Category Archives: Entitlements

The Perils of Gas Fracking

By Peter Galuszka

More media accounts are showing up now that 84,000 acres of lands south and east of Fredericksburg have been leased for possible hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

This Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch published a map showing the leased area covering big swaths of land from the Fort A.P. Hill military area east across the Rappahanock River on  into the historic Northern Neck. These are some of the loveliest parts of the Old Dominion, featuring  sloping valleys, rich bottom lands and meandering creeks and rivers that are filled with wildlife, not to mention farms and homes.

The newspaper quoted Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council proclaiming fracking as being safe and that the construction activity to place wells only takes a few months. “It’s like a construction site,” Ward said. “As it’s being done, there is going to be truck traffic. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be some dust in the air. There’s going to be mud around the area. But that’s short-lived.”

Really? To be a better idea, I started surfing YouTube to see what the local impact of constructing fracking wells is really like. I happened upon several films from rural Harrison County, W.Va., an area where I lived as a child from 1962 to 1969.

The videos show an area in western Harrison County near the college town of Salem in landscape surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. There has been coal mining in the area and natural gas has been around for decades, but fracking wells are something new.

The videos depict an ongoing nightmare for neighbors who have found their quiet, bucolic existence interrupted 24/7 by the roaring of diesel generators, huge floodlights, and many, many trucks. One woman says that the well site across her road starts up around 4 a.m. and she can’t get back to sleep so she’s constantly tired when she goes to work.

Water and construction trucks, many 18-wheelers, are a big problem. They sideswipe cars on rural, two-lane roads or block traffic for a half an hour after they get stuck trying to turn around. The heavy trucks crumble pavement on country roads. Some local ones have had to be repaved four times since drill site preparation began a couple of years ago when the fracking craze began.

It seems likely that areas near Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula will taste some of the same problems if fracking begins. The Taylorsville Basin in the area may hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Further questions abound about the company that’s putting together leases for the area. It is an obscure company called Shore Exploration & Production Co. with offices in Dallas and Bowling Green. The plan, company officials have said, is to put buy up gas leases and then flip them to a drilling company.

The company insists it won’t use a “watery” method of fracking but can’t seem to explain its supposed substitute which is to use some form of nitrogen. In West Virginia, wells can need up to five million gallons of water that must be trucked in. Does this mean that trucks carrying nitrogen will come in instead?

Answers seem to be as fleeting as the Shore company which has two full-time employees and has no annual report or website. It has never drilled a well itself, just exploratory ones. One official told a newspaper that having an annual report and website “would provide information to competitors.”

That statement alone should give tremendous pause. What happens if you live in the country of the Northern Neck and a gas well emerges next door? What happens if your life is disrupted by 24-hour diesel generators, lights and dozens of heavy trucks? What happens if the “flow-back” ponds that contain waste, including radioactive material and methane from the drilling area below, breach?

Eastern Virginia is not used to such challenges. As a former resident of West Virginia where such challenges are common, I know well what this kind of set-up can mean, especially in Virginia that has some gas wells in its southwestern tip but has little experience with fracking.

The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

Someone Has to Worry about Tomorrow

Mercedies Harris

Mercedies Harris

Mercedies Harris, speaking to the Times-Dispatch, came as close as anyone to summing up what Virginia’s Medicaid debate is all about: “The system is crazy. They have got to stop worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow and deal with the people who need help today.”

The 53-year-old veteran and Waynesboro resident suffers from glaucoma, which, if it goes untreated, likely will lead to blindness. Harris has spent his meager savings, and he’s about to lose the house where he lives with his wife and a step-son who suffers from seizures. He applied for Medicaid but was turned down because he works and his income — $8.88 an hour — is too high. But he would qualify if Virginia expanded the program, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act and as proposed by Governor Terry McAuliffe and General Assembly Democrats.

With the federal government promising to pay 90% of the cost of Medicaid expansion, it is hard to tell someone like Harris — who served his country in the military and, to all appearances, remains a contributing member of society — that, no, we can’t help you. And the idea of letting him go blind, so that he, too, becomes a total ward of the state, seems the height of folly.

Republicans insist that Medicaid must be modernized before expanding the program. To buttress their argument, they have nothing comparable to the stories of real-live people like Harris, just bloodless numbers. That’s why they could well lose the debate and McAuliffe could well get his way. But that doesn’t mean the Republicans are wrong. Someone has to worry about tomorrow.

The nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia cannot continue expanding the social safety net forever. Even after an increase in the federal income tax and even after the budget cuts imposed by sequestration, the federal budget is on a trajectory to hell. Here is the Congressional Budget Office‘s take on the next 10 years:

After [2015] deficits are projected to start rising—both in dollar terms and relative to the size of the economy—because revenues are expected to grow at roughly the same pace as GDP whereas spending is expected to grow more rapidly than GDP. In CBO’s baseline, spending is boosted by the aging of the population, the expansion of federal subsidies for health insurance, rising health care costs per beneficiary, and mounting interest costs on federal debt. By contrast, all federal spending apart from outlays for Social Security, major health care programs, and net interest payments is projected to drop to its lowest percentage of GDP since 1940.

And that’s an optimistic scenario. It assumes that the economy continues to grow in a slow-but-steady fashion without recession for what would amount to the longest business cycle in U.S. history. The longest recorded business cycle lasted less than 11 years. The current business cycle is almost five years old — another 10 years would make it the Methuselah of economic expansions. History suggests that the U.S. will suffer another recession and revenues, prone to wild gyrations due to its highly progressive structure, will plunge. The question then will be, can a president and Congress facing a fiscal crisis in 2024 be entrusted to keep the promises made by the president and Congress in 2014?

Without major policy changes, according to the CBO, the situation in 2024 will be dire: The deficit will exceed $1 trillion in a non-recessionary scenario. (One can only speculate what the deficit would be in a recession; it could exceed the $1.6 trillion-a-year level seen in the dark days of the last recession.) Ten years from now the national debt will blow past $21.6 trillion, interest payments on the debt will run $880 billion yearly, and the Social Security trust fund will be roughly seven years away from exhaustion. While entitlements and interest payments on the debt now amount to 66% of the budget, they will consume 77% in ten years (again, assuming no recession).

If a recession occurs in the early 2020s, the fiscal landscape will be far worse than it was in 2008 when the economy cratered. The United States will be forced either to cut discretionary spending (which includes the vast regulatory apparatus of the federal government plus the military), cut entitlements or cut both. The only way to avoid that fate in 2024 will be to start cutting entitlements sooner, not later. Continue reading

The Terrible Link Between Income and Longevity

RAM in Wise County

RAM in Wise County

By Peter Galuszka

Call it a tale of two Virginias.

One is rich with military retirees, ample benefits and gated communities. The other is remote, poor and polluted, where the life expectancy for men is merely 64 years.

The former is Fairfax County at the heart of NOVA, Virginia’s economic engine, the land of federal largesse. The other is 350 miles away in McDowell County, in the coal belt of southern West Virginia just a stone’s throw from the Old Dominion border.

In one of the best and most glaring reporting of income disparity in this country, Annie Lowery of The New York Times lays out the stunning contrasts in two very different places maybe a six-hour car ride distant. The nut of her report is that higher income means longer lives thanks to better access to decent food, retirement benefits and medical care.

In Fairfax County, men live to be 82 and women 85. In McDowell County, men (as noted) live to 64 and women to 73. Even more astonishing is that this is happening in 21st century America, the supposed land of plenty. If ever there were a call to do something about health care, this is it.

Think what you will about the Affordable Care Act, the prior system of managed care with Big Insurance calling the shots just isn’t working. One also wonders, in the case of McDowell, where Medicaid and Medicare are. Where are the benefits from the coal companies that used to dominate employment in the area?

This hits home for me because I grew up partially in West Virginia when my father, a Navy doctor, decided to retire and go into practice there. I also traveled about researching a recent book on the coal industry. I spent a lot of time in Mingo County, the next one over from McDowell. I drove plenty of times through the small town of Williamson, a major rail marshaling yard, and was struck by how many elderly people I saw pacing slowly with oxygen tanks strapped to their aluminum walkers. Coal-related black lung? Too many cigarettes? Breathing air dirty from coal trains and trucks  and strip mines? Over in Fairfax, people of a similar age are more likely to be in a warm swimming pool at an aquatic aerobics class.

Back in the Appalachians, one morning my photographer Scott Elmquist and I were traveling from Kentucky back into Mingo County and I happened to see a Remote Area Medical free clinic at a high school in Pikesville. We turned in and found more than 1,000 people thronging the gymnasium floor waiting for doctors or for their turns at the more than seven dozen dental chairs for free care they couldn’t otherwise afford. Some I spoke with had been waiting there since 1:30 that morning. RAM runs a circuit that includes Wise County in Virginia, also in coal country.

So how did these people slip through the cracks? The Times notes that in McDowell, there aren’t any organic food stores or Whole Foods. The place in inundated with fast food and convenience stores that sell ready-to-go hot dogs, energy drinks and salty chips.

Another reason is the connection with the coal industry which has been so lucrative over the years that it should have provided plenty for the elderly. Instead, as coal seams play out and natural gas usurps coal’s role in electricity generation, coal firms are setting up to skedaddle. One is Patriot Coal, an offshoot of St. Louis giant Peabody, that took over its Appalachian interests so the mother firm could concentrate on richer areas in the U.S. West and Asia. Patriot was set up to fail and perhaps take retirement benefits with it. It’s an obvious scam. You spin something off to get some distance between you and having to pay pensions and health benefits.

Another factor is what they are doing with the local environment. Mountaintop removal is a powerful instrument in places around McDowell. At the blog Blue Virginia, they ran an intriguing map showing just how this highly destructive form of mining that rips up thousands of acres overlays with high poverty areas. Out of sight out of mind. It’s a shame how many in the green movement are forgetting the horrors of mountaintop to beat up on fracking which may be closer to home for them. Continue reading

Dominion Benefits As Renewables Struggle

North Anna PixBy Peter Galuszka

Dominion Virginia Power, as is its style, has achieved a quiet but far-reaching regulatory victory. The General Assembly has passed a complicated bill that would help Dominion write off costs for a new nuclear reactor while avoiding giving potential refunds or rate cuts to customers.

The bill, which easily sailed through the legislature, has drawn attention to whether the utility really will build a third nuclear unit at North Anna and why bills to help smaller players trying to create renewable sources of energy seem to get nowhere in Virginia.

Dominion will be allowed to deduct $400 million from its profits in a scheme that allows it to count as costs the nuclear research it does. This will likely help it avoid paying rebates to consumers the next time the State Corporation Commission considers its rates.

There are several curiosities with the scheme. For one, although Dominion filed early plans for a third reactor about a decade ago, the project hasn’t seemed to move very far. The disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 forced a rethink of how the U.S. plans its new reactors. Another problem is that North Anna suffered a major setback later in 2011 when an earthquake forced a shutdown at that station and pushed reactors past their design limits.

The danger is hardly news but may be largely forgotten. In the 1970s, Virginia Electric & Power Co., Dominion’s predecessor, was fined by federal regulators for knowing and lying about some aspects of a geological fault line that runs under the North Anna area when it planned the nuclear power station in the 1960s.

I have visited North Anna in recent years and have asked Dominion about how they plan to pay for a third reactor. Some estimate it may cost about $10 billion. Many reactors on the drawing boards can’t be built without federal loan guarantees. Dominion has said it won’t need such guarantees.

Last month, the Department of Energy announced that the federal government will provide $6.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for two new reactors planned by the Southern Company in Vogtle, Ga. They are the first in such government backing.

A big question is how far along is the third unit at North Anna and why the General Assembly felt comfortable about making such beneficial moves if there’s any question about it.

Meanwhile, Bill Sizemore at The Virginian-Pilot has an intriguing story about how Dominion, which gave $1 million to Virginia politicians last year, has little trouble with its laws while smaller fry in the renewable energy sector struggle.

They have failed at getting the General Assembly to push tax credits to help install solar, wind and other, non-fossil and non-nuclear forms of power. Originally, the proposal called for $100 million in tax credits a year but that was pared down to $10 million and then was put off for consideration next year.

Virginia has voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standards calling for a percentage of new power generation to come from renewable sources. The approach favors large utilities such as Dominion and Appalachian Power. Neighboring states North Carolina and Maryland have mandatory standards and that may be one reason why Virginia has only 5 percent of North Carolina’s solar power capacity.

Dominion points out that it has renewable projects such as solar powered panels at a university and has plans for offshore wind, but these efforts are relatively modest.

One irony with the current situation involving renewables is that conservatives argue that their promoters must meet strict free market tests. If solar and wind and other sources can expand, they need to make it without government help based on their ability to innovate and market salable products. But the traditional, large utilities have no trouble getting billions in government help in federal loan guarantees or in rate write offs that Dominion will enjoy.

So, it seems the fix is in for traditional power in Virginia. That was certainly the case with former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who wanted to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast.” He strongly backed offshore drilling. Incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe had been suspicious of offshore drilling in 2009 when he first ran for governor but has since changed his position to the consternation of environmentalists.

“We’re really disappointed but not surprised,” says Glen Besa, head of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

Why Are Virginians Such Weather Whoosies?

norilskBy Peter Galuszka

The other day I tried to book a lunch date with the Blogger in Chief but was informed that inclement weather was looming on the Old Dominion and he might be hibernating for a few days.

Imagine my surprise this morning when I awoke to find a few inches of snow and some light sleet pelting around. Sure enough, the state seems to have shut down. This begs another question. Why are Virginians such weather whoosies?

Millions of people around the world live and work in much harsher conditions. I spent six years reporting from Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s and had plenty of bone-chilling experiences. There was that ultra-cold day in Novosibirsk just before Thanksgiving when the temperature was about minus 30. But if you want to consider the granddaddy of them all, go to Norilsk in Siberia, the northern-most city of more than 100,000 in the world.

khodorkovsyI went to Norilsk in January 1996 for a BusinessWeek cover story on the crop of rising oligarchs who were cashing in on post-Communist privatization. One was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a geek-turned-billionaire who, ironically, was just recently released by President Vladimir Putin after spending a decade in prison. It was a pre-Sochi Olympics gesture to make nice. I had interviewed Khodorkovsky many times and found him a meek and thoughtful man.

Another oligarch was Vladimir Potanin who was cornering the market on Russia’s vast reserves of precious metals. It was thanks to Potanin that I got to go to Norilsk. He was involved in a rough proxy battle to take over Norilsk’s rich array of smelters insofar as Russia was capable of having real proxy fights back in the 1990s.

Vladimir-PotaninSo, with Potanin’s invitation, Alexei, a Russian photographer, and I jetted off to Norilsk, a horrible, treeless snow-swept waste. It has a particularly horrible history.

Founded at the end of the 1920s, Norilsk became a center of Stalin’s GULAG system which in this case exploited rich reserves of nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum, palladium and coal. The only way in or out if by air or by rail and road to a specially built port on a river that flows into the Arctic Ocean.

Norilsk is covered with snow for up to 270 days a year and has snow storms lasting a total of about 120 days. In January and February, the average lows are about minus 23. Record lows are about minus 63.

Political prisoners built up a huge metals mining and metallurgical apparatus from the 1930s until the 1950s. More than 16,000 died and many fatalities occurred during World War II when food was short.

When we arrived at the airport, we were met by one of Potanin’s black limousines that hustled us across a snowy tundra road whose outlines only the driver could see. Our hotel was a shamble of brickwork and amenities were similar to what many reporters are finding today in Sochi albeit no stray dogs. They’d be dead. Tracked bulldozers worked 24/7 keeping snow from piling up.

Rogov and I had trouble finding food. The hotel kitchen was closed and we slogged down the streets until we pounded on the door of a closed restaurant and convinced them to give us something to eat. Continue reading

Tar Heel Grief Just Down the Road

By Peter Galuszka

It’s sad to see mccrorytwo states to which I have personal ties – North Carolina and West Virginia — in such bad ways.

The latest raw news comes from the Tar Heel state where we are seeing the handiwork of hard-right- Gov. Pat McCrory who has been on a tear for a year now bashing civil rights here, pulling back from regulation there.

The big news is Duke Energy’s spill of coal ash and contaminated water near Eden into the Dan River, which supplies Danville and potentially Virginia Beach with drinking water. Reports are creeping out that the McCrory regime has been pressuring the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to pull back from regulation.

According to Rachel Maddow, DENR officials had stepped in with environmentalists as plaintiffs on two occasions in lawsuits to get Duke Energy to clean up coal ash. But when a third suit was filed, McCrory, a former Charlotte Mayor and career Duke Energy employee, influenced a third lawsuit settlement against Duke to be delayed.

Also, not long before the Eden spill, the City of Burlington released sewage into the Haw River which flows into Lake Jordan serving drinking water to Cary, Apex and Pittsboro. DENR allegedly did not release news of the spill to the public.

Late last year, Amy Adams, a senior DENR official, resigned to protest the massive cuts McCrory and Republican legislators were forcing at her department, notably in its water quality section.

McCrory’s been on a Ken Cuccinelli-style rip in other ways such as cutting back on unemployment benefits in a top manufacturing state badly hit by the recession and globalization. He’s shut down abortion clinics by suddenly raising the sanitation rules to hospital levels, much like former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell did in Virginia.

A reaction to McCrory is building, however. Recently, I chatted with Jason Thigpen who served in the Army and was wounded in Iraq in 2009. When Thigpen returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina, he was upset that the state was sticking it to vets by making them pay out-of-state college tuition in cases where some had been state residents before deploying. So, he started an activist group to protect them.

Next, Thigpen decided to run for Congress. His views fit more neatly with the Republican Party but he simply could not take what McCrory was doing in Raleigh so he became a Democrat and is a contender in a primary this spring.

Why the switch? “I just couldn’t see what the GOP was doing with my state in Raleigh,” He told me. “Also, I didn’t like what they were doing with women. I had served with women in war and they come back to North Carolina and they are treated like second class citizens,” he said.

West Virginia, meanwhile, is still struggling with its drinking water issues from a spill near Charleston. Although drinking water for 300,000 is said to be potable, children are reporting rashes.

Somehow, this conjures up another story involving a Republican governor – Arch Moore.

Back in 1972, Moore was governor when Pittston, a Virginia-based energy firm, had badly sited and built some damns to hold coal waste. After torrential rains, the dams burst and a sea of filthy water raced down the hollows, inundating small villages and killing 125 people. The state wanted a $100 million settlement from Pittston for the Buffalo Creek disaster, but Moore interceded and they settled for a measly $1 million.

Moore was later convicted of five felonies after he was caught extorting $573,000 from a coal company that wanted to reduce its payments to a state fund that compensated miners who got black lung disease.

Does anyone see a pattern yet?

Meanwhile, we in Virginia should breathe a sigh of relief considering just close it was dodging the bullet last election.

Journalism’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated

rachel_maddowBy Peter Galuszka

“Investigative reporting, R.I.P. In-depth reporting is dead. If not dead, it’s comatose. Reeling from declining revenue and eroding profit margins, print media enterprises continue to lay off staff and shrink column inches.”

Err, maybe not. James A. Bacon Jr., meet Rachel Maddow.

The quote comes from advertised “sponsorships” in which an outside entity can help fund reporting and writing on this blog. It’s a morphed form of traditional journalism and there’s nothing wrong with it, provided the funding source is made clear.

But what might be jumping the gun is the sweeping characterization that in-depth reporting is dead. That is precisely the point of Maddow’s monthly column in The Washington Post.

She notes that it was local traffic reporters and others who broke the story about Chris Christie’s finagling with toll booths to punish a political opponent. She shows evidence of other aggressive reporting in Connecticut and in South Carolina, where an intrepid reporter got up early one morning, drive 200 miles to the Atlanta airport and caught then disappeared Gov. Mark Sanford disembarking from an overseas flight to see his Latin American mistress when he had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Closer to home, it was the Post, which has seen more than 400 newsrooms layoffs over the past years, that broke GiftGate, the worst political scandal in Virginia in recent memory. The rest of the state press popped good stories, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch that has been somewhat reinvigorated despite nearly 10 years of corporate cheerleading and limp coverage under publisher Tom Silvestri. The departure of the disastrous former editor Glenn Proctor, Silvestri’s brainchild, helped a lot as did the sale of the paper by dysfunctional Media General to Warren Buffett.

To be sure, there are sad departures. The Hook, a Charlottesville alternative, did a great job reporting the forced and temporary ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, but it has folded.

Funding, indeed, remains a huge problem, even at Bacon’s Rebellion where we all write pretty much for free. One solution, Maddow notes, happened in a tiny Arkansas town that found it was located over a decaying ExxonMobil fuel pipeline. The community raised funds to help hire more reporters to break through the news.

She suggests: “Whatever your partisan affiliation, or lack thereof, subscribe to your local paper today. It’s an act of civic virtue.”

Hear! Hear!

McAuliffe’s Ethics End Run

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Kudos to Terry McAuliffe.

Virginia’s new governor has taken strong and important steps to force the state into much needed ethics reform by issuing an executive order setting a gift acceptance cap of $100 for himself, his staff and members of state agencies.

He’s also allocating $100,000 to set up a state ethics commission to collect information on gift giving and probe transgressions, although details of how it would work are still hazy.

McAuliffe is performing an obvious and needed end run past the General Assembly, which for years has done as little a possible to address Virginia’s laissez-faire ethics rules which are among the most lax in the nation.

The only proposal so far after months of scandal involving former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Star Scientific, a dietary supplement maker, is lame at best.

Pushed by House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville), the proposal would ban officials and family members from accepting gifts of more than $250.

It also would set up an “advisory” committee to “educate” officials on ethics but would have no investigative power, making it little more than window-dressing. As now, officials would have to file reports but no one is tasked with officially vetting them.

McAuliffe’s smart ploy takes the initiative away from the General Assembly although his executive order cannot address what elected officials do. That’s obviously a problem, but McAuliffe has raised the bar and legislators cannot ignore that.

I’ve been reporting on Virginia politics off and on since the 1970s and I’ve seen several ethics reform initiatives come to nothing.

This time, there is hope, thanks to McAuliffe who is making a surprisingly strong showing in his first days in elected office.

Where the Poor Are

ram wise countyBy Peter Galuszka

With expanding Medicaid about to become a major issue with the incoming Terry McAuliffe administration, it is curious to see exactly where the poor people in Virginia live. An intriguing New York Times interactive graph provides clues and allows one to draw some rather disturbing conclusions.

The single worst pocket of poverty of 76.7% appears to be in an inner city part of Hampton. Trailing not far behind are inner city parts of Norfolk (67.8%) and Portsmouth (64.9%).

Much-touted RVA is a hotbed for low-income people as defined by individuals making less than $11,945 a year or a family of four making $23,283 a year. Despite all the hoopla you read about Richmond becoming an artsy draw for white, educated millennials, the capital, at least its downtown and east end, is as poor as church mice.

An east end section near Fairfield Avenue is 67.% poor. Manchester south of downtown has rates of 35% and farther south it is 50.7%.

Zip over the mostly white Short Pump area where the fancy stores are in Henrico and poverty is about 2 percent. I tried to look up where Jim Bacon lives but the chart said it was a “low population area” and rates weren’t available. My area in southwestern Chesterfield is about 3 percent.

A cursory scan around the state did not show any poverty rates anywhere close to those of the inner cities of Tidewater or Richmond –certainly not in Northern Virginia although Winchester seemed a little sketchy.

In more rural areas, Halifax County in the dying tobacco and textile belt was high but the surrounding area was low. An area near Lynchburg showed 50 percent levels.

Another curiosity was that once you get to the Southwest, you can see the black hand of coal. The Virginia coalfields are generally just west of U.S. 19. Giles County to the east of it has poverty rates of about 13 %. But cross to the western counties and watch it double (Buchanan 23%; Dickenson, 21.3% and Wise, 25.6%).

What do these counties have in common? A dying coal industry and even dying is a misnomer. One would think that these areas would be swimming in money thanks to black diamonds. Anything but. They’ve been stripped and raped with the wealth flowing elsewhere. This is something to keep in mind when you hear about “The War on Coal.” Turns out the “War on People Living Near Coal Mines” has been going on since the late 19th century.

The Times chart is a wonderful reality check. It should have huge applications as expanding Medicaid is considered. The lesson seems to be that extreme poverty is concentrated in neglected inner city neighborhoods and abused rural areas.

If (God forbid!) poor people start flocking to emergency rooms once they get Medicaid, those emergency rooms are likely to be in large, downtown teaching hospitals like the Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. They won’t be in rich, white suburban areas for the simple reason that public transit is lacking. In rural areas, the poor may well have to find rides to take them dozens of miles to find care.

(Hat tip to Scott Elmquist)