Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I am not throwing away my shot

I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot
It’s time to take a shot!

~Hamilton The Musical Soundtrack, "My Shot"

With Thanksgiving only a few days away, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for your continued support. As we near the end of the year, I'm also thinking about the upcoming 2017 General Assembly Session and how I can best represent you.

With Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the other shopping events around the corner, it got me thinking about money, mores specifically about how to protect it. So, I've got a few ideas on how to help with that.

Since this will be an odd-year Session, it will also be a short one with a mere 45 days to do the Commonwealth's business. This also means that I'm limited to 15 bills and I have to be even more mindful of what I introduce.

To that end, I've created an online survey where you can pick legislation you think I should introduce. My goal is to represent the 53rd District to the best of my ability and that starts with a legislative agenda and including you in the process.

So, if you've got 3 minutes or so, please click on the survey link and check up to 5 bills you think I should introduce this year. For your convenience, I've included some background below for the legislative options.

Look forward to hearing from you!
Summary of Legislative Options

Fair Repair Act - Requires hardware manufacturers, like Apple or Microsoft, to make repair instructions and parts available to the public. This means you wouldn't have to ditch your cell phone for a new one just because the plugin jack stops working.

Personal Use of Campaign Funds - Provides that contributions received by a candidate that are in excess of the amount necessary to cover campaign expenditures may be disposed of only by transferring for use in a succeeding election, returning to the donor, donating to a charity, contributing to another candidates, political committee, or political party committee, or defraying ordinary, non-reimbursed expenses related to the elective office.

National Popular Vote - Requires that all electors in Virginia cast their vote for the presidential candidate that won the national popular vote regardless of the outcome of the Electoral College.

Recurring Contract Payments - In the past several years, subscription-based product and service providers have emerged in almost every sector. Although subscription-based services can benefit consumers by offering simplicity and lower prices, legal issues emerge when customers claim that they did not knowingly agree to continue paying for future products or services. This bill prohibits the auto-renewal of services without first obtaining explicit consent.

Grocery Store Donations to Hunger-Relief Charities - Requests the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) to study the feasibility of and develop recommendations for a program incentivizing grocery stores to donate unsold, unspoiled food that would otherwise be discarded or wasted to hunger-relief charitable organizations for redistribution to needy families. DACS would also identify other policies that could be implemented to reduce food waste and its impacts on the environment and food security in the Commonwealth.

Payroll By Debit Card - Eliminates an employer's ability to pay wages and salaries by a prepaid credit or debit card account without the employee's consent. Daily Fantasy Sports & Child Support - Requires fantasy contest operators licensed in the Commonwealth to check for tax liens and child support obligations of greater than $1,000 prior to paying a cash prize to a fantasy contest participant of any amount.

DNR Reciprocity - Provides that a Durable Do Not Resuscitate order or other order regarding life-sustaining treatment executed in accordance with the laws of another state in which such order was executed shall be deemed to be valid and shall be given full effect in the Commonwealth.

Banning Open Carry Long Guns in Urban Areas - Prohibits the carrying of a loaded shotgun or rifle in places open to the public in certain cities and counties.

Student Loan Ombudsman - Establishes the Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman within the State Council of Higher Education (SCHEV), providing assistance to loan borrowers of any student education loan in the Commonwealth. The Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman is further required to establish and maintain a student loan borrower education course, which shall cover key loan terms, documentation requirements, monthly payment obligations, income-based repayment options, loan forgiveness, and disclosure requirements.

Repeal the Death Penalty - Repeals the death penalty in Virginia.

Voter Registration Regulations - Requires 3rd party groups that register voters to include identifying information, allowing the VA Department of Elections to easily determine where the registration was generated as well as the individual employee responsible.

One Handgun per Month - Reinstates the one handgun per month purchasing limit in Virginia.

SCHEV to Approve School Naming - Requires SCHEV to review and approve or disapprove any change in the name of any public institution of higher education or any academic center, department, school, college, branch, division, or extension of any public institution of higher education.

Domestic Violence First Offense
- Provides that the deferral and dismissal of a first offense of assault and battery against a family or household member will be treated as a prior conviction for the purpose of determining whether a person is eligible for the enhanced Class 6 felony penalties for stalking or assault and battery against a family or household member that apply based on a person's prior convictions.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Keep On Rockin' In The Free World

There's colors on the street
Red, white and blue…
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

~Neil Young, “Keep on Rockin’ in The Free World”

Ready for some good news from the 2016 Elections?

President Elect Donald Trump received a mere 1,324 votes in the City of Falls Church, representing around seventeen percent of the total votes cast. While we may have political differences, and some of us are more conservative or more progressive than others, it’s apparent that the vast majority of us in the City and Greater Falls Church considered Mr. Trump’s words, actions, and positions unacceptable in a presidential candidate.

In other news, a substantial majority of Falls Churchers rejected the so-called “right to work” amendment to the Virginia Constitution. Overall, in what was a surprising result to many of us in the political establishment, 54% of Virginians voted against the proposal, causing the amendment to fail. You can rest assured I will remind my colleagues in the General Assembly - who passed the language on a party line vote two years in a row - that they are out of touch with their electorate on this issue.

And Virginia went bigger for Hillary than it did for President Obama in either 2008 or 2012, causing one conservative talk show host do declare Virginia to not be a swing state, but a blue state. Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly getting bluer with each election.

Of course, in spite of all this good news, like many of you I was extremely disappointed in the outcome of the national election. For several days the outcome seemed surreal. In many ways I felt as though I was living in a dream like state - a nightmare really.

Before long, I decided to stop moping and look for ways to move forward and use this most unfortunate turn of events to my advantage. I reached out to a group of friends and neighbors on Facebook, some old political pros, and others newly engaged

About fifty of us sat around my home and talked about the future. We tried not to spend too much time thinking about specific things we wished the Clinton campaign had done differently, although we did spend time talking about what we need to get right the next time around.

Since Virginia has an election every year, next time around is already here.

While Virginia’s odd year elections can sometimes be exhausting, this year I view them as a silver lining. We’ve got something positive to work toward right away. In 2017, Virginians will elect a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.

In addition, all 100 House Delegates will be up for re-election in 2017. If we can work to motivate voters who’ve cast votes for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Tim Kaine in even year elections to show up in an odd year election, we could even see the bright red Virginia House of Delegates turn blue again.

If you’ve had enough political campaigning for the time being, or you’re worried about the immediate threats to our civil liberties a Trump presidency poses (and I know many of you are), there are other ways to take action that are even more cathartic than ranting on your Facebook page.

Contact my office and we can put you in touch with organizations that stand up for the priorities you believe in, like the ACLU, Campaign Zero, Planned Parenthood of Virginia, RAINN, NextGen Climate Action, Equality Virginia, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. There are so many options.

And if none of that cheers you up, come to my house on December 18th for Latkepalooza III, my annual holiday fundraiser. Rachel’s making latkes, we’ll have jelly donuts and other holiday fare, and a great time will be had by all. Check out www.marcussimon.com for details.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Case Against Voter Fraud

A few weeks ago, Virginia House Republicans held a press call in which they succeeded in getting newspapers to report on a two-week old incident where a single individual in Harrisonburg Virginia is alleged to have submitted voter registrations on behalf of people who are in fact dead. The State Police and FBI are investigating and, if the alleged activity is proven, the individual responsible should be prosecuted and punished under existing laws.

There is no evidence or allegation that this single student’s alleged activity was part of any larger effort or scheme to cast votes illegally on behalf of any candidate or any particular political party. According to the JMU student paper the Breeze, the student has spoken with the County registrar and investigators. Rather than speculate about the student’s motives, we could wait for the complete investigation, which would provide actual evidence and facts.

Instead, Republican leaders organized the call to highlight the most sensational aspects and then conclude that Virginians should believe that this isolated incident is indicative of a widespread problem with voter fraud. Taking cues from their presidential nominee, perhaps, they were undeterred by the absence of actual evidence of any widespread fraud or evidence that their recent legislative proposals, which have made voting more difficult, have done anything to prevent fraud.

In fact, the evidence we do have would indicate that the individual under scrutiny wasn’t terribly sophisticated. He used the last known address of one of the deceased, which caused a congratulatory letter to be sent to his family. He turned in a total of nineteen alleged fraudulent applications over nine months. Were he intending to influence the outcome of an election, he was either working an extremely long con or severely underestimated the number of votes that would be required to alter the outcome. He hadn't applied for any absentee ballots and, even if he had, newly registered voters who register by mail are required to provide ID with their initial absentee ballot.

On social media, I asked for anyone to explain to me how the alleged activity could result in fraudulent votes. A few folks sent me fewer than five examples with the stories of fraud from other states. And these were several years old.

So, voter fraud does sometimes happen. It's just that it's incredibly difficult to execute, even more difficult to get away with, and extremely rare.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try and prevent all voter fraud. We should. It undermines confidence in an already suspect system in which the outcome is often predetermined by political gerrymandering and the absence of any campaign finance restrictions, which works to the tremendous advantage of incumbents.

So why don't we do more? We have to be careful that the remedy isn't worse than the ailment. If we restricted the right to vote to only white male landholders who could produce a deed to their property and a family bible dating back to the 18th century, we wouldn't have any voter fraud. We wouldn't have a representative democracy either, at least not the way we define it today.

The so-called remedies proposed would make it too difficult for many poor, elderly, and foreign born citizens to cast ballots, effectively disenfranchising them. As long as those are the only folks affected, Virginia house Republicans seem comfortable seeking greater and greater restrictions.

Some of the folks I have heard from are upset that I called the accusations of fraud disingenuous. If we were really genuinely concerned with ascertaining the true identity of voters rather than making voting more difficult, why not accept an expired driver’s license from an elderly voter who doesn't use it for driving any longer? Or give the elections officer the option to do so?

We have evidence given under oath that current Virginia House Republicans have deliberately drawn legislative districts to pack minority democrats into as few districts as mathematically possible. Why wouldn't we be suspicious of their real motives in crying Widespread Voter Fraud as well?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Are You Election Ready?

Get ready 'cause here I come
Get ready 'cause here I come
Get ready

~The Temptations, "Get Ready"

With about six weeks until the next election and in-person absentee voting beginning today, I wanted to share some information that may be useful this election cycle, including information about registering to vote and voting absentee.

Please be aware that the deadline to register to vote in this year's election is Tuesday, October 17th.

On Tuesday, November 8th, the polls will be open from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
At the Virginia State Board of Elections website, you can check your registration status and confirm your polling place. In addition, voter ID laws are in effect. The list of accepted forms of ID and other related information can be found here.

City of Falls Church Guide to the 2016 Election

  • In-Person Absentee voting begins Friday, September 23rd at City Hall, weekdays 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
  • Closed Monday, October 10th for the holiday
  • Open Saturdays, October 29th and November 5th, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
  • Last Day to vote In-Person Absentee is Saturday, November 5th, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
  • Last Day to request an absentee ballot by mail is Tuesday, November 1st at 5:00 p.m

Fairfax County Guide to the 2016 Election

In-Person Absentee Voting - Fairfax County Government Center

  • Weekdays - September 23rd to October 14th
    • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday: 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday: 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
    • Monday, October 10th, Columbus Day - OFFICE CLOSED
  • Weekdays - October 17th to November 4th
    • Monday - Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

  • Saturdays - October 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd, 29th and November 5th
    • 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
  • For information on Satellite Voting Locations, click here.     

Referenda & Constitutional Amendments

For Falls Church, there is a referendum on library bonds.

For Fairfax County, there are referenda involving bonds for our parks, human services, and transportation. In addition, you will also be able to vote on a Meals Tax, which would allow Fairfax County to enact a tax rate of up to 4%. If passed, the additional estimated revenue is $99 million per year. 70% of this would be earmarked for FCPS and the remaining 30% would go to other County programs and services. I support the meals tax.

Two constitutional amendments will be on ballots all over the state. One amendment attempts to codify the Right to Work provision, which I am against. The second one gives localities the option to exempt the surviving spouse of any law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel who is killed in the line of duty from real property taxes. I support this amendment.

Election Day Tips

  • Polls officially close at 7:00 p.m., but everyone waiting in line at that time must be given the opportunity to cast their ballots.
  • If the voting equipment malfunctions at your polling place, inform the election officials immediately. If the equipment cannot be repaired in a timely manner, you may then request an emergency paper ballot.
  • If you are elderly or disabled, or otherwise unable to enter the polling location without physical assistance, curbside voting will be made available to you at your assigned polling place.
  • If you previously requested and received an absentee ballot, but prefer to cast your vote in person on Election Day, be sure to return the unopened ballot to either the local Electoral Board or to the General Registrar before Election Day, or to the election official at your polling place.  This will enable you to cast a regular ballot on Election Day.


Questions: call 1--866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An End to the Hybrid Exemption

For over two years, the I-66 project has been a major topic of conversation in our community. Perhaps even longer than that if you consider previous concerns over traffic and commuting. After many community meetings and plan revisions, the Governor and senior VDOT officials unveiled the first phase of the project, the installation of tolling infrastructure on I-66 inside the beltway. While this is not how I might of chosen to kick-off the improvement project (I’d have preferred we break ground on the new lane from the Dulles Connector Road to Ballston first), the project is moving forward.

To many, the unveiling of the tolling infrastructure is an ominous signal that the end is near for the clean fuel plates exemption which has allowed single occupancy vehicles to use the HOV lanes inside the Beltway during rush hour.

This hybrid exception encouraged residents to purchase these innovative and exceptionally fuel efficient vehicles early on when the technology was new and relatively expensive. Given our high traffic area, I know many hybrid vehicle owners have enjoyed taking advantage of the HOV exception. I know this because many of them have asked me to help delay the sunset of the clean fuel plate exemption.

Some Background

The state entered into an agreement in 1994 with the FHWA that allows Clean Fuel Vehicles (Hybrids) to use the HOV lanes along I-66, inside and outside the Capital Beltway, as long as the state could demonstrate that allowing those cars on the HOV lanes wouldn’t cause the minimum average speed to decrease below 45mph at least ninety percent of the time.

Unfortunately, increased traffic and congestion has resulted in data to showing that the average speed cannot be maintained for ninety percent of the time. As an interim step, the state stopped issuing new clean fuel plates in 2011 but grandfathered in holders of the plates who got them before 2011. Traffic has continued to degrade, however, triggering a sunset clause to the hybrid car exemption.

In addition to traffic management, some have argued the program is a necessary incentive to encourage ownership of more fuel efficient cars, reducing carbon emissions and generally helping the environment.

I'm not convinced of the environmental benefits of continuing this particular program. Why should we allow someone driving a Camry hybrid, for instance, which gets 26 mpg, to take up capacity on the HOV/HOT lanes (more cars equal higher tolls for everyone else) while someone driving a less expense conventional drive vehicle like the Ford Focus, getting up to 35 mpg, can't use the lanes or has to pay the higher tolls? Why are we creating an incentive for this one particular technology? Simply giving hybrids a special exemption, while it may have been a good idea at the time, no longer makes sense to me.

Of course, if it didn't do anyone any harm, why not let the hybrids keep using the road like they always have? The problem is that It costs everyone else who uses the road higher tolls because toll pricing is based on the volume of traffic.

I am sure that it's disappointing to see this program, which has saved so much time and money over the years, go away. The truth is, I'm not a big fan of toll lanes and privatizing our roads at all. I'd love to see these roads remain free for everyone. We just haven't seen the political will to raise gas taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements we desperately need.

Unfortunately, the current hybrid exemption vehicle program is not compatible with the HOT lane concept which VDOT has adopted and is moving forward with. Given the new reality, I don't think it's fair to everyone else who uses these roads to have to pay higher tolls to benefit a savvy class of early adopters.

I haven't come to this position lightly. I've listened carefully to the arguments on both sides and done my best to keep an open mind. I understand that this is an issue on which intelligent and thoughtful people can disagree, and that some of my colleagues whom I almost always agree with are on the other side of this argument.

That said, if you’d like to share your concerns about this, please contact me either by phone (571) 327-0053 or email DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Combatting the Student Loan Debt Crisis

As we near the end of August, many Falls Church and Virginia families will engage in one of those rites of passage that some of us look forward to and others may dread: packing up their cars and making the road trip to drop off a child a college for the first time.

The trip is full of anxieties for children and parents alike. Will these very young adults make smart decisions about studying, alcohol, drugs, and relationships, with relatively little real adult supervision? Some of us may wonder why we didn’t set more aside for the spiraling increases in the cost of attending college.

Others will, after checking out the dorm, make a trip to the student aid office to beginning taking draws on their student loans, which is how they will pay for it all.

As of 2015, student loan debt topped $1.3 trillion nationally. This includes 1 million Virginians with over $30 billion of student loan debt. To put that in perspective, that's larger than credit card and auto loan debt. Only mortgage debt is greater, but with Student Loan debt, there are no assets securing repayment.

There is growing evidence that the burden of repaying all this debt is weighing down the economy and preventing younger Americans from more fully participating in the economy. This is why I hosted a series of roundtables last fall around the state, wrote an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, and worked with advocacy groups to craft student loan debt legislation for this past General Assembly Session.

One thing that became clear during our roundtable discussions was that many student loan borrowers are not adequately counseled on the terms of the loans they are taking out or what their loan payments will be, and what it will take to make those payments, once they graduate. And for those that perhaps don’t finish their degree and, therefore don’t get the expected higher paying job, the numbers are even worse.

In response to these concerns, I co-sponsored legislation with State Senator Janet Howell last Session to create a Student Loan Borrower’s Bill of Rights. Among other things, the legislation would have required some basic consumer protections and required Virginia to license student loan servicers and originators just like similar financial providers.

Finally, we would create an office of the Student Loan Debt Ombudsman with the mission to:
  • Receive, review, and attempt to resolve any complaints from student loan borrowers, including attempts to resolve such complaints in collaboration with institutions of higher education, student loan servicers;  
  • Compile and analyze data on student loan borrower complaints;
  • Assist student loan borrowers to understand their rights and responsibilities as a borrower;
  • Provide information to the public, state agencies, legislators, and other persons regarding the problems and concerns of student loan borrowers and make recommendations for resolving those problems and concerns;
  • Analyze and monitor the development and implementation of federal and state laws and policies relating to student loan borrowers and recommend any changes the Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman deems necessary;
  • Establish and maintain a student loan borrower education course that shall include educational presentations and materials regarding student education loans. Topics covered by the program shall include key loan terms, documentation requirements, monthly payment obligations, income-based repayment options, loan forgiveness, and disclosure requirements.
Both my legislation to permit graduates to refinance student loan debt and the Student Loan Bill of Rights legislation received a lot of attention during the committee meetings and were subsequently referred to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), Virginia 529, and the Virginia Department of the Treasury for further study. I have since met with SCHEV staff, who are taking the lead on this project, and plan to reintroduce the fine-tuned legislation during the 2017 Session.

We can’t break our word to the upcoming generation. We told them if they worked hard, went to school, and got a degree, they were punching their ticket to financial security. Offering lower interest rate refinancing and expanded consumer protections may not solve all the problems of social mobility and income inequality, but it's something we can do, here in Virginia, to make life better for everyone.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Making Our Community Safer

Earlier this week, prefiling of bills resumed for the 2017 House of Delegates Session. The House Majority Caucus decided to highlight the introduction of HB 1392, a duplicate version of a measure Governor McAuliffe vetoed in 2016, which would put guns in the hands of civilians inside our schools.

It's amazing to me that Virginia's GOP still hasn't gotten the message that the myth of the good-guy with a gun has been completely debunked. As so many across the country grieve and mourn those lost to gun violence, as police unions ask for action to restrict civilians from carrying firearms openly, for the Virginia House GOP to reintroduce a bill that will put more guns in close proximity to our school children shows just how out of touch they've become.

No one is more concerned about the safety of Virginia's children than I am. The fact is, this bill does nothing to improve the safety of children.

A study of mass shootings from 2009 to 2015 revealed that 96% of these tragedies occurred somewhere other than a school. In fact, accidental deaths involving firearms are the third leading cause of death for children.

I challenge my Republican colleagues in the House to show that they really are serious about protecting children by supporting legislation to require smart gun technology, to promote the use of trigger locks, and to fund a comprehensive study of gun violence as the public health scourge that it is.

At the same time, recent news stories involving lethal interactions between the police and men of color have been heartbreaking. Here in Northern Virginia and Fairfax we also have work to do with regard to the way police are trained and when and on whom they use physical force and how much is appropriate.

On Tuesday, the Fairfax County Police Chief released a report including data that showed 40% of use of force incidents involved African American suspects, even though African Americans are approximately eight percent of the overall county population.

These statistics were reported at the recommendation of the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission on which I served. This week I wanted to highlight some of the recommendations of the Police Oversight and Use of Force Subcommittees.

Like the Mental Health and CIT Subcommittee I chaired, these subcommittees presented recommendations to the Board of Supervisors after months of stakeholder meetings. Each subcommittee comprised a group of individuals representing diverse backgrounds and experiences. The recommendations were only agreed upon after long discussions, presentations from several sources, and a comprehensive review of data.

For the past few months, the Board of Supervisors has been reviewing and implementing these recommendations. A regularly updated Progress Report can be found online - http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/policecommission/progressreport.htm

One of the most important recommendations establishes a civilian oversight committee, which would go a long way in creating a transparent relationship between the police and the community. It is important to note that an oversight committee is not intended to be a punitive measure; it’s actually a pro-police position. Accountability and oversight builds trust and confidence which in turn makes policing our communities safer and easier for officers and residents alike. Further, making it a civilian oversight committee is integral to its success.

Specifically, the recommendations included:
  • Appointing an Independent Police Auditor who will report to the Board of Supervisors to participate in and monitor Internal Affairs Bureau investigations of use of force and other serious cases;
  • Establishing a Civilian Review Panel to respond to community concerns or complaints about alleged abuse of authority incidents by the Fairfax County Police Department;
  • In addition, the Commission recommends strengthening the independent investigative ability of the Commonwealth’s Attorney (CWA) in use of force and other serious cases. The various reporting and disclosure obligations contained in the recommendations will provide for the disclosure of the information necessary for the public to judge the thoroughness, completeness, accuracy, objectivity and impartiality of the FCPD investigations of use of force incidents and complaints concerning FCPD activities.
I am a huge fan and supporter of our state and local police officers. I believe that holding them to high standards, requiring transparency, and accountability are pro-police positions that will build a rapport with the community. This will make their jobs easier, make them more effective, and improve morale among officers and the communities they police.

So, while a strong commitment exists to further improve the relationship between the police and our community, we still have much to do to fully implement the subcommittees’ recommendations. And if HB 1392 is any indication, we also have much to do to ensure that some of my General Assembly colleagues have a better understanding of how we can effectively protect our children from gun violence.