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Virginia House votes to repeal a number of abortion restrictions imposed under GOP control

A much different House of Delegates voted on Tuesday to roll back restrictions on abortions — including the required performance of an ultrasound — that the institution adopted eight years ago.

The 52-45 vote backed a measure that would end the ultrasound requirement for women to undergo first-trimester abortions that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, an anti-abortion Republican, signed into law in 2012 amid a flurry of what opponents called TRAP legislation — or “targeted regulation of abortion providers.”

House Bill 980, sponsored by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, also would remove the mandatory 24-hour waiting period and required printed material given to a woman before she could have an abortion.

In addition, it would allow licensed physician assistants, nurse practitioners or certified nurse midwives to perform the procedure and remove a requirement that abortions be performed only in facilities that met the same regulatory requirements as hospitals.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said in a statement that the vote means “legislators understand that the majority of Virginians trust a woman to make her own health care decisions.”

With Democrats in charge of both chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in more than 25 years, the bill overcame impassioned pleas by two Republican women legislators to not roll back what they called protections for unborn children and their mothers. “Life is Beautiful” placards rested on the desks of Republican delegates during the debate.

Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, recounted two of her own high-risk pregnancies — one that doctors told her was likely to end in stillbirth — that produced two healthy children after she insisted on carrying them to full term.

“That baby wanted to live and I wanted that baby to live,” Ransone said of the second child, a boy who’s now 14 years old, whom she said doctors predicted would not survive.

“There are many of us who want to fight for life and for mercy,” she said.

Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, chided Democrats who have hailed the ascendance of women to leadership positions — House speaker, House clerk and, in the case of the bill’s patron, House majority leader — and ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, for supporting legislation that she said would deny a woman’s right to informed consent before undergoing an abortion.

“Today we are moving beyond milestones and symbolic gestures,” she said. “Today we will learn what the House believes about women and their rights.”

Byron, chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, contended that the legislation would “obliterate all of these safeguards for women” that she said had been enacted to protect women and unborn children.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said the legislation would give women — including his three daughters — the right to make their own health care decisions without interference by politicians.

“I want them to be the decision-makers and be in control of their own destiny, not us,” Hope said.


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Stoney defends Navy Hill development plan, saying 'we can't be afraid to embrace opportunity'

Facing the possibility that his signature project is sunk, Mayor Levar Stoney offered a defense of the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan during his annual State of the City speech Tuesday night.

On Monday, a majority of Richmond City Council members asked Stoney to scrap the controversial downtown redevelopment proposal and start over. Stoney quickly rebuffed the request, calling it “selfish” and “laughable” in remarks to reporters that angered some on the council.

A day later, Stoney reiterated that he will not drop the plans his administration has spent two years reviewing, negotiating and lobbying public support for. To do so would pass up a chance to move the city forward, he said.

“Our city has a history of resisting change, and of letting past defeats stoke fears that challenge our faith in the future. Yes, we’ve taken some swings in the past, and missed. But if we truly want the change we need, if we truly want to move on from the mistakes of our past, we can’t be afraid to embrace opportunity when it stares us in the face.”

“We have to believe in ourselves. And we have to have faith that we can do something great for our city. … And that is why I will not withdraw the ordinances I introduced last August.”

The remarks drew applause from a room of more than 300 residents and city administrators gathered at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

The proposal is slated for a final vote next month, but Monday’s request from five members of the council made clear the project lacks the necessary support to pass; that would require seven votes.

Cynthia Newbille, the council president, said after the speech that she believed the council could still broker a compromise to improve the terms of the project.

“I’m looking at [the request] as certainly making a statement given where we are at this moment, but I’m also confident those members will look at the additional information that comes out and see if we can’t further refine the project,” she said.

One of the council members who requested Stoney pull the project, Reva Trammell of the 8th District, said she was unmoved by the mayor’s speech.

“I’m not changing my vote,” Trammell said afterward. Asked whether anything would cause her to reconsider before the final vote scheduled on Feb. 24, she replied without hesitation: “No. Never.”

The Navy Hill plan, proposed by NH District Corp., the developer led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, calls for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

The massive plan did not figure prominently into Stoney’s remarks Tuesday. His first mention of it came in the 38th minute of his 48-minute prepared remarks.

He devoted the majority of his speech to highlighting the work his administration has done to improve core city services, public education and the city’s financial outlook during his first three years in office. He also shared new initiatives he plans to roll out in the final year of his term.

Among them are a comprehensive plan that will include recommendations for increasing the city’s affordable housing stock and combating gentrification and displacement. That will be unveiled “in the coming weeks,” he said.

Stoney also said he was committed to working with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the City Council to transform the city’s public housing stock.

“Whether it’s through Section 8 vouchers, tax credits to developers of low-income housing, zoning regulations or a combination of all these factors, everything must be on the table as we seek to help public housing go from concentrated, segregated and dilapidated to dignified, healthy and accessible,” Stoney said.

Stoney also announced the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities will turn 10 parcels of vacant city-owned land into public green space starting this year. The effort is meant to reduce from 51,000 the number of city residents who live more than a 10-minute walk from a park.

“We will also work closely with these communities to ensure that the green space is designed in a way that meets their needs,” Stoney said. “This will be a community effort.”

The mayor also said he intends to form a new office in the city bureaucracy focused on children and families. In addition, he said the city’s permitting center will soon allow third-party reviews and inspections for property owners working on construction or renovation projects.


GOP does not have votes to prevent calling witnesses in Trump trial

In Nation & World | GOP does not have votes to prevent calling witnesses in Trump trial | Page A10


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Slots vs. skill — House panel moves to ban them all, but the game's just begun

A House of Delegates subcommittee voted 8-0 on Tuesday to ban electronic “skill games” in Virginia, but there’s plenty of time on the clock with 39 days left in the General Assembly session.

The subcommittee also voted unanimously to kill an alternative bill, endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam. It would have regulated and taxed the machines to help compensate for the Virginia Lottery’s lost revenue from direct competition in 4,500 retail outlets across the state.

The decision by the House General Laws subcommittee to prohibit the games — called gray machines because they operate in a murky realm between legal gaming and illegal gambling — sets up a potential clash with the Senate. Last week a Senate subcommittee on gaming adopted a bill to open Virginia to any kind of slot machine, as long as it’s tightly regulated and heavily taxed.

“We’re disappointed, but it’s still a long way to go in the process,” said Tom Lisk, a Richmond lawyer and lobbyist who represents Queen of Virginia Skills & Entertainment. It packed the meeting room with dozens of small-business owners and employees who call the gaming machines an economic godsend.

Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, sponsored House Bill 1589, the governor’s legislation to regulate the machines and tax them at a rate of 35% of their gross profits. That measure would have allowed games of skill to operate only in restaurants, truck stops and convenience stores, where Queen of Virginia alone has installed about 7,500 games.

The proposal that the Senate subcommittee approved, Senate Bill 1063, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, would instead allow any kind of “video gaming terminal,” as proposed by Golden Entertainment of Las Vegas and a group of other slot machine manufacturers. “Our bill is inclusive of games of skill,” said Golden Executive Vice President Sean Higgins, who called the skill games “a quasi-monopoly that was forced on the state.”

The full Senate General Laws Committee also is considering two bills that the subcommittee advanced without recommendation last week to impose regulations similar to Bagby’s. Those measures are Senate Bill 971, sponsored by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax and Senate Bill 960, sponsored by Sen. Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg. It’s not clear how the committee will reconcile the contrasting approaches.

The House subcommittee chose a third option by voting 8-0 to back House Bill 881, proposed by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, to ban the unlicensed machines, which he said Queen of Virginia and other companies installed across Virginia without benefit to the state or localities.

His bill would not affect historical horse racing games, which the state approved in 2018. Colonial Downs Group has opened four Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums that feature the machines, in Richmond, New Kent County, Hampton and Roanoke County.

“What kind of message does it send to the other guys if we abdicate on the question of whether we should [allow them] and go straight to the issue of how we tax and regulate them?” he asked.

However, the benefits are substantial for small businesses that host the machines and other companies that distribute or service them, supporters testified. Many of them wore shirts touting the jobs and education funding that would come from regulating and taxing the machines.

“Games of skill have been a bright light,” said Richard Kelly, owner of Hard Times Cafe, based in Arlington County, with locations throughout Northern Virginia and more than 100 employees.

In addition to income to the business, Kelly said, the games “provide a reason for people to come in and a reason to stay longer.”

Jeanna Bouzek, director of state operations for Queen of Virginia and a former operations director at Colonial Downs horse track, said her company employs 15 people, but also contracts with 45 small businesses and provides games to 2,200 retail establishments.

“We’re games of skill and we’re here to support every one of these people,” Bouzek said.

Bagby pitched his legislation as an opportunity to help “the little guy,” represented by the business owners standing behind him.

“This is the only bill we’ve been discussing on gaming that would give them a leg up, that gives them skin in the game,” he said.

Some legislators bridled at Queen of Virginia’s tactic of using small-business owners to pressure them to sanction what they regard as an unapproved and ill-advised type of gaming. A Georgia gaming manufacturer, Pace-O-Matic, owns the company.

“It’s very disingenuous to put us in this type of position,” said Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, who scolded the company for not seeking state approval and regulation before installing thousands of the machines across Virginia.

Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, also raised concerns about the proliferation of the machines in low-income neighborhoods, with negative consequences. “There is another little guy and that is the person who suffers from engaging with these machines too much,” Aird said,

Lisk said that Queen of Virginia had consulted with the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, local prosecutors and law enforcement before operating in any locality. “We sought to go into the front door,” he said. “We sought approval. We didn’t want to surprise anyone.”

Some lawmakers didn’t buy the argument that the machines are pure games of skill, allowed under current state law, but Lisk insisted that skilled players could win every single time they play. “It is a game of skill from first play to last,” he said.

Golden and other slot machine companies scoffed at the claim. “You use your own judgment about whether skill is involved or it’s gambling,” said Steve Baril, a Richmond lawyer representing Golden and four other companies. “In our opinion, it’s gambling.”

Unlike Queen of Virginia, which uses proprietary software in its machines, slot machine companies say their approach would allow competition from all types of games.

“Allowing choice in machines makes for a better product for these small businesses, for the players and gives more money to the state,” said Michael Gelatka, director of strategic initiatives for Accel Entertainment, based in Illinois.


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What gas tax hike? Transportation bill speeds through House committee

The House Transportation Committee voted 12-6 Tuesday to approve a transportation bill that would raise gas taxes by 12 cents per gallon over three years.

The proposed gas tax hike drew no opposition and picked up unprecedented support from the Virginia Petroleum and Convenience Marketers Association, which had never supported increasing motor vehicle taxes.

“Things change,” said Michael O’Connor, president and CEO of the 72-year-old trade group.

The measure will go to the House Finance Committee to review proposed tax changes.

Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to drop his proposal to eliminate auto safety inspections and instead require them every other year instead of annually. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, which had strongly opposed the governor’s original plan, endorsed the compromise.

“Every other year is a good compromise, rather than no inspections at all,” said Don Hall, president of the association.

Ending the auto inspection program, which the governor had said would save consumers $150 million a year, had become the focal point of opposition to omnibus legislation that would transform the way Virginia pays for highway, rail and transit improvements. Initially, the inspection proposal wasn’t even part of the bill, but proposed separately.

However, the administration agreed to a compromise on Monday to require safety inspections every other year and include it in a transportation package that so far has had broad support.

House Bill 1414, which House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, introduced for the governor, also includes highway safety provisions that the administration argued would far outweigh the dangers of ending or cutting back state auto inspections, as 35 states and the District of Columbia already have done.

Those measures would ban passengers as well as drivers from carrying open containers of alcohol in vehicles, prohibit drivers from holding cellphones in moving vehicles, and allow police to enforce mandatory seat belt use as a primary offense, meaning a driver could be cited for that alone. If approved, the changes would take effect in mid-2021 to allow training for law enforcement and education of the public.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, questioned why the administration would compromise on eliminating inspections if they are not as effective in improving highway safety as measures aimed at driver behavior.

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine acknowledged law enforcement concerns about the effect that eliminating inspections would have on highway safety, as well as on auto dealers and repair shops that conduct them for state police. The compromise addresses those concerns while helping Virginia consumers, she said.

“It does allow Virginians to keep more of their money,” she said of the package, which also would cut annual registration fees in half for most vehicle owners.

Valentine said the gas tax hike would reverse a decline in transportation revenues that have been tied to wholesale gasoline prices in the face of rising fuel efficiency and a potential shift to electric vehicles. Currently, she said, Virginia paves its secondary roads once every 15 years and has no money to address larger structural projects, such as repairing and replacing old bridges.

Environmental groups and electric vehicle manufacturers generally support the bill but oppose a proposed highway user fee that would be based on fuel efficiency to ensure that drivers who pay less in gas taxes still contribute their share to transportation maintenance and improvements. Volkswagen of America is asking to delay application of the new fee to electric vehicles until they reach 1% of all registered vehicles.

The legislation would raise an additional $543 million in gas tax revenues within four years, as well as provide dedicated funding for bus systems in Richmond and other urban areas and pay the state’s share of a $3.7 billion deal with CSX and Amtrak to dramatically boost passenger rail travel in Virginia.

Danny Plaugher, executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail, called the bill a “generational investment in passenger rail” that would boost state funding for rail by 20% and generate $125 million a year for transit systems.


BOB BROWN  

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, listens during debate on House Bill 980, her bill to remove a number of abortion restrictions.