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.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

#1 for Business...Again

As the Virginia General Assembly prepares to return for a Special Session on August 2nd to appropriate American Rescue Plan funds made available to the Commonwealth, we learned that Virginia will also enter the new fiscal year with a substantial surplus in state revenue.

Some of that excess revenue is required to be put set aside in our rainy day and other reserve funds under the Virginia Constitution, and some of it will be available to spend on non-recurring items in the upcoming year.

The Virginia economy is recovering well from the pandemic as vaccination rates continue to climb. Nevertheless, the recovery is uneven, and we will need these one-time funds to ensure our state social safety net is there for our neighbors who won’t be able to bounce back as quickly or suffered more significant hardships during the pandemic.

Given the generally rosy budget outlook, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Virginia maintained it’s rating as the number one state to do business according to CNBC’s long running state business rankings.  Virginia is the first state to win the title “Top State for Business” twice in a row (CNBC didn’t issue rankings in 2020 because of the pandemic).

Virginia has ranked #1 five times since the rankings began in 2007– more than any other state.

Now, I haven’t always been one to tout Virginia’s ranking for business friendliness as the most important metric for determining the relative success of state government. To the extent these rankings have, historically, rewarded states with low wages, lots of corporate giveaways, anti-worker policies, weak environmental policies, and limited legal options for consumers. You almost want to be suspicious of states that rank too high.

Since the last set of rankings came out, though, Virginia passed the Clean Economy Act, raised the minimum wage, kicked car-title and payday lenders out of the Commonwealth, gave unions more rights to bargain collectively, passed the Virginia Values Act which includes employee protections from all sorts of discrimination, and made it easier for workers to sue their employers for things like worker misclassification.

So how are we still #1? Let’s dig in a little behind the numbers.

CNBC’s rankings included 85 distinct metrics across 10 competitiveness categories. Some of them are what you’d probably expect: cost of doing business, infrastructure, workforce, access to capital, cost of living, etc.

This year, though, they added some new criteria to reflect what businesses in 2021 care about.

Earlier this week many of us tuned in to watch Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby and All Start game live from…Denver, Colorado. Seem like a non-sequitur?

All Star Week was originally scheduled for Atlanta, Georgia this year. The MLB pulled out of Georgia earlier this year when players and other stakeholders protested over Georgia’s passing restrictive voting laws.

In announcing their rankings, CNBC made a point of highlighting Virginia’s education system, which helps us to attract and retain an exceptionally talented workforce, and commitment to equity and inclusion. Clearly that was our number one attribute.

They also noted that companies, like Major League Baseball teams, are increasingly vocal in their demands for inclusiveness in the states where they do business, leading to an increase in the importance of this in CNBC’s 2021 competitiveness study, as well as adding metrics on diversity, sustainability, and connectivity.

So, we were able to stay ahead of other states even in a pandemic not only because of our competitive business climate, but also because of progressive legislation that we’ve enacted over the past few years. We’re the first southern state to enact a Voting Rights Act to expand voting rights and access to the polls as well as the Virginia Values Act that ensures comprehensive anti-discrimination laws protect the LGBTQ+ community.

And we didn’t stop there.

We invested in public education and workforce development so that Virginia businesses can recruit workers in Virginia. Since Governor Northam took office, nearly 90,000 new jobs have been created and we’ve invested over $45 billion.

The Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back Fund and Program (G3 Fund)​ through the G3 Program provides financial assistance to certain low-income and middle-income students who are enrolled in a higher education program that leads to an occupation in a high-demand field.​ 

Our investments in the highly traveled I-81 corridor and the Port of Virginia are also clearly paying off. Recognizing our commitment to infrastructure, technology, and inclusiveness, companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Micron have chosen to relocate or expand their companies in the Commonwealth.