Spring 2021 Capital News Service

Air travel picks up but recovery will take years

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Air travel plummeted during the pandemic. Experts say that travel trends will change as more people get vaccinated and begin traveling again.

Over 1 million passengers have traveled daily since mid-March, according to Transportation Security Administration checkpoint numbers. Mother’s Day weekend saw the largest number of travelers since early March 2020. The total of passengers nationwide so far this year moving through TSA checkpoints is just over 40% of all traffic last year. 

Virginia air travel is already picking up, according to several airports throughout the state. Robert Yingling, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said numbers are low compared to 2019 but travel is increasing. He speaks on behalf of both the Washington Dulles International and Ronald Reagan National airports.

“Travel volumes at Reagan National and Dulles are still well below where they were at this time in 2019,” Yingling said. “We have seen gradual recovery since the pandemic.”

Troy Bell, the director of marketing and air service development at Richmond International Airport, said that air travel has increased as more people get COVID-19 vaccines and with the warming weather.

“March comes around and then all of a sudden we see about a 60% increase,” Bell said. “We’ve seen a true increase and we think this one’s going to stick.”

Air travel has increased daily at the Norfolk International Airport since January, according to Charles Braden, the director of market development.

“We had a big surge around the holidays; Christmas and New Year’s holiday,” Braden said.

International travel was “decimated” due to restrictive quarantine measures at the time and countries requiring travelers to take a COVID-19 test, according to Braden. Due to this, he said that international travel will not recover for some time.

“It’s not expected really to recover for several years to the levels that it were previously,” Braden said. 

People are still traveling within the United States, however, to destinations where they can get outside and socially distance, Braden said.

“Even in the fall, a lot of the activity was to destinations that you could call open, and by that I mean places like beaches or mountains or deserts,” Braden said. 

Bell also said that many tourists departing Richmond are traveling to less urban, open areas.

“People are traveling to places like Florida,” Bell said. “They’re also traveling to some of the mountain destinations where the perception is lots of space, lots of fresh air, lots of elbow room and few restrictions.” 

Some of the most popular U.S. travel destinations are Orlando, Florida; Los Angeles; Denver; and Atlanta, according to Yingling.

There are going to be a number of changes in air travel trends according to Rick Hamilton, a senior distinguished engineer for Optum and a frequent business flier.

“I think that leisure travel is probably going to pick up faster than business travel because everybody has this pent up desire for a vacation or to go see distant loved ones,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said that for the airline industry to recover, business travel needs to pick back up again, but it may resume more slowly than personal travel.

“If I’m flying internationally, my company will buy a business class ticket,” he said. “If I’m flying internationally on my own dollar, I tend to buy coach tickets, economy class, and so the airline industry needs business travel to resume in order for their business models to really work.”

However, Hamilton said that businesses are completing more tasks online and virtually, using video conferencing software, for example.

Even though businesses may have found an alternate method to traveling through the use of online tools, the prospect of better deals through face-to-face interaction could spark business travel once again, Bell explained.

Bell said once more companies start sending more representatives out to the field others will follow.

“As soon as that happens, you’re going to find that other folks make the adjustment to get out there, too,” Bell said.

After 15 months, Hamilton is ready to fly again and recently bought his first air tickets for leisure travel. He advises travelers to follow guidelines and get vaccinated.

“I’m not extremely excited about sitting next to a stranger, you know, next to me on a plane,” Hamilton said. “But I believe that once you’re vaccinated and follow all the normal CDC protocols, that it’s an acceptable risk to get life back to normal, or something resembling normal.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks or social distance unless a law or regulation requires it. Passengers must still wear masks in airports and on planes, however.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

After ‘overwhelming’ year of remote learning, students welcome return to campus

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Devastated. Drained. Depressed. Those are just a few words college students used to describe the past 15 months since the pandemic hit. 

This past year has been a mixed bag of hybrid and online learning, but many college campuses in Virginia are completely reopening in the fall. Students had different reactions to online learning, but many are excited to transition back to in-person instruction.

Students said their mental health suffered during the two and a half semesters of online learning. Many said it was worse during the first semester when the pandemic hit. Jamareya Thomas, a fashion merchandising and marketing major at Virginia State University in Petersburg, said that her mental health declined as her coursework grew more difficult.

“It definitely went down some, especially when I started taking harder classes,” she said. “This semester has actually been pretty good on my mental health. Last semester it was terrible, but this semester I was a lot more calm and collected.” 

A survey of over 1,000 Virginia college students by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia found that 76% reported challenges to their mental health during the first months of the pandemic. Another survey of more than 2,000 students at Texas A&M University showed that 71% reported increased stress and anxiety levels. Only 43% said they were able to cope with this stress.

Amiya Brady, a nursing major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, said she endured a lot more stress from virtual learning as opposed to in person.

“I was drained and tired because of the excessive workload,” she said. “We didn’t have as much work in person as we did online, so it was kind of overwhelming at times.”

Nyasia Dozier, a criminal justice major at VSU, said there are merits to both in-person and virtual learning, but she “had a hard time adjusting” to virtual learning. She said she was devastated when classes moved online last spring.

“I'm more of a hands-on learner, so I need to be in class learning versus at home,” Dozier said. “When I’m at home, I'll be lazy and I forget about my work. I’m not nearly as focused now as I was on campus.”

Julie Bernardez, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said virtual learning made the transition between high school and college more difficult.

“The hardest part is trying to figure out what’s OK and what’s not OK,” she said. “When classes are in person, you can raise your hand and go to the bathroom whenever you want, but people aren’t really taught online etiquette.”

Bernardez said tasks that were simple with in-person learning, such as contacting teachers or hearing the lecture, are now much harder.

“There’s a lot of issues that happen with online stuff that throws me off,” she said, “whether it’s trying to get a hold of teachers or Zoom technology, the video or the sound, isn’t working.”

Grana Ali, a biology major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, stated in an email that while her mental health wasn’t affected too negatively, it was still difficult to adjust to a COVID-19 world.

“I was a bit unmotivated to do things and felt isolated,” she said. “It’s depressing seeing all the horrible things happening in the world around you, and it definitely takes a toll on a person mentally, but I feel like I’m doing pretty OK so far.”

Clinical depression increased 90% among college-aged young adults in the first few months of the pandemic, according to a recently published study. The students’ screen time more than doubled, socialization decreased by over half, and average steps taken declined from 10,000 to 4,600 per day.

Despite the struggles that virtual learning brings, students said that they have ways of boosting their mental health and motivation.

“Sitting in Monroe Park has helped a lot, just relaxing and breathing the fresh air,” Bernardez said. “I'll go grab a smoothie and just sit on the bench with my phone put away.”

Other students take a break from school, but not from computer screens.

“I watch a quick 30 minute show, get a little TV time in, or even just play on my phone for a while to get a break from school,” Brady said.

Ali said Netflix is her go-to for entertainment, but she has also taken up reading more.

“I’ve really enjoyed it and used it as a way to escape from the realities of the world,” she said.

The isolation and struggles are why so many students anticipate returning to campus.

Many colleges and universities are still finalizing plans for the fall semester but have announced plans to be on campus with safety policies in place. A growing list of higher education institutions around the U.S. have announced a COVID-19 vaccine policy for students and employees, including some colleges in Virginia—though many of the state’s major colleges have not made a final determination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear masks or social distance unless a law or regulation requires it.

Many college students are excited to return to campus in the fall, while others aren’t sure it’s the best course of action. Ali will likely return to campus.

“A lot of people have been getting vaccinated and abiding by the COVID safety rules,” Ali said. “I’ll most likely be returning to campus and as long as people are aware that COVID is still a risk and continue to do their part in stopping it from spreading.” 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia restaurants face new challenges at brink of full reopening

By Christina Amano Dolan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia restaurants will soon be able to host more patrons, but establishments may not be able to accommodate more guests due to a shortage in workers. 

Restaurants and drinking establishments will be able to seat up to 100 patrons indoors and a maximum of 250 guests outdoors starting May 15, Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced.

Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, estimated around 100 Richmond restaurants closed last year, but said there have been minimal closures this year. Many restaurants are likely nearing 80% of their pre-pandemic revenue levels, according to Terry. 

While full recovery for the industry is underway, Terry said the biggest revenue factor for restaurants is a restricted labor force. 

“I was on the phone yesterday with two restaurant operators who said they are having to close two days a week because they can’t get enough staff,” Terry said. 

The new limit will double the number of indoor guests allowed as of April 1. Restaurants may return to selling alcohol past midnight and dining room closures between midnight and 5 a.m. will no longer be required. 

Northam announced last week that all restrictions will be lifted on June 15 if the number of new COVID-19 cases remains low and COVID-19 vaccinations rise. On Monday, the state reported the lowest number of COVID-19 cases in a year. 

“I’m optimistic that we will be able to take more steps in June,” Northam recently said.

However, if seating capacity is extended fully in June, restaurants with limited staff will not be able to accommodate that many people, Terry said. 

“Unless we can get more folks to come back to work, it’s going to be tough,” Terry said. “The extended unemployment, child care issues and other things have made it very difficult to get people back into the industry.” 

Michael Nelson, manager of The Sidewalk Cafe in Richmond, said restaurants around the city struggled to find enough workers after losing valuable staff. Bartenders, cooks and others moved away from the industry and changed professions when the pandemic hit, Nelson said.

The Virginia accommodation and food services industry lost almost 60,000 workers from March 2020 to March 2021, according to the latest data from the Virginia Employment Commission (a 17% job loss). The figures are seasonally adjusted, meaning they account for seasonal fluctuations in the labor market.

Northam’s executive orders closed indoor dining areas in 2020 from late March to at least early June, though Richmond and Northern Virginia waited an additional two weeks before moving into phase two. Many restaurants voluntarily closed for extended periods. 

“Even when the governor says you’re able to have full capacity, I can see a lot of restaurants not going back to that because they just don’t have the staff,” Nelson said. 

Jeremy Barber, owner of three Alexandria-based restaurants, said that while staffing challenges are temporary, restaurants may hesitate to fully open indoor seating.

“I think that people are still going to be more comfortable dining outside,” Barber said. “Even people that I've talked to that are vaccinated and have eaten in restaurants still say they have an eerie feeling when they are dining indoors.”

Barber believes it will take time for the restaurant industry to fully recover. 

“Restaurateurs as well as guests need to work together to adapt to the new dining out,” Barber said. “It’ll be a true sign at the end of the summer to see how things are really progressing.”

More than 35% of Virginians are fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Over 47% the state’s population has received at least one dose. 

More than 6.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the state, according to VDH.

“I hope that we’re on the brink of getting over this thing,” Barber said. “But I think as a business owner, it’s our responsibility to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia universities reckon with Confederate symbols

By Katharine DeRosa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia universities in the former heart of the Confederacy are reckoning with their past as students, faculty and staff call for the removal of Confederate symbols.

Richmond housed the capital of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. Over 150 years later, remnants of the commonwealth’s Confederate history remain, including in academia.

At least 71 symbols of the Confederacy were removed from public spaces in Virginia last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. That includes multiple renamings of public schools. Only one symbol was removed prior to the murder of George Floyd. 

Gov. Ralph Northam sent a letter to school board chairs in the commonwealth last July, urging public officials to change names and mascots that memorialized Confederate leaders.

“When our public schools are named after individuals who advanced slavery and systemic racism, and we allow those names to remain on school property, we tacitly endorse their values as our own,” Northam stated. “This is no longer acceptable.”

Several months later, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville removed the name of Confederate soldier Henry Malcolm Withers from a law school building. 

The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg approved the renaming of Trinkle and Maury halls. Trinkle Hall was named for former Virginia Gov. Elbert Lee Trinkle who signed Jim Crow legislation, according to the college’s board. Maury Hall was named for Matthew Fontaine Maury, who resigned his post as a U.S. Navy commander to join the Confederacy and helped it acquire ships.

The Virginia Military Institute in Lexington paid over $200,000 to remove a statue of Stonewall Jackson and relocate it to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.

University of Richmond

Anthony Lawrence, an accounting major at the University of Richmond, is president of the Richmond College Student Government Association. He established a space for multicultural students in the student commons his freshman year and is currently working to remove Confederate symbols on campus.

The university has two campus buildings named for men associated with slavery and segregation. 

Ryland Hall is named for slave owner Robert Ryland, the first president of Richmond College, the University of Richmond’s predecessor. Ryland also served as a pastor to the first African Baptist church in Richmond, according to the university. He called slavery a “divine right” and routinely enslaved and loaned slaves to others during his time as president, according to university researchers.

Mitchell-Freeman Hall was first named for Douglas Southall Freeman, who graduated from the university and served on the board of trustees. The university updated the name of Mitchell-Freeman Hall on Feb. 24 to honor former Richmond Planet Editor John Mitchell Jr. who was Black. Freeman was a journalist who advocated for segregation through “the Virginia Way” which suggests the elite have a duty to guide others, according to UR researchers

“If they want to have the historical impact that they say they do, there can be more, much more, done than a name on a building to tell the historical story,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence suggested plaques that explain the buildings’ history to inform students without honoring Confederate leaders. The university also could require a course to teach about the history of the university and associated officials. There is currently no explanation for the building names on campus, Lawrence said.

“There’s nothing that's really stopping them from changing the name except for their own, I guess, stubbornness,” Lawrence said.

The Black Lives Matter movement helped people examine the names and roles of campus buildings, Lawrence said.

“It can come to a head now because of the wonderful activism that we've seen in these past couple of years,” Lawrence said. “This past summer has really been an example of what can happen when we see change.” 

Students formed The Black Student Coalition in March to advocate for the wellbeing of Black students.

“Now it's impossible for the administration; it's impossible for the board of trustees to silence us because we're so strong, and because we have this coalition, and because we have each other,” Lawrence said.

Six percent of Richmond students identify as Black, according to the university. This makes Lawrence a minority student leader on campus.

“It's exhausting but the work is rewarding in a way that I don't think I ever would have known,” Lawrence said. 

Virginia Commonwealth University

The board of visitors at Richmond-based Virginia Commonwealth University voted in September to remove Confederate symbols from campus. The decision came after more than three years of review. 

More than a dozen dedicated spaces, memorials and plaques will be removed from both campuses, according to the university. The decision includes de-commemorating buildings with Confederate affiliation, such as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Chapel. Davis was the president of the Confederacy. 

“The committee’s analysis revealed a more complete story of the meaning behind these memorials and commemorations that we can neither ignore nor celebrate and that impede our mission to serve all,” stated VCU President Michael Rao. 

Washington & Lee

Washington & Lee University in Lexington is named for former U.S. President George Washington and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee was president of the college for five years and the name was changed to Washington & Lee upon his death in 1870. Lee is buried on the campus. 

Students walked out of the university in late March to support dropping Lee’s name, according to WVTF. The board of trustees began soliciting input in July 2020 on the university’s name and Confederate symbols. The board will issue a final decision on the name in June, according to a statement by Rector Mike McAlevey.

Some professors also favor changing W&L’s name, including Mohamed Kamara, an associate professor of French and Africana studies. Kamara has been teaching at W&L since 2001 and was a founding member of the Africana Studies Program.

Kamara was drawn to the university because of the physical environment and academic freedom the administration offered him. 

“I am here because I love Washington & Lee, so that same love that I had for it when I first came here, I still have it,” Kamara said.

Kamara supports the student protests because of the effectiveness of protests in American history. He said the American Revolution was a protest of sorts where American colonists resorted to violence against Great Britain. 

“Most of what has been achieved in terms of positive development have been done through protests,” Kamara said.

Changing the name of the university would harm no one, Kamara said. It would save Black students the trauma of dealing with the institution of slavery when they come across the university’s name.

“It brings that memory that is not pleasant at all,” Kamara said.

Black people still feel the aftereffects of slavery even though it ended in the U.S. over 156 years ago, Kamara said. 

“For those of us who are members of the Black race, we will back Washington for what he did for the university and Robert E. Lee for whatever he did for the university,” Kamara said. “But at the same time, we cannot ignore that component of the history that subjugated people like us.” 

Washington and Lee were both slave owners, though Lee’s name is often the one brought up during renaming discussions, Kamara said. 

“I believe that issue is going to come up,” Kamara said. “There was a time when nobody talked about removing Lee’s name.”

Kamara is fine with removing only Lee’s name, but he believes changing the whole name is an opportunity for the university to take an extra step.

“It may make sense, as a sign of goodwill, as a sign of good faith to be ahead of our times,” Kamara said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Voters Identify as Moderate, Despite Supporting Democrat Policies

By Cameron Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia voters in a recent poll ranked themselves as moderate, with a slightly conservative lean, but indicated support of more progressive legislation. 

The poll, released last week by Christopher Newport’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership, could be a thermometer for the upcoming November election. 

Virginia voters ranked themselves an average of 5.83 on a zero to 10 scale (liberal to conservative). Republicans ranked themselves 8.11 on average, while Democrats rated themselves 3.57 on average. Independents ranked themselves 5.72.

“In this upcoming election, it is especially possible that it could be competitive,” said Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, research director at the Wason Center. 

Those surveyed support Democrat proposals on health care, immigration, environmental policy and the economy. The policy proposal with the strongest support was Medicare for all with 76% support among voters. A majority of Virginians support providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (73%). Almost all Virginians support a pathway to citizenship for children brought to this country illegally by their parents (94%).

Over half of Virginians agree with implementing an environmentally friendly redesign of the state’s economy and infrastructure (65%); that the economic system favors the wealthy (61%); and that the federal minimum wage should be $15 per hour (53%).

Bromley-Trujillo believes this data indicates American culture aligns with idealism, liberty or other values often associated with conservatism. Strong support for Democratic public policy is why the commonwealth is still trending blue, even though upcoming races could still be competitive, she said.

“Virginia voters regard Republicans as more conservative than they regard Democrats as more liberal,” Bromley-Trujillo stated. “The question is, ‘where’s the sweet spot in this election?’”

Democrats have been successful in the state because of policy ideas such as the $15 dollar minimum wage, providing health care and child care for all Virginians, said Alexsis Rodgers, director for Care in Action, a nonprofit advocacy group for domestic workers.

“These aren’t partisan issues for voters,” Rodgers said. “They are ideas and policies that would actually make their lives better.”

While there is voter support for progressive policy, big elections in the commonwealth have seen progressive losses to more centrist candidates. Nearly half of Democratic voters back former Gov. Terry McAuliffe at 47%, with no other candidates breaking double digits, according to an April Wason Center poll. More than a quarter of surveyed voters were undecided.

President Joe Biden defeated independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 53% to 23% in the Virginia Democratic primary. In a somewhat closer local race, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney defeated Rodgers by over 10% last November. Rodgers said that while these elections were a loss for progressive candidates, the movement is still winning by having their policy ideas adopted and passed in Virginia. 

Richmond For All is a political advocacy group for progressive policy. The organization has organized around local elections, education, housing justice and in opposition to a public subsidy for a Richmond-based sports arena. 

“In the U.S, we are still living in this Reagan-era paradigm where progressivism is still seen as harmful, and big government programs are abstractly negative,” said Quinton Robbins, political director at Richmond For All. 

Robbins said that it does not matter how Virginians ideologically identify themselves. He said it does matter how progressives present ideas to everyday citizens. 

Ballot counting is currently underway in the Republican convention for the party’s top executive nominees. The commonwealth has not had a Republican governor since Bob McDonnell was elected in 2009. 

As of Monday, only the Republican attorney general candidate had been determined. Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, eked out a victory over Chuck Smith, former chairman of the Virginia Beach GOP and a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump. The ranked choice voting went three rounds. Smith’s strong showing could indicate support for more ideologically conservative candidates such as Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian, who is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination and describes herself as “Trump in heels.” Round one of counting shows Chase in a lead over Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, but behind candidates and businessmen Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder.

“Certainly, the opportunity exists for Republicans to make gains in the Virginia House, and differential partisan turnouts would be one of the reasons Republicans regain majority control, if that happens,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. 

Farnsworth also questioned if Democratic voters will turn out with the same energy as when Trump was president.

"We will find out later this year whether the Republicans in the suburbs are able to win back some of the ground lost during the Trump years,” he said.

Early voting is now underway for the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general Democratic primary elections on June 8. Republican and Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates are also on the ballot. 

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Glass Ceiling on Statewide Offices Remains for Black Women

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Four Black women have entered the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race. If elected, the commonwealth would become the first state with a Black female governor.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, are competing for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Former Roanoke City Sheriff Octavia Johnson is seeking the Republican nomination. Independent activist and educator Princess Blanding is running for the new Liberation Party, which she helped establish last year.

Former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-New York, made history in 1972 when she became the first Black woman to seek a U.S. presidential nomination for a major political party. Almost 50 years later, the road to electing a Black woman to a governorship or the presidency has yet to be traveled.

"The next time a woman of whatever color, or a dark-skinned person of whatever sex aspires to be president, the way should be a little smoother because I helped pave it," Chisholm said in 1973 regarding her unsuccessful presidential bid.

Dearth of representation

Since Chisholm was elected, 50 Black women have served in Congress or federal office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics database. Ten Black women have held statewide executive offices such as lieutenant governor or attorney general, according to the same database. No Black woman has ever been elected governor, although former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, came close in a 2018 hotly contested election.

Carroll Foy said the nation's history limits what some citizens view as a capable candidate.

“Unfortunately, people look to the past to try to dictate what can happen in the future,” she said. “When people see women of color running for higher office, we are seen as the exception and not the rule.”

Organizations dedicated to electing women to office such as EMILY’S List, Higher Heights and EMERGE aim to make the paths to office more accessible in recent years, providing advice, contributions and peer support to women candidates.

McClellan said when she first ran for a House seat in 2005, she had very little guidance and few mentors.

“There was no collective PAC, there was no EMERGE, you know, groups that have since formed to help Black candidates and women candidates and Black women candidates. They weren't there,” McClellan said. “I had to really do it on my own, with help from the handful of people who had done it before me.”

Media representation

The media often poorly represents women in politics, according to Political Parity, a research group that recruits and supports women candidates. Often, media coverage surrounding women running for office adds unnecessary details about a woman candidate’s clothing, weight, qualifications, motherhood situation and emotional maturity, according to the same report.

“Whether it's questions about their parenting or their husbands, it’s just questions that we don't see male candidates get,” said Kristen Hernandez, deputy director of campaign communications for EMILY’S List, an organization devoted to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office. “We've seen sexist rhetoric, misogynistic comments and racist tropes as well.”

McClellan said perhaps the most consistent troubling narrative she sees in the media surrounding her campaign are questions about her qualifications. McClellan said she has more experience than all her Democratic opponents combined.

“There never seems to be a question, when a white man runs for governor, but yet for us it’s, ‘Are you ready?’” McClellan said. “If I'm not ready after 16 years in state government, when would I ever be ready?”

McClellan said she also frequently sees herself and Carroll Foy lumped together in news articles, as they are both Black women who have served in the state legislature. A New York Times analyst hypothesized last month that McAuliffe might win the Democratic primary race because three of his competitors — McClellan, Carroll Foy and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — are Black, younger and generally more left-wing than McAuliffe.

Voters typically prefer candidates that most resemble themselves, according to a study published in an Oxford Academic Journal. This tendency suggests that Black women must also convince all constituents that despite being Black, they do not solely represent Black Virginians. Instead, most see themselves as the most qualified person for the job who just so happens to be a Black woman.

“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud,” Chisholm said during a campaign event in ’72. “I am not the candidate of the woman's [sic] movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.”

Even now the persistent myth that Black candidates can only win in majority-minority districts continues to plague America’s political scene, according to the Brookings Institute, a public policy organization headquartered in the District of Columbia. But of the five non-incumbent Black women elected to Congress in 2018, all were Democrats and four won in majority-white districts, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Fundraising obstacles

One of the biggest barriers to elected office is the ability to raise campaign funds. The ability to fund a campaign continues to be a major obstacle to success for many women, not just women of color, according to the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. The Center also found that candidates often receive party support based on their fundraising potential, which disadvantages candidates without notoriety, wealthy support networks or self-funding abilities. Donors who fund political campaigns are often wealthy, white and typically male, according to Demos, a Liberal think tank. These donors, according to the same report, also have different views and priorities, especially on the issues that matter most to Black women.

Blanding is the sister of the late Marcus-David Peters, a Black man shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer while he experienced what his family said was a mental health crisis. Blanding said fundraising is an ongoing struggle. She recalled looking at the first financial records report from the Board of Elections and said she could not help but “crack up laughing” at the amount she raised compared to other candidates.

“But guess what? I have volunteers who are working around the clock to get the same results that they are paying for,” Blanding said. “That means a whole lot more to me.”

Carroll Foy raised just over $1.8 million in the first quarter, while McClellan raised roughly half a million dollars, according to a Capital News Service analysis of fundraising reports. Carroll Foy resigned from her seat to fundraise. General Assembly members can not fundraise until the session adjourns. Blanding raised almost $12,000 in the first quarter and Johnson raised $800. Altogether, all four women have raised just over half of what Democratic frontrunner and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe raised.

Aprill Turner, vice president of communications and external affairs for Higher Heights for America, said all women must run against a “boys’ club.” Higher Heights for America is a political action committee that seeks to mobilize and elevate the voices of Black women across the country. Turner said the path to elected offices has typically been paved by white men, and usually involves network connections and exclusive organizations that people of color and women have historically been unable to access.

“You'll see men groomed in a different way, or almost appointed,” Turner said. “Like, ‘You've got next,’ and kind of that little boys’ network.”

Will the statewide glass ceiling remain intact?

Former Del. Winsome Sears, R-Winchester, is running for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Sears was elected to a majority-Black district in 2002, becoming the first Republican to do so in Virginia since 1865. If she won the seat she would be the first Black woman to ever serve as Virginia’s lieutenant governor. Fairfax, who currently holds the seat, was the first Black man elected to serve in this position.

Carroll Foy and McClellan will both compete for the Democratic party’s nomination on June 8. Johnson competes in the Republican party’s unassembled convention taking place statewide on May 8. Blanding will make it to the November ballot if she collects 2,000 signatures by June 8, which she is confident she will achieve.

 Carroll Foy feels confident she will win the election.

“We're mobilizing and organizing more people of color, more people from the AAPI community, from the Latinx community, the Indigenous community, the millennials, more women than ever before,” Carroll Foy said, regarding her campaign. “We're building the most diverse coalition of voters and supporters that Virginia has ever seen.”

Early voting is underway for the Democratic primary on June 8.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Early voting begins for Virginia June primary

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The first day of early voting began Friday for the June 8 Virginia primary election. 

Voters will be able to choose candidates in advance of the November state election, including for the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general races. Republican and Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates are also on the ballot.

 Legislators recently changed laws to allow early, in-person and no-excuse absentee voting. A record number of absentee and early votes were cast during the last presidential election, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. Turnout was at its highest since 199, 2.

Voters do not have to fill out an application to vote early. They can go to their voting location and cast a ballot, VDOE stated in a news release. Early, in-person voting remains open until June 5.

 The voter registration deadline for the June primary is May 17. The deadline to request to have an absentee ballot mailed to a residence will be May 28 at 5 p.m.

Nearly half of Virginia’s Democratic voters are backing former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his second bid to lead the state, according to a report released April 22 by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Newport News-based Christopher Newport University. McAuliffe, according to recent campaign finance reports, also leads the pack in fundraising.

None of the other four Democratic candidates reach double-digit support. Also on the primary ballot are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (8%); Richmond Sen. Jennifer McClellan (6%); former Prince William Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (5%); and Manassas Del. Lee Carter (1%). The report states that 27% of voters are undecided.

The field for lieutenant governor is also crowded and almost two out of three Democratic voters are undecided, according to the Wason Center. Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has emerged as the front runner with 12% support.

Attorney General Mark Herring, vying for his third term in the position, currently leads the attorney general race with 42% of Democratic voter support. Herring’s opponent Del. Jerrauld “Jay” Jones, D-Norfolk, has 18% voter support. More than 30% of Democratic voters are undecided about the attorney general race. 

The gubernatorial election could be historic, said Jatia Wrighten, an assistant professor in the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Four Black women are running for governor this year: two Democrats, one independent and a Republican. If any won, they would be the first Black woman to serve as head of any state, Wrighten said. 

“What is so very different right now in Virginia is that you're not only looking at one very competent, very viable, Black woman for the governorship, there's two [Democratic] women running,” Wrighten said.

Wrighten doesn’t believe there will be an uptick in early voting.

 “I don't think there's going to be [an] even larger increase from November but it is possible that maybe the rates stay the same,” Wrighten said. 

A record number of Democrats in the House of Delegates face a challenge from within their own party this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. 

The 2020 Virginia General Assembly session marked the first time since 1994 that the Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly along with the governor’s office. Virginia has shifted from a red to a blue state, which could be due to a change in demographics, especially around Northern Virginia, Wrighten said. 

The Republican party will hold a statewide convention on May 8. The party will determine its candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general by ranked choice voting among participating delegates. 

Early voters must bring an acceptable ID to vote in person. They also can request an absentee ballot through the Virginia Department of Elections website or return an absentee ballot request by mail, fax, or email. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers amend bill banning guns in state buildings, Capitol Square

By Christina Amano Dolan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia legislators recently accepted the governor’s substitute to a bill banning firearms on and near Capitol Square, as well as in state buildings. Lawmakers voted last year to ban firearms from the state Capitol. 

Senate Bill 1381, introduced by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, will make it a Class 1 misdemeanor for a person to possess or transport a firearm or explosive material within Capitol Square and the surrounding area or buildings owned or leased by the commonwealth. Any person convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor may face a sentence of up to 12 months in jail, a fine up to $2,500, or both.

Current and retired law enforcement officers, active military personnel and others performing official duties are exempted from the restrictions.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s recommendation requested further protection for magistrates. The measure originally allowed magistrates to carry firearms in courthouses, but the substitute now includes magistrates on duty working outside of courthouses and in other government buildings. The Office of the Executive Secretary requested the amendment. 

“They are on duty in various locations at all times of day, working on sensitive and sometimes volatile situations,” Ebbin said. “Magistrates are required to accept cash bonds. That requires the magistrate to frequently possess large sums of cash.”

The Senate passed the substitute along party lines, 21-19. The House agreed to the measure mostly along party lines, 52-46.

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, sponsored an identical bill that was also amended and passed both chambers. 

Virginia Democrats passed an existing ban on firearms early last year, similarly excluding police officers and other security personnel. The ban prohibits guns inside the state Capitol and the General Assembly’s adjacent office building but does not extend to Capitol grounds. 

The ban will now include Capitol Square and the area bounded by the four roads in each direction. It also includes the sidewalks of Bank Street extending from 50 feet west of the Pocahontas Building entrance to 50 feet east of the Capitol building entrance.

Ebbin said during a February Senate floor hearing that the bill is in the interest of public safety. There was a “close call” incident last year, Ebbin said, when FBI agents arrested three men on firearms charges. Federal officials were concerned the men were headed to Richmond to attend an annual gun-rights rally, people familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post at the time. Northam had declared a state of emergency ahead of the rally, citing “credible threats of violence surrounding the event.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the measure is about politics, not public safety. The VCDL is a nonprofit organization that advocates for Second Amendment rights. 

Van Cleave said Capitol Police protect legislators, so a weapons ban is unnecessary. 

“They don’t like gun owners exercising their First Amendment rights nor their Second Amendment rights,” Van Cleave said. “These efforts are more to shut us up than anything else.” 

Van Cleave’s organization helped organize a gun rally last January with over 22,000 gun-rights supporters. The organization called for thousands of its armed supporters to gather on Capitol grounds to oppose gun control legislation. The event ended without incident. 

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, said in last week’s Senate hearing that she believes the measure is an attack on the Constitution. 

“I will be voting against any bill that has anything to do with restricting law-abiding citizens’ ability to protect themselves,” Chase said. “I don’t even understand why we are introducing legislation that goes against our Constitutional rights.” 

Chase and other Republican legislators voiced concern for the safety of General Assembly employees when the bill was originally before the Senate. They said police cannot enforce the measure. 

“Capitol Police cannot be everywhere, and as great of people they are, we do not properly give them the resources they need to do the job they’ve been asked to do,” Chase said.

Capitol Police and Virginia State Police will “adequately and reasonably” enforce the law, Ebbin stated in a previous email interview.

“The threat of violence and proliferation of firearms in the public square quashes the civil discourse and exchange of ideas we so value in Virginia,” Ebbin stated. 

The new law goes into effect July 1. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

FOIA bill allows some access to criminal investigation records

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill allowing the public access to limited criminal investigation records will go into effect in July, along with a handful of other bills related to government transparency.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, a former television reporter, introduced House Bill 2004. The bill requires files related to non-ongoing criminal investigations be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law. 

“I’d been a journalist for 10 years, and I frequently saw that access to police records was very difficult,” Hurst said. “In denying those records, accountability and transparency were lost.”

Hurst said he hopes the bill will give the public reasonable access to criminal investigation files. 

“It’s good governance once a case is closed to let the public see it,” Hurst said. 

The bill will allow requesters access to files including descriptions of the crime, where and when the crime was committed, the identity of the investigating officer, and a description of any injuries suffered or property stolen. 

Law enforcement officials and prosecutors opposed the bill, Hurst said. Journalists and victim advocates generally supported it, and many crime victims want to see their case files, Hurst said.

The bill will benefit journalists, but they aren’t the main reason Hurst introduced the legislation.

“I didn’t introduce the bill on behalf of journalism,” Hurst said. “I introduced it for the people in the public who care about police accountability, to help victims get closure, and to help victims of wrongful incarceration, so we can try to achieve justice in those cases.”

A public body, such as a law enforcement agency, will have longer to respond to a FOIA request that is related to a non-ongoing criminal investigation. Public bodies can now ask for up to 60 additional days as opposed to a week to provide records, as long as they communicate this to the requester and have a valid reason. 

Hurst introduced a similar bill during the 2020 special session. The bill narrowly passed the House but didn’t advance past subcommittee in the Senate. HB 5090 expanded the scope of records made available to the public and also sought to limit the time frame for categorizing a case as “ongoing.” 

HB 2004 has no time frame behind its definition of an ongoing case. An ongoing case is defined as one that has not been resolved, or in which evidence is still being gathered for future criminal cases. 

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said her organization supported HB 2004.

“It’s not everything we wanted, by a long shot, but it’s a bill that moves us away from rejecting requests for records as a matter of policy,” Rhyne said.

The legislation only pertains to closed investigations, so it will be more useful for investigative reporters writing long-term stories than for breaking news reporters, Rhyne said. 

“This bill is aimed at at least getting the police to open up the file, look through it, and determine which parts of it can be withheld with justifications,” Rhyne said. “In the past, reporters would just be told that this material is exempt.”

Rhyne said the bill might also benefit the families of crime victims.

“The family members of both the defendants and the victims, and victims and defendants themselves, will be able to take control of their own narrative,” Rhyne said. “During the legislative session, we had family members of two people killed in Virginia Beach who said: ‘We want to be able to see this, to see evidence from the investigation of what took our loved ones from us.’”

Legislators introduced more than 40 bills during the 2021 Virginia General Assembly sessions that would have impacted the FOIA, according to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The governor also signed two other FOIA-related bills, Senate Bill 1271 and HB 1931, that apply to electronic meetings. Many government meetings have been held over Zoom and other video conferencing platforms during the pandemic. 

SB 1271 allows public bodies to meet electronically if a locality declares a state of emergency. Electronic meetings only were allowed previously if the governor declared a state of emergency. The bill also requires officials to allow the public to attend and comment at the meetings. Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge, introduced the bill.

“It encourages videoconferencing, but doesn’t require it, in case small localities or public bodies don’t have broadband or funds to be able to do video,” stated Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.

HB 1931 allows members of public bodies to meet electronically if a member has to take care of a relative with a medical condition and cannot attend an in-person meeting. Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, introduced the bill.

“This bill was put forward to make it easier for members of public bodies to attend meetings—at any time, not just during a pandemic—by electronic means,” Edwards stated.

HB 2025, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, would exempt government email distribution lists from being automatically disclosed under the FOIA law. Under current law members of the public have to “opt-out” to not have their personal information disclosed when they sign up for government email lists. The new law requires members of the public and government officials to “opt-in” to have their information publicly disclosed. FOIA advocates wanted the “opt-in” provision taken out of the bill, saying it contradicts public records policy and could bleed into other potential exemptions.

The bills take effect July 1.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia expands Medicaid access for legal immigrants

By Cameron Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Ni Kin became a permanent resident in 2002 at 70 years old, but she was unable to work after moving from Myanmar to Virginia due to mobility problems.

Kin required more medical attention related to her condition as she aged, but was unable to see a doctor because she didn’t have insurance, according to her grandson Tin Myint. Kin didn’t qualify for Medicaid due to a state rule requiring permanent residents to present 10 years of work history to use public health insurance, Myint said. Kin also did not qualify for no-premium Medicare, since she never worked in the country and does not qualify for Social Security benefits.

“We have family friends who live in other states that were able to get Medicaid when they applied, who've been living here for 10 to 15 years, and we thought that applied to us also,” Myint said. “That was disappointing and shocking to hear that Virginia was one of the very few states that had this particular rule.”

Kin is one of thousands of permanent residents in Virginia that will qualify for Medicaid due to a new change eliminating the 10-year work history requirement, known as the “40-quarter rule,” according to the Virginia Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income Virginians. The commonwealth was one of six states with a 10-year work history requirement for Medicaid. 

Gov. Ralph Northam and state legislators approved a budget last year that eliminated the rule. The change went into effect this month. 

Northam’s line budget amendment includes $4.4 million in state funds for this change, according to the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Freddy Mejia, a policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute, said the old rule was a roadblock for legal permanent residents. The Commonwealth Institute is an organization that analyzes the impact of fiscal and economic issues on low-income communities.

“Someone who comes to the country as an older adult, possibly doesn’t get the opportunity to work for 10 years but gets sick,” Mejia said as an example.

Mejia said lawmakers and advocates lobbied for the change in the 2019 General Assembly, but it did not pass. Northam and lawmakers approved the change as a line budget amendment in 2020, but it was vetoed once the COVID-19 pandemic began, Mejia said. It was funded again in the 2020 fall special session, and the change went into effect April 1, 2021. 

Mejia credited this change to advocacy efforts from different parties, including the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, and politicians such as Del. Mark Sickles, D- Franconia, Sen. George Barker, D- Alexandria, and Northam. 

Jill Hanken, a health attorney and director of ENROLL Virginia, said immigrants have suffered in a disparate way throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the policy change will encourage people to apply for the coverage they need. ENROLL Virginia is a project of the Virginia Poverty Law Center that helps Virginians access affordable health coverage.

“Statewide it demonstrates that Virginia is welcoming and interested in making sure that immigrants have access to the health services that they need,” Hanken said. 

ENROLL Virginia will continue alerting immigrants across the commonwealth of this change, Hanken said. 

Meanwhile, Myint is excited to sign his grandmother up for Medicaid.

“I can’t wait for her to get proper medical checkup, the needs that she needs to have a living condition she deserves,” Myint said. 

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers okay recreational marijuana possession, cultivation

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers signed off on amendments that make the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana and homegrown plants legal in the state in July as opposed to 2024. 

“On July 1, 2021 dreams come true,” Marijuana Justice stated in a tweet.

 The group has worked to legalize the use and possession of marijuana for the past two years but said more work must be done. 

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed changes to House Bill 2312 and Senate Bill 1406, which passed earlier this year during the Virginia General Assembly’s special session. The House and Senate approved the changes Wednesday. The bills legalized marijuana possession and sales by Jan. 1, 2024, but marijuana legalization advocates and Democratic lawmakers lobbied to push up the date for recreational possession. 

Adults 21 years of age or older will be able to legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana if they don’t intend to distribute the substance. Marijuana cannot be used in public or while driving, lawmakers said. Virginia decriminalized marijuana last year and reduced possession penalties to a $25 civil penalty and no jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

Individuals can also cultivate up to four cannabis plants without legal repercussion beginning July 1, with punishments ranging from misdemeanors to jail time if over the limit. The plants would need to be labeled with identification information, out of sight from public view, and out of range of people under the age of 21. Marijuana retail sales still do not begin until 2024. 

The amendments passed along party lines in both chambers. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Two Senate Republicans last week stated their support of the amendments, but voted no Wednesday. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, voted no. The vote was 53-44 in the House, with two abstentions. Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, voted no. Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, did not vote. 

“This is an historic milestone for racial justice and civil rights, following years of campaigning from advocates and community groups and a strong push by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus,” Marijuana Justice stated in a press release when the amendments were announced. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, said last week that legalizing simple marijuana possession now rather than later is important for racial justice. 

“Waiting until 2024 to legalize simple possession and therefore stop the desperate policing is allowing this continued bias enforcement against Black Virginians to continue for three years,” Wise said. 

Accelerating the legislative timeline was key, said Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, one of more than two dozen legislators who co-sponsored the House bill. 

“The figures show that it is much more common for a Black or Brown person to be charged with possession,” Kory said. 

A state study released last year found that from 2010 to 2019 the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was more than three times higher than that of white residents for the same crime—6.3 per 1,000 Black individuals and 1.8 per white people. This is despite the fact that Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates as white residents. The conviction rate was also higher for Black individuals. Northam stated that people of color were still disproportionately cited for possession even after marijuana was decriminalized.

The legislation establishes the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority as the regulatory structure for the manufacture and retail sale of marijuana and marijuana products. 

The governor’s amendments called for the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license if it interfered with union organizing efforts; failed to pay a prevailing wage as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor; or classified more than 10% of employees as independent contractors. This part garnered heavy opposition. The amendments are the first attempt to dismantle the commonwealth’s right to work laws, Republicans said. However, lawmakers pointed out that several provisions of the bill are subject to reenactment in the 2022 General Assembly session. 

Northam’s amendments called for public health education. The amendments will fund a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana. Law enforcement officers will be trained to recognize and prevent drugged driving with the latest amendments. Legislators approved budget amendments to help fund the initiatives.

Legislators spoke in favor of the governor’s educational campaign. Others worried about an increase of drugged driving. Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said that law enforcement will not have time to prepare how to identify drugged driving. He cited a study that found 70% of marijuana users surveyed in Colorado said they drive while under the influence of marijuana.

“I think this is another time where we are putting political expediency, political agenda over what is right for the safety and security of our citizens,” DeSteph said.

Northam’s amendments allow for certain marijuana-related criminal records to be expunged and sealed “as soon as state agencies are able” and to “simplify the criteria” for when records can be sealed. The expungement of marijuana-related crimes was originally set for July 1, 2025. 

The law will also allow individuals convicted with marijuana offenses to have a hearing before the court that originally sentenced them, Virginia NORML, a group that seeks to reform the state’s marijuana laws, stated in a post. That portion of the bill must be reenacted in 2022, the organization stated. 

“We are sending a message to our kids that it is okay to do drugs in Virginia now,” said Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. “As a mom of four young adults I don’t like that message. I think it is selfish. I think it is reckless, and I think it is irresponsible.”

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said later that “the kids are already smoking marijuana.” She called it “a non-starter of an argument against the bill.” 

Howell, a parent of two, spoke in favor of passing the bill.

“If we have to wait another three years, I will be in my 80s before I can do legally what I was doing illegally in my 20s.”

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Marijuana possession and cultivation could be legal by July

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam amended legislation to accelerate the legalization of marijuana possession and home cultivation in the state to July as opposed to 2024.

“Virginia will become the 16th state to legalize marijuana—and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” Northam stated in a release.

The governor proposed changes to House Bill 2312 and Senate Bill 1406, which passed earlier this year during the Virginia General Assembly’s special session. The bills legalized marijuana possession and sales by Jan. 1, 2024, but marijuana legalization advocates and Democratic lawmakers lobbied to push up the date for possession. 

“This is an historic milestone for racial justice and civil rights, following years of campaigning from advocates and community groups and a strong push by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus,” the group Marijuana Justice stated in a press release. 

Marijuana Justice seeks to legalize the use and possession of marijuana. The group advocates for communities most impacted by the criminalization of drugs with their “legalize it right” campaign.

The bills allow adults 21 years of age or older to legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana if they don’t intend to distribute the substance. Virginia decriminalized marijuana last year and reduced possession penalties to a $25 civil penalty and no jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

Individuals can cultivate up to four cannabis plants without legal repercussion, with punishments ranging from misdemeanors to jail time if over the limit. The governor’s amendments would allow households to grow up to four plants beginning July 1. The plants would need to be labeled with identification information, out of sight from public view, and out of range of people under the age of 21.

Legislators will review the governor’s proposals during the General Assembly’s reconvened session on April 7, according to Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, one of more than two dozen legislators who sponsored the House bill. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, said legalizing simple marijuana possession now rather than later is important for racial justice. 

“Waiting until 2024 to legalize simple possession and therefore stop the desperate policing is allowing this continued bias enforcement against Black Virginians to continue for three years,” Wise said. 

Accelerating the legislative timeline is key, Kory said. 

“The figures show that it is much more common for a Black or Brown person to be charged with possession,” Kory said. 

A state study released last year found that from 2010 to 2019 the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was more than three times higher than that of white residents for the same crime—6.3 per 1,000 Black individuals and 1.8 per white people. This is despite the fact that Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates as white residents. The conviction rate was also higher for Black individuals. Northam stated that people of color were still disproportionately cited for possession even after marijuana was decriminalized.

The original legislation established the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority as the regulatory structure for the manufacture and retail sale of marijuana and marijuana products. 

The governor’s amendments would allow the authority to revoke a company’s business license if it interfered with union organizing efforts; failed to pay a prevailing wage as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor; or classified more than 10% of employees as independent contractors.

Lawmakers grappled with the dangers of juvenile use of marijuana, Kory said, and the impact of use on developing brains. 

Marijuana Justice wants to remove the delinquency charge that designates marijuana possession a crime, not a civil penalty, if committed by someone underage. The penalty is still up to $25. 

“Instead of punishment, young people should be evaluated for appropriate services that address the root causes of their usage,” Marijuana Justice stated.

The amendments would fund a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana. The changes also would train law enforcement officers to recognize and prevent drugged driving. Northam stated that his amendments include “explicit language directing ongoing support for public health education.”

The bill established a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board tasked with providing youth mentoring programs to marginalized youth and those in foster care, as well as providing scholarships to children who have been negatively impacted by marijuana in their family or community. 

The current expungement of marijuana-related crimes is set for July 1, 2025. Northam’s new amendments call for marijuana-related criminal records to be expunged and sealed “as soon as state agencies are able” and to “simplify the criteria” for when records can be sealed. This will allow individuals convicted with marijuana offenses to be resentenced, according to the new amendment.

The bills originally passed along party lines. No Republicans voted for either bill, and several Democrats in the House did not vote on either measure. Sens. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, and Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, stated that the governor’s amendments helped assuage their original concerns.

The conservative, faith-based organization The Family Foundation told supporters Thursday to contact their representatives and urge them to vote against the accelerated timeline. 

The organization stated that violent and nonviolent crime rates have increased in states that have legalized marijuana, citing an opinion piece from a police defense group.

“It’s always been about generating more tax revenue to finance the ever-expanding state bureaucracy, creating massive fortunes for those who would use marijuana (like gambling) to prey on our most vulnerable citizens, and catering to a generation increasingly void of moral standards,” stated Victoria Cobb, the foundation’s president.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

McClellan vies for governor seat after 15 years in legislature

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Sen. Jennifer McClellan is one of 13 candidates vying to become Virginia’s next governor; a state that has never had a woman in the top post.

McClellan, D-Richmond, has helped shape Virginia’s changing political landscape for 15 years as a state legislator. She just completed her fifth year serving as a senator. She won the position in a 2017 special election, departing her 11-year post as a delegate representing Charles City County and parts of Richmond City and Henrico and Hanover counties. McClellan now looks to the executive mansion.

 “We need a governor who can rebuild our economy, our healthcare, our economic safety net, and help us move forward post-COVID in a way that addresses inequity and brings people that are impacted by these crises together to be a part of that solution,” McClellan said. “I’ve got the experience and perspective to do that.” 

McClellan’s party has controlled both chambers in the legislature for the past two years, along with the executive branch. The Democratic trifecta has ushered in more progressive legislation and undone decades of conservative policy. 

“I have a full understanding of how we got where we are as a commonwealth, where we need to go, and how to build that coalition of people to come together to do that,” McClellan said.

McClellan has close ties with many of the issues she fights for, including domestic workers’ rights. She comes from a long line of domestic workers. The General Assembly recently passed a bill spearheaded by McClellan that includes domestic service workers in employee protection laws. Every woman on her mother’s side of the family has been a domestic worker, the senator said. 

“My mom was one of 14 children born during the Depression in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi,” she said. “For her mother, her grandmother, her sisters, those were the only jobs available.”

Key issues 

McClellan said she wants to bolster Virginia as the state digs into another year of the pandemic. That includes a focus on education, health care, and economic recovery and development. 

McClellan said she wants to provide more funding for public schools, including raising teacher salaries to an average of $65,000. Legislators have cut Virginia’s education funding formula since the recession, according to a report from the Commonwealth Institute. The cuts include capping the number of school support staff paid for by the state.

McClellan plans to help stabilize and expand the child care industry. The pandemic caused many child care workers to lose jobs and day cares to close. The industry will continue to decline without public investment and policy reform, according to a University of California, Berkeley report.

The senator said child care should be recognized as a public necessity. McClellan said she laid the groundwork for the Universal Child Care & Early Learning Plan during the 2021 General Assembly session. McClellan’s $4 billion plan calls for universal child care by 2025 for babies and children up to age 4. 

The governor recently signed McClellan’s Senate Bill 1316, which exempts prospective child care employees and volunteers from background checks if one has been performed in the past five years. The bill also prompts the Department of Education to establish a two-year pilot program that would move federal child care subsidy dollars from an attendance-based to an enrollment-based model. If an emergency kept the student from attending, the facility does not get subsidy dollars under the attendance-based system, even though the facility already had financially prepared for the student. Child care centers lost federal funding in the past year due to the pandemic and children missing more days than usual. 

The pandemic has negatively impacted many small businesses and workers. McClellan said she will create a COVID Long-Term Effects Small Business Loan allowing small business owners to apply for a low interest, 30-year loan. McClellan wants to expand small businesses access to capital through increased funding partnerships with entities such as the Virginia Community Capital bank. She also promoted evaluating laws and tax structures to help “allow entrepreneurs to innovate and grow” their businesses in alignment with market trends. 

The General Assembly in recent years has made efforts to improve workers’ rights, though several bills were whittled down or didn’t advance. McClellan wants to expedite the transition to a $15 minimum hourly wage, allow an estimated half a million gig workers access to unemployment benefits and remove barriers to collective bargaining. She would also like to pass a stronger version of a paid sick leave bill than what the Senate amended this session. 

Obstacles 

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said McClellan has a good chance of winning the governorship, but there are obstacles in her way.

“The big challenge that Sen. McClellan has in this contest is the fact that there's a former governor, Terry McAuliffe, who's also seeking the Democratic nomination,” he said. “Absent McAuliffe, she would be one of the leading candidates, but with McAuliffe in the race, it will be hard for any of the other Democratic candidates to compete with somebody who has already won a statewide election.”

McAuliffe worked “very hard” over the last several years to help create Democratic majorities in the legislature and has some IOUs to collect that will help his campaign, Farnsworth said.

Democrats will see a variety of issues they support in McClellan’s voting record, including civil rights, criminal justice reform, climate change and questions of equality, Farnsworth said. 

“Experience is always a big plus when you're talking about a candidate for governor,” he said. “It's not a job that is a good place for on-the-job training. And that will also be one of her key assets.”

Other Democrats on the gubernatorial ticket are former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy; Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Seven Republican candidates and one independent are also in the race. There are five female candidates representing three parties.

Only 44 women have served as governor, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Women have held those seats in 30 states.

McClellan said this political race is different from her other political campaigns because of COVID-19. Previously, candidates connected with people in person.

“We’ve had to shift to virtual events, which is both challenging and brings opportunities because I can talk to people from all across the state at one time, but it’s not quite the same,” she said.

A ‘new voice’ 

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, a colleague and friend of McClellan’s, has endorsed her run for governor. She and McClellan have worked on bills together over the years pertaining to women’s issues, reproductive rights and voting rights. One of her fondest memories with McClellan is the day the General Assembly passed legislation for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA is a proposed U.S. Constitutional amendment to provide equal rights to American citizens regardless of sex. Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it in 2020, though the Congressional deadline has passed.

Locke and McClellan were two of several lawmakers who sponsored legislation in the Senate supporting the amendment.

“We just kind of looked at each other,” Locke said. “All of these women were in this room, even though there were women in the room who certainly had voted and lobbied against it.” 

Locke said they had just delivered remarks in support of the ERA. Then the committee started its vote. 

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my god, this is really going to pass now,’ and at the end of the vote we hugged each other.” 

Locke said McClellan is a candidate with energy, new ideas, and “a voice that Virginia needs to hear.” Locke said she didn’t need to be convinced when McClellan called to ask for her endorsement.

“It’s time for Virginia to move in a direction that’s not the same old thing over and over again,” she said. “She is a very strong individual who can bring … that new voice, that new energy to the governor's office. That’s what Virginia needs right now.” 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

How Virginia’s data protection law will affect consumers, businesses

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Information technology experts say a new Virginia consumer data protection law could be more robust, but it will force businesses to rethink how they handle consumer data.

“This is the first time in Virginia that consumers will have the right to understand what data a company collects about them, and how they use that data and who they share it with,” said Andrew Miller, the co-founder of Workshop Digital, a Richmond-based digital marketing agency.

Senate Bill 1392 and House Bill 2307 are known as the Consumer Data Protection Act, or CDPA. The governor signed both bills into law this month.

The CDPA allows Virginia residents to retrieve a copy of their personal online data and delete the data. Consumers can opt out of allowing businesses to sell their data. 

Personal data is information that can be linked to a consumer’s profile, according to Joseph Jerome, director of state advocacy at San Francisco-based Common Sense Media. The nonprofit rates movies, TV shows and other media for age appropriateness and learning potential. 

“It’s important to have a broad understanding of personal data,” said Jerome, a lawyer whose expertise includes cybersecurity and data privacy.

What data will be affected

The law defines personal data as information that is linked or reasonably linkable to a person. 

“Consumers tend to think of personal information as something like their Social Security number or an email address, but new privacy regulations are really trying to get at the sorts of data that go into customer profiles,” Jerome said.

A company can attach traits to a user, such as the individual’s perceived race, education level and political affiliation, according to Jerome. 

“The issue isn't so much what one single company collects, but rather how companies share data among themselves and use that information to infer even more about us,” he said.

Some companies track consumers’ location.

“If a person is at location A at time Y and location B at time Z, if those two locations are coordinates for your home and office, it’s pretty easy to infer who that person is,” Jerome said.

The CDPA impacts companies which handle the data of at least 100,000 consumers annually, or which control or process the data of at least 25,000 consumers and make over half of their gross revenue from selling data.

CDPA exceptions

There are exceptions. Companies won’t have to participate if they are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which restricts the release of medical information or the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to protect health and financial data. The GLBA requires financial institutions to safeguard sensitive banking information.

“So in certain scenarios, Google is a business associate under HIPAA,” Jerome said. “Apple offers financial products on its iPhone, you know, has the Apple credit card.”

The Virginia measure is different from the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act. The California law also regulates how companies buy, sell, license and share data but with stricter parameters in place. California voters recently voted to amend and strengthen the privacy act, with the changes going into effect in 2023. Unlike the Virginia law, California consumers can pursue legal action for a breach of certain information. In Virginia, the attorney general's office would handle the enforcement of the CDPA, from consumer complaints to the enforcement of fines. 

The California law impacted businesses in Virginia, such as Richmond-based IT consulting firm CapTech. The company helps clients bring IT systems into compliance with the California law, said CapTech Principal Peter Carr. 

“It affected our business in that it gave us more opportunities to sell into our clients and to help them with their problems around privacy,” Carr said. 

Businesses predict impact

CapTech is preparing for Virginia’s new data protection law to go into effect. 

“I briefed my partners on the law, we made some projections as to how much business we could generate from this law and how many clients this could apply to,” Carr said.

Other experts in the data field speculate that the CDPA could force businesses to rethink the value of consumer data. Miller, the co-founder of Workshop Digital, said companies can highlight how they protect consumer data to stand out from competitors.

“When you’re telling your customers that we actually care about your data, we keep it secure, here’s how you can access it and what you can ask for us to remove, then I think it shows that the business is aligned with the customer,” Miller said.

He also said the CDPA could move the focus from collection of data to the protection of consumer data.

“If it passes as it’s written now, it’ll mostly affect larger businesses or companies that aggregate and collect a lot of data about Virginia consumers or citizens,” Miller said. “It’ll force companies to rethink how they capture data, what they use it for, how much data they actually need and start to pivot towards having a privacy-driven message to their consumers.”

Consumers will have the ability to exert some control over how their data is used by businesses and across the internet, according to Randy Franklin, the vice-president and general manager at Terazo, a Richmond-based software and platform development company. 

“This bill is important for consumers because consumers are increasingly aware of the fact that they are tracked in their online activities,” Franklin said. “They want to understand that the information that these providers and businesses are collecting on them is used in a manner that aligns with how they would like to see that information be used.”

Concerns over data protection act

Jerome said Common Sense Media has concerns about the bill and said several things are still unclear. People do not read privacy policies and can be overwhelmed by choices such as requesting or deleting personal information, he added.

“We’re not entirely sure how it’ll be enforced, there are a number of provisions in the law that are, for a lack of a better word, squishy,” Jerome said. “That said, you know, it certainly creates a baseline set of protections that don’t exist for Virginians.” 

Furthermore, to be effective, Miller said the bill requires that Virginia consumers are informed about their rights to access their data.

“The way it’s written now is it puts the emphasis on the consumer to request their data or request their data be deleted,” Miller said. “It doesn’t obligate a company to do that proactively without the consumer requesting it.”

Miller and Jerome hope the CDPA will encourage discussion in Congress and help create a broader national data protection law.

“It’s the first step towards figuring out what a national data protection or data privacy law could look like, which would benefit consumers everywhere rather than just having a patchwork of state specific laws and regulations,” Miller said.

The Consumer Data Protection Act will take effect January 2023. The chairman of the Joint Commission on Technology and Science will establish a work group to review the bill and report any issues related to its implementation by Nov. 1.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers amend Virginia Human Rights Act; kill workplace harassment bills

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed several bills this session expanding employment protections for people with disabilities and domestic workers but killed a pair of workplace harassment bills.

Five bills were introduced during the 2021 session to amend the Virginia Human Rights Act. Three passed the General Assembly. The Virginia Human Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, among other groups. Virginia last year became the first Southern state to pass sweeping anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community through the Virginia Values Act.

House Bill 1848 extends employment discrimination protection to people with disabilities. The legislation unanimously passed both chambers and Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed the bill into law.

“I am very happy that the bill has widespread support,” stated chief patron Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax, in a press release. “I can’t thank our advocates enough, and am grateful for the leadership in Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and for the guidance of the disAbility Law Center.”

Workers with disabilities

 Employers with five or more employees must make reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities unless the employer can demonstrate such accommodations would place an “undue hardship” on the employer. Current federal law prohibits discrimination under the basis of disability for employers with 15 or more employees.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, said during a House subcommittee hearing that in 2019 the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was twice as high as those without disabilities.

“People who have disabilities, who are able to and want to work, I think we should try to help them be part of the workforce,” Tran said.

A person who claims they were denied reasonable accommodation must file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. They would need to exhaust all administrative processes before pursuing a lawsuit.

Colleen Miller, executive director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, an advocacy organization, said the bill’s passage is “an important development for Virginians with disabilities who are in the workforce and wish to be fully employed.”

Domestic workers’ rights

A trio of bills centered on domestic workers’ rights, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, were introduced in both chambers this year. Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill guaranteeing minimum wage to domestic workers. 

The bills’ patrons highlighted the impact of excluding domestic workers from employment laws, which they said are bound to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow-era laws. Domestic workers include occupations such as “cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs,” according to the bills. 

A majority of domestic workers are women of color and are three times as likely to live in poverty than other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, an independent economic research organization. 

Introduced by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, Senate Bill 1310 extends employment nondiscrimination to employers with one or more domestic workers. It also expands employment protections to domestic workers, including laws regarding the payment of wages. 

“This is a huge step forward to provide stronger workers rights and a safer workplace for 60,000 Virginia domestic workers,” McClellan stated in a press release. “As the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of domestic workers, I know how essential domestic workers are to the economy and how poorly mistreated they’ve been for generations.” 

McClellan’s bill passed the General Assembly and now heads to the governor’s desk. The House companion bill, HB 1864, from Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also passed the General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature.

Lawmakers also passed HB 2032, patroned by Del. Wendy W. Gooditis, D-Clarke. The measure does not amend the state’s Human Rights Act, but it ensures domestic workers are not excluded from employee protection laws. Workers will be able to file complaints regarding workplace safety. Virginia is the 10th state to pass such legislation. Portions of the bill that would include domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act were removed.

Failed sexual harassment bills

The two bills amending the Human Rights Act that lawmakers could not advance would have strengthened current workplace sexual harassment laws.

Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 2155 to expand and clarify the definition of workplace harassment and sexual harassment. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 6-7. It was the delegate’s second attempt to pass such protections.

The Senate companion bill, SB 1360, reported out of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was sent back and never picked back up. Patroned by McClellan, the legislation died over concerns on the bill’s absence of employers’ liabilities, especially for small businesses. 

Watts said her bill aimed to provide clearer definition of workplace and sexual harassment. The language in the bill comes from federal court harassment case decisions over a span of two decades, Watts said.

Watts’ measure clarifies that employers would be liable for the supervisors’ actions. She said committee members who voted against the bill failed to understand the guidance of employers’ liability is not currently spelled out in Virginia’s law. Employers may be alleviated from any liability if they can prove they “exercised reasonable care” to prevent and correct harassment or if employees “unreasonably” fail to take actions on “preventable or corrective opportunities” to avoid further harassment, according to the bill.

Both bills defined workplace harassment as an unwelcome conduct based on race, religion, natural origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and more. Sexual harassment includes a sexual advance, a request for sexual favors, or any conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace.

Watts said her bill will remove a glass ceiling and “power differential” that contributes to workplace and sexual harassment.

“If you don't go along (with the workplace harassment), then you will be denied professional opportunities, work opportunities moving forward,” Watts said. “It is a power struggle, and that power struggle makes it a point of leverage.”

Prior to her bill’s death, Watts said there also was confusion over the Senate bill’s language, referring to the committee's dispute on McClellan’s bill.

“There wasn’t a real focus as there needed to be,” Watts said.

McClellan’s bill was met with debate from other lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary committee, such as Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, over the bill’s language. McClellan asked Petersen if he wanted to add an amendment. He said he didn’t. 

“I just want this bill to go away,” Petersen said. 

Petersen questioned if his wife asking men “to move the furniture for her” constituted sexual harassment. Multiple lawmakers said the bill’s language was too broad. 

McClellan, a gubernatorial candidate, is committed to advancing anti-workplace harassment laws, either as a legislator or governor, according to her spokesperson. 

Watts said she will reintroduce her bill next year. She said she will make sure there is an understanding that the bill contains a “sound, legal approach” to employers’ liability. 

“I believe that the majority of the members do believe that this is something that needs to be spelled out to protect employees, and particularly minorities and women,” Watts said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Schools can opt for remote learning during inclement weather

By Sarah Elson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers insisted there will still be snow days for public school students, though the General Assembly recently passed legislation allowing unscheduled remote learning during inclement weather. 

“I have heard this bill referred to as ‘the killer of snow day dreams,’” said Alan Seibert, superintendent of Salem City Schools, during a subcommittee meeting. “That’s not the case.” 

Lawmakers passed two identical bills stating school divisions can opt for virtual learning during severe weather conditions and emergency situations that result in the cancellation of in-person classes.

Remote learning or distance education is when the instructor and student are separated by location and do not physically meet. 

“I would like to emphasize that this is not a bill to eliminate snow days but simply provide some flexibility to school systems,” said Del. Joseph McNamara, R-Roanoke, who introduced House Bill 1790. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, introduced Senate Bill 1132, an identical bill. The bills had strong support in both chambers, though they each moved through the Senate with unanimous support. 

 “As you know this pandemic has made us think outside the box and some benefit has come from this thinking,” said Mark Miear, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in the New River Valley, during the House subcommittee meeting. 

Public schools must offer 180 days or 990 hours of instruction each year or receive a reduction in state aid, according to Virginia law. School districts typically build in extra snow days for inclement weather. If those days are used up, schools must make up days to meet the required instruction time. The bills also allow schools to make up missed instruction by scheduling a remote learning day.

Both bills state that no school division can use more than 10 unscheduled remote learning days in a school year unless the superintendent of public instruction grants an extension. 

 “I'm really glad that the state is allowing this type of [learning] to happen in the 21st century, because it'll allow us to be able to have days that actually count toward that 990 hours,” said Max Smith, assistant director of operations at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond.

Miear said unscheduled remote learning days will allow the school district to set an end date for the school year and schedule summer programs. Some districts can miss 17-20 days for inclement weather, Miear said. The updated policy will allow for instruction to be “more consistent.”

Moving to online learning during inclement weather will not make up for lost education, Owen Hughes, a permanent substitute teacher at Elmont Elementary School in Ashland, stated in a text message. 

"Remote teaching only truly takes place when there is remote learning,” Hughes stated. “This means that if students are disengaged and not learning, teachers aren't teaching they're just talking and staying busy."

Smith said that it will be easy to implement remote learning days because Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has been teaching students through virtual learning. The school  provided some students with laptops and hotspots if they needed it.

“Now if we hadn't had an infrastructure in place, it might be really difficult to be able to pull off one of these unscheduled instructional days from the legislation, but we already have the infrastructure in place,” Smith said.

Hughes is concerned some students will not have access to a working internet connection during inclement weather. The General Assembly this session funded the expansion of rural broadband internet access, though it will take a while to implement the infrastructure.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, sponsored a related bill. SB 1303 will require both online and in-person learning to become available to students by July 1. The student's parent or guardian would decide on the learning modality. The bill expires August 2022. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia 10th State to Pass Domestic Worker Protections

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills providing protections and benefits for the state’s domestic workers.

 House Bill 2032, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, extends employee protection laws to domestic service workers that allows them to file complaints regarding workplace safety. The Commission of Labor and Industry would investigate such claims.

Domestic worker is defined as an individual paid either directly or indirectly for services of a household nature performed in or about a private home. This includes jobs such as “companions, cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs.” The bill states that domestic work does not include jobs that are irregular or uncertain. 

This bill will affect around 60,000 workers in Virginia, according to Erica Sklar, a national organizer for Hand In Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers pushing for better working conditions. Lawmakers said 90% of the workers are women and half are women of color.

“Virginia is the 10th state to pass legislation like this,” Sklar said. “There's also two cities that have passed this legislation, Seattle and Philadelphia.”

Domestic workers were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlined protections such as a 40-hour maximum workweek and minimum wage requirements. Political scholars say that Southern Democrats joined with Republicans in opposition to the FLSA. A Congressional bill introduced in 2019 sought to repeal the exemption and also expand coverage to domestic workers under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against discrimination in employment.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director of the advocacy group Care in Action, said she wants people to understand the challenges of being a domestic worker. Care in Action is a nonprofit that advocates for millions of domestic workers in the nation. Domestic workers are excluded from workplace protection policies, which many lawmakers had not previously considered, Rodgers said.

“Sometimes it’s having a new idea or concept introduced and taking a little more time to educate lawmakers,” Rodgers said. “We’ve certainly seen progress along the way.”

The original bill would have covered domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, but that portion of the bill was removed, Rodgers said. She hopes the act will eventually include domestic workers.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also introduced a bill this session advocating for domestic workers’ rights. The General Assembly passed HB 1864, which expands the definition of employer in the Virginia Human Rights Act to protect domestic workers from workplace discrimination. The act prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other factors. 

 Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, carried Senate Bill 1310, which includes domestic workers in employee protection laws, including laws regarding the payment of wages. The bill also extends protection to domestic workers from workplace discrimination.

"These were jobs that were originally done for free under slavery and then were limited jobs available to African American women,” McClellan said when introducing her bill. “As part of Jim Crow they were excluded from minimum wage, workers’ comp, the Human Rights Act, our OSHA laws, our unemployment comp laws—not just here in Virginia, but throughout the South and at the federal level." 

McClellan said she is passionate about fighting for domestic workers’ rights.

“I understand from my own family experience how important domestic work is,” McClellan said. “We trust domestic workers to care for our loved ones in our homes, and their work allows other people to work.”

Opponents of Gooditis’ measure worried over the protocol that allows for a residence to be inspected when a domestic worker files a complaint. Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said before the bill’s passage that he worried “the government will now be able to enter an employer's house without a search warrant if this conference report is agreed to.”

“My concern about this is that now we’re setting up a system where if you have someone who performs childcare in your home or cleans at your home, now the government is going to be able to come in to inspect that residence,” McDougle said.

McClellan said that in order to conduct an inspection officials will need permission from the owners of the residence or workplace. 

“No one would be able to come in without a warrant in the scenario that the senator from Hanover just described,” she said. “Again, there will be no inspections without the consent of the owner, operator of the workplace.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers Pass COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Bills

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills allowing health care workers and first responders to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are disabled or die due to COVID-19.

“We did it!” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, said in a Twitter post. “Health care heroes who got COVID on the job will get the retroactive workers comp presumption they deserve!”

Hurst’s House Bill 1985 expanded workers’ compensation benefits for health care workers “directly involved in diagnosing or treating persons known or suspected to have COVID-19,” including doctors and nurses. The bill provides coverage from March 12, 2020 until Dec. 31, 2021. 

The health care worker must have been treated for COVID-19 symptoms and been diagnosed by a medical provider to qualify for compensation before July 1, 2020. The individual must have received medical treatment and a positive COVID-19 test to be eligible for compensation after July 1, 2020. 

The bill also said health care workers who refuse or fail to get vaccinated for COVID-19 will not be eligible for workers’ compensation. The aforementioned rule doesn't apply if a physician determines vaccination will risk the worker’s health. 

“This is how we honor our brave health care heroes that put themselves in harm’s way to treat those infected with this horrible virus,” Hurst said in a press release. “They sacrifice for us and deserve our utmost praise and admiration, but they also deserve our help.”

There were concerns about the bill’s costs, according to Hurst. The Senate tried to remove the bill’s retroactive clause, but the bill passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support following negotiations. 

The Virginia Nurses Association said the bill will make it easier for nurses to access benefits.

“Unfortunately, too many Virginia nurses caught COVID-19 while treating patients,” the association said in a Facebook post. “For those that got very sick, there is no easy way to file for workers’ compensation, and many have suffered not only physically, but financially.” 

Senate Bill 1375 and HB 2207 cover workers’ compensation for first responders who are diagnosed or died from COVID-19 on or after Sept. 1 of last year. The measures include firefighters, police officers, correctional and regional jail officers and emergency medical services workers. The bills require an official diagnosis through a positive COVID-19 test and symptoms of the disease.

The House bill, sponsored by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, originally included a retroactive clause that compensated cases going back to March 2020, but that was taken out of the legislation’s final version.

“We fought tooth and nail to provide our first responders - the real heroes of the pandemic - coverage under workers' compensation for COVID and we got it done,” Jones said in a Twitter post. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Restaurants Grapple with Plastic Foam Container Ban

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation. 

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having Styrofoam in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these Styrofoam containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lost more than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives. 

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversed or delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report. 

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegrades slowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager. 

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.” 

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers Vote to Remove Confederate Name from Highway

By Cameron Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill renaming sections of U.S. Route 1 almost 100 years after it was named in honor of the first and only president of the Confederacy.

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote. 

Counties and cities have until Jan. 1, 2022 to change their portion of Jefferson Davis Highway to whatever name they choose, or the state will change it to Emancipation Memorial Highway.

“Change the name on your own, or the General Assembly will change it for you," Cole said to House committee members. 

Sections of the highway that run through Stafford, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Chesterfield counties will need new signage and markers, according to the bill’s impact statement. Commemorative naming signs will be replaced, along with overhead guide signs at interchanges and street-name signs. The changes are estimated to cost almost $600,000 for all localities. The changes in Chesterfield will cost an estimated $373,000 because there are 17 Jefferson Davis Highway overhead signs on Routes 288 and 150.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the plan for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Davis was a Mississippi senator who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginia General Assembly designated U.S. Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922. 

“Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, a constant reminder of a white nationalist experiment, and a racist Democrat,” Cole said. “Instead we can acknowledge the powerful act of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Cole said the change acknowledges the positive history of the Civil War and reminds people of the emancipation and freedom that came from it. 

The bill received little pushback in House and Senate committees. A Richmond City representative said their initial concern was the interpretation if districts would have the opportunity to choose a replacement name. Signs are already going up renaming the route to Richmond Highway in Richmond. 

Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, voiced his support for the bill. He responded to concern that the change dishonors a veteran. He said he believes the bill “strikes a reasonable balance” by giving counties time to rename their portion of the highway, or they will give it a default name which “doesn’t carry the political baggage.”

A poll by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Virginians are still divided on changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders (44% supported the idea and 43% opposed it).

Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, said there were two camps of people that opposed the bill. He said some were openly racist and called Cole’s office to make offensive remarks. Then there were people who said they did not want to “double dip” on renaming the portion in their respective district and wanted it all to be named Richmond Highway. 

Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said efforts to rename the highway have never received much support in Richmond until this year.

“Virginia has rapidly moved from a commonwealth that treasured its Confederate legacy, to one that is trying to move beyond it,” Farnsworth said. 

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers ban gay panic defense in Virginia

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that will ban the use of a person’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity as a defense in court for the assault or murder of an LGBTQ person. 

“It’s done: We’re banning the gay/trans panic defense in Virginia,” Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, said in a Twitter post

Roem introduced House Bill 2132, which passed the Senate 23-15 on Thursday with an amendment. The House approved the amendment in a 58-39 vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for a signature.

The Senate amendment adds oral solicitation, or hitting on someone, as an unacceptable justification for the gay or transgender panic defense. 

The panic defense has historically been used in cases where a member of the LGBTQ community was attacked because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Defendants use the panic defense to justify “heat of passion” murders or assaults. 

“This [bill] means someone’s mere existence as an LGBTQ person does not excuse someone else and does not constitute a reasonable provocation to commit such a heat of passion attack,” Roem said.

The statute does not dismiss traditional self-defense lawsuits. This means LGBTQ people can still be prosecuted for attacking someone.

There have been at least eight instances in Virginia where the panic defense was used, with the last case in 2011, according to Carsten Andresen, a researcher and criminal justice professor from Austin, Texas. He said he has tracked 200 homicide cases nationally where the panic defense was attempted. Andresen reached out to Roem in support of the bill. 

His research included five murders and three assaults in Virginia between 1973 and 2011 that Andresen said used the panic defense to justify or excuse a defendant’s violent actions. Mark Hayes murdered Tracie Gainer, a transgender woman, in 2002. Hayes claimed he “lost it” and murdered Gainer after engaging in sexual intercourse. In 2011, Deandre Moore, age 18, pleaded guilty to killing 20-year-old Jacques Cowell by stabbing him multiple times. Cowell was openly gay and there were witness accounts that the two had a physical relationship. Moore received a 40-year prison sentence, with 15 years suspended.

“In these cases, criminal defense attorneys used gay and trans panic defense to put the victim (rather than the offender) on trial,” Andresen wrote in support of the bill. He said use of the panic defense “suggests that it is permissible to commit violence” against LGBTQ people.

Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, spoke in opposition of the bill, saying lawmakers should not pass laws that prohibit defendants from making a defense and that lawmakers would be going “down a very slippery slope.” Morrissey said any defendant who would offer the panic defense “would of course be rejected.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said this is not the first time Virginia has expressly prohibited a defense. Legislators repealed in 2008 the code section that provided defense from carnal knowledge when a defendant marries a child 14 years or older.

“When we have found an affirmative defense to be abhorrent to public policy we have gotten rid of it,” McClellan said. 

McClellan said she wished she could agree with Morrissey that no judge would accept the panic defense, but referred back to the Virginia cases where it was used successfully.

“We know the bill is constitutional, we know also, the bill has existing precedence, which is why it has earned overwhelming bipartisan support in state houses across the country,” Roem said.

The American Bar Association in 2013 recommended that local, state and federal legislatures curtail the availabilty and effectiveness of the gay and transgender panic defense. Roem said that similar bills have been implemented in other state legislatures. Virginia will become the 12th state to ban the panic defense, according to the policy organization Movement Advancement Project. The defense is also banned in the District of Columbia.

There are currently 39 states that allow the panic defense to be used in cases where hate crimes resulted in the assault or murder of an LGBTQ individual. This typically results in a murder charge being lessened to a charge of manslaughter or acquittal.

Roem said she worked with Wes Bizzell, president of the National LGBT Bar Association, to prepare the bill. She also thanked Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, for speaking in support of the bill in committee.

Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. The judge barred Aaron McKinney’s defense lawyer from using the gay panic defense in the murder trial. McKinney said Shepard’s advances triggered memories of sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Police said the crime was motivated by robbery, but Shepard’s sexual orientation likely made him the target. There were four people involved in the brutal crime. Two were found guilty of murder and two were charged with being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.

Roem was in high school when Matthew Shepard was murdered. She said the case had a profound effect on her and prevented her from coming out due to a fear of being ostracized and attacked. 

“It was requested to me by one of my Manassas Park student constituents who’s out, hoping not to have to live in the same fear in 2021 that I did in 1998,” Roem said of the bill.

Roem said there are people who don’t believe hate crimes such as the one against Shepard happen today in Virginia. She affirmed that they do happen, and she believes it is time to do something about it.

“We have to look at this from the perspective of ‘what do we do to make an affirmative statement that LGBTQ lives matter, and that you can’t just kill us for existing,” Roem said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Legislation hopes to expand broadband access for low-income students

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in an effort to expand broadband internet access to low-income students across the commonwealth. 

Senate Bill 1225, proposed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, authorizes school boards to appropriate funds to partner with private companies for the purpose of implementing and subsidizing broadband internet access for low-income and at-risk students. 

“Distance learning during the pandemic has left these students struggling not just with homework but with classwork and lessons as well,” Boysko said before a House panel.

The reduced rate broadband would be eligible for students who qualify for child nutrition programs and other programs that are recognized by the school board as a measure to identify at-risk students. That means programs that are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as the schools’ breakfast, lunch and after school snack programs.

These broadband programs already exist, but Boysko said the bill clarifies that school boards can enter into partnerships with private broadband companies and permits the companies to promote the service. Boysko said there are nearly 600,000 students who qualify for those supplemental programs, though 215,000 people are currently utilizing them.

One plan offered to qualifying families is $9.95 a month, according to a Comcast representative who spoke in favor of the bill. 

Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education said students without access to reliable technology are experiencing the brunt of the pandemics’ drawbacks.

 “If you don't have high-speed home Internet, and if you don't have a device, then you are in a world of hurt,” Lovell said. 

More than 20% of households in Virginia lack high-speed internet, according to a recent analysis by Future Ready Schools, a research project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national nonprofit committed to improving education outcomes. This translates to almost 394,000 children without an efficient network to complete their instruction. The same organization reports that over 200,000 students are without internet in households that earn below $50,000 annually. Future Ready Schools also found that 8% of Virginia households have no computer devices. This impacts over 140,000 students. 

Lovell said access to a cell phone instead of a computer is an insufficient way of learning. He challenged adversaries to complete work without access to a desktop.

“They should try to write a five-page research paper on any topic they would like … and try to do it on their cell phone,” Lovell said.

Disparities in academic performance can be seen within different races, income levels, English-language proficiency, learning disabilities and sex, according to Education Week, a news organization devoted to education news. 

Lower-income students are less likely to have access to a quality remote learning environment; devices that they do not need to share; high-speed broadband internet; and parental supervision during school hours, according to Mckinsey and Co., a consulting firm to governments and organizations.

Rural students are also suffering from a lack of broadband internet access.

Keith Perrigan, president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said during a Fund Our Schools virtual rally earlier in the week that access to broadband internet is perhaps the biggest equity issue faced by the state’s rural students. Fund Our Schools is a coalition of education advocates that work to increase Virginia public schools funding.

“Students are driving 10, 12, 15 miles to get to their nearest Dollar General who will allow them to sit in the parking lot and tap onto the Wi-Fi,” Perrigan said. “And you have students in other parts of the state that sit in their living room and have access to the internet at their disposal all the time.” 

Boysko said her bill is not going to solve the problem of rural broadband infrastructure. Other bills will expand access to infrastructure building. She said the bill is primarily for urban and suburban areas where families can’t afford to pay for the internet but there’s existing broadband infrastructure in place.

Both the House and Senate budget bills propose $50 million per year from the general fund for two years for the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative. The funds will supplement the construction costs of expanding access to areas that are presently unserved by broadband providers. The Department of Housing and Community Development will work with the Broadband Advisory Council to designate unserved areas that require funds. 

Boysko also sponsored SB1413 that will make permanent a pilot program that permits some electric utility companies to petition the State Corporation Commission to provide broadband capacity to unserved areas of the state.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Biden taps three for Postal Service board; signals possible move on DeJoy

By JENNIFER MANDATO,Capital News Service Washington Bureau

President Joe Biden on Wednesday nominated three people to fill vacancies on the United States Postal Service Board of Governors.

The nominations came the same day Louis DeJoy apologized to a congressional panel about poor mail service but insisted the problems existed before he took over the USPS.

Congressional Democrats have written letters and publicly called on the president to fill board vacancies in a move that could ultimately result in DeJoy being out of a job. 

The board vacancies were a major topic of debate during a Wednesday hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Ron Bloom, the board chairman, told lawmakers that the board has lacked full attendance for at least six or seven years. The 11-member board has nine members in staggered terms chosen by the president. The board selects the postmaster general, and then the board and the postmaster general appoint the deputy postmaster general (a position also currently vacant).

As the board is currently made up of six white males, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, called for diversity.

“An agency of over 640,000 employees that come from every walk of life and serve the entire American public should have representation at the top reflective of the broader American population,” she said. 

She asked  DeJoy:  “Do you see it as a problem that the Board of Governors for the United States Postal Service looks like a millionaire white boys club?”

It appears that Biden’s nominees are intended to address that lack of diversity and all have some degree of experience with the postal industry.

Anton Hajjar is the former general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and has also served as an adviser and pro bono attorney in employment discrimination cases.

Amber McReynolds is the CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit dedicated to expanding and improving vote-by-mail systems in all 50 states.

The third nominee is Ronald Stroman, who recently served as deputy postmaster general and chief governmental relations officer for the USPS.

Biden’s nominees will all have to be confirmed by the Senate. If approved, the newly-filled board could move in the direction Democrats are hoping for - adding two men of color and a woman - and create a majority to replace DeJoy, a donor to former President Donald Trump.
 
DeJoy maintained that many of the problems at the Postal Service existed long before he became postmaster general.

“The years of financial stress, under-investment, unachievable service standards and lack of operational precision have resulted in a system that does not have adequate resilience to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances,” he said.

Some committee members were less than impressed with this approach.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, scoffed at DeJoy’s plan to lengthen mail delivery times.

“It sounds like your solution to the problems you’ve identified is to surrender,” Raskin said. “Because the mail has been late under your leadership we’re just gonna change the standards and build it into the system that it will be late.”

Throughout the hearing, DeJoy alluded to a “strategic plan.” He told Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Baltimore, that plan would be ready in the next two weeks and that he is “always happy” to return before the committee and explain the details of it.

But Rep, Katie Porter, D-California, was skeptical.

“I've heard that you have a new strategic plan, but I'm really concerned that this plan may neither be strategic nor a plan,” she said.

Earlier in the day, redesigned Postal Service delivery trucks were unveiled and are set to replace current vehicles that are, on average, 25 years old. The “next generation delivery vehicle” is set to take to the streets in 2023 and will include increased safety features – shockingly, airbags – and more cargo space. Some of the fleet also will be electric.

Another issue facing the Postal Service is Medicare integration for Postal Service employees. 

The USPS is the only agency required to pre-fund employees’ retirement funds. Only 73 percent of Postal Service retirees are enrolled in the program, and if the Medicare integration is passed it would require current employees to enroll once they turn 65.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, and chairwoman of the panel, said that Medicare integration would save the USPS $10 billion over the next 10 years, to which DeJoy said that projections on his end show at least $30 billion in savings over that same time frame.

Each witness, including Bloom and Mark Dimondstein, president of the APWU, announced support for Medicare integration.

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

 

“There Is No Context”: General Assembly Votes To Remove Byrd Statue

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly has voted to remove the statue of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square, the area around the Virginia State Capitol.

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until the General Assembly chooses its final location. The bill passed the House in late January on a 63-34 vote, while the Senate approved the measure Tuesday on a 36-3 vote.

Byrd served as state governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. His massive resistance campaign pushed for Southern states to reject the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, cutting off state funding and closing schools that tried to integrate.

Jones called the statue a reminder of the institutional racism in Virginia during the bill’s first committee hearings. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed Jones’ sentiments during the bill’s final reading on the Senate floor.

“When I was an intern working for the first African American governor and walked past that statue every day, I knew I was his worst nightmare,” McClellan said. “I feel it every time I walk past it.”

McClellan spoke of the pain African Americans have endured in Virginia due to Byrd’s disenfranchisement of Black voters and the dehumanization that Byrd cast on them.

“There is no context that could be placed on a statue on Capitol Square, the ultimate public park with public art, that could erase the pain that Harry Byrd and his legacy invokes for African American Virginians,” McClellan said.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, gave a speech on the Senate floor portraying Byrd as a humble, industrious man who worked in the apple business, saved a local newspaper and improved Virginia’s highway infrastructure. Vogel described Byrd’s “massive resistance” campaign against school integration in the 1950s as a stain on an otherwise remarkable career.

“That is a great stain on his career and a great embarrassment,” Vogel said. “But he was a man of a certain time in a certain era.”

Vogel asked the senators to “look at the whole man and consider that we are each a sum of all our parts, the good and the bad.”

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, pushed back on Vogel’s request, saying probably 100,000 students if not more were kept out of school for years due to Byrd’s push for segregation.

“I just don’t see how we can overlook the fact that all of these children … were kept out of school for four years,” Saslaw said. “I think that we should not be honoring people to that degree in Capitol Square.”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill last year to remove Byrd’s statue. Walker later pushed for his bill to be removed.

Walker voted against HB 2208 during its final reading in the House on Jan. 27.

The push to remove statues of Confederate leaders accelerated after protests began following the death of George Floyd last May. Floyd died in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimated the statue’s removal will cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

Byrd’s statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966. The bipartisan vote to remove it comes on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Byrd’s massive resistance campaign, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Vogel were the only senators to vote against the bill.

Rita Davis, council to Gov. Ralph Northam, spoke of Northam’s support for the bill during committee hearings. Northam is expected to sign the bill.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers pass bill to keep schools from suing over student meal debt

"Classic school lunch. Yum." by Ben+Sam is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Adelle Settle learned in 2017 that school lunches were being taken out of children’s hands when they couldn’t pay for the meal. Instead, children were given a cheese sandwich or a snack. 

Settle was inspired to start Settle the Debt, a nonprofit organization that pays off school meal debt at Prince William County schools. The organization has raised almost $200,000 in almost four years, Settle said.

“It leaves the kid hungry, you’re not giving the child an adequate meal at that point and people see it,” Settle said. “It makes them feel terrible about themselves, so I just wanted to make sure that we were not stigmatizing children in a place where they go to feel safe.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, introduced House Bill 2013 that would prohibit school boards from suing families to collect school meal debt. The bill passed the House of Delegates late last month with a 69-31 vote. The Senate passed the bill Monday with a 29-10 vote. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

The measure builds off of two bills Roem introduced during the 2020 General Assembly session, HB697 and HB703. The legislation went into effect last summer. 

HB 697 prohibits school employees from discarding a meal that was served to a child who then couldn’t pay for it. HB 703 allows school boards to solicit donations to offset or eliminate school meal debt.

“School meal debt as a concept should not exist and school meal debt shaming, likewise, should not exist,” Roem said. “We are talking about penalizing children and keeping children from eating or shaming children for their parents financial situation. Both of which are messed up and shouldn’t happen.”

Roem said there are 27 school divisions in the state that have policies to take legal action against those with outstanding school meal debt. She said in one instance, a school division outlined the policy on its Facebook page. 

Roem said she thinks if debt occurs, schools should deal with it directly instead of taking people to court. 

“Essentially, we are penalizing parents for being poor and that’s messed up,” Roem said.

There are families that don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch but also can’t afford to pay for lunch, Samora Ward, community organizer for Virgina Black Leadership Organizing Collabrative, said earlier this month during a Senate a subcommittee meeting. Virginia Bloc’s The Care Project is an organization that is aimed at making sure students have access to school meals as well as “to protect the financial security of families trying to pay for school meals.”

“We know that this pandemic and its economic repercussions will only exacerbate this problem, leaving families burdened with school meal debt,” Ward said.

Roem said 15% of the outstanding school meal debt in Prince William County has been from students on reduced lunch. 

Tom Smith, legislative liaison for the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said during the bill’s subcommittee hearing that the association sent an informal survey to school divisions to find the outstanding debt cost. About half of school divisions in the state responded and the total was over $1.3 million, he said. 

Smith recommended an amendment to the bill that would have allowed school divisions to apply to the state literary fund to recoup debt, capping it at $250,000 per year, per division. 

“The literary fund is provided through fines and tickets, so people committing crimes would help feed children,” Smith said. 

Roem said during the meeting that she reached out directly to Smith’s office for feedback before the bill was introduced. Virginia Association of School Superintendents said they opposed the bill but didn’t provide other feedback, Roem said. She said the suggested amendment should have happened “considerably earlier in the process.” 

Stacey Haney, chief lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association, said the organization supported allowing school divisions to use money from the literary fund to recoup debt.

“It gets what the delegate wants, in that lawsuits won’t be filed, but it also enables school divisions to recoup the money from the literary fund so that we can keep our school lunch programs afloat and don’t have to cut from other places to recoup that debt,” Haney said.

Salaam Bhatti, staff attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, wrote a poem in support of the bill and read it aloud earlier this month during a subcommittee meeting.

“Roses are red, violets are blue,” Bhatti said, “when a child can’t pay for a meal, it doesn’t mean we should sue.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia will join 22 states in abolishing the death penalty

By Christina Amano Dolan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia will become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after two bills passed both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly on Monday. 

In a release issued earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam said he looks forward to signing a legislation that outlaws the death penalty. 

Under current state law, an offender convicted of a Class 1 felony who is at least 18 years of age at the time of the offense and without an intellectual disability faces a sentence of life imprisonment or death. 

The identical House and Senate bills eliminate death from the list of possible punishments for a Class 1 felony. The bills do not allow the possibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. The measures will also reclassify capital murders to aggravated murders. 

The move will change the sentence for the two remaining inmates on death row to life imprisonment without eligibility of parole, good conduct allowance or earned sentence credits. 

House Bill 2263, introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, passed the Senate Monday on a 22-16 vote following a lengthy floor debate. While both parties reached an agreement on eliminating the death penalty, Republicans argued for a proposed amendment to remove the possibility of a shortened life sentence. 

Under current state law, judges are able to suspend part of life sentences, with the exception of the murder of a law enforcement officer. Neither bill will change this policy.

In Monday’s hearing, Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, argued for a floor substitute that would replace capital murder charges with a mandatory minimum life sentence. The government should not have the ability to sentence people to death due to the possibility of false convictions, but those who commit “heinous” crimes should never face the possibility of parole, he said. 

“If you kill multiple people, or under the circumstances under our death penalty statute, you should not see the light of day,” Stanley said. “You should not taste liberty and freedom again.” 

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the Senate bill that passed the House, said adopting Stanley’s amendment would introduce 14 new mandatory minimum life sentences. 

“I think it’s awfully presumptuous for us to just decide that these 14 situations deserve this one and only punishment,” Surovell said. 

Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Richmond, furthered the argument against the amendment by mentioning a Washington Post article on the recent release of Joe Ligon at age 83. Ligon was sentenced to life imprisonment at 15 years old, pleading guilty under the impression that he would be eligible for parole 10 years later, Morrissey said. He was released from prison after serving 68 years. 

“That seems to be inconsistent,” Morrissey said, referring to Stanley’s argument that while juries can get it wrong, a convicted person sentenced to life imprisonment should never be able to seek parole. “If you get it wrong, and somebody is executed, you can also get it wrong when you sentence somebody to life in prison.” 

Judges currently have the authority to ensure life sentences and will have the same authority with the bill’s passage, Surovell said.

The floor substitute by Stanley was rejected. 

Concluding the hearing, Surovell offered final remarks on the importance of Virginia’s step to abolish the death penalty. He believes the new measure speaks to the commonwealth’s humility and value of human life. 

“It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to,” Surovell said. 

Surovell hopes that the measure’s passage will “send a message to the rest of the world that Virginia is back to leading on criminal justice.”

Northam; House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw issued a joint statement regarding the legislations’ passages. 

“Thanks to the vote of lawmakers in both chambers, Virginia will join 22 other states that have ended use of the death penalty. This is an important step forward in ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and equitable to all.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers Pass Bills to Collect Data on Pretrial Detention

By Josephine Walker, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation this week that lawmakers said will increase transparency and equity in the judicial system, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The bills, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, will create a centralized, publicly-accessible data collection system on pretrial detention. Senate Bill 1391 and House Bill 2110 both passed Thursday.

Pretrial detention is the practice of holding a defendant in jail until trial. It is used, officials say, to guarantee the defendant appears in court and to ensure public safety. The compiled pretrial data would be distributed annually by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, or VCSC. 

The bills require the VCSC to compile and share data on the sex, age, race and zip code of an individual charged with a crime. The individual’s criminal background will also be included in the report without their name. No case identifying information could be accessed through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or made publicly available, per the bills.

Maisie Osteen, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the bills are a tremendous opportunity to understand release conditions like bond or pretrial services. She said they also illuminate trends in the racial, gender and economic demographics of people in jail. 

“This is the heart of transparency,” Osteen said. “It's opening up the actual raw data to the public in a downloadable, accessible format.” In Virginia, 46% of the total jail population is being held pretrial, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Lucas and Herring drafted the bills at the Virginia State Crime Commission's recommendation. The lawmakers used data from the commission’s 2017 Pretrial Data Project, which sought to study the different types of release mechanisms involved in pretrial services, such as bond or pretrial holdings. Of the individuals included in the data, 40% were Black, though this group makes up 20% of the commonwealth’s total population. 

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, said the commission’s new role was the first step in creating a more equitable Virginia. The institute provides information on current criminal justice issues and works to reform pretrial policies.

“The point of the bill is for advocates to take what they already knew was true about the way the system operates in terms of its disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Burdeen said. “And surely, its disproportionate impact on poor Virginians of all races.”

Being in jail before trial can drastically destabilize the accused and their families, according to a 2020 National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) study. The research found that as a result of pretrial detention people were more likely to lose connections to employment, housing and family. 

Osteen said most people are held pretrial because they can’t make bail and are more likely to have non salaried employment. She said they stand a greater chance of losing employment after a few days of being unable to report to work. This financial instability can then lead to a loss of housing or loss of children.

The NLADA study also found that those held in pretrial detention are more likely to be rearrested for new crimes, and more likely to have longer prison sentences. 

Osteen said that when a judge sees a defendant who “looks like a criminal” it can lead to harsher sentencing.

“I've heard judges say, honestly, ‘It's just easier to send somebody to prison if they show up in a prison or jail outfit, then I already know they've been plucked from their lives,’” Osteen said.

She said the judges are less likely to feel as if sentencing is the destabilization factor because it has already happened to the defendant.

Osteen said she is excited by the potential impact data collection will have on understanding the commonwealth’s justice system. She wishes the legislation included information about why judges decide to detain a defendant or not, a standard not currently required, Osteen said.

According to the VCSC, this legislation will cause a significant increase in the agency’s workload. The agency expects it will need additional funding to finance two new salaried positions.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia lawmakers advance Consumer Data Protection Act

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly is advancing legislation that allows Virginia consumers more protection with their online data, though opponents say the measure does not include the ability for people to file private lawsuits against companies that breach the proposed law.

The measure is known as the Consumer Data Protection Act in both chambers of the state legislature. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, passed the House 89-9 on Thursday. The House version, sponsored by Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, is awaiting a final vote but was passed by for the day Thursday.

“The consumers should have the right to know what is being collected about them,” Hayes said when introducing the bill.

The data protection act allows consumers to retrieve a copy of their online data, amend or delete this data and opt out of allowing large businesses to sell the data. 

Hayes wants businesses to responsibly handle consumer information. 

“The bottom line is, we want the controllers to know what their role is when it comes to the protection of individual’s data,” Hayes said during a House committee meeting. “We believe that no matter who you are as an organization, you need to be responsible when it comes to handling of data of consumers.”

The bills apply to businesses that control or process personal data of at least 100,000 consumers per year. It also impacts businesses that handle data of at least 25,000 consumers per year and make more than half of their gross revenue from selling personal data. The businesses must be located in Virginia or serve Virginians. 

Under the Consumer Data Protection Act, the attorney general’s office would handle the enforcement of this legislation. The office would handle anything from consumer complaints to the enforcement of fines. 

“The attorney general’s office will have the depth and breadth, experience, the investigative tools necessary to know and to follow trends of companies and to make sure that they bring the muscle of that office to the table,” Hayes said.

Microsoft’s Senior Director of Public Policy Ryan Harkins testified in favor of the proposed law. 

“We’ve seen dramatic changes in technology over the past couple of decades and U.S. law has failed to keep pace,” Harkins said. “It’s fallen behind much of the rest of the world and failed to address growing challenges of privacy.” 

Harkins said that Microsoft has advocated for data protection laws since 2005. He said that the public has lost trust in technology, and passing comprehensive data protection legislation can help win the public’s trust back.

Harkins said that the measure stands alongside leading data protection legislation such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act and aspects of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“In some respects, it would go further and provide the most comprehensive and robust privacy laws in the United States,” Harkins said.

Attorney Mark Dix spoke in opposition of the bill on behalf of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. He said the measure would hurt Virginians because it is “going to close the courthouse doors.”

“It provides no cause of action whatsoever for the consumer, the person who is actually hurt,” Dix said. “It provides no remedy whatsoever for the consumer.”

Dix argued that having the attorney general’s office handle the enforcement of this legislation limits the consumer.Using a hypothetical scenario, Dix asked what would happen to Virginians if there was an administration change and the Attorney General did not prioritize data protection.

The Consumer Data Protection Act would take effect in January 2023. Marsden told a Senate subcommittee that allows time to “deal and field any other tweaks to the bill or difficulties that someone figures out.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers kill bill calling for transparency in redistricting commission

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate killed a House proposal to expand access to the commonwealth’s new redistricting commission and help make the process more transparent and democratic. 

House Bill 2082, patroned by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would have required the redistricting commission meetings to be advertised and accessible to the public. The commission will draw the commonwealth’s electoral districts every 10 years. The General Assembly previously drew the districts.

The bill was passed by indefinitely in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee after passing the House with a 55-41 vote. 

“During the debates on the commission, I kept saying ‘There’s no transparency here, there’s no transparency,’” Levine said. “Well, there wasn’t, and there isn’t. Without my legislation, the commission can meet in a dark room.”

The law already requires the commission to allow public comment at meetings, but Levine’s bill called for the meetings to be more widely advertised and in multiple languages. 

Levine said that one of the most important parts of the bill is that it allowed people to comment on the district maps after they are drawn, not just before. The bill required that maps be posted on the commission’s website and three public comment periods be held prior to voting.

People are more likely to have opinions once they see the practical impact of a district map, he said.

“You might not care before, and then you look at the map and they’ve split your community right down the middle,” Levine said. 

 The bill also would have prohibited the Supreme Court of Virginia, which has the authority to decide districts if the commission can’t come to an agreement, from meeting in private. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission has been meeting virtually. Eight legislators and eight private citizens serve on the commission, split evenly between the two major political parties. For a map to be approved, 15 of the members would have to vote yes, Levine said. If two or more commission members voted against the map, the decision would go to the Supreme Court, according to Levine. The Court also becomes involved if the state legislature rejects the maps.

Levine said that the redistricting court meetings should be publicly accessible, because the Supreme Court would be acting like a legislature.

“I would’ve shined a bright light on the process, and it would have made the commission better,” Levine said. 

Virginians voted to establish the commission during a ballot measure in the November general election, where it won with 66% of the vote.

“It doesn’t make it perfect,” Levine said. “I recognize that Virginians voted for it, but I want to make it better.”

Opponents of Levine’s bill believed that the Supreme Court should have the right to meet privately. Republican members of the Voting Rights subcommittee abstained from voting on the bill, then voted against the substitute version of the bill. The vote that killed the bill in the Senate, however, had both Democrats and Republicans voting against it. 

During the House Privileges and Elections committee meeting on Feb. 3, opponents of the bill expressed concerns about whether it would go into effect in a timely manner, as well as concerns about whether the Supreme Court should be able to meet in private.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, asked whether the bill would have an impact on the 2021 district maps, because it would not have gone into effect until July 1. A public commenter asked whether the bill raised “constitutional issues” because it prevents the Supreme Court from deliberating in private. 

“Both opponents and supporters of the bill agree that we need transparency,” Levine said during the meeting.

Members of several advocacy groups spoke in support of the bill during the meeting, including redistricting coordinator Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports left-of-center causes.

“We believe that the newly-developed redistricting commission should work to be accessible and transparent,” Corbett said. “With this legislation, we can better ensure language access, public comment, and inclusivity as we move through the process of redistricting in Virginia.”

A provision in the bill, which was taken out during subcommittee hearings, would not have counted prisoners from outside of the commonwealth as Virginia residents. Virginians who are imprisoned in Virginia have been counted as residents of their home districts, but Levine’s attempt to extend this to non-Virginians imprisoned in Virginia was unsuccessful. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia General Assembly advances bill to modernize HIV laws

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly advanced a bill this week that lawmakers say will modernize Virginia’s current HIV laws. The amended measure has passed both chambers, but lawmakers must now accept or work out differences in the bill. 

Senate Bill 1138, introduced by Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also removes a law that prohibits the donation of blood and organs by people with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. A 21-17 vote along party lines pushed the bill out of the Senate earlier this month. The House of Delegates passed the bill Friday in a 56-44 vote. 

The bill repeals a law that makes it a felony for HIV-positive people to sell or donate blood, body fluids, organs and tissues. Donors must be in compliance with the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act. This state legislation does not apply to national organizations such as the American Red Cross. The organization implements FDA guidelines that require men who have sex with men to defer from sexual intercourse for three months before donating blood. 

The measure also removes HIV, AIDS, syphilis and hepatitis B from the list of infectious biological substances under the current infected sexual battery law, opting to use the language “sexually transmitted infection.” The crime is punishable by a Class 6 felony, which carries a punishment of no more than five years in prison or a $2,500 fine. In 2019 and 2020, three offenders were convicted of such crimes, according to data provided in the impact statement by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. The Senate voted to lower the penalty from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor. 

Opponents of the bill spoke against reducing the penalty for such crimes. The House vote Friday included an amendment to keep the Class 6 felony punishment.

The bill adds language that HIV will not be included in the current statute as an infectious biological substance. It is a Class 5 felony to cause malicious injury by means of an infectious biological substance. The offense is punishable by five to 30 years in prison. 

McClellan said current HIV laws put in place during the 1980s AIDS epidemic have proven ineffective from a public health perspective. She said they are counterproductive and were implemented years ago tof receive federal funding.

“There are other laws that could be used to criminalize intentionally infecting someone with anything,” McClellan said. “There’s no need to specifically target and single out for HIV-positive status.”

LGBTQ and HIV advocacy groups hope the bill will end the stigma attached to HIV-positive people and also LGBTQ members who are not HIV positive.

The bill has the support of organizations such as the Center for HIV Law and Policy, Equality Virginia, the Zero Project, Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia, or ECHO VA, and the Positive Women’s Network - USA. 

Deirdre Johnson, co-founder of the ECHO VA Coalition, said the bill is a step in the right direction for ending the stigma against those with HIV. 

“One of the biggest things with the stigma has been the fear of knowing that you could be criminalized for having HIV, period, and then you know, of course, that deters people from getting tested,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that HIV stigma and criminalization have a profound effect on people of color and other marginalized communities who already experience health care inequity and mistrust. 

“Virginia is for lovers and I really want us to encompass that slogan, including people living with HIV and a perceived risk for HIV,” Johnson said

Cedric Pulliam, co-founder of ECHO VA, said lawmakers in the 1980s and 1990s saw HIV as something the public needed to be protected from when it was and continues to be a public health concern. There is now a call for state legislators around the country to change HIV criminalization laws.

Pulliam said that national agencies are reaching out to state legislators to help undo prior initiatives that limit HIV prevention, treatment and services. 

“We need your help from the state to really, basically right this wrong that we created decades ago,” Pulliam said of the agency outreach.

Pulliam called the move to decriminalize health status a “liberation” for those living with HIV because they would no longer have a target on their back. He also said that laws specifically target people with HIV. In Virginia, syphilis and hepatitis also are criminalized but other chronic illnesses and diseases are not, he said.

Virginia is currently one of 37 states as of 2020 that have HIV discriminatory laws, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If the federal government has really been calling for states to make this change, it's time for Virginia to be one of the next and not be, you know, the last,” Pulliam said.

 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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