Category Archives: Governance reform

The Importance of “Selma”

Selma_posterBy Peter Galuszka

“Selma” is one of those fairly rare films that underline a crucial time and place in history while thrusting important issues forward to the present day.

Ably directed by Ava DuVernay, the movie depicts the fight for the Voting Rights Act culminating in the dramatic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. in 1965. It portrays the brutality and racism that kept Alabama’s white power structure firmly in charge and how brave, non-violent and very smart tactics by African-American agitators shook things loose.

Holding it all together is British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oyelowo’s subtle and vulnerable approach while dealing with infighting among his colleagues and revelations of his marital infidelities contrast with his brilliant skill at oratory. During the two hours or so of the film, Oyelowo’s booming speeches and sermons never bored me. By contrast, the recent “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg flick filmed in Richmond, was a bit of a snoozer.

To its credit, “Selma” never gets too clichéd even with the extremely overexposed Oprah Winfrey assuming roles as a film producer and also as an actress portraying a middle-aged nursing home working who gets beaten up several times protesting white officials who kept her from registering to vote.

“Selma” has been controversial because nit-picking critics claim the film misrepresents the role President Lyndon B. Johnson played in getting the Voting Rights Act passed. The film shows him as reluctant and the Selma event was staged to push him to move proposed legislation to Congress. A series of LBJ biographies by highly-regarded historian Robert A. Caro show the opposite – that Johnson, a Southern white from Texas — was very much the driver of civil rights bills. In fact, his deft ability to knock political heads on Capitol Hill was probably the reason why they passed. It was a feat that even the Kennedys probably couldn’t have achieved.

One scene in the movie bothered me at first. King leads protestors to the Selma court house to register. When a brutal sheriff stands in their way, they all kneel down on the pavement with their arms behind their heads in a manner very reminiscent of last year’s protests against a police killing in Ferguson, Mo.

I thought, “Hey, I don’t care how they present LBJ, but fast-forwarding to 2014 is a bit of stretch.”

Then I decided that maybe not, history aside, the same thing is really happening now. There’s not just Ferguson, but Cleveland, Brooklyn and other places. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports this morning that over the past 14 years, police in the state killed 31 blacks and 32 whites. Only 20 percent of the state’s population is black. Now that is a disturbing figure.

Another disturbing allusion to the present is the widespread move mostly by Republican politicians in the South and Southwest make it harder for people to register to vote. In one move scene, Oprah Winfrey wants to register before an arrogant white clerk. He asks her to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. She does. He then asks her how many judges there are in Alabama. She gives the correct number. He then demands that she name all of them, which very few might have been able to do. She is rejected.

The moves to blunt new voters today is focused more on Hispanic immigrants but it is just as racist and wrong. And, Virginia is still stuck with the anti-voter policies of the Byrd Organization that was in power at the time of the Selma march. The idea, equally racist, was to keep ALL voters from participating in the political process as much as possible. That is why we have off-year elections and gerrymandered districts.

I was only 12 years old when Selma occurred but I remember watching it on television. I was living at the time in West Virginia which didn’t have that much racial tension. But I do remember flying out of National Airport in DC on the day that King was assassinated. The center of town, mostly 14th Street, appeared to be in flames.

Governance Reform for the Tobacco Commission

Two decades later, and still looking for an economic replacement.

Two decades later, and still looking for an economic replacement.

This is the year for governance reform. Not only will the General Assembly tighten up state ethics laws and consider proposals to strengthen the autonomy and transparency of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, legislators are proposing an overhaul of the way the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission does business.

A 2011 study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that the $756 million the tobacco commission had spent had only a marginal impact on Southside and Southwest Virginia, tobacco-growing regions whose economies the spending was supposed to diversify.

Now Governor Terry McAuliffe has backed a set of proposals by Republican lawmakers, including commission chair Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, to make the organization more accountable. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, proposals include:

  • Establishing an online database of all awards;
  • Reviewing all loans, grants and distributions of money by a “viability manager” such as the Virginia Resources Authority.
  • Adopting a strategic plan every two years to set priorities, measurable goals and quantifiable outcomes.
  • Reducing the number of commission members from 31 to 25;
  • Setting a requirement that 60% of commission members have an expertise in business, economic development, investment banking, finance or education.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not sure that anything can take the politics and favoritism out of the dispensation of tobacco commission dollars, but these proposals seem to be a modest step toward more transparency and accountability. So, that’s good.

Alas, the problems of Southside and Southwest Virginia are far bigger than these modest reforms can address. Traditional economic development strategies will not transform the region. The commission needs to underwrite some radical experiments with the venture capital-like mentality that, while most likely will fail, a handful might open up previously unimagined possibilities. The proposed reforms are likely to reinforce group-think, however, and that’s not good.

–  JAB

Transparency, CTB Autonomy Guide New Vision for Transportation Governance

aubrey_layne

Aubrey Layne. Photo credit: Daily News

by James A. Bacon

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has a system for dispensing its approximately $2 billion a year in construction funding that is so blindingly complex that only a few people understand it. If I started explaining it to you in detail, I’d probably have to shoot you halfway through to put you out of your misery.

But I’ll give you a quickie overview so you can understand what the McAuliffe administration, working with Republican leaders in the General Assembly, is trying to accomplish by overhauling the funding formula. The end result, said Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne in an interview yesterday with Bacon’s Rebellion, will be to transfer decision-making power from the executive branch to a more autonomous Commonwealth Transportation Board, allowing the CTB to function as the policy-setting group it was always meant to be.

Construction dollars come from two sources: state and federal. Roughly $900 million a year in state tax revenues goes into the Transportation Trust Fund. Before anything is spent on state construction projects, money is siphoned into the Highway Maintenance Operations Fund to make up for that fund’s perennial deficits. More money is sluiced away for revenue sharing with localities, and yet more for various administrative expenses. Whatever is left can be spent on construction.

Meanwhile, the $1.1 billion or so in federal highway dollars gets sliced and diced, with dollars peeled away to pay off GARVEE bonds, to maintain U.S. bridges and highways, and to fund miscellaneous programs dictated by Uncle Sam. Whatever is left can be spent on construction.

Thanks to the influx of new state tax dollars, there’s a fair amount of money available for construction these days. But as a practical matter, expenditures are so hemmed in by legislative formulas that the system has little flexibility. Under the 2012 transportation funding overhaul, available funds are to be divvied up as follows: 25% to bridges, 25% to pavement, 25% to high priority discretionary projects, 15% to public-private partnerships 5% to unpaved roads, and 5% to intelligent transportation systems. If there’s any money left over — which there isn’t, even with the 2012 tax increases — additional sums go to unpaved roads and to Interstate matches, and the remainder gets divvied up this way: 40% for primary roads (distributed to each of nine transportation districts), 30% for secondary roads (distributed to individual localities), and 30% to urban roads (cities and towns).

“It is a maze. It is opaque,” Layne said. It’s also inefficient.

As a practical matter, little money trickles down to the localities. It’s like the Colorado River  — so much water has been sucked out along the way that there’s only a rivulet by the time it reaches the ocean. By the time money seeps down to individual transportation districts and individual localities, the amounts are so small they take years to accumulate enough money to actually pay for anything. As a result, money just sits there and gets eroded by inflation.

Another problem with the system, said Layne, who served on the CTB before McAuliffe anointed him transportation secretary, is that the executive branch effectively made all the key decisions. “When we came into office, VDOT was working off ‘the Governor’s List.'” The Governor’s List, an informal entity of obscure origin, was a list of projects reflecting the governor’s priorities, which VDOT then submitted to the CTB. “Where we are today, the governor sets the table,” said Layne. “As a CTB member, it’s hard to rearrange the dishes.”

(During the McDonnell administration, CTB members asked some questions and then invariably approved the requests — usually unanimously. The role of CTB members, I argued in “Kings of the Road” two years ago was to lobby behind the scenes to get projects in their transportation districts accepted by the administration. The board itself exercised little oversight.)

Layne’s goal, and McAuliffe’s, is to restore transparency and CTB independence. To make the policy-making board more independent, the administration is backing legislation that would curtail the executive’s ability to remove CTB members except where there’s cause. This would eliminate a repeat of instances like when former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton demanded the resignation of CTB member Jim Rich, a vocal proponent of the administration’s Charlottesville Bypass project.

The proposed new funding formula would create transparency by simplifying the system, Layne said. A new 40/30/30 formula would replace the 25/25/25/15/5/5 formula and portions of the 40/30/30 formula cobbled onto it. The new allocation formula would distribute money as follows: Continue reading

The Real “War on Coal”

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

Blankenship at 2009 Labor Day rally

By Peter Galuszka

Over in West Virginia, some things never seem to change.

Families of the 29 miners killed on April 5, 2010 at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch are asking a federal judge to lift her gag order so they can testify before West Virginia legislators considering tougher rules that would make it easier for workers to sue employers over job-related injuries and deaths.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger issued the gag order last year after Donald L. Blankenship, the former chief of Richmond-based Massey Energy, was indicted on four criminal charges for his role in the disaster – the worst one in 40 years. He is scheduled to go on trial in Beckley on April 20.

The question seems to be that the judge is protecting Blankenship’s rights over those of the people hurt by his management. It is not really news in the Mountain State that has always supported Coal Barons over workers. It’s a weird, neo-colonialist thing that never seems to change.

This month, Berger denied a move by several news agencies, including the Charleston Gazette and The Wall Street Journal, to lift the gag order.

As head of Massey Energy, which has since been taken over by Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, Blankenship was a true publicity hog. He was never shy about pushing his arch-conservative, pro-business views or bankrolling politicians and judges. Worrying about protecting his legal rights at the expense of free speech is a real travesty.

Yes, there is a “War on Coal” – but the other way around. The conflict is how coal bosses wage war on their employees and their families.

More Tidbits on the U.S. 460 Story…

kilpatrick

Charlie Kilpatrick, Virginia Highway Commissioner

Aubrey Layne was acutely aware of the wetlands permitting issues afflicting the U.S. 460 highway project before assuming his position as Secretary of Transportation in January 2014. As chairman of the funding corporation that sold bonds to investors, he had had to disclose in September 2013 that the Virginia Department of Transportation had not yet acquired the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the 55-mile highway. That’s one reason why, when he took the McAuliffe administration cabinet post, he acted so quickly to shut down the project — he’d been stewing over the matter for four months.

In an article yesterday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch gave a pretty good account of the testimony Layne gave to the House Appropriations Committee. The story made clear that the “secretary’s office” — led by former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton — was largely responsible for the decisions that created the debacle, which cost Virginia taxpayers roughly $300 million for work that will never be done or needed. But the T-D overlooked what I considered to be a critical topic: What role, if any, did then-deputy highway commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick play in the debacle?

I was able to glean a few more details in an interview with Layne this afternoon when, among other topics, I pressed him on Kilpatrick’s role in the policy meltdown. In a post this morning, I noted that Kilpatrick had made a presentation about U.S. 460 to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in mid-2013 that omitted the crucial fact that the project had not obtained the needed wetlands permits. Assured that there was no problem, the CTB approved the project financing.

Since then, Kilpatrick has been elevated to Virginia Highway Commissioner.

Layne defended the actions of VDOT personnel during the McDonnell administration. On multiple occasions, he said, VDOT officials went to the “secretary’s office” with issues relating to the wetlands permit. “Every time,” he said, “they got orders to keep on going.”

Without getting into specifics, Layne said that Kilpatrick and VDOT did “balk” at times at what they were told to do. “There was some pushback.” But Connaughton was determined to advance the project, which was the top transportation priority of Governor Bob McDonnell. While Kilpatrick did not inform the CTB of all the relevant facts, Layne said, he was acting as instructed. Layne is confident that Kilpatrick was not driving the decision-making process and does not bear responsibility for one of the biggest managerial screw-ups in Virginia government history.

I belabor this point only because I argued this morning that it is important to ascertain Kilpatrick’s role in the U.S. 460 fiasco. McDonnell’s people are all gone, but Kilpatrick now serves as a senior official of the McAuliffe administration. Unless new information surfaces, I consider Layne’s comments to be the final word on the matter.

– JAB

Consumer Transparency for Virginia Colleges

transparencyDel. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has submitted a bill, HB 1980, that would bring more consumer transparency to Virginia’s higher education system. The bill would require all public four-year colleges and universities to maintain a tab or link labeled “Consumer Information” on the home pages of their websites. That tab or link would be updated annually and include the following institutional data:

  • Six-year undergraduate graduation rate for each of the past 10 years;
  • Freshman-to-sophomore retention rate for full-time undergraduate students for each of the past 10 years;
  • The annual percentage increase in tuition for each of the past 10 years;
  • The annual percentage increase in mandatory student fees for each of the past 10 years;
  • A link to the annual report on the use of student fees;
  • A link to post-secondary education and employment data;
  • A statement of the institution’s budget broken down by department for the current and previous fiscal years, with links to annual reports.

The bill is backed by a group called Partners for Affordable Excellence @ EDU. Colleges and universities are already required to collect and report most if not all of this information already to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) but it gets buried in the blizzard of data, and consumers don’t know it exists.

“We view this bill as a motherhood and apple pie bill,” writes James V. Koch, president emeritus of Old Dominion University and a board member of Partners for Affordable Excellence. Making the information readily accessible to consumers, he says, “will lead to better decision-making by students, parents, donors and legislators.”

Sen. Jeff McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

Bacon’s bottom line: It will be interesting to see if Virginia’s higher ed lobby resists this bill. Will public colleges and universities engage in cartel-like behavior to suppress valuable consumer data? Or will those institutions that will be portrayed in the best light be willing to play along?

Consumers aren’t the only ones who need to view this data, by the way. So do reporters, bloggers and members of the public who want to hold these public institutions accountable.

– JAB

Governance Reform for Transportation Spending

Governor Terry McAuliffe, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne -- a different approach to transportation governance

Governor Terry McAuliffe, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne — a different approach to transportation governance. Photo credit: Daily News

by James A. Bacon

Among key initiatives in the transportation package that Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday are important proposals to reform the governance of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) and the Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) process.

CTB autonomy. The bipartisan legislative package, worked out with senior Republicans in the General Assembly, would improve oversight of transportation spending by creating a more independent CTB, specifically by establishing that the Governor cannot terminate a CTB board member without cause.

The measure responds to perceived abuses of the McDonnell administration in which former Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton dominated CTB proceedings. Among other actions, he demanded the resignation of CTB member, James Rich, one of the few board members who openly questioned administration priorities. After CTB approval of questionable mega-projects like the Charlottesville Bypass and the U.S. 460 Connector with little debate, I asked two years ago in “Kings of the Road?” if the CTB was a rubber-stamp board.  At the time, board member Aubrey Layne argued against such a characterization. After becoming Transportation Secretary under McAuliffe, Layne’s perspective changed. He pulled the project on the Charlottesville Bypass project and radically modified U.S. 460.

The legislative proposal indicates that the McAuliffe administration is willing to tolerate more open discussion and independent judgment in the CTB in order to head off other potential fiascos.

P3 governance. Changes to the P3 process are aimed at preventing a recurrence of the U.S. 460 debacle, in which the state spent $300 million on an upgrade to U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk without acquiring needed wetlands permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The P3 program works for the right projects, such as the I-95 and I-495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia where the private sector put their money and resources on the table in expectation of getting a reasonable return on their investment,” McAuliffe said in a prepared statement. “The P3 program was the wrong procurement tool to deliver the U.S. 460 project in southeastern Virginia, which cost taxpayers $300 million with nothing to show for it. To prevent this from occurring again, Delegate [Chris] Jones has played a significant role in reforming this process so it is transparent, the risk to taxpayers is minimized and clear lines of accountability are set.”

Specifically:

  • Private partners must disclose risk that is transferred to the commonwealth. The intent is to minimize risk for taxpayers by selecting projects in which the private sector is willing to make the appropriate investment in expectation of getting a reasonable return.
  • The transportation secretary will be accountable by signing a finding of public interest before a P3 deal is finalized, certifying that the risk transfer and all other findings are still valid.  This would prevent situations like the U.S. 460 P3 deal, where procurement changed over the course of the project, yet no one was held accountable.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is heartening to see Republicans and Democrats cooperating to achieve governance reform in the transportation arena, in which billions of taxpayer dollars are spent. As I have argued repeatedly, there are inherent tensions in the P3 process between the public’s need for transparency, especially visibility in its exposure to risk, and the private party’s desire for confidentiality. These proposals seem to be a positive step. Whether they create sufficient transparency remains to be seen.

How to Make Enemies and Lose Influence with People

richmond_council

Photo credit: Times-Dispatch

The traveling radical minstrel show has moved from Charlottesville to Richmond, it appears. Last night, a group of activists paraded through City Council chambers beating drums and making a series of demands, from stronger citizen oversight of police, care for the homeless, more money for schools and public transit, ending mass incarceration and “respect for black life,” according to the Times-Dispatch.

The crowd also threatened to “disrupt” the world championship bicycle races in Richmond next year if their demands were not met.

Forced to take a 15-minute recess, Council postponed action on many of the issues on its agenda.

If Richmond’s village radicals want “respect for black life,” perhaps they should start showing respect to others. Try playing by the same political rules everyone else abides by and working for change by presenting evidence, disseminating information, lobbying and getting sympathetic people elected. Issuing threats and disrupting the business of government accomplishes nothing good. Indeed, it just ticks people off — especially people like me. My reaction to threats is, “Bite me.”

Does this crowd have anything to offer other than ignorance and belligerence? Let’s see the evidence that the City of Richmond — a black majority city with a black mayor, black commonwealth attorney, black sheriff and (on again/off again) a black police chief — lacks respect for black life. I’m open to hearing about it. But present me evidence, not chants, drum beating and disruption. If you act like a mob, people are inclined to think that you think like a mob and deserve to be treated like a mob. They will write off your concerns as ill-informed demogoguery.

– JAB

Virginia’s Top Stories in 2014

mcd convictedBy Peter Galuszka

The Year 2014 was quite eventful if unsettling. It represented some major turning points for the Old Dominion.

Here are my picks for the top stories:

  • Robert F. McDonnell becomes the highest-ranking former or serving state official to be convicted of corruption. The six-week-long trial from July to September of the Republican former governor and his wife, Maureen, was international news. In terms of trash, it offered everything – greed, tackiness, a dysfunctional marriage, a relationship “triangle,” and an inner glimpse of how things work at the state capital.  More importantly, it ends forever the conceit that there is a “Virginia Way” in which politicians are gentlemen above reproach, the status quo prevails and ordinary voters should be kept as far away from the political process as possible. It also shows the unfinished job of reforming ethics. The hidden heroes are honest state bureaucrats who resisted top-down pushes to vet dubious vitamin pills plus the State Police who did their investigative duty.
  • Eric Cantor loses. Cantor, another Republican, had been riding high as the 7th District Congressman and House Majority Leader. A wunderkind of the Richmond business elite, Cantor was positioned to be House Speaker and was considered invulnerable, at least until David Brat, an unknown college economics professor and populist libertarian, exploited fractures in the state GOP to win a stunning primary upset. Cantor immediately landed in a high-paying lobbying job for a financial house.
  • Terry McAuliffe takes over. The Democrat Washington insider and Clinton crony beat hard-right fanatic Kenneth Cuccinelli in a tight 2013 race. He bet almost everything on getting the GOP-run General Assembly to expand Medicaid benefits to 400,000 low income Virginians. He lost and will try again. He’s done a pretty good job at snaring new business, notably the $2 billion Shandong-Tralin paper mill from China for Chesterfield County. It will employ 2,000.
  • Roads projects blow up. Leftover highway messes such as the bypass of U.S. 29 in Charlottesville finally got spiked for now. Big questions remain about what happened to the $400 million or so that the McDonnell Administration spent on the unwanted U.S. 460 road to nowhere in southeastern Virginia.
  • Gay marriage becomes legal. A U.S. District Judge in Norfolk found Virginia’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court pushed opening gay marriage farther. The rulings helped turn the page on the state’s prejudicial past, such as the ban on interracial marriage that lasted until the late 1960s.
  • Fracking changes state energy picture. A flood of natural gas from West Virginia and Pennsylvania has utilities like Dominion Resources pushing gas projects. It’s been nixing coal plants and delaying new nukes and renewables. Dominion is also shaking things up by pitching a $5 billion, 550-mile-long pipeline through some of the state’s most picturesque areas – just one of several pipelines being pitched. The EPA has stirred things up with complex new rules in cutting carbon emissions and the state’s business community and their buddies at the State Corporation Commission have organized a massive opposition campaign. McAuliffe, meanwhile, has issued his “everything” energy plan that looks remarkably like former governor McDonnell’s.
  • State struggles with budget gaps. Sequestration of federal spending and defense cuts have sent officials scrambling to plug a $2.4 billion gap in the biennial budget. It is back to the same old smoke and mirrors to raise taxes while not seeming to. Obvious solutions – such as raising taxes on gasoline and tobacco – remain off limits.
  • College rape became a hot issue after Rolling Stone printed a flawed story about an alleged gang rape of a female student at the prestigious University of Virginia in 2012. Progressives pushed for raising awareness while conservatives took full advantage of the reporter’s reporting gaps to pretend that sex abuse is not really an issue.
  • Poverty is on the radar screen, especially in Richmond which has poverty rate of 27 percent (70 percent in some neighborhoods) and other spots such as Newport News. Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones got a lot of national press attention for his campaign to eradicate poverty but it is really hard to understand what he’s actually doing or whether it is successful. The real attention in Richmond is on such essentials as replacing the Diamond baseball stadium, justifying a training camp for the Washington Redskins and giving big subsidies for a rich San Diego brewer of craft beer.
  • Day care regulation. Virginia has a horrible reputation for allowing small, home day care centers to operate without regulation. Dozens have children have died over the past few years at them. This year there were deaths at centers in Midlothian and Lynchburg.
  • The continued madness of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. This out-of-control slush fund in the tobacco belt continued its waywardness by talking with Democratic State Sen. Phil Pucket about a six-figure job just as Puckett was to resign and deny a swing vote in the senate in favor of expanding Medicaid. The commission also drew attention for inside plays by the politically powerful Kilgore family and giving $30 million in an unsolicited grant to utility Dominion.

Redistricting, Ethics Panel Pushes Ahead

seal_virginiaBy Peter Galuszka

Against strong chances that their efforts will be killed in the self-serving General Assembly, a panel is pushing ahead with badly needed reforms in government ethics and redistricting.

The bipartisan Commission on Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government wants to change the state constitution to create and independent redistricting commission tasked with remaking voting districts without regard to an election’s outcome.

Headed by Republican former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Democrat former U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, the group proposes that the redistricting commission be made up of five members. One each would be chosen by the House of Delegates speaker and minority leader and the same in the Senate. The four people would choose a fifth one and if they can’t decide, the state’s chief justice of the state Supreme Court would make the decision.

The idea is coming forward after two big events. One is the first-time ever conviction of a former or sitting governor in the state on corruption charges. The other was a federal court decision in October that the lines of the 3rd Congressional District were drawn in an unconstitutional way by packing in African-Americans. Doing so ensured victories by black politicians while diluted the black vote in neighboring ones.

The state constitution requires state and federal districts to be redrawn every 10 years to changes in settlement patterns. It has also been complicated by the Voting Rights Act, a 1960s-era vehicle that tried to correct the wrongs of white-dominated Southern states erecting districts so black votes were kept away.

At the moment very few of the races of other General Assembly are competitive. They are designed to keep incumbents in power which, in most rural districts, are Republicans. Thus, the real clash of ideas comes from a very tiny margin of voters and activists at Republican primaries that are often not representative of mainstream thinking.

Likewise, Virginia badly needs to address its “anything goes” policies regarding campaign donations and accepting gifts. This is a big reason why Robert F. McDonnell got into such big trouble with his corruption conviction that could put him in jail for a decade or more. Gov. Terry McAuliffe created the Bolling-Boucher commission just after McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in a federal court in Richmond.

These reforms are absolutely necessary. If the General Assembly stubbornly deep-sixes the redistricting plan, someone else will have to come in. A federal judge has given the state until April 15 to redraw the 3rd district or the feds will do it.

And, as the McDonnell case shows, if Virginia goes over the top with ethics violations, the feds will do it, too. Underlining that point, the U.S. Probation Office is recommending double the usual prison time for McDonnell. Analysts say it is to make the statement crystal clear.

But, this is Virginia, unfortunately. Instead of dealing head-on with serious ethics problems, the ruling elite is mounting a campaign to give McDonnell time in community service instead of behind bars. Its proponents include the usual players like House Speaker Bill Howell and Tom Farrell of the utility Dominion.

Their game is to keep the status quo for as long as they can. Too bad times are changing, but the longer they stall, the more they hurt the people of Virginia.