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Republicans, Democrats ready to race to fill open House seat

BY DAMIAN HONDARES
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

When Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, announced on March 18 that he would not run for re-election, local Republicans and Democrats prepared for a fight, ready for the race to fill his seat.

Massie, who said in his announcement on Facebook that his time in the House of Delegates had been “the greatest honor of (his) professional life,” had served the 72nd House district since 2008. He said he prayed before making a difficult decision.

Eddie Whitlock, the chairman of the Henrico County Republican Party, praised Massie’s record in the House. But Whitlock, who announced Saturday that he would seek the GOP nomination for the 72nd District seat, said he would work to carry on Massie’s legacy.

“He was a leader in financial issues and educational choice issues,” Whitlock said. “I will be advocating that same agenda.”

Whitlock is running against Ernesto Sampson, a local financial adviser, in the Republican primary.

On the other side, Schuyler VanValkenburg, a government teacher from Glen Allen High School, is currently running unopposed for the Democratic nomination in the 72nd District race.

VanValkenburg said he hadn’t been focused much on Massie or his decision. But he had a different perspective on the delegate’s legacy.

“It’s really not about him, it’s about the district,” VanValkenburg said. “Republican beliefs aren’t lining up with the district’s values. Families and businesses move here because there’s opportunity for all. People move here because it’s a high quality of life and your kids can go to good schools and get into good universities, and I don’t think Republicans as a whole represent those values, and that includes Jimmie Massie.”

VanValkenburg, who has taught in Henrico for 12 years, said that he brought a unique perspective to the race.

“I am employed in the public school system, which is kind of the jewel of Henrico County,” he said. “As a teacher, you see all types of people and you can’t wish them away. You need to compromise and accept that the world isn’t black and white. When you do that, you can get a lot of things done.”

He said that his work in education had inspired him to take a leap and enter politics.

“I teach the Constitution and I’ve tried to inspire my kids to be idealistic,” VanValkenburg said. “I’ve taught them about the ability to go out there and be someone who can make a change, someone who can matter. And I need to put my money where my mouth is.”

Whitlock also emphasized the importance of his background.

“I’m one of these people who’s lived in the district all my life,” Whitlock said. “I went to the University of Richmond, for undergraduate and law school. I grew up here, I went to school here, and now I’m raising my children here.”

Whitlock said that in his experience working with the local Republican Party, he had been concerned with government spending. He said he would seek to minimize the government’s involvement in citizen’s lives.

“I have something called the Whitlock test, and it has three parts,” he said. “First, spending should only be made on core functions of government. Second, the government must be able to do it better than private industry. And third, that spending should be at the minimum necessary level to accomplish the task.”

Whitlock described himself as a constitutional conservative. He expressed concern about VanValkenburg’s “progressive” agenda.

“He has a totally different vision of what government should be,” Whitlock said. “He has a Bernie Sanders vision of government, and I have a Ronald Reagan vision. I believe in a small government. He believes in a large, expansive government. I don’t believe that the government is the solution to every problem.”

VanValkenburg rejected Whitlock’s comparison.

“It’s easy to make stuff up,” VanValkenburg said. “I have a Tim Kaine style of governance, if we want to put it in terms of people. I am pragmatic. It’s not all about the government, but the government is part of the equation. But ultimately, it’s about making people’s lives easier.”

VanValkenburg said the transition from teaching to politics had not been difficult.

“In a lot of ways, it’s very similar,” he said. “I’m a teacher, so I have to get up in front of people every day who are skeptical, and I have to convince them.”

VanValkenburg said the county was changing, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s success in the 72nd District in the general election. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Clinton won the district with 48.6 percent of the vote in November.

“I think Western Henrico has been a changing community for a while,” VanValkenburg said. “I think that the people of Henrico are starting to realize that their values line up with what the Democrats are talking about.”

Whitlock said he was not concerned. He called Clinton’s victory in the district an anomaly.

“I don’t think that Trump played very well in Virginia,” Whitlock said. “But if you look at the Senate race just two years before, that was won by a Republican handily. If you look at the governor’s race, the district voted Republican. If you look at the 2016 election result, you might think that the Henrico map is turning blue, but I don’t think the district has changed very much in the last five years.”

But VanValkenburg was optimistic. He said he would be out in the county every day until the election.

“I’m going to get out there and have a positive message,” VanValkenburg said. “Nobody’s going to out-hustle me. I’m going to knock on doors and tell people I’m a pragmatic Democrat, and I’m fighting for opportunity not just for our generation but for the next generations. I think that’s what Henrico is about, I think that’s what Virginia is about, and I think that’s what the country is about. And I think we have a great chance to win.”

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‘Progressive’ marijuana legislation makes strides in Assembly

BY CARNEY JUDGE
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Virginia lawmakers made strides in terms of progressive marijuana-related legislation during the 2017 General Assembly session by passing several pro-marijuana bills, such as HB 2051, which alters the driver’s license forfeiture penalty for marijuana possession offenses.

HB2051 was adopted unanimously by the House on Feb. 24 and was designed to revise the existing provision that “a person loses his driver’s license for six months when convicted of or placed on deferred disposition for a drug offense to provide that the provision does not apply to deferred disposition of simple possession of marijuana.”

The bill was introduced by Del. Les Adams (R-Chatham) with support from co-patron Del. Matt Fariss (R-Rustburg) and was identical to Sen. Adam Ebbin’s (D-Alexandria) SB 784, which was stricken in favor of HB2051.

“I think taking away someone’s driver’s license is unrelated to the marijuana possession charge and it is important that people be able to earn a living, go about their daily lives, and even pick up their kids from day-care easily,” Ebbin said. “With this change we are on track for that. It has taken a few years but it is clearly worth it.”

Ebbin said that it was difficult to get HB2051 through because of several substitutions that had to be made to get a majority vote. “The key turning point was having the prosecutors support this bill and the reason they did so was because this year the judges would have discretion to suspend licenses or not.”

Under the new provision of the bill, judges were given discretionary powers over the suspension of licenses and the house decided that people would be required to do more community service in order to keep their licenses.

“My expectation is that the judges will not suspend licenses unless the defendant chose not to do the increased community service,” Ebbin said.

HB2051 will go into effect on July 1 after the governor signs it and is expected to affect people 18-30 the most, Ebbin said.

The General Assembly also passed SB1027, which permits pharmaceutical processors to manufacture and provide cannabidiol oil and THC-A oil for the treatment of intractable epilepsy.

The Virginia Epilepsy Foundation has been in favor of cannabidiol oil treatment for epilepsy patients for months. In their August 2016 newsletter, the foundation stated that they “support safe, legal access to medical cannabis if a patient and their health care team feel that the potential benefits of medical cannabis for uncontrolled epilepsy outweigh the risks.”

The newsletter also said that the Epilepsy Foundation is “committed to supporting physician-directed care and to exploring and advocating for all potential treatment options, including medical cannabis and cannabidiol oil (CBD).”

“Virginia is becoming more progressive in terms of marijuana but these two bills were pretty narrow-tailored,” Ebbin said. “Those are two small steps but we haven’t gotten to the point yet where we are going to decriminalize. The fact that they both passed the House unanimously shows there is an open mindedness in terms of just penalties.”

Ebbin is optimistic for the future of marijuana legislation in Virginia.

“I still remain disappointed that you have a criminal record for any offense of marijuana possession,” he said. “We’ll just have to be persistent and keep at it.”

Henrico sets ‘conversation’ series to discuss race, culture issues in county

 

BY DAMIAN HONDARES
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

The Henrico County Board of Supervisors will hold a meeting on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the county’s efforts to treat citizens fairly, regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background.

Brandon Hinton, the deputy county manager for community services, said that the meeting — which is expected to be the first in the “Henrico Conversations” series — was a recognition that the county is changing.

“We’re changing in every way,” Hinton said. “Our black population has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2000, and our Hispanic and Asian populations have increased about 200 percent. We have refugee families coming from war-torn countries. There are 84 different languages spoken by the students in our school system. So we have to navigate service delivery to a changing population.”

Hinton said that the meeting had been inspired by Zulfi Khan, a self-described “active citizen,” and the work he had done in gathering the community after the election.

In December, Khan held a gathering of the local Muslim community. He invited the members of local governments and police chiefs from Chesterfield, Richmond and Henrico, many of whom attended.

“The purpose of that gathering was to interact with the community and to give the community the confidence that the local government has goodness in its heart,” Khan said.

After the meeting, he was contacted by John Vithoulkas, the county manager, who wanted to hold a similar event for the general public. Khan contacted members of the local Hispanic, Muslim and Jewish communities, among others, inviting them to gather for a county-wide meeting.

Patricia O’Bannon, the chairwoman of the board of supervisors, who represents Tuckahoe District, said that she realized the need for a community-wide meeting after the presidential election.

“After Donald Trump’s election, people who live in Tuckahoe and elsewhere contacted me and asked if they were going to be deported,” O’Bannon said. “I told them that they shouldn’t be upset and that things aren’t going to change if you’re here legally and you’re not breaking the law, but obviously there were concerns about how things were going to be handled differently.”

She said that she wanted an opportunity to meet with the community to clear up concerns and dispel fears that she viewed as rumors.

“This is an outreach to the people in the county who, for whatever reason, feel threatened,” O’Bannon said. “And we are also going to introduce them to the police department and explain what the police department does. A lot of these people are refugees who are not used to thinking of the police department as the good guys.”

Frank Thornton, the vice chairman of the board of supervisors, who represents Fairfield District, said that he hoped the meeting would promote a healthy dialogue about sensitive issues.

“Affluent communities don’t discuss those issues as much,” Thornton said. “Sometimes they don’t think they have as much of a problem in a certain area.”

But Thornton said that issues such as poverty were certainly prevalent in the county. He said that a person could drive several blocks and see dramatic economic differences.

Thornton said the meeting would only begin a larger dialogue about a variety of issues that are on residents’ minds. That dialogue, he said, would be continued throughout the series.

“I hope that as a result of the dialogue, citizens will feel more like the citizens that they want to be, that they’ll be more engaged in their community,” Thornton said. “And we might not feel comfortable getting into those issues like race and class, but eventually we’ll have to get into them. So we’re going to sit down and discuss and identify the problems and then think about solutions.”

Khan said the meeting would serve an important purpose that required something more than legislative work.

“Sometimes in our political process, we feel that we will get people elected and then that will resolve things,” Khan said. “But we never get to the level where we can change hearts and minds.”

Khan, who rejected any claims that he was in charge of the meeting, said that he was just doing his part as an active citizen to bring the community together.

“I have looked at everything going on and I blame myself,” he said. “I’ve been living here for 20 years, and I might have known about certain prejudices. Why didn’t I do something about that? That’s what I am doing now. I need to play my part.”

The meeting will be held on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. in the Administration Building at the Henrico County Government Center on Parham and Hungary Springs roads.

Assembly fails to pass science education bills

BY NIDHI SHARMA
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

The General Assembly failed to pass three bills relating to science education, the only bills of their kind over the past two years.

SB17, proposed by Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Moneta), would have ensured donations made by Science, Technology and Mathematics-based organizations to impoverished public schools were used for STEM purposes. The bill passed Senate but failed to pass a House subcommittee.

Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas) drafted bill HJ615, which would have directed the Joint Commission on Technology and Science to convene an advisory committee to study the opportunities and challenges related to the adoption and use of robots, automation, and artificial intelligence. The bill was tabled in the Committee on Rules.

The third bill, HB2173, written by Del. Kathleen Murphy (D-Mclean) with bipartisan support, would have established a maximum class size of 24 students in science laboratory classes in grades six through 12. The bill was also left behind in Appropriations.

“STEM education is critical to create a skilled work force,” Stanley said. “It is essential that businesses are attracted to the Commonwealth to create jobs for citizens, who pay taxes that better our society.”

Stanley said he was inspired to write the bill through his work with Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Springfield) to advocate for school choice, a cause that would allow low-income students to attend the school of their choice, Stanley said, whether that is public or private.

“As history progresses, there is more of a need for education that focuses on science and technology,” he added. “We must focus on STEM education in every part of Virginia.”

Bill Holt, activities director at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond, also emphasized the value of a STEM education.

“I think it’s extremely important,” he said. “On a scale of one to ten, it’s an 11.”

When asked about bill SB17, Holt stressed that donations made for STEM purposes were effective only if the funds are monitored to ensure they’re not diverted elsewhere.

“This is the 21st century education,” Holt said. “You want skills that will make you marketable in the work force.”

Samy M. El-Shall, chair of the Department of Chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, was passionate in his support for STEM education.

“Our economy is moving in the direction of technology,” he said. “Most jobs these days have to do with newer and newer technologies, so you need a STEM background at least.

“Even if you’re planning on going into finance, or business, science is still important.”

El-Shall, however, was less animated when it came to discussing how obtainable STEM education was to students both wealthy and underprivileged, at every level of education.

“I don’t think STEM education is accessible to the best degree,” he said. “We need to strengthen education at the high school level; we need to focus on math and science.”

Bill streamlining “undergrounding” power lines passes, raises questions about influence of utility companies

BY DAMIAN HONDARES
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A bill that declares utility projects moving certain power lines underground to be “in the public interest” passed the House by 92-4, but the legislation has raised questions about the power of utility companies in the General Assembly.

SB 1473, a bill introduced by Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, regards projects to replace unreliable overhead power lines — specifically, those lines that have had an average of at least nine unplanned outages per mile in the past 10 years. It states that the replacement of such lines is in the public interest, a criteria that a utility project must meet for approval by the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

Ken Schrad, a spokesman for the commission, said that the commission oversaw rates, terms and conditions of service for electric companies like Dominion Virginia Power.

“If they need a rate increase, if they want to build a power plant, if they want to turn above-ground lines into underground lines, they come to the commission,” Schrad said. “Because that has an impact on the cost to ratepayers.”

But under SB 1473, the commission will be directed to consider the costs of “undergrounding” projects to have been “reasonably and prudently incurred,” though the bill makes clear that this is a “rebuttable presumption.”

David Botkins, director of media relations and communications for Dominion, said that the bill would benefit consumers.

“By putting these lines underground, it allows for a much more timely restoration in a large-scale weather event,” Botkins said. “It’s a great preventative measure to save customers money in the long run, because resources won’t be tied up in the individual outage situations.”

The legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 37-3 on Feb. 2 before passing in the House. It now awaits a signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has until midnight on March 27 to make his decision.

Saslaw, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, said on Twitter that the bill would “help keep the power on for thousands of Virginians.”

But Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, expressed concern with the costs of moving the lines underground. He was one of four senators who voted against the bill.

“I read at least one review stating that the under-grounding project would only cost $200 million but approximately $600 million would be charged to ratepayers over several years,” Petersen said in an email. “That’s too much.”

Petersen said he had broader concerns with the influence of utility companies in the General Assembly.

“The public utilities have far too much influence in Richmond,” Petersen said. “Every single piece of significant energy legislation is initiated by Dominion, which is a for-profit company. No other private company has that influence.”

Petersen was particularly concerned with political donations. He said that public service companies like Dominion should be banned from donating to state officials who are supposed to be regulating them.

Saslaw, who patroned SB 1473, received $25,000 from Dominion for his 2016 re-election campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Saslaw for Senate — the senator’s re-election committee — received $12,500 from the company on Jan. 11, 2016, and another $12,500 on June 2, 2016. Saslaw has received $298,008 from the company for his re-election bids over the course of his legislative career.

Botkins denied that there was any correlation between the donations and Saslaw’s decision to patron the legislation.

“The undergrounding legislation passed on a 37-3 vote in the Senate and 92-4 in the House,” Botkins said in an email. “It had near unanimous bi-partisan support. Any legislator could have patroned that bill and been praised for it. It’s great public policy.”

He said that the company had a standard set of protocols for determining political donations.

“We have a political action committee made up of employees just like other companies across the state,” Botkins said. “And employees make the decision if they want to contribute to the fund. There’s a board that allocates campaign contributions and we allocate to both sides of the aisle.”

Petersen said that the donations made by Dominion “speak for themselves.”

Delegates expects most of his proposed bills to be signed into law

BY ANNIE BLANC
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, said expects to have more 80 percent of his sponsored legislation made into law this legislative session, keeping his “batting average” on par with those of the 2015 and 2016 sessions.

Hodges said he was focused on economic development this session, proposing a suite of bills that focuses specifically on the unique needs of the rural areas of coastal Virginia. Hodges’ district is one of the most rural districts in Virginia, containing 1000 miles of shoreline, he said.

Lewis Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, said he believed that Hodges’ suite of proposed bills would create opportunities for development within the Middle Peninsula. A constituent of Hodges’ jurisdiction, Lawrence recognizes that Hodges is working toward becoming a successful spokesperson for rural coastal Virginia, Lawrence said.

One of Hodges’ bills, HB 1686, directly concerns Lawrence and has been passed by the Senate, House and Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. The bill would allow Indian tribes recognized by the federal government to join Planning District Commissions (PDCs) as members and to negotiate the terms of such membership.

According to the Virginia Association of Planning District Commissions’ website, PDCs exist to address various regional problems in order to facilitate local and state government cooperation and implement public policies and services. The potential addition of tribal members to local PDCs would create a unified, more consistent voice for the needs of the district, Lawrence said.

The Pamunkey Tribe, which currently exists inside of the Middle Peninsula, would be most affected by HB 1686, Lawrence said. Tribe officials have not commented on whether they would accept a position within the PDC, he said.

Hodges’ suite of proposed bills also includes HB 1774 and HB 2009, which together address various environmental and economic issues specific to coastal Virginia by identifying 23 different programs to protect the state’s waterways, Hodges said. Hodges’ bills are intended to harness excess stormwater in order to use them for jobs and other forms of economic development, he said.

“I want to look at stormwater in a completely different way,” Hodges said. “These bills are a game changer for economic development as well as water quality.”

The bills, which are an extension of Hodges’ request in the 2016 General Assembly to conduct further research on stormwater legislation, focus on creating opportunities for more innovative and cost-effective approaches to problems with coastal water, said Larry Land, director of policy development at the Virginia Association of Counties.

“HB 1774 opens the door to more approaches to coastal water management that take into account specific characteristics of rural Virginia,” Land said.

Land said that he was optimistic about the outcome of Hodges’ stormwater legislation and how it might help develop rural coastal Virginia both economically and environmentally.

Hodges also has four pieces of legislation concerned with charitable gaming, two of which are awaiting signature or vetoes by the governor – HB 2178 and HB 2177 – and two of which were left in Committee, according to the Virginia Legislature website.

 

 

Bill to arm some school security officers passes, but veto seen as likely

BY ELLIOT DENNIS
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

Supporters and opponents of a bill that would let some school security officers carry weapons on the job expect Gov. Terry McAuliffe to veto the measure after it passed both the House and the Senate.

The bill, HB 1392 introduced by Del. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge, passed the Senate 24-16 after passing the House 75-22. Eleven Democratic delegates and three Democratic senators crossed party lines to vote in favor of the bill.

The bill would authorize a school security officer to carry a firearm while working under certain conditions, including status as a former law enforcement officer and specific training.

“This bill is not new to us,” Lingamfelter said, “We brought this bill to you, that basically permits localities to use, to hire school security officers who are former retired police officers to be armed so they can provide the same basic protection that a school resource officer provides.”

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, voted against the bill and said he is worried that guns will accidentally come into play in daily issues that a school security officer deals with, such as insubordinate students.

“I think in general guns in schools are probably not a smart idea,” Levine said, “I would imagine that far more often guns would accidentally be used and be used to harm kids far more often than they would be used to save lives.”

Levine said that he knows the bill’s policy is based on active shooter situations but an active shooters biggest advantage is surprise and he said this bill will not help to defend against surprise.

“It comes to a philosophical thing, are people safer in general with tons and tons and tons of death killing machines around or are people safer with fewer death killing machines around,” Levine said.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun advocate organization, supports the bill.

“We ultimately need to make it so that if you’ve got a concealed hand gun permit you can carry in the school,” saidPhillip Van Cleave, president of the league.

“Federal law is okay with it, if you’ve got a permit from the state where the school is federal law says it is okay to carry into the school, the only law that gets in the way is Virginia’s.”

Despite the bill passing congress Levine said it will get vetoed by McAuliffe.

“I am quite confident the governor will veto it, we will sustain his veto, this will not become law,” Levine said.