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Glut of General Assembly legislation 'just overwhelming the system'

Frustration with the legislative process is a bipartisan issue in the Virginia Senate.

It boiled over on Wednesday, about 12 hours after the end of a marathon floor session that ended at 12:48 a.m., technically beyond the deadline for completing work on all Senate legislation at crossover of the 60-day session.

It was one long “legislative day” — as Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax called it — that had begun 14 hours earlier.

“I think we can do extraordinarily better in the process,” Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, admonished the Senate in a midday floor speech Wednesday.

Norment urged his 39 colleagues to “exercise some individual discipline” in the number of bills they introduce, improve the way subcommittees and committees decide policy disputes, and arrive promptly in the Senate chamber for the daily floor session instead of 20 minutes late.

Concern about the legislative process already had been building among the leaders of the Senate’s new Democratic majority over a glut of bills that had been followed by a flood of thick “amendments in the nature of a substitute” that have clogged subcommittee and committee meetings, only to spill onto the chamber floor.

The number of bills filed in the Senate — 1,095, according to the Legislative Information System — is about 10% higher than in 2018, the last 60-day session, and 40% higher than four years ago after the last Senate elections.

“We must limit the number of bills people put in next year,” Senate Finance and Appropriations Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, fumed in an interview almost two weeks ago. “This is an outrageous number. The committees are swamped.”

Senate Rules Chairwoman Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, agreed.

“It’s just overwhelming the system,” Locke said in an interview on Monday. “It’s overwhelming the staff.”

“At some point, you have to put a stop to it,” she said.

The House of Delegates introduced 1,734 bills, an increase of about 8% since 2018, when Democrats came within one seat of parity in a chamber that had been two-thirds Republican a year earlier. The number of bills introduced in the House has increased about 25% since 2016.

But the 100-member House completed work on its calendar and crossed over at 3:49 p.m. on crossover Tuesday, almost exactly nine hours before the 40-member Senate.

“The speaker and our new majority are delivering on the voters’ mandate to pass long-overdue legislation to make our commonwealth safer and more prosperous,” said Jake Rubenstein, spokesman for new House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “There is lots of work to do, and we will do all of it.”

For Democrats, in control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in almost 20 years, the flood of bills is a result of pent-up demand for legislative action on issues that Republican majorities have blocked in committees and, in the House, subcommittees.

“It’s a generational power shift and 20 years of backlog on policies that we’re getting pressure to move on,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who submitted 42 bills this year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

(The VPAP count of legislation lawmakers introduced does not include resolutions or joint resolutions, which have declined substantially.)

Democrats now have a 21-19 edge in the Senate, the same margin of power the Republicans held last year.

“All these 21-19 votes wouldn’t have occurred last year because the bills never would have made it out of committee,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said Wednesday in response to Norment.

However, Saslaw acknowledged, “There’s room for improvement, no doubt about it.”

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who led the General Assembly with 60 bills filed this year, defended the Senate’s practices and deliberative pace as appropriate for the weighty issues it tackled this year — driving privileges for undocumented immigrants, decriminalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage and legalizing casino gambling, to name a few.

“We’re doing so much big stuff this session,” he said after his seatmates, Sens. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, and Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, pointed to him during Norment’s scolding as the prime culprit.

Surovell, a former member of the House, said the Senate does things differently than the other chamber.

“We actually debate in this chamber,” he said.

Nowhere is the stress of the bill overload more apparent than at the Division of Legislative Services. It is operating without three attorneys who drafted legislation, including one on medical leave and another who retired in the middle of a House committee meeting last month after a delegate complained about the wording of a bill.

A fourth staffer, a redistricting specialist, also retired, leaving the division with 23 employees and an acting director after Mark Vucci resigned as director in December to become deputy clerk under new House Clerk Suzette Denslow.

Howell has proposed a budget amendment of $750,000 to help the division hire more staff to keep up with the increasing workload.

“They’re being pummeled,” said Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar, who has served in the Senate since 1974, including 30 years as clerk.

Schaar said the new General Assembly removed a recent cap on the number of bills that each member could ask legislative services to draft during the period for pre-filing legislation that began Nov. 18 and ended with the beginning of the session on Jan. 8. After the session begins, procedural rules limit each delegate to five bills and joint resolutions and each senator to eight bills and joint resolutions.

“I hope this opens their eyes and they realize the importance of having that cap,” Schaar said.

She and Norment said they never had seen as many requests for substitute bills — some of them 50 to 100 pages. “That’s like drafting a whole new bill,” Schaar said.

With crossover behind, the Senate now must deal with more than 800 bills coming from the House for deliberation and ultimately reconciliation with similar bills senators already have adopted.

“I suspect there’s a tsunami of bills out there from the House,” Norment said.


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access to sports
Home-school girls basketball team growing and thriving despite scheduling struggles

The journey to the Richmond Times-Dispatch Top 10 wasn’t an easy one for the Central Virginia Homeschool girls basketball team, which started in 2013.

“It was a train wreck at the time, to be quite honest,” head coach Crystal Goad said.

Transitioning into a varsity program that could face high school-level competition took time. The players were young, and the team was losing games by 30 to 50 points.

It took until the 2016-2017 season for the Patriots to earn a winning record. Now, they’ve taken the next leap forward.

In early January, the team broke into the T-D Top 10, where it stayed until early February. It is believed to be the first home-school team ever ranked in the poll. At the time, the squad was 14-3 and had toppled some of the top teams in the region: Hopewell, Saint Gertrude and Collegiate.

Since then, the Patriots have lost one of their top scorers, junior Kaylie Goad, to injury, and collected three losses, two of them to teams ranked No. 1 in their Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association divisions (Miller School and Veritas Collegiate).

The roster boasts three captains — Goad, and seniors Claiborne Poston and Kristin Mentzer — who have more than 1,000 career points. Goad passed 1,500 earlier this season.

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 5 or 6, and I’ve always enjoyed playing,” she said. “So when I started home schooling and I realized that I couldn’t really play for a public school team, this is what we ended up finding and we’ve stuck with it ever since.”

Crystal Goad said she was motivated to build up the program not only to give Kaylie, her daughter, a place to develop, but also to grow the Central Virginia Homeschool Athletic Association’s future as a place for other kids to play.

“It helps you get out and converse with people,” said Mentzer, the Winter Invitational MVP. “We’ve meshed together over the years, and being with people year after year, you know them so well that you know how to find them.”

A bill that would allow home-schooled students to participate on public school teams was proposed to the General Assembly this year but did not pass.

The Patriots compete within a home-school league, but Goad said it can be hard to find suitable competition and structure.

“You’ll hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, home-school kids, just go make your own team,’ ” Goad said. “Our biggest struggle with doing that is finding gym space, and people who will allow us gym space, and then finding teams that will play us.”

The home-school league has only five other teams and is prone to rebuilding periods — CVHAA previously had a competitive boys team but had insufficient players to field a squad this season.

Goad said public schools are rarely interested in playing them outside of tournaments, as wins don’t count toward their Virginia High School League records.

This means that driving three hours for a regular-season game isn’t uncommon. For tournaments, they’ve made the 10-hour drive to Franklin, Tenn.

Through long road trips and years of growth, the Patriots players have developed a strong sense of camaraderie, all tied in with their atypical path through education and high school basketball.

Poston, a point guard who averages 8.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, attends Millwood School, which does not offer a girls basketball team, and said the program has been a central aspect in her life during her three years there.

“Even though I’m not home-schooled, my teammates are like my closest friends, on and off the court,” Poston said. “At least for me, my basketball hadn’t given me the opportunity to shine or play to my potential, and Coach Crystal and the team have really allowed me to do that and have the confidence to be the best player I can be.”


Plus
Pollen season is off to another early start in Richmond

The calendar says it’s winter. The trees say it’s spring.

The early cusp of it, at least.

An early spike of pollen is billowing across metro Richmond, thanks to the streak of mild temperatures in recent weeks.

If the appearance of flowers and buds in February didn’t tip you off, some sniffling might have.

At Allergy Partners of Richmond in Henrico County, practice ambassador Becky Collie noticed a little rise in patient requests over the past couple of weeks. And on Wednesday, the practice’s first pollen count of the season revealed a high level of tree activity: 168 grains per cubic meter of air, averaged over the 48 hours leading up to noon.

Most of the pollen was the cedar/juniper variety — typically the earliest pollen culprit to arrive — with smaller traces of alder, elm, maple and pine.

That’s in the high category, and not merely by February standards. The scale is based on historical counts across the country. A higher count doesn’t necessarily predict more severe symptoms, but it will bother people who are allergic to the cedar that is active right now.

“And on the other side of that, if the count is 200 today and you’re allergic to oak, you’re probably OK because there’s no oak,” Collie said.

The pollen-collecting machine was just shipped back to the practice after its annual calibration, and likely would have picked up some cedar pollen on those warm days in late January and early February, too, Collie said.

There’s probably more cedar and maple to come on any warm, dry, windy days that encourage the release and spread of tree pollen.

Last year, there was a similar spike in cedar after warm weather in early February. In 2017 and 2018, it surged in mid-February. But in a more typical year, maple might be making its first appearance in late February or early March.

Collie’s advice for those not yet feeling symptoms, but who usually do in spring?

“It’s time to get on your over-the-counter steroid nasal sprays and start taking your antihistamines regularly. Be proactive. We used to say start in March. I think it’s safer to say start things up in early February.”

For those already scratching and sneezing?

“You can still do those things, but once you’ve started having symptoms it’s not going to be as effective,” she said. “And if you really are bothered over an extended period of time you might want to be evaluated by a board certified allergist.”

If you’re sensitive to mold spores, this winter hasn’t done you any favors, either.

“Mold has never gone away because it hasn’t gotten cold enough,” Collie said. Mold has a year-round season in Richmond with spikes driven by rain and humidity, but prolonged spells of freezing nights can knock the counts below 1,000. As of Wednesday, it was at 4,440, which is in the low range.

What happens next also depends on the weather.

“I really think there’s no way to absolutely predict it, because we could get cold in March,” Collie said.

In recent years, a spike-lull-spike pattern has been on display when abnormal February warmth was followed by a retreat in March, then a big resurgence in April when oak drives the highest counts of the year.

Collie has been looking under a microscope and making the daily counts since 1988. As mean temperatures have warmed up over those decades, the peak spring pollen date has been trending earlier and more intense, according to analysis of Collie’s data performed in 2018 by climate scientist Jeremy Hoffman at the Science Museum of Virginia. And as the season starts earlier and earlier into February, the longer it runs overall.

“It’s going to come out,” Collie said. “It’s just a matter of when the temperatures and the weather allow it to, but it’s going to come.”

Collie plans to gather regular pollen samples through the rest of spring, updating the counts on the site — www.allergy partners.com/richmond — and writing a more detailed breakdown of the pollen types in posts on the Facebook and Twitter pages for Allergy Partners of Richmond.


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Crime
Prosecutors drop mask charge against only person arrested at gun rights rally in Richmond

Prosecutors have dropped a felony charge of wearing a mask in public that had been filed against a woman at last month’s gun rights rally in downtown Richmond.

Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, was the only person charged in relation to the Jan. 20 rally. Police estimated the crowd at 22,000 people, and many attendees had their faces covered on the frigid morning.

Mackenzie Clements, an attorney for Beschler, said Wednesday that the charge was dismissed “after the commonwealth acknowledged that it would have been difficult to prove that Mikaela had criminal intent to conceal her identity.”

The 1950s-era law — aimed at unmasking the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia — under which Beschler was charged makes it illegal for anyone over the age of 16 to conceal their face in public with the intent to also conceal their identity. The Class 6 felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin confirmed the dismissal, saying there is a prior Virginia case that allows for an exception to the law for weather conditions.

McEachin said that the police officer who arrested Beschler acted appropriately and that the system worked as it should. After a review of the facts of the case, her office decided “it would not have been fair or warranted” to seek a conviction. McEachin acknowledged Wednesday that hundreds of others at the event “were similarly garbed” and faced no repercussions.

Clements said her client is “grateful that the Richmond Police Department treated her with such dignity and respect throughout the arrest process.”

Beschler’s arrest came about an hour after the gun rally at the state Capitol had concluded. She was arrested in the 800 block of East Broad Street, a short walk from the Capitol grounds where some 6,000 unarmed people gathered inside a fenced-off area. An additional 16,000 people surrounded the area; many of them were heavily armed with pistols and rifles and sheathed in body armor.

Richmond police, in a statement after her arrest, said Beschler had been given two warnings to remove the bandana she had covering her face. She complied, showing the officers her face and saying she was trying to keep her face warm, according to a video she took of the second interaction with police that she posted to a social media account that identified her by name.

“Had this matter moved forward, we intended to challenge her arrest as well as the constitutionality of the ‘felony mask’ law itself,” Clements said in a statement Wednesday. “My position is that nothing was criminal in her behavior that day — wearing a bandanna while peacefully observing and participating in a public gathering.

“I cannot speak as to why no one else was arrested that day for this same offense,” Clements continued. “This particular statute seems to lend itself to discriminatory enforcement, and to avoid such disproportionate harms and outcomes, it should be carefully scrutinized to ensure it does not infringe upon other constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of association, and due process.”

The ACLU of Virginia had called on prosecutors to drop the charges, and the organization’s executive director, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, made a similar argument in a later interview.

“We have too many laws in the books that are being enforced differently based on who you are and how you look,” Gastañaga said Jan. 22.

McEachin said she doesn’t feel the statute is unconstitutional nor does she have any issues with how it was enforced at last month’s rally. She met with Richmond and Capitol Police officers ahead of the event to strategize about what criminal behaviors might occur.

“I told them I was willing to sustain a charge if someone was wearing a mask,” she said. “The facts did not sustain the charge against this young woman given the totality of circumstances.”


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Hanover government employees will be eligible for 2% raise in new budget proposal

The approximately 4,000 people who work for Hanover County and its school system will be eligible for a 2% raise under the county administrator’s proposed budget released Wednesday.

Thanks in large part to its strong local economy, Hanover officials are planning for the county’s annual general fund budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 to increase by $9.8 million, or 3.7%, to $276.9 million.

The real estate tax rate of $0.81 per $100 of assessed value remains unchanged in the proposal, but public utility bills for the year on average will increase by a total of about $30.

While rising property values are expected to help cover the cost of adding about 40 new positions and raises for county and school division employees, County Administrator Cecil “Rhu” Harris Jr. said state funding is not keeping up with the county’s needs.

“The strength of our local revenues has enabled us to overcome the challenges posed by the state’s disappointing support for local government funding and meet the needs of our traditional priorities,” Harris said in his budget proposal letter to the Board of Supervisors.

School employees will receive a 2% raise, but county employee raises will be merit-based, Harris said.

In an interview Tuesday, Harris said the limited increase in state funding prevents the county from giving bigger raises. County employees were eligible for a 3% raise in this year’s budget.

“Two percent barely covers inflation,” he said.

State funding will make up about one-fourth of the county’s total proposed budget of $499.1 million, which is a $7.1 million, or 1.4%, increase.

In addition to budgeting for raises, the new positions in the budget include:

  • a benefits program specialist in the Department of Social Services;
  • seven new sheriff deputies; two who will be assigned to individual schools;
  • a new animal control officer;
  • an emergency medical services training coordinator;
  • 12 new firefighter positions;
  • 5 new Community Services Board employees, including a full-time primary care nurse; and
  • a part-time senior services specialist in Community Resources.

While some of the new positions were added to this year’s budget through federal and state grants, the county will now need to cover more of those costs moving forward, Harris said.

Following the expansion of Medicaid in Virginia, the number of county residents enrolled in the program increased by 43% from December 2018 to the end of last year. Harris said the new specialist is needed to help address the growing caseload.

The cost of employee health care for the county is also expected to increase by 10%.

Among the county’s largest expenditures is public safety costs, which is expected to increase by $3.5 million, or 4.9%.

In addition to the new positions in the sheriff’s department, the county is planning to replace about 50 of its vehicles, buy equipment and make improvements to its firing range.

Sheriff David Hines said it’s critical for the department to be attractive for anyone interested in a law enforcement career, since a little more than one-fifth of its employees are now eligible for retirement.

In anticipation of building a new fire station to improve coverage in the growing Mechanicsville area, the county is also allocating funding in next year’s budget for a new fire truck, two new ambulances and gear for firefighters.

For public utilities, the additional revenue from rising customer fees will go toward the new Hill Carter pump station, a waterline crossing Interstate 95 and upgrades to the Middle Chickahominy pump station.

Harris, who is retiring in May, said Tuesday that he did not want his final budget presentation to be sentimental, but he received a standing ovation after he was done.

“You’re the reason that Hanover County is in good financial shape,” Chairman Bucky Stanley told Harris. “I want to thank you. It’s been an honor working with you.”

Additional public presentations of department budgets, including the school division, will happen before the Board of Supervisors next Wednesday.

A public hearing on the budget will be held April 1, with a vote on its adoption scheduled for April 8.