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Gov. Ralph Northam made clear to his revenue advisory council on Monday that he does not support repeal of Virginia’s right-to-work law that forbids compulsory union membership.
With Democrats preparing to take complete control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 25 years, Northam sought to reassure Virginia business leaders that the state won’t take a sharp leftward turn on an issue that has long been a political fire alarm in a pro-business state.
“I can’t foresee Virginia taking actions [that would include] repeal of the right-to-work law,” he told the Governor’s Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates.
Virginia’s right-to-work law says participation in a union may not be a condition for employment in the state. In 2016, Virginia voters rejected a proposal to put provisions of the law in the state constitution.
The revenue advisory council, known as GACRE, was preparing a closed-door review of the state’s economic and revenue forecast for the next two-year budget, which Northam will introduce on Dec. 17 for action by the new General Assembly in a 60-day session that will begin Jan. 8.
Northam was flanked on one side by a row of business leaders that included Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell and on the other by legislative leaders of a politically transformed assembly. They included House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, whose party will become the minority in January, and House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, defeated for re-election after 22 years in the House.
Jones said of Northam’s statement: “It was a very good move to reassure the engine that’s driving our economy.”
Destiny LeVere, communications director of the Virginia AFL-CIO, said the organization reacted with “deep disappointment” to the governor’s remarks.
“Being named 1st for business and 51st overall for workers isn’t something Virginia should be proud of,” she said in a statement.
“This General Assembly session, workers will be joining together to ensure that there will be a robust, pro-labor agenda that values Virginia’s workers, putting us at the forefront. Number one on this agenda is repealing right-to-work.”
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, said on Twitter that he will again introduce legislation to repeal the right-to-work law, despite Northam’s assertion. This year, the GOP majority in the House left his bill in the Commerce and Labor Committee.
“Opposition doesn’t stop me from putting in good bills. And repealing RTW is a good bill,” Carter said in his Twitter post. “I’m gonna introduce it, and I’m gonna fight like hell to get it to the Governor’s desk. And if he vetoes it, he’ll be the one who has to own that.”
Business groups praised Northam’s remarks.
“We really appreciate his [the governor’s] support and hopefully that will resonate with the new majority,” said Nicole Riley, Virginia state director for the National Federal of Independent Business, which has about 6,000 members in Virginia, mostly small businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
“It certainly gives us hope that it won’t happen,” Riley said. “We will still have to see what are the priorities of the new majority, and we certainly know that this probably isn’t going to go away.”
Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that he was “encouraged to hear the governor vocalize his commitment to maintaining Virginia’s positive business climate.
“Virginia’s AAA bond rating and right-to-work law are key components to Virginia’s economic competitiveness,” DuVal said. “Any move to undermine these two important features would be perceived as a significant blow to the commonwealth’s standing as a desirable place to do business.”
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, who will become minority leader in January, and Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, urged Northam to say unequivocally that he would veto a repeal bill if it reaches his desk.
The governor made clear he will not support any actions that could endanger Virginia’s triple-A bond rating. All three of the country’s bond rating agencies give Virginia a top rating that allows the state to pay less for bonds to finance capital projects. But Northam recalled the warning Standard & Poor’s issued the year before he took office that the state’s rainy day fund was too low and should not be tapped when revenues were growing.
The next year, S&P and other rating agencies restored Virginia’s stable economic outlook. That was shortly after Northam signed into law the current two-year budget, which included expansion of Medicaid and a hospital tax to pay the state’s share of the cost.
The governor said that by the end of the next fiscal year, June 30, 2021, the state will have more than $1.6 billion in savings, including a new cash reserve fund he established in cooperation with Republican budget leaders, as well as a restored No. 1 ranking by CNBC as the best state to do business.
“We’re going to work hard to keep it,” he said, noting the value of the triple-A bond rating.
Northam briefly outlined the state’s currently robust revenue performance, but cautioned that the Joint Advisory Board of Economists had already concluded that while a standard economic outlook was appropriate for the country, it would be “too strong for Virginia in the short term.”
Casino gambling would be profitable for Virginia and localities, such as Richmond, where they could be built, but the state faces plenty of risks — from a surge in gambling addiction to a potentially devastating blow to existing gaming operations tied to the state’s horse-racing industry — according to a long-awaited legislative study of state gaming options.
The study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission estimated that, collectively, Virginia could gain $262 million annually in gaming tax revenue from five potential casinos, including one in Richmond that would generate almost one-third of the revenue and about 3,000 of the estimated 10,000 jobs that would be created.
The profits could be much higher, depending on the tax rate and whether a casino were to be built in Northern Virginia, which the study said would generate an additional $155 million in annual state gaming tax revenue and create an additional 4,400 jobs.
The commission had barely finished a two-hour review of the 10-month study on Monday when warning flares went up from Colonial Downs, owner of a horse track in New Kent County and four existing gaming emporiums that could lose business to casinos, and from the Pamunkey Indians, whose tribal sovereignty gives them the option of operating a casino under federal rather than state law.
“The Pamunkey Tribe has been marginalized for centuries and deserve some protections as they seek to gain financial independence and improve the lives of their members,” said spokesman Jay Smith, who added that the study recommendations “do not sufficiently protect Virginia’s only tribe with federal gaming rights.”
Colonial Downs, owner of Rosie’s “historical horse racing” parlors in Richmond and three other localities, said the opening of five or more casinos without an opportunity to compete for the licenses would “lead to job losses and a loss of tax revenue for localities and the state” by undermining a new industry that’s invested $300 million in Virginia in the last two years.
“This would send a terrible message to other job creators and capital providers looking to invest in Virginia,” spokesman Mark Hubbard said.
The study — which also considers sports betting, online gaming and currently unregulated slot-like video machines — appeared to diminish the appetite of some legislators to approve sweeping changes to Virginia gaming laws in a General Assembly session that will convene in January with new Democratic majorities in both chambers.
Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, one of the authors of the legislative compromise that ordered the study, suggested that the legislature might be wise to “move incrementally” because of the complexity of the issues and the new political reality that the Nov. 5 elections created.
JLARC conducted the study with the help of two national consultants, The Innovation Group and Regulatory Management Counselors, to determine the potential tax and economic benefits of legalizing casino and other forms of gambling in Virginia. It also looked at the critical details of licensing and regulating the operations, helping people with gambling addiction, and protecting existing gaming operations, including the Virginia Lottery.
The lottery, for example, generated more than $600 million for K-12 public education in the last fiscal year but says its profits already are being reduced because of competition from thousands of unregulated, unlicensed and untaxed video machines that their operators say are legal because winning depends on skill rather than chance.
Norment, who has fumed at the reports that the machines would cost the lottery $140 million a year, said that “there’s going to be an unidentified senator who is going to put in legislation to prohibit and ban them.”
The lottery has said that the Rosie’s historical horse-racing parlors, which feature video machines that look like slots but run on the results of past races, pose much less of a financial threat than the so-called “skill machines.” Casino gaming would cost the lottery an estimated $30 million a year, the study said.
However, five potential casinos — in Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Danville and Bristol, as envisioned by legislation adopted this year to order the study — would reduce live-racing purses by $9 million a year. Colonial Downs would see a 45% reduction in what is now almost $300 million in annual revenues from historical horse-racing gaming parlors.
Colonial Downs is expected to open at least one more Rosie’s operation, and voters in Danville and Dumfries — a town in Prince William County — agreed in referendums earlier this month to allow historical horse racing in their localities. Norment suggested that Colonial Downs is creating a statewide footprint for gaming parlors that could become casinos.
However, that would depend on legislation that would require a competitive selection process for awarding casino licenses to maximize the revenue benefits and minimize risks, as the JLARC report recommends. The study also suggests that Virginia require the state to hire an independent consultant to evaluate the fiscal and economic benefits of casino proposals before choosing winners.
A competitive selection process could establish criteria, including a preference for tribal ownership, that could be evaluated by a special committee that JLARC staff recommended for considering competitive casino proposals. The state would run the process with help from affected localities, the study said.
“I think the state would be remiss if it did not include local input,” JLARC Associate Director Tracey Smith told the commission.
However, the Pamunkeys want any evaluation process to protect their rights as a federally recognized tribe. “We look forward to working with the General Assembly and the Governor to ensure adequate protections are in place for the Pamunkey Tribe,” Jay Smith, the tribe’s spokesman, said in a statement.
The study recommends the lottery as the most capable and least costly way to regulate casinos and other new forms of gaming. However, Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb, a fierce opponent of expanded gambling, said using the lottery “would only ensure that state government has a vested interest in promoting harmful and irresponsible gambling in perpetuity.”
Problem gambling would increase with casinos and other new forms of gaming, according to the study, which said the state has little funding to pay for prevention and treatment of gambling addiction. It said the state could use gaming revenue to pay for services that the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services could administer.
The study was limited to the five cities specified in legislation this year for potential casinos, although Northern Virginia was added at the insistence of House of Delegates leaders who wanted a statewide evaluation of potential sites and their relative benefits.
Successful casinos, each with a minimum $200 million capital investment, could be built in all of those localities, said Tracey Smith, who oversaw the staff study. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that those are the best localities.”
Norment, who had preferred to limit the study’s scope, replied, “Just because we specified some of those within the legislation, there should not be an assumption that we really had the expertise to know what we were doing.”
Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom — who were convicted in the horrific 1985 slayings of Haysom’s parents — were granted parole Monday and will be released to immigration officials for deportation to their home countries of Germany and Canada, respectively.
Derek and Nancy Haysom were murdered in their Bedford County home in a crime instigated by Haysom and carried out by Soering, then lovers and students at the University of Virginia. The victims were stabbed and their throats cut in a crime scene described as a slaughterhouse.
Haysom pleaded guilty as an accessory to the murders and testified against Soering, who initially confessed but later recanted. For decades, Soering has been fighting to prove he is innocent, in a case that still generates international attention.
Soering’s claims have won support from advocates including some forensic experts, clergy, current and former law enforcement officers, and celebrities. Recent attention has included a movie and book about the case, and he was seeking a pardon from Gov. Ralph Northam.
Adrianne L. Bennett, chair of the Virginia Parole Board, which investigates pardon requests, said in a statement that the board recommended against a pardon. The governor’s office on Monday said it had turned down the pardon request.
“The yearslong, exhaustive investigation ... a genuine search for the truth revealed that Jens Soering’s claims of innocence are without merit,” she said.
But, she added, “the parole board has determined that releasing Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom to their ICE deportation detainers is appropriate because of their youth at the time of the offenses, their institutional adjustment and the length of their incarceration.”
“The release and permanent expulsion from the United States is an enormous cost-benefit to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia and we have determined that their release does not pose a public safety risk to the community,” Bennett said.
Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s press secretary, wrote in an email that Northam “has rejected Jens Soering’s request for an absolute pardon, after thoroughly reviewing the case and the parole board’s investigation.”
“The governor was also made aware that the parole board voted to release Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom to ICE, after which they will be permanently removed from the United States and unable to return,” Yarmosky said.
Bedford County sheriff’s Maj. Ricky Gardner, the primary investigator in the case, said Monday that his office has fully cooperated with the Virginia Parole Board and its investigation into Soering’s claims of innocence.
“In law enforcement, when questions arise it is always good to have someone go behind you and double-check your work to ensure justice has been fairly administered,” Gardner said. “The parole board investigation has done just that.”
“I do not have any comment on the parole board’s decision to release Elizabeth Haysom or Jens Soering,” Gardner said. “However, I trust it is a sound decision.”
In a controversial development in 2010, as then-Gov. Tim Kaine was leaving office, he quietly agreed to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to approve Soering’s transfer to a German prison. The plan fell through when Bob McDonnell, who opposed it, was sworn in as governor.
U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th, whose district includes Bedford County, said in a prepared statement that he is “shocked and appalled by the Virginia State Parole Board’s decision to grant parole to Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom.
“The impact of the Haysoms’ murder is still felt by the Bedford community today. This decision, based not on any remorse by the murderers for their crimes, but instead on some supposed cost-benefit to Virginia, is an insult to the families of the victims and to the principles of justice and the rule of law,” Cline said.
Soering’s lawyer, Steve Rosenfield of Charlottesville, said Monday that “if the news is correct, we are thrilled that he is going back to Germany.”
Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding, who has supported Soering’s innocence claims and has been helping investigate them for the past few years, said, “I’m ecstatic with Jens going back to Germany. I think it’s long overdue.
“I was surprised to learn through the media that he was paroled. But we’re not complaining,” he said.
Harding, who has been in law enforcement for nearly 50 years, said he still knows little about how paroles and pardons work.
He said the process — in which the governor has investigators with the parole office look into pardon requests — appears awkward,.
“They can solicit [information] from us, which is fine. But they cannot tell us anything they are doing or any concern that they have so it’s a one-way street — you have no way of knowing how they reach certain conclusions,” Harding said.
Harding complained that the Bedford Sheriff’s Office would not cooperate with him and other investigators looking into Soering’s innocence claim.
“He’s been locked up for 33 years with an impeccable record ... for a stupid mistake he made when he was 18 years old,” said Harding, who believes Soering was an accessory after the fact to the crime.
Harding said he has heard from a contact Soering has in Germany that Soering has heard the news and “is ecstatic.”
Soering, 53, an inmate at the Buckingham Correctional Center, is serving two life sentences for first-degree murder.
Haysom, 55, is being held at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women and is serving a 90-year term.
Because the crimes were committed before parole was abolished in Virginia, both have been eligible for early release, although each has been turned down repeatedly.
In 1985, Soering was 18 and Haysom was 20. The two lovers and students came from privileged, well-to-do families. Soering was the son of a German diplomat and Haysom the daughter of a retired Canadian steel executive.
They had been dating for a few months when on a weekend in March 1985, they drove a rented car to Washington, D.C., to establish an alibi. Soering, a jury concluded, drove the car back to the Haysoms’ home, stabbed them to death and then drove back to Washington.
The victims were stabbed repeatedly and the crime scene was described by an investigator as a “slaughterhouse.”
When police started asking them questions, Soering and Haysom fled the country in October 1985. They were arrested in London in April 1986 for writing bad checks. Both confessed to the killings, but Haysom later said the killer was Soering. She agreed to plead guilty and testify against him.
Soering, who fought extradition, was convicted by a Bedford jury in 1990. He said he falsely confessed to protect Haysom, with whom he was in love.
Haysom, a long-term inmate at Fluvanna, has kept a relatively low profile. Soering, in addition to his highly publicized innocence claims, became a published author writing about criminal justice and inmate issues over the years.
In a 2016 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Haysom said she deeply regretted her role in the slayings and for involving Soering. But she said Soering was lying about being innocent. Soering said Haysom was lying, hoping to win parole.
In recent years, Soering and his supporters argued that DNA testing conducted on crime scene evidence in 2009 proved that blood said to be his during his trial belonged to someone else. His most recent pardon request relies in part on DNA-related claims.
Bedford officials have maintained that Soering is guilty and the jury verdict was correct.
“Sheriff Mike Brown and Maj. Ricky Gardner of the Bedford County sheriff’s department have at all times demonstrated professionalism,” said Bennett, the parole board chair, “and we are grateful for their transparency during this lengthy investigation.”
A trail of white petals lined East Marshall Street on Monday as drums and bells welcomed home the remains of 53 people, mainly of African descent, whose first resting place had been a 19th-century well on what is now the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The remains arrived in Richmond from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where they had rested since the well was discovered in 1994 during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building on VCU’s medical campus.
The return of the remains was a solemn occasion that traced the racism present in the lives and deaths of those memorialized Monday.
The deceased, 44 adults and 9 children, are thought to have been victims of “postmortem racism” in antebellum Richmond — their bodies likely stolen from fresh graves or taken from hospital deathbeds to be used for the training of medical students.
“We honor those who in death were sold again in the cadaver trade … who completed their life cycle in a dry well, who were not free even in death,” said Janine Bell, president of the Elegba Folklore Society, which led an African libation ceremony near the site of the well to lend “cultural context and spiritual grounding” to Monday’s event. As part of the traditional African libation ceremony, Bell poured water into a bowl while paying homage to the African ancestors of the deceased.
The return of the remains to Richmond is part of a research and memorialization process that VCU President Michael Rao kicked off in 2013 — nearly two decades after the remains were found. Recommendations from a committee released in the fall called for the remains to return to Richmond.
They also called for further research into the remains to understand their ancestry and their health before death; burial in the Richmond area that honors West African traditions; and physical memorials to mark the experiences of the people whose remains were disposed of in the well.
The remains were transported Monday night to the Department of Historic Resources, where they’ll remain for now.
“We’ve recommended that they be buried in the [Richmond African Burial Ground], but it’ll be several years before they are buried,” said Joseph Jones, who chairs the Family Representative Council for the East Marshall Street Well Project. The council is made up of “surrogate descendants” of the deceased — local experts and community members tasked with representing them.
During Monday’s ceremony, several speakers spoke of the pain of slavery in Richmond and the inequitable treatment and burial of those whose remains were found in the well.
“They were discarded without respect and without dignity,” said Mayor Levar Stoney. “Today they get respect and dignity.” Stoney said that through public policies, society must “provide the justice our ancestors didn’t have but rightfully deserved.”
Gov. Ralph Northam said: “They were not shown respect in life or in death,” adding that those who benefited from their bodies opted toward “tossing them away instead of giving them the dignity of a burial.”
Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who has worked on the well project for years, said that while the identities and exact manner of death of those buried are unknown, “we know the human condition of pain and suffering.”
Jones reminded those gathered Monday that the excavation of the well stopped 10 feet short of the well’s bottom.
“There almost certainly are remains underneath this building,” Jones said. “This is sacred ground.”