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DeForrest Ballou

200 Rally for Gun Rights at State Capitol

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Bipartisan Senate Committee OKs Anti-tethering Bill

While Governor Decries Gun Violence, Senate OKs Guns in Church

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Religious Leaders Call for Expanding Health Care

Virginians Urge Legislators to Expand Medicaid

By DeForrest Ballou and Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A procession of health-care advocates urged state legislators Wednesday to expand Medicaid and increase funding for Virginians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

At a hearing on the state budget that the General Assembly must craft this spring, dozens of speakers expressed support for expanding Medicaid – an idea advocated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and other Democrats but opposed by most Republican lawmakers.

The speakers included Nichole Wescott Hayes, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

“ACS-CAN is part of a larger coalition of health-care-related agencies, Healthcare for All Virginians. And we are trying to expand Medicaid so that we can cover the gaps of the 300-some-thousand individuals who are without coverage at this time,” Hayes said.

“The whole ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ is not just about tourism; it’s about helping each other. That’s kind of the bedrock of what Virginia is about.”

Medicaid, which is funded by the federal and state governments, provides health care for low-income Americans. The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid and promised that the federal government would pay for it. But most Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly fear that the state would be stuck with the bills if it expands Medicaid.

Health care was the dominant topic at the hearing. Of the 82 speakers, roughly half addressed that issue.

For instance, Kelly Brookes of Henrico County has a daughter with cerebral palsy. She advocated for more equitable education.

“My child should not have to prove that she is capable of learning, which she absolutely is,” Brookes said. “She should be able to receive the same education as other kids.”

Rachel Deane, who works for a nonprofit group called the Legal Aid Justice Center, said it’s important to attend events like hearings on the state budget.

“I think it’s always just a good opportunity for us to be at a budget hearing and to talk directly to members of the General Assembly about what funding we need for youth to be successful,” Deane said.

The center provides legal representation for low-income individuals. Deane is the legal director for the group’s program serving children.

Her goal at the hearing was to ask for funding of programs that could keep children out of the correctional system. She sat alongside a group wearing tan shirts with the words, “Guide us, don’t criminalize us.”

Mark Strandquist also addressed the legislative panel. Strandquist is the creative director for ART 180, another program run by the Legal Aid Justice Center. During his presentation, he played a recording of children who have been helped by ART 180.

“We literally view our role as being a megaphone for youth whose voices have been silenced. That’s why I literally played audio recordings made by the youth over the microphone,” Strandquist said.

The General Assembly will convene next Wednesday for a 60-day session. The major item on the agenda is to write the state budget for the next two years.

New law will expand business development sites

By DeForrest Ballou, VCU Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The commonwealth, and especially its rural areas, may get an economic boost under legislationsigned into law this week by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

At a ceremony with the legislation’s sponsors and the state’s secretary of commerce, McAuliffe signed two bills reducing the size of industrial sites that qualify for assistance from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

Currently, such plots of land must be at least 250 acres, which can be a challenge to find particularly in Virginia’s rural areas and the Appalachian region. The size requirement will drop to 100 acres under Senate Bill 976 and House Bill 1591, which McAuliffe signed Thursday at the state Capitol.

“Our goal is that every part of Virginia experiences Virginia’s job renaissance,” McAuliffe said.

Under the new law, which will take effect July 1, the number of sites that the VEDP can develop will increase from about 80 to more than 250.

“This opens up all the communities. The more sites we have ready, the more businesses we can bring in,” McAuliffe said.

The bills are part of the New Virginia Economy Initiative that McAuliffe introduced in 2014. At Thursday’s ceremony, Virginia Secretary of Commerce Todd Haymore boasted of the program’s successes.

So far, the initiative has brought in almost $16 billion in capital investment and almost 190,000 jobs to Virginia, Haymore said. Moreover, the state’s unemployment rate stands at 3.8 percent. That is the lowest since 1973, Haymore said. The national unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in April.

The governor’s goal is for capital investment to reach $20 billion before his term ends in January. The resulting economic development projects will benefit the state for years to come, McAuliffe said.

The bills had bipartisan support: HB 1591was sponsored by Democratic Del. Matthew James of Portsmouth, and SB 976was carried by Republican Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County. Both measures won unanimous approval from the General Assembly during its 2017 session.

“This bill is what we should have been doing a long time ago, and it really puts us in a proactive stance,” James said, adding, “We’re not done yet.”

While the legislation may spur economic development in rural areas, that is not its sole purpose. McAuliffe said he hopes the state’s incentives will draw companies like Nestlé, which will be moving operations to Rosslyn, in Northern Virginia, and bringing 750 jobs.

The bills changed just one number and one word in existing law, including fixing a typo (turning “esource” into “resource”).

“It was a very short piece of legislation, so I’ll make short remarks,” Hanger said. “Sometimes the short pieces of legislation that senators and delegates read are the hardest to get through, because they know what they’re voting for.”

He hopes the new law will promote the growth of small businesses in Virginia.

“When we look at economic development in the commonwealth, we see that year in and year out, and where we really put our bread and butter, is small development – not the bigger sites, but those small entrepreneurs,” Hanger said.

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