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2018 Capital News Service

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Job Posting

Maintenance Worker

Job Posting #:  2018-1

Psychiatric residential treatment facility is seeking a full-time Maintenance Worker. Job duties include basic building and vehicle maintenance, performing equipment and building safety inspections, painting, plumbing, basic carpentry, electrical, & HVAC repair and installation.  Qualified candidates must possess the ability to work independently with little supervision while exhibiting quality workmanship. 

Formal experience in plumbing, electrical, carpentry, or HVAC is required.  Tradesman certification in one of the above listed trades is preferred.

Must possess the ability to frequently lift eighty pound objects.  Working conditions include work both indoors in climate controlled areas and outdoors in temperatures in excess of 90 degrees and in temperatures below 32 degrees.  Competitive pay & benefits including company sponsored 401(k) plan, health, life, dental, and vision insurance.  Post offer drug screen, physical, and criminal background screening required.  Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services is a Drug Free Work Place.  Position Open until filled.  EEO. 

Mail, fax, or e-mail cover letter and resume by February, 19, 2018 to:

Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services

Attn: Chris Thompson

Job#:  2018-1

546 Walnut Grove Drive

Jarratt, Virginia 23867

Fax: (434) 634-6237

E-mail:  careers@jacksonfeild.org

Career Opportunity

Residential Counselors

(Youth Service Workers)

If you are interested in making a positive impact on the lives of Virginia’s youth, then we want you to become part of our Team!  Rural Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility located in Jarratt, Virginia seeks positive role models to work directly with adolescent boys and girls in a psychiatric residential treatment program.  The Youth Service Worker is responsible for role-modeling healthy behavior, teaching life skills, administering a trauma informed behavioral support program, and leading youth in and participating in social, cultural, and recreational activities.  This position supervises youth in the residential unit and on off-campus activities and appointments.

Must possess the availability to work weekends, evenings, holidays, and nights.  Supreme flexibility required.  Seeking candidates with Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology, Sociology or other Human Services field.   Experience will be considered in lieu of a degree.

Compensation package includes 401(k) retirement plan & employer sponsored health, dental, vision & life insurance.  JBHS is a Drug Free Workplace.  Successful applicants must pass a pre-employment drug screen and criminal background screening.  EOE.  Positions open until filled.

E-mail cover letter and resume to:

Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services

Attn: Chris Thompson

Job # 2018-2

E-mail:careers@jacksonfeild.org

Career Opportunity

Melvin L. Davis Oil Company, Inc. is currently searching for Management Team Members.  We have openings from crew leaders all the way up to GM’s at various locations.  Our team has been the key to our success and growth so far and we’re looking for more people with the right skills and personality to join us.

Our Company:

The Davis family opened a small restaurant in rural Sussex County, Virginia in 1956. The entrepreneurial spirit continues today as the third generation has established two modern travel centers in Virginia, including one near the site of the original 15-employee restaurant. Today the company has expanded to more than 250 employees and serves professional drivers and traveling motorists along I-85 and I-95 in Virginia. In addition to the large, clean travel centers with food options in Stony Creek and Warfield, we also operate an Exxon service station and convenience store in Prince George, a Mobil service station and convenience store in Stony Creek, a Popeye’s, a Wendy’s and a Denny’s.  Our team has been the key to our success and growth so far and we’re looking for more people with the right skills and personality to join us.  Customer service is the foundation of our company, and it’s the job of every team member regardless of title.  Be a part of a talented team where you will be challenged each and every day.  We are a quickly growing company, and promote from within whenever possible.  Your opportunity for growth inside of our company is exciting.

Job Requirements:

•Minimum 1-3 years of leadership experience in the retail, grocery or other service industry with responsibility for financial results.

Benefits:

•Competitive Salary ranging from $28,000-$55,000.00 annually depending on experience plus 10% annual salary bonus potential paid quarterly for GM’s.

•Benefits that include a great medical package, dental insurance, vision insurance, life insurance, disability insurance and AFLAC.

•Paid Time Off.

•100% match of up to 4% of salary in the 401K plan.

•Discounts on fuel

•Discounted meals for employees on and off shift from 10% to 100% depending on position

Resumes can be sent to Jeanne Moseley at 434-246-2520 or jmoseley@dtc33.com or apply online at https://www.snagajob.com/job-search?ui=true&q=davis+travel+centers&w=23882

CApital News Service Returns for 2018

Now that the General Assembly is back in session, the VCU Capital News ServiceThe Capital News Service allows Emporia News readers to follow the highlights of the Virginia General Assembly.

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South. This year there are 28 Student Journalists and new advisors.

CNS operates as a three-credit course (formally listed as MASC 475) during spring semesters, when the General Assembly is in session. Each CNS student is assigned to serve one or more clients. Students must devote substantial time outside class to CNS — at least 10 hours a week. The students in MASC 475 meet twice a week to discuss and plan stories and work on reporting and writing skills.

During the fall semesters, the CNS system occasionally is used to distribute stories students do for other courses, such as MASC 404 (Specialized/Projects Reporting). Throughout the year, CNS can help newspaper editors find VCU students who can do freelance stories, internships and other assignments.

Wilma Wirt, who has since retired from the mass comm faculty, established CNS in 1994 for two reasons:

  • To give VCU’s journalism students an opportunity to actively cover and write about the Virginia General Assembly.
  • To give the state’s weekly, twice-weekly and thrice-weekly newspapers better access to the legislature — something Wirt deemed important in the everyday lives of all Virginians.

All stories sent by CNS will be published by Emporia News, but not all will be promoted to the front page. To read the stories that do not make the front page, click on the Capital News Service link in the top menu.

Hockey Player Has Chance for Own ‘Miracle on Ice’

Garrett Roe (Photo courtesy of Team USA)

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

When the NHL closed the door on its players competing in the Winter Olympics, it opened a door for Virginia native Garrett Roe to represent the U.S. on the men’s ice hockey team in the sport’s biggest international event.

In April, the NHL announced that it would not participate in the Winter Games in South Korea. “The overwhelming majority of our clubs are adamantly opposed to disrupting the 2017-18 NHL season for purposes of accommodating Olympic participation by some NHL players,” the league said.

So the U.S. hockey team turned to Americans who weren’t playing for the NHL – like Roe, a 5-foot-9 center for the team EV Zug in the Swiss national hockey league. Roe, who is from the Northern Virginia town of Vienna, is the team’s leading scorer.

In December, Roe woke up in his apartment in Zug to a missed phone call from USA Hockey general manager Jim Johnson. Johnson was prepared to ask Roe to do something many top athletes can only dream of – to represent his country in the Olympics.

Roe and Johnson eventually connected – and that’s how Roe now finds himself in South Korea ready to face off against players from Russia in the U.S. team’s first game on Feb. 17.

Roe was born into a hockey family. His father, Larry, played and coached hockey; his two older brothers played the sport, too.

“When we first started coaching him, you could tell he had that extra little sense for the game,” Larry Roe told The Washington Post. “Some players have a sense for the game. Some players are talented. Some players have both, and that’s Garrett.”

After high school, Roe played for the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League, the country’s top junior ice hockey league. Then he attended and played NCAA hockey for St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. When he graduated in 2011, he was the school’s all-time leader in assists and third all-time in points scored.

After college, Roe played for the Adirondack Phantoms in the American Hockey League, which serves as the primary developmental league for the NHL.

Two years later, Roe signed with EC Salzburg of the Austrian elite league EBEL for the 2013-14 campaign. Since then, he has played for pro teams in Germany, Sweden and now Switzerland.

Looking back, Roe, now 29, wonders if his decision to abandon the American minor leagues and play overseas was rash. It effectively ended any chance he had of making the NHL, his boyhood dream.

“If I could do it all over again, I’d probably make a different decision,” Roe said in an interview withThe Washington Times. “I’d try to stay at home and try to better myself and believe in myself.”

In his biography on the national team’s website, Roe said his favorite moment in USA Hockey history is the “TJ Oshie shootout and the Miracle on Ice.” At the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, Oshie scored on a penalty shot after overtime as the Americans beat the Russian team, 3-2.

Next week, Team USA will face the Russians again. Roe has high hopes.

“I like the team we have; I think we have a lot of blue-collar-type guys,” he told radio station WTOP. We’re going to be a team that’s extremely hard to play against and hopefully extremely hard to beat. That’s the goal.”

Homeland’s Record Spending Boosts Economy, Highlights VA’s Film Incentive Programs

Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam recently praised the American spy thriller series “Homeland” for bolstering Virginia's film industry and boosting the state’s economy. Recent studies add context to how Virginia attracts these productions through tax incentives and how such productions benefit the state.

Northam announced that season seven of SHOWTIME's “Homeland” is on track to produce about $45 million in direct spending in Virginia — the largest single production expenditure in the state’s history. Factor in the film’s effect on secondary businesses, and the economic impact may be nearly double that, at $82 million, he said.

Filming for season seven began in the fall and is scheduled to finish early this spring. Northam expressed his excitement to see Virginia portrayed in the new season.

“We have been delighted to host this iconic show in the Commonwealth,” he said in a press release. “‘Homeland’ has had an incredible impact on Virginia's economy and created an excitement that is impossible to measure.”

Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, and Esther Lee, Virginia’s secretary of Commerce and Trade, said the decision to film in the state has several economic benefits for the commonwealth.

“Cast members have dined and raved about Virginia's food scene; our beautiful scenery and cultural assets are in the national spotlight,” Edmunds said. “Virginia's status as a competitive film location has been bolstered.”

Lee said the commonwealth's film production industry has grown consistently over the last several years.

“‘’Homeland’s’ record estimated spend shows the remarkable potential this industry holds for Virginia,” she said. “This series has and will continue to contribute millions to Virginia's economy, and provide high-income jobs to our industry workers.”

Impact of Virginia’s Film Industry

Despite the praise, studies examining the impact of film productions and film tax incentives on Virginia's economy offer somewhat mixed results.

Mangum, an independent economics firm, found that the film industry has boosted Virginia’s economy significantly. Data compiled by the firm revealed that in 2016 the film industry contributed to Virginia's economy 4,287 full-time-equivalent jobs, $215 million in labor income, $697 million in economic output and $27 million in state and local tax revenue.

This includes the impact of productions such as documentaries, long-form specials, television series or mini-series, commercial ads and music videos.

Season three of AMC's “Turn” and season two of PBS's “Mercy Street” were filmed in Virginia from September 2015 to July 2016. A separate Mangum study said the two productions had a “sizable impact” on Virginia's economy.

Those two series generated 530 full-time-equivalent jobs, $29 million in wage and salary and $40 million in economic output. They also generated more than $2 million in state and local tax revenue.

A study published by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in 2017 evaluated Virginia’s film incentive programs from 2012 to 2016. It found that although incentives positively impacted economic growth, that impact was smaller than the impact of similar programs in other states.

The programs Virginia offers have a low return on investment at 20 or 30 cents per dollar. But Edmunds said the return on investment appears low because the study doesn't take every factor into account.

“If infrastructure investment and local business expansion, local resident career advancement and the added value of a broadcast platform related to tourism advertising were taken into account, the return on investment would likely be much higher,” Edmunds said in a written response to the study.

The study also found that incentives do influence production companies to film in the state, but they are not significant factors in the decision. Additionally, growth in Virginia's film industry has been small overall, despite increased spending through incentives. The film industry is being concentrated in metropolitan areas and is overshadowed by other states like California and New York.

Virginia's Motion Picture Incentives

Virginia is one of 31 states and U.S. territories that offer motion picture incentives, alongside Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The state offers two major incentives for filmmakers: The Motion Picture Opportunity Fund and the Motion Picture Tax Credit Fund.

According to the Code of Virginia, the Motion Picture Opportunity Fund is a grant to help cover the costs of production companies and producers who make their projects in Virginia using Virginia employees, goods and services.

This grant is awarded at the discretion of the governor and there is no minimum required expense. The legislature appropriated more than $3 million for the grant each of the last two fiscal years.

The Motion Picture Tax Credit fund provides a tax credit of “15 percent of the production company's qualifying expenses or 20 percent of such expenses if the production is filmed in an economically distressed area of the Commonwealth,” according to the Code of Virginia.

The JLARC study recommended eliminating or simplifying the tax credit and creating a point-based scoring system to evaluate applications for the grant. There was no legislation introduced in the 2018 session to address either recommendation.

“Homeland” is eligible to receive a Virginia film tax credit and grant. The exact amount will be based on the number of Virginia workers hired, Virginia goods and services purchased and intangible products including Virginia tourism promotions.

New Law Would Bring Public Meetings into the Digital Age

By Ryan Persaud, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bringing government further into the digital age, the General Assembly has given final approval to two bills that aim to modernize how members of city councils, school boards and other public bodies can attend and hold meetings using electronic technologies.

HB 906 and HB 908 would make it easier for public officials and citizens to attend meetings remotely and restrict public officials from texting each other during meetings. Both bills were introduced by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and would amend Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which ensures that citizens have access to public records upon request and the right to attend public government meetings.

On Thursday, the Senate joined the House in unanimously passing the two bills. They now go to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

The measures were recommended by the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, a state agency that resolves FOIA disputes. The council consulted the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that works to improve public access to government records and meetings. The coalition’s executive director, Megan Rhyne, said her group didn’t have any objections to the legislation.

HB 908 would remove a requirement for public officials attending a meeting remotely to have that remote area be open to the public. This would allow officials to call in from their home or a hotel room without making that area open to the public.

Alan Gernhardt, the executive director and senior attorney at the Virginia FOIA Council, said the current law dates back before people had cellphones and had to call in remotely from places such as community colleges and conference rooms.

“Of course, today, everyone’s got a cellphone,” Gernhardt said. “People can literally call in from anywhere. It just doesn’t make sense to require those to be open to the public in the same way, as if you were at a conference facility or something.”

To ensure transparency, however, the bill states that members of the public must have access to a “substantially equivalent” electronic means to witness the meeting.

“I think that [HB] 908 was trying to strike a balance between members of a public body using technology to participate as a member, but also preserving public right of access to meetings that may not all be in one place,” Rhyne said.

Gernhardt said the bill will enable people who can’t otherwise attend a public meeting to keep track of the meeting on their cellphone or computer.

“Especially for some people who are at work or are watching their kids and they can’t physically come to Richmond,” Gernhardt said, “this gives them a little more chance to actually observe and witness the operation of government, and that is extending the purpose of FOIA.”

HB 906 clarifies the definition of electronic communication in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Gernhardt said that previously, the definition didn’t cover methods of communication such as text messages, and that started to create problems at public meetings.

“They had a public meeting going on, but people were text messaging each other,” Gernhardt said. “And we said ‘Wait a second. Isn’t that kind of like having an electronic meeting within a regular meeting?’ It made everyone uncomfortable, at the very least.”

Rhyne said that in addition to supporting these pieces of legislation, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government also supports upcoming bills such as SB 336, which requires every elected public body to allow the opportunity for public comment during any open meeting.

After Shooting, Democrats and Republicans Mourn But Disagree Over Guns

By Aya Driouche, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. – Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly have expressed frustration over Republicans’ refusal to take up gun control legislation in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Florida.

“We extend our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, but our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” House Minority Leader David Toscano and Del. Charniele Herring, who chairs the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead and 14 injured. It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“These tragedies are not inherently inevitable; rather, they are enabled by the continued failure of policy-makers to act,” Toscano and Herring stated. “We have been entrusted by the public to institute policies to keep our communities safe, and we are failing the people who elected us to do so.”

Republican legislators said that they too are concerned about gun violence but that lawmakers should not be rash.

“It seems like we’re playing whack-a-mole,” said Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico. “Every time there’s a problem in society, we want to have a quick reaction. That’s why I say we need to stand back and see what’s going on.”

Democrats chided Republicans for such statements, including a comment by Del. Thomas Wright, R-Lunenberg, who said of the Florida shooting: “My heart goes out. But when it comes to the constitutional right to defend yourself and your family, that’s something that’s guaranteed.”

On the Senate floor, Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, said shootings happen at schools because they are gun-free zones. “The idea that we disarm our people in the schools – we forbid our teachers and our staff from carrying concealed firearms – is a mistake,” he said.

This legislative session, Virginia Republicans proposed bills to repeal the state’s prohibition on bringing weapons to houses of worship. Such a measure passed the Senate on a party-line vote and is awaiting action in the House.

Virginia Democrats also have proposed several bills regarding guns, including:

  • Banning bump stocks, a device that allows a semi-automatic rifle to mimic the firing speed of a fully automatic weapon. Bump stocks were used by the shooter who killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a concert in Las Vegas in October.
  • Instituting universal background checks on people who want to buy guns, including in private sales and at gun shows. Democrats said opinion polls show that most Virginians support such a law.
  • Keeping guns away from individuals who may present a threat to themselves or others. Legislationintroduced by Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan Jr., D-Arlington, would have allowed prosecutors and law enforcement officers to seek a court order to remove firearms from such individuals.

All of those bills were killed in committees controlled by Republicans.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced that he would visit the site of the Florida massacre and make school safety a priority when he meets with the nation’s governors next month.

“To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain,” Trump said. “Your suffering is our burden also.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Americans to come together and not politicize the shooting. “This is pure evil,” he said.

The shooter has been identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School for disciplinary reasons. Students who knew Cruz said he openly talked about his infatuation with guns. The FBI was warned in January that Cruz was a potential threat but did not act on the information.

Democratic Del. Cheryl Turpin, a teacher from Virginia Beach, discussed the shooting on the floor of the Virginia House. Like Ryan, she urged people to refrain from playing politics with the tragedy. But Turpin said that should not prevent legislators from enacting gun laws.

“Our call to action is not a political one but a plea for mercy, a plea that we will put politics aside and address this crisis head-on,” Turpin said.

“Waiting around for the right time to have this conversation, yet again, will only put more lives at risk. There are too many empty chairs in dining rooms across America due to our inaction on gun reform.”

​​Schools Still Need State’s OK to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Legislation allowing Virginia school districts to start classes before Labor Day is dead for this session of the General Assembly. ​

A Senate committee on Thursday postponed until 2019 consideration of the remaining two bills that would have given local school boards the power to decide when to begin classes.

The Senate Committee on Education and Health folded House Bill 1020 into House Bill 372 and then voted 9-6 to put off the legislation until next year.

Supporters of the bills said there are academic benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

“We lose roughly two weeks of the school year that other localities get for things like advanced placement testing,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, who has been teaching for 12 years and is currently at Glen Allen High School.

VanValkenburg co-sponsored HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority. That measure did not get out of the House Education Committee.

Under the current law, in place since 1986, school districts are required to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

School districts can get the waiver if they have been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of weather or other emergency situations.

According to the department, 86 public school districts in Virginia have the waiver and already start before Labor Day.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 372 as part of her platform for education reform. She said she believes in giving school boards the authority to make decisions instead of state government bureaucrats.

At Session’s Midpoint, 40% of Bills Are Still Alive

By George Copeland Jr. and Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly’s 2018 session has reached its midpoint, with more than 1,000 bills passing between the House and Senate, including potential changes to health care, criminal justice and transportation.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City, was pleased with what his party has accomplished this session.

“From measures that will make healthcare more accessible and affordable, to meaningful legislation to grow our economy, Republican senators have been unified in their commitment to improving the lives of all Virginians,” Norment said.

But more than 1,500 pieces of legislation on issues like marijuana decriminalization and gun violence have failed, having never made it out of committee.

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, criticized the GOP majority in the House for killing legislation such as his proposal to create a legal process to temporarily remove the firearms of someone who, according to family members or friends, is a risk to himself or others.

"These bills never received a subcommittee assignment, let alone a hearing,” Sullivan said.

Tuesday was “crossover day,” the deadline for bills to clear their house of origin:

●      Of the 1,609 House bills, delegates passed 589, or 37 percent. They now will be considered by the Senate.

●      Of the 994 Senate bills, senators approved 469, or 47 percent. They have been sent to the House for consideration.

Here is a rundown on the status of key legislation:

Bills that have ‘crossed over’ and are still alive

Immigration: HB 1257 would require Virginia to follow the immigration laws set by the federal government, potentially prohibiting so-called sanctuary cities. The measure was briefly defeated in the House on a tie vote. But then delegates reconsidered and voted 51-49 to send the bill to the Senate.

Education: HB 1419 would increase students’ recess time at school “to develop teamwork, social skills, and overall physical fitness.” HB 50 targets “lunch-shaming” by teachers — an unofficial practice in which students who can’t afford or owe money for school meals must do work or wear a special wristband or stamp.

African-American cemeteries: Several bills would allow qualifying groups to collect state funds for maintaining historically black cemeteries in Loudoun County (SB 163), Charlottesville (HB 360) and Portsmouth (SB 198 and HB 527). Last year, the General Assembly approved such funding for select Richmond cemeteries. Another proposal (HB 284) would cover every black cemetery in Virginia.

Medical Marijuana: HB 1251 would allow wider certification for medical marijuana usage, and increases the amount of medical marijuana dispensed by providers from a 30-day to 90-day supply.

Energy conservation: SB 894 would establish the Virginia Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund. It would give no-interest loans to public institutions for energy conservation and efficiency projects. Its passage comes after several bills focused on expanding solar energy and capping carbon dioxide emissions in the commonwealth failed in the House and Senate.

Transportation: HB 1539 and HB 1319 would create a reform commision for the Washington Metro and provide more money for mass transit in Northern Virginia. SB 583 would raise the motor vehicle fuels tax by 2.1 percent in the western part of Virginia to fund improvements on Interstate 81.

Economic development: HB 222 would offer tax breaks to companies that create jobs paying at least twice the minimum wage in certain localities. The localities are mostly rural areas in southern and western Virginia and along the Chesapeake Bay but also include Petersburg.

Criminal justice: HB 1550  and SB 105 aim to raise the threshold for grand larceny from $250 to $500. The new limit would keep people who steal amounts under it from being branded as felons. The current threshold, implemented in 1980, is one of the lowest in the country.

Health care: HB 338 could open the door to Medicaid expansion in Virginia — an issue championed by Democrats but historically opposed by Republicans. The bill, which outlines work requirements for Medicaid recipients, made it through the House in the final days before crossover.

Government transparency: SB 592 would prohibit the personal use of any campaign funds. Candidates guilty of converting campaign assets for personal use would be forced to repay the amount exploited to the State Board of Elections and could face additional fines.

Prisons: Under HB 83, correctional facilities would have to ensure that female inmates have free access to feminine hygiene products. The bill comes less than a year after Congress passed similar legislation for federal prisons.

Bills that have failed for this session

Bump stocks: A bill banning the use of bump stocks — mechanical devices that increase the rate of fire of rifles — failed in a House subcommittee. HB 41 was introduced in response to the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, where 58 people died and over 500 were injured.

Civil Rights: Attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in SJ 4HJ 2 and HJ 4 failed to advance beyond their original chambers.

Childbearing: HB 67 would have prohibited any employer in Virginia from discharging an employee on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition, including lactation. The bill was killed by a House subcommittee. Existing law applies only to employers with five to 15 employees.

Tampon tax: Feminine hygiene products will continue to be taxed after HB 152 died in the House.

Marijuana decriminalization: SB 111, which aimed to allow simple possession, was rejected in a 6-9 vote by a Senate subcommittee. HB 974, which would have legalized the possession and distribution of medical marijuana, also failed.

Mental health: HB 252 would have required at least one mental health counselor for every 250 students in each high school in Virginia. HB 174 would have established protocols for police officers when communicating with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities.

In a press release, Gov. Ralph Northam commended the General Assembly’s efforts, calling the 2018 session “the most productive period I have seen since I came to the General Assembly in 2008.”

“I look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to continue this progress and meet the challenges our fellow Virginians have asked us to solve.”

Virginia May Create Ombudsman to Help with Student Loans

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia legislators are seeking to mitigate the personal and economic consequences of their constituents’ student loan debt by creating a state-level ombudsman to troubleshoot problems and educate borrowers regarding college loans.

In 2017, more than 1 million Virginians owed more than $30 billion in student loan debt, state officials say. Nationally, student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and climbing.

“Virginians owe more on student loans than we do on credit cards or car loans, but only student loans lack consumer protections,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

This week, the Senate and House each passed bills to create the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman and establish a Borrower’s Bill of Rights. SB 394 passed the Senate unanimously on Monday; HB 1138 cleared the House, 94-5, on Tuesday.

Supporters say the ombudsman’s office would help college students secure loans and understand how to pay them off. They said the office also would establish a culture of transparency, fairness and open communication between loan providers and borrowers.

Besides reviewing and resolving borrower complaints, the ombudsman would educate loan borrowers about their rights and responsibilities and about potential problems such as late payments.

By December 2019, the ombudsman would develop a course for borrowers, half of whom are under 25.

“Too many student borrowers sign their names on the dotted line at only 18 or 19 years old without fully comprehending their rights and responsibilities associated with that debt, but also knowing that without those loans they would not be able to earn their degrees,” said Del. Maria “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored HB 1138.

In addition, the Senate unanimously approved SB 362, which would require companies that handle the billing and other services on student loans to obtain a license from the State Corporation Commission.

Virginia is not the first jurisdiction to experiment with measures to protect student loan borrowers. Washington, D.C., established a student loan ombudsman and Borrower’s Bill of Rights a year ago.

The bipartisan approval of the legislation marks a win for Gov. Ralph Northam, who included the creation of a student loan ombudsman among his top priorities for the 2018 session.

Price also sponsored a bill that aimed to create a state agency to help Virginians refinance their student loan debt. HB 615 was killed on a 5-3 party-line vote in a House Appropriations subcommittee.

High Schools May Offer American Sign Language As Foreign Language Credit

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — American Sign Language may soon be offered as a foreign language credit in Virginia high schools.

In 2011, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring colleges and universities to accept high school American Sign Language classes as part of their entrance requirements. Now, Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, who sponsored that bill, has introduced HB 84, which would give students high school credits for those classes as well.

Bell described American Sign Language as a way for the deaf or hard of hearing to communicate wherever they go. He said most larger colleges and universities offer a course on the topic.

"University of Virginia has an American Sign Language program where they teach it,” Bell said. “They’ve had a pretty robust program.”

Bell said the idea for HB 84 was brought to his attention by a young lady and her aunt.

“The young lady wrote me a letter asking that, if high schools don’t offer American Sign Language, students be allowed to take a virtual learning class or community college class to American Sign Language,” he said.

HB 84 was amended to allow the American Sign Language courses to be taught by multidivision online providers, which are approved by the Virginia Board of Education and offer online and virtual classes to K-12 students. Bell said Virginia has 20 such providers, each with certified teachers who are reviewed annually.

HB 84 passed the House unanimously on Feb. 6. A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Friday in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Bill Would Provide More Resources to Help Those With Spinal Cord Injuries

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginians with recent spinal cord injuries soon may receive more resources, if a bill sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan passes in the House.

Senate Bill 287 would make information regarding spinal cord injuries in the Statewide Trauma Registry available to the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. The data would allow the department to develop and implement programs and services to those suffering from spinal cord injuries.

“This is essentially a clean-up bill,” McClellan, D-Richmond, told the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions on Thursday. The committee unanimously approved the measure, sending it to the full House for a vote.

Sharon Drennan, mother of a son with a spinal cord injury and founder of the United Spinal Association of Virginia, spoke in favor of the bill.

 “Without the data that is needed, we are unable to provide the resources to individuals across the commonwealth that are newly injured,” Drennan said.  “They can become isolated, and we want to help them become active members of our community. With this data, we can do the outreach we need.”

Colleen Miller, executive director of the Disability Law Center of Virginia, said her center supports SB 287 as well.

Last month, the bill passed in the Senate, 40-0.

Civil Liberties Groups Oppose Agreement on Theft Threshold

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Minority and low-income advocacy groups are joining the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the General Assembly’s bipartisan compromise that would increase the threshold at which a theft is considered a felony.

Bill Farrar, a spokesman for the Virginia ACLU, said the proposal is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.

Under current law, a person who steals an item valued at more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny.HB 1550 and SB 105 would raise that threshold to $500 – an increase Democrats have advocated.

Republicans agreed to the legislation because it also would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision.

Farrar said that the $500 threshold still would be too low and that the legislation could lead to poor people being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t make restitution.

“It is a racial justice issue, a women’s rights issue and an economic justice issue,” said a statement issued by the ACLU and other groups. “The ‘compromise’ as agreed to would continue to affect women and people of color disparately, as well as keep many poor people under indefinite looming threat of additional consequences under the criminal justice system.”

Justice Forward, the Legal Aid Justice Center, the Loudoun County Branch of the NAACP, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Virginia Organizing joined the Virginia ACLU in opposing the agreement.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, as well as Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, announced the agreement to raise the felony theft threshold last week. Northam hailed it as a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform” as members of both parties in the General Assembly agreed to push through legislation their counterparts previously blocked.

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates voted 98-2 in favor of HB 1550. It has been referred to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Last month, the Senate passed SB 105, 36-3. It is now before the House Rules Committee.

Powhatan Bobsledder Represents Team USA

Hakeem Abdul-Saboor (Photo credit: Kent Meister)

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

Hakeem Abdul-Saboor will compete for Team USA in South Korea in about a week. But before he could call himself an Olympic bobsledder, the 2005 Powhatan High School graduate was a triple-threat athlete and bodybuilder.

He served as captain of the track and field team, played basketball and excelled at football, leading his team to a career record of 36-3. He went on to accept a scholarship to play Division II football for the University of Virginia at Wise.

“Hakeem is probably the best all-around athlete I have ever coached,” UVa-Wise head coach Dewey Lusk said onAbdul-Saboor’s website.

Abdul-Saboor played running back for Wise until 2009 when he tore his ACL four games into his senior season. He said that injury ended both his college and potential professional football career.

In an interview with NBC Olympics, Abdul-Saboor said he stayed on campus and focused on the gym. A friend told him he should consider entering a bodybuilder contest. His first competition was the 2012 Bodybuilding.com FIT USA Event in Boise, Idaho.

“I think they picked 16 or 20 of us from the nation,” Abdul-Saboor told NBC Olympics. “I ended up winning the people’s choice award. So that was everybody over the nation voting for which contestant they liked, their physique best.”

Abdul-Saboor was invited to compete in bigger shows but didn’t have the money. He moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where he worked for Performance Training Inc. as a personal trainer and speed-agility quickness coach. In 2014, a Facebookvideo of Abdul-Saboor got the attention of Dr. Brad DeWeese, a professor at Eastern Tennessee State University and former head of physiology for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“Having coached a large portion of Olympians in the sport, it was obvious that Hakeem had the power and physical build to be successful in bobsled,” DeWeese told NBC Olympics.

DeWeese invited Abdul-Saboor to Johnson City, Tennessee, for a dryland bobsled combine. He performed flawlessly on each event. DeWeese went on to coach Abdul-Saboor to three national team designations and finally to the U.S. Olympic team.

Abdul-Saboor’s bobsledding career launched in 2015 when he competed in the Minor League North American Cup. By January 2016, he had competed in three World Cups.

In December, Abdul-Saboor and two-time Olympian Nick Cunningham placed fifth in the two-man bobsled at the World Cup in Austria – the best finish for any U.S. sled at an international event this season.

On Jan. 15, Abdul-Saboor shared via Instagram that he would continue to represent the United States – but this time at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I am honored to announce that I was named to the 2018 Olympic bobsled team and will be representing Team USA in February,” Abdul-Saboor said. “I’m still at a loss for words right now but am excited to continue to grind it out and work hard to be my best at the Olympic Games.”

Abdul-Saboor, 30, will compete in the two-man and four-man bobsledding events, which begin Feb. 19.

Young Lawmakers Form Group to Address Millennials’ Concerns

By Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bipartisan, nationwide organization seeking to involve young people in politics has established a chapter in Virginia, focusing on such issues as student debt relief and government transparency, officials said Wednesday.

The Millennial Action Project has created the Virginia Future Caucus, consisting of young lawmakers who vowed to work across party lines.

“When we are able to bond together, we are able to see past the tribalism that has divided us for so long,” said Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul, 36, of Roanoke.

Republican Del. Emily Brewer, 33, of Suffolk, said the caucus reflects a generational change in Virginia.

“Going forward, we’ve got to focus on key issues,” such as technology, she said. “We need to make sure we’re looking at providing opportunities for our generation and the next generation to stay here.”

Brewer and Rasoul were among a dozen state legislators who attended a news conference Wednesday to announce the formation of the Virginia Future Caucus.

Steven Olikara, president and co-founder of the Millennial Action Project, said this is the organization’s 22nd state chapter.

“We want to empower the next generation of leaders to make our democracy function better,” Olikara said. “Today the status quo is insufficient. Trust is declining. Partisanship is rampant. We think the next generation can be part of the solution.”

At the news conference, speakers noted that young Americans are more likely to be unaffiliated with a political party. They said these voters are concerned about issues such as:

  • Clean energy
  • The “staggering” cost of college and student loans
  • The “gig economy,” in which temporary employment is common as organizations hire independent contractors for short-term work, such as with Uber drivers

Olikara said 30 members of Congress have joined the project. He said the effort has especially focused on state legislatures, “which is really where a lot of young leaders are taking their first steps in politics including here in Virginia.”

The average age in the Virginia House of Delegates is 52. But several young people were elected to the House last fall, including Jay Jones, 28, of Norfolk; Lee Carter, 30, of Manassas; Chris Hurst, 30, of Montgomery County; and Danica Roem, 33, of Prince William County.

Rasoul and Del. Christopher Peace, R-Hanover, will co-chair the new caucus.

Peace said he was the youngest delegate when he was elected 13 years ago. Now 41, Peace said there can be an “issue of translation” between young legislators and their older colleagues who may be unfamiliar with terms such as Airbnb and Bitcoin.

Peace said the new caucus can “provide some real leadership on policies that would benefit people in the millennial generation.”

Olikara said Virginia has a history of young political leaders making their mark: Thomas Jefferson was just 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

VCU Athletics Highlights Sexual Assault Resources After Nassar Trial

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia Commonwealth University’s athletics department is seeking to ensure that student-athletes are aware of its resources to prevent and report sexual assault and misconduct in light of the Larry Nassar trial and related congressional inquiries.

Nassar, a former sports physician at Michigan State University and for USA Gymnastics, is facing multiple sentences totaling more than 100 years in federal prison after decades of sexual abuse.

Three congressional inquiries targeting Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee are underway to determine if they ignored or enabled Nassar’s crimes. Michigan State’s Athletic Department is also under NCAA investigation, which has prompted athletic departments in universities nationwide to reevaluate their sexual assault policies.

In a report released last week, VCU Athletics said its program works closely with the university to maintain a culture conducive to reporting sexual assault or misconduct and raising awareness of their prevalence. The department conducts annual education, training and workshops, and brings in guest speakers for student-athletes.

"We take pride in working with our Office of Equity and Access Services and VCU Police to create a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault, harassment or gender discrimination,” said VCU Vice President and Director of Athletics Ed McLaughlin. “We are fortunate to have such wonderful resources on our campus to educate our student-athletes.”

The department has actively participated in the It’s On Us movement, a national campaign against sexual assault on college campuses. As part of the initiative, VCU Athletics has hosted an assortment of events aimed at educating students and staff on the university’s protocol for handling instances of sexual misconduct.

For instance, Scott Lewis of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management spent a day with VCU Athletics during the fall semester, providing sexual assault education training for all staff and student-athletes.

The department has also collaborated with The Wellness Resource Center at VCU to provide two training workshops for student-athletes – the One Love Escalation workshop, which aims to educate athletes on the signs of relationship abuse, as well as a consent workshop.

“We take pride in knowing that we are leaders on our campus in creating a safe and supportive culture for all students,” McLaughlin said.

These resources available to athletes are in addition to existing sexual assault training requirements. All VCU students and employees are required to complete Not Anymore training, an online module that shares the university’s policies, reporting options and resources through real stories told by survivors.

The VCU Title IX office said the number of reports it receives has grown significantly over the last two years, signaling greater awareness of the university’s resources.

“Units such as Athletics and the Office of the Provost conduct additional education for faculty and staff in these key areas,” the Title IX office said in a statement. “We are a bystander-engaged community where we care and look out for one another and a broad culture of reporting, where people who see something say something.”

Additional information and resources can be found on the VCU Title IX website.

Richmond City Council Votes 7-2 to Increase Meals Tax

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service
 
RICHMOND -- Richmond restaurant, fast food and movie theater customers will pay an extra 1.5 percent with their food starting in July, following the City Council's decision to raise the meals tax to help fund school construction and improvement.
 
Over the course of a five-hour meeting, the council voted 7-2 Monday to approve increasing the local meals tax from 6 percent to 7.5 percent.  Combined with the sales tax, this will bring the total tax on a restaurant check to 12.8 percent.
 
Tessa McKenzie, one of the citizens who supported the increase, called its passage "one step in a larger solution towards a more equitable system" for Richmond's public schools.
 
“This seems like a great, low-hanging fruit to really galvanize excellent movement for our students,” said McKenzie, who works for Bridging Richmond, a group that advocates for improvements in education and workforce development.
 
Councilman Parker Agelasto, 5th District, voted for the tax increase but expressed concerns.  He promised greater scrutiny of financial issues as the council drafts the next city budget.
 
“Million-and-a-half subsidies for Main Street Station? Gone!” Agelasto said.  “The Redskins training camp?  They want to renegotiate and renew this by July 1?  Well, you know what, Redskins? Go!”
 
The action capped a contentious evening, one set in place after Mayor Levar Stoney rallied his City Council allies to push for the vote last week.  Stoney has said that the increase will raise $9 million a year, eventually allowing the city to borrow $150 million for the construction and improvement of Richmond's public schools over the next five years.
 
While council deliberation over the vote was long and passionate, the loudest voices came from Richmond residents who spoke.  Comments supporting and opposing the tax increase extended well past the 30-minute limit allowed for both. They represented a diverse mix of citizens, including parents, movie theater owners, restaurant managers, teachers and students.  The latter two made up a significant part of the comments urging passage of the tax increase.
 
Thomas Jefferson High School student Alexis Gresham said that the higher tax would help her younger sister’s school environment without straining the family’s budget.
 
“As an RPS student, I can’t wait,” Gresham said. “Please vote for the meals tax.”
 
Opponents of the tax increase offered several reasons, including a lack of trust in the council and School Board. Some said the tax hike represented "economic discrimination" against restaurants and movie theaters. A few even felt the increase didn't go far enough and would only succeed in keeping the public schools "afloat" in their current state.
 
“I’m for the schools,” said Jason Thrasher, owner and operator of The Local Eatery and Pub.  “If this doesn’t go into effect until July 1st, why can’t you take another 30 days to sit down, plan it out, map it out and give the city and its citizens and taxpayers a way to see that you’re actually going to use the money for its purpose?”
 
Councilwoman Kristen Larson, 4th District, objected to what she saw as a lack of transparency and accountability expected of a body that served "as a check and balance to the mayor."  
 
"If we don't honor the duty given to us by the voters and the Virginia Constitution, we have no purpose in this process," Larson said.
 
Larson and Councilwoman Kim Gray, 2nd District, voted against raising the meals tax.
 
Earlier in the meeting, Larson called for a delay to the vote; her request was rejected 8-1.  A second attempted delay was made by Agelasto and was rejected 5-4.
 
Several opponents of the tax increase cited legislation approved earlier Monday by the Virginia Senate as part of their objections.
 
Senate Bill 750 would require Stoney to present to the council by Jan. 1, 2019, a plan “to modernize the city's K-12 educational infrastructure consistent with national standards” without raising taxes -- or else the mayor must “inform city council such a plan is not feasible.”
 
The bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant, a former member of the Richmond School Board. It passed the Senate 40-0 and now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.

Proposals seek to spur growth in Virginia distillery industry

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia distillers ​may soon be toasting the General Assembly after the Senate passed a bill to let ​liquor manufacturers keep more of the money from selling their spirits in tasting rooms.

Currently, distilleries must sell their bottles to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, then buy them back at full retail price before pouring samples inside their tasting rooms. The markup averages 69 percent and can be as high as 93 percent, according to ABC.

But distilleries could keep the price markup under Senate Bill 803, introduced by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg. The Senate voted 23-16 in favor of the measure Friday. It is now before the House Appropriations Committee.

ABC currently takes about 55 percent of the gross revenues that distilleries make in their tasting rooms, said Scott Harris of Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in the Loudoun County town of Purcellville. After overhead and worker pay, he said, most Virginia distilleries lose money on such operations.  

Distilleries are a growing enterprise in Virginia, which considers itself the birthplace of American spirits. After serving two terms as president, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon to brew his own whiskey.

The industry does more than $160 million a year in business in terms of creating jobs, buying agricultural products and selling spirits, according to the Virginia Distillers Association.

Still, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared with neighboring Kentucky. Distilleries there have an annual economic impact of $8.5 billion, the Kentucky Distillers Association says.

Kentucky is one of the country’s largest producers of distilled spirits and, unlike Virginia, the industry is not controlled by the state government. Harris said Virginia distilleries are hampered by a “punitive landscape.”

Curtis Coleburn, a lobbyist for the Virginia Distillers Association, said SB 803 could  spur major growth in the commonwealth’s spirits industry.

“When the distilleries make a sale, half of the money goes to the state through taxes and profits because it’s managed through ABC,” Coleburn said. “Senate Bill 803 would allow the distillers to keep more of the proceeds for sales at the distillery stores and will enable them to hire more Virginians and expand their plans and grow the industry.”

Virginia distillers say they would like to make and sell their products on their premises at the cost of production. This would allow them to have profitable tasting rooms and generate tourism, said Amy Ciarametaro, executive director for the Virginia Distillers Association.

“We have to educate our legislators that, in order for the distilled spirits industry to really be a powerful economic generator for the commonwealth -- and it can be -- we’ve got to make these distillery stores profit generators for their operators,” Ciarametaro said.  

Belle Isle Moonshine in Richmond does not have a store on premise, but co-founder and CEO Vince Riggi said reducing the regulations on tasting room sales would benefit all distillers in the commonwealth.  

“We want to market Virginia spirits,” Riggi said. “We want to elevate the brand and showcase it to the consumers in the state.”

Trailblazing Educator Dr. Grace Harris Dies at 84

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dr. Grace E. Harris, the highest-ranking African-American and highest-ranking woman in the history of Virginia Commonwealth University, died Monday at age 84, leaving a legacy that stretches throughout and beyond the state of Virginia.

In an email to the VCU community, university President Michael Rao called Harris “a giant in legacy and in character, a woman whose contributions to VCU and to the countless lives we touch are truly immeasurable.”

“She was one of the wisest, kindest, and most generous people I have ever met,” Rao wrote.

Harris was born Grace Victoria Edmondson on July 1, 1933, in Halifax County to a family of preachers and educators in segregation-era Virginia. Harris had five siblings. One sister, Mamye BaCote, went on to become a member of the Virginia House of Delegates; another, the late Sue E. Wilder, was a NASA data analyst referenced in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

Graduating as class valedictorian from Halifax Training School in 1950, Harris attended several institutions of higher education, including Grinnell College in Iowa as an exchange student. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and graduated with highest honors from Hampton University, then named Hampton Institute.

When Harris was a graduate student in 1954, Virginia Commonwealth University – then known as Richmond Professional Institute – refused to admit her because of her race. Undeterred, Harris spent two years at Boston University, alongside classmates such as Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1960, she returned to the newly named VCU to complete a master’s degree in social work. She served as an assistant professor in VCU’s School of Social Work from 1967 to 1976. For the next 30 years, Harris was a rising presence in the school’s ranks, becoming a dean in 1982, provost in 1993 and acting president in 1995.

Along the way, Harris earned accolades and awards. In 1999, the VCU Board of Visitors established the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute in her honor. In 2007, VCU renamed the former School of Business building as Grace E. Harris Hall.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a longtime friend, celebrated Harris’ achievements, saying in a statement that her “connection to the needs of the community and its citizens had a dramatic impact on the identity of VCU and the way it engaged people.”

Though she retired from VCU in 2016, Harris’ social work never stopped. She assisted nonprofit organizations across the commonwealth, including serving on the advisory board of the Virginia Health Care Foundation. Deborah Oswalt, executive director of that group, described her as “small in physique, but she was a giant in all other respects.”

“Grace helped the Virginia Health Care Foundation flourish during a time of transition and fiscal uncertainty,” Oswalt said. “She brought a thoughtful, intelligent, kind approach to everything she did and to all with whom she engaged.”

Harris was vice chair for Mark Warner’s transition team after he was elected governor in 2001. The following year, Warner appointed her to the Virginia Commission on Higher Education.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia praised the “keen insight into university administration” Harris provided when he appointed members of Virginia’s public college boards during his governance.

“Dr. Harris used her lifetime of groundbreaking service to help cultivate and elevate emerging leaders,” Kaine said.

She is survived by her husband, James W. “Dick” Harris; her two adult children, Gayle and James; and her grandson, Jullian, who earned a master’s degree in sociology from VCU in 2016.

Senate OKs Raising Fuel Tax in Western Virginia to Improve I-81

By DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An additional fuel tax of 2.1 percent would be levied in western Virginia under a Senate bill approvedTuesday creating a regional transportation fund to help pay for improvements on busy Interstate 81.

The legislation sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, passed the Senate 24-16. It would create the Western Virginia Transportation Fund to improve conditions on the state’s longest interstate, stretching from Bristol to Winchester – mostly two lanes in each direction.

The road is packed with long-haul truckers, many more than the capacity for which the highway was designed.

The Senate also passed a bill proposed by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, directing the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop a plan for improving I-81 corridor improvements, possibly using tolls.

Obenshain joined 15 other Republicans in voting against Hanger’s SB 583, which would impose the extra tax in 32 counties and 13 cities.

“While Sen. Hanger and I agree that we need to do something to improve Interstate 81 and to make it safer, we disagree about how to do it. I do not agree that we should impose a higher gas tax on residents along the 81 corridor to pay for it,” Obenshain said earlier this session.

“I have been working on a bipartisan plan with the administration to develop a plan that would focus on tolling long distance interstate traffic, including heavy trucks without burdening those who depend on the Interstate for travel to and from work,” Obenshain said.

Obenshain’s bill, SB 971, passed unanimously. Both bills now move to the House of Delegates.

Under Hanger’s bill, the staff of the Blacksburg-Christianburg-Montgomery Area and Roanoke Valley planning organizations, along with Virginia Department of Transportation, would organize the Western Virginia Transportation Commission.

The additional fuel tax would affect:

  • The counties of Alleghany, Augusta, Bath, Bland, Botetourt, Buchanan, Carroll, Clarke, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Franklin, Frederick, Giles, Grayson, Highland, Lee, Montgomery, Page, Pulaski, Roanoke, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Russell, Scott, Shenandoah, Smyth, Tazewell, Warren, Washington, Wise and Wythe.
  • The cities of Bristol, Buena Vista, Covington, Galax, Harrisonburg, Lexington, Norton, Radford, Roanoke, Salem, Staunton, Waynesboro and Winchester.

 

Virginia Skier Prepares for her Third Olympics

By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

While most of Virginia shuts down at the threat of snow, Ashley Caldwell thrives in it.

Caldwell, 24, started practicing gymnastics at 4, and after watching the freestyle skiers in the 2006 Winter Olympics, she was inspired to take her talents to the snow. Now, Caldwell is competing in her third Olympic Games.

An Ashburn native, Caldwell and her parents quickly realized suburban Northern Virginia was not the best place to start a career in skiing. So at 14, she moved to Lake Placid to train with the U.S National Development team. Two years later, Caldwell was the youngest American to compete in the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“We’ve been together from the beginning, through all the new tricks, hard workouts, crashes, injuries and victories,” Caldwell said. “It’s an honor to be competing alongside my teammates knowing that they are my friends and that we all are genuinely cheering each other on.”

Among five freestyle skiing events in the Winter Olympics – moguls, aerials, ski halfpipe, ski cross, and ski slopestyle – Caldwell competes in ladies’ aerials, in which she skis off a 2- to 4-meter jump and attempts tricks such as flips and twists.

Caldwell is best known for her trick – the full, full, full – which involves three somersaults while twisting her body. This trick is traditionally performed by men; at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Caldwell was the only female to attempt the trick, and she completed it.

“I’ve said over the years that when I started this sport, I always wanted to ‘jump like the boys,’ but I don’t believe that anymore,” Caldwell said. “I don’t like qualifying my goals with a gender expectation. I want to jump my best, regardless of gender. I want to be treated like Ashley. I’m proud of being a female, but I don’t want to let that define my expectations as an athlete.”

Caldwell’s career stalled in December 2011 when she tore the ACL in her right knee and a year later when she tore her ACL in her left knee. Those injuries didn’t stop her from skiing, though: In 2014, she competed in the Sochi Games.

“One of my biggest struggles in preparing for this Olympics has been injury and doubt,” Caldwell told Capital News Service. “I push myself very hard, and that motivation has led to several heartbreaking injuries over the years, but also mild injuries that can make it so much harder to compete your best.”

Caldwell’s most recent triumph was at the 2017 Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships in Spain, where she took first place.

Caldwell’s first appearance in Pyeongchang will be Thursday in the ladies’ aerials qualification. She is looking forward to the event.

“I’m prepared to be unprepared. I’m ready for anything that comes at me during this Games,” Caldwell said.

Lovings’ Story Provides Inspiration for Valentine’s Day

By Chelsea Jackson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving met in high school and fell in love in Caroline County in the 1950s. They decided to marry when Mildred became pregnant at 18.

At the time, they couldn’t wed in Virginia: Mildred was of African American and Indian descent, Richard was white and the state prohibited interracial marriages. So the couple married in Washington, D.C. Later, they challenged Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act – prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down such laws across the country.

Valentine’s Day can be an opportune time to reflect on the Lovings and their perseverance in the face of legal and societal pressures. The Lovings’ ordeal resonates especially with interracial couples like Brittany Young and Josh Landry of Richmond.

“Josh and I have had plenty of people tell us we shouldn’t be together based solely on racial tension,” Young said. “I think if more people could see that stories like the Lovings’ are how we should look at love, the world would be a better place.”

The backdrop for the Lovings’ struggle was the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made interracial marriage illegal in Virginia. After they married in D.C. on June 2, 1958, the couple returned to Caroline County.

After an anonymous tip to authorities that the couple was living together, Richard and Mildred faced ostracism, threats of violence and jail time. Originally sentenced to one year in jail, the judge decided to suspend their sentences if they agreed to leave Virginia for 25 years.

The newlyweds left their home and families for a new life in Washington. Eventually, they went to court to challenge their home state’s miscegenation law. On June 12, 1967, that case – Loving v. Virginia – resulted in a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down laws in 16 states prohibiting interracial marriage.

Ken Tanabe, a designer, art director and teacher in New York, has promoted the anniversary of that decision asLoving Day – a day to celebrate multicultural unions.

“Without the Lovings, I may never have been born,” said Tanabe, whose mother is from Belgium and father from Japan. “I’m humbled by their struggle and grateful for their perseverance.”

Today, interracial relationships are relatively common. One in six newlyweds married outside their race in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.

Mildred Loving was widely described as being African American, but later in life, she identified as Indian. Richard Loving died in 1975 and Mildred Loving in 2008, but their story lives on. The 2016 award-winning film “Loving” was shot in Virginia, and law students still study the case, which also figured in the debate over same-sex unions.

Last June, on the 50th anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia case, a historical highway marker was installed outside the old Virginia Supreme Court building, 1111 E. Broad St. in Richmond, to commemorate the Lovings’ triumphant love story. Caroline County is working on the placement of its own historical marker.

6 Months After Charlottesville, Mother of Slain Activist Shares Message of Tolerance

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Six months after Heather Heyer was killed protesting a neo-Nazi rally, a memorial at the site of her death is still being showered with gifts, mementos and flowers. But it has also been vandalized, according to Heyer’s mother – a reminder of the hatred that took her daughter’s life.

For many, the riot triggered by far-right protesters in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 exposed the underbelly of hatred and racism in America, and the months since then have been about coming to terms with that reality. But for Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, the half-year has been hallmarked by efforts to promote the values Heyer stood for – and eventually died for – in Charlottesville.

“She wanted everybody treated equally and fairly. That was a lifelong passion for her,” Bro said Sunday.

Bro said she is getting used to a new lifestyle after her daughter’s death. She has had speaking engagements and preached a message of empowerment at the MTV Video Music Awards and on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Reporters have constantly been at her door. She is working with a public relations firm and is hiring a press agent and speaker’s bureau to help her manage the demands.

She said she has been surprised that people want to hear what she has to say. But she hopes to empower them to fight prejudice and intolerance.

“It’s not about me, and it’s not really about my daughter. It’s more that people are horrified to realize how entrenched the hatred is,” Bro said. “I think that addressing people in a calm and rational manner not only reassures people but gives them a little bit of hope about how we can fix this.”

The nation is still reeling from the events of Aug. 11-12, when far-right activists gathered in Charlottesville for what they claimed was a protest opposing the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.

It quickly devolved into mayhem when the so-called “alt-right” protesters clashed with those who showed up to oppose them. One far-right protester drove a car into a group of counterprotesters – killing Heyer, who was 32 years old, and injuring 19 others.

Immediately after Heyer’s death, Bro started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to help pay for her daughter’s funeral costs. When the funeral was over, the fund still had more than $200,000.

Using her daughter’s story to amplify a positive message, Bro then established the Heather Heyer Foundation, which will give scholarships to high school students.

“I said, ‘There’s no way people think we need this kind of money for the funeral itself.’ That tells me people want to be a part of whatever they feel Heather was doing,” Bro said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do something responsible with this money.’ All this money was coming in, and I wanted to be held accountable for it.’”

The foundation will grant scholarships to students at Charlottesville High School and William Monroe High School, which Heyer attended, in nearby Stanardsville.. Bro said the money will go to students who want to advocate for social justice.

“We’re not looking to create new advocates. We’re looking to help advocates who are already in activism to further their education,” Bro said.

In the face of it all, Bro is a mother deeply grieving the loss of her daughter.

She remembers her daughter as a young adult who was trying to be the best grown-up she could be, including working three jobs to be self-sufficient. Heyer was a paralegal and worked as a bartender and waitress in the evening.

“She was a go-getter, and I was proud of her for that,” Bro said.

Bro visited her daughter’s impromptu memorial Sunday. The street has been named “Heather Heyer Way,” and the words “no more hate” – among other messages – are written in chalk on the side of a building next to the spot.

Bro said she thinks America has made moves toward love and understanding since last summer’s violent demonstration.

“This was not a wonderful day, but I feel like we’re moving forward in the world. We’re taking this as a rallying point, and people are stepping up to the plate,” Bro said.

“A lot of white people were like, ‘Well this doesn’t really apply to me.’ And this time, it slapped them in the face and showed them this applies to everybody.”

White supremacists have not yielded in their vileness since the rally, Bro said. She has kept her daughter’s ashes in a hidden location so they won’t be tampered with by racists.

“From what I’ve learned, they crave either silence – where everybody ignores when they come to town so they feel vindicated because no one seems to care,” Bro said. “Or they crave violence, so they will pick a progressive city like Charlottesville that’s not accustomed to having a violent outburst like that.”

In some ways, the “Unite the Right” rally united the country, Heyer said, but it also further divided Americans.

“We’re trying to find ways to bridge some of that gap with difficult conversations,” Bro said. “I’ve seen people, from both sides, to work to bridge that gap. That’s been encouraging to me.”

Reston Teen Skates Her Way to Olympic Winter Games

Maame Biney (center) and other skaters, Courtesy of Maame Biney

 

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

Eighteen-year-old Maame Biney of Reston is breaking ice, and records, as the first African-American woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic short-track speedskating team after two 500-meter victories at her December trials.

Born in Ghana, Biney came to the U.S. when she was 5 to visit her father, Kweku, and never left. It didn’t take long before Biney was drawn to an ice rink, after her father pointed out a sign that advertised figure skating classes.

“We were driving down this street right here – Sunset Hills Road,” Kweku Biney told The Washington Post. “I saw the sign in front of the rink. It said, ‘Learn to skate.’ I asked her, ‘Maame, you want to try this?’”

Biney jumped at the opportunity. She was so fast the instructor suggested she try speedskating.

Biney started in Kids on Ice, a beginner speedskating program in Washington. That meant the Bineys had to wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Fort Dupont Ice Arena by 6 a.m. The practices were led by three-time Olympian Nathaniel Mills, who said he was in awe of Maame Biney’s dedication.

“She wasn’t deterred by the fact that she was taking up a difficult sport,” Mills told Capital News Service. “She came to the rink every Saturday morning eager to learn.”

Mills, who now runs DC Inner City Excellence, a year-round skating-based youth development program, said Biney’s passion and perseverance distinguish her from other skaters.

“She’s more explosive of a skater than many of her peers in the United States, and her tenacity as a competitor also sets her apart,” Mills said. “Her own drive, her father’s sacrifices and her love of skating and competing are the three biggest factors to any athlete’s success – and Maame’s got all three.”

Mills said Biney’s father played a significant role in his daughter’s success, putting “every penny he made into her career and into her opportunities.”

Biney is the youngest woman on the U.S. short-track team. At this year’s games, she is up against competitors who have the home turf advantage: 21 of South Korea’s 26 winter gold medals have come from short-track speedskating.

Biney will compete in the 500- and 1,500-meter races. She has an upper hand at the shorter distance since setting a personal record at the Olympic trials of 43.161 seconds in the 500-meter race.

This is just the beginning for Biney, Mills said.

“I think the confidence that came with her performance at the trials, coupled with the experience she’s going to get at these games, will lead to her being among the favorites in the next Olympics in Beijing, China,” Mills said. “She’ll be one of the marquee athletes because her personality is real and her talent is next level.”

Biney has garnered fans across the country and even the world. It’s because she’s so relatable, Mills said.

“I know who she is and what she’s doing means a lot to a whole lot of people that identify themselves by their nation’s state of Ghana, or by being a woman, or because of her skin color, or being from Northern Virginia,” Mills said. “Maame’s pretty easy to root for.”

According to her profile on the Team USA website, Biney is wrapping up her senior year of high school through online courses and plans to study chemical engineering in college. At South Lakes High School in Reston, Biney is best known for her happy-go-lucky demeanor.

“She is so funny and takes everything so positively,” Biney’s former classmate Kriti Shukla said. “She is the most open and happy person in the class.”

New Book Honors Legacy of 2 Civil Rights Lawyers

Margaret Edds speaking at her book launch at the Library of Virginia. (Photo by CNS reporter Sarah Danial)

By Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Oliver W. Hill Sr. was the energetic driving force in fighting for African-Americans’ civil rights while Spottswood W. Robinson III was the meticulous craftsman who designed detailed legal arguments. Together, the two Richmond lawyers paved the way to end racial segregation not only in Virginia but throughout the United States.

The legal fight led by Hill and Robinson is chronicled in a new book, “We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow,” by Richmond journalist and author Margaret Edds. About 100 people gathered at the Library of Virginia last week to celebrate the book’s release by the University of Virginia Press.

In their legal work, Hill and Robinson fought for equality in voting, education, housing, transportation and pay. Their most famous case was Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County. It went on to be one of the five pivotal cases in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare school segregation unconstitutional in 1954.

For five years, Edds (pronounced EEDS) conducted research for her book, perusing archival documents and interviewing people who knew Hill and Robinson. She hopes that by looking into the influence of these legal giants, we can better understand how far our nation has come and how much further we still need to go.

“These lawyers have never been recognized as they should’ve been and should be,” said former Gov. Douglas Wilder. “It’s a part of history that’s not taught but should be taught. There’s no excuse for this to not be taught in schools.”

Wilder, who attended Thursday’s book launch, knew Hill and Robinson. He said he hopes Edds’ book will make people more aware of the work the two men accomplished.

The first African-American to be elected governor in the U.S., Wilder said he wants people to understand that the only way to make real change is to act. Wilder recalled learning a lot from Hill and Robinson and their passion for justice.

“You stick to it, you perfect it, you don’t do just ‘good enough to get by,’” Wilder said. “You make it so it’s unassailable, and so when you walk into a courtroom, you believe that you are indeed in charge of your case and your client.”

Edds’ book isn’t the first about Hill, who died in 2007 at age 100. In fact, Hill wrote an autobiography, “The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education and Beyond,” which was published in 2000.

Ramona Taylor said she knew nothing about Hill or Robinson until she was in law school at the University of Richmond and was asked to be a student editor for Hill’s book.

She was fascinated by the legendary lawyer’s story and is now the president of the Oliver White Hill Foundation, which is dedicated to continuing his fight for social justice.

“Beyond that he was a brilliant litigator, beyond that he was a humble man, I want people to recognize that he was one of the first true social engineers of our time. What I mean by social engineer is someone who actually changed the social landscape,” said Taylor, who is legal counsel for Virginia State University.

Hill stopped practicing law at age 91 in 1998, the same year Robinson died. A year later, Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

Edds was a reporter and editor for 34 years for The Virginian-Pilot. She has written four other books, including “Free at Last: What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics.”

Edds will hold a book reading and signing at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. in Richmond, at 6 p.m. Monday. She said her latest book is just a conversation starter about the legacy of Hill and Robinson.

“They faced up to Jim Crow segregation; they created a legal basis for change. They did not solve racial inequities for all time, as we sadly know – not even close – but they advanced the cause,” Edds said. “The challenge they pose to us is to do the same with equal resolve in our time.”

Bipartisan Deal Will Raise Felony Theft Threshold

By Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia is one of two states where people convicted of stealing items valued at $200 become felons. But a bipartisan deal to raise the threshold and improve restitution will help some people recover from an otherwise life-altering mistake, a delegate says.

The agreement announced Thursday by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would increase Virginia’s felony theft threshold – the lowest in the nation – to $500 and improve assurances that victims would receive restitution.

In a compromise Northam called a “breakthrough for common-sense criminal justice reform,” members of both parties in the General Assembly will get legislation their counterparts previously blocked.

Republicans agreed to advance bills to raise the bar for what is considered grand larceny theft. In exchange, Democrats agreed to bills that would stiffen laws to give crime victims their court-ordered restitution.

Under current Virginia law, a person who steals an item valued more than $200 can be charged with felony grand larceny. That threshold is tied with New Jersey for the lowest in the nation, according to a 2015 report by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The new threshold would be $500; anything less would be a misdemeanor under HB 1550 and SB 105, introduced by Del. Leslie Adams, R-Pittsylvania, and Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, respectively.

“At $200, Virginia’s current felony larceny threshold is the most severe in the nation,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. “By raising it, we are sending a clear message that theft is a serious crime, but stealing one phone or pair of boots should not ruin a person’s life.”

Republicans would not have agreed to a deal on raising the threshold without changes to restitution laws, said Parker Slaybaugh, a spokesman for Cox. HB 483 would require the state locate victims of crimes and pay them restitution. HB 484would require defendants to pay restitution before getting off probation or court supervision. Both were introduced by Del. Robert Bell, R- Albemarle.

The Virginia ACLU, which supports raising the grand larceny threshold, is reluctant to support the agreement. Spokesperson Bill Farrar said a $500 bar – which would be the first change to the law since 1980 – would still be too low compared to inflation. Additionally, Farrar said, Bell’s legislation could put poor people in a position of being on probation for the rest of their lives if they can’t pay restitution.

Crime victims in Virginia's state courts are owed more than $400 million in outstanding restitution, according to a 2016 Crime Commission report.

“This is money that crime victims need to pay their bills and rebuild their lives,” Bell said. “They have to come to court, testify under oath, and many have to describe the most frightening moment of their life to strangers, only to be cross-examined and scrutinized in the media. The least we can do is ensure that they receive the restitution that the justice system promises to them.”

Fight against gerrymandering advances at Capitol

Sen. Glenn Sturtevant with OneVirginia2021 advocates. (Photo courtesy of OneVirginia2021)

 

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Two bills moving forward in the General Assembly, and two court cases challenging how political districts are drawn in Virginia, could chip away at gerrymandering in the commonwealth, according to redistricting reform proponents.      

Gerrymandering, in which politicians redraw electoral districts to their favor, is under fire in legislatures across the country. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to stop a Pennsylvania state court from requiring lawmakers there to redraw districts it had declared were products of the practice.

In Virginia, the Senate has passed a redistricting bill -- SB 106, introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. On Friday, a similar measure -- HB 1598, sponsored by Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk -- cleared the House Privileges and Elections Committee 21-1 and will be considered next week by the full House.

Both bills seek to provide standards for drawing districts, with attention to equal population, racial and ethnic fairness, and respect for existing political boundaries, borders, size and communities of interest. Jones said lawmakers  must avoid the extreme configurations that have been used by political parties to gain an advantage in the past.
Brian Cannon of OneVirginia2021, the state’s leading redistricting reform group, said he was encouraged by the progress of the legislation. He sees it as a step toward the ultimate goal of redistricting reform -- a constitutional amendment to establish an independent redistricting commission.

Under the group’s timeline, the amendment could receive required legislative approvals in 2019 and 2020, before being submitted to voters that fall. Districts could then be redrawn in 2021 with 2020 census data.

“The most important thing they (the bills) do is define some sort of good-government criterion, such as respect for local political boundaries,” Cannon said. “As a building year for us, this conversation is excellent. This is exactly where we want to be.”

But Cannon said the bills don’t go far enough. He said they “are missing explicit anti-gerrymandering language, though, and that’s a big miss.”

According to a poll by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, over 60 percent of Virginians support amending the state constitution to put a nonpartisan commission in charge of drawing political lines.

Although legislation establishing test-run redistricting commissions has died this session, Cannon said there is still a chance for the governor to appoint an advisory commission with the same responsibility as result of two court cases:

  • One, in the federal courts, centers on whether black voting strength was diluted when Republicans placed too many African American voters in certain districts. The U.S. Supreme Court last year ordered a lower court to re-examine the case. Cannon said he has been expecting a decision for weeks.

  • The other case, pending in the state court system, focuses on whether some districts were drawn in a partisan way. In many cases, for example, a city or county is divided between one or more legislative districts.  The case will be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court in March.

Cannon said decisions in those cases  could “put a wind under the sails” of the fight against gerrymandering by requiring  some districts to be redrawn.

Courts have historically been reluctant to strike down redistricting plans because of concerns over favoring a party in a political process. But recent decisions in Pennsylvania and North Carolina have been cause for optimism, Cannon said.

“I think the odds of real redistricting reform this time next year are pretty high,” Cannon said. “We’ll see what the governor does, we’ll see what the courts do, we’ll see how much further the House Republicans are willing to go -- but the conversation is great.”

House Panels Reject LGBTQ Anti-Discrimination Bills

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Subcommittees in the House of Delegates killed several bills this week that would have expanded protections for LGBTQ Virginians in housing and the workplace.

Two bills had passed the Senate late last month. Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored SB 202, which would have prohibited public employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, sponsored SB 423, which would have included discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as unlawful housing practices under the Virginia Fair Housing Law.

Both bills were tabled Thursday on 5-2 party-line votes by a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee.

“It is painfully evident today that Virginia is not for all lovers,” Wexton said afterward. “Simple access to a place to live without discrimination is a basic fundamental right of all people. It is shameful that the House Republicans killed this in subcommittee when it passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

Also on 5-2 votes, the General Laws subcommittee rejected HB 401, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and HB 1547, by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. Those bills aimed to add the same protections in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Simon, who introduced his legislation for the fourth consecutive session, said the National Association of Realtors amended its code of ethics in January 2014 to guarantee nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That guarantee should be included in Virginia’s Fair Housing Law to protect individuals seeking housing from people who aren’t Realtors, he said.

Bill Janis of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a faith-based nonprofit, said such anti-discrimination bills were unnecessary because of existing regulations.

“The largest employers in the Richmond area, Capital One and Virginia Commonwealth University . . . already have good hiring policies involving these issues,” he said. “They’re already hiring, in large measure, based on the qualifications and merits of the applications of the positions, not based on other criteria.”

Another bill regarding nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity was killed Tuesday in a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee. HB 1466, sponsored by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, would have prohibited health insurance providers from denying or limiting coverage to transgender Virginians.

Rodman’s bill was rejected on a 5-3 vote, also along party lines.

Senate Bill Passes Quietly, Allowing Drunken Driving on Private Property

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Leaders in the fight against drunken driving were appalled after a Senate bill flew under the radar and quietly passed with a 37-3 vote, allowing Virginians to lawfully drive while intoxicated on their own property.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally introduced SB 308 to clarify that the state law against driving under the influence applies only to public roadways and that people can’t be charged for drinking in a vehicle on their property. Existing law simply says you can’t operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated and does not distinguish between public and private property.

During the Senate Courts of Justice Committee meeting on Jan. 31, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys and advocacy organizations spoke against the bill.

“Is a driver with a .14 BAC (blood alcohol content) operating a motor vehicle across Kings Dominion’s parking lot any less of a threat than if he or she were similarly doing so on a neighboring roadway?” asked Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

SB 308 was then essentially killed, or passed by indefinitely, on a 7-5 vote.

Although thought to be dead, the legislation was abruptly brought up for reconsideration by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, halfway through a committee meeting on Monday. Peake had voted to kill the bill at the previous meeting.

After speaking with members of the committee and Waynesboro Commonwealth’s Attorney David Ledbetter, Stuart said he wanted to change the language of the bill.

“The bill had to do with a DUI on your private property or current property. And by trying to define where you could actually be charged with it, I think my bill went a little too broad,” Stuart said.

By narrowly defining the bill to exempt getting charged with DWI at home or other private property, it would eliminate cases of those found drinking in a parked car in their driveway, Stuart said.

Ledbetter said he made the suggestion to Stuart about changing the language, but remained unsure it would be successful.

“I’m afraid we are going to exempt someone that we should not,” Ledbetter said.

The legislation was approved 14-1 by the committee, with only Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, voting against it. The legislation had been changed to add: “This section shall not apply to any person driving or operating a motor vehicle on his own residential property or the curtilage thereof,” essentially allowing people to lawfully drive drunk on their own property.

“Inasmuch, the bill throws Virginia down the slippery slope of bifurcating the state’s DUI laws, effectively communicating that it’s OK to drive drunk here but not there – a dangerous precedent,” Erickson said. “The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys and Washington Regional Alcohol Program remain opposed to this legislation.”

The bill flew through its second and third reading and passed the Senate three days after it was resurrected.

Nonpartisan Initiative Targets ‘Legalized Corruption’ In Virginia Politics

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Efforts to fight what some call “legalized corruption” in the Virginia General Assembly were announced Thursday by the Clean Virginia Project, a new nonpartisan initiative seeking to curb Dominion Energy’s financial influence on Virginia lawmakers.

The group called on lawmakers to refuse donations from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and offered to make political contributions to those who pledge to do so. The project’s organizers said they hope to curb the energy giant’s political influence and hold lawmakers accountable for “representing their constituents - not corporate interests.”

Delegates who sign the pledge would receive an annual political donation of $2,500 while senators would receive $5,000 — a fraction of what they might otherwise receive from Dominion.

Donating more than $11 million over the past decade to Democratic and Republican candidates alike, Dominion’s influence on the Virginia’s General Assembly is unparalleled by any other corporations. For comparison, Altria — one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and headquartered in Henrico — donated less than $7 million over the same period of time.

Legislators from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, received donations from Dominion throughout the 2017 election season. While Northam accepted more than $100,000 in campaign and inaugural donations from the company in 2017 alone, Cox has accepted donations totaling more than $220,000 between 1998 and 2017.

Dominion’s funding efforts are primarily derived from the corporation’s political action committee but often come together with donations by corporate executives like Tom Farrell II, the company’s chairman, president and CEO, and Thomas Wohlfarth, the senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

Michael Bills, a Charlottesville-based investor and prominent Democratic donor, is the key funder behind the nonpartisan group, which is housed within former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello’s new political action committee, New Virginia Way.

The Clean Virginia Project is only one instance of a statewide attitude change toward the relationship between major corporations and lawmakers. It coincides with national efforts to encourage politicians to reject financial support from the energy industry.

This pushback has caused tension between Dominion officials and the group, with officials arguing that their company is being unfairly targeted for making campaign donations that are legal.

“Isn’t democracy great?" Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "People can do whatever they want to with their money — as long as it’s transparently disclosed on Virginia’s Public Access Project website, which we helped start in 1997 and have supported ever since."

But Bills calls the initiative “common sense” that will level the playing field in politics.

“Virginians should no longer have to pick up the tab for backroom deals like the one Dominion and its allies are trying to ram through our legislature,” Bills said.

The announcement comes in the wake of Senate Bill 966, a quickly moving bill that would repeal a hotly debated 2015 rate freeze and provide Virginia customers with a refund on what Northam has called an “overcharging” for power rates.

In addition, SB 966 would require Dominion to reduce power rates by an additional $125 million as well as investmore than $1.1 billion in energy-efficiency projects and energy assistance to low-income communities throughout the next 10 years.

The text of the Clean Virginia Pledge reads:

“I will take no money or gifts from Dominion Energy or its Political Action Committees (PAC), lobbyists or executives; and will divest from any personal stocks or investments in Dominion Energy.”

As of Tuesday, Activate Virginia reported that 21 Democrats running for Congress this year have signed the pledge.

“Everyone will tell you that Dominion’s money doesn’t impact their vote, but given the fact that almost nobody says no to Dominion, I think that’s pretty obvious it has a large aggregate effect,” said freshman Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas.

Talking to Students, Former CIA Director Criticizes Trump’s Foreign Policy

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a conference call with Virginia Commonwealth University students, former CIA Director John Brennan slammed several national security moves by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Brennan said some aspects of foreign relations are the same under Trump as they were under President Barack Obama. They include progress on defeating ISIS in Iraq, a stagnation on counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and strained relationships with Iran and North Korea.

However, Brennan, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, criticized the Trump administration for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem. He said the move undermines efforts toward a two-state solution that would give both Israelis and Palestinians equal access to land.

“It’s inconsistent with our votes in the United Nations that would leave Jerusalem’s status to negotiation for both parties,” Brennan said Wednesday. “Though that may have received immediate accolades from some corners, I do think it’s going to be a setback for prospects for a viable peace process in the two-state solution.”

The conference call was hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank that specializes in U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Brennan was critical of the Trump administration’s decision to suspend aid to Afghan and Pakistani counterinsurgency forces. He also said U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017 ceded ground to China’s growing international influence.

“Right now, Venezuelan stability and security depends on continued Cuban and Chinese support,” Brennan said in a response to a question about civil strife in the South American country. “If the Chinese are becoming more involved and engaged in our hemisphere or if we’re distracted, then we can’t fulfill what I believe is our hemispheric obligations.”

In May, the Trump administration signed America’s largest arms deal giving Saudi Arabia $350 billion over 10 years. Since then, the U.S. has been accused of funding a proxy war in Yemen, which Brennan said exacerbates American security in the region.

“I don’t know what the Trump administration is doing on this front, but I do hope they are counseling restraint so that the Saudis don’t feel they have carte blanche as far as bombing in Yemen,” Brennan said.

Brennan said the most significant security threats in the year ahead are a lack of leadership in the State Department, distractions caused by the investigations into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential elections led by special counsel Robert Muller, and a combination of increasing political partisanship and nationalism.

In recent days, Trump announced his support for the Pentagon to plan a military parade through Washington. The last military parade in the capital was in 1991 following the victory of the First Gulf War. According to Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers, the plans are in their “infancy.”

“This idea of a military parade in Washington – I just shake my head in disbelief. These are the things I’ve seen in third-world dictatorships and authoritarian regimes,” Brennan said.

“I feel pretty strongly that the United States is strong and respected because of who we are and what we are and how we conduct our foreign policy on national security, but this very bombastic rhetoric is very antithetical to our values, to our history, to who we are.”

Despite concerns with the current administration’s national security efforts, Brennan remained hopeful as a new generation of national security professionals enters government agencies.

“I do hope that there are many aspiring national security professionals out there because your country and your governance need you,” Brennan said. “We need the best talent to deal with the challenges we face ahead.”

House OKs Limiting School Suspensions to 45 Days

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia students who break school rules may no longer face the possibility of a yearlong suspension under legislation approved by the House of Delegates to address what some lawmakers call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

House Bill 1600, which passed 84-15 on Tuesday, would reduce the maximum length of a suspension from 364 days to 45 days. It is one of several measures lawmakers introduced in response to complaints that Virginia schools overreact to minor infractions – and sometimes charge students as criminals for transgressions that should draw a detention.

“At the end of the day, if our students are out of school, they’re not learning,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Del. Jeffrey Bourne, who previously served on the Richmond School Board. “We should not continue to use access to education as a punishment and expect positive results.”

On its way toward passage, the bill was amended to allow school officials to impose a suspension of up to 364 days if “aggravating circumstances exist” or if the student is a repeat offender.

Del. R. Lee Ware Jr., R-Powhatan, said he historically had reservations about limiting schools’ options in disciplining students. However, he called HB 1600 “a responsible middle course.”

“It allows a considerable amount of latitude to educators with the responsibility of maintaining order in schools,” Ware said.

HB 1600 was among a slew of proposals introduced this legislative session to address how Virginia schools discipline students. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported that Virginia has one of the highest rates in the nation for referring students to law enforcement. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, has called the situation “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.”

Several of the bills never made it out of committee. They included:

  • HB 445, which sought to end a requirement that principals report certain misdemeanor crimes to law enforcement. The bill, proposed by Carroll Foy, was rejected in a 5-2 vote by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • HB 296, which would have prohibited suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade, except for violent crimes, drugs or other serious offenses. The House Education Committee voted 12-10 vote to kill the legislation. The bill was sponsored by the panel’s vice chair, Del. Richard Bell, R-Staunton.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, opposed Bell’s measure, saying it would “make our classrooms less safe.”

“I don’t think it's up to us to try to micromanage discipline issues in the local schools. That's why we have local elected school boards,” Cole said.

While such legislation met opposition in the House, the Senate has been more receptive.

On Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee approved SB 170, which, like Bell’s legislation, would bar suspensions and expulsions in third grade and below. The committee voted 11-4 in favor of the measure. SB 170, sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin County, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed SB 476, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania. Like Carroll Foy’s bill, it would give school principals the discretion not to call police on students who commit misdemeanors or other minor crimes.

Reeves’ measure has been assigned to the House Courts of Justice Committee –the same panel ​whose subcommittee killed Carroll Foy’s proposal.

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Stories on Emporianews.com are be searchable, using the box above. All new stories will be tagged with the date (format YYYY-M-D or 2013-1-1) and the names of persons, places, institutions, etc. mentioned in the article. This database feature will make it easier for those people wishing to find and re-read an article.  For anyone wishing to view previous day's pages, you may click on the "Previous Day's Pages" link in the menu at the top of the page, or search by date (YYYY-M-D format) using the box above.

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Emporia News welcomes your submissions!  You may submit articles, announcements, school or sports information using the submission forms found here, or via e-mail on news@emporianews.com.  Currently, photos and advertisements will still be accepted only via e-mail, but if you have photos to go along with your submission, you will receive instructions via e-mail. If you have events to be listed on the Community Calendar, submit them here.

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