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Daniel Berti

Community Lenten Services

Luncheon will be served after each Wednesday Noon Service for a small donation.

March 27 - 12 Noon First Presbyterian Church Rev. Dr. Rick Hurst

April 3 12 - Noon Calvary Baptist Church Rev. Dr. Doretha Allen

April 10 - 12 Noon St. Richard’s Catholic Church Rev. Tom Durrance

April 18 - 7 pm Elnora Jarrell Worship Center Rev. Harry Zeiders

April 19 - 11 am Calvary Baptist Church (Radio Baptist) Various Pastors and Leaders Hour of Prayer

The offering: we have given two $500 scholarships to seniors in the past. We will contact these two students and if they are still at their schools with passing grades, we will give them another $500 each and any money above $1000.00 we be given to Thomas Family Boots On the Ground Outreach.

Virginia Electric Utilities Wiring Rural Areas for Broadband

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — If you want internet service in the rural hamlet of Honaker, in far Southwest Virginia, Cable Plus is the only game in town. With internet speeds of 3 megabits per second, customers can go online to check their email, surf social media and watch low-quality videos from streaming services, but not much else.

The cheapest Cable Plus internet package available to the 700 households in Honaker: $54 a month.

An hour away in Bristol, Virginia, residents have plenty of options to choose from for broadband. They can get high-speed service — with speeds of at least 25 Mbps — for as low as $45 a month.

The difference in internet services between urban and rural communities in Virginia is stark: Only 53 percent of rural Virginians have access to broadband internet. Urban areas have far better coverage — 96 percent, according to a 2016 study by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

That’s because internet providers profit more when their customer base is concentrated and easy to reach. In rural areas, it’s much more expensive per customer to provide high-speed internet.

Virginia lawmakers have taken steps to address geographic disparities in broadband coverage by passing a bill that will give the state’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the green light to provide broadband internet service to unserved areas.

HB 2691, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, will create a pilot program that allows the electric utilities to expand “middle mile” broadband coverage — the infrastructure that connects the networks and core routers on the internet to local internet service providers that serve businesses and consumers directly.

The bill will allow each utility to spend up to $60 million annually on the pilot program. The companies will be able to recover that money from ratepayers.

Dominion and Appalachian Power won’t be providing high-speed internet straight to residents’ homes and businesses, however. The final connection, called the “last mile,” will be left to third-party internet providers. The last mile brings service to the end user’s premises and is typically the most expensive component of broadband infrastructure.

Nate Frost, director of new technology and energy conservation at Dominion Energy, said the program is “unconventional” for electric utilities but could help solve rural Virginia’s broadband woes.

“There’s a unique opportunity to potentially leverage some of the business that we’re going to be doing anyway,” Frost said. “But getting to that point won’t be easy.”

Under the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power must modernize their systems, and part of that involves bringing broadband to electrical substations to support new “smart” infrastructure initiatives.

The pilot program allows the electric utilities to add extra fiber optic cables to rural substations in addition to the fiber they’re already putting in place. That additional broadband capacity will then be leased to third-party internet providers, which will provide last-mile connections to homes and businesses nearby.

O’Quinn’s bill is awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature to become law.

Evan Feinman, Northam’s chief broadband adviser, said earnings by electric utilities from leasing middle-mile infrastructure will result in lower electric bills over time and will save ratepayers an estimated $150 million over the next three years.

Those savings are based on Dominion’s 2018 Broadband Feasibility Report, in which the company outlined the potential for adding broadband capacity to rural areas.

“It’s one of those very rare win-wins where the electric companies, ratepayers and people in need of broadband service all benefit,” Feinman said.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously but drew opposition from a few Republicans in the House of Delegates. Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, voted against it.

“We’ve made great progress toward achieving this goal over the last several years,” said Byron, who chairs the state Broadband Advisory Council. “I’m concerned that the approach enacted by HB 2691 might unintentionally divert or detract from our well-established and successful efforts.”

Over the last few years, the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative has provided millions of dollars to broadband service providers to extend their service into rural areas. During its recent session, the General Assembly increased funding for the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative for the 2020 fiscal year from $4 million to $19 million.

Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, also voted against O’Quinn’s bill, citing the increased costs to ratepayers.

“This is a perversion of the system where the State Corporation Commission has the authority to set reasonable rates and to return ratepayer money that exceeds reasonable rates,” LaRock said.

It’s not unprecedented for electric utilities to provide internet services in Virginia. Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, which serves rural areas in 14 counties, announced its own broadband expansion in January 2018. The $110 million project aims to provide internet and phone service directly to consumers through a subsidiary company called Firefly Broadband.

Virginia has the fifth-highest rate of broadband adoption in the nation and ranks among the top 10 states in terms of its average peak internet connectivity speed, according to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Up to 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic flows through Northern Virginia.

But state officials have been concerned about the lack of broadband in rural areas, saying such connectivity is critical to economic development. Northam has made broadband expansion a priority, proposing that the state spend $250 million over the next 10 years to address the unequal distribution of internet service.

“Broadband internet is inarguably a necessity for participation in a 21st-century economy, and many Virginians have been left without quality access for far too long,” Northam said. “By ending this disconnect, we can better attract and support business and entrepreneurship, educate all Virginia students and expand access to cost-saving telehealth services.”

Assembly OKs Bills to Address Housing and Eviction Issues

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A flurry of bills addressing affordable housing and high eviction rates in Virginia cities moved forward in the House and Senate this week.

Three bills on those issues have passed both chambers and have been sent to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law. Several other measures have passed one chamber and are awaiting a floor vote in the other.

Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Virginia since RVA Eviction Lab found that of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the United States, five are in Virginia.

“Every Virginian deserves a safe place to call home,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Charles City. He is sponsoring HB 2229, which would allow localities to waive building fees for affordable housing developments.

“By supporting more affordable housing, we can address the devastating impacts of Virginia’s high eviction rates,” Bagby said.

Richmond, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Chesapeake have the highest rates of eviction in the state, according to a recent report published by Eviction Lab, a problem that disproportionately impacts minority communities. Richmond has the second-highest eviction rate in the country.

“Housing eviction rates in our commonwealth are a disgrace,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton. “It is no secret that the laws and regulations around eviction in Virginia are intentionally vague and disproportionately target our most vulnerable communities.”

Of eight bills introduced in the House and Senate, three have passed both chambers:

  • HB 2054 - Introduced by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Chesterfield, requires landlords to provide a written rental agreement to tenants.

  • HB 1681 - Introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, expands eligibility for the housing choice voucher tax credit to low-income communities in Hampton Roads.

  • SB 1448 - Introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, changes the terminology from writ of possession to writ of eviction for the writ executed by a sheriff to recover real property pursuant to an order of possession. The bill specifies that an order of possession remains effective for 180 days after being granted by the court and clarifies that any writ of eviction not executed within 30 days of its issuance shall be vacated as a matter of law.

Five other affordable housing bills are awaiting a floor vote in the House or Senate with just under two weeks left in the session. Virginia House Democrats said in a press release Wednesday that they are committed to implementing affordable housing reform and protecting vulnerable communities from evictions.

“The displacement of vulnerable communities is not the nationwide record we want to be setting in the commonwealth,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond.

As Redistricting Plans Advance, Advocates Slam House GOP Bill

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the General Assembly’s session enters its second half, both the House and Senate have passed competing plans on how to redraw legislative districts. But groups that have been fighting gerrymandering prefer the Senate’s proposal, saying it would do more to take politics out of the process.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are concerned that without the proper provisions, the General Assembly may be doomed to repeat mistakes made in 2011 when legislators gerrymandered several Virginia districts for their own benefit by diluting the voting power of African-Americans. Those districts were later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and had to be redrawn.

Some legislators say there’s an easy fix to make sure it doesn’t happen again: Create an independent commission to redraw the lines, and take the process out of the hands of politicians.

At the start of the legislative session, lawmakers offered nine different proposals to establish independent redistricting commissions. They have now been narrowed down to two.  

Senate Joint Resolution 306, sponsored by Democratic Sen. George Barker of Alexandria, sailed through the Senate last week with unanimous support. House Joint Resolution 615, sponsored by Republican Del. Mark Cole of Spotsylvania County, was narrowly approved by the House on Monday on a party-line vote, 51-48.

Both resolutions would amend the Virginia Constitution to create bipartisan commissions tasked with redrawing district lines in 2021, but the plans have some key differences:

  • SJ 306 would create a 16-member commission made up of eight General Assembly members and eight citizen members. Of the eight legislative members, four would come from the Senate, and four would come from the House, with equal representation given to each political party. Any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizen members. The plan would then be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The General Assembly would not be able to make any amendments to the plan.

  • HJ 615 would create a 12-member commission consisting of six Democrats and six Republicans, none of whom could be members of the General Assembly or U.S. Congress. The members would be selected by the speaker of the House, the Senate Rules Committee and the governor, and any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least eight of the 12 members. The plan would then be introduced in the General Assembly as a bill, and legislators would vote on the plan. The governor would be removed from the process and would not have the power to approve or veto the bill.

Barker’s amendment has garnered support from fair redistricting advocates, but they have concerns about Cole’s commission.

Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan redistricting group based in New Jersey, issued a statement Sunday saying that Cole’s constitutional amendment could “backfire” and increase the possibility of partisan gerrymandering in the commonwealth -- the opposite of its intended effect.

“It’s sold as nonpartisan reform. But we find that it’s more likely to entrench whatever party is already in control,” director Sam Wang wrote.

Voting rights advocacy groups Progress Virginia and New Virginia Majority issued a joint statement slamming Cole’s amendment after it was sent to the House floor last week: “The GOP’s proposal simply replaces one bad system with another,” said Progress Virginia executive director Anna Scholl.

The editorial board of Lynchburg newspaper The News & Advance has come out in support of Barker’s amendment. In an op-ed published Thursday, the board wrote that, while both plans signal the General Assembly’s willingness to change the current system, SJ 306 was “far preferable” to HJ 615.

Advocacy group One Virginia 2021, which has pushed for a nonpartisan approach to redistricting in Virginia, has also expressed support for SJ 306, as has former Virginia Gov. George Allen, a Republican. Allen and One Virginia 2021 have teamed up for a five-city town hall tour to highlight the need for bipartisan redistricting reform.

Advocates are watching anxiously as the two amendments head off to the House and Senate. If either is approved by the General Assembly, it will face a long road to be added to the Virginia Constitution. Constitutional amendments must pass in two legislative sessions and then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

Lawmakers will have to act quickly to ensure that an independent commission is in place by 2021 when the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population and demographic data. If not, the same process used in 2011 will be used again in 2021.

Republicans, Democrats Clash Over ‘Disturbing’ Abortion Bill

By Kathleen Shaw and Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Republicans voiced outrage Thursday to a failed proposal by Democrats that would have expanded abortion rights -- even moments before birth -- as one GOP legislator shed tears and another called the proposal “extremely disturbing.”

“I didn't quite arrive on time, but I lived. Had this legislation been in place, who knows how things could have turned out,” said Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, sponsored HB 2491, which would have eliminated certain requirements before undergoing an abortion, such as approval from three physicians and an ultrasound. At Monday’s subcommittee hearing on the bill, a Republican lawmaker asked Tran whether the bill would allow for an abortion to occur when a woman is in labor and about to give birth; Tran said yes. The subcommittee voted 5-3 to table the measure.

On Thursday, Tran corrected herself. “I should have said: ‘Clearly, no because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.’”

Republicans seized on Tran’s initial comments -- and Gov. Ralph Northam’s support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion -- as evidence that the Democrats would allow infanticide.

In an unorthodox move on Monday, House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, stepped down from the House chamber dais to speak in opposition to Tran’s legislation. Cox, who has advocated anti-abortion legislation since 1990, said 61,012,997 abortions have been performed since 1973.

“It was extremely disturbing that essentially you have legislation that does not protect the unborn at all, that you can have an abortion up to the point of birth. And I guess what truly disturbed me was that the other side almost seems to be celebrating that position,” Cox said.

Originally, 23 Democrats co-sponsored Tran’s bill, but some, including Del. Dawn Adams of Richmond, said they would pull their support. The controversy has made national headlines and drawn widespread condemnation from Republicans. President Donald Trump criticized Northam for speaking in favor of Tran’s bill.

Northam and Democratic legislators held a press conference of their own Thursday to respond to the Republicans and to reiterate support for abortion rights.
“We believe legislators, most of whom are men, should not be making decisions about women’s choices for their reproductive health,” Northam said. “We can agree to disagree on this topic, but we can be civil about it.”

Northam said some Republicans were attempting to use the issue to score political points.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who also spoke at the press conference, called Republican efforts to discredit Democrats “desperate” and “ugly.”

“Their political games have exposed a member of the House of Delegates to violent personal threats,” Herring said. “And now, Kirk Cox has taken his caucus completely off the deep end accusing Gov. Northam of supporting infanticide.”

The House minority leader, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, said Virginia women wouldn’t be intimidated by House Republicans’ scare tactics.

“House Republicans have used their majority to try to shame women -- to try to bully and dictate to women what we can and cannot do with our bodies,” Filler-Corn said. “Virginia women are watching, and Virginia women are paying attention.”

Abortion rights groups such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and Progress Virginia continue to support Tran. Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said that Tran was a champion for women and that Republican legislators are taking her remarks out of context.

“We trust women to make decisions about their health care needs. Shame on politicians like Todd Gilbert and Kirk Cox for trying to distract us from the real issue here: getting politics out of the doctor’s office,” Scholl said.

Del. Gilbert, a Republican from Shenandoah County, is the House majority leader. At the Republicans’ press conference, he equated abortion to murder. Gilbert said Democrats would allow late-term abortions out of concern not just for a woman’s physical health but also for her mental health.

“It has nothing to do with saving a woman's life. A mental health concern could include anything that you can name that has an identifiable mental health issue -- depression, anxiety, feelings that one gets when one is about to have to care for a child,” Gilbert said.

Brewer co-chairs the Foster Care Caucus and is an outspoken advocate for improving Virginia’s adoption and foster care systems. She received a tissue and support from Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, while tearing up at the news conference. Brewer said her birth-mother could have chosen to abort her but instead saved her life and fulfilled the life of her adoptive parents.

“61,012,997. How many of those were delegates that never had a chance to serve? How many of those were precious children who would’ve made an adoptive parent like mine -- a first-time mom or dad?” Brewer said.

Senate OKs Bill to Boost IT Jobs in Southwest Virginia

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- More information technology jobs could come to rural Virginia under a bill unanimously passed by the state Senate on Monday.

SB 1495 is a Republican effort that would provide $600,000 beginning in 2020 to establish an apprenticeship program for small technology businesses in rural southwest Virginia.

The program would provide IT workers on-the-job, mentored training at a company with guaranteed job placement at the end of the 18-month apprenticeship.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Republican Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield County, said the program aims to provide IT job opportunities in rural southwest Virginia.

The bill would target the counties of Alleghany, Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe and the cities of Bristol, Danville, Galax, Martinsville and Norton.

“If you look at southwest Virginia, they have great institutions of higher education training our young people in information technology,” Chase said, “but it’s really hard for them to find meaningful employment after they graduate.”

According to Chase, the region’s young IT workers are currently drawn to areas of the commonwealth with more job opportunities, especially northern Virginia.

The apprenticeship program, Chase said, would provide an incentive for them to “stay in the community they grew up in instead of leaving southwest Virginia to move to another place where they can actually find work.”

The bill would create a fund in the state treasury to award grants to small, rural information technology businesses to employ IT workers in the region.

The General Assembly would provide $600,000 to the program starting in 2020.

Businesses that receive a grant from the program would be eligible for funding for up to five years or until the business employs 100 individuals. The amount of money given to a business to employ an apprentice wouldn’t exceed the entry-level salary of an IT worker.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Ben Chafin of Russell County, said that the program would be housed at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Virginia, and coordinated with area community colleges.

David Matlock, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, was optimistic that the program would help meet the employment needs in the region.

“Southwest Virginia is always looking for ways to enhance our workforce,” Matlock said. “We want to keep our graduates here, and we want to help these new businesses and attract more businesses like them.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

Virginia Redistricting Amendment Advances to the Senate

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A constitutional amendment aiming to create an independent redistricting commission in Virginia has reached the Senate floor and may come up for a vote next week.

Under the amendment, an independent commission — instead of legislators — would redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Senate and House of Delegates in 2021 after the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population and demographic data.

Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, who is sponsoring the amendment, said SJ 306 would reduce the influence that politicians have in the redistricting process and would limit their ability to draw racially and politically gerrymandered districts.

“It doesn’t give the legislature the type of control in the process that it has now and that it’s had for many years,” Barker said.

During the 2011 redistricting process, the General Assembly redrew several districts in the House of Delegates and U.S. House of Representatives that have since been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court because they diluted the voting power of African-American voters. Those racially gerrymandered districts had to be redrawn by a court-appointed expert.

Barker said Virginia needs an independent redistricting commission to ensure that this won’t happen again.

“I think that’s critical for making us the most effective General Assembly that we can be,” Barker said.

The 16-member commission would consist of eight legislative members and eight citizen members.

Of the eight legislative members, four would come from the Senate, and four would come from the House, with equal representation given to each political party.

The eight citizen members would be chosen this way: First, a committee of five retired judges of the circuit courts of Virginia would nominate 16 people — four Democrats, four Republicans and eight independent voters. Then, House and Senate leaders would pick eight names from the list to be on the commission — two Democrats, two Republicans and four independents.

Any plan drawn up by the commission would have to be agreed upon by at least six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizen members. The plan would then be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. The General Assembly would not be able to make any amendments to the plan.

The commission would be required to submit its plans for the Senate and House of Delegates districts within 45 days of the release of census data and plans for the U.S. House of Representatives within 60 days.

If the commission fails to submit a plan by its deadline, the General Assembly fails to adopt a plan by its deadline or the governor vetoes a plan, districts would be decided by the courts.

“We think this a fair and balanced approach,” Barker said. “We think it provides a lot of protections, and there are a lot of checks and balances in there to get to the best decision for the commonwealth.”

Barker’s proposal faces a long road to be added to the Virginia Constitution. Constitutional amendments must pass in two legislative sessionsand then be approved by voters in a statewide election.

A similar amendment, SJ 274, was killed in committee earlier this week. That amendment also would have created an independent redistricting commission, but the makeup of the commission differed slightly from Barker’s amendment.

SJ 274, proposed by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta and Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, would have required a 10-member commission of citizens to establish legislative and congressional districts following a 2020 census. No legislators would serve on the commission.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 9-5 to kill the proposal.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they support redistricting reforms, and an advocacy group called One Virginia 2021 has pushed for a nonpartisan approach to redistricting.

Brian Cannon, executive director of One Virginia 2021, said it was disappointing that SJ 274 wouldn’t move forward, but he was excited that Barker’s amendment had made it to the Senate.

“If passed, this amendment could significantly change the way districts are drawn in Virginia,” Cannon said.

In a speech Thursday at the University of Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe called gerrymandered congressional districts one of the “worst things to happen to democracy.”

“I support all 50 states having independent, nonpartisan commissions draw these lines,” McAuliffe said.

New Redistricting Maps Favor Democrats

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Democrats could have a better shot picking up seats in this year’s legislative elections under a redistricting map that a U.S. District Court has selected for the Virginia House of Delegates.

If enacted, the new map would place at least five Republican delegates in districts where a majority of voters chose Democrat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election — including the 66th House District represented by Republican Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.

Democratic districts affected by the maps appear less likely to change hands based on those election results.

In a statement issued shortly after the court’s decision, Cox said that the maps chosen by the court aimed to give Democrats an advantage.

“The [maps] selected by the Court target senior Republicans, myself included, without a substantive basis in the law,” Cox said.

In 2012, 37 percent of voters in Cox’s district voted for Obama. Under the new map, that number is much higher — 53 percent.

The new maps would affect a total of 25 districts primarily in the eastern part of the state between Richmond and Hampton Roads and could present favorable conditions for Democrats to gain control of the House in 2019.

Currently, Republicans hold a slim majority in the House, 51-48. All 100 seats are on the ballot in this year’s election.

Democrats have not had a majority in the House since 1998.

Under the new map, the 94th House District, a majority-blue district represented by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, would become even more Democratic. The 2017 election between Yancey and Democrat Shelly Simonds ended in a tie, and Yancy was awarded the seat after his name was drawn from a bowl.

Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would also see his district become more Democratic. In 2012, 44 percent of the voters in Jones’ 76th House District voted for Obama. That number is 58 percent under the proposed redistricting map.

The U.S. District Court’s decision is the latest in a years-long redistricting case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. The high court ruled that 11 districts in Virginia had been racially gerrymandered by the 2011 General Assembly to dilute the voting power of African-American voters.

The court has asked the “special master” appointed to oversee the redistricting process to integrate the new districts into the statewide map and to submit the final plan by next Tuesday.

Republicans have appealed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and asked the court to delay the redrawing until it hears their appeal later this spring. The Supreme Court denied that request, giving the U.S. District Court the green light to complete the redistricting process before this year’s election.

On Wednesday, the Virginia NAACP issued a statement in support of the maps selected by the court.

“While we think the court could have done more to fully remedy the effects of the 2011 unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, we are overall pleased that voters will have fairer maps when they vote later this year,” NAACP spokesman Jesse Frierson said.

“We are pleased that the court sees the need to incorporate another district where voters of color will be able to elect a candidate of their choice.”

The District Court’s map selection will impact only the 2019 election. District lines will be redrawn statewide after the U.S. Census Bureau releases new demographic data in 2020.

Senate Passes Bill To Address Virginia Food Deserts

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — More grocery stores might open in areas of Virginia lacking easy access to healthy food options under a bill unanimously passed by the state Senate.

SB 999, which cleared the Senate on Monday, is a bipartisan effort that would establish the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to provide $5 million for the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the commonwealth.

The bill’s chief sponsors are Republican Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County and Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg. Stanley said the absence of grocery stores in low-income areas is a health issue for the state.

“Right now, we have 1.7 million Virginians — almost a half a million of those are children — who live in what we call food deserts and have limited access to nutritious and healthy foods,” Stanley said.

Legislators are asking for the General Assembly to provide $5 million for the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund over the next two years. The money would be distributed by the state treasurer with approval from the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Legislators have requested that the annual interest earned and any remaining money stay with the program. Up to 10 percent of the fund can be used to pay administrative and operation costs.

Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as parts of the country that don’t have access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful foods, usually because those areas don’t have grocery stores, farmers’ markets or healthy food providers close by.

According to the USDA, nearly 18 percent of Virginians live in food deserts.

Dance said eliminating food deserts was especially important for children living in indigent communities.

“What we found is that when children are given choices, when healthy foods are available, they select healthy foods,” Dance said. “I think the cost [of the grocery fund] is outweighed by the benefits that the children will receive.”

The bill sponsors cited food deserts as a contributor to the state’s health problems, saying that residents of areas without grocery stores often rely on local convenience stores that primarily sell sugary, fat-laden foods.

“Those are not as healthy as the opportunities in regular grocery stores,” Stanley said. “We have higher rates of diabetes. We have higher rates of those kind of chronic illnesses, which then puts pressure on our healthcare system, which is already under enough pressure.”

The Senate bill now heads to the House for consideration.

A similar House bill, HB 1858, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, was killed by a subcommittee Jan. 16.

Some Energy Donors Gave Democrats More Than Republicans

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — In a break from past years, some large energy-related political donors gave more money to Virginia Democrats than to Republicans in 2018, according to campaign finance reports posted Friday by the Virginia Public Access Project.

For example, United Co., a coal mining company in Bristol, Virginia, contributed $130,000 to Democrats and $121,000 to Republicans in 2018, the VPAP numbers show. That was the only time in the past 10 years that United gave Democrats more than Republicans. In 2017, for example, United gave more than $102,000 to Republicans and nothing to Democrats.

Dominion Energy, the largest energy-related donor, contributed mostly to Republicans last year — more than $207,000, vs. about $160,000 to Democrats (including $30,750 to the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and $25,000 to the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus). Over the past decade, Dominion has usually given Republicans more than Democrats.

Donations by Thomas Farrell, Dominion’s CEO, are tabulated separately from the company’s contributions. Every year from 2008 through 2017, Farrell donated more to Republicans than to Democrats. But that changed last year: In 2018, Farrell gave Democrats $38,500 and Republicans $27,000.

Farrell donated $5,000 each to five Democratic senators: Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg, Mamie Locke of Hampton, Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, Richard Saslaw of Fairfax and Lionell Spruill of Chesapeake. His largest single donation, $15,000, went to the Colonial Leadership Trust PAC, a political action committee created by Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said energy companies may be reacting to the shifting political landscape in Virginia.

“It’s clear that Dominion and many other energy industries are trying to win more friends in the Democratic Caucus,” Farnsworth said. “This is particularly important in 2019 because there may be Democratic majorities in the House and Senate next year.”

Another energy-related donor that changed its pattern of political donations was EQT Corp. The Pittsburgh-based company is involved in the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia.

Last year, EQT Corp. donated more than $43,000 to Democrats and less than $35,000 to Republicans in 2018. Every year from 2008 through 2017, EQT gave Republicans more than Democrats. In 2017, for instance, EQT contributed $60,000 to Republicans and $31,500 to Democrats.

Similarly, Clyde E. Stacy, former head of Rapoca Energy, had given mostly to Republicans over the past decade. But in 2018, he donated $125,000 to Democrats and $102,500 to Republicans. Stacy is currently CEO of Par Ventures in Bristol, Virginia. He and United Co. are hoping to build a casino in Bristol — an issue before the General Assembly.

Like Dominion Energy, several large energy-related donors continue to contribute mostly to Republicans.

William Holtzman, head of a heating oil company and father of Republican Sen. Jill Vogel of Fauquier County, gives exclusively to Republicans, including $192,000 last year.

Appalachian Power donated more than $76,000 to Republicans and $46,500 to Democrats in 2018, according to VPAP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that shines a light on money in politics.

And Virginia Natural Gas contributed $55,500 to Republicans and $38,500 to Democrats. But that was more than Virginia Natural Gas donated to Democrats in past years. The company gave Democrats $30,000 in 2017 and $21,000 in 2016.

“This year will likely be a very expensive year for a lot of interests in Richmond,” Farnsworth said. “They basically have to donate to Republicans and Democrats, not knowing which party is going to be in control next year.”

All seats in the General Assembly are up for election in November.

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.”

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