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Human trafficking legislation gains bipartisan support

Legislation to curtail human trafficking in Virginia has gathered bipartisan support early in the General Assembly’s 2013 session.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli called the offense one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the country. He said Tuesday that Virginia was feeling the effect.

“Traffickers profit from the control and exploitation of children and adults –– taking victims by threat, force, or coercion to exploit them for forced labor or sexual servitude. And it is happening right here in our commonwealth,” Cuccinelli said at a news conference.

Additionally, Cuccinelli announced a series of two-day training sessions for law enforcement and prosecutors across the state over the next six months.

Cuccinelli pledged his support to four bills currently under consideration in the General Assembly and urged legislators to pass them:

• House Bill 1606, sponsored by Del. Timothy Hugo (R-Dist. 40), of Centreville, and Senate Bill 1015, by Sen. Janet Howell (D-Dist. 32), of Reston: These measures would increase the penalty for soliciting prostitution from a minor from a misdemeanor to a Class 5 or Class 6 felony, depending on the victim’s age.

• HB 1870, sponsored by Charlottesville Del. Robert Bell (R-Dist. 20): This bill would alter Virginia’s basic human trafficking statute to include “receiving money for procuring a person” as an offense punishable by a multijurisdictional grand jury. Jurisdiction would not be an issue in prosecuting human traffickers operating across county lines.

• HB 1826, sponsored by Virginia Beach Del. Ronald Villanueva (R-Dist. 21): This measure would also address issues in jurisdiction when investigating human trafficking. It would allow officers to keep pursuing an investigation into human trafficking outside of their own jurisdiction.

— Mark Robinson, Capital News Service

Fairfax Chamber backs McDonnell transportation plan

The Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce has joined a number of business organizations around the state this week in backing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) transportation funding plan.

The chief component of McDonnell’s funding package involves eliminating the state’s gas tax in favor of a slight increase in the state’s sales tax, which would be designated for transportation projects.

“With Northern Virginia continuing to top the list as one of the most congested regions in the nation, transportation issues are a major threat to the outstanding quality of life and rapid economic growth of the region that drives the success of the Commonwealth. We cannot wait any longer to develop a long-term, sustainable solution for transportation funding,” said Fairfax Chamber President & CEO Jim Corcoran in a released statement.

Educators urge retirement changes

Professors from Virginia colleges and universities are urging legislators to improve retirement benefits for public university and college employees.

Officials from the Faculty Senate of Virginia, the VCU Faculty Senate and the American Association of University Professors met with legislators last week to pushing for more funding for higher education, better faculty retirement options and lower tuition for in-state residents.

House Bill 486, sponsored by Roanoke Del. Onzlee Ware (D-Dist. 11), aims to create better retirement incentives for public higher education employees.

The bill would allow such workers, who currently have optional retirement plans, to opt into the Virginia Retirement System. It would give state employees in the higher education system the opportunity to purchase service credit in the VRS based on accumulated earnings and experience, even if those workers are covered under an optional retirement program.

“Many employees come in untenured, so they have a choice whether they want to participate in an optional retirement plan or the VRS, since optional retirement plans are portable and can be taken to other systems. But if you get here [Virginia] and you realize how great it is, then you might wish that you had signed in to the VRS,” said Robert Andrews, organizer of the 2013 Higher Education Advocacy Day.

“The bill makes it so down the road, once [employees] get tenured, they can make a one-time swap to buy equivalent amount of work time in the VRS,” said Andrews, a professor in the VCU School of Business and an officer in the VCU Faculty Senate.

The proposal would not cost the state any more money, according to Andrews.

Education lobbyists are also looking to provide financial benefits to educators’ families.

Senate Bill 104, introduced by Sen. John Edwards (D-Dist. 21), of Roanoke, would reduce the tuition rate for children of Virginia higher education employees by 50 percent. Currently, state universities and colleges can decide individually whether to waive tuition for their employees’ children. SB 104 would ensure that all state institutions implement the reduction immediately.

“Growing up with a mother as a college professor, you really gain a perspective into how valuable higher education is,” said George Mason University junior Alex Wells. “I think that being proactive in the House and Senate really shows that we’re committed to the long-term prosperity of prospective students and faculty in Virginia.”

Participants in Higher Education Advocacy Day also expressed a need for more state funding to make college tuition more affordable for future students. Members are seeking legislative action to filter more than $200 million for state tuition assistance, as well as more than $2 billion in employer-based financing towards the VRS program.

— Michael Schuster, Capital News Service