Author Archives: urspidermedia

Henrico delegate seeks to increase access to opioid antidote



A bill that aims to combat Virginia’s opioid crisis by training prison officers to use the  antidote naxolone appears to be gaining support despite concerns over its cost.

The bill, HB322 proposed by Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne, D-Henrico, states that naxolone and other anti-opiate medications will be provided to parole and correctional officers after they receive training.

“As of now, parole and correctional officers are not on the list of approved officials who may possess and administer anti-opiate medications,” Bourne said.

After House Bill 1458 passed in 2015, first responders joined the group of officials who may possess and handle naxolone in Virginia. This year’s bill aims to expand the previous legislation by approving access to naxolone for additional people.

“Anyone who is in a line of work that intersects with individuals who use drugs should have these life-saving medications on hand,” saidGinny Atwood Lovitt, the executive director of the Chris Atwood Foundation, which supports and provides resources to families and people suffering from addiction. “To forbid that during a state of emergency is negligent.”

In 2016 State Health Commissioner Marissa J. Levine declared Virginia’s opioid crisis a public health emergency. Soon after, a series of bills were enacted, focusing on preventing prescription fraud and limiting doctors from giving more than a seven-day dosage of opioids.

Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Henrico, said, “These bills increased the number of survivors, and we’re hoping House Bill 322 will do the same.”

McClellan is one of 14 co-patrons of HB 322, which has been assigned to the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee. McClellan said she believes that this bill will pass through quickly since it will expand anti-opiate access.

“A similar bill in the past was more focused on giving emergency responders naxolone,” she said. “But we also want correctional officers to have access since overdoses have been happening in prisons too.”




Delegate seeks to add more mental health counselors to public high schools


A Prince William County legislator is promoting a bill to add more mental health counselors in public high schools.

The bill, HB 252, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, would require that each local school board employ one mental health counselor for every 250 high school students in the school division.

In her district of Prince William County, Guzman said the average case load for a school counselor is between 450 and 500 students, but the counseling process involves more than just those students.

“When counselors help children, it’s not like they are serving one person,” Guzman said. “Many times we need to involve family members and friends as part of helping a person to become successful in life.”

Guzman said that if counselors have a smaller caseload, “they could help the parents to become a support system for the children.”

Guzman said being a mother of four children in the public school system gives her an inside perspective to the challenges public schools have faced throughout the years.

“Any time there was a school budget cut, the fields that were affected in the public education system were special education, school counselors, psychologists, [and] social workers,” Guzman said.

Guzman hopes to pass this bill with the help of her professional knowledge as a social worker. According to her campaign website, Guzman worked in the public sector for 10 years, most recently as the division chief for administrative services for the Center for Adult Services for the City of Alexandria. She also holds master’s in both public administration and social work.

On Jan. 10 Guzman’s bill was endorsed by both the Virginia Education Association and the Virginia Counselor Association. She said she also met with teachers and counselors before her campaign.

Becky Bowers-Lanier is the advocacy consultant for the VCA, and said, “our counselors are most supportive of her bill, [and] we will actively support it.”

Guzman’s bill requires high schools to meet the ratio of one counselor to every 250 students, but Bowers-Lanier said the VCA, “would love to have the ratio of one to 250 throughout K-12.”

“When these children are in high school they have to be ready to face real life,” Guzman said, “and if they don’t get the right support while they’re in school, there’s not a hopeful future for them.”

Bowers-Lanier said in 2016 the Virginia Board of Education proposed a revision of the standards of equality, “to tighten the ratio of counselors in K-12 to one to 250.” However, adding more counselors to high schools, “has a pretty high fiscal impact, and so it was not taken forward to the General Assembly last year.”

The VCA hopes to draw funds, “from the at-risk grant program to support the payment of the counselors,” Bowers-Lanier said.

Bowers-Lanier said at-risk funding is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), so additional counselors would be paid for with federal funds. Bowers-Lanier said that ESSA applies to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, meaning they are considered high-risk and therefore in need of counselors.





Proposed bill would decriminalize fornication in Virginia



Virginia is for lovers, according to a popular state slogan, but apparently only married ones.

Under state law, any unmarried person who voluntarily has sexual intercourse with another person is guilty of fornication, a Class 4 misdemeanor, and can be charged with a fine of up to $250.

This law is rarely ever enforced, and efforts are being made during this session of the Virginia General Assembly to decriminalize fornication with through a bill introduced to the House of Delegates.

The chief patron of the bill, HB 138, is Del. Mark H. Levine, D-45.  Co-patrons are Del. Joseph C. Lindsey, D-90, Del. Kenneth R. Plum, D-36, and Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-53.

The bill is also supported by Progress Virginia,  an organization which dubs itself as “the voice of Virginia’s progressive majority.”

“In general, we support removing penalties for consensual sex,” said Anna Scholl, Progress Virginia’s executive director.

The fornication law has been on the books since the early 1800s, and Plum said that the bill was a reflection of those times.

“What we are much more realistic about is that while we may try to legislate morals, it’s not really very successful,” Plum said. “Today we recognize that people are responsible for morals, not the government.”

Plum said the bill was an important update to Virginia’s criminal code.

“The code ought to reflect what our practices are,” Plum said. “It’s one of those laws where I don’t think we enforce anymore, and, periodically, what we do is to try to take off the bills that are not enforced.”

Scholl reiterated Plum’s sentiment that the bill was a good revision to the archaic law and added that there are other things on which the state should focus.

Scholl said that investigations and prosecutions dealing with sexual misconduct and sexual assault cases were among the things that should have been more important to the state than fornication laws.

In 2014, a bill similar to HB 138 failed because of concerns that it would allow loopholes regarding incest and other sex crimes.

When asked about whether he thought the bill would be successful during this session, Plum was unsure but remained hopeful.

“I will say that I believe that its chances are much more enhanced over what it may have been in the past,” Plum said.


Tampon bills in Virginia Assembly could increase accessibility for women



Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, pre-filed two bills for the 2018 General Assembly to make feminine hygiene products more accessible to Virginia women.

The first bill would remove sales and use taxes from tampons, pads, menstrual cups and more. Kory said she believed that having a tax on menstrual products was discriminatory toward women, who are the only people who need to purchase these products.

Feminine hygiene products are healthcare essentials, said Virginia League of Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Alexsis Rodgers, and these so-called “tampon taxes” are an unfair additional burden on women.

“These menstrual products are not luxury items,” she said. “We need tampons and sanitary napkins to function.”

Other gender-specific products and medications, such as the prescription drug Viagra and over-the-counter product Rogaine, earn tax-exempt status in Virginia as necessity items.

Opponents of Kory’s bill do not dispute the necessity of the products, but take issue with its economic implications.

“The exemption of feminine hygiene products is part of a broader trend to continue to shrink the state’s sales tax base,” economist Nicole Kaeding wrote in a study by the Tax Foundation. “Over time, these small changes lead to large losses of revenue.”

Kory said her team had not found evidence of financial distress in states that already implemented such policies. She awaits a fiscal impact statement from the Virginia Department of Taxation.

Yet a tax exemption is just the beginning, Rodgers said.

“It’s not going to save anyone millions of dollars,” she said. “It’s a small step toward removing reproductive barriers. Quite frankly, these items should be available at no cost.”

The bill is one of several tampon-related proposals for the General Assembly session. Another, also from Kory, requires Virginia jails and prisons to provide free feminine hygiene products to incarcerated women.

Often times, the women must pay for them at two or more times the price in a store, inmates have told Kory. It is common practice to rip up pads to use as tampons to extend usage.

Prison reform advocate Chandra Bozelko confirmed to the Guardian that products were in short supply, and reported from her own years in prison that the system was detrimental to inmates’ health and self-esteem.

Kory said she aimed to help women get what they need without embarrassment or hassle.

“I see these bills as fitting into a national discussion about menstrual equity,” she said. “It’s not about the money; its about removing some shame about the needs of their menstrual cycles.”

Virginia would join a growing national movement if Kory’s bills become law. Eight states – Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – and Washington, D.C., have passed tax exemptions, according to the Tax Foundation.

Millennial advocates, legislators advancing agendas for change


With the start of the new year and the new session of the in the Virginia General Assembly, there also comes a new energy in state politics, fueled by the rising millennial generation in Virginia.

The 19 newly-elected delegates in the Virginia House of Delegates – 14 of whom are under age 45 –  arrive on the swell of support that came out of a large voter turnout in 2017, of which activism by millennial voters played a larger role than in any election before.

Close to 366,000 voters in the millennial age group voted in the November election, making up the 34 percent youth voter turnout reported by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. These figures point toward a sea change in voter activity in Virginia, as participation from this demographic has doubled from where it was eight years ago and was up 8 percent from 2013.

“From our experience in this election season, millennials are realizing that if we want to have a bright future, we need to be more involved and stop letting others speak for us,” said spokesman Tim Cywinski of Virginia 21, a youth-focused policy organization based in Richmond.

The group’s main effort is to nudge legislation and policy in the general assembly that will aid the state’s growing millennial population. As a result of the larger youth turnout, these goals have begun to take shape through the new, younger legislators.

“The number one issue we’ve found for millennials in Virginia is college affordability,” Cywinski said. “College debt has increased over 250 percent in the last 10 years, and these are things that aren’t particularly felt by previous generations and some current elected officials. It’s more about trying to translate our experiences into the larger political dialogue.”

Not even a week into the start of the 2018 session, newly-elected Del. Chris Hurst (D-District 12) used this momentum toward fighting for the millennials who aided in putting him in office. His joint resolution to the house, submitted officially only two days ago, pushes the Virginia State Board of Education to study the ways payment and collection of student tuition debt is handled at state public colleges.

“After talking to many advocates for college students and with students on campuses in Virginia, we know students are more likely than ever to accumulate debt from tuition payments, and we hope to introduce this study to collect data on how we can best combat this, rather than filing legislation without this data,” Hurst said.

As youth issues rise in prominence, groups like Virginia 21 will continue to push policy to the new generation of lawmakers in effort to aid the largest voting age demographic in Virginia today

Proposed bill grants tax credits for hiring former offenders



Chesterfield County Del. Delores McQuinn says people who have been released from prison deserve a second chance and one of her proposed bills offers tax credits for anyone who hires people who have served felony sentences.

The bill, HB 65, pre-filed for the 2018 General Assembly, grants individual and corporate income tax credits amounting to $500 per employee until 2022.

The new employees must have been released from incarceration for felony convictions within five years of their hiring. The qualifying jobs must also pay an annual salary of $50,000 or greater.

“The ability to be gainfully employed is the base foundation for being a productive, law-abiding, tax-paying citizen,” McQuinn said. “This legislation provides an incentive to employers to provide that second chance that people deserve.”

The federal government currently grants tax incentives to employers who hire formerly incarcerated people within one year of their release date, but McQuinn hopes to sweeten the deal for Virginia companies.

McQuinn, a Democrat, represents the 70th district, comprising parts of Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond. But she said the bill will financially benefit the entire state.
“It makes good business sense to employ rather than to incarcerate,” she said. “When individuals are kept out of prison or jail there are actual monetary savings.”

A Virginia Department of Corrections report estimated that the state spends more than $27,000 per inmate annually. Multiple studies show that employment after release reduces the risk of repeat offenses.

After researching recidivism, McQuinn studied tax credit programs in other states to write comparable legislation for Virginia.

Del. Lamont Bagby D-Henrico, a co-patron of the bill, expects it will pass with minimal challenges.

“There is a savings to the Commonwealth.” Bagby said. Like McQuinn, he sees the bill as a chance to relieve the heavy burden on judicial and correctional facilities.

Virginians will benefit from “having the assurance that the individual is going to be employed as opposed to doing something to send him or her back in the judicial system or in custody,” Bagby said.

This is one of 14 bills McQuinn has proposed this session, which began Jan. 10. Her other bills address issues ranging from food deserts to workplace discrimination based on pregnancy.



Agencies work to feed the hungry as Richmond is named top spot for food travel




Richmond was named the 2016 top destination for food travel by National Geographic, but just a few streets down from some of the finest restaurants in the city, there are thousands of people struggling to put food on the table.

Richmond has the 28th highest per capita income of all cities nationwide, but has an 11.8 percent food insecurity rate. This means that 912,790 people do not know where their next meal is coming from. Richmond’s poverty rate is the second highest in Virginia, with 1 in 4 residents living in poverty.

Thirty-nine percent of children in Richmond live below the poverty line, which is over twice the child poverty rate for the state. According to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, the city would need at additional $406,935,780 to adequately feed the population.

While hunger is a pressing issue in the Capital City, there are organizations trying to solve the problem.

One of these organizations is the food bank FeedMore, a leader in central Virginia hunger relief. The organization’s community kitchen relies on daily volunteers to provide 3,000 meals per day to children, families and seniors through a several comprehensive programs.

In school zones where free and reduced meal eligibility is greater than 50 percent, FeedMore’s Kids Cafe Program works through a network of after school programs and community centers to provide a snack or hot evening meal to children. The program also offers mentoring, tutoring, cultural enrichment, and social opportunities. For weekends and school vacations, FeedMore has the Backpack Program. Backpacks with healthy, easy to prepare meals are distributed every Friday and the day before school vacations to ensure children are fed over breaks when families are struggling. The Summer Food Service Program extends FeedMore’s help further and provides thousands of meals to Richmond children during the summer.

Individuals and families can rely on FeedMore’s Distribution Center and Mobile Pantry throughout the year. Jessica Howe, the marketing and communications manager at FeedMore, explained many neighborhoods in Richmond are considered “food deserts,” meaning they have no access to a grocery store for healthy food. The mobile pantry combats this problem by going to these food deserts and providing each household 35 pounds of food.

FeedMore helps senior citizens and homebound individuals maintain independence through their Meals on Wheels program. The community kitchen prepares fresh meals from scratch and delivers them throughout Richmond and the surrounding counties.

Overall, the organization distributes 19 million meals each year. In all of their programs, FeedMore works to maintain the dignity of the people they serve. Citizens struggling with hunger are referred to as neighbors, and the organization aims to provide a home cooked meal experience. The Mobile Pantry program is meant to emulate a grocery shopping experience and allows people to choose their food.

FeedMore operates solely on donations from partners and individuals, and the Richmond community is ready and willing to help.

“Pretty much every grocery store you see around town makes a donation or contributes to our hunger fighting efforts,” said Howe, “and then we have a great community of supporters so your individuals donors so just like you or I, the people who come out and donate five bucks ten bucks or even more to help support our mission.”

Howe is grateful for the support from the Richmond community in recognizing FeedMore’s goals as an organization and helping to combat the hunger issue in Richmond. One of the FeedMore’s greatest supporters is Aline Reitzer, creator of Richmond Restaurant Week.

Sixteen years ago, Reitzer gathered nine restaurants including her own, Acacia Mid-Town, to participate in the first Richmond Restaurant Week.

Restaurant Week has evolved into a biannual weeklong event in which 40 to 50 restaurants prepare a three course meal that costs $29.17 and donates $4.17 of every purchase to FeedMore. In their first year, Reitzer’s program raised $5000. This past year, the event raised $130,000.

Reitzer says that as a restaurant owner she is able to provide people with a dining experience every day but, “knowing that our neighbors in the close vicinity don’t have that opportunity much less the opportunity to have food in their homes” is what motivated her to work with FeedMore. 

FeedMore greatly appreciates all the donations from Richmond Restaurant Week. Although food donations are appreciated, Howe explained that, “We can stretch your dollar pretty far here.” What an individual can buy at a grocery store to donate is very little compared to the amount FeedMore can obtain through their community partnerships. One dollar buys four meals, and Howe says that Reitzer’s events have allowed FeedMore to “provide millions of meals through the donations we’ve received.”

Not only does Restaurant Week boost FeedMore’s distribution capacity, it helps bridge the gap between those who are able to dine at upscale restaurants and those who struggle to keep their pantries stocked.  The event raises awareness amongst the wealthier population for the issue of hunger in Richmond.

Reitzer says that the event causes customers to have the, “understanding that there are a fair amount of people in our community that are less fortunate than us.” These Richmonders can then donate or volunteer throughout the year, a vital part of FeedMore’s operation.

Tess Perry, a resident of Richmond, said, “Restaurant Week made me more aware of what was going on in Richmond. It opened my eyes about the hungry in the city, and it made me feel good about going out to eat because I knew I was helping the community at the same time.”

Howe wants to “keep [hunger] top of mind for people so people aren’t just thinking about it during the holidays.”