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Rural County Accuses Drug Makers of Fueling Opioid Epidemic

 

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

Tucked between news of budget meetings and beauty pageant winners published in The Dickenson Star’s 2017 “Year in Review” is a grim statistic: Dickenson County was first in the state and sixth in the nation in opioid overdose deaths per capita.

In Dickenson County, in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia bordering Kentucky, residents have been dying of prescription opioid overdoses in recent years at a rate of about 40 per 100,000 people – more than seven times the statewide rate.

The newspaper’s annual review is cited in the introduction of a lawsuit filed by Dickenson County against 30 pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and providers including Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories and CVS Health Co.

Represented by the Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm and the Cicala Law Firm, Dickenson is suing for $30 million in damages. The suit says the defendants deliberately increased the flow of opioids into the county, state and country.

The case is one of the latest examples of communities across the nation suing pharmaceutical companies and associated businesses and alleging that they had a role in creating the epidemic. In Virginia, the city of Alexandria is suing for $100 million while in neighboring Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George counties have also taken legal action.

Joanne Cicala, founder of the Cicala Law Firm, which has offices in Texas and New York, says those who are responsible for and profited from the epidemic must be held accountable for its costs.

“The opioid epidemic is not accidental. It is not a natural disaster; it is a man-made crisis,” Cicala said. “And worse – the companies that did this were not just seeking to build market share – they knew they were creating addicts.”

In more than 100 pages, the lawsuit tells the story of how Dickenson County – with a population of fewer than 16,000 residents spread out over 334 square miles – was drawn into a prescription opioid overdose epidemic that claimed more than 500 lives across the state in 2017.

Did manufacturers ‘push opioid as safe, effective drugs’?

As with any drug that enters the prescription market, the distribution process begins with manufacturers. In the case of the opioid epidemic, one of the manufacturers is Purdue Pharma, a company known for its best-selling opioid – OxyContin.

In Dickenson County, the lawsuit claims, Purdue Pharma and other defendants recognized “the enormous financial possibilities associated with expanding the opioid market.” So they “rolled out a massive and concerted campaign to misrepresent the addictive qualities of their product, and to push opioids as safe, effective drugs for the treatment of chronic pain,” the suit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, the drug manufacturers took part in a “campaign of deception” rooted in a since-disavowed study by Dr. Russell Portenoy published in the medical journal Pain in 1986.

In the study, Portenoy claimed that opioids could be used for long periods of time “without any risk of addiction” to treat chronic pain unrelated to cancer. The study said patients in pain would not become addicted to opioids because their pain drowned out the euphoria associated with the drugs.

Within a decade, Portenoy was financed by at least a dozen pharmaceutical companies, most of which produced prescription opioids.

The lawsuit argues that Portenoy’s study – paired with the practice of spending millions of dollars on promotional activities that understated the risks of opioids – not only legitimized but normalized the prescribing of opioids in Dickenson and across the country.

In the case of OxyContin – Purdue’s time-released version of oxycodone – promotional materials given to physicians included this key sentence: “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”

The drug companies’ sales representatives marketed directly to physicians, ensuring that doctors would be advocates for certain drugs, the lawsuit said. As a result, it contended, the pharmaceutical manufacturers were able to insert their products directly into specific markets.

In 2014 alone, the manufacturing defendants named in the Dickenson lawsuit spent more than $168 million on pursuing branded opioid sales contracts with doctors, the lawsuit said.

Twenty-six years after publishing his study justifying the prescription of opioids, Portenoy acknowledged that he erred in understating the risks of addiction associated with such drugs.

“Did I teach about pain management, specifically about opioid therapy, in a way that reflects misinformation? Well, against the standards of 2012, I guess I did,” Portenoy said in an interview that year with The Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t know then what we know now.”

How pharmacy benefit managers influence drug prices

As explained in the lawsuit, pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, are the middleman between the manufacturers and the marketplace; they influence which drugs are used most frequently, set prices for pharmacies and control what drugs are covered by health insurance providers.

PBMs include Caremark, Express Scripts and OptumRX – all named as defendants in the lawsuit. These companies serve as gatekeepers through controlling lists known as “drug formularies” that identify prescription drugs with the greatest overall value.

PBMs and pharmaceutical companies negotiate financial arrangements, including rebates for preferred placement on drug formularies, the lawsuit said. It said manufacturers compete for spots on the list in order to ensure greater utilization of the drugs they make.

Not only do PBMs have the power to make opioids cheaper – they can make less addictive medications harder to acquire, the lawsuit said. For example, it said, United Healthcare places morphine on its lowest-cost coverage tier with no prior permission required; in contrast, Lyrica, a non-opioid drug prescribed for nerve pain, is on the most expensive tier, requiring patients to try other drugs first.

Not just a health crisis but an economic one

The impact of the opioid epidemic in Dickenson County is multifaceted. While the county’s overdose rates are the most conspicuous consequence of the epidemic, the increased flow of opioids into the region has had a ripple effect on the county’s economy, health care system and workforce.

In 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Dickenson County as one of eight Virginia counties that are vulnerable to the rapid dissemination of HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs.

L. Christopher Plein, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University, said the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, but it also has far-reaching economic consequences.

“Communities become severely stressed by having to respond and deal with this crisis, and they may lack the resources to provide treatment, engage law enforcement and provide recovery services,” Plein said. “These communities may not be as attractive to outside investors and businesses if they develop a reputation of being tied to the opioid epidemic.”

The lawsuit argues that the opioid epidemic has significantly and negatively impacted nearly every aspect of the county’s $26 million budget and the public services it provides, including health care, emergency medical services, social services, law enforcement and drug prevention, education and treatment.

Dickenson County has had to buy opioid antagonists such as naloxone – medications that can reverse drug overdoses. Moreover, the county has lost tax revenues because of the opioid crisis, the lawsuit said.

For example, the drug epidemic has affected the job market and workforce in Dickenson County. The Virginia Employment Commission reported last week that Dickenson’s unemployment rate in March was 6.6 percent – double the statewide rate. Dickenson had the fifth-highest jobless rate among Virginia’s 133 counties and cities.

Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, says these consequences can no longer be ignored.

“Dickenson County is on the tipping point of having an unemployable workforce,” Pillion said. “They have difficulty recruiting industry because the only articles in the news are talking about overdoses and opioids.”

Purdue responds: ‘No longer promoting opioids’

In response to the growing number of lawsuits brought against the company, Purdue Pharma announced in February that it would stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors.

“We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” the company said in a written statement.

Purdue officials said that they cut their sales staff in half in the week following the announcement and that the remaining staff would pivot to focus on other products.

Kevin Sharp, lead counsel for Dickenson County’s lawsuit, called the announcement a step in the right direction. But he said the damage already inflicted demands a more comprehensive response.

“There’s a lot more that has to be done to solve this problem,” Sharp said. “They have to remedy past harm. And the parties are going to have to work together to find out the best way to minimize – and end if possible – the harm that is being caused.”

Purdue Pharma has yet to file a response to the Dickenson County lawsuit but provided the following statement:

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines with collaborative efforts to solve this public health challenge.

“Although our products account for less than 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.”

Expanding treatment for opioid addiction

In April 2017, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services launched the Addiction Recovery and Treatment Services program to help increase access to treatment for Virginians battling opioid addiction.

The ARTS program was established primarily to help ease the burden on hospital emergency departments in treating patients with opioid-related issues, particularly in rural areas like Dickenson County.

The program expands treatment to Medicaid recipients by combining traditional medicine with counseling and other support systems. It also offers training and financial incentives to providers to encourage participation among outpatient treatment centers, doctors and hospitals.

“Providers are responding to the critical need for addiction treatment,” said Dr. Katherine Neuhausen, chief medical officer for DMAS. “Today, more than 350 new organizations are providing these life-saving services to Virginia Medicaid members. The number of outpatient opioid treatment services has increased from six to 108, including 79 office-based opioid treatment programs combining medication with counseling and other essential supports.”

According to an evaluation by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, the program has increased the number of Medicaid recipients receiving treatment for opioid addiction by more than 50 percent, and the number of opioid-related emergency hospital visits by Medicaid recipients declined by nearly one third.

(Editor's Note: According to the data compiled as this story was researched, from 2007-2017 there have been 2 opioid-related deaths in the City of Emporia and 3 in Greensville County. During that time frame 3.2% of the total deaths in the City and 2.3% of the total deaths in the County were opioid-related as compared with the 35.5% mortality rate in Dickenson County - in both 2007 and 2011 more than half of the deaths in Dickenson County were opioid-related)

Southwest Virginia Legislator Targets Opioid Crisis

As a health care professional, state Del. Todd Pillion of Abingdon has a special perspective on the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the localities he represents in Virginia’s General Assembly.

Pillion, a pediatric dentist, has successfully sponsored key legislation to address the crisis. He represents the 4th House District, which includes Dickenson County and parts of Wise, Russell and Washington counties.

“Virginia has become a leader in passing not only legislation but regulations through the Board of Medicine and Dentistry,” Pillion said. “There’s no magic bullet – this epidemic isn’t going to go away no matter what we do. But we have seen improvements.”

During this year’s regular legislative session, the General Assembly passed three opioid-related bills introduced by Pillion, a Republican who was elected in 2014. Gov. Ralph Northam has signed the measures into law:

  • HB 1556 will add the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone and other Schedule 5 drugs for which a prescription is required to Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program. This will allow the Virginia Department of Health to monitor whether prescribers and dispensers are following state regulations and to deter the illegitimate use of prescription drugs. By adding naloxone to the list, officials can track if it is being co-prescribed with opiates in order to prevent fatal overdoses.
  • HB 1157 will require the Department of Health to develop and implement a plan of action for substance-exposed infants in Virginia. The plan must support a “trauma-informed approach” to identifying and treating substance-exposed infants and their caregivers, explore how to improve screening of substance-using pregnant women, and use multidisciplinary approaches to intervention and service delivery during the prenatal period and following birth.
  • HB 1173. Under current law, physicians who prescribe opioids are not required to request information from Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program as long as the prescription does not exceed 14 days and is treatment for a surgical or invasive procedure. HB 1173 eliminates the exception for prescriptions related to surgical and invasive procedures to bypass the PMP.

The three new laws will take effect July 1.

Virginia Battles a ‘Crime that Hides in Plain Sight’: Human Trafficking

By Sophia Belletti and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Robin Foster had worked with abused and neglected children for years, but it wasn’t until she came face to face with a trafficking victim that she fully recognized the dimensions of the crisis that brought a 17-year-old to a hospital emergency room early one morning.

The teen came to the hospital complaining of a sore throat but ran off when Foster tried to call her mom for permission to treat her.

“I chased her up the street at 1 in the morning,” Foster recalled.

Foster, who heads the Child Protect Team at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she later learned from police the girl had run away from her group home in Northern Virginia and was being trafficked by a man in a hotel in Richmond.

Human trafficking – a $150 billion global criminal enterprise, according to the International Labor Organization – is increasingly on the radars of law enforcement, politicians and nonprofits across the country. Statistics show the problem is worse in Virginia, and in the Richmond area, than in many other states and localities.

In 2017, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking for sex and cheap or free employment. Last year, the state reported 156 cases, and 70 percent of those were sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Richmond ranked ninth nationwide in the number of calls per capita to the hotline, according to the organization’s 2017 report on the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Virginia Beach ranked 71st for calls per capita and Norfolk was 77th.

The Richmond region’s location at the junction of interstates 64 and 95 makes the area an attractive place for traffickers, as does its large tourism and hospitality industry, says the Richmond Justice Initiative, a faith-based, anti-trafficking group.

While there is not an official estimate on the number of trafficking victims in the United States, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization that runs the hotline, estimates the number to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving federal and state prosecutors greater power to pursue websites that host sex-trafficking ads and enabling victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against those sites.

Trump’s action came a few days after several executives from the website Backpage.com were arrested on 93 indictments including knowingly facilitating trafficking through their website and allegedly laundering millions of dollars. The deaths of some trafficking victims have allegedly been linked to the website.

However, critics of the bill say it conflates legitimate and willing sex work with forced trafficking.

“I think it’s ridiculous that the two are being compared because the key difference is that trafficking victims cannot choose to stop working, they are not being empowered by what they do like sex workers are, and it (the bill) doesn’t address the reasons why people are being trafficked,” said Fay Chelmow, founder and director of ImPACT Virginia.

Chelmow founded ImPACT, a nonprofit fighting to prevent and end the sex trafficking of children, in May 2015 after reading the U.S. Department of Education report, “Human Trafficking in America’s Schools.” Chelmow said she was alarmed to learn how vulnerable youth are lured into the commercial sex industry by traffickers who scout middle and high schools.

“There still needs to be more advocating work around simply educating people that this is an issue in the first place, because trafficking is very profitable,” said Chelmow, a registered nurse since 1984 and a former hospice and palliative care nurse in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to Richmond in 2010. One of the reasons trafficking is so lucrative for criminal perpetrators, she said, is that they can sell the same person “over and over and over again.”

Human trafficking “is a crime that hides in plain sight,” said Charlotte Gomer, press secretary for Attorney General Mark Herring. “It is very difficult to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. Trafficking is about supply and demand and, unfortunately, as long as there is a demand for commercial sex and cheap or free labor, human trafficking will continue to exist.”

She said the attorney general’s office works with the city of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties to provide training, resources, victim services and operational assistance to combat trafficking.

During this year’s General Assembly session, Herring won passage of legislation that will make it harder for people who are charged with trafficking-related crimes to post bail – essentially placing a presumption of no bond for such offenses.

Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, cosponsored the legislation with Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond. Mullin, who works as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Suffolk focusing on sexual assault and gang-related cases, said that fighting human trafficking transcends partisan politics. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and has been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

“This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on,” Mullin said in a statementearlier this year.

Gomer said Herring has been working to combat human trafficking since he took office in 2014. In early 2017, Herring signed a memorandum of understanding creating the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force, a partnership involving his office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Virginia State Police and Hampton Roads law enforcement agencies, and Samaritan House, a Virginia Beach nonprofit that provides emergency shelters for domestic violence victims and homeless families.

Advocates Press for Prevention and Solutions

At Children Hospital, Foster said the biggest medical roadblock when helping child human trafficking victims is finding them a secure place, away from their exploiters.

“Where do you place these kids? So what if you recognize that they’re victims? You can’t discharge them home, so where are we putting them? A lot of the time they have drug dependency so they might have to stay in the hospital to make sure they don’t have to go through drug withdrawal,” Foster said.

Foster said helping victims is even more difficult in the case of family-controlled trafficking.

Elisabeth Corey, a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and abuse, recounts those experiences in her advocacy and book, “One Voice.” She said that her encounters with domestic violence and incest began when she was 2 years old and that after years of familial sexual abuse, her father began selling her.

Corey said her parents were highly involved at medical appointments but answered the doctors’ questions with lies. For example, Corey said she was seen frequently at a young age for urinary tract infections, but her mother told nurses it was a result of bed-wetting. Corey said that should have raised alarms because bed-wetting is a symptom, not a cause of urinary tract infections. Likewise, she said the frequency she was being seen by doctors should have raised concerns.

“It was mind-blowing they would just trust what my parents said,” Corey said. “When I was being trafficked, they (medical professionals) weren’t even addressing domestic violence – so no one even had a word for trafficking, no one was even looking for it.”

It wasn’t until Corey had severe pelvic pain during a sleepover that red flags were raised. A neighbor took Corey to the emergency room after being unable to contact her parents.

Doctors alerted child protective services officials, who placed Corey in foster care in Northern Virginia.

“Foster care was so bad – I was getting raped in foster care – that I rescinded my story so that I could go back home,” Corey said. “I literally preferred my home to the foster care environment.”

In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one out of six runaways might be children sex traffic victims and that the vast majority of those runaways had been in foster care or social services care.

Foster credited the work of Chelmow and others in drawing attention to the victimization of children by traffickers. Ten years ago, she said, the problem and strategies to fight it were “totally off the radar.” There is more awareness overall, she said, with information being placed in “schools, hospitals, airports, at bus stations – critical points people are being trafficked.”

The role of the federal government, at the same time, has helped reshape the fight against trafficking, Foster said, as has the view that “the trafficked person is a victim and not part of the problem.”

Still, many problems remain, especially among higher-risk populations – minors in the foster care or social services systems; the homeless, young people with a history of running away; and LGBTQ youth.

LGBTQ youth “are already so marginalized, and it’s all about exploiting vulnerability,” Chelmow said. “Being marginalized makes you even more vulnerable.”

Despite the wide variety of backgrounds from which young people can be trafficked, Corey said, there are common elements in identifying the abused.

“I work as a life coach all over the world, and it’s almost scary how everybody, regardless of how similar experiences are, reacts to trauma the same way,” Corey said. “We really have to get away from the idea that trafficking is in a silo because it’s not.”

Authorities investigating human trafficking should be ready to consider issues ranging from emotional abuse to financial problems, she said.

According to Foster, among the signs that medical professionals can look for is the presence of someone who is not related to the person seeking help but who acts as if they are – for example, “someone who is like an uncle but won’t really act or look like an uncle.”

Other signs include anxious behavior from a patient, the inability to speak for themselves, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Foster said practitioners should also be aware of excuses used to justify physical trauma and the possibility that any overdoses were done with the intent to commit suicide.

Some of these problems may also be seen by teachers, Corey said.

“I know, we already ask our teachers to do a lot, but they are the first responders to spotting this because they see the children every day,” Corey said. “Another solution is asking survivors what they need and what other survivors need, because we know our experience and solutions need to be trauma-informed.”

However, Corey is aware that finding survivors who are willing to speak out can be difficult due to threats to their safety from their abusers.

“Another reason they don’t come forward is that people who are trafficked have been manipulated into thinking this is their choice and it’s their fault, and they don’t know what trafficking is or what its definition is,” Corey said. “Another side of it, and this is true for me, is that they disassociate and repress the memories.”

A major part of Corey’s work as a life coach and running her website beatingtrauma.com revolves around addressing how trauma manifests through memory loss. She left home at 18, but it was not until the birth of her children in her 30s that she remembered the trafficking and other forms of physical and sexual abuse she experienced.

“There were years of me going to Christmases and events with my family before I remembered the abuse,” Corey said. “I remember always feeling angry around them and like something was not right and I couldn’t name exactly what it was, but my children reminded me of what had happened. A lot of times, children will remind survivors of their own trauma.”

Corey is no longer in contact with her family. She said avoiding the generational cycle of abuse is difficult, but possible.

“I believe that anyone who abuses their children was also abused as a child, but that does not mean every person who was abused will then go on to abuse their own children,” Corey said. “There is a process to deal with the trauma and to address it.”

Virginia Communities, Legislators Breathe New Life into Preserving Black Cemeteries

BLACK CEMETERIES

By George Copeland Jr. and Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a hot Saturday in April, volunteers work under a bright sun and the noise of buzzing insects to find and remove unchecked nature and neglect from the graves of thousands of African-Americans, from everyday citizens to some of the most important leaders in local, state and national history.

The neighboring Evergreen and East End cemeteries serve as the final resting place of Maggie Walker, the first female bank president in the U.S.; John Mitchell, a newspaper publisher who risked his life to crusade for civil rights; and Rosa Dixon Bowser, founder of the Virginia State Teachers Association.

“When Black Richmond was the ‘Harlem of the South,’ when Jackson Ward was known as ‘Black Wall Street,’ these are the people who made those places,” said Brian Palmer of the Friends of East End Cemetery volunteer group.

But the state of the burial grounds can be a stark contrast to the stature of the prominent figures buried there. Over the years, Evergreen, East End and many other black cemeteries across Virginia have fallen into disrepair, uncared for and unacknowledged. More recently, concerned residents have rallied to restore, record and maintain the history of the many laid to rest.

“It is not, shall we say, stunningly beautiful to someone who is more familiar with cemeteries like Hollywood [where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is buried], or the Confederate section of Oakwood, but to us, it is remarkable,” Palmer said of the work accomplished in East End since community efforts increased in 2013.

Across the commonwealth, volunteers like Palmer labor to restore the state’s African-American cemeteries, shining a light on a part of Virginia’s history often overshadowed by the legacy of the Confederacy. In recent years, these volunteers have seen support from a new source: the Virginia General Assembly, which has approved state funding for cleaning up and maintaining several of these cemeteries.

East End and Evergreen, on the line between Richmond and Henrico County, were the first African-American cemeteries in Virginia to receive help from the state government. In 2017, House Bill 1547 was signed into law. It allowed qualifying charitable organizations to collect maintenance funds for the two cemeteries – $5 annually for every person interred who lived between January 1800 and January 1900.

This led to a wave of similar legislation in 2018, with five bills passing the General Assembly. Most of the bills focused on African-American cemeteries in specific locales – CharlottesvilleLoudoun County and Portsmouth. In addition,HB 284 will extend state funding to every African-American cemetery established before 1900 and allow the caretakers of those sites to receive maintenance funds from the state.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who introduced both pieces of legislation, said HB 284 was meant to clear up any ambiguities in HB 1547.

“This year,” McQuinn said, “we came back to say, ‘Let’s be clear: Localities have access to these funds.’”

Palmer remains ambivalent about the legislation; his group has made several attempts to reach out to and meet with McQuinn to discuss it in greater detail. In addition, Friends of East End Cemetery, a nonprofit organization, had applied to receive state funding under HB 1547 before HB 284 was filed, and a final decision from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is still pending.

Even without state support, members of the group remain focused on their work, a process of renewal where the number of volunteers can top 200, a donated wheelbarrow can be a huge boon and new discoveries are spotlighted on sites like FindAGrave.com.

Palmer first stepped into East End Cemetery in the summer of 2014 with his wife Erin while making a documentary. There, they encountered an armed hunting group who said they had permission to use the grounds. (Later, Palmer said he contacted the previous owner, who contradicted this claim.)

The following year, the Palmers joined in the volunteer efforts, helping to rediscover and archive the names of people buried there more than a century ago. State officials say East End Cemetery has nearly 4,900 graves that qualify for assistance and Evergreen has 2,100.

“We’ve had quite a few groups out here,” said John Shuck, a volunteer at East End and Evergreen since 2008. The two cemeteries have received help from college students, churches and Henrico County government. “Get people coming back out, you know, in ones and twos, but it all helps.”

Similar signs of progress are evident in Evergreen Cemetery, which covers more area than East End. Evergreen’s larger scale is matched by both the size of its volunteer force and signs of disrepair.

While the grounds are visited by both tour groups and mountain bikers, Dr. Ted Maris-Wolf of the EnRichmond Foundation, Evergreen’s new owner, emphasizes the work done so far remains “a shoestring operation.” Visitors can see support for that statement: A number of memorials are broken or obscured by overgrowth, and piles of decades-old detritus, collected by workers, line some of the paths in the lower areas of the cemetery.

Maris-Wolf, formerly a professor at Virginia Union University, Randolph-Macon College and the University of Louisiana, described the potential effect of extra revenue as a “game changer, not only for us but for all the cemeteries that will receive state funding.”

Before 2017, there were attempts in the General Assembly to provide equity in state support for graveyard maintenance, but they failed. However, success has come at the municipal level, thanks largely to community organizing.

In 2015, the city of Charlottesville gave $80,000 to the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery to support their work in the city-owned burial grounds. The group hopes to “restore the extant markers, to attempt to identify the many unknown burials and to share information about the known individuals buried at the historic cemetery,” alongside videos,audio tours and an active presence on social media.

“We are very encouraged by recent legislation to provide funding for the preservation” of their cemetery and other African-American burial grounds, the group wrote. “We are hopeful that everyone will have the opportunity to tell their stories of our shared history.”

The struggle to maintain this aspect of Virginia has been long and fraught, even as the state’s black cemeteries remain unknown to most residents of the commonwealth.

Dr. Michael Blakey, an anthropologist and professor at the College of William & Mary, describes cemeteries as “the first archaeologically observable symbolic behavior, a language of memorialization, at the origins of Homo sapiens.”

“Thus, especially in slavery but for all people, cemeteries and mortuary ritual assert our humanity – human dignity – just as their desecration represents its denial.”

This is echoed by Dr. Lynn Rainville in a 2013 article published in the Journal of Field Archeology. Documenting her research into the topic in Albemarle County, Rainville described multiple black burial grounds throughout the area, neglected and overlooked due in part to housing development, racial shifts in local demographics leading to an absence in maintenance, vandalism and “inconsistencies in state laws.”

The result of this lack of care and gap in public awareness is evident even among the volunteers.

Robyn Young, along with her husband James Atkins and their daughter Cameron, continues to help reclaim East End as part of the Midlothian chapter of Jack & Jill of America. But she was struck by the fact “that I can’t find family members buried in these cemeteries for either of us,” despite being Richmond natives.

“I didn’t even know about this cemetery until today,” said Atkins, who has family buried at the nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

Palmer has encountered this juxtaposition in occasional interactions with the public.

“We still talk to people that come through and do the ‘Tsk, tsk – it’s a shame that the black community can’t take care of this place,’” Palmer said.

“The black community, through its tax dollars, has been sustaining every Confederate monument on public property in this city.”

These problems persist at a time when Virginia’s relationship with its Confederate history has grown more contentious. Legislation seeking to remove memorials to the Confederacy has repeatedly failed, while efforts to find alternative solutions have been met with criticism and outrage.

More monuments are still to come. This summer, construction will likely begin at the state Capitol on the Virginia Women’s Memorial, which will feature Confederate Capt. Sally Louisa Tompkins among a racially diverse group of notable women.

Pastor Michele Thomas of the Loudoun Freedom Center, a group that works to spotlight and protect multiple burial grounds against corporate interests and obscurity, declared historic preservation to be “one of the key civil rights issues of our time, because it’s still governed under Jim Crow laws.”

“Separate but equal is more pronounced in death than it is in life, and you can see that clearly with these properties,” Thomas said. “And so when it is our society has not evolved in our law, we’ve not evolved as a society.”

Despite such obstacles, work on African-American cemeteries continues across Virginia. The EnRichmond Foundation has partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University and other organizations in developing new techniques to improve Evergreen for both visitors and those interred, while the Friends of East End Cemetery, with help from VCU and the University of Richmond, unveiled a digital mapping of the cemetery last month.

While Palmer and his fellow volunteers still see signs of disrespect of East End from time to time, there’s a clear joy in seeing the families of those laid to rest come to the site to help ensure their ancestors’ memories are acknowledged and maintained.

“It’s inspiring, most definitely,” Palmer said, “because I think it can be kind of easy to be overwhelmed, but when you see people actually investing energy and time ...”

Visiting her parents’ and grandparents’ graves for the first time since 1994, Doris Smith described the work done so far as “fantastic.”

“Last time we were here, we couldn’t even get back here, you couldn’t even see their graves,” Smith said. “I think it’s really beautiful that people are getting out, doing and keeping it up.”

The 5 Laws Focused on Virginia’s Historically African-American Cemeteries

At the start of the 2018 legislative session, members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates introduced five bills that would provide funding for the state’s historically African-American cemeteries. All five passed the General Assembly and have been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam.

This follows the passage in 2017 of a bill to assist two black cemeteries in Richmond and Henrico County. Until then, legislators regularly rejected attempts to address the unequal treatment of American-American grave sites and burial grounds in comparison to white-majority cemeteries and Confederate memorials.

In a 2013 article in the Journal of Field Archeology, Professor Lynn Rainville discusses this lack of equity: “Even though we have just elected an African-American president, our racially sensitive society unequally values the contributions of some individuals and communities. In the case of historical, black cemeteries, the voices of descendants and concerned residents are often ignored if a burial ground stands in the way of economic development or new construction. Conversely, it is taken as a given that ‘culturally valued’ graveyards, such as that of 19th-century presidents or white elites, will not be disturbed.”

In a statement sent to Capital News Service, a spokesperson for Northam echoed those sentiments and said the new laws “will help to expand upon the Commonwealth’s efforts to highlight, steward, and preserve additional African American cemeteries.”

Here are the new laws set to assist Virginia’s African-American cemeteries. All of them will take effect July 1:

  • House Bill 284, introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. It adds any locality or person who owns an African-American cemetery established between January 1800 and January 1900 to the list of historic organizations qualified to receive funding for the preservation of the burial grounds. The cemetery owners may receive $5 for every person interred who lived between 1800 and 1900.
  • Senate Bill 198, introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and HB 527, filed by Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth. These identical bills add Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portsmouth to the list of historic cemeteries qualified to receive funding.
  • HB 360, introduced by Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. It adds the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville to the list.
  • SB 163, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun. It adds the African-American Burial Ground in Belmont to the list.

Dr. Ted Maris-Wolf of the Evergreen Cemetery and the EnRichmond Foundation, reflecting on the swift passage of the bills through the General Assembly, said, “That was a great day, a tangible sign of progress.”

“These are sacred sites of history and memory, and for the state to help dignify them in that way, I think was an honor for everyone associated.”

Virginia Works to Improve Voting Process Before Midterm Elections

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As Virginia prepares for the November midterm elections, the State Board of Elections approved a number of policy changes aimed at clarifying the voting process and making ballots easier to understand.

On March 23, the board met for the first time since the Northam administration was sworn in. The panel unanimously voted to roll out new ballot standards for the Nov. 6 general election. The goal of the standards is clarification – including allowing candidates to use nicknames, more readable fonts and user-friendly instructions on the ballots.

Each ballot will include instructions on how to vote. It will also state, “If you want to change a vote or if you have made a mistake, ask an election worker for another ballot. If you make marks on the ballot besides filling in the oval, your votes may not be counted.”

Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said the process for revising the ballot standards began before last November’s election, when one voter in Newport News improperly marked their ballot. This led to a tie in the 94th House District race between Democrat Shelly Simonds and Republican David Yancey. During a special meeting of the State Board of Elections in early January, the names of both candidates were placed in a bowl and one was drawn; Yancey was declared the winner.

“The ballot standards were something that was targeted as one of the first things that needed to be looked at,” Piper said.

He said the changes are “really designed to make the ballot standards document more user-friendly and easier to understand for the localities and the vendors who design ballots. It clarifies some things that had come up over the years – it wasn’t in response to anything that happened in November, but certainly lessons learned went into the development.”

The Department of Elections also ensures that each voting machine in Virginia is working properly.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law reports that more than 500 election officials in 41 states, including Virginia, indicated that they will use machines and computers that are more than a decade old in this year’s midterm elections. That number is down from 2016, when the Brennan Center reported that 43 states used electronic voting machines that were at least a decade old.

“Every single machine that’s deployed on Election Day goes through a thorough legit fix and accuracy test which provides the machines with a whole lot of different scenarios and makes sure that it’s working as it should prior to deployment,” Piper said.

In 2017, Virginia decertified paperless touch-screen machines, causing 22 localities to get rid of such devices and replace them. Currently, all localities in Virginia and all voters vote by voter-verified paper ballot. This ensures that there is a voter-verifiable paper audit trail for every vote cast.

“The determination of the Board of Elections is that a voter-verified paper ballot is the safest method to vote in the commonwealth,” Piper said.

Beginning July 1, a new law will require the Department of Elections to annually conduct a post-election risk-limiting audit of ballot scanner machines in use in the commonwealth. Piper said the State Board of Elections is working through those standards, but will soon provide “assurance to the public” that all elections are conducted properly and that the results “were accurate and the will of the public.”

There are several ways to register to vote. Citizens can register on paper by printing off a form on the State Board of Elections website, in person at any office of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles or directly on the website of the Board of Elections or the DMV.

Virginians also can register through third-party groups that conduct voter registration drives. Such activities have been a source of controversy in recent years. In January 2017, Vafalay Massaquoi of Alexandria was convicted of submitting fake voter registration forms while working for a progressive advocacy group, New Virginia Majority. The following June, former James Madison University student Andrew Spieles was also convicted of fabricating voter registration forms while working for HarrisonburgVOTES.

Anyone who requests 25 or more voter registration forms is required to complete training on how to conduct a voter registration drive and receive a certificate that they’ve completed training. However, Piper said that certificate is for “the organization as a whole, not necessarily each individual.”

After getting the certificate, the organization’s representatives can distribute voter registration forms to prospective voters.

If registering to vote on paper, the newly registered voter should be provided with a receipt that is on the form itself that “provides contact information for the individual to follow up with them,” Piper said. According to the guidelines set forth by the State Board of Elections on conducting voter registration drives, completed applications must then be delivered to a voter registration office within 10 days of registering or on the day of the next election registration deadline.

Some third-party groups say Virginia makes it hard to vote.

Rock the Vote, the largest nonprofit and nonpartisan voter registration organization that works to build the political power of young people, lists Virginia as a “blocker state” in regard to voting. It notes that Virginia does not provide automatic or same-day voter registration. Virginia also requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls – a policy that Rock the Vote considers restrictive.

In addition to ranking states based on voting policies, Rock the Vote provides election reminders and information on upcoming elections aimed at millennials on its website.

“Young millennials will be the largest voting block this year,” said Shaneice Simmons, Rock the Vote’s civic engagement manager. “This generation is extremely socially and politically conscious.”

The party primary elections will be held June 12. The deadline to register to vote in the primaries or update an existing voter registration is May 21, and the deadline to request an absentee ballot to be mailed is June 5.

“There is going to be so much on the table for young people to be able to create so much change this year,” Simmons said. “It’s just about making sure that we’re not leaving it on the table – we’re not allowing others to make decisions for us and electing people that represent our values.”

The deadline to register to vote or update an existing registration for the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 15. To request an absentee ballot to be mailed, requests must be received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 30. To request an absentee ballot by appearing in person, requests must be received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3.

After Rally, House OKs Budget Expanding Medicaid


Delegates Mark Levine and Wendy Gooditis pose for a photo with Medicaid expansion supporters on Capitol Hill (Photo credit: George Copeland Jr.)

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates passed a state budget that expands Medicaid in Virginia after advocates for the measure held a rally outside the Capitol.

Meeting in special session, the House voted 67-33 in favor of a budget for the 2018-2020 biennium that provides Medicaid coverage to more low-income Virginians. The legislation now moves to the Senate, which during the regular legislative session opposed Medicaid expansion.

Nineteen Republicans joined 48 Democratic delegates in voting for the House version of the budget.

“Our budget expands health care to 400,000 uninsured Virginians, and it increases funding for our schools, creates jobs and gives raises to teachers and law enforcement,” Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, the House Democratic leader, and Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement.

“We are hopeful that our Republican colleagues in the Senate have seen the light and have heard the chorus of voices in support of expansion.”

House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, expressed optimism that delegates and senators can reach an agreement on the budget.

Cox said the House passed “a strong, structurally-balanced two-year state budget that I am confident can serve as the foundation for a bipartisan, bicameral compromise.”

“Virginia has seen extended budget negotiations before, but what sets us apart from Washington is our willingness to work efficiently and directly to adopt a balanced budget before the current fiscal year ends” on June 30, Cox said.

The House vote came after legislators and citizens from across the commonwealth gathered Tuesday afternoon on the Capitol grounds.

Medicaid expansion advocates from Caroline County, Norfolk, Arlington and Charlottesville were joined by Democratic Dels. Mark Levine of Alexandria, Wendy Gooditis of Clarke County and Alfonso Lopez of Arlington.

“I really think our chamber will do what it needs to do, and I have to say, I think some Senate Republicans are coming around,” Levine said.

During the regular session, the House voted 68-32 in favor of a budget that included Medicaid expansion – a priority for Democrats. Expansion would include a Republican-proposed work requirement for those seeking Medicaid coverage.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has expressed his displeasure with the work requirement. (One Democratic delegate, Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, voted against the House budget on Tuesday because of the work requirement.) President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this week mandating a similar requirement for food stamp recipients.

Gooditis, who was elected last fall, said her political career was driven in part by her struggle to obtain Medicaid coverage to assist her late brother with post-traumatic stress disorder. She credited the “all-around caregivers” she met during these years for both her election victory and the high spirits she felt going into the special session.

“Keep making noise. It’s how I got here, and it’s how we’ll get it done,” Gooditis said.

Some at the rally are already looking ahead to what policies could follow the proposed Medicaid expansion. They expressed enthusiasm for a single-payer health care system, or “Medicare for All.” Levine said he supports such a system.

“People need to know that these are real people’s lives,” Levine said. “They need to know this isn’t some theoretical question; this is a question of whether people get health care or not.”

Legislators at the rally were critical of the current state of health care coverage in Virginia. While Levine praised the efforts of Doctors Without Borders in providing services in Southwest Virginia and the Northern Neck, he was nonetheless “ashamed” that residents there must rely on an international group that normally serves developing countries.

Lopez discussed the good financial fortune his family had when their newborn baby was delivered prematurely last year, a comfort he stressed wasn’t shared by everyone in his House district. Lopez said the 49th District, which includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties, ranks as “one of the most educated” in the U.S. and yet has the “fourth-highest number of people who could benefit” from Medicaid expansion.

“Think about the family that has a baby born prematurely,” Lopez said. “Think about the family that’s struck down by a horrible disease or in a horrific accident. Health care could be devastating for their finances.”

“We’re going to get this done,” Lopez said. “We have to get this done.”

Legislators, Advocates Show Support for Medicaid Expansion

Gov. Northam Signs Rear-Facing Car Seat Requirements into Law

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Beginning next year, Virginia will join more than a dozen states that prohibit children under the age of 2, or children who are below the manufacturer's suggested weight limit, to be placed in a forward-facing car seat.

The new law, House Bill 708, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed last month, will go into effect July 1, 2019. It was introduced by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, after she was approached by AAA about the issue.

“I’m very proud to patron this bill because I have always worked on issues about public safety and kids’ safety,” Filler-Corn said. “How could I not introduce a bill that will save lives and protect our most vulnerable Virginians, our children?”

According to Martha Meade, the public and government affairs manager for Virginia’s AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, the association has lobbied for issues of public safety on the roads for decades.

“This is an important change for Virginia because it is confusing for many folks who don’t know when the the right time is to switch their child to be forward-facing in vehicles,” Meade said. “All the major traffic safety organizations — AAA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Highway Safety Administration and the Academy of Pediatrics — recommend a child stays rear-facing until age 2, or until they've reached the minimum weight and height requirement.”

Filler-Corn said she was surprised, but not discouraged, by the intensity of the opposition to what she views as a “common-sense safety measure.” Critics of the bill argued that the government should not have a role in how parents choose to raise and protect their children.

The bill went through several rounds of amendments before passing the House 77-23 and the Senate 23-17. Filler-Corn said she received bipartisan support. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, and Sen Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, were “amazing and very supportive” advocates for the bill.

 “Everyone has the right to raise their children as they see fit, but this really is a safety measure statistically proven to work,” Filler-Corn said. “When I’m faced with opposition, I compare the enforcement of rear-facing child seats to the requirement of everyone having to wear a seat belt. It’s very similar, but one is focused on children who can’t make decisions to protect themselves.”

Students Get a Close-up View of the General Assembly

Taylor Thornhill (right) with Sen. Lewis, D-Accomack, (middle) and staff.

By Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Among the assortment of legislators, aides and staff members who call the Capitol home, 23 Virginia Commonwealth University students experienced a close-up view of the General Assembly’s 2018 session.

The students were a part of the Virginia Capitol Semester program sponsored by VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The program allows students to witness the legislative process from the inside by interning with legislators and other officials.

“We want our students to be engaged and involved in the legislative process. We want them to see how policy impacts us all, it impacts them, and they can then cause an impact on our community,” said Shajuana Isom-Payne, director of student success at the Wilder School.

Payne directs the internship program and, with the approval of a panel, matches students with legislators. The application process includes a personal essay, list of policy interests and an interview.

“We really try to connect our students with the members who are on committees and doing solid work in those areas that the students have expressed specific interests in,” Payne said.

The program is open to students of all majors – not only those in the Wilder School. Besides devoting 20 hours a week to their internship, students attend a weekly public policy seminar with a former staff member of the Senate Finance Committee, Richard Hickman.

The seminars often feature guest speakers such as House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and the Democratic leader of the House, Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. Hickman believes it is important for young adults to be engaged and involved in the legislative process because one day they will be the ones in charge.

“It important to give them a real-world-oriented experience as part of their collegiate career so that they’re not coming into the job with no experience of actually how the General Assembly works,” Hickman said.

Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, said the internship provides invaluable knowledge to the students. Landes echoed Hickman’s belief of the importance of being engaged.

“Our representative democracy would not exist without the participation of members of our society. Being a part of that process is especially important for young adults,” said Landes, a VCU graduate. “In the case of student interns, they are exposed to a learning process from which they can take something away.”

Ryan Kotrch, a junior at VCU, said he learned a lot participating in the Capitol Semester program this semester. He said interacting with legislators and seeing the process firsthand was unparalleled.

“It’s one thing to learn about the process in a course, but to actually be there, hands-on, it’s a totally different thing, a totally different experience,” Kotrch said.

Kotrch said he plans to return next session to serve as an intern again for Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson. One thing that Kotrch learned was the unique community and collaboration at the General Assembly.

“You think about partisanship in D.C. all the time, and you think in Virginia, it must be the same way. And it is in some aspects, but at the same time they’re all friends,” Kotrch said.

Payne and Hickman agree that the next step in the program is expansion. Both expressed their desire to bring in more students from all fields of study because the skills learned are transferable across disciplines.

“The skills that they will learn from this internship experience are going to be dynamic and are going to take them far in whatever career route that they choose,” Payne said.

Taylor Thornhill, another VCU junior in the Capitol Semester program, interned for Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, during the past session.

“It taught me how to be a woman in the legislative field. My legislative assistant I worked for was a female and she’s only 28 years old. This is her second year being there,” Thornhill said. “She taught me how to be strong and independent and confident.”

Hickman said he has enjoyed seeing how students have grown not only in their practical knowledge of the General Assembly but in their skills such as time management and effective communication. He encourages students with doubts about the program to go for it.

“If you have any interest at all in learning how your government works as opposed to what you read on social media or just hear from other people,” Hickman said, “this is a great way to have an internship and have a face-to-face opportunity to meet the people who really do make the decisions in the General Assembly.”

Northam Vetoes 8 Bills; 1 Would Block Higher Wages

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a flurry of bills Monday, including one to prohibit local governments from requiring contractors to pay their employees more than minimum wage.

House Bill 375, introduced by Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, passed the House and Senate on party-line votes during the General Assembly’s 2018 regular session. Northam said he rejected the bill because he believes employee wage and benefit decisions are best left to individual localities, pointing to differences in the cost of living and workforce factors.

“The ability of local governments to make this choice should be supported, not limited,” the Democratic governor said. “Decisions regarding municipal contacts should be made by local leaders who fully understand local needs and the needs of their workforce.”

HB 375 was one of eight bills Northam vetoed Monday. He also rejected:

  • Senate Bill 521, which would require local voter registrars to investigate the list of registered voters whenever it exceeds the estimated number of people age 18 or older in a county or city. The sponsor, Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain of Rockingham County, called the measure “a critical election integrity bill.” But Northam said it would unduly burden election officials and that Virginia already has a process to ensure accurate voter registration rolls.
  • HB 1167, which would require jury commissioners to collect information from people who are not qualified to serve on juries and present that information to voter registrars for list maintenance purposes. “There is no evidence or data that jury information is a reliable source for voter list maintenance,” Northam said. He said using this information “could endanger the registrations of eligible voters and prevent them from successfully casting a ballot.”
  • HB 158, which would allow the General Assembly to alter legislative districts outside the constitutional process so they correspond with local voting precinct boundaries. Northam said this would allow members of the General Assembly to adjust districts at their own discretion, threatening Virginians’ rights to equal apportionment.
  • HB 1568, which would assign certain functions of the Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority. Northam said he believes this is an unnecessary move.
  • HB 1257, which states, “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” Northam said the legislation “would force local law enforcement agencies to use precious resources to perform functions that are the responsibility of federal immigration enforcement agencies. It also sends a chilling message to communities across Virginia that could have negative impacts on public safety.”
  • HB 1270, which would forbid state participation in adopting regulations on carbon dioxide cap-and-trade programs. Northam said the bill would limit Virginia’s ability to tackle climate change and provide additional clean energy jobs.
  • HB 1204, which would require Arlington County to assess two private country clubs there as land dedicated to open space rather than its current method of highest and best use. “This is a local dispute over a local government’s method of assessing land for property taxation,” Northam said. “As such, the solution to this dispute should be reached on the local level without the involvement of the state.”

The General Assembly will reconvene for a one-day session on April 18 to consider the vetoes and recommendations issues by Northam. It takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a veto. Democrats hold enough seats in each chamber to prevent an override.

‘Safe Virginia’ Task Force Will Address Gun Violence

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia House Democrats announced the formation Tuesday of a “Safe Virginia” task force to address gun violence in communities across the commonwealth.

Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria said the initiative is a direct response to House Republicans’ Select Committee on School Safety, which the GOP members said would not take up gun issues. The Democrats have sent a letter to House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, inviting Republican delegates to join the group.

Del. Kathleen Murphy of Fairfax, who will co-chair Safe Virginia with Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, said they commended Cox and Republicans for creating the select committee, which will hold its first meeting April 26. But Murphy said she believes it is important to do more and discuss questions regarding guns.

“It is not possible to separate school safety from gun safety,” Murphy said. “People are focused on the tragedy of gun violence, so now is the time to move forward.”

Republican Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield, a member of the select committee, said its efforts are also borne from the desire to do more. She said panel members want to focus on bipartisan school safety improvements without unduly burdening schools and taxpayers.

“The committee will not consider issues Republicans and Democrats disagree on, such as restricting gun access or arming teachers,” Robinson said. “Rather, it will consider such tactics as adding metal detectors in schools, improving the check-in process for people visiting the school during school hours, and how to safely protect students in the event of an attack.”

Murphy and Filler-Corn said the Safe Virginia task force will focus on gun violence not only in schools but across the state. They hope the recent spike in activism from young people in Virginia and the United States will inspire state lawmakers to take action.

“Three out of the 10 deadliest mass shootings have taken place in our country in the last six months,” Filler-Corn said. “We need to get to work to find common sense, bipartisan solutions to address this crisis.”

The House Democratic Caucus has selected regional chairs for the panel: Del. Delores McQuinn for Richmond, Del. Marcia Price for Hampton Roads, Del. John Bell for Northern Virginia and Del. Chris Hurst for Southwest Virginia.

Safe Virginia plans to hold meetings from May to October across Virginia to hear comments from constituents, law enforcement authorities and state and local leaders.

Virginia Schools Will Teach How to Prevent Child Abuse

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia is taking a step toward teaching children how to recognize and prevent child abuse, abduction, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation after Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill to include age-appropriate instruction in those areas in the state’s family life education curriculum.

Current law already requires age-appropriate education on preventing dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and sexual violence, but child advocates like Patty Hall, the director of community engagement and volunteer services at Hanover Safe Place, have pushed for stronger measures.

“The work that I do with the kids shows that they don’t know often and understand the concept of being able to say no if somebody is touching them or doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Whether it is by a family member, or a friend or a dating partner, many of them do not understand these concepts,” said Hall, who does prevention education with children of all ages in Hanover County.

On Thursday, Northam signed SB 101, which was sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and incorporates proposals by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, and other legislators. Wexton is an advocate for Erin’s Law, a national movement urging states to implement prevention-oriented child sexual abuse programs.

LaTonsha Pridgen, founder of the advocacy group Stomp Out the Silence, also supports Erin’s Law. Pridgen said she was sexually abused from the ages of 8 to 13. Her experience inspired her to start S.O.S., a nonprofit dedicated to preventing childhood sexual abuse through awareness and legislation.

“I know firsthand what it means to be a child and not understand that adults can do you harm – not even know that I could go to my teachers or to another adult outside of my home to report this,” Pridgen said. “So I wholeheartedly support educating our children and giving them the information they need to prevent child sex abuse.”

The final version of SB 101 will create guidelines on age-appropriate programs on the prevention, recognition and awareness of child abuse, abduction, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, but it does not require schools to implement such programs. Still, advocates say it’s a step in the right direction.

“The law gets us one step closer to #ErinsLaw in Virginia,” Wexton stated on her Facebook page after SB 101 passed the House on March 7.

Besides adding child abuse prevention programs, SB 101 clarifies that sexual harassment by digital means will be included in the existing curriculum.

The bill takes effect July 1.

New Law Would Lower GED Age Requirement

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — It will be easier for Virginians who drop out of high school at 16 or 17 to earn their high school equivalency diploma if Gov. Ralph Northam signs a bill approved by the General Assembly.

House Bill 803, sponsored by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, would reduce from 18 to 16 the age for taking the General Educational Development tests. Supporters say the measure could save some teenagers time and money in pursuing a GED diploma.

“There’s been young people who have dropped out of school in our region at 16 or 17, and they’ve realized, ‘Hey, shouldn’t have done that. I’d like to get my high school diploma so I can go to work,’ and they’ve had to wait until they were 18,” said Jacob Holmes, O’Quinn’s legislative director.

 “It kind of put them off for a year or two. [O’ Quinn] was trying to find an avenue to allow those kids who’ve made that mistake to get back on the right track.”

Under current law, a GED certificate is available only to:

●      Adults who did not complete high school

●      Students granted permission by their division superintendent

●      Students who are home-schooled and have completed home-school instruction

●      Students released from compulsory attendance for religious or health reasons

●      People required by court order to participate in the testing program

 According to existing law, Virginians as young as 16 can earn a GED diploma if they are housed in adult correctional facilities or have been expelled from school for certain reasons.

If granted permission by their division superintendent, students must complete an Individual Student Alternative Education Plan before they are allowed to take the GED tests.

According to Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, to complete an alternative education plan, a student must:

●      Receive career counseling

●      Attend a high school equivalency preparation program

●      Earn a Career and Technical Education credential as approved by the Virginia Board of Education

●      Complete a course in economics and personal finance

●      Receive counseling on the potential economic impact of failing to complete high school along with procedures for re-enrollment

 HB 803 would allow an individual who is at least 16 years old to take the GED exam without having to complete an alternative education plan.

However, the legislation does not mean students can quit high school the day they turn 16. It “does not amend the commonwealth’s compulsory education statute, which requires attendance in school up until the 18th birthday and describes the circumstances under which a person under the age of 18 can be excused from attending school,” Pyle said.

Holmes added that O’Quinn “was not intending to have an incentive for people to drop out of high school.”

O’Quinn’s bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously. Northam has until April 9 to decide whether to sign it into law. Rebecca Blacksten, a 10th-grader at McLean High School in Fairfax County, said she hopes he does.

“I personally feel like it’s a wonderful idea,” Blacksten said. “I think that in a country where education is of the utmost importance, everyone should have the ability to get a GED, even if it is earlier than 18 because of needs they might have.”

Final Hearing on Carbon Bill; Northam to Veto GOP Measure

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Proposed regulations on power plant carbon emissions to help lower pollution 30 percent by 2030 drew a variety of responses from citizens and environmental advocates at a public hearing by the state Air Pollution Control Board.

The draft was proposed in November, following then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive directive in May to instruct the Department of Environmental Quality  to develop a cap-and-trade proposal. The Republican-majority General Assembly opposed  Gov. Ralph Northam’s bid to make Virginia the first Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and instead narrowly backed HB 1270, which would block such action. Northam’s office said Tuesday he would veto that bill, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Citizens at the hearing  on Monday were split on whether they believed Virginia should join the initiative, with some expressing concern about its impact on the state’s economy. There was also  debate over biomass regulation. While some said biomass is carbon neutral, others countered that it should be regulated if it is co-fired with other fuels.

Janet Eddy, a member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, supported joining the initiative. She said that her patients feel the negative effects of climate change and that health statewide would improve by reducing the emissions under the pact. She said Abt Associates, a social change organization, conducted a study between 2009 and 2014 that estimated the greenhouse gas initiative has averted at least 300 deaths and 35 heart attacks.

Michael Stone of Richmond said he opposes the initiative because the state should focus on creating renewable energy sources rather than finding a way to continue using fossil fuels with less negative effects. He said, however, that he favors reducing carbon.

“I don’t see how we can develop any new fossil fuel infrastructure in Virginia and say that we’re really keeping an eye on the future,” Stone said.

The meeting came after a rally by the Sierra Club, which supports the proposed draft.

“Virginia is taking a step forward while on the federal level, the Trump administration is doing a dangerous dance, reducing lifesaving safeguards,” Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said in a news release.

But Harrison Wallace, Virginia policy coordinator and coastal campaigns manager for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said at the rally that the draft doesn’t go far enough.

He said the state should limit carbon emissions to a total of 30 million tons by 2020 and make continued reductions beyond 2030. The current proposed goal is between 33 to 34 million tons. Wallace also complained that the initiative fails to include biomass as a power-producing carbon fuel that needs to be restricted. He said that gives Dominion Energy “an unfair economic advantage.”

Virginia Will Offer New Specialty License Plates

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians are likely to see a handful of new specialty license plates this summer, including one aimed at those who support an end to gun violence.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, sponsored the bill authorizing the plate with the legend “Stop Gun Violence.” House Bill 287, which bounced between the House and Senate before legislators reached an agreement, is waiting for Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

Northam has already signed into law speciality license plates for supporters of Virginia’s electric cooperatives, theAlzheimer’s Association and the Virginia Future Farmers of America Association.

Last year, the Virginia FFA Association was given the opportunity to have its own plate available for purchase if it could get 1,000 people to register for the plate by the end of the year. Although the organization did not receive enough applications for the plate, its members still have hope; Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, proposed Senate Bill 446 to give the group another chance this year.

“I look forward to having the FFA Commemorative License Plate on my car and seeing them on cars in our great commonwealth,” Scot Lilly, former chair of the state’s FFA Association, said in a press release.

During their 2018 session, legislators in Virginia considered 15 new specialty plate bills. The state Department of Motor Vehicles website already offers more than 310 choices. Beginning July 1, motorists can order the newly approved plates. The plates will then be permanently available if they reach the 1,000-plate registration minimum before the year ends.

Specialty plates generally cost $25 above the regular vehicle registration fee. The DMV then gives $15 of that amount to the nonprofit group or cause associated with the plate.

About 14 percent of Virginians have a specialty plate. Virginia offers four categories of plates — special interest, college and university, military and other.

Although the “other” classification has the fewest number of plate options, its scenic plate has led the past two years with 214,332 total purchases.

Of the collegiate plates, Virginia Tech’s athletic “Go Hokies” plate is the most purchased with a total of 7,530 plates registered as of 2017.

The General Assembly carried over until its 2019 session proposed specialty plates for Parents Against Bullying, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (focused on increasing the elk population and advocating for hunters), supporters of Virginia’s women veterans, and the American Legion, another veteran organization.

Virginia Governor Calls Special Session to Tackle Budget

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After adjourning last week without passing a budget, members of the Virginia General Assembly will reconvene April 11 for a special session to complete their work on a biennial spending plan.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a proclamation Tuesday calling the special session.

“After a legislative session that was marked by bipartisan progress on issues that matter to people’s lives, I remain disappointed that the General Assembly was unable to extend that spirit of cooperation to its work on the budget,” Northam said in a press release.

The House budget bill, introduced by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, passed in the House 68-32. The Senate insisted on amendments. The bill went to a conference committee, but negotiators could not reach agreement before the session concluded Saturday.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, introduced the Senate’s budget bill, which passed the Senate 25-15. It was sent to the House but never made it out of the Appropriations Committee.

The major sticking point is over Medicaid, the health program for low-income Americans. The House wants to expand Medicaid on grounds that the federal government will pick up most of the cost. The Senate opposes that idea because it fears the state may be stuck with the tab.

Like the House, Northam wants to expand Medicaid.

“Virginians sent us to Richmond to work together to make life better for every family, no matter who they are or where they live. We can live up to that responsibility by passing a budget that expands health care to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who need it,” he said in Tuesday’s statement.

“Expanding coverage will also generate savings that we can invest in education, workforce training, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, and a healthy cash balance to prepare for fiscal downturns.”

The General Assembly convened on Jan. 10 for a 60-day session. By the end of the session, more than 870 bills had passed — but none on the budget.

By April 9, Northam must sign, veto or recommend changes on the approved bills. The General Assembly already was scheduled to meet on April 18 to consider the governor’s vetoes and recommendations.

2018 General Assembly Scorecard

Below is an infographic showing how many bills each legislator passed as a percentage of the number of bills submitted. This infographic was created by Capital News Service reporter Adam Hamza.

 

Foster Care Teens Soon Can Ask to Reunite With Birth Parents

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Teenagers in foster care in Virginia will be able to express their preference on restoring their birth parents’ parental rights under a law that will take effect July 1.

The General Assembly passed and Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation allowing foster care children ages 14 and older to tell a judge whether they want their birth parents to regain custody of them.

HB 1219 was introduced by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who as a child lived in a foster home and was adopted.

“If parents had issues and had to give up their child, the judge asks the guardian ad litem or social worker if the child has expressed a preference,” Reid said.

The guardian ad litem is a lawyer appointed to look after the interests of a child or other people unable to represent themselves.

Reid was born and raised in Rockbridge County outside Lexington, Virginia. When he was 6, Reid said, his mother left the family. His father tried his best to raise Reid, his sister and two brothers, the legislator said. The children ended up being taken to United Methodist Family Services.

“When I went to UMFS, I had indoor pumping, hot water and a bathroom,” Reid said.

When he turned 16, Reid was adopted from the children’s home and moved to Oklahoma with his adoptive parents. In Oklahoma, Reid said he was able to finish high school and thought about going to college for the first time.

“My dad got a ninth-grade education. I was the first person ever in my family to get a college education,” Reid said.

Reid attended Northeastern Oklahoma State University in Tahlequah – “the capital of the Cherokee” – and graduated with a degree in political science in 1984.

“My junior year was when I reflected back on the last 10 years of my life. That’s when it dawned on me that I was living the American dream, which prompted me to get into the Navy Reserve,” Reid said.

Reid served in the Navy Reserve for 23 years as an intelligence officer and in other positions, while also working in Northern Virginia. He earned his master’s degree in 2002 from the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington.

Reid, 55, is the chief strategy officer for Axiologic Solutions, an engineering company based in Fairfax. He was elected last fall to the Virginia House of Delegates.

Gov. Northam Signs 300 Bills on Issues From Taxes to Child Abuse

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Before adjourning on Saturday, the General Assembly passed more than 870 bills, and about 300 of them – on subjects ranging from taxes and criminal justice to education and government transparency – have already been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The first bill signed by Northam, a pediatric neurologist who took office on Jan. 13, fit his medical career: Senate Bill 866 will reauthorize a license for a hospital in Patrick County, allowing the facility to reopen. SB 866 took effect immediately – on Feb. 16. Unless a bill contains such an emergency clause, it takes effect July 1.

Here is a rundown of other bills the governor has approved, as well as legislation awaiting action.

Bills Already Enacted

House Bill 154 and SB 230 took effect as soon as the governor signed them in on Feb. 22 and 23. Both conform Virginia’s tax system to changes in the federal tax code that the U.S. Congress approved last year.

Like the GOP-created federal law, both state laws were introduced by Republicans. Unlike the federal legislation, both bills saw bipartisan support in Virginia’s House and Senate.

The state legislation provides tax incentives to fund relief to areas struck by hurricanes. The two bills also feature the first amendments that Northam recommended as governor.

Bills Taking Effect July 1

Northam signed several bills tackling child abuse. They include HB 150 and HB 389, which will require local social service departments to alert schools found to have employed anyone accused of child abuse or neglect at any time.

Young people also will be helped by HB 399 and SB 960, which seek to create new work opportunities for students. The House bill requires school systems to notify students about internships and other work-based learning experiences. The Senate measure will promote partnerships between public high schools and local businesses on internships, apprenticeships and job shadow programs.

HB 35 will add a layer of oversight to the process that puts more violent juvenile offenders in adult detention faculties for the safety of other juveniles. It also will separate these juveniles from adult offenders when confined in adult facilities.

SB 966 will allow monopoly utilities like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to use their “over-earnings” – revenues that state regulators consider as excess profits – to modernize the energy grid and promote clean energy. The bill also removes a rate freeze made law in 2015, restoring some regulatory power to the State Corporation Committee.

HB 907 and 908 will allow greater transparency through public access to government meetings through the Freedom of Information Act. At the same time, Northam approved bills creating more FOIA exemptions: for records relating to public safety (HB 727), certain police records (HB 909) and select financial investment documents held by board members of the College of William and Mary (HB 1426).

Bills on the Governor’s Desk

In criminal justice, HB 1550 would raise the threshold amount of money stolen that would qualify for grand larceny from $200 to $500. The current state threshold, which determines whether the crime is a felony, is one of the lowest in the United States.

Immigration saw the passage of HB 1257, which would bar the creation of sanctuary cities in Virginia by enforcing federal immigration standards on all localities. Its passage in the Senate, like the House of Delegates, came down to votes split along party lines. Northam has already made clear his intention to veto the legislation.

Last year, the General Assembly passed HB 1547, which provides state funding to renovate select historically black cemeteries in Richmond. This year, legislators approved bills focusing on African-American cemeteries in Loudoun County (SB 163), Charlottesville (HB 360) and Portsmouth (SB 198 and HB 527). A fifth, HB 284, would cover every black cemetery in the state while broadening the groups able to receive state funds.

Also awaiting Northam’s signature is HB 1600, which would reduce the maximum length of a long-term school suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days. The bill provides exceptions in extreme cases.

HB 50 would prohibit teachers and other school employees from “lunch shaming” students who can’t afford school meals by making them do chores or wear a wristband or hand stamp.

Northam has until April 9 to sign, veto or recommend changes to the bills sent to him by the General Assembly. Lawmakers will then return to Richmond on April 18 for a one-day session to consider vetoes and recommendations.

One piece of legislation that isn’t on Northam’s desk is a state budget for the 2018-2020 biennium. Legislators adjourned Saturday without reaching agreement on the budget because the Senate rejected the House of Delegates’ plans to expand Medicaid.

So Northam, who supports Medicaid expansion, must call a special legislative session for lawmakers to approve a budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

As Gun Bills Fail, Virginia Legislators Look Ahead to 2019

By Charlotte Rene Woods, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Three months before the start of Virginia’s 2018 legislative session, a gunman killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas. Midway through the session, 17 people died in a mass shooting at a high school in Florida. But by the time the session ended on Saturday, the Virginia General Assembly had passed just one bill on the subject.

Virginia lawmakers introduced more than 70 gun-related bills this session. But with Republicans and Democrats sharply divided on the issue, the General Assembly approved only a measure to restrict the firearm rights of people who had mental health problems as teenagers.

In comparison, Florida’s legislature fast-tracked a GOP-backed bill that raises the firearm purchase age to 21, bans bump stocks and requires a three-day waiting period for most gun purchases. The National Rifle Association — headquartered in Virginia, a state with its own historical mass shooting — has since filed a lawsuit arguing  that raising the purchase age is unconstitutional.

During Virginia’s legislative session, the vitriol flew: Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sent his constituents an email with the headline, “How the GOP Makes it Easy to Commit Mass Murder.” Levine blasted Republicans for supporting assault weapons similar to guns “created by Nazi Germany.” In response, Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, delivered a floor speech that went viral, saying Democrats were intent on “gutting the Second Amendment.”

“We’re talking past each other,” Levine said.

Levine sponsored a bill to ban bump stocks, the device Stephen Paddock used on his rifles to fire so rapidly in theOct. 1 shooting in Las Vegas. The bill failed despite testimony from Henrico County  resident Cortney Carroll, who survived the massacre.

“It was such a minor bill that could make a huge impact on saving lives in mass shootings like Vegas,” said Carroll, a Republican. “Bump stocks are not needed to hunt with or for self-defense, so why are we going to continue to make it so easy for people to get them?”

The gun bill that passed was sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County. It would treat minors 14 or older similarly to adults in regard to purchasing firearms after receiving mental health treatment. Deeds is no stranger to gun-related violence and actively advocates for initiatives to improve mental health.  In 2013, his son stabbed him before committing suicide with a firearm.

For this bill, Deeds said he was inspired by a call from one of his constituents whose son once had a temporary detention order yet purchased a gun to commit suicide at 18.

Presently, state law prohibits minors as well as adults who have been committed or detained for mental health treatment from purchasing a firearm. Such adults would not be able to purchase until certified mentally competent, while currently a juvenile who had been previously detained could buy a gun when of legal age.

“We were able to talk to enough legislators — even people who are adamantly opposed to most restrictions on firearms — and convince them that this was a loophole,” Deeds said. “I think for a lot of people, they thought this was already the law.”

Opposing initiatives take action beyond the session

Three days before the session ended, House Speaker Kirk Cox appointed a select committee of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats to focus on school safety. While the forthcoming committee will work in a bipartisan fashion to address school safety, some feel the committee isn’t enough because it will not discuss gun violence. Instead, it will address “emergency preparedness,” “security infrastructure,” and the possibilities of “additional security personnel.”

Though Minority Leader David Toscano feels it’s a good step in school safety, he said it falls short of addressing the larger issue — gun violence.

Therefore, Toscano launched a Democratic initiative to address gun violence specifically. The group will tour the state and hold town hall meetings to discuss the subject and solicit proposed solutions. 

“I think we need to pay much more attention to this issue,” Toscano said. “I’m hopeful that with time, we will be able to pass some good legislation for gun safety.”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, has personal ties to tragedy. While working as a TV journalist, his girlfriend and coworker were shot during work in 2015. One of his bills this session dealt with workplace violence.

The freshman delegate said the conversation about guns is not ending just because the session came to a close. Hurst said his party will continue to listen and investigate what causes gun violence while seeking solutions.

As for the select committee on school safety, Hurst said he doesn’t have much faith in it.

“We don’t need to continue to turn our schools into Army barracks,” Hurst said of the proposed ideas to incorporate more security personnel into schools. “We need to make sure we look at whom we are allowing to purchase guns. I think the broad public would acknowledge that there are some people at certain points in their lives that shouldn’t have access to firearms because of the high likelihood that they would commit an act of violence against someone else, or themselves.

Parties remain divided on guns

Hurst said he is not surprised that just one firearm-related bill survived the legislative session. He said he believes his Republican counterparts oppose gun reform in part due to campaign donation influences like the NRA.

Meanwhile, Freitas, who is vying for the Republican nomination to  challenge Democrat  Tim Kaine for his U.S.  Senate seat, bristles at that insinuation.

“Take a look at how much money the NRA spends and how much Planned Parenthood spends,” he told Democrats in his floor speech on March 2. “When I get up there and I talk about abortion, I don’t assume that you’re all bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood. I don’t assume you’re horrible people because I disagree with you on a policy position; I assume you have deep convictions that we can have an argument and debate about.”

Freitas said he feels Republicans have been the target of “inflammatory” comments, such as being compared to Nazis, for “having a different opinion.”

“Try having an honest debate with someone who has already started off the conversation telling you how evil you are. It’s almost impossible,” he said.

Freitas said he thinks that the two political parties can agree on some policies  and that legislators can make more progress toward safer communities. He said the debate is a fair one, but he is not without his reservations.

“I think what’s missing in this one [debate] is that it’s not simply a philosophical debate; it’s also a practical debate,” Freitas said. “We [Republicans] don’t see gun control policies achieving the kind of results that maybe some of our colleagues assume that they will.”

Freitas feels too much emphasis is placed on guns rather than the “greater conversation about security, or all of the other behaviors that lead to somebody deciding one day that they’re going to go into a school and target a lot of innocent people.”

With the committee on school safety and Toscano’s initiative, state legislators are setting sights on more strides in the next session. While almost all gun reform bills failed this year, Toscano is pleased with some of the progress he has seen because some pro-gun bills failed as well.

“That’s basically because we have 49 Democrats standing up to those issues,” Toscano said.

There may be a Republican majority, but the 2017 general election saw the House of Delegates become closer to even in its composition of party members.

As for future elections, Toscano says he doesn’t think “the blue wave has crested yet.”

General Assembly concludes session, but work remains

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly gaveled the 2018 session to a close on Saturday but remained divided over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, forcing a special session to resolve its differences.

Gov. Ralph Northam said after adjournment that he plans on dealing with the issue “sooner rather than later” by calling a meeting to set the special session, which could take days or weeks. He did not give a specific time for setting the meeting or the special session.

“We’ve left one of our largest missions unfinished,” Northam said to legislative leaders. “As you all know, I want to be done with health-care expansion.”

Northam, who took office in January, ran on a campaign that included expanding Medicaid. But as the legislature wound to a conclusion in its final days, it became apparent that a special session would be needed.  

Northam expressed pleasure over the resolution of a number of issues, including the increase of the grand larceny threshold, strengthening the Metro system that operates in Northern Virginia and reform on policy with Dominion Energy.

 On Medicaid, while the Senate budget has no provisions for such expansion, the House spending plan allows for increased federal funding — which the administration of President Donald Trump opposed earlier this month. Republicans control both chambers by two-member margins, but there were bitter differences over Medicaid.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he is optimistic about the special session.

“We are all committed to completing work on a state budget long before July 1,” said Cox, completing his first session as speaker.

Senate Democratic leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax and caucus chair Mamie Locke of Hampton blamed Senate Republicans for “holding up the entire budget process for political reasons.”  

Senate Republican leader Thomas Norment Jr. of James City responded that his colleagues continued to oppose Medicaid expansion in the budget.

“Senate Republicans remain unanimously committed to passing a clean budget without Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we will continue to work towards that goal in the special session,” Norment said in a statement.

The House and Senate met from 9 a.m. until just before 2 p.m. on their final day, which included action on major legislation to assist the troubled Washington-area Metro system, which is critical to populous Northern Virginia.

Conference reports on Senate Bill 856, which was sponsored by Saslaw, and House Bill 1539, proposed by Del. Timothy Hugo, R-Fairfax, are both multifaceted, containing multiple provisions to improve Metro. These provisions include a dedicated funding stream of  $154 million a year from multiple existing sources, including transportation taxes and revenue from the North Virginia Transportation Authority. They also include the creation of a Metro Reform Commission, and a requirement to send a financial report on the performance of bus and Metro systems to the General Assembly. Neither bill will be enacted unless Maryland and the District of Columbia adopt similar provisions.

“From the start, my position was that a funding package for Metro had to go hand-in-hand with meaningful reforms without raising taxes,” Hugo said in a news release.

The legislature concluded its work the day after Northam signed one of the most-discussed bills of the session. Despite lingering opposition, the governor approved SB 966, which lifts a rate freeze that had been in effect for Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, but allows the utilities’ broad discretion in reinvesting customer revenue. Critics claimed the bill, developed with heavy involvement from Dominion, favors utility interests over those of consumers.

In another utility-related action earlier this session, lawmakers approved SB 807 by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which extended the moratorium on the closure of ponds where Dominion Energy stores its coal ash, allowing the state and utility another year on reaching agreement over how to address environmental concerns.

Legislators left Richmond without approving any of the numerous gun control bills that were submitted after recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas. Among the gun-related bills only one passed — SB 669, which restricts access of weapons to minors 14 and older who had received involuntary mental health treatment. Cox formed a select committee to study school safety, but said the panel would not take up gun issues, angering Democrats.

Governor Signs Bill Reshaping How Energy Giants Operate

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill Friday reshaping the way the state’s monopoly utility companies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, are allowed to spend revenues received from customers.

In approving the bill, the governor turned back late-session pleas by opponents who fear the bill will allow the electric companies to regulate themselves.

Northam, on Twitter, described the legislation as “ending the freeze on energy utility rates, returning money to customers, and investing in clean energy and a modern grid. I am proud that my team and I improved this bill significantly and thank the General Assembly for its continued work on the measure.”

Senate Bill 966, also known as the Grid Transformation and Security Act, was introduced by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and changes the way utilities are allowed to collect and spend “over-earnings” -- what state regulators consider to be excessive profits. The bill also removes a rate freeze imposed by a 2015 law, which made the State Corporation Committee unable to order customer refunds and set utility rates.

The legislation states that utilities may spend excess profits toward modernizing the state’s energy grid as well as for projects focusing on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Before the 2015 rate freeze, ratepayers would have received a percentage refund for over-earnings.

However, legislators opposed to the bill fear it is worded in such a way as to lessen the SCC’s regulating power on the utilities, allowing them to use the excess profits in other ways.

Northam’s signature comes two days after Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, and Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, sent the governor a letter urging him to amend sections of the legislation.

The two senators said they believe that the bill “takes power away from the SCC, and places it into the hands of the General Assembly” and that it deems “a variety of projects, ‘in the public interest,’ including various transmission, generation, and energy storage projects, without full review by the SCC.”

Dominion Energy released a statement thanking the legislation’s supporters.

“We appreciate the hard work put in by the broad coalition of supporters, the governor’s office, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reach consensus on creating a smarter, stronger, greener electric grid with tremendous customer benefits,” said Dominion Energy spokesman Rayhan Daudani.

Virginia Makes Play Time a Priority in Elementary Schools

By Irena Schunn,Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- The Virginia Senate approved legislation Friday that defines recess as instructional time, responding to concerns from parents worried about a lack of unstructured play over a long school day.
 
“Our children need unstructured play time, preferably outside. Cutting recess to 10 or 15 minutes a day is just not enough for young learners,”  said Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.
 
SB 273 came back for a vote on conference committee changes by the House and Senate negotiators. The Senate also approved HB 1419. Both were sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on 39-1 votes.
 
“The elementary years are a time of immense social and emotional growth and allowing for adequate unstructured play both enables development of these skills, as well as provides a healthy energy outlet for younger students who are not ready to sit still for a full academic day,” Favola said.
 
If approved by the governor, the legislation would require local school boards to count unstructured play time toward the minimum instructional hours public schools must meet each school year, giving an incentive to provide more recess time.
 
The legislation addresses the concerns of parents like Barbara Larrimore, a mother in Prince William County. Larrimore became concerned when her 5 year-old began biting holes into his shirts while at school. After discovering he received only 15 minutes of recess time during a school day of 6 hours and 45 minutes, she co-founded the “More Recess for Virginians” coalition and began pushing for change with the help of bill sponsors Favola; Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax; and Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax.
 
“We’ve been working hand-in-hand with them from the beginning,” said Larrimore. “We wanted it done a very specific way so that it wouldn’t affect the school schedule like art, music and PE because those are important and also part of a healthy diet of education for kids.”
 
Virginia is one of only eight states that require elementary schools to provide daily recess, according to the 2016 Shape of the Nation Report. Though the time allotted for recess varies among districts, Virginia mandates that elementary school students participate in at least 100 minutes of physical activity every week or 20 minutes every day. However, those minutes don’t necessarily go to recess time. Physical education class allows students to exercise in a structured environment and can account for a large amount of required exercise time.
 
But critics say physical education does not have the unstructured play benefit of recess, which allows “elementary children to practice life skills such as conflict resolution, cooperation, respect for rules, taking turns, sharing, using language to communicate, and problem solving in real situations,”  according to the Council on Physical Education for Children and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
 
The Senate bill co-sponsored by Favola and Petersen calls for recess to be counted under instructional time specifically in elementary schools. HB 1419, sponsored by Delaney, allows recess to be counted under instructional time that can come from reductions in the core areas of English, math, science and social studies.
 
“As a mom, I know the benefits our children receive when they are provided time to be active and play. I cannot wait to see how our children will benefit from this new provision,” said Delaney.

Bay Advocate, Omega Proteins Differ Over Menhaden Cap

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Chesapeake Bay advocate says the General Assembly's failure to place a cap on Virginia's lucrative menhaden catch leaves unanswered questions about key elements of the region’s ecology.

Menhaden are a small fish harvested mostly for the production of oil and fish meal, but they also play a role in the ecosystem as food for other species like striped bass and osprey. Virginia harvests the majority of menhaden on the Atlantic Coast, accounting for 80 percent of the total harvest according to the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission.

About 70 percent of that 80 percent is harvested by Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville since the early 20th century.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, tried twice during the 2018 legislative session to reduce the menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay from its current limit of 87,216 metric tons.

Initially, Knight introduced HB 822, which proposed a limit of 51,000 tons. But that bill died in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 13.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration then asked that the issue be reconsidered. So Knight introduced HB 1610, which also sought to cap the menhaden harvest in the bay at 51,000 metric tons but also increase allowable total of the fish caught in the Atlantic by 2,000 tons.

“I personally view this as a little bit more friendly to the industry to mitigate some of their concerns,” Knight said.

On Feb. 28, the committee voted 11-10 in favor of HB 1610, clearing it for a vote by the full House. However, on Tuesday, the bill was sent back to the committee, effectively killing it for the session.

The bill would bring Virginia within limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissions, a compact of 15 coastal states that agree to protecting and better utilizing fisheries.

Ben Landry,  Omega Protein’s public affairs director, said the company opposes the commission’s limits. He said the caps advocated  by the organization and Knight’s legislation unfairly targeted the company without scientific evidence.

“We have been in business for a long time, and we think that we should be fighting against the ASMFC cooperatively,” Landry said. “Virginia was targeted and disadvantaged by this, and we shouldn’t have to take it.”

Landry was referring to the  commission increasing its total quota for fishing menhaden by 8 percent in November but cutting Virginia’s allocation of the total harvest.

Environmental groups including  the Chesapeake Bay Foundation considered  the legislation as a way of protecting menhaden. Reducing the cap by 36,000 metric tons would have had little effect on Omega Protein, said  Chris Moore, a senior scientist for the foundation.

Even with the limit, Moore said, the company “would actually be able to catch a little bit more than their average for the last five years” in the Chesapeake Bay.

Landry said  setting the cap based on the company’s current average yield of menhaden is shortsighted. He said Omega Protein pulled  109,000 metric tons in 2006.

Moore said the impact of the menhaden fishery is wide-ranging and ultimately affects many businesses and communities that depend on the bay in different ways. Moore said, for example, that certain studies have indicated that striped bass had been in danger of starving without a healthy menhaden population, which also provides food for flounder and bluefish.

Virginia Offers Salute to Women Veterans

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than 100,000 women veterans live in Virginia, and in observance of Women’s History Month, the General Assembly has decided to honor them by designating the third week of March each year as Women Veterans Week.

On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing House Joint Resolution 76, sponsored by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax.

Murphy, a self-described “military brat,” said Virginia has one of the highest populations of women veterans in the country. “We put together Women Veterans Week to honor them,” she said.

A member of the Board of Veterans Services and head of its Women’s Veterans Committee, Murphy will hold a series of discussions around the commonwealth during Women Veterans Week. The goal is to inform women veterans about the resources available to them and discuss their concerns.

“Women are the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, and they face unique challenges both in the military and when they transition to civilian life,” Murphy said. “We’re going to hold a series of roundtables so we can actually hear from these women veterans about what it is they need to ensure that they come back into our workforce and are successful.”

U.S. Army veteran Jeanne Minnix said it’s important to recognize the contributions of women veterans.

“Women have often been underrepresented, often under-acknowledged if you will, but it’s changing, thankfully,” Minnix said. “Anything to bring women’s issues to the forefront is always good.”

Women Veterans Week will be March 18-24. Information about the week’s events can be found on the website of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.

New law tightens bail restrictions for human trafficking defendants

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with human trafficking crimes to post bail.

House Bill 1260, which will take effect on July 1, was sponsored by two Democratic delegates, Mike Mullin of Newport News and Dawn Adams of Richmond. Mullin said they were motivated by their professional experiences handling sexual-based crimes, like trafficking.

“Delegate Adams works as a professional nurse who has seen individuals that have been harmed both mentally and physically through sex trafficking, so this is something near and dear to her heart,” Mullin said.

Mullin is an assistant commonwealth attorney in Suffolk, where he focuses on sexual assault and gang-related cases as a member of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations team. He said the law reflects a recommendation of the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force and creates a presumption against bond for defendants being tried for sex trafficking crimes.

According to a 2017 report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking. Among cities, Richmond is ranked ninth in the country with the highest number of calls to the hotline per capita.

“In Virginia, we have a number of things where we presume you’ll be a flight risk and a danger to the community — like, we assume if you’re charged with murder that you will run,” Mullin said. “So what we [the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force] did is create a presumption against bond. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get bond; it just means you have to show a higher standard of why you’re not going to run, whether it’s that you have a relationship with family in the area or that you’ve been living in the area for 15 years.”

Michael Feinmel, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, said trafficking is a crime requiring constant movement. Efforts to curb that movement are necessary since many times defendants use false addresses and traffickers may use the freedom of bond to contact their victims.

“The bonded pimp can contact the commonwealth’s witness and lay on the guilt trip thick: ‘They are trying to send me to prison, and it’s your fault,’” Feinmel stated in an email. “Even those victim/survivors who have acknowledged that the sex trafficker was taking advantage of them still feel some sort of emotional bond to their trafficker, and it makes things even more difficult for them to continue to want to cooperate.”

Though Feinmel said HB 1260 is an important step in addressing human trafficking crimes, not everyone thinks the legislation will do enough.

Natasha Gonzalez, a clinician at the Richmond-based non-profit Gray Haven, which focuses on comprehensive care of human trafficking survivors, said there is more work to be done.

“My role with Gray Haven is being a first point of contact. When we get a call of a potential trafficking victim it’s my job to decide whether or not it’s trafficking, which can be difficult because, for example, domestic relationships and trafficking can sometimes go hand in hand,” Gonzalez said.

A larger issue, according to Gonzalez, is that sex trafficking victims are not likely to contact police because they often fear law enforcement and sometimes are not aware they are being trafficked.

In the Capitol, however, Mullin said he is hopeful that human trafficking will receive more legislative attention in upcoming years.

“There are only a few things that we handle here in the Capitol that are partisan by nature, and this certainly is not one of them. I’ve worked very closely with Republicans and Democrats on this, and the bill came through the House and Senate without a single no vote,” Mullins said. “This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on.”

Coal Ash Pond Closure Moratorium Bill Heads to Governor

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill extending the moratorium on the permanent closure of coal ash ponds has won House approval and awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become the only legislation on the issue to survive the 2018 session.

The House on Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of SB 807, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Surovell said he was happy for the extension and hopes the bill, which has been supported by Dominion Energy and environmental groups, is a “net positive for everyone.”

“We can come up with a coal-ash solution which not only resolves the problem forever but also creates jobs to clean the environment at the same time,” said Surovell, referring to the positions that would be created to recycle the coal ash.

Robert Richardson, a spokesman for Dominion, said the utility will provide the state with information on coal ash recycling costs.

“We are fully committed to closing these ponds in a manner that is protective of the environment,” Richardson said.

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants.

Among its provisions, the bill requires Dominion to file an RFP, or a request for proposal, to assess the costs of recycling ash in the ponds. Though Dominion already recycles a portion of its total coal ash, it remains in favor of “cap-in-place” measures of permanent closure. This method of closing the ponds with a protective seal has been targeted as unsafe by environmental organizations concerned about groundwater contamination.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which has opposed “cap-in-place” policies, supported the bill. Lee Francis, the league’s communications manager, said the organization has worked with Surovell and that the bill gives legislators the tools needed to make a decision.

“I think this bill will help give us clarity on how to start going forward, and hopefully lawmakers will have more information when we address final closure options,” Francis said.

Lawmakers tried addressing the coal ash issue from many angles this session, but ultimately settled on extending the moratorium as a way to get more information before acting.

Bill Would Let Energy Giant Regulate Itself, Senator Warns

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As the General Assembly begins to wind down, a key opponent to legislation involving Dominion Energy is continuing to warn that a bill that has reached the governor’s desk will tilt the scales in the utility’s favor.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said the legislation may limit the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory power over utilities — and give Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power “a license to overcharge customers for the foreseeable future.”

The legislation consists of two nearly identical bills: SB 966, sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, andHB 1558, sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County. With amendments, each bill has grown to 29 pages. The bill’s summary alone is more than 1,850 words. A typical bill’s summary in the Legislative Information System is less than 100 words.

The provisions in the latest version that are raising the most eyebrows concern how much profit state-approved monopolies, such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, may earn.

“Typically, the SCC is charged with making sure that rates are not more than is necessary to recover costs plus an allowable return on equity, which is usually 10 percent above costs,” Petersen said. “Normally, Dominion would give refunds based on that excess. This bill would take away that jurisdiction.”

For example, if Dominion made $1.2 billion in revenue in one year, and the company’s expenses were $1 billion, Dominion would have $200 million in profit. Previously, customers would have received a percentage refund for those “over-earnings.”

Under HB 1558, Dominion could keep all over-earnings provided it spends the money on designated projects — such as the Grid Transformation Project, a potentially multibillion-dollar project that includes burying power lines — as well as on investments in renewable energy, such as solar power or wind farms, according to Petersen.

The bill includes some complexities, however. Under the legislation, for example, the SCC would still have the power to review the Grid Transformation Project but would not be allowed to reject Dominion’s proposal, according to Steve Haner, a lobbyist for the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

“Dominion basically has written the law in such a way that it will never have to pay refunds, and it will never have to lower its rates,” Petersen said. “That’s why I called them out on it.”

Rayhan Daudani, senior communications specialist at Dominion, said many of these worries are unfounded.

“Environmental groups, like the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the governor’s office, all agree that this bill is good for Virginians, for the environment and for our customers,” Daudani said.

Haner said the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income Virginians, is neutral toward the bill. However, personally he said he thinks the bill may not do what it says.

“It does not really return us to regulation. It leaves the SCC bound up with some very strict accounting rules and gives the utility ways to manipulate its profit margins and manipulate its spending so it will never be found to be excessive. It’ll never be ordered to refunds. It’ll never be ordered to cut its rates,” Haner said. “They’re directed to spend a certain way based on a bill they wrote.”

Dominion’s influence in the General Assembly is well known, according to Corrina Beall, the legislative and political director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

“Dominion is always the gorilla in the room. They are tremendously effective within the building, and their influence within the General Assembly cannot be overstated,” Beall said. “They are the No. 1 corporate campaign contributor to elected officials in the state of Virginia.”

However, Petersen said he believes the tides may be changing in the General Assembly, with Dominion receiving pushback from both Democrats and Republicans.

“This is the first time in my history that Dominion really got a lot of pushback from a diverse array of people, in terms of their agenda,” Petersen said. “Whether or not that will continue over the next couple years — new candidates will push back on Dominion and demand more consumer rights and more accountability, and less sort of a blank check — that remains to be seen. That’ll take three or four years to play out.”

SB 966 initially passed the Senate, 26-13, on Feb 9. The House then passed a substitute bill, 65-30, on Feb. 26. The Senate then agreed to the House substitute, 26-14, on Feb. 28. Now, the governor is expected to act on the bill by midnightFriday.

HB 1558 was approved by the House of Delegates on a vote of 63-35 on Feb. 13. A modified version of the bill then passed the Senate, 27-13, on Thursday. The measure is now back before the House.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, had mixed feelings about HB 1558 but voted for it last month. In an email to constituents, he called it an “imperfect (but greatly improved) bill better for Virginia consumers and the environment than current law.”

The current law, adopted by the General Assembly in 2015, froze Dominion’s electric rates because the company said it faced uncertain costs of complying with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. However, the courts and the Donald Trump administration have since blocked the plan’s implementation.

SB 966 and HB 1558 would lift the rate freeze and allow state officials to see if Dominion is making excessive profits — and, if so, order the company to reduce its rates. That is one reason Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports the legislation.

Northam said he brought together various groups to help craft a compromise on the issue — one that would “give Virginians as much of their money back as possible, restore oversight to ensure that utility companies do not overcharge ratepayers for power, and make Virginia a leader in clean energy and electrical grid modernization.”

However, Petersen fears that the bill won’t do that, and that it will prevent state regulators from doing their job.

“We took away from the State Corporation Commission their very skill set, which is evaluating the utilities and making sure that rates are fair and customers are not overcharged,” Petersen said.

Bill to Restrict Tethering Pets Is Killed for 3rd Time

By Katrina Tilbury, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill to specify when an animal can be tethered outdoors was killed in the House on Wednesday after passing the Senate with a substitute on Tuesday. The Senate substitute on House Bill 889 was the third attempt to pass the legislation.

When HB 889 passed the House in February, the bill would have allowed localities to pass ordinances restricting how long or in what weather conditions a dog can be tethered outside. The Senate passed a substitute making the bill a statewide ban on tethering in certain weather conditions.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, sponsored the original version of HB 889. He spoke against passing the substitute on the House floor Wednesday. He said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lobbied for the Senate substitute to be accepted.

“There was a bill that would’ve allowed PETA to achieve all of their objective we saw in their legislation this session,” Orrock said. “But they would’ve had to go through local government ordinances to effect that change.”

Orrock said the PETA lobbyist claimed the substitute was germane, or relevant to the original, but Orrock disagreed. He then asked House Speaker Kirk Cox for his opinion. Cox ruled the substitute was not germane, thus killing the bill.

The substitute made HB 889 the same as SB 872, which made it through the Senate only to be killed in the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources on Feb. 27. SB 872 was a watered-down version of HB 646, which died in the same committee in January.

The bill would have banned tethering animals in temperatures 32 degrees and below and 85 degrees and above, during a heat advisory or when the National Weather Service issued a severe weather warning.

Along with the restrictions on weather conditions, the bill would have restricted the tether itself. The substitute stated tethers had to be at least 15 feet long, or four times the length of the animal, and limited the weight to less than one-tenth of the animal’s body weight. In addition, weights could not be attached to the tether.

Democrats and Republicans Spar as Another Shooting Unfolds

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As the 2018 legislative session heads into its final week, tensions have been running high on an issue that sharply divides Democrats and Republicans: what to do about gun violence.

The chasm between the parties was on full display Friday in the Virginia House of Delegates, where legislators hurled insults at one another – while yet another school shooting unfolded.

Less than an hour after reports that a gunman had killed two people in a dormitory at Central Michigan University, Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, gave a speech on the House floor blaming the Democrats for blocking productive discussions on how to curtail gun violence.

“The other side of this debate will only consider one quote-unquote ‘solution’ to this problem, which is gutting or tearing apart the Second Amendment,” Freitas said.

Later in the day, Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, responded by accusing the Republicans of inconsistency.

“I’d like to know why the Republicans think we want to take their guns,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “I think that they should talk to the president.”

Murphy was referring to a statement by President Donald Trump on Wednesday that police officers should be allowed to confiscate people's guns without due process.

In his remarks on the floor, Freitas said House Democrats had precluded a dialogue with Republicans by using inflammatory language. For instance, after 17 people were killed in a shooting at a high school in Florida on Feb. 14, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sent his constituents an email with the headline, “How the GOP Makes it Easy to Commit Mass Murder.”

“It’s really difficult to have an honest and open debate about this because of [House Democrats] comparing members on this side of the aisle to Nazis,” Freitas said. He also took issue with how he believed the Democrats were portraying Republican’s connections with the National Rifle Association.

“It takes a certain degree of not assuming that the only reason why we believe in the Second Amendment is because the NRA paid us off. I don’t assume that [Democrats] are all bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood,” Freitas said.

During his speech, Freitas suggested that studies have shown mass shooters tend to come from broken homes. Moreover, he insinuated a connection between mass shootings and abortions by saying that certain “left-leaning think tanks will actually say that some of [the reasons for mass shootings] can be attributed to various cultural changes that happened in the ’60s” and that this included “the abortion industry.”

Later Friday, the House minority leader, Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, issued a press release condemning Freitas’ comments.

“The remarks made today by House Republicans, who continue to be unwilling to discuss reasonable gun safety initiatives, were deeply disappointing,” Toscano said. “Del. Freitas cited cherry-picked statistics to paint a picture suggesting that nothing can or should be done.”

The verbal sparring played out at the Capitol as authorities searched for a man in connection with the shooting at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

James Davis Jr., a CMU student and the son of a police officer, was taken into custody early Saturday morning. Authorities said they believe Davis used his father’s gun to shoot and kill both of his parents.

As both sides at the Virginia Capitol debate how to reduce gun violence, the General Assembly session is scheduled to adjourn next Saturday. Republicans have killed most of the gun control legislation proposed by Democrats, including bills to require background checks on all firearm purchases and to ban bump fire stocks, a device that increases the rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons by using recoil to pull the trigger.

Democrats have urged Republicans to revive those proposals, but that is unlikely to happen.

However, a few gun-related bills are still in play during the General Assembly’s final week:

  • Senate Bill 715 would allow firefighters and emergency medical service personnel to carry a concealed handgun while on duty. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday.
  • SB 669 would restrict the firearm rights of Virginians who, as minors 14 years or older, received involuntary mental health treatment or were subject to a detention order. Currently, those restrictions apply only to people who have undergone such treatment as adults. On Friday, the House Courts of Justice Committee recommended that the full House approve the bill.

Panel Kills Bill Allowing Drunken Driving on Private Property

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A Senate bill that would have allowed Virginians to drive drunk on their private property was killed unanimously by a House subcommittee Friday after an outcry from traffic safety advocates.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally intended the bill to reduce the likelihood of someone being charged with a DUI while drinking in a vehicle on their own property. He used the example of a man accused of driving under the influence while listening to the radio in his car parked in his driveway.

The bill attracted critics nationwide and beyond. “We defend #DUIs and #IRPs but even we have to admit: this is really dumb,” Acumen Law Corp., a law firm in Vancouver, Canada, posted on Twitter. In Canada, IRP stands for immediate roadside prohibitions.

SB 308 was initially killed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee but was brought up for reconsideration in February by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. The bill then advanced to the floor, where it passed the Senate, 37-3.

Crossing over to the House, the bill was assigned to a House Courts of Justice subcommittee, where anti-drunken driving advocates continued to express their opposition.

Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said a one-day delay in taking up the bill had “frankly, made advocates opposing the bill nervous.” He had urged the bill’s opponents to call on subcommittee members to reject “this slippery slope legislation.”

Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick, recommended the bill be “passed by indefinitely,” essentially killing it for the session. He said the legislation’s concept was flawed, arguing that motorists could park cars on their property after driving under the influence.

The bill was killed, 7-0. Stuart was not present.

“I think it’s good news,” Erickson said. “Its passage would have otherwise been a dangerous precedent to communicate that in Virginia, it is OK to drive drunk here but not there.”

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