Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bill, bills, bills...

With the General Assembly nearing the midway point, each house is wrapping up work on their own bills. Several of interest to CCC are still alive while others have hit the chopping block.
HJ 628 will allow restoration of voting rights of nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences. It awaits vote in the Privileges and Elections committee. Contact members to urge them to vote yes and end this holdover from the Jim Crow era. After all, shouldn't it be the policy of the New Dominion (as opposed to the Byrd era) to restore people to the community and to encourage voting? If HJ 628 passes the House, its chances are excellent in the Senate.
HB 2465 protects the right of citizens to petition the court for removal of a public official without fearing dismissal or sanctions because of a minor clerical or procedural error. It passed the Privileges and Elections Committee by a vote of 13-8 and is before the full House. Contact your delegate to urge passage.
SB 810 allows in-person absentee voting without giving an excuse. It passed the Senate 24-16 but faces an uncertain future in a more hostile House. It is never too early to begin lobbying your delegate for passage.
SB 1470 passed the Senate yesterday. It prohibits payday lenders from making open-ended loans. It does not include the car title lenders as SB 1490 would do. SB 1490 is still in the Commerce and Labor Committee. Contact your Senator and tell them to include both payday and car title lenders. Better yet, tell them to impose a mandatory 36% maximum APR, which includes all fees. More info
SB 961, Senator Mark Obenshain's bill to eliminate the "triggerman rule" passed the Senate. It would allow the imposition of the death penalty not only for the shooter, but also for accessories and principals in the second degree. The death penalty is morally wrong, an ineffective deterrent, and usually results in long and expensive appeals. Virginia has one of the broadest death penalty laws in the country and its expansion will not make us any safer. SB 961 will probably pass the House, but Governor Tim Kaine has indicated he will veto it. Stay tuned and urge the Governor to stand strong.
Senator Obenshain's bill to privatize Virginia's ABC stores died yesterday in the Rehabilitation and Services Committee on a 13-2 vote. Splitting from his neighbor, Senator Emmett Hanger voted against the bill. CCC supports the concept of private ownership of liquor sales but there are significant problems to overcome. Some are known, but as always, beware unintended consequences! Obenshain says no jobs would be lost, but current employees would be displaced and/or potentially lose retirement benefits. Obenshain says it will increase state revenues, but would that be true a decade or two from now? We might replace the state monopoly with a oligopoly where a few big dogs control alcohol sales for private profit. Some states have experienced corruption in the ownership and transfer of licenses. Perhaps the time to privatize ABC stores will come in the future, after more study and more than a half-baked attempt to anticipate problems that could adversely impact Virginia and valued state employees. Maybe it is time to refer this issue to JLARC for an in-depth and bipartisan look.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Close the loophole!

For years, but especially since the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, many people have suggested closing the so-called gun show loophole that gave an avenue for mentally ill or criminals to get weapons. While no one thinks closing the loophole will prevent all guns from falling into bad hands, there does seem to be a consensus among many folks that it would help to make our communities safer.
Closing the loophole has been controversial and for years has been shot down by gun rights advocates. Just a couple weeks ago the Virginia State Crime Commission deadlocked over a vote to recommend legislation that would require an electronic background check. That vote seemed to doom any legislation for the 2009 General Assembly session.
This week, Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath Co.) helped craft a bipartisan compromise in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
It was a tight vote in the committee, but prospects are now reasonably good for passage in the Senate. The bill will face a tough test in the House of Delegates, but passage in the Senate plus the upcoming election, may place pressure on a few delegates to do the right thing to make our commonwealth a bit safer.
Senator Deeds has a long record of working the middle ground between parties and with rural and urban interests to find consensus and solve problems. That's leadership. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Curt/Frederick Cock Fight

Walter Curt, a conservative Harrisonburg area businessman who was tapped by Virginia GOP chair Jeff Frederick to head the party's fundraising, has abruptly quit. In his letter of resignation Curt bemoaned Frederick's lack of leadership polish and wrote:
"Unfortunately the problems of structure, power projection, consultant interference, interpersonal difficulties, years of internal malaise, luddite attitude, leadership, and unity of purpose stand in the way of any hope of success."
Curt was a favorite of the right wing swacgirl types who hailed his appointment by Frederick back in June. Since then the party has continued to implode with Frederick having to wear a flack jacket as he dodges "friendly fire." Frederick narrowly avoided ouster just before Christmas.
Curt's resignation is one more sign that the Virginia GOP continues to be sharply divided between the ultra-conservative swacs who would disembowel government and the pro-government conservatives like Emmett Hanger, while the whack job Frederick flails in the wind. Meanwhile November is approaching.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nothing to sneeze at

If you Google "sneeze" you'll find many websites explaining why people say "bless you" or "God bless you" when someone sends projectiles of microscopic mucus and spit into the air the rest of us breathe. Seems some people always sneeze twice and then we have to repeat the blessing. Or do we? Should we say something when someone stifles a sneeze? 
Why don't we say a blessing when a person coughs, hiccups, or sniffles? We often hear something "witty" when a guy lets out a hearty burp - bring it up again and we'll vote on it. And depending on the company, folks might ignore a loud fart. Why don't all the other normal bodily functions and noises elicit a response.
Back to sneezes. "God bless you" is supposed to have originated with Pope Gregory the Great during an 6th century outbreak of the bubonic plague. So, are all you Protestants really saying a Catholic prayer? I find some offense to "God bless you." I'm not qualified to bless anyone and likewise don't think most of my friends or family have any special prayer powers either. So, I sometimes say (after waiting to see if there will be a secondary explosion of snot) "gesundheidt." I always assumed it was simply a blessing in German, but it actually means "good health." More acceptable for me to say - I can wish anyone good health in better conscience than I can utter a rote prayer. On the other hand, everyone thinks I'm just disguising my "bless you." And, we live in America where few speak German. I'd be better off to learn what is said in Spanish! Back in the days of the Roman Empire, they said (in Latin of course) "long may you live." Not bad. Maybe I can go with that one. Or not.
Maybe we should say a prayer not for the sneezer, but for everyone nearby. After all, an uncovered sneeze sends up to 5,000 bacteria infected droplets into the room! Sneeze in a tissue or your sleeve but don't pollute my indoor air. Oh, don't pinch your nose to stifle it - that can raise blood pressure and lead to a stroke. Maybe the same rule applies to all bodily expulsions - wonder if my family will buy that excuse?
But, I'm really back to my original dilemma - say nothing or say something, and if so, what? What do you want to hear when you sneeze? I'll leave you with this moment of humor:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Democracy and elections II

Two bills that encourage greater voter participation are moving forward in the Virginia General Assembly. 
HJ 628 (Ware) would restore voting rights for non-violent felons who have completed their sentences. It passed the House Privileges & Elections' Constitutional subcommittee by a vote of 4-3 and is now before the full Privileges & Elections Committee. Contact committee members and urge them to support restoration of voting rights! More info at CCC.
SB 810 (Howell) early allows voters to vote absentee in-person without providing a reason. It will probably come before the Senate next week. Contact your Senator to support SB 810. More info at CCC.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hey Richmond: I told you so

Hate to say "I told ya so," but I and many others told the 2008 session of the General Assembly that their toothless reforms of the payday loan predators wouldn't do any good. Now, Senator Phillip Puckett (D-Russell Co.), one of the key supporters of that compromise legislation, says:
"They [payday lenders] are circumventing what we tried to do. That sends the wrong message, not a very good-faith effort on their part - and I'm one of the guys that fought for them."
To dodge the regulations that they "agreed" to, payday lenders have created a new product called an open-ended line of credit which has no limits on interest rates or administrative fees. Interest rates can top 300% a year and the fees can be oppressive. Of course, you have to be a wily and wise consumer to spot all this in the fine print.
The bastard cousins of payday lenders are the car title lenders. Virtually unregulated under Virginia law, car title lenders entice people with ads showing them buying new clothes or taking a vacation... just bring in your car title (and a set of keys for the day we repossess your wheels) and walk out with a fist full of green! Car title lenders charge interest of 25-30% per month. If the borrower pays only the minimum he gets to keep the car, but his debt can double in six months. Fail to pay the minimum and you'll be walking.
Senator Puckett was shortsighted and too trusting of the wolves last year, but has now seen the light and wants the General Assembly to take action. Senator Mark Herring (D-Leesburg) introduced SB 1490 that would cap car title lenders and anyone making loans under the opened-ended credit laws to a 36% APR. It is in the Commerce and Labor Committee. More info.
But, just a year after the payday loan battles ended with a wimpy law, and in a session where the budget is sucking all the media and legislators' attention, there may not be much will to act. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott Co.), chair of the House Commerce and Labor Committee which handles such bills, was noncommittal. Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who is cozy with payday lenders, has introduced a bill providing more cover for the industry. He would prohibit a company from offering both payday and open-ended laws - so his buddies will just offer the usurious open-ended ones.
Not taking any chances, the industry has lavished cash on legislators. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Loan Max, the biggest of the title loan lenders, has donated $530,000 since 2002, about equally split between the parties. The three biggest payday lenders have ponied up $370,700 over the same period.
Hey Richmond! We'll be saying "I told you so" again in 2010 if you shirk your duty this year. We may talk to members of the House of Delegates in November! Do the right thing - put a cap of 36% and reasonable limits on fees (better yet, require they be computed as part of the APR). SB 1490 seems like a good place to start.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Political pandering 101

Senator Ralph Smith (R-22) wants Virginia's "family life" curriculum to expand and teach about the "benefits of marriage for men, women, children, and communities." SB 827 would mandate that instruction along with such topics as abstinence, avoiding sexual assault, and family relationships. Smith thinks it will reduce divorce and save the state "hundreds of millions of dollars." It is being pushed by the Family Foundation of Virginia.
You must be a dumb cluck if you really believe this bill will save any money or that it will even reduce divorce. It is at best redundant to instruction already required; at worst it will foster a belief among some young students that single parent families or children of divorced couples are lesser human beings - less good than traditional mom/dad/two kids families.
Like a chicken getting readied for dinner, SB 827 should get the axe.

Rainy Day

The Virginia Association of School Superintendents will hold a press conference today urging the General Assembly to use $500 million from the state's "Rainy Day Fund" for K-12 education as Governor Tim Kaine has proposed. Even if that money is used, Virginia schools are facing about $400 million in cuts in state aid. With 80% of most school budgets being related to personnel, VASS contends larger funding cuts will mean teacher pay cuts and/or layoffs directly impacting instruction of students.
MEMO TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
It is not just raining, it is pouring. These were the times for which the Rainy Day Fund was created. Use it prudently, but use it!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Elections and democracy

Free speech at the polls? Remember the controversy about political apparel at polling places last November? It was a First Amendment issue that led to a lawsuit by three Virginia free-speech organizations. On Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 5:00 PM the House Privileges & Elections, Campaign Finance Subcommittee will take up HB 1610 and HB 1643. These bills permit individuals to wear buttons or items of apparel that contain a political candidate's name or a political slogan at polling places. Contact members to express your support for free speech. Delegate Landes represents Waynesboro and parts of Augusta, Rockingham, and Albemarle.
Early birds. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections approved a bill that will allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day without providing a specific reason. More than half the states have early voting processes and 321,000 Virginians cast absentee ballots in Virginia last November, many in-person. This legislation will make it easier for individuals to vote early without meeting one of 17 specific reasons.
Supporters of the legislation include Governor Tim Kaine, the ACLU, and Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the State Board of Elections who testified, "The reality is this is the United States of America and we can provide other alternatives." Rodrigues also noted that some voters currently "shop" for an acceptable reason forcing registrars into the difficult role of judging if it fits into one of the 17 currently allowed. 
Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) voted against the bill citing "the integrity of the system." We'll probably hear more of that Republican sound bite if the bill makes it to the House of Delegates. They have already killed a similar bill and have shown little inclination to make voting more accessible.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

01.20.09

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution      
Barack Obama will take the oath behind bullet proof glass with his hand on a Bible used by Abraham Lincoln. John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, will administer the oath. Senator Obama voted against Roberts' confirmation. Although not part of the constitutional oath of office, beginning with George Washington, it has been a tradition to add "so help me God" at the end.
Technically, it isn't taking the oath of office that will make Barack Obama President of the United States - it is high noon. The 20th Amendment states "The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January ... and the terms of their successors shall then begin." Obama should take the oath about 11:58 AM, but even if things are running a little behind schedule, he will be President, and George W. Bush a private citizen, precisely at noon.
Absent from the Inauguration Ceremony and other events will be Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who is at an undisclosed location to serve as Obama's "designated successor" ensuring continuity of government if a catastrophe occurs. Gates is the only member of the Bush Cabinet who will also serve in Obama's.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Rock on, Abe

Two clucks; one chicken pox

This is a special week with Martin Luther King holiday (and the national day of service) and the Inauguration of Barack Obama. Pick your theme: "Yes, We Can" or "We Are One." With the exception of a few sore losers or perennial pessimists, American seems to be rising through the adversity of recession and war with a abiding belief in the possibilities of our future as evidenced in the uplifting experiences of our nation's past. We'll learn plenty of history about inaugurations and presidents over the next few days. But, our hearts and souls will sing with the new president as our hopes rise for our nation's, indeed the world's, future.
Hopefully, you'll find a little time for community service today. Clean up a road, donate time or money to a food pantry, help an elderly neighbor, donate blood... the list it long and the needs great. Don't make it a one day deal - keep it up throughout the year.
It a time when even Washington D.C. is in a rare bipartisan mood (hope it lasts a long while) and Governor Tim Kaine made a remarkable State of the Commonwealth speech reaching across party lines to find solutions to Virginia's budget crisis. But, there are some who persist in the partisan sniping that spoils the moment, that sounds good but is actually designed to jab with a gotta-ya. Partisanship that gets in the way of the problem solving that will be instrumental in solving the giant hole in the state's budget.
Such is the case with HB 1634 which would prohibit legislators from attending any fundraiser during a session of the General Assembly. Legislators are already prohibited from conducting their own campaign fundraisers during the session - I think this is okay, but it is bit naive to think a campaign donation made a day before or a day after the session is somehow less tainted. HB 1634 expands the ban to include attending other fundraisers such as political party or any other group that contributed to the candidate during the prior year - which could include organizations who do great work in our communities.
Here's where the partisanship kicks in - everyone knows this bill was intended to torpedo the Virginia Democrats traditional Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner held each February and keep Democrats in the General Assembly away from their party's premier event. While supporters of the bill insist it is all about ethics and transparency (they doth protest too much), the partisanship is obvious to everyone.
Some concerns:
  • At a time when bipartisan cooperation is most needed in our state and nation, the supporters of this bill are undermining good legislation that spirit in the legislature.
  • There are clear First Amendment freedom of association issues in saying a legislator can't meet with someone or a group who gave him or her a campaign donation in the past.
  • Virginia law places no dollar limits on contributions but this law would place an unreasonable time/place limit. Is it limiting freedom of speech?
  • State law already mandates disclosure of a candidate's donations and expenditures - information which anyone can access at The Virginia Public Access Project and judge for themselves.
While the bill easily passed the House of Delegates, it faces a tougher ride in the Senate and, if it survives there, a likely veto by the Governor. All that will survive is the political posturing of its supporters during campaign '09. Another pox on bipartisanship.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Expanding democracy in Virginia

It is long past time for Virginia to end the unreasonable disenfranchisement of felons who have served their time. The Jim Crow era law is one of the most punitive in the nation making restoration of a convicted felon's voting rights extremely difficult. Only Virginia and Kentucky permanently take voting rights from every individual convicted of a felony. Currently, over 300,000 are disenfranchised under Virginia law. Two states, Vermont and Maine, never take away voting rights. Thirty eight states currently restore voting rights to former felons on completion of jail time and parole or probation. Eight others restore voting rights to most felons, excluding only those who are convicted of the most heinous crimes.
Early on the morning of January 19, a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections committee will consider several constitutional amendments to modify Virginia law on restoration of voting rights. Three resolutions - HJ 623 (Dance), HJ 664 (Morrissey), and HJ 677 (BaCote) would restore voting rights to all former felons. Two others - HJ 628 (Ware) and HJ 656 (Tyler) would restore rights only to those convicted of nonviolent felonies. More info on the bills can be found on Richmond Sunlight.
Making Virginia law more fair and more democratic is an ongoing process. It is time to end permanent disenfranchisement. Convicted felons who have served their time and been punished for their crime should be encouraged, rather than discouraged, to become participating members of their community. It is good for them, good for our communities, and good for democracy.
Learn more about the current Virginia law and how you can help make our commonwealth more democratic. You'll have to act fast to contact members of the Constitutional Subcommittee before their meeting on Monday. The members, linked to their contact info, are:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Experienced bird may jump into race

John Edwards, a state senator from Roanoke, is considering entering the race for attorney general. Edwards ran in 2001, losing the nomination to Donald McEachin. He considered running in 2005 but eventually decided against it - Creigh Deeds was the Democratic nominee that year. Rumors of Edwards' possible entry surfaced this fall, but seemed to have diminished some by the end of the year.
If he enters the race, Edwards will face Steve Shannon, a delegate from Fairfax County, for the nomination. Shannon has had the field to himself and has over $746K in his campaign coffers. Since Edwards is a member of the General Assembly he will, if he decides to run, have to wait until after the session to begin fundraising. Virginia law prohibits members from raising campaign cash during the session - a prohibition that also affects Shannon and Deeds, as well as Senator Ken Cuccinelli who is seeking the GOP nomination.
Senator Edwards made his comments just after Governor Tim Kaine delivered his State of the Commonwealth Address.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Overheard: clucks and yucks

People shouldn't talk so loudly at restaurants, especially if they intend it to be a private conversation. But, in their enthusiasm, a couple of Staunton area Republicans, err... libertarians, err... wingnuts did just that, disturbing the conversation at our table, in more ways than one.
The initial focus of their conversation was finding candidates to run for the Staunton School Board. Candidates who would promote choice, if not school choice, then teacher choice (every mom could tell the school which classroom to assign her child to). There was considerable teacher-bashing claiming most teachers just "see it as a job" and "discourage parents from being involved." While under Virginia law parties cannot nominate for school board, they can support candidates and often encourage and nurture them as part of building a farm team to run for other local and state offices. With Staunton's electoral trends running against them, the city GOP desperately needs to rebuild that farm team.
Their conversation drifted to Delegate Chris Saxman and Delegate Steve Landes (sorry Emmett, guess they don't consider you to be one of them) and wondering if either was on an education committee in the General Assembly. Now, if these two were really GOP activists (one implied he was on the Staunton committee), you'd think they'd be better informed... Landes has long been a member and currently chairs the House Education Committee. At any rate, they didn't have much confidence that the General Assembly would do the kind of things these two wanted, one saying, "all they do is throw money at it." Hum, over the next few weeks local school boards will likely find some of that thrown money was written on bad checks.
Shifting from the topic of education they found common ground in bashing Democrats saying all the nation's new majority party wanted was to make everyone equal and to do that would take away liberty. This led to one declaring that government had no place in any kind of "charity" work.
Other interesting and disturbing? points they made:
  • Joe McCarthy didn't find all the reds in Hollywood - the place has long been infested with them. Find out all about it in the neocon book, Red Star Over Hollywood. Not sure what prompted this topic except maybe Sunday's Oscars had their bile churning.
  • They ought to get new "Win the War!" yard signs that say "Win the War, DAMMIT!" Yes, he spelled it for everyone in the restaurant.
  • Churchville area residents Alex Avery and Dennis Avery are great role models. Google 'em and judge for yourself.
As lunch wrapped up they promised each other to stay in touch and the older gentleman said he'd let the other know when the Staunton Republican Committee would be meeting. The conversation lingered a moment more - gotta get the right candidates to get "education under control." As they pulled out of the lot, I noticed one of their SUVs was still plastered with multiple McCain/Palin stickers. Living in the past?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hard Times, Hard Liquor

The Roanoke Times had two articles, though seemingly disconnected, that are each harbingers of the hard times in which we find ourselves.
One, 10 tips for cutting costs and saving money, offers suggestions on "stepping down" to a more frugal lifestyle. Let's see - cut out the Starbucks (never did that), brown bag lunches (always did that), go to fewer movies (last year we saw two in the theater), and keep on top of car maintenance (I'm a shade tree mechanic who can be a bit of a fanatic about that). I guess I could do a little bit better job of reducing phantom power loss by unplugging computers and other electronics (do I get points for cutting the pilot light on the gas logs?). Most appliances are now Energy Star and all replacements will be. Unused rooms are closed during cold weather. We layer clothes inside. About half our heat is from an efficient Jotul wood stove.
My point is - we've been living fairly frugally for a long time (credit my Mom who imparted a strong Depression era mentality). Dinner out is rare. We combine trips religiously. Last night's leftovers are today's lunch. Can we find more savings? Sure. But, like my family, I suspect many in the Shenandoah Valley have been tightfisted for a long time and are better prepared than many for the hard times. 
The second article, VA liquor sales: the hard data on the hard stuff, looks at the drinking habits of western Virginia. Apparently, in good times and maybe more so in bad, folks are thirsty -
Virginia ABC stores sold about 9.2 million gallons of liquor in fiscal year 2008. That's more than a gallon and a half for every person of legal drinking age in the state. That's 795,412,236 shots. That's enough to fill 14 Olympic-size swimming pools and still have enough left over to keep a football team schnockered for a good chunk of the off-season.
Being more of a beer guy, I'm not really tuned in to what folks buy in the ABC stores of the Commonwealth. What's the biggest seller... bourbon, vodka, or rum? Virginia GentlemanJim Beam or Jack Daniels? Do folks go for the cheap hooch when times are tough? According to liquor sales rep Michelle Brooks, there's little evidence of hard times in the hard liquor business?
People keep saying our economy's slowed down, but liquor sales haven't slowed down at all.
Yeah, there are bucks to be made in booze. Good times and bad. Guess that's why moonshining has long been a popular but risky business in Franklin County, and has even found its way to Mount Crawford. The accused in the latter case is supposed to have a court appearance this week.
Time to stoke the fire and chill the cheap beer.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Greed Is Good

In Wall Street, Michael Douglas electrifies viewers with his passionate defense of greed.
While self-interest drives all us, the past year has amply demonstrated how excessive greed, unregulated greed, immoral greed can bring down not only a nation's, but the entire global economy.
As the new Obama administration moves to replace blind laissez-faire with reasonable regulations of banking, securities, mortgages, Wall Street, etc., it is time for the Commonwealth of Virginia to attack those purveyors of greed still among us - the payday lenders, the car title lenders, and others who similarly prey on those who are desperate or poorly informed about prudent borrowing.
Last year the General Assembly "regulated" payday lenders with toothless legislation such as limiting loans to $500 and having one loan at a time. Already these predators are bypassing those ineffectual laws by offering open-ended loans that are virtually unregulated and can have interest rates of over 450%. Payday lenders also worked hard to water down truth-in-lending requirements - no sense in telling unsuspecting borrowers about the bottomless pit. 
I doubt the payday lending industry will bring an entire economy to its knees in the same way the self-indulgent fools in the mortgage industry did, but there can be no doubt that payday lenders have no moral barometer when it comes to wrecking an individual's personal economy.
Since the payday loan industry is obviously based on excessive and immoral greed, and it cannot and will not regulate itself, now is time for the General Assembly to act. A basic consumer protection demands the state put a 36% cap on interest that may be charged. That is the same rate cap the state has for other types of small loans. It is reasonable. It protects the vulnerable. It is good policy.
Who should the General Assembly protect? The greed merchants or the people?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

School House Rock

According to Education Week's Annual Quality Report, Virginia schools rank 4th in the nation with a grade of "B." Virginia is up from 5th place last year and trails only Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York. According to the report, Virginia ranks high in standards, accountability, and students' chances of success and was above the national average in all areas except funding equity where the Commonwealth got a "C+."
Funding disparity has long been an issue facing the General Assembly and is raised year after year by school boards and the Virginia Education Association. While the Virginia Constitution calls for the same quality education for each child, per pupil spending in wealthy areas like NOVA far outpaces that in rural communities such as those found in the Shenandoah Valley.
The Education Week report does highlight one area of concern for Virginia and many other states - a growing shortage of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. While this shortage hits some regions harder than others, the need is apparent in most school divisions. Harrisonburg schools, for example, have nearly two dozen languages spoken by students. Currently, Virginia has one ESL teacher for every 49 English language learners. Demand for ESL teachers is expected to increase by over 60% during the next five years.
Education Week's report is worth crowing about! It is good news for Virginia students, parents, and educators and signals there is no need for vouchers or tax credits for private schools. Especially in times of budget cuts, the state's commitment must be 100% for public education. Public dollars for public schools which meet the standards of public accountability.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Senator Emmett Hanger's Huntin' and Peckin'

Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Mount Solon) says he'll introduce legislation demanding Congress call a constitutional convention to consider a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. Hanger believes the federal government needs to balance its budget or "... the economy will continue to deteriorate over time and we won't be the economic power we've historically been."
People can have various views about the wisdom of such an amendment. Many conservatives have long called for the federal government to balance the budget (bit of irony here as two of the biggest budget busters are darlings of conservatives: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush). Some of these same folks also call for abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard. Others point to the need of the federal government to borrow in time of national emergency such as war (excuse me Adolph, can we take a few days off because we are out of money) or economic collapse (Obama's rescue plan). 
The truth is, Congress must have the flexibility in times of crisis, but Congress must also have the discipline to not spend like a drunken sailor (apologies to sailors). Recent attempts to bring that discipline resulted in the Graham-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act in 1985. When parts of that law were found unconstitutional, Congress pass the Budget Enforcement Act in 1990 which expired in 2002. Budgets were actually balanced in the late 1990s under President Clinton and a Republican controlled Congress.
All of this is complicated by entitlement programs like Social Security and by the politics of legislation where earmarks and pork barrel spending. To get a handle on wasteful spending, many have urged that the President have the power of line-item veto. The Republican controlled Congress gave this power, by simple legislation, to President Clinton. The Supreme Court held it was an unconstitutional violation of separation of powers and the line-item veto could only be granted by constitutional amendment.
So, would a balanced budget amendment be a good thing? Guess it depends! I am glad that Congress has the ability to respond with fiscal policy to our current deepening recession. But, it would would have been nice if Congress had said to President Bush, "Gee George, we just don't have a few extra trillions for your illegal war." Any proposed amendment would likely contain an ability of Congress to override its commands with a supermajority of 3/5s or 2/3s.
Is the idea of calling a constitutional convention a good one? We've never had a constitutional convention to propose amendments, so there are numerous unanswered questions. Article V of the Constitution says: "Congress... on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments ..."
Some (there are many more) of these questions are:
  • How timely does the "application of the legislatures" need to be? Does Congress have to respect such an application made two years ago? Twenty years ago? Or must the applications be within a term of Congress?
  • Can a state legislature rescind an application?
  • If (huge if) Congress did call a constitutional convention how would states be represented? Equally as in the Constitutional Convention that wrote the original document or by population similar to the House of Representatives?
  • How would delegates to the convention be chosen? Appointed by the state legislature and/or governor or elected by the people of the state?
  • Could Congress limit the scope of the convention to a balanced budget amendment or would the convention exercise its own authority and propose amendments on topics such as prayer in school or abortion? Could it rewrite the whole Constitution? If we look at record the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the convention would only be limited by what it thinks could potentially be ratified.
Although this method has never been used to propose a constitutional amendment, it may be used as political muscle to force Congress to act by either proposing an amendment itself (2/3s vote in each house), by passing legislation (like Graham-Rudman-Hollings), or by finding the political will to act more responsibly (at least until the current outrage passes).
Remember that proposing an amendment is the first step, as amendments must be ratified by 3/4s (currently 38) of the state legislatures (usual method) or at conventions held in each state (21st Amendment). Congress (or the national convention?) selects the method of ratification.
So, what is Senator Hanger's motive in introducing this "application" and pushing the idea. He has to know the odds of there actually being a constitutional convention are extremely long. Perhaps he feels like this is one way to push Congress into acting. Perhaps he hopes to generate public outrage about federal deficits and the growing federal debt.
Or perhaps all this is much closer to home. Senator Hanger remains an outcast within his own party, many of whom see him as too moderate. Some even call him gasp a liberal. Perhaps all of this is mostly about repairing the Senator's reputation and image among the right wing Republicans who will control the fate of his renomination in 2011. Perhaps it is politics 101 - saving his own seat?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fishwick Exits

Democrat John Fishwick ended his quest for Attorney General yesterday. He cited his interest in representing regular folks and small businesses in state and federal cases. Fishwick said he'd pay campaign expenses and then return the remaining money to donors. He raised about $160,000.
Fishwick's highest profile case in recent months was the lawsuit brought by a W&L professor against the Virginia Lottery charging they continued selling tickets for prizes that were no longer available. The case brought him some celebrity, including a brief appearance on Dr. Phil.
Fishwick's exit leaves Delegate Steve Shannon of Fairfax as the only Democrat seeking the nomination. 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Counting Virginia's Corn

The media is filled with the stories about the projected deficits in Virginia's biennial budget. Facing shortfalls of about $3 billion over the two years, Governor Tim Kaine and the General Assembly will need sharp pencils to balance, as required by law, receipts and expenditures. Already hiring has been frozen, state employee raises have be delayed, and a variety of programs cut or delayed.
While we certainly can't blame today's budget woes on Virginia's two-year budgeting process, the current situation highlights the potential hazards of trying to write a budget with a long time horizon. After all, every family I know looks at their finances on a yearly basis. Businesses do so as well. That doesn't mean a family or business is failing to plan long term. It does mean they are balancing (hopefully) the books each year. In doing so they can plan to save or spend for bigger projects over time - that kitchen renovation has been put off until next year!
So, why does the Commonwealth use a biennial budget process? The practice dates back to the days when the General Assembly met every other year. During the 1970s the General Assembly began meeting every year but they kept the two-year budget cycle. So in a long session (even years) the Governor and General Assembly enacts a biennial budget. The next year, during a short session, the Governor and General Assembly amend the budget to reflect changes in projected revenues or expenditure needs during the past year. Huh? They are working on the two-year budget every year... is that right?
If this process seems clumsy and confusing to you, then join the crowd. Along with Delegate Albert Pollard (D-99), Delegate Chris Saxman (R-20) will introduce legislation to move Virginia to an annual budget. They cite greater accountability and transparency as key advantages of an annual budget. For example, when the biennial budget promises state employees a 4% raise it gets spread in some fashion over the two years - it could be 2% in each year or 1/2% in the first and 3 1/2% in the second. Geez, I'd like the 3 1/2% in the first year - with compounding getting the money sooner rather than later would be lots better for me. Perhaps legislators have incentives to give raises based on something else - like their election cycle?
Pollard and Saxman also point to real-time numbers that are now available to budget writers. In the "old days," information on tax receipts and expenditures were often months behind so perhaps a two-year cycle made since. It isn't a valid reason today. Pollard has these and other reasons for changing to an annual budget detailed on his website.
One other reason for changing Virginia's budgeting process may be found in the cycle of electing the Governor. Virginia Governors cannot serve consecutive terms. With the current biennial budget, a Governor enters office with at least one strike against him or her.
To illustrate, Governor Kaine took office in January 2006, too late to propose his own budget. So the new Governor was mostly locked into the budget proposed by his predecessor, in this case, Mark Warner. Warner and Kaine are both Democrats and were probably on the same page on many budget issues. Kaine could offer changes, but the point is that he was to a great extent locked in to the two-year budget (he could also offer amendments at the short session) presented by the previous guy. The next budget cycle the Governor has the luxury of proposing, helping to enact, and carrying out "his" budget. Of course, in late 2009 Governor Kaine will propose a two-year budget that will be enacted after he is out of office and will be carried out by his successor. So, changing to an annual budget may shift power to the Governor - a good thing?
Putting Virginia on an annual budget seems like a good idea to this bird. It is common sense and easier to understand for most citizens. It is more transparent. It is more accountable. It may allow a Governor to better match governing priorities with campaign promises. But don't believe for a minute that it will eliminate all the smoke and mirrors that are typically part of the state budget - like saying they funded a 4% raise for teachers but started it in December (when teachers' contracts start in August) or failing to provide funding for the actual number of teachers employed. Guess that falsely claiming credit or saying one thing while doing another is just part of politics!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Walk on the Wild(er) Side

Doug Wilder has joined the blogosphere. The former Virginia Governor (the first African-American elected as governor) and mayor of the City of Richmond, has a new job - blogger. Doug's blog is aptly called Wilder Visions. From his introductory post:
Leaving office as Richmond’s first popularly-elected Mayor in 60 years, I am confident that our City is moving in the right direction. The public overwhelmingly has likewise agreed. Just before the election, 81% of citizens surveyed in a City Council poll said the City was moving in the right direction.
The people are always ahead of politicians. Citizens provide the support for the vision and impetus for government – fighting crime, protecting the river, improving schools, and so on.
I know that we all want our government and our City to succeed and achieve even greater heights.
I will continue to live in the City I love, and will maintain an active voice. To that end, I will be starting a new blog called www.WilderVisions.com that will cover a variety of both local and national topics.
Welcome Doug. Welcome Governor Wilder. Welcome Mayor Wilder. 

Thursday, January 1, 2009