been implemented in the commonwealth.

Cook said needle exchanges recognize the multidimensional factors needed to treat addiction. However, she said, there is not a “one size fits all” approach.

“Were looking at a variety of treatment approaches -- community-based, sociological issues, biological issues,” Cook said. “The key part is, you have to be able to address it all and monitor it all -- and when it’s not monitored, that’s where we drop the ball.”

Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard said he uses an “arrest them all” strategy when it comes to preventing overdoses.

“There is no other program for them to get the help they need,” Leonard said. “At least arresting and bringing them in, they’re alive.”  

Leonard said he doesn’t want to arrest addicts, but said the resources they need aren’t accessible in most communities. Through the “arrest them all” strategy, Leonard allows addicts to get off the street and sober.

“In 37 years, I never saw any drug as harmful, as plentiful, as cheap as heroin,” he said. “As a state, we’re failing."

The leading causes of unnatural death in Virginia from 2007 to 2013 were motor vehicle collisions, gun-related deaths and fatal drug overdoses. In 2013, fatal drug overdoses became the leading cause, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

First responders who work with the Richmond Ambulance Authority have seen a spike in the number of opioid overdose patients in recent years. They estimate using about  1,000 doses of the overdose revival drug Naloxone to save people’s lives last year.

In November 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in Virginia.

The opioid crisis has affected people not only in cities but also in suburban and rural areas, especially in Appalachia. That has made the problem hard to ignore.

“It wasn’t a crisis until it hit a group of communities we can’t ignore,” Howell said. ”Once it hit our suburban communities, they called it a problem. It sets up this dichotomy where we expect a certain kind of people. Now it’s different; we say, ‘Oh no, we have to do something.’”

Bipartisan Senate Committee OKs Anti-tethering Bill

By Katrina Tilbury and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a 9-5 bipartisan vote, a Senate committee Thursday endorsed a bill specifying when an animal can be tethered outside. The bill, SB 872, is the companion to HB 646, which was killed in a House subcommittee Monday.

The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee voted in favor of SB 872, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.

Matthew Gray, Virginia state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said changes had to be made to the Senate version for the legislation to pass. The Senate bill removed previous requirements that prohibited tethering between10 p.m. and 6 a.m. or when the owners aren’t home. Additionally, exemptions were added for animals actively working in the agricultural field and dogs actively engaged in hunting activities.

Now the bill focuses on preventing tethering animals in certain weather conditions – namely, when the temperature is below 32 degrees or above 85 degrees.

“My wife and I foster rescue dogs, and have seen time and time again how tethering [in cold weather] hurts and sometimes kills perfectly innocent animals,” Del. John Bell, D-Loudoun, who introduced HB 646, said after his bill was killed Monday. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources voted 5-3 to shelve the measure for this legislative session.

“I carried HB 646 because I believe that the voiceless animals need a voice in the Virginia General Assembly, and I will continue this fight until animals are protected.”

Kimberly Hawk, who attended both hearings on the issue, is a volunteer for the Houses of Wood and Straw Project, a nonprofit serving nine counties in central Virginia. The group provides wooden housing to outside dogs in the region, as well as straw and bedding.

Hawk said she was relieved that the committee approved the Senate bill. She said the legislation would help save the lives of animals, like one dog that she said froze to death last week after it got tangled in its chain and wasn’t able to reach its shelter.

However, organizations like the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders are wary of new pet laws. Alice Harrington, their legislative liaison, said the animal neglect laws in place are sufficient.

Harrington said one problem with more laws is that animal control officers can’t effectively enforce them because they receive insufficient training. Officers in Virginia are required to meet 80 hours of training, including 24 hours are basic law enforcement unrelated to animal care. Harrington said more training would be necessary for officers to learn the complexities surrounding what type of shelter is considered adequate for different breeds in various weather conditions.

“I’ve been doing this work for over 10 years; I haven’t seen a whole lot accomplished by law,” Harrington said.

But Hawk said she thinks the added limitations on tethering in weather below 32 degrees and above 85 degrees would be easier to enforce than existing animal cruelty laws that can be vague.

“We believe that it’s going to help the animal control officers be able to enforce the law better because it’s very tangible,” Hawk said.

Harrington disagreed. She said organizations like the HOWS Project have already figured out the solution by helping pets without separating them from their owners. She said she fears the enforcement of new laws would flood animal shelters.

Next, SB 872 will be heard by the full Senate. If it passes, the bill will be sent to the House subcommittee that killed HB 646.

House Panel Rejects ‘Net Neutrality’ Bill

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to prohibit internet service providers from prioritizing or blocking certain websites based on content or hosting platform was killed Tuesday in a House subcommittee.

The House Commerce and Labor subcommittee voted 5-0 against the bill, with one abstention.

HB 705 was introduced by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who argued that Virginia should maintain the principle of net neutrality despite a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to reverse such rules.

“The internet, since its inception, has been run by agreement as content neutral,” Carter said. “In 2015, the federal government set in place regulation to codify what was already being done, and those were overturned in December.”

Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, chair of the subcommittee, argued that the bill would prompt broadband providers to pull out of Virginia.

“We are so desperate in parts of the area that I represent to get broadband, that any barrier to entry in that market that we impose is a risk to prevent them from coming,” Habeeb said. “I can’t imagine supporting a bill that may lead to a broadband provider not considering entering the Craig County market, for example.”

Carter disagreed that net neutrality would discourage internet service providers from providing services to Virginia residents.

“If the broadband providers are willing to forego 8.5 million customers because they can’t impose additional charges on services rather than offering all-inclusive packages,” Carter said, “that would greatly surprise me.”

Habeeb also argued that the FCC ruling would override the bill, restricting Virginia’s ability to create its own net neutrality law. Carter disagreed, saying that instating net neutrality rules is within the state’s purview.

“This is not dealing with interstate commerce,” Carter said. “We are discussing explicitly the point of sale, and the point of sale is between a Virginia resident and a Virginia company offering broadband service.”

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and GreenSmith Energy Management Systems, as well as a few private citizens, told the subcommittee they supported Carter’s bill. They said it will prevent corporations from deciding what online information Virginians receive.

The bill was opposed by representatives of internet service providers such as T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless as well as the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

“This bill will increase cost to consumers,” said Ray LaMura, president of the Virginia Cable of Telecommunications Association. “It will stifle investment in new technologies, and it will stifle investment in rural telehealth, which will also chill investments to unserved areas of the commonwealth.”

House Panel Rejects Suicide Prevention Resolution

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – A resolution urging Virginia schools to increase their suicide prevention efforts has failed as Republicans on a House Rules subcommittee defeated the proposal in a 3-4 vote.

HJ 138, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, would have asked all school boards to offer every employee resources or training on how to identify students at risk of committing suicide.

Roem told the subcommittee she had two reasons for making the resolution a request instead of a requirement. “One, we don’t have to (have) concern for it being an unfunded mandate” – a state-imposed cost that Republicans frequently oppose on principle.

“And second, we make sure this provides as much flexibility at the local level as possible,” Roem said. “This is allowing the people who are on the ground there to identify and figure out what works best for them.”

However, Republican Del. Gregory Habeeb of Salem, a member of the subcommittee, voted against the resolution because he said it doesn’t go far enough.

“This resolution doesn't do anything to force school boards to train their teachers,” Habeeb said. “We need to find a vehicle to actually do it.”

Virginia law requires that teachers and faculty members report any student they suspect to be at risk of committing suicide, but it does not require that school employees be trained on how to identify such students.

A mother whose child committed suicide, Emily Fleming of Manassas, spoke in support of Roem’s resolution. She said training of school employees could have saved her son’s life.

“I’ve heard many times from teachers and friends that they noticed something was wrong with David, but they thought he just wanted to be alone so they left him alone,” Fleming said. “Now imagine if anyone on the staff had recognized those silent signs. My son might still be here today.”

Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, another member of the subcommittee, voted for the resolution at the panel’s meeting last week. He thought it was killed in an effort to keep government small.

“I don’t think we should just willy-nilly get involved in people's lives,” Plum said. “But there are sometimes things that relate to an individual that are bigger than that single person – that have an impact on society – and I think suicide is one of them.”

Bill to Remove ‘Tampon Tax’ Clears First Hurdle

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Women’s rights advocates are applauding a legislative panel for advancing a bill that would remove the sales tax on pads, tampons and menstrual cups.

The House Finance subcommittee voted 7-1 Tuesday to recommend approval of HB 24 and sent it to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, voted against the bill.

“It should be part of a tax reform package,” she said.

Byron said she supports removing the sales tax; however, she would not consider feminine hygiene products eligible under the tax code. Virginia law states that medical products used to treat or prevent diseases can be tax-exempt. Byron said feminine hygiene products do not fall into that category.

Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill, said it’s not fair that both menstrual products and anti-dandruff shampoo are classified as medical supplies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but only the shampoo receives a tax exemption. Byron noted that menstruation is not a disease, but psoriasis – which anti-dandruff shampoo is used to prevent – is.

Still, the committee recommended that the bill advance after removing the line naming it “The Dignity Act” and changing its potential start date from July 31 to Jan. 1.

The sales tax is 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and 5.3 percent in the rest of the state. Removing the tax on feminine hygiene products, as nine other states have done, would cost the commonwealth about $5 million in lost revenues annually, officials say.

The House Finance subcommittee has yet to act on two other bills to remove the so-called “tampon tax”: HB 152 andHB 448. Nor has the panel voted on HB 25, which would include menstrual supplies among the items exempt from taxes during Virginia’s three-day, back-to-school “sales tax holiday” each August.

On Friday, a House Education subcommittee considered HB 1434, which would have required schools to provide students with feminine hygiene products for free. A motion to approve the bill failed on a 5-5 vote.

From Home, Virginians Can Keep an Eye on Legislators

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It may not offer the drama of “House of Cards,” but an initiative at the Virginia Capitol is lifting the curtain on the workings of the General Assembly.

In January, the House and Senate started live-streaming and archiving videos of committee hearings. On a computer or cellphone, Virginians can now watch – from the comfort of their homes or offices – what used to require a trip to the Capitol.

“We’re already hearing about a lot of people watching at home and following these debates you could only follow in Richmond in the past,” said Meghan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

The General Assembly was prodded into offering videos of its committee meetings by the liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia.

During the 2017 legislative session, the organization streamed committee and subcommittee hearings using iPads and college interns. The project, called Eyes on Richmond, was part of an effort to hold Virginia’s legislature – notorious for a lack of transparency – to account, said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia.

The videos from Eyes on Richmond weren’t Emmy quality, and the audio sometimes was hard to understand. But the project received an award from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government in November.

The General Assembly followed suit and began providing live streams and video recordings – at the committee level only – when the 2018 legislative session opened.

The streams and archives are accessible from each committee’s webpage. Those webpages can be found on the General Assembly’s website.

Eyes on Richmond still webcasts and archives many subcommittee meetings. Scholl said the group will continue to do so until the state provides that service.

That likely will happen when the state opens a replacement for the General Assembly Building in 2021. A spokesperson for House Speaker Kirk Cox said Monday that the commonwealth will provide video of subcommittee meetings in the new facility.

The state has been broadcasting House and Senate floor sessions since the 1970s and putting them online for a decade. But Scholl said the most substantive debate, as well as testimony from citizens, happens at the committee and subcommittee levels in the General Assembly.

“We believe very strongly that transparency is necessary in lawmaking,” Scholl said. “Constituents should have access to the actions that are being taken on their behalf.”

State officials said it cost more than $500,000 to set up video streaming of committees in the House and about half that amount in the Senate.

How to watch

For links to videos of floor sessions and committee meetings, go to the General Assembly’s website – http://virginiageneralassembly.gov/ – and click on “Members and session.”

To watch a committee meeting, drill down to the committee’s webpage and then to the agenda for a specific meeting. There, you will find a video link.

For videos of subcommittee meetings, go to EyesOnRichmond.org, a project of the group Progress Virginia.

Eyes on Richmond has four “channels” – websites featuring a different video stream. The project’s home page includes a calendar listing which subcommittee meetings are being webcast on each channel.

Each channel’s home page also has a link to videos of previously recorded subcommittee meetings.

 

Advocates Will Seek Improvements in Mental Health Services

By Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for improving mental health treatment and education in Virginia will gather in Richmond next week to urge legislators to provide more funding and attention for such services.

Several groups will join in the lobbying effort: the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Voices for Virginia’s Children, Mental Health America of Virginia and VOCAL, a mental health service based in Henrico County. They will host a conference Monday and Tuesday at the offices of Voices for Virginia’s Children, 701 E. Franklin St.

The event organizers have designated Monday as Children’s Mental Health Advocacy Day and Tuesday as Mental Health Advocacy Day.

“We would like the public to know that more than between 20 and 25 percent of individuals, and their families, are affected by mental illness,” said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of NAMI Virginia. “So people with mental illness are all around us – they are our friends, family members and neighbors.”

The conference comes as the Virginia General Assembly is considering a slew of bills regarding mental health. They include proposals to expand access to mental health treatment for prisoners, increase mental health training for emergency officials and include mental health education in Virginia’s high school curriculum.

Mental Health America of Virginia, the state’s oldest mental health advocacy, is hopeful for real legislative change in an area in which the commonwealth compares poorly.

“We need to transform how the system is organized and funded. The current commissioner for behavioral health has avision for how to do this that deserves serious discussion. Virginia ranks 40th of all the states in mental health care. There is a better way,” said the group’s executive director, Bruce Cruser.

The General Assembly has had a special panel studying the issue. The Mental Health Services in the Twentieth-Century Joint Subcommittee has made several recommendations to improve such services.

The recommendations include providing $1.1 million annually for three years to the Appalachian Telemental Health Network Initiative and possibly funding the public behavioral health system through options available under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Legislators also are considering such bills as:

  • HB 252 – It would require high schools to have one mental health counselor for every 250 students.
  • HB 934 – It would establish a process for prison officials to petition courts to authorize mental health treatment for inmates unable to give informed consent.
  • HB 1088 – It would require the Virginia Board of Health to include training for emergency officials in identifying and safely assisting a person experiencing a mental health crisis.
  • SB 669 – This bill would affect people who are ordered to involuntary inpatient or outpatient treatment for a mental illness as a minor. Under the legislation, they would be subject to the same restrictions in firearm possession as an adult who was ordered to involuntary treatment.
  • SB 878 – It would require the Virginia Board of Corrections to adopt standards for mental health and substance services in local and regional correctional facilities
  • SB 953 and HB 1604 – These bills would include mental health in the Standards of Learning for ninth- and 10th-graders. The students would learn about the relationship between physical and mental health.

Cruser said education plays a major role in understanding mental illness. He believes that if people are more educated about mental illness, they will seek treatment sooner.

“There is hope and recovery,” Cruser said. “There are others who have fallen in the same hole and know a way out. Ask for help.”

House OKs ‘Stop Gun Violence’ License Plate

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND – Over the objections of eight Republicans, the House of Delegates on Friday approved the creation of a specialty license plate with the message “Stop Gun Violence.”

The House voted 89-8 with one abstention in favor of a bill to authorize the new plate and earmark proceeds from its sales to mental health and other services.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 287. He said it would draw attention to problems caused by firearms.

“We have a culture in this country where we’ve started seeing gun violence on a daily basis,” Simon said. “It can get people thinking of what they can be doing to improve the gun violence epidemic that we have, unfortunately.”

Virginia has more than 250 types of specialty license plates. They include more than 90 for colleges and universities, more than 50 military-related plates and more than 110 plates promoting sports teams, nonprofit groups, communities and various causes.

Some of the plates are controversial. One says “Choose Life”; another says “Trust Women, Respect Choice.” There’s a plate calling Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “The Virginia Gentleman” and another for the National Rifle Association.

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert and seven fellow Republicans voted against HB 287. During debate this week, Gilbert accused Simon of trying to score political points with his “little ol’ license plate bill.”

“It is him trying to build a narrative that gun violence is somehow different from regular violence,” said Gilbert, a delegate from Shenandoah County.

Like other specialty plates, the “Stop Gun Violence” plate would cost $25 in addition to the regular vehicle registration fee. Most of the money would go to the state’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Fund.

Under HB 287, those funds would be used to enhance “the quality of care and treatment provided to individuals receiving public mental health, developmental, and substance abuse services in Virginia.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

The “Stop Gun Violence” plate is among more than a dozen additional types of specialty license plates under consideration in the General Assembly. Others include:

  • A plate declaring “I Support Women Veterans,” to benefit the Virginia Department of Veterans Services
  • A “National Wild Turkey Federation” plate, supporting the conservation of wild turkeys in Virginia
  • A plate providing funding for the Alzheimer’s Association
  • A plate with the words “E Pluribus Unum” – the U.S. motto of “Out of many, one”

Panel Won’t Remove Sales Tax on Gun Safes

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A legislative subcommittee Friday killed a bill to remove the sales tax on safes where gun owners can store their firearms – a measure the sponsor said would promote gun safety.

Split along party lines, the subcommittee of the House Finance Committee voted 5-3 to reject HB 172, which would have made firearm storage safes that cost $1,000 or less exempt from sales tax.

“We have the ability to save lives and protect innocent children should the guns be found,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax.

Supporters said the measure would boost the conversation about gun safety in the community and perhaps give gun owners who do not own a gun safe reason to buy one.

“Our goal here is to prevent death, accidents and to ensure the safety of our citizens,” Filler-Corn said.

The bill’s opponents said many gun owners don’t use safes because trigger locks are cheaper and more effective. A package of three trigger locks can be purchased for $25 or less while a single-gun safe often costs $100 or more.

The House Finance subcommittee also killed bills that sought to offer tax credits to electric vehicle buyers (HB 469), private school scholarship donors (HB 1078) and solar equipment users (HB 256).

However, the panel ran out of time to consider four bills proposing a sales tax exemption for feminine hygiene products. Many members of the audience had come to support the “tampon tax” bills and were frustrated when the meeting adjourned.

“It was definitely a coordinated effort to keep our women’s rights agenda off the record,” said Holly Seibold of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition.

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