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Spring 2020 Capital News Service

Bill banning handheld cellphone use while driving clears House, Senate

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a phone while driving a motor vehicle on Virginia roadways and which implements a penalty for the traffic violation.

House Bill 874 will head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has voiced support for prohibiting the use of handheld cellphones while driving. The measure, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would go into effect at the start of 2021.

“I’m happy that HB874 passed 29-9 in the Senate,” Bourne said in an email. “HB874 will make our roadways safer for all Virginians by prohibiting drivers from holding a cell phone while driving a motor vehicle.”

The House of Delegates approved the bill Feb. 5 with a 72-24 vote after incorporating four bills with similar proposals. Violations of the measures in HB 874 would result in a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses. If a violation occurs in a highway work zone, there would be a mandatory fee of $250.

Bourne said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, of which he is a member, supports making Virginia roadways safer without risking “disparate application of law.”

“We were happy to work with Drive Smart Virginia to improve the legislation to ensure that the new law is applied fairly and equitably,” Bourne said.

Hands-free driving garners bicameral and bipartisan support, according to Brantley Tyndall, director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA. He said the defeat of previous bills with similar measures in past years was deflating, but that Bourne’s latest proposal reworked the language to make it successful.

“Bike Walk RVA is happy to see leadership from our area, namely chief patron Delegate Jeff Bourne, choosing to lead this issue on the House side with his bill HB 874,” Tyndall said in an email.

Tyndall called Bourne’s bill a “commonsense safety measure” and said he was glad to see support for the bill from old and new leadership in the General Assembly.

“We can all feel a part of saving dozens or hundreds of lives over the next few years, including the one out of every six traffic fatalities that is a person walking or biking,” Tyndall said.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill would not apply to emergency vehicle drivers, such as police officers and firefighters, nor employees of the Department of Transportation while performing official duties. It would also exempt drivers who are parked legally or at a full stop.

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. With a signature from Northam, HB 874 would make the same policy statewide law.

Senate Bill 932 proposed adding school zones to the list of areas where holding a phone while driving is prohibited, which is more limited than HB 874’s proposal. SB 932 failed to advance from a House subcommittee on Monday. 

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during a press conference in January that his department supports HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

Analysis: Over 1,000 Democrat-backed bills pass by crossover, Republican tally trails

By Hannah Eason, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A record number of bills passed in the House of Delegates ahead of the “crossover” deadline, considered the halfway point in the session when a bill has to pass its chamber or it dies.

 Democrat-led efforts like marijuana decriminalization, removal of war memorials, and an assault weapons ban squeezed past in the homestretch. Republican bills, like one that gave the Virginia Lottery Board the ability to regulate casino gambling, also continued to advance.

Delegates filed more than 1,700 bills this session, and 828 bills passed. A Virginia House Democrats release said the House has passed 37% more bills than it did during the 2019 General Assembly session. The release stated the House passed around 600 bills each year from 2016 to 2019.

“We listened to Virginia and are moving together, forward,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said in a press release. “Voters called for major change in the Commonwealth and we are delivering by passing practical, necessary legislation aimed at substantially improving the lives of Virginia residents.”

In the House, Democrats passed 642 bills, more than half of the 1,193 bills they introduced. Republicans filed fewer bills this session — 541 bills were filed and 34% of them passed. These numbers reflect bills, and do not include resolutions or joint resolutions. Bills incorporated into other bills are classified as failing.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, filed and passed more legislation than any other delegate. Out of 50 filed bills, 32 have passed in the House. His bills eliminated the co-payment program for nonemergency healthcare services for prisoners, created provisions on conversion therapy, and granted excused absences to students who miss school because of mental and behavioral health.

Other delegates weren’t as fortunate, like Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, who filed two bills which didn’t pass. He passed one House resolution, which does not have the full force of law and does not require the governor’s signature. Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, didn’t file any bills other than a House joint resolution. 

Four Republican lawmakers each only passed one bill: Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford; Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin; Del. Jeffrey Campbell, R-Smyth; and former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.

While Democrats have applauded their party’s success, Republicans have mostly focused on the possible impact of the new majority. Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, said recently passed legislation attacked the Second Amendment, tore down the economy, and made it easier to “take the lives of our unborn.”

“I offered legislation that would have greatly benefited the 23rd House District, specifically allowing people of faith to defend themselves in a place of worship, assisting new hunters be educated in the ways of the craft, and supporting our farmers,” Walker said in an email. “Unfortunately, these items did not fall within the majority’s agenda.”

In the Senate, 60% of the 1,095 bills filed succeeded. Democrats passed 440 bills, 64% of what they filed. Republicans passed 223 bills, 54% of the legislation they filed.

In total, more Democrat bills failed than Republican bills, 243 and 189 respectively.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, filed and passed more bills than any other senator. He filed 60 bills, and was successful in passing 42.

 Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, passed 32 bills in the Senate, and his chief of staff said they are expected to be successful in the House.

“Senator Edwards has been in the Virginia Senate since 1996, and with the Democratic Party in the minority for the bulk of that time, he had a lot of ideas for good legislation that didn't pass in prior years,” said Luke Priddy, Edward’s chief of staff.

Out of 412 bills filed by Senate Republicans, 223, roughly half of them, passed. 

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, did not pass any of her sponsored bills. Her 21 filed bills included the creation of a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have prohibited abortion after 20 weeks unless under extreme medical circumstances. Chase did not respond to a request for comment.

Chase said Wednesday on Facebook, where she often posts to her constituents, that her bills didn’t advance in committees because of her decision in November to leave the Senate Republican Caucus. 

“If you don’t pay thousands (pay-to-play) to join one of their caucuses, they will deny you of committee assignments and suspend your bills, not giving each bill a fair hearing,” Chase wrote.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said “it’s very clear there’s a new party in charge” and that Democrats are focusing on legislation that wouldn’t have been considered during a Republican majority.

“Issues that would have been dispensed by a Republican majority in two minutes are now not only getting full hearings, but discussion on the floor of at least one chamber of the legislature,” Farnsworth said. “The people in the previous Republican majority who are used to calling the shots, are now subjected to the same treatment that they themselves dealt out in the past.”

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said bills that include increasing the gas tax, energy requirements, the ability of localities to increase taxes, and $15 minimum wage would make living in Virginia more expensive.

“These policies are not free market, they’re not good for Virginia businesses, but they’re not good for Virginia workers either,” McDougle said Wednesday on WRVA’s Richmond Morning News program. “We want there to be competition. When the economy’s moving up, we want to be able to get jobs.”

House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, called the legislation passed “long overdue,” in a statement released Tuesday.

 “We have kept our promise to truly be the ‘People’s House’ by passing long overdue legislation to protect Virginians from exploitation, discrimination and senseless violence,” Filler-Corn said.

Senate Advances Bill Expanding Access to Renewable Energy

Residential rooftop solar panels in the Fulton neighborhood in Richmond. Photo by Jeffrey Knight

By Jeffrey Knight, Capital News Service 

RICHMOND, Va. – A bill that would allow state residents, nonprofits and schools to more easily seek and secure alternative energy sources such as rooftop solar recently passed the Senate by a vote of 22-18.

Senate Bill 710, patroned by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, cleared the hurdle on crossover day, the last day for each chamber to advance its own legislation before it dies. 

McClellan’s amended bill helps remove some barriers that make it harder for individuals and organizations to access energy alternatives outside of public utility providers such as Dominion Energy.

One of those barriers makes it difficult for nonprofits to reap the rewards of private renewable energy generation under current law. Nonprofit entities like churches and some schools don’t qualify for a 26% federal tax credit to implement solar systems. This deters some nonprofits and those who don’t qualify for the tax incentive from generating their own renewable energy because of the up-front price of these projects. 

Many of these organizations are opting for third-party solar contracts, to either lease a system or to pay for energy use. A customer can lease a solar energy system from an installer or developer and pays to use it for a period of time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Alternatively, a power purchase agreement allows customers to pay a solar developer an agreed-upon rate for energy use, usually a lower price than what the local utility charges. 

“The beauty of the third-party solar contract is that the third party is not only installing the panels, they are usually helping to finance it too,” said Bob Shippee, Sierra Club Virginia Chapter legislative chair. “This means the schools or governmental agencies do not have to go through the capital budgeting process and they start seeing savings on electricity from day one.”

The current law caps third-party power purchase agreements on renewable energy generation at 50 megawatts in Dominion territory and seven megawatts for Appalachian Power territory. Dominion would have a tenfold increase to 500 megawatts, while Appalachian Power would have a limit of 40 megawatts, according to the bill.

“We support our Virginia customers using more renewable energy and hope any legislation would ensure the fair and equitable distribution of energy cost to consumers across our footprint,” Rayhan Daudani, Dominion Energy spokesman said in an email. 

Consumer solar prices have dropped 36% over the past five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s recent data. Virginia residents get 1% of their power from solar energy, the association said. 

Homeowners have been joining “solar cooperatives” to help households convert to solar power, but churches, schools and other municipal buildings are not allowed to generate their own power outside of energy provided by Dominion -- except on rare occasions such as weather emergencies.

The average monthly consumption of energy for Virginia residents is 1,165 kilowatt hours per month according to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A kilowatt hour is the measurement of how much energy is used when a 1,000-watt appliance runs for an hour, according to an OVO Energy article. One megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts. 

The proposed legislation would allow non-residential customers to increase their system capacity from one to three megawatts of energy. By law residential customers can generate up to 20 kilowatts. 

Shippee said the current cap on third-party renewable energy generation projects impacted savings and jobs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. 

“That is savings those taxpayers can’t get until those laws are changed,” Shippee said. “The savings flow right to the taxpayer.” 

The bill also raises the cap from 1% to 6% on the amount of solar or renewable energy that can be net metered in a utility service area. Net metering is when an individual who produces their own electricity from solar power uses less electricity than they generate. The excess electricity is then sold back to the utility grid in exchange for a reduction in the customer’s power bill, according to the SEIA

Some lawmakers also want the State Corporation Commission to regulate third-party renewable energy developers. The current bill does not give the commission jurisdiction to regulate the terms and conditions of third-party power purchase agreements. 

“We are putting a lot of additional costs that we are unsure of on the backs of our ratepayers and this is another one of those costs,” said Sen. William DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach during a Senate floor meeting ahead of the vote. 

Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, introduced a similar bill in the House that passed with a 67-31 vote.

Many renewable energy bills survived crossover including the Clean Economy Act (HB1526 and SB851), the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act (HB981 and SB1027) and HB234, which would develop an offshore wind plan.

Bloomberg Finds Support and Opposition in Richmond

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Roughly two weeks before Super Tuesday, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was in Richmond looking for support from voters and from many of the lawmakers whose campaigns he helped fund.

The day after Valentine’s Day, the Democratic presidential candidate campaigned around the city, stopping first for an afternoon speech at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. The event attracted about 900 people, according to his campaign staff. In the evening, Bloomberg attended the Blue Commonwealth Gala at Main Street Station in downtown Richmond. The gala is an annual fundraiser hosted by the Democratic Party of Virginia. 

“This is the event that keeps the lights on,” said Andrew Whitley, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia. 

During the Hardywood and Blue Commonwealth Gala events, Bloomberg apologized for the controversial stop-and-frisk policy in place when he was New York’s mayor. He said the policy disproportionately affected young men of color. Stop and frisk is a procedure where a police officer stops a person on the street if they believe they’re armed and pats them down to search for weapons. In 2011, during Bloomberg’s ninth year as mayor, the New York City Police Department stopped over 685,000 people under the stop-and-frisk policy, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. A majority of those searches were performed on Black or Lantinx people (87%). The NYCLU said that 88% of people stopped were innocent. 

“I defended it for too long, I think, because I didn’t understand the unintended pain it caused to young black and brown kids and to their families,” Bloomberg said. “And for that, I have apologized.”

Bloomberg pledged that if elected, he’d prioritize dismantling systems of bias and oppression. He did not elaborate what those systems were or how he would change them. 

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights advocacy group, protested at both of Bloomberg’s Richmond events. VCDL protesters, who are opposed to Bloomberg’s gun control policy, entered Hardywood brewery and called Bloomberg a fascist while he was speaking. They were removed from the brewery by Bloomberg supporters and staff and resumed their post outside. They did not enter Main Street Station but lined the street outside, where other anti-Bloomberg protesters were gathered. 

Anti-Bloomberg sentiment was also visible inside the gala. Jasmine Leeward, a board member of Richmond For All, approached the podium while Bloomberg was speaking and attached a sign that read: “He protects racist systems, will you?” It was quickly taken down and Leeward was escorted away from the stage. Richmond For All is a coalition that fights for housing, education, environmental rights and racial justice.

Leeward explained the sign, saying that Bloomberg protects racist systems by only offering an apology and “not actually repaying for the harms that were caused by his stop-and-frisk policies.”

“I saw a lot of politicians, both at the city and state level, kind of forgiving or not being truthful and honest about how dangerous he would be as a president,” Leeward said. “And so I did what I felt like I needed to do, which was to talk to the people who have the power to get him elected and ask them if they support racist systems and protect them, as I feel Mike Bloomberg does.”

After the sign was removed, Bloomberg said, “It’s always nice to be welcomed.”

At the gala, six Democratic candidates for president were represented by surrogates, influential people who campaign for candidates at events, but Bloomberg was the only candidate who appeared. Virginia’s key leaders were in attendance, including Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Virginia Congresswomen Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton. 

Bloomberg received support from Filler-Corn during her speech at the gala.

“I want to thank Mayor Bloomberg for helping to turn Virginia blue,” Filler-Corn said.

Bloomberg said winning in Virginia is a key part of his electoral strategy.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group largely funded by Bloomberg, has spent $3.8 million since 2017 to help usher in Democratic legislators. After the 2019 elections, the Democrats gained a majority in Virginia’s executive and legislative branches for the first time since the early ’90s. 

Bloomberg said that defeating President Donald Trump is one of the main reasons he entered the race. 

Charles Bissett, an Army veteran who is leaning toward voting for Bloomberg, said that he thinks that Bloomberg will have the best chance of implementing Democratic policy. In particular, Bissett supports how Bloomberg handled education reform as mayor of New York.

Under Bloomberg’s administration, the graduation rate for high school students went from less than half to nearly two-thirds, according to a 2013 article by The Atlantic. Bloomberg also said he raised teacher salaries in New York by 43%.

Bloomberg ranks third in an average of national polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to polling data from RealClearPolitics that also has Sen. Elizabeth Warren closely trailing him.

House advances bill to allow food stamp benefits at certain restaurants

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House advanced a bill this week that will help individuals in Virginia with an annual income of less than $3,600 get a hot meal with their food stamps, from certain restaurants.

House Bill 1410 passed the House Tuesday 54-41. The bill requires the Department of Social Services to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, or RMP, of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by Jan. 1, 2021.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, is one of five patrons on the bill and said that this bill is within the interest of the state.

“I witnessed firsthand how sometimes the lack of public education with regards to nutrition can lead individuals of lower income to use money to purchase foods that are not as nutritious as that which would be provided by a restaurant,” Samirah said.

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a federal program that provides benefits to eligible low-income households. 

In 2015, SNAP helped 4.6 million people living in poverty, according to the Coalition Against Hunger which helps people apply for the benefits. 

A recipient is given an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that can be used to buy any food item except prepared or hot food. The bill would allow participants to purchase prepared meals from participating restaurants.

“The state would have to figure out exactly what restaurants would be able to access food stamp money as a form of payment for food provided,” Samirah said.

Chief patron Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said she hopes the proposed legislation will make hot meals accessible to the disabled, elderly and homeless populations, the groups of people the program is limited to.

“My ultimate goal with this is making sure that we are taking care of people who need to eat and that they eat nutritious whole meals, or they eat at whatever restaurants that like to participate,” Roem said.

Arizona and Rhode Island allow individuals to use their benefits card to purchase meals at approved restaurants. In Arizona, participating retailers include mainly fast food options: Subway, Jack in the Box, Papa John’s and Taco Bell.

“This is actually great for the restaurants because when someone actually swipes their SNAP benefit card in the first place, that money goes directly to the restaurant; it's guaranteed income,” Roem said.

The Virginia Department of Social Services must implement two parts of the legislation. The first part is reaching out to restaurants to encourage them to participate in the program, and the second part is informing current SNAP recipients of the participating restaurants and outline the conditions.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Bills fail to snuff out flavored tobacco this session

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Yan Gleyzer was watching via livestream when the state Senate voted Tuesday to defeat a bill that would prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products. As the owner and CEO of Vape Guys, an e-cigarette distributor with three stores in Virginia, Gleyzer has been keeping his eye on tobacco legislation in the General Assembly.

Prohibiting the sale of flavored tobacco products including menthol was also proposed in the House of Delegates, but a committee voted last week to delay the two bills until 2021. Gleyzer called that a good thing, and said the delegates will now have more time to research and discuss proposed legislation.

“We can work with them to come up with the legislation that works for everybody,” Gleyzer said. 

Gleyzer, a board member of the Virginia Smoke Free Association, said if a flavor ban did become law, more than 400 vape shops would be forced to shut down. He said flavored products are meant to help adult smokers quit, and he doesn’t believe prohibition is necessary to prevent them from falling into the hands of teenagers.

“We definitely don’t want to have kids have those products,” Gleyzer said. “It’s not meant for kids, it’s meant for adults. So whatever we can do to prevent kids having those products, we’re definitely gonna help.”

Despite Virginia earning an “F” from the American Lung Association regarding its tobacco-control programs for the fifth year in a row, the General Assembly won’t be voting on whether or not to ban flavored tobacco products until the next session.

Aleks Casper, the American Lung Association’s director of advocacy in Virginia, said her organization supported bills that would prohibit flavored tobacco and vaping products as well as require retailers to obtain a license for the sale of tobacco.

“In light of the vaping epidemic that is occurring and the youth usage that is occurring, the time is now to act,” Casper said. “I think the sponsors of these bills are very committed to getting this work done and pulling stakeholders together to talk about how we get this done in Virginia.”

Casper said she was disappointed that the proposals were delayed but is hopeful for 2021.

“I think what it does give us is the opportunity to kind of regroup,” she said. “Talk about it, you know, talk with our sponsors. Again, the sponsors are truly committed to getting the work done.”

The following five bills concerning tobacco and vapor were continued into next year this month by the finance committee of the House of Delegates:

  • House Bill 93: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes;

  • HB 1119: Prohibit the sale of flavored tobacco products with lower maximum penalties than HB 93;

  • HB 1120: Increase the tax on tobacco products, except cigarettes, to 39% of the wholesale price of other tobacco products;

  • HB 1185: Limit the sale of flavored and high-nicotine vapor products to licensed retailers who require identification from customers; 

  • HB 1283: Require retailers to obtain a permit from the state in order to sell any tobacco products; prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 1,000 feet of a “youth-oriented facility.”

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, is the sponsor behind HB 93, which would create a civil penalty of $1,000 for the initial offense of selling flavored tobacco products and $5,000 on subsequent offenses.

Flavored tobacco products are defined in the bill as cigarettes, vapors or alternative nicotine devices with a taste or aroma of something other than tobacco. Menthol, mint, vanilla and fruit are among examples listed in the bill.

“As a long-time advocate for protecting the health of Virginia’s children, I proposed HB 93 to bring attention to the vaping crisis affecting so many of our young people,” Kory said.

Kory said she knew HB 93 was “overly broad” when she filed it, but she also knew that such a sweeping proposal would get stakeholders working together toward solving underage vaping. She also said she was pleased to work with vape-shop owners and the tobacco industry representatives on amending the bill so that it could be brought forward in this session, but time was a constraint.

“There are many more factors to be considered than time allowed,” Kory said. “I believe that continuing HB 93 under Rule 22 was an appropriate decision because this issue is extremely complex, and the solution will be difficult to legislate.”  

Rule 22 allows any bill or resolution introduced in an even numbered year and not reported out of committee to be continued for hearings and committee action during the interim between regular sessions.

Kory said she intends to focus on putting the legislation in the “proper posture for re-introduction in 2021.”

Amended Assault Firearm Bill Squeaks out of House

By Chip Lauterbach, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A controversial bill banning assault firearms passed the House this week along party lines, and after several amendments whittled away at certain requirements that had caused the loudest opposition. 

The House of Delegates passed HB 961 this week 51-48, which bans the sale of assault firearms and other firearm accessories. Sponsored by Del. Mark H. Levine, D-Alexandria, HB 961 is one of the many gun control efforts being introduced this session and backed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The bill has been amended several times, and because of this Levine believes that lawmakers have reached the best compromise. Levine also said he wants to counter misinformation being used by pro-gun groups.

“There have been a lot of scare tactics being used,” Levine said. “No one is going to send the police to kick down your door to take away your firearms.”

Amendments to the bill include striking the requirement that current owners of firearms categorized as assault weapons register them with the state police. Also removed was a section that banned suppressors, also known as “silencers.” Originally the bill required that the suppressors be destroyed, moved out of state, or surrendered to law enforcement by January 2021. Now the bill only restricts future sales of assault firearms and suppressors.

The bill in its current form would ban the sale and transfer of new assault rifles, as well as restrict the size of a magazine’s capacity to 12 rounds. An earlier version of the bill would have made possessing any large-capacity firearm magazine a class 6 felony violation, but that penalty was amended and reduced to a class 1 misdemeanor. 

“I have been talking to and listening to the concerns from law abiding citizens,” Levine said. “I have also worked with my colleagues across the aisle; Sen. Amanda Chase was instrumental in helping with these amendments.”

Former Arizona congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords on Monday urged Virginia lawmakers to “act with courage,” in a statement released the day before the vote.

Statewide opposition has swelled in response to proposed gun control legislation that the Democrats promised after gaining control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1993.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is a leading voice against the gun control bills that have been introduced.

“We will be working to kill the bills that crossed over,” Van Cleave said. “Expect VCDL to have a presence in all the subcommittee and committee rooms on gun bills, we will fight hard to stop it in the Senate.”

 Van Cleave and the VCDL held a massive pro-Second Amendment rally on Jan. 20, that drew over 22,000 people to Capitol Square and the surrounding areas. Northam declared a state of emergency before the event, citing concerns over safety and threats of violence.

Van Cleave said his group hasn’t planned another rally but that is something that could change on short notice.

“We are watching the gun bills,” Van Cleave said. “What happens with those bills will have bearing on our next move.” 

With Levine's bill inching closer to becoming law, many gun store owners statewide have reported an uptick in sales from state residents buying anything that would be banned under the bill. 

Eric Tompkins, owner of Paladin Strategic in Mechanicsville, said that the legislative gun control push has helped sales at his gun store, but predicted that his business probably won’t last if HB 961 were signed into law.

“It’s been a double-edged sword, because the past few months since the election have been great,” Tompkins said. “I have had a ton of customers each day, but I know that’ll drop off, and I don’t know whether my business will continue.”

The bill now heads to the Senate. Firearm bills passed earlier by the Senate include SB 70, which requires a universal background check when people sell firearms. SB 69 limits handgun purchases to one a month, while SB 35 allows localities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event. SB 240 allows authorities to take away the firearms of someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, a measure known as a red flag law. SB 543 makes background checks mandatory at gun shows.

House passes bill giving state’s electoral votes to popular vote winner

By Zach Armstrong, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The House of Delegates passed a bill this week that would allocate the commonwealth’s electoral college votes to the candidate who received the national popular vote.

The bill would join Virginia into the National Popular Vote Compact, which ensures the presidential candidate with the most votes nationally is elected once states comprising 270 out of 538 electoral votes sign onto the pact. The House passed the bill by a vote of 51-46. 

Passage of House Bill 177, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, comes less than two weeks after the bill was originally defeated in the Privileges and Elections committee by a vote of 10-12. After being reconsidered in the same committee last week, the bill reported out on a 12-9 vote. The bill incorporates HB 199, introduced by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax, and Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, who initially voted against the bill voted in favor of it the second time. Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, who initially also voted against the bill did not vote the second time.

“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.”

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

A similar Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, was pulled from consideration by Ebbin, who did not identify the reason he pulled the bill. 

Since the campaign began in 2006, 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote bill -- a total of 196 electoral votes. If the bill passes the state Senate, Virginia’s 13 electoral votes would bring that total to 209. That leaves 61 electoral votes needed for the compacte to take effect. At least one chamber in eight additional states, with a combined 75 more electoral votes, have passed the bill. 

“We are grateful to our sponsors in the Virginia General Assembly, and to citizens across the state who are making it clear that they prefer a national popular vote for president,” said John Koza, chairman of National Popular Vote, in a released statement. 

A candidate winning the electoral votes and the presidential race despite losing the national popular vote has occurred five times in American history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harris in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. 

“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.”

The bill stipulates that a state can exit the compact, but a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a president's term shall not become effective until a president or vice president have been qualified to serve the next term.

Bill Preventing License Suspension Over Court Debt Unanimously Passes Senate

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- When Brianna Morgan’s driver’s license was suspended due to court debt in 2014, her life became more challenging. Morgan was pregnant at the time and had two children, which made it difficult to get around without a car. 

“It completely changed my day to day life at the time,” said Morgan, who lives in Petersburg. “I had a high-risk pregnancy, so I had to go to the OB-GYN every week for ultrasounds. And trying to get that done without my license was a nightmare.” 

Morgan said she had to rely on other people for rides, which wasn’t always dependable, or risk getting behind the wheel of her car without a license in order to keep her appointments.

Senate Bill 1, which repeals from state law the requirement that an individual’s driver’s license be suspended if they don’t pay court dues, unanimously passed the Senate last week. Sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, the bill also repeals a provision of state law requiring that defendants present a summary provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles that states which courts the defendant owes fines and costs to. The bill incorporated three other Senate bills.

“License suspensions in Virginia for court debt is really Virginia’s form of debtor’s prison,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit based in Virginia that litigates on behalf of low-income individuals. A 2017 report released by the Legal Aid Justice Center found that nearly 1 million Virginians’ licenses had been suspended due to court debt. 

Levy-Lavelle said that people get their licenses suspended because they are too poor to pay. He noted that license suspensions due to court debt makes it harder for people to keep their jobs, go to school or take care of their kids. 

“It really impairs people in their daily lives,” Levy-Lavelle said. “It’s unfair, unconstitutional and wrong.”

Last year, the General Assembly voted to approve a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that reinstated driver’s licenses to over 600,000 Virginians who had their licenses suspended. Because this policy went into effect via a budget amendment, the policy is only in place until the budget expires in July 2020. 

“The legislation this year takes essentially what was a temporary fix last year and makes it a permanent legislative repeal,” Levy-Lavelle said. 

Stanley introduced similar legislation in the past two General Assembly sessions that would have ended the suspension of driver’s licenses due to court debt, but SB 1 is the first that has not died in a Republican-led committee. Levy-Lavelle attributed the bill’s success to the new makeup of the General Assembly. 

“Last year and in previous years, the leadership of the House Courts Committee was different and they were able to stop what was frankly a common sense piece of reform,” Levy-Lavelle said. 

Morgan said she is grateful that Virginia is taking steps to reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended due to court debt.

“I think this is by far one of the most appropriate actions that the commonwealth could take to ensure a positive quality of life for its residents,” Morgan said. 

She added that regardless of why a person would need to pay any court fees in the first place, she believes that being able to get around is a right, not a privilege. 

“It gives us the opportunity to get back to where we were and to grow and flourish,” Morgan said.

Bill advances to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to possess a driver’s license advanced in the Senate Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 34, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would allow immigrants to obtain a driver’s license regardless of legal status. The applicant must prove they don’t have a social security or individual taxpayer identification number and submit a certified statement that their information is true. The bill had several amendments this legislative session.

House Bill 1211 introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, is an identical bill that also extends these rights to undocumented immigrants. Tran introduced a similar bill that died in subcommittee last year. If approved, the bills will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. 

Nayeli Montes said she came to the United States illegally from Mexico in 2005 for a chance at a better life. She worked 12 hour shifts at a restaurant back home earning the equivalent of $6.50 a day. Today, Montes is involved with the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which lobbies lawmakers for immigrant rights.

Driver’s licenses can be required to obtain certain resources such as credit cards and car insurance. Currently, 13 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. VACIR believes providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make roads safer because drivers will be educated, trained and tested. The three states that adopted these measures the earliest experienced a 30% decrease in traffic fatalities, compared to a nationwide 20 percent drop, according to The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which studies issues affecting low-income residents.

The coalition said the bill will increase state revenue through vehicle registration, license plate fees and title fees. According to The Commonwealth Institute, allowing undocumented immigrants to drive would produce between $11 million and $18 million in revenue from car registration fees, title fees and license plate fees. The institute estimated that between 124,500 and 160,800 drivers would seek Virginia licenses within the first two years if immigration status was not a factor.

Humberto Rodriguez, the owner of a painting company and an immigrant from Mexico, said he came to the U.S. for better opportunities for him and his family. He said his son is the only person in his household who can legally drive and he would like for this privilege to be extended to all immigrants. His son is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. DACA allows undocumented children who entered the U.S. before they turned 16 to work, attend college or university and obtain a driver’s license. 

“I just want to make it clear that we came here to make a living for ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “Undocumented immigrants will go out and work no matter the weather conditions and we do our work with dignity.” 

The House bill has received more support this year than last year, but one representative worries it may misrepresent an immigrant’s legal status. 

Del. Terry L. Austin, R-Botetourt, said he voted against the House bill because the driver’s license that would be issued to an undocumented immigrant is identical to a citizen’s driver’s license and could misrepresent the legal status of an immigrant. 

“I think we need to be very careful with this,” Austin said. “This could misrepresent an individual’s identity and could compromise the safety in the United States.” 

Undocumented immigrants also have concerns. They worry the DMV could potentially release their information to the federal government and that they could get arrested or deported. However, both bills state that an individual’s name won’t be released unless ordered by a court. Additionally no photograph would be released to law enforcement or federal authorities unless a name or sufficient evidence was presented; the commissioner could still decline to release the photograph. 

Tran also sponsored HB 1700 which limits the release of information such as proof documents, photographs of an individual and signatures from the DMV to government agencies. Additionally, the bill would prohibit a federal immigration law enforcement agency from accessing information stored by the DMV without a court order or warrant. A subcommittee shelved that bill Tuesday. 

The fate of HB 1211 hasn’t been determined. The bill has been shuffled among House panels, with two recommendations, and is currently in an Appropriations subcommittee that meets next week.

Sexual abuse reporting bills gain momentum in General Assembly

By Rodney Robinson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Two bills recently passed the House unanimously that aim to change the state’s statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse.

One bill gives victims a two-year window to file sexual abuse claims, if the statute of limitations have passed. The other extends the statute of limitations in adult civil sexual assault cases from two to 20 years.

House Bill 610 was introduced by Del. Jason S. Miyares, R-Virginia Beach. This bill creates a two-year time period, from after July 1 but before July 1, 2022, in which persons can file a claim for injury from sexual abuse occurring before the age of 18, regardless whether the statute of limitations expired. 

“My hope is that this will enable you to have your day in court, and that’s my sincere hope,” Miyares said to victims who have suffered “unspeakable crimes.”

Miyares, a former prosecutor, said that “being in the court system, you can’t help but see” sexual abuse cases. Miyares said that he sponsored the legislation after reading a report from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. The report compiled the results of a two-year grand jury investigation into the claims of sexual abuse of children within six Pennsylvania dioceses. Some of the cases included dated back to 30 to 40 years ago and victims were not able to file a lawsuit because the statute of limitations had expired.

“That’s really what first kind of peaked my interest,” Miyares said. “I just thought that was a travesty.” 

Miyares introduced a similar bill in 2019. HB 1888 proposed to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for injury resulting from sexual abuse occurring during childhood or incapacity. The bill died in committee. Originally, there was some concern about the 2019 bill being broadly written, Miyares said. 

“I looked at how other states have tackled it and saw that a lot of states were doing a temporary, two-year sub gap where they allowed time-barred claims to be filed,” Miyares said. “And I thought two years was probably an appropriate amount of time to get the word out.”

HB 870, introduced by Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne, D-Richmond, establishes a procedure for victims to come forward in the future and extends the time frame they have to report sexual abuse.

Bourne’s bill allows the accuser 20 years to report sexual abuse that occurs on or after July 1. This expands the statute of limitations to 20 years from when the sexual abuse was discovered, for example in counseling. Currently, this 20-year window applies only if the act occurs while the person is under the age of 18, according to lawyer Eliott Buckner who helped create the bill.

The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association is a voluntary bar association with approximately 2,000 members. The group works to improve the state’s justice system.

The VTLA wrote HB 870 and searched for a patron, according to president-elect Buckner. Buckner, a lawyer for the Breit Cantor law firm in Richmond, said he was interested to help prepare a bill like this after an experience with a prospective client. He said his client had “the courthouse doors shut on her” because of the current law. 

Buckner said that his client was groomed as a minor and that there were "repeated and specific acts" that mentally and emotionally conditioned her for the sexual abuse that occurred later.

“Because there was no sexual abuse when she was a minor, there was no extension of statute of limitations to bring a claim and there should have been,” Buckner said. 

Buckner said his client was never able to have her day in court.

Both bills are now in a Senate judiciary committee.

House committee tackles consumer protections and cybersecurity

By Macy Pressley, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- In one of the more modern meeting rooms at the over two centuries old State Capitol, 22 lawmakers gather on Mondays to confront the increasing cybersecurity threats looming over Virginia residents. 

This session the House Committee on Communications, Technology and Innovation will consider a variety of issues, including managing data in an increasingly digital world, regulating devices for children in schools and enabling consumers with the right to access their data and determine if it has been sold to a data broker. 

The committee will also hear proposals on a range of cybersecurity issues. These include House Bill 322 which seeks to create a cybersecurity advisory council. HB 524 aims to create a volunteer group of tech industry professionals to help localities and school divisions address information technology and cybersecurity issues. HB 954 requires businesses to take reasonable steps to dispose of customer records when the company no longer needs those documents. 

The committee leadership has a host of expertise in technology and cybersecurity. The chair, Del. Cliff Hayes Jr., D-Chesapeake spent over 25 years working in the cybersecurity field, including time as the director of information technology for the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office. Hayes Jr. said he was optimistic about Virginia’s future in cybersecurity, but did not understate the risks.

“Anywhere in the world is at a high risk in this day in age,” Hayes said. “We have to make sure we do everything we can to protect our infrastructure and those devices that are connected to it.”

Vice Chair Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, spent over 15 years working as a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security. She said the committee will work with the federal government to prevent cyber attacks from hostile foreign adversaries.

When it comes to cybersecurity, Virginians have reason to be cautious. Some of the biggest companies in the world such as Amazon store data in the state. Seventy percent of the world’s daily internet traffic is routed through Loudoun County, according to Loudoun’s department of economic development. Since 2010, Microsoft continues to expand its data center operations in Mecklenburg County. Facebook recently opened a 1 million square foot data center in Henrico, with plans to add another 1.5 million square feet. 

Hayes said the committee plans to be proactive when it comes to dealing with the increasing cybersecurity threats. 

“Historically, most of the cyber, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, and all of those types of issues were referred to other committees for some reason,” he said. “But now, those bills are going to be coming to this committee and we have an abundance of expertise in this area.”

Virginia’s cyber investments aren’t invulnerable, especially given the growing threat of hostile foreign powers such as Iran. The Iranians have spent years cultivating a skilled team of hackers that could potentially threaten U.S. cybersecurity, according to a recent Washington Post survey of leaders from government, academia and the private sector.

“We’re trying to make steps at the federal level to strengthen our security infrastructure,” Ayala said.

At the state level, Ayala said the committee plans to protect consumers against potential breaches and advocate for consumer privacy. 

“You’ll see a lot of privacy legislation come out,” she said. “We want to strengthen consumer data and protection.”

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, said the key to protecting Virginians against cybersecurity threats will be education.

“It’s critical that we continue to train young people so we have the workforce and workforce skills to be able to help companies,” Byron said. 

Byron also said there were a number of steps Virginians could take to protect themselves from identity theft. 

“Check daily for activity from your financial institutions to make sure someone hasn’t used that information,” Byron said. 

Ayala said there are a number of ways to protect your online activities as well. 

“Change your passwords every 60 to 90 days,” Ayala said. “I use something called LastPass to encrypt passwords.”

Fornication Repeal One Step Closer to Law

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Lawmakers are closing a legal loophole that could charge unmarried people with a crime for having consensual sex. The House of Delegates passed a bill this week that aims to repeal the crime of fornication, which makes it illegal for people to have consensual sex outside of marriage.

Currently, fornication is a Class 4 misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $250. 

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, introduced House Bill 245 to repeal what he called a Victorian-era law. The Virginia Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 2005. 

Levine said the bill was necessary because keeping unconstitutional laws on the books can cause confusion.

“No one should think they can be prosecuted for this common practice,” Levine said.

The lawmaker added that people are rarely convicted for fornication, but it can be charged in conjunction with other crimes such as indecent exposure. 

“Charge the crime that occurred, don’t just pile on with things that shouldn’t be a crime anyway,” Levine said.

 The bill received bipartisan support on the floor. The seven votes against it came from Republican lawmakers. One Democrat abstained. 

“Now that the Democrats are in power, I’m thrilled to get it off the books,” Levine said.

Levine pointed out that this is a crime a majority of Virginians have probably committed at some point in their life. 

“It’s a stupid law. It’s crazy,” Levine said.

This is Levine’s second attempt to repeal the law, and the third by Democrats since 2014. 

“I had that fornication bill before, it couldn’t get out of committee. The world has changed,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, said Thursday from the House floor. Sickles introduced the bill that failed in 2014. 

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said she was unaware of anyone in the city being charged in years with fornication on top of other crimes. When asked how many fornication convictions there were in 2019, the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office did not have any records to report. There were eight convictions of fornication in 2013, a lawmaker told The Virginian-Pilot in 2014. 

JoAnne Sweeny, a University of Louisville law professor who has written about fornication and adultery laws, said most people don’t think about being charged with fornication. That doesn’t change its status as a criminal act.

“In the U.S., if it’s on the books, it’s enforceable,” Sweeny said.

Fornication is part of Virginia law that outlines crimes involving morals and decency

Sweeny said fornication law in the United States dates back to Colonial times and was enforced in the 1960s, with a sharp dropoff in enforcement in the 1980s. 

Levine believes most Virginians, even those who don’t agree with sex outside of marriage, want this bill to become law. 

“How is Virginia for lovers, if lovers can’t love each other,” Levine said.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Commonwealth Institute

“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.”

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.

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.

Virginia Lawmakers Break For Brunswick Stew

People line up for Brunswick stew

Legislative pages transport stew

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The aroma of meat and vegetables beckoned state legislators Wednesday to a tent at the foot of the Capitol for Brunswick Stew Day.

Scores of legislative pages -- young aides who assist lawmakers -- wheeled carts laden with styrofoam containers of stew back toward the State Capitol for legislators who couldn’t get away.

“There’s no cooking supper when you come home with Brunswick stew,” said Del. Thomas C. Wright, R-Victoria. Wright was the legislative “chef” responsible for the official resolution designating the fourth Wednesday in January as Brunswick Stew Day. 

“The legislators love it. At first, they didn’t even know what Brunswick stew was,” Wright said. 

Brunswick stew is a mixture of beans, chicken, corn and other vegetables. In 1988 the Virginia General Assembly named Brunswick County the “birthplace” of Brunswick stew -- though the designation hasn’t gone unchallenged by Brunswick, Georgia. 

For 18 years, stew masters have brought their award-winning recipes to the Capitol. This year, the honor belongs to the Danieltown Stew Crew. The group won the 2019 World Champion Brunswick Stew Cook-off, held last fall at the Lawrenceville-Brunswick Municipal Airport.

Inside the steamy, white tent where the stew cooked, a three-man team stirred the stew pots, weighing 50 and 75 gallons, respectively. Clark Bennett, the Danieltown Stew Master, told Capitol News Service that his 75-gallon pot is over 100 years old.

“Some people call them cauldrons,” Bennett said.

Bennett was using two massive cast iron cauldrons to brew his version of the Brunswick tradition. The stew crew used a wooden paddle to constantly stir the hearty mixture.

“I do a figure eight. You don’t want it sticking to the pot,” said Kyle Gee, a member of the stew crew.

Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Bettina Ring said that Brunswick Stew Day is a great tradition in Brunswick County and rustic parts of the state. She also called it an opportunity to educate legislators about rural communities.

Brunswick County Administrator Charlette Woolridge said Brunswick Stew Day helps promote the county and reach legislators.

“It’s important that they understand issues that impact Brunswick County and rural communities,” Woolridge said, highlighting the importance of increasing rural broadband and stimulating economic development.

Del. Roslyn C. Tyler, D-Jarratt, represents Brunswick. She said broadband is imperative “to promote economic development and attract businesses.” 

Two duplicate bills were introduced this legislative session, one in the House and one in the Senate, that would grant a locality the authority to establish telecommunication services such as internet and broadband.

Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, asked for her bill to be removed and the other bill, introduced by Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, failed to pass a subcommittee Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the bowls of steaming stew had no problem being passed around.

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.

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.

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

IMG_0378

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.

Alexandra Zernik 1

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.”

Marijuana reform advocates divided between decriminalization or legalization

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Advocates dressed in black stood Wednesday at the base of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial to voice their support of marijuana legalization, repeating a variation of, “the time is now,” in each of their statements. 

Participants dressed in black “in order to stand in solidarity with the black and brown bodies that have been criminalized for decades here in the commonwealth,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, co-founder of Marijuana Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that aims to educate people on the history of cannabis criminalization in the U.S. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, along with Marijuana Justice and RISE for Youth, a campaign committed to promoting alternatives to youth incarceration, held a press conference promoting House Bill 1507, patroned by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. 

“Lean on your legislators and make sure that they understand the effort to legalize marijuana is here and we’re bringing it to your front door because now is the time to fully have criminal justice reform in a meaningful way,” Carroll Foy said. 

The bill wants to exclude marijuana from a list of controlled substances that are illegal to possess. Under current law, less than half an ounce of marijuana is considered a class one misdemeanor.

A “first offender’s rule” is offered on first convictions in lieu of class one misdemeanor penalties. The rule includes probation, drug testing and community service. Subsequent convictions are punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,500.

Possession of more than half an ounce of marijuana is by law considered an intent to distribute and is charged as a felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison. 

Capital News Service reported that in 2018, the only offenses more common than marijuana possession were traffic-related, such as speeding or reckless driving. Marijuana arrests that year were at their highest level in at least 20 years, with nearly 29,000 arrests. 

“Arrests for marijuana possession are significantly higher for blacks and people of color, even though data has shown that there is no higher rate usage with people of color than there are with white people,” said Del. Joshua Cole, D-Stafford, chief co-patron of HB 1507. “But yet we are constantly the ones that are taking the brunt of this.” 

Virginia State Police arrested more white people (25,306) for drug violations in 2018 than African Americans (20,712). While African Americans make up 19% of Virginia’s population, they consisted of nearly half of all marijuana convictions in 2018, according to a Capital News Service analysis of court records. Carroll Foy said that African Americans are three times more likely than any other race to be stopped, arrested and convicted for possession of marijuana. 

Nine other bills have been introduced this session relating to the possession of marijuana. Some propose legalization, while others propose decriminalization. Although the terms are used interchangeably at times, the two carry dramatically different meanings. 

Bills similar to HB 1507, like HB 87 and HB 269, propose the legalization of marijuana, which would lift existing laws that prohibit possession of the substance. 

Senate Bill 2, patroned by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, HB 972, patroned by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and several other bills propose the decriminalization of marijuana. These bills would impose a $50 fee for consuming or possessing marijuna. Ebbin’s bill would raise the threshold amount of marijuana subject to distribution or possession with intent to distribute from one-half ounce to one ounce. Herring’s bill would impose a $250 fee if the offender was consuming marijuana in public. However, the drug would remain illegal.

The ACLU said last week at a press conference that decriminalization and civil offenses still hold and create a number of issues — someone who wants to contest the citation would have to do so without a lawyer, and those who cannot afford to pay upfront would have to go to court, which usually includes more costs and fees. The group instead wants to see a full repeal of the prohibition on marijuana.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took part in a cannabis conference Sunday and voiced his support for marijuana reform. 

“It's clear time for cannabis reform has come,” Herring said. “Justice demands it, Virginians are demanding it, and I’m going to make sure we get it done.”

Ashna Khanna, legislative director of the ACLU of Virginia, said they have confirmed Herring’s support of HB 1507. The organization, along with 11 others, sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam requesting support of legislation to legalize marijuana and hope that he will be open to meeting with them soon.

Breakfast and a Prayer Before 2020 General Assembly Convenes

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia legislators called for respect and civility across the aisle just hours ahead of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session. 

Several prominent figures spoke at the 54th Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast held Wednesday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, including Gov. Ralph Northam, Chief Judge Roger Gregory of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. The Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast is an annual gathering for Virginia politicians and community members to share a meal and prayers.

Many of the speakers reflected on the need for compassion and understanding toward one another and to consider the impact the legislation proposed this session will have on Virginians. Qarni said that the upcoming session will have contentious moments, but called on citizens and legislators not to “demonize” one another or rush to conclusions. He said that the country is deeply divided. 

“We are worried about war. We are worried about impeachment. We are worried about the future,” Qarni said in a speech shared with CNS after the event. “The world is a scary place right now. We are plagued with fears. But we must have faith, not just in our creator but in each other.” 

Northam spoke last, urging the freshman and veteran legislators present to remember that the General Assembly is built on relationships and that public visibility and scrutiny of this legislative session will be significant. 

“How we speak of and to each other will be heard well beyond the gates of Capitol Square,” Northam said.

Gregory preceded Northam with a similar sentiment, placing the responsibility for civility in the hands of the politicians.

 “Legislators,” Gregory said, “You have a big job and an important job.” 

 The General Assembly convened at noon on Wednesday. This session marks the first time in more than two decades that Democrats have control over the General Assembly and the governorship. Democratic leaders announced Tuesday an 11-point, legislative “Virginia 2020 Plan” that includes gun control measures, minimum wage increase, LGBT protections and increased education spending.

“We are presenting an agenda that is different from every previous General Assembly session,” Northam said in a press release unveiling the agenda. “It’s more forward looking than ever before, and it reflects what Virginians sent us here to do.”

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