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January 2019

MARCH OF DIMES AWARDS GRANT TO CMH WOMEN’S HEALTH SERVICES

JOINING IN THE FIGHT FOR THE HEALTH OF ALL MOMS AND BABIES IN SOUTHSIDE VIRGINIA

(SOUTH HILL, VA, DECEMBER 2018) – March of Dimes Virginia has awarded a grant to CMH Women’s Health Services, a practice of VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital, to support Centering Pregnancy Group Prenatal Care, aimed at serving maternal and child health needs here in Southside Virginia. This program will serve pregnant women in our area by providing prenatal care in a group setting that facilitates interaction and discussion and allows women to be more involved in their care. Centering Pregnancy has been shown to have an array of benefits for moms who participate, including lowering the occurrence of preterm birth and low birth weights.

This grant is one of many that March of Dimes awards in pursuit of its mission to lead the fight for the health of all moms and babies.  This grant is made possible through a partnership with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation.

“We will use the March of Dimes grant to help meet our objective to expand our Centering program, which allows us to offer quality group prenatal care to expecting moms in our area,” said Terry Wootten, Certified Nurse Midwife at CMH Women’s Health Services.  “We are grateful to those in our community who support March of Dimes by participating in events like March for Babies and who donate in other ways.  That participation and those donations make this grant possible,” she said.

CMH Women’s Health Services reinstated the CenteringPregnancy program in January of 2017. In November of that same year, we moved to a brand new hospital with a Labor and Delivery unit and, since then, have delivered more than 170 babies. It is our goal to provide the women in our area with the support they need to have a healthy pregnancy and birth experience.

Louise Harrell “Bootsie” Grant

Louise Harrell “Bootsie” Grant, 93, of Jarratt, passed away Tuesday, January 15, 2019. She was preceded in death by her husband of 63 years, J. Linwood Grant and her brother, Edward “Pete” Harrell. Mrs. Grant taught fourth grade for 41 years with the Sussex County School System and she considered all of her students “her babies”. She was a longtime member of High Hills Baptist Church serving in many capacities including teaching Sunday School for over 30 years. She and Linwood worked together through the years in numerous civic organizations and countless projects to better the community.

Mrs. Grant is survived by a sister-in-law, Peggy Harrell; nieces, Rhonda Harrell, Alison Reickard, Alice Whitby (Dennis), Suzanne Ivey, Alicia Milam (Bob) and Ann Marie Taylor; nephew, Curtis Barnes (Sherry) and several great-nieces and great-nephews.

The family will receive friends 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 17 at Owen Funeral Home, 303 S. Halifax Rd, Jarratt. The funeral service will be held graveside 1 p.m. Friday, January 18 at High Hills Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to Jarratt Volunteer Fire Department, P.O. Box 562, Jarratt, Virginia 23867 or to Greensville Volunteer Rescue Squad, P.O. Box 108, Emporia, Virginia 23847.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com.

Immigrant Advocates Bash Bill Blocking ‘Sanctuary Cities’


Two years ago, immigrant rights activists held a rally to urge Richmond to designate itself as a "sanctuary city." (File photo by Jessica Nolte of Capital News Service)

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Immigrant rights groups were outraged after a Senate committee advanced a bill to prohibit localities from restricting federal enforcement of immigration laws.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 8-6 Monday for SB 1156, which states, “No locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws.” Opponents say the measure would require local police officers to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities.

“We feel this bill would create havoc for families and first responders by giving ICE agents free rein to continue inflicting psychological and other cruelties against immigrant communities throughout the commonwealth without accountability,” said Vilma Seymour, the president of the Richmond chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

SB 1156, introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, is awaiting a vote this week by the full Senate. To become law, the bill must also pass the House and secure the governor’s signature. Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed a similar bill last year.

According to Black, the bill would not require localities to assist federal immigration law enforcement. However, it would preclude localities from enacting laws that restrict the “traditional” cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

“Throughout law enforcement, there is a sort of customary interaction on all levels,” Black said at Monday’s committee meeting. “Most of these cooperative agreements arise, not out of statute … but local comity between organizations that are concerned about similar things.”

Also present was the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, representing 12 organizations that oppose the bill, including the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.

Leonina Arismendi Žarković from the Latino coalition offered a prayer before the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

“Dear Lord ... I thank you for every single person in this room speaking power to people that most need it right now,” Žarković began. “I ask you, Lord, to please touch Sen. Black’s heart … Ask him to drop this right now. We know that you have brought every single person to these shores, and we know that you have a plan for each and every one of them.”

“This bill, if it goes forward,” she added, “is going to be a complete stumbling block onto your people. And that is not what I want.”

Black’s bill is viewed as an attempt to prevent “sanctuary cities” in Virginia — localities that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement activities. Some jurisdictions in California, for example, have refused federal requests to detain people for deportation from the U.S.

Proponents of sanctuary cities say they foster good relations between local police and immigrants living illegally in the U.S. Such immigrants often are afraid to report crimes, for instance, if they know local police cooperate with ICE, immigrant rights advocates say.

Panel Kills Bill to Shield Older Kids from Secondhand Smoke

By Rodney Robinson and Kal Weinstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A legislative subcommittee has killed a bill intended to shield older children from the effects of secondhand smoke.

Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Courts of Justice Committee voted 5-3 to indefinitely postpone consideration of HB 2091, which sought to outlaw smoking in a motor vehicle containing minors under age 16. Currently, it’s illegal to smoke in a car if there are passengers under 8.

The five Republicans on the subcommittee voted in favor of killing the measure; the three Democrats on the panel voted against killing it.

The bill was sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William.

“As a mother, it was of great surprise to me to learn that children over the age of 8 can be exposed to secondhand smoke in vehicles,” Guzman said in a press release when she introduced the bill on Jan. 7. “Virginia needs to update its code to reflect the evidence-based results of medical studies.”

According to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke is the cause of more than 41,000 deaths per year, and about 37 percent of children in the U.S have been exposed to such smoke.

Guzman’s bill would have applied not only to tobacco smoking but also to vaping.

“Children under the age of 16 should also be protected from the smoke originated from vaping,” she said. “It is so popular right now in high schools.”

Current state law does not address protecting minors from nicotine vapor emitted through the use of electronic cigarettes.

As a social worker and a mother of four, Guzman said protecting children is her No. 1 priority. She said teenagers 16 and older can speak up or remove themselves from a car where the driver or passengers are smoking. However, younger children do not have that power, Guzman said.

Other states have changed their laws on secondhand smoke.

In Kansas, it’s illegal to smoke in a vehicle with minors under 14, and in Louisiana, under 13.

Changing the law could reduce smoking, she said.

“In Kansas, for example, in 2011, 27 percent of adults say that they were smoking,” Guzman said. “In 2016, after this law passed, the amount of adults smoking reduced to 23 percent.”

Guzman said smokers “need to understand that secondhand smoke is the most dangerous part. And it is not fair that children are voiceless, that they cannot do anything to protect themselves.”

Although Guzman’s bill is likely dead for the session, Virginia legislators will have another chance to consider the issue. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is sponsoring a bill similar to Guzman’s.

Rasoul’s proposal, HB 1744, would make it illegal to smoke in a motor vehicle in the presence of minors under 18. It also has been assigned to Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Courts of Justice Committee.

Virginia Legislators Seek Refund for Utility Customers

 

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill to return millions of dollars to Virginia residents who they say have been overcharged by the state’s utility companies.

Bill sponsors say Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the largest energy providers in the state, are charging residents more than they should for utility costs.

“Virginia consumers have suffered long enough,” said Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke. “My constituents have said their utility bills are too high, and we need to have a strong group advocating for consumers to ensure that ratepayers are not being taken advantage of.”

Rasoul is the chief sponsor of the "Ratepayers Earned these Funds, Not Dominion" (REFUND) Act. He said it seeks to compensate ratepayers for years of excess spending by utility companies.

The bill comes a month after Clean Virginia, an environmental advocacy group, issued a report that claimed Virginia utility companies Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power use ratepayer money for nonessential spending like political contributions, advertisements and excessive executive compensation.

“Energy bills in Virginia have stopped reflecting the fundamental principle that ratepayers should only pay for the underlying cost of their energy and its delivery,” the report said.

It alleged that most Virginia residents are being overcharged by an average of $250 on their utility bills every year due to nonessential spending by utility companies — an excess payment that Clean Virginia has dubbed the “Dominion tax.”

The proposed legislation aims to refund that money as a credit on customers' bills over a period of six to 12 months.

“It ensures that we as ratepayers do not pay for Dominion’s lobbying activities,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. “These nonessential costs should never be subsidized by ratepayers, and refunding this money ensures ratepayers get back every cent that is rightfully theirs.”

Under the proposed legislation, the State Corporation Commission would conduct annual proceedings to determine whether each electric public utility used revenue collected from its customers to pay for nonessential expenditures and would determine the amount and type of expenditure found to be improper.

If any nonessential expenditures are found, the commission would have the authority to order the company to refund an equal amount to its customers.

Additionally, if a utility company is found to have used ratepayer money to pay for any advertisements, the company would be required to refund customers 10 times the cost of the advertisement. Exceptions would be made for advertisements that promote conservation or more efficient use of energy.

Dominion Energy has denied charging their customers for any nonessential expenses and maintains that the average bill for its customers is more than 20 percent below the national average.

“Our customers never pay for our lobbying, political contributions or most of our advertising,” Dominion Energy spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said. “They are getting a great value on their power bills and have been for years.”

The REFUND Act is one of several bills targeting Dominion on environmental and regulatory issues this year:

  • A bill introduced by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, seeks to limit Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
  • Bills sponsored by Carroll Foy and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian, would require the closure and cleanup of Dominion’s coal ash landfills in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Legislators Introduce Journalist Protections

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Two delegates, both former journalists, introduced legislation Monday to protect student journalists from censorship and shield reporters from having to disclose confidential sources.

Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Danica Roem, D-Prince William, urged the General Assembly to pass such legislation.

“Journalism matters. Facts matter,” Roem said. “We have to get this right.”

Sponsored by Roem, House Bill 2250 — introduced for the second year in a row — would protect members of the press from being forced by courts to reveal the identity of anonymous sources.

“The whole point of the shield law is to protect reporters from being jailed for protecting confidential sources,” said Roem, a former reporter with The Prince William Times.

In 1990, Roem’s former editor Brian Karem served jail time  for withholding the names of anonymous sources while reporting in Texas.

“He did it to protect his sources’ confidentiality,” Roem said, “and to keep his word.”

Virginia is one of 10 states that does not implement shield protections for members of the press; Roem also pointed out that a federal shield law does not exist. HB 2250 includes a clause requiring sources to be revealed when there is an “imminent threat of bodily harm,” Roem said.

In addition to shield laws, Hurst said it’s urgent the legislature also pass HB 2382, which he is sponsoring. The bill would safeguard the work of student journalists from administrative censorship.

If the bill passes, Virginia would join 14 other states in providing protections for high school or college students. Half of the states with current protections for student journalists passed legislation in the last four years.

“Thorough and vetted articles and news stories in student media shouldn’t be subject to unnecessary censorship by administrators,” Hurst said.

Hurst has advocated for measures close to his heart since election to office in 2017. A former anchor and reporter for WDBJ 7 news in Roanoke, Hurst was dating Alison Parker, a fellow WDBJ reporter who was fatally shot on live TV in 2015, along with photojournalist Adam Ward.

The bill would create the freedom for student journalists to publish what they please without fear of administrative retaliation.The institution would be allowed to interfere only if  content violates federal or state law, invades privacy unjustifiably, creates clear danger or includes defamatory speech.

While the current legislation focuses on implementing protections for student reporters in public schools and universities, Hurst said he wants the protections to eventually encompass private institutions. He said the legislation was “something that would, as fast as possible, put protections in place for student journalists at our public schools, our public colleges and universities.”

These pieces of legislation come at a time when professional journalists are increasingly targets of violence. A 2018 report by Reporters Without Borders — a nongovernmental organization that promotes journalistic free speech worldwide — found nearly 350 journalists were detained, 80 killed and 60 held hostage by November. More than 250 reporters globally were jailed in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Bill Would Exempt Mentally Ill from Death Penalty

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate committee has agreed to advance a bill that would protect individuals with a severe mental illness from the receiving the death penalty.

On a 8-6 vote Monday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved SB 1137, which states that “a defendant in a capital case who had a severe mental illness as defined in the bill, at the time of the offense is not eligible for the death penalty.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington, is being considered by the full Senate this week.

The bill would establish procedures for determining mental illness (such as expert evaluators), would require judges and juries to take illness into account in sentencing procedures and would mandate that it is the responsibility of the defendant to prove his severe mental illness by a “preponderance of evidence.”

Under current Virginia law, the jury can take mental illness into consideration when deciding to apply the death penalty.  This bill aims to remove the option of the death penalty for those with a proven severe mental illness.

“This is really a sentencing bill,” Favola. “It doesn’t say that the person would have to be ruled not guilty.”

Thirty states have the death penalty. According the  Death Penalty information Center, Virginia carried out the second highest number of executions, 113, since 1976, coming in second to Texas, which carried out 558 executions.

In 2017, Virginia executed two inmates and has three prisoners on death row.

“The U.S Supreme Court over time has issued decisions that really talk about culpability and the fact that the death penalty should only be applied when an individual has full understanding of his actions and consequences,” Favola said.

In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the court maintained that the legal execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that applying the death penalty to defendants 18 years of age or younger was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the U.S Constitution.

However, there is no federal law or ruling that extends that protection to individuals who have been deemed to have a severe mental illness, despite pressure from medical associations and human rights groups.

Mental illness “is a whole category that has never really been dealt with by the courts and needs to be dealt with by this legislation,” Sen. John Edwards, D–Roanoke, told the Courts of Justice Committee. “I think this is an important bill.”

Organizations supporting the legislation included the Virginia Catholic Conference, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Mental Health America of Virginia and the Disability Law Center of Virginia.  

Speaking in opposition to the bill was John Mahoney of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys. Mahoney said the measure is equivalent to “attacking the death penalty from the sides” and would “take things out of the hands of the jury.”

“We see this as making cases unendable,” Mahoney said. “The whole focus, then, is going to be mental health and what is a mental illness.”

Democrats’ Priorities: LGBT Rights, Environment, $15 Minimum Wage

House Democratic Leader Del. Eileen Filler-Corn gives her opening statement at the House Democratic Caucus press meeting Tuesday. She spoke about past party victories and new challenges in the 2019 session. (Photo Benjamin West)

 

By Benjamin West, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — LGBT rights legislation, environmental protection and a push for a $15 minimum wage are among the goals House Democrats have for the 2019 legislative session.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus held a press conference Tuesday to outline their priorities for the session, which runs until Feb. 23.

House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, a delegate from Fairfax, celebrated the party’s recent victories at the polls, including the election of 15 new Democratic delegates in 2017 and two consecutive Democratic governors. Filler-Corn said she hoped her colleagues would keep pushing forward.

“There is so much more that we can do, and that’s why we are here today,” she said. “If we are to successfully pass this legislation, we’ll continue to move Virginia forward.”

The list of policy priorities is not “comprehensive or exhaustive,” Filler-Corn said, noting, for example, that it did not include gun safety legislation.

But she said the goals would help workers, children, teachers, the middle class and other groups. Filler-Corn said she hoped her Republican colleagues would join her “to successfully pass some of these bills.”

Speakers at the news conference included:

·         Democratic Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, a delegate from Alexandria, who said the party would push for no-excuse absentee voting and other changes in voting laws. “No right is more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote, yet that right is under attack across the country,” Herring said.

·         Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy of Woodbridge, who discussed legislation to protect the LGBT community from discrimination. “Virginia has been on the wrong side of history too many times,” Foy said. “We have fought against interracial marriage, women's right to vote, women being able to receive a higher education. We fought against desegregation. And now it’s time for us to be on the right side of history.”

·         Del. Jeion Ward of Hampton, who touted bills to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour and to help firefighters suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “We cannot strengthen our economy without strengthening our neighbors,” Ward said.

·         Del. Wendy Gooditis of Clarke County, who called for environmental legislation that she said would benefit both urban and rural Virginians. “Constituents on both ends of my district need clean drinking water,” she said. “We all need fresh air. We all want a healthy future for our children.”

Gooditis said Democrats want laws to make sure the state’s electric utilities are investing in clean energy and to ensure that all residual coal ash from power plants is recycled.

“Farmers need green space and thriving waterways,” Gooditis said. “Parents want clean air and water so their children can flourish. Communities want prosperous local economies. The people of Virginia want us to move energetically toward a new, greener way of life.”

In her closing words at the news conference, Del. Vivian Watts of Fairfax said the House Democratic Caucus would work for the “the dignity of the individual.”

“We are determined to make this House the house for all Virginians,” she said.

Lawmakers Call for Improvements in Foster Care


Delegate Emily Brewer (R) and Senator Monty Mason (D) chaired the first-ever Foster Care caucus. Photo by Madison Manske.

By Kathleen Shaw and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The first-ever bipartisan foster care caucus convened Tuesday to provide legislators the opportunity to learn about the various demanding issues in child welfare.

Nine bills and two budget amendments before this year’s General Assembly session seek to improve Virginia’s foster care services. The co-chairs of the caucus — Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, and Sen. Montgomery ‘Monty’ Mason, D-Williamsburg — said the group is committed to putting the commonwealth’s children first.

“It’s going to be a long-term solution through legislation, through advocacy and working through partnership groups to make sure that we’re making every single Virginia foster care youth have the most normalized experience, achieving normalcy as part of our goal,” Brewer said.

The urgent focus on Virginia’s foster care system comes after a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the General Assembly’s research arm, ranked the state’s social service policies as among the worst nationally. Virginia spends $500 million annually on the 5,300 children in foster care. The budget amendments call for another $3 million, which sponsors believe would reduce the number of youths in the Virginia Department of Social Services system by encouraging families to take over guardianship after children are removed from their primary home.

In terms of legislation, Brewer is sponsoring measures such as HB 2208, which would make it easier for relatives to adopt children. AndMason has introduced SB 1678 and SB 1679, which would align the Code of Virginia with the federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018.

Some legislators have personal ties to the issue: Brewer and Del. Christopher Collins, R-Frederick, were adopted; and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince Williams, is a foster parent. Carroll Foy has filed HB 2162, which would ensure that families are notified when a child enters the Virginia Department of Social Services system.

“Virginia has one of the lowest kinship placements of only 6 percent while nationally it’s 30 percent,” Carroll Foy said. “And we all know that when a child is placed with family, that lessens the amount of trauma and instability that that child has to encounter.”

When children are removed from their first familial residence, their options include foster care or going to a relative in a practice called kinship divergence. HB 2162 is a move toward increasing familial guardianship. Kinship divergence in Virginia is at a low because the families do not receive any financial assistance, while foster families receive a maintenance payment of $700 a month.

The Family First Prevention Services Act was adopted last year as part of the federal Bipartisan Budget Act. The law’s goals are keeping children safe, strengthening families and reducing the urgency for foster care when needed. Virginia would be the first state to implement the act.

Voices for Virginia’s Children is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group concerned about the foster care system. The group conducted a kinship care tour across Virginia last year to hear what kind of issues foster care families encounter.

“We learned that the majority of children who are going to live with a relative are doing so because of substance abuse,” said Allison Gilbreath, a policy analyst for the organization. “I know that we see the statistics, but it was one thing to see almost every single family that raised their hand said that their child was using opioids.”

Youth in foster care face various obstacles, including financial assistance, mental health services and legal restrictions such as access to an attorney. It can be difficult, for example, for young adults in foster care to get a driver’s license — a problem Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, hopes to address with her bill, SB 1139.

“We want our children when they age out of foster care to be able to have a normal experience and to have opportunities for jobs and education, and part of that is really gaining a driver’s license,” Favola said.

Lake Gaston Booker’s Club Donates Books To Jackson-Feild

For eighteen of their thirty years in existence, members of the Lake Gaston Bookers Club have been donating books to Jackson-Feild.  Last month, just in time for the holidays, the members donated a number of books to the Gwaltney School at Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services (JFBHS).

At the request of the Bookers Club, faculty and staff at JFBHS provided a list of titles that appeal to the residents.  Several members of the Bookers Club visited the JFBHS campus and presented the books to school staff. The books are housed in the school library, and are available to students through a typical library check-out system.

Over the years, the Bookers Club has hosted other events and activites depending upon the needs and interests of the children. The Gwaltney School students enjoy reading, and are most grateful to the club members for their kindness in donating books that satisfy their reading appetites.

Virginia Lawmakers Eye Paid Family Leave

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that would provide Virginia workers up to three months of paid family and medical leave every year.

The bills would create a paid leave program, effective Jan. 1, 2022, for workers who are new parents, family of active duty military personnel, have serious medical conditions, or care for family members with serious medical conditions.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, sponsor of House Bill 2120, made her case for paid family and medical leave in Virginia at a press conference Monday.

“Spending time with a dying relative, giving birth to a child, caring for a sick parent, these should not be privileges reserved just for wealthy Virginians,” Carroll Foy said. “Hard-working, middle-class Virginians deserve to spend time with their families like everyone else does.”

Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon, sponsor of an identical bill in the Senate, spoke about the economic benefits of paid leave for businesses.

“Paid leave programs have been shown to benefit businesses, making it more likely that employees will return to work, ready to work, rather than struggling financially,” Boysko said.

Under the paid leave program workers would be eligible to receive up to 70 percent of their average weekly wage, without exceeding $850 per week. Self-employed workers would also be provided the option of participating in the program.

The maximum combined amount of paid leave per year for qualifying workers would be 12 weeks.

In order to qualify for paid leave benefits, an employee would need to meet the administrative requirements in the bill, the requirements laid out in the state’s benefit eligibility conditions, and submit an application to the Virginia Employment Commission.

Funding for the proposed program would be provided by a family and medical leave insurance fund established by the Commission and financed through payroll taxes.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is sponsoring a related bill that would provide a parental leave tax credit to small businesses that would begin in 2021. SB 1376 aims to create an income tax credit for a portion of the salary or wages paid by small businesses to full-time employees while on leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

The bill requires small businesses to provide full-time employees with at least eight weeks of paid parental leave.

In June, Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order offering eight weeks of leave at full pay to state employees for the birth or adoption of a child.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 2234 last week to increase the amount of paid parental leave for state employees to 12 weeks.

During the press conference, advocates for paid family leave spoke about the importance of the proposed legislation for working families in Virginia. Carroll Foy shared a personal account of the hardship she experienced in the absence of paid leave.

“I’m standing here as a middle-class, working mother, and I implore all Virginians to support this,” Carroll Foy said. “It’s not only an economic issue. It is a human rights issue.”

Minimum Wage Boost, Backed by Women’s Groups, Passes Committee

Organizations at rally included Progress Virginia and the Campaign for a Family-Friendly Economy. Below left: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spoke in favor of paid family and medical leave. Photo by Georgia Geen.

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — After dozens of women rallied at the Capitol on Monday, a legislative committee passed one of their key priorities — a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Virginia.

SB 1200 would take effect July 1, initially raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, then to $13 an hour in 2020 and $15 an hour in 2021. The bill, which passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on a 6-4 vote, will advance to the full Senate for a vote.

Currently, the minimum wage in Virginia is the federal minimum — $7.25 an hour. Raising the minimum wage was one of a number of legislative items — including access to reproductive health and paid family and medical leave — supported by the women’s advocacy groups at the rally.

Tara Gibson, Virginia director of the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, said at the rally that raising the minimum wage would benefit women and their families.

“How many of you work multiple jobs just to provide for your families, or worry whether you can afford to put food on the table or make next month’s rent?” Gibson asked. “We’re all better off when everyone has the tools to build a good life.”

In most states, including Virginia, women make up more than half of minimum wage workers. Nationally, women consist of 47 percent of the workforce as of 2017. Across all races, women make up a larger portion of minimum wage workers than men.

To Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia — one of the groups present at the rally — supporting an increase in the minimum wage contributes to a “holistic” approach to gender equality.

“We know all of those things are important for women and families to thrive,” Scholl said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spoke briefly at the rally in favor of paid medical and family leave. SB 1639 would allow state employees 12 weeks of family and medical leave per year. The benefit amounts to 70 percent of the employee’s wage, capped at $850 per week. Last year, a bill passed in Virginia granting state employees two months of parental leave.

“We want to make sure all Virginians have access to parental leave,” Northam said. “There is nothing more important than for a mother and father to be able to stay home with their new baby, or if there is an adoption or a foster child involved.”

Advocates also supported two bills that would prevent insurance companies from discriminating based on gender identity or transgender status. SB 1287 and HB 1864 are awaiting a vote at the legislative committee level.

Rebecca Barwick, a transgender woman who attended the rally, said the bills would help her get both prostate care and breast care. Currently, she said, her gender is listed as male on her insurance because if it were changed, she might be denied prostate care if she needed it in the future.

“However, having this marker set to male puts me at risk of being denied breast health if I ever need that,” Barwick said.

Barwick also discussed the difficulties she experienced when undergoing hormone treatments in 2015. There weren’t any nearby health centers offering hormone therapy that accepted her insurance, requiring her to make a three-hour trip to Washington, D.C. every three months. Then, the Planned Parenthood location in her city began offering hormone treatments.

“This changed my travel for health care from three hours to 10 minutes,” Barwick said.

Rally Urges Legislators to Reinstate Parole in Virginia

 The Virginia Prison Justice Network advocated on Saturday in favor of legislation that would instate criminal justice reform.

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Dozens turned out for a rally hosted Saturday at the Capitol in support of bills introduced to the General Assembly that would reinstate parole for some incarcerated Virginians.

Virginia ended discretionary parole in 1995, but those sentenced before the law went into effect are still eligible. HJ 644, introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, would direct a study into the reinstatement of discretionary parole, which releases an offender before he/she completes his/her sentence.

The study is a start, said Lillie Branch-Kennedy, founder of Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged and Disenfranchised, a statewide support group for prisoners and their families. But she says she doesn’t want to see it stop there.

“We don’t want it to go to a study and just die away, go away, fade away,” Branch-Kennedy said.

A portion of the rally addressed the “Fishback” cases, incarcerated Virginians who were sentenced after the abolishment of parole but before a Supreme Court ruling that jurors had to be made aware that their sentences would be carried out fully.

“The jurors were not told that parole was abolished [prior to the ruling], thereby giving them sentences thinking they would be eligible for parole,” Branch-Kennedy said.

SB 1437, introduced by Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, would make those prisoners eligible for parole. Branch-Kennedy said this would apply to about 300 incarcerated people in Virginia.

Other bills supported by the Virginia Prison Justice Network — which organized the rally — address data collection on solitary confinement and the reinstatement of felon voting rights. On Wednesday, a Senate committee killed two measures to amend the Virginia Constitution to give people convicted of a felony the right to vote, but a similar bill remains. SJ 283 would reinstate voting rights for felons that made restitution and completed their sentences.

“The biggest part [of getting legislation passed] is going to be trying to get people to show up for the committee meetings,” said Joseph Rogers, an organizer for the Virginia Prison Justice Network.

Rogers noted the rally’s increased attendance from a similar event last year, despite Saturday’s forecast of a late-afternoon winter storm.

“I am hoping that we do get the opportunity to have people testifying at the General Assembly committee meetings,” Rogers said. “Just as we saw how powerful these statements from prisoners impacted the crowd here, we can only imagine how much that can actually impact the legislators.”

Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, is sponsoring HB 1745, which would make people in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles eligible for parole after having served 25 years of their sentences.

James Braxton, who spoke at the rally, is a director for juvenile justice reform group RISE for Youth.

“But today, I’m speaking with you as someone who was formerly incarcerated,” Braxton said.

Braxton, whose charges included attempted robbery, was one of several formerly incarcerated people to speak at the rally, and representatives read statements from prisoners serving sentences in facilities throughout the state.

Braxton recalled his experience in prison. He said that upon entering, he was given a bucket with two small bars of soap, a toothbrush and a little bit of toothpaste meant to last months. He said when he left prison, he was given few resources — similar to his situation prior to being incarcerated, when he “barely” graduated high school and found himself without a support system.

“I had to start from scratch [upon release], sleeping on my grandmother’s floor,” Braxton said. “It wasn’t until an opportunity was offered to me that changed my life. But it had nothing to do with the system, and the system had the opportunity to do that. That has to change.”

Lawmakers Tout Plan for Casinos in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth

State Legislators from Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville, during a Monday morning press conference, introduced a plan to build casinos in the hopes of creating new jobs and improving past economic problems.

By Kathleen Shaw, Arianna Coghill and Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Members of the General Assembly from Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville urged their colleagues Monday to approve legislation to allow casino gambling in those cities. They said the plan would create jobs and boost the economy.

Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Bristol, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, joined delegates from each locality at a news conference to push for a state law authorizing casinos. They said that in seven years, such gambling operations could generate a total of nearly $100 million in local revenue and create about 16,000 jobs.

Under the legislation, a referendum would be held in each of the cities, and voters would have to agree whether to allow casinos to be built.

“This is an opportunity for not only us but for southwest and Danville to join forces and give the citizens a choice,” said Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth. “A choice to bring a revenue streak, to help pay for schools, give teachers raises and do the things we need to do.”

Republicans and Democrats from Bristol, Portsmouth and Danville have partnered on the legislative initiative, saying their cities face similar financial problems.

“We’re struggling, and our economies are struggling,” Carrico said. “And for me, I want to see Bristol do well. But I also see that Sen. Lucas and Del. Marshall are struggling as well.”

The median annual household income is about $49,000 in Portsmouth, $38,000 in Bristol and $35,000 in Danville — far below the statewide median of $69,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In contrast, the average household income in Fairfax County is more than $117,000.

“The city of Danville had two Fortune 500 companies that at one point had 60,000 jobs. We’ve had to close four schools in the area due to the lack of population,” Marshall said. “But Danville is working hard to rebuild, and we are having some successes.”

Four bills to authorize casino gambling have been introduced for this legislative session. They are SB 1126, sponsored by Lucas; SB 1503, proposed by Carrico; HB 1890, filed by James; and HB 2536, carried by Del. Israel D. O’Quinn, who represents Bristol and surrounding counties.

While casino gambling bills have failed in the past, Lucas and Carrico said requiring community input through a referendum gives this year’s legislation the advantage needed to pass the General Assembly.

In a Q&A session, officials were asked about potential issues that could come from introducing casino gambling, such as crime and addiction. They said authorities would use tax revenues from casinos to address public needs like school facilities, law enforcement and social services.

“We’re going to appoint so much money to addiction abuse and public safety and keep it a safe, industrial way to produce revenue,” Carrico said. “This is a tightly regulated industry.”

At the news conference, legislators also were asked about religious objections some citizens have to casinos. The lawmakers said their proposals would impose regulations on the industry to safeguard the community.

Carrico, a religious man himself, met with pastors and said they were open to the suggestion of casinos. The religious leaders appreciated the ability to vocalize their concerns in the public referendum, the senator said.

Two Bristol businessmen plan to fund construction of the casino in the city.

Jim McGlothlin, CEO of the United Company, and Clyde Stacy, owner of Par Ventures, are long-time partners and coal barons. At the news conference, McGlothlin said the project will not need government funding. McGlothlin said the region’s economic problems are significant and need a ‘big, bold’ project to compete with neighboring states.

As a result, the legislation needs only to pass the General Assembly and garner majority support in a local referendum for the dice to start rolling.

Lucas said casinos are the most efficient way to pull Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol out of an economic rut.

“We just want to create economic development in these three parts of the state,” Lucas said. “It’s plain and simple.”

General Assembly to Consider Legalizing Sports Betting

By Andrew Gionfriddo and Ben Burstein, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia would become the ninth state to legalize sports betting under legislation being considered by the General Assembly this session.

Lawmakers have introduced three bills to legalize sports betting, license betting operations and tax their revenues. Under the proposals, people would be able to bet only on professional sports; betting on college and youth sports would be prohibited.

Many legislators seem to agree that legalized sports betting is inevitable after the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a federal law prohibiting such gambling in most states.

“Sports gaming is going to be legal across the United States. There is no reason to keep it illegal, when our neighboring states are already moving to legalize,” stated Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, sponsor of SB 1238.

Petersen’s measure would create the Virginia Sports Betting Department to regulate betting operations, which would be located only in localities that agree to allow gambling.

Under SB 1238, operators would pay an application fee of $5,000 and a tax of 10 percent of adjusted gross revenues. The department would keep 2.5 percent of the tax revenue to defray its administrative costs and help problem gamblers. The remaining money would be split between the locality where it was generated and a fund to help community college students.

Two Democratic delegates from Fairfax County also have filed bills to legalize sports betting.

Under HB 1638, sponsored by Del. Mark Sickles, the Virginia Lottery would regulate sports betting. Betting operators would pay a $250,000 application fee and a 15 percent tax on adjusted gross revenues. The lottery would retain 2.5 percent of the revenues to cover administrative costs and assist problem gamblers. The rest of the money would go toward a new initiative called the Virginia Research Investment Fund.

Besides sports betting, Sickles’ bill also would authorize the Virginia Lottery to sell tickets over the internet — a practice now prohibited.

The third bill allowing sports betting is HB 2210, by Del. Marcus Simon. It would direct the Virginia Lottery to regulate electronic sports betting (and, like Sickles’ legislation, to sell lottery tickets over the internet). Simon’s bill would impose a 10 percent tax on the gross adjusted revenue of operations that receive a permit to conduct sports betting. The lottery would keep 3 percent of the tax receipts; the rest would go into a fund to help problem gamblers.

HB 2210 would provide protections for people who may be susceptible to compulsive gambling. For example, people could voluntarily add themselves to a list of individuals who are excluded from engaging in electronic sports betting or buying lottery tickets.

Simon’s bill includes a section on “Sports Bettors Rights” and details procedures to ensure that people who win their bets receive their money, to intervene in instances of problem or at-risk bettors, to protect bettors’ privacy and to provide “transparency of sports betting,” such as the odds of winning a bet.

“I am introducing a Sports Bettors Bill of Rights to make sure that consumers and participants are part of that conversation from the very beginning,” Simon stated.

His “bill of rights” includes provisions to prohibit underage betting and prevent marketing sports betting to minors. Under all of the legislative proposals, sports betting would be limited to Virginians 21 and older — unlike the legal age to purchase lottery tickets, which is 18.

Simon’s bill has been applauded by an organization of sports fans.

“This bill is the most consumer-friendly sports betting bill the Sports Fans Coalition has seen at any level of government,” stated Brian Hess, the group’s executive director. “It is the only piece of legislation that hits all five of our Sports Bettors’ Bill of Rights.”

The coalition’s five principles are “integrity and transparency; data privacy and security; self-exclusion; protection of the vulnerable; and recourse.”

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to legalized sports betting in May when it overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. That federal law prohibited sports betting except in states like Nevada that had previously permitted such gambling.

Besides Nevada, sports betting is legal in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Mississippi.

Live-Streaming Fosters Transparency in the General Assembly

By Owen FitzGerald, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As legislators gather in Richmond for the 2019 General Assembly session, citizens in the far corners of the commonwealth might feel distanced from their elected representatives. But any computer or cellphone user with internet access can watch live and recorded video of state lawmakers in action.

The House and Senate each live-stream their committee meetings and floor sessions. And the advocacy group Progress Virginia broadcasts subcommittee meetings over the internet.

ProgressVA launched its Eyes on Richmond project in 2017 before the legislative session. Initially, the program live-streamed both committee and subcommittee meetings — because at the time, the House and Senate provided video only of their floor sessions. Since then, state officials have started live-streaming the committees; so ProgressVA now focuses on subcommittees.

The importance of public access to subcommittee meetings cannot be overstated, as many important pieces of legislation are often killed at that level. Anna Scholl, executive director at ProgressVA, said the results of subcommittee votes would often remain unknown to the public.

“When we started Eyes on Richmond,” Scholl said, “it was standard for bills to pass or fail on unrecorded voice votes, and it was often impossible to know how a particular legislator voted on important bills unless you were in the room when it happened.”

That is why ProgressVA has put “legislative fellows” – college interns – in the room, equipped with a cellphone and tripod to provide live online video of government meetings.

Program Director Ashleigh Crocker said live-streaming the subcommittee-level meetings allows citizens to engage with their representatives as they decide the fate of legislation.

“We thought it was really important that citizens from across the Commonwealth be able to know how legislators were voting when they were coming to Richmond to represent them,” Crocker said.

In its first year, the Eyes on Richmond program won the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Laurence E. Richardson’s Citizen Award. The coalition, along with ProgressVA, is a part of Transparency Virginia, a collection of advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations assembled to promote transparency in the General Assembly on every level.

Both the House and Senate began recording and archiving committee meetings during the 2018 session in response to a bipartisan effort from the Virginia Transparency Caucus, co-founded by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Likewise, the House of Delegates began recording subcommittee votes in 2018 following a push from the Transparency Caucus.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the General Assembly has done a commendable job retrofitting meeting rooms to allow for the recording and streaming of committee meetings. But the work of ProgressVA to give citizens insight into subcommittee meetings has been vital to the cause of transparency in the state government, Rhyne added.

“General Assembly transparency is important because it is the work of the people,” Rhyne said. “They are making decisions that affect us as individuals and as workers and as members of various organizations and groups.”

How to watch the General Assembly online

House floor sessions:

https://virginiageneralassembly.gov/house/chamber/chamberstream.php

House committee meetings:

https://publications.virginiageneralassembly.gov/display_publication/209

Senate committee meetings and floor sessions:

https://virginia-senate.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=3

Subcommittee meetings covered by ProgressVA:

https://eyesonrichmond.org/

 

Dual Enrollment Opens Diverse Doors

By Dr. Al Roberts

At the end of the last school year, in addition to their high school diplomas, 741 graduating seniors received credentials from Southside Virginia Community College. Awards included 287 Associate Degrees, 300 Career Study Certificates, and 154 other Certificates documenting the completion of job readiness training. These achievements were made possible through collaborative dual enrollment partnerships with 14 public and private high schools across SVCC’s service region.

Dual enrollment programs offer students an opportunity to get an early start on postsecondary education pursuits. For students in transfer associate degree programs or enrolled in courses designed to satisfy general education requirements at senior institutions, dual enrollment credits can shorten the time required to complete a bachelor’s degree, resulting in tuition cost savings. For students with plans to enter the workforce in technical areas, dual enrollment offers a chance to receive training necessary to pursue more advanced opportunities, enter apprenticeships, and embark on career pathways with family-sustaining earnings.

Standards adopted by the Virginia State Board for Community Colleges safeguard the quality and rigor of college courses offered to high school students. These rules ensure that high school students meet the same academic challenges faced by on-campus college students and that the students be held accountable to the same criteria of achievement. In addition, instructors who teach college-level courses to high school students must hold the same qualifications as instructors who teach older college students.

Brent Richey, Chair of the Mecklenburg County School Board, says “The dual enrollment partnership between Mecklenburg County Schools and Southside Virginia Community College offers our students a wide range of higher education opportunities. Some students will complete a degree, certificate, or industry-recognized certificate that they can use to move immediately into the workforce, while others take their credits with them as they matriculate at a university. It also provides the rigor needed to give Mecklenburg County a talented and well-qualified workforce, which helps us attract new industries to our area.”

Shanley Childress Dorin, a dual enrollment (DE) instructor at Kenston Forest School, says her work with college-bound students equips them for success. “As an instructor I try to prepare my students for college life. Students leave a DE class with college credits and a glimpse into meeting college deadlines, learning various teaching styles, and mastering time management.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia first opened the door to dual enrollment opportunities in 1988. Since that time, course offerings have expanded to provide young adults with multiple pathways to achieve wide-ranging academic goals. SVCC’s most recent Annual Report highlights the diverse successes made possible through collaborative partnerships between the college and regional high schools. For more information about dual enrollment or to view the Annual Report, visit the college’s website at http://southside.edu/parallel-pathways-svcc-annual-report

Dr. Al Roberts is president of Southside Virginia Community College, an institution of higher learning that provides a wide variety of education opportunities to a diverse student population within a service area that spans ten counties and the city of Emporia. He can be reached via email at al.roberts@southside.edu.

Herring Chastises Panel for Rejecting Hate Crime Bill

By Jayla Marie McNeill, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring expressed disappointment Monday after a legislative committee rejected a bill to expand Virginia’s definition of hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, disability and gender identity.

“The General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them,” Herring stated after the Senate Courts of Justice Committee defeated the bill with a vote 8-6 along party lines, with Democrats supporting the measure and Republicans opposing it.

“The update to Virginia’s hate crimes definition is long overdue and would have offered needed protections for women, the LGBT community and Virginians with disabilities. I am disappointed to see this commonsense bill die in a party line vote. At a time when communities in Virginia and around the country are confronting a rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric, the General Assembly has sent a clear message to those who feel vulnerable to hate and mistreatment that they will not take the measures needed to protect them" - Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia

Currently, the Code of Virginia refers only to individuals or groups targeted on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background or national origin as being victims of hate crime.

SB 1375, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, sought to expand that definition to include other marginalized groups. Herring called it a “common sense” bill and said he was disheartened that it was defeated on a party-line vote.

The bill would have brought Virginia closer to the federal definition of a hate crime, which includes “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

Virginia State Police said bias-motivated crimes in the commonwealth rose from 137 in 2016 to 202 the following year.

The statistics for 2017, the most recent year available, include 89 incidents related to race, 44 to religion, 20 to ethnicity, 38 to sexual orientation and 11 to disability.

Virginia’s statistics reflect a larger national trend that shows a rise of hate crimes in the U.S. According to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, 7,175 hate crimes were reported nationwide in 2017. That is an increase of more than 1,000 reports from 2016.

Despite the defeat of the hate crimes bill, Herring remains optimistic about legislation that aims to impede activity by white supremacist militias and similar militant groups.

SB 1210, sponsored by Sens. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, was approved by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee by a 7-6 vote and referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure, which died in committee last year, was first introduced following the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. During that event, James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd protesting the rally, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other counter-demonstrators.

SB 1210 “provides that a person is guilty of unlawful paramilitary activity if such person assembles with another person with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons by drilling, parading, or marching with any firearm or explosive or incendiary device or any components or combination thereof,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

Such unlawful paramilitary activity would be punishable as a Class 5 felony, under the bill.

“Referring it to the Senate Finance Committee is a step in the right direction,” Herring stated. “It is time for the General Assembly to take action to protect Virginians and make sure that we prevent the kind of paramilitary activity that we saw in Charlottesville from ever happening again.”

Advocates Seek More Access to Medical Marijuana

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As other states have relaxed their laws against marijuana, citizens across Virginia gathered here Saturday to discuss how to persuade the General Assembly to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the commonwealth.

About 150 people, including health care providers and attorneys, attended the Virginia 2019 Cannabis Conference, held by the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Virginia NORML advocates decriminalizing possession of marijuana and regulating medical and recreational-use production and sales of the substance.

Members of NORML are hopeful after Gov. Ralph Northam voiced support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana during his State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, the first day of the General Assembly’s 2019 session.

“We want to keep people safe. But we shouldn’t use valuable law enforcement time, or costly prison space, on laws that don’t enhance public safety,” the governor said in his speech. “Current law imposes a maximum 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.”

So far, lawmakers have proposed six bills to decriminalize simple marijuana possession. For example, HB 2371, sponsored by Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, and HB 2373, by Del. Lee Carter, D-Prince William, would legalize marijuana for Virginians 21 and older and have the state operate retail marijuana stores. Under such proposals, Virginians under 21 who are caught with marijuana would have to pay a civil penalty.

Most attendees at the conference, held at the Delta by Marriott hotel, seemed particularly interested in medical marijuana and how to access it without traveling to another state.

Lorene Davidson of Richmond works in anesthesia as a nurse practitioner. She came to the conference because of her ongoing struggle with antidepressants, which she found were bad for her liver.

“I’m looking mostly for a way to find out more about getting a medical card and furthering getting that taken care of,” Davidson said.

As a speaker at the event, Melanie Seifert Davis of Richmond shared the story of her 10-year-old daughter Madison, who was diagnosed with ependymoma brain cancer in 2014.

“Although I’m not new to the world of cannabis, I’m brand new to the world of cannabis reform,” Davis said.

Madison is on four different cannabis-based products including CBD, THC, THCA and FECO (full extract cannabis oil) to help with seizures and the cancer itself, Davis said.

“Today and for every tomorrow I’m given, I will fill seven capsules with high doses of four different cannabis medications and watch as Madison swallows each one,” Davis said. “Science, research and experience in my heart all know that it can and will and has helped her.”

At the conference, Davis said the family recently received good news about Madison’s cancer: Four of the five tumors were gone.

“Cannabis is an important and essential part of why she is still here and still her, five years into this battle for her life,” Davis shared. “Cannabis is why she has never, not even once, suffered from the nausea, vomiting or seizures that are expected side effects of her chemo.”

Not only does Davis’ daughter suffer from cancer, but her son, Aiden, has Crohn’s disease. Aiden also uses cannabis to ease the pain of everyday life, Davis said.

“I fight because when I told my son about today, the first thing he said with legitimate fear in his voice was, ‘Mom, you can’t tell them those things. You can’t tell them about Maddie’s medicine. Cannabis is illegal. I need you; you can’t go to jail,’” Davis said.

Madison has been on cannabis products since June 2017. Davis said she gets Madison and Aiden’s cannabis from a licensed doctor in California.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for Virginia NORML, said progress had been made in getting the state to expand access to medical cannabis.

According to the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, patients and their legal guardians can register to obtain such products if they have a certification issued by a physician.

“In 2016, we passed a bill that let us go forth and write a regulatory program that was based on Connecticut’s then-program, which was also low-THC, extraction-based products only and served to a small set of patients,” Pedini said.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed a law allowing practitioners to issue certifications for the use of cannabis-based products to alleviate symptoms “of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.”

The Board of Pharmacy has given approval to pharmaceutical companies to open five dispensaries across the state where CBD and THC-A oils will be sold to authorized patients.

Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, has filed a bill (HB 2245) to double the number of medical cannabis dispensaries.

Hundreds March For Women and Minority Rights in Richmond

By Saffeya Ahmed and Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Hundreds of social justice advocates, community members and students marched for women’s rights Saturday in Richmond.

The two-mile reprise of the 2017 Women’s March began at 9 a.m. at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center as participants holding brightly decorated signs walked toward the intersection of West Broad Street and North Boulevard.

“What do want? Equal rights. When do we want them? Now,” demonstrators chanted in support of both women and minority rights.

Demonstrators made their way back to the Arthur Ashe Center around 10:30 a.m. for an expo where speakers urged reform, marchers danced to empowering music and dozens of vendors sold handmade products and spread awareness about social justice movements.

“I often times get asked … where is this surge of energy from women coming from?” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who spoke at the expo. “I like to tell them, it’s always been in us.”

Carroll Foy sponsored legislation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — which prohibits sex-based discrimination — in efforts to make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to include the ERA in the U.S. Constitution.

“We now know we must have a seat at the table,” Carroll Foy said. “We have to be where the decisions are being made and where the laws are being written.”

After marching to and from the Arthur Ashe Center, participants gathered to hear social justice advocates and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

“Every issue is a woman’s issue,” McClellan said. “We’ve had a long, complicated history. And now we fight and we march today to make sure our voices are heard.”

Spanberger thanked the work of “strong women” who helped send a total of 126 women to Congress during the 2018 midterms.

“For anyone who needs something to show their daughters or young people or anyone else,” Spanberger said, “look at who’s in Congress. Look at what we have happening in Congress.”

Spanberger — who beat Republican Rep. Dave Brat in one of Virginia’s most hotly contested races of the 2018 midterm elections — represents Virginia’s 7th District in the most diverse Congress to step foot in Washington.

“We have women from all over the country,” Spanberger said. “We have our first Muslim women. Our first Native American women in Congress. We have our youngest woman ever in Congress.”

Nearly a quarter of the 116th Congress is made up of women, the most in U.S. history, according to Pew Research.

“I love seeing women in power,” said 11-year-old Natalie Rodriguez, who participated in the march, “because I know that when my grandma was growing up, it wasn’t like that.”

Several speakers also addressed immigrant rights. Some expressed frustration with the now-longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. The U.S. entered the shutdown Dec. 22, 2018, stemming from a deadlock over President Donald Trump’s $5 billion funding request for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. 
“By shutting down the government, that’s sort of like saying, ‘I’m not going to reopen until you give me my wall,’” said march organizer and local activist Seema Sked. “It’s very childish.”

As a Muslim woman, Sked focuses her advocacy efforts toward fighting Trump’s travel ban, fighting Islamophobia and creating equity for immigrants. She recently traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to help asylum seekers with the interview process.

“Just to see the conditions that folks are in, and to see the children, and how everyone’s so desperate to find a better life and a safe place,” Sked said, “that’s really, really important to me because I look at that and think that could be me.”

Several marchers supported immigrant rights similar to Sked, holding up signs that read “immigrants are not enemies” and “make America kind again.”

This is the second year that Women’s March RVA has held an event after having been inspired by the National Women’s March held annually in Washington. The march took place a week earlier than the organization’s sister marches, giving Richmond residents the opportunity to partake in one or both events.

The National Women’s March will take place in Washington at 10 a.m. next Saturday.

Database Chronicles 400 Years of Virginia House of Delegates

By Rosemarie O’Connor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A singer crooned “La Paloma” as a Norfolk crowd showered two “legislative debutantes” with flowers and sent them off to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1924. Sarah Lee Fain and Helen T. Henderson were the first women elected to the General Assembly. To celebrate, the Democratic Women’s Club organized a bon voyage party at Roane’s Old Colonial Tea Room in Norfolk.

Virginians can now explore the history of who has served in the House, which is marking its 400th anniversary as America’s first law-making body. The House Clerk’s Office has launched an online database dubbed DOME (Database of House Members), chronicling the people elected to the House of Delegates or its predecessor, the House of Burgesses, over the past four centuries.

Set against today’s national conversation over gender equality, the database shows a stark disparity: It contains more than 9,000 men — but just 91 women.

Database reflects state’s political players

The ambitious, years-long project offers biographical and legislative information on every delegate as well as information on House speakers, clerks, legislative sessions and Capitol locations.

From 1619, when the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown, until 1923, the legislative body was all-male. Since Fain and Henderson joined the House in 1924, the number of female delegates didn’t crack double digits until 1983, when there were 11 women in the House. The number stayed in the teens through 2017.

But that year, a record number of women were elected to the General Assembly, taking 11 seats formerly held by men. As a result, 28 women currently serve in the 100-member House.

Glass ceilings, then color barriers

Sixty years after Henderson and Fain shattered the glass ceiling, Yvonne Miller of Norfolk broke the color barrier. She became the first African-American woman elected to the House in 1984 and the first elected to the Senate four years later. Miller died in office in July 2012.

In an interview with the Library of Virginia, Miller said other legislators initially thought she was a maid and told her as much. She said she realized those delegates who offended her were “operating on their history.” Miller said she had to figure out how to interact with those who did not respect her simply because of her race.

Miller called her time in the General Assembly exciting and said she thoroughly enjoyed politics. “I have enough wins to keep it interesting,” she said. “I have a lot of losses to keep me humble.”

‘Long overdue’ project may inspire more research

Laura van Assendelft, a professor of political science at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, called the DOME project “long overdue.”

“The typically limited and inconsistent availability of data at the state and local levels is such a source of frustration for scholars in the state and local subfield,” she said. Van Assendelft said she believes the database will inspire more research into the history of women in Virginia’s government.

Brian Daugherity, a U.S. history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that when completed, DOME will help citizens “see the ways in which participation in the state’s decision-making processes has expanded over time — a reminder of the importance of ensuring access for all.”

G. Paul Nardo, the clerk of the Virginia House of Delegates, said he welcomes contributions from the public to help write the “ongoing history of the House of Delegates and those who have been elected to serve in it.” He said the database will be officially released this spring.

More women and more diversity in the House

The history of women in Virginia politics is still being written.

“But if I do anything worthwhile in the General Assembly,” Fain declared in 1924, “to the women will belong the credit.”

In 2017, the House of Delegates saw an increase not only in the number of women but also in other diversity.

Danica Roem of Prince William County became Virginia’s first transgender legislator. Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman also won House seats in Prince William County, becoming the first Latinas elected to the House.

Kathy Tran’s win in Fairfax County made her the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Virginia General Assembly. And Dawn Adams of Richmond was elected as the first openly lesbian legislator.

Library hosts National Seed Swap Day Event

Is one of your resolutions to eat healthier? How would you like to grow your own vegetables and herbs, maybe even just plant some new flowers? The Meherrin Regional Library will be kicking off its brand new Seed Exchange Library Program with a celebration of National Seed Swap Day. Visit the Brunswick or Richardson Library  to register for the program, pick out your seeds, and speak to Master Gardeners about how to start your very own garden. Planting and harvesting information will be available for the seeds that the library currently has to offer. You can even bring your own seeds to share with others. This event is open to all ages. Crafts will be available for younger participants. The event will be held at the Richardson Memorial Library on Saturday, January 26th from 10:00 am-12:00 pm and at the Brunswick County Library on Monday, January 28th from 6:00 pm -8:00 pm. Visit www.meherrinlib.org or call  434-634-2539 or 434-848-2418 to learn more.

Before Legislative Session, a Serving of Eggs and a Prayer for Civility

By Evie King, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As legislators, faith leaders and others tucked into their scrambled eggs and fresh fruit cups, two slideshow screens at the front of the room rotated Bible verses speaking to the theme of the 53rd annual General Assembly Prayer Breakfast: civility and reconciliation.

Politicians who packed the ballroom at the Greater Richmond Convention Center reflected on familiar Bible verses such as Luke 6:27: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Republicans and Democrats alike sat next to one another Wednesday morning, amicably asking about family members and the past holiday season while sipping orange juice or coffee. There was little hint of the potential political drama or partisanship of the impending legislative session.

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly acted as master of ceremonies for the event. Bringing the room to attention with a chime of her glass, she blessed the food — "in Jesus’ name we pray" — and then introduced Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

Taking the stage, Northam emphasized the importance of unity among state legislators, working toward the common goal of the good of the commonwealth.

"We are a state that supports our veterans, embraces diversity and inclusion, and attracts visitors from all over the world," Northam said, addressing the sea of gray, navy and black business suits. "I spent my career as a child neurologist. Over the years, I saw thousands of patients and their families and never once did they ask me if I was a Republican or a Democrat, nor did I ask them. All they wanted was for me to help them."

As inspiration for his work as both a doctor and politician, Northam shared his favorite scripture, Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

"I believe it is our duty as elected officials to ... help the least of our brothers. It is our duty to help the Virginians who need it the most," Northam said, citing the expansion of Medicaid as an example of that doctrine. Referencing his "tremendous friends" on both sides of the aisle, Northam ended with a blessing for the room and the commonwealth.

Three prayers followed: for children and families, led by first lady Pamela Northam; for public safety and military officials, led by Attorney General Mark Herring; and for those in need, led by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, shared a moment in his life when he personally experienced the Golden Rule, or Muslim Hadith: "None of you truly believes until he wishes for others what he wishes for himself."

When attempting to pass his first bill on the House floor years ago, Rasoul said he received a note from Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, with a tip on how to revive his dying legislation. "I believe we can both be very passionate about what we believe in and at the same time pass notes to each other on the House floor," Rasoul said.

The two keynote speakers both held positions in the White House for faith-based initiatives. Jedd Medefind worked under President George W. Bush, and Michael Wear under President Barack Obama. The two men delivered thoughtful speeches about the importance of civility in the world and the power of attentiveness.

As the breakfast broke up at 10 a.m., the room quickly emptied out. Legislators headed to Capitol Square for the session's first day, with a wish and a prayer or two.

Conservative Activists Urge Lawmakers to Reject ERA

The Family Foundation and other groups that oppose abortion urge Virginia legislators to oppose ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say the ERA, which is currently before the full Senate, is anti-women, anti-American and "a smokescreen for abortion." Photo by Kathleen Shaw.

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — The Family Foundation and other groups that oppose abortion are urging Virginia legislators to oppose ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They say the ERA, which is currently before the full Senate, is anti-women, anti-American and "a smokescreen for abortion."

Conservative activists held a news conference and met with legislators this week to voice concerns about the ERA, which they refer to as the “Everything Related to Abortion Act.” They said the proposed constitutional amendment uses women as pawns to push forward an abortion-rights agenda.

Patrina Mosley, director of a group called Life, Culture and Women’s Advocacy, criticized the amendment with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the feminist movement.

“The ERA is really a smokescreen for abortion,” Mosley said. “This is not really about women. Women are continually used as a prop to push an agenda, and the ‘Time’s Up’ on that.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 8-6 in favor of SJ 284, which would add Virginia to the 37 states that have already ratified the ERA. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the resolution next week.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, would then need approval from a House committee and a House of Delegates majority. ERA supporters hope that with ratification by Virginia, they would have the three-fourths majority of the states needed to amend the U.S. Constitution.

But some experts say it’s too late to ratify the ERA because Congress set the original ratification deadline to 1982.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, is sponsoring what she views as an alternative to the ERA -- SJ 275, or the  Equal Rights Affirmation. Chase’s resolution “reaffirms that all persons residing in Virginia are afforded equal protection under the law. The resolution cites numerous guarantees of equality that currently exist in both federal and state law while refuting the necessity, utility, and viability of the Equal Rights Amendment,” according to a summary by the Legislative Information System.

The ERA declares that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” Chase said that wording is vague and could have unexpected repercussions.

“It's concerning to me that the ERA treats women identically to men, not equally to men -- lending to it the current fad of gender-fluidity,” Chase said. “Until you change that word to female, then I cannot support this legislation.”

Tina Whittington, executive vice president of Students for Life of America, said the ERA isn’t needed because women are already treated as equals in laws and courts. Further, Whittington said prohibiting gender bias would affect previously passed federal laws and be harmful to women.

“Many protections designed specifically for women, for mothers, would be impacted,” Whittington said.

Some women who spoke against the ERA at Thursday’s press conference said they’ve had a hard fight against the measure. Eva Scott, the first woman elected to the Virginia Senate, voted against the ERA in the 1970s as a delegate and senator. Scott said feminists do not need a constitutional amendment to be successful and rise to power.

“Women are really selling themselves short,” Scott said. “All these women really need is to embrace the truth that equality is already theirs and the whole world is at their -- and our --  fingertips.”

General Assembly Members Ask DOT for Toll Freeze for Federal Workers Affected by the Government Shutdown

By Kaytlin Nickens, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, and 14 other members of the Virginia General Assembly sent a letter Friday to state Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine and other officials requesting toll relief for federal workers commuting without pay during the federal government’s shutdown.

“These residents are still going to work every day to ensure our nation’s operations continue, but they are not receiving a paycheck,” Delaney said. “They are trying to figure out how they are going to make ends meet, and here we have an opportunity to provide some relief from the tolls they incur during their commute.”

More than 34,000 workers in the commonwealth are affected by the three-week federal shutdown, caused by an impasse between Democrats and President Donald Trump over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In terms of federal workers, Virginia is the sixth-most affected state.

The letter requests that furloughed workers who can prove their employment status have their E-ZPass deactivated temporarily. It also seeks refunds for workers who pay highway tolls while working without pay during the shutdown.

“Those who are traveling the Greenway, I-66 and other tolled roads in Virginia to get to a job where they are not receiving a paycheck should not be further financially strained for simply fulfilling their duty as a public servant,” the letter says.

“We cannot undo the financial burdens and hardships this federal shutdown has brought to the homes of thousands of Virginians, but we can help alleviate it.”

Wayne E. Wilson

Wayne E. Wilson, 53, passed away Friday, January 11, 2018. He was preceded in death by a grandson, Stryker Cole Wilson, Special Father, Willis Ray “Punk” Walton and his brother, Charles Wilson.

Wayne leaves behind to celebrate his life: his wife of 37 years, Melanie; daughter, Ashley; son, Anthony (Rachel); granddaughter, Camilla; Special Mother, Shirly Walton; sister-in-law, Melinda Greene (Marty) and a number of nephews and cousins.

Wayne worked as a millwright and crane operator with Fulghum Fibres/Price Fibres. He was a loyal “Company Man” and thought of his co-workers as family. Though he didn’t have a long life; he lived it to the fullest and loved the simple, old ways. He enjoyed just cooking a hog on the grill and spending time with his family and friends enjoying good food and sitting around the fire shooting the breeze. Wayne loved farming; watching things grow and caring for God’s creation; talking about his Lord and giving away Bibles to people he thought the Word would help. Everything Wayne did was for his wife and children.

The funeral service will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday, January 16 at Owen Funeral Home, 303 S. Halifax Rd, Jarratt, Virginia where the family will receive friends one hour prior to the service.

In accordance with his wishes, a private interment will follow the chapel service and a celebration of life will be held in the spring.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Johns/Manville Clubhouse Project, P.O. Box 336, Jarratt, Virginia 23867. Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com.

Lawmakers Have Mixed Reactions to Governor’s Address

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam gives his second State of the Commonwealth Speech before 140 members of the 2019 General Assembly, on Jan. 9. (PHOTO: Livestream)

By Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – From attracting high-tech businesses to improving access to health care services, Gov. Ralph Northam’s State of the Commonwealth speech touted wins and legislative proposals that both parties celebrated, though Republicans blasted his ideas on taxes and budget spending.

The 2019 General Assembly session marks Northam’s second year in office and the 400th anniversary of the House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected legislative body in the British American colonies. His speech didn’t shy away from acknowledging the state’s “long and complex history” while connecting several of the session’s proposals to health and safety.

“In 2017, 1,028 Virginians died of gun-related causes,” Northam told a joint meeting of the General Assembly at the end of the first day of the 2019 legislative session. “That’s more deaths due to gun violence than the 956 Virginians who died due to vehicle accidents.”

Fellow Democrats said the governor set the right tone.

“It is clear that the commonwealth is coming into 2019 in a strong position. Our economy is thriving, we are attracting major businesses and job creators like Amazon, and the Medicaid expansion we passed last year will boost state revenues and provide hundreds of thousands of Virginians with access to healthcare,” House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, said in a joint statement.

In the Republicans’ official response to Wednesday night’s speech, Del. Robert Thomas Jr. of Stafford and Sen. Stephen Newman of Bedford called for Virginia to balance its books, maintain low taxes and help Virginians reduce high health insurance deductibles.

“Republicans are committed to stopping Governor Northam’s tax hike on the middle class,” Thomas said. “Our tax reform plan will return the tax windfall resulting from the federal tax cuts along to taxpayers, while providing targeted tax relief to middle- and low-income Virginians and protecting our coveted AAA bond rating.”  

Republicans also voiced opposition to Northam’s proposals regarding guns.

The Democratic governor called on the General Assembly to approve an “extreme risk law” -- a legal way for law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from someone who has shown dangerous behavior or who poses a risk to themselves or others. This idea has passed Republican-led legislatures in other states and been signed by Republican governors, such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott.

In his response to the speech, Thomas, a father of eight, said improving the safety of public schools is more important than hashing out possible firearm regulations.

“Our goal is to employ every means available to keep dangerous individuals out of our schools,” he said.  

Echoing the recommendations of a legislative committee, Thomas proposed using threat prevention technology and improving mental health services.  Northam and Thomas both advocated for improving safety training for school personnel and safety officers. Currently, only grant-funded resource officers go through training approved by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Northam addressed criminal justice reform.  For the third year in a row, Virginia has had the nation’s lowest prison recidivism rate, and Northam said he hopes to maintain that record.

He also plans to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over failure to pay court costs, fees, and non-driving offenses. “When we take away people’s driver’s licenses, we make it harder for them to get to work, and thus make it even more difficult for them to pay their court costs,” Northam said. “We shouldn’t be punishing people for being poor.”

Moreover, Northam called for making simple possession a civil penalty to ease overcrowding in jails and prisons. Current law imposes a maximum of 30 days in jail for a first offense of marijuana possession.

In his speech, Northam celebrated a budget he had signed in May that expanded Medicaid coverage to 400,000 Virginians.

He also discussed using tolls to fund improvements on Interstate 81 in the western part of the state. The interstate has seen a 12 percent increase in traffic and a 55 percent increase in delays, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In a speech that included the word “together” 32 times, the governor concluded his address by encouraging unity among members of the General Assembly.

“I hope that as we go through the next 46 days together, we give consideration to each other, and to our ideas. It can be tempting to retreat to our corners and shout at each other,” Northam said. “But I believe we all have that internal moral compass, the one that guides us toward the right thing to do. I hope we all follow it this session.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers will consider more than 2,000 bills between now and their scheduled adjournment, Feb. 23.

Amendment to Restore Felon Voting Rights Dies Along Party Lines

By Katja Timm, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- For now, Virginia will remain among a trio of states -- joining only Kentucky and Iowa -- with a lifetime ban on voting rights for people convicted of a felony.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections killed an attempt to allow Virginians who have been convicted of a felony to vote.

Currently, the Virginia Constitution says felons cannot vote unless their civil rights have been restored by the governor or other authorities. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, proposed a resolution -- SJ 261 -- to delete that passage from the state Constitution.

On an 8-6 vote at the committee’s meeting on Wednesday, Locke’s proposed constitutional amendment was “passed by indefinitely,” meaning that it likely is dead for this legislative session. The vote was split down party lines on the 14-member committee, with all eight Republicans voting to kill the measure.

Besides SJ 261, the panel on Wednesday considered a similar proposal (SJ 262) by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. The committee folded Lucas’ measure into Locke’s before killing the proposed amendment.

The resolutions proposed by Locke and Lucas sought to establish just four requirements to vote in Virginia: Voters would have to be U.S. citizens, be at least 18, live in the commonwealth and be registered. The proposed amendment “removes from current constitutional qualifications to vote not having been convicted of a felony and not having been adjudicated to be mentally incompetent,” according to the Legislative Information System.

The amendment had support from representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters of Virginia. Former inmates who had lost the right to vote because of felony convictions also offered emotional testimony.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, encouraged Virginia legislators to follow in the footsteps of Florida, which recently restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million people. In November, more than 60 percent of Florida supported the ballot initiative.

“That leaves Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa as the only states left -- the only states left in which you have a lifetime ban of voting if you get convicted of a felony,” Gastañaga said.

Gastañaga urged state leaders to look at themselves in the context of history. She said the right to vote should belong to the people instead of those who govern them.

Another supporter of the proposed amendment was ex-convict Wayne Keaton, whose voting rights were restored two years ago.

“I was incarcerated, and I have been fighting since 2010. The governor gave me my rights back in 2016,” Keaton said, referring to an executive order by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons.

Several senators raised questions about the proposed constitutional amendment. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, asked if someone who is adjudicated to be mentally incompetent should still be allowed to vote under the proposal.

“It might be appropriate to say that somebody doesn’t have the capacity to participate in the process, but that should be an individualized decision, not an institutional one,” Gastañaga responded.

Although SJ 261 and SJ 262 may be dead for the session, at least one similar proposal is pending before the General Assembly. SJ 283, sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, seeks to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences and made restitution. It is awaiting a hearing by the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

Supporters of such proposals said they won’t give up.

“This is something we’re committed to for the long haul,” said Bill Farrar, director of public policy and communications for the Virginia ACLU. “We’re going to see it through.”

Faculty Members Lobby Legislators on Higher Education Issues

By Emily Holter and Madison Manske, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Faculty members from colleges and universities across Virginia converged on the Capitol on Thursday, urging legislators to provide more funding for higher education and ensure affordable college degrees for future generations of students.

Higher Education Advocacy Day drew professors like Brian Turner, who chairs the political science department at Randolph-Macon College. He noted that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has developed a plan to guide the colleges and universities in the commonwealth.

“The Virginia Plan for Higher Education’s goal for Virginia is to be the best-educated state by 2030,” Turner said.

To make that a reality, faculty members asked members of the General Assembly to allocate money for salary increases, boost tuition assistance and increase student access to higher education.

In December, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed amending the state budget by giving $1 billion to higher education, including increasing tuition aid. Many public institutions in Virginia are hoping that with higher salaries, they will be able to offer a higher-quality education to students.

Low salaries make it hard to compete for prominent faculty members with other well-known institutions, Turner said.

As a group, Virginia’s college and university faculty members said they support a bill by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, to increase transparency on gifts that public institutions receive from donors that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Turner said House Bill 2386 would help ensure that donations enhance the curriculum and provide more accountability on how institutions spend their money.

Speaking with delegates and senators, some faculty members also expressed their concerns over Title IX policies. Some have questions about legislation sponsored by Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, pertaining to accusations of sexual violence on campus.

Lindsey has introduced two bills (HB 1830 and HB 1831) that would allow students to have attorneys present at any campus disciplinary hearing or sexual assault hearing.

Another higher education issue is a bill proposed by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, that would prohibit public colleges and universities from asking student applicants about their criminal history. Under HB 2471, schools could not “deny admission to any applicant on the basis of any criminal history information.”

“Your criminal history should not be deterring you from being able to pursue education. And in my bill, there’s a line that says this is really about the application,” Aird said. “If they do get admitted and let’s say, for some instance, you have a student that wants to live in on-campus housing, the institution can then request their criminal history.”

In making the rounds at Capitol Square, participants in Higher Education Advocacy Day spoke with Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Fredericksburg, about his bill to give students a voice on tuition increases.

Under SB 1204, “No increase of undergraduate tuition or mandatory fees approved by a governing board of a public institution of higher education shall take effect unless such increase receives an affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of undergraduate students enrolled in such institution.”

Faculty members fear that would make it impossible to raise tuition.

“I don’t think you could round up two-thirds of the student body to vote for free beer,” Turner said.

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Lawmakers Seek Information on Prisoner Segregation

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Lawmakers and prison reform advocates are pushing three bills through the General Assembly that would force the Virginia Department of Corrections to track and share records of inmates in solitary confinement.

Virginia is one of seven states that do not require record keeping for segregated prisoners. Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, has introduced a bill that would require DOC to annually submit data reports to the General Assembly and governor regarding the length of confinement, inmate demographics and disability treatment. Hope said the bill would increase transparency and improve inmate mental health care.

“We need to make sure as policymakers we have all the information we can possibly have in order to deal with solitary confinement and make sure those in there are not suffering needlessly,” Hope said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia published a report in 2018 revealing that more than 800 Virginian inmates live in restrictive housing, for an average of 2.7 years, where they are isolated in their cells for 22-24 hours each day. After a Washington Post article published last month highlighted Virginia’s lack of prisoner data filings, human rights advocates are demanding justice.

Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Virginia, said prolonged segregation of prisoners can cause deterioration of mental health. Without facilities tracking the data on segregated prisoners, Thissen said, there is minimal chance of healthy recovery and release.

“The reality is, for people with existing mental illness, it exacerbates their mental illness, and people who have no pre-existing mental illness develop symptoms of mental illness,” Thissen said. “We would like to know the status of these individuals so we know their needs are being appropriately addressed.”

The DOC has stated that solitary confinement is not widely used in Virginia prisons. However, ACLU-VA and NAMI Virginia advocates said at a press conference Thursday that prisoners can be detained in solitary confinement for years. Moreover, they said the Administrative Segregation Step Down Program that inmates go through after being in restricted housing is biased against inmates.

At the news conference, David Smith said he served 16½ months in solitary confinement in the Norfolk city jail for child pornography. Smith recalled meeting an inmate who had been placed in solitary confinement for having too many stamps, which were considered contraband. Another inmate went into restrictive housing for defending himself from sexual assault, Smith said. Without records of these inmates, Smith said, their truths are buried.

“These are just anecdotes. Without the numbers, how do we know the truth? That’s the point of this legislation, just so we can get that understanding of what’s happening in our prisons and what we can do better,” Smith said.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, visited Red Onion State Prison in Wise County in 2011 to evaluate the correctional facility and said the conditions for solitary confinement were miserable.

Ebbin and Hope said passing legislation to reduce segregating inmates has been difficult because of the constantly changing language: It can be called segregation, solitary confinement or restrictive housing.

Ebbin said choosing one term and sticking to it is important in crafting legislation, helping current inmates and improving the prison system.

“We want to know how we’re doing in Virginia with an eye toward moving into punishment that is not overly punitive and not one that leads to mental illness even more for those who are incarcerated,” Ebbin said.

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