Archive for December, 2011

Homeless Veterans

Thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are returning home –many of them coming back to Virginia, hoping for a fresh start, or to simply pick up where they left off. Unfortunately, not only might they have a tough time finding employment because of the economy, but they may also face many other issues like dealing with post- traumatic stress disorder, reconnecting with family, and in many instances not having a place to call home.

Already, there are an estimated 900 homeless veterans scattered throughout Virginia and that number could be greatly underestimated as are not registered within the veteran’s services system. Most of them are Vietnam era vets like Keith, he’s withheld his last name, who served in the Marines for three years, worked as a Richmond police officer for two decades, but now finds himself starting over, and panhandling not far from the state capitol. His story is complex, but he says it is NOT related to a mental health issue like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—but for these returning vets—it’s something lawmakers will have to look into:

“Because it’s only going to get worse when the kids come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They will have P.T.S.D. They will have family domestic problems-which might put them out on the street. It’s only going to get worse,” he says.

Keith accepts some blame for HIS situation but says it’s been compounded by systematic redundancies. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security Terrie Suit says that and mental health issues are being addressed. Suit says another challenge is finding the vets like Keith, helping them obtain proper identification, getting them back into the system, and determining what their needs are and why they became homeless to begin with.

–Tommie McNeil

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Wellness Incentives

This year, average health insurance premiums grew three times faster than last year, with group coverage for families rising 9% and individual premiums up 8%.  But at one Virginia university, something surprising happened. Insurance rates actually went down. Sandy Hausman explains how Washington & Lee University was able to defy the national trend.

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PolitiFact: Allen vs. Kaine continues

The federal deficit takes center stage again this week at PolitifactVirginia-dot-com. Fred Echols gets the facts on an exchange between Senate candidates George Allen and Tim Kaine.

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Congressional Year Ender

Congress broke a record this year, but hitting the lowest approval rating of all time isn’t what the region’s lawmakers had hoped to accomplish. Correspondent Matt Laslo talked with the Virginia congressional delegation and has a look back at this year’s wild ride in Washington.

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Attorney General Cuccinelli’s Retrospective

Now that he has confirmed that he is running for Governor in 2013, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says he will have a full agenda next year. But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports in this conclusion of a series on the state’s top three offices, the A-G believes that there’s much work from 2011 that must be completed in that role before he can switch into campaign mode.

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Lt. Governor Bill Bolling’s Retrospective

As Lt. Governor Bill Bolling wraps up his second year in his second term in that position, in part two of our retrospective series on the state’s leaders, he reflects on how 2011 was slightly different than the previous year. But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, it was the latter part of 2011 that began shaping how 2012 and the rest of Bolling’s political future will unfold. As Lt. Governor Bill Bolling wraps up his second year in his second term in that position, in part two of our retrospective series on the state’s leaders, he reflects on how 2011 was slightly different than the previous year. But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, it was the latter part of 2011 that began shaping how 2012 and the rest of Bolling’s political future will unfold.

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Governor McDonnell’s Retrospective

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell says 2011 was indeed an interesting and challenging year for the Commonwealth, but there are many issues on his legislative agenda that he believes will help Virginia rise above the economic challenges it faces in 2012, but as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, it’s his appointment this year as head of the Republican Governor’s Association, that may put an additional spotlight on what happens here.

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PolitiFact: Allen v. Kaine

Again this week the debate between Senate candidates George Allen and Tim Kaine provides material for the fact checkers at Politifact Virginia. Fred Echols reports.

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Habitat for Humanity

It was 35 years ago, when an organization called Habitat for Humanity introduced the world to a new model for housing low-income families.  People willing to donate their own labor could get interest-free mortgages, materials and assistance from skilled volunteers in building their own homes.  So far, the group has helped build or repair more than half a million houses, but with the nation facing a serious shortage of affordable places to live, the organization is stepping up its game.  Sandy Hausman reports on a new approach being tested in Virginia.

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Fear of Fracking

With the dangers of nuclear power playing out in Japan, fighting in Libya pushing oil prices up, and climate scientists pointing an accusing finger at coal, America is desperate for some energy alternatives.  One that seemed promising is natural gas – a relatively clean burning fuel.  But critics now say the process of getting gas from the ground may be risky.  Sandy Hausman went to Southwest Virginia to find out why.

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Election Laws

Bills to allow absentee balloting for any reason and to provide more voting options for deployed military personnel and are just some of the measures that have already been filed for next month’s General Assembly session.  State Board of Elections Secretary Donald Palmer says lawmakers have several reasons–in addition to passing any needed reforms–to work expeditiously.

“2012 is going to have a number of elections–the Presidential preference primary including the primary for Congressional seats. Obviously, redistricting we’ll be facing again–it appears with the Congressional seats. And then the 2012 General election. And so, 2012 General election will be a test. It always is—it really tests the system because we have a larger turnout than normal and part of what we do is just prepare for that,” said Palmer.

Analysts believe Virginia could again play a pivotal role as a swing state in deciding who’s in the White House. Palmer says that’s even more incentive to make sure that everything runs smoothly, and that voters are educated about candidates, polling places, and alternatives—especially if turnout is close to 2008’s record-breaking numbers.

–Tommie McNeil

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Assisted Living Communities

‘Assisted living’ was a relatively new concept 25 years ago but is now the most preferred long-term care option for the growing population of seniors.  However, costs and restrictions often limit access to many.

Assisted living communities provide 24-hour supervision and limited health care to thousands of seniors and disabled Virginians.  To live there, many residents must use federal benefits and Medicaid, and some also receive a small state auxiliary grant.  The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s Walt Smiley told lawmakers that if community groups or families want to help financially, that could jeopardize eligibility for benefits.

“Payments from third parties cannot be used for food or shelter. These are the federal rules. And to use money from third parties for a private room or to provide better food, for example, would likely disqualify the individual from continuing to receive those benefits and maybe from Medicaid as well,” said Smiley.

But he said third-party payments for services such as medicines, eyeglasses, or dental care, would not hurt eligibility and could be helpful.

“The recipients have a significant problem paying for dental services.  Many Auxiliary Grant residents get their teeth pulled instead of fixed because it’s all they can afford,” he said.

JLARC’s report proposed state legislation to clarify that third-party funds can be used—but not for room and board.

–Anne Marie Morgan

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Proposed 2013-2014 Virginia Budget

Governor McDonnell has unveiled a proposed $85-billion state budget for the 2013-2014 biennium.  As promised, it plows an additional $100-million per year into higher education and $2.2-billion into the Virginia Retirement System.

To prepare for federal budget cuts and preserve the state’s high credit rating, the Governor adds dollars to a new contingency fund.  His plan also requires school divisions to report how much money is spent in the classroom.

“This budget includes $438 million in total new state spending for public education during the biennium,” said Gov. McDonnell.

That total includes state pension funds.  He also invests more in economic development and job creation, which Democratic Senator Janet Howell supports along with the higher ed and pension funding–but Democrats oppose the Governor’s phasing in a larger share of the sales tax for transportation maintenance.

“We do not and will not support transferring General Fund monies to transportation. And, I would point out that the Lieutenant Governor is not allowed to vote on the budget,” said Howell.

McDonnell increases funds for Medicaid, which now consumes one-fifth of the General Fund, but does not fund the inflation rate for providers. The plan calls for some higher DMV fees but has no tax increases.

— Anne Marie Morgan

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Richmond Free Press

In the age of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, Americans seemingly have endless options to express their views. But that doesn’t mean those opinions are welcomed. the burning of Richmond Free Press newspapers this fall didn’t just damage private property— it also infringed on the paper’s rights to free expression.

Publisher Ray Boone says efforts to stifle the paper’s progressive views have occurred for 20 years. His newspaper boxes have been run over and papers shredded. Businesses have refused to allow his boxes outside their doors. No single person or group appears to be responsible. But Boone says historically, black papers have been banned and the community has been deprived of access to information, and that battle is still not won.

“ A major test of a nation’s freedom is the degree of liberty that the people have to speak, write and publish. Based on that premise Richmond does miserably and the national generally flunks,” said Boone.

No one has been charged with burning the papers. The Virginia ACLU’s Rebecca Glenberg said regardless of the motive, the vandal limited the paper’s voice and prevented readers from hearing those views and information.

–Amanda Iacone

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PolitiFact: Brazilian Oil; The BobOMeter

A recurring claim about the Obama administration found its way into this month’s debate between Senate candidates George Allen and Tim Kaine. Today we’ll hear what Politifact Virginia has found out about it. Fred Echols reports.

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Earthquake Early Warning System?

Earlier this year, Virginia was surprised by an earthquake. There was no warning, because scientists haven’t figured out how to predict quakes, but a professor of physics at the University of Virginia had a hunch that could lead to an early warning system. Sandy Hausman reports on how we might know when an earthquake is about to happen.

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State Agency Advises Against Cutting Retirement Benefits

Cutting retirement benefits or requiring state employees to make larger pension contributions could jeopardize Virginia’s ability to recruit and retain a skilled workforce.

That’s one conclusion of a Joint Legislative and Audit and Review Commission study, which evaluated the state’s retirement programs and related options.  The watchdog agency also found the state will need to step up to the plate to maintain the long-term health of its pension fund.

Due to declining investment returns, the Virginia Retirement System Board has called for higher contribution rates.

To assess the feasibility of requiring a larger employee share, JLARC compared the value of state salaries and benefits to those of other employers who compete for the same workforce. JLARC Project Leader Tracey Smith said salaries were not competitive.

“The benefits package provided to employees IS competitive.  And its value is higher than the median provided by other employers.  The value of the state’s benefits package helps the state remain marginally competitive despite the low relative salaries.”

The report also found that the state has underfunded its share.

“The report concludes that requiring greater employee contributions before the state has made progress toward paying its portion of the benefits’ costs would be viewed by employees as unreasonable.  And it would have the greatest negative impacts on the state’s recruitment and retention objectives.”  But Smith said some changes, such as lower cost-of-living adjustments, could save money.  However, providing alternatives such as an optional 401-K-type plan may not, since only a small number of workers would choose that option.

–Anne Marie Morgan

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Financial Impact of Defense Cutbacks in Virginia

With the failure of the congressional super committee to find more than one trillion dollars in budget cuts, deep spending reductions are slated to fall on the Defense budget, which could disproportionately impact Virginia.

More than half a trillion dollars is now slated to get cut from the Pentagon’s budget – that’s on top of a previous agreement to trim its budget by $450 billion dollars. Virginia Beach Republican Congressman Scott Riggell says that would be a terrible day for national security and the state of Virginia.

“That amount triggered from one day to the next, you know it just pivots. It goes from one level to the next in one day, the reduction. I think that would be, what I’d would refer to as I refer to as a violent course correction for the Department of Defense,” said Riggell.

Experts say the cuts are unlikely to fall on the tens of thousands of troops stationed in Virginia, but contractors who contribute a lot to the state’s economy could take a big hit. Northern Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran says the budget cuts currently written into law would hit Virginia harder than any other region of the nation.

“We don’t build weapon systems but we do the things that make our military the smartest in the world with information technology, cyber security, battlefield simulation, all the research and development, most of it is anchored in Northern Virginia,” said Moran.

Cutting half a trillion dollars from the Pentagon’s budget isn’t something Virginia lawmakers want to see, even those Republicans who ran on trimming the federal debt. Critics say that’s hypocrisy, but many in the GOP, such as Chesapeake Congressman Randy Forbes, opposed the compromise measure that set up the super committee. He says automatic cuts to the Pentagon’s budget should never have been a part of the mix.

The president has threatened to veto any attempt to blunt the budget cuts. Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner agrees, even though he knows the cuts will be painful for Virginians. “But the notion that we would somehow remove the consequences of failing to start taking down our debt is just unacceptable,” said Warner.

Analysts think the budget cuts would fall hardest on Northern Virginia’s economy, but the south may face a different problem. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently announced he wants to move four ballistic missile ships to Europe to provide a shield against a potential nuclear attack.

Congressman Forbes, who is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, fears three of those could be sent from the naval base at Norfolk. “Those destroyers we didn’t give the Navy any additional money for assets, so at least three of those destroyers, very likely could come out of Virginia to be land based over there,” says Forbes.

The potential combination of moving those ships and slicing hundreds of billions of dollars from the Pentagon’s budget has the state’s lawmakers looking for alternatives but also, oddly enough, looking to partisan gridlock as a sign of hope. If the law isn’t changed the steep budget cuts will start hitting the state in 2013.

In the mean time Virginia’s lawmakers in Washington are working to unwind or redirect those cuts.

— Matt Laslo

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Casting the Tie Vote

A Richmond Circuit Court heard arguments today in a lawsuit filed by State Senate Democrats, who say the GOP Lieutenant Governor does NOT have the right to cast a tie-breaking vote on organizational matters when the General Assembly convenes next month.  The Senate will be evenly divided between the two major parties, and Democrats are asking the court to step in before the decisive legislative votes are cast.

Since Senate Democrats lost two seats in last month’s elections, Republicans have said the Lieutenant Governor’s power to cast tie-breaking votes also applies to rules that include who serves on specific committees. During the hearing, Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling’s attorneys argued that he has sovereign immunity and is an officer of the Senate.  They also said Democrats can’t seek an injunction prior to a tie vote that needs Bolling’s intervention. Democratic Senator Donald McEachin, says his caucus and voters are right to be concerned.

“The rules are likely to be written in such a way, so that is takes a super majority to undo them, and we won’t be able to undo the rules after session. Moreover, there would be legislation that would pass a majority Republican committee that might pass an evenly divided committee and those things are going to effect—the Attorney General’s office is suggesting that the best way to undo that is to have individual litigants start suing  after it happens. That’s a colossal waste of judicial resources,” said McEachin.

Judge Beverly Snukals is expected to rule next week.

–Tommie McNeil



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PolitiFact: Analzying the Senate Debate

Former governors George Allen and Tim Kaine got together this week for the first debate of their expected  US Senate contest. Among the points of contention were the federal budget and energy policy. Politifact Virginia was listening as Fred Echols reports.

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Update From Virginia Tech

Police say they’ll likely continue their investigation into the weekend – attempting to identify a motive in the murder of a campus police officer at Virginia Tech.  They’ve confirmed that the shooter took his own life, about thirty minutes after killing Officer Deriek Crouse.  Sandy Hausman reports on what we know so far about Thursday’s tragedy.

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George Allen, Candidate for U.S. Senate

Four Republicans are competing to win the nomination in next week’s primary and run for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Jim Webb.  One of the GOP contenders is also a former Delegate, Congressman, and Senator …who is vying for the seat that he narrowly lost to Webb six years ago.  In the first segment of our series on these candidates, Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports on the former Governor in the GOP race:  George Allen.


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Tim Kaine, Candidate for U.S. Senate

From our original series introducing the Senate candidates, Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports on a former Democratic governor who is now asking voters to hire him at the federal level. He’s the lone democratic nominee for the position.

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Meet Jamie Radtke, Candidate for Senate

In this installment  of our special series to introduce Senate candidates, Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports on Jamie Radtke, the Chesterfield County resident who is the Republican woman in this field of contenders.

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Meet Julien Modica, Candidate for Senate

Our series on Virginia’s U.S. Senate candidates takes us to Julien Modica, a businessman who has faced many challenges in life.  But Modica says he has overcome them, and they’ve made him the Democrat he is today.  Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports on the candidate who filed a lawsuit so he could debate the two frontrunners, George Allen and Tim Kaine.

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PolitiFact: Federal Budget, Bob-O-Meter

Virginia Senator Mark Warner didn’t get the seat he was hoping for on the super committee but that hasn’t taken him out of the debate about revenues, taxes and the deficit. This week Politifact Virginia looks at one of Warner’s claims about the federal budget and also checks out another of Governor McDonnell’s promises on the Bob-O-Meter. Fred Echols reports.

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Virginia’s Minstrel History

It was once the most popular form of entertainment in America—Virginia included.  Now, it’s a painful reminder of a racist history—but a history that some say needs to be recognized and understood.  WVTF’s Connie Stevens present this documentary on the era of Blackface Minstrelsy—and it’s lasting impact on society.

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Charlottesville’s Focused Ultrasound Center

Doctors at the Focused Ultrasound Center in Charlottesville have completed a clinical trial using a new form of surgery – one that requires no scalpels and causes no bleeding or scars. Instead, they used sound waves to destroy problem-areas in the brains of people who suffered from tremors in their  hands. Now, they’re looking at other ways to use this hi-tech treatment as Sandy Hausman reports.

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Meet Tim Donner, Candidate for Senate

One criticism about the news media is that it is liberal and opposed to conservative values. Those who believe that have not met Tim Donner, the next U.S. Senate candidate featured in our series.  The conservative worked for many years as a broadcaster, owned a video production company, and served in a public policy organization.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, Donner says he is qualified and anxious to go to Washington as Virginia’s next U.S Senator.

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Biosolids & the Environment

Few people give sewage treatment a second thought, but for more and more Virginians, it’s becoming a serious issue.  That’s because farmers can get sludge from sewage treatment plants for free.  The state isn’t 100% sure about the safety of so-called biosolids, and the Department of Environmental Quality is  working on new guidelines for how and where they’re used, but folks who live near farms want answers now.  Sandy Hausman has that story.

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Seeing Trees

At this time of year, many people make a point of looking at trees, but we often take them for granted and don’t know much about their day-to-day lives.  Now, the photographer and author of a book called Remarkable Trees of Virginia have released their new work.  It’s called Seeing Trees, and Sandy Hausman reports that it’s filled with surprises.

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Fraser Firs

Fraser firs are known as the Cadillac of Christmas trees – with their iconic shape, dark green color and tendency to retain their needles.  They’re native to Virginia but increasingly rare, so the state has created a unique partnership to protect Fraser firs, as Sandy Hausman reports.

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Shore Birds

The next time you find yourself complaining about work, or hot weather or mosquitoes in the back yard, consider the plight of Charlottesville grad student Charles Clarkson.  Sandy Hausman joined him for an afternoon of research on the Eastern Shore where he battles appalling heat and swarms of mosquitoes to study what some might consider a truly disgusting subject.

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Acid Earth

The problem of acid rain is not new.  It was first described in 1852 by a Scottish chemist who coined the term to link polluted air from industrial cities in England to damaging rains in the countryside.  The subject gained widespread attention more than a century later when coal-burning power plants and auto emissions led to dying forests and poisoned lakes in the northeastern United States.  Now, two Virginia scientists warn that other human activities are making our environment more acidic, and the problem is likely to get worse. Sandy Hausman has that story.

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Biorock Project

Anna Walker

The planet’s oceans are awash in trouble, with pollution and dead zones.  Now, one Virginia scientist is warning that coral reefs could disappear if something isn’t done soon to protect them. Sandy Hausman reports on a new model for coral protection — a program that’s rebuilding reefs and employing fishermen to guard them.

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Virginia Tech Police Officer Laid to Rest

The Virginia Tech police officer shot to death last week has been laid to rest.  Beverly Amsler reports.

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