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2018 Capital News Service

Sexual Consent Remains Optional Topic for Family Life Education

By Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee rejected a bill Friday that would have required high schools to include a discussion about sexual consent in their sex education curriculum.

A subcommittee of the House Education Committee deadlocked 5-5 on a motion to advance House Bill 44. As a result, the motion failed.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that gave public schools permission to include consent as part of a family life curriculum. This year’s bill would have altered that law to make consent education a requirement, not an option.

“The difference here is negligible because family life education is already permissive,” said Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax Station, chief sponsor of the bill.

If the bill had passed, it would not have guaranteed that Virginia public schools would teach students that consent is required before sexual activity. Though Virginia has laws that define sex education curriculum requirements, family life classes are not mandated by law.

However, several localities voluntarily provide the sex education curriculum described by the Board of Education's family life education guidelines. School districts that choose to include family life education must first obtain permission from parents.

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia mandate that public schools provide comprehensive sex education; Virginia does not. Virginia is one of three states that require parental consent in order to participate in sex education.

The five subcommittee members who voted in favor of HB 44 were Republican Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield County and Democratic Dels. Jeffrey Bourne of Richmond, Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax, Chris Hurst of Blacksburg and Cheryl Turpin of Virginia Beach.

Republican Dels. Glen Davis of Virginia Beach, David LaRock of Loudoun County, Jay Leftwich of Chesapeake, John McGuire of Henrico County and Brenda Pogge of James City County voted against the bill.

House Passes Sexual Harassment Policy

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After weeks of dispute over how to reform the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy, the House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday that establishes new training requirements.

The bill by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, would require anti-sexual harassment training to be completed every two years by General Assembly members and full-time legislative staff.

A bill by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, that would have included all forms of workplace harassment was killed in committee Friday. Watts’ HB 1053 also called for new mechanisms for victims of harassment to file complaints, aiming to make the process more streamlined.

HB 371 passed 88-10. Watts and nine other Democrats voted in opposition; two House members did not vote.

“I see both sides of the aisle trying to get to the same place, just through different vehicles,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said on the House floor. “Our intention is to continue to take this issue very seriously, as we always have. Especially in this day and age, when we see women feel safe to talk about instances where they have been harassed, or manipulated, or harmed, we want to continue to encourage them to come forward.”

Watts, the longest-serving woman in the House, said in a telephone conference call with reporters later that the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“The bill specifies training, but it has no guidelines for what should be part of it,” she said.  “Republicans say to trust the system. Trusting the system got us where we are today.”

In debate on Wednesday, Robinson defended the legislation’s details.

“It took me about 45 minutes to read through it,” Robinson said, referring to the training course. “And every one of the sections includes what needs to be done if there’s a problem.”

Gilbert said Republicans are committed to addressing the issue.

“We are going to continue to develop this program, if this bill passes … and demand a level of accountability that we would all expect,” Gilbert said.

A similar bill by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond – SB 796 – has been referred to the Senate Rules committee.

Watts told reporters that the accounts of sexual misconduct survivors speaking out during the #MeToo movement of the last few months as well as the growing number of women in politics have represented a major shift.

“We never had more than 19 women serving at any one time,” Watts said. “Now we have 28. #MeToo speaks to decades of women getting around situations, trying to preserve their professional career as well as their own moral integrity. It’s time to have a full and open discussion of protections that are needed to make sure these instances are properly handed and allow due process for all individuals involved.”

Watts said the General Assembly’s history with sexual harassment is “not without a major blemish,” referring to former Speaker of the House Vance Wilkins Jr. The Republican resigned his position in 2002 after allegations of sexually harassing two women and paying one of them a settlement of $100,000 to remain silent.

“This is not only a moral issue, but a policy in law,” Watts said. “We must use our power for good to be sure that whoever is doing this stops immediately.”

Virginia House Democratic Delegates Promote Criminal Justice Reform Initiatives

By Brandon Celentano. Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Democratic members of the Virginia House called on their colleagues Thursday to raise the threshold for grand larceny and allow more professionals to administer medication to someone who has overdosed on drugs.

The legislators discussed proposals to reform the criminal justice system and address the opioid crisis at a news conference Thursday.

Del. Joseph Lindsey of Norfolk urged support for HB 1313, which would increase the threshold for grand larceny, a felony crime, to $500. Currently, the dividing line between misdemeanor and felony theft in Virginia is $200 -- one of the lowest in the nation. It hasn’t changed since 1980.

“Two hundred dollars might have been OK in 1980 when the price of a gallon of gas was 86 cents and a quart of milk was 67 cents, or when the average price of a house was $35,000,” Lindsey said. “But we believe that in 2018, there needs to be an adjustment. That time is now.”

Because the threshold for grand larceny is low, someone convicted of stealing a cellphone or bicycle in Virginia may end up with a felony on their record.

“Time and time again, these wind up being felony offenses, where in so many of our neighboring jurisdictions, they would have just been petty misdemeanors,” Lindsey said.

Del. Michael Mullin of Newport News, a former  prosecutor, discussed HB 202. Under this legislation, courts would have to tell criminal defendants that  they don’t have to pay their court costs and fees out of pocket. Instead, they could do  community service at an hourly rate of $7.25 to offset the costs.

“That’s been on the books for years, but so often people don’t know it,” Mullin said. “There might be hundreds of people who come through on a daily basis, and they get moved through very quickly. The things they can utilize, they are not being told about.”

Also at the news conference, the lawmakers urged support for

  • HB 322, which would  add probation, parole and correctional officers to the list of professionals who may administer naloxone -- a narcotic overdose reversal drug. The bill has passed the House and is before the Senate.

  • HB 131, which would make it easier for providers to prescribe non-opioid painkillers. For instance, if someone has a broken leg and is in recovery from opioid addiction, the person can obtain a non-opioid painkiller to avoid relapse.

“For me the opioid crisis is personal,” said Del. John Bell of Loudoun County. “Last year, with his permission to share his story, my son, Josh, who is 32 years old and is a veteran in the United States Air Force, injured his neck in a car accident. He became addicted to opioids. He walked out of the emergency room with a 90-day prescription for opioids. His addiction lasted seven years.”

Hot Glass Studio Raises Money for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a city full of eclectic artwork, it’s no surprise that Richmond is home to the Glass Spot, the only public hot glass studio in Central Virginia. There, artists blow air into a pipe to turn hot glass into ornaments, vases and other items.

But the studio – owned by Chris Skibbe, who has been glassblowing for almost 20 years – does more than produce art. It also helps the community. This week, it hosted a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

At Wednesday’s event, 10 participants put on safety goggles, grabbed shears and other tools, and created drinking glasses. Participants purchased $45 tickets in advance, of which $10 was donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“It was a joy doing this because I’ve never done this before,” said Bobby Wright, one of the participants.

Wright said he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006. He was excited about the Glass Spot’s fundraiser in part because he has a team that participates in the Richmond Light The Night Walk and raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society every year.

Wright and Susan Reid, a volunteer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, said the event at the Glass Spot was much more than an opportunity to create drinking glasses.

“I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005,” Reid said. “In April 2018, I will be celebrating 12 years ofremission. And for the kind of cancer that I have, it still is not considered curable.”

Reid said the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s mission – to help cure blood cancers – led her to the Glass Spot. She described meeting the staff there as a “happy mistake.”

That mistake, Reid said, led to her fundraising efforts at the Glass Spot. The proceeds help fund research to find a cure for blood cancers, provide educational materials for patients, caregivers and providers, and assist patients with insurance copayments and other expenses.

“I felt grateful for the fact that I keep continuing in remission, but I hear stories of others. Some not so good. Some sad. Some joyous just like mine,” Reid said. “So it keeps me motivated to want to continue to help fund the research and provide other opportunities for patients to get more years in remission.”

More on the web

For more information about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society or ways to donate, visit www.lls.org. For more information about the Glass Spot, visit www.richmondglassspot.com.

Herring Joins 11 State Attorneys General in Opposing Offshore Drilling

By George Copeland, Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Twelve attorneys general, including Virginia’s Mark Herring, called on the federal government Thursday to halt its plans for gas and oil drilling off their coasts.

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, the attorneys general said the offshore drilling proposal “represents disregard for vital state interests, economies, and resources.”

Drilling off Virginia’s coast would pose a risk to the state’s marine environment, industries, revenue and military assets, Herring said.

"The Commonwealth of Virginia and our coastal communities have made it abundantly clear that we are not interested in putting our economy and citizens at risk as part of President Trump's giveaway to oil and gas companies," Herring said in his statement accompanying the letter.  “The federal government should not force this risk upon us.”

The letter follows Gov. Ralph Northam’s call last month that Zinke exempt Virginia from the drilling plans.  Like Herring, Northam, a fellow Democrat, cited ecological and financial costs.  Northam also noted that Zinke had exempted Florida at the request of that state’s Republican governor,  Rick Scott.

The language used by the attorneys general is more forceful, promising to challenge the proposal “using appropriate legal avenues.”

In addition to Herring, the letter was signed by attorneys general from North Carolina, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Oregon.

The letter also follows comments made by Herring and five other attorneys general to the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement on Monday.  The group criticized the proposed revisions to the Interior Department’s regulation of safety systems for offshore gas and oil production.  

These regulations were put in place in 2016 after the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig led to the deaths of 11 people and the spilling of 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Stafford High School Athlete Playing in Super Bowl

By Kyle Melnick, Capital News Service

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota — When playing with wide receiver Torrey Smith for the Baltimore Ravens between 2011 and 2012, wide receiver Anquan Boldin encouraged Smith to teach his teammates everything he’d learned, so his peers wouldn’t commit the same mistakes.

At the time, that message wasn’t that ingrained in Smith’s mind. He was in the prime of his career after entering the NFL from the University of Maryland, notching at least 840 receiving yards in his first three professional seasons and helping the Ravens win the 2013 Super Bowl.

But as Smith’s production decreased, he transitioned into a leadership role.

Smith has set the example and served as the vocal catalyst for the Eagles’ receiver corps this season. So, after enduring the three worst statistical years of his career, he appreciates playing in the Super Bowl more than he did five years ago, and he’s realized his biggest contributions may come from teaching.

“You want to give (your teammates) everything you have, but work hard so they don’t take your job,” Smith said. “I go out there and bust my tail each and every day. I try to set the tempo. I’ve had some experiences they’re going to learn from, experiences that they will go through.”

Smith starred on all of his teams growing up. He was the best player in almost every game when he played quarterback for Stafford Senior High School in Falmouth, Virginia. He was so explosive that coach Chad Lewis would substitute the backup quarterback into the game during third and long situations, just so Smith could line up at wide receiver and use his speed for a first down.

Colleges recruited Smith at wide receiver because of his athleticism, and Smith was an All-ACC selection as a wide receiver and kick returner his sophomore and junior seasons at Maryland. He recorded 1,055 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns in 2010 before leaving for the NFL Draft, when the Ravens selected him in the second round.

Smith’s success continued with the Ravens, but he didn’t receive the same role he had in Baltimore when the 49ers signed him in 2015. The Richmond, Virginia, native recorded a combined 930 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns in a combined 28 games in San Francisco, which won just seven games during that span.

“You know how much goes into your heart to be ready for a game and to work the way you do and to not have that type of success? It’s stressful,” Smith said. “I see why a lot of guys struggle with mental issues.”

While searching for his football identity when he joined a crowded Eagles receiving corps in March, Smith focused on Boldin’s message from a few years back. While he would play behind Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, Smith told his counterparts what tactic he’s used to be successful while fostering a positive atmosphere.

Smith notices how his teammates can improve their route-running during film sessions and practices, pulling them aside individually to provide tips.

Off the field, Smith has also set an example for his teammates.

He leads the Torrey Smith Family Fund, which provides resources to children in low-income areas. He performs community service in Baltimore and Philadelphia on off-days and was one of four players who penned a letter to league Commissioner Roger Goodell to ask for league support on social activism.

Smith has always been that outgoing, Lewis said, spending time with his most popular and shy classmates in high school.

“I can call him at two in the morning,” Eagles wide receiver Mack Hollins said, “and if it came down to it, he’d help me out."

Smith’s advice has been especially crucial during the postseason, since he’s the only Eagles wide receiver who has played in the Super Bowl.

Smith has handed out tips on staying in the moment, telling his teammates it’ll feel like a regular game once the players finish media availabilities Thursday. He’s brought up the aggressive mindset of the Baltimore receivers when former Ravens wideout Jacoby Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the 2013 AFC Divisional Round to send their game against Denver Broncos into overtime and ultimately a victory.

The 6-foot, 205-pound receiver also explained the butterflies and happiness that come from winning the Super Bowl, motivating his teammates to desire that same emotion.

“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever been around,” Jeffery said. “He wants to see the best in you, whatever it is.”

Smith still has made crucial plays, such as the flea flicker touchdown he caught in the Eagles’ 38-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship. But the 29-year-old finished the regular season with his second-fewest receiving yards of his seven-year career (430).

Much has also changed off the field for Smith since he last played in the Super Bowl. He’s had two kids, and he’s traded his dreadlocks for a buzz cut.

The challenges he’s overcome in both areas of his life left him smiling Tuesday when discussing how he’ll feel as he again takes football’s biggest stage.

“This time around,” Smith said, “it’s just way sweeter.”

Schools May Get Authority to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Summer vacation may be cut short for some Virginia students after two bills rescinding the so-called “Kings Dominion law” – which restricts schools from starting before Labor Day – passed the House this week.

House Bill 372 and HB 1020 would allow school districts to decide whether classes start before or after Labor Day. The difference between the two measures is that HB 372 would require districts to give students a four-day Labor Day weekend. Delegates approved both bills on split votes Tuesday.

Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, a co-sponsor of HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority, said there are academic benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

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

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

To get a waiver, school districts must have been closed an average of eight to 10 days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of weather or other emergency situations.

According to the department, 86 public school districts in Virginia have the waiver and already start before Labor Day. They include Virginia’s largest school district, Fairfax County, and most districts in the western part of the state. Other large school districts in Virginia, such as Virginia Beach and Richmond, do not have a waiver to adopt a pre-Labor Day start date.

Opponents of the bill include members of the tourism industry who argue an earlier start date takes away from their business. A later start date means a longer season for attractions like Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens. Both theme parks employ teenagers who would have to quit if school began earlier.

The “Kings Dominion law” was put in place in 1986 and has been challenged several times. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe supported the law and opposed an earlier start date to the school year. Gov. Ralph Northam has yet to take a position on the topic.

“We support the ability of local school boards to determine the start date and the end date of the school year,” said Andy Jenks, director of communication and public relations for Henrico County Public Schools.

Jenks said that while he does support bills that give them this authority, the next step is to consult with the community to see what opening school date will work best for them, a process Jenks said could take up to a year.

HB 372 passed by a vote of 76-22. HB 1020 passed 75-24. The legislation will move to the Senate for consideration.

GOP Lawmaker Wants Governor’s Support to Ban ‘Sanctuary Cities’

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Republican lawmaker is trying to get the Democratic governor’s support on a bill that would ban “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — a topic that was at the forefront of last year’s gubernatorial election.

Earlier this month, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, introduced a bill that would stop localities from not fully enforcing federal immigration laws.  During a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Cline said he won’t move forward with the bill until he reaches out to Gov. Ralph Northam to see whether  the governor could support a version of the bill.

Northam, however, has expressed doubts over whether such legislation is needed without evidence of any sanctuary cities in Virginia.

While there is no agreed-upon classification for what makes a city a sanctuary, the term is generally used to label localities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. No Virginia localities have tried to adopt such policies.

Cline delayed his bill after a back-and-forth with a Northam aide who represented the administration before a House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

The delegate asked Northam’s aide to clarify the governor’s position on sanctuary cities in light of an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch less than a week before November’s election. Northam said he would support a sanctuary cities ban if any Virginia localities tried to adopt the status.

“My understanding is that if there were sanctuary cities, whatever they are, that he would work with you all to address that issue,” said Jae K. Davenport, deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security.

Cline asked Davenport whether the governor would support legislation if a locality tried to adopt sanctuary city policies.

“I think you’re trying to get into specifics,” Davenport said. “All I can tell you is that the administration opposes this bill.”

When Del. Robert Bell, R-Albemarle, asked Davenport if the governor had any suggestions on how the bill could be changed to get his support, the deputy secretary indicated the bill’s language was too broad.

The administration would have to work with Cline to “address a problem if it does exist,” Davenport said.

“I accept,” Cline responded, before asking the committee to give him until next Wednesday to speak with Northam.

Cline struck portions of his proposed bill that would have allowed the state to reduce funding to localities that were found to not fully enforce federal immigration laws.

Sanctuary cities became a hot-button issue last year when Northam’s GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, said a vote the Democrat cast as lieutenant governor proved he would not crack down on MS-13, a criminal gang with roots in El Salvador.

When a bill to ban sanctuary cities came before the Senate last year, Republican Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, broke with his party to oppose the legislation, forcing Northam to cast a vote to snap  a 20-20 tie. Northam voted against the bill to kill it.

When a similar bill came back to the Senate for another vote, Norment voted with his GOP colleagues to pass the legislation. The bill was then vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.  

Less than a week before last November’s election, Northam told a Norfolk TV station he would sign a bill to ban sanctuary cities if a Virginia locality tried to become one. But if no localities tried to do so, Northam later said to The Times-Dispatch, he would veto such legislation.

“It’s just bad legislation for the state to tell the cities what they should do,” said Linda Higgins, an advocate representing the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights at a news conference Wednesday.

Women Call for Action to Help Black Community

By Chelsea Jackson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A group of African-American women called for action Wednesday on issues burdening the black community, including gun violence, lack of health care and inadequate educational opportunities.

Democratic Dels. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg, Roslyn Tyler of Sussex and Delores McQuinn of Richmond were among those who discussed the needs of black neighborhoods, which McQuinn described as “without a shadow of a doubt in a state of crisis.”

“We are demanding that our colleagues both in the party and across the aisle to begin to adopt policies that and legislation that promote equity and opportunity for all,” said McQuinn, a former Richmond City Council member.

Tyler pointed to the growing number of gun-related deaths in predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Richmond like Creighton and Mosby courts, asking where the firearms are coming from.

This legislative session, Tyler sponsored HB 721, which would have required a background check for any firearm transfer, including those at gun shows and online. The bill was killed in a subcommittee last week on a 4-2 vote. Tyler said it will be back next year.

“Requiring background checks for all firearm purchases will keep firearms out of the hands of potential criminals and keep Virginia safe,” Tyler said.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, addressed the issue of health care. She said many African-Americans lack access to quality care because Virginia has not expanded Medicaid coverage as neighboring states have done with incentives from the federal government.

McClellan said lack of access affects whether people seek treatment for health problems.

“You should not make a decision on whether or not to receive quality care based on whether or not you can afford it,” McClellan said.

Aird said lack of funding for schools also is a problem. She is sponsoring a budget amendment that seeks an additional $64.2 million to help at-risk children.

“If we do not provide our students with the resources that they need in the classroom,” Aird said, “we will not be able to move the dial on getting more credentials, more degrees and more training in the hands of our children.”

Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, called for sisterhood and solidarity in fighting racial disparities and injustices.

“We cannot continue to allow certain populations to be deprived the rights and privileges freely offered to others,” Price said. “Oppressive systems targeting black and brown Virginians must end.”

Members of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the NAACP attended the news conference. They encouraged people to speak out about these issues.

“When you are silent, folks in the community think you are complicit and that all is well,” said Roslyn Brock, chairman emeritus of the NAACP national board of directors. “And we know that all is not well in our communities.”

Panel Kills Bill Giving Puerto Ricans In-State College Tuition

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee has killed a bill that would have made residents of any U.S. territory hit by a major disaster – like Puerto Rico – eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee took the action Monday by rejecting HB 46, proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.

Krizek urged the subcommittee to envision the devastation still evident in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria in September. It was one of the strongest storms ever to hit the island.

“Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico prepare for hurricanes every year,” Krizek said. “Five months after (Maria), the island is still struggling. The infrastructure damage is unimaginable.”

He said that 38 percent of homes on the island still do not have electricity. As a result, many Puerto Rican college students have had their educational plans disrupted.

President Donald Trump issued a Declaration of Major Disaster for the U.S. Virgin Islands on Sept. 7 and for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on Sept. 21. Krizek’s bill would have made “Any resident of a United States territory for which a major disaster has been declared by the President of the United States in 2017” eligible for in-state tuition at Virginia’s public institutions of higher education. The proposal would have given such citizens a four-year window to apply for the adjusted tuition opportunity.

“I’m sure these struggling students have good academic credentials and will seek to come here for educational opportunities. We can give them this helping hand up,” Krizek said. “Let’s support them in this time of need by allowing them – for the next four years – to apply as in-state students.”

He added, “I’m sure if the shoe was on the other foot, Puerto Ricans would be giving us that same opportunity.”

Anita Nadal, a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent and Virginia resident for more than 17 years, spoke in support of the bill at Monday’s subcommittee meeting. Nadal is an assistant professor in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Education is an investment in our future,” Nadal said. “Many young (Puerto Rican) people are very eager to continue their education, and I know they would be more than happy to come to Virginia Commonwealth. The universities here would be a wonderful way to help our fellow citizens that are living a human crisis at this time.”

The vote to have the Krizek’s bill “passed by indefinitely,” effectively killing it for the legislative session, split along party lines:

·       Five Republicans voted in favor of killing the measure: Dels. Nick Rush of Montgomery County, Steven Landes of Augusta County, Charles Poindexter of Franklin County, Christopher Stolle of Virginia Beach and Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield County.

·       Three Democrats opposed killing the bill: Dels. Luke Torian of Prince William County, Betsy Carr of Richmond and Cliff Hayes of Suffolk.

Despite the final vote, Krizek’s office indicated that the subcommittee gave the matter due diligence and that opponents of the bill were concerned about its costs.

“The House Appropriations Committee didn’t feel like there was enough money to be able to grant in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students over Virginian students,” Krizek’s legislative aide said. “But we think everybody was sympathetic to the cause.”

State Legislators Ask Congress to Improve Interstate 81

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than a dozen members of the Virginia General Assembly urged their counterparts in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday to fund improvements in safety and congestion on Interstate 81, which runs from Tennessee to the Canadian border.

The state lawmakers sent a letter to U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine as well as to U.S. Reps. Bob Goodlatte, Morgan Griffith and Barbara Comstock, whose congressional districts include I-81.

The letter was signed by three state senators (Charles Carrico, Creigh Deeds and Mark Obenshain) and 14 state delegates, all from the western part of the state. Fifteen of the legislators are Republicans, and two are Democrats. They asked Congress to support several bills to improve I-81.

“I have been and will continue to be a strong advocate for common sense solutions for our pressing safety problems on I-81,” Obenshain, a Republican from Harrisonburg, said in a press release. “We are coming together as a bipartisan group of Senators and Delegates urging our Congressional delegation to fight for funding for I-81.”

Obenshain has two bills on this issue before the General Assembly:

  • Senate Bill 561 would direct the Department of Transportation to conduct a pilot program to establish zones on I-81 where tractor trucks would be required to travel in the right lane. SB 561 has been referred to the Committee on Transportation.
  • SB 971 would direct the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop an I-81 Corridor Improvement Plan that may include tolling heavy commercial vehicles to finance the improvements. SB 971 has been referred to the Committee on Rules.

Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, who also signed the letter, has proposed creating a joint subcommittee to study the possibility of adding lanes to I-81 between Wytheville and Bristol.

“There are real safety problems that need real solutions,” Obenshain said, “and I am confident that these legislative proposals will present these solutions.”

Latina Lawmaker Delivers Response to President’s Address

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

One of Virginia’s first Latina lawmakers delivered the Democrats’ Spanish-language response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, saying he “has pushed a dark and extremist agenda that damages our national values and endangers national security.”

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, a first-term delegate representing Virginia’s 31st District, criticized the Trump administration for actions she considered discriminatory. Those actions included rescinding protections for certain young immigrants under the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program and, in Guzmán’s view, Trump’s lack of action in providing citizens in Puerto Rico with hurricane relief.

“We should not accept nor normalize the atrocious and insulting way in which this president characterizes our communities,” she said in her nationally broadcast speech. “Doing so would mean giving in to a false and dangerous narrative.”

Guzmán emphasized the need to serve middle-class families instead of supporting the wealthiest, as she claims Trump’s policies do.

“Instead of fighting for the middle class, President Trump rolled back progress towards an overtime wage raise,” Guzmán said. “We, as Americans, deserve a leader that defends the interests of the middle class – not someone who helps the privileged and powerful step on everyone else.”

Guzmán closed her speech by calling upon citizens to make their voices heard by voting and running for office.

“I was told that Virginia wasn’t ready to elect a delegate with Latina roots - and look what happened,” said Guzmán, who was born in Peru and is a social worker in Prince William County. “We need candidates who worry about the fact that our children are at risk of inheriting a nation that no longer believes in equal opportunities for all.”

Guzmán’s speech, which aired with English subtitles for non-Spanish speakers, followed one from Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts congressman and grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who was chosen to lead the Democratic rebuttal. Kennedy called for the unity of the American people while also pointing out the discriminatory nature of the Trump administration.

"It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos, partisanship, politics, but it's far bigger than that," Kennedy said. "This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us, they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection."

The Democratic Party was responding to Trump’s first State of the Union address. In the address, the president reflected on his first year of office, citing tax cuts, the repeal of parts of the Affordable Care Act, and the creation of new jobs as major accomplishments for his administration.

Trump focused on future plans for immigration reform, which included building a border wall, as well as ending programs such as the visa lottery and chain migration, which would strongly limit immigration sponsorships to family members.

“In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can just no longer afford,” Trump said. “It’s time to reform these outdated immigration rules and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century.”

Year After Ruling, 1 in 6 Drivers Still Has Suspended License

Manassas resident Greg Ballou was charged with a misdemeanor when he was 19. As a result, Ballou, 28, has had his driver's license suspended for nine years. (Photo courtesy of Greg Ballou)

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Manassas resident Greg Ballou was charged with a misdemeanor for possession of marijuana when he was 19, and he didn’t have enough money to pay the fine. As a result, his driver’s license was suspended.

Nine years later, Ballou, now 28 and working in construction, is thousands of dollars in debt, and his license has been permanently suspended.

“Everything’s a barrier, and it’s incredibly impossible to have a life at all without a license,” Ballou said.

Under Virginia law, when somebody is convicted of violating state or federal law and does not immediately pay the fine, the court suspends the defendant’s driver’s license.

After he lost his license, Ballou said, life went “all downhill.”

“What’s the point?” he asked. “I couldn’t find a job to keep me out of trouble, and from there, I was bored and had no money.”

Ballou is one of more than 15 percent of Virginia drivers whose licenses have been suspended due to court debt, according to a report released last week by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last year, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked the General Assembly to discard the automatic suspension plan, but legislators rejected his request. Last February, though, the Virginia Supreme Court required all courts to offer all defendants unable to pay court fines within 30 days deferred or installment plans before automatically suspending their license.

Now Republican Sen. William Stanley Jr. from Franklin County is pushing SB 181 to eliminate such license suspensions.

It would repeal “the requirement that the driver’s license of a person convicted of any violation of the law who fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment of fines or costs be suspended. The bill provides that the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles shall return or reinstate any person’s driver’s license that was suspended solely for nonpayment of fines or costs.”

Stanley said he was seeing a lot of people lose their licenses – not because of driving violations but because they weren’t able to pay their fines.

“And because of that, it was threatening their ability to work, take their kids to school or [travel for medical reasons], and they were getting arrested basically for trying to survive,” he said.

Ballou said he has no choice but to be flexible in his line of work. He said he purposely designs his life to be able to walk to work and care for his family.

“You really have to battle up hills,” Ballou said. “How the hell am I going to get to work? How the hell am I going to actually get a job that’s worth going to work for? How are you going to do all this without a license?”

The Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for low-income Virginians, reported that as of December, there were 974,349 suspended licenses in the state due at least in part to court debt. Almost two-thirds of the suspensions were solely for court debt.

“What we can do is ramp up our collection efforts on these fines rather than continually hurting people who can’t drive and lose their job, and the next thing you know, they’re not going to be able to pay those fines,” Stanley said. “We’re perpetuating a cycle of nonpayment instead of encouraging payment or seeking payment.”

The number of Virginians with suspended licenses due to court debt has not changed much in the past year despite the Supreme Court’s order. In September 2016, there were 977,891 suspended licenses in the state, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

“It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses,” the justice center’s report said. It said that from November 2016 to last October, an average of 835 more driver’s licenses were suspended each day due to court debt.

Groups Team Up to Count Richmond Area’s Homeless

Organizations talk and offer service to homeless visitors at the free lunch program in St. Paul's Episcopal Church

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As part of a statewide assessment, a nonprofit group is taking its annual census of the city’s homeless, aiding and aided by a coalition of outreach programs.

The group, Homeward, began its 20th annual Winter Count last week. With a team of about 200 volunteers, the organization collected survey data for two days across several locations, from shelters throughout Richmond to lunch and dinner programs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and First Baptist Church.

Besides counting the number of homeless people, the volunteers cataloged where each person last slept as well as the participant’s race, gender and other information. That data is essential to Homeward’s goals of helping other outreach groups in the region, Executive Director Kelly King Horne said.

“Homeward was created so that this could be a regional approach,” said Horne, who has worked in the 20-year-old organization for more than 14 years. She sees the Winter Count as an opportunity for outreach workers to “ground ourselves in conversations with people in crisis and understand directly from them what it would take to solve this crisis, what are the issues.”

The census will help those involved to “really start to understand better what we’re seeing and what we need to do going forward,” Horne added.

The count also is necessary to maintain a “continuum of care” for the homeless. The data collection is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Any state that fails to conduct the count within the last 10 days of January won’t receive federal funding.

Homeward coordinates homeless services throughout Richmond, from Charles City County to Powhatan County and including Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties.

The census used voluntary survey forms, passed out to those 18 and older across five sites and events. In addition, assessments were conducted in smaller counties like Goochland and New Kent, where homeless individuals are less likely to gather in camps.

This year’s census included some new techniques, as volunteers reached out to panhandlers and asked questions focused on elderly individuals.

Homeward worked not only with its affiliated outreach programs but also with groups such as Spread the Vote, United Healthcare and the U.S. Social Security Administration. Elizabeth Graham, a social worker with Virginia’s Veteran Affairs office, called the collaboration “very successful.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” Graham said. “I think it’s great to have all these resources in one place for folks to come to.”

Those who work to end homelessness know that the endeavor comes with many difficulties. Vivian Bagby, who works with the Richmond Food Bank to feed the poor, said it is a “tragedy” that the city lacks centralized locations where the homeless can congregate and receive care. As a result, homeless people are scattered throughout the city.

“They used to go to Monroe Park,” said Bagby, who now does her outreach near Abner Clay Park after Monroe was closed for construction last year. “And it’s far less than what would gather at Monroe Park. So I’m not sure where the homeless go now.”

While lack of a central location and erratic weather patterns pose challenges in helping Richmond’s less fortunate, Horne said the biggest obstacle is the lack of investment in affordable housing for low-income families. The Richmond area also suffers from a lack of resources for emergency shelters, in her view.

“As a community, as a state, as a country, it’s really difficult,” Horne said. “That’s always a challenge every day, regardless of everything else.”

The completed data will be available in mid- to late February. Horne said she is confident the census will continue to serve the city well.

“There’s so many great ways to connect to this issue,” she said. “Richmond’s really fortunate that we have so many awesome agencies working to end homelessness. Whatever your interests or passions are, there’s a way to connect and make a difference.”

Proposal Would Boost Suicide Prevention Efforts in Schools

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – While campaigning door to door, Del. Danica Roem met a constituent who had lost her only child to suicide. The mother had one request – make suicide prevention training available to all school employees.

Now Roem, D-Manassas, has introduced HJ 138, a joint resolution that would request all Virginia school boards provide every employee with resources or training on how to identify students at risk of suicide.

“This is something that is incumbent upon all of us at the General Assembly, regardless of party label, to make sure that we are working together to take care of our kids and working together to make sure that the caretakers of our children, from maintenance professionals all the way up to the principals, are able to see our kids for the lives they are living and identify the struggles that they have,” Roem said.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of deaths for people age 10 to 18. In 2015, 1,097 people in Virginia died by suicide, and 35 of those suicides were carried out by children under 18, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

While school districts would not be required to comply with the resolution, it is meant to motivate them to take steps toward suicide prevention.

“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.”

The resolution would expand on SB 1250, a 1999 law that required all licensed school personnel to report a child they suspect might be suicidal. However, it did not require those professionals be trained on how to identify students at risk.

When it was passed, SB 1250 also mandated that the Board of Education and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services create a Code of Virginia Suicide Prevention Guidelines.

“An ideal set of training and guidelines for suicide prevention incorporates many aspects of mental health and mental health awareness,” said Dr. Adam Kaul of the Psychiatric Society of Virginia. “Suicide itself is not a source of disease or a specific condition; it is often an end product of mental illness and distress.”

HJ 138 has been assigned to a House Rules Subcommittee and is scheduled to be considered on Friday. Roem’s resolution is co-sponsored by 10 Democrats and one Republican – Del. Matthew Fariss of Appomattox County.

“Anything that would make us smarter about suicide as a society, I think, is something we need to try to do,” Fariss said.

Democrats Vow to Push for Gun Control Laws

Del. John Bell talks about enforcing gun control laws in Virginia. (CNS photo by Aya Driouche)

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic legislators said Tuesday they will continue to fight for gun control laws as Republicans continued to kill bills to restrict firearms.

Six Democratic delegates held a press conference to discuss proposals such as banning weapons from public libraries. Del. Roslyn Tyler of Sussex County said gun violence has been endangering Virginians for years.

“We cannot allow this problem to get worse,” Tyler said. “We cannot stay idle as gun violence leads to more and more empty seats at the dinner tables across the country.”

Del. John Bell of Loudoun County touted his bill to require applicants for a concealed weapons permit to show in-person “competence with a handgun.” Currently, applicants can get a permit by completing a video or online training course.

Bell called HB 91 a “very common-sense bill.” Last week, a House subcommittee killed it on a 4-2 vote.

Bell, who served in the U.S. Air Force for more than 26 years, noted that he went through extensive training to be able to carry a weapon. He said civilians also should receive adequate training in front of a certified instructor before obtaining a concealed carry permit.

“The current online training is far inadequate,” Bell said. “It doesn’t have eyes on from qualified instructors to know if that holster is properly fitted. You have to watch those things in real life, in real time.”

Groups such as the National Rifle Association opposed Bell’s measure. He said they should support it.

“I believe the groups like the NRA and the Virginia Citizens Defense League who oppose this bill are missing a tremendous opportunity to provide low-cost frequent training and to do a public good,” Bell said.

“I believe in the Second Amendment. I’m a gun owner. But I think responsible gun ownership is important, and I believe every gun owner should have a background check and should show they were properly trained before they’re given a concealed carry permit.”

So far this session, Republicans have defeated several gun control bills sponsored by Democrats, including one to require background checks on all gun purchases. On Monday, the Republican majority in the House rejected a resolution to ban firearms from the chamber’s gallery while delegates are in session.

Shortly after the Democrats’ news conference, Republican legislators held one of their own. They argued that citizens should be able to carry weapons in places of worship.

Virginia law prohibits guns in churches and other religious settings. But last week, the Senate voted 21-18 along party lines to repeal that law.

Just as politicians are protected by armed security, members of a congregation should be allowed to arm themselves for self-defense, said Del. Dave LaRock of Loudoun County.

He stood next to a poster of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam speaking to an interfaith group about gun violence at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church last week. LaRock pointed out that the governor’s security detail was nearby.

LaRock said it is not fair that the governor gets treated differently than Virginia citizens who are barred from carrying weapons in places of worship. He said it appears to be a double standard.

“The law that’s on the book says that weapons are prohibited in church without good and sufficient reason, which is vague,” LaRock said. “And we don’t believe laws that are vague should be on the books.”

He said Northam signaled that he would veto SB 371, which would rescind that law, if it passes the General Assembly.

“We pose the question,” LaRock said. “He deserves armed protection in church, but others don’t? We’re just asking him to fill in the blank and explain to us why.”

Black Caucus, Bipartisan Group of Legislators Fighting ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus was joined Monday by a bipartisan group of state legislators supporting  bills to combat  the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Expulsion and suspension policies are the targets of several pieces of legislation, including a bill by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. HB 1600 caps long-term suspension at 45 days instead of the current 364.

“We cannot keep using access, or lack thereof, to education as a punishment and continue to expect positive results,” said  Bourne, a former Richmond School Board chairman.

Bourne also endorsed legislation by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, whose SB 170 prohibits expulsion and suspension for students between pre-kindergarten and third grade. Stanley said the reforms sought were a “human issue,” and not partisan.

The Black Caucus said it wanted to highlight how legislators are crossing party lines on the issues. The process of separating students from their environment and ultimately sending them into the criminal justice system has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  A 2015 Study from the Center for Public Integrity said that on average, Virginia refers more students to law enforcement than any other state.

First-year Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge,  described the problem as  “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.” She has introduced HB 445, which would allow school systems to discipline students who commit certain misdemeanors instead of being required to report those crimes to police.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she has proposed budget amendments  to support school programs for  at-risk students, and also to set aside almost $700 million to end a cap on state-funded school support positions.

“If we don’t put our money where our mouth is we will lose an entire generation of students to the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “Policy is only one side of the coin.”

Standing beside these legislators  was Stacey Doss, a mother of two boys in Lynchburg’s public school system. Her older son, who is autistic, drew national attention and the focus of the Center for Public Integrity after being charged with a felony in 2014 as an 11-year-old.

He had struggled with a school resource officer who had grabbed him after he had left class with other students. The same officer had earlier accused him of  a misdemeanor for kicking a trash can. The charges were dropped after an outcry over the case.

Doss said her 5-year-old has speech problems, and both sons have been ostracized and suspended.  The younger boy was currently under suspension for disorderly behavior, she said.

“He asked me, ‘Why can’t I go to school? I really want to go to school. I miss my friends,’” Doss said. “He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he does know that he is being kept away from something he enjoys.”

House Committee Unanimously Kills ‘Netflix Tax’

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill nicknamed the “Netflix tax” was unanimously defeated Monday in the House Finance Committee, ending the possibility of taxing streaming services in Virginia in 2019.

Introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, HB 1051 would have applied the state’s 5 percent communications sales and use tax not just to Netflix but to all online streaming services – among them Hulu, Spotify and HBO Go – that have skyrocketed in popularity, especially among millennials.

While the current communications tax applies to cable TV, satellite radio, landlines, cell phones and even pagers, streaming services are not included.

Watts said her bill was needed to modernize the state’s communications tax. “Obviously, the way we have continued to communicate has changed,” she said.

Watts told the committee that her bill would apply equal taxes to all forms of communication. “The best we can hope for is a fair tax structure,” she said.

According to the bill’s impact statement, the tax would generate nearly $8 million in revenue for the state – potentially allowing Virginia to become less dependent on other forms of taxes, like those collected through income and real estate levies.

The bill is not the first of its kind: Pennsylvania and Florida have passed laws that tax internet transactions and digital streaming services. But the tax has faced opposition from taxpayers, streaming services and industry trade groups.

The Finance Committee voted 22-0 against the bill. Watts voted against her own legislation, acknowledging that while the measure was not ready to be passed, she wanted to spur a larger conversation about Virginia’s tax structure.

Republicans said they were opposed taxing the heavily used services.

“Let’s be real clear in what we’re talking about here,” said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House Republican Caucus. “This is a Netflix tax. This is a Hulu tax. If you’re under 30, this is a tax on how you get your information, how you watch your TV, how you consume everything every day.”

Representatives from T-Mobile, Verizon and Sling TV attended the meeting and spoke against the bill, while the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties were in favor.

Neal Menkes of the Municipal League commented that he had “yet to hear a pager go off,” echoing Watts’ sentiments about the need to modernize tax law around a quickly changing communications landscape.

1.4 Billion Stolen Credentials Uncovered by University

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – During a security sweep, the University of Richmond’s information security staff discovered a website containing a list of stolen account credentials – a list with approximately 1.4 billion pieces of private account information such as email addresses and passwords.

“From what we’re able to tell, it’s very, very deep within the web,” Cynthia Price, the university’s director of media and public relations, said of the recent discovery. “It’s a concealed website.”

To put the list’s enormity into perspective, the largest internet-era data breach occurred in 2013 when 3 billion Yahoo users were affected by a hack, according to CSO Online, a technology news website. The next biggest was in 2014 when eBay asked 145 million users to reset their passwords after hackers accessed accounts through stolen information.

According to the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology, a breach is defined as the “unauthorized acquisition of computerized data that compromises the security, confidentiality, or integrity of personal information.”

The list on the website discovered by the University of Richmond may be related to previous data breaches.

In an email to students and staff on Friday, the university wrote that the list was “compiled from several data breaches that have occurred over the past several years, such as LinkedIn®, Adobe®, Yahoo®, and other domains,” and that “included in the list were credentials associated with approximately 3,000 richmond.edu email accounts.”

After university emails had been discovered on the list, UR sent its message to inform students and staff about the incident so they could check their accounts. Also attached was a video on creating strong passwords.

UR’s information security staff confirmed that the website acquired the information from emails tied to external sites and made it clear that the school’s information system had not been compromised.

“There is no breaching of our system whatsoever,” Price said, “but because (the website’s list) still contained emails linked to us, we wanted to make sure we alerted people to check their accounts.”

This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be concerned. The individuals who collected this information likely did so with ill intent. As Price explained, “unscrupulous people will collect that data and hold it in hopes that they can somehow use it elsewhere.”

With more than 1.4 billion credentials to sift through, the extent of the list’s information isn’t yet fully known. Attempts were made to contact the Virginia Attorney General’s office for comment on whether an investigation was underway, but the office has not responded.

Salamander Wriggling Its Way Into State Law

 

By Sarah Danial and Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill slithering through the legislative process would designate the red salamander as Virginia’s official state salamander. If the amphibious creature gets the honor, it can thank a group of young nature conservationists.

The Salamander Savers is a 4-H Club based in Fairfax whose members, age 8 to 18, are determined to find solutions for environmental problems. The club started in 2015 when three children wanted to save salamanders from a local lake.

“When our lake was dredged and my kids asked me questions that I could not answer, as a home-schooling mother, I made it my mission to try to find answers to their questions,” said Anna Kim, the club’s adult leader and mother of Jonah Kim, 14, the club’s president.

Her children asked what would happen to the animals living in or near the lake. They were concerned to learn that dredging can disrupt their environment, which could eventually lead to possible extinction. Jonah’s mother recalled her son’s words.

“He once told me that he wanted to give a voice to the animals who couldn’t speak for themselves,” Anna Kim said.

As a result, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, is sponsoring HB 459, which would add the red salamander (officially, Pseudotriton ruber) to the state’s list of official designations. The list currently includes 35 items, from the official beverage (milk) and rock (Nelsonite) to the official television series (“Song of the Mountains,” a PBS program showcasing Appalachian music).

Filler-Corn hopes her bill will inspire the 4H Club members to get involved politically.

“I am excited to introduce these bright young activists to the civic process,” Filler-Corn said. “It is my hope that this is just the beginning of their engagement with government and that they will continue their advocacy for years to come.”

The bill was approved by a subcommittee on a 6-2 vote last week. The House General Laws Committee is scheduled to consider the bill Tuesday.

Jonah Kim and his fellow 4-H’ers thought carefully about which salamander species should represent Virginia.

“We chose the red salamander because it lives in a variety of different habitats throughout Virginia,” he said. “We thought it was easily recognizable and would be interesting to people who have never seen a salamander.”

He said the club hopes the legislation will help raise awareness of salamanders, a species less tolerant of environmental disruptions than frogs and other amphibians. The Salamander Savers are encouraging the public to write a letter to their legislators stating their support.

 

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Republicans Kill Top-Priority Bills Sought by Women’s Advocates

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Women’s rights advocates are disappointed after legislative panels this week killed bills on some of their top-priority issues -- mandating equal pay, reducing restrictions on access to abortion and requiring employers to provide paid medical leave.

The votes, called “anti-woman” by one advocacy group, continued on Friday with  a House Courts of Justice subcommittee defeating the Whole Woman's Health Act. Sponsored by Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax,  HB 1231   stated that, “A pregnant person has a fundamental right to obtain an abortion.”      

The subcommittee also killed a bill by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, to remove what Democrats see as  medically unnecessary barriers to abortion access. HB 450 sought to repeal the statutory requirements that a physician obtain a woman’s written consent and perform a transabdominal ultrasound before an abortion.

On Thursday, a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines against advancing Boysko’s HB 1089, which required equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.

Voting to kill the bill were Republican Dels. Kathy Byron of Bedford; R. Lee Ware, Chesterfield; Israel O’Quinn, Grayson; Margaret Ransone, Westmoreland; and Michael Webert, Culpeper. Supporting the bills were Democratic Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax; Lamont Bagby, Henrico; and Michael Mullin, James City.

“By voting against equal pay for equal work, the message to Virginia women is loud and clear: Our lawmakers in Richmond do not consider us first-class citizens,” said Patsy Quick, co-president of the American Association of University Women of Virginia.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that in 2016, Virginia women working full time made 80 cents for every dollar made by men—a pay gap of 20 percent. As bad as this is, it is even worse for women of color,” Quick said.

For every dollar earned by a white man, black women make  about 63 cents, Latinas 54 cents and white women 78 cents, according to a news release from Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

Progress Virginia and other advocates also criticized lawmakers for killing two bills introduced by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun:

  • SB 709, which sought to eliminate such requirements as a waiting period and an ultrasound before undergoing  abortions.  The Senate Health and Education Committee killed the bill last week at the sponsor’s request -- a move sometimes made when a bill has little or no chance at passage.

  • SB 421, which would have required private employers with 50 or more workers to give full-time employees paid medical leave. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee killed the bill Monday on an 11-4 party-line vote.

Propelled by #MeToo, Groups Seek to Remove ‘Tampon Tax’

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With momentum from the #MeToo movement, several women’s rights groups are supporting legislative calls to remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

Planned Parenthood, the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition and other organizations have been posting on social media, circulating petitions and attending General Assembly meetings to show their support for the idea.

“It’s frustrating that such common-sense legislation is struggling to survive,” said Holly Seibold, a member of the coalition.

Three bills before the General Assembly would exempt products such as tampons, menstrual cups and sanitary napkins and pads from the sales tax:

  • HB 152, introduced by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax
  • HB 24, sponsored by Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who dubbed it “The Dignity Act”
  • HB 448, filed by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico

Boysko also is sponsoring HB 25, which would add menstrual supplies to Virginia’s three-day, back-to-school “sales tax holiday” each August.

Kory said she believes women should not have to pay taxes for a necessity item. All of the bills have been referred to the House Finance Committee.

This is not the first time a “tampon tax” bill has appeared in the General Assembly. But the issue may have more momentum in light of the national conversation about sexual harassment, gender equity and other issues. Moreover, the House of Delegates now has 28 women members – up from 17 last year.

Those factors have generated optimism that the General Assembly may remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

“This is a fairness issue,” Boysko said. “These products need to be more affordable.”

Last year, she introduced a similar measure – HB 1593. In 2016, Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, also sponsored a bill to remove the “tampon tax” – HB 952. Each year, the proposal was tabled by a subcommittee of the House Finance Committee.

Opponents of the legislation worry that it will cost government coffers millions of dollars.

The sales tax rate is 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and 5.3 percent elsewhere in the state. Many retail items – including medicine, eyeglasses and firewood – are exempt from the tax.

With stores charging up to $9 for a box of 36 tampons, women will spend more than $2,000 on feminine hygiene products during their lifetimes. Removing the sales tax would save Virginia women at least $100. However, it would cost the state at least $4.5 million the first year and more than $5.5 million in 2024, the Virginia Department of Taxation said.

According to the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, 14 states do not tax feminine hygiene products. Nine specifically exempt them – Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Connecticut will join this list July 1. The other five – Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana and Oregon – do not have a sales tax.

Making Tampons Available in Schools and Prisons

The sales tax isn’t the only concern regarding feminine hygiene products. Legislators have introduced bills to address these other issues:

  • HB 1434, sponsored by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, would ensure that students in grades six through 12 have access to free tampons and pads in school.
  • HB 83, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, would provide feminine hygiene products to female prisoners and inmates for free.

On Wednesday, supporters of those proposals met with legislators. Holly Seibold, a member of the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition, said the meeting was “well received with bipartisan support.”

But school officials expressed concerns about HB 1434. Officials of Fairfax County Public Schools fear the requirement would cost the district $500,000 a year, Seibold said.

Senate Republicans Reject Medicaid Expansion

By Chris Wood, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Republicans in the Virginia Senate on Thursday tabled legislation that would have expanded Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of lower-income residents of Virginia.

Voting along party lines, the Senate Education and Health Committee indefinitely postponed action on the proposal. The eight Republicans on the panel voted to kill the measure; the seven Democrats voted to keep it alive.

The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid. Democratic Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax noted that Virginia’s neighboring states – including West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – have done so.

Saslaw said the federal government has promised to pay most of the costs of Medicaid expansion.

“If someone came up to me and said, ‘Saslaw, we’ll pick up 90 percent of your medical insurance costs if you pay the other 10, and we think we have a way around that 10,’ I would have to be a lunatic to turn down that offer,” Saslaw said.

However, Republican senators said they fear that Medicaid expansion would put a hole in the state budget.

“The federal level, they can just raise the debt ceiling,” said Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County. “We can’t do that at the state level.”

She said the state has limited resources. As Medicaid takes up more of the state budget, others services would have to be cut back, Chase said.

“It doesn’t take long to see we have major infrastructure needs,” Chase said. “We have bridges in my district that you can’t even drive ambulances over or fire trucks over because of the crumbling infrastructure.”

A fellow Republican, Sen. Richard Black of Loudoun County, said Medicaid costs are escalating out of control.

“I think it’s premature to move forward on this and potentially get ourselves stuck in a situation where we’ve expanded, and all of a sudden we’re having to do this thing on our own dime,” Black said.

The legislation at hand was SB 572, sponsored by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County. A similar measure – SB 158, filed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke – had been folded into Hanger’s bill.

Democrats, including newly elected Gov. Ralph Northam, have made Medicaid expansion a top priority. It was also a priority for many of the people who attended Thursday’s committee meeting. They included Julien Parley, who has a son with autism. She said Medicaid expansion would help mothers like her.

“There was a time that I worked three jobs, and I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor,” Parley said. “I resorted to going to the emergency room, which racked up bills and it also was a hardship on my credit.”

People without health coverage often resort to the emergency room, said Julie Dime of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.

“Countless Virginians that don’t have access to health care find their only option to be the hospital emergency room,” Dime said.

Democrats Tout Bills They Say Would Help Workers

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democratic lawmakers are urging passage of legislation to boost wages paid on state construction projects, increase overtime pay for public and private employees, and prohibit employers from asking job applicants about their salary history.

Those proposals were among a slew of bills discussed at a news conference held by the Virginia House Democratic Caucus. Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, said the bills concern “one of the core issues that defines us as Democrats – our commitment to jobs and the people who need those jobs, who man those jobs.”

He is sponsoring HB 667, which would require contractors and subcontractors on public works projects to pay the “prevailing wage” set by the federal government. He said the measure would increase the supply of apprenticeships and skilled workers and keep jobs in the community.

Many Republicans oppose laws mandating prevailing wages on government-funded projects. They say such requirements inflate construction costs. Krizek disputed that, saying higher wages are usually offset by greater productivity, better technologies and other employer savings.

Krizek’s bill is pending in the House Rules Committee.

Also at the news conference, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, discussed his bill to prohibit employers from requiring job applicants to disclose their salary history. Under HB 240, an employer could not obtain an applicant’s pay history from current or previous employers, either.

Rasoul said employers use applicants’ salary histories to lowball the salaries they offer. “Both young workers and those workers that are in a career transition are experiencing real discrimination because of this,” he said.

Under his proposal, Rasoul said, employers could ask applicants their minimum salary requirement but not how much money they previously earned. The bill has been assigned to the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

That committee also is considering legislation by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, to increase overtime pay for workers in Virginia. Under HB 1109, employees would be entitled to twice their regular pay in certain circumstances. That is more than what the U.S. Department of Labor requires.

“This bill ensures that workers are fairly compensated for overtime if they work more than 12 hours a day, 40 hours a week or 7 consecutive days a work week,” Tran said.

Virginia Republicans Announce Election Review Panel

By Chelsea Jackson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In the wake of a tied contest and other issues in last fall’s elections, Republican leaders in the General Assembly announced Thursday that they will form a panel to address such situations at the polls in the future.

“There were numerous questions raised during the 2017 elections,” said House Speaker Kirk Cox, who made the announcement alongside Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment. “This subcommittee will have the ability to broadly review these questions and determine what, if any, steps should be taken.”

Cox and Norment said the joint subcommittee will deal with concerns such as absentee ballots, the assignment of voters in split precincts and recount law and procedures.

“These issues are not about who wins or loses elections but about the confidence of the public in our elections,” Norment said. “We never go through an election without a contentious result in a closely fought contest. Citizens expect us to protect and ensure the integrity of the process.”

The subcommittee will be co-chaired by two Republicans – Del. Mark Cole of Spotsylvania County and Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier County. Cole chairs the House Privileges and Elections Committee, and Vogel chairs the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

“We need to examine these issues comprehensively, using a process that takes all viewpoints into account,” Vogel said.

The announcement did not include how many Democrats would be on the subcommittee. Republicans hold a slim majority in both the House and Senate.

Some Democrats have their own ideas how to address the election issues. Backed by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, introduced a bill that called for a special election in the case of a tie vote.

A House subcommittee killed that proposal, HB 1581, on a 4-2 vote early Thursday morning. The panel was split along party lines, with Republicans in favoring of killing the measure and Democrats against.

Gun Control Bills Die in Virginia House of Delegares Subcommittee

The Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee of the Virginia House of Delegates considering and killing the banning of bump-stocks and training for carriers of concealed carry permits, both of which are supported by a majority of Virginians, including Republicans.

 

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee shot down multiple gun control bills Thursday despite a tear-filled statement from a survivor of last fall’s Las Vegas shooting who urged legislators to ban bump stocks.

Cortney Carroll of Henrico County was one of several citizen lobbyists who attended the meeting of the Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee. She urged delegates to support HB 41, which aimed to ban the sale of bump stocks, devices that significantly increase the number of rounds that can be fired per minute.

Carroll had been at the country music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 when Stephen Paddock, using rifles fitted with bump stocks, killed 58 people and injured about 550.

“I believe in guns, but I just don’t think these are necessary,” Carroll said. “Think of your children, your family, your friends. Please don’t let [Las Vegas] happen again, not in our state.”

The subcommittee chairman, Republican Del. Thomas Wright of Amelia County, said that while he empathized with Carroll’s perspective, he did not think banning bump stocks was the answer.

“Until the evil in people’s hearts changes, the laws we pass cannot fix that,” he said.

The subcommittee also heard from supporters of HB 602, which would have required people applying for concealed carry permits to demonstrate competence with a gun in person. Applicants can currently complete National Rifle Association or state-certified online courses.

Jonathan Romans, a local gun safety activist, said the training could reduce accidents, which he called a public safety issue.

“Having training for people who want to carry outside the home is not an infringement on constitutional rights,” Romans said. “Gun activists have called this a gun-grabbing scheme, but that’s just not the case.”

Lori Haas, Virginia’s state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, also urged the committee to support the bill.

“We require law enforcement to undergo hundreds of hours of training,” Haas said. “The average citizen could certainly benefit from this training.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, countered: “But we’re not police officers. We don’t need the same amount of training to carry a gun.”

The subcommittee also rejected HB 596 and HB 927, which would have prohibited the sale or transfer of certain magazines and firearms. Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, said she introduced the bill because her constituents were concerned by the abundance of gun violence in their communities.

All of the bills were killed on 4-2 party-line votes.

Meet the Democratic Socialist Who Ousted a Top Republican from the House

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In 2015, Lee J. Carter, an information technology specialist from Manassas, was shocked by 245 volts during a work assignment in Peoria, Illinois, when an electrician had incorrectly wired a panel.

He wound up injuring his back; for the next three months, he could not walk more than 50 feet at a time. Yet Virginia rejected Carter’s claim for workers’ compensation, and his employer cut his hours after he got better. That ordeal inspired Carter to run for the Virginia House of Delegates.

Few people thought he stood a chance of carrying the 50th House District, which includes Manassas and part of Prince William County. He was a little-known outsider challenging a powerful incumbent – Republican Del. Jackson Miller, the House majority whip. Though running as a Democrat, Carter said he did not get a lot of formal support from the state Democratic Party.

But on Nov. 7, Carter shocked the naysayers: Like David against Goliath, he won the House race by nine points, unseating Jackson, who had represented the district since 2006.

How did he pull off the upset? For almost two years, Lee said, he went into the community and talked to residents all day, every day. In the end, they decided they wanted him to come to Richmond and represent them.

Carter is a member of the Democratic Party, but he describes himself as a democratic socialist. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America; the group endorsed him in his 2017 election.

“One of the things I came to understand very early in the campaign is, if you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, they’re going to call you a socialist anyway,” Carter said. “So I figured there is no point in hiding it. I am who I am. I believe worker-owned businesses are better for the community than investor-owned businesses.”

Still, the word “socialist” can raise eyebrows in Virginia politics. Scott Lingamfelter, another Republican who lost his House seat last fall, used the label in his final newsletter to constituents on Jan. 5.

“Last November, the state took a sharp turn to the left, electing people who truly do support a socialist agenda. Republicans were routed, including me,” wrote Lingamfelter, who was beaten by progressive Democrat Elizabeth Guzman in the neighboring 31st House District, which includes parts of Prince William and Fauquier counties.

“I believe that in the months and years to come, Virginians will conclude that this election of far-left candidates was not helpful to families, small businesses, and constitutional governance, the things I stood for when I served in the House.”

Carter, who served five years in the U.S. Marines, said he will look out for workers – and that is why he won by such a large margin.

“I just went out there with the help of hundreds of volunteers with a message of ‘I’m a working-class guy,’ and I’m going to go there [Richmond] and represent working-class issues. We knocked on tens of thousands of doors and brought that message directly to people at their homes,” he said.

Since the election, Carter has been deluged with phone calls from constituents and supporters with requests and ideas. He said the constant flood has continued to this day.

One of Carter’s supporters, and the top individual donor to his campaign, is Karl Becker, who works in the defense industry in the Washington area. Becker worked with Carter on Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

“Lee is very passionate about the inability of the government to serve folks,” said Becker, who contributed $6,750 to Carter’s House campaign.

“He experienced a workplace injury and discovered that workers’ compensation was not working for people. That got him involved in looking into other aspects of politics, and he is very much of the opinion that he can make a difference.”

Becker said he admires both Carter and Sanders for supporting universal health care, also known as “Medicare for all.” Carter is sponsoring a resolution to have state officials study the cost of implementing such a system. The resolution has been referred to the House Rules Committee.

Also this session, Carter introduced legislation to more than double the sales tax on watercraft and to provide more protection for workers in the workers’ compensation system – an issue “near and dear to my heart.” One of his bills was aimed at covering Virginia workers who are injured out of state, as Carter was.

All of his workers’ compensation measures, as well as his sales tax proposal, were killed at the subcommittee level in the House.

For his House race, Carter put together a coalition of groups, including Let America Vote, which fights gerrymandering; the Sierra Club, an environmental organization; the Sister District Project, a Democratic effort focusing on swing districts; and Swing Left, a support group for progressive candidates.

Carter said the Democratic Party is in the midst of change.

“I think right now, it is a party that is torn between two visions of what it is supposed to be,” he said.

“I view it as a party that is supposed to be advocating for the issues of working people exclusively. There are a lot of people at the same time who view the party as one that should advocate for compromise between the interests of working people and the interests of their employers.”

Carter, who graduated from the Sorensen Institute of Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, said having a party of compromise would be fine in a political system with multiple parties.

“But in our current system, you have the Republican Party, which is unabashedly for the interests of the big corporations. So you need a party that is unabashedly for the workers to balance that out. Otherwise, things don’t function.”

Carter quoted former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell, an independent Democrat nicknamed “Howlin’ Henry” for his progressive populist views: “‘An eagle can’t fly with two right wings.’ We need a left wing.”

Virginia Lawmakers Stir the Pot on Brunswick Stew Day

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Carroll Tucker stuck the long, wooden stirring paddle into the 85-gallon pot of stew. He let it go, and it didn’t move.

“Do you know what it means if the paddle can stand up by itself?” said Tucker, longtime friend of this year’s Brunswick stewmaster and member of the “stew crew.”

“It’s ready.”

Senators, delegates and hungry residents lined up outside a tent on the Capitol grounds Wednesday to get a taste of this year’s stew. Legislators declared the fourth Wednesday of January Brunswick Stew Day nearly 20 years ago, and it’s the county’s most celebrated tradition.

“It’s been a cherished endeavor for many years,” said Tracy Clary, this year’s stewmaster. “The first Brunswick Stew was cooked in 1820 in Brunswick County right on the banks of the Nottoway River.”

Clary has lived his entire life in the county, which borders North Carolina, and has participated in the Taste of Brunswick Festival for years. Of the seven years he’s competed in the cook-off, he’s placed in the top four six times, winning for the first time in October.

The winning dish, which Clary served again Wednesday, is a chicken-based stew with pork, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, butter beans, corn and a seasoning consisting of just four ingredients – salt, sugar, black pepper and ground red pepper.

Clary and his crew cooked the mixture from midnight until the last spoonful of the 340 to 350 quarts of stew was served just before noon.

“Once you start the pot to get cooking, you’ve got to constantly stir it so it doesn’t burn,” said Tucker, a member of the crew. “We’re constantly adding ingredients, sitting around talking, just having good fellowship and cooking the stew.”

The long hours tending the pot were rewarded when around 10:30 a.m. senators, representatives and other lawmakers lined up to grab a bowl. By 11 a.m., the stew was running low.

“The governor’s not going to have anything to stir if he doesn’t come down here soon,” said a member of the stew crew.

Shortly after, Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Roslyn Tyler, who is from Brunswick, made their way to the tent just in time to get their fix. They gathered around the steel pot, which was almost as tall as the stewmaster himself, to take pictures with Clary and the stew crew. Then they took turns stirring the pot.

“It’s like paddling my boat,” Northam called out as he grasped the paddle and stirred the remaining stew.

Brunswick County administrator Charlette Woolridge said she hasn’t missed a Stew Day in the 11 years she’s held the position. She said Stew Day is an important event in the county’s history because it’s an opportunity for locals to showcase Brunswick County, interact with elected officials and Virginia residents and share their beloved stew.

“We’re just happy and proud to host this event annually,” she said. “We get great enjoyment and fulfillment out of this, and we look forward to doing this for years to come.”

Bill Calls for a Special Election if a Recount Ends in a Tie

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday called for a law requiring a special election if an election recount ends in a tie – as it did in the state’s 94th House District last fall.

That tied election in Newport News between Republican David Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds was decided by a lottery – film canisters pulled out of a bowl. That is what prompted Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, to propose House Bill 1581.

“When it was announced that the winner of the 94th District House race was to be determined by lot – by drawing a name out of a bowl – there was an instant reaction,” Price said at a news conference attended by the caucus chair, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, and other legislators.

Yancey, the incumbent delegate, won the lottery held by the State Board of Elections on Jan. 4. Price said that regardless of party, Virginians deserve a better way of settling deadlocked elections.

Price said she was holiday shopping for her nephew in December when both Republican and Democratic residents of the 94th House District approached her about the upcoming lottery. Price recalled one man saying, “I know we don’t agree on much, but tell me you agree that this just isn’t right.”

“So HB 1581 takes into account the feelings of disenfranchisement and serves as a fix. It says if the court finds that each party to the recount has received an equal number of votes, it shall issue a writ promptly ordering a special election be held to determine which candidate is elected to office,” Price said.

The proposed rule would apply to all elected offices except governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. The Virginia Constitution says the General Assembly must settle any tied election for those statewide offices.

Price’s idea to hold a special election received support at the news conference from Dawnn Wallace, who lives in the 94th House District.

“I was one of the 23,891 people who cast a vote on Nov. 7, 2017, in the House of Delegates election for the 94th District,” Wallace said. In that election, after a recount and a court hearing, officials determined that Yancey and Simonds each got 11,608 votes, with the rest going to a Libertarian and write-in candidates.

Wallace said she makes sure to vote in every election. When she learned that her state delegate would be chosen by picking a name out of a bowl, she said she was flabbergasted.

“Many of my family members, neighbors and friends who live in the 94th District felt the same way,” Wallace said. “And our immediate concern moved from who would prevail to how that person was going to win.”

As a sports fan, Wallace said it was like having a football game decided by a coin flip. Just as games tied at the end of regulation go into overtime, Wallace said a recount that ends in a tie should be decided by a special election.

A subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee is scheduled to hear Price’s bill on Thursday.

Bill Would Exempt Trade Secrets from FOIA

Delegate Roxann Robinson, R - Midlothian, before the General Laws subcommittee, reading her proposed bill creating general rules exempting trade secrets from Freedom of Information Act requests (photo by Adam Hamza)

Delegate Roxann Robinson, R - Midlothian, before the General Laws subcommittee, reading her proposed bill creating general rules exempting trade secrets from Freedom of Information Act requests (photo by Adam Hamza)

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Open government and environmental advocates are once again battling bills they say that would limit public-information access by creating a Freedom of Information Act exclusion for trade secrets.

HB 904 by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, would create general exclusions from FOIA for trade secrets submitted to a public body. It passed its initial hearing in a House General Laws subcommittee Tuesday.

The bill is similar to four others Robinson introduced last year that would have allowed FOIA exemptions for chemical names and concentrations used in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. All failed to pass.

The new bill is supported by the Freedom of Information Advisory Council. Alan Gernhardt, the council’s executive director, said the bill simplifies the way FOIA treats trade secrets.

He said that over the past few years, FOIA exemptions have been issued based specifically on the type of record as well as the agency. This means each time an exception is sought, an individual exemption must be crafted.

“The problem is more and more agencies are holding or receiving trade secrets, and so they’re asking for more exemptions every year,” Gernhardt said. “We want to get the one general exemption everybody can use and remove the language that’s specific for each agency.”

Opponents of the bill countered that the exclusions are too broad and carry significant unintended consequences – mainly, keeping more information from citizens.

Emily Francis, representing the Southern Environmental Law Center, criticized what she termed a sweeping exemption. She said the legislation doesn’t address the center’s concerns from Robinson’s earlier bills, including the need to provide public access to the names of chemicals used in fracking.

“The public would like access to this information. As of today, they do have access to this information, and they would like (continued) access to that information,” she said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, expressed objections similar to those of the law center.

“We do want to point out that, yes it has been worked on for four years, and the bill that came – nobody was happy with it,” Rhyne said.

Corrina Beall, political director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, and Daria Christian, assistant director of the Friends of the Rappahannock, also spoke in opposition.

Trade secrets in the legislation are based on the definition in Virginia’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act, according to the bill summary.

A trade secret, according to the act, “means information, including but not limited to, a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process, that: 1. Derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use, and 2. Is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.”

The subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines to send the bill to the full committee:

  • Republican Dels. Keith Hodges of Middlesex, Hyland Fowler of Hanover, James Leftwich of Chesapeake and Jason Miyares and Glenn Davis of Virginia Beach voted for the bill.
  • Democratic Dels. Betsy Carr of Richmond, Patrick Hope of Arlington and Kathleen Murphy of Fairfax voted against it.

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