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VCU Rape Reports Increase, But Cause May Be Complicated

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

A recently released campus safety report showed Virginia Commonwealth University’s number of rape reports nearly doubling, but officials say could be a good sign.

Both the VCU Police Department and the university’s Wellness Center say the increase could be due to students feeling more at ease in coming forward about being the victims of sexual assaults – not an increase in the crimes themselves.

“We believe individuals come forward because they feel comfortable reporting to VCUPD and that awareness and education is a key part in communicating to the community,” said Matthew Lovisa, coordinator of communications and marketing for the university’s Division of Student Affairs.

In its 2017 Annual Security & Fire Safety Report, VCU reported that 15 rapes occurred on campus in 2016. That was a big jump from eight rapes in 2015 and five in 2014.

Crime statistics are complicated because there are several different sets of data. Just days before VCU released its annual campus safety report, which goes to the U.S. Department of Education, the FBI posted crime numbers for the nation’s colleges and universities.

The FBI data showed that VCU had reported nine rapes in 2016. Why didn’t the number match the 15 rapes tallied in VCU’s own report?

Because VCU must pass along all rape reports to the Department of Education, even if the victim has decided not to file a criminal complaint, according to VCU Police. For example, the victim may have chosen to file a Title IX complaint or just seek counseling services.

There was a similar discrepancy in sexual assault statistics in 2015, when the FBI listed three criminally reported rapes at VCU and VCU’s campus safety report listed eight rapes overall.

Officials didn’t seem to think the increase in numbers was indicative of a rape trend as much as a sea change in attitudes toward sex crimes and the victims of such assaults.

“VCU Police has had a paradigm shift in the way the department handles sexual assaults since 2010,” said department spokeswoman Corey Byers.

In 2010, the FBI listed VCU – along with 14 other schools in Virginia – as having reported zero rapes. Only seven colleges and universities in the state reported any rapes that year, with the highest being four at Radford University.

“VCU Police officers want to establish trust and rapport with survivors and want them to know they will be supported when they come forward,” Byers said.

VCU Police are participating in a nationwide campaign called “Start By Believing.” The campaign urges law enforcement officials to trust people when they report sexual assault.

VCU Police Chief John Venuti served on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Task Force on Combating Campus Sexual Violence in 2014-15. It recommended that law enforcement agencies provide a “You Have Options” program, which offers victims several ways to report a sexual assault, including just giving authorities a verbal record of the crime.

The Wellness Resource Center at VCU has a team of advocates for students who have experienced sexual violence, intimate partner violence and stalking. They meet with students to provide them with guidance, options and support.

In the spirit of “You Have Options,” VCU Police added several “soft interview rooms” for victims of violence or their families. These rooms have soft lighting and furniture and are meant to make those being interviewed as comfortable as possible.

“Our whole goal is just making sure they know that there’s ‘no wrong door,’” said Fatima Smith, the Well’s assistant director of sexual and intimate partner violence, stalking and advocacy services. “In other words, wherever you enter, you’ll be supported, you’ll be believed, you’ll be heard.”

Assembly Sustains All of McAuliffe’s Vetoes

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By James Miessler and Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The General Assembly failed Wednesday to override any of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s vetoes of legislation championed by Republicans, including bills to defund Planned Parenthood and let home-schoolers participate in public-school sports.

Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. That was doable in the House, where there are 66 Republicans and 34 Democrats. But it proved impossible in the Senate, where Democrats hold 19 of the 40 seats.

For example, McAuliffe had vetoed Senate Bill 41, which would have allowed ministers and religious groups to refuse to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple if it went against their religious beliefs. The Senate voted 21-18 along party lines in favor of reversing the veto – but that was well short of the 26 “yes” votes required.

Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax, was the sponsor of SB 41. He urged his colleagues to override McAuliffe’s veto.

“This bill is an attempt to protect pastors from having to go against things that they believe are of a deeply held religious belief,” Carrico said. “Unlike some of the things that the governor is pointing out that’s happening in other states, this is nothing to do with that.”

In his veto message, McAuliffe called SB 41 “discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.” He said the bill would be “bad for business” because “job creators do not want to locate or do business in states that appear more concerned with demonizing people than with creating a strong business climate.”

That was a reference to North Carolina, which has lost business because it recently enacted a law widely perceived as discriminatory against people who are transgender or gay.

Senators also failed to reverse McAuliffe’s veto of SB 44, which sought to extend the state’s coal-tax credits. Republicans and other legislators representing Virginia’s coalfields say the tax credits would help coal miners. In vetoing the bill, the governor noted that since 1988, coal mine operators and related companies have claimed more than $610 million in tax credits – but the number of coal miners in Virginia has plunged from more than 11,000 to fewer than 3,000.

“It would be unwise to spend additional taxpayer dollars on a tax credit that has fallen so short of its intended effectiveness,” McAuliffe said.

The Senate voted 24-15 in favor of reversing the veto – two votes short. (In the House, with help from two Democratic delegates, Republicans managed to override the veto on a 68-30 vote. But without the Senate’s concurrence, it didn’t matter.)

On a 21-18 vote, the Senate was unable to override House Bill 587, which sought to prevent local governments from removing Confederate monuments. Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, spoke in defense of McAuliffe’s veto of that bill.

“There are decisions that we need to make about people, and when localities have made these decisions, I think it’s our obligation to allow them to continue to make those decisions for themselves,” Marsden said.

Also on a 21-18 vote, the Senate failed to override the governor’s veto of SB 612, commonly known as the “Tebow bill.” It would have allowed home-schooled students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at their local high schools.

Another much-watched bill was HB 1090, which would have cut off state funding for Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions in addition to family planning counseling, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and other services.

The House voted 66-34 in favor of overriding McAuliffe’s veto of HB 1090. That was one vote shy of the 67 required.

Before voting got underway, there were partisan clashes. House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, criticized McAuliffe for vetoing 32 bills – the most since 1998.

“As we get to this reconvened session, I’ve been disturbed,” Cox said. “Too often, this governor is just too happy, I think, to score political points and tends to be a bit disinterested in the legislative process.”

Minority Leader David Toscano, a Democrat from Charlottesville, fired back.

“The governor was very clear when he stood before us,” Toscano said. “He said, ‘Let’s not get distracted by this divisive social legislation. And I will tell you now, if you pass it I will veto it.’ So why should we be disturbed?”

Late Wednesday, McAuliffe issued a statement saying he is “proud that the General Assembly did not override any of the 32 vetoes we submitted this year, or any of the 68 I have submitted throughout my tenure to date.”

““While there is no question that this session was marked far more by compromise and accomplishment than by partisan conflict, there are some areas on which Republicans in the General Assembly and I disagreed,” McAuliffe said.

“The vetoes I submitted to the legislature for their consideration today honored the promise I made in the State of the Commonwealth to reject legislation that divides Virginians, makes them less safe, or sends a negative message about the climate we offer to families or businesses that may want to locate here. The controversies we are watching in other states underscore the need to reject legislation that divides or distracts us from the work Virginians elected us to do.”

What was vetoed?

This is a list of the 32 bills vetoed by Governor McAuliffe. For more information on a bill, use Legislative Information Service: https://lis.virginia.gov

Bill number

Catch line

HB 2

Clean Power Plan; state implementation plan, General Assembly approval.

HB 8

Virginia Virtual School; Board established.

HB 9

Voter registration; required information on application form.

HB 18

Franchisees; status thereof and its employees as employees of the franchisor.

HB 70

Warrants; issuance of arrest warrants for law-enforcement officers.

HB 131

Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs.

HB 143

Alcoholic beverage control; neutral grain spirits or alcohol sold at government stores, proof.

HB 145

Virginia Public Procurement Act; public works contracts, prevailing wage provisions.

HB 254

House of Delegates districts; technical adjustment.

HB 259

SOL; Bd. of Education prohibited from adopting revisions that implement Common Core State Standards.

HB 264

Local government; prohibiting certain practices requiring contractors to provide compensation, etc.

HB 298

Coal tax; limits aggregate amount of credits that may be allocated or claimed for employment, etc.

HB 382

Firearms; control by state agencies, rights of employees.

HB 389

Virginia Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts; established, report, effective clause.

HB 481

Compliance with detainers; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

HB 516

Education, Board of; policy on sexually explicit instructional material.

HB 518

School boards, local; to provide students with option to transfer to another school division.

HB 560

Brandishing a firearm; intent to induce fear, etc., penalty.

HB 587

Memorials and monuments; protection of all memorials, etc.

HB 766

Concealed handguns; carrying with a valid protective order.

HB 1090

Health, Department of; expenditure of funds related to abortions and family planning services.

HB 1096

Firearms; regulation by state entities prohibited.

HB 1188

Senate districts; changes assignments of two census precincts in Louisa County.

HB 1234

School security officers; carrying a firearm.

HB 1371

Local government; prohibition on certain mandates upon employers.

SB 21

Clean Power Plan; state implementation plan; General Assembly approval.

SB 41

Religious freedom; marriage solemnization, participation, and beliefs.

SB 44

Coal tax; limits aggregate amount of credits that may be allocated or claimed for employment, etc.

SB 270

Sanctuary policies; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.

SB 612

Students who receive home instruction; participation in interscholastic programs.

SB 626

Carrying concealed handguns; protective orders.

SB 767

Form of ballot; party identification of candidates.

Clinton, Trump Win in Virginia

By Diana DiGangi, James Miessler, Matt Chaney and Margaret Carmel, Capital News Service

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trounced Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary election on Tuesday, and billionaire businessman Donald Trump narrowly defeated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican contest.

With almost all precincts reporting, Clinton received more than 64 percent of the 780,000 votes cast in the Democratic primary. Sanders got 35 percent.

More than 1 million Virginians voted in the Republican primary. Trump got nearly 35 percent of the votes, followed by Rubio at almost 32 percent, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at about 17 percent and Ohio Gov. John Kasich at about 9 percent.

Interviews at polling places in Richmond underscored the issues and other factors that motivated voters to support or oppose certain candidates.

Young and old voters turned out in droves at the Randolph Community Center polling place (Precinct 504), about 10 minutes from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus. Several voters cited fear of a Trump nomination as their reason for coming out to vote.

“Honestly, as a woman, I’m terrified of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becoming president,” said Kirsten Schlegel, a VCU senior who voted for Clinton. “I’m terrified of our rights being taken away.”

Paula Johnson voted for Clinton as well, and said it was important to her to “select someone who’s going to represent us well, like when it comes to picking the new Supreme Court justice.”

At the Dominion Place polling station (Precinct 206), also near the VCU campus, many young people supported Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist.

“It’s my first time being able to vote, and so I wanted to come out because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Brianna Frontuto, a VCU student, said. “I voted for Bernie Sanders because his policy platform lines up exactly with what I believe in. He’s defending students, and that’s hard to find in candidates.”

Among Republican voters at the Dominion Place, several young people came out in support of Rubio.

“Rubio is the only one I feel morally conscious to support,” Adam Stynchula said. “He’s a safe bet.”

Voters at the Tabernacle Baptist Church polling location (Precinct 208) voiced similar sentiments.

Chelsea, a woman in her 20s who declined to give her last name, said, “I voted for Marco Rubio because he’s a very optimistic candidate. He’s very articulate about a lot of values that I believe in and I hate Donald Trump. And so, I really wanted to get my voice out there for a positive candidate who has a real vision for America’s future.”

Some voters said they usually cast ballots in the Democratic primary, but they participated in this year’s Republican election because of their dislike for Trump.

“I normally vote Democratic, but I actually voted Republican in this because I wanted to make sure that Donald Trump is not on the ballot,” said a student named Jamie. “I just think it’s kind of tight this year with the way things are playing out ... At first I started out thinking, that’s kind of a joke, Donald Trump. But now it’s looking close.”

Statewide, however, Trump topped Rubio by winning Hampton Roads and the southern and southwestern parts of the state.

Virginia Republican leaders gathered in Old Town Alexandria just outside of the nation’s capital as the votes rolled in. As a battleground state that has voted blue in the last two election cycles, all eyes are on Virginia.

“Republicans cannot win the White House without winning Virginia,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “We’re looking at how our candidates performed tonight to see how they turned out voters, what the enthusiasm is, and what their ground game looks like. We’re going to have to fight to win Virginia.”

Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who made a stab at running for president himself, said this election will set the tone that the Republican Party will take moving forward.

“The leading candidates are going to have to demonstrate to the American people that they can govern,” Gilmore said. “Or maybe not. Maybe this year they’ll just have to demonstrate that they can be a voice for anger or resentment.”

Regardless of how they voted, many Virginians said it’s important for people to exercise their voice at the ballot box.

“Honestly, it’s just every vote counts,” VCU student Sean Barnett said at the Dominion Place polling station. “People think that because so many people are voting at one time that your vote is insignificant because it’s such a small percentage. If everyone’s thinking that, there’s a lot of people that aren’t getting their voice heard. It does seem insignificant, but it does count.”

At Tabernacle Baptist Church, Kyle, a doctor in her early 30s, said, “I don’t think you can complain unless you pick a choice.”

After casting his vote at Dominion Place, William Smith added, “It’s a privilege and a pleasure. I feel it’s my duty as an American.”

2 Divergent Views on ‘Conversion Therapy’

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “For fifteen years of my life, I experienced unwanted same-sex attractions,” Christopher Doyle said.

Doyle grew up with strained relationships with his parents. He said he couldn’t bond with his father, whom he characterizes as “not a bad man” but emotionally absent: “It set me up on a trajectory of not really being able to bond and connect with my peers and my male friends.”

Doyle’s mother, on the other hand, was “always emotionally needy” because of his father’s distance. “And then when I was about 8 years old,” Doyle said, “I was sexually abused by an older female cousin for about a year, which created a lot of fear of the opposite sex.”

At around 9 years old, Doyle began to experience what he refers to as “unwanted same-sex attractions.”

“I was very confused because in my heart, I didn’t really believe I was a gay person. But of course, as an 8 year old or 9 year old, I didn’t really understand,” Doyle said. “And I had interest in girls and attractions toward girls, and dated girls, too. But for me, having a healthy relationship with either a boy or a girl was simply impossible because of these early experiences of trauma.”

At 23, still searching for a resolution to the traumas he had experienced as a child, Doyle entered therapy with a counselor. After making peace with those issues, Doyle says he no longer experienced same-sex attraction.

“I was using sex with men to fill an emotional void, when what I really wanted was healthy relationships with guys,” Doyle said. “And that was my story. And ever since that time, I haven’t struggled with same-sex attractions at all.”

Over the years, Doyle sought out a variety of counseling methods to address what he refers to as “the issues underneath same-sex attractions and sexual identity.”

“I didn’t feel this was who I really was,” he said. “It was in conflict with my faith; it was in conflict with who I really thought I was for a person.”

Doyle has been married to a woman for nine years, and they have five children. He is now a licensed psychotherapist in Arlington whose methodologies include talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – all of them standard therapeutic tools.

He describes his work as therapy that specializes in sexual identity and orientation, helping gay-identified clients deal with the stigma of being gay while addressing the unwanted same-sex attraction of his other clients.

Doyle’s detractors have a more succinct label for what he does: conversion therapy, a controversial practice that has been banned for minors in four states – California, New Jersey, Illinois and Oregon. Some Virginia lawmakers wanted to add Virginia to the list. That effort failed during this year’s session of the General Assembly.

* * *

“I believe Chris Doyle when he says that he’s not doing harm using outlandish methodology,” Apryl Prentiss says. “What their new term of rhetoric is – it’s to say, ‘Oh no, it’s just talk therapy; we’re not doing any damage.’ And the bottom line is, talk therapy is actually the most insidious of all of those methodologies.”

Prentiss and Doyle have several things in common. They have both struggled to reconcile their sexual orientation with their religious beliefs. They had negative experiences with religious leaders as same-sex attracted people. They have both been through therapy that specifically addresses sexual orientation.

And they both now describe themselves as happily married to women.

The major difference between them is that Prentiss identifies proudly as a lesbian and is an outspoken opponent of the type of therapy Doyle and his colleagues perform.

Prentiss is the deputy director for the Alliance for Progressive Values, a Richmond-based nonprofit that advocates for “economic fairness, social justice and good government.” She was instrumental in developing legislation to ban conversion therapy in Virginia.

Three bills, all sponsored by Democrats, tried to do that. HB 427 died in a House subcommittee; SB 262 and SB 267 were killed by the Senate Education and Health Committee. The legislative hearings drew both proponents and critics of the therapy.

The Senate hearing was a lightning rod for media attention, as Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax, compared homosexuality to childhood cancer and John Linder, a self-described former homosexual, said he considers the therapy successful but still experiences same-sex attractions.

Prentiss speaks freely about her experiences with conversion therapy because, she says, “There are many survivors that are not able to stand up and advocate this way because of the harm done to them.”

Prentiss was raised Christian. When she began to realize she might be gay, she feared losing her religious community as well as the acceptance of her family. These fears, she said, caused her to deny her sexuality and seek out therapy to help her move past her same-sex attraction.

Prentiss spent months in an ex-gay ministry that used ascetic methods, as well as time with a psychotherapist who she said used methods similar to Doyle’s.

“Conversion therapy is predicated on the belief that you’re not born gay – there has to be a cause for it,” Prentiss said. “So there’s abuse in your past, or a mother issue, or a father issue, or something like that. The first thing that a conversion therapist does is dig and dig and dig for that cause – to the point where some people, myself included, have felt pressure to create one.”

Prentiss said the therapy she underwent prompted her to fixate on her sexuality to a distressing degree.

“If I were to go to lunch with a female friend, my conversion therapist would be say, ‘Well, why did you want to go to lunch with her? Did you have any sexual thoughts while you were sitting there talking to her?’” Prentiss recalled.

“And I’d say, ‘No, we were just hanging out.’ But it teaches you to overanalyze everything, to perseverate on everything that’s coming through your head. And that in itself just causes severe introspection. When you’re already depressed, as anyone in that situation would be, it can be really dangerous.”

* * *

So far, what is referred to in law as conversion therapy has been banned in four states and Washington, D.C. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York recently said he will take steps toward a ban there as well.

In 2009, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution expressing concerns about “sexual orientation change efforts.”

“Recent studies of participants in SOCE identify a population of individuals who experience serious distress related to same sex sexual attractions. Most of these participants are Caucasian males who report that their religion is extremely important to them,” the resolution said.

The APA ultimately concluded that “results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE.”

The association cited a study that “some individuals modified their sexual orientation identity (i.e., group membership and affiliation), behavior, and values.”

“They did so in a variety of ways and with varied and unpredictable outcomes, some of which were temporary,” the resolution reported.

Prentiss and Doyle have diverging opinions on the success of SOCE.

“I would say that in my personal experience of the people I know who have been through conversion therapy or other ex-gay efforts, my personal experience would be that 95 percent of those people are now living happy lives as gay people,” Prentiss said.

“The people that I know who have gone through conversion therapy and ex-gay programs and are now living a heterosexual life, most of those people were really abused as children. So I don’t know that their orientation was ever homosexual, as much as they were having trauma that was leading them to act out in a homosexual way or be confused about their sexuality.”

Doyle describes his therapeutic efforts as effective for clients who are distressed by their same-sex attraction. But he said some of his conflicted clients do end up ultimately identifying as gay.

“Not all times where someone comes in conflicted with same-sex attraction, is that person is going to go toward the heterosexual spectrum,” Doyle says. “That’s a reality that we don’t dispute, and it’s not necessarily even the point. ... I work with clients like that, and I advocate for a lot of gay and lesbian minors who have parents who are unaccepting of their sexual orientation.”

Doyle was asked if unwanted same-sex attraction was something that could be addressed in a more general therapeutic context, instead of by a specialist. He expressed reservations.

“Let’s just say this therapist is a gay-identified therapist that is adamantly against the idea that there is any fluidity in sexuality,” Doyle said. “Then that therapist may actually steer that client against his or her will into embracing a gay identity when the client didn’t want that.”

Doyle went on to say that he has personal biases, as all therapists do, but that he would refer a client to another therapist if he felt he could not help them.

Prentiss disputed the idea that the average therapist who identifies as gay would counsel clients in a biased way.

“A real therapist would never make a judgment and then encourage someone one way or the other based on their own judgment. A real therapist lets the client say, ‘I think I’m gay’; lets the client say, ‘I think I’m straight but I have these fractions’; or lets the client be the one to say, ‘I’m going to try to choose to be gay or straight,’” Prentiss said.

“Good therapists don’t have an agenda; that’s not what’s happening in real therapy sessions. That is what happens with conversion therapists.”

Prentiss stressed that the bill she worked on was aimed at protecting children under 18, not banning the therapy for adults.

“You’re talking about a minor who is still in the normal phase of identity formation, period – not just sexual identity, but their overall identity being formed,” she said.

Doyle challenged the suggestion that his therapy methods might be harmful to children.

“I am the last person that would ever force a teenager to go through therapy,” he said. “But in my experience, that doesn’t really happen that much.”

Is “unwanted opposite sex attraction” really a common concern for people? Not according to Google. A search for that exact phrase turns up only 106 results, most of which are tongue-in-cheek.

In an email, Doyle said he doesn’t even know any therapists who specifically help clients who are gay resolve unwanted opposite-sex attractions.

“But I have had cases where a client had trauma from females and experienced unwanted sexual compulsions/attractions for the opposite sex that they felt were unhealthy and destructive, while also experiencing unwanted same-sex attractions,” he said.

Though they disagree on many points, Prentiss and Doyle agree on one thing: “Sexual orientation change efforts” can be dangerous when left up to religious leaders.

“The therapy that we do isn’t the same thing as maybe some of the bad experiences that people have had,” Doyle said. “And it really grieves my heart that they’ve had those bad experiences, because I had the same bad experiences with a pastor when I was their age. And if I had worked with a licensed professional who knew what they were doing, it could have saved me years of heartache.”

The attempt to ban conversion therapy for minors in Virginia failed in part because some legislators feared it might infringe on freedom of religion. They said such a ban could stop clergy from counseling young members of the congregation who are gay. Prentiss expressed frustration with this argument.

“There is definitely a gray area over here, which is hugely dangerous, which is these pastors who are acting like counselors and maybe even pastors who are licensed as counselors. We can’t do a lot about that legislatively,” she said.

“What we’re trying to avoid right now is parents with good intentions going and desperately looking someone up online, saying, ‘Oh, this is a licensed therapist; this person can help my kid.’ And going to them in the most dire of circumstances, and having this person say, ‘Oh, absolutely, I can help you with that.’ I mean, it’s predatory.”

Environmentalists Blast Dominion’s Response to Energy Plan

By Diana Digangi and Grant Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In an open letter to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a coalition of environmental activists and other community leaders said Tuesday that Dominion Virginia Power’s response to the federal Clean Power Plan is “fundamentally contrary” to President Obama’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy.

The letter is signed by about 50 individuals who represent organizations including the Virginia Chapter Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Richmond and Northern Neck chapters of the Citizens Climate Lobby.

“Never in history has a Virginia governor had greater authority, greater responsibility and a greater opportunity to combat harmful carbon pollution,” the letter states. “We implore you to deliver to the people of Virginia a Clean Power Plan that lowers carbon pollution and ensures the health and safety of Virginians for generations to come.”

Coincidently, across Capitol Square, the General Assembly considered a bill that would restrict the governor’s authority for implementing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia.

Amid partisan debate, the House of Delegates voted to move forward on a bill that could present a roadblock to implementing the Clean Power Plan. House Bill 2 would require approval from the General Assembly of the state’s response to the federal plan. Similar legislation, Senate Bill 21, is moving through the Senate.

If such legislation becomes law, the General Assembly would take precedence over the governor’s administration and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in approving the state’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

Support and opposition to HB 2 split along party lines. The bill’s sponsor – Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol – introduced entreated the legislative body to “get this particular piece of the puzzle right.” He argued the measure would ensure a balance between encouraging economic vitality and reducing fossil fuel energy sources.

Republican sentiment largely followed suit, with some lawmakers citing the State Corporation Commission’s estimate of a 40 percent increase in utility costs under the Clean Power Plan.

Other voices stressed the need to address the economic depression in southwest Virginia, a region with deep ties to the coal industry.

Across the aisle, Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, urged House members to reflect on the effects of carbon emissions on the environment. “Climate change is having an impact in our day-to-day lives,” Lopez said.

He said that HB 2 is a stalling tactic encouraged by special interests and that it infringes on the governor’s authority.

Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Fairfax, encouraged his colleagues to “embrace the energy revolution” by pointing to the growth of a renewable energy industry in bordering states including North Carolina and West Virginia.

The bill was engrossed after a contested vote. It will return to the House floor for its final reading soon. SB 21 is on a similar track to becoming law. That prospect has alarmed environmentalists.

“We absolutely support his (the governor’s) authority in this manner and are very concerned about the general lack of respect for the severity of the issue of climate change among the General Assembly,” said Kate Addleson, conservation director of the Sierra Club.

Addleson helped lead the efforts to draft and distribute the letter to the governor.

“Our concern is that Dominion Power has a great deal of influence over many of our politicians,” she said. “And we feel that that influence has been used to misinform many of our legislators about what the economic impacts of this new Clean Power Plan would be.”

Dominion Power denied the letter’s claims.

“Contrary to what the letter says, Dominion has not put forth a plan. It is clearly up to the state to develop a CPP implementation plan,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins stated in an email. “We are involved in a Department of Environmental Quality stakeholder’s group process working with the state as it determines its best path forward.”

Botkins said Dominion is worried that complying with the federal plan would cause big increases in consumers’ utility bills.

“Dominion supports an approach that builds on our cleaner power generation sources compared to our neighboring states and preserves our state’s key advantages of low customer rates and strong reliability while allowing for economic growth,” Botkins said.

But Addleson disputed that argument.

“Dominion always likes to say Virginia has some of the lowest energy rates in the country overall per megawatt hour, but what they don’t want to tell you is that Virginians actually pay some of the highest energy bills in the country ... because we’re not implementing energy efficiency programs,” she said.

Here’s a Bill Beer Drinkers Might Celebrate

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Do you have an expensive bottle of wine you’ve been holding onto – one that you’d love to uncork at your favorite restaurant on a special occasion? What about a special case of beer or cider?

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Virginians to bring a bottle of wine into a restaurant and have it uncorked to be served with their meal, usually for a fee at the restaurateur’s discretion. Now legislators are considering a bill to expand the corkage law to beer and cider.

“Beer seems to be the new thing if you will, and cider is the excitement of what the future will bring,” said the bill’s sponsor, Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News. “Virginia is in a great position because we have outstanding apples, and we’ve got young people that are really excited about the possibilities that beer has.”

His measure, House Bill 706, was approved 7-0 last week by a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee. The full committee will now consider it.

When the corkage law was initially proposed five years ago, it was opposed by the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association. The association raised concerns that restaurants would face pressure from patrons to offer corkage, as has happened in other states.

The group’s fears did not come to pass in Virginia after the 2011 legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, took effect. Instead, the issue with the state’s corkage law seems to be a lack of awareness that it exists.

“What we’ve seen since the Virginia legislation was passed is that therereally are only a small number of people that take advantage of the ability to bring their own wines into a restaurant,” said lobbyist Thomas Lisk, who represents the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association and helped shape the 2011 law.

A small sample of restaurateurs in Virginia seemed to agree. Some were not aware of the law. Most offered a small corkage fee but said they don’t have many customers requesting the service.

“We usually charge the price of whatever the cheapest bottle of wine is on our list – like 20 bucks,” said Bruce Rowland, co-owner of Rowland Fine Dining in Richmond.

“For me, corkage law is such a non-issue because it’s so rare that someone does bring in their own wine. But I’d certainly want to charge corkage for beer and cider as well, because I’ve got beer and cider and I want to sell them.”

Yancey said he had not seen an ambivalence regarding corkage. He said his bill was inspired by the booming craft brewing industry in Virginia and the potential for growth in the cider industry.

“The appreciation for well-made beer, for many people, is the equivalent of the appreciation people have for well-made wines,” Yancey said.

Lisk expressed doubts that the bill would be a net gain for small brewers in Virginia.

“I don’t speak for them, but from the brewery perspective, I’m not sure how advantageous it would be,” he said. “Frankly, we’re seeing so many of the craft breweries – particularly Virginia craft breweries – with their beers on tap in lots of restaurants and really squeezing out a lot of the major brewers.”

Bills Would Ban Disputed Conversion Therapy

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With confidence and high spirits, Democratic lawmakers and gay rights advocates on Monday kicked off their third consecutive year of fighting for an end to conversion therapy for minors in Virginia.

The controversial treatment, also known as reparative therapy, is aimed at turning homosexuals into heterosexuals and is based on the view that homosexuality is a mental disorder. Conversion therapy is also performed on those questioning their gender identity.

“This is snake oil,” Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said. “Conversion therapy can’t work, it never has worked, it’s not based on any science whatsoever. The physicians, the medical community – they have told us that. This is damaging to minors, specifically to minors.”

The practice is currently legal in Virginia. It is banned in Washington, D.C., and four states – most recently in New Jersey, with the support of Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

In recent years, conversion therapy has been denounced by several mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association. A 2010 study at San Francisco State University concluded that LGBTQ youth who experienced rejection of their identity by their family were on average eight times more likely than other adolescents to attempt suicide.

For the General Assembly’s current session, which began last week, Hope has filed House Bill 427, which would prohibit health care professionals in Virginia “from engaging in conversion therapy with any person under 18 years of age.”

Two similar bills have been filed in the Senate: SB 262, by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon; and SB 267, by Democratic Sens. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg and Donald McEachin of Richmond.

Hope and Surovell held a press conference Monday, saying their bills would protect minors from a therapy that many medical experts see as harmful. The legislators said their goal is to protect children who are not mature enough to choose the treatment for themselves.

“If this were adults that were consciously choosing to go through this kind of therapy, to some extent to me, that’s a little different,” Surovell said. “But this (conversion therapy) is largely applied to children.”

The two Democrats said they hope to reach across the aisle on this issue in the 2016 legislative session.

“If you do support protecting children, there’s no reason this should not pass,” Hope said. “I’m hopeful and cautiously optimistic that this is the year where this law finally passes.”

Speakers at the news conference continually referred to conversion therapy as a form of consumer fraud – the same rationale for making it illegal in New Jersey. Hope called the therapy “fraudulent, a hoax, anti-consumer.” Surovell added, “To me, this is akin to bleeding people to cure them of a fever – to putting leeches on people’s bodies.”

President Obama last year backed the call to end conversion therapy. In response, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, which supports the practice, released a statement defending conversion therapy.

“No ethical licensed professional would agree to counsel with an adolescent client who was being forced into therapy,” the organization stated. “No one is asking or expecting contented gay citizens to change anything. The freedom of a gay teen to choose a therapist that honors his or her goals and values is unchallenged.”

Matthew Shurka would dispute that. Originally from New York, he underwent conversion therapy from age 16 to 21 in four different states, including Virginia, because his father objected to his sexual orientation.

Shurka now travels the country as an advocate for ending conversion therapy. At the press conference, he questioned how much freedom adolescents truly have when it comes to the decision to undergo such treatment.

“Minors who love their parents and trust their parents are being brought to state-licensed doctors who say they can cure them of homosexuality,” Shurka said. “And children then go into it, like myself, and give it their best to cure this, so they can be loved by their family and loved by their community and accepted, which is what every child really wants.”

Shurka, now 26, has stated in interviews that he has forgiven his father for reacting to his homosexuality with conversion therapy. He believes conversion therapists play on parents’ fears.

Banning this type of therapy should not be a partisan issue, Shurka said.

“It’s not about Republicans and Democrats; it’s not about party lines,” he said, “It’s about having workability for an entire population, for an entire state, for all Americans to be able to live together and be safe. Not a single medical curriculum in the country teaches conversion therapy.”

James Parrish, executive director for Equality Virginia, phrased the need for bipartisan cooperation in a more urgent way.

“It’s amazing to me that in year three, we are still talking about this bill,” he said. “Youth who undergo conversion therapy kill themselves. It’s that simple. Anyone in the General Assembly who says they support child safety or children should support these bills.”

Surovell and Hope said they hope that this will be the year their bills make it into law. Legislation banning the therapy died last year in committee on a 7-8 vote.

“This is the third year in a row, and in regard to gays and lesbians, hearts and minds are changing on a daily basis,” Surovell said. “Every year, I see more and more crossover votes on this issue.”

Democrats’ Priorities: Job Training, School Funding

By Diana DiGangi, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Democrats in the Virginia House of Delegates vowed Monday to fight for prison and health-care reforms, more education funding and better job training during the General Assembly’s 2016 legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

At a press conference, 18 of the 33 Democratic delegates detailed their caucus’ plan to support Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s workforce initiative, called “the New Virginia Economy.”

“We support the governor’s initiative so that we can invest in Virginia,” said Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “Together we can pave the way forward creating programs and job training for jobs that exist today, so that people can get the training that they need, jobs they desperately need, to be filled right here at home.”

The House minority leader, Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, agreed.

“Workforce training is significant, but it’s not just workforce training to give people a certificate for a job that exists,” Toscano said. “Otherwise we’re wasting people’s time, and putting people more in debt, and then people are not getting good jobs that pay them a living wage.”

The delegates expressed confidence that they would also be able to accomplish their goals despite being outnumbered by Republicans, who make up 67 of the 100 House members.

“I think by nature, the general sense of this group is we’re pretty optimistic people, and we believe in the power of rational argument,” Toscano said. “And we do believe that when you look at the financial elements of this, it has to appeal to people who look at things financially.”

As part of a “wide variety of public safety and criminal justice reforms,” Toscano said Virginia Democrats also support laws they believe will reduce gun violence.

“It’s important at least in our view that we get mandatory universal background checks, that we close the gun-show loophole, that we provide better protection for those who have gotten protective orders against folks who might hurt them,” he said.

Toscano said Democrats would support Senate Bill 49, proposed by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston. It would prohibit anyone who is subject to a protective order from possessing a firearm; currently, such individuals are prohibited only from purchasing or transporting firearms.

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