Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gasland: The Movie

The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" just beneath us. But is fracking safe? When filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. (From the producers of Gasland)
The Shenandoah Group of the Sierra Club, in cooperation with the JMU Earth Club, will present the film Gasland: The Movie in the auditorium in JMU's Memorial Hall at 7:00 PM on January 18, 2011. Following the movie a panel of local experts will discuss hydrofracking and answer questions about its implications for our area.

Memorial Hall is the former Harrisonburg High School located at 395 S. High Street, Harrisonburg. Directions. The event is free and open to the public. More info.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Random acts of vacuous behavior

Okay, this post is vacuous behavior itself, but here goes...

The other day I was in Harrisonburg and spotted or heard on the radio, the following:
  • At the Lowe's there is a small bike rack. I suppose that is a nice touch, but wonder if it is often used? It is a cold day in Hell when I come out of Lowe's with such a small load that I could carry it on a bicycle! Then again, when in Beijing, we saw bikes with carts hauling everything from snow to small livestock... if gas prices keep rising we may see more "work bikes" here.
  • A Cash Advance store has a sign on the door saying "No Cash On Premises." Huh?
  • A radio ad for a funeral home wished everyone a "safe and healthy New Year." I like the sentiment, but it wouldn't be very good for business.
This one is more of a pet peeve. Like many folks at this time of year, we've made some charitable donations. Three were to local organizations helping people with genuine needs and whose work we admire because they touch lives and make us a better community. All well and good so far, but here's what irks me a bit... within two weeks all three had mailed additional solicitations to my home. Perhaps that is strategic marketing, but it seems almost rude and, to my way of thinking, a waste of resources. We'll donate to these organizations again in the future, but couldn't I get the thank you note first?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Governor to state employees... you'll have to pay for state's mismanagement

According to a recent study commissioned by the General Assembly, the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) is underfunded by $18 billion. In his budget proposals, Governor Bob McDonnell will likely tell state employees to pick up some of the tab for restoring the system. With pay raises unlikely, that will be a pay cut for the Commonwealth's workforce.

One might ask why the VRS is ailing. Well, the simple and honest answer is because for several budget cycles the General Assembly and governor have cut the state's, local governments', and school boards' contributions below what was prudent to maintain a viable system able to meet its obligations. They've also borrowed from VRS to patch holes in the budget. They assured everyone that these actions would not endanger VRS' balance sheet. Due to policymakers' own actions the VRS is in some difficulty and those same policymakers want someone else to pick up the tab.

If that sounds unfair... it most definitely is. A quarter century ago the state (also most local governments and school boards) picked in the employees' 5% share of the contribution in lieu of a pay raise. In response to some skepticism, policymakers promised it would be permanent. Then last year legislation passed requiring new employees to pay that 5% themselves. At least newbies understood the deal when they took the job. Now the governor wants all employees to pick up (as yet undisclosed) some of the so-called "employees' share." If the state does so, it is probable that local governments and school boards will follow suit - like state employees, most teachers, police, and other local employees would effectively face a pay cut after several years without pay raises.

The governor's proposal is bad policy that breaks faith with the men and women who perform valuable services for the citizens. The General Assembly should reject this idea, restore rational contribution rates for VRS, begin paying back money borrowed from VRS, and delay funding new pet projects of the administration until current obligations to VRS are met.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saving corn... cutting service to farmers and homeowners

You may have used the services of the Virginia Cooperative Extension when having a problem in your home garden or with pests in your lawn. The farmer down the road probably uses a variety of Extension services in managing and improving his operation. Your kids may have been involved in 4-H programs. All that might be coming to an end, or be far less convenient, if proposed budget cuts materialize.

Virginia Tech has proposed restructuring the Virginia Cooperative Extension in a move that will save $5.5 million but make services much less available and convenient to those who use them. The plan, which is in a early draft stage, will consolidate the 106 local offices into a couple dozen regional hubs. Some staff positions, most likely administrative assistants, would be eliminated. Many folks who use extension services would have to travel farther and may find some programs cut or curtailed.

I haven't heard any speculation on specifically how restructuring would affect the central Shenandoah Valley Extension offices. Partly because the plan is just now being developed and partly because Extension employees have apparently been cautioned about speaking out on the issue, there are few public details. Rockingham and Augusta counties are two of the largest agricultural producers in the Commonwealth and they, along with other local governments and citizens, need to engage state legislators on this issue before the General Assembly convenes in January. In this case, the savings may not be worth the costs to our communities.

Friday, December 10, 2010

It is a good deal... let me find the credit card

Governor Bob McDonnell wants to take advantage of low construction costs brought on by the slow economy to jump start road building in the Commonwealth. His transportation plan calls for spending about $4 billion over three years to ease congestion and, as a side benefit, to create much needed jobs. Laudable goals. Road construction has languished in the Commonwealth while congestion has gotten worse. Folks in road building could certainly use the work. With costs, both highway construction and interest rates, at near historic lows now could be the time to get more miles for the dollar.

But... there's always a "but" isn't there... make no mistake about it, the Commonwealth will have to go deeper into hock to pay for the roads. Unfortunately the governor's plan fails to address just how we'd pay back those loans. Delegate Ward Armstrong (D-Henry Co.), House minority leader and a potential gubernatorial candidate, issued a press release saying of the plan,
This is just the latest in a long line of irresponsible and half-baked ideas that fail to address our core problem of generating a long-term sustainable source of funding for our transportation needs...
So where would Governor McDonnell find the dollars? He says some of the money would come from saving and unspent funds of over $1 billion "discovered" in a recent VDOT audit. So, that really doesn't represent much new spending, but rather money that is already in the pipeline for maintenance and other projects. The governor's plan anticipates $700 million from as yet unrealized future surpluses and from privatization of state ABC stores. Perhaps this is his way of pressuring the General Assembly into moving ahead on his plan to sell the liquor business, but legislators are far from being sold on deal, especially in light of a recent report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission questioning administration numbers. According to JLARC, the "profits" would be closer to $300 than the $500 million the governor projected. Plus, while it would be upfront money that could be used for current transportation, the sale would mean a loss of state revenue each and every year in the future.

Beyond that, the governor plans to borrow $2.9 billion in a mix of state-backed and federal-backed bonds. The $1.1 billion federal-backed bonds, it appears, are repaid from future federal transportation grants-in-aid to the Commonwealth. So, we'd have future loss of revenue from the sale of ABC stores, loss of some future federal transportation aid, and future interest payment to service the increased debt. And the Commonwealth already has obligations to repay money to VRS and for other bonds that helped balance previous budgets.

It is irresponsible to spend money without clear plans and a reliable revenue stream for repayment of the debt to be incurred. Future governors and legislators will be forced to choose between core services such as schools and public safety or raise taxes. As Delegate Armstrong noted,
When you don’t pay now, someone has to pay later. Unfortunately the Governor’s lack of leadership on transportation has resulted in a plan that amounts to a back door tax increase on our children.
Perhaps now is the time for the Commonwealth to revamp its gas tax. Start a process of small periodic increases in the current 17.5¢ per gallon state gas tax to raise it to a level consistent with inflation. That rate was set in 1985 and its buying power is closer to 8¢. But, the governor seems dead set against that - he'll just max out another credit card.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

One of our better angels

I would be wonderful if we were all represented by such a senator.

May this rupture a hemmorrhoid on the south end of a northbound VC...

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chesapeake Bay Cleanup - voluntary won't get the job done

Always drink upstream from the herd.
                                                ~Will Rogers

Earlier this week, Governor Bob McDonnell's administration released its plans for the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. To a large extent the plan relies on voluntary actions to clean up the bay. It also provides for a system of buying and selling the right to pollute in certain watersheds - a plan that sounds much like cap and trade, a concept lambasted by many Republicans who care more about protecting business than protecting the environment.

Representative Bob Goodlatte (VA-06) joined Virginia farm organizations in calling for a more "flexible collaborative Bay cleanup effort." In other words the congressman and farmers want a largely voluntary plan with a few economic incentives but without deadlines or meaningful enforcement.

Voluntary always sounds good and sometimes results in meaningful positive steps, but in this case (and in many others) the problem is too big, the number and sources of the pollution to great, and the consequences of inaction too dire for this great natural resource to be restored simply by flexible and collaborative efforts. Action is needed and all (not just those with a conscience) need to be part of the solution.

How well does voluntary action work to end human behaviors that negatively impacts others? Suppose we had a voluntary program to end to drunk driving - think that would be effective? Even mandatory programs, where some find ways to get around the law, eventually find the problem rearing its nasty head after we thought it to be ancient history. For example, some parents figure that if all other kids get their childhood vaccinations, their darlings will be safe even without them. When enough think that way disease can make a quick comeback. Pertussis (whooping cough) cases are on the increase all across the country including cases recently in Orange County, Virginia.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay will require action from all involved - not just farmers, but also households with leaky septic tanks and overzealous lawn fertilization, municipalities with out-of-date sewage treatment plants, and factories and processors who use our waterways to flush away their waste products. With all due respect to Will Rogers, in today's world, there is no place that is upstream from from herd (or bad septic tank).

Having been involved in stream monitoring for the past several years I have come to the conclusion that responsible farmers who are doing the right thing by building livestock buffers, planting vegetation, and restoring steam banks should be saluted but the reality is those efforts are only minimally affecting water quality. Water laden with e-coli and other pollutants may improve but will not magically become clean because it passes through a mile or so of properly managed stream. Bad water in = bad water out. Plus, in our karst limestone region bad surface water can find it way into groundwater affecting private wells and municipal water sources. In short, a few farms (or homes or old sewage plants) can muck up the whole creek.

One impediment to farmers taking the steps to manage streams crossing their fields is cost of fencing and providing water to their livestock. Cost is even more prohibitive and there are economic disincentives if the land is leased. Many landowners wouldn't go through the hassle of getting a grant or putting up the bucks to pay for the fence - it isn't their cows in the stream and the costs probably couldn't be recouped in the rent. The farmer running the livestock on the land may want to keep cows out of streams to reduce hoof problems and keep them grazing, but he'll unlikely to pay for fencing and watering on land he doesn't own.

Nope Rep. Goodlatte, this is one of those cases where voluntary won't get the job done. Too many incentives to not volunteer. And just a few farmers, homeowners, or factories not cooperating for the common good will have a dramatic impact on all of us. I'm all in favor of grants, expert advice, and other assistance to farmers. Those incentives should be designed to move cleanup of our streams, our rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay along faster. There might even be a bit of economic stimulus in doing just that. But at the end of the day, if we are really serious about restoring the Bay, we'll need deadlines, mandates, enforcement, and a common set of rules for all who use (and will potentially abuse) our precious water resources.