Saturday, August 28, 2010

HindSight, ForeSight

A family member is a member of VGEA, the Virginia Governmental Employees Association. In the past couple of months their newsletter, ForeSight, has been showing up in the mail... actually on time and with real news and commentary. In the past many saw VGEA as a weak step sister of similar organizations in the Commonwealth. Compared to the Virginia Education Association, for example, VGEA seemed impotent and largely ignored by legislators and the governor. On key issues of pay, of the Virginia Retirement System, and of working conditions it was hard to see how VGEA had much impact.

Things seem to be changing under the leadership of executive director R. Ronald Jordan and president William Dunlap. Communication with members is improving. Advocacy will hopefully be more forceful. If so, members will be more energized and engaged... which is the most vital way employee groups can exert influence. Kudos to those leaders and members who are moving VGEA towards greater influence - it is about time state employee voices were heard loud and clear.

Puppet masters of the tea party

Many of its organizers like to say the tea party is a "grassroots" organization. Maybe there is a bit of popular uprising involved, but there is plenty of Koch fertilizer feeding the roots... just like there is every time a Democrat is in the White House. These billionaire brothers are waging war against President Obama, Social Security, the environment, and anything (and anybody) they see as progressive. Read more about David and Charles Koch and how they pull the puppet strings of the tea party, of "think tanks" who don't really think but push an agenda, and of bought and paid for politicians and pundits in a fascinating exposé, Covert Operations, in The New Yorker.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On the (rail) road again?

After more than a half century of policies favoring highways, cars, and big oil it is time for all governments, including the Commonwealth of Virginia to get on board the train! Intercity passenger rail service can help ease crowded roads while weaning us from foreign oil and cleaning our air. Meredith Richards, a former Charlottesville city councilor lays out a compelling case for rail in "Intercity Passenger Rail in Virginia: What's on Track for Virginia?" in The Virginia News Letter. Breaking from policies of the past will take leadership - is our governor and General Assembly up to it?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Keep him center stage

In some ways I've been pleasantly surprised that Governor Bob McDonnell has been conservative, but relatively moderate, on some issues since taking office in January. He's a sharp politician and knows many Virginians are in the middle of the political spectrum and he has to work with a Virginia Senate controlled by the Democrats. But, CCC still believes McDonnell is a hard right conservative by ideology and he is being pulled towards stage right by the tea party whackos who are increasingly influential in the Virginia GOP and by "friends" like the extremist attorney general. Ken Cuccinelli is actually doing the governor a favor - as long as he's prowling the far right, McDonnell appears to be moderate by comparison.

So, in the hope that McDonnell will remain a somewhat pragmatic politician who knows the best political hay is in the middle of the field, I hopeful that his current town hall tour will fill his ears with more than right wing manure. Tonight (August 26) the governor will be at JMU Festival Conference and Student Center at 7:00 PM. In this format there will be time for only 12-15 speakers/questioners. If you plan on attending get there early and sign-up to speak - even so, it is likely his handlers will tilt the verbal questions to known conservative friends of the governor's policies.

If like me you cannot attend, or if you don't have the opportunity to speak, you can always leave comments at the governor's Reform Task Force website. Cluck, cluck... the site is slow loading today.

One issue the governor along with a local state senator will be pushing is privatization of the Commonwealth's liquor stores. I'm not opposed to the prospect of private liquor stores, but it is far from clear that this makes dollars and sense. There are two issues that I think are unresolved. The dollars don't seem to add up over time - it would be a real shame if a one-time cash infusion built a few roads and made the governor look like a hero only to have that funding stream dry up when he's out of office. Does it make sense to have more stores selling whiskey? Or would this lead to more DUIs or more hard liquor in underage bellies?

Earlier this year Governor McDonnell proposed closing five state parks and has sided with Ken Cuccinelli on the legal challenge to the EPA which questions global warming. Some right wingers want to privatize state parks. If we don't speak up, this administration may dismantle Virginia's parks and do nothing (or take steps backwards) on protecting our rivers, air, and the Chesapeake Bay. Here is what this bird is telling the task force:
  • Do not privatize our state parks. Do not close state parks. Instead, assure adequate state funding to keep our parks some of the best in the nation. My family and many of our friends have too many fond memories of camping, of picnics, and of exploring our great state parks to let you or anybody shut them down or diminish their splendor.
  • Get real about transportation by moving encouraging rail-freight solutions on I-81, smart investments in public transit including high speed rail, and encouraging local governments to have common sense regulations to end the sprawl that means more and more cars on the roads. VDOT must be fully accountable to all environmental regulations.
  • Make Virginia a green model for the nation. A recent report indicates that many of Virginia's streams and rivers are impaired. Impaired rivers mean an impaired Chesapeake Bay. We need tougher regulations to assure our water supplies are going to be cleaner in the future than they are today. The governor supports off-shore drilling - now let's see enthusiastic support for off-shore wind energy and other green businesses. That's hard to do when your attorney general, to appease the right wing, is conducting witch hunts in his crusade against global warming.
The governor has shown he can be nudged to center stage on some issues. But only if common sense Virginians are willing to speak up... indeed, stand up... to keep Virginia moving forward.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Something borrowed, something blue

It is widely reported that the Commonwealth's 2010 budget "surplus" has nearly doubled to $404 million. While it is only a "surplus" in the sense that very cautious figures were used in drafting the original budget, the news is nevertheless welcomed. The question now is how to allocate the "found money."

Governor McDonnell had previously promised state employee a 3% year-end "bonus." He and the General Assembly should live up to that commitment... or better yet, make it a permanent pay raise. It has been four years (well before the recession began) since state employees received one and they've taken hits on some benefits. It will go a long way to helping to build morale.

Another priority should be repaying the Virginia Retirement System for money the General Assembly borrowed to help balance the budget. This year alone the state put off $137 million in contributions to VRS. Restoring those contributions will be a giant step toward assuring the stability and long term viability of the system.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good - President Barack Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg
The Bad - Senator Harry Reid and Senator John Cornyn 
The Ugly - Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin

So students in Political Leadership 101, let's summarize... there are good leaders who rise above issues to by calling on the better angels of our nature; there are bad leaders who aren't leaders at all but jump in any parade, even marching along with disgusting rabble, if they think it will benefit them; and there are the ugly fear mongers who prey on our angst even if it means ripping to shreds our most cherished constitutional and national values.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Twist and Shout

Friday night we enjoyed a great evening of music and fun during Mary Chapin Carpenter's performance at the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival. The festival is a Valley gem in the beautiful village of Orkney Springs that features many fine artists bringing life to their slogan, We didn't invent summer - just the finest way to enjoy it.

Mary Chapin Carpenter and her fine band performed a number of songs off her new recording, The Age of Miracles, as well as old favorites such as Passionate Kisses and I Feel Lucky. Carpenter, who lives in Albemarle County, Virginia, connected with the audience by telling stories and explaining the origin of lyrics of songs such as Mrs. Hemingway, which she researched and wrote after rereading Ernest Hemingway's, A Moveable Feast. Along the way, she got in swipes at Verizon for the slow internet in her part of Virginia and at the right wing politics of Sarah Palin. Those brought a couple reactions - both cheers and jeers - from the audience. But hey, it was her stage and her mic... and her views were dead on.

Carpenter put in a big plug for Huss & Dalton of Staunton, Virginia. She owns three of what she proclaimed the "finest guitars in the world."

The opening act was Catie Curtis, a musician I'd heard of but wasn't very familiar with her work. The Boston area singer/songwriter put on an impressive performance that I wish had included more songs off her latest project, Hello Stranger.

For an encore, Carpenter and her band charged through a high energy performance of Down at the Twist and Shout, a song she played at Super Bowl XXXI. In the clip below, Carpenter sings the crowd favorite accompanied by the Cajun band BeauSoleil.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Old Coal Plants = Pollution

Old coal-fired generating plants are among the dirtiest polluters in the nation. They cause smog and spew out huge amounts of greenhouse gases, toxic ash, and a variety of chemicals. "Why are they allowed to do it?" you might ask. Because in its wisdom, Congress grandfathered these plants under amendments to the Clean Air Act in a way that created very powerful economic incentives to stay dirty... and get dirtier as they age. After eight years of a purposely impotent EPA, under the Obama administration the agency seems to be moving to updating regulations under the Clean Air Act and other pollution laws. There's more about the dirty deals, the grandfathered polluters, and how the politics of profits have trumped rational antipollution steps at grist.

Since these old coal-fired plants are the problem, you may be thinking the best thing to do is build new plants like the proposed Cypress Creek Power Station in Surry County, Virginia. A new plant would have the latest in antipollution technology and be much cleaner... I didn't say clean... there is no such thing as clean coal. That argument is pretty hollow unless as a condition of opening the plant older coal-fired plants are closed and dismantled in an environmentally responsible manner. I've not heard of that being on the table.

Besides, any coal-fired plant brings a variety of environmental concerns and other issues not only to Mother Earth, but more directly to nearby communities, rivers, and bays. A new plant wouldn't address all the profound questions about disposal of coal ash, the rape of our mountaintops, and degrading of our communities.

It seems some on Wall Street are questioning the future of coal by cutting off the dollars for new mountaintop removal coal mines as too risky. If this cheap coal source dries up, the profitability of coal-fired plants will be threatened, and greener/cleaner alternatives more viable. It is way too early to declare King Coal dethroned, but it is increasingly becoming clear to many that this king has no clothes that will be fashionable in America's energy future.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cock-a-doodle-do! Census under budget!

As one who worked in four or five operations of the Census Bureau, it is both amazing and gratifying to know that the 2010 Census is coming in under budget. Not just by a little bit, but by some $1.6 billion or about 10% of the $14.7 billion budgeted.

Like anyone who worked for the 2010 Census, I saw duplication, many miles driven, reams of paper, and waste. I guess that is to be expected in any large governmental operation... you only need to check out the military, or National Park Service, or virtually any other agency in government (or big business as well). But, it is great to know that my efforts, and those of many other diligent and dedicated Census employees got the job done in a fairly efficient manner. Among the reasons cited for the savings are an aggressive multilingual advertising campaign, few technical difficulties, and a highly educated and qualified workforce (perhaps needing jobs in the economic downturn). Of course, most of the costs associated with the door-to-door operations are can be attributed to those American who - due to oversight, ignorance, or an anti-government tea party mentality - refused to mail in their completed questionnaires.

Anyhow, this hasn't exactly been front page news. Guess good news rarely is. But, when government works well and does so with efficiency, it should be shouted out loud. This bird is crowing. Cock-a-doodle-do!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Coal Ash - it is TOXIC

Recently the three men who represent the Shenandoah Valley in Congress, Senator Mark Warner, Senator Jim Webb, and Representative Bob Goodlatte signed factually inaccurate letters pressuring EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to regulate toxic coal ash the same way as household trash, leaving communities at risk as arsenic, lead and mercury seep into our drinking water.

Coal and coal ash is dirty stuff and our "representatives" are siding with King Coal against our families' and communities' health. I sent the following email to each:
I am disappointed that you added your name to a factually inaccurate letter that puts coal company profits before the health of our families and our communities. Americans across the country are exposed to heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury that seep into our drinking water, rivers and streams from coal ash disposal sites. There is an increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, birth defects and other illnesses.

But the disposal of coal ash is less strictly controlled than household garbage. The letter that Senator Warner, Senator Webb, and Representative Goodlatte signed interferes with the EPA's ability to protect our health by pressuring the agency to reject plans for a strong, federally enforceable standard. The letter urges the agency to adopt guidelines that allow coal companies to continue putting our communities at risk.

The letter you signed makes false claims: that states have effectively regulated coal ash despite the fact that coal ash has contaminated surface water or groundwater in at least 23 states, that EPA documents calling for additional measures to protect public health say further regulation is unnecessary, and that strong regulation would stigmatize coal ash recycling when even the U.S. Green Building Council said there would be no stigma. The facts are that coal ash is a toxic material, and it's time for the EPA to treat it as such. Please support EPA's efforts to protect public health and water quality by removing your name from this letter.
For more information visit the Sierra Club. Please contact Senator Warner, Senator Webb, and Representative Goodlatte and tell them to reject the dirty dogs that run in the pack with King Coal.