Connect with us
[adrotate banner="51"]

Downtown

State legislature tackles budget amendments amid coronavirus fallout

The General Assembly’s reconvened session Wednesday was abnormal as the House dealt with technical difficulties, disruptive protests and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, collapsing at the podium.

Capital News Service

Published

on

By Emma Gauthier

The General Assembly’s reconvened session Wednesday was abnormal as the House dealt with technical difficulties, disruptive protests and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, collapsing at the podium.

Filler-Corn was standing for over three hours before she fell, just as the House was going into a break. Emergency medical services immediately attended to her and she resumed her post after an hour break.

“She looked like she was ready for a break, and then I looked down and suddenly, I just heard a collapse,” said Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. “By the time I looked up she was down.”

Lawmakers considered holding this session remotely. Levine said Republican delegates were concerned there would be technical difficulties, so legislators opted to meet in person but not in their respective chambers.

“I think it was that they wanted to make it as difficult as possible because the Democrats are in control,” Levine said. “But they’re not going to stop us from going forward, if we have to risk our lives, we will risk our lives, but we shouldn’t have to.”

Delegates congregated under a tent on the lawn of the Virginia State Capitol. The session was punctuated several times by technical difficulties, even delaying the start. The Senate met a few miles away inside the Science Museum of Virginia.

Legislator sat at tables set up roughly 6 feet apart to prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus. Many delegates wore face masks, but often removed them when speaking. Some delegates elected to wear gloves, though that was not the majority. Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, wore a mask and sat inside a plexiglass structure that lawmakers jokingly called “the cage.” Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax kept his face mask on while at the podium, though Filler-Corn opted not to.

Virginians for Constitutional Rights 2020, formerly Reopen Virginia, gathered outside of the Capitol to protest Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order. Northam’s order was recently extended to June 10. Protesters cited the tanking economy as the reason the state should reopen. The protesters, most in vehicles, honked their horns for nearly three hours as they drove a circuitous route around the Capitol. At times legislators strained to be heard amid the cacophony of horns.

The protest and technical difficulties did not impede the session from conducting business. Of the 100 delegates, 95 were in attendance. All 40 senators attended the Senate session. Some delegates elected not to attend due to COVID-19 related concerns, Levine said.

The House, with 97 items on the agenda, started by accepting Northam’s only vetoed bill: HB 119, a measure to define milk. The bill would only allow products that are “lacteal secretions” from a “hooved mammal” to be labeled as milk, excluding products such as almond, oat and soy “milks.”

“Not only are [dairy farmers] not making enough money on their milk, they are now dumping it down the drain,” said Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, the bill’s sponsor. “My bill was to send a signal that we sympathize with you and want to offer our support.”

Lawmakers grappled at length with issues related to the budget, which must be amended in response to the economic blow of COVID-19. Northam suggested 181 total amendments to the budget bills. The governor called for a freeze on many budget items and said that new circumstances required lawmakers to revisit initiatives such as early childhood education, more affordable college tuition, and pay increases for public employees and teachers. Northam said in his amendments that he may ask lawmakers to reconvene at a later point to vote on these items after they have reforecast state revenues.

Northam’s recommendations included $55.5 million for “sufficient disaster declaration authorization” and $2.5 million for “deficit authorization for housing.” The House accepted these amendments.

Lawmakers rejected Northam’s budget amendment to delay existing capital projects “in order to address cash flow and debt capacity concerns resulting from the COVID-19 emergency.”

Northam’s proposal to push the May 5 municipal elections to November was contested. Initially, the House voted along a slim majority not to adopt the amendment. After debate, confusion and technicalities, the amendment passed with two votes. The Senate, which accepted most budget recommendations, did not vote on moving May elections. Levine, who voted to accept the amendment, said this means elections will be held in May, despite public health concerns. He suggested that since the Senate did not vote to move the elections, the senators should man the polls.

Other budget recommendations approved by the House and Senate:

  • Increase nursing facility rates by $20 a day per patient in response to COVID-19.

  • Provide authority for the Director of the Department of Corrections to discharge or reassign certain inmates until July 2021.

  • Expand access to long acting reversible contraceptives.

  • Authorize the governor to appropriate Congressional funding related to COVID-19.

Many of the other legislative amendments were technical and made minor changes to some pivotal legislation passed in the historic session. The session marked the first time since 1994 where Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Two of Northam’s recommendations to the marijuana decriminalization bill, HB 972, were rejected, regarding an extension for the study on the legalization of marijuana and not allowing a trial by jury for the civil penalty of simple possession.

The governor’s recommendation to delay the $9.50 minimum wage increase from January until May 2021 was accepted after several impassioned pleas. Other lawmakers voiced concern that the economy can not handle increasing the minimum wage. In the Senate, Fairfax cast a tie-breaking vote to accept the bill’s delay.

A major concern during the reconvened session was that all in attendance take precautions amidst the pandemic.

“This is definitely unique,” Filler-Corn told the Washington Post. “Health and safety are a top priority.”

Levine wished that the session had been held remotely for safety reasons, but understands that it was necessary to meet, even if in person.

“Any of us could have [the coronavirus] and the longer we all stay in this environment around each other, the more likely it is that it will be transmitted,” Levine said.

Each session began at noon and after over eight hours of discussion, voting and interruptions, the House erupted in applause when they came to end. The Senate adjourned shortly after 10 p.m.

“Am I willing to risk my life to continue to serve this commonwealth?” Levine said. “Yes, I got elected for it, I’m going to take that risk, but we shouldn’t have to.”

Comments

comments

The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Downtown

Senate rejects gun control bill amendments

The Virginia Senate rejected the governor’s amendments to a bill that restricts the gun rights of anyone convicted for assault and battery of a family member.

Capital News Service

Published

on

By Hyung Jun Lee

The Virginia Senate rejected the governor’s amendments to a bill that restricts the gun rights of anyone convicted for assault and battery of a family member.

Under House Bill 1992, introduced by Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, anyone convicted of assault and battery of a family or household member would be prohibited from owning, purchasing or transporting firearms for a period of three years.

Gov. Ralph Northam proposed increasing the probation period from three years to five years. The governor also wanted to expand the bill to include individuals who were living together or who had cohabitated within 12 months.

The individual’s Second Amendment rights automatically will be restored after the probationary period, unless they receive another disqualifying conviction. Anyone who fails to comply with this bill would also be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

This may include jail time for up to 12 months, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

“We know that domestic abusers should not own or purchase guns because when they’ve got one, they use one,” Murphy said when introducing the bill.

Senate Bill 1382, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, established similar parameters but a lesser punishment for failure to comply. The Senate rejected the bill in a 22-16 vote.

The General Assembly met last week to review the governor’s proposed changes.

Lawmakers in the House passed the amendment along party lines, but it failed in the Senate. Democrats joined Republicans to vote against the changes.

Opponents said the measure is too restrictive for a misdemeanor charge.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the VCDL historically would not have supported this legislation in its original form. The VCDL is a group created to protect the Second Amendment rights of Virginians.

The original bill was amended in the Senate to include rights restoration unless there was a disqualifying conviction, a protective order that would restrict the right to carry a firearm, or another legal prohibition. VCDL supported this amendment.

If a Virginia citizen lost their gun rights due to a misdemeanor charge, they would lose it forever under federal law, according to Van Cleave. HB 1992 remedies this situation.

“Right now, if you lose your gun rights due to a misdemeanor domestic violence in Virginia, you lose them forever,” Van Cleave said.

David Adams, legislative director for the Virginia Shooting Sports Association, shared some of the sentiments made by Van Cleave. The VSSA is an association that promotes shooting sports and defends firearm ownership. However, Adams opposed the bill because it would take away someone’s constitutional right due to a misdemeanor charge.

“Everyone will say ‘well, but it’s domestic violence related,’” Adams said. “But we don’t take away basic constitutional rights for misdemeanors for any other type of misdemeanor crime.”

Adams also said that while a gun owner’s rights would be automatically restored after three years at the state level, those rights may not be restored federally.

Legislators in support of Northam’s amendment said last week that there are a number of couples who cohabitate but are not married.

“Domestic violence does take place in those situations,” Favola said. “A third of our homicides are really the result of domestic violence.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax said he did not expect the amendment to come back to lawmakers, or he never would have voted for the original bill.

“This bill expands the definition in a way that we did not intend,” Petersen said.

Petersen explained that by including cohabitants, there are convoluted situations which could unfairly cause someone to lose their gun rights.

“You could have a roommate, you could be living with your sister, you could be living with a couple people in the same house that are unrelated,” Petersen said. “If there is a child there, which is a child of either one of them, and they get into an altercation or shoving match, police are called, now somebody loses their gun rights for three years.”

Lori Haas, senior director of advocacy at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, spoke in support of the bill during its initial committee reading. She said that someone with a past history of violence is likely to be a repeat offender.

“We know that a history of violence is the single biggest predictor of future violence,” Haas said. “Oftentimes, it’s the second or third charge before the conviction sticks.”

Guns are used to intimidate, control and harass victims, Haas said.

“There are a number of situations where victims suffer consequences from an abuser owning and possessing a firearm,” Haas said. “The most serious consequence of which is death.”

Jonathan Yglesias, policy director at Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, also spoke in favor of the bill. He said the bill is a common-sense measure that will protect individuals as well as the community.

“We know that offenders of sexual and domestic violence account for 54% of all mass shooting events in the U.S.,” Yglesias said. “These policies aren’t just an issue of individual and family safety, but they’re issues of community and public safety as well.”

The governor has 30 days to act on the bill, or it will become law without his signature.

Comments

comments

Continue Reading

Community

Five Acres of Prime Riverfront to be Put Aside for the Public

Capital Region Land Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, James River Association and City of Richmond, teamed up to purchase the properties located at 3011 and 3021 Dock Street in the City of Richmond.

Avatar

Published

on

From yesterday’s press release:

Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC), in partnership with The Conservation Fund, James River Association and City of Richmond, is honored to announce that it has entered a contract to purchase the properties located at 3011 and 3021 Dock Street in the City of Richmond. CRLC is working with its partners to acquire the 5.207 acres to serve the community in multiple ways. This exciting land acquisition will create one contiguous publicly accessible riverfront space and allow for the completion of the Virginia Capital Trail. It will also expand city-owned parkland in Richmond’s East End and enable the establishment of new river access and environmental education programs.

Located between Great Shiplock Park and the former Lehigh Cement Co. site, the parcel that CRLC has under contract is the only remaining privately owned parcel along the north bank of the tidal James River in Richmond. Once funding is secured to permanently protect the property from development most of it will be transferred to the City of Richmond. This transfer will help create a riverfront park featuring access to the James River envisioned by the Richmond Riverfront Plan.

“The life of our great city, and the health and welfare of our residents, has always been tied to access to our river and riverfront, and after the year we’ve been through, that is as important today as it’s ever been,” said Mayor Levar Stoney, speaking today at Great Shiplock Park. “I’d like to thank our partners at the Capital Region Land Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, the James River Association, and all the organizations and individuals who worked so hard to preserve our city’s iconic views and natural beauty to create additional parkland for refuge and recreation that can be enjoyed by all residents for generations to come.”

By acquiring and protecting the properties at 3011 and 3021 Dock Street, CRLC, The Conservation Fund and the City of Richmond will fulfill one of the most referenced components of the local comprehensive plan over the past 50 years. Specifically, the 2009 Richmond Downtown Plan highlights “preserving existing and historic viewsheds towards the river is essential to connecting the city to the river. Future development along the riverfront needs to be carefully considered so that it will not impact significant historic views such as “the view that named Richmond” from the top of Libby Hill Park.” It is noteworthy that this acquisition comes on the 170th anniversary of the City of Richmond acquiring 7 acres to become Libby Hill Park. It was one of the first five parks in the city and designated by city engineer Wilfred Cutshaw to offer “breathing places” for citizens to take in healthier air.

“For nearly twenty years, Scenic Virginia has advocated for the preservation of The View That Named Richmond through the acquisition of this parcel for parkland,” said Scenic Virginia Executive Director Leighton Powell. “Today is the realization of a dream come true, and we and our supporters could not be more thrilled or grateful that the historic view that connects Richmond to its sister city Richmond-Upon-Thames will be protected much in the same way that it has been in England for more than a century.”

CRLC has received support for the purchase of the riverfront parcel from The Conservation Fund and James River Association. CRLC is receiving financial and logistics support from The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit organization that specializes in working with local partners to protect land and water resources. The James River Association, a local member-supported nonprofit organization, has also pledged its support for CRLC’s acquisition of the parcel as a financial partner.

“The Conservation Fund is pleased to be partnering with CRLC to protect this critical piece of riverfront in downtown Richmond,” said Heather Richards, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for The Conservation Fund.  “Increasing access to the James River and making trail connections for urban centers has never been more important, as we’ve seen over the past year.  This new parkland will serve the needs of so many Virginians and expand the vital connection between Richmond’s residents and the River.”

“The James River Association is a proud financial partner in the purchase of these five acres along the James River in the City of Richmond,” said Bill Street, Chief Executive Officer of the James River Association. “The riverfront parcel has great potential to provide needed access to the James River for outdoor recreation and environmental education experiences in Richmond’s East End.”

The closing date is scheduled for late Summer 2021. While some funding has been committed and grant writing and fundraising continues, CRLC and The Conservation Fund are seeking the public’s support to raise the capital needed to complete the acquisition in August and transfer the property to the City as soon as possible. Per the terms of the purchase and sales agreement with the seller USP Echo Harbor LLC, the purchase price cannot be made public at this time. It is however based on a fair-market appraisal of the property for its highest and best use.

CRLC intends to coordinate with the City of Richmond to conduct community engagement opportunities to envision uses of the future public open space and park. Community engagement will be conducted in close coordination with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and will include local stakeholders, community organizations, and the general public.

“Not only are we proud to be adding additional park and open space lands to the serve the many residents and visitors of the Richmond region,” said CRLC’s Executive Director Parker C. Agelasto, “we are honored that this project is filling a critical need within the Riverfront Plan as well as protecting the incredible views from Libby Hill that have been part of a defining landscape for the region over many centuries.”

Background:

The USP Echo Harbor property had historically been Richmond’s busiest port prior to the expansion to Intermediate Terminal and relocation in 1940 to the Port of Richmond off Deepwater Terminal Road. In 2013, the City approved a plan of development containing more than 1,000,000 square feet in a nine (9) story building. Advocates for the Libby Hill Viewshed had expressed great concern that such intense development would irrevocably harm the “View that Named Richmond.”

In 2012, the City purchased the 1.5-acre Lehigh Cement Co. property for $2 million in order to expand public access to the James River and complete the Virginia Capital Trail prior to the 2015 UCI Road World Championships. The 2001 Richmond Master Plan stipulated that the City should endeavor to “acquire underutilized industrial, institutional or commercial property to provide additional public access to the James River. Any lands acquired should be carefully selected to minimize conflicts between adjacent land uses and new public usage. Do not promote the taking of private property to achieve greater public river access.”

The 2012 Richmond Riverfront Plan seeks to “improve visual and physical access to the river. In addition to creating new view corridors to the James River, preserving existing and historic viewsheds towards the river is essential to connecting the city to the river. Future development along the riverfront needs to be carefully considered so that it will not impact significant historic views such as ‘the view that named Richmond’ from the top of Libby Hill Park.”

Most recently, the newest citywide master plan Richmond 300 looks to “reserve appropriate riverfront and canal-facing sites for public amenities and river-related development such as boating services, picnics, etc.” Such will be the case of the 5.2 acres being acquired by Capital Region Land Conservancy.

Comments

comments

Continue Reading

Downtown

Virginia public transit grapples with reduced ridership, zero fare

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

Capital News Service

Published

on

By Katharine DeRosa

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

“We are serving a market of essential workers that can’t stay home; they have to use our service,” said Greater Richmond Transit Co. CEO Julie Timm during a recent presentation.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency in March of last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move prompted limits on public and private gatherings, telework policies and mandates to wear masks in public, although some restrictions have eased.

GRTC faced a “potentially catastrophic budget deficit” since eliminating fares last March in response to the pandemic and reductions in public funding starting in July of this year, according to the organization’s annual report. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation emergency funding covered the deficit, according to the report.

The transit system lost about 20% of riders when comparing March to November 2019 with the same 9-month period in 2020. Overall, fiscal year-to-date ridership on local-fixed routes decreased the least (-16%), compared to the bus-rapid transit line (-49%) and express routes (-84%), according to GRTC data. Local-fixed routes had a 7% increase from March 2020 to March 2021.

GRTC eliminated fares in March 2020 to avoid “close interactions at bus fareboxes,” Timm said in a statement at the time. CARES Act funding made the move possible. GRTC will offer free rides until the end of June.

GRTC will need an additional $5.3 million when federal funding ceases to continue operating with zero fare, Timm said. Zero fare can be supported through the third round of federal stimulus money and Department of Rail and Public Transportation funding, advertising revenue and other funding sources, Timm said.

“This is the conversation and it’s a hard conversation,” Timm said. “To fare or not to fare?”

GRTC serves a majority Black and majority female riders, according to the 2020 annual report. Commuters account for over half the trips taken on GRTC buses and almost three-quarters of commuter trips are five or more days per week. Nearly 80% of riders have a household income of less than $50,000 per year.

GRTC spends about $1.7 million to collect fares annually, according to Timm. Eliminating fares is more optimal than collecting fares, Timm said in March. She believes in zero fare operation because the bus rates act as a regressive tax, which takes a large percentage of income from low-income earners.

Free fares could lead to overcrowding on buses, opponents argue. However, Timm said that’s not a good reason to abolish the initiative.

“If we have a demand for more transit, I don’t think the answer is to put fares out to reduce the ridership,” Timm said. “I think the answer is to find additional funding sources and commitment to increase service to meet that demand.”

GRTC will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the zero fare model, according to Timm.

“We’ll have a lot of conversations post-COVID about how we consider transit, how we invest in transit and how that investment in transit lifts up our entire region, not just our riders but all of our economy for a stronger marketplace,” Timm said.

GRTC added another bus route as the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Route 111 runs in Chesterfield from John Tyler Community College to the Food Lion off Chippenham Parkway. The route surpassed ridership expectations despite being launched during the pandemic, according to the annual report.

GRTC also will receive additional funding from the newly established Central Virginia Transit Authority. The entity will provide dedicated transportation funding for Richmond and eight other localities. The authority will draw money from a regional sales and use tax, as well as a gasoline and diesel fuel tax. GRTC is projected to receive $20 million in funds from the authority in fiscal year 2021. The next fiscal year it receives $28 million and funding will reach $30 million by fiscal year 2026.

These funds cannot be used to assist in zero fare operation, Timm said.

Almost 350,000 riders boarded the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses per day on average in 2019, which includes passengers in Northern Virginia. That number dipped to 91,000 average daily boardings in 2020, according to Metro statistics.

Metro’s $4.7 billion budget will maintain service at 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Metro press release. Federal relief funds totaling almost $723 million filled Metro’s funding gap due to low ridership.

“The impact of the pandemic on ridership and revenue forced us to consider drastic cuts that would have been necessary absent federal relief funding,” stated Metro Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg. “Thankfully, the American Rescue Plan Act has provided a lifeline for Metro to serve customers and support the region’s economic recovery.”

Hampton Roads Transit buses served 10.7 million people in 2019 and 6.2 million people in 2020. The decline has carried into 2021. Almost 1.6 million passengers took HRT transit buses in January and February 2020 and just over 815,000 have in 2021, resulting in a nearly 50% decrease. HRT spokesperson Tom Holden said he can’t explain why HRT bus services saw a higher drop off than GRTC buses.

“We had a substantial decline in boardings in all our modes of transportation just as every transit agency in the U.S. did,” Holden said.

HRT operated with a zero fare system from April 10 to July 1, 2020. Ridership had a slight uptick from April to October, aside from an August dip. Fares for all HRT transit services were budgeted for 14.2% of HRT’s revenue for Fiscal Year 2020.

“We are hopeful that with vaccinations becoming more widespread, the overall economy will begin to recover, and we’ll see rates increase,” Holden said.

Comments

comments

Continue Reading

Richmond Weather