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Herring’s legislative package helps make 2020 most progressive legislative session in Virginia history

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Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s legislative package for the 2020 General Assembly session has helped make this the most progressive legislative session in Virginia history. Attorney General Herring’s package includes bills that will make Virginia’s criminal justice system more fair, just, and equal; protect vulnerable communities; protect Virginia consumers; make Virginia an even more open and welcoming community; and more.

“I have been fighting for these measures and reforms for years, even when we had Republican majorities blocking our every move. This year, with a new Democratic majority, we finally saw these real, progressive changes come to fruition in Virginia,” said Attorney General Herring. “With things like decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, we are creating a fairer criminal justice system for all Virginians. We passed comprehensive consumer protection legislation so that Virginians do not have to fear to fall into a cycle of debt and high-interest rates when taking out certain loans. Vulnerable communities can now feel more confident that their state and their elected officials are behind them and ready to protect them.

“Virginians voted in November for gun violence prevention and we were finally able to deliver. Too many Virginians have lost their lives to guns but Republicans have been okay with that status quo for too long. The Commonwealth is now a safer place because of commonsense gun safety measures like reinstating one handgun a month, a red flag law, and universal background checks.

“I want to thank my colleagues in both the House and the Senate for helping pass my priorities for this year’s session. And we’re just getting started.”


Criminal Justice
The General Assembly passed House Bill 972 (Delegate Charniele Herring) and Senate Bill 2 (Senator Adam Ebbin) that will decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

“For far too long our approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records. Those days are over,” said Attorney General Herring. With this historic vote, we are making Virginia a more fair, just, equal, and progressive place. Decriminalization is an important first step on Virginia’s path towards legal, regulated adult use, and one many thought was still years away, but we cannot stop now. We’ve shown that smart, progressive reform is possible and we must keep going.

“I want to thank my colleagues in the House and the Senate for helping me to make this issue a top priority and I look forward to watching the progress Virginia continues to make in the coming years.”

Attorney General Herring has become the leader on cannabis reform in Virginia following his call for decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, action to address past convictions, and a move towards legal and regulated adult use. In his call for cannabis reform, he cited the unnecessary negative impact of a criminal conviction for possession, the expense and social costs of enforcing the current system, and the disparate impact on African Americans and people and communities of color. In December 2019, Attorney General Herring held a cannabis summit for policymaking stakeholders in Virginia that focused on policy and included experts from attorneys generals’ offices, state agencies, and legislative operations in states that have legalized cannabis, as well as cannabis policy experts.

Protecting Vulnerable Communities
The General Assembly passed Attorney General Herring’s package of legislation that will better protect Virginians and vulnerable communities from hate crimes and white supremacist violence. The bills will update the Commonwealth’s definition of a hate crime, protect Virginians from violence and intimidation by hate groups and white supremacists, and make it harder for hate groups and white supremacists to threaten, intimidate, or hurt Virginians with firearms.

Additionally, the General Assembly passed House Bill 6 (Delegate Jeff Bourne) that added discrimination on the basis of a person’s income to the list of unlawful discriminatory housing practices and House Bill 1663 (Delegate Mark Sickles) that creates explicit causes of action for unlawful discrimination in public housing and employment under the Virginia Human Rights Act.

The General Assembly also passed House Bill 704 (Delegate Mark Keam) that provides that there will be a policy in Virginia that promotes environmental justice.

“It is so important to make sure that vulnerable communities in Virginia know that their state and their elected officials stand with them, ready to protect them, their families, and their fundamental rights,” said Attorney General Herring. “It is really gratifying to finally have my hate crimes and white-supremacist violence legislation passed after years of inaction by Republicans in the General Assembly.

“Preventing discrimination in both housing and unemployment, as well as making sure that there are policies in place that promote environmental justice in Virginia are all crucial to building stronger and more inclusive communities and I am proud to have been able to help get this important legislation passed.”

Attorney General Herring’s hate crimes and white supremacist violence legislative package is below:

Updating Virginia’s definition of “hate crime”: This bill will create protections against hate crimes committed on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. (House Bill 618 Delegate Ken Plum)

Empowering the Attorney General to prosecute hate crimes: This bill will allow the Attorney General to prosecute hate crimes through the Commonwealth’s network of multijurisdictional grand juries. (House Bill 787 Delegate Lamont Bagby)

Prohibiting Paramilitary Activity: This bill will further restrict the kind of paramilitary activity by white supremacist militias and similar groups that were seen in Charlottesville in August 2017 (Senate Bill 64 Senator Louise Lucas)

Firearms at Permitted Events: This bill authorizes communities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event or an event that would otherwise require a permit. (Senate Bill 35 Senator Scott Surovell)

Protecting Virginia Consumers
This year, Attorney General Herring supported two bills (House Bill 789 Delegate Lamont Bagby and Senate Bill 421 Senator Mamie Locke) that were passed by the General Assembly that will enact comprehensive predatory lending reforms in Virginia. The legislation tightens the rules on exploitative predatory lenders and closes easily abused loopholes so that Virginia borrowers are afforded protections regardless of the type of loan they seek. It will also give Attorney General Herring’s Predatory Lending Unit more tools to enforce these new protections and better combat predatory lenders operating in the Commonwealth.

Attorney General Herring also supported House Bill 1553 (Delegate Rodney Willett) that will further protect Virginia borrowers by putting tighter restrictions and regulations on debt settlement service providers.

“This much needed comprehensive legislation tightens the rules on exploitative predatory lenders and closes easily abused loopholes so that Virginia borrowers are afforded the same protections regardless of the type of loan they seek,” said Attorney General Herring. “Virginia borrowers deserve to be protected from bad actors in every phase of the loan process from taking out a loan to paying that loan back.”

Firearms on School Property
Attorney General Herring’s bill House Bill 1080 (Delegate Patrick Hope) further clarifies that only trained, authorized individuals may carry a gun at schools. This bill follows an opinion Attorney General Herring put out that concluded that schools could not designate just anyone as a special conservator of the peace and allow them to carry a firearm on school property.

“Our kids deserve a safe, secure learning environment when they come to school, and adding guns and armed, unqualified personnel to our classrooms is incompatible with that goal,” said Attorney General Herring. “The last thing we need to be doing is putting more guns in schools and in the hands of unqualified, untrained people. I hope all of us who care about the safety and success of our students can continue working together to make our schools safe and welcoming places for our young people to learn.”

In-State Tuition for DREAMers
In 2014, Attorney General Herring sent a letter to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, the presidents of Virginia’s colleges and universities, and the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System advising that Virginia students who are lawfully present in the United States under DACA quality for in-state tuition.

This year, Attorney General Herring’s bill House Bill 1547 (Delegate Alfonso Lopez) further clarifies that any student is eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of citizenship status, as long as they have fulfilled the necessary requirements.

“Every student, regardless of their citizenship status, deserves in-state tuition in their own home state,” said Attorney General Herring. “Clarifying this in Virginia code will give DREAMers and other students the peace of mind that their right to in-state tuition is now protected by law and no one will ever be able to deny them higher education.”

Driver’s License Suspension
Attorney General worked with the General Assembly this year to ensure that there was a permanent fix that ended Virginia’s license suspension policy and strongly supported Senate Bill 1 (Senator Stanley).

“No one should be punished with a suspended license just because they cannot immediately afford to pay their fines,” said Attorney General Herring. “This was bad policy from the beginning that disproportionately affected minority communities and I’m glad that we were able to change it.”

Confederate Monuments
Attorney General Herring has pushed for legislation that will give localities the ability to remove, relocate, or contextualize Confederate monuments and statues and Senate Bill 183 (Senator Mamie Locke) will do just that.

“These grand, heroic Confederate monuments represent oppression and injustice to so many in our Commonwealth and limit a community’s ability to tell its own story,” said Attorney General Herring. “Giving communities the ability to remove or contextualize these monuments is an important step on Virginia’s path to becoming an even more open and welcoming community.”

Marriage Records
Last fall, Attorney General Herring sent a memo to clerks of court around Virginia explaining that state law “does not require a clerk to refuse to issue a marriage license when the applicant declines to identify his or her race and that clerks should issue a license regardless of an applicant’s answer or non-answer to that inquiry.” Along with the memo, clerks also received a newly updated marriage license form that gave applicants the option to decline to answer a question about the applicant’s race.

Since issuing the memo, Attorney General Herring has been advocating to have the question about an applicant’s race removed from the marriage license application altogether. House Bill 180 (Delegate Mark Levine) removes all requirements that an individual’s race be included on any kind of marriage record, divorce report, or annulment report.

“It was never clear why the inclusion of the applicant’s race was necessary on any of these records and forms,” said Attorney General Herring. “I am pleased that we were initially able to find a solution by changing the forms and we now have legislation that will change this in state code.”

Protecting Animals
Attorney General Herring has made it a priority to strengthen enforcement of animal cruelty and other animal-related crimes. This year, he supported Senate Bill 114 (Senator David Marsden) that will put certain animal care statutes under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act, which will give the Office of the Attorney General even more tools to protect animals.

In 2015, Attorney General Herring created the nation’s first OAG Animal Law Unit to serve as a training and prosecution resource for state agencies, investigators, and Commonwealth’s Attorneys around the state dealing with matters involving animal fighting, cruelty, and welfare. Illegal animal fighting is closely tied to illegal gambling, drug, and alcohol crimes, and violence against animals has been shown to be linked to violence towards other people.

“People who abuse or kill animals are truly disgusting individuals, and oftentimes these kinds of crimes can lead to other serious crimes as well,” said Attorney General Herring. “I am extremely proud of the work my Animal Law Unit has done to crack down on animal cruelty and abuse and I am pleased that we now have even more tools at our disposal to go after these heinous crimes.”

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Youngkin’s energy plan calls for reevaluation of Clean Economy Act

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

In his state energy plan, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for revisions to the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 2020 Democratic-driven law that ordered the state’s electric utilities to decarbonize by midcentury, but he faces opposition from clean energy advocates who say the step would move Virginia backward.

The four-year plan, unveiled in front of state and federal representatives Monday at Lynchburg-based transformer manufacturer Delta Star Inc., sets the executive office’s roadmap for Virginia energy policy.

“A clean energy future does not have to come at the cost” of customers, Youngkin told the crowd before unveiling what he called an “all-of-the-above approach” to Virginia’s energy needs.


The 35-page plan pushes for periodic reviews of the VCEA; greater protections for ratepayers and the restoration of power to the State Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s electric utilities; and increased use of nuclear energy.

Among its critics are Senate Democrats, including state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron of the VCEA.

“Gov. Youngkin cannot pick and choose which laws he implements,” McClellan said in a statement. “He should abandon this flawed attack on affordable clean energy and get to work implementing the laws that Virginia passed.”

Another look at Clean Economy Act

Youngkin’s plan calls for a reevaluation of the VCEA next year and every five years, stating the current grid can’t reliably serve customers if it relies solely on “intermittent” renewable sources like solar and wind.

The administration says the state will need to import energy from outside the commonwealth because of the VCEA mandates.

According to PJM Interconnection, the regional electric grid Virginia is a member of, the state was a net importer of electricity Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

McClellan said the VCEA’s requirements offer the right “balance” for Virginia’s transition to renewables.

With communities throughout Virginia being hit by flooding due to sea level rise and rainfall shifts linked to climate change, ” she said, “this is not the time to reverse a clean energy transition,” she said.

“Gov. Youngkin’s plan would create roadblocks and mandatory five-year-reviews that would undermine the predictability of Virginia’s energy system and make our commonwealth lose out on new jobs,” McClellan stated.

Kim Jemaine, director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a business group that advocates for clean energy, said businesses want to know the direction Virginia is headed in terms of clean energy use. Developers of renewable energy projects prefer to have certainty about state policy as they prepare to undergo lengthy application and siting processes.

Other companies like Amazon and Lego, which recently announced it would open a site in Chesterfield, are also increasingly looking to source their energy from renewables.

Protecting ratepayers

Youngkin’s plan also pushes for the transfer of more authority to the State Corporation Commission as it oversees the utilities’ compliance with the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act and the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

In his plan, Youngkin suggests the General Assembly should pass legislation to allow the SCC to defer the utilities’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements. These requirements, which are outlined in the VCEA, set timelines for how much of a utility’s energy must be sourced from renewables.

He also recommends removing the use of “public interest” mandates, a legal instrument that favors SCC approval of projects. Instead, he said the SCC should have the flexibility to analyze the costs of both substitute technologies and renewable energy sources, and use “least-cost” resource planning.

Both the Grid Transformation and Security Act and the Virginia Clean Economy Act “have resulted in projects bypassing the SCC’s methodology,” the energy plan states. “At the same time, the SCC is mandated to approve them and associated cost recovery because of statutory requirements.”

Youngkin particularly criticizes Virginia energy law that allows electric utilities to impose rate adjustment clauses, or riders, on customer bills for particular projects.

According to Youngkin’s plan, legislation in 2007 authorized the use of RACs, which have led to residential bill increases of over $30 per month. The State Corporation Commission in a recent report also calculated that RACs have added roughly $36 to Appalachian Power customers’ monthly bills and $30 to Dominion customers’ monthly bills since 2007. That’s on top of average electricity prices for Virginians increasing by 47%, compared to 39% nationally, between 2005 and 2020, Youngkin’s report details.

The energy plan calls for the creation of a work group to determine how to improve the RAC structure for ratepayers and increase bill transparency.

While reforming customer rates is laudable, said Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, it requires a massive overhaul of the system that legislators may not be willing to engage in.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee

Will Cleveland, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has extensively advocated for ratepayer reforms at the General Assembly, said his organization “would happily work with the governor to rectify the fundamental rate making problems” but argued the report unfairly demonizes clean energy as the cause of bill increases.

“We cannot retreat from our clean energy transition,” Cleveland said. “Proven, falling-cost resources like solar, wind, and battery storage simply do not threaten reliability or affordability, as this energy plan claims.”

Although efforts to reform Virginia’s rate structure failed in 2021 in the Democrat-controlled Senate, McClellan stated that she would be open to cooperating on ratepayer protection legislation in the upcoming 2023 session. She also noted a 2022 study from Virginia Advanced Energy Economy that concluded customers will save on their bills as a result of the VCEA by 2030.

“The facts are clear: The Virginia Clean Economy Act will increase the use of more affordable clean energy and lead to a decrease in the cost of energy bills for the average Virginia family by $30,” McClellan stated.

New nuclear push

As part of a push for alternative energy sources, Youngkin’s energy plan seeks to increase the use of nuclear energy in Virginia.

Youngkin’s plan was made in consultation with the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, a body created by a 2013 law to make Virginia “a national and global leader in nuclear energy.”

Virginia currently has four operating nuclear reactors at two power plants: the North Anna plant in Louisa County and the Surry plant in Surry County, both operated by Dominion Energy.

At the moment, nuclear constitutes about a third of the state’s energy generation. Youngkin’s plan calls for increased use of the source, along with hydrogen and other alternative energies, because of the concerns linked to the “intermittent” nature of solar and wind.

“We have to be all in on nuclear energy,” said Youngkin Monday before pledging to launch a commercial small nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia in the next decade.

Nuclear will be major for Virginia’s electric grid as utilities decarbonize, regulator says

But Jemaine said small nuclear reactor technology is not established enough to be relied on as an energy source.

“We can’t wait for some future silver bullet,” Jemaine said.

Infrastructure for solar and wind already exists and is expected to receive a boost from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, Jemaine noted. She added that the Siemens Gamesa turbine blade construction facility coming to Hampton Roads could be eligible for the federal legislation’s tax incentives.

When asked about how realistic the administration’s plans for nuclear expansion are, both Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company sent back statements saying they were still reviewing the plan but were looking forward to working with the governor on it.

California concerns

At the end of his plan, Youngkin reiterated several talking points from the past few months challenging legislation passed by Virginia in the 2021 session to adopt vehicle emissions regulations set forth by California, adding that the state is facing grid reliability concerns.

Jemaine, Shepherd, and McClellan noted that car manufacturers are headed toward producing electric vehicles, in line with California’s recent move to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

“We need to get ahead of it,” McClellan stated, adding Virginia’s choice was either to follow regulations set by the federal government, with no say, or California, with some say. She also said she would oppose any legislation to reverse the 2021 law, which has been introduced by state Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Lynchburg.

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Governor Youngkin awards grant to study meat processing facility for Fauquier County

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On October 4, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin awarded Fauquier County $20,000 from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund Planning Grant program to study the economic viability of locating a small-scale meat processing facility at the Fauquier Livestock Exchange in Marshall, VA. The Fauquier County Agricultural Advisory Committee will oversee the project as part of its ongoing efforts to increase the economic viability of opportunities for agricultural producers and by providing advice and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on matters affecting the agricultural economy. An additional $20,000 in matching funds has been pledged by Fauquier County, Fauquier County Farm Bureau, and the PATH Foundation to study the feasibility of the project.

“As I travel across the Commonwealth, I listen to our farmers about what they need to be successful, and additional meat processing capacity is always at the top of the list,” said Governor Youngkin. “I am pleased to partner with Fauquier County and its cattlemen with this AFID grant to explore ways to increase the resiliency of Virginia’s agricultural economy and provide farmers new opportunities to be successful.”

“Agriculture is the Commonwealth’s largest private industry, and in many counties, especially those of the northern Piedmont, livestock production is what drives the agricultural economy,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr. “Value-added agricultural enterprises are critical to the long-term health of the agriculture industry and to the preservation of working lands. It’s important for cattle producers to have access to as many market channels as possible, and consumers benefit from access to locally grown and processed agricultural products.”

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services administers the AFID Planning Grant program, which is designed to support planning efforts and local initiatives that benefit agriculture and forestry. Since 2013, AFID Planning Grant totaling $1,063,232 have been awarded to 52 projects in 63 localities across the Commonwealth.


AFID Planning Grant applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Successful applications will demonstrate a clear need, a proposed solution, strong support from local government and the agriculture and forestry community, and the ability to provide matching funds.

For additional information on the AFID Planning Grant program, click here.

Please direct questions about the program and application process to Jennifer.Perkins@vdacs.virginia.gov.

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COVID’s effect on the nursing crisis and more Va. headlines

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The state Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Releasing a new energy plan for the state, Gov. Glenn Youngkin repudiated Democrats’ clean-energy targets and said he wants an “all of the above approach” that heavily emphasizes nuclear power.—Washington Post, News & Advance

• Pressed on Fox News for a response to former President Donald Trump’s recent post calling Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s Asian American wife “coco chow,” Youngkin said: “I’m not a name-caller.”—Mediaite

• Virginia candidates Yesli Vega and Hung Cao were among 11 GOP congressional challengers who raised more than $1 million in the third quarter. Vega is running against Rep. Abigail Spanberger, and Cao is challenging Rep. Jennifer Wexton.—Axios


• Metro’s new Potomac Yard station in Alexandria won’t open until 2023 due to construction delays.—Washington Post

• COVID-19 exacerbated nursing shortages and drove up hospitals’ labor costs by more than a third. “The nursing crisis is not going to go away. It’s there.”—Cardinal News

• The Richmond School Board took a formal vote Monday to reject Youngkin’s proposed policies for transgender students.—WRIC

• An Indian restaurant in Henrico County was vandalized with racist graffiti.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• The USS Gerald R. Ford, “the Navy’s most technologically advanced warship,” will deploy from Norfolk today after a weather-related delay.—Virginian-Pilot

• The town of Abingdon wants to cut down on loitering near the Virginia Creeper Trail.—Bristol Herald Courier

• Short Pump Town Center, the big outdoor mall near Richmond, is seeking an open container ABC license to let shoppers walk around with alcohol. The state has issued nine similar licenses so far.—Richmond BizSense

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin, attorney general expect schools to follow transgender policies

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High school students across Virginia, including those at McLean High School, protested the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a poster that states, “The model policy is a modern travesty.” (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

As opposition to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new policies on the treatment of transgender students grows, Virginia still lacks an enforcement plan to have school divisions adopt them.

Under new guidance published last month, schools are required to inform a student’s parent or guardian whether a student wants to change their name, nickname, and/or pronouns from how they are listed in their records, among other policy changes.

The Republican Youngkin said he expects schools to follow the law when it comes to the new guidance.


“It’s the law, and so I don’t really have a lot of patience for folks that see a law and don’t comply with it,” said Youngkin on Sept. 20.

“Protecting parents’ fundamental rights to make decisions for their children is in the Virginia code, and I fully expect that each one of the school divisions should comply,” he said.

Asked about how the Office of the Attorney General plans to enforce the new guidance, a spokesperson said only that the attorney general expects schools to comply with the law.

Not all school divisions on board with governor’s guidance

Contrary to the administration’s expectations that school divisions will adopt the new policies, which differ from those instituted during Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, some school districts are already showing reluctance to adopt them.

Richmond City School Board voted 8-1 to pass a resolution on Monday rejecting the governor’s model policies and “affirm(ing) its commitment to providing protections for all students regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

Board member, Jonathan Young was the lone member to oppose the resolution.

“I am sorry that some persons don’t want parents to have any say pertaining to who can share a locker room, a shower room or a bedroom with their children,” he said.

In Northern Virginia, Alexandria City school officials said in a Sept. 19 letter to community members that they will continue to “implement and develop affirming policies” for students as they wait for a public comment period on the new policies to end later this month.

The city’s mayor and council members subsequently submitted a letter to the Department of Education on Sept. 28 that said they would support the city schools’ decision to “continue the previously adopted policy and practice respecting individual rights and protecting students from discrimination due to gender expression, gender identity, sexual harassment, and transgender status.

The council said in its letter that the proposed policies remove protections for transgender and nonbinary students in Virginia’s public schools and stigmatize and undermine their dignity.

School divisions’ unwillingness to buck state guidance on transgender students isn’t new.

A state law passed in 2020 directed school boards to adopt policies consistent with guidance issued by the Northam-era Department of Education that was intended to provide protections for transgender students.

But most school boards opposed the 2021 model policies and instead opted to follow guidance from the Virginia School Boards Association that contended existing policies met the law’s requirements.

According to Virginia Equality, only 10% of schools adopted the previous policies.

Virginia school boards are required by law to “see that the school laws are properly explained, enforced, and observed.”

Additionally, state law notes that parents who are aggrieved by an action of a school board may petition the circuit court to review the action.

In 2014, after transgender student Gavin Grimm was barred from using the boys’ bathroom by the Gloucester County School Board, he sued the school division. He later received $1.3 million after four years of litigation.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said the governor’s action should be contested in court under the Virginia Human Rights Act.

High school students across Virginia including those at McLean High School walked out in protest of the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a poster that states “I should be in Calculus not defending human rights.” (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Nw policies require parental involvement

Youngkin’s new policies note that “schools should attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs, including any student with a persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.”

But they also require parental approval for any changes to students’ “names, nicknames, and/or pronouns.” Further, the new policies direct schools to keep parents “informed about their children’s well-being,” specify that student participation in activities and athletics shall be based on sex and state that “students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”

The policy document argues that the First Amendment forbids “government actors to require individuals to adhere to or adopt any particular ideological beliefs” and that “practices such as compelling others to use preferred pronouns is premised on the ideological belief that gender is a matter of personal choice or subjective experience, not sex.”

On Sept. 26, a five-member school board in Rockingham County failed to adopt a similar policy that would have required that a parent or guardian be notified and provide consent if a student wished to be called by any other name not reflected in their school record. The vote on the measure, which had been put forward before the Youngkin administration announced its new policies, failed 1-3, with one member absent.

Student walkouts

Last week, thousands of students walked out of their respective schools in protest of the policies revised by the Youngkin administration.

Students called on the Department of Education to revoke the draft guidelines and for school boards to “protect all students by rejecting the VDOE’s guidelines,” according to Pride Liberation Project, an advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ rights.

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement that the guidelines make it clear that when parents are part of the process, schools will accommodate the requests of children and their families.

“Parents should be a part of their children’s lives, and it’s apparent through the public protests and on-camera interviews that those objecting to the guidance already have their parents as part of that conversation,” Porter said.

She also pointed out that the policy document states that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment.

However, Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who along with Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, carried the 2020 legislation directing school divisions to comply with VDOE guidance on transgender students, said the changes proposed by the governor will put Virginia’s vulnerable transgender and nonbinary students at further risk for bullying and harassment.

She told the Mercury that the Northam-era policies were developed to support Virginia’s “most vulnerable students,” those who do not have supportive families and face decreased mental health and financial and housing insecurity. Now she’s concerned about the changes.

“Despite Governor Youngkin’s political gamesmanship in his quest to compete with the cruel policies of [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis and to divert attention from the issues at hand around abortion, we will continue to work collaboratively with our families and schools to assure that all students are safe and feel welcomed in their schools,” Boysko said.

Public comment period ends October 26

A 30-day public comment period on the policies is scheduled to end on October 26. The new policies will go into effect.

In less than a day after the public comment period opened, the number of responses had eclipsed the 9,086 total number of comments submitted on the Northam-era guidance.

Virginia had collected over 54,000 as of Sunday.

This story has been updated to add details about the Richmond School Board’s Monday-night vote.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Trump allies have interviewed nearly 200 election officials to probe for weaknesses

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(Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury) Volunteers for “Operation Eagles Wings” are using surveys in eight states to seek support for conspiracy theories.


This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

Two of Donald Trump’s most prominent allies in his fight to overturn the 2020 election are leading a coordinated, multi-state effort to probe local election officials in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Arizona, and Texas ahead of the November election.

The America Project, an organization founded by Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general, former national security adviser, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, has so far interviewed or attempted to interview officials in nearly 200 counties across eight swing states, according to copies of notes, recordings of the interviews, and other documents Votebeat found on web pages associated with the organization. The survey questions reflect the same debunked conspiracies and misleading information about elections that Flynn and Byrne have been propagating for years.


The survey questions appear intended to detect potential weaknesses in local election systems and gather detailed information about how elections are run. Election experts say the information could easily be used to fuel misinformation campaigns, disrupt voting, or challenge results.

“It seems consistent with their efforts to really understand how to manipulate the machinery of election administration in this country,” said Ben Berwick, counsel at national nonprofit Protect Democracy, a research and advocacy group.

In 2020, Byrne and Flynn were among the Trump loyalists who devised a plan to seize voting machines across the country and dig up enough evidence of fraud to persuade state lawmakers, Congress, or the vice president to overturn the election results. Now, they are focusing their efforts on the midterm election, with new strategies. A group backed by The America Project, for example, is attempting to purge voter rolls in Georgia ahead of the election.

The surveys are part of The America Project’s latest mission, dubbed “Operation Eagles Wings,” which is organized on foramericafirst.com, with web pages for each of the swing states the group is focused on. Key to the effort is building relationships with local election officials, according to two manuals for local volunteers on the organization’s websites. The officials are asked their opinions on debunked conspiracy theories to determine whether they are like-minded individuals. Interviewers are also marking down which clerks are particularly helpful.

Berwick points out that it’s the mission of prominent Trump supporters to fill positions of power — from governors down to local clerks — with people who believe their allegations of election fraud and improprieties. Noting who does and does not support the cause, he said, may be the group’s way of determining “who will be sympathetic to their efforts in the future.”

Election officials have generally been friendly to their interviewers, but have also repeatedly assured them that their elections are fair, voting machines are secure, and voter rolls are accurate.

In Harris County, Georgia, an election official repeatedly assured the interviewer that no one voted on behalf of deceased voters in the county.

“In some counties they did,” the interviewer insisted. “They weren’t removed from the rolls. And there have been some reports. It’s down to the proof. Prove it.”

The America Project and its officers did not respond to phone and email requests for comment about the surveys.

Surveys probe administrators on debunked theories

The survey questions vary slightly by state, though nearly all ask if counties remove deceased voters from the rolls. They also request contact information for vendors who service voting machines, and whether the county will consider designating a “neutral” third-party group to provide “training and support” for poll watchers. Some ask whether voting machines are connected to the internet, and if the local election officials are confident that local advocacy groups register voters “without bribery, intimidation or coercion.”

Interviewers asked the officials whether they support counting votes using a “manual process like that used in France.” This is a common talking point of such activists, who routinely praise the country for efficiently hand-counting votes and use it as justification to end the use of vote-counting machines. “If France can do it, we can do it!” shouted Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on his War Room podcast earlier this year. Mike Lindell, his guest and a prominent conspiracy theorist who is also the owner of MyPillow, agrees. “Terminate the machines!” yells Lindell. There are several differences between French and U.S. elections that make hand counting more effective in that country.

Byrne and Flynn have both voiced strong support for these ideas, routinely claiming without evidence that voting machines were manipulated and that left-leaning activists routinely facilitate mass voter fraud. “Our country and its founding principles are under attack by globalists and their allies in government, Wall Street, the legacy media and by others which make-up the political left in this country,” the Georgia for America First website states. “The weapon of choice is our vulnerable election system.”

The America Project was the top funder of the Arizona Senate’s election review, and Byrne supported the now-discredited investigation of voting machines in Antrim County, Michigan. Both have said they’ll continue to work to remake American elections.

“This will be our last shot,” wrote Byrne in his book, “The Deep Rig,” which he self-published last year. The book declares: “If we do not restore election integrity by then, then next election will also be rigged [sic], and we will have tipped our way into a fascist, authoritarian dystopian version of America, run by Goons.”

“Operation Eagles Wings”

A key goal of Operation Eagles Wings is to create small volunteer teams across the country who observe the entirety of the election process, starting in part with the surveys, according to the manuals Votebeat found.

It’s the expansion of what they have dubbed “the Virginia model,” which refers to the work of Cleta Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network in Virginia to create a network for the state’s 2021 election, according to the manuals.* The America Project provided funding to that effort.

The larger Operation Eagles Wings initiative is aimed at educating “election reform activists on everything from grassroots training to election canvassing and fundraising,” according to The America Project’s website. The site claims the group provides training “for Americans who want to make sure there are no repeats of the errors that happened in the 2020 election.”

“We need to do everything in our power to protect the voting process from election meddlers who care only about serving crooked special interest groups that neither respect nor value the rule of law,” the homepage says.

Along with the surveys, the initiative encourages election skeptics to serve as poll workers and observers, perform in-person “voter registration audits,” and to visit “large farms, factories, businesses and especially care homes,” and ask residents whether anyone is forcing them to vote, according to the manuals.

Election officials’ top concern? ‘Misinformation.’

Volunteers have conducted interviews in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin, according to copies and audio recordings of the interviews that Votebeat found online. Most of the documents are stored on what appear to be unlisted pages of a site called libertyshepherd.com, which had no active homepage as of Friday, while the Florida documents are accessible from the state’s page on foramericafirst.com.

Election administrators surveyed by the group told Votebeat they weren’t bothered by the questions themselves, inviting them as opportunities to debunk misinformation.

Many election officials told the interviewers that their top concern about the upcoming election was misinformation. In Sterling Heights, Michigan, City Clerk Melanie Ryska told the interviewer that people insinuate “that we aren’t doing something right, that we are hiding something, that our [absentee] ballots are not legitimate, that we have early voting when we don’t, that we are trying to sway the vote somehow.”

Ryska told Votebeat in an interview that she is glad when people come to her for information rather than get it elsewhere.

“I just think it is great that different organizations are actually talking to clerks now and trying to get their side of the story, if you will because the misinformation dramatically hurts the election administrators, their team, the process,” she said. “Because it just creates so much mistrust in the process.”

Susan Nash, city clerk in Livonia, Michigan, said she was interviewed by two women with the group this summer. “Nothing wrong with questioning,” Nash told Votebeat. “It’s better to contact the clerks instead of getting misinformation elsewhere.”

Most interviews were conducted in person or by phone, with the interviewer filling out the survey themselves. Two election supervisors showed the completed surveys and told Votebeat the volunteers had not accurately recorded their answers.

Cortney Hanson, city clerk in Novi, Michigan, said the interviewers recorded most of her responses correctly, except for one question. They used their own words to mischaracterize the funds the city accepted from the Center for Tech and Civic Life before the 2020 election, writing that she accepted “Zuck bucks” — a term championed by some conservatives referring to the grant, which had been underwritten by grants from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

“It’s not a term I would ever use,” Hanson said.

Wendy John, the county recorder in Graham County, Arizona, told Votebeat by email that the recorded answers “did not accurately reflect my response at all.” She did not elaborate.

Loaded questions

The range of questions asked by the survey puzzled experts. Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said the survey was made up of an odd “scattering” of questions, few of which would elicit useful information about the systems used by the counties in question. He said that they would burden election officials who are already swamped with work and records requests given the upcoming midterms.

Flynn and Byrne, he said, “don’t have a good record of being fact-based and practical.”

The manuals say that Flynn and Byrne intend to post survey results publicly, something Burden said risks circulating incorrect information.

For example, several of the questions ask about security practices — such as whether counties use a specific database to remove deceased voters from the rolls. The state may use the database, but not the county —  a nuance that wouldn’t be captured by the survey.

In some surveys, election administrators were asked how many households in their jurisdiction have “more than 7 individual registered voters living at the same address.” While this appears to address bloated voter rolls, there are many instances where more than seven voters might lawfully live at the same address, such as college campuses and assisted living homes. Activists around the country have been filing voter challenges on those and other grounds, which are routinely thrown out by local election offices and courts.

At the end of the survey, the interviewer is asked to “characterize your interaction with the Supervisor of Elections as (circle all that apply): Helpful, polite, defensive, unhelpful, antagonistic.”

“They could be trying to find friends and enemies among election officials,” Burden said. “It’s really not clear. It’s just another strange part of the survey.”

The volunteer who interviewed Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards in Polk County, Florida, in June circled helpful and polite and wrote that she was “super nice, very friendly and accomodating [sic].” The volunteer who interviewed Brenda Hoots, supervisor of elections in Hendry County, Florida, characterized her as “defensive.” Below his circled response, he wrote, “One of the most defensive interviews to date.” He placed stars next to the comments.

Hoots said she always tries to be very open about their procedures and wants the public to understand elections, but the person conducting the survey got mad when she tried to clarify her answers.

“Am I defensive?” she told Votebeat when shown the survey results. “Yes. This is my job. This is what I do. When you question this, you are questioning my integrity as a person.”

Correction, Sept. 30: This article originally misidentified the Election Integrity Network as the Election Integrity Group.

Reporters Oralandar Brand-Williams and Natalia Contreras contributed to this article.

Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at jfifield@votebeat.org.

by Jen Fifield, Votebeat, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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U.S. Supreme Court mulls federal water, wetlands rules

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Coastal wetlands off the Eastern Shore of Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its term Monday with an Idaho case that could significantly restrict the federal government’s power to enforce clean water laws and prove crucial in determining wetland protections.

The oral arguments came just months after the court’s 6-3 conservative majority limited executive authority to address climate change in a case involving federal regulation of greenhouse gases.

The clean water case, brought by an Idaho couple seeking to build a house on a plot of land they bought near Priest Lake in the state’s panhandle, provides an opportunity for the court to rein in what types of waters are subject to a provision of the Clean Water Act known as “Waters of the United States.”


The property of Michael and Chantell Sackett is across a road from wetlands that eventually drain into Priest Lake. The Environmental Protection Agency has required the couple to obtain federal permits before they build, but the couple has argued that because their property doesn’t contain any water itself, it shouldn’t be subject to Clean Water Act requirements.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that the case was about much more than one couple’s building permits.

“Let’s put aside the facts of this case because this case is going to be important for wetlands throughout the country,” he told the Sacketts’ attorney, Damien Schiff of the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.

The law doesn’t define what is considered a water of the United States subject to federal regulation, and land that is situated near and drains into a covered waterway can also be subject to regulation, which is what the EPA has argued in the Sacketts’ case.

The case is about how broad that definition can be. Monday’s arguments indicated the status quo may be too broad for the court’s conservative majority to accept.

Justice Neil Gorsuch pushed U.S. Justice Department attorney Brian Fletcher to define the distance from a waterway that land would be subject to regulation. Fletcher could not offer a distinct answer, prompting Gorsuch to wonder how property owners or potential property owners could be expected to determine what their responsibilities are under the law.

“If the federal government doesn’t know, how is the person subject to criminal time in federal prison supposed to know?” he said.

Taking part in her first oral argument as a member of the court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked what the process was for determining if a particular property was covered.

Fletcher said that property owners can receive, at no cost, an analysis from federal agencies about whether they need to seek permits.

Further, property rights are not restricted by federal permitting requirements.

“The fact that they’re covered by the act does not mean that development is prohibited, it just means that development has to be permitted,” he said.

Meaning of ‘adjacent’

 

Another piece of the Sacketts’ argument was that their land was not in fact adjacent to a covered water because a road separated their property from the water.

Several justices, both liberal and conservative, appeared skeptical of that argument.

Jackson responded to Schiff’s argument that Congress differentiated between land abutting covered waters and land nearby by noting that the Clean Water Act’s purpose was to preserve water quality.

“Why would Congress draw the coverage line between abutting wetlands and neighboring wetlands when the objective of the statute is to ensure the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s water?” she said. “Are you saying that neighboring wetlands can’t impact the quality of navigable waters?”

The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have long accepted that nearby land can affect waters that are covered by the Clean Water Act. That’s still true if there’s a human-made construction like a berm or a road, Fletcher said.

“For 45 years, the EPA and the Army Corps has recognized that the presence of such a barrier does not categorically strip a wetland of the act’s protections,” he said.

Even some of the court’s conservative justices seemed skeptical of the Sacketts’ argument that their land was not adjacent to covered water.

Chief Justice John Roberts made an analogy with train stations and tracks. A station does not physically touch the tracks but is considered to be adjacent to them.

Executive agencies, under presidents of both parties, have long held that neighboring — not only abutting — lands were covered, Kavanaugh told Schiff.

“Why did seven straight administrations not agree with you?” he asked.

Significant nexus

But even if a majority of justices are unpersuaded by the Sacketts’ adjacency argument, the conservatives might not miss an opportunity to narrow the regulatory authority of the Clean Water Act.

“The composition of this court is likely to go in a narrower way,” Melissa Reynolds, an attorney with Holland & Hart’s water law office, said in a Monday interview. “It’s not expanding jurisdiction and hindering private property owners moving forward — it’s kind of the opposite direction.”

In June, in one of the final decisions of its previous term, the court held that the EPA could not use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions on an industry-wide scale, dealing a blow to federal efforts to address climate change.

Under the past three presidential administrations, the working definitions of waters of the United States have shifted.

But in general, the federal government has been working under a “significant nexus” standard, holding that anything with a meaningful intersection with covered waters is subject to Clean Water Act regulation.

The court’s conservatives indicated they may like to narrow that standard.

“I imagine that most of the water flow and rainfall and snowfall in quite a large geographic area drains into the lake eventually,” Gorsuch said. “How does any reasonable person know — within maybe 100 square miles in a watershed that drains into a body of water that is a water of the United States — whether their land is adjacent?”

The Biden administration is working on a new rule to further define waters of the United States. That rule is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, Fletcher said. That step is usually one of the last before a rule becomes final.

Fletcher said a final rule is likely before the end of the year, which would likely be before a decision from the court.

 

by Jacob Fischler, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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