Current Weather Conditions

 
Seven Day Forecast for Emporia, Virginia
 

Community Calendar Sponsored By...

 

Daniel Berti

Virginia Legislators Seek Refund for Utility Customers

 

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill to return millions of dollars to Virginia residents who they say have been overcharged by the state’s utility companies.

Bill sponsors say Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the largest energy providers in the state, are charging residents more than they should for utility costs.

“Virginia consumers have suffered long enough,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. “My constituents have said their utility bills are too high, and we need to have a strong group advocating for consumers to ensure that ratepayers are not being taken advantage of.”

Rasoul is the chief sponsor of the "Ratepayers Earned these Funds, Not Dominion" (REFUND) Act. He said it seeks to compensate ratepayers for years of excess spending by utility companies.

The bill comes a month after Clean Virginia, an environmental advocacy group, issued a report that claimed Virginia utility companies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power use ratepayer money for nonessential spending like political contributions, advertisements and excessive executive compensation.

“Energy bills in Virginia have stopped reflecting the fundamental principle that ratepayers should only pay for the underlying cost of their energy and its delivery,” the report said.

It alleged that most Virginia residents are being overcharged by an average of $250 on their utility bills every year due to nonessential spending by utility companies — an excess payment that Clean Virginia has dubbed the “Dominion tax.”

The proposed legislation aims to refund that money as a credit on customers' bills over a period of six to 12 months.

“It ensures that we as ratepayers do not pay for Dominion’s lobbying activities,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. “These nonessential costs should never be subsidized by ratepayers, and refunding this money ensures ratepayers get back every cent that is rightfully theirs.”

Under the proposed legislation, the State Corporation Commission would conduct annual proceedings to determine whether each electric public utility used revenue collected from its customers to pay for nonessential expenditures and would determine the amount and type of expenditure found to be improper.

If any nonessential expenditures are found, the commission would have the authority to order the company to refund an equal amount to its customers.

Additionally, if a utility company is found to have used ratepayer money to pay for any advertisements, the company would be required to refund customers 10 times the cost of the advertisement. Exceptions would be made for advertisements that promote conservation or more efficient use of energy.

Dominion Energy has denied charging their customers for any nonessential expenses and maintains that the average bill for its customers is more than 20 percent below the national average.

“Our customers never pay for our lobbying, political contributions or most of our advertising,” Dominion Energy spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said. “They are getting a great value on their power bills and have been for years.”

The REFUND Act is one of several bills targeting Dominion on environmental and regulatory issues this year:

  • A bill introduced by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, seeks to limit Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
  • Bills sponsored by Carroll Foy and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian, would require the closure and cleanup of Dominion’s coal ash landfills in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Virginia Lawmakers Eye Paid Family Leave

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that would provide Virginia workers up to three months of paid family and medical leave every year.

The bills would create a paid leave program, effective Jan. 1, 2022, for workers who are new parents, family of active duty military personnel, have serious medical conditions, or care for family members with serious medical conditions.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, sponsor of House Bill 2120, made her case for paid family and medical leave in Virginia at a press conference Monday.

“Spending time with a dying relative, giving birth to a child, caring for a sick parent, these should not be privileges reserved just for wealthy Virginians,” Carroll Foy said. “Hard-working, middle-class Virginians deserve to spend time with their families like everyone else does.”

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate, spoke about the economic benefits of paid leave for businesses.

“Paid leave programs have been shown to benefit businesses, making it more likely that employees will return to work, ready to work, rather than struggling financially,” Boysko said.

Under the paid leave program workers would be eligible to receive up to 70 percent of their average weekly wage, without exceeding $850 per week. Self-employed workers would also be provided the option of participating in the program.

The maximum combined amount of paid leave per year for qualifying workers would be 12 weeks.

In order to qualify for paid leave benefits, an employee would need to meet the administrative requirements in the bill, the requirements laid out in the state’s benefit eligibility conditions, and submit an application to the Virginia Employment Commission.

Funding for the proposed program would be provided by a family and medical leave insurance fund established by the Commission and financed through payroll taxes.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is sponsoring a related bill that would provide a parental leave tax credit to small businesses that would begin in 2021. SB 1376 aims to create an income tax credit for a portion of the salary or wages paid by small businesses to full-time employees while on leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

The bill requires small businesses to provide full-time employees with at least eight weeks of paid parental leave.

In June, Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order offering eight weeks of leave at full pay to state employees for the birth or adoption of a child.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 2234 last week to increase the amount of paid parental leave for state employees to 12 weeks.

During the press conference, advocates for paid family leave spoke about the importance of the proposed legislation for working families in Virginia. Carroll Foy shared a personal account of the hardship she experienced in the absence of paid leave.

“I’m standing here as a middle-class, working mother, and I implore all Virginians to support this,” Carroll Foy said. “It’s not only an economic issue. It is a human rights issue.”

Virginia Black Caucus Unveils Legislative Priorities

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday outlined a legislative agenda that addresses education, civil rights, voting rights and criminal justice reforms.

On the first day of the General Assembly’s 2019 session, the 21-member caucus declared its support for a number of policy proposals that the lawmakers said would improve the lives of underprivileged Virginians.

The group’s priorities include improvements to the state’s public school system. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said the caucus will join Gov. Ralph Northam in pushing for increased funding for education.

“We are committed to fighting anything that takes money out of the K-12 system, anything that undermines public education in Virginia,” McClellan said. “We will fight tooth and nail to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

McClellan also declared the caucus’ support for the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would guarantee equal rights on the basis of gender. Five resolutions have been introduced in the Senate and House of Delegates to have Virginia ratify the ERA.

The amendment has been ratified by 37 states, one short of the 38 required. However, the deadline to ratify the amendment has expired, and experts disagree over whether it still can be approved.

“You’ll hear a lot of arguments today about all the terrible things that will happen if we dare to deem women equal under the law,” McClellan said. “Well, the Virginia Constitution already does it; it’s time the U.S. Constitution does, too.”

2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the Virginia House of Delegates, originally known as the House of Burgesses. But caucus members noted that it has been only 35 years since the first African-American woman was elected to the House.

Yvonne Miller was elected as a state delegate in 1983 and a state senator in 1987, serving in that position until her death in 2012.

There are currently 11 African-American women in Virginia’s legislature.

The caucus has also put its weight behind changes to Virginia’s voting laws. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, voiced support for a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the civil rights of felons who have completed their sentences and made restitution.

“The only requirement for voting should be turning 18 years old, being a resident of the locality where you live, and to be a registered voter,” Locke said. “In a democracy, voting is not a privilege — it is a right of democracy. So we are certainly trying to, as a caucus, ensure that voters in this commonwealth exercise that right.”

Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, discussed efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

“What you will see from this caucus will be common-sense, progressive policy proposals that make sure everyone is treated equally, fairly under the law,” Bourne said.

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax also made an appearance at the press conference. Fairfax highlighted the caucus’ 2018 achievements but added that there was still plenty of work to do.

“What we see in Washington and around this country are people who wish to divide us,” Fairfax said. “This caucus is focused on making sure that we move forward united to provide opportunity for everyone no matter the color of their skin, where they live, who they love.”

Prison Reform Advocates Want Data on Solitary Confinement

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of Democratic legislators are urging the General Assembly to take steps towards limiting solitary confinement in the state’s prisons.

They say that the practice is unregulated and inhumane and that prisoners may be spending unnecessarily long amounts of time isolated from human contact.

“It’s an extremely severe practice that is irrevocably harming an unknown number of people,” said Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications for the ACLU.

The ACLU called on Gov. Ralph Northam to ban solitary confinement entirely — something no legislator has yet proposed. But during its 2019 session, the General Assembly will consider three bills that would require the Virginia Department of Corrections to collect and report statistics on its use of solitary confinement:

  • Democratic Dels. Patrick Hope of Arlington and Kaye Kory of Falls Church are sponsoring House Bill 1642. It would require the Department of Corrections to track how many inmates are placed in solitary confinement, including their age, sex, mental health status and other characteristics. The department would have to report the information to the governor and General Assembly each year and post it online.
  • Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, has submitted two proposals with a similar intent — Senate Joint Resolution 65 (carried over from the 2018 legislative session) and Senate Bill 1085 (filed last month). Marsden’s bill, which has been referred to the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee, would require the prison system to report on its use of any “restrictive housing,” which includes not only solitary confinement but also administrative and disciplinary segregation and protective custody.

The legislative sponsors say that solitary confinement is a mental health issue and that more transparency is a crucial first step in monitoring the well-being of prisoners in solitary confinement.

“There have been very clear studies that show the correlation between the time spent in solitary confinement and deteriorating mental health,” Hope said. “Mental health care treatment is not an optional treatment. It’s mandatory just like cancer or a heart attack or anything like that. It’s just as important.”

The upcoming legislation comes on the heels of a damning investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into conditions at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia.

The department’s report, issued in December, concluded that the jail failed to provide constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners and placed “prisoners with serious mental illness in restrictive housing for prolonged periods of time under conditions that violate the constitution.”

Investigators wrote that the jail’s restrictive housing practices discriminated against prisoners with mental health disabilities.

“I think this is a wake-up call for the entire state,” Hope said.

Kimberly Jenkins-Snodgrass, vice chairperson of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a prison reform group, said the Virginia Department of Correction should provide more information about how it uses solitary confinement.

Jenkins-Snodgrass said her son, Kevin Snodgrass, spent four consecutive years — from 2013 to 2017 — in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison in far southwest Virginia.

“As a mother who has a son who is serving time, who has served time in solitary confinement, I will say that HB 1642 is a first step in having transparency from the Department of Corrections, and transparency will give those behind the walls a voice,” Jenkins-Snodgrass said.

Jenkins-Snodgrass will speak at the second annual Virginia Prison Reform Rally on Jan. 12 at Capitol Square in Richmond. The rally is organized by Virginia Prison Justice Reform Network, a volunteer-based coalition of prison reform advocacy groups.

Del. Lamont Bagby, leader of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, has also come out in support of HB 1642. Bagby said the bill has the potential to reduce the number of prisoners spending time in solitary confinement.

“We have to start somewhere,” Bagby said. “We’ll at least know what we don’t know, and that is information related to race, and information related to why individuals are placed in solitary confinement.”

Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for Virginia Department of Corrections, downplayed the need for changes to the DOC’s use of restrictive housing. She accused the bills’ supporters of being politically motivated.

“Virginia is a national leader in limiting the use of restrictive housing,” Kinney said. “It’s disappointing but not surprising to see others trying to score easy political points and advocacy groups trying to fundraise off this issue.”

Currently, 62 prisoners are being held in long-term restrictive housing, Kinney said. In 2010, that number was 511.

Starting in 2018, the department’s quarterly report to the governor and General Assembly included the numbers of offenders in both long-term and short-term restrictive housing, but it did not contain demographic data or information about prisoners’ mental health status.

Marsden agreed that the department has made strides to reduce the number of prisoners in “restrictive housing,” but he said state officials should not “accept improvement as success.”

Jessica Fraraccio, a former prisoner at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, spent five weeks in solitary confinement in 2013. Fraraccio, 22 at the time, described her experience in solitary confinement as “deprivation” torture.

“You just kind of lose track of time and concept of communication,” Fraraccio said. “It starts to all drift away and you just feel isolated, like you can’t connect with any realistic concepts of the everyday.”

Fraraccio was released from prison in August 2018, after serving a five-year sentence for murder. She said that she hopes the proposed solitary confinement legislation will lead to better monitoring of the practice.

“Hopefully that’ll do something to help humanize these people a little more,” Fraraccio said, “and actually get the people who are working there to pay more attention to the people that live there.”

Women’s Prison Must Improve Medical Care, Judge Says

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

A federal judge has ruled that the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is in violation of a federal court order mandating basic medical care — nearly a year and a half after the high-profile death of an inmate.

Deanna Niece died of cardiac arrest in her cell at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women on July 25, 2017, after several unmet requests for medical assistance that same day, according to the prison.

Niece is one of four prisoners who died of preventable deaths at the prison since 2016, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon found. Legal advocates for the women say their deaths reflect a pattern of inadequate medical care at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

"In sum, the medical treatment these women received was neither timely nor appropriate, and their deaths illustrate the danger of not having appropriate medical equipment on hand," Moon wrote.

On Wednesday, Judge Moon concluded that the Virginia Department of Corrections and FCCW had violated the terms of a 2016 settlement agreement that required the agency to implement medical care reforms at the prison.

“The record shows that VDOC’s and FCCW’s own officials had — by their own admission — actual knowledge that FCCW was not complying with parts of the Settlement Agreement,” Moon said.

The court determined that the facility’s medical team had remained understaffed and that, as of January 2018, the shortage of nurses at the prison had actually gotten worse since the settlement agreement took effect in 2016.

The report also alleges that FCCW failed to improve access to medical equipment for medical personnel, which was relevant in Niece’s death.

“In the last minutes of Niece’s life, as she choked and bled from her mouth, neither a stretcher, nor oxygen, nor suction equipment was readily available,” Moon wrote.

Additionally, the court’s findings showed that the facility’s medical staff failed to appropriately supply and administer medications to prisoners. The plaintiffs documented several occasions in which medical staff failed to reorder medications before they ran out because of incorrect charting or record-keeping, and in some cases, “by nurses not even knowing how to reorder medications.”

Prison officials argued that they were unable to carry out the obligations set forth in the settlement agreement because the language was too “subjective” and unclear. That argument earned a rebuke from Moon, who wrote, “The Settlement Agreement does not condone lollygagging.”

“Women at FCCW have died in the months and years after approval of the Settlement Agreement,” Moon added.

Lisa Kinney, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that the court had declined to find the department in contempt and would not impose civil penalties.

“VDOC has continued to work to provide appropriate medical care to inmates during the pendency of the lawsuit,” Kinney said.

The court has ordered the prison to fulfill a number of requirements to remedy its breach of the settlement agreement, however.

FCCW will be required to have 78 nursing-equivalents on staff and ready access to medical equipment such as backboards for carrying patients and suction machines in all FCCW buildings. The order will also require nurses “to be trained on how to reorder medications, as well as identify and respond to signs of cardiovascular or pulmonary problems.”

The settlement agreement was the outcome of a yearslong legal battle that began in 2012 when prisoners at FCCW filed suit against the VDOC for failing to provide adequate healthcare to prisoners.

Inmates then filed a motion of contempt in September 2017, claiming that medical care at FCCW had not improved since the settlement was reached.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Shannon Ellis, said that serious medical misdiagnosis and preventable deaths were ongoing in the years after the settlement agreement was reached.

“Wednesday’s ruling is an important victory for the women who have suffered for years at FCCW,” Ellis said. “This decision is important not only for the women at FCCW, but because it lays bare the terrible human, financial, and legal costs of Virginia’s current practice of over-incarceration across the state.”

Subscribe to RSS - Daniel Berti

Emporia News

Stories on Emporianews.com are be searchable, using the box above. All new stories will be tagged with the date (format YYYY-M-D or 2013-1-1) and the names of persons, places, institutions, etc. mentioned in the article. This database feature will make it easier for those people wishing to find and re-read an article.  For anyone wishing to view previous day's pages, you may click on the "Previous Day's Pages" link in the menu at the top of the page, or search by date (YYYY-M-D format) using the box above.

Comment Policy:  When an article or poll is open for comments feel free to leave one.  Please remember to be respectful when you comment (no foul or hateful language, no racial slurs, etc) and keep our comments safe for work and children. Comments are moderated and comments that contain explicit or hateful words will be deleted.  IP addresses are tracked for comments. 

EmporiaNews.com serves Emporia and Greensville County, Virginia and the surrounding area
and is provided as a community service by the Advertisers and Sponsors.
All material on EmporiaNews.com is copyright 2005-2019
EmporiaNews.com is powered by Drupal and based on the ThemeBrain Sirate Theme.

Submit Your Story!

Emporia News welcomes your submissions!  You may submit articles, announcements, school or sports information using the submission forms found here, or via e-mail on news@emporianews.com.  Currently, photos and advertisements will still be accepted only via e-mail, but if you have photos to go along with your submission, you will receive instructions via e-mail. If you have events to be listed on the Community Calendar, submit them here.

Contact us at news@emporianews.com
 
EmporiaNews.com is hosted as a community Service by Telpage.  Visit their website at www.telpage.net or call (434)634-5100 (NOTICE: Telpage cannot help you with questions about Emporia New nor does Teplage have any input the content of Emporia News.  Please use the e-mail address above if you have any questions, comments or concerns about the content on Emporia News.)