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DeForrest Ballou

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After a Paws, Delegate Is Back With Pet Protection Bill

By Katrina Tilbury and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As temperatures across Virginia plunged to the single digits, many pets no doubt have been left in the cold.

The frigid weather in recent weeks prompted Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch to send a memo instructing animal control officers how to respond to calls regarding animals left outside. Pet owners have three options: They can bring the animal inside the house, surrender it to the animal control officer indefinitely or let the officer take temporary custody of the animal.

“They don’t get to let their dogs freeze to death,” Welch said in the memo.

Del. John Bell, D-Fairfax, has introduced a bill to clarify when pet owners could tie up an animal outside. His legislation would prohibit tethering pets outdoors when the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below or rises to 85 degrees or above. The restrictions would not apply to farm animals.

Bell, a dog owner whose wife, Margaret, is an avid animal rescuer, said he worked with more than 20 groups, including agricultural and farm bureaus, to find a solution that works for everyone, including farmers, who traditionally keep their working animals outside. The result was House Bill 646, which he filed on Jan. 9.

Last year, Bell introduced a similar bill that was shot down in the General Assembly for being too strict. Planning for this session’s bill began last April when animal advocate Gary Sweeney started a petition on Change.org to introduce a bill that would specify when the weather is considered too extreme for dogs to be left outside.

Sweeney launched the petition after he reported a short-haired dog left outside in Henrico County and was told by Henrico County Animal Control that the pet owner was not breaking the law.

“I went back and read the existing laws thoroughly; I realized that there was nothing in place in Virginia’s law that had anything to do with extreme weather,” Sweeney said. “It does have an adequate shelter provision – but it doesn’t specify by what type of (dog) house is adequate enough.”

The Humane Society of the United States caught wind of Sweeney’s petition after tens of thousands of supporters quickly signed it. The Humane Society worked with Sweeney and Bell to draft something similar to the delegate’s 2017 bill.

Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said this bill is a measured approach to a subject that has long troubled animal welfare advocates.

“It is, I think, impossible to disagree with the idea that people should not tether dogs outside in severe weather conditions,” she said.

Midlothian resident Jamie Ericksen’s neighbors know to call her when they encounter an animal in need. Recently, she reunited a family with their cat that had been missing for two years. Currently, she said she is trying to help a dog that is left outside at all hours in a small pen.

“I just hope that this bill gets passed because I know that the animals suffer,” Ericksen said. “It’s hard to understand how someone can leave their animal outside in extreme temperatures and think that they’re OK or they enjoy it.”

HB 646 has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources – the same panel that killed Bell’s legislation last year. The committee is also considering HB 889, introduced by Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline. Instead of establishing a statewide law, Orrock’s bill would empower local governments to restrict tethering dogs outside.

The subcommittee is scheduled to meet Monday afternoon.

Northam inaugural ball showcases Virginia regions

By Siona Peterous and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Temperatures in the 20s didn’t deter a steady stream of hundreds of people dressed in fine suits and glamorous gowns from arriving at Main Street Station for Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball.

The ball opened its doors at 8 p.m. Saturday and was the first event held in the station’s newly renovated 47,000 square-foot and 500-foot long train shed.

“I’m happy to see the renovations are done and this is such a great, exciting event. It makes politics a little more fun, you know,” said Margaret Clark, a Henrico resident who teaches high school and works with a local non-profit.

The ball featured a Motown-influenced funk band, Mo’ Sol, whose high-energy twists on classics by Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and dozens more helped create a lively crowd that danced in the 90 minutes between when doors opened and the governor and first lady of Virginia, Pamela Northam, appeared on stage for their first dance.

In keeping with the theme of the Motown glory days, the couple’s first dance was to Otis Redding’s, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Foods and drinks distinct to the Commonwealth's regions were featured at tables set against the hall’s massive glass windows. Diners could sample coastal Virginia’s raw bar, pot pie from the Blue Ridge, charcuterie from Northern Virginia and an apple dessert from the Shenandoah Valley.

The ball’s open bar included a specially made beer, Inaugural-ALE from the  Ashland-based Center of the Universe Brewing Company.

“By brewing this beer with 100-percent Virginia grown ingredients, we hope to show the synergy between the Virginia craft beer manufacturers and our Virginia agricultural partners,” company founder Chris Ray said in a news release.

According to Laura Bryant, who campaigned with Northam, the focus on Virginia’s agriculture is  in line with the new governor’s promise to continue former Gov. Terry McAuliffe's work on showcasing regions outside of the economic powerhouses of Northern Virginia.

“As you can see there is a celebration of areas outside of NOVA -- Southwest Virginia, Blue Ridge Virginia and Richmond,” Bryant said. “I’m just excited because there are voices represented that would usually not be present in an inaugural setting.”

Religious Leaders Call for Expanding Health Care

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A statewide group of religious leaders urged the General Assembly on Thursday to expand Medicare and Medicaid.

Organized by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the team of multi-denominational and multi-religion officials represented 850 faith leaders from across Virginia. They said their goal is to bring health care to the 300,000 Virginians who would benefit from expansion of Medicare and Medicaid.

Expanding access to health care would help alleviate the opioid crisis and create 15,000 jobs in hospitals and clinics, the center said.

“It is not a matter of charity to extend health care to people who do not have access to health care. It is a basic moral law and act of human decency,” said Imam Ammar Amonette of the Islamic Center of Virginia.

Health care in the state has been a hot topic in recent weeks. During a public hearing on the proposed state budget for 2018-2020, over half of the more than 80 speakers supported expanding programs like Medicaid.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to do so during his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday. And Virginia House and Senate Democrats announced Thursday that Medicaid expansion is their top goal for this legislative session.

In past years, Republicans have blocked the idea, fearing it would be a financial burden on state government. But this year may be different, said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“We believe that Medicaid expansion is an opportunity and that we have a great chance to make it happen this year. The legislators on both sides of the aisle are interested in the issue. So we just need to get enough people to say yes,” Bobo said.

Her group has been working to achieve that goal – by circulating petitions, writing letters and meeting with legislators. The Interfaith Center will hold its annual advocacy day on Jan. 23.

“I’m a little worried that we are going to not be able to hold all of the people because so many people want to come and be a part of this,” Bobo said.

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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