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Spanberger declares victory in close Congressional race; Freitas waits

Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger declared victory Wednesday over Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the tight 7th District U.S. House of Representatives race, though some absentee ballots remain uncounted.

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By Anya Sczerzenie 

Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger declared victory Wednesday over Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the tight 7th District U.S. House of Representatives race, though some absentee ballots remain uncounted.

The reporting of absentee ballots from Henrico and Spotsylvania counties late afternoon Wednesday pushed Spanberger into a slim lead. Spanberger had won 50.5% of votes, while Freitas secured 49.4% of votes, according to The Virginia Public Access Project. Spanberger was leading Freitas Wednesday evening by 5,134 votes and as many as 5,269 additional absentee ballots still could factor into the race.

Spanberger, who just hours earlier has released a video on social media calling for patience through the process, declared victory after the boost in votes. She said she looked forward to continuing her work in Congress.

“Tonight, the Seventh District affirmed its commitment to leadership in Congress that puts Central Virginia first, works for everyone, and focuses on expanding opportunity for the next generation of Virginians,” Spanberger said in the press release.

Freitas said his campaign will make an official statement Friday when all votes are tallied, out of respect for the race.

Spanberger addressed her district in a Facebook Live speech shortly after declaring victory, in which she underlined her commitment to several issues. She promised to work on lowering the cost of prescription drugs, extending broadband internet coverage to rural areas, and protecting Americans from foreign hacking.

“I said I would find common ground, and I said I would hold my ground if necessary,” Spanberger said, “and I believe I have done just that.”

This victory would clinch a second term in a district that only recently turned blue in 2018 when Spanberger, a former CIA agent, beat David Brat.

Freitas is an Army veteran and member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing Orange, Culpeper and Madison counties. He is seeking his first term in Congress. Freitas first won a House seat in 2015. He kept his seat in a write-in campaign in 2019 and then weeks later he announced his bid for the 7th District. Freitas’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 “The first issue Abigail Spanberger will work on is COVID-19,” said Connor Joseph, a spokesperson for Spanberger’s campaign. “Every issue is through the lens of COVID-19.”

Joseph said Spanberger plans to increase broadband internet access to rural communities, and emphasized the need for it during a pandemic where school and work often take place online.

The race was closely watched and predicted. Politico rated the race a “toss up” just before the election. The University of Virginia Center for Politics thought Spanberger might perform better than Biden in her district and said her two-years of experience might help.

Spanberger, who grew up in the same district she currently represents, is rated a moderate Democrat. She often touts a focus on bipartisanship. In October, Spanberger voted against the second HEROES Act—a coronavirus relief package endorsed by Democrats—and wrote in a press release that she found the bill too partisan. She is a member of the “March to Common Ground” caucus, which is working to draft a bipartisan COVID-19 relief plan.

Freitas is a conservative Republican who supports gun rights. He has been described as having a “conservative voting record and a libertarian streak” by the Associated Press. Freitas sponsored a resolution during the pandemic that would have allowed the legislature to vote on any state of emergency declarations made by the governor that last longer than seven days, but the measure didn’t advance. Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in March, and it remains in place.

The 7th District now leans more Democrat with the 2016 removal of Hanover County, home to primarily Republican voters. It encompasses both suburban and more rural precincts, including Henrico and Chesterfield counties and also Spotsylvania and Louisa counties. The voter profile is 72% white and 19% Black, according to VPAP.

The race injected more cash into broadcast and cable TV advertising than the presidential race, a significant amount of money for a two-year seat. Around $15 million was spent on TV attack ads, according to VPAP. Spanberger spent more than the Freitas campaign. Spanberger ads mostly focused on Freitas voting records, while Freitas ads delved into Spanberger’s CIA past and attempted to make a negative association with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The final count of remaining absentee ballots will be announced Friday at the earliest. Pundits often note that absentee ballots are often cast by Democrats, while Election Day returns lean more Republican.

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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.

Downtown

House panel kills watered-down GOP bill on retail marijuana sales

In a nod to the political reality that the Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to legalize retail sales of marijuana this session, a Republican lawmaker encouraged his colleagues to just ask the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to start drawing up rules for a retail marketplace that legislators could look at next year.

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By Graham Moomaw

In a nod to the political reality that the Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to legalize retail sales of marijuana this session, a Republican lawmaker encouraged his colleagues to just ask the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to start drawing up rules for a retail marketplace that legislators could look at next year.

Speaking before a GOP-led House of Delegates subcommittee Tuesday night, Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex, said he’s never been a big fan of sanctioning recreational marijuana use. But, he added, Virginia’s refusal to allow retail marijuana sales — while making marijuana legal to grow at home and possess in small amounts — has created public safety risks from unregulated products that are more widely available than ever.

“If we do nothing, we have a problem on our hands,” Hodges said. “And we need to protect the citizens of Virginia from the illicit market.”

Greg Habeeb, a former Republican delegate turned lobbyist who represents the Virginia Cannabis Association, said the watered-down bill should be entirely uncontroversial and something even Gov. Glenn Youngkin could support, despite the administration’s reluctance to get behind legal weed sales.

“All this bill does is says the [Cannabis Control Authority], that you all have propped up and funded, should do its job of advising you guys of what a market could look like next year,” Habeeb said.

The vote on the bill was far from unanimous. It failed 5-2, with Republicans opposing it and Democrats supporting it. The same subcommittee also rejected a different Republican-sponsored bill that would have actually established a retail marijuana market rather than planning how it could be done in the future.

The Democratic-led state Senate is still working on its own marijuana sales bill, but the action in the House Tuesday evening is a strong sign the 2023 session will be another year of deadlock on the issue.

As he made a motion to block the legislation that simply asked the cannabis board to begin drafting rules for how a retail marketplace would function, Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, said the bill didn’t do anything to address illegal or dangerous products currently being sold in Virginia.

“We do have several bills moving forward that address that,” Runion said. “So I think that needs to be our focus.”

Runion did not lay out a case for why the General Assembly can’t pass both bills, moving toward a retail marketplace while also cracking down on largely unregulated products like hemp-derived delta-8, which can still get users high even though it’s technically not marijuana.

The Youngkin administration is backing legislation to impose stricter regulations on businesses that sell those products, with a particular eye toward protecting children from THC-infused edibles that often come in colorful but confusingly labeled packaging.

Because the hemp regulation bills appear to be moving forward in the Senate, there’s still a chance advocates could try to tie the two issues together. The Youngkin administration has pushed back against that approach.

“The decision on whether to legalize retail sales and whether to clean up harmful hemp products hopefully should be considered separately,” Parker Slaybaugh, chief deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry, told lawmakers at a committee hearing.

Numerous representatives from the cannabis industry have insisted the two topics can’t be separated, arguing the state’s problem with unregulated intoxicating products is a direct result of lawmakers’ failure to set up a state-sanctioned market with safer, legal products.

A lobbyist for Jushi, a company that has one of Virginia’s few licenses to sell medical cannabis but also sells recreational products in states that allow them, emphasized that nothing in the scaled-back, one-page Hodges bill would cause any new dispensaries to open.

“We do things incrementally in Virginia,” said Jushi representative Hunter Jamerson. “I think this is that incremental approach.”

The status of two hemp regulation bills in the House was unclear as of Wednesday afternoon, when both were surprisingly voted down 11-9 in the Courts of Justice Committee. The committee is not yet done with its meetings, so the legislation could still be revived for another vote.

Linking the marijuana and hemp bills together could force the two sides to negotiate a deal later in the session. However, it could also raise the possibility of failure on both fronts if Democrats refuse to support standalone hemp legislation and Republicans insist on blocking retail weed sales.

On the Senate side, the major cannabis bills are pending in the Finance and Appropriations Committee, which is set to meet Thursday. At the urging of progressive activists, the Senate marijuana bill was amended to give Virginians incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses an opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by the courts. Some Democrats have insisted on that provision, which supporters see as a matter of fairness to Black communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition.

The crossover deadline for each chamber to finish work on its own bills is Tuesday.

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County of Henrico

Solar panel system proposed for two-acre site at closed Springfield Road Landfill

Under a proposal set for consideration by the Board of Supervisors, BrightSuite, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, would design, install and maintain a 349-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on about 2 acres at the closed Springfield Road Landfill, 10600 Fords Country Lane in western Henrico.

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Henrico County is poised to become the first locality in the region and one of the first in Virginia to have solar panels installed at a closed landfill, which would generate reduced-cost, renewable energy to power a nearby sewage pump station.

Under a proposal set for consideration by the Board of Supervisors, BrightSuite, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, would design, install and maintain a 349-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system on about 2 acres at the closed Springfield Road Landfill, 10600 Fords Country Lane in western Henrico.

In addition to leasing the site for $1 per year, Henrico would purchase the electricity generated by the solar array to provide up to 100% of the power needed to operate the Allen’s Branch Sewage Pump Station. By allowing the county to receive a lower rate, the arrangement would save taxpayers an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 on electricity costs over the 30-year lease term. If approved, the system would likely become operational by spring 2025.

“Installing solar panels at the closed Springfield Road Landfill makes sense in every respect,” said Supervisor Tommy M. Branin, whose Three Chopt District includes the landfill. “It benefits the environment by capturing renewable energy from the sun and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. It creates a good use for land that cannot be developed. It also serves taxpayers, because we’ll pay nothing to build or operate the system, and we’ll buy electricity at a discount. I applaud BrightSuite for partnering with us to advance Henrico’s Go Green initiative while also continuing to protect the landfill’s liner systems and environment.”

At the Board of Supervisors retreat last January, Branin urged officials with the county and Dominion Energy to investigate ways to use the Springfield Road Landfill as a potential site for solar panels. The proposed partnership would be Dominion Energy’s first landfill project with a locality in the region. While solar panel systems have been installed at capped landfills in other states, officials said they are aware of only several other places in Virginia – including in Fairfax and Albemarle counties – where solar panels may be placed at a landfill.

“Henrico’s proposed agreement with BrightSuite underscores our county’s commitment to being a leader on the environment,” County Manager John A. Vithoulkas said. “I applaud the Board of Supervisors for continuing to challenge and inspire us to innovate and do more in this realm. Solar power is a significant part of our future, and it delivers great value for our taxpayers.”

“We are excited to partner with Henrico County on this innovative solar project at the Springfield Road Landfill, the first of its kind in the region between a locality and Dominion Energy,” said Joe Woomer, Dominion Energy’s vice president of new business and customer solutions. “This project closely aligns with Dominion Energy’s vision of becoming the most sustainable energy company in the country, while helping the county grow its use of renewable energy and enhance its environmental stewardship.”

Dominion Energy, through BrightSuite, provides sustainable energy solutions for homes and businesses. With nearly 25 megawatts of rooftop and ground-mounted solar systems in operation, BrightSuite is one of the top solar providers in the Commonwealth.

The 191-acre Springfield Road Landfill operated as a municipal landfill from the late 1960s to 2014. It currently serves as one of the county’s two public use areas, which receive household and yard waste as well as recyclables for transport offsite. Since 2010, a four-megawatt generator has captured methane gas produced by the landfill and converted it into electricity that is exported to the utility grid for sale.

The Springfield Road Landfill would become Henrico’s seventh county-owned site with a solar photovoltaic system. Through the county’s partnership with BrightSuite, rooftop solar systems have been installed at the Public Safety Building, Highland Springs High School, Holladay Elementary School and J.R. Tucker High School. The county also has solar systems at the Libbie Mill Library and Mental Health East Center.

Similar systems are planned at the Division of Recreation & Parks’ administration building, Fairfield Area Library and five schools: Glen Allen High, Holman Middle, Colonial Trail Elementary, Harvie Elementary and Kaechele Elementary. In addition, a ground-mounted system is under design for the James River Juvenile Detention Center campus. With each system, Henrico pays no capital or ongoing maintenance costs, and it buys electricity at negotiated rates that are competitive with those available through utility grid systems.

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Downtown

Sunshine bills would streamline public records process

Two Virginia General Assembly bills seeking to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act will advance to the House calendar. 

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By Gabriela de Camargo Gonçalves

Two Virginia General Assembly bills seeking to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act will advance to the House calendar.

Virginia FOIA laws, also known as sunshine laws, require public institutions to disclose public records, and provide access to government meetings unless an exemption applies.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, introduced House Bill 2006 and HB 2007, which reported out of a committee on Thursday.

Government agencies can charge to provide public records. HB 2006 asks for such charges to have an electronic payment option. HB 2007 proposes that a public body state on its website how it assesses fees.

“I am for better or worse — and God, it seems like worse sometimes — absolutely hellbent on being the voice, if there can be no other, who is going to strongly, passionately support an accessible, strong Freedom of Information Act, as opposed to a restricted one that has so many exemptions,” Roem said.

Roem encountered FOIAs in her more than 10 years as a journalist before going into public office. She recalled several deterrents to access public records requests. A constituent drove 40 minutes across the county to deliver a physical check to have a request fulfilled, Roem said.

“The current version more resembles a block of legislative Swiss cheese, than it does the law of the code of Virginia,” Roem said.

Roem introduced FOIA legislation in prior sessions that did not advance, such as proposals to create a FOIA ombudsman — a designated authority — in the attorney general’s office, establish a cap on hourly billing charges to fulfill records requests and to allow some free FOIA requests, with conditions.

“The point of the Freedom of Information Act is for the public to find out what the hell is going on with its government,” Roem said. “For reporters to be able to perform their most essential duties, which is watchdog of the government.”

Fewer people are using traditional forms of payment, so the proposed bills are a “step forward with the times,” Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, stated in an email interview.

“If local governments are already using electronic means for various public transactions, like paying taxes via an electronic check or paying a recycling invoice by credit card, then they should use those systems to accept payment for FOIA requests,” Rhyne stated.

This will help citizens who are “often blindsided” by the costs associated with sunshine laws, according to Rhyne.

“I support both of these bills, both of which are trying to chip away at the way in which the increasing costs of FOIA requests are putting government information out of the reach of the taxpayer,” Rhyne stated.

The methods of getting information are “crucially important in this time.” There is less media coverage on the government in some parts of the state, according to Dina Weinstein, president of the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“We need to know this information and making it inaccessible is not democratic,” Weinstein said.

A fee used to be an exception for a FOIA requester, but it is increasingly becoming the rule, said Tom Nash, the Virginia proxy for the nonprofit MuckRock. The organization aims to make government more transparent and helps file FOIA requests, according to its website.

“It’s important for people to keep in mind that when government agencies ask us to pay for FOIA requests, essentially, we are paying for the same information twice,” Nash said. “Because we’ve already been paying government officials to do the work that they do, and part of that work is making documents.”

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