Wednesday, February 16, 2022

2022 Crossover

Monday, we spent nearly 12 hours on the House floor, reviewing over 300 bills and resolutions.

Repealing, Rolling Back, & Watering-Down

We made a valiant effort on several fronts to combat the onslaught of bad bills that were set to pass the House yesterday and today.

With Del. Sally Hudson, we fought HB 212 - politicians have no business interfering between an individual and their doctor when it comes to reproductive healthcare. I have always opposed legislation that restricts or limits women's access to reproductive healthcare and will continue to do so. You can view our remarks here.

We tried to amend the Stadium Authority Bill (HB 1353) to make it contingent upon the NFL to releasing the Wilkinson Report. When the amendment failed, I led the opposition to the bill on the House floor, which puts me at odds with Senator Saslaw and Senator Peterson.
 
Although it still passed, I made an impassioned speech against HB 70, which would roll back progress we made in the past few years regarding civilian oversight of law enforcement.
 
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, Del. Sam Rasoul, and I worked to amend the fatally flawed bills (HB 1272 & SB 739) that will strip our school boards' authority to require masks in schools. This issue has previously been left to the local boards as they know what is best for their areas. You can watch the full debate of our amendments on HB 1272 and on SB 739.
 
Knowing the Rules
 
Last week, Republicans killed constitutional amendments to restore rights to returning citizens (HJ 28) and to remove the obsolete same-sex marriage ban (HJ 57) from the Virginia Constitution. This is upsetting for several reasons, not the least of which is that both of these measures have the floor votes to pass and that the Republican leadership did not want to give us the opportunity to do so.
 
Tomorrow, we'll vote on my rules change resolution (HR 24) so we can try to force a vote on these constitutional amendments. To be clear, the Rules change would have to pass first and then we could move to discharge the two amendments from committee. Virginians deserve to have their voices heard on these issues and we will use every tool at our disposal to fight for them. During my floor speech on the Republican's flip-flopping on these issues, I go into a little more detail. 
 
Legislation Update
 
My two Code Commission bills to remove obsolete language in the Code of Virginia, my bill to update the City of Falls Church Charter, and my bill to ban the possession or transfer of unserialized firearms have now crossed over to the Senate. They will be heard in Senate committees over the next few weeks.
 
Just as there are bills to undo our good work, there are also bills to that I'd categorize as missed opportunities. One such bill, HB 833, completely misses the mark in the fight against gun violence in the Commonwealth. The bill removes the Operation Ceasefire Grant Fund program from the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and moves it to the Attorney General's Office. This watered-down effort highlights the differences in our approach to prevention, putting the emphasis on law enforcement instead of focusing on the root causes of gun violence.
 
Next week, we'll review the House Appropriations version of the state budget and have a long floor session to review amendments.
 
Unfortunately, with our current numbers in the House, we can't defeat all the bad bills (or push through the common-sense ones), but we can certainly bring the issues to light and not go down without a fight.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The 2022 Session Begins

Last week I had the distinct honor of being sworn in for my 5th term representing greater Falls Church, including the Little City itself, in the Virginia House of Delegates. The 60-day “long” session that has just begun and will be my 9th session as a Delegate, but my first under a Republican Governor.  

This week is one of transitions here in Richmond. The new General Assembly is sworn in on the 2nd Wednesday of January at noon. With 52 Republican seats to 48 held by Democrats, control of the Chamber shifted back to the GOP and a new Speaker of the House, Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County, was elected.  

The State of the Commonwealth

On Wednesday evening the General Assembly convened in a Joint Session to receive outgoing Governor Ralph Northam’s final State of the Commonwealth address. On Saturday, Governor Glenn Youngkin was sworn in at an inaugural ceremony and on Monday we had a 2nd Joint Assembly, then the new Governor gave his State of the Commonwealth address.  

Governor Northam highlighted the achievements of his term, including his administration's work to expand Medicaid, reform our criminal justice system, expand broadband, teach the true history of Virginia, increase access to the ballot box, and keep Virginians safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will certainly miss his calming presence over the next four years. 

Despite delivering an Inaugural address at which the new Governor promised to be a Governor for ALL Virginians and teach our full and accurate history, both good and bad, Governor Youngkin released his first batch of executive actions, focusing on Critical Race Theory (CRT), and overturning student safety measures designed to keep kids safely in the classroom with schools open.   

Initially, he indicated he’d withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) with EO #8. Recent reporting seems to indicate that he may be acknowledging he has no authority to do so by fiat, since the requirement to belong to RGGI is enshrined in law.  

On Monday, he delivered his State of the Commonwealth address at four in the afternoon, eschewing the opportunity to address resident of the Commonwealth in the traditional prime time evening hours when more people would be home in front of their televisions to tune in.  

For an uncomfortable first 12 minutes of his speech, he mostly parroted conservative media talking points to an eerily silent chamber. This starkly contrasts with the frequent standing ovations that interrupted Governor Northam repeatedly and helped punctuate his retelling of his most important achievements. I hope that as the new Governor learns more about how Virginia’s Government functions, his future addresses will provide a more thoughtful articulation of our shared policy goals.  

Even as a member of the minority, I look forward to being a consequential member of the body and capable advocate for the people of Falls Church. While I was stripped of my chairmanship of the House Privileges and Elections Committee and the Housing Subcommittee of General Laws, I remain on the Courts of Justice Committee and the influential Civil Subcommittee (Sub #2).  I am back on Public Safety as the 3rd ranking Democrat and Communications Technology and Innovation (formerly known as Science and Technology) where I am the #2 ranking Democrat.  House Finance is a completely new committee for me and I'm looking forward to working with my colleagues on one of the "money" committees in the General Assembly. 

My Legislative Package

For my 2022 legislative package, I’m carrying a bill on behalf of the City of Falls Church to allow all its residents, including non-citizens, the opportunity to fully engage in civic life as members of boards, authorities, and commissions.  

I will once again carry legislation to clean up one of the most galling shortcomings in Virginia’s campaign finance laws - a loophole that allows candidates for office to pocket campaign contributions and convert them to personal use with no consequences. With the backing of last year's Joint Committee to Study Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reforms, I like its chances this session.  

I’ll also once again introduce legislation to ban unserialized unregulated “ghost guns” here in Virginia.  Since my bill was narrowly defeated during the 2021 Session, we’ve seen these guns used to commit serious crimes, including a homicide in the Springfield area committed by minor who couldn’t have purchased a weapon subject to a background check. Ghost Guns evade that requirement.  

If you’d like to hear more about what I’m doing this session and get the latest updates, please sign up for my e-newsletter (www.MarcusSimon.com) or follow me on social media.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Northam's Budget Priorities - Education & Gun Violence Prevention

One of the quirky things about Virginia is that we don’t allow our Governor to run for re-election. The Virginia Constitution allows forbids a Governor from succeeding himself, although a former Governor can try to make a comeback after a term out of office.

We also adopt biennial budgets in the even years.  This creates another quirk, in that one of the very last acts the Governor is required to do is propose a new budget to the General Assembly, a few days before his successor is sworn in to replace him. 

Of course, this year the Governor’s mansion is changing partisan hands, which makes things even more - let’s stick with quirky, if not awkward.

Over the past week, Governor Northam has announced a series of crucial pieces of his last official budget, and he will continue to unveil important elements of the 2-year spending plan between now and the end of the year.

I’d like to focus on two of the more important rollouts we’ve seen so far, on public education and gun violence prevention. 

Public Education

Governor Northam’s proposed education budget builds upon our successes of the past two years and makes strategic investments, ensuring that Virginia remains one of the best education systems in the country.

A cornerstone of this investment is a 10% pay raise for teachers over the biennium – the largest single increase in 15 years. This means that Virginia teacher pay will exceed the national average.

Overall, the proposed budget includes $2.4 billion in new general fund spending for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. This highlights our continued commitment to having a world-class education system for every school aged child in the Commonwealth.

In the last several years we have expanded early childhood education to more Virginia families than ever before – doubling pre-k funding to serve a record-breaking 25,000 three and four-year-old children We’ve even received national attention for investments in an early childhood teacher incentive grant program.

This pandemic has underscored our need to increase access to mental health services, including within our schools. To that end, we’ve increased the budget to hire more school counselors.

After graduation, some seniors will directly enter the workforce, attend a college or university, or trade school. Investing in our kids includes investing in their futures, which means making it easier to attend an institution of higher learning or to start their careers.

Virginia high school students are now eligible for financial aid and in-state tuition, regardless of their citizenship status. And we’re expanding need-based financial aid for public undergraduate students - a $64 million investment is more than any Governor’s administration in Virginia history. Even students at private universities benefit thanks to our increasing the Tuition Assistance Grant (TAG) to $4,000 per student up from $3,400 previously.

We’ve made the largest-ever investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) - $328 million over three years. This includes $297 million for capital projects and nearly $32 million in operating support.

Our tuition-free community college program now helps working people who choose career paths in high-demand fields. Those pursuing careers in healthcare, information technology, manufacturing and skilled trades, early childhood education, or public safety may be eligible.

Gun Violence Prevention

The Governor’s other major budget announcement addresses gun violence prevention, introducing legislation to establish a Virginia Center for Firearm Violence Intervention & Prevention. His proposed budget includes $27 million to support the new Center with 13 employees to oversee the program.

The Center’s mission will be to collect and report data on firearm violence. Bringing together public safety and public health experts to analyze this data and ultimately recommend strategies and best practices for violence prevention. The Center will also offer support to localities and community-based organizations working to address gun violence, coordinating a state and local response to these issues.

For decades, special interest groups have fought organizations that wanted to collect this data, which severely limits our ability to combat this crisis. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control announced specific funding for this kind of research, some of which will be done at the Virginia Department of Health and VCU.

Using this data, the Center will build on recent, commonsense legislative achievements that enhance public safety and allow us to start proactively addressing the root causes of gun violence instead of simply reacting once a tragedy has occurred.

Governor Northam’s entire final budget will be released on December 16th. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he has proposed and that we can champion during the upcoming General Assembly Session.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Election Season in Peak Bloom

 If Spring is marked by the sprouting of cherry blossom and daffodils around our region, then Election Season is marked by the sprouting of wire frames and political signs in yards all over Falls Church, from the City School Board and Council, to the House of Delegates, to statewide races for Governor, Lt Governor, and Attorney General.

Right now, we are probably at peak bloom.

I call it election season, rather than campaign season, very intentionally.  In the past in Virginia, you were expected to cast your vote with everyone else at your assigned polling place on Election Day. This year, and in years to come, you have far more options for casting your ballots. The process lasts weeks, and it started back on September 17th.

You can vote in person, you can vote by mail, you can vote at home and drop your ballot off in a drop box, you can make sure your college student votes in their dorm. Your vote will count, even if it arrives late - as late as the Friday after election day. What I am saying is, it’s never been easier to vote in Virginia.  That’s intentional as well.

About 15% of you have already voted which is great! For the rest of you, make a plan to vote!

To vote early in-person at City Hall (300 Park Avenue), drop by Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm through October 29th. There are extended hours on Wednesday, October 27th from 8am to 7pm plus Saturday hours on October 23rd and October 30th from 9am to 5pm. Sunday, October 24th from 12pm to 3pm is also an option.

If you request an absentee ballot, you can return it via mail or put it in an official drop box. On Election Day, polls will be open 6am to 7pm. Check your registration status or request an absentee ballot by visiting the Virginia Department of Elections webpage.

All these options exist because of changes we made in Virginia over the last two years to make voting easier, including the ability to request an absentee ballot or vote early in-person for any reason. Curbside voting is available at every early voting location for people 65 and older or for those who have a physical disability. Just remember that the deadline to apply for a ballot to be mailed to you is this Friday, October 22nd and the last day for in-person early voting is Saturday, October 30th.

The November 2nd election is an opportunity to ensure that we continue to make these impactful changes and further solidify all the progressive work we've been doing. We've passed a Virginia Voting Rights Act, enacted common sense gun violence prevention initiatives, raised the minimum wage, abolished the death penalty, decriminalized marijuana, invested in public education, and the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, all this progress is at risk this election.

Virginia recently had a risk limiting audit that found our 2020 election was nearly flawless. Voting machines have a rigorous testing and maintenance protocol, yet Republicans continue to say or suggest that our election systems can’t be trusted. The top of the ticket continues to parrot the Big Lie about the presidential election being stolen. If elected we know they’ll roll back voter access enhancements in the name of “integrity” but we all know it’s really about voter suppression.

If you are the parent of a 7th, 8th, or 9th grader, I wanted to share an opportunity to give them a unique insight into Virginia’s government and lawmaking process. I’m happy to report that the House Page Program will be back up for the 2022 legislative session!

This program is a wonderful opportunity for bright young minds to learn more about our legislative process and develop important skills. Pages must be 13 or 14 years old as of January 12, 2022 (the first day of legislative session) and they are paid for their work plus they will receive per diem expense payments.

Those who wish to apply to the program must submit their applications no later than November 1st at 5pm. Applications must include an endorsement letter from their Delegate and authorization from the applicant’s school principal, teachers, and guidance counselor as well as an essay about why they want to serve as a page.

The link to the application can be found here: https://housepages.virginiageneralassembly.gov/ or just contact my office for details.

 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Redistristing, Campaign Finance, & Public Input

When I was sworn into the Virginia House of Delegates in January of 2014, I was one of 33 House Democrats – a super-minority incapable of even sustaining a veto by the recently elected Democratic Governor, Terry McAuliffe. 

Although I was a real estate attorney, small business owner, with a long background in local government, I was assigned to only two committees that produced the fewest bills and generated the least work in the General Assembly. When session ended, I was free to resume my full-time work schedule, with little risk of being asked to serve in any capacity that might cause me to need to drive back to Richmond during the “off-season” between sessions. 

I knew that these off-session commission, boards, work groups and task-forces were where most of the real work of legislating happened, but also knew for a freshman Democrat from liberal Northern Virginia, my contributions and point of view weren’t really sought after.

What a difference a couple of elections can make. Since taking over the Majority in 2020, I’ve been appointed to four committees, one of which I chair, and five subcommittees, one of which I chair. In addition, I serve on the Housing Commission, the FOIA Council (Vice Chair), the Code Commission (Vice Chair), the Legislative Support Commission, the Joint Reapportionment Committee, the Board of Veterans Services, the Virginia Redistricting Commission, and the Joint Subcommittee to Study Campaign Finance Reform (Chair).

Since the public health State of Emergency ended and in-person meetings resumed, I’ve gotten to know well every pothole between Falls Church and Richmond.

With all the important work happening between sessions, I want to focus on two of these commissions that are doing work which you can greatly influence through public participation and activism in the next few weeks.

This week, the Virginia Redistricting Commission provided criteria to two sets of professional map drawers with instructions for them to create maps for the House and Senate districts for the entire Commonwealth by next week. Over the next month, the Commission will be taking a deep dive into these maps, reviewing the lines, listening to public comments, and making adjustments as needed.

In addition to public comment at the end of each regular Commission meeting, there will be two virtual public hearings each day from October 4th through October 7th with each hearing focusing on a specific region in the Commonwealth. The Commission will take a final vote on the House and Senate maps on October 11th.

After this, we will start to review the Virginia congressional map over a series of meetings with a virtual public hearing on October 22nd and a final Commission vote on October 25th. Assuming that the Commission passes these maps, then they will go to the General Assembly for an up or down vote.

Public input is a major component of this process, which can be shared via written comments or during public hearings. Bottom line - we need to hear from you.

Are you concerned about the criteria the master mapmakers are using to draw the maps? Do you live in a split precinct or a community divided among a few representatives? Are you concerned about incumbents being drawn into the same district? Is there a specific community of interest that you think should be kept together?

Specific to Falls Church, do you think the City should be a community of interest with Arlington or with Fairfax County?

The Redistricting Commission website, VirginiaRedistricting.org, has all you need to participate – sign up to speak at a public hearing, submit written comments, or make specific comments directly on the preliminary maps. You can even submit your own maps to be reviewed!

Another opportunity you have to share feedback is with the Joint Subcommittee to Study Campaign Finance Reform. The Subcommittee’s second meeting is September 17th, which will be livestreamed via the Virginia General Assembly website.

Tasked with examining the costs of campaigning in the Commonwealth, the effectiveness of our current disclosure laws and their enforcement, and options available to regulate campaign finances, the Subcommittee's primary submit a report with recommendations by November 1, 2021.

As chair of this Subcommittee, I’d love to hear from the public about what needs to be done in Virginia to promote the integrity of and confidence in our campaign finance system. You can sign up to speak or submit comments through hodspeak.house.virginia.gov.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Special Session Update

Virginia will be a more just and prosperous state as a result of the important actions taken by the Virginia General Assembly and approved by the Governor during our Special Session last week.

The General Assembly returned to Richmond on August 2nd for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This Special Session was called so that we could allocate $4.3 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and appoint judges to the newly expanded Virginia Court of Appeals.

With this historic opportunity, my colleagues and I were committed to making sure that these funds were allocated in a way that maximized their impact. The pandemic highlighted a series of cracks in our government services – this budget helps fix that. Last week, we took the final vote on the budget and it will now go to the Governor for his signature.

Help for Small Businesses and Virginia Workers

We invested $260 million to fully fund the Rebuild Virginia Grant Fund Program so that we can clear out the application waiting list. We also allocated $76.5 million for additional small business and tourism & hospitality programs and put aside $862 million to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The Virginia Employment Commission will also receive $73.6 million to upgrade their information technology system and to add additional call center staff and adjudication officers.

Public Health

Continuing our COVID vaccine outreach, $20 million will go to an information campaign targeted to hard-to-reach communities.

We’re also doing some major investing in our mental health services and substance abuse programs. $238 million has been allocated overall with specific set asides for retaining direct care staff at DBHS facilities, expanding community-based crisis services systems (like mobile crisis units and MARCUS Alert activities), renovating DBHDS facilities, and prevention programs.

Housing & Utilities

To better connect all Virginians, $716 million will be used to expand universal broadband access across the Commonwealth.

The budget continues our current rent relief policy by requiring a tenant or landlord to apply for rental assistance before proceeding with an eviction for non-payment of rent and we put an additional $2.5 million to Legal Aid for civil indigent defense in eviction cases. Customers with overdue utility accounts will have some more options with $120 million for the utility assistance program.

Education

Educating our kids is one of our highest priorities. As such, we’ve got money for teacher recruitment and $250 million for HVAC and ventilation system improvements in the school systems that need it the most.

For our public colleges and universities, there is $100 million in need-based financial aid and $11 million for the TAG Grant Program.

Elections

I’m proud of all the legislation we’ve passed in the past two years to expand voting rights and make the process more accessible. Keeping with that, we’ve allocated $3 million to assist localities with the expansion of early voting, including Sunday voting. We also have $1.5 million for a voter education campaign on new election laws and to combat misinformation.

Public Safety

We’ve also made a lot of progress in in criminal justice reform. This budget continues that effort with $34.8 million for the Department of Corrections to include funding for expansion of telehealth services, video visitation, and PPE. There is also $13.2 million for the Department of Criminal Justice Services sexual and domestic violence victim fund and $2.5 million to support the Office of the Attorney General's gun violence reduction programs.

In acknowledgment of the need to recruitment and retention, there is funding for bonuses for police officers, sheriffs, and new hires as well as compression adjustment bonuses from 2-8% as needed.

Expanding the Court of Appeals

During the special session, we also appointed eight new judges to the recently expanded Virginia Court of Appeals. This legal reform broadens the court’s jurisdiction guaranteeing appellate review of all civil and criminal court decisions. Previously, Virginia was the only state that didn’t automatically grant appeals.

This group of newly appointed judges is also historically diverse in profession, race, and gender. Of these eight, four are women, six are people of color, three are former public defenders, and one was a Legal Aid attorney. The appointees come from across the Commonwealth, offering geographic diversity as well.