Sunday, October 21, 2012

Thoughts about Ballot Question 1

In addition to voting for electors for President and Vice President, for a United States Senator, and for a member of the House of Representatives, Virginians will be voting for two Ballot Questions concerning amendments to the Constitution of Virginia.

Ballot Question 1 states:
Shall Section 11 of Article I (Bill of Rights)of the Constitution of Virginia be amended (i) to require that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development; (ii) to define what is included in just compensation for such taking or damaging of property; and (iii) to prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use?
Eminent domain - the power of government to take (with just compensation) private property for public use - has been on the public radar since the U.S. Supreme Court held that New London, Connecticut had every right to take a home that stood in the way of commercial development. The outrage was nationwide. In Virginia that anger was translated into 2007 legislation that prohibited government from condemning property for private purposes. This reasonable legislation is still in effect.

Some, like the Virginia Farm Bureau, fear the current law could be weakened legislatively and wants an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to assure its staying power. That's all well and good. But the proposed amendment adds provisions - provisions that could sink us in an expensive legal swamp - into the eminent domain cauldron. Before we look at that issue, voters should be aware that, if passed, this amendment would not affect the power of the federal government regarding eminent domain.

Ballot Question 1 contains the following language that raises questions about how the General Assembly will define lost profits and access:
Just compensation shall be no less than the value of the property taken, lost profits and lost access, and damages to the residue caused by the taking. The terms “lost profits” and “lost access” are to be defined by the General Assembly.
Current law awards compensation if the property is landlocked after the taking. Under the amendment any reduction of access might be grounds for compensation. So a new median blocking an easy left turn into a McDonald's or a farmer having to divert his hay wagon from a preferred lane might prompt a lengthy court battle and increase the costs of a new road.

The "lost profits" provision is even stickier. Lost profits for how long? How can the legislature or a judge predict future profits that are determined by supply and demand? If the "lost profits" are awarded to a restaurant that soon thereafter goes out of business does it get refunded?

While most Americans want to protect private property rights, they also want to have new roads or utilities such as water, sewer, and electricity done at the lowest possible costs to taxpayers and consumers. This amendment threatens the ability of state and local government to provide those improvements as cheaply as possible.

Ballot Question 1 will be a hay day for two groups - the lobbyists who will twist legislators arms about the enacting legislation and the lawyers who will argue the cases. Beware of the unintended consequences of well-intentioned legislation. The devil, as always, is in the details. Ballot Question 1 should go back to the drawing board.

North River Gorge

In the middle of a political campaign filled with lies, distortions, and flip flops it clears one's mind and soul to spend some quality time with the truth and beauty of nature. Pictures from a recent hike on North River Gorge Trail in the George Washington National Forest, Augusta County, Virginia.

North River seen from the swinging bridge.
Fall colors light up the trail.
A serene pool in North River.

What if you throw a party and nobody comes?

Photo: Mike Tripp/The News Leader
Americans for Prosperity and the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party threw a rally on a beautiful October Saturday at the Wharf in Staunton. But, what if you throw a tea party, call and invite everybody you know, and still nobody comes? What an embarrassment! A party crashed by apathy! A party crashed by empty seats representing those who refuse to associate with their message of racism and hate.

With empty seats and hollow rhetoric the organizers lamely blamed "Dancing with the Stars," "TV," and "too many other events going on..." for the poorly attended rally. Yesterday reminded me of an Americans for Prosperity bus tour in late June that drew virtually nonexistent crowds and petered out before the day was done.

The irony of the backdrop - the shell of a old building for lease - captures completely the crumbling and desolate movement that was the Tea Party.

Coverage of the "rally that wasn't" at The News Leader.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Just how bad is George Allen?--One more reason to Vote for Tim Kaine

Originally posted by: glenbesa on Article XI: To Preserve and Protect on Sat Oct 20, 2012 at 15:55:53 PM EST:
If you didn't live in Virginia when George Allen was Governor you may not understand just how anti-environmental he is. In the US Senate he had an abysmal record but those were only votes. 
It was as Governor where George Allen demonstrated his utter contempt for environmental laws. Right after he was sworn in as Governor, he gutted the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Allen, bringing in what we then caused "wise users" at the time to run this key environmental agency is today's equivalent of putting the Tea Party in charge. There were mass firings and mass resignations of agency staffers who refused to follow orders to ignore pollution violations. 
Allen also interfered with an on going EPA lawsuit against Smithfield Foods for water pollution. The CEO of Smithfield at the time, Joe Luter, gave Allen a $100,000 campaign contribution and after Allen was elected he had the state intervene in that EPA lawsuit, effectively neutralizing federal action against Smithfield. As unethical as this may sound, it apparently is not illegal in Virginia where there is no limit on campaign contributions. 
The Allen Administration even lied to the US EPA about the status of data collected on toxic emissions. When the EPA sought the toxic pollution data from the state, the response was that they did not have it, all the while it was actually locked in safe at the DEQ. 
If elected to the US Senate, George Allen will continue his war against the environment, attacking EPA funding and regulations and voting as he has before to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. We must not let this happen.
Coarse Cracked Corn stands in total agreement with this post. Returning George Allen to the United States Senate would be as disgusting as allowing mountain top removal coal mining in Shenandoah National Park.

Mitt's Magical Mystery Tour

Perhaps the best reason to not vote for Mitt Romney is that he doesn't know himself and we can't know him either. More importantly, because of his magical mystery tour through the Republican primaries and his uncanny ability to shift his marketing lines within hours or even minutes, even his supporters are left clueless about what kind of president he would make.

It is a time honored tactic for GOP wannabees to run right during their bizarre run up to the convention. Mitt, who'd been a Massachusetts moderate who collaborated with Ted Kennedy to pass RomneyCare had to make a neck wrenching hard right to get in the same rutted lane as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Mitt trashed equality for women and trashed their reproductive and healthcare rights. Even taking the right ditch wasn't really enough, and it was probably Mitt's rich friends enabling him to run a barrage of ads pummeling his opponents that eventually locked the nomination for the Massachusetts chameleon.

As most observers figured would happen, following the nomination Romney solidified his base in the Republican Party, but most suspect that is more about hatred of President Obama than any real love for Mitt. It allowed the one time "moderate" who later sounded like a tea party reactionary to attempt to get all four wheels back on the road with a major assist from his billionaire friends (his top donor, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson donated $34 million,  three times more than Obama's top five combined).

But getting back to the middle of the road has made Mitt a liar on issue after issue. For example, he says he wants to reduce the deficit but his budget math doesn't compute. How can he maintain (or increase) defense spending while honoring his no tax pledge to Grover Norquist? On women's issues he has flipped more than a bass in the bottom of a boat. At times it sounds like he respects women's rights but then he goes into tea party appeasing mode by being blind to pay equity and threatening to eliminate Planned Parenthood, to restrict access to birth control, and to support a scary personhood amendment. This man has his boxers in a binder when it comes to protecting hard won rights of American women.

On foreign policy... do we even want to explore his foot-in-mouth missteps that have already damaged the U.S. overseas? On Libia and other issues Romney has tried to make political hay out of foreign policy and even some of his strongest supporters have reminded him that his extreme makeover political marketing should stop at the water's edge. It his hard to tell where Romney stands because all of his positions are so overtly partisan.

Here is the point -- as Election Day nears Romney's magical mystery tour still leaves most Americans, including many Republicans, wondering where he stands or if he stands for anything. It is one thing to change a position due to changing circumstances, but is is something else entirely to seemingly possess absolutely zero core convictions about anything. Mitt's magical mystery tour offers no compelling reason to vote for him. More importantly, if he happens to actually occupy the White House, it is no way to lead a great country where people hold deep and strongly held convictions.

UPDATE 10/23/12: Mitt continued on his mystery tour in last night's foreign policy debate as he tried to transform from a saber-rattling neocon and Cheney disciple to a more moderate and pragmatic approach where he agreed with President Obama more often than not. More than substance (Mitt didn't have all that much except to say "I agree with your policies only I'd do it better...), maybe you noticed his arrogant demeanor. Wonder how that will play with our friends and allies?

With apologies to the Beatles whose Magical Mystery Tour touted something Mitt will never be able to do: SATISFACTION GUARANTEED.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Schmookler/Goodlatte "debate"

The incumbent, Bob Goodlatte, and his challenger, Andy Schmookler, met in their second debate this morning at Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater, VA. Rain showers were passing through as folks arrived at the school. The parking lot and sidewalks were lined with yard signs for each man - both use a blue/white theme - in about equal numbers. Inside the auditorium some rows were set aside for area high school students invited to attend - Eastern Mennonite HS, Spotswood HS, and Broadway HS - in addition to Turner Asby HS students who helped organize the event. I'd say the auditorium was about 85% filled and, based on the applause at the end, roughly equally divided between Schmookler and Goodlatte supporters.

After sound checks and other preliminaries, the "debate" started on time. Yes, I guess it was a debate, but due to constraints of the rules and all of the questions being presented by student panelists from the various schools it was hardly a debate that shed much new light on issues. Each candidate gave opening and closing statements of three minutes in length. Questions were directed to candidates in an alternating fashion with a one minute answer, a two minute rebuttal, and a one minute rebuttal to the rebuttal. Not much time to delve into the questions with any depth! There were no followups nor could the candidates question each other. I applaud the students' presence and participation, but this format made it more a joint campaign appearance than a debate.

Goodlatte's opening statement sounded his theme for the day - promote jobs and the economy by cutting taxes and regulations and reducing the debt. In nearly each answer to every question Goodlatte returned to these themes even if it meant few specifics or dodging the essence of the question.

Schmookler's opening statement returned to his often repeated belief that dishonesty in politics and a government captured by the monied interests has damaged our government of, by, and for the people. He revisited these ideas as he talked about government's role in advancing social mobility, promoting equality, and supporting a strong middle class.

The student generated questions asked about the cost of higher education, Social Security, fracking and uranium mining in the commonwealth, defense spending, transportation, health care, and the Dream Act. Several of highlights from where my perch:
  • Bob Goodlatte doesn't seem too supportive on much of a federal role to with the cost of higher education punting it mostly back on the institutions. Schmookler believes educational opportunity helps achieve the American Dream and upward social mobility.
  • On Social Security Schmookler believes tweaking and adjusting the system will keep it viable for decades to come. Goodlatte did say he would not support privatization but most of his response was about the debt.
  • Neither man addressed uranium mining but there was a clear difference on fracking with Goodlatte basically in the industry corner and Schmookler calling for an end to the Halliburton Exemption and (while responding to the next question on defense) pointing to Goodlatte as a climate change denier.
  • Schmookler questioned why the U.S. spends as much as the rest of the world combined on defense. Goodlatte didn't seem overly interested in significant defense cuts but he used the opportunity to get a zinger in on entitlements.
  • On transportation Goodlatte talked of "limited resources" and launched an attack on ObamaCare. Schmooker accused Goodlatte of voting against important transportation bills and said that, if elected, he'd understand the important difference between spending and investing - and he's support infrastructure investment as a way to create jobs now and a stronger country in the future.
  • Schmookler accused Goodlatte and the GOP of dropping the ball and/or opposing heath care reform for the last quarter century. For his part the congressman only said that ObamaCare is a budget buster and he cited some examples of health legislation he'd supported.
One takeaway for me is that Andy Schmooker is a big thinker who does indeed transcend partisan politics. He sees and understands interconnections and causes and effects. Unfortunately, a "debate" such as this and political discourse in general is not conducive to discussing big ideas.

Bob Goodlatte spent considerable time, without saying it directly, of preempting criticism that he is a hyper-partisan member of Congress. On a number of occasions he bent over backwards (almost to the point of kissing his own butt) to talk about his bipartisan "creds." It sounded good but that was a hyper-imagination at work - there is good reason this blog has referred to him as Bobblehead Bob for a long time. On issue after issue he nods his agreement with his GOP puppet masters.

I was seated behind the area reserved for Goodlatte's family and close friends and the bobblehead thing must be dominant in the Republican gene pool - I smiled more than once as 4 or 5 of them would nod, in perfect synchronization, to Bob's talking points. Even more impressive was their ability to shake their heads in perfect choreography when Schmookler said something they didn't like. It put a bold accent on Schmookler's using the famous Will Rogers quote to emphasize his desire to work across party lines to find common ground, "I belong to no organized political party; I am a Democrat."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ryan disagrees with the NRA

Over the past two weeks I've gotten several robo-calls from the National Rifle Association asserting in a dire and urgent tone a horrifying message to gun owners: If Barack Obama is reelected, we will lose our Second Amendment rights to gun ownership.

Never mind that, as President, Barack Obama has not even remotely suggested or supported any legislation that would limit gun rights. In fact, the only gun legislation the President has signed actually expanded gun rights by allowing weapons to be carried in national parks and AMTRAK trains.

Even Paul Ryan seems to acknowledge that the President is not a threat to gun rights when he says early in this interview, "If you take a look at the gun laws we have, I don't even think President Obama's proposing more gun laws. We have good strong guns laws—we have to make sure we enforce our laws, we have lots of laws that aren't properly enforced. We need to make sure we enforce these laws."

The NRA is intentionally promoting fear and angst among gun owners (I am one) in this conservative part of the commonwealth where hunting is a cherished tradition. By using the time-honored Nazi propaganda technique of telling the Big Lie over and over again the NRA is demonstrating its complete lack of regard for the responsibilities inherent as we exercise our First Amendment rights.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Predator and prey

This past Friday a couple of us from the Headwaters Master Naturalist program were helping with a benthic stream monitoring hands-on demonstration for kids during a homeschool day at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton. We got our tables set up and the net, tweezers, and other gear ready when what we believe is a northern water snake was spotted hunting bluegill in a deeper pool about 50 feet upstream.

Not very deep, the pool was fed by a waterfall just below a pond. Several 2-3 inch bluegill had washed downstream and were trapped in a relatively confined area. Laying on the bottom, the water snake was virtually invisible and it made several attempts to nap a passing bluegill. It didn't take too long for "Bob" the water snake (named by school kids last year) to catch a meal.

The water snake brought his catch into an area surrounded by roots, sticks, and leaves where the fish, even if it escaped, would be trapped and the water snake would be hidden from its own predators. A leisurely meal followed as the snake prepared to eat what was indeed a big gulp.