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Evaluating Virginia’s redistricting reforms
Virginia Mercury, Alex KeenaOctober 19, 2021 (Medium)

Last year, Virginia voters approved a sweeping set of changes to the redistricting process in the form of a constitutional amendment proposed by the General Assembly. The centerpiece of these reforms is a bipartisan redistricting commission comprised of eight legislators and eight citizens tasked with drawing state legislative and congressional election maps.

Despite delays in the 2020 census caused by the global pandemic, the once-a-decade redistricting process is currently underway.

How have the new redistricting reforms fared so far?

While the commission is currently tackling the congressional maps, it missed a key deadline for approving state legislative maps. It was widely reported that the commissioners have split into political camps, and earlier this month three Democratic commissioners walked out of meetings in frustration.

That the commission has yet to find common ground is not surprising, because the design of the commission balances the power of Republicans and Democrats and gives legislators equal representation with citizens. Although the commission must approve a plan by a supermajority, there are few incentives for commissioners to divorce themselves from partisan interests and work together.

If the commission doesn’t approve the state and federal maps — which seems a likely scenario at this point — the Supreme Court of Virginia (SCOVA) will take over the process.

Can SCOVA draw fair maps?

The common wealth of water
Virginia Mercury, Karenna GoreOctober 18, 2021 (Medium)

In the final months of 2021, a decision is looming in Virginia about the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas on a 303-mile route that crosses hundreds of bodies of water and traverses steep slopes that are prone to erosion.

The State Water Control Board will vote on whether to grant the company the water quality certification required under the Clean Water Act after a public comment period that closes on Oct. 27.

The company behind the pipeline has already been cited for more than 350 violations along this route. Local communities and landowners are objecting to the use of eminent domain for a project averse to the public interest. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers deny the section 404 permit due to “substantial concerns” about the project’s impact on streams and rivers.

And, on top of all that, this pipeline is not even needed. As the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis wrote in a report in March 2021, “in the seven years since the project was first proposed, the rationale for the Mountain Valley Pipeline has largely disappeared.”

We are also marking the 49th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, which was enacted on Oct. 18, 1972, after Congress overrode President Richard Nixon’s midnight veto. A close look at the origins of that act can help us understand what is at stake in this pipeline decision.

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s first-ever attempt to draw fair political maps collapsed in spectacular fashion Friday, when frustrated Democrats walked out of a meeting after Republicans rebuffed their suggestions for reaching a compromise.

The commission, which has been holding regular meetings for more than a month, never came close to reaching an agreement on final General Assembly maps. Partisanship dominated the process from the start, with the commission hiring two teams of overtly partisan consultants and repeatedly failing to agree on how to merge two sets of maps.

The process now appears headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, unless the three Democratic walkouts change their minds and agree to meet again. But that appears unlikely based on how Friday’s meeting ended.

The gridlock reached a breaking point as the commission failed to agree on which maps to use as a starting point for its final push for a deal. The commission’s eight Democrats voted to begin with a Republican-drawn House of Delegates map and Democratic-drawn Senate map. Republicans voted against that offer and suggested keeping both a GOP and Democratic Senate map alive — a proposal all eight Democrats voted down.

That prompted Democratic co-chair Greta Harris to call it quits. If the commission is going to work in 2031, she said, it shouldn’t have any legislators on it and all members should be required to take a history class to understand why Black commissioners felt so strongly about protecting minority voting power.

“I think our work is done,” Harris said. “And what a shame it is.”

The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s recent meetings have taken on a gloomy tone, with many predicting it’s all but certain to fail and leave it to the Supreme Court of Virginia to redraw the state’s political maps.

But experts at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which is grading redistricting proposals from numerous states based on criteria like political fairness, competitiveness and geography, say that with a few minor changes to draft maps, the commission can still deliver on the expectation of a fairer result.

“The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s deliberations have been contentious, and according to some spectators, a fraught process. But from a distance, things don’t look that bad,” Princeton professor Sam Wang wrote in a Wednesday memo addressed “to interested parties in Virginia.”

The memo suggests a final round of edits to a Republican-drawn House of Delegates map and an attempted compromise Senate map, all of which it says would make a few Republican-leaning districts more competitive and improve the maps’ fairness overall.

“Although the Redistricting Commission may be feeling fatigued, they are closer to success than they realize,” Wang wrote.

Proposed Chickahominy Pipeline map released; county officials complain about lack of information
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongSeptember 24, 2021 (Medium)

A map of the proposed Chickahominy Pipeline through Louisa, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Charles City County was released this week, although officials from several counties complained they have been unable to obtain more details about the project.

“We have attempted to reach out to the company’s representatives to get no response, and the only information that we have received from the company is what was required by the State Corporation Commission,” said Cari Tretina, chief of staff for Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas. “The only way Henrico County actually received any information about the pipeline was either from our residents who made us aware and also Louisa County.”

Louisa County supervisors also described a dearth of information about the proposal at a Sept. 20 board meeting.

“When I look at this map, little to none of the pipeline goes through my district, but I’ve already had plenty of people calling me anyway concerned about it, and rightfully so, because they don’t know who’s doing what and where they are and what they are,” said Louisa Supervisor Eric Purcell during the meeting.

Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes said his biggest concern was whether the pipeline would be able to exercise eminent domain.

“Do they have eminent domain or not?” he asked. “That’s a huge question that has to be answered … because that’s really going to affect our citizens.”

As Youngkin rejects Texas-style ban, GOP ticket steers clear of anti-abortion rally in Richmond
Virginia Mercury, GRAHAM MOOMAW AND JACKIE LLANOS HERNANDEZ September 18, 2021 (Medium)

If it didn’t count as a banned weapon, she would have brought her sledgehammer, anti-abortion activist Victoria Cobb told the March for Life crowd Friday from the steps of the Virginia Capitol.

The hammer, she said, is a symbol of what the pro-life movement hopes to do to former Gov. Terry McAulffe’s “brick wall” for abortion rights.

“You are going to break down that wall,” Cobb, president of the socially conservative Family Foundation, told the group gathered on Capitol Square. “You are going to be the ones that do whatever it takes.”

Legal developments outside Virginia have pushed abortion to the forefront of this year’s elections, with activists on both sides stressing the high stakes in the gubernatorial contest between McAuliffe, a Democrat, and Republican Glenn Youngkin.

Three Republican lawmakers spoke at the third annual March for Life in Richmond, where marchers shouted chants against the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established abortion as a constitutional right and booed at the mention of recent Democratic governors. The Family Foundation described the crowd as being in the thousands. Capitol Police estimated there were 600 attendees.

None of the three Republicans running for statewide office this year spoke at the event, forgoing a chance to speak to a sizable crowd to campaign elsewhere. Earlier this year, Youngkin was caught on camera expressing sympathy for the anti-abortion cause but adding he couldn’t press the issue to avoid turning off independent voters.

Legal challenge slows rural broadband plans in Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverSeptember 15, 2021 (Medium)

Supporters call it a commonsense way to get broadband internet into more homes in rural Virginia. A Culpeper County couple calls it an unconstitutional infringement on their property rights.

The fight, which has already halted an $600 million broadband expansion project, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

At issue is a 2020 law allowing electric and communications utilities to string fiber along their existing poles, lines and conduit — an extensive network of infrastructure that already cuts through the far-flung mountains, fields and woodlands where the state is hoping to get residents and businesses hooked up to high speed internet by 2024.

The legislation allows the utility companies to sidestep the trouble and expense of negotiating with property owners along the routes, who otherwise would be entitled to compensation for the additional use of their property, even if it’s just a new strand of wire on a pole that’s been there for decades.

The law passed with near unanimous, bipartisan support, but when the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative attempted to invoke the provisions, it got hit with a lawsuit by the owners of a farm in Culpeper County, John and Cynthia Grano.

Sen. Mark Warner, the self-described “only so-called Democratic moderate” on the Senate Budget Committee, described how he will work with Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders to craft a spending bill that could be passed by reconciliation along with a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“I think I’m the only so-called Democratic moderate on the Budget Committee,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday. “I’m prepared to work with Senator Sanders and others to start down the path on a budget reconciliation process.”

Warner said he would be happy for the reconciliation package to include tax increases.

Mark Warner emerges as moderates’ dealmaker-in-chief
Axios, Jonathan SwanJune 27, 2021 (Short)

As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain navigate the legislative minefield of the next few months, they’ll often turn to a moderate Democrat who gets far less ink than Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

The big picture: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has become a pivotal player in the multi-trillion-dollar negotiations that will shape the Democrats’ electoral prospects, Joe Biden’s presidency and the future of the country.

Behind the scenes: Centrist Democrats and Republicans involved in the negotiations tell Axios that Warner is well-positioned for this dealmaking role.

Governance via Zoom is coming to an end in Virginia. Should it?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw| Sarah Vogelsong June 28, 2021 (Short)

For more than a year, policymakers across Virginia have been able to log on and conduct public business from whatever room, or car, they happen to be in.

But public bodies will have to transition back to in-person meetings after June 30, the expiration date of the state of emergency Gov. Ralph Northam declared at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

That declaration gave all state and local boards more leeway to meet electronically and avoid rules requiring officials to conduct most business in person and in direct view of the public.

The return to normal operations is also sparking discussion about transparency and civic engagement, and whether some aspects of virtual meetings should be kept once the pandemic’s over.

Winning elections for the past five years has been low-hanging fruit for Democrats in Virginia, and the reason can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump.

The divisive former president’s unpopularity in the commonwealth has had the net effect of turning Virginia – where no Republican has won a statewide race since 2009 – from deep purple to a bright cobalt blue.

Consider that since 2016, the year Trump led his party’s ticket and won the presidency, the GOP in Virginia has lost: two U.S. Senate races; the 2017 gubernatorial race; its U.S. House of Representatives majority; its majority in the Virginia Senate and; its House of Delegates majority. The last time the Republican Party found itself so shut out of Virginia political power was 1969.

Del. Hala Ayala, the newly minted Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, drew harsh criticism in the final days of the campaign for flipping on a promise to refuse campaign donations from state-regulated monopolies.

Her campaign ducked questions about the decision last week after finance reports revealed she had accepted a $100,000 donation from Dominion Energy, but in an interview at a polling place in Prince William on Tuesday, she suggested the decision came down to being able to fund her campaign’s voter outreach.

“It’s about talking to voters, right? And making sure we communicate and get our message out because it overwhelmingly resonates, as you’ve seen,” she said.

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From your job to your home to your groceries, Covid-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of life. This dashboard from CNN shows how the economy continues to change as we grapple with life during the pandemic. Some indices below:

The Back-to-Normal Index

Unemployment claims

State unemployment rates

Job postings

30-year mortgage rate

Personal savings

Small business closures

Democratic primary voters oust some of General Assembly’s most outspoken delegates
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver –June 9, 2021 (Short)

Primary voters in Virginia delivered a rebuke to the left wing of the Democratic party on Tuesday, sweeping three outspoken incumbents from office and rejecting progressive challengers in all but one race.

By the end of the night, voters had booted Dels. Lee Carter, D-Prince William, the General Assembly’s only socialist; Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, a progressive activist who protested Trump during an official visit; and Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, one of the chamber’s most forceful proponents of gun control.

“We just need to be on the same team as much as possible,” said Lisa Giovanini, a stay-at-home mom in Fairfax who said she had supported Samirah in years prior but said she disliked his confrontational style and unwillingness to cooperate with party leadership.

McAuliffe’s sweep beat expectations that were already sky-high
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw| Ned OliverJune 9, 2021 (Short)

Terry McAuliffe won Petersburg, the hometown of one of his top opponents, former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who had accused him of neglecting the majority-Black city during his first term. 

He won in Richmond, where Sen. Jennifer McClellan had an advantage due to her strong local following.

He won in Nelson County, a hotbed of opposition to the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that earned McAuliffe the ire of activists who pressed unsuccessfully for him to block it during his first term.

He got almost 65 percent support in Fairfax County, the biggest prize in prosperous Northern Virginia. He did just as well or better in far Southwest Virginia, a region with some of the lowest per-capita incomes in the state.

He won everywhere. Literally.

McAuliffe crushes competitors in Democratic primary for governor
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –June 8, 2021 (Short)

For anyone wondering how Terry McAuliffe was feeling before Virginia’s gubernatorial primary, his election-eve shimmying spree was a solid indicator.

The almost-victory dance became the real thing Tuesday as the former governor and prolific Democratic fundraiser cruised to a lopsided win in a split field, setting up a general-election matchup with deep-pocketed Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.

Tuesday’s victory cements McAuliffe’s return to the forefront of Virginia politics after serving as governor from 2014 to 2018. He had to leave office due to Virginia’s ban on governors serving consecutive terms, but there was nothing stopping him running again after a brief hiatus in which he explored the idea of a presidential run or a potential post in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will be the commonwealth’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, CNN projected on Tuesday, besting four other primary challengers as he seeks to become the first person in decades to serve multiple terms as top executive of a commonwealth that bars governors from consecutive terms.

McAuliffe’s win sets a general election between the former governor and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin. The race in Virginia, one of two states that hold off-year elections for governor after presidential elections, will be closely watched in Washington, DC, and beyond as it is often seen as a bellwether for the subsequent midterms.

McAuliffe wasted no time going after the Republican nominee on Tuesday, using part of his victory speech to link Youngkin to former President Donald Trump — a preview of what will be most of the former governor’s general election message.

As he runs for a second term, Terry McAuliffe is presenting himself as a policy-heavy candidate, talking up the 130 pages of “big bold plans” listed on his website. But the former governor, seen as a strong favorite to win his party’s nomination for governor in next week’s primary, has studiously avoided taking a clear position on one of his party’s major policy divides: repealing Virginia’s longstanding right-to-work law.

Three of five candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial field — former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter — support repealing the law, which impedes the power of organized labor by allowing workers to avoid paying mandatory union dues. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, has said she supports pro-union policies but doesn’t support compulsory union fees.

Cheap labor has long been part of Virginia’s pitch to prospective businesses, owing partly to the right-to-work law that’s been on the books since 1947.

 

With Republicans and Democrats alike reluctant to put limits on Virginia’s wide-open campaign finance system, money has been pouring into primary contests in what’s going to be a high-stakes election year.

And the batch of campaign finance numbers released this week seemed to have something for everyone not to like.

One week out from the June 8 primaries, here are four things that stood out in the latest reports, covering April 1 through May 27, as compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The fourth and final debate of Virginia’s Democratic primary for governor was the most contentious yet as progressive candidates tried to portray frontrunner Terry McAuliffe as out of step with the type of message the party needs to deliver to keep the state blue.

One week out from the primary, it remains to be seen whether the attacks on the former governor will dramatically alter the race, which McAuliffe seems to have dominated ever since he announced he was making the rare move of seeking a second term after leaving office in early 2018.

But the last debate, held at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and televised by Hampton Roads-based TV station WVEC, showed McAuliffe’s opponents weren’t interested in a sleepy primary finish even as McAuliffe signaled that he’s looking ahead to the general-election matchup against Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.

Mapping alliances in the Democratic primary
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver June 1, 2021 (Short)

Endorsements don’t necessarily mean a whole lot when it comes to determining who’s going to win an election. But they can illustrate alliances, partnerships and factions that develop over time. To that end, the chart below traces 70 endorsements by sitting state and federal elected officials in Virginia in next month’s Democratic primary for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Manipulate the visualization by clicking and dragging candidates (big circles) or their supporters (small circles); select or deselect races by clicking the legend. For best results, view on a desktop or tablet.

Election officials begin $20-29M project to replace Virginia’s voter system
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawMay 28, 2021 (Short)

For years, local officials have been complaining that Virginia’s all-encompassing election software — which powers everything from voter registration to absentee ballots to list maintenance to transmission of results — is slow and hard to use.

A 2018 report from state auditors verified those frustrations, concluding the Virginia Election and Registration Information System, or VERIS, was “not sufficiently functional or reliable.”

Election administrators are planning to fix that by by replacing the IT system, a project estimated to cost between $20 million and $29 million.

Though voters may not notice a major change, officials said, the workers assisting them will hopefully have a much smoother time calling up information in the new system and making changes to a voter’s status.

The Democrats’ New Trump Problem
The Atlantic, Elaine GodfreyMay 26, 2021 (Short)

LEESBURG, Va.—I smelled their perfume before I saw them, the small troop of middle-aged women marching toward the park pavilion one night last week, with their flowy blouses and short blond bobs and oversize black sunglasses. They sat around picnic tables with a handful of other volunteers, mostly women, and awaited instruction. They were not here to mess around. They were here for democracy.

The evening’s project: the first door-knocking event of the election season for the Virginia state delegate Wendy Gooditis, a 61-year-old Democrat and former real-estate agent first elected in 2017. Gooditis, like many other women across the country, ran for office that year because she was angry about Donald Trump’s election. Similarly angry suburbanites helped her unseat the district’s two-term Republican incumbent. In 2019, she defeated him again as part of a wave of anti-Trump backlash that helped Virginia Democrats take back the House of Delegates. But now, with her third campaign ramping up and Trump no longer in office, Gooditis needs to figure out a way to keep the enthusiasm alive.

 

“I know it is early to knock on doors, but we just have to keep people awake,” Gooditis said, standing in front of the picnic tables and addressing her volunteers. She wore pink skinny jeans, and her long brown hair hung down her back. “Our job tonight is to remind people that there’s a long way to go.”

The Virginia House Democratic Caucus authorized and funded attack mailers that falsely imply two of the state’s top donors to Democrats are right-wing “dark money billionaires,” according to an image of the mailer obtained by The Virginia Mercury.

The caucus-backed messages were sent in support of new Del. Candi King, D-Prince William, who has accepted money from Dominion Energy, against primary challenger Pam Montgomery, who is backed by the advocacy group Clean Virginia, which presses Virginia legislators to refuse campaign donations from Dominion.

The mailers include a picture of a book labeled “RIGHT WING PLAYBOOK,” call Montgomery “a distraction, not a Democrat” and include an unexplained photo of Montgomery with former New York Mayor and occasional Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, an image that appeared to be taken from an old website for an investment company Montgomery ran with her husband. Montgomery works as the chief of staff for a Democratic member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

This could get ugly
Virginia Mercury, Richard Meagher, OpinionMay 20, 2021 (Short)

Virginia Republicans are flying high right now. After an unprecedented but ultimately successful “unassembled convention,” the party’s ticket for statewide office is set. Party leaders are especially excited about their nominee for governor, Glenn Youngkin, a tall and telegenic newcomer to politics with especially deep pockets.

With lieutenant governor nominee Winsome Sears, a veteran and Jamaican immigrant, and Cuban-American Jason Miyares for attorney general, the Republicans have rightly crowed that their ticket will likely end up featuring more diversity than the Democrats. (Although just like last year’s national election, both party’s tickets look to be led by rich White dudes, so let’s not get too excited.)

Republicans in Virginia also are hopeful that history is on their side. In the past, the national mood often swings against the party in power after a presidential election. Since Virginia unusually runs statewide elections in odd years, 2021 offers an early test of whether the country is turning towards Republicans.

Why you? In third debate, Democratic candidates for governor answer the question.
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawMay 20, 2021 (Short)

The five Democratic candidates for governor in Virginia squared off in a virtual debate Thursday night, the third of four debates scheduled before the June 8 primary.

The hourlong event hosted by NBC4 Washington covered much of the same territory as the first two debates, with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Del. Lee Carter laying out their plans for COVID-19 recovery, education, police reform and health care with few opportunities for extended back-and-forth between candidates.

Some of the most direct answers of the night came when moderator Chuck Todd of NBC News asked questions about electability and qualifications tailored specifically to each candidate.

Change the culture of contempt for FOIA
Virginia Mercury, Robert ZulloMay 20, 2021 (Short)

One of the coverage areas the Mercury set out to focus on when we launched nearly three years ago was Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act and the issues that perennially swirl around it like the constant cloud of dirt that follows Pigpen from “Peanuts.”

Virginia’s open records law doesn’t just suffer from problems with its text — in the form of loopholes, exemptions and provisions allowing exorbitant charges for records that belong to the taxpayers — but also from a general culture of contempt for the concept on the part of some government officials.

That much was apparent Tuesday during a subcommittee meeting of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council, which was hearing testimony on one bill that would attempt to curb the high costs some public bodies impose for records and another that opens up police disciplinary records to public scrutiny.

General Laws Committee – Host, Delegate David Bulova
May 20, 2021 – 6:00 pm (ET)

Aircast on the recent activities of the General Laws committee during this winter’s General Assembly.

These aircasts will be focused on the recent activities of House and Senate committees  during the 2021 General Assembly. Committee chairs will host these aircasts with members of their committees and their invited audience.

Aircasts are Zoom meetings with a host, featured guests, and an online audience livestreamed to the public and archived as YouTube videos.

A recording of the livestreams will be archived in the Virginia onAir Hub and in our Virginia onAir YouTube channel.

For more information:General Laws Committee Post

Curator:

  • Jordan Toledo

Host:

  • Committee Chair, Delegate David Bulova

Featured Guest(s):

  • Delegate Betsy Carr, Chair, Open Government/Procurement Subcommittee

  • Delegate Chris Hurst, Chair, Professions/Occupations and Administrative Process Subcommittee

Producer:

  • Shuaib Ahmed, Democracy onAir – shuaib.ahmed@onair.cc

Archived Locations: YouTube Channel, General Laws Committee post, David Bulova post, Chris Hurst post

If the last public poll was any indicator, Virginia Democrats still have lots of homework to do before making their picks in the primary for lieutenant governor.

A Christopher Newport University poll conducted in mid-April found 64 percent of likely primary voters undecided in the race, with Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, the apparent leader with 12 percent support.

“We’re glad to see the way things are trending,” Rasoul said in an interview, attributing his leading status to a “values-based campaign” focused on in-person trips to cities and counties throughout Virginia, including areas where voters “feel forgotten.”

The numbers suggest there’s still lots of room for movement in an open field that once stood at eight candidates but has shrunk to six heading into the final month before the June 8 primary.

As lawmakers prepare to study the prospects for campaign finance reform in Virginia, the sheer size of some checks flowing to Democratic candidates for statewide office has renewed debate about the boosts offered by a wealthy Charlottesville couple topping charts as the biggest donors in state politics.

Though they backed opposing candidates in the 2017 Democratic primary for governor, donations connected to Michael Bills, a hedge fund manager and primary backer of the advocacy group Clean Virginia, and Sonjia Smith, a philanthropist and former lawyer married to Bills, are working in tandem this year in a big way.

Smith and Clean Virginia have given a combined $1.1 million, $600,000 from Clean Virginia and $500,000 from Smith, to former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, whom they believe has the best shot at challenging former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a five-person Democratic primary field. That’s almost a third of the roughly $3.6 million in cash contributions Carroll Foy reported raising as of March 31.

Dimmerling is among thousands of Virginians who have lived for months with the daily panic of impending financial doom because of the Virginia Employment Commission’s lagging performance in dealing with contested pandemic unemployment claims within the 21 days as prescribed by federal law.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, for each full quarter since the pandemic began Virginia has ranked at or near the bottom against other states in the percentage of “nonmonetary determinations of claimants” within the required three weeks.

That’s bureaucratic jargon that means people whose unemployment insurance claims have been called into question or have prompted other concerns. For instance, employees who quit without good cause or are fired for misconduct are generally ineligible for benefits. Those separated because of layoffs — particularly in the pandemic — are eligible. Sometimes, employers will object to a former employee’s claim, and specialists known as “deputy adjudicators” decide who’s right.

 

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 7 questions answered by a pediatric infectious disease expert
Virginia Mercury, Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley, University of VirginiaMay 18, 2021 (Short)

The Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 to 15 years of age on May 10. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with recommendations endorsing use in this age group after their advisory group meeting on May 12. The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this decision.

Dr. Debbie-Ann Shirley is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia specializing in pediatric infectious diseases. Here she addresses some of the concerns parents may have about their teen or preteen getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

1. Does the vaccine work in adolescents?
Yes, recently released data from Pfizer-BioNTech shows that the COVID-19 vaccine seems to work really well in this age group. The COVID-19 vaccine was found to be 100 percent efficacious in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in an ongoing clinical trial of children in the U.S. aged 12 to 15. Adolescents made high levels of antibody in response to the vaccine, and their immune response was just as strong as what has been seen in older teens and young adults 16-25 years of age.

After chaotic Virginia GOP convention, Democrats see extreme ticket while Republicans feel ‘relief’
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw and Ned OliverMay 14, 2021 (Short)

Despite the early efforts to paint the Republicans’ 2021 ticket as an overwhelming lurch to the right, the slate isn’t nearly as extreme as it might’ve been. Instead of Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” becoming the party’s standard-bearer in a state former President Donald Trump lost twice, she logged off and went to the beach.

After failing to win a statewide election since 2009, some Republicans say they feel surprisingly good about where the party stands coming out of a chaotic unassembled convention marked by procedural confusion, mysterious attack ads and infighting.

“I think some of the ebullience you see in Republicans right now is that this could’ve been very bad. And it turned into the exact opposite,” said Shaun Kenney, a former Republican Party of Virginia executive director who has criticized fringe elements in the party. “But it’s more than just a sigh of relief. It’s like we finally know where we’re headed.”

As he tries to become Virginia’s first Black attorney general, Del. Jay Jones made clear on the debate stage Wednesday night that he wasn’t going to tiptoe around the topic of race.

Facing off against incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring in the first televised debate of the Democratic primary, Jones introduced himself as the descendant of slaves and the grandson of civil rights activists, going on to make several references to the perspective gained from his “lived experience as a Black man.”

Perhaps the most remarkable experience Jones recounted on the debate stage was being in the room in early 2019 when Herring met with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to deliver a pre-emptive apology for wearing blackface while in college at the University of Virginia.

Virginia’s GOP gambles on creative ranked-choice voting for 2021 nominees
Virginia Mercury, Mark J. Rozell May 4, 2021 (Short)

The Republican Party of Virginia has a chance this year to reestablish itself as a competitive force in statewide elections.

After a dozen years without a statewide victory, the GOP leadership needed to take a careful look within to understand why voters have turned their backs on the once dominant political party in Virginia. It appears that party leaders decided that with the right method of nominating candidates for statewide office, they can change their fortunes.

Republican Party leaders   generally have favored conventions as a means of selecting nominees for statewide offices. The closed process, open only to the most inside of GOP insiders and dominated by some of its most conservative voices, has had a mixed record of success.

Delegate Suggests Removing Financial Incentive For Traffic Stops
WVTF, Michael PopleMay 3, 2021 (Short)

The firestorm caused by the Windsor police officer who pepper sprayed an African-American Army officer may end up changing the relationship between money and policing in Virginia.

Delegate Betsy Carr of Richmond says this incident reveals why police departments and sheriff’s offices should be de-incentivized from making traffic stops.  “Police are incentivized if they’re going to get money from it just to make more traffic stops, and a lot of time Black and brown folks are the people who are bearing the brunt of this.”

But Dana Schrad at the police chiefs association says local governments get that money, not police.  “The financial incentive is not on the part of the police department,” Schrad argues. “It might be on the part of the locality. But the locality has always expressed that their chief concern is that speeding on that route that goes through their community presents risks for the business owners and presents risks for the residents, and they want to see speeding laws enforced.”

McAuliffe opponents struggle to break through in Virginia
Politico, Maya KingMay 1, 2021 (Short)

Former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy’s supporters say she is best-positioned to challenge the former governor, but she has yet to gain broad name recognition.

In Virginia, 2021 was the best chance yet to elect a Black politician — and possibly the first Black woman in any state — to the governor’s mansion.

But with five weeks until the commonwealth’s Democratic primary, Terry McAuliffe, its white male former governor, is on track to secure the nomination easily.

 

A COVID-19 vaccine mandate is not being ruled out in Virginia but it won’t happen in the near future, if at all. That’s according to the state’s Vaccine Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, who spoke to 8News via Zoom on Thursday.

In the meantime, Dr. Avula said the use of so-called “vaccine passports” or certifications are a more likely solution for skepticism.

“If our ability to move forward as a society, to open back up businesses, to open back up schools, is contingent on this, then I think we find every way we can to incentivize it and potentially even get to a point where we require it, but I think we’re a long way from that,” Dr. Avula said.

Virginia Mercury wins honors in press competition
Virginia Mercury, StaffApril 30, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia Mercury took nine first-place awards and one of its journalists earned a top individual honor in the 2020 Virginia Press Association competition.

Mercury reporter Ned Oliver was named the year’s outstanding journalist for his work covering how the COVID-19 pandemic affected Virginia’s most vulnerable people. That included stories about prisoners, workers who lost jobs or were forced to come back as safety protocols were in flux, those who struggled with Virginia’s problem-plagued administration of unemployment benefits and renters who faced eviction, among other stories.

“In a year when nearly every journalist was writing about COVID-19, the judge said that Oliver’s work stands out. His reporting held officials accountable, and he kept an eye on the pandemic’s impact on those who could not speak for themselves,” the VPA said in a news release.

Northam amends Virginia’s mask mandate to match CDC guidance
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters April 28, 2021 (Short)

The first of three minimum wage increases approved by Virginia lawmakers will take effect Saturday, guaranteeing the state’s lowest paid workers an hourly rate of $9.50 an hour.

While some businesses warned the hikes will force them to layoff workers and cut hours, low-wage employees celebrated the coming raises.

“I just feel like we deserve it,” said Jenee Long, who until recently was paid just over the current minimum of $7.25 an hour making sandwiches at a Subway franchise in Richmond. “Luckily, I had family to take care of me, because how would I pay rent?”

The last minimum wage increase in Virginia came courtesy of the federal government more than a decade ago in 2009, when Congress raised the wage floor to $7.25.

More than 53,000 delegates register to vote in Virginia GOP convention
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver April 28, 2021 (Short)

The Virginia GOP says 53,524 delegates have registered to vote in the party’s nominating convention next week, in which Republicans will select their candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Rich Anderson announced the number at a candidate forum on Tuesday evening, predicting the event would be “the largest state party convention ever in American history.”

The convention is set for Saturday, May 8, and, unlike a traditional convention held at a single location, will take place at voting locations set up around the state to comply with COVID-19 safety rules.

A minor political furor erupted in Virginia last week — over math.

It started with a Fox News story declaring that the state Department of Education was moving to eliminate all accelerated math classes before 11th grade, “effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system.”

Republican leaders soon joined a chorus of dissenters. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert criticized the department’s “plan to lower standards,” stating that “Virginians have had enough of the insatiable agenda to eliminate opportunities for students to excel in the quest to achieve mediocrity for all.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin slammed the decision in another statement, saying families across the state were “up in arms.”

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam looks back at his tenure, the inflection point between being a run-of-the-mill executive and the progressive leader he has become is a painful one.

The scandal — born of the discovery of a decades-old yearbook photo that featured someone in blackface — was an existential crisis for Northam and his administration. After initially saying the person in question was him, he denied it but admitted to darkening his skin as part of a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984. Almost every Virginia Democrat called for his ouster as the state examined its racist past. Those closest to Northam said he was close to resigning.

How the governor survived was a surprise even to his most ardent supporters. The man who was nearly thrown out of office by his own party has, in the two years since, become a progressive champion, working with the same Democrats who called for his resignation to tighten gun laws in the commonwealth, restore the voting rights to nearly 70,000 felons, approve voting rights legislation and abolish the death penalty in the state. And just this week Northam signed legislation that would legalize marijuana this summer, the first Southern state to do so.

When she was sworn in as the first woman to serve as speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn said she was struck by the diversity of the new Democratic majority looking back at her.

A year later, she was standing in a mostly empty room, speaking to “squares on a computer” as the oldest continuous legislative body in the Western Hemisphere tried lawmaking via Zoom.

It’s not yet clear when the House will return to normal. But after two years in power, Filler-Corn says she’s confident Virginia voters still want Democrats in charge.

“We heard the issues that were important to Virginians,” Filler-Corn said in a recent interview with The Virginia Mercury. “We campaigned saying we were going to do X, Y and Z. We were very upfront about it. Very bold. And there is no doubt about it that we followed through.”

Will Virginia colleges require COVID-19 vaccinations? Should they?
Capital News Service, Hunter BrittApril 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia universities plan a return to campuses in the fall, but there are questions if the COVID-19 vaccine can be mandated.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only authorized the vaccine for emergency purposes, according to Lisa Lee, professor of public health at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The vaccine does not yet have full FDA approval.

The vaccine was authorized for emergency use, so people have to be given the choice to take it and be informed of the consequences if they don’t, Lee said.

“Many legal scholars have interpreted that as saying that people cannot be required to take a vaccine that is under an emergency use authorization,” Lee said. “They can be when it has full approval, so that’s where the hitch is.”

Starting May 15, Virginia will significantly relax capacity restrictions on social gatherings and entertainment venues as COVID-19 numbers plateau across much of the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the latest rollback in a video message on Thursday, citing the state’s continued progress in vaccinations. Data from the Virginia Department of Health indicates that more than 40 percent of the population has received at least one shot and more than 26 percent are fully vaccinated. Every Virginian 16 and older became eligible for the vaccine on Sunday.

“Vaccination numbers are up, and our COVID case numbers are substantially lower than they were earlier this year,” Northam said in a statement. “So, we have been able to begin easing some mitigation measures.”

FOIA bill allows some access to criminal investigation records
Capital News Service , Anya SczerzenieApril 20, 2021 (Short)

A bill allowing the public access to limited criminal investigation records will go into effect in July, along with a handful of other bills related to government transparency.

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, a former television reporter, introduced House Bill 2004. The bill requires files related to non-ongoing criminal investigations be released under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act law.

“I’d been a journalist for 10 years, and I frequently saw that access to police records was very difficult,” Hurst said. “In denying those records, accountability and transparency were lost.”

Hurst said he hopes the bill will give the public reasonable access to criminal investigation files.

Virginia public defenders face resistance in push for pay parity with prosecutors
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverApril 20, 2021 (Short)

In many Virginia courtrooms, commonwealth’s attorneys charged with prosecuting crimes continue to earn significantly more than the government employees responsible for defending the accused.

It’s an imbalance that bakes inequity into the criminal justice system, say public defenders, whose state-funded offices represent poor defendants who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an attorney.

They say it’s not uncommon to spend years training a new hire only to lose them to a higher paying job, often in prosecutors offices.

“They literally just go across the street to make a significantly increased salary to prosecute people instead of defend them,” said Ashley Shapiro, a senior assistant public defender in Richmond, where lawyers on staff learned they were almost all making less than the highest-paid administrative assistant in the prosecutor’s office.

Pushing broadband into rural Va. gives us a chance to act like a commonwealth
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis –April 19, 2021 (Short)

Writing this column in a Richmond suburb, I expect instant responses to data inquiries from across the Internet. And, far more often than not, I get them.

Fiber-optic digital access (which ain’t cheap) also allows me to stream movies, shop the virtual marketplace, conduct business videoconferences and correspond at light speed with anyone in the world via email or social media.

By the time you read this, I will have used this fast connection to communicate with sources whom I have interviewed for this piece, downloaded all sorts of data and collaborated with The Virginia Mercury’s editors to get it ready for your consumption.

Over the last month, state and federal officials have directed thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to large-scale clinics in vulnerable communities with high rates of coronavirus cases — all in areas with significant or majority Black and Latino populations.

The sites have been touted by leaders as a core strategy in expanding access to vaccines among communities of color, where immunization rates are consistently lower than they are for White Virginians. “We have done a very good job in the commonwealth in addressing this issue,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said at a news briefing last month in response to questions over vaccine equity.

“We have brought on staff in our emergency support team that is doing outreach in these communities,” he added. “We’ve put boots on the ground in all 35 of our health districts and those teams are doing your basic sort of community organizing — door to door, working with faith leaders, community-based organizations to bring people from these vulnerable populations to our vaccination sites.”

When top aides to Gov. Ralph Northam sat down last summer to meet with the state inspector general, whose office had just issued a critical watchdog report on the Virginia Parole Board, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer opened by saying he wanted to hear what was being done to prevent future reports from “getting forwarded to the Associated Press again.” 

Republican General Assembly leaders had just given media outlets an unredacted copy of a report accusing the Parole Board of mishandling the release of Vincent Martin, who was convicted of the 1979 killing of a Richmond police officer but won praise as a model inmate. Before that, the inspector general had only released an unreadable version with virtually every sentence blacked-out, citing an interpretation of confidentiality laws disputed by open-government advocates.

Mercer said he was hoping for a “collegial” discussion of what had happened and the aspects of the report that were in dispute.

What would a carbon-free grid look like for Virginia?
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainApril 16, 2021 (Short)

Joe Biden wants a carbon-free electric grid by 2035. What does that look like in Virginia?

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045.

Viral police stop in small Virginia town renews focus on qualified immunity
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw| Ned OliverApril 13, 2021 (Short)

Standing across from the gas station where an Army lieutenant became another viral example of aggressive policing directed at a person of color, members of the Virginia NAACP called Monday for lawmakers to hold a special session on an unfinished piece of the police reform agenda.

Though the Democratic-controlled General Assembly twice failed to approve legislation rolling back qualified immunity, some say what happened to Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario in this small town demands that policymakers try again.

“To tell us that a Black Army second lieutenant in uniform can have that type of treatment imposed upon him, imagine what happens when the body cameras are off,” said NAACP Executive Director Da’Quan Marcell Love. “Imagine what happens on dark roads across the length and breadth of this commonwealth.”

As Dominion’s rate review gears up, a broader fight about regulatory balance resurges
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongApril 9, 2021 (Short)
Virginia explained: What’s a triennial review and why should you care?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong April 9, 2021 (Short)

For the first time in six years, Virginia’s largest utility, which serves two-thirds of Virginia’s residential customers, will submit to a review of its base rates. Dominion Energy’s “triennial review,” coming after years of regulators reporting hundreds of millions of dollars in company overearnings, will likely be the powerful utility’s biggest battle of the year.

The outcome will determine whether the base rates it charges have been reasonable, how much it’s earned over the past four years and what profits shareholders will be allowed to reap as the company embarks on an ambitious Democrat-driven mission to transform the foundation of Virginia’s electric grid from fossil fuels to renewables.

But instead of playing out in political skirmishes in the General Assembly, this contest will unfold before the State Corporation Commission, one of the most powerful and little-known of Virginia’s government bodies which since 1902 has had the authority under the state Constitution to regulate utilities.

Done right, legal pot could bring social equity and opportunity to Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis – OpinionApril 5, 2021 (Short)

Virginia owes much to a smokable weed.

Look no farther than the ceiling of the state Capitol Rotunda to see painted representations of garlands of the golden-brown leaf that was essential to Virginia’s founding 400 years ago.

The Virginia Company of London, chartered as a joint stock company, encountered lean times in the early years after it established a foothold at Jamestown. Tobacco was one of its few success stories. The crop flourished in the fertile loam and sunny summers along the James River. Across the Atlantic, demand became insatiable for what was called the “joviall weed,” the “precious stink” and the “chopping herbe of hell,” according to “Virginia: The New Dominion” by historian and editor Virginius Dabney. It remained a leading cash crop in Virginia through the 20th century.

On July 1, another smokable weed, once damned by the establishment, is expected to become legal for adult recreational use. And 2½ years later, the legal commercial cultivation, processing and sale of marijuana would begin in Virginia.

The final say on that comes Wednesday when the Virginia General Assembly is expected to adopt amendments Gov. Ralph Northam made to a bill passed during the winter legislative session that at long last legalized ganja in the Old Dominion.

Should Virginia bus systems go fare free forever?
Virginia Mercury, Wyatt Gordon April 6, 2021 (Medium)

When the General Assembly created the Transit Rider Incentive Program (TRIP) as part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s 2020 transportation omnibus, the lion’s share of the funding was allocated to support new regional bus routes. With COVID’s cancellation of much commuter service across the commonwealth, those dollars are now being dedicated to TRIP’s secondary goal: fare free transit pilot projects.

With large localities like Lynchburg, Roanoke, Alexandria, Richmond, Charlottesville, and Fairfax County now expressing interest in eliminating bus fares for at least three years, could the shift to zero fares in Virginia become permanent?

Nearly every transit system in the commonwealth dropped fares last year as a public health measure in response to COVID, but until recently none had announced intentions to make that move to protect riders and operators more permanent. Based on the responses to a request for ideas DRPT issued to transit providers last fall, the list of bus systems seeking to stay fare free beyond the pandemic could soon grow substantially longer.

Virginia to expand vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older by mid-Ap
Virginia Mercury, Kate Masters –April 1, 2021 (Short)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the state will expand vaccine eligibility to all Virginians 16 and older by April 18.

The news puts Virginia nearly two weeks ahead of the May 1 deadline set by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In a news release, the administration said that nearly every high-risk Virginian who pre-registered for a vaccine has already received a shot, allowing the state to expand eligibility sooner than expected. Those still on the state’s pre-registration list will receive an appointment invitation within the next two weeks.

“Expanding vaccine eligibility to all adults marks an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to put this pandemic behind us,” Northam said in a statement. “I thank all of the public health staff, health care workers, vaccinators, and volunteers who have helped make this possible.”

Apparently fed up with paperwork coming in late, Virginia’s State Board of Elections has refused to extend a key campaign filing deadline this year, potentially affecting eight candidates running for the House of Delegates.

Three are Democrats looking to challenge incumbent lawmakers, meaning, if the decision stands, Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, may not face primary challengers after all. Because they represent strongly Democratic districts, their primary opponents being disqualified on technical grounds all but guarantees the incumbents will win re-election.

The decision to insist on meaningful deadlines comes after years of officials wrestling with how to handle paperwork errors, reflecting a growing feeling on the board that candidates must take responsibility for their own campaigns and follow through to ensure their documents get to the right place.

The geography of Mathews County was carved by catastrophe.

Thirty-five million years ago, a meteorite or comet tore through the Earth’s atmosphere and slammed into its surface somewhere between the county and what is now called Cape Charles. In the ruin it left behind, the Chesapeake Bay would form. Mathews, at the very tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, remains one of the state’s lowest-lying areas, surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay and the waters that flow into it. 

“We’re flat as a pancake,” said Thomas Jenkins, the county’s planning, zoning and wetlands director. “Much of the county is close to sea level.” 

Today a far slower but perhaps no less catastrophic force is reshaping Mathews. As climate change drives seas upward, the county is struggling to keep its waterfront properties above the tides. 

 
Audit overwhelmingly confirms Virginia’s election results
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 31, 2021 (Short)

statewide audit of Virginia’s 2020 election results verified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state, finding only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome.

“Election officials are over 99 percent confident in the reported outcome,” Karen Hoyt-Stewart, voting technology manager at the Virginia Department of Elections, told the State Board of Elections as she presented the audit report Wednesday.

The only way to reach 100 percent certainty would be for officials to manually review every ballot cast in the state. In other words, the audit found there’s almost zero chance a full recount would show a different outcome.

The risk-limiting audit, more of a mathematical exercise than an expansive investigation into how ballots were cast and counted, involved checking a random sample of paper ballots against the results reported by scanner machines.

It’s already too late for Virginia to redraw political districts in time for the 2021 House of Delegates races, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s decision to speed up its delivery of new population data means Virginia lawmakers could be voting on future maps right before the November elections.

Census officials had told states to expect to get the data by late September, but Virginia officials say they now expect to receive it by the second week of August.

Under the newly created Virginia Redistricting Commission’s constitutional timeline, receipt of the data starts a 45-day clock for the commission to submit new legislative maps to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. Once the legislature received the proposed maps, it has 15 days to vote on them.

Virginians could be harvesting their first legal crops of home-grown marijuana later this year under legislative amendments Gov. Ralph Northam says he’s sending to the General Assembly.

Northam said Wednesday he is proposing changes to the marijuana legalization bill passed by the General Assembly last month that would end the state’s prohibition on the drug beginning July 1 — up from a 2024 date proposed by lawmakers. He says he also wants to allow limited home cultivation to begin at the same time.

“Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” he said in a statement.

Virginia lawmakers ban police use of facial recognition
AP, Denise LavoieMarch 29, 2021 (Short)

Last month, Virginia lawmakers quietly passed one of the most restrictive bans in the country on the use of facial recognition technology.

The legislation, which won unusually broad bipartisan support, prohibits all local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology unless it is expressly authorized by the state legislature.

But now, some law enforcement officials are asking Gov. Ralph Northam to put the brakes on the legislation, arguing that it is overly broad and hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

Makya Little was helping her fourth-grade daughter review for the Virginia Studies SOL, a standardized test on state history, when she found herself taken aback by one of the questions on the study guide.

“She gets to this one question that says ‘What’s the status of the early African?’” said Little, who lives in Prince William County. The correct answer, according to the class materials, was “unknown. They were either servants or enslaved.”

“I got really, really upset,” Little said. While historians widely agree that the first Africans to arrive at the Jamestown settlement were enslaved, there’s been contentious discussion on the topic — some of the state’s own study materials also state that it’s “unknown” whether they arrived as slaves or indentured servants. The school division didn’t provide any of that context, and Little said multiple thoughts flashed through her head. The information was “misleading,” she added, and seemed designed to “soften how early Americans treated Black and Indigenous people” (another prompt on the study guide stated that native people and English settlers had a “trade relationship”).

Northam signs bill funding Va. community-college education costs
WTOP, Rick Massimo March 29, 2021 (Short)

Low-income students in Virginia will soon be getting financial help with all the costs of getting an education.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday signed into law the “Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back” program, which will provide full tuition for community college for low-income students in certain majors, as well as incidental expenses such as food and transportation.

The bill, which passed the legislature overwhelmingly last month, budgets $36 million a year over the next two years.

The bill covers education that leads to in-demand jobs in fields such as technology, skilled labor and health care. Officials gathered at Northern Virginia Community College for the signing Monday said the bill would open doors to people who were considering higher education.

“I am so incredibly proud of this initiative,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “This has been something that we’ve been working on for a number of years.” She said there was a lot of bipartisan support for the bill even before COVID-19, but with a lot of lower-skill jobs disappearing because of the pandemic, “It’s more important now than ever.”

Va. House leaders back legalizing home-grown marijuana this summer
Virginia Mercury, Ned Oliver March 26, 2021 (Short)

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates say they now support legalizing marijuana on July 1, joining the Senate in backing amendments to a legalization bill lawmakers passed last month.

They also went a step further, endorsing the legalization of personal cultivation at the same time.

“The time is now for us to act,” wrote speaker Eileen Filler-Corn in a statement.

The General Assembly voted at the end of February to legalize marijuana, but not until Jan. 1, 2024, when the state’s first legal marijuana businesses would open. The decision to tie legalization to commercial sales disappointed activists, who argued that waiting three years would needlessly prolong the racial disparities in policing that lawmakers said they were trying to address.

Virginia governor signs historic bill abolishing death penalty into law
CNN, Veronica StracqualursiMarch 24, 2021 (Medium)

After centuries of carrying out executions, Virginia on Wednesday became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Ralph Northam signed historic legislation into law that ends capital punishment in the commonwealth.

“We can’t give out the ultimate punishment without being 100% sure that we’re right. And we can’t sentence people to that ultimate punishment knowing that the system doesn’t work the same for everyone,” Northam, a Democrat, said ahead of signing the legislation at the Greensville Correctional Center, which houses Virginia’s death chamber.

With Northam’s signature, Virginia became the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty since the US Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976. The new law, set to go into effect in July, comes as a major shift for Virginia, which has put to death more people in its history than any other state.

What was expected to be a pretty predictable special election in Southwest Virginia has turned into a surprisingly intense fight in its closing days.

Voters in Virginia’s 38th Senate District will elect a new state senator through 2023 on Tuesday. Incumbent Ben Chafin died on Jan. 1 from complications related to COVID-19.

The district includes Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Pulaski, Russell and Tazewell counties, the cities of Norton and Radford, and portions of Montgomery, Smyth and Wise counties. 

Metro is finally catching a break, and it’s a plus for workers in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs poised to start heading back to the office once they’re vaccinated.

The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package signed by President Joe Biden last week ends — for now — the prospect that the bus and subway operator in the D.C. area officially known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, would have to resort to deep service cuts to stay solvent.

Metro, hammered when commuters abandoned the system beginning a year ago to work from home, had proposed the shutdown of more than 20 of its train stations across the region’s far-flung system, ranging from College Park-University of Maryland to Smithsonian to Arlington Cemetery to Clarendon.

Virginia has $43 million in carbon market revenues. How is it going to spend it?
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongMarch 17, 2021 (Medium)

The $43 million was “in the state’s hot little hands,” Mike Dowd told the group.

So what next?

That was the question facing not only Dowd, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Division, but also a collection of developers, state officials and environmental and low-income advocacy groups who had gathered over Zoom on Monday.

All were focused on the best uses of that $43 million in carbon money, the first round of funds Virginia had received through its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an 11-state agreement that puts a price on the carbon emissions that are driving climate change, requires power plants to pay that price and then channels the proceeds back to the states.

Most of that funding will eventually be paid for by customers of the state’s electric utilities, which are allowed under state law to pass on the costs of carbon allowances to customers, with no extra returns for investors. State officials had conservatively projected annual proceeds from RGGI’s carbon auctions to be in the range of $106 to $109 million. But with allowances trading at $7.60 per short ton of emissions at this March’s quarterly auction, actual revenues now look to be much higher, amounting to perhaps as much as $174 million annually if prices hold.

Virginia could soon push more workers to save for retirement. Here’s how:
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawMarch 16, 2021 (Short)

Thousands of Virginia workers would gain the option of automatically putting away part of their paychecks for retirement under legislation the General Assembly passed last month to help private-sector employees who lack access to a savings plan through their employer.

The bill, awaiting action by Gov. Ralph Northam, establishes a state-administered program that would offer IRA accounts to workers with no other retirement plan options, particularly employees of small businesses, self-employed people and gig workers. 

The accounts would be optional, but workers would be enrolled by default and would have to opt out if they want to keep their whole paycheck. The plans would be portable, meaning workers could keep putting money into the same account even if they switch jobs.

Covered businesses would have to help interested workers participate in the program, mainly by setting up their accounting systems to allow payroll deductions to be made, but they wouldn’t have to contribute funds of their own.

Did Virginia lawmakers accidentally vote to legalize skill games for another year?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw March 16, 2021 (Short)

After giving so-called skill games another year to operate in Virginia late in the 2020 General Assembly session, legislators seemed to decide the time has come to pull the plug on thousands of slots-like gambling machines that have proliferated in convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops all over the state.

But some statehouse watchers think lawmakers may have actually voted to do the opposite.

Confusion recently spread among gambling lobbyists over a little-noticed provision attached to a bill that, on its face, makes it easier for officials to crack down on unregulated gambling.

On environmental justice, Democrats split over the best path forward
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong –March 12, 2021 (Medium)

When the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an air permit last year for a compressor station Dominion Energy wanted to site in the majority-Black community of Union Hill as part of the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the judges admonished state officials that “environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked.”

In the wake of the ruling, newly ascendant Democrats in the General Assembly looked to legislation as a fix. Environmental justice — the idea that no group should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences and that communities impacted should have “meaningful involvement” in the decision-making process — was added to state code and its promotion became declared state policy.

But as the 2021 session drew to a close, Democrats split over what to do next.

“I’m sorry to say we are very far apart on environmental justice issues with the other body,” Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, told colleagues in a late-night floor speech in the House of Delegates on the last day of the session. “I think that we are a long way off from where we need to be in having consensus on the need for environmental justice.”

Virginia’s black bears are flourishing. Officials have the bear teeth to prove it.
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong –March 9, 2021 (Short)

From numbers that had dwindled to around 1,000 at midcentury, Virginia’s black bears have been making a comeback.

For the past few decades, thanks to reforestation and state management, the black bear has become more and more common in the commonwealth. And while population estimates aren’t an exact science, relying as they do on factors like hunting data and human-bear interactions, one Virginia wildlife official puts the current count at between 18,000 and 20,000.

“Surveys show bears are very popular. Citizens like bears. They want to have bears,” said Nelson Lafon, the Forest Wildlife Program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

A senior investigator in Virginia’s watchdog agency has filed a lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully suspended from her job last week after giving General Assembly leaders documents dealing with her investigation into wrongdoing by the Virginia Parole Board.

Jennifer Moschetti, an employee of the Office of the State Inspector General, filed the suit Monday in Richmond, claiming she had been subjected to “retaliatory actions” for conduct protected under the state’s whistleblower law.

The lawsuit is the latest explosive development in a controversy over how the Parole Board handled several high-profile cases last year and whether other state officials sought to conceal the extent of OSIG’s findings detailing numerous violations of Parole Board policies and state law.

Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected soon
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 24, 2021 (Short)

 Executives from five COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers told Congress Tuesday that they expect to significantly boost the number of shots delivered to states in the coming weeks.

Pfizer will increase weekly shipments to more than 13 million doses by mid-March, an increase from the 4 to 5 million doses shipped weekly in early February, the company’s chief business officer, John Young, told a U.S. House panel.

Moderna, the other vaccine that has received federal authorization for emergency use, expects to double its monthly vaccine deliveries by April to more than 40 million doses per month.

Fairfax County is ranked as one of the wealthiest communities in Virginia. It’s also one of the healthiest.

As of 2020, Fairfax led the state in measures including length of life, access to exercise opportunities and low rates of poor health indicators such as smoking and adult obesity, according to annual rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. From 2015 to 2019, the county’s median household income was $124,831 (nationally, it’s around $68,703, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Currently, Fairfax County is also leading Virginia in vaccine distribution. In late January, health officials shifted the state’s strategy, routing doses through local health districts based on their percentage of the state’s population. As Virginia’s largest locality with more than 1.1 million residents, that left Fairfax with the largest share.

Even before then, the Fairfax County Health Department had requested — and received — more than eight times as many shots as other local health districts, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 23, Fairfax received a total of 74,625 doses. Over the same time period, the Richmond-Henrico Health District, received a total of 19,550 doses for both localities, which have a combined population of nearly 560,000.

Emily’s Tale: Where government programs fail, humanity must step up
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis, opinionFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Government spending and programs are not the only answer to some of the nation’s most persistent needs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact more federal relief for people who’ve been financially wrecked by no fault of their own during the coronavirus pandemic. We should, and soon! But target the spending to those whose livelihoods and economic security have been crushed, their families left homeless and queued in long lines outside food pantries. Put the cash where it’s needed, not with those who’ve fared well.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend — and mightily — on our crumbling national infrastructure, on America’s vulnerable electrical grid and information technology networks. The past month’s headlines prove the dire urgency of it and there is ready bipartisan concurrence on those needs, yet somehow nothing gets done.

When Virginia senators passed a bill requiring local school divisions to provide in-person instruction by the summer, some anticipated the legislation would face an uphill battle in the House.

Nearly a month later, though, the same legislation is now on the verge of passing both chambers after several rounds of revisions — and mounting pressure to return children to school buildings.

Just a few days after the Senate vote, Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia’s 132 local divisions to begin offering in-person classes by March 15, saying that months of remote learning was “taking a toll on our children and our families.” Northam’s announcement followed a pledge from President Joe Biden to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, and new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening schools and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.

Virginia legislature sends death penalty repeal to Northam
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to legislation abolishing the death penalty Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he’ll sign it.

Northam’s signature would make Virginia the first state in the South and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment.

“This legislation says a lot about who we are as a commonwealth, what kind of values we have as a commonwealth,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “It says a lot about how we value human life. It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to. This vote also says a lot about justice.”

Push to extend minimum wage increase to farmworkers voted down by Virginia Senate
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 23, 2021 (Short)

When the General Assembly voted last year to ramp up Virginia’s minimum wage to $12, agricultural employees were among a handful of groups excluded from the increase — an exemption that traces its roots to Jim Crow-era segregation.

Lawmakers in the Senate said Monday they stand by that decision, voting down legislation passed by the House of Delegates that would have extended the state’s employment laws to farmworkers for the first time.

“I understand the exuberance and I understand the need to move forward, but we just had a robust discussion on this last year,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, one of 10 lawmakers on the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee who opposed the legislation.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongFebruary 15, 2021 (Short)

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday swiftly killed the last of more than half a dozen bills this session that aimed to reform Virginia’s system of electric utility rate review, which is seen by Wall Street investors as favorable to the utilities and by critics as an example of legislative capture by companies with an outsize influence over the General Assembly.

The move angered the growing number of groups and lawmakers of both parties in Virginia that over the past few years have been lobbying to roll back regulations seen as enabling excessive profits for the state’s two largest electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.

“It’s a shame that the committee decided that it should not be the policy of the commonwealth that monopoly utility rates should be just and reasonable,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who frequently argues against the utilities before the State Corporation Commission. “It was clear that the Senate committee had no intention of debating the merits or the policy of the bills today.”

Fifteen years ago, more than 1.3 million Virginians said marriage should only mean a union between a man and a woman and same-sex couples shouldn’t be entitled to similar status that would give them the same rights under the law as straight couples.

That was the view of 57 percent of Virginians who voted in 2006, more than enough to put a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution.

Much has changed since then. And Democratic lawmakers want to give a new generation of Virginians an opportunity to make a different statement in 2022.

A bill that would let millions of electric customers in Virginia again begin purchasing renewable energy from companies other than the utility that controls their territory cleared the House of Delegates last week but now faces a Senate committee that struck the proposal down in 2020.

“The Senate oftentimes is a higher hurdle to get over,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the sponsor of House Bill 2048. “I think we’ve got a puncher’s chance, right? So we’re going to go in and give it all we got.”

Bourne’s bill targets a provision of state code that allows licensed third-party suppliers to sell “100 percent renewable energy” to customers in utility territory as long as the utility isn’t offering the same product. On the books since 2007, the law was rarely used until relatively recently, when renewables prices began to fall and more Americans began to shy away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

At General Assembly’s halftime, consumers hold a narrow lead
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainFebruary 8, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is, famously, a state that prides itself on being business-friendly. That makes it all the more interesting that a number of bills favoring consumers have made it through the House. Democrats have led the charge, but several of the bills earned bipartisan support even in the face of utility opposition.

This doesn’t guarantee their luck will hold. Democrats aren’t just more numerous in the House, they are also younger and more independent-minded than the old guard Democrats in control of the Senate. The second half of the session is going to be a lot more challenging for pro-consumer legislation.

The action will be especially hot in the coming days around five bills dealing with utility reform and a customer’s “right to shop” for renewable energy (HB2048). All these bills passed the House with at least some Republican support. But they are headed to Senate Commerce and Labor, which, though dominated by Democrats, has a long history of protecting utilities.

Democrats pushing to create incentives for drivers to buy electric vehicles as part of a broader goal of weaning Virginia’s transportation sector off fossil fuels are running into a roadblock: too little state money in a budget constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have more priorities now than we do funding,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who this session is carrying a bill to create an electric vehicle rebate program. “This would be a really tough priority to be able to fund right now.”

Slowing climate change through decarbonization has been a major priority of Virginia Democrats since they won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 2019, handing them control of state government. Last year they passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a marquee environmental law that committed the state’s electric grid to being carbon-free by 2050. This year they are focusing on transportation, which according to federal calculations is responsible for nearly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions.

Va. House leaders block delegate’s effort to force vote on right-to-work repeal
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –February 3, 2021 (Short)

The right-to-work law, which dates back to 1947 in Virginia, prevents unions from forcing workers to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, which effectively weakens organized labor.

Carter is running as a staunch progressive in Democratic gubernatorial field that also includes former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Simon, a co-sponsor of the legislation to repeal right-to-work, said that even if Carter got his bill onto the House floor it would not pass. He also called his motion to reject the maneuver a “purely procedural vote.”

Virginia Senate votes to abolish death penalty
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 3, 2021 (Short)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, setting the state on a course to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

“If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. “This thing is going to be a museum piece and people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things.”

The legislation passed on a party-line vote, with all 21 of the Democrats in the chamber supporting it. One Republican, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, abstained. The bill would commute the sentences of the two men currently on Virginia’s death row to life sentences with no possibility of parole.

State lawmakers are angling to pass legislation before the session ends Feb. 11.

 

In the past year, the state has ended criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses and established a medical marijuana program. Now, Virginia lawmakers are scrambling to pass full legalization before their 30-day legislative session wraps up in less than two weeks.

If signed into law, the move would represent weed’s deepest incursion into the southeast, where only a handful of states have even embraced medical marijuana and still have some of the nation’s harshest punishments over the drug.

Legalization still faces pushback from many Republicans, cops and substance abuse treatment professionals, who argue the state is moving way too fast on an issue with huge public health ramifications.

 

The Associated Press on Sunday projected that U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger will be reelected to her seat in Virginia’s 7th District after a dayslong count of votes that was prolonged by mail-in votes in the midst of the pandemic.

Spanberger, a Democrat, is nearly 8,000 votes ahead of Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the strip-shaped district in central Virginia that includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties and skirts to the west of Richmond.

Spanberger’s apparent result means that the only non-incumbent to win a seat in Congress from Virginia was a member of the incumbent’s own party. The partisan breakdown remains seven Democrats to four Republicans.

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