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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

New Laws Taking Effect July 1st

As hard as it may be to believe, 2016 is nearly half over already.  July 1, 2016 is not only the mid-point of the year (and it’s not only my birthday) it’s also the day that all the new laws Virginia General Assembly passed and the Governor signed become law in Virginia.  I wanted to this opportunity to highlight some new laws that will take effect on July 1st that will have an impact on every day residents of the 53rd District.

Some of you may find yourselves thinking that nothing those politicians in Richmond do has anything to do with you, and you might be right.  On the other hand, you might not be.

For instance, if you are a sports fan and have seen ads for daily fantasy sports websites like FanDuel and DraftKings, you may have wondered whether it was safe and legal to logon and play.  You may be comforted to know that on July 1, 2016 Virginia will be the first state in the country to regulate these websites and put them under the supervision of Virginia’s consumer protection agency.

I was pleased to be a chief co-patron of this new law, which prohibits insiders and employees from playing for money and the sharing of confidential information that could affect fantasy contest play with third parties.  Operators must verify that any fantasy contest player is 18 years of age or older, allow individuals to restrict themselves from entering a fantasy contest upon request, segregate player funds from operational funds in separate accounts, and maintain a reserve in an amount sufficient to pay all prizes and awards offered to winning participants.

If your children ride a school bus to school, and you were concerned that Falls Church was forced to stop issuing tickets by mail to drivers who blew past the stop sign, you may feel a little safer knowing we corrected that legislation, to allow photo enforcement and ticketing by mail to deter dangerous driving behaviors like passing school buses when the stop arm is out.

If you have had to take out a permanent protective order against someone who has been abusive in a domestic relationship, you will now know that the subject of the protective order will have to surrender any firearms in his possession within 24 hours or be guilty of a Class 6 felony.

If you attend a gun show, you can expect to see State Police Officers there, and under a new law effective July 1, the State Police will finally be allowed to perform background checks for any transaction if requested to do so by the buyer and seller.

If you are a child under 8 years old, your parents won’t be allowed to smoke in a car while you are in it, strapped into your car seat.

If your spouse was made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country and was killed in action as determined by the US Department of Defense, you will qualify for an expanded property tax exemption to make it easier for you and your family to stay in your home.

And if you drive eastbound on I-66 toward DC during the evening rush, you will soon be getting a new lane to help ease the bottleneck that forms were the Dulles Connector road meets I-66.  The lane will continue all the way to Ballston where traffic generally begins to ease on your way to Nationals and Capitals games, so you can go watch your daily fantasy sports players, live and in person.

These are just a few of the laws that will come into effect on July 1st. For more highlights, the Division of Legislative Services produces In Due Course, which can found online at http://dls.virginia.gov/pubs/IDC/IDC16.html.

Likewise, the full list of new laws can be assessed by visiting lis.virginia.gov, selecting “Bills and Resolutions,” and then selecting “Approved or Enacted.”

Friday, May 27, 2016

What's in a name?


What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. 
 ~Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The Board of Visitors at George Mason University’s recently sold the naming rights to the University’s law school to Charles Koch and an anonymous friend in exchange for a series of annual donations totaling $30 million over 5 years. The donors chose the name the Antonin Scalia School of Law, then quickly changed that to the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

When the announcement was first revealed around April 1 of this year, I organized a petition drive and have been an outspoken critic of the University’s decision, along with a number of other local area legislators. I’ve written an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, co-authored a letter to State Council on Higher Education in Virginia, and made the trip to Lexington, Virginia for the Council’s May meetings to testify at the Academic Affairs Committee and the full Council about my concerns.

I did all this under the belief that SCHEV had the final say in the re-naming of the law school.

Although supporters of the name change have questioned my motives and called me a knee-jerk liberal, my motivation for championing this fight was and remains a genuine concern for the reputation of the law school, the university, and the Commonwealth.

I continue to be concerned that, in exchange for this $30 million purchase price, the school has done irreparable harm to its reputation that will result in declining enrollment, forcing them to become less selective, which will lead to declining school rankings which will only reinforce this downward spiral.

The grant agreement leaked online shows that, in addition to renaming the law school, GMU must hire twelve additional faculty members and create two new centers expanding its law and economic focus. They must reapply for the grant every year, and the Koch Foundation must be notified immediately if Dr. Henry Butler steps down or is removed as dean of the law school.
To SCHEV or Not to SCHEV?

In spite of all of this, SCHEV staff, based on advice they received from the Attorney General’s office, decided this week that the name change was honorific and therefore would not require their approval.

According to the SCHEV staff’s initial recommendation, they did have a role ensure that new instructional units are implemented appropriately relative to the inherent soundness of academic and fiscal commitments involved.

The law school industry, such as it is, is in a crisis. Applications to law school have decreased some 50% since their peak about a decade ago. The nation’s elite law schools are reducing class size, and not growing, in response to the shortage of applicants. In order to grow, the law school to the size it would need to be to sustain the new programs it is required to create under this contract to rename the school, particularly given the number of high quality students who are likely to be dissuaded from applying because of the name, GMU will have to accept students with lower LSATs and grades. This once again begs the questions of fiscal soundness of the University’s plan going forward.
Money & Influence

Virginia taxpayers contribute ten times more in each biennial budget than this gift would account for. These grant agreements would give the donors, or purchasers of the naming rights, outsized and inappropriate influence over the direction and decision making at the law school.

Dr. Cabrera has said at various times that the academic freedom of the law school and of the University is not at risk, as the purchaser price amounts to mere 0.6% of the Schools budget. At the same time, University and Law School officials would ask how such a large and significant investment in the law school could be refused.

Whether the gift is too big to come without strings that affect the Law School’s academic freedom, or so small that it really doesn’t make a difference, we should feel comfortable that it is in our best interest to say no to the offer to purchase the law school at George Mason University.
Moving Forward

At this point there don't seem to be many options under existing law to prevent the name change from going forward. However, there may be legislative options to clarify SCHEV's role in this process and make certain there is a process to prevent large donors from using our public colleges and universities as a platform for their personal agendas. So, while it may be too late to for this law school, there is an opportunity to take preventive action to protect the integrity, fiscal soundness, and overall perception of the rest of Virginia's higher education system.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Free money - sort of

A B C
It's easy as, 1 2 3
As simple as, do re mi
A B C, 1 2 3

~Jackson 5, "ABC"

I want to take a moment to let you know about a Virginia state tax credit that its available to you and benefits a local organization right here in the 53Rd House of Delegates District.

I'm happy to report that the Virginia Department of Education recently awarded the Falls Church-McLean Children's Center (FCMCC) over $100,000 in tax credits to make available to their donors. Now, businesses and individuals that donate to the Children's Center can take advantage of this credit while contributing to an organization located in our community!

Virginia residents or businesses that make a charitable gift of a minimum of $1,000 to the Falls Church-McLean Children’s Center this spring will be rewarded with a remarkable VA Tax Credit worth at least 65% of their donation and a reduction in federal taxable income for their 2016 tax returns.

The combined VA Tax Credits and decreased taxable income cut the ultimate cost of the minimum $1,000 gift to just $191, depending on your individual tax circumstances.

I know we hear a lot about tax credits that seem to benefit the people that need the help the least, or function as a form of corporate welfare.  SO I wanted to make sure you knew about this credit that can be used my many of us here in the 53Rd district to help a worthy organization located in our district.

Falls Church-McLean Children's Center

Established in 1968, the Center's mission is to provide affordable, high quality early childhood education to low-income working families. Current enrollment includes 70 kids housed in a dedicated wing of Lemon Road Elementary School, built especially for the Center.

Over the years, the Center has been honored by the Virginia General Assembly, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and the Fairfax County Public School System for outstanding service.

Earlier this year, the Virginia Department of Education awarded the Children's Center tax credits to pass on to businesses and individuals that make a minimum $1,000 sponsorship donation. This is a great way to help more children at a lower cost through this tax credit.

The Center is having their 4th Annual Teddy Bear 5K & 1K in September of this year, which is the perfect sponsorship opportunity. To put the tax credit in perspective, here is a chart showing the effects of the tax credit and your donation.


Sponsorships must be paid before June 30, 2016 to receive the tax credit.

For more information about FCMCC, please check out their website and Annual Report.

To learn more about the Teddy Bear 5k, sponsorships and, the available tax credit, contact Renee Boyle, FCMCC Development Director, at (703) 534-4907 or Renee_Boyle@FCMLCC.com.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Update on GMU's donor agreement and SCHEV Meeting

After sending my email update last week, I sent a formal letter to the SCHEV Board asking them to seriously consider the impact of renaming the GMU law school and its long term effects on the school. I also shared the list of over 1,200 petition signatures. Thank YOU for helping make that possible.

Strings Attached

You may have seen the recent news report releasing the demands and stipulations attached to the Koch brothers donation to GMU. The National Law Journal has picked up the story, including information about the letter I sent and our petition.

The donation agreement leaked online shows that, in addition to renaming the law school, GMU must hire 12 additional faculty members and create 2 new centers expanding its law and economic focus. The provisions also require that the Koch Foundation be notified immediately if Dr. Henry Butler steps down or is removed as dean of the law school. The New York Times was the first to publish the leaked agreement.

It is clear that stipulations like this erode the school's academic independence and will most assuredly have an impact on the university's reputation.

Please forward this email to your friends and neighbors and ask them to add their names to the petition as well!

GMU Faculty Opposition

A Washington Post article from earlier this week highlights the controversy among GMU faculty and the school's administration. Several faculty have been outspoken in their opposition, posting an open letter expressing their concerns. The letter now has over 160 faculty signatures. At a faculty meeting yesterday, they adopted two resolutions relating to the potential renaming citing grave concerns about conflicts of interest relating to the donation agreement's stipulations.

SCHEV Board Meeting

As I mentioned in my last email, SCHEV's next Board meeting will be on May 16th and 17th at Washington & Lee University. I intend to be at the meeting, speaking with individual members if possible and to offer comments during the public comment period.

The public comment period will be on May 17th at the beginning of their agenda at 9:00am. The formal agenda will be posted on SCHEV's website one week before the meeting.

  • Those interested in making public comment should contact LeeAnn Rung at (804) 225-2602 or LeeAnnRung@schev.edu no later than 5:00pm on May 12th.
  • The speaker's name, address and topic must be provided.
  • Each speaker has up to 3 minutes and are asked to submit a written copy of their remarks at that time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

2016 Reconvene Session & The State Budget

Yesterday, the General Assembly completed the 2016 Reconvene Session wherein we voted on the Governor’s 32 vetoes and recommendations. This being the first year of the 2016-2018 Biennial Budget, we also reviewed the Governor’s additional recommendations for the budget.

As a member of the House of Delegates I work hard to do what’s right for all Virginians, regardless of where they live. As your representative in Richmond, I also have a responsibility to and take great pride in looking out for the priorities of my constituents and the localities I represent.

With the state budget, I am particularly concerned with making sure that we get some sort of return on the significant amount of state income taxes we send to Richmond.

I attended a forum earlier this year hosted by the Falls Church City Republican Committee where a number of residents raised their concerns about the way the state’s funding formula for distributing education funds, known as the Local Composite Index (LCI), disadvantages the City.

This year, we did makes some progress to increase funding for K-12 education in our state budget, and I was pleased to see that we did our best to do that through increasing funds that are distributed on a per-pupil basis, rather than those that are subject to the LCI.

While I voted against the over $105 billion budget because it once again failed to expand Medicaid, it did do a number of good things for Northern Virginia and Falls Church and Fairfax County in particular.

Here in greater Falls Church, we are justifiably proud of our outstanding public schools. That said, we’ve struggled with funding shortages for many years now, as the great recession has taken a severe toll on our revenue and therefore state support for K-12 and higher education.

In the new biennial budget, however, the City of Falls Church will receive $6.7 million in direct aid from the state, up from $5.86 million last year. An increase of about $460 per student. In much larger Fairfax County funding increased by $34 million.

The budget also restores $34.4 million for cost of competing adjustment for Northern Virginia schools.

On a statewide basis the budget included language to increase the state’s share of teacher pay by a $134.4 million for a two-percent salary increase.

In addition to increased funding for elementary education, Falls Church won another budget battle. Language was included in the budget to keep 100 percent of fines and fees collected by the local police department here in Falls Church, rather than having to send it down to Richmond and pray for its safe return.

As I said, despite the good news on education funding, I couldn’t bring myself to vote yes on a budget that continues to shun over $6 million per day in federal taxes we’ve already paid. Virginians are set to lose $3 billion over the biennium because we are not getting our tax dollars back from the federal government and we are having to pay for programs that would have been covered under the expansion.

Let’s try to finish this month’s column on a high note, though.

In October, Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion that said that the General Assembly never explicitly gave police departments the authority to mail tickets for illegally passing a school bus based on evidence obtained from cameras mounted on the stop signs.

Legislation to allow those tickets to be mailed, just as they are for red light cameras that catch people at intersections, passed the General Assembly this year and has been signed by the Governor. So, at $250 a ticket, there may be more revenue available in the upcoming fiscal year.

More importantly, drivers will be deterred from the very dangerous practice of passing a school bus while children are getting on or coming off.