General Assembly

Virginia lawmakers pass legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Juneteenth has officially become a state holiday after lawmakers unanimously approved legislation during the Virginia General Assembly special session. 

Juneteenth marks the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, which was the last state to abolish slavery. The companion bills were introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation on Oct. 13.

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” Northam said during a press conference held that day. “It’s time we elevate this, not just a celebration by and for some Virginia, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”

Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, introduced a bill in the legislative session earlier this year to recognize Juneteenth, but the proposal didn’t advance. 

Northam proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday in June during a press conference that included musician and Virginia-native Pharrell Williams. Northam signed an executive order that gave executive branch employees and state colleges the day off. Some Virginia localities, such as Richmond and several places in Hampton Roads, also observed the holiday this year.

“I think it is overdue that the Commonwealth formally honor and celebrate the emancipation and end of slavery,” Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, a co-patron of the bill, said in an email. “It was a step towards fulfilling the promise of equality contained in our founding documents.” 

The Elegba Folklore Society, a Richmond-based organization focused on promoting African culture, history and arts, is one of the groups that has been celebrating the holiday for decades. The celebration usually is a three-day weekend event that looks at the history of Juneteenth. A torch-lit walk down the Trail of Enslaved Africans in Richmond is also held, said Janine Bell, the society’s president and artistic director. 

“We take time to just say thank you to our ancestors, their contributions, their forfeitures, their trials and tribulations,” Bell said. “We invite people to Richmond’s African burial ground so that we can go there and pay homage from a perspective of African spirituality.”

Juneteenth should not be used as another holiday to look for bargains in stores, Bell said. It should be a time for reflection about liberty, as well as for celebration and family strengthening.

“It’s a time for optimism and joy,” Bell said. 

The Elegba Folklore Society broadcasted its Juneteenth event online this year due to the coronavirus. Although there were still around 7,000 views, Bell said that it is usually much larger and has international influence. 

Cries for police reform and social justice continue to increase, Bell said. More attention is being drawn to the racial disparities across America. With this, people have been changing their priorities concerning issues such as discrimination.

“This was a step towards equity,” Bell said about the bill. “A symbolic step, but a step nonetheless.”

State workers will be off during Juneteenth. If the job requires individuals to come in to work, then they will be compensated with overtime or extra pay, said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron for the bill. 

The General Assembly wrapped up the agenda last week for the special session that began Aug. 18. Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice reform and issues related to COVID-19.

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

Delegate Plans To Reintroduce Quarantine Pay Bill Next Session

 

By Zachary Klosko, By Capital New Source

RICHMOND, Va. -- Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, said she is no stranger to the struggles of low-paying jobs. Guzmán said she immigrated to the United States from Peru as a single mother and worked multiple minimum wage jobs just to be able to pay rent and care for her daughter.

Guzmán has a mission to secure better financial benefits for minimum wage workers, but she said it’s not going as planned.

Guzmán’s House Bill 5116 was killed in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session after being passed by the House. The General Assembly is currently meeting to tackle the state budget and other issues that have come up due to COVID-19.

The bill would have mandated quarantine pay for employees of businesses with more than 25 workers. It would require public and private employers to provide paid quarantine leave that could be immediately used by the employee, regardless of how long they had been employed. The paid quarantine leave could be used for the employee’s health care needs or for care of a family member with an illness or health condition related to COVID-19.

Guzmán said she’s frustrated, but she plans to introduce the bill again during the next legislative session. 

“Most of the arguments that I heard was because businesses are hurting and it was not the right time,” Guzmán said. “I think it's like we hear a lot about businesses but we don't hear about the working class and who's going to be, you know, fighting for them.”

Guzmán introduced a bill in the spring session before the coronavirus to require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. After the Committee on Appropriations killed that bill, Guzmán introduced her current bill as an effort to keep advocating for worker's rights.

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said her organization is in favor of Guzmán’s bill. Bobo said paid sick days and getting paid a minimum wage are basic standards employers should be able to provide for their employees without government assistance.

“We really don't believe that public funds should be used to subsidize employers providing such a basic core standard as paid sick days,” Bobo said. “We will not include anything like that in a bill going forward.”

Being able to take paid time off can have a larger impact on the community because workers don’t have to choose between their families’ well-being and a paycheck, Bobo said.

“They will stay home when their children are sick and they won't send their kids to school sick, which is what happens right now,” she said.

Bobo isn’t the only supporter of Guzmán’s bill. Eighty-three percent of Virginians support paid time off mandates, according to a recent YouGov poll commissioned in part by the Interfaith Center. 

Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, voiced his concerns during the bill’s third reading on Sept. 10. Head said Guzmán’s bill largely mirrors federal legislation. 

“This bill is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” Head said. “It's going to raise their expenses for hiring people, and it's going to end up hurting many of the very people that you're trying to help with this legislation.”

The Department of Labor and Industry estimated the bill would cost the department over $46,000 in 2021 and an additional $92,000 in 2022, according to the bill’s impact statement. The Department of Medical Assisted Services estimated the costs at $28.8 million for fiscal year 2021 and $29.8 million for fiscal year 2022. The bill would last until July 1, 2021, or until Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic expires.

Guzmán said she isn’t deterred. After Northam and first lady Pamela Northam announced they tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 25, Guzmán said she needed to quarantine at home. She had visited a school with the first lady just a few days prior.

“Listen, there are 1.2 million Virginians out there that, if they were in the same situation that we are today, they would continue to go to work, because they don't have a dime,” Guzmán said firmly. “Please pass the message to the governor and the first lady.”

Efforts falter to require schools to provide in-person options

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- An effort to require Virginia school districts provide in-person classes to students with poor internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic is most likely dead. 

House Bill 5009, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would require public schools to offer in-person classes to elementary, middle and high school students who have substandard internet connections at home. 

The bill was referred in August to the House Committee on Education during the Virginia General Assembly special session, but the legislation still hasn’t been addressed as the legislature nears crossover day—when each chamber must act on bills for them to advance.

“Anything still left in committee, will essentially die. So it doesn’t look like this bill will progress,” Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, who co-sponsored the bill, said in an email. 

Mark Cole’s bill would have required schools to provide in-person instruction to individuals who can’t access an internet speed of more than 10 megabits per second download and one Mbps upload. 

“This is an equity issue,” Mark Cole wrote in an email earlier this month. “Some children do not have access to the internet or internet of sufficient capacity to be able participants in online instruction, primarily rural and poor children.”

More than 1 million public school students were slated to start school in an online-only format, according to data posted in August by the Virginia Public Access Project. That includes Fairfax County, home to almost 189,000 students. More than 269,000 children were set to start school in a hybrid format that offers in-person and online instruction. Many of those students are located in rural areas. Hanover County, which enrolls more than 17,500 students, is the largest school district offering a blended format, according to VPAP. 

Russell County in Southwest Virginia is among the schools offering an in-person and online learning format. The school has set up an internet hotspot on school grounds to help students download material for class, and zip drives to store what they download, according to Janice Barton, a teacher at the school. High schools in the surrounding area have also done the same, Barton said. 

Even though schools are offering ways to access the internet, they’re still not offering high-speed access, Mark Cole said.

“This still puts children without high speed internet at a disadvantage over those that can participate in the comfort of their homes,” he said. “Children have to be driven to a hotspot, often a school parking lot, where they try to receive instruction while sitting in their car.”

Joshua Cole believes children should have an equal opportunity to learn without having to worry about attending online classes.

“If you don’t have internet, if you don’t have high speed internet, if your speeds are low, we want to make sure that your student is not left out,” he said. 

Stafford County gives some students an opportunity to come to school if they need to, said Joshua Cole, who is one of the county’s representatives in the House. The lawmaker said only some students are attending in-person classes in Stafford County, primarily students with disabilities or those without reliable internet access.

“It's not a bunch of students coming in,” he said.

Fredericksburg City Public Schools partnered with business owners in the area who are helping fund internet hotspots for students to access from their homes, according to Joshua Cole.

Many schools that are offering in-person instruction have created spaces to accommodate students and follow social distancing guidelines.

“We have signs in the hallways, in our classrooms. We have it set up 6 feet apart,” Barton said. “We have cleaning supplies, every teacher has that.”

Russell County Public Schools also provide students and teachers with masks, Barton said. 

Senate Bill 5114, sponsored by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, had similar wording to Mark Cole’s bill, but it was passed by indefinitely, which means the bill is dead unless the committee takes additional action.

ATTORNEY GENERAL HERRING OUTLINES PRIORITIES FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND POLICING REFORM AHEAD OF SPECIAL SESSION

~ Slate of priorities includes measures he has advocated for years and additional steps to reduce brutality and abuses of authority, and increase transparency, accountability, justice, and equality ~

RICHMOND —Ahead of the upcoming special session of the General Assembly, Attorney General Mark R. Herring today outlined his priorities for criminal justice and policing reforms that will reduce brutality and abuses of power by law enforcement, increase transparency, accountability, justice, and equality, and address disparities throughout the criminal justice system from policing to re-entry.

“Virginia cannot have different systems and standards of justice depending on the color of a person's skin,” said Attorney General Mark Herring. “Ours must be a Commonwealth where justice, equality and opportunity are guaranteed for each and every person, no matter where they live, what they look like, how they worship, who they love, or how much money they have.

“We know that African-Americans and Virginians of color experience the criminal justice system differently at every level from policing through prosecution and into re-entry. It is documented and undeniable. That’s a hard thing to admit, but it’s even harder to experience. It means that we are failing in one of our most foundational responsibilities as a country and a Commonwealth: to ensure that all men and women are truly treated equal.

“This moment has given us an opportunity like none I can recall in my lifetime to truly focus on how we create a criminal justice system that meets our public safety goals in a way that ensures justice and equality for all. Those of us who have been frustrated by the pace of change in previous years now have the benefit of open minds and a broader recognition of the change that is needed in this country to ensure that Black lives matter, and that the criminal justice system is oriented around justice and safety, not simply control or oppression.”

In the upcoming special session, Attorney General Herring will be supporting the following measures:

Police Reform:

  • Enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations
  • Modernize, standardize, and elevate the rigor of police training
  • Department of Criminal Justice Services should be required to develop within the year a new basic training curriculum in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General
  • Current law enforcement officers must have 21st century policing skills included in their annual in-service training curriculum
  • Make it easier to remove bad officers from the law enforcement profession
  • Expand police decertification criteria to include misconduct, not just criminal convictions.
  • Establish a more robust database of officer discipline, terminations, and decertification.
  • Ban rehiring of officers who are fired for misconduct or excessive force, or who resign during an investigation into misconduct or excessive force.
  • Create a “duty to intervene” for law enforcement officers.
  • Ban or limit dangerous, unnecessary, and potentially deadly police tactics
  • Empower localities to establish citizen review panels
  • Require the use of body worn cameras by all law enforcement officers
  • Require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to engage an independent agency or Commonwealth’s Attorney to conduct investigations and make prosecutorial decisions

Criminal Justice Reform:

  • Cash bail reform
  • Expanding opportunities for record expungement and simplifying the process
  • Continued momentum toward legal, regulated adult use of cannabis and resolve past convictions

“For many months now, I have been waiting for a response from the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice to my request for an independent investigation into one of my local police departments. But for the return receipt requested signature card, I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement to my letter. If the federal government isn’t going to provide this oversight when police departments may be violating citizen’s rights, then there needs to be a state backstop that can conduct these necessary investigations. It is for these reasons, I will introduce a bill in the Special Session of the General Assembly to enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “patterns and practices investigations of local police departments,” said Senator Louise Lucas.

“Since 2017 the Trump Administration’s DOJ has refused to address systemic failures and investigate possible unconstitutional practices in law enforcement agencies. With that in mind, the Attorney General needs to have the authority to investigate and resolve patterns or practices of unconstitutional policing, such as use of excessive force, illegal searches, or biased policing,” stated Delegate Alfonso Lopez. “This legislation finally gives the Attorney General the authority to investigate, subpoena, and bring appropriate actions in court to ensure compliance with constitutional policing standards.” 

In the area of police reform, Attorney General Herring will be actively working to ensure passage of the following bills and policies:

Enable the Attorney General of Virginia to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies to identify and put a stop to unconstitutional practices, such as patterns of excessive force, illegal searches, biased policing, or other unconstitutional practices. For decades the U.S. Department of Justice was a reliable partner in identifying and ending unconstitutional policing practices, often through negotiated agreements for reforms, called “consent decrees,” in cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson, MO. Under the Trump Administration the DOJ has explicitly walked away from this responsibility, making it more important for state attorneys general to have this important tool. In June, Attorney General Herring asked Congress to expand federal law to give him and other state attorneys general clear statutory authority to conduct patterns and practice investigations. The U.S House of Representatives included this authority in the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” which passed the House on June 25, 2020.

Modernize, standardize, and elevate the rigor of police training to include mandatory training on implicit bias, racial bias, crisis intervention, de-escalation, hate crimes, violence interruption, and other 21st century policing skills. Because of the immense power placed in the hands of law enforcement officers, the Commonwealth must treat the law enforcement profession as a highly-skilled and specialized field that requires both proper training and high standards.

In order to ensure proper, 21st century training for Virginia law enforcement officers:

  • The Department of Criminal Justice Services should be required to develop within the year a new basic training curriculum in conjunction with the Office of Attorney General that includes implicit bias, racial bias, crisis intervention, de-escalation, hate crimes, violence interruption, and other 21st century policing skills.
  • Current law enforcement officers must have 21st century policing skills included in their annual in-service training curriculum. In 2015, Attorney General Herring sponsored a series of five regional “train-the-trainer” conferences to promote the wider adoption of implicit bias training, de-escalation, and other 21st century policing skills. The training officers from more than 50 law enforcement agencies participated, then went back to their departments and taught their colleagues, making this one of Virginia’s largest-ever investments in 21st century policing skills.

Make it easier to remove bad officers from the law enforcement profession. The Commonwealth should hold its law enforcement officers to the highest standards because they are empowered to make life-and-death decisions and other serious decisions that could dramatically affect the life of a Virginian. Virginia must therefore ensure that it removes from the profession any individuals who prove themselves unworthy or incapable of bearing such responsibility.

Virginia should:

  • Expand police decertification criteria to include misconduct, not just criminal convictions. Currently an officer may only lose their law enforcement officer certification for a criminal conviction. Misconduct that may not rise to the level of criminal conduct must be a basis for decertifying officers.
  • Establish a more robust database of officer discipline, terminations, and decertification. If an individual has proven they are not capable of exercising law enforcement authority in a safe, fair, impartial, and constitutional way, they should not be able to conceal that information from a department or simply switch departments and continue their career.
  • Ban rehiring of officers who are fired for misconduct or excessive force, or who resign during an investigation into misconduct or excessive force. No law enforcement officer should be able to hide behind a resignation to avoid accountability and continue their career when they have shown they may not be capable of serving in law enforcement.
  • Create a legal obligation for “duty to intervene” for law enforcement officers when they see another officer using excessive force, when it’s safe to intervene, and regardless of intervention they must immediately report the incident to their supervisors.
  • Ban or limit dangerous, unnecessary, and potentially deadly police tactics like chokeholds, strangleholds, and no-knock warrants.
  • Empower localities to establish citizen review panels with necessary investigative authority and, where possible, provide state-level support.
  • Require the use of body worn cameras by all law enforcement officers to ensure a complete and accurate account of any citizen-officer interactions.
  • Require law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to engage an independent agency or Commonwealth’s Attorney to conduct investigations and make prosecutorial decisions on officer-involved incidents that may constitute criminal conduct, including use of force or killings by law enforcement officers.

Attorney General Herring will also be working for the passage of the following bills and policies to strengthen our communities and reduce racial and economic disparities through reform of Virginia’s criminal justice system:

  • Cash bail reform. Attorney General Herring has long supported significant reforms to Virginia’s cash bail system which, in its current form, can lead to unjust outcomes where dangerous people with money can go free while nonviolent people sit in jail for days, weeks, or months because they can’t afford to pay bail. This can cause a person to lose their job, housing, and support systems. Attorney General Herring will be pushing for Virginia to move away from the use of cash bail as its default for low level offenses and instead expand pretrial services that have proven to be effective and cheaper.
  • Expanding opportunities for record expungement and simplifying the process. Attorney General Herring has also advocated for expanding record expungement opportunities and simplifying the process to build a more just and fair criminal justice system and to address the disproportionate burden that criminal convictions place on African Americans and people of color. Virginia is one of the nation’s least forgiving and most restrictive states for individuals who have earned the opportunity to have old convictions and charges expunged from their records. While many other states have some form of a “Clean Slate” law, the Commonwealth appears to be one of just ten states that does not offer any sort of judicial “record closure” for any adult convictions, nor does it offer any automatic expungement for those who are eligible for expungement. This means that a relatively minor charge or conviction, like marijuana or alcohol possession, can become a permanent stain that limits a Virginian’s job, educational, and housing opportunities.
  • Continued momentum toward legal, regulated adult use of cannabis and resolve past convictions. During the 2020 General Assembly Session, Attorney General Herring helped successfully decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, but believes Virginia needs to continue on to full legal, regulated adult use as quickly as possible, because the social and human costs of prohibition fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. In 2018, there were nearly 29,000 marijuana arrests, and the Virginia Crime Commission found that from 2007 to 2016 46% of all individuals arrested for first offense marijuana possession were African American, despite being just 20% of Virginia’s population.

In addition to these policing and criminal justice reform priorities, Attorney General Herring supports measures that require officers to deescalate situations, and to better utilize specialized resources instead of police officers to respond to non-public safety situations, such as addiction, a person experiencing homelessness, or a mental health crisis.

House Democratic Majority Leads Sweeping Change in Virginia

RICHMOND, VA—The seismic shift created by Virginia voters last year when they elected a Democratic majority to the Virginia House of Delegates yielded a parallel shift in public policy, resulting in landmark legislation taking effect July 1, 2020. These new laws, which benefit Virginians in ways obstructed by past General Assembly majorities, include crucial gun violence prevention measures, more expansive voter rights, new anti-discrimination protections for women and the LGBTQ+ community, and energy policies that will reduce the Commonwealth’s use of fossil fuels for electricity. 

"Last November, voters called for decisive, impactful action to make their communities safe and more prosperous. We have delivered on that mandate. We took that action. And tomorrow, many of these bills become law,” said Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn. “These laws will strengthen our democracy, protect Virginians from gun violence, tackle discrimination to make our Commonwealth fairer, combat the climate change crisis, give women the ability to make their own reproductive decisions, make our criminal justice system fairer (with much work ahead) and build on our economic progress in every corner of the Commonwealth."

Last week, Speaker Filler-Corn announced that the House Courts of Justice and Public Safety Committees will hold joint public hearings in July and August regarding police and criminal justice reform. Information gathered during the hearings will better prepare the House of Delegates to act in the upcoming special session, and the 2021 regular session, on these matters and others related to racial inequities in Virginia and the nation.

“Our first year serving in the majority has been marked by new highs in the passage of landmark legislation in the effort to make Virginia a more inclusive and better place to live, work, and raise a family,” said House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “Our work reversing systemic inequities and injustices is not over and we look forward to making further progress for the Commonwealth during the special session and 2021.”

In 2019, a historic blue wave ushered in the first Democratic majority in the House of Delegates in more than 20 years. House Democrats appointed more women and people of color to leadership and committee chair positions than ever before in the legislative body’s 401-year history. Heeding the call of the Virginia voters who put them into the majority, Democratic legislators swiftly advanced legislation to improve the lives of residents all across the Commonwealth.

“When voters across the Commonwealth stood up and elected Democrats last year, House Democrats listened and passed hundreds of bills based on Virginians' calls for change,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan. “July 1 officially marks a new beginning in the Commonwealth, when more Virginians will be heard and recognized. House Democrats are preparing to return to Richmond for the special session and the 2021 regular legislative session with the same level of determination and innovation to create thoughtful solutions benefiting everyone in the Commonwealth.”

In addition to legislation, the House also passed the House and Senate resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the 38th and final state required by the U.S. Constitution. Other important matters were also addressed in joint resolutions, such as Delegate Cia Price’s HJ 111 designating July as Maternal Health Awareness Month in Virginia. This observance, which begins in 2020, will bring public attention to the problem of increased maternal mortality in the nation and the Commonwealth, especially the much-higher rates among African-American women. Unlike bills, resolutions do not involve any action by the governor. 

Here is a list of some of the House Democrats’ major legislative accomplishments going into effect on July 1:

  • Passing common-sense gun safety legislation. Seven House bills establishing stronger gun safety measures — all introduced in response to the Virginia Beach tragedy in May 2019 — were signed by the governor. These laws implement universal background checks for sales of firearms, require gun owners to report lost and stolen firearms, increase the penalty for recklessly allowing children to have access to loaded firearms, allow localities to ban firearms at certain public facilities or events, establish substantial risk protective orders, prohibit persons subject to domestic violence protective orders from possessing firearms, and restore a limit on the number of gun purchases a person may make per month.

  • Combatting voter suppression with measures to grant people more accessibility and flexibility to vote. These laws include making election day a state holiday in place of Lee-Jackson Day, implementing “no excuse” absentee voting, expanding the types of ID voters may present in order to vote, and ensuring that mail-in ballots postmarked on election day can be counted.

  • Attacking racial inequities by implementing new and increased protections such as outlawing racial discrimination based on styles of hair or dress, promoting equal pay regardless of race, and expanding the justice system’s ability to investigate hate crimes based on race. House Democrats also backed several bills now becoming law that address environmental justice and seek to prevent health risks or disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution or environmental policies on minority communities. 

  • Empowering women through restoring reproductive rights, promoting equal pay, outlawing pregnancy discrimination, prohibiting schools from adopting dress code policies that have a disparate impact on a specific gender, improving treatment for prison inmates who are pregnant or have recently given birth, and making menstrual supplies available in public schools without charge.

  • Enhancing rights for the victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Protective measures include prohibiting persons subject to protective orders due to domestic violence from possessing firearms, requiring colleges and universities to grant disciplinary immunity from self-disclosed alcohol and drug violations for victims and bystanders who report sexual assaults, and informing localities and local immigration organizations of human trafficking risks to which immigrants may be more vulnerable.

  • Setting new progressive environmental standards and priorities. In 2020, House Democrats successfully pushed for Virginia to become the most environmentally progressive state in the South by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which puts Virginia on the path toward a 100 percent renewable-energy electricity supply by 2050. Other measures include raising water quality standards, further regulating disposal of coal ash, promoting and expanding access to the use of electric vehicles, and protecting wildlife populations. 

  • Widening discrimination protections for the LGBTQ+ community by banning conversion therapy for minors, requiring the State Registrar to establish a new birth certificate upon request after gender transition, mandating that schools to adopt policies which improve treatment of LGBTQ+ students, and strengthening hate crime laws. The Commonwealth will now also outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, public accommodation, public contracting, apprenticeship programs, housing, banking, and insurance. 

  • Repealing racially discriminatory Acts of Assembly. The injustices in these old laws included de jure school segregation and housing discrimination, as well as restrictions on African Americans relating to voting, public transportation, medical care, public documents, and public facilities.

  • Providing additional food insecurity and housing protections by expanding eligibility for the housing choice voucher tax credit and food stamps, providing school lunches for children who cannot afford them, and funding grocery stores and small food retailers to better serve underserved areas. Newly enacted legislation also provides short-term stays on court actions for eviction or foreclosure for Virginians who were furloughed due to a federal government shutdown or lost their jobs due to a State of Emergency declared by the governor, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Laws Making it Easier to Vote Take Effect July First

RICHMOND, VA—The Virginia House Democratic Caucus eagerly anticipate their new laws making voting more accessible and equitable in the Commonwealth, many of which go into effect on July 1, 2020. These pieces of legislation include creating a permanent absentee vote-by-mail program, removing the excuse requirement for absentee voting, enacting same-day registration, establishing Election Day as a state holiday, expanding the voting ID law to include certain non-photo IDs, making voter registration applications available at high schools and colleges, authorizing automatic voter registration, and providing voting materials in multiple languages for non English-speaking citizens. 
 
"There is nothing more fundamental to the country than the right of citizens to choose their leaders. This session, we made historic progress in expanding the right to vote in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Onerous and restrictive voting laws have a disproportionately harmful effect on African Americans and people of color,” said Virginia Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn. "I am so proud we made important strides toward making Virginia more equitable by, among other measures, removing the requirement that a Virginian must present photo identification to vote, legalizing 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, and finally replacing the 'Lee-Jackson Day' state holiday with one that truly represents who we are as Virginians and Americans, Election Day."
 
In 2018, Virginia was named the second hardest state to vote in by a Northern Illinois University study, which “analyzed the impact of 33 different variables dealing with registration and voting laws” then ranked states based on “the time and effort it took to vote in each presidential election year from 1996 through 2016.” House Democrats dismantled many of these problems this year. 
 
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board condemned the Commonwealth’s ballot access limitations in a January 29, 2020 editorial, stating that past General Assembly majorities “opted to suppress turnout by minorities, low-income residents and younger voters” to avoid “virtually nonexistent voter fraud” which “in the state is about as common as a unicorn with a ukulele.” The editorial also criticized Virginia’s voter photo-ID law, noting the “plain fact that the law’s real-world effect is to disproportionately impede ballot access for black voters, who are more likely to lack photo IDs required for in-person voting.”
 
“In the 2020 legislative session, House Democrats overturned some of the darkest chapters of the Commonwealth’s history, including remnants of painful times when segments of our citizenry were blocked from voting,” said House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who carried HB 1 allowing Virginia voters to request an absentee ballot without requiring an excuse. “Although the days of Jim Crow are over, many of our current voting laws still disproportionately hurt the populations who had to fight for recognition of their right to vote—people of color, women, young adults, and the less financially secure. I am inspired by the determination and creativity shown by our Caucus to address this systemic imbalance.”
 
During the 2019 elections, House Democrats campaigned for wider voting access as a way to defend the inalienable worth of every Virginian, especially those who have been continually overlooked. To better the lives of all Virginians, our candidates pledged to complete the ratification process for the Equal Rights Amendment, implement gun-violence-prevention measures, create stronger legal protections against discrimination, and remove the criminal penalty for simple marijuana possession. A blue wave swept Virginia last November, with 2.9 million Virginia voters giving Democrats the majority of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 20 years. As a result, the 2020 legislative session brought historic change to the Commonwealth, showing the power voters have at the ballot box.
 
“Restrictions at the polls that burden voters due to baseless fear-mongering make it unnecessarily difficult to vote. Legislators should help their constituents access the polls, not restrict them,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan, the patron of HB 213 which allows students to use their out-of-state college ID cards as voting identification. “HB 213, along with several other House bills expanding voting rights, clears a more accessible path for eligible voters to shape the future of their communities, the Commonwealth, and the country.”
 
Here is a summary of the House Democrats’ voting rights bills enacted during the 2020 legislative session; new laws become effective on July 1 unless otherwise noted below:
 
  • HB 1 - Under current law, Virginia voters are required to provide one of several allowed excuses to vote prior to election day. HB 1 allows Virginia voters to request and vote with an absentee ballot, by mail or in person, without having to specify a reason. The bill was carried by House Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring.
  • HB 19 broadens the types of identification a voter can use to include certain items that do not show a photo of the voter. The bill makes it a felony to falsely sign an affirmation of one’s identity in order to vote. Delegate Joe Lindsey carried HB 19.
  • HB 108 establishes Election Day as a state holiday and removes Lee-Jackson Day from the list of state holidays. This measure aims to increase voting accessibility to a large segment of voters in the Commonwealth. Delegate Joe Lindsey also served as the patron of the bill.
  • HB 201 will implement same-day registration, allowing voters to register to vote on Election Day. The bill aims to help voters who move more frequently—younger voters, low-income voters, and people of color— and those who do not have reliable transportation, allowing a person to register and vote in just one trip. Virginia law currently sets a registration deadline 21 days before an election. Delegate Hala Ayala introduced the bill. The implementation of this bill is delayed until October 1, 2022.
  • HB 207 will provide a special application for any voter to receive an absentee ballot in all elections that they are eligible to vote in. This will allow voters to permanently “vote by mail” without having to fill out separate absentee ballot requests several times a year to vote by mail in various elections. As in the case of HB 1, this measure also removes the requirement that the voter provide a reason for voting absentee. Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg patroned HB 207. The bill becomes effective on July 1, 2021.
  • HB 213 extends the ability for students to use their school photo-ID cards from any college or university within the United States or U.S. territories as identification for voting in Virginia. Currently, only in-state college ID cards are accepted. The bill was sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rip Sullivan.
  • HB 232 requires the Virginia Department of Elections to make voter registration forms available at public and private colleges and universities, as well as educational nonprofit organizations. Delegate Rodney Willett patroned HB 232.
  • HB 235 clarifies and improves the process by which the Department of Motor Vehicles offers U.S. citizens age 17 or older the opportunity to automatically register to vote when acquiring or updating a Virginia driver's license or identification card. The process, which includes an opt-out provision, is intended to ensure that persons eligible to vote are more easily able to register. Delegate Joshua Cole carried this bill.
  • HB 238 authorizes counting any absentee ballot that arrives at the registrar’s office by noon on the third day after the election, which is postmarked on or before the date of the election. HB 238 was sponsored by Delegate Mark Sickles.
  • HB 239 adjusts the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot by mail to eleven days before the election, including applications from members of the military and citizens living abroad, and adds the same adjustment for emergency applications and absentee ballots for voters who become hospitalized or incapacitated. Delegate Sickles also carried this bill.
  • HB 241 removes the requirement for a person seeking protected voter status to file a complaint with a magistrate or law enforcement in cases where the applicant is fearful of their safety or has been stalked. The requirement for a signed written statement from the applicant remains in place. Del. Sickles introduced HB 241.
  • HB 242 allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot late if an emergency caused them to miss the absentee application deadline or will leave them unable to vote on election day. Delegate Sickles served as the patron for this bill as well.
  • HB 872 adds an exception to ensure that persons confined due to an upcoming trial or due to a misdemeanor conviction, who would otherwise be required to vote in person due to registering to vote via mail, are able to vote via absentee ballot. Delegate Jeffrey Bourne introduced this legislation.
  • HB 1210 requires the Department of Elections and local registrars to provide voting and election materials in languages other than English, to aid immigrant and Native American citizens who do not speak English adequately enough to participate in the electoral process. The additional languages required will be determined by Census data, percentage and number of language minority communities in the locality, and consideration of Native American reservations nearby. Delegate Kathy Tran served as the patron for HB 1210, which goes into effect on September 1, 2021.
  • HB 1491 requires public high schools to provide voting-age students with access to voter registration information and applications, or access to Virginia’s online voter registration using a school-owned device, during school hours. This legislation was patroned by Delegate Nancy Guy.

Governor Northam Signs New Laws to Support Virginia Workers

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam has signed nearly two dozen new laws to support working Virginians, including legislation to combat worker misclassification and wage theft, ban workplace discrimination, and prohibit non-compete covenants for low-wage workers.

The Governor proposes to increase the minimum wage starting May 1, 2021, and to advance prevailing wage, collective bargaining, and project labor agreement legislation then as well. This will ensure workers get the support they need while allowing greater economic certainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every Virginian deserves access to a safe and well-paying job,” said Governor Northam. “These new laws will support workers and help our economy rebound as quickly as possible from COVID-19. I am grateful for the General Assembly’s ongoing partnership as we address these critical issues.”

In addition, Governor Northam is proposing amendments to prohibit apprenticeship discrimination on the basis of gender identity and to create a work-sharing program to support workers impacted by COVID-19.

Governor Northam signed the following bills:

Combatting Worker Misclassification

  • House Bill 1407 and Senate Bill 744, sponsored by Delegate Jeion Ward and Senator Jeremey McPike, respectively, authorize the Department of Taxation to oversee investigations into suspected cases of worker misclassification and levy penalties as appropriate. A 2012 report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) estimated that at least 214,000 Virginians were misclassified as “independent contractors” by their employers.

  • House Bill 984 and Senate Bill 894, sponsored by Delegate Karrie Delaney and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, respectively, create a private cause of action for a misclassified worker to bring civil action for damages against his or her employer.

  • House Bill 1199 and Senate Bill 662, sponsored by Delegate Kathy Tran and Senator Jennifer Boysko, respectively, protect employees or independent contractors who report misclassification from employer retaliation. Employers that are found to have engaged in retaliatory action will be subject to a civil penalty up to the value of the employee’s lost wages.

  • House Bill 1646, sponsored by Delegate Paul Krizek, requires contractors to properly classify all workers as employees or independent contractors. This law gives the Board of Contractors the ability to sanction contractors who are found to have intentionally misclassified workers.

Banning Workplace Discrimination

  • House Bill 827 and Senate Bill 712, sponsored by Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Senator Jennifer McClellan, respectively, protect workers from discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. This law prohibits pregnancy discrimination, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for pregnancy and childbirth, and creates a private cause of action for workplace pregnancy discrimination.

  • House Bill 1049, sponsored by Delegate Mark Levine, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in a number of areas of law, including employment, public contracting, and apprenticeship programs.

Combatting Wage Theft

  • House Bill 123, sponsored by Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, creates a private cause of action for workers to recover unpaid wages lost to wage theft. If a court finds an employer has knowingly failed to pay an employee’s wages, the court may award the employee reasonable attorneys’ fees in addition to triple the amount of wages due.

  • Senate Bill 838, sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin, creates a private cause of action for workers to recover unpaid wages. Additionally, this new law makes general contractors liable and subject to penalty for wage theft, under certain conditions. 

  • House Bill 336 and Senate Bill 49, sponsored by Delegate Marcia Price and Senator Lionell Spruill, respectively, give the Department of Labor and Industry expanded authority in investigating wage theft complaints.  

  • House Bill 337 and Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Delegate Marcia Price and Senator Lionell Spruill, respectively, protect employees who report wage theft or institute proceedings against their employer from retaliation.  

Additional Worker Protections

  • House Bill 330 and Senate Bill 480, sponsored by Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg and Senator Bill DeSteph, respectively, prohibit employers from entering into a non-compete contract with any of their low-wage employees. This new law also creates a private cause of action for a low-wage employee to bring a lawsuit against an employer who tries to enforce a non-compete covenant.

  • House Bill 798, sponsored by Delegate Karrie Delaney, protects workers from retaliation from their employer for reporting violations or suspected violations of state law.

  • House Bill 1201 and Senate Bill 380, sponsored by Delegate Kathy Tran and Senator Jeremy McPike, respectively, allow localities to include criteria in their “invitation to bid” to determine whether a bidder who is not prequalified by the Virginia Department of Transportation is a responsible bidder. This new law will support workers and help local contractors find the best trained and safest workers for their projects.

Governor Northam proposes amendments to these bills: 

  • Senate Bill 548, sponsored by Senator John Edwards, addresses qualifications for unemployment insurance. In light of the current economic crisis, Governor Northam amended this legislation to authorize a work-sharing program in Virginia. Work-sharing programs can help businesses avoid laying off their employees by permitting them to reduce their employees’ hours and allow affected employees to collect reduced unemployment benefits in the form of short-time compensation. The federal CARES Act offers funding incentives for states to build work-sharing programs of this sort.

  • House Bill 1252, sponsored by Delegate Don Scott, prohibits a sponsor of a registered apprenticeship program from discriminating against an apprentice or applicant on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age (if older than 40), genetic information, or disability. Governor Northam amended this legislation to also include protections from discrimination on the basis of gender identity. 

  • House Bill 395 and Senate Bill 7, sponsored by Delegate Jeion Ward and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, respectively, raise the minimum wage. Under the Governor’s amendments, the minimum wage would increase beginning May 1, 2021. 

  • House Bill 833 and Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, respectively, address payment of “prevailing wages” by contractors doing business with certain government bodies. Under the Governor’s amendments, this law would take effect May 1, 2021.

  • House Bill 582 and Senate Bill 939, sponsored by Delegate Elizabeth Guzman and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, respectively, permit localities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with local employees. Under the Governor’s amendments, this law would take effect May 1, 2021.

  • House Bill 358 and Senate Bill 182, sponsored by Delegate Alfonso Lopez and Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, respectively, authorize state and local bodies to require project labor agreements for construction, manufacture, maintenance, or operation of public works. Under the Governor’s amendments, this law would take effect May 1, 2021.




 

Legislature approves mental health training for Virginia teachers

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed a bill that will require full-time teachers to complete mental health awareness training, though some advocates are split on how the training should be implemented.

Del. Kaye Kory, D- Fairfax, sponsored House Bill 74, which incorporated HB 716 and HB 1554. Kory, a former school board member, said teachers and faculty may be better able to understand and help prevent related issues if they are trained properly to recognize signs of mental health problems. The bill requires school boards to adopt and implement policies for the training, which can be completed online. School boards may contract the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, a community services board, a behavioral health authority, a nonprofit organization, or other certified trainer to provide such training. 

Kory said the bill was requested by several teacher groups in last year’s General Assembly. 

“My intention is that the training provides the ability to ask the right questions at the right time,” Kory said via email. “As substance abuse becomes more common in young people, the need for early detection and response becomes more and more clear.”

The intent of the bill is good, said 4th District Richmond City School Board Member Jonathan Young, but there are potential flaws with the online training program..

“It often ends up being nothing more than a check in the box,” he said. “I’m not interested in another check in the box, I’m interested in real mental health training for our teachers.”

Young said teachers need professional development opportunities “to increase their awareness and develop some new skill sets.”

Schools currently offer online training programs with modules tackling cyber security and conflict of interest training, Young said. He said learning about something as important as mental health through a computerized training module may not be effective enough to combat the current mental health crisis. 

Mental health training needs to be scaled up in schools and the solution has to be legitimate, Young said. 

Only 7% of expenditures for mental health go to children under 18, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia, an advocacy and education group. Studies show that early intervention might reduce the prevalence of serious mental health cases, according to the organization.

Approximately 130,000 children and adolescents live with a serious mental illness and only 1 out of 5 children get the help that they need,according to the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children. 

Bruce Cruser, the executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia, said the youth suicide rate has gradually increased in the state. He said that usually the people who need mental health services are people that have experienced trauma, for example, any youth that has been abused or lost their parents at a very young age.

The General Assembly also recently passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues. The bill gives the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.

House of Delegates Passes HB972 to Decriminalize Marijuana

Richmond, VA - The Virginia House of Delegates has approved HB972 from Majority Leader Charniele Herring to decriminalize simple marijuana possession and create a $25 civil penalty for simple possession, which will not result in any court costs or criminal record and further seals all previous simple possession of marijuana arrests, criminal charges, and convictions.

This will reduce the burden on the criminal justice system and public safety agencies by allowing agencies to focus their limited resources on more serious offenses and will establish a work group to study the impact on the Commonwealth of legalizing the sale and personal use of marijuana, to complete its work and report its recommendations by November 1, 2021.

This legislation would make Virginia the 27th state (plus the District of Columbia) to decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts.

"This bill decriminalizes simple marijuana possession in the Commonwealth. Since this issue disproportionately affects people of color, it is an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal justice system. The reality is we are not ready for equitable legalization of marijuana in Virginia. We will continue to work on our regulations and laws regarding the use of marijuana, but today is a huge step forward for the Commonwealth" said Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria).

"I see how the criminalization of marijuana impacts our communities every day. This bill is not what some of us want, but this bill will decriminalize a lot of actions that have led to unfair policing. To say we should do nothing rather than doing something is ridiculous, and that's why I support this bill" said Delegate Don Scott (D-Portsmouth).

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Hundreds of LGBTQ Advocates Lobby Lawmakers for Protections

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By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The day after hundreds lobbied lawmakers on behalf of LGBTQ rights during Equality Virginia's Day of Action, two significant bills advanced in the General Assembly to further protections for the state’s LGBTQ residents. 

The House passed a bill from Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, on Wednesday to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, insurance and banking. 

A Senate bill introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, reported from committee that adds gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability as reportable hate crimes. Victims would be able to bring civil action to recover damages against their offender. 

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, was “cautiously optimistic” at the start of the legislative session but said Tuesday during the organization’s annual lobby event that there is much to celebrate.

Lamneck noted that most of the bills supported by Equality Virginia, a group that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community, are still alive and advancing. Last session most of those bills failed to pass from Republican-led subcommittees.

“This legislation will ensure that people are not discriminated against in housing, employment, public spaces and credit,” Lamneck said.

LGBTQ youth showed up to make their voices heard too. Side by Side, a group dedicated to creating supportive communities for LGBTQ youth, helped sponsor the event.

 “We want them to see that it's easy and accessible and what it's like to actually be involved in the legislative process,” said Emma Yackso, director of youth programs and services for Side by Side. “A lot of them for many, many reasons don't feel like they belong in government, don't feel like their voices are actually ever going to be listened to.”

Groups visited legislators to discuss LGBTQ-related causes such as conversion therapy, housing instability, religious liberty, protection from discrimination and the vulnerability of African American transgender communities. 

“We know that people who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities often face the most discrimination, harassment, and, unfortunately, sometimes violence as well,” Lamneck said.

The lobbying event was followed by an afternoon of workshops at the Library of Virginia and a reception to thank lawmakers. 

 Some of the legislation that has advanced in the General Assembly — mostly with bipartisan support — includes two bills introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. Senate Bill 657 would make it easier to change a person’s name and gender on a birth certificate. SB 161 would make the Department of Education create and implement policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public schools; a duplicate bill in the House also passed.

The Senate also passed SB 245, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which would ban the practice of conversion therapy in Virginia on patients under age 18. A similar bill introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, recently passed the House. On Tuesday, the House passed a health care bill introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or status as a transgender individual. 

Advocates also celebrated that two bills referred to as the Virginia Values Act have made it to the floors of their respective chambers: SB 868, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and HB 1663, introduced by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. Both would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, credit transactions, employment and public spaces.

“We speak with many individuals from across the Commonwealth who have shared with us their experiences of discrimination,” Lamneck said. “And not just that, but the fact that they live in fear, day to day experiencing discrimination and so the Virginia Values Act will have a profoundly positive impact on the community.”

Gov. Ralph Northam and Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, attended an evening reception to wrap up the Day of Action. 

“This session we are going to ensure it is no longer legal in Virginia to discriminate against someone because of who they love,” Filler-Corn tweeted. 

Two House bills that add gender, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation as reportable hate crimes and a House bill replacing terms such as “husband and wife” with gender-neutral terms have yet to advance through their respective committees prior to crossover day on Feb. 11.

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Bill Aims to Save Lives During Overdose

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Cullen Hazelwood died of an overdose last year 2 miles from the hospital because his friend was scared to call for help, according to his mother Christy Farmer. 

Farmer wants to see legislation passed in the General Assembly that would extend immunity from prosecution to people reporting an overdose. 

In 2019, the General Assembly passed a law that offered individuals an affirmative

defense from prosecution for purchasing or possessing drugs, meaning the charges could be reduced or cleared. The bill also struck the requirement that the individual reporting an overdose participate in a criminal investigation. Senate Bill 667, patroned by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, proposes immunity for people who report overdoses, meaning no charges would be filed. 

Fatal drug overdose has been the leading method of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013, driven by opioid use, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The other two in the category are motor vehicle related and gun deaths. Fentanyl accounts for a majority of fatal overdoses, followed by heroin and prescription opioids, respectively.

House Bill 532, introduced by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, sought to achieve the same goal as SB 667. However, it was tabled last week in a 5-3 subcommittee vote. Carr said that fear of legal consequence is the most common reason for not contacting emergency services during an overdose. The legislation was intended to make reporting emergencies easier for all parties involved. 

“The people most directly impacted by this legislation are those who experience an overdose as well as those friends or family members who are present when an overdose occurs,” Carr said. 

Farmer said that her 18-year-old son died of an overdose on May 7, 2019. She said he had recently finished a recovery program and had been clean for several months before his relapse. She said when her son overdosed he was with a friend who took him to someone’s apartment but they were not home. 

“A neighbor said he was yelling, ‘I can't get in trouble, I can't get in trouble, I can't get in trouble,’” Farmer said. “Where my son ended up dying was less than 2 miles from a hospital, less than 2 miles from my house, and less than 3 miles from his grandmother’s house.”

Marianne Burke also had a family member that overdosed on heroin but didn’t die. That overdose wasn’t reported due to fear of prosecution, Burke said. 

“It's obvious that the bill that we have called safe reporting has not done the trick in Virginia,” Burke said.

 Westmoreland County Commonwealth’s Attorney Julia Sichol spoke last week in opposition to the House bill, on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Sichol said she thinks Carr’s bill “can also cause harm to lives” because immunity would keep individuals who report an overdose from being charged with a crime and possibly prevent them from obtaining treatment.

“Drug treatment is extremely expensive and sometimes the only way to get the treatment for the individuals is through the court system,” Sichol said. “If you take away the ability for individuals to be charged who have overdosed they are not eligible to participate in drug treatment program, they are not eligible to go through the court system under mandated treatment.”

Drug courts are specialized courts where individuals plead guilty and agree to complete the drug court program, Sichol said. Patients in the program are on probation and can live at home, she explained. They are screened for drugs three times a week, attend drug treatment counseling, have a curfew and can receive visitors.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, voted against tabling the House bill, saying she objected to “the contention that we can incarcerate ourselves out of addiction” and that treatment simply should be more accessible. 

“It is the fact that we don’t allow them to get the treatment until we incarcerate them,” she said. “And that’s a failure of us and our system and the way that we think of substance abuse.” 

SB 667 will be heard Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary committee.

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Bill fails that would award electoral votes to popular vote winner

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislation seeking to guarantee the presidency to candidates who earn the popular vote in national elections has again failed to advance in the General Assembly. 

Senate Bill 399, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would’ve joined Virginia into the National Popular Vote Compact and awarded its electoral votes to the presidential ticket that receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Ebbin withdrew the bill from consideration Tuesday without identifying the reason. 

House Bill 177, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, was defeated Friday in the Privileges and Elections committee by a 10-12 vote, despite narrowly clearing subcommittee. The bill incorporated HB 199, introduced by Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News. Three Democrats joined Republican members to vote no.

“The people of the United States should choose the president of the United States, no matter where they live in each individual state,” Levine said when questioned during the committee hearing. “It gives every American equal weight under the law.”

Opponents disagree over his premise.

 “One of the things that was in place was to try to ensure that certain large states like California and New York, now, don’t have all the control in making a decision for president,” Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, told ABC 8 News last week. 

Levine tried to pass similar legislation the past three consecutive sessions.

“The Electoral College is an outdated institution that creates an undemocratic system for deciding who holds the most important office in the land,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, a co-patron of HB 177. “Call me crazy, but I think the person who wins the most votes is the person who should win an election.”

Under the Electoral College, each state is granted a number of electoral votes based on their representation in the U.S. House and Senate. A majority of states award electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes in their respective states. The candidate receiving at least 270 electoral votes wins the election. 

After Donald Trump won the 2016 election despite losing the popular vote, numerous states signed the NPVC. The NPVC would ensure the candidate who wins the popular vote becomes president when states possessing 270 electoral votes sign onto the pact and give their electoral votes to the candidate through presidential electors. 

The compact has been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which equal 196 electoral votes, according to National Popular Vote, a nonprofit that advocates for the compact. The pact will go into effect once states with at least 74 more electoral votes enact it. At least one chamber in eight additional states with 75 more electoral votes have passed the bill. 

“It is really hard to predict how campaigns would respond to this change,” said Alex Keena, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “We would probably see less campaigning in the smaller swing states and there would be less emphasis on winning states, per se.”

Americans have historically opposed the Electoral College method and prefer naming winners based on the popular vote, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

“They favor an amendment to the Constitution to make that happen, but are more reluctant to have states make changes to how they award their electoral votes,” Gallup said in a summary of its finding. 

Five presidential candidates have won the electoral college without receiving a majority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harris in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

Without the compact, a constitutional amendment is required to switch from the Electoral College to the popular vote. 

In 1969, Rep. Emanuel Celler introduced House Joint Resolution 681 to abolish the Electoral College and instead require a president-vice president pair of candidates to win at least 40% of the popular vote. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support but failed on the Senate floor, according to congressional records.

“The compact does not require a constitutional amendment, so that route is obviously a lot easier than going through the amendment process,” Keena said.

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House bill protecting student journalists advances, Senate bill tabled

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By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – Students, faculty and advocates lined up at the podium Wednesday to voice support and concern for a bill that would extend free speech protection to student journalists. Some students traveled from Northern Virginia and Culpeper to snag a spot in the crowded House subcommittee room in support of First Amendment rights and to meet with legislators on National Student Press Freedom Day. 

House Bill 36, patroned by former WDBJ journalist Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, advanced out of subcommittee on a 5-3 vote. The bill grants student journalists in school-sponsored media at public middle, high and higher education institutions the right to exercise freedom of speech and the press. The bill also protects advisers working with the student journalists. 

Hurst’s bill would allow schools to intervene and exercise restraint only in situations of slander, libel, privacy, danger or violations of federal or state law. 

“We’ve been very lucky,” said Joseph Kubicki, a senior at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford. “Our current principal, school board and superintendent have been very supportive of the student press.” 

Margaret Vaillant, former student and editor in chief of Madison County High School’s newspaper, shared her reasons for supporting the bill. 

“The lesson I learned as a high school newspaper editor is that facts only matter when it’s not embarrassing to the people in charge,” Vaillant said at the podium. 

Vaillant wrote an editorial in 2011 about the disrepair of Madison County High School’s facilities, which she said led to the newspaper adviser’s ouster.  

Stacy Haney, chief lobbyist of the Virginia School Boards Association, voiced opposition to the bill.

 “I want to point out to the committee that this legislation also applies to students who are in middle school,” Haney said. “I ask that you think about the maturity level and where we need to be with middle school students.”

Haney referenced the landmark 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines which allows students First Amendment rights as long as it does not disrupt learning. 

“Tinker already applies,” said Haney. “Student are protected in their speech under the Tinker standard.”  

 Still, some public school boards have been able to censor school-sponsored student media.

Last year, the Frederick County School Board approved a policy that designates the principal of the school as the editor of student publications. The board declared that school publications must have “curriculum approved by the school board” and are not “intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.”

Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, commended student journalists for their work.

“I think student journalists play the same role that professional journalists play and that is to hold people in power accountable and to make sure that tax dollars get spent the way they should,” Edwards said in a phone interview.

She added that middle and high school student journalists “are more mature than we probably give them credit for.” The maturity level of middle and high school student journalists was a major opposition point during the meeting. 

The bill is similar to several across the country known as “New Voices” bills that aim to protect student media from censorship. New Voices is a student-led grassroots movement that aims to negate the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which ruled that schools may censor student media to an extent. 

Currently 14 states have passed New Voices legislation and 11 have bills in motion, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Senate Bill 80, a companion bill, patroned by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, was recently tabled to the 2021 session in a 1-13 vote.

Hurst was optimistic his bill will move forward during this session. He first introduced the bill in the 2019 session with co-patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, but the bill died in a subcommittee vote, 3-5. 

“I think the fate of this bill will be good,” said Hurst. “The General Assembly will see that this is an important provision to put into our code to protect journalists whether you are in high school, college or a professional.”

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Nonprofit Urges Lawmakers to Protect Domestic Worker Rights

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- After a 15-hour work day, Lenka Mendoza is tired but she prepares to do it all over again the next day.

 Mendoza spoke Tuesday at a Care in Action press conference in support of several General Assembly bills, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The nonprofit advocates for fairness and dignity for U.S. domestic workers, including 60,000 domestic workers in Virginia, according to director Alexsis Rodgers. The bills would increase the quality of life for a group of workers that includes house cleaners, cooks, waiters, nannies and caregivers who provide services in a private home.

“Virginia is actually dead last when it comes to workers’ rights across the country,” Rodgers said. “I would say we're not even on the list.”

Care in Action announced its support of Senate Bill 804, introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill guarantees domestic service workers to not be excluded from employee protection laws, laws regarding payment of wages and other laws regarding the workforce.

“It is time for us to cut the last vestiges of Jim Crow by expanding worker protections to the best workers,” McClellan said. “Laws that ensure minimum wage, safe workplace and protection and against discrimination currently are not extended to domestic workers due to minimum employee thresholds, as well as specific exclusions from wage compensation and workplace saving laws.”

Currently under the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, minimum wage laws do not apply to employers with less than four employees at any given time. McClellan’s bill removes this exemption. It also allows an employee to bring an action against their employer if they are in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act, regardless of the number of people employed.

McClellan cited statistics from the Economic Policy Institute that 17% of domestic workers live in poverty. In Virginia, personal care aides make an average of $21,240 a year, while home health aides earn an average of $23,440 per year, according to the same data.

“While we have the opportunity to create new jobs, we need to ensure that those jobs come with protections that those workers so desperately need,” McClellan said.

Del.Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, introduced House Bill 1730, which is similar to McClellan’s bill. She says it’s time to care for the people who have cared for others over the years.

Gooditis said she decided to introduce a bill focused on domestic workers because of a personal experience. Both her parents have dementia, and they are taken care of by two "amazing women," Gooditis said. She said domestic workers deserve minimum wage protections and other benefits. 

HB 1200, introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, also may help domestic workers. The bill says no employer can discriminate against workers based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, childbirth, age or pregnancy or related medical conditions.

Mendoza has been a domestic worker for the past 18 years. With a Spanish translator by her side, Mendoza said she lives without the benefits for which she now fights. 

“We are here to petition to our legislators to support the domestic labor laws,” she said.

She said domestic workers don’t get the luxury of having sick days or being able to go to doctor’s appointments, because they are there to care for others.

“Not only are we caring for your children, older people in your homes and preparing your food, we're also a pivotal point in education for those young people who will eventually grow to be very active members and contributors to our society,” Mendoza said. 

Both bills have yet to advance to the House or Senate floor.

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Bill to allow physician-assisted suicide sparks discourse

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Opponents of assisted suicide held a press conference Wednesday to reject legislation allowing patients with terminal conditions to request a life-ending substance from a physician.

While supporters of the proposal say the choice to end one’s own life is a human right, speakers at the event called the practice unethical.

“Suicide is incredibly sad,” said Dr. Mary Lopez during the press event held at the Pocahontas Building. “As a nation, we do not want to see our people killing themselves, unless you’re one of those who’s so passionate we fight for bills to allow doctors and others to prescribe deadly drugs to their patients.”

Lopez is the executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing options for people with disabilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, and she spoke with others in opposition to House Bill 1649. 

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, would allow adults with terminal conditions that will result in death within six months to request from a health care provider a self-administered, controlled substance for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. Such a request would need to be made twice orally by the patient, along with a statement signed by the patient and a witness.

Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for Patients’ Rights Action Fund, spoke first.. Her organization is a nonprofit which aims to “oppose efforts to make suicide a legal medical treatment option,” according to the group’s website.

She said her husband, J.J., lived three and a half years after doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. If assisted suicide had been legal at the time of J.J.’s diagnosis, Hanson said her husband could have accessed a life-ending substance “during his darkest days.”

“Thankfully, J.J. didn’t end his life,” Hanson said in her statement. “But if he had suicide pills with him, he said he might have taken them. And you can’t undo that. There’s no going back.” 

Hanson said allowing suicide as a medical treatment could subject families to government pressure and the decisions of insurance companies, and that the state should improve other health care options instead.

Dr. Tom Eppes, a 40-year family practitioner from Lynchburg, said pain medication and hospice care are good alternatives. He spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of Virginia, of which he is a former president. 

Eppes criticized the bill, saying assisted suicides are “impossible to study” and not always successful. He said it “stretches credulity” to ask that physicians and nurse practitioners, as the bill proposes, be able to make such a judgement.

“Predicting death is not easy,” Eppes said. “Six months to live would include untreated Type 1 diabetes.”

He also criticized a policy outlined in the bill that would prohibit death certificates for patients who receive the treatment from listing suicide or homicide as the cause of death, saying it would allow “false reporting.”

“Assisted suicide is like cut flowers,” Eppes said. “They look beautiful on the base, but they wither because they have no roots. Physicians need a code of ethics like the original one that was written 2,500 years ago that includes a promise not to purposely take the life of the patient.”

Kate Vasiloff attended the press conference as a volunteer for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group dedicated to educating the public about end-of-life options.

Vasiloff said she “absolutely” believes the choice to take one’s own life is a human right. She referenced her father, who she said had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which attacks motor neurons and cells that control muscles. What kept him up at night, she said, was how the disease was going to end.

ALS received national attention when the “ice bucket challenge” went viral in 2014. Vasiloff said that trend, which involved pouring ice on one’s self to promote awareness for the disease, didn’t show people the reality of ALS. 

“You either asphyxiate from not being able to swallow properly, you suffocate because your lungs stop working, or you starve to death because the feeding tube has to be removed.”

She agrees with the policies outlined in HB 1649 because the bill is backed by advocates in the medical community and because similar legislation has found success in Oregon and other states.

“I think we owe people who serve our country and our families and our communities a better option,” Vasiloff said. “If they want to have one sliver of control over a situation where they’ve been dealt the worst hand possible, I don’t think that it’s our businesses to stand in the way of that.”

Sara Stern said her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he wished to receive a life-ending treatment while in hospice care. But because his caretakers were against the idea, Stern said her husband opted to voluntarily stop eating and drinking.

Stern watched as her husband died of thirst over the course of two weeks. After this, she said she wanted to advocate for end-of-life options like that in the House proposal.

“My promise to him was to take up this cause,” Stern said, “so that other people would not have to elect that same route if that was their strong wish.”

HB 1649 is currently in the Courts of Justice Committee, which next meets Friday.

Kory did not respond to multiple requests for further comment on the proposal.

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Tethering bill adds new protections for animals kept outside

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Animal rights advocates want lawmakers to advance legislation that expands on a tethering bill passed last year by the General Assembly. The new legislation would increase the minimum length of a tether and adds conditions that include temperature, severe weather and require the animal to be brought inside when the owner isn’t home.

Senate Bill 272, introduced by Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, would increase the required length of the tether from 10 feet or three times the length of the animal to 15 feet or four times the length of the animal. Under the bill, pets can’t be tied during a heat advisory or if a severe weather warning has been issued, including hurricane, tropical storm or tornado warnings. The bill outlaws tethering in temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower or 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and when an owner is not home. Last session, a bill expanded the law from a 3-foot tether to 10 feet. That bill, introduced by Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, originally carried the same language as Bell’s current bill, but it was amended by a Senate committee.

Robert Leinberger, animal control supervisor for Richmond Animal Care and Control, said that some parts of the bill may be difficult to enforce. Still, if the legislation gets passed, Leinberger said, it will make a difference because people will be forced to be more aware of the law. He said more people will call to report instances of animals being improperly tethered.

“For example if it’s inclement weather, when it’s really super cold or really super hot, then we do occasionally see more calls for service because of the animals left out,” Leinberger said.

Kate Riviello, a New York-based animal rights activist who also works in Virginia, supports that the bill outlaws outdoor tethering when the temperature is below 32 degrees. Virginia law currently requires that an animal must have access to water, but the water doesn’t make a difference if it freezes, she said.

Riviello also supports “Tommie’s Law,” legislation passed last year that made animal cruelty a felony in Virginia. The law is named after a pit bull that died after he was set on fire. Riviello said she is happy to see the changes Virginia is making to protect the rights of animals but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to continue in the right direction.

“With ‘Tommie’s law,’ I think it was really tremendous that they took that step,” Riviello said. The key also is to enforce animal rights’ laws, Riviello said, which isn’t always the case.

Leinberger said implementing animal rights’ legislation is important because it enables people to better care for their pets. Tethering is just one issue that needs to be addressed, he said.

The bill is awaiting action by the Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

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Subcommittee advances bill allowing voters to choose multiple candidates

By Macy Pressley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill allowing Virginia voters to choose more than one candidate on the ballot narrowly advanced through subcommittee Monday.

House Bill 1103, introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D- Charlottesville, would open a pilot program for ranked-choice voting in local elections, such as city council or school board contests.

 “Rank choice voting is a small change to ballots that makes a big difference for democracy,” Hudson said. “In a ranked-choice election, you don't just vote for one candidate, you get to rank them from most to least favorite.”

According to Hudson, after the votes are ranked, they are counted in a process similar to a traditional election. If one candidate wins more than half of the first choice votes, they win the election. If no candidate emerges as the majority winner in the first round, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and the losing candidate’s votes are transferred to the voters’ second choice. The elimination process continues until a candidate earns more than half of the votes.

Hudson said diverse groups of people want to run for office, but that can sometimes lead to overcrowding in elections and a winning candidate who does not have much support, but who was able to eke out a win. She thinks this bill is the answer to that problem.

“It makes sure that we can have a leader who represents a broad swath of the community, no matter how many candidates run,” Hudson said.
Ranked-choice voting is not new, at least 20 cities in the United States have adopted it. In 2018, Maine began using it for federal elections. Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, is the chief co-patron for the bill.

“We have found that in other places where this is practiced, it leads to more positive campaigns,” Hope said. “It means that candidates are working, so if they can't be a voters’ first choice, they can be their second choice, and not the negative campaigning that we've seen lately.”

Localities opt to use the voting method, and according to Hope, it would be up to them to fund it as well.

“We've worked that out, the locality will bear the cost, not the state,” he said.

While Hope does not believe ranked-choice voting will happen at a state level, he said Arlington residents are excited about this measure.

 “I know that there's also a bill floating around to do this statewide,” Hope said. “I thought if the rest of the state is not ready for that, I know Arlington certainly is.”

Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, is a Republican co-patron for HB 1103. He said he supports the legislation because it gives localities more freedom to govern.

 “I always believe that localities should have the option to run elections the way that they think are most efficient, and create the most involvement from the voters,” Davis said. “A lot of studies have shown that voters are more involved when there's more opportunity for the candidates, when there's a ranked election system.”

“So if there are localities out there that would like to try it in Virginia, they should be allowed to give it a shot,” he added.

Davis said that legislation had worked well in other districts and he signed on to encourage voter participation and make the electoral process better.

“I think any way that we can run elections that provide more information, more access to voters in manners that get them more engaged, the better off our our democratic process is,” he said.

HB 1103 reported out of subcommittee, 4-3. Delegates voting yes include: Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach; Mark Levine, D-Alexandria; Marcia Price, D-Newport News and Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

Delegates voting no include: Dawn M. Adams, D- Richmond; Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania and Chris Runion, R-Augusta.

The bill will now move to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections, which meets Friday.

Another bill that deals with ranked-choice voting proposed an open primary for all state-wide elections. A single ballot would list all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and the four most popular candidates would continue to the general election. The vote on HB 360 was continued to 2021, and will not be heard this year in the General Assembly.

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Hundreds rally at Virginia Capitol for education reform

Crowd Picture

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Bells chiming through Capitol Square were drowned out Monday as hundreds of education advocates dressed in red chanted for lawmakers to “fund our future.” 

The Virginia Education Association and Virginia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations organized the rally to restore school funding to pre-recession levels, increase teacher pay and reinstate collective bargaining. The VEA is made up of more than 40,000 education professionals working to improve public education in the commonwealth. Virginia AFL-CIO advocates for laws that protect current and retired workers. 

An estimated 600 to 800 people attended the rally, according to The Division of Capitol Police. Participants wore red in support of Red for Ed, a nationwide campaign advocating for a better education system. 

Speakers took to the podium, including VEA President Jim Livingston and Vice President James Fedderman.

“We do this for our children, they are the reason we are here,” Livingston said. “They are the reason we put our blood, sweat and tears into this profession that we call public education.”

 Stafford Public Schools Superintendent Scott Kinzer and Fairfax County School Board member Abrar Omeish also spoke along with teachers from multiple counties.

Richmond Public Schools announced last week that it would close for the rally after a third of teachers, almost 700, took a personal day to participate. 

“We are proud that so many of our educators will be turning out to advocate for RPS and all of Virginia’s public schools,” RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras stated in a press release.

The 2020 budget puts average RPS teacher salary projections back near the 2018 level of $51,530. Richmond teachers had a 22% salary bump to $63,161 in 2019. They are projected in 2020 to earn on average $51,907, an almost 18% decrease from the previous year. 

“Last year we demonstrated our power to tell the General Assembly that it is time, it is past time, to fund our future,” Livingston said.

A rally held last year called for higher teacher salaries and better school funding. Legislators announced that teachers would receive a 5% salary increase in the state budget.

The Virginia Department of Education stated that the budgeted average salary for teachers statewide in 2020 is $60,265; however, teachers in many counties and cities will be paid less than that, with the lowest average salary in Grayson County Public Schools at $39,567. Arlington County Public School teachers will have the highest average salary in the state at $81,129, with other Northern Virginia schools close behind. 

The VDE report showed that in 2017, Virginia ranked 32nd in the country with an average teacher salary of $51,994, compared to the national average of $60,477. 

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“We are often putting our own money into things and we need help,” said Amanda Reisner, kindergarten teacher at E.D. Redd Elementary School. “We have buildings that are falling apart, we don’t have enough supplies, we don’t have enough technology.”

The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based organization that analyzes fiscal issues, reported that state funding per student has dropped 7.6% since 2009, from $6,225 to $5,749. In addition, public schools in Virginia since 2009 have lost over 2,000 support staff and over 40 counselors and librarians, while the number of students has increased by more than 52,000. 

HB 582, patroned by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, proposes the reinstatement of collective bargaining for public employees. According to the VEA, Virginia is one of three states that does not allow collective bargaining, the power to negotiate salaries and working conditions by a group of employees and their employers. 

The bill would also create the Public Employee Relations Board, which would determine appropriate methods of bargaining and hold elections for representatives to bargain on behalf of state and local government workers. 

“Collectively we bargain, divided we beg,” said AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays. “The Virginia AFL-CIO and the VEA, we stand hand in hand together.”

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Subcommittee Advances Bill Prohibiting LGBTQ Discrimination

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A General Assembly subcommittee advanced a bill Thursday that would prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, public accommodations, employment and credit applications.

Lawmakers suggested expanding the focus of a bill introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, that would update the Virginia Fair Housing act to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing.

McQuinn’s bill was rolled into HB 1663, patroned by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. Sickles’ bill, called the “Virginia Values Act,” includes additional protections against discrimination for LGBTQ Virginians in employment, public spaces and credit transactions and also outlines a process for civil action in a discrimination case.

The Virginia Fair Housing Law currently prevents housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status and disability. Sickles’ bill would add “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity” or status as a veteran, to current law.

“As an African American woman, I have personally been subjected to discrimination all my life because of my race and my gender,” McQuinn said in an email interview with Capital News Service. “This will be another step toward dismantling systematic discrimination and creating fairness and equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality, said the legislation is a step in the right direction and praised the delegates’ work.

“These protections are long overdue and an important step forward for Virginia’s LGBTQ community,” Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, said in a statement.

Similar bills have been introduced by both chambers in previous sessions. Though praised by the ACLU and LGBTQ advocacy groups, such bills passed the Senate with support from some Republican senators, but never could advance out of Republican-led House subcommittees.

Capital News Service reached out to Republicans who voted against previous legislation to gauge their support for the current bill, but none responded.

Earlier this week the Senate passed a bill to allow a person who changed their sex to receive a new birth certificate. Introduced by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, SB 657 aims to eliminate problems for the transgender community that occur when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition, such as renting a home or applying for a credit line.

The Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia is a nonprofit that works to end transgender homelessness by providing individuals with resources to find emergency shelter, food and referrals to housing programs. De Sube, chairperson of the organization, said any nondiscrimination bill will help the transgender community.

The resource is needed, Sube said, because many clients are kicked out of their homes after they tell family, loved ones or roommates that they are transgender. Then they run into discrimination while seeking housing.

“Many transgender people apply for housing, apartments, rental homes, etc., and they’re just denied because of their transgender identity,” Sube said.

Sickles said in a statement that discrimination has no place in Virginia.

“All Virginians deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, including LGBTQ people,” Sickles said.

Advocates expect HB 1663 to be heard in committee Tuesday. The companion bill sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, is expected to be heard in a Senate committee the following day.

"In Virginia, although a gay couple can get married on Sunday, the sad reality is they can get fired on Monday, evicted on Tuesday morning and denied a hotel room Tuesday night,” Ebbin said in a press release. “This isn’t a theoretical issue, discrimination is happening today.”

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League of Women Voters push lawmakers for criminal justice reform

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every Wednesday during the legislative session, the Virginia chapter of the League of Women Voters hosts a roundtable featuring legislators and speakers before members head to the State Capitol and lobby lawmakers. 

Deb Wake, president of the Virginia chapter, considers education a priority for the nonpartisan political organization and utilizes the member’s experience and knowledge to cultivate different perspectives.

“We’re always trying to learn and take advantage of the power of our membership,” Wake said. 

The group started with a discussion of gun control bills, citing the recent massive gun rights rally as a wake-up call to create stricter legislation.

“There's the right to gun ownership, but there's also the right to be free from intimidation by the people who show up with their firepower for the express purpose of intimidation,” Wake said.

The league was joined this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and the groups promoted criminal justice reform legislation. Both want lawmakers to eliminate the use of solitary confinement, calling it “inhumane.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring state prisons to report data on prisoners placed in solitary confinement, including information on their sex, ethnicity, race, age, mental health and medical status. Prisons also must report why and how long a prisoner has been placed in solitary confinement and the security level of the confinement. The ACLU feels that it is not enough. 

“Solitary confinement jeopardizes public safety, wastes taxpayer dollars, and can cause serious lifelong psychological harm and trauma,” the ACLU stated. 

Justin Patterson, a correctional officer at Sussex 1 State Prison in Sussex County, said the mental health effects of solitary confinement depends on the situation.

“I've seen offenders who have been in solitary confinement for years thriving in population now. I've seen people who have been in there for weeks and start to lose it,” Patterson said. “It's a case by case basis in my experience.”

House Bill 1284, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would “prohibit the use of isolated confinement in state correctional facilities and juvenile correctional centers.” It is currently sitting in a subcommittee.

According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, short-term solitary confinement was reduced by 66% from January 2016 to June 2019 as a part of their Restrictive Housing Pilot Program. 

Patterson argues that solitary confinement is necessary within the prison system.

“We are dealing with very dangerous individuals in an environment which breeds violence,” Patterson said. “Solitary confinement isn't just used as a disciplinary procedure, it's also used for safety purposes.”

The ACLU also wants to change the definition of petit larceny, thefts less than $500, which they said is one of the lowest in the country. It wants to raise the threshold to $1,500, according to Ashna Khanna, legislative director. A House bill proposing that change died last year in a committee. 

“We're seeing this entire system of how people are becoming disenfranchised, how people are becoming incarcerated, and we know that it disproportionately is black or brown people,” Khanna said.

Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, and Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, proposed HB 101, which would increase the grand larceny minimum to $750 but a Courts of Justice subcommittee voted down the measure Friday. 

Gov. Ralph Northam has voiced support for current legislation to raise the grand larceny threshold to $1,000, doubling the threshold that it was raised to in the previous session.

The League of Women Voters and the ACLU also are working on reforming the pretrial system, which the ACLU said largely affects communities of color who may not be able to afford bail. Other topics discussed at the round table included no-excuse absentee voting and legalization of marijuana. The ACLU has voiced opposition to current legislation proposing the decriminalization of marijuana, in favor of legalization.

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Virginia Senate Passes Bill for Schools to Provide Menstrual Products

By Maia Stanley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday requiring public schools to include free menstrual products in their bathrooms. 

Senate Bill 232 applies to schools that educate fifth-to-12th graders. According to the Virginia Department of Education, this encompasses 132 school districts and almost over 630,000 female students

“I would like to see that the supplies are available, just like other supplies that we keep in the bathroom,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, the legislation’s chief patron.

An earlier version of the bill applied the stipulation to the aforementioned schools where at least 40% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. 

Boysko introduced the bill to make it more convenient for students to access menstrual products and help them avoid accidents.

“This is a necessity and girls can't carry out their school day without it,” Boysko said. “Some girls are missing school time and end up going home and missing classes because of these kinds of challenges.”

According to Boysko, school budgets currently cover menstrual product expenses, but they are often kept in the nurse’s office, making it inconvenient for students. 

Karen Keys-Gamarra believes menstrual products need to be more accessible at Fairfax County Public Schools, where she is a school board member.

“We typically provided menstrual supplies in the nurse's office, which was, in my opinion, inappropriate in that we were treating this bodily function as something you need to see a nurse for,” Keys-Gamarra said. 

The district began a pilot program last fall providing free menstrual products in school bathrooms to improve access to menstrual products. 

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Dignity Act sponsored by Boysko, which standardized taxes on hygiene products, such as pads, tampons and diapers to 2.5% statewide, in effort to make feminine hygiene products more affordable. The tax previously varied from 2.5% to 7%, depending on the part of the state.

“The essential nature of personal health care products is not up for debate and I commend the General Assembly for coming together to ensure these savings for Virginians,” Northam said at the time in a press release.

Boysko also introduced a bill this session to eliminate the tax on menstrual products. 

“Women don't have a choice about these products. They've been treated just like any other luxury product,” Boysko said. “There are a lot of people who feel like it's actually an unfair taxation on women.”

Menstrual products are not covered by government grocery assistance programs, and some families can't afford sanitary products.

“There are students here in Virginia, and all over the world, who are not able to get to school because they don’t have the products, they can’t afford them,” Boysko said during the committee meeting. 

Four states, California, Illinois, New York and New Hampshire, currently require schools to provide free menstrual products in women’s bathrooms. Boysko hopes to make Virginia the fifth state to have that requirement. 

Boysko believes the House will pass the bill. Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, sponsored a similar House bill.

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Bill Defining Milk Aims To Give Dairy Farmers Supermarket Advantage

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As people drink less dairy milk and some turn to plant-based alternatives such as oat, soy and almond milk, dairy farmers say they're struggling. That’s why Virginia is the latest state to advance legislation restricting the use of the word milk for marketing purposes.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 119, which defines milk as the lacteal secretion “obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved animal.” The bill prohibits plant-based milk alternative products from marketing their products as milk. Knight, a pig farmer, said agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, and the state government has to protect it. The bill reported out of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources committee Wednesday, and heads to the House floor.

Virginia produced about 1.6 billion pounds of dairy milk in 2018, and the number of permits issued to dairy farmers is on the decline, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau.

“We’re losing about one dairy farm a week in the state of Virginia, and farmers are struggling hard,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘well, maybe these plant-based fluids are capitalizing on the good name of milk.’”

HB 119 was amended to say that 11 out of the following states need to pass similar legislation for the law to go into effect: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. A bill that passed the North Carolina legislature carried a similar stipulation.

Michael Robbins, a spokesperson from the Plant Based Foods Association, believes the bill is unnecessary, and the dairy industry has created a “bogeyman” in plant-based milk, instead of addressing the tangible issues the dairy industry faces.

“We view these bills as a solution in search of a problem,” Robbins said. “There is no consumer confusion on plant-based dairy alternatives versus dairy coming from a hooved animal. Consumers know exactly what they’re purchasing.”

Mississippi and Arkansas passed their own “truth in labeling” laws for plant-based meat alternatives such as tofu dogs and beyond burgers, which were challenged and overturned on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. Robbins said if milk labeling bills become law, the plant-based food industry will fight them in court.

“Right now, because none of those bills are in effect, there’s no standing to challenge them in court, but step one would be to file an appropriate lawsuit,” Robbins said.

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Senate advances bill allowing transgender people to change birth certificate

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Senate passed a bill earlier this week that would allow a person who changed their sex to have a new birth certificate issued, something that the transgender community said will help eliminate problems experienced when their legal identification doesn’t match their transition.

Senate Bill 657 would allow a person to receive a new birth certificate to reflect the a change of sex, without the requirement of surgery. The individual seeking a new birth certificate also may list a new name if they provide a certified copy of a court order of the name change.

“I just think it’s important to try to make life easier for people without being discriminated [against] or bullied,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “Allowing an individual who is transgender to change their birth certificate without having to go through the full surgery allows them to live the life that they are due to have.”

The bill requires proof from a health care provider that the individual went through “clinically appropriate treatment for gender transition.” The assessment and treatment, according to Boysko’s office, is up to the medical provider. There is not a specific standard approach for an individual's transition. Treatment could include any of the following: counseling, hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery, or a patient-specific approach from the medical provider.

A similair process is required to obtain a passport after change of sex, according to the State Department.

 Once the paperwork is complete, it is submitted to the Virginia Department of Health vital records department, Boysko said.

Boysko said her constituents have reported issues when they need to show legal documents in situations like leasing apartments, opening a bank account or applying for jobs.

This is the third year that Boysko has introduced the bill. Neither bill made it out of subcommittee in previous years, but Boysko believes the bill has a better chance of becoming law this year.

“I believe that we have a more open and accepting General Assembly then we’ve had in the past, where people are more comfortable working with the LGBTQ community and have expressed more of an interest in addressing some of these long overdue changes,” Boysko said.

Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, a group that advocates for LGBTQ equality, said the organization is “really pleased that this bill is moving through.”

“This bill is really important for the transgender community,” Lamneck said. “Right now many transgendered people do not have identity documents … this is really problematic when people apply for jobs or try to open a bank account.”

There are 22 other states in America that have adopted legislation similar to this, including the District of Columbia, Boysko said. The senator said that “it’s time for Virginia to move forward and be the 23rd state."

The Senate also passed Tuesday Boysko’s bill requiring the Department of Education to develop policies concerning the treatment of transgender students in public elementary and secondary schools, along with a bill outlawing conversion therapy with any person under 18 years of age.

The bills now advance to the House, where they must pass before heading to the governor’s desk.

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Republican-backed gun bills fizzle on heels of massive rally

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

Democrats halted a slew of Republican-backed gun legislation Tuesday, including bills that would not require concealed carry permits, allow firearms in places of worship, and enable state employees to bring concealed guns to work.

One day after 22,000 gun rights advocates flooded the State Capitol in support of Second Amendment rights, 11 gun bills failed to advance out of a Democratic-majority legislative subcommittee.

House Bill 162 would have allowed those injured in established gun free zones to file a civil claim for damages. The bill states that if a locality or the commonwealth creates a gun free zone, it also waives its sovereign immunity in relation to injuries in that zone. Sovereign immunity protects government entities and employees against certain lawsuits.

Jason Nixon addressed the panel of delegates in support of the bill while wearing a Virginia Beach Strong T-shirt. His wife, Katherine Nixon, was killed in the May mass shooting in a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 12 dead and four injured.

“If you tell my wife that she has to go into gun free zones under city policies or state policies, and you can't protect her, and you harbor her right of protecting herself, is that fair?” Nixon said.

Nixon said his wife expressed safety concerns the night before the shooting — and contemplated bringing a gun in her purse — but decided against it to comply with the law.

“This bill probably should be called the ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico, said. “If you are in a gun free zone, you should be able to hold the local government accountable for preventing you from doing anything in self defense.”

During a block vote of HB 162 and HB 1382, which supported similar measures, the bills were tabled in a 6-2 vote. Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, broke party lines to vote alongside Democrats.

HB 161, sponsored by McGuire, would have changed the law to not require a permit for a concealed handgun.

Louisa county resident Myria Rolan supported the bill, saying she had to obtain a concealed carry permits because winter clothing often covers her firearm. 

“But the reason I needed it isn't because I was going to do anything crazy. It's because I wear a coat or sweatshirt,” Rolan said. “Do you know how easy it is for current clothing to cover your firearm, and now you're committing a crime just because you are being fashionable or warm?”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, sponsored HB 596, which would repeal the law banning dangerous weapons in a place of worship. It was tabled in a 5-3 vote.

Steve Birnbaum, the head of a volunteer security team at his local synagogue, said he supports the bill. 

Birnbaum said it took law enforcement 10 minutes to respond during the mass attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He said churches should have the option to protect themselves before officers arrive.

“There are some synagogues that don't even want paid security, because they don't like firearms, they don't always want off-duty officers, they don't want to pay for security, and that's their choice,” Birnbaum said. “But there are synagogues that understand that law enforcement are not coming, and that they're on their own for 10 minutes, if not longer, especially in rural parts of the state.”

One attendee said that church and state were separate, and legislators shouldn’t control whether people bring guns in churches. Current law allows armed security guards in places of worship.

The subcommittee tabled HB 596, HB 373 and HB 1486, all in a 5-3 vote. The bills would have allowed guns in places of worship. 

HB 669, patroned by Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, would have allowed state employees with a valid concealed handgun permit to carry a concealed handgun to their workplace. 

Other bills tabled Tuesday include :

  • HB 1470 would have allowed a landowner with property in multiple localities to extend the firearm ordinance of the country where the largest parcel was located to anyone hunting on site.

  • HB 1471 would have given property owners the ability to use HB 1470 in their legal defense.

  • HB 1175 would have increased the penalty for use or display of a firearm while committing certain felonies. It would raise the mandatory minimum sentence for first offenses from three years to five years, and second and subsequent offenses from five years to 10 years.

  • HB 1485 said that no locality shall adopt or enforce any workplace rule preventing an employee from carrying a concealed handgun if the employee has a valid concealed handgun permit.

  • HB 976, patroned by Del. Matthew Fariss, R-Campbell, was not heard today and will be consulted by the subcommittee at a later date.

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Bills to make voting easier advance in Virginia General Assembly

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers have advanced Senate bills that make voting easier, including not requiring an excuse to vote absentee and recognizing Election Day as a state holiday. Other legislation that would extend citizen access to voting -- part of the 11-point “Virginia 2020 plan” put forward by Gov. Northam -- has yet to clear committees.

Senate Bill 601 designates Election Day as a state holiday to give more citizens the chance to cast their ballot. The bill also would strike from current law Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates the birthdays of Confederate generals. The legislation, introduced by Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed the Senate Tuesday.

“Even on Election Day, people have to go to work, people have to handle childcare, people have to go to class and often it can be hard to make it to the polls,” said Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Herndon. “It just makes sense that those folks should be given the opportunity to come out and vote in a time window that works for them.”

A bill that removes the need for an excuse to cast an absentee ballot passed the Senate Monday. SB 111, introduced by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, permits any registered voter to vote by absentee ballot in any election in which he is qualified to vote.

Several other bills that facilitate ease of absentee voting are SB 46, removing the requirement that a person applying for an absentee ballot provide a reason to receive the ballot; SB 455, extending the deadline when military and overseas absentee ballots can be received; SB 617, authorizing localities to create voter satellite offices to support absentee voting; and SB 859, making absentee voting easier for people who have been hospitalized.

Legislation in the House includes a bill that would also allow for no excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration and same-day voter registration. In the Senate, a bill would pre-register teens 16 years old and older to vote and one bill in the House would reduce the period of time registration records must be closed before an election. All House bills are in an Elections subcommittee.

“Restrictive voting provisions almost always disproportionately affects people of color and low-income individuals because those are the groups that move more frequently, work multiple jobs and have less spare time,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

The House and Senate also introduced bills that would remove requirements that voters present a photo ID when voting. Under the legislation, voters can show voter registration documents, bank statements, paychecks or any government document that shows the name and address of the voter. Neither bill has made it past committee.

Virginians currently must present a photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a U.S. passport, to vote in person. According to a 2012 study by Project Vote, an organization that works to ensure all Americans can vote, approximately 7% of the U.S. population lacks photo ID. This is especially true of  lower-income individuals, those under the age of 20 and ethnic minorities.

Voters can provide their social security number and other information to get a free Virginia Voter Photo Identification Card, but some legislators said that service is unknown to many.

“Before the photo ID requirement voters had to sign the affidavit to say they are who they say they are, and I think that was enough,” said House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. “I feel the photo ID was a way to suppress the vote because not everyone has one.”

Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 1256 into law mandating voters have a form of ID with a photograph. Virginia is one of the 18 states with such voting requirements, according to the National Conference of Legislature.

In 2016, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ID requirement after attorneys for the state Democratic Party challenged the law, arguing it had a disproportionate impact on low income and minority voters.

“People are fed up with our overly restrictive and racist voting policies, and the legislature is finally getting rid of some of the biggest roadblocks to progressive reform,” said Glass. “This has been a long time coming.”

FUTSAL

‘The end is in sight’: ERA moves closer to ratification in Virginia

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By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

ERA introduced

RICHMOND, Va. -- Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment swiftly passed the General Assembly Wednesday. The House version passed 59-41 and the Senate bill cleared with a 28-12 vote. The next step will be for each resolution to pass the other chamber, sometime in February.

“As the House sponsor of the bill, it is an honor to lead the effort in this historic moment for women,” said Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, in a released statement. “This vote demonstrates how greater female representation in government can significantly improve the lives of women across the country. We are here and will be heard.”

VAratifyERA, a campaign focused on the state’s ratification tweeted shortly after passage of the resolutions: “The end is in sight!”

First lady Pam Northam and daughter Aubrey Northam appeared at the House gallery to witness the moment. They joined a crowd of mostly women who cheered loudly when the measure passed.

The governor and Democratic legislators have championed the ERA as a legislative priority, promising this year the amendment wouldn’t die in the House as it has in past years.

“Today is an absolutely historic day for our Commonwealth and a major milestone in the fight for equality in this nation,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement.  “Women in America deserve to have equality guaranteed in the Constitution and Virginians should be proud that we will be the state that makes it happen.”

Though Virginia passage of the ERA is seen as a symbol of the new Democratic leadership, the effort may be too late. The Department of Justice announced last week that the ERA can no longer be ratified because its deadline expired decades ago.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel agreed that the deadline cannot be revived.

“We conclude that Congress had the constitutional authority to impose a deadline on the ratification of the ERA, and because that deadline has expired, the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the states,” Engel said.

Carroll Foy said in an interview last week that she believes the DOJ legal counsel’s opinion will not stop the ERA’s progress.

“I am more than confident that this is just another effort by people who want to stop progress and who don't believe in women's equality,” Carroll Foy said. “This is another one of their concerted efforts to deny us fundamental rights and equal protections. But the time has come; we are unrelenting. We will not be deterred, and we will have our full constitutional equality.”

The amendment seeks to guarantee equal rights in the U.S. Constitution regardless of sex. It passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. Efforts to ratify the ERA gained momentum in recent years when it passed in Nevada and Illinois.

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Five states --Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota -- have stated their intent to rescind their ratification, which ERA opponents say could prevent it from being added to the constitution, according to VAratifyERA. The ERA organization said that “Article V of the Constitution authorizes states to ratify amendments but does not give states the power to rescind their ratification.” The organization points out that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments were added to the Constitution despite some state efforts to rescind ratification.

Herring said that he is “preparing to take any steps necessary to ensure that Virginia is recognized as the 38th ratifying state, that the will of Virginians is carried out, and that the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be.”

Female-led groups united at the General Assembly last week, urging representatives not to pass legislation ratifying the ERA. Groups such as The Family Foundation of Virginia, Eagle Forum, Students For Life of America and Concerned Women for America said they oppose ERA ratification because the amendment does not explicitly support women’s equality.

“The ERA does not put women in the Constitution,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, chairman of Eagle Forum, a conservative and pro-family group. “It puts sex in the Constitution, and sex has a lot of different definitions.”

President of the Virginia chapter of the The Family Foundation Victoria Cobb believe women have already achieved equality.

“Today I am different than men and yet equal under the U.S. Constitution, and Virginia Constitution and Virginia laws,” Cobb said.

A statement released last week by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that certifies ratification of amendments, indicated that the agency will follow DOJ guiERA its about timedance that the deadline to ratify has passed "unless otherwise directed by a final court order."

Still, enthusiasm was palpable Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“The people of Virginia spoke last November, voting a record number of women into the House of Delegates and asking us to ratify the ERA,” said Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring in a released statement. “It is inspiring to see the amendment finally be considered, voted on, and passed – long-awaited recognition that women deserve.”

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General Assembly Acknowledges, with Profound Regret, the Existence and Acceptance of Lynching Within the Commonwealth.

SENATE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 297

Acknowledging with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth.

Agreed to by the Senate, February 5, 2019


Agreed to by the House of Delegates, February 20, 2019

WHEREAS, the year 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival to the Jamestown settlement of the first Africans in what would become the United States, where they were enslaved, marking the beginning of nearly 250 years of slavery in the British colonies and in the new nation; and

WHEREAS, throughout America’s history of slavery, segregation, and inequality, thousands of African Americans were lynched across America, particularly throughout the southern United States, to perpetuate racial inequality and white supremacy and to terrorize African American communities; and

WHEREAS, during Reconstruction, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified, abolishing slavery, granting citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States, and guaranteeing the rights to due process of law and equal protection under the law and the right to vote for African American men; and

WHEREAS, in outright defiance of the Reconstruction Amendments, people across the nation acted outside of the law, deliberately, violently, and brutally, against African American citizens in retribution for alleged or invented crimes and faced few or no consequences; and

WHEREAS, the Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings that took place throughout the South between 1877 and 1950, over 80 of which took place in Virginia; other scholarship documents more than 100 lynchings in Virginia; and

WHEREAS, African American men, women, and children lived in fear that their lives and the lives of loved ones could end violently at any time and in any place; and

WHEREAS, lynchings were often widely known and publicly attended; some were witnessed by crowds that numbered in the thousands, reflecting community acceptance, and many leaders and authorities and much of society denied and enabled the illegal and horrific nature of the acts; and

WHEREAS, Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell, Jr., exposed lynchings in Virginia as they occurred and led the state’s antilynching campaign; however, despite his efforts and other accounts, historians believe still more lynchings remain undocumented; and

WHEREAS, at the urging of Norfolk Virginia-Pilot editor Louis Isaac Jaffe and other antilynching activists, and to curtail mob violence in Virginia, the General Assembly passed an antilynching measure that was signed into law on March 14, 1928, declaring lynching a state crime; and

WHEREAS, the extreme racial animus, violence, and terror embodied in the act of lynching did not die with the criminalization of the act, and few, if any, prosecutions occurred under the measure; and

WHEREAS, the legacy of racism that outlived slavery, enabled the rise and acceptance of lynching, facilitated segregation and disenfranchisement, and denied education and civil rights to African Americans has yet to be uprooted in Virginia, the South, and the nation, and this dark and shameful chapter of American history must be understood, acknowledged, and fully documented and the seemingly irreparable breach mended; and

WHEREAS, the most abject apology for past wrongs cannot right them; yet the spirit of true repentance on behalf of a government and, through it, a people can promote reconciliation and healing and avert the repetition of past wrongs and the disregard of manifested injustices; and

WHEREAS, in 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative began investigating thousands of racial terror lynchings in the American South in an effort to understand the terror and trauma this sanctioned violence against the African American community created, resulting in the report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in 2015 and the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 26, 2018, as the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence; and

WHEREAS, the Equal Justice Initiative created the Community Remembrance Project to create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynchings and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation by working with communities to commemorate and recognize the traumatic era of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites across the country and erecting historical markers and monuments in these spaces; and

WHEREAS, the General Assembly established the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission in 1992 to continue the work of Dr. King, himself a victim of violence, as he sought to realize his dream of a “Beloved Community” in which love, peace, and justice prevail over hatred and fear; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED by the Senate, the House of Delegates concurring, That the General Assembly hereby acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth and call for reconciliation among all Virginians; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission make as complete a record as possible of each documented lynching that occurred in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including the names of the victims and the locations and circumstances of each occurrence, to be preserved on the Commission’s website, and develop programming to bring awareness and recognition of this history to communities across the state, that such awareness might contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation in Virginia’s still-wounded communities and for families and descendants affected by lynchings; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission coordinate with the Department of Historic Resources to identify sites for historic markers to recognize documented lynchings and assist the Equal Justice Initiative in its Community Remembrance Project in the Commonwealth; and, be it

RESOLVED FINALLY, That the Clerk of the Senate transmit a copy of this resolution to the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission, requesting that it further disseminate copies of this resolution to its constituents so that they may be apprised of the sense of the General Assembly of Virginia in this matter.

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