Archive for March, 2011

Redistricting Plans Released

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

The General Assembly’s redistricting plans are public, just one week before they’re due to vote on them. Only House and Senate districts are provided—not Congressional districts—and the web-based interface to look at them is slow and awkward. (It requires installing a special plugin from Microsoft.) Some districts are slated to change pretty significantly, which is to say that a lot of people are going to wind up with different delegates and senators than they have now. As expected, House Republicans drew the map for the House, and Senate Democrats drew the map for the Senate, as those are the parties that hold the majority in their respective chambers. No surprise, then that—as the Virginia Public Access Projects points out in their analysis—the Senate plan forces two pairs of Republican senators to run against each other by putting their homes in the same district, while the House plan eliminates the districts for three Democratic delegates, including that of House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong, the top Democrat in the House.

The good news here is that these redistricting plans are being made public prior to them being voted into law. The bad news is that there are no surprises here—each party has created plans that are beneficial to them and detrimental to the opposing party. If you want to register your support or opposition for these plans, contact your senator and delegate. That is, if they’re in the majority party in their respective chambers. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother—they’ve got no say in the matter.

Restaurants Can Let Customers Bring Wine

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

By Alexander Chang
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Under a new state law, Virginians will be permitted to bring their own wine into a restaurant – if the dining establishment allows.

Senate Bill 1292, which takes effect July 1, will allow any ABC-licensed restaurant to permit customers to bring a bottle of wine into the establishment and drink it on the premises.

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New License Plates Promote Parks, God

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

By Kayla Wamsley
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Want to show your support for the James River Park System? Or tell other people “Don’t Tread on Me”?

You’ll soon be able to do that on your license plate.

The General Assembly recently authorized six new special license plates for Virginia motorists:
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Law Lets More Schools Open Before Labor Day

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

By Destiny Shelton
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia law generally bars schools from opening before Labor Day. But legislation signed last week by Gov. Bob McDonnell chips away at that prohibition – an issue of intense debate during the General Assembly’s recent session.

On Wednesday, McDonnell signed into law House Bill 1483, which allows a school district to start classes before Labor Day if it is surrounded by another district that already has a waiver to begin school early.

That’s a pretty narrow exception: Republican Delegate William Cleaveland, who proposed the bill, tailored it for the city of Roanoke, which he represents.

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A Toast: No More Double Tax on Wine

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

By Meredith Rigsby
Capital News Service

Beginning July 1, Virginia wineries will have less to “wine” about: They will no longer be taxed twice when shipping to customers out of state.

Virginia law adds a shipping tax to wine and other alcoholic beverages sent to wholesalers and consumers within the state. The tax also applies to wine shipped to individuals (but not wholesalers) out of state.
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Address Confidentiality Program Expands Statewide

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

By Alice Kemp
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Starting in July, Virginia will expand its Address Confidentiality Program statewide to better protect the victims of domestic violence.

The program is designed to keep the addresses of domestic violence victims unknown to their abusers. It began as a pilot program in 2007, with only certain localities offering it. The program proved effective in preventing abusers from seeking out their victims. So the General Assembly decided to take the program statewide.

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Keams Sees Success in Legislative Session

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

By Lizi Arbogast
Capital News Service

First-term Delegate Mark Keam, D-Vienna, said he is pleased with the results of the General Assembly’s recently concluded 2011 session. Of the 17 bills for which Keam was the chief patron or co-chief patron, six passed (and a seventh was folded into another bill that also passed).

Keam was also pleased because he felt that Democrats and Republicans worked well together to serve their constituents throughout Virginia. Last week, Keam was asked to assess the session.

Q: What would you consider the biggest successes of the session this year?

Keam: I’m very excited to have been able to pass six bills and a couple of budget amendments this year. The six bills were all passed unanimously in the House and the Senate, so that was, for me, considered a pretty big accomplishment. I have no idea how well my colleagues did – Democrats or Republicans – by class, but I’ve been told by people who follow the General Assembly that they thought I did extremely well for my class, so I feel good about that.

But more importantly, I feel good because these are bills that really can help people. I mean, like health care for jobs, tax relief for senior citizens and regulator relief for small businesses. These are bills that I think really can help people who face certain problems. So I’m glad to be able to do something in this job… The reason I ran for office is to help people, and I feel like I’m actually doing that through legislation. I feel very good about that.

Q: What would you consider your biggest disappointments?

Keam: I wouldn’t say it’s a disappointment at all. I’d say the vast majority – 99 percent – of all the things that I was able to experience in the session was positive. The only thing I guess I was disappointed in was that the session came and went so fast, and I didn’t get the chance to spend as much time learning about new issues and really digging into the policy discussions.

We’ve had a lot of issues that were very important to the commonwealth, dealing with health care issues, the budget, the pension, the long-term liability of our pension system, educational concerns – very, very big issues that affect lives. We just don’t have as much time to sit there and really analyze and study it.

Hearings come and go so fast. We have just enough time to read a bill before we vote on it. I feel like the design of the General Assembly being a part-time legislature – in particular, the short session versus the long session – it just doesn’t give us enough time to really learn the issues as well as we should. That’s not something I can fix myself, but it is one of the areas where I wish that the system weren’t so limited.

Q: What was your single most important contribution to the session this year?

Keam: This isn’t going to be a typical answer, but I think my biggest contribution to the General Assembly and to the process is my willingness and my desire to just get things done. To a point where I was being criticized by some of my supporters in my party, I try my best to be bipartisan.

I try my best to be non-partisan because I really wanted to focus on just moving beyond the rhetoric and the tags and the personal attacks across parties that happen all the time, to really focus on resolving and accomplishing things together and moving forward with people saying, “OK, well, let’s agree to disagree on this, but let’s look for some common ground.”

I really try my best to do that because I think people expect that of us. People want us to work together. The government tends to focus on core functions, and one maybe symbolic way that we’ve accomplished [working together] is the fact that when we passed the budget this year, it was passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate. One hundred House members and 40 senators all agreed, even though during the process there were all kinds of amendments and bills that were voted differently.

When it passed, it was all by a unanimous [vote], and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Lacey Putney, said that in his 50 years of service in the General Assembly – he’s the longest-serving state legislator – in 50 years, he has never seen a budget pass unanimously.

I think that speaks to our willingness and our ability to put things aside – partisanship aside, politics aside – and to really focus on getting it done for the people of Virginia. My style being bipartisan and wanting to work across the aisle and getting things done, I think my style has helped contribute to that sense of accomplishments, and something I feel proud about.

Helsel Takes Oath as New Delegate

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

By Meredith Rigsby
Capital News Service

Gordon C. Helsel Jr., the mayor of Poquoson, was sworn in Wednesday afternoon as the delegate representing House District 91 and the newest member of the House Republican majority.

Helsel, who replaced retiring Delegate Tom Gear, ran unopposed for the seat in a special election Tuesday. According to the State Board of Elections, Helsel received 98 percent of the 2,160 votes cast in the district, which includes Poquoson and parts of York County and the city of Hampton.
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VCU students lead event, anti-discrimination bill killed

Monday, March 7th, 2011

By Erica Terrini

Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An anti-discrimination rally attracted about 100 protesters to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus in support of Senate Bill 747, which was killed in a House subcommittee mid-Feburary.

Supporters of SB 747 also marched to the Capitol and Court House where protesters spoke with legislators and attended a demonstrative marriage ceremony, in which LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) couples request marriage certifications, are then denied and leave the building to have their unions blessed by varying religious figures.

The rally was organized by two VCU student organizations (VCU Young Democrats and Queer Action). Both groups planned the same event last year after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli requested all Virginia public colleges and universities to exclude sexual orientation from their discrimination policies—saying institutions of higher education have no legislative authority to prohibit discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. Last year’s rally involved hundreds of protesters.

“Last year, Ken Cuccinelli wrote the letter saying that the non-discrimination policies of these universities of the state of Virginia should not have the right not discriminate against people. How quickly we forget that there is still no law to protect our people,” said Queer Action Senior Adviser Cameron Hunt, who spoke at last year’s rally and led an unplanned march to the Capitol.

 The student groups supported SB 747, which was introduced by Sen. A Donald McEachin, D-Henrico.

The bill would have banned “discrimination in state employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, or status as a special disabled veteran or other veteran.”

On the day of the rally the bill had been passed by the Senate and was referred to the House General Laws subcommittee.

“Last year we stood up here and made the same speeches and many more people listened,” Hunt said. “We promised at the end of last year with the executive directive that Gov. Bob McDonnell put out and only gave weak suggestive protection to state employees, to our professors, to our friends and loved ones that we wouldn’t stop until it became a law.”

Delegates David L. Englin, D-Alexandria, and Adam P. Ebbin, D-Arlington, also spoke at the rally in support of McEachin’s bill. Englin is a House patron of SB 747.

“Adam and I represent many of you who believe that Virginia ought to be a place where all human beings are treated with equal dignity and respect,” Englin said. “I know that with your activism, working together … Virginia and the United States will be that place again, that shining city on a hill, where people around the world look to as a place where all human beings are treated with equal dignity and respect.”

Ebbin compared the anti-discrimination protesters’ activism to that of the Egyptian peoples,’ saying, “If you doubt that your activism can make a difference, let’s just remember that it took the nation of Egypt and its citizens standing up less than three weeks to make a difference and change their government.”

Following the end if the rally, a group of about 50 protesters marched through the streets of Richmond to the Capitol and Richmond Court House, carrying signs that read “Discrimination is every one’s problem,” and “We the people (That means ALL OF US!),” etc. Those who marched also chanted variations of the phrase “Equal rights, right now.”

Protesters also shouted, “Here’s your line,” in response to Delegate C. Todd Gilbert’s, R-Shenandoah and Republican deputy whip, recent comment that discrimination is not an issue in Virginia and if it were there would be “a line out the door” of people ready to tell their stories.

Once at the Capitol, protesters organized to speak with their legislators and promote SB 747. Hunt and other student group members also attended the House subcommittee meeting, where they stood and watched as subcommittee members voted to kill McEachin’s bill in addition to another one of his bills that would have allowed the State Department of Human Resources to explore providing same-sex partners with health benefits.

“One thing you’ll have to learn from doing this kind of work is that we are a slave to the news cycle,” Hunt said, standing just outside the Capitol. “With Ken Cuccinelli’s letter last year, it really became apparent in the media for people to get involved. Our mission for this year is to really get the message out there and educate people that these are still very pressing issues.”

Abortion regulations would cause clinics to close

Monday, March 7th, 2011

By Erica Terrini

Capital News Service

RICHMOND—About 80 percent of Virginia’s clinics that provide first-trimester abortions would close if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs into law a bill that passed the Senate on a tie vote Thursday, abortion rights advocates say.

Senate Bill 924, which passed after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling broke the Senate’s 20-20 tie, would classify clinics that provide at least five first-trimester abortions per month as hospitals. The measure would hold such clinics to hospital standards governing “construction, maintenance, operation, staffing, equipping, staff qualifications and training.”

If the bill becomes law, Virginia would be the only state where a patient would have to go to a hospital. to receive a first-trimester abortion.

The original draft of the bill, introduced by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, would require the Virginia Board of Health to promulgate and enforce standards to ensure “infection prevention, disaster preparedness, and facility security of hospitals, nursing homes, and certified nursing facilities.” It did not mention abortion clinics.

The House added an amendment to SB 924 by Delegate Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg. It would require the Board of Health to apply those same standards “to any facility in which five or more first trimester abortions per month are performed.”

Byron said that she has been a long-time supporter of women’s health issues and that she offered her amendment because it would protect women’s health. She said her amendment was unrelated to the “pro-life vs. pro-choice” debate over abortion rights. That issue, she said, rests with the federal government in Washington, D.C.

“We have had a bill – a safety bill – that Delegate Richard Bell carried this year. And it went over into the Senate from the House and, like any bill that deals with anything remotely close to abortion, the bill died in committee,” Byron said.

“We haven’t been able to get what I consider (to be) a fair vote because that committee is heavily weighted with people that all believe the same (thing).”

Byron was referring to Bell’s House Bill 1428, which would have required the Board of Health to license and regulate clinics that provide 25 or more first-trimester abortions in any 12-month period.

HB 1428 was approved Jan. 26 on a 66-33 vote in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a majority. (Of the 99 delegates, 58 are Republican, 39 are Democratic and two are independent.)

But HB 1428 died in the Senate, where Democrats hold 22 seats and Republicans 18. The Senate Education and Health Committee killed the bill on a 10-5 party-line vote on Feb. 17.
Byron said the regulation of clinics that provide abortions can be “a very emotional issue” for opponents of SB 924 or HB 1428. But she said she believes that the overriding issue is women’s health – not abortion.

“The opponents of the bill are concerned that (the bill is) going to hinder access for women to be able to have abortions – and I disagree with that statement,” she said.

However, according to Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, SB 924 would result in the closure of about 80 percent of Virginia’s clinics that offer abortion services. It has the potential to hinder health care access for women, he said.

“I think we had very good points made on the floor of the Senate both yesterday and today as to why this was unneeded and inappropriate legislation,” Barker said Thursday.
Barker also said the bill does not differentiate between medical abortions and surgical abortions.

According to the website of the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, medical abortions involve a combination of medications that terminate pregnancy, while surgical abortions require a doctor to surgically terminate a pregnancy.

“There are a number of medical abortions during the early weeks of pregnancy. (Under SB 924) the clinics still have to be licensed as a hospital – even if it’s just a physician office providing medications for medical abortions,” Barker said. “It’s a very significant measure that I certainly expect will be challenged legally.”

He said SB 924 would apply overly strict stands to clinics that offer first-trimester abortions. For example, he said, there is no need for such clinics to meet the physical construction standards for hospitals.

The legislation is “not something done for the safety of the patient – because if it were a patient safety issue, you would do it for everything that involves similar procedures,” Barker said.

In its original form, which did not cover abortion clinics, SB 924 was approved unanimously by the Senate on Feb. 2.

On Feb. 21, the House voted 63-34 to add Byron’s amendment to SB 924. Delegates then passed the overall bill, 67-32.

On Thursday, the Senate took up the House-amended bill. A motion to approve the House amendments tied, 20-20, after Democratic Sens. Phillip Puckett of Tazewell and Charles Colgan of Manassas joined the 18 Republicans in voting for the bill.

Bolling, a Republican, then broke the tie and voted in favor of SB 924. It now goes to McDonnell, also a Republican. The governor said that if the bill clears an internal legal review, he will sign it. He called the measure a “clinic safety issue.”

The bill sparked intense deliberations among legislators.

“It ended up being a 20-20 vote; we don’t have that many of those,” Barker said. “There were a lot of feelings on both sides of the issue.”

While Barker was disappointed, Byron called the vote “a great victory for women.”

“There’s nothing sad about it—I heard someone comment it was sad,” Byron said. “I’ve been sad many times in committee when they killed my bill, so I understand if they feel this is a threat. But I don’t see it as that.”