Archive for March, 2012

Virginia is for Lovers

Alaska has “Beyond Your Dreams, Within Your Reach.”   Indiana has “Restart Your Engines.”  Massachusetts has “Make It Yours.”

But the most famous state slogan of all time — indeed, one of the most famous tourism slogans of all time — belongs to us, right here in Virginia.

Rebecca Sheir gives us the inside scoop on “Virginia Is For Lovers,” from the true story of how it was born…. to whether the Commonwealth really does make more people’s hearts go pitter-patter.

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Another Candidate Profile: Delegate Bob Marshall

Delegate Bob Marshall has joined the campaign for U.S. Senate much later than his Republican rivals.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, Marshall believes he has a better chance of beating Kaine than the current front-runner, former Governor George Allen.

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‘Virginia Pension Protection Coalition’

With a stroke of his pen, Governor McDonnell will sign into law Virginia Retirement System reforms that will significantly change how much public employees contribute and receive. Bill supporters say the revisions are needed to fix a looming multibillion-dollar shortfall in the pension fund.

Teachers and public safety employees are especially concerned about the extra 5% they must invest in their retirement.  Localities are asked to offset that increase with raises, but Virginia Education Association President Kitty Boitnott says the long-term impact is smaller pensions.

“A future teacher who makes the minimum contribution to the hybrid pension plan as outlined in the conference report would see their meager retirement benefit fall by about one-third. In the case of a teacher who earned the average final salary of $55,560, they would receive a benefit of $19,207 versus $28,336,” said Boitnott.

She says most teachers can’t make the maximum contribution. Delegate Jennifer McClellan agreed, saying delegates did not have an opportunity to review the bill—and it’s a disservice to those who dedicated their careers to Virginia.

–Tommie McNeil

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Education Funding Formula

As one lawmaker observes, negotiating the state budget and determining how well talks are going is like answering the question, “How high is up?” But overall, conferees say talks are moving along, after working long hours this week. Some of their differences have little to do with party lines.

One is the Governor’s plan to eliminate Cost of Competing Adjustment funding for school support staff.

The COCA formula helps determine how much each area receives to help fund education.  Senator Emmett Hangar says there is some consensus between members of both chambers and parties to provide this funding.  But they have not determined how much due to limited resources –and the changing dynamic with the school composite index greatly impacts how funds are divided:

“It’s shifting in a way that’s favorable to some of these communities and localities that have had the higher composite index so that they’re actually going to get additional funds through the composite index at the same time that many of the rural localities around the state are seeing their composite index go up in a way that would cause them to receive less funding from the state,” says Hangar.

Northern Virginia lawmakers argue that an estimated $65-million loss would impact their school districts the most.  They say their districts need the funds to help them compete with Maryland and the District of Columbia to attract and maintain the best school personnel … and that the cuts would result in fewer raises and the loss of that competitive edge.

–Tommie McNeil

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SCOTUS Considers Health Insurance Mandate

Virginia’s elected officials are closely monitoring the oral arguments taking place in the nation’s high court over the constitutionality of the federal mandate that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Although Virginia’s case was not heard, the constitutionality of the Commonwealth’s  Health Care Freedom Act that prohibits such mandates is also at stake. Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, state officials are just as divided as the nation.

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Health Care Law

Virginia lawmakers are watching as the Supreme Court takes up the health care law this week. Democrats passed the law, and Republicans despise it and are resting their political fortunes on overturning it.  Matt Laslo reports on what the region’s lawmakers are looking for from the high court. 

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State Budget Update

State lawmakers have jump-started Virginia’s stalled budget-making process. The state Senate returned  to vote on an amended version of the state budget.  The chamber’s Finance Committee added some spending items that the House of Delegates may—or may not—approve.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, Senate passage of the budget means the conferees can soon pick up the pace of their negotiations.

Senate Democrats had killed two previous budget measures, but Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw says the new amendments proposed by his caucus greatly improve the spending bill, including money for Northern Virginia mass transit and suspending new tolls in Hampton Roads.

“We’ve not had a situation where they’ve collected tolls four years in advance of the road opening.  You usually start collecting tolls the day that you open the facility.  So that’s why we added money there.  In addition to that, we added about 50 to 60 million dollars more in public school money,” said Saslaw.

Senate Majority Leader Tommie Norment added that many revisions won bipartisan approval. “We increased some of the money that will keep some of our most vulnerable citizens from going off of Medicaid.  We added some reimbursements there.  We also put some money into higher education and public education with the cost of competing,” said Norment.

Most expect the House to reject the changes and formally send the bill to the conferees.

–Anne Marie Morgan

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Financing Transportation Costs

Some state lawmakers say when it comes to paying for transportation and infrastructure, Virginia is almost tapped out … and unless they act quickly and raise additional revenue, there will be no way to finance the costly road projects by the year 2017.  But Governor McDonnell and the House GOP majority have vowed not to raise taxes during a tough economy.

Republican Senator John Watkins, who proposed indexing the gas tax for transportation, supported an amendment by Democratic Senator Louise Lucas to postpone collecting new tunnel tolls in South Hampton Roads for two years.  The tolls were to pay for an upgrade that has not yet occurred, which Watkins says is wrong but indicates what will happen throughout the state.

“The problem is we’re not putting up enough toll facilities in enough parts of the state to make enough people mad to give the legislators and the Governor the nerve to do what they have to do and that is raise the revenue to build the infrastructure. And when we get to that point, we’ll solve the problem—not before,” said Watkins.

Lucas says people in her region oppose having to pay nearly two-dollars for rush-hour tolls, and had they been made aware of the state’s crisis and their options they, too, may support indexing the gas tax.  “It’s either this way or that way—there’s only two—we do the sales tax–gasoline tax or you pay the tolls. We they understand that, I think we’re on the road to some improvements,” said Lucas.

The House budget bill proposed phasing-in a small portion of the sales tax for transportation.

–Tommie McNeil

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Eagle Cam

Thousands of people worldwide are watching two newly hatched bald eagles in a Richmond nest.  The camera’s presence reflects the eagles’ dramatic recovery in Virginia. . .and as Evan Jones reports, it hopes to document the resulting challenges the resurgent population presents to each other.

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Progress Virginia

While a group of conferees attempt to draft a compromise state budget, a progressive coalition is reminding them not to forget about the 99% of Virginians—whom the group says have been left out of the House spending bill.  ‘Progress Virginia’ claims that while lawmakers have proposed tax incentives that aid corporations and private school students, they have not included funding for services that benefit the majority of Virginians.

The coalition argues that while the McDonnell administration says Public Broadcasting should compete in the free market — although it educates millions of children — it also set aside millions of dollars to enable private school scholarships.  And while it gives tax breaks for the coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil industries, it’s against unions and healthcare for workers exposed to toxins.  Fredericksburg senior citizen Shirley Johnson says older Virginians helped build this state, but they’re left without someone to care for them.

“I’ve lost my parents, four siblings, my husband, and one of my sons with inadequate Healthcare. Both of my parents and so many others in my family were left behind by our government, and this new budget that they’re proposing will leave even more Virginians like my parents–even a sibling. No matter what heights human suffering reaches in Virginia, our government just keeps on cutting,” said Johnson.

Coalition members say they’re not part of the group of Democrats who are holding out for committee assignments, but they do support taking a stand to find the money or raise taxes instead of a cuts-only approach.

–Tommie McNeil

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Public Safety

Among the hundreds of bills awaiting action by Governor McDonnell are measures to expand mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse or neglect and other public safety legislation.  Many passed as this year’s General Assembly session was winding down.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, their goal is to increase the number of tools available to prosecutors and law enforcement to curtail future criminal acts. 

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AARP “You’ve Earned a Say” Campaign

The AARP has launched a national outreach to engage Americans in an ongoing discussion about the future of Social Security and Medicare.  The “You’ve Earned a Say” campaign is soliciting input on what people think about the programs and options to strengthen them.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, AARP leaders also plan to press political leaders to take action that will mitigate huge projected shortfalls sooner rather than later.

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PolitiFact & The Economy

Former governors George Allen and Tim Kaine  are talking quite a bit about job creation in their campaign for the US Senate. Allen recently said his record as a tax-cutter proves he knows how get government out of the way and allow markets to work. One of his claims caught the attention of Politifact Virginia, as Fred Echols reports.

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The General Assembly & Cancer Treatments

While there was lots of news coverage this General Assembly session of bills that established rules for abortion-related procedures, another health care bill passed relatively unnoticed. As Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed similar measures that make it possible for cancer patients to undergo more convenient chemotherapy treatments.

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‘New Majority’ Coalition

The regular Virginia legislative session may be over, but it hasn’t stopped debates that began during the session from continuing long afterward.  One pertains to bills now before Governor McDonnell that change some of the state’s voting laws.

A grassroots coalition delivered more than 6,000 petition signatures  asking Governor McDonnell to veto Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 63—which the group calls voter suppression bills.

Under Senate Bill 1, voters can no longer sign an affidavit to prove their identity if they don’t bring a proper ID.  But they can cast a provisional ballot that must be verified after the election.  House Bill 63 limits who can be present when the ballots are verified.  The Virginia New Majority’s Janice “Jay” Johnson says it took decades of passing new laws so that women and blacks could vote, and the bills are an eerily familiar reminder of attempts to deny those rights.

“Do you realize that you were given the privilege to vote in the 15th Amendment in 1870 and this country is still taking actions?” For what? Everything else that has been approved constitutionally happens. What doesn’t happen? Me being able to just go down and say ‘My name is Janice Johnson, I live at this address, and I’m here to vote,”  said Johnson.

Bill supporters say voters will have more identification options, including government checks, paychecks, student IDs, and utility bills.  But the coalition says minorities, seniors, and college students may be unable to acquire the proper forms in time … and that simply forgetting one’s I.D would cause an unnecessary burden.

–Tommie McNeil

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FlamencoFest 2012

Lovers of Spanish culture are in for a double treat this month – Flamenco Fest begins March 23rd, and this weekend, horse lovers will find flamenco in the ring, as one of Spain’s premiere horsemen demonstrates an amazing style of riding.  Sandy Hausman has details.

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Virginia Tech: After the Verdict

Virginia Tech says it may appeal a jury’s decision that found the university contributed to the deaths of two students in the April 16, 2007 shootings. After an 8-day trial, the jury awarded the families who sued $8 million in damages.  But even if there are no appeals, there’s a good chance that award would not hold up, as we hear from Joe Staniunas.


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Assembly Conversations: Legislative Wrapup

It’s been a contentious legislative session at the Virginia General Assembly this year. On this edition of Assembly Conversations, a roundtable discussion with journalists who’ve been covering the session. Anita Kumar of the Washington Post and Chelyen Davis of the Fredericksburg Freelance Star join host Bob Gibson.



Part One:

Part Two:

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Agriculture Growth

Virginia’s unemployment rate has dropped to a three-year low to 5.8%. Governor McDonnell unveiled the federal jobs data on Tuesday — shortly before making another big announcement at a statewide conference on agricultural trade.  As Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, the Commonwealth’s agricultural exports set an all-time record last year—and they went far beyond the traditional exports of tobacco.

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Business Initiatives

They didn’t make many headlines, but bills to provide business incentives, promote hiring, and other economic growth initiatives sailed through both houses of the General Assembly.  As Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, business leaders say the bills extend a much-needed helping hand in a tough economic climate.

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Education associations are not happy about the final-hour agreement made by the General Assembly over the weekend that requires teachers and local employees to contribute to the Virginia Retirement System.

But the plan’s supporters say the pension system is underfunded by 24 billion dollars, reform is long overdue, and no one should feel like the late compromise was a backroom deal.

The bill that now heads to the Governor requires local and school employees to contribute five percent of their pay to the state retirement system.  It also requires localities and school boards to give employees a raise that offsets those contributions.  School boards are allowed to phase in the five percent contribution over five years. The bill combines provisions from both chambers and the Governor applauds the compromise, including the commitment to increase state funds:

Lawmakers also agreed to refrain from deferring state VRS payments.  Educators say they’ve already suffered small or no pay raises and tougher mandates—and now must absorb forced pension contributions.

-by Tommie McNeil


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Virginia’s Hard Cider Industry

Virginia’s wine industry has grown dramatically over the past decade, and there are now about 200 vineyards in the state, but another industry hopes to nip at the heels of wine production.

With a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nelson County, Virginia set out to study the market for hard cider.  Tommy Bruguere was especially interested.  He and his brother have about 25,000 apple trees on 100 acres of land. “This is a land grant farm since 1752, and we can document we’ve had apples on the farm since around 1832.  My brother and I here are seventh generation,” says Bruguere.

Dickie Brothers’ orchard already sells winesaps and Albemarle Pippins to a couple neighboring cideries, and Bruguere says they may add some new varieties.   But they’ll have to get an early start if, in fact, the cider market is going to grow. “We can get an apple in three years, but it’s closer to five before they’re into good production.  An apple tree is a long-term investment,” he says.

So Nelson County surveyed Virginia growers, and 16 of them met earlier this month to discuss their findings with a Professor of Horticulture at Virginia Tech.  This fall, the county will issue a feasibility study expected to show that demand is strong enough to support three times as many cideries in Nelson and Albemarle counties over the next ten years.

–Sandy Hausman

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Gridlock at the Capitol

Many state lawmakers  headed  back to their home turf this weekend, but others are sticking around to continue the most pressing business of the General Assembly: hashing out a budget.  A hard-lined approach by Senate Democrats created the stalemate which the Governor and the GOP caucus are criticizing, but Democratic leaders say there are concessions to be made on both sides, and if takes a special or extended session to reach a compromise—then so be it.  Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil has more from the State Capitol.

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Made in Virginia

Professors and administrators are getting ready for a big powwow near Petersbug Friday, March 9.  President Obama will be there to show off a state partnership with Rolls Royce – the kind of collaboration that brings new money for research and new opportunities for students.  Sandy Hausman has details:

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Education Legislation Update

A major piece of Governor McDonnell’s education reform initiative has been sent back to committee, which kills it for this legislative session. Under the plan dubbed by some educators and lawmakers as the “Fire the teacher” bill, new teachers would have been eligible for three-year contracts instead of the current practice of continuing contracts

The bill required evaluations certifying that teachers met certain standards in order to retain their jobs. Educators denounced the bill as soon as it was unveiled. They’ve argued it’s an assault on teachers—and moments before its defeat, an insult, when one of the bill’s supporters, Senator Mark Obenshain, referred to poorly performing teachers as “lemons.” Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw said the state should help teachers improve instead of just firing them:

“We don’t have lemons, and it is pretty insulting. I just don’t see where this is going to add anything. I’ve not gotten a request from my Superintendent and if he wanted this, he certainly didn’t convey it to me,” said Saslaw.

Obenshain recanted slightly, but said he still believed the measure was needed to improve education.  “What this bill is about is restoring balance in our education system. Balance in the employment relationship—incentives for teachers to continue to try and achieve and do a better job,” said Obenshain.

The bill was sent back to committee on a 23-17 bipartisan vote.

–Tommie McNeil

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Budget Stalemate?

While a coalition of business leaders urged the state Senate to approve a budget, House negotiators have been bit more optimistic about the progress they’re making with their counterparts from the other chamber.  But Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports that a Senate floor debate was no indicator —at least publicly—that a budget would be ready by the scheduled General Assembly adjournment on Saturday.

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Assembly Conversations: Education

There’s been a flurry of bills in the Virginia legislature this session affecting public schools — some have died, some survived. Still unsettled is the level of funding those schools will receive for the next biennium, which now hangs in the balance until the Senate and House can agree on a budget. Join host Libby Fitzgerald and her guests Kitty Boitnott, President of the Virginia Education Association and Javaid Siddiqi, Virginia’s Deputy Secretary of Education  for a discussion of education funding and other issues.

Part One:

Part Two:

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Virginia’s Counties Demand Budget

Representatives of Virginia’s 95 counties gathered at the General Assembly  to urge lawmakers to overcome their inertia and pass the state budget.  The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday.  The supervisors say they can’t finalize their local budgets until they know how much revenue is on the way from the state.

A new House budget bill is languishing in the Senate, where two spending bills have already been killed.  But Virginia Association of Counties’ Director Jim Campbell said the Assembly’s most important duty is to pass the budget. “So, we’re here today to deliver a message to the Senate of Virginia—Republicans, Democrats, Independents, all—the Senate of Virginia:  Do your job,” said Campbell.

The state requires localities to soon approve their budgets and set tax rates.  They also must award teacher contracts in May.  But Rockingham Supervisor Bill Kyger said their hands are tied.
“As a public educator, I’m very concerned that we’re not going to be able to assure a quality education system by being able to retain teachers if they don’t know whether they’re going to have a contract next year or not—if we can’t submit a contract in a timely fashion,” said Kyger.

The leaders said the state budget impasse could impact local bond ratings—as well as Virginia’s.  They added that under the worst scenario, large counties would raise taxes to fund services, but small counties would be broke.

–Anne Marie Morgan

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Horses Helping Asthma

Many medical studies involve laboratory animals, but when it comes to research on asthma, no creature provides a better model than the horse.  Veterinarians at Virginia Tech are hoping to help humans who struggle to breathe.

That’s because horses are subject to a condition called equine heaves.

“They’re about the only animal that has a very similar condition to human  asthma. They’ll have this disease once they’ve been diagnosed for life, and human asthmatics struggle with that too.  If it’s not well managed, your airway is more inclined to constrict and constrict further.  That’s true both in human asthma and in horses,” says Professor Virginia Buechner-Maxwell.

And she should know.  She sees hundreds of horses each year at Virginia Tech’s large animal clinic.  A fairly small number of horses have this condition in the mountains of Virginia – maybe 5% — but it’s often triggered by mold and is more common as you head north. In Europe, up to half of all horses develop heaves.  They’re treated with the same drugs used in people, but when doing research, horses are far easier to study.

“When I have one of my horses in a study,  I’m going to put them in a stall, and we’ll have this regime for them every day, and I know that’s going to happen.  You have a human in the study, the medication they’re given —  they might take it differently, they might forget it one day.  They might go out and take a hike in an area where there’s lots of pollen, when they’re not really supposed to be doing that. With the horses we have a lot more control,” she says.

She says research on equines is safer for people.  “There are things like tuberculosis or HIV – I’m susceptible to those.  When I work with horses, that susceptibility is minimal if it exists at all.”

Finally, it may be easier to deal with the USDA when conducting animal research than to tangle with the FDA for human clinical trials.  Dr. Maxwell hopes her research on the causes and treatments of recurrent airway obstruction in horses will also benefit people.
–Sandy Hausman

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Super Tuesday in Virginia

As ten states,  including Virginia, hold Republican primaries or caucuses Tuesday, the Commonwealth is being called the Super Tuesday stepchild. Connie Stevens reports that the ballot will be quick reading.

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Threats to National Security

State agencies and employees would be prohibited from assisting federal agencies in the unlawful investigation, prosecution, or detention of U.S. citizens … under legislation that has passed both houses of the General Assembly in slightly different versions.  State lawmakers have been concerned about striking the right balance when Americans are suspected of national security threats.

Both chambers approved the bill with some variations by wide margins of Republicans and Democrats.  Bill sponsor and conservative Delegate Bob Marshall reminded the House that President Obama expressed misgivings about provisions governing the treatment of American citizens in the federal law.  Marshall added that the members have sworn to uphold both the state and federal constitutions.

“It is our obligation to read statutes of the federal government that affect our citizens.  And the deprivation of liberty, the taking of people off our streets, without specific charges, without counsel, without trial, is a responsibility that we must bear and only we can exercise at this point,” said Marshall.

Delegate Barbara Comstock said the General Assembly should not second-guess how to respond to difficult terrorism threats. “It’s not about whether you might have voted differently if you were in Congress. Certainly, that debate is going to continue to go on.  There have been bills and hearings already to possibly modify that bill.  But Congress is the right place to do that,” said Comstock.

The bill is now back before the House, which must decide whether or not to accept a Senate amendment.

–Anne Marie Morgan

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GOP Campaigning

U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor returned to his Richmond roots today for a campaign fundraiser and spoke of the GOP’s top economic priorities.  Supporting Cantor were many of Virginia’s state Republican leaders, who have been trying to formulate a budget and fend off attacks from the national media regarding their agenda.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, Cantor and a rising star in the GOP were asked to weigh in. 

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Voting: Harder than Buying a Gun?

This year’s General Assembly has made important changes in how a couple of processes are carried out in Virginia…buying a gun and voting. They’ve helped to keep the staff at PolitiFact Virginia busy this week, as Fred Echols reports.

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Ultrasound Amednment

An amended version of the ultrasound abortion requirement is moving forward to Governor McDonnell.  The Governor had asked lawmakers to add language that requires only a trans-abdominal ultrasound, and the Senate exempted victims of rape or incest.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, the matter remained as controversial as always during the final vote in the House.

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Virginia’s Voter ID Legislation

A controversial voter I-D law just passed the Virginia state Senate by one vote and it’s turning heads in the nation’s capital. Matt Laslo reports from Washington on how the law could impact this year’s elections if it’s eventually signed into law.

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