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Virginia’s Mental Health Hotline One Year Later



Last summer, the 988 hotline for mental health emergencies was launched in Virginia and nationwide as part of a federal effort to create a more streamlined approach to accessing crisis support for those in immediate need.

After an initial spike in 988 calls during its rollout, 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline data shows the commonwealth now receives an average of almost 6,000 calls a month – up from over 4,300 a month in the year prior.

Bill Howard, director of the Crisis Supports & Services division with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), said the average rate of 988 calls answered in Virginia has greatly increased over the past two years as well.

Virginia’s mental health hotline launches amid fears it won’t meet expectations

Howard said approximately 52% of the calls were answered in Virginia in January 2021 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – a longer, harder-to-remember number that was replaced by 988 on July 16, 2022. As of May this year, he said, Virginia answered 92% of the 988 calls received.

“It’s a challenge, but we’ve seen incredible gains in just the one year in the ability to answer calls, [and] the number of people we’ve been able to support,” said Howard.

While state officials and experts say Virginia has made advances over the past year with its 988 services, they agree the capacity to dispatch and connect local crisis services and resources to callers still remains limited in areas across the state – which could result in longer wait times and frustrated callers.

Additionally, said Bruce Cruser, executive director of the state’s affiliate of Mental Health America, an advocacy group for behavioral supports and services, the goal of 988 is to not only connect people with an immediate response over the phone and potentially dispatch crisis units but to connect them with community mental health resources they can access moving forward.

“We don’t have yet this continuum of care through Virginia in the community,” Cruser said. “So it means 988 is limited in some of its goals.”

‘Growing pains’

The challenges arising from connecting 988 callers to local crisis units and mental health resources primarily stem from a limited centralized database of which local crisis care and community health services are available across the state – making it more difficult to determine what local resources or agencies are available near the caller’s location.

The database, Howard said, would be in collaboration with DBHDS’ regionalized community service board system  –  composed of state- and locally-funded agencies tasked with providing crisis care services – to further streamline the process. The department just recently launched the database in its Region 5 community service board, which covers the Greater Tidewater and Hampton Roads area.

“It’s a transition, Howard said, “so some areas are more ready than others.”

Cruser also emphasized the need for local mental health resources in the database so that callers to 988 can continue to access care after the call, such as being directed to a local warm line – essentially the 988 equivalent for non-emergency mental health support – like the one for Mental Health America.

He said he’s heard of people calling his organization’s warm line because people they called at 988 “weren’t familiar with the resources in their area” or “didn’t help much.”

“I think it still has growing pains,” Cruser said. “They’ve had a big challenge staffing up to get enough on board, and they are still building out the system.”

Amy Erb, senior director of Region 4 programs with the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, said her region is still facing workforce challenges, just like last year, but has been recruiting heavily for its crisis and direct care positions.

“The impact, I think, is that it takes longer to fill these positions than it did in the past,” Erb said.

Another issue is that if a Virginia resident calls 988, but their number has an out-of-state area code, they will be connected to a call center in that state instead of one of the two in Virginia, PRS in Northern Virginia and Frontier Health in Johnson City, Tennessee.

The FCC is now considering changing  “how that routing mechanism works so that it can maybe be routed by a cell phone tower or some other mechanism,” Howard said.

‘A good entry point’

Even though Virginia has room to improve its 988 services, the development of its call centers was ahead of the curve compared to other states when it became the first in the nation to implement a 988 service fee in 2021.

The fees, collected from wireless carriers, all go towards the state’s Crisis Call Center Fund to support crisis intervention services and crisis care coordination for those accessing 988.

Kenneth Shook, associate director of the health and human resources division at the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget, said in the current budget, the fund is contributing over $4.7 million in fiscal year 2023 and over $9 million in fiscal year 2024.

Overall, Howard said, Virginia is at a “good entry point” a year after launching 988 with the goal of it becoming a “one-stop shop for support in relation to your mental health needs.”

The 988 system in Virginia has seen “a lot of improvements,” Cruser said. “But at least from what we hear, they still have some issues they need to deal with.”


by Meghan McIntyre, 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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia War Memorial and Navy League to Host 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony



The Virginia War Memorial and the Navy League of the United States, Richmond Council, will co-host the 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony at 11 a.m., Thursday, December 7, 2023.  The annual ceremony will be held outdoors in the Memorial’s Shrine of Memory – 20th Century at 621 South Belvidere Street, Richmond, VA 22330. The public is invited and encouraged to attend.

Keynote speaker will be Commander Dennis Bussey, U.S. Navy (Retired), the son of career Navy Chief Petty Officer Joseph Bussey, who was aboard the battleship USS California in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Commander Dennis Bussey is a Civil Engineering graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.  After graduation in 1969, he found himself leading a group of “Seabees” in Da Nang, South Vietnam. He and his wife, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, retired to Richmond after active duty, where he founded the James River Hikers and is a noted historian.

The 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony will include the presentation of wreaths in memory of the Virginians who died on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 when the forces of Imperial Japan attacked U.S military bases in Hawaii. More than 2,400 Americans died and more than 1,100 were wounded during the surprise attack. Of those killed, 41 were listed as native Virginians.

“The name of each Virginian who perished on that fateful day will be read and remembered with the tolling of the ship’s bell from the guided missile cruiser USS Virginia (CGN-38), which was decommissioned in 1994,” said Dr. Adam J. “Jay” Fielder, president of the Navy League’s Richmond Council, who will serve as Master of Ceremonies for the annual program. The bell is on permanent display at the Virginia War Memorial.

“We are pleased to continue the tradition of co-hosting the Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony with the Navy League here at the Virginia War Memorial for the 82nd consecutive year,” said Virginia War Memorial Director Dr. Clay Mountcastle. “We hope many of our fellow citizens will join us to honor and remember our fellow Virginians and all Americans who died during the surprise attack which led to the United States entering World War II. As the ceremony is an outdoor event, we suggest attendees dress accordingly.”

The Memorial will be open to the public from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on December 7.  The Virginians at War documentary film Pearl Harbor will be shown all day in the Reynolds Theater and visitors can visit the Medal of Honor Gallery, Veterans Art Gallery and other exhibits.

For more information about the 82nd Commonwealth’s Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony, please call the Virginia War Memorial at 804.786.2060 or visit or There is no admission charge to the Memorial or for this event. Parking is available at the Memorial and visitors should arrive by 10:45 a.m. to attend the ceremony.

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Virginia is Banking on Data Centers, But Some Say Growth Should Be More Deliberate



RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia is home to the largest data center market in the world, but citizens and lawmakers have urged leaders to temper the onslaught of development and consider the impact.

Data centers have brought hundreds of millions in tax revenue and thousands of jobs to Northern Virginia and, increasingly, other areas of the state. However, among environmental groups, there is mounting concern that the industry’s rapid growth might offset climate goals laid out in past legislation.

Data centers are physical locations that power online activity “in the cloud,” according to the Data Center Coalition. According to the group’s president, Josh Levi, the centers support online activities that individuals, governments, organizations, and businesses of all sizes do every day.

The growth of the industry shows no signs of slowing. Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a deal with Amazon Web Services in January to establish multiple data center campuses across the state. The company plans to invest $35 billion in Virginia by 2040.

Amazon Web Services filed in September to develop two campuses in Louisa County, including a seven-building data center campus, Lake Anna Technology Campus. The campus would occupy almost 2 million square feet of Lousia County’s land, including about an acre of wetland.

“These areas offer robust utility infrastructure, lower costs, great livability, and highly educated workforces and will benefit from the associated economic development and increased tax base, assisting the schools and providing services to the community,” Youngkin stated about the partnership with Amazon Web Services.

The state also developed a new incentive program to help clinch the deal. According to the recently passed budget, An amount not exceeding $140 million in grant money will go toward the company and end no later than 2044. The grants help with infrastructure improvements, workforce development, and other project-related costs. The grant awards $8,642 for each new full-time job and $3,364 for each $1 million capital investment made the year before.

Money and jobs

According to Levi, the two primary benefits of data centers are local revenue and job creation.

A Northern Virginia Technology Council report found that data centers provided approximately 5,500 operational and over 10,000 construction and manufacturing jobs in 2021. The report estimated that data centers were “directly and indirectly” responsible for generating $174 million in state tax revenue and just over $1 billion in local tax revenue around the state.

To date, every data center proposal in Virginia has been approved, according to Wyatt Gordon, senior policy and campaigns manager of land use and transportation with the Virginia Conservation Network.

According to Gordon, the high concentration of data centers in the state is a significant problem.

“If this is going to support global internet traffic, they need to be across the globe instead of just within one region of one state,” Gordon said.

Gordon said there is no future without data use, but the impacts of data centers need to be studied closely.

“I think our immediate concern is just, how are we making sure that the impacts of these data centers as they’re coming here are really being negotiated in a way that makes sense for Virginia,” Gordon said.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, and Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, worked with the Virginia Conservation Network on a bill this past session to have the Department of Energy study the impacts of data center development on Virginia’s environment and climate goals. The bill failed.

The legislators attempted to pass other bills with measures to regulate where the centers could be built and to employ conditional stormwater runoff management.

“It’s the biggest corporations in the entire world on one side, and then you have Virginia residents and a ragtag group of environmental folks on the other,” Gordon said. “So, I think you know who won.”

Environmental concerns

According to Gordon, data centers have three primary impacts on the environment: the space they take up, the groundwater demand for cooling, and their energy use.

According to Gordon, the facilities set to come out of Youngkin’s Amazon deal alone will be the size of 151 Walmart stores.

“That is massive amounts of land that are currently forests, farmland, wetlands, and are going to be bulldozed and converted into gigantic boxes hosting servers,” Gordon said.

Overall, Virginia's energy use has decreased due to increased energy efficiency, according to Gordon. However, according to a report prepared for the Virginia Department of Energy, data centers are a growing sector of electricity demand in Virginia.

According to the Energy Transition Initiative, data center electric sales will increase by 152% in the next decade, while other sectors will remain mostly the same. The forecast does not include projected electricity demand from electric vehicles.

The overall increase in Virginia electricity sales is forecasted to be 32% over 10 years and accounts for increased energy efficiency.

Dominion Energy filed an Integrated Resource Plan this year that anticipates a higher demand for electricity from data centers than originally planned. According to Gordon, Dominion recently filed permits for natural gas and coal power plants to meet data center energy demands.

According to Gordon, this contrasts the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s two largest utility providers, Dominion Energy and American Electric Power, produce 100% renewable electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively.

“Despite being the only Southern state to pass such a huge climate law … that could all collapse because data centers are putting such a demand for power that there’s no way to supply them in a timely manner without relying upon dirty energy,” Gordon said.

Dominion Energy is “writing checks that Virginians can’t cash,” according to Julie Bolthouse, director of land use at the Piedmont Environmental Council. The group has looked at data center development in its service region since 2017.

Virginia is compromising its conservation and climate goals to meet in-service dates, with costs of development falling on utility ratepayers, according to Bolthouse.

“We have to, now, meet that in-service date that they committed to, and we have to build out this infrastructure with a rate schedule that’s unfair to us because we’re sitting here paying for all of this when it’s benefitting this one industry,” Bolthouse said.

A Dominion Energy representative did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

According to Bolthouse, the utility and data centers negotiate electricity contracts together and then determine an in-service date when the utility will begin providing power.

“The industry needs to wait for us to be able to provide that power in a sustainable manner,” Bolthouse said.

Powering Virginia’s data centers with renewable energy is a realistic goal “over time,” according to Levi. Amazon Web Services, for example, plans to fund 18 solar farms in Virginia that would provide enough energy to power 276,000 homes by 2025.

Though companies can pursue clean energy in many ways, Levi said the challenge is how fast they can provide it.

“I think that’s where some of the hand-wringing around this issue is really coming from,” Levi said.

Looking forward

According to Kyle Hart, the Mid-Atlantic program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association, Prince William Digital Gateway is the “epitome” of everything the data center industry is doing wrong.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today, in terms of broad calls for industry-wide reform, if this terrible proposal hadn’t existed and had never sort of marched forward under a Democratic board majority for the past two years,” Hart said.

The group became involved in the conversation because of data center projects like Prince William Digital Gateway, which would share a border with Manassas National Battlefield Park, according to Hart.

Most recently, the Prince William County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of all three rezoning applications involved in the Digital Gateway project. The debate moves next to the board of supervisors for a vote.

Hart and Bolthouse offered policy suggestions in a paper that provides an overview of data center development from a land use perspective. They suggested a study on the various impacts of development, a grid impact statement by the State Corporation Commission for all new data center-related power demand requests, and a framework for a regional review board to evaluate these large project proposals.

The data center proliferation in Virginia has outpaced any other state, which ultimately left Hart and Bolthouse without much framework to work off, Hart said. The suggestions are based on what they would want to see.

Elena Schlossberg is executive director for the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, a grassroots effort at the forefront of the resistance against the Digital Gateway. Schlossberg encouraged people to educate themselves on why they should care about the issue.

“You can make a difference by telling your neighbors,” Schlossberg said. “You can make a difference by getting on a bus and lobbying your state legislators that there needs to be some real oversight for an industry that is, up until this point, pretty unregulated.”

The data center debate is apolitical, according to Schlossberg.

“Money knows no ideological boundary, nor does doing the right thing,” Schlossberg said.


By Emily Richardson
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.


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State Representation Tilts Toward Diversity With Historic Numbers



RICHMOND, Va. — The votes are counted, the committees are set, and even the first bills are filed as Virginia’s General Assembly prepares to gavel in early next year. It’s a new slate of legislators more representative of the state’s citizens.

Major gains for Black History

Even in America’s longest-serving state legislature, many firsts are still coming with this next class.

The House and Senate will have Black leadership for the first time when it convenes on Jan. 10.

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, will be Virginia’s first Black House Speaker. Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears has been the presiding officer in the Senate since 2022. She was the first Black woman elected to a statewide office in Virginia and the second woman.

Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, will be Virginia’s first Black House Speaker.

Virginia’s Black community makes up just under 21% of the state’s population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Legislative representation will be slightly higher at just under 23%.

Voters elected 32 Black legislators out of 140 seats: 25 delegates and seven senators. All but one is a Democrat. The total includes two delegates who identify as more than one race.

Virginia was once the “cradle of the Confederacy,” but that time is over, Scott said.

“Virginians are ready to move on,” Scott said. “They’re not looking at race, they’re looking at who’s the best candidate.”

Scott added that his nomination as speaker is a great milestone for Black people all across the state, and they “can be proud of this day.”

Jatia Wrighten is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. She conducts research on Black women, state legislatures, and leadership.

“It is absolutely fascinating to think about a state that was one of the most exclusionary in the South,” Wrighten said during a post-election event organized by the Virginia Public Access Project. “And yet we have a state legislature that is one of the most diverse in the entire country.”

Black women representation

The 20 Black women who won the election represent a historic number. This is a little over 14% of the General Assembly.

This comes after a long history of exclusion, according to Wrighten.

“They’ve had to work outside of these institutions in order to gain equal access to political, social, and even economic opportunities,” Wrighten said.

Black women are the voter block that helps Democrats win, she said. Black women have impacted elections throughout the South, in presidential and state races.

“Black women have always been here,” Wrighten said. “It’s just the case that now Virginia actually allows Black women to actively participate.”

Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, in reference to a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, stated in an email that this new diversity is “neither automatic nor inevitable” — it was possible due to “tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“There are many who worked to make this day happen, and the ancestors are proud of those who are making a difference in our communities,” Locke stated.

Increased diversity and inclusion

According to Wrighten, research shows people feel better served when their legislators look like them.

“For the very diverse demographics that exist in the state of Virginia, what you should expect are feelings of satisfaction with elected members,” Wrighten said. “Especially as the diversity actually represents the population in this state.”

The number of female representatives stayed the same as last year, although a decade ago, there were only 25 in the General Assembly. Women account for a third of state representation, although they are more than half of the state’s population.

A total of 48 female legislators will represent the state. Democrats elected 38. Republicans elected 10.

For the first time in at least recent history, the number of white representatives will dip below 100.

According to a Virginia legislative website, about 100 African-American men served in the General Assembly between 1869 and 1890. The backlash to gains made during Reconstruction led to changes to the state constitution in 1902. Black citizens were disenfranchised as a result, and representation was limited.

L. Douglas Wilder, in 1969, was the first Black representative elected to the Virginia Senate since Reconstruction. After a term as lieutenant governor, he became the first Black governor in the U.S.

All races will see gains in representation this upcoming session, most at historic numbers.

  • Almost a third of the upcoming state legislature will be people of color.
  • Eight Asian American legislators won their respective races, half were incumbents. Five will serve as delegates, three as senators. The total includes two delegates who identify as more than one race.
  • Four Latino legislators will serve in the House. Two nonincumbent Latino candidates won their respective races.
  • Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, has served since 2014 and is the legislature’s only Palestinian American.

Virginia will welcome its first Iranian American legislator. Delegate-elect Atoosa Reaser from Loudoun County won House District 27.

Reaser’s family fled Iran during a revolution. She stated that recent events propelled her to run for office to ensure Virginians have the “same freedom and opportunity that brought her family to America in the first place.”

“Sadly, women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others are seeing their rights taken away,” Reaser stated.

At least three Muslim legislators were elected. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, was the first Muslim legislator elected to the state Senate in 2019. That representation grew by one this election.

LGBTQ+ representation

The LGBTQ+ community also made gains.

All nine Democratic candidates won and were endorsed by the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, a national organization that helps elect candidates. Two will serve in the Virginia Senate, and seven in the House.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, will move from the House to the Senate. She is the first transgender member of Virginia’s upper chamber. She will be the South’s first transgender state senator.

Just under 4% of adults in Virginia are estimated to be LGBTQ+, according to the Williams Institute.

When Democrats held a majority in the General Assembly for two years, they ushered in several protections for LGBTQ+ citizens, including the Virginia Values Act that extended nondiscrimination laws to protect LGBTQ citizens better.

A constitutional amendment to repeal the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, though trumped by federal law, failed to pass its required second time when Republicans gained control in the House in 2022.

Virginia’s LGBTQ+ community has often been at odds with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s updated model policies regarding transgender students in schools. These policies saw immense backlash from students, parents, and LGBTQ+ advocates — although many parents also supported the policies.

Advocates also criticized Youngkin’s administration for its quiet removal of the Resources for LGBTQ Youth page on the state department health website after an inquiry from a right-leaning media outlet.

“The legislature that takes office in January will look a lot more like Virginia than previous legislatures,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

Diversity in the Virginia Republican party does not match the Democrats, though that isn’t for a lack of recent commitment, according to Farnsworth. Republicans nominated the most diverse executive branch in history two years ago, with the first Black lieutenant governor and a Hispanic attorney general.

“The Republican Party nominated a very diverse slate of candidates, but many of them were running in places where Democratic candidates had a huge advantage,” Farnsworth said.

Diverse, but still mostly divided 

According to Wrighten, despite the steep learning curve that comes with the job, there is also an opportunity for change and new ideas.

“I think when you have all new freshmen legislators, I think we’re going to see some of these exciting parts of democracy actually come to realization,” Wrighten said.

Though more diverse, Virginia’s government remains mostly divided. Democrats have control, but with a Republican governor who holds a veto pen. They do not have the supermajority needed to overturn his vetoes.

Youngkin told reporters the day after the election that he was disappointed with the results but expressed optimism about working with what he described as a “pretty bipartisan-looking” General Assembly. He said legislators need to be dedicated to cooperation.

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a school teacher, said he is working with Youngkin on issues such as testing reform to help improve the quality of education for Virginia’s children. VanValkenburg will move to the Senate in January.

“I’m hopeful we can take the next step and get that testing reform put into law, and we can do right by our kids,” VanValkenburg said.

The issue of education rallied voters on both sides this year, according to Farnsworth.

“Polls show both Republican voters and Democrat voters were energized by education concerns,” Farnsworth said.

There are other opportunities for the parties to work together in a limited capacity, including education, mental health, and economic development, according to Farnsworth.

Incoming House Speaker Scott emphasized there is a chance for Youngkin to work with House Democrats.

“I think there are opportunities to work with the governor to continue to do the things that make it easier for everyday working-class Virginians to make a decent living,” Scott said.


By Vali Jamal
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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All Virginia Wildfires Except Matt’s Creek Contained, Say Officials



After an unusually active fall fire season that has seen responders struggle to get multiple blazes under control, all of Virginia’s wildfires except for the Matt’s Creek Fire in Bedford County have been contained.

The Quaker Run Fire in Madison County, Virginia. (Virginia Department of Forestry)

As of Monday night, the state had “no active wildfires” besides Matt’s Creek, said Virginia Department of Forestry spokesman Greg Bilyeu in an email.

Virginia’s fall fire season runs from Oct. 15 to Nov. 30, a period when dead leaves provide ample fuel for any spark. This year has proved especially challenging, with the Department of Forestry responding to 113 wildfires that have burned more than 12,000 acres since the season began. By comparison, the agency has said the average annual acreage affected by wildfires in Virginia is 9,500.

Madison County wildfire spreads to nearly 2,500 acres, including part of Shenandoah Natl Park

“We need no further proof that fall fire season has arrived with a vengeance,” said Chief of Fire and Emergency Response John Miller in a Nov. 16 statement. “We will remain vigilant to protect people and property.”

Among the more serious conflagrations was the Quaker Run Fire in Madison County, which broke out Oct. 24 near the community of Syria and burned nearly 4,000 acres, including roughly 700 in Shenandoah National Park, before it was declared contained Nov. 17. In Buchanan County, the Rocklick Fire affected over 2,200 acres, while the Tuggles Gap fire in Patrick County and Rachel’s Chapel fire in Dickenson County both burned more than 1,000 acres each.

The Matt’s Creek fire remains the largest blaze of the season, having spread to over 11,000 acres. Midday Wednesday, Bilyeu said the fire was 57% contained. Located in the Jefferson National Forest, that fire is under federal jurisdiction, with a large-scale response managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Significant rain across the commonwealth Tuesday helped dampen Matt’s Creek as well as other wildfires. The U.S. Forest Service reported an area in the fire’s range received 3.8 inches of rain yesterday.

“Did all this rain put the fire out?” the agency wrote in a Facebook update. “Not completely. But it helped! Firefighters continue to patrol and monitor the fire area and are working to put out the stumps and logs that are still smoldering.”

Bilyeu said Wednesday that “the rain was very important in helping weaken all fire activity and preventing flare-ups and new starts.”

“Virginia has experienced drought conditions, so the rain was extremely welcome,” he said.

In Richmond Wednesday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, too expressed gratitude for Tuesday’s precipitation.

“I also want to stop for a minute and have a moment of appreciation, thanks and a big amen for the rain yesterday. It was a big moment. We needed it,” he said at the beginning of a traditional tribute ceremony involving Virginia’s Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes. “It also allowed us to fully contain the forest fires and wildfires burning across Virginia. So we’re just going to have a moment of silence for rain.”

Bilyeu said Virginians should continue to take extra care and check with local officials for the latest burn ban information before planning any outdoor fires.


by Sarah Vogelsong, 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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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The First Bills of the 2024 Virginia General Assembly Have Dropped. Here’s What They Would Do.



Virginia’s next General Assembly won’t convene until Jan. 10, but senators and delegates have already begun penning legislation. (And by that, we mean the Virginia Division of Legislative Services is hard at work translating their goals into the high-flown tones of state code.)

On Monday, the start of the 2024 session’s official prefiling period, lawmakers dropped the first bills that will be up for consideration this January.

Much more is yet to come as Democrats and Republicans jockey for ways to realize their key priorities on everything from hot-button issues like abortion access to the more bread-and-butter legislation that ensures state laws and agencies remain abreast of an ever-changing world. Democrats will have control of both the House of Delegates and Senate when lawmakers return to Richmond, but the slimness of their majorities means they aren’t guaranteed to get everything they want.

Here’s what was proposed on the first day bills could be filed:

Constitutional amendments on abortion

Two bills — House Joint Resolution 1 from Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Senate Joint Resolution 1 from multiple female Democratic senators — would start the process of amending the state Constitution to declare that “every individual has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom” and that the right should not be denied or infringed upon “unless justified by a compelling state interest and achieved by the least restrictive means that do not infringe an individual’s autonomous decision-making.”

No single bill has the power to change the state Constitution. Amendments require that a resolution be passed by a majority of both houses during a session and then held over to be passed again by the next elected legislature, with an election intervening between the two approvals. If it succeeds the second time, voters must approve the change in a referendum before it takes effect.

Constitutional amendment on felon voting rights

Two bills — House Joint Resolution 2 from Del. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, D-Alexandria, and Senate Joint Resolution 2 from Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton — would begin the process of amending the Constitution to restore voting rights to felons who have served their time. Currently, Virginia is the only state in the U.S. that strips voting rights from all felons for their entire life, with restoration only possible if they petition the governor and the governor decides to grant their request.

“A person who has been convicted of a felony shall not be entitled to vote during any period of incarceration for such felony conviction, but upon release from incarceration for that felony conviction and without further action required of him, such person shall be invested with all political rights, including the right to vote,” the amendment states.

Constitutional amendment on property tax exemption for surviving spouses of a soldier who died in the line of duty

The General Assembly previously passed a potential constitutional amendment that would extend the property tax exemption that’s currently available to the spouses of soldiers killed in action to spouses of soldiers who died in the line of duty. This year, Del. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, has proposed a second vote on the amendment, as well as a bill that would authorize the required referendum on the issue.

Increases to the state minimum wage

Virginia lawmakers vote to raise the minimum wage to $12 over three years

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly under Democratic control voted to gradually raise the state minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour over the course of three years. That legislation also provided for further increases of the minimum to $13.50 in 2025 and $15 in 2026 if the General Assembly again voted to approve them by July 1, 2024. If those increases didn’t get a second green light, the bill ordered that the minimum wage be pegged to inflation going forward.

House Bill 1 from Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, and Senate Bill 1 from Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, would restart the increases on the same schedule laid out in 2020.

Assault weapons ban

Bills from Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, would make it a Class 1 misdemeanor for anyone to import, sell, manufacture, purchase, possess, transport or transfer an assault firearm.

Notably, the bill includes exceptions for any firearm that is antique, permanently inoperable, manually operated by bolt, pump, lever or slide action or manufactured before July 1, 2024.

Repealing Virginia’s Clean Cars Law

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, have put forward bills to repeal a 2021 Democrat-backed law that tied Virginia’s vehicle emissions standards to California’s rather than following the federal government’s less strict limits.

Under the Clean Air Act, states are prohibited from setting their own vehicle emissions standards and must choose between the federal and California limits. Since Virginia adopted the California standards, the Golden State has decided to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars beginning in 2035, a choice that Virginia will also be bound to follow.

Senate Bill 3 from Stuart would simply repeal the 2021 law. House Bill 3 from Wilt would go a step further, forbidding the State Air Pollution Control Board from adopting or enforcing any model year standards related to controlling emissions from new vehicles and prohibiting the state from requiring any new car “to be certified as compliant with model year standards related to the control of emissions adopted by California.”


by Sarah Vogelsong, 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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia Board of Education Backs Creation of State Standards for Career and Technical Education



As demand for skilled workers grows, Virginia is planning to develop new career and technical education standards to make it easier for schools to offer programs that pivot from the traditional path of college preparation.

On Wednesday, the Virginia Board of Education voted unanimously to support the creation of state CTE standards that will allow school divisions to opt out of a prior requirement that programs meet national accreditation standards. The Virginia Department of Education has said the shift could potentially save districts money and open up options for new programs.

“The Board heard clearly that a mandate of national accreditation standards creates burdens to continuing a number of career programs and was likely to cost students opportunities to participate in career and technical education,” said VDOE Assistant Superintendent Todd Reid. “This move helps ensure more career training options should remain available for Virginia’s students seeking certification for their post-graduation work.”

State code requires CTE courses to be “aligned with state or national program certification and accreditation standards if such standards exist.” However, because the state has not previously crafted its own CTE standards — which can include rules for planning and monitoring courses, evaluating student outcomes, and ensuring equipment and activities comply with health and safety regulations — Virginia schools have historically deferred to national ones.

National standards, however, can be costly for divisions to meet, both because of the requirements they impose on divisions and the fees they extract from schools. Virginia CTE programs currently rely on national accreditation and include culinary arts, pharmacy technician, graphic imaging technology, heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), and refrigeration.

“With our state accreditation standards, this will provide relief and flexibility,” said Anthony Williams, director of VDOE’s Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education.

Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging, and Travel Association, which represents schools that offer culinary arts training, said Wednesday that about half of the schools may have to drop their culinary arts programs because of the cost associated with accreditation through the American Culinary Federation. Among that organization’s guidelines for accreditation is a requirement that schools have a full culinary kitchen, which can cost millions, Terry said. That applies whether a division is small — as in Halifax — or large — as in Fairfax.

“We are not opposed to accreditation in general,” Terry said. “We just think that this particular one is particularly egregious to our schools being able to qualify for it.”

The Virginia Department of Education has said that state standards could relieve divisions of some of those costs while still ensuring that students receive high-quality training.

“State programmatic accreditation standards will allow school divisions the opportunity to weigh the costs associated with national accreditation alignment with the relative benefit to the program and/or student,” a VDOE report states.


The push to develop state CTE standards is in line with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s emphasis on strengthening Virginia’s workforce and expanding career and technical education in public schools. Most notably, the governor has said he believes every Virginia student should graduate high school with a credential or associate’s degree.

Bills to bolster career and technical education falter in General Assembly

While that idea has not been realized, state lawmakers have backed some efforts to beef up Virginia students’ career readiness. The latest budget gave Virginia colleges and universities an additional $75 million to “refine or create programs that meet current and future workforce needs.” Youngkin has especially encouraged the expansion of dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to take college-level courses or classes that count toward industry credentials.

However, a range of proposals aimed at strengthening career and technical education failed during the last General Assembly session, including bills to expand the state’s tuition assistance program for community college students interested in high-demand industries. And federal legislation to expand 529 savings plans to cover training for high-demand middle-skilled positions — jobs that require more than a high school diploma and less than a four-year degree — has stalled.

Meanwhile, employers are clamoring for more skilled tradespeople. According to the Construction Labor Market Analyzer, a tool developed by the industry group Build Your Future, 280,076 craft professionals are needed in Virginia.

Courney Baker, director of workforce and training with the Associated General Contractors of Virginia, said most employers in Virginia look to career-building programs to acquire workers. A survey conducted by the group found that 79% of Virginia firms with open jobs are having a hard time filling some or all positions, and 92% have increased pay rates in the past year.


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: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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