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Jessica Wetzler

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Virginia Grocery Investment Fund Seeks to End ‘Food Deserts’

By Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A ​bipartisan group of public officials urged the General Assembly on Thursday to create a Virginia Grocery Investment Fund to help attract supermarkets to food deserts in the state.

Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe was joined by senators and delegates at a news conference in support of legislation to create the fund.

Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe included $7.5 million in his proposed 2018-20 budget to establish the grocery fund within the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, and Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, have joined to sponsor SB 37, which would provide funding to build or expand grocery stories in underserved communities.

“I have carried many bills,” Stanley said, “but not as important as this one.”

In the House, HB 85 is being sponsored by Dels. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond.

“It’s 2018, terms like ‘food desert’ should not be part of our vocabulary, but it is. We should not have hungry Virginians, but we do,” Bell said.

More than  1.7 million Virginians, including 480,000 children, live in low-income areas with limited supermarket access. These areas are often called food deserts -- communities where residents are unable to access fresh produce, lean meats and other nutritious food.

“It’s not a political issue, it’s a human issue,” Stanley said.

Through the fund, private-public partnerships leveraging state dollars with private money will be made to provide one-time, low-interest loans or small grants. The objective is to encourage such food retailers as grocery stores or innovative food retail projects to open or renovate  markets in underserved communities. Supporters say that would also provide new jobs.

The investment fund would have a goal of working with more than 15 healthy food retail projects, with an average of 40 new and retained jobs per grocery store.

New and existing businesses in at least 18 localities have confirmed interest in seeking low-interest loans and grants to expand and create new healthy food retail operations, supporters said.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a similar program in October that would bring new grocery options through the Neighborhood Prosperity Fund. The $3 million investment is to begin in September.

“We’ve worked for four years to expand food access across Virginia, and this legislation will move us forward,” Dorothy McAuliffe said on Twitter after the news  conference.

“It’s a right for all Virginians and Americans.”

Outgoing Governor Urges Lawmakers to ‘Work Together’

 By Chelsea Jackson and Jessica Wetzler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe delivered his farewell State of the Commonwealth Address on the opening day of the General Assembly’s 2018 session, making a final plea for legislators to expand Medicaid and saying the state is in good hands as he passes the baton to a fellow Democrat, Ralph Northam.

With a smile, McAuliffe took the podium Wednesday night before a joint session of the House and Senate as he announced his pleasure to address the General Assembly “one final time.” The Republican side of the chamber appeared silent while Democratic lawmakers stood, cheered and banged their desks in appreciation.

Once again, McAuliffe urged the General Assembly to expand Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for low-income Americans.

“The chief issue that demands your attention is making a clear statement that, in a new Virginia economy, health care is not a privilege for the few – it is a right for all,” McAuliffe said. “Put the politics aside. It’s time to expand Medicaid in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

In his address, McAuliffe said that at his inauguration, he promised to maintain the state’s reputation for strong fiscal management, to make Virginia the greatest place in the world for veterans, military service members and their families, and to be a brick wall to protect the rights of women and LGBT Virginians from discrimination.

“Four years later, we have kept those promises,” McAuliffe said. “And we are a Commonwealth of greater equality, justice and opportunity for all people as a result. That is a legacy we can all be proud of.”

McAuliffe spoke not just to legislators but to everyday Virginians as he recited progress the state had made during his term.

“In the coming years, I hope you will build on that foundation by using your voices and your votes to make Virginia more equal, more just and more prosperous for all people, no matter whom they are, where they live or whom they love,” McAuliffe said.

He took notice of political battles, such as Republicans suing him for contempt when he attempted to restore, in one fell swoop, the voting rights of about 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences.

McAuliffe established the record for the most bills vetoed during his time in office – a total of 120.

“I absolutely hated having to veto a record 120 bills – but those bills took Virginia in the wrong direction,” McAuliffe said. “They attacked women’s rights, equality for LGBT people and access to the voting booth. They hurt the environment, and they made Virginia less safe. I honestly wish they’d never made it to my desk.”

McAuliffe received several standing ovations during his address, but perhaps the loudest followed his statements regarding Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed protesting a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in August. Everyone on the floor took the moment to stand and applaud for the remarks about Heyer.

McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was elected governor in November 2013, defeating Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli.

During his term, Republicans had a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, making it difficult for McAuliffe to pass his key priorities, such as expanding Medicaid. But Democrats made big gains in last fall’s elections. As McAuliffe leaves office, the GOP holds a slim margin in both the House and Senate.

“Virginia is a different place than it was four years ago, and for that we should all be proud. But there is still more work to do,” McAuliffe said.

He later added, “As I look across this room, I see many new faces. The people of Virginia, in their wisdom, have made significant changes to the composition of this General Assembly with a simple message in mind: work together to get things done.”

In their response to McAuliffe’s speech, Republicans took issue with his rosy assessment of the state’s economy. They said that Virginia has been eclipsed by other states and that McAuliffe has neglected rural areas, especially the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

“With fierce competition between states to attract and retain businesses,” said Del. Benjamin L. Cline, R-Rockbridge. “Virginia simply cannot afford to stagnate. Our past achievements will not sustain a prosperous future.”

Sen. A. Benton Chafin, R-Russell, said McAuliffe put Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with other energy-rich states.

“The last four years has seen some very pitched and contentious battles here in Richmond,” Chafin said. “Gov. McAuliffe began his term by initiating and championing a nearly four-month-long budget stalemate. Now, he is concluding his term by advancing the very same proposals that nearly resulted in our first-ever government shutdown.”

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