Del. Ken Plum: A Crowded Field

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

If a sign of a healthy democracy is a lot of people running for elective office, we have become a true democracy in Virginia. This year is a busy year for elections because a lot of terms for elective offices are up this year. In Fairfax County, for example, all the seats on the County Board of Supervisors are up for election as is the chairman of the Board who is elected county-wide. The June 11 Democratic Party primary election has four contenders vying for the supervisor’s seat that is being vacated with the retirement of Supervisor Cathy Hudgins. I am not sure whether the Republicans intend to nominate a candidate to make for a race on November 5. For chairman of the Board there is a Democratic primary to pick the nominee who the Republicans will presumably challenge in the November election.

School Board members for Fairfax County also are up for election. A member is chosen for each magisterial district plus three at-large members. School board elections are non-partisan, but candidates seek endorsement of one of the major parties. Currently there is a scramble in Hunter Mill district to replace retiring member Pat Hynes. A broad and diverse field of candidates is seeking party endorsements.

Constitutional offices which in Fairfax County are the Commonwealth Attorney and the sheriff are also on the ballot this November. The incumbent Commonwealth Attorney must withstand a primary challenge in the Democratic Party before getting to the fall election. The sheriff is likely to move smoothly through the November election.

Adding to the number of candidates for whom you are likely to see ads, receive brochures or answer those pesky robo-calls are the candidates for the House of Delegates and the Senate, all of whom are up for election this year. While it is too early to know for sure who all the challengers will be as it is possible for political parties to name candidates up until early June, we already know the field is crowded. There is an unprecedented number of challenges in primaries and a larger than usual number of retirements of incumbents. On the State Senate side there are eleven Democratic and five Republican primaries that include challenges to four incumbent Democrats and three Republican incumbents.

On the House of Delegates side of the General Assembly there are 13 Democratic primaries involving five incumbents and seven Republican primaries with two incumbents being challenged. These numbers do not include districts in which conventions may be held to select candidates.

All this activity is good news for democracy but might seem overwhelming to voters. At this point in time races are not all set with candidates. After the June 11 primaries, the line-ups will be clearer. Party activists will be busy informing voters who their candidates are. In the meantime, please forgive me if any of my numbers are off as this story continues to emerge. The good news is there will be many choices that have the potential to lead to better government. Don’t be alarmed by this crowded field!

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Del. Ken Plum: Cleaning Up the Code

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

While I would never recommend reading the Code of Virginia for pleasure, as it is filled with legalese intended for trained lawyers and judges to debate its intended meaning, it can be a useful document to understand the history of an era.

Because court decisions at the state and federal level can change the application of a law, the words that are in the Code may have been superseded by such a decision or by later enactments of law.

If all that is not enough to confuse us non-lawyers, there are the “notwithstanding” clauses that effectively say that whatever else the law may provide the effective meaning follows the clause.

Laws can be read to help understand the community mores and values of the past. This session saw a meaningful number of bills passed that reflect a cleaning-up of the Code to reflect changing community values.

Some of these include repealing remnants of Jim Crow laws of racial oppression of the past. Thanks to Del. Marcia Price and State Sen. Lionell Spruill, the provisions in Code that exempted Virginia’s minimum wage requirements for newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters who work 10 hours or more per week, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters, all of which were occupations that were most likely held by African Americans, were repealed. The old law made it legal to discriminate through wages. A new law will require employers to provide pay stubs as a way to assist low-wage workers to manage their money and be treated fairly.

Up until action of the General Assembly this session, if you owed court fines and fees in Virginia, your driver’s license could be suspended unless you established a payment plan. As the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy that advocated strongly for a change in the law explained it, one in six Virginia drivers (approximately 900,000 people) has had his or her license suspended because of owing court fines and fees. Almost any poor person who has interacted with the criminal justice system owes some court fines and fees.

Essentially, by taking away someone’s license and therefore likely preventing the person from finding or keeping a job, the state denies the person opportunity to escape from poverty (and ever pay back those fines and fees). This policy was a “debtors’ prison” approach. There is no evidence that suspending people’s licenses increases the rate of payback for fines and fees. The issue disproportionately affected low-income workers, and its repeal this year was past due.

Virginia has historically had one of the highest rates of rental evictions in the country. Laws that disproportionally favored landlords over tenants caused this situation that was disruptive to families. A series of revisions to create a better balance in the law and that provides more options for tenants should make the laws operate more fairly.

Virginia has also had a very bad record in the management of its foster care program. Children were shifted from family to family with limited stability in their lives. Major changes in the laws related to foster children should greatly improve the situation.

It is critically important that we clean up the Code from time to time.

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Del. Ken Plum: Back in Richmond

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

The House of Delegates and the State Senate were in session yesterday (April 3) for the annual reconvened session as required by the constitution. Often referred to as the veto session, part of its business is to consider bills vetoed or with amendments proposed by the governor.

During the regular odd-numbered short session that adjourned on Feb. 24 after 46 days, there were 3,128 bills and resolutions considered. Setting aside resolutions that do not have the force of law of bills, there were 883 bills that passed the legislature all of which must have the signature of the governor in order to become law. The governor’s veto can be overturned by a vote of two-thirds of the members of both houses.

The governor in Virginia has the unique ability among executive officials to propose amendments to bills that previously passed but then must be approved by the General Assembly in the reconvened session with the amendments proposed. This ability for the governor to make corrections or to change the provisions of a bill gives the governor important legislative powers and enhances the importance of the reconvened session that typically lasts for a single day but can go up to three days.

Among the bills on the docket for this reconvened session is a bill that had passed both houses of the legislature but died at the last moment of the regular session. The dispute was over legal language to prohibit the use of cell phones that are not hands-free. The bill will be back before the legislature thanks to an amendment by the governor, and it is likely to finally pass.

I expect to support the governor in his vetoes of bills. One bill that he vetoed would limit his authority to involve Virginia in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program among Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states that mandates emission reduction in the power sector. Virginia’s involvement in this program is among the most important steps the state can take in reducing greenhouse gases and tackling climate change.

Governor Ralph Northam has also vetoed a bill that I had opposed during the regular session that would force law enforcement agencies to use precious resources to perform functions of federal immigration law that are part of the current immigration hysteria. He also vetoed a bill that would have limited the ability of local governments in making decisions about their local employment and pay consideration.

Included among the bills that passed are bills that passed in identical form but were only introduced in one house. Some advocates and legislators believe that there is more certainty that a bill will finally pass if it moves through the legislature on two separate tracks. The governor signs both identical bills to keep from choosing among competing bill sponsors. No one that I know has taken the time to count these bills, but I believe that more than half fall into this category. I question that approach — it seems like unnecessary duplication in an already complex system.

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Del. Ken Plum: Budget Equity

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Increases in budget revenues as a result of federal tax changes and the ability to tax sales on goods purchased on the internet put Virginia in a unique position to increase its budgeted funds mid-year of a biennial budget while at the same time providing many taxpayers with refunds.

As the fall elections approach, the actions on the state budget will receive many different “spins.” Certainly, taxpayers like getting money refunded. At the same time they recognize when programs to meet needs are underfunded, they may over a period of time become even more underfunded. It is more than mathematics and accounting to approve a budget when revenues have increased — it is also very much an expression of values on the part of decision makers.

An example of values affecting budgetary decisions came during the Great Recession of 2008. State revenues dipped at the greatest rate in modern times just as many businesses faltered and failed. A great bail-out went to businesses from the federal government as did major funding to state government. The feds did not match the private losses, but they did provide relief for some greater cuts for programs like education.

Only now has the Virginia economy recovered such that the funding of education today is exceeding that of pre-2008 levels.

Beyond simply funding programs and services with more money next year than last year are the equity issues involved in distributing money across programs. My trip to Prince Edward County as I described in my column last week reminded me just how inequitable funding can be. There was no pretense of equity among black and white schools. The whites went to a brick school that was modern for its time; the black children went to school in a tar-paper shanty. With many federal court decisions we have gotten beyond the inequities of segregated services and programs, but inequities still exist.

The budget presented to the General Assembly by Gov. Ralph Northam represented the greatest attempt at resolving equity issues that I have seen. Funding for schools was increased but with those who had the greatest needs receiving the most money. Programs for students with special needs were enhanced as was funding for historically black institutions of higher education. The governor found himself with a major problem pushing his agenda as he got himself in political hot water for his behavior many years ago. Whatever way that situation is resolved, it need not take attention from the basic problem of increasing equity among school divisions, mental health programs and criminal justice programs.

There is ample evidence gleaned from numerous studies that document inequities that exist in the state’s budget. These facts will be manipulated among candidates this election season to gain the advantage, but candidates need to acknowledge that inequities exist and must be dealt with fairly. I understand that most regions feel that they do not get a fair shake. There are metrics that can be used to find the inequities; once resolved the state will be stronger because of it.

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Del. Ken Plum: Women’s History Month

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

March is Women’s History Month. Before women had the whole month, the U.S. recognized Women’s History Week; before that, a single International Women’s Day.

Dedicating the whole month of March in honor of women’s achievements was seen “as a way to revise a written and social American history that had largely ignored women’s contributions,” according to an article in Time magazine. The first Women’s Day took place on Feb. 28, 1909 to honor the one-year anniversary of the garment worker’s strikes in New York when thousands of women marched for economic rights and to honor an earlier 1857 march when garment workers rallied for equal rights and a 10-hour day, according to the article.

Recognizing the achievement of Virginia women goes beyond naming a month. A monument is under construction on Capitol Square, “Voices from the Garden,” which will be the first monument of its kind in the nation. Representative of the state’s regions, the monument recognizes the 400-year history and the diversity of achievement, ethnicity and thought that women have made to the Commonwealth.

Even more significant in recognizing women in Virginia is the fact that there is historic representation of women in the Virginia House of Delegates, including the election of 11 new women members in 2017, all of whom ousted male incumbents. The House Democratic Caucus is almost 45 percent women, including 11 women of color. The House Republican Caucus is less than 10 percent women. Caucus Chair Charniele Herring is the first woman to chair a caucus in the House of Delegates throughout its 400-year history. Leader Eileen Filler-Corn is the first woman to be elected leader of a caucus in the General Assembly.

Recently I served on a panel, “Can Women Save Democracy? We’re counting on it!” at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University along with Herring, iller-Corn and Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. There was a clear consensus in the room that women will play a pivotal role in getting our country back on the right track. Witness this year’s state and local elections when there are record-breaking numbers of women lining up to run in primaries and the general elections.

Not only are women running and winning races, but they are determining the outcome of elections with their tireless work in making calls, knocking on doors, and working on behalf of the candidates they support. Organizations like Indivisibles, with Herndon-Reston Indivisibles being a model organization, and Moms Demand Action among others are making their influence felt on policy issues like ending the epidemic of gun violence.

The big disappointment in celebrating women in history is the refusal of the Virginia House of Delegates to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Ratification failed on a tied vote on a procedural matter that makes it even more frustrating that the amendment was not allowed to be debated on the floor of the House of Delegates. There is more women’s history to be written in Virginia, and I suspect the next step will be the election of even more women this fall and ratification of the ERA next year!

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House Leader to Tackle How Politics May Affect Virginia Business

Updated at 3:25 p.m. — Deputy Minority Leader Mark Sickles was recently added to the event.

An upcoming Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce event plans to examine how the current political climate will likely impact businesses across the state.

The event next Wednesday (March 13) features House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th District), Deputy Minority Leader Mark Sickles (D-43rd District) and Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Attendees can expect to learn about how Gov. Ralph Northam’s policies and a narrowly divided General Assembly may affect businesses for the next two years. Cox will provide insight into which passed bills will impact the business community.

The event will be held from 7:30-10 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Reston (1800 Presidents Street). Online registration will close on Tuesday (March 12).

Image via @SpeakerCox/Twitter

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Del. Ken Plum: Sine Die

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Virginia’s state law-making body, the General Assembly, adjourned sine die — until another day — this past Sunday — one day later than its scheduled adjournment date. With more than 3,000 bills and resolutions considered, it is somewhat miraculous that the body came that close to its scheduled 45-day end date.

There were positive accomplishments. Legislation designed to curtail record levels of rental evictions was passed. Major reforms to the foster care program were enacted with Del. Karrie Delaney providing leadership in this area. The legal age for buying cigarettes and vaping products was raised from 18 to 21 — a remarkable achievement in a city that was once the cigarette making capital of the world.

A bill I introduced at the suggestion of the Chris Atwood Foundation passed and will increase the persons authorized to administer the miracle drug Naloxone that can save the lives of persons suffering from drug overdoses. The concern about coal-ash ponds has been resolved with a requirement that clean-up occur on the property of utility without transport and in ponds that are sealed at the highest level of environmental protection.

Revisions that were made to the biennial budget that we are now half-way through bring lots of good news. Monies were increased for public education, including districts that have the highest levels of poverty and most need. School counselors were increased in numbers, although not at the level sought by the governor. Most taxpayers will get some money back as a result of the impact of federal tax cuts on state revenue.

A resolution that could lead to a constitutional amendment if passed next year would result in a redistricting commission. While the commission is not as strong as I and the independent redistricting advocates had hoped, it will increase public input into the process of drawing legislative boundaries. A week of no-excuse absentee voting before elections that was passed is much less than in other states, but it will start the process of opening up elections in the future.

Up until the final hours of the session, it appeared that the current limitations on holding a phone while driving would be strengthened, but the bill died for failure to agree to language that would be enforceable.

The ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that I thought was going to occur was defeated by a mostly partisan vote. When the legislation was passed by the Senate and defeated in a House committee, there was an effort to change the rules to allow a vote by the entire House. The rules change was defeated by a 50-50 tied vote with one Republican who had narrowly won re-election in 2017 voting with the Democrats.

All gun safety measures were defeated, including my bill to require universal background checks. My bills to raise the minimum wage and to establish an earned income tax credit system were also defeated.

I am available to speak to groups and organizations about the session; just email me at [email protected] Future columns will discuss the session further.

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Del. Ken Plum: An Historic Session

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

As you read this column the Virginia General Assembly will be nearing its adjournment sine die for the 400th year of its existence, having first met in the church on Jamestowne Island in 1619.

During this commemorative year, there will be many opportunities to learn more about Virginia and to reflect on how its history influences it to today even in the current legislative session and in what on another occasion was referred to as its “recent unpleasantries.”

That first session of what became known a century and a half later as the General Assembly was composed of a representative of the 22 plantations that had sprung up along the major rivers of the state as there were no local government, political boundaries or transportation networks in existence. The representatives were all white males who were landowners.

African Americans had to wait for the outcome of the Civil War and women had to wait for the twentieth century before they became part of the electorate. While the right to vote has begrudgingly expanded, over time there continues to be a resistance to making it easier to vote.

In the current session, there were proposals to allow people to vote early or vote absentee without an excuse and to make election day a holiday for the convenience of voters, but it does not appear that any will become law. Establishing a fair way to draw legislative boundaries has been hotly debated, but the decision to establish an independent redistricting commission will await the closing hours of the session.

Slaves were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619 to work the tobacco fields that were the mainstay of the colony’s economy. They had none of the rights that Englishmen claimed and beginning in the 1640s were subjected to “slave codes” that defined them as property to be bought and sold with no access to learning to read and write or to move about freely.

After the Civil War, these restrictive laws became the Jim Crow laws that continued to limit the rights of black people who were kept in line by the Ku Klux Klan and by public lynchings. White supremacy reigned with black-face entertainment intended to degrade black people through crude humor.

Happenings during this legislative session showed how little we have progressed on issues of human rights and respect, but there is hope. The reminder to the governor of his racist past will make him an even more enlightened person who if he continues can provide important leadership to dismantling racism in the state.

The incredible people of color who were elected to the House of Delegates in the last election bring strong voices to the need for greater equity and justice in the Commonwealth. Some limited reforms that will help establish equity and remove racism in the criminal justice system are on their way to passage.

Women first came to the Virginia colony in 1619. While rights of women have expanded slowly over the centuries, having Virginia ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is still in doubt. May the lessons of this historic legislative session move us forward in future years.

To check on the fate of specific bills, go to lis.virginia.gov.

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Howell Breaks Reston Lawmakers’ Silence on ‘Horrible Week’ as Scandals Engulf Virginia

State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd District) is breaking the silence among Reston lawmakers about the recent developments in a series of scandals among state-elected officials.

Earlier this week, a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook page surfaced, prompting Reston-area lawmakers to join widespread calls from both sides of the aisle for Northam’s resignation.

Then, the man in line to replace Northam if he steps down, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, became mired in scandal after a woman came forward alleging Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004.

On Wednesday (Feb. 6), Attorney General Mark Herring, the third in line for the governor’s seat, admitted to wearing blackface while he was a student at the University of Virginia in 1980.

Yesterday, news reports revealed that Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City County) was a top editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that included photos of people in blackface and racial slurs.

Howell called the recent news a “horrible week” in a newsletter she wrote to constituents today (Feb. 8).

While Howell previously urged Northam to step down, she stopped short of calling for the resignation of Herring, Fairfax and Norment in her newsletter.

Here is her message:

Greetings!

This has been the week from h— here in Richmond. All of us, regardless of party, are shocked and devastated by the recent revelations about our Richmond leaders. Ralph Northam, Mark Herring, Justin Fairfax, and Tommy Norment are men we have known and worked with for years. Worse, we have trusted them to lead our state. We are all trying to sort through what is true and what isn’t.

At the same time we are being surrounded and queried by press – most of whom know little about Virginia. They don’t know about our shameful racist past or about how hard we have been working to overcome it.

I saw raw racism in Virginia. In 1963 I was a 19 year old civil rights worker in Danville, trying to guarantee fair pay and voting rights for everyone. Tensions were high and skirmishes broke out between civil rights activists like me and local white youth. The day after I left, a police riot occurred – called “Bloody Monday”- where dozens of peaceful demonstrators were injured by police. Those were ugly times.

People of goodwill have been working tirelessly to help Virginia move beyond the disgraceful parts of our past. Progress has been slow but there has been progress. We recently have been viewed as a beacon of hope for the South. The revelations of the past week and the pain they have caused have been a major setback. Obviously we must work harder. A bandage cannot cover the pain.

I am hopeful that this can be a cleansing moment for our state. We must each search our souls and work to bring about reconciliation and healing. There is a role for each of us to do so. This is not a time to sit back.

Meanwhile, please be assured that we are working hard here in Richmond to do the people’s business. Just yesterday the Senate passed our budget – on time and balanced. We Senate Democrats worked closely with Senate Republicans to produce a budget we can be proud of.

Please feel free to write me about anything of concern to you. I read all the emails myself and respond to as many as humanly possible.

Best regards,

Sen. Janet Howell

P.S. I found this article to be very insightful and urge you to read it.

Photo courtesy of Janet Howell’s office

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Reston-Area Lawmakers Join Calls for Northam to Resign After Racist Photo Surfaces

Reston-area lawmakers are calling for Gov. Ralph Northam’s resignation after a racist yearbook photo recently surfaced.

The photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook shows two people standing next to each other — one in blackface and the other person in a KKK costume.

Northam apologized on Friday (Feb. 1) for appearing in the “clearly racist and offensive” photo and the hurt it caused 35 years later, indicating that he plans to stay in office.

Then on Saturday, Northam said that he doesn’t think he is in the photo and suggested that it may have been placed on his yearbook page by mistake. He admitted to a separate incident where he darkened his skin for a costume, according to news reports.

Still, many politicians from both sides of the aisle say a resignation can help heal the pain caused by the photo and bring in a new leader who Virginians can trust — a sentiment backed by Reston and Herndon lawmakers (who are all Democrats).

State Sens. Janet Howell (D-32nd District) and Jennifer Boysko (D-33rd District) called on Northam to resign. Howell wrote the following to constituents:

The Ralph Northam I know is not a racist.  The Ralph Northam I know is a decent and kind man.  For the ten years I have known him, he has courageously tried to promote racial harmony in our Southern state.

However, if he is in the disgraceful, abhorrent photo, he must resign. This is a very sad time for our Commonwealth.

This horrible episode has ripped the scab off the festering wound of discrimination still in Virginia.  We must all examine our consciences to see what more we can do to bring healing and reconciliation to all Virginians.

Del. Ken Plum (D-36th District) said in a tweet that he agrees with the statements of the House Democratic Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus calling for Northam’s resignation.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th District), who represents Reston and Herndon, released a statement with Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) on Saturday (Feb. 2) saying that “nothing we have heard since changes our view that his resignation is the only way forward for the Commonwealth.”

Connolly and Breyer said that the governor must step aside and “allow the process of healing to begin” under Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax.

“Virginia has a painful past where racism was too often not called out for its evil. The only way to overcome that history is to speak and act with absolute moral clarity,” the statement said.

Both of Virginia’s Democratic U.S. senators tweeted that they believe Northam should step down.

Despite the widespread condemnation, it remains unclear at this time whether Northam will resign or not. If he does, Fairfax would become the second African American governor in Virginia’s history.

Photo via @GovernorVA

 

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Independent Candidate Jumps Into Race for 86th District Seat

Connie Haines Hutchinson, a former vice mayor of the Herndon Town Council, is joining the race for the 86th District seat, which represents Herndon and parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Hutchinson is running on a campaign to improve education, revamp transportation, lower medical costs and ensure Northern Virginia gets support from the Commonwealth.

Ever since she ran for the Herndon Town Council in 1990, Hutchinson said she is dedicated to “give my time and talents to improve the quality of life in my hometown,” according to her website, adding that her seven terms on the council gave her the background and knowledge to represent the area in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Hutchinson, who claims that her main issues are nonpartisan, decided to run as an Independent for the 86th District seat because elected officials in Herndon run as Independents “in order to allow cooperation and collaboration without divisive party politics,” her website says.

Currently, Hutchinson is the general manager at The Borenstein Group, according to her LinkedIn. She is also the treasurer of the Herndon Hospitality Association, a nonprofit she founded to assist Herndon’s hospitality industry.

Previously, she has served on the Virginia Municipal League’s Legislative Committee and was the president of the Dulles Area Transportation Association.

In 1992, she became a member of the Herndon Town Council, and she served as vice mayor during the 2008-2010 term and again in 2012-2014. Prior to that, Hutchinson served on the town’s architectural and heritage preservation review boards.

She has also been involved with the Optimist Club of Herndon, Herndon Recreation, Inc., Herndon Youth Soccer and the parent-teacher associations for Herndon Elementary School and Herndon Middle School.

Hutchinson is a Herndon native, and her four children attended Herndon schools, according to her website.

Hutchinson will face Republican Gregg Nelson and Democrat Ibraheem Samirah in the special election set for Feb. 19.

Photo via Connie Haines Hutchinson/website

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Del. Ken Plum: A Tale of Two Houses

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

The General Assembly had not been in session for more than two weeks until the differences between the House of Delegates and the State Senate became obvious. The Founding Fathers who conceived the structure of government built-in safeguards and checks and balances to ensure that a runaway government would be less possible. Two houses in the legislature were part of that scheme.

The lower house would be elected by a popular vote, but in the federal model the so-called “upper house” was first elected by state legislatures before the popular vote was instituted. Another major difference in Virginia is that in the House of Delegates, 100 members were given two-year terms and smaller districts. The 40-member Senate was given four-year terms and districts two-and-a-half the size of delegate districts.

The result is that in some parts of the state there are election contests where the delegate and the senator reflect different values and positions on issues. That is not the case in my district where Sen. Janet Howell and I have taken the same position on every issue I can remember. These structural differences bring about different results as is being dramatically shown in the current General Assembly session.

In alternate election cycles, as is the case this year, senators and delegates all run for office. In light of the last election for House seats, I approached this legislative session with the hope that there might be more flexibility in the House leadership that might result in the consideration of bills that had been summarily defeated in past sessions. My hopes have already been dashed.

Even this early the session has demonstrated the differences that the two-house legislature presents. Certainly, there has been strong public support for Virginia being the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The Senate passed a resolution for ratification, but was defeated in a subcommittee in the House.

This major struggle between the two houses is the same for establishing an impartial and nonpartisan system for legislative redistricting. The Senate has passed a bill to establish such a process while House leadership is expressing opposition. Since the legislation is a constitutional amendment, it is important that a resolution is passed this year and next to go to a popular referendum in 2020 in time for redistricting after the 2020 census results are known.

Sometimes differences between the two houses can be resolved in a conference committee if both houses pass bills on the same subject. If differences are not resolved, the bill dies. Legislation must be passed in identical form from both houses to be sent to the governor for signature. If the governor disagrees with the bill sent to him, he can send down amendments or veto the legislation. It takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to override a veto.

Legislating with a two-house body can be cumbersome and difficult. Sometimes it seems to be easier to say how bills are defeated rather than how they pass. In either case, voters can be assured that the two-house legislature ensures full consideration of issues.

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Del. Ken Plum: General Assembly Agenda

This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

In a recent social media post, I indicated that the annual General Assembly session would be underway very soon. AutoCorrect changed the text to be “underwater very soon.” My son alerted me to the change, and I made what I thought was a correction. As the General Assembly session has gotten underway I am starting to wonder if AutoCorrect knew something that I am now coming to realize: the General Assembly may well be underwater!

The session is scheduled to go until Feb. 22. Meeting five days a week means 38 actual days for work on more than 2,000 bills and resolutions. While I have highlighted big issues like redistricting reform, preventing gun violence and ERA ratification, there are many more issues large and small that make up the agenda for the session.

Virginia has always conformed its income tax policies to the federal system. With the massive changes that have been made in federal tax law, the General Assembly will wrestle with what we will do in Virginia. There will be an effort to resolve the issue early in the session to accommodate taxpayers who want to file their returns early. Part of the tax policy debate will be making the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) refundable as promoted by the governor in a bill that I have introduced. The purpose would be to allow persons of low income to keep more of the money they earn and be more self-supporting.

As a Dillon Rule State — meaning local governments have only the powers granted to them by the state — dozens of bills called “local bills” are introduced to extend powers some of which are very minor to a particular locality. Another group of bills is called “housekeeping” to make corrections or clarifications to legislation that passed in previous sessions. All these bills are important but add to the workload of a session.

Challenging environmental issues will be coming before the legislature many of which relate to energy. There are proposals to increase the required uses of alternative and renewable fuels. Cleaning up from the past use of fossils fuels and the resulting growth in coal ash ponds will be taken up. There is a strong need to deal with the degradation of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay area. The Tidewater area is subject to recurrent flooding coming about with climate change that needs addressing now rather than later.

There are many bills dealing with criminal justice reform including bills intended to reduce the school to prison pipeline. The governor has announced his support of decriminalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana. A bill that has been introduced would allow casino and sports gambling.

There will be a number of dog and cat bills that include high levels of emotion from interested parties. Being able to limit dogs running across the properties of landowners is a big concern in rural areas.

You can review all the bills on the agenda of the General Assembly.

If you have not done so already, let me know your positions on issues by going to my website and click on Legislative Session Survey.

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Delegates Call to Freeze Tolls for Federal Workers Commuting to Unpaid Work

Del. Ken Plum and 14 members of the Virginia General Assembly want toll relief for federal workers who are commuting on Virginia toll roads — including the Dulles Greenway — to go to their unpaid jobs as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history continues without an end in sight.

On Friday (Jan. 11), the 15 members sent a letter to the Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine and Greg Woodsmall from the Toll Road Investors Partnership II, L.P., urging them to work with EZ-Pass to develop a system to freeze tolling Virginian workers who are forced to work without pay during the current government shutdown.

“It is suggested that this letter [from the workers’ respective departments] is submitted in conjunction with their EZ-Pass transponder number and that this number be used to freeze the transponder’s ability to charge the petitioning Virginian during the entirety of their furlough,” the members wrote in the letter.

They also urged Valentine and Woodsmall to design a way to reimburse tolls that were collected from Dec. 20 —  the beginning of the federal government shutdown — until the shutdown ends.

Virginia is the sixth most affected state by the shutdown with more than 34,000 workers who are affected by the furlough and a “significant number of them” who are expected to work without pay, according to the letter.

“These hardworking Virginians are TSA agents, United States Marshalls, FBI agents and others who are working hard to protect our nation and state, allowing our nation’s operations to continue during the government shutdown,” the members wrote.

Del. Karrie Delaney, who represents a large population of federal workers in the 67th District, which includes parts of Herndon, said that the letter is an opportunity to provide some financial relief for the federal workers who “are trying to figure out how they are going to make ends meet.”

“I represent TSA Agents, United States Marshalls, and FBI agents who are currently working without pay in order to protect our nation and our state,” Delaney said in a press release. “These residents are still going to work every day to ensure our nation’s operations continue, but they are not receiving a paycheck.”

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FCPS Offers Resources, Hiring Events for Furloughed Government Employees

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history continues, Fairfax County Public Schools is offering resources to furloughed government workers after most missed their first paycheck of the shutdown last Friday (Jan. 11).

FCPS plans to hold a second hiring event for furloughed federal employees interested in substitute teaching positions.

The hiring event last week hit capacity. The event is set for tomorrow (Jan. 15) from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the FCPS Administration Center at 8115 Gatehouse Road in Falls Church, Va. Participants are encouraged beforehand to register, complete an application for employment and bring original documents required for the I-9 form I-9.

FCPS’s “No Student Will Go Hungry” program is supporting families affected by the federal government shutdown by providing breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of their ability to pay or temporary financial circumstances. FCPS will also allow unpaid balances to accrue during the shutdown.

Furloughed workers can also look at Fairfax County’s resources online, including a Human Services Guide to seek assistance from nonprofits and a list of free or low-cost events at county libraries and parks.

The county also plans to have a “Stuff the Bus” event on Saturday (Jan. 19) where locals can bring food and cash donations to support local nonprofit food pantries. One of the collection spots will be the Fox Mill Giant (2551 John Milton Drive) in Herndon from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Food, utility and rent assistance is available from the county’s Health and Human Services agencies.

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