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5 Ways Virginia May Be the Worst State in the Nation

It isn't known for being a bastion of liberalism, but even for a 'purplish' state, Virginia has taken extraordinarily conservative actions recently.
 
 
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Reading the news these days is like going through a time warp. States across the country are racing toward the past. It's 2012 and we're still forced to stomach "debates" on birth control and whether we should be teaching science in the classroom. Georgia may pass a law banning protests at or near private homes. In Missouri Republicans are stripping healthcare provisions for the blind. We've hit a new low. And one of the states leading this mad dash to the bottom is Virginia.

It isn't known for being a bastion of liberalism, but even for a "purplish" state, Virginia has taken extraordinarily conservative actions recently. The push has come from the Right -- and the perfect storm of a Republican governor with eyes on the vice president's mansion in Washington: an ultra-conservative attorney general (who thought the goddess on Virginia's state seal, which dates back to 1776, was dressed inappropriately); and a GOP-controlled state legislature. The combination has been bad news for women, gays and lesbians, the environment, and just about everyone else in the state, too. Here are five recent examples of just how bad things have gotten.

1. The More Guns, the Merrier

On February 27, three students where shot and killed by a fellow classmate wielding a handgun at Chardon High School in Ohio. The next day, in a state scarred by the worst school shooting in the country's history -- at Virginia Tech in April 2007 -- Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a new gun law -- one that makes it possible to buy more handguns. The law was a repeal of a 1993 law that limited handgun purchases to one per month.

"The [1993] law was intended to stanch the flow of guns from Virginia to New York City and other metropolitan areas in the Northeast," the AP reported. "In 1991, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that 40 percent of the 1,236 guns found at crime scenes in New York had been purchased in Virginia."

New York's Mayor Bloomberg told the NY Daily News, "Virginia is the No. 1 out-of-state source of crime guns in New York, and one of the top suppliers of crime guns nationally." 

But the Republican-controlled Virginia state legislature and the state's governor sided with the gun lobby instead -- despite the opinions of a majority of their constituents.

Victims of the Virginia Tech shooting, where 32 peopled were gunned down and 17 others injured, met with Governor McDonnell days before he signed the bill. One student, Chris Goddard, who was shot four times, said McDonnell "offered sympathy, not solutions."

"McDonnell seems to have learned little since that horrible day about our desire to be safe," Jim Winkler of the Faiths United Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence wrote in the Richmond-Times Dispatch. "Sixty-six percent of Virginians told the Richmond-Times Dispatch that they wanted the one-handgun restriction to remain in place. Clearly, who has a legitimate need to buy more than one handgun a month? But our governor put the agenda of a lobby ahead of the people he was elected to represent. He put the gun lobby's agenda ahead of protecting the residents of his state from the life-altering and life-ending horror of gun violence. Innocent lives will be lost as a result. It is not only shameful that the governor did this, it is immoral." 

Virginia is already a gun-friendly state. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that, "Virginia has weak gun laws that help feed the illegal gun market, allow the sale of guns without background checks and put children at risk." The organization has given the state a dismal ranking of 12 out of 100 points for gun control laws. And now, things may get even worse. 

2. Virginia Is for (Straight) Lovers

Virginia is set to join the ranks of North Dakota in July with the passage of recent legislation that would allow private adoption agencies to "deny placements that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs," according to the AP. The language is essentially cover for being able to turn down gay couples who want to adopt.

The AP reports that the state has 1,600 children who are waiting to be adopted. 

Virginia's U.S. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, spoke out against the legislation, which would go into effect this summer. "Republicans in Richmond would rather spend their time defining which families should be allowed to adopt foster children," Warner told the Washington Blade. "Let me tell you this: As the first Virginia governor to ban discrimination in state government based on sexual orientation -- and as a senator who stood up and voted to repeal the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy -- that is mean-spirited, and that is wrong. It is wrong to deny a foster child the opportunity to belong to a supportive, modern family simply because it is led by a same-sex couple in a loving and committed relationship." 

The most recent crop of Republican leaders in Virginia haven't been shy about discriminating against LGBT people. In February 2010, shortly after taking office, Governor McDonnell stripped protections for the state's gay and lesbian workers from Virginia's anti-discrimination policy. TalkingPoints Memo explains

McDonnell (R) on Feb. 5 signed an executive order that prohibits discrimination "on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities," as well as veterans.

It rescinds the order that Gov. Tim Kaine signed Jan. 14, 2006 as one of his first actions. After promising a "fair and inclusive" administration in his inaugural address, Kaine (D) added veterans to the non-discrimination policy - and sexual orientation.

Shortly following McDonnell's action, the state's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told Virginia's colleges and universities that they had no right to keep any policies that protected queer students from discrimination. He wrote, "It is my advice that the law and public policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibit a college or university from including 'sexual orientation,' 'gender identity,' 'gender expression,' or like classification as a protected class within its non-discrimination policy absent specific authorization from the General Assembly."

Apparently the governor and attorney general think the job of government is to make sure people like state workers and college students feel less safe.

3. Climate Change Witch Hunt

Attorney General Cuccinelli doesn't just hate gay people, he also seems to hate science. Cuccinelli launched a two-year witch hunt against former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann. The Union of Concerned Scientists posted a detailed timeline of the harassment. In 2010 Rick Piltz at Climate Science Watch wrote:

Virginia's combative right-wing state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has issued a "Civil Investigative Demand" calling on the University of Virginia to turn over a large quantity of material about climate scientist Michael Mann, who was at the University during 1999-2005. Among the documents he is demanding are all e-mail and other communications to or from Mann and 39 other scientists, or referencing them. This latest McCarthyite inquisition, by yet another agent of the global warming denial machine, is taking fire even from climate 'skeptics' who are no friends of Mann. It sends a chilling message about academic freedom and the freedom of scientists and others to communicate with each other without fear that their communications will be published.

But in March, Cuccinelli's attack was legally upended (and it wasn't the first time). On March 2, Virginia's Supreme Court, upholding lower courts, ruled that the attorney general did not have the authority to demand the release of Mann's emails and other documents.

"Certainly, I do think that it's important for the university to be able to protect the privacy of its researchers and the ability of scientists to ask tough questions," Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "This is a victory for science in Virginia." 

Ironically, Cuccinelli based his attack on alleged violations of the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, and ended up spending many thousands of Virginia taxpayers dollars on his anti-science crusade.

4. Fossil Future

There is nothing that screams "let's go back in time!" more than embracing 19th-century energy. Despite massive public outcry, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative's plans to build the state's biggest coal-burning power plant in Surry County near Williamsburg are moving forward. The environmental and human health costs of the plant are estimated to be quite high. An editorial in the local Virginian-Pilot says:

The Cypress Creek Power Station would also emit -- each year -- more than 2,000 pounds of arsenic (a poison and carcinogen); almost 7,000 pounds of benzene (carcinogen); 3,700 pounds of benzyl chloride (once used in chemical warfare); 113 pounds of beryllium (heavy metal and carcinogen); 274 pounds of cadmium (heavy metal, carcinogen); 1,390 pounds of chromium (metal, carcinogen); more than 13,000 pounds of cyanide (poison); 356,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid gas; 924 pounds of lead, 2,600 pounds of manganese and 118 pounds of mercury (toxic metals and powerful neurotoxins, especially in children).

And this doesn't take into account the ill effects of pollution from the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, as well as the global warming pollution, coal ash waste, and mountaintop removal mining that would help feed it.

Appalachian Voices reports, "It has been predicted (using EPA-approved methodologies) that this coal plant would cause serious health problems for those downwind over the course of its 60-year lifespan. Among other problems, analysts estimate that pollution from the plant would cause over 1,300 asthma ER visits and contribute to over 2,400 heart attacks and 200,000 lost workdays."

Despite all this, local officials in the town of Dendron where the plant would be built are moving ahead with the project. However, the EPA's newly announced regulations on coal-plant construction could rain on their parade. 

5. Attack on Women

In the beginning of March, Virginia joined a national trend in the "war on women." Governor McDonald signed a law requiring women to have an ultrasound prior to having an abortion. The final bill that was signed into law removed language from an earlier version that would have required many women to have transvaginal ultrasounds -- which, in the uproar over the provision, sparked cries of "state-sanctioned rape."

Even though the law now does not require transvaginal ultrasounds it is still a bad deal for women. As Maya Dusenbery explained for Mother Jones -- it's medically unnecessary; it costs anywhere from $200 and $1,200 and may not be covered by insurance (because of that whole medically unnecessary part); it requires a 24-hour waiting period between the ultrasound and the abortion, which can be difficult for many women who have to travel for the procedure or have to take time away from work or school; studies show that ultrasounds don't help "inform" women about their decisions (they already know they're pregnant!); and most of all -- it's politically motivated.

Dusenbery writes, "As Del. David L. Englin, who voted against the bill, put it, 'In my view, the true nature of this bill is...to use emotional blackmail, practical logistical barriers and just plain old government bullying to try to prevent women from having abortions.'"

About the only good thing to come out of the ordeal was the hit to McDonnell and friends' popularity. The Roanoke Times reported last week, "Public support for Gov. Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly has declined in the aftermath of a legislative session that featured divisive debates over abortion restrictions and gun laws, according to a statewide poll." Let's just hope they don't take the whole state down with them.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.
 
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