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.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Budget Update







While much of the news out of Richmond for the last several weeks was about shocking and disappointing scandals, the just concluded 2019 General Assembly Session also produced some important legislation that will have a positive impact on the lives of Virginians across the commonwealth.

The biggest bill we took on during the 46-day session actually sent us into overtime and a rare 47th session day. HB 1700 contained about 230 pages of amendments to the biennial budget we passed last year.

Education

The amendments include money to give teachers across the Commonwealth a larger than expected pay raise. Overall HB 1700 provides a net increase of $85.7 million for K-12 education above the current adopted base budget and adds $12 million for school counselors in all elementary, middle and high schools in the Commonwealth in an effort to lower the school counselor to student ratios.

Other legislation (HB 1729) mandates that at least 80% of school counselors’ time during the school day be dedicated to providing counseling services to students, rather than other administrative support functions counselors are often called upon to do.

Water Quality

The amendments include significant investments for water quality improvement projects, including $25 million to help Alexandria separate its stormwater and sanitary sewer systems to prevent raw sewage from flowing into the Potomac River during heavy rains. Two years ago, the General Assembly gave Alexandria a tight deadline to stop polluting the Potomac.

Another $127.4 million will go to assist local governments and individuals in reducing nutrient pollution, such as a municipal or industrial waste discharges, which can act like fertilizer causing excessive growth of algae which can have negative impacts on the Bay, and $10 million to help localities install efficient and effective pollution-control measures– such as stream restorations and constructed wetlands- to combat runoff.

Affordable Housing

While we have yet to provide a recurring annual source of revenue for Virginia’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, we were able to provide an additional $1.5 million next year, bringing the total deposit to $7.0 million for the general fund annually.

We also funded a study of the potential need for an eviction diversion and prevention program in response to a recent study that found Virginia has of the highest eviction rates in the country.

Amazon

The Budget also begins to make a down payment on the recently announced Amazon deal. Beginning July 1, 2020, the first $40 million of sales and use taxes remitted by online retailers with a physical nexus in Virginia shall be deposited into the Major Headquarters Workforce Grant Fund.

New investments in Higher Education will begin creating a Tech Talent Pipeline, including new high-tech degree programs to produce more computer science bachelors and master’s degrees Amazon and other tech companies desire.

Redistricting Reform


The House and Senate overwhelmingly voted for a resolution to amend the Virginia Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission to draw new congressional and general assembly district lines after the 2020 census is completed. The resolution will have to pass in identical form next year and receive a majority of votes cast in a referendum in November of 2020 for the change to take effect.

No Excuse Early Voting

Virginian’s will finally have to stop making up excuses to vote early, if the Governor signs the bill we passed that allows any registered voter to vote absentee in person beginning on the second Saturday prior to election day without having to provide a reason.

School Resource Officers

The General Assembly directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish compulsory minimum training standards for law-enforcement officers serving as school resource officers including mediation and conflict resolution, including de-escalation techniques; awareness of cultural diversity and implicit bias; working with students with disabilities, behavioral health or substance abuse disorders, or trauma experiences; and student behavioral dynamics, including child and adolescent development.

Jacob’s Law

Delegate Richard P. “Rip” Sullivan championed a bill none as “Jacob’s Law” that will allow unmarried and same sex couple to create families using assisted conception. His bill changes the statute to provide gender-neutral terminology and allows an unmarried individual to be an intended parent, paralleling the ability of an unmarried individual to adopt under the adoption statutes. The bill further allows for the use of an embryo subject to the legal or contractual custody of an intended parent in a surrogacy arrangement.

Help for Families with Autism Coverage


Legislation passed this year requires health insurers to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder in individuals of any age. Currently, such coverage is required to be provided for individuals from age two through age 10.

Deep Fake Video Harassment


Finally, my own bill updates Virginia’s anti-revenge pornography statute to include creating, adapting, or modifying a sexually explicit videographic or still image with the intent to depict an actual person.




Thursday, February 21, 2019

Changing the Rules

This is the final week of the 2019 General Assembly Session. Odd year sessions are our short sessions, when we meet for 45 days rather than 60. In theory we have less to do, since Virginia adopts a biennial budget every other year, although in practice we end up doing almost as much revising to our biennial budget in the odd years as we do when adopting new budgets in the even years.

In addition to figuring out how to manage a significant budget windfall that resulted from tax changes at the federal level that limited Virginians’ ability to itemize deductions (we did a combination of tax payer rebates and raising the Virginia standard deduction), we also considered over 2,200 bills and resolutions.

There is no way to handle that much work in as slow and deliberate a way as we might have liked. Especially in short session years, it’s critical to keep laser focused on our legislative priorities — even in the face of other crises.

Last year, on the heels of our historic gains in the House when we came a random drawing away from partisan parity, I passed a record five bills (out of about 40 that I introduced). In short session years the rules limit us to introducing 15 bills. I’m pleased to report that four of my 15 bills have now passed the Senate. Three of them will go into a conference committee — the process in which two similar bills passed in each respective chamber are reconciled into one — after which, they will head to the Governor’s desk. In addition to this, I submitted 13 commending resolutions to honor those in our community who celebrated a milestone anniversary or work achievement.

In addition to shepherding my own bills through the legislative process, I serve as the Parliamentarian for the House Democratic Caucus. That means I’m responsible for knowing the rules, helping my fellow Delegates navigate the floor, and trying to out-maneuver my colleagues from the other side of the aisle on procedural matters. This session has been particularly interesting when it comes to knowing and using the rules to the maximum benefit of our caucus.

One of the most prominent issues in the General Assembly this year was the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Virginia was presented with a unique opportunity to become the 38th and final state to ratify the ERA. Since the beginning of this session, there have been lobby days, rallies, protests, ROBO calls, and mass emails — all centered on passing the ERA. And for those of you who followed the journey of Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy’s HJR 579, you’ll know that it was defeated in subcommittee by Republicans on a party line vote.

My colleagues in the Senate, however, passed SJR 284, a bipartisan measure introduced by Senators Glen Sturtevant and Dick Saslaw. After crossover, my Republican colleagues in the House left that bill in subcommittee, again on a party line vote.

After crossover, advocates on behalf of the ERA and some of the bill’s original patrons came to me, as the House Democratic Parliamentarian, looking for another path to bring the ERA to a vote on the floor. We know that if the entire body were presented the opportunity to vote on the ERA, rather than just being presented to a small subset of its members in a subcommittee, we have the support to finally pass it in the House.

Working with Delegate Hala Ayala, the House Democrats introduced a rule change that would specifically allow the full House to vote on resolutions to ratify amendments to the United States Constitution by a simple majority vote (HJ 274). In addition, I also introduced a rule change (HJ 280) to allow the House of Delegates to discharge any resolution from a committee by a simple majority.

Proposed rule changes must sit on the Speaker’s desk for five business days — so we’ll know by Thursday of this week whether we can bring the ERA to the floor for a full vote. I’m cautiously optimistic about the outcome of these proposed rule changes; but I know that even if we cannot ratify the ERA this year, then we will most certainly be able to do it next year with a Democratic majority in the House.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Resources for Furloughed Feds

Today marks Day 34 since the government shutdown began. Northern Virginia is home to more than 83,000 federal employees, many of whom are currently on furlough or working without pay. Next Thursday, January 31, is the next regularly scheduled payday for federal employees, but it remains uncertain whether the government will re-open in time.

Our local governments in Fairfax County and City of Falls Church have done a wonderful job to provide support and resources in response to the shutdown, making sure no student goes hungry and hiring to fill temporary positions like substitute teachers and bus drivers.

Below is a list of resources available for furloughed federal employees and their families. I hope the information is helpful, but even more I hope that the Administration ends the shutdown soon.

Community Support for Furloughed Federal Employees

City of Falls Church 

Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS) will be expediting free and reduced lunch applications. The furlough is considered a change in income and all families affected can apply immediately to get this benefit. School lunch account balances will be allowed to accrue for affected students. Apply here.

FCCPS is also hiring substitute teachers and bus drivers. Find out more and apply online.
Falls Church Housing and Human Services offers a number of services and programs like food referral for City residents, along with financial assistance paying rent for contract government workers who will not receive back pay. Visit their website or reach them at 703-248-5005.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington’s pet pantry is open to Falls Church City residents (with valid ID). No appointments needed. Find out more here.

Fairfax County 

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) will be providing meals (breakfast and lunch) regardless of ability to pay or temporary financial circumstances.

FCPS is offering substitute teaching positions to furloughed workers and will have an expedited hiring process. Learn more and apply online.

Fairfax Connector will provide free rides system-wide for federal government employees affected by the government shutdown who are still required to report for work. Eligible riders must present a federal photo ID to the bus operator. Find schedules, routes, and other information here.

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter has pet food and a limited amount of other supplies available for furloughed federal employees. Supplies are available during shelter business hours. For more information, call 703-830-1100 or email animalshelter@fairfaxcounty.gov
 
Families in the Child Care Assistance and Referral Program with a 12-month eligibility can request that child care co-payments be lowered. Call 703-449-8484 or email DFSccarinfo@fairfaxcounty.gov

Other Resources 

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is offering a free (non-credit) class to furloughed federal employees and contractors. Employees can choose from select Business and Management, IT and Computer Skills, and Professional Development classes. Call 703-878-5770 or visit the website for more information.

George Mason University’s School of Business will offer free career skills workshops for furloughed federal employees and contractors. Find out more here.

The United States Office of Personnel Management has a website dedicated to furlough guidance.
AT&T/DIRECTV, T-Mobile, Cox, and Verizon are offering flexible payment options for those affected by the government shutdown.

Dominion Energy and Washington Gas are also providing support for federal employees impacted by the shutdown.

More information can be found on the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority’s website.

How You Can Help

If you’d like to help, check out the Stuff the Bus campaign to restock local food pantries in Fairfax County.

The Falls Church Community Service Council also welcomes donations of non-perishable food, toiletries, paper good (napkins, toilet paper, etc), and household items (laundry detergent, dish soap, etc). Donations can be dropped off at Knox Presbyterian Church (Route 50 and Allen Street) between the hours of 9:30a – 1:00p most weekdays. Please call their office 703-237-2562 if you have any questions.

Monday, January 21, 2019

2019 Session | Week 2

Raw power, honey, just won't quit
Raw power, I can feel it
Raw power, it can't be beat
Poppin' eyes and a-flashin' feet

Don't you try, don't you try to tell me what to do
Everybody always tryin' to tell me what to do

~Iggy and the Stooges, "Raw Power"


With the deadline to file legislation behind us, (Friday the 18th at 3:00pm was the final deadline to file bills), the pace of activity is really picking up during this short session. Each house has about 2 weeks left to finish work on their own bills. A couple of my 15 bills have already been heard and died (detailed update below). The House and Senate voted on judicial appointments last week, and advocacy groups ramped up their lobbying efforts.

Judicial election day caused the first real partisan fireworks of the session. Typically Judicial elections are fairly dull, procedurally complicated affairs with a lot of steps that have to happen in the right sequence so the House and Senate can sync up to vote on Judges.

About 4:30pm Tuesday, though, we learned that in addition to voting to reappoint sitting judges the majority party had decided on a candidate to be a new State Corporation Commission (one of three). We in the minority party were informed that she would be certified, qualified, and elected the following day.

As the House Democratic Caucus Parliamentarian, it fell to me to look for procedural opportunities to slow down the nomination and give us time to go through a proper process. As Delegate Toscano said on the floor, however, the nomination wasn’t up for actual discussion. Rather, it was an exercise of raw political power.

I submitted a floor amendment to remove the late addition from the resolution and force the election to be rescheduled for a later date, and made several parliamentary inquiries to see if we could have a genuine opportunity to vet the nominee. Unfortunately, the majority party had the numbers they needed to force the election through, which is exactly what they did.

Hope you enjoy this week's update!
 
Legislative Update

Early last week, my bill to allow same day registration was heard in a House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee (HB 1904). After some debate on the idea, the bill was defeated. Unfortunately, updating our voting and election laws remains an uphill battle.

Later in the week, my bill to prohibit 3D printing of guns was heard in a House Militia, Police, & Public Safety Subcommittee (HB 1691). For those that have read my session updates in the past, you can easily predict what happened with this bill - I presented the bill and several groups spoke in favor and the usual folks spoke against. In the end, the bill was killed as are most of the common sense gun violence prevention bills heard in this committee.

Tele-Town Hall on Minimum Wage & EITC

On Thursday, I participated in a teletown on raising the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit hosted by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX). Senator Rosalyn Dance, who represents parts of Richmond and Petersburg, and Michael Cassidy, President of The Commonwealth Institute, were also panelists on the call.

Meanwhile, over the weekend...

An annual tradition, my son swaps out my old license plate for my new one. Five years after my first plate, I’m into the 50s - the plate number signifies seniority and not the district number as some might think. Lots of turnover in the House of a Delegates lately!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The inalienable right to vote


This week’s edition of my Richmond Report is really coming to you from Richmond this month. The House of Delegates convened for our “short” 46 day session last week. With one full week behind us, things are starting to ramp up. A 46 day session means each chamber only has three weeks to work on its own bills before we reach cross-over and have to send them down the hall to the other side of the Capitol.

This past Saturday, many of you joined state Senator Saslaw and me for our annual early-session town hall, where we discussed our legislative agendas, priorities, and other issues that mattered most to our community. We covered a lot of ground during our time, discussing a broad spectrum of issues such as solar energy, the impact of Amazon’s HQ2 on our region, the Equal Rights Amendment, education funding, and of course, ending partisan gerrymandering, which will be a key fight this year.

Several bills I’ve introduced have to do with improving our system for choosing our elected leaders.

Gerrymandering is just one of many tools used to dilute the political power of specific voting blocs (like voters of a certain party, race, or religion). Perhaps the most insidious thing about gerrymandering though, is that it undermines the doctrine of “one man, one vote” or the idea that all votes cast should be counted equally.

It’s far from the only way Virginia has limited the right to vote. In 2017, then Governor Terry McAuliffe restored, en masse, the civil rights of 200,000 former felons who had served their sentences and paid their debt to society, allowing them to once again register to vote. This decision was controversial because language in our constitution, which traces its legislative history to the Jim Crow era, makes Virginia one of a handful of states that permanently deprives convicted felons of their voting privileges. The State Supreme Court eventually overturned the mass restoration, forcing McAuliffe to reinstate the rights of each felon individually.

Governor Northam continues the practice of routinely restoring the rights of felons individually as they complete their sentences and the process remains cumbersome.

That’s why I have introduced HJ598 – The Right To Vote – an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia to ensure that every person who is a U.S. Citizen and at least 18 has a RIGHT to vote and that no law can revoke that right. (Friendly reminder that in Virginia, Constitutional amendments must be passed through the full General Assembly twice before it can be put on a ballot to be voted on by the voters of the Commonwealth.)

There are other, more subtle ways that Virginia makes voting more difficult.

Which is why I also introduced HB1904 to allow voters who show up at the poll on Election Day not realizing that they needed to register or re-register the ability to apply for registration on the same day and cast a ballot.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 20 states plus the District of Columbia offer same day registration. States like California, Colorado, and Wyoming utilize state networked e-poll books to verify that voters are eligible to vote and that the voter has not registered or cast a ballot at a different location in the state. And guess what? It works!

Multiple studies have shown that on average, offering same day voter registration increases turnout by 3 to 7 percent, and about 5 percent on average.

Unfortunately, HB1904 didn’t make it out of the Privileges and Elections subcommittee, but I plan on introducing a similar bill again next year as part of a larger, more comprehensive proposal to reform our elections systems and processes.

Voting is a basic right and we should be lowering barriers of access to the ballot box and ensure voting is a free, fair, and accessible process. We should also be investing to make sure that every person who is eligible can vote without barriers.

Finally, voters need to have faith that the leaders they elect will act in their best interest, and not be overly influenced by the demands of constant fundraising and the strings that at least appear to come with some of those campaign contributions.

Up next week will be my perennial bill to ban the conversion of campaigns funds to a candidate’s personal use, and another stab at allowing Virginia localities to experiment with public financing of local elections.

Keep up with all things Richmond by following me on Facebook @DelegateSimon and Twitter @marcussimon.