Friday, October 18, 2019

Ain't Baseball Great?





Ain’t baseball great?

I’ve had the privilege to attend one game from each round of the National League Playoffs, including the Wild Card Round. It’s been so good for my soul to spend three hours surrounded by like-minded folks all pulling for the same thing (with the exception of the stray Brewer or Dodger or Cardinal fan here and there) at the same time, in the same place.

Everyone wearing their lucky outfit, the one that they haven’t washed since Juan Soto broke the game open in the bottom of the 8th against Milwaukee. Some of us imagine that our superstitious rituals have a real influence on the outcome of the game. We cheer and wave our towels together. We stand as one when the pitch count reaches two strikes. We pat each other on the back when the other team gets the better of us that night.

Rarely do we ask each other “Where were you born?” “What language do you speak at home?” “Is that your friend you brought to the ball park with you, or your ‘friend’?” “Who are you voting for?”

We are all there for the same reasons. To enjoy America’s favorite pastime and perhaps get a break from the daily grind. This is probably why I also like the Nationals current popular HashTag or team motto, “Stay in the fight,” so much.

It’s relevant to this year’s team that started the season playing poorly and enduring bad breaks. Yet they never did quit or stop believing in themselves and each other. They stuck with what they knew was right and trusted that the results would follow. Stay In The Fight describes the team well.

I also really like the hashtag/motto from years ago. One pursuit. That’s a motto that I think still applies to those of us that fill the stands each night, clad in red jerseys featuring our favorite player’s name and number. WE are all there pulling for the same thing, all of us in our own way. I think by now you might see where I am going with this.

Besides having World Series Playoff fever, I think my Nationals fandom may hold some hints for how to cure what ails us as a nation. We need to recognize that all of us really are rooting for the same things. We all want to live in a Country, a Commonwealth and a Community where we can feel safe and welcome, where we have opportunities to prosper, and build a world where our children can be better off and have an easier time than we did.

Of course, the best way to achieve that is subject of some debate. You can debate whether Davey should have brought in a left-handed relief pitcher or not. Fervent fans can have heated disagreements about that. The beautiful thing about baseball is that everyone is judged on their results.

Some of us believe the best path to prosperity is to create an economy where no one is left behind, and no one is excluded because of who they are, where they came from, how they got here, or who they love. We can all have a bigger slice of pie if we all throw in some more ingredients - or some of us can have a whole pie by taking it home and eating it ourselves.

(Wait, that’s a food analogy, not baseball. I must be hungry!)

This is my last column before the November 5th election. I’ve written previously about what’s at stake and what policies are likely to be enacted if my “team” wins control of the legislature. I’ve also seen the letters to the editor decrying the policies I’ve called for, suggesting they’ll be destructive and impede us in our pursuit of that shared vision of prosperity and opportunity and safety for all.

I hope that once the outcome is known, we’ll remember that we are all on the same team. We all want the same thing for ourselves and our loved ones, and we will root for whomever wins to be successful.

My hope for 2020 is that when I leave the baseball game and tune the radio form the sports station to the news, all my positive feelings that come from being amongst a community working together, playing together, even many of us praying together in our own ways - that all those positive feelings don’t evaporate when I hear the latest quotes from our national leaders.

So, let’s root for the home team and for a post-election season that moves us forward. Let’s play ball!

Friday, August 16, 2019

What if Democrats controlled the GA?

Earlier this month I wrote a news story for the FCNP about some of the new laws that went into effect on July 1, 2019 across the Commonwealth of Virginia, on topics ranging from public safety to transportation, health care and the environment, to education and taxation.

Writing that story go me thinking- great, now restaurants can advertise Happy Hour specials including discounted drink prices, and sure some new funding is available for amateur bee-keepers, which is nice. But imagine what next year’s July 1 new law story could be if progressive Democrats control both chambers in the General Assembly for the first time since…maybe ever.

I mean, we just need to pick up two more seats in each chamber. So, let’s indulge in a little bit of time travel. Come with me, to July 1, 2020, in a world where control of the General Assembly has flipped…

One of our first orders of business when we returned to Richmond for the 2020 Session was to pass common sense reforms related to gun purchases and ownership. Beginning July 1, every firearms transaction in the Commonwealth is subject to a background check available on a website operated by the Virginia State Police. Falls Church City and Fairfax County owned buildings are not only tobacco free, but local governments have voted to make them gun free zones as well. It’s no longer legal to buy bump stocks and assault weapons in Virginia.

Voting in the upcoming 2020 election is expected to break records for voter participation, not just because it’s a presidential election year, but because Virginia residents are now automatically registered to vote when they go to re-register their cars, apply for government benefits, or have any other interaction with state government. For those who aren’t automatically registered on Election Day, they will be able to register on the spot, and voting will begin early for anyone who wishes to cast a ballot, no reason need be provided.

Virginia is now part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and is committed to reducing our emissions while funding renewable energy programs and promoting green jobs. Expect to see rooftop solar panels dotting the landscape as the General Assembly removed regulatory barriers and added financial incentives for residential and community solar installation.

Many Virginians will begin to see a more money in their paychecks each week as we begin the first step in a gradual increase in the minimum wage, which is on its way to $15 an hour. Those struggling with crippling student loan debt have new options to consolidate and refinance their loans, and those who suspect they’ve been overpaying can complain to the Virginia Bureau of Financial Institutions which now has oversight authority and will be enforcing a Student Borrower Bill of Rights in Virginia.

Simple possession of Marijuana is no longer a criminal offense, but it is illegal to discriminate in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Virginia passed the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming the last state needed to add it to the US Constitution.

We firmly established that the government has no business interfering in women’s healthcare and reproductive rights.

Political candidates can no longer use campaign funds for personal use – the highlight of several meaningful campaign finance reforms we passed earlier this year to limit the influence of money in politics that will impact the next state election cycle. Many localities will launch pilot programs to provide public financing to campaigns that pledge to forego corporate contributions and accept caps on the amount any individual can donate.

And tolling hours on I-66 are restored to the original HOV hours and a whole slate of new transportation improvements are in the works as we’ve made the decision to prioritize funding these projects with gas tax revenues.

That’s the column I’d like to write in 2020.

Although I don’t have an opponent on the ballot in the 53rd district this year, I’ll be spending as much time as possible between now and November working to make sure we elect candidates around the state who share that vision.

What new headlines would you like to see in 2020?


Friday, July 19, 2019

2019 Special Session

If you are wondering how seriously Republicans in the General Assembly took Governor Northam’s special session call to address gun violence here in the Commonwealth, you can start watching the Lion King on Netflix. By the time the closing credits wrap on this movie designed not to exceed the attention span of the typical 4-year-old, you will have spent as much time as it took Republicans to adjourn.

Had I known that was going to be “their play” as Senator Amanda Chase described it on the radio recently, I probably wouldn’t have headed to Richmond on Monday night to review the eight bills the Governor had proposed.

While I was working with bill patrons to restore Virginia’s one handgun a month purchase limit and working on a procedural resolution that would have required these bills to come before the full House for a vote, the NRA was huddled in the Speaker’s Conference Room in the General Assembly, mobilizing the opponents of these popular, common-sense gun violence prevention bills.

On the Capitol grounds, hundreds of Virginians associated with Moms Demand Action, Everytown, Giffords, Brady, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence rallied to support the intent of the special session – to finally address gun safety, all unaware that the script had already been written and the play had already been called.

By the time we gaveled into session that day, more than 60 bills had been introduced. Most of them we had seen before – requiring universal background checks, establishing a red flag law, instituting an assault weapons ban, increasing penalties for recklessly leaving loaded firearms within reach of children, and banning weapons in government buildings – to name a few.

First order of business was to vote on the procedural rules that would govern the special session. Not surprisingly, my Republican colleagues introduced a very broad resolution that simply said legislation related to “public safety.”

As the Parliamentarian, I submitted an alternative procedural resolution on behalf of House Democrats establishing a timeline for the introduction of bills, a deadline for committees to act on those bills, and requiring each house to reconvene on a date certain to vote on the committee recommendations even if it meant we had to vote to discharge the bills from committee.

The resolution also included specific language, stating that we would only consider legislation related to firearms safety. Adopting this resolution would have meant that we had a clear, concise agenda for moving forward and for ensuring that we completed the work we were tasked to do all by July 30th.

Unfortunately, my version failed to pass and the Republican procedural resolution which contained no timeline for action was adopted. I spoke against the resolution, pointing out that if we passed it we might adjourn today and never come back.

As it turned out, we only stayed in session for a slightly extend morning hour, during which several of my colleagues offered heartfelt speeches as to why it is past time that we address gun violence prevention. I highly recommend that you watch them – the video archive can be accessed via VirginiaGeneralAssembly.gov.

Quite abruptly, the Speaker called for us to adjourn until November 18th for a lame duck session after November’s elections.

Then an announcement - House Militia, Police, & Public Safety (MPPS) Committee would meet 45 minutes after adjournment and the House Courts of Justice Committee immediately upon adjournment of House MPPS. I happen to serve on both committees, so I held out some hope that the bill patrons would at least have an opportunity to present their bills and we could have some discussion of next steps.

MPPS met first. No sooner had we begun than the committee chair announced that all the referred legislation would be sent to the Virginia Crime Commission for review per a letter from the Speaker of the House. The motion was quickly moved and seconded. There was no discussion.

Moving to House Courts, the same script was read. Everything is going to the Commission, which has announced that it will meet on August 20th in Richmond.

As reported in some news stories, the 90-minute special session cost taxpayers nearly $45,000 in per diem and mileage reimbursement for all 140 legislators. This does not include projected overtime costs for Capitol Police or having additional officers on hand during regular shifts.

Maybe we all should have gone to the movies instead.


Friday, June 21, 2019

The Primary is over

I can’t tell you all how glad I am to have the primary election behind us. Picking amongst my fellow Democrats is almost like asking me to pick a favorite family member. On any given day I may have a preference, but I never want THEM to know that.

This year, though, I did make my preferences known, and as readers of the FCNP know, it put me at odds with some of my best political friends here in Falls Church. Now that the nominees are decided, we can all put that unpleasantness behind us and work together toward or shared goals.

That said, it’s a little easier to be magnanimous when all of your favorites win. I’m proud of the great campaigns run by Dalia Palchik for Providence District Supervisor, Jeff McKay for Fairfax County Board Chairman, and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Arlington/Falls Church and Fairfax respectively.

With the Commonwealth’s Attorney (CA) races being perhaps the most contentious, with some aspersions cast (unwarranted in my view) about how these races were funded, I hope supporters of all the candidates share my excitement about what comes next.

Both Mr. Descano and Ms. Tafti have promised to implement evidence based best practices in their offices to ensure their policies will actually reduce crime and incarceration rates. For instance, both have pledged to stop asking for cash bail. Cash bail unfairly discriminates against low-income people. In localities where Commonwealth’s Attorneys that stopped asking for this, there has not been any significant impact on public safety or court appearances.

Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring appears to have been paying attention to our local races as well. He recently announced that he now agrees that prosecuting marijuana possession is a waste of time and resources, an issue on which both successful candidates campaigned. Voters chose the candidates that agreed to use their discretion not to prosecute these misdemeanors. There are people serving jail time for marijuana possession after the first offense or even for first time offenses if they constitute probation violations.

I look forward to watching both Ms. Tafti and Mr. Descano work to reshape the legislative agenda of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorney (VACA), which lobbies the General Assembly. A more progressive VACA membership means they may drop their opposition to marijuana decriminalization, embrace a prohibition on the death penalty for the seriously mentally ill, and support new trials for people sentenced with junk science.

Some folks have lamented the role of money spent on behalf of the challengers in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s races.

As a champion of campaign finance reform since my first term, I have introduced legislation to prohibit using campaign funds for personal use, to strengthen our ethics laws, to require online political ads to be regulated like newspaper and TV ads, and to give localities the option to publicly finance campaigns – just to name a few.

The concerns about money in politics I hear from constituents generally have to do with the role of business interests influencing those who are supposed to be their watchdogs. They feel like the systems is rigged against ordinary people – a system where big business buys influence and pays off politicians in exchange for favorable rules, regulations, and laws. For instance- allowing bail bond companies to contribute to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s who oppose ending cash bail. Or Defense Attorney’s feeling obligated to pitch in to these races.

Transparency is also a concern. Dark money is money that comes from organizations that don’t disclose their donors’ identities for the purpose of influencing elections. Unlike a political action committee (PAC), these organizations are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

That said, the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fairfax and Falls Church-Arlington was about a need for a more progressive approach to our criminal justice system that was sorely lacking. The voters of Falls Church, Fairfax and Arlington County won because they ran good campaigns and connected with voters (and some local elected officials) who share their values.

As for campaign finance reform, we can still do better. I’ll keep introducing legislation to increase transparency and hold elected officials accountable in how they receive (and spend) their campaign funds. And we owe it to our constituents to do so.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Got a legislative idea?

The Virginia House of Delegates will celebrate it’s 400th birthday this year. It met for the first time, as the House of Burgesses, in Jamestown, in July of 1619. In a few months, we’ll have a special commemorative session, in which it is my great honor to participate.

While many things about the way the body functions have changed, many more remain almost the same. Members of various communities around Virginia assemble in the same place and work collectively to look for solutions to the common problems that confront their families and neighbors across the Commonwealth.

In the early 1600s, they might have worried about how to resolve land disputes, provide rules for allowing each other to cross one another’s land to get from place to pace efficiently and avoid time consuming detours - in other words, traffic.

In the 1800s, they had to come up with laws to regulate an industrial economy, to solve problems brought about by the growth of the railroads. Prior to the early 20th century, there was no such thing as reckless driving. When did running a stop sign become a crime?

As we are about to enter the 3rd decade of the 21st century, ideas for legislation come across my desk literally and figuratively from a number of sources. Once I decide to pursue them, things actually still work quite a bit like the 1970s School House Rock cartoon on how a bill becomes a law.

Let me explain.

A few weeks before the 2019 Session began, I was sitting at my kitchen island with my smartphone when I got a notification that I had been tagged in a Facebook post. The post was a link to newspaper article on a new and growing method of harassment being used mostly in an effort to harm women.

Through the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning programs distributed on the internet, almost anyone can now use widely available software tools to create incredibly realistic images by superimposing their victim’s face onto an existing pornographic video. It’s then sent it to employers, family members or posted on social media as if it were real.

Something the 1619 Burgesses could hardly have imagined.

In 2014, I introduced legislation to address a similar problem, known as revenge pornography – when someone shares sexually explicit photos of an individual without their consent. There are even websites that post these photos and then charge individuals to have it removed. Fortunately, now there are legal repercussions for those that violate this law.

So, after reading the 2019 Facebook post I got to work with the attorneys at the Division of Legislative Services drafting an update to include artificially created images. Once we liked the words we’d come up with I submitted it to the Clerk of the House, who numbered it. The Speaker then assigned it to the House Courts of Justice Committee, where the Chairman assigned it to the Criminal Law Subcommittee.

In subcommittee the lawyer legislators worked to make sure we didn’t inadvertently capture cartoons, parody, or speech protected by the first amendment. After several meetings, the bill eventually passed the subcommittee, the full committee, and then the full House.

In the Senate, the bill maintained momentum - my senate colleagues further tweaked the bill and then passed it through committee and the full Senate. Because the bill was now different than when it left the House, it went to a conference committee of six legislators and I worked with my colleagues to put the bill in its best form.

Then boom. HB 2678 passed the House and Senate again in its final form and was signed by the Governor. It will become law on July 1st of this year.

So, what’s next?

As I said before, legislative ideas come from many places in many forms. And I’d love to hear from you. What are your priorities? Do you have a legislative idea that you’d like to share? If so, please reach out via email or phone – DelMSimon@house.virginia.gov or (571) 327-0053.

My goal is always to represent my constituents to the best of my ability and hearing your legislative ideas is a great way to do that.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

2019 Reconvene Session

Earlier this month the Virginia General Assembly reconvened for one day to consider the legislation vetoed and amended by the Governor, including the budget bill.

This year the Governor was able to use language amendments in the budget to bypass House GOP leadership and accomplish some important bi-partisan policy objectives.

Legislation to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court costs and fees passed the Senate in a bipartisan fashion during the regular session but was killed by 6 legislators on the Criminal Law subcommittee in the House of Delegates. Many advocates on both ends of the political spectrum agree that this practice puts many low-income Virginian’s in an untenable situation. Individuals are unable to get to work to earn the money to pay the fines they need to get their driving privileges restored so they can go to work to earn the money to pay the fines.

This year the Governor added language to the budget prohibiting this unfair practice for the rest of the biennium. We also added $4 million in additional support for the Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund to address homelessness. Another budget amendment that we passed creates a dedicated revenue source for transportation improvements throughout the state, including additional funding for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) to replace some of what Delegate Hugo’s bill diverted to Metro last session.

Those were the highlights. Unfortunately, there were more than a few of the Governor’s recommendations that the House GOP defeated on the floor. Some noteworthy efforts that failed to pass:

Efforts to tackle the growing problem of distracted driving and the growing public safety threat it poses were frustrated by a controversial procedural ruling made by Speaker Kirk Cox. Earlier this session both the House and Senate passed a bi-partisan hands-free law that would have simply made it illegal for anyone to hold a phone in their hand while operating a motor vehicle.

This approach, the same one used in Maryland and Washington D.C., has the advantage of being able to be enforced objectively by the police, an issue of major concern to legislators concerned with the police using their discretion to disproportionately pull over African American drivers. That approach was rejected in a conference committee by 4 legislators who amended the bill that passed the House and Senate to create an exception for talking on the phone. Concerned that such an exception would force police to decide whether someone was holding their phone to talk on it or for an unlawful purpose, like texting or surfing the web, a majority of legislators voted against passage of the bill on the House Floor.

The effort to pass a truly hands-free law was revived when the Governor proposed amending a bill prohibiting the use of phones in work zones to apply everywhere. Unfortunately, the Speaker ruled the amendment out of order.

Regarding the budget, Republicans in the House & Senate defeated an amendment to include $1.5 million in the budget for census education and outreach to ensure a full and accurate census count. They also defeated an amendment to restore funding to the long acting reversible contraception pilot program to allow low income women access to this sort of contraception which is proven to reduce unintended pregnancies. An amendment restoring language (that already exists under current law) authorizing expenditures for abortion services that are necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant woman, provided that every possible measure is taken to preserve the life of the unborn fetus.

Finally, the House defeated the Governor’s amendment I argued for on the House Floor that would have prevented the creation of a special Amazon incentive slush fund in which to divert $40 million worth of new sales tax revenue generated by the Commonwealth’s ability to tax all e-commerce transactions, even when the seller doesn’t have a physical presence in the State. We’ve been told that the Amazon incentives are post-performance and will pay for themselves through additional income tax receipts. That said, I agreed with the Governor that we shouldn’t be taking money away from transportation and education to start squirreling it away to make payments to Amazon in the future.

As it is every year, the Reconvened session was a culmination of the regular session, allowing us to wrap up loose ends. Legislation that we passed and earned the Governor’s signature (including the state budget) will go into effect on July 1st.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Not all good things pass

In a future column I’ll talk about laws that passed during the 2019 Session that you’ll need to know about before they go into effect on July 1 of this year. This month, though, I need to share with you a rundown of the important legislation that failed to pass. As this is an election year here in Virginia, with all 140 seats in the General Assembly on the ballot, I think it’s important readers understand what’s at stake.

Gun Violence Prevention

Unlike the sure, swift action we are seeing parliament take in New Zealand after the tragic mass shooting at a Christchurch mosque, the Virginia General Assembly remains a steadfast obstacle to common-sense reforms to our firearm laws. For instance, Delegate Rip Sullivan’s bill to create substantial risk protective orders to allow removal of firearms from the homes of individuals who have been reported as posing a substantial risk of harm to themselves or others - a so-called Red Flag Law that is even supported in concept by the Trump Administration - died in subcommittee on a party line vote.

Other bills killed would have reinstated Virginia’s one handgun purchase per month law, banned the sale of bump stocks and high capacity magazines, and simply required proper storage for firearms in homes where daycare centers also operate.

Student Loan Debt

I’ve worked closely with Delegate Marcia Price of Newport News for several sessions on solutions to the growing student loan debt crisis in Virginia, where over 1 million people carry student loan debt totaling $30 billion. This year, our House Bill 1760, would have licensed student loan servicing companies operating in Virginia, empowering the State Corporation Commission to enforce a student borrower bill of rights. Deceptive and corrupt practices have led borrowers and attorneys general in several states to file dozens of lawsuits against companies like Navient, a prominent student loan servicing company headquartered in Fairfax County.

Working Families

With the help of Delegates like Ken Plum, we continue to work hard to improve the lives of working families here in Virginia. Even as our neighbors in Maryland, D.C. and even West Virginia are seeing increases in the minimum wage each year, our bills which would have very gradually raised the wage over the next 5 years, failed on a party line vote.

While the General Assembly agreed to provide paid family leave for our own employees, so that workers can care for chronically or seriously ill children or family and still be able to pay their rent, health insurance, and other bills, legislation to bring the same worker protections to the private sector continue to go nowhere in the General Assembly. Virginia’s lack of paid family leave affects the state economy and economic productivity.

Solar Freedom

I worked for months between the 2018 and 2019 sessions with Delegate Mark Keam, the Sierra Club, and other stakeholders on a bill (HB 2329) that would have removed legal barriers preventing Virginia homeowners and business from using solar energy to meet their electric power needs. It would have expanded access to net metering, lifted Virginia’s 1% limit on solar energy generation, and allowed the development of community solar projects. The bill had wide support among a variety of groups, but it was still defeated on yet another party line vote.

Contraception & Women’s Health

Removing unnecessary and costly barriers to women’s healthcare, including birth control medication, was another initiative I pursued this year, with a bill to allow the Board of Pharmacy to issue licenses to non-profit facilities and clinics to dispense contraceptives on site. Although this bill had nothing to do with abortion, the bill died in subcommittee on a party line vote after the Family Foundation spoke against it.

Same Day Voter Registration

It shouldn’t be hard to vote in Virginia. This is why I unsuccessfully introduced HB 1904, hoping to allow same day voter registration. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in our democracy. Deadlines that may have served a purpose in the past to allow registrars time to manually prepare for the election are no longer necessary.

These are just a few of the areas where there is so much work left to be done. That is why I’m running for reelection this year and hope to once again earn your support. We’re so close to having the majority in the House and the Senate – I see all the potential, progressive legislation that we can accomplish that would have a truly lasting and meaningful impact in our community.