Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Drill here, drill now?

For all the right wing rants about President Barack Obama being so far to the left, it is pretty clear (to all but them) that he occupies turf well in the mainstream. Healthcare reform, if you ignore the tainted tea baggers' distortions, brings only modest change that is still market-based (i.e. insurance companies still calling most of the shots). Despite the irrational fears hawked by the NRA and others, President Obama has done nothing that remotely diminishes gun rights.
And now, to the obvious delight of the "drill here, drill now" advocates including Governor Bob McDonnell, the president will open vast areas off the east coast to oil exploration and drilling. His announcement will come today at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and could mean lease sales beginning in 2012. As shown in the New York Times map, the first lease could be in a triangular tract about 50 miles off the Virginia coast. Don't go counting Virginia's royalties and looking for lower gas prices just yet - any oil and gas reserves are largely unknown because the seismic data are three decades old. Some estimates say two to three years of oil and gas (at current consumption rates) may be recoverable.
That's generally the same area where wind resources could provide sustainable, clean energy for decades, not just a few years. Maybe some smart engineers and politicians (?) can figure a good way for the oil/gas infrastructure to have a second green life finding answers to our energy needs blowing in the wind.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Are Valley Republicans into leather?

Local Republicans send lots of money to the Republican Party... both state and national. I wonder if any of those hard earned Valley dollars are going to some of the GOP's "family values" retreats? Seems Republicans recently paid "Voyeur West Hollywood, a lesbian-themed California nightclub that features topless dancers wearing horse-bits and other bondage gear" for meals (any other expenses?).
In addition, the Republican National Committee has recently spent more than $30K for private jets and limos, even more on luxury hotels, and the tab topped $43K for a midwinter meeting in Hawaii.
Gotta wonder if Shenandoah Valley Republicans know or care where their donations are going. Perhaps they are so blinded by the light they are oblivious to the misuse of their money. Kind of gives a new meaning to people in bondage - I wonder if they have whips and chains at tea parties?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tea Party Terrorists

The actual, real, documented acts of violence by the tea party folks are a long long ways from patriotism... they are acts of domestic terrorism. Eric Cantor, John McCain, John Bainor and other Repugs are tiptoeing around condemnation of vandalism/violence and encouragement of broken glass and cut gas lines... not quite telling the wingnuts to stop while saying words like "target" and "reload" are appropriate in this heated political environment.
I ran into a tea party type at a local grocery this week. She was in her 70s and her car sported a variety of flags like "Don't Tread on Me" and bumper stickers calling President Barack Obama a "socialist." She pulled in close so I asked her why she had all those flags and stickers. Her answer - "healthcare reform is socialism, a government takeover." I asked if she was on Medicare and happy with it. "Yeah," she said, "and they're trying to take it away." Huh?? She said "it was time to eliminate Obama and those damn Democrats who support him..." Now I don't know what she meant by "eliminate" but it sounds like PalinSpeak. Hunt 'em from helicopters??
Do you see the hypocrisy and misinformation in her comments? Can you hear idiots like Glen Beck echoing in her shallow brain? Or maybe the hate spread for months by local yokel politicians. It is time for Repugs to move beyond hate and into real policy. Into solving problems instead of creating divisions. I ain't holding my breath.

Visualizing the Census form return rates

The U.S. Census Bureau and Google Earth announced a project to track the 2010 census participation of returns of forms by state, county, and census tracts. A couple weeks ago the Census Bureau mailed questionnaires to 120 million households... and they are coming in to data centers every day. Using the Google Earth layer will show the percentage of forms that have been received - data is not available by household nor are answers on questionnaires tabulated. Return rates for the 2000 census are also posted. The daily updates will continue through mid April.
As of Friday, March 26 the return rate for the State of Virginia was 39%. Most localities in the CCC area are slightly better: Augusta County- 43%, Rockingham County - 44%, Rockbridge County - 39%, Bath County - 31%, Highland County - 26%, Staunton - 46%, Waynesboro - 44%, and Harrisonburg - 36%.
If you want to save the U.S. Government some money, and yourself some hassle, return your census form promptly. Homes from which no form is received can expect a visit from a census enumerator, perhaps multiple visits, until the information is obtained. Answers are completely confidential and are required by law. For most households completing the questionnaire will only take 5-10 minutes. More.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Urge officials to protect the George Washington National Forest

The Forest Service wants to know what you think about their management plan for the George Washington National Forest. More logging or less? Close roads or not? How much commercial use versus protecting pristine area? The Forest service wants your comments and ideas on roadless areas, protecting ecologically sensitive species, controlled burns, and much more. To get your views there will be a series of public hearings. All meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. and end at 9:00 p.m.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Valley Elementary School
98 Panther Drive
Hot Springs, VA
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
East Hardy High School
Baker, WV
Monday, April 19, 2010
Rockbridge County High School
143 Greenhouse Road
Lexington, VA 24450
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Woodstock National Guard Armory
541 Hoover Road
Woodstock, VA 22664
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Augusta County Government Center
19 Government Lane
Verona, VA 24482
You can get more information about mailing a letter or commenting online here. There is a good article in The Roanoke Times. When you comment, come down on the side of more environmental protection rather than less

Is he as good as his word? I doubt it.

Rush Limbaugh said he'd leave the country if the healthcare bill passed. It did. Will he live up to his word? Doubtful... he's a blowhard who is only interested in sucking in money and dupes who believe his tripe.
If you are interested in seeing one less idiot in the U.S.A., how about making a contribution to the guys at A Ticket for Rush. They've raised almost $2K... isn't that enough for a one-way ticket to Costa Rica? Hey, what's wrong with Afghanistan??
And if the village idiot reneges... like we all know he will since there is little believable in any crap that comes out of this mouth... the donations will go the Planned Parenthood Action Center. Too back his mom didn't catch a ride...

Andrew Lewis bust joins other famous Virginians in Capitol

Andrew Lewis (1720-1781), a Revolutionary War era hero whose family was among the first settlers in Augusta County, was remembered during a ceremony when his bust joined those of George Mason, Patrick Henry, and other famous Virginians in the old House of Delegates chamber in the Virginia Capitol.
Lewis's family came to America in the early 1730s eventually settling in Augusta County where Andrew learned the skills of surveying. He married and moved to Roanoke County near Salem where they established a home named Richfield. They would have seven children. Lewis is perhaps best known for service in the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War, but the battle that ensured his military legacy was at Point Pleasant when he defeated the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk. Lewis
Lewis has previously been memorialized in both Virginias. Lewisburg, West Virginia is named in his honor. A portion of I-81 is designated the Andrew Lewis Memorial Highway. Salem's Andrew Lewis Middle School is named for him. And there are streams, Boy Scout camps, and memorials found in communities in the Valley and West Virginia.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Del. Landes' word games

Delegate Steve Landes (R-25) often likes to parse, split, and confuse with words as he does in his final newsletter of the 2010 session. Though there are numerous examples of loaded words in his recent email, Mr. Landes really outdid himself with partisan word play when he discussed the "bipartisan support in winning approval from the Democrat-controlled Senate by a vote of 34 to 6 and from the Republican-majority House by a vote of 73 to 23."
Excuse me, Mr. Landes... so it is "Democrat-controlled" (sounds like the ABC's hit show V where aliens and sleeper agents who seemingly come in peace but really want to take over the world). But, over in the House of Delegates it is a "Republican-majority" (don't ya love the all-American everybody agrees with us ring to it?).
PS to Steve and other Republicans - it is Democratic-controlled. After all, if you insist on changing the name of the Democratic Party, we'll have to start calling you the Repugs... perhaps the name fits...!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Trickle down budget writing

In its infinite wisdom (and as a great illustration of how all sh*t flows downhill), the General Assembly has passed a budget that allows local governments and school boards to require current employees to pay from 1% to 5% of the "employee retirement contribution." This provision in the budget does not affect state employees.
The General Assembly has dramatically underfunded local schools - for example, I just heard on the news that Augusta County Schools will have some $11 million less to operate on next year when compared to this year. To make up the difference, a local school board can start making employees contribute to the Virginia Retirement System. Some 20 years ago most local school boards picked up the so-called "employee share" of the contribution in lieu of a pay raise. It was supposed to be permanent... forever and ever, amen.
I'll break this down in simple terms that even Republican budget writers can understand - you underfund local school divisions, but you thoughtfully give them the power to find new money to help fill the gap you created from somewhere, from anywhere... why not scrape it out of employee wallets. Now, that's what I call trickle down budgeting... it really does all flow downhill.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Get it done

Healthcare reform will take giant stride this weekend when the House of Representatives formally moves it forward. Hopefully Rep. Tom Perriello (VA-05) will show the courage of his convictions and support the bill. I expect he will, although he is certainly facing lots of hateful lies and distortions being spread like manure on the fields in spring.
Republicans will scream and holler that the bill isn't bipartisan. Well, no it isn't... mostly because Republicans won't support much of anything on President Obama's agenda. They long ago made the political decision to oppose him on every turn - not because it was good policy, but according to their calculations, it was good politics. Their calls to delay or restart the debate are transparent.
There is misleading rhetoric being fired from the left too. Some claim that if various leaders had been stronger advocates that the public option would still be in the bill. But, that is at best a pipe dream... too many moderate Democrats either weren't for it or were worried about their seats. Make no mistake, the public option is probably necessary for real reform and real cost savings to occur. Medicare for all. But, current political realities make the public option untenable and the speaker and president don't want to spend political capital of their Democratic allies on a poison pill. Sometimes change in America has to come one step at a time.
While many in the public don't know the details of the reform bill (blame the president and Democrats for not doing a better job of explaining things in simple terms) it is pretty clear most Americans are either for it or against it. Not many undecideds out there. But today's report from the Congressional Budget Office that healthcare reform will actually cut the federal debt should nudge some Americans and just enough congressmen to win the bill's passage. Didn't hear about the CBO report? How does a $138 billion reduction of the deficit over the next ten years sound?
Sure, healthcare reform may become a hot issue in the 2010 elections, but by then the deal will be done. Once off the front page, issues of jobs and the economy will take center stage and healthcare reform will be a bit of an afterthought. Even if the issue remains hot, Democrats should have great opportunities selling reform as deficit reduction package and as helping small businesses to create jobs. The GOP will also be talking jobs, but without much of a program to produce any.
The politics of healthcare reform is changing before our eyes - President Obama is winning the public opinion war, the nonpartisan CBO acknowledges the budgetary benefits, the GOP can't quite shed the "party of No" label, and the tea party wingdings are running short of steam. Healthcare reform will pass. As the programs go into effect there will be adjustments. Medicare for all will happen - but, maybe not before I'm on Medicare the old fashioned way.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Delegate Lohr gets gubernatorial appointment

Delegate Matt Lohr (R-26) will be giving up his seat in the General Assembly to become Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Governor Bob McDonnell's office announced the appointment yesterday. Lohr is a three-term delegate. The 26th district includes Harrisonburg and northern parts of Rockingham County.
So, there will be an open seat and special election in the district. Surely, a part of the governor's calculations in the appointment is the fact the area leans Republican. However, Democrats have been gaining some ground, notably in Harrisonburg. The outcome could turn less on party and more on the strengths or weaknesses of the individual candidates and on their ability to bring out supporters in low-turnout contest. No word on anyone yet expressing interest, but the Democrats have several appealing possibilities. It will be interesting to see who steps up - in both parties. Game on!

Where's my refund?

I e-filed my taxes a few weeks ago and used direct deposit, so I was curious... where's my refund? After all, my kids received their refunds in about 10 days. If you are in the same boat, there is a quick and easy way to get the answer. Just go to the IRS website and look for the "Where's My Refund" link on the right. All you need to enter is your Social Security number, filing status, and refund amount. The site is secure and the info is usually available 72 hours after your e-file is confirmed (longer of course if you file on paper). The results indicate an exact date you can expect a direct deposit.
Speaking of taxes, a great free resource for senior citizens and for low/moderate income taxpayers of any age is the AARP Tax-Aide program found all across the country. Well-trained counselors will prepare your forms and e-file most federal and state returns. In the central valley they have locations in Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, and Verona. Locate a site and find the hours of operation and other info here. There's absolutely no sense in handing over a hefty chunk of your refund to a paid preparer when AARP will do it right and do it for free.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Schools, VRS, public safety take heavy hits

The first reports about the Virginia General Assembly's budget actions are hitting the media and everything is a bit sketchy. The Senate gave in to the House on a majority of the fee increases so many of the cuts hit bone. Some emerging details:
  • K-12 education will see $646 million less over the next two years meaning teacher/staff layoffs, school closings, and larger classes. Apparently the Senate held tough and prevented the even more drastic cuts proposed by the House of Delegates.
  • As predicted in an earlier post, judges who retire or die will not be replaced. Full dockets. Backlogs. Irate citizens. Justice delayed. Justice denied.
  • Although some of the worst proposals for the Virginia Retirement system were averted, the system takes still another hit. In the past couple of years the state has underfunded the retirement system and now the General Assembly is borrowing $620 million from it. I don't trust them to repay it - do you? What recourse will members have - can we sue the bastards?
  • $1 billion was cut from health programs. Only 250 additional adults with mental disabilities will receive community-based services - the waiting list tops 6,000. A human and a public safety disaster.
  • Funding for sheriff's offices drops by 6%. Expect slower response times, a reduced presence of resource officers in schools, and fewer crime prevention programs.
But rejoice. The rest areas are reopening even as the potholes grow big enough to gobble up a Prius. Maybe the pedal will stick and it will fly over it!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Coal Country on Planet Green

Coal Country is the best film on mountaintop removal to date. Unlike the other films, it shows the reality of being a coal miner working in the industry that demands the worst destruction of mountains in human history. The interviews with miners, one owner, and opponents are touching and revealing.
~Steve Fesenmaier, Appalachian filmographer and Charleston Gazette film reviewer
Coal Country airs on Planet Green on Saturday, March 13 at 10:00 PM. Invite a friend. Set your DVR. Catch it on rebroadcast. Whatever you do, watch Coal Country. Fight to stop mountaintop removal coal mining! Check out the Coal Country trailer~

Friday, March 12, 2010

House budget courts judicial disaster

There are 19 vacant judgeships around the Commonwealth, including one at the Staunton General District Court and the Augusta County General District Court. The vacancy should have been filled during the 2009 session of the General Assembly, but political squabbles ended in a deadlock with no appointment. When a judgeship is vacant, the court has to rely on substitutes that can sometimes mean inconsistencies, delays, and other costs that can't simply be measured in dollars.
Now the budget crisis means that the vacancies will probably continue or even, as if by magic, disappear. Some of Virginia's busiest courts, including a big one in Fairfax and others in Hampton Roads, will take the hit. The House of Delegates proposes to eliminate the vacancies and the need to appoint new judges by simply eliminating the positions. Poof! No vacancy... no political fight... no cost (at least not in the budget). The House proposal goes even further by essentially eliminating any judgeships that become vacant over the next two years. The Senate budget keeps the positions funded.
If the House position prevails, the judicial system will have to shuffle the remaining judges around to provide judges for courts that have a vacancy... correction, lost the entire position. There will be travel expenses and other inefficiencies, and perhaps fewer court days meaning full dockets and justice delayed or even denied. There is simply no way that fewer judges will be able to handle the workload with the same care. The House proposal is a recipe for disaster, especially when you consider that many judges are eligible to retire and some may well do so rather than put up with a untenable workload. Of course, each retirement will leave another position unfunded and additional burdens for those who remain.
Hopefully prudence and common sense will prevail in the budget negotiations, although the more one sees of the House plans, the more one wonders if those are lost commodities around the State Capitol.

Save tax dollars... complete the census form

You probably got a letter alerting you that U.S. Census forms will begin arriving in most mailboxes around March 15 (homeowners with PO boxes will often have them hand delivered). With 10 questions, the form should take 10 to 15 minutes to complete for a typical family... perhaps more if you have a large family.
Get 'er done early and mail it back by April 1, otherwise you can expect a visit from census enumerators. And that is where is starts getting expensive for the U.S. Census Bureau. Enumerators are paid and reimbursed for mileage, so the cost of getting the count at one home can escalate quickly, especially if enumerators have to make multiple visits.
The decennial census is required by the Constitution and participation is required by law. Your answers containing personally identifiable information are 100% confidential and cannot be given to other government agencies... in fact, the Attorney General ruled this week that Census confidentiality trumps the Patriot Act. Census enumerators will have an ID badge with a toll free number you can call to confirm their identity and they will not ask for Social Security, bank, or credit card numbers.
More info about the Census, how the count will be conducted at places like college dorms and nursing homes, and toll free helpline numbers can be found in this helpful article in The Roanoke Times.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The phone call

Ring. Ring.
"Hello. Yes, I sent a letter to the editor or the Valley Teapot Tempest. Huh....?
Yes, I know you bill yourselves as a 'journal of Shenandoah Valley Patriots' and that you are part of the local tea party gang... but I thought you'd publish at least a few different opinions...
Okay, group not gang. And yeah, I know you want to execute all terrorists, but I believe that a hallmark of our system of justice is the right to counsel. Liz Cheney's vicious attack on the Justice Department and attorneys who represent accused terrorists crosses the line... many Republicans are criticizing her ill-considered comments for undermining the Constitution and our system of justice... even John Adams represented...
No, I don't agree that a lawyer who represents an accused terrorist is a terrorist himself. Just like a lawyer who represents a bank robber isn't a bank robber himself...."
Beep. Beep.
"Excuse me, I have an incoming call. I'll be back in a minute....
Okay, I'm back. Glad I took that call... was some nice fellow named Dick. He invited me to join him and some buddies on a quail hunt in Texas this weekend. Sounds like it could be fun...."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is having IMPACT™ a good idea?

Frustrated with budget cuts and impairment of a range of public services, Keith Drake of the Albemarle County Taxpayers Association has set up a group called IMPACT™ that calls itself a "resource for the terminally undertaxed." IMPACT™ acknowledges that some folks - those who have recently lost jobs, for example - can't afford a tax increase. But Drake and many others are worried that budget cuts are beginning to have an adverse impact on his area's quality of life. IMPACT™ provides an avenue for citizens to pay additional taxes to Charlottesville, Albemarle County, or the Commonwealth of Virginia. NBC29 has the story including the group's press release.
Many who are worried about teacher layoffs and bulging classes, school closings, non-prosecution of crimes, fewer police on the roads, and a range of other cutbacks want to help close some of the budget gap. IMPACT™ gives them a way to do so. Of course, taxpayers can always make voluntary donations to educational programs, to libraries, and virtually any other part of government if they desire.
But, there is a flip side that is amply illustrated by those who believe the lottery pays for K-12 education. Does lottery profits go to education - yes. Does it come close to paying the full costs of K-12 education in the Commonwealth - no. Yet, we've heard folks say things like "why raise taxes, doesn't the lottery pay for it." Therein lies the danger - tea party types who want to downsize government anyhow, will applaud the idea of "voluntary" taxes or paying taxes only for those services with which they agree. Government would exist in name only.
We are reminded of the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, "taxes are the price we pay for civilization." Unfortunately some of the anti-tax wingnuts don't believe in civilization (or science or public education...).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cuccinelli's inconsistency

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli advised Senator Robert Hurt (R-Chatham) that he could continue campaign fundraising during the session of the General Assembly. Hurt is seeking the GOP nomination for to run for Congress in the 5th district. Virginia law prohibits campaign fundraising by members during sessions of the General Assembly, but in a January 25 opinion, the attorney general advised Hurt that the prohibition only applies to raising money for Virginia elections. Cuccinelli wrote, "federal law preempts Virginia's fundraising prohibition when a General Assembly member solicits or accepts contributions solely for a federal office."
Earlier this month, the attorney general wrote to presidents of state colleges and universities to advise that they should rescind their policies banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was an wrong-headed follow-up to Governor Bob McDonnell's decision to remove sexual orientation from an executive order banning discrimination. These decisions should surprise no one familiar with their history - neither man is exactly a champion of equality.
When compared to the advice given to Senator Hurt, the Cuccinelli letter to the colleges stands out as rank legal hypocrisy. If federal law preempts Virginia's law on fundraising, than federal law and the United States Constitution also preempt Virginia laws that discriminate. Our universities regularly receive federal grants, and nondiscrimination is a condition of all. More importantly, the United States Supreme Court and federal courts have repeatedly struck down laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Could Mr. Cuccinelli be giving out less than impartial legal advice to the agencies and officials of the Commonwealth? Does he think the U.S. Constitution only applies in Virginia when he says so?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Guns... here, there, everywhere

With a number of legislators introducing bills to permit carrying of guns in restaurants and bars, courthouses, houses of worship, etc., why hasn't someone introduced legislation to allow carrying of concealed weapons in the galleries of the General Assembly?

Friday, March 5, 2010

In league with liars

It isn't just Senate Republicans who are engaging in a systematic campaign of lies and fear mongering about healthcare... various front groups are right there spreading much of the same garbage in TV ads in local markets. One of those front groups, the League of American Voters (are they deliberately trying to confuse us by sounding like the very responsible League of Women Voters?), is running an ad attacking Rep. Tom Perriello (VA-05). With their nice name, it sounds like we are all members and Dick Morris, their main ad writer, is speaking for all of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the name is a lie, how can we believe anything else they say?
According to SourceWatch, the League of American Voters essentially consists of Morris and one other staff member. They share an address with another ultra conservative front group, Americans for Tax Reform, and have overlap with organizers of Tea Parties. In other words, the league does not represent you and me - it really represents Morris (who is trying to sell his book), big pharma, health insurance companies, and right wing crackpots. says the league's ads are filled with buzzwords like "rationing" and "tax surcharge" and include a number of misleading claims - incorrectly stating future costs and asserting there will be a tax increase without saying that very few people make enough to pay it. The ads are running nationwide against Democrats in targeted districts like VA-05, which is represented by a courageous freshman incumbent.
Educate yourself. Tell your friends about the lies in the ads. Tell NBC29 they are airing garbage. And even if you don't live in VA-05, make a donation to Tom Perriello's campaign.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The best humor - based in fact

A Virginia Congressman was seated next to a little girl on the airplane leaving from Roanoke when he turned to her and said, "Let's talk. I've heard that flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with your fellow passenger."
The little girl, who had just opened her book, closed it slowly and said to the total stranger, "What would you like to talk about?"
"Oh, I don't know," said the congressman. "How about the farce of global warming or joke called 'Obamacare'," and he smiles smugly.
"OK," she said. "Those could be interesting topics. But let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff - grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns out a flat patty, and a horse produces clumps of dried grass. Why do you suppose that is?"
The esteemed legislator, visibly surprised by how sharp the girl is, thinks about it and says, "Hmmm, I have no idea."
To which the little girl replies, "Do you really feel qualified to discuss global warming or universal health care when you don't know sh*t?"

Senators Warner and Webb - don't listen to the hypocrites

Senator Mark Warner and Senator Jim Webb - it is time to show political courage and join with other Democrats and vote for healthcare reform. Your colleagues from the other side of the aisle are surely leaning on you, but their shrill arguments are based in blatant falsehoods and hypocrisy. Senate Republicans will say anything, repeat any lie, make up any distortion, attack the very rules of the chamber that they've used in the past, while in the death throes of their opposition.
It is time to stand up for healthcare reform. It is time to vote.
Using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform is not only legitimate, it is the moral thing to do.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Blue Ridge Parkway nation's busiest

The Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, was the National Park Service's busiest unit with over 16 million visitors in 2009. Known as "America's Favorite Drive," the parkway begins on Afton Mountain and continues southward 469 miles (220 in Virginia) to the Great Smoky Mountains. Going north from Afton is 105 miles of the Shenandoah National Park. With multiple access points to both the Parkway and Skyline Drive, these treasurers are important parts of the Commonwealth's tourism industry. Both remain under deep snow which may threaten the spring opening and hence affect the gas stations, mom and pop stores, and restaurants in adjoining towns. The Park Service is working to clear roads in the most popular sections.
More than 285 million people visited America's National Parks in 2009, up about 10 million from the previous year. In spite of three weekends when entrance fees were waived, well publicized visits by the First Family to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and the release of Ken Burn's PBS special, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, our parks failed to break the all-time record set in 1987. But, the parks did well, considering the economic downturn and last year's downward trends in the tourism industry.
Perhaps Governor Bob McDonnell can loan the Park Service some snow removal equipment so they can open as the leaves begin budding out. After all, these two jewels of the Blue Ridge are vital parts of Virginia's tourism, job creation, and economy - far more important than opening a few rest areas.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Feeling the sting

With the budget deliberations not yet finished in Richmond, local school divisions are deep into crunching numbers and getting ready for fewer teachers and other staff, and for larger classes. With most school divisions' budgets heavily weighted towards personnel - typically 75 to 80% (or more) goes to salaries and benefits - the cuts this year will mean paring down the employee rolls. Most school divisions are trying to do that in as gentle a way as possible, but when the knife cuts to the bone, there is bound to be pain.
One way to pare costs is to encourage experienced teachers to retire and leave positions vacant or replace them with "cheaper" new hires. But, how to do that? Some teachers enjoy their work and involvement with children and are not ready for retirement. Others need the paycheck. The cost of health insurance is a huge concern for almost everyone. Retiring before 30 years of VRS service means taking a hit (which grows when multiplied by the number of years under 30) on the pension. So, school divisions are offering financial incentives to help ease some of those very real fears.
Augusta County has a retirement bonus of $200 per year of creditable VRS service up to $6,000 for staff age 50 and up who retire between March 1 and June 30. They already pay $2,500 towards retiree health insurance (subject to certain stipulations) which helps to ease that concern. Still, there is doubt that $6,000 is enough to attract very many who were not already pretty close to a retirement decision. For anyone under 30 years of service, the hit on VRS benefits likely weighs heavier on the calculations than that one-time payout.
The Staunton Public Schools, which is probably going to close one elementary school, has a more generous retirement incentive. Ditto for Waynesboro - $300 per year of service, up to $9,000. Shenandoah County is considering one. The story is pretty much the same everywhere - get rid of teachers and other staff to save money. Roanoke City and Roanoke County are offering larger buyouts - the city's maxes out at $20,000 and the county's at $12,500.
Statewide, the respected budget analysts at the Virginia Education Association, estimate that the Senate budget will cost almost 16,000 jobs; the House budget about 24,000. These wouldn't be just teachers, but include everyone from cafeteria workers and custodians to assistant superintendents. With the budget likely to fall somewhere in between, job losses of somewhere around 20,000 are likely. I'm sure with less money the fine folks in the General Assembly will relax some mandates, perhaps suspend SOL tests for a couple years, and help in other ways. Do you believe in fairy tales?
Nobody expects the retirement incentive programs to reduce staffing by anywhere close to those numbers so teachers who are not on continuing contract (three years of satisfactory service in the same school division) are holding their collective breath and wondering if they will receive a reduction in force notice. We can probably expect many to be issued, followed by an night of fear, anger, and tears. Hopefully, some will be rehired if the number of retirements is higher than expected or the budget improves. So, you DO believe in fairly tales?
There is some lip service to class size and maintaining the quality of instruction, but - so there is a Puff the Magic Dragon? - have no doubt, classes will be larger (some to the point of chaos), students with special needs will have less support, many of our best and most experienced teachers will be gone, new teachers will be asked to teach subjects for which they are not prepared, and our children will ultimately pay the price for the bad economy and failures of vision in Richmond. First lesson... life isn't fair.