Category Archives: Governance reform

Cruz, “Liberty” and Teletubbies

AP CRUZ A USA VA By Peter Galuszka

Where’s the “Liberty” in Liberty University?

The Christian school founded by the controversial televangelist Jerry Falwell required students under threat of a $10 “fine” and other punishments to attend a “convocation” Monday where hard-right U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president.

Thus, Liberty produced a throng of people, some 10,000 strong, to cheer on Cruz who wants to throttle Obamacare, gay marriage, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and blunt immigration reform.

Some students stood up to the school for forcing them to become political props. Some wore T-Shirts proclaiming their support of libertarian Rand Paul while others protested the university’s coercion. “I just think it’s unfair. I wouldn’t say it’s dishonest, but it’s approaching dishonesty,” Titus Folks, a Liberty student, told reporters.

University officials, including Jerry Falwell, the son of the late founder, claim they have the right as a private institution to require students to attend “convocations” when they say so. But it doesn’t give them the power to take away the political rights of individual students not to be human displays  in a big and perhaps false show.

There’s another odd issue here. While Liberty obviously supports hard right Tea Party types, the traditional Republican Party in the state is struggling financially.

Russ Moulton, a GOP activist who helped Dave Brat unseat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary last summer, has emailed party members begging them to come up with $30,000 to help the cash-strapped state party.

GOP party officials downplay the money problem, but it is abundantly clear that the struggles among Virginia Republicans are as stressed out as ever. Brat won in part because he cast himself as a Tea Party favorite painting Cantor as toady for big money interests. The upset drew national attention.

Liberty University has grown from a collection of mobile homes to a successful school, but it always has had the deal with the shadow of its founder. The Rev. Falwell gained notoriety over the years for putting segregationists on his television show and opposing gay rights, going so far as to claim that “Teletubbies,” a cartoon production for young children, covertly backed homosexual role models.

Years ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story showing that the Rev. Falwell took liberties in promoting the school he founded in 1971. Brochures touting the school pictured a downtown Lynchburg bank building with the bank’s logo airbrushed off. This gave the impression that Liberty was thriving with stately miniature skyscrapers for its campus.

Some observers have noted that Liberty might be an appropriate place for the outspoken Cruz to launch his campaign. The setting tends to blunt the fact that he’s the product of an Ivy League education – something that might not go down too well with Tea Party types – and that he was actually born in Canada, although there is no question about his U.S. citizenship and eligibility to run for question.

Hard-line conservatives have questioned the eligibility of Barack Obama to run for U.S. president although he is likewise qualified.

With Cruz in the ring and Liberty cheering him, it will make for an interesting campaign.

Another Russian Reformer Murdered

nemtsov killedBy Peter Galuszka

It was a personal shocker to read of the murder in Moscow of Russian reformer Boris Nemtsov, the latest in a long string of killings related to the tragic fight for change in that country.

Nemtsov was gunned down Friday in a drive-by shooting as he walked across Moskvoretsky Bridge a short distance from the Kremlin and Red Square.

The outspoken 55-year-old former nuclear physicist turned government official was a key figure in the far more hopeful years of the early 1990s when bright young people tried (in vain) to move Russia beyond the kleptocracy of the Communist era.

Nemtsov pushed capitalist reforms by trying to root out corruption. He simplified establishing businesses by taking the registration process out of the hands of crooked bureaucrats. He advocated transparency in bidding contracts. More recently, he revealed billions of dollars in payoffs at the Russian Winter Olympics last year at Sochi.

Naturally, Nemtsov ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who beat out Nemtsov as Boris Yeltsin’s successor. Putin is the spearhead of the old power elite that has seized control over the past 15 years, rolled back democratic reforms, unleashed a torrent of inside business deals, and pushed the worst military conflict in the region (Crimea and Ukraine) since the Cold War.

Nemtsov was due to lead a Moscow protest rally against Putin’s bloody Ukrainian adventurism that has killed 5,800 people. He was to stand in for Alexei Navalny another reformer who has been imprisoned for handing out leaflets at a subway station.

As he was taking a walk on an unusually warm winter evening, a car drove up. Six shots were fired. Nemtsov was killed by four bullets.

He is the fifth person – either Russian or foreign – that I have dealt with personally who has been murdered. I reported from Moscow for BusinessWeek in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here are a few examples: American businessman Paul Tatum involved in a dispute with a Chechen partner was slain by 11 bullets to the head and neck at a subway station that I used to frequent. Paul Klebnikov, an American editor of Russian-language Forbes magazine, was shot near his apartment. Russian investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikin, a friend who got me an assignment to write for Literaturnaya Gazetta, died in an apparent poisoning.

I had interviewed Nemtsov back when he was pushing far-reaching and radical change in the the city of Nizhniy Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky, east of Moscow.

He is the highest-profile reformer to be killed during the regime of Putin who says it was a contract killing and that he will oversee the investigation “personally.”

Government Fragmentation and Economic Growth

fragmentation

by James A. Bacon

What are the secrets of successful metropolitan regions? According to conventional economic-development thinking here in Virginia, success hinges upon the ability to maintain a positive business climate, a concept that encompasses everything from tax rates to the tort system, the transportation network to the education level of the workforce. But a new publication by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “The Metropolitan Century,” identifies a critical variable rarely discussed in Virginia: the fragmentation of municipal governance.

Metropolitan regions characterized by higher levels of municipal fragmentation tend to experience lower economic growth rates than metros with less fragmentation, contends the OECD report, as seen in the chart above. Metropolitan regions run the gamut in the degree of fragmentation, from the United Kingdom with an average of 0.4 municipalities per 100,000 residents to the Czech Republic with an average of 2.43 per 100,000. All other things being equal, the report says, “For each doubling in the number of municipalities per 100,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan area, labour productivity in the metropolitan area decreases by 5-6%.”

(I would surmise that the number of municipalities in Virginia falls in the “moderately low” category. For example, the 1.7 million inhabitants of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area are governed by 16 jurisdictions, including two in North Carolina, or slightly less than 1.0 per 100,000 population.)

Fragmented government inhibits economic growth through its impact on transportation and land use, suggests the OECD report. The inability to plan regionally can result in “sub-optimal provision of transportation infrastructure” that falls short of its potential to provide the connectivity required by a productive, growing regional economy.

In the context of large urban agglomerations, land use planning and transport planning are often the fields where the need for co-ordination is greatest. … Housing and commercial developments need to be well connected to other parts of the urban agglomeration, and public transport in turn relies on a minimum population density to operate efficiently.

Integrating transport and land-use planning makes it easier to utilize value-capture tools for financing transportation infrastructure. “Public spending for infrastructure increases the price of adjacent land,” states the report. “Often, this price increase provides a publicly funded windfall profit to land owners or developers. Land-value capture tools aim at recapturing these windfalls from developers in order to (partially) fund the infrastructure investment.”

Echoing arguments that EM Risse made on this blog years ago, the OECD report observes that administrative borders in metropolitan areas have not evolved in concert with economic and social patterns.

While good governance structures are no guarantee for good policies, it is very difficult to design and implement good policies without them. … Administrative borders in metropolitan areas rarely correspond to these functional relations. Often, they are based on historical settlement patterns that no longer reflect human activities.

A few decades ago, there was a move in Virginia to consolidate cities and counties in order to achieve administrative efficiencies and economies of scale. There were some notable successes — Virginia Beach merged with Princess Anne County, Suffolk merged with Nansemond County — but the movement petered out.  The OECD report spelled out reasons for resistance to consolidation that apparently apply across the economically developed world:

Common reasons for the persistence of administrative borders are strong local identities and high costs of reforms, but also vested interests of politicians and residents. Even if policy makers try to reorganize local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify unambiguous boundaries between functionally integrated areas.

There doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consolidating local governments in Virginia, but the OECD report does suggest an alternate strategy: Identifying specific functions that can be transferred to regional authorities.

Would it be worth the effort to invest political capital in such endeavors? Take a look at the chart at the top of this post. The big dividing line in economic growth is between medium-low and medium-high fragmentation. Assuming Virginia metropolitan regions fall into the medium-low category — and I do confess that I do not know exactly what the dividing line is — there doesn’t seem to be much of a growth premium from consolidating our way into “low fragmentation” status. Indeed, I would argue that some competition between jurisdictions in a metropolitan area is a good thing — the ability of inhabitants to “vote with their feet” helps keep the politicians honest.

But that’s a shoot-from-the-hip reaction based upon one OECD chart. If Virginia is serious about positioning itself for economic prosperity in the years ahead, our governance structures, rooted in 19th-century settlement patterns, surely need to keep up with economic reality.

“Hacking for Good” Comes to Virginia

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the "hack for good" movement spreading across the U.S.

Andrew Hyder with Code for America describes the “hack for good” movement spreading across the U.S.

by James A. Bacon

Michael Kolbe experienced first-hand the power of data-driven election campaigning while working on the 2012 Obama re-election team. He went on to take a job as a strategy analyst for Health Diagnostic Laboratory in Richmond but didn’t discard his idealism. Hoping to harness the power of data to solve social problems, he joined others to bring the burgeoning civic hacking movement to Richmond last year.

His first “hackathon” fizzled, Kolbe concedes. The goal was to create a “where’s my school bus” app for the City of Richmond schools, adapting open code developed elsewhere. Despite initial enthusiasm, school officials “went radio silent” and Kolbe and his compatriots didn’t have a strong enough team to push the project through. “It just fell apart.”

Learning from that inauspicious beginning, Kolbe tried again. The results of his efforts could be seen Saturday in Code for RVA’s code-a-thon held at INM United’s warehouse-chic office building in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition. This time, more than 60 participants worked on a half-dozen projects to make local government data more accessible and useful to citizens.

This time Kolbe had time to build an organization and line up sponsors and alliances. The Richmond hack-a-thon was held as part of a national CodeAcross event organized in dozens of cities across the United States by San Francisco-based Code for America. Code for America dispatched a team to help organize the Richmond event. Socrata, a Seattle-based open-data company, created a portal to which the Richmond hackers could add their data. Code for RVA also found a local champion for its open-government projects in Andreas Addison, a self-described “civic innovator” for the City of Richmond.

“This meeting wouldn’t have happened two years ago,” said Addison, who has led the effort to bring data analytics to City of Richmond decision making. “Things are changing.”

Even the governor’s office is getting on board. Zaki Barzinji, deputy director for intergovernmental affairs in Governor Terry McAuliffe’s policy shop, said the administration hopes to work with Code for America, Virginia universities, state agencies and local Code for America “brigades” like Code for RVA to organize a statewide conclave with the goal of driving open data and cultural change in state government.

Most of the projects undertaken Saturday were simple, aiming to make existing data more accessible to the public. One team worked on creating RVA Answers, a Web resource providing answers to most frequently asked questions. Another team tackled the goal of making data about city boards & commissions more readily available, including information on how to apply for a position. Yet another group worked on improving the display of city crime data.

The most ambitious project, long in the works, is an initiative to address the spread of STIs (socially transmitted infections), especially among the city’s poor and young. The city has pulled together a multi-disciplinary team to organize and analyze existing data, supplemented by insight gleaned by interviewing poor people and shadowing government health workers. The mission is to encourage people to get tested for STIs and to direct them to locations in their neighborhoods where they can do it.

This initiative will not likely wither on the vine — Danny Avula, deputy director of the city health department, is pushing the project forward. “A lot of people in government don’t get it,” Avula said, speaking of the use of data analytics. “But there are advocates now.”

Open data sounds great in the abstract, but civic hackers often face indifference or resistance. When the McAuliffe administration launched its open data portal last year, said Barzinji, it encountered a tendency among state agencies to keep their data to themselves.  The administration started small, asking each agency to share at least one data set. Once the value of public data can be demonstrated, he said, he expects the agencies to loosen up.

Never under-estimate the role of simple bureaucratic inertia. Mike Walls, IT strategy manager for the City of Richmond, noted that government IT departments are focused on the core mission of “just keeping the lights on.” Top priorities are making sure payroll is met, bills are paid and basic functions work. “You can’t have the network go down. You can’t have the emergency dispatching software crash. It creates a very cautious mindset.”

In his experience, Walls said, IT bureaucrats aren’t opposed to releasing data to the public as much as they are overwhelmed by their existing responsibilities. They see the task of opening up data as more work. “When your day job grinds you down, it’s hard to find the enthusiasm.”

Another issue, said Walls, is that data can’t just be dumped willy nilly into public databases. When data reveals information about individuals, public access may raise privacy issues. Often there are technical issues as well. Data is typically compiled to the standard of “good enough for the intended purpose,” not for a purpose someone might dream up later. As a consequence, mashing up, say, land use data calibrated to difference levels of accuracy might lead to absurd results like fire hydrants appearing in the middle of a street.

But civic tech advocates expressed optimism that the obstacles can be overcome. Small victories lead to larger victories. Said Barzinji: “First what we need is the proof of concept.” Then the push for legislation and executive action can follow.

The McDonnell Saga Is Far From Over

maureen mcdonnell sentencedBy Peter Galuszka

Former Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell has been sentenced to 12 months and a day in federal prison, but the GiftGate saga is far from over.

She will appeal as has her husband, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who was sentenced to two years in prison last month. The now estranged couple was convicted of public corruption felonies, making McDonnell the only Virginia governor, past or present, to be convicted of a crime.

The next step is for the former governor’s appeals to be heard at the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in May. The issue is whether so-called “honest services fraud” for which both were convicted, should be interpreted broadly or narrowly.

During their trial, U.S. District Judge James Spencer took the broad approach, instructing the jury that there did not have to be a very strict “quid pro quo” for them to return a guilty verdict. He reiterated his stand on Friday by overruling a slew of motions from the defense relating to the issue.

The appeals could have far-reaching consequences, as I reported with a colleague on Bloomberg News this week. Charles James, a former federal prosecutor who works at the Williams Mullen law firm in Richmond, says the case “could be the next case to further restrict the use” of the honest-services fraud statute.

If the Robert McDonnell’s appeal is successful, then it would have a big impact on his wife, as well as loosen the interpretation nationally of how far “honest services” should go.

If the government is successful, then expect a crackdown on public official hankie-pankie.

At Friday’s sentencing, eight character witnesses described Ms. McDonnell, 60, as an empathetic, self-sacrificing woman who would do anything for her children and husband.

That image stands in marked contrast to the image defense lawyers for her husband painted during the trial. Incredibly, her own lawyers piled on with the idea that Maureen McDonnell was a naïve but abusive woman who hated being First Lady. She was so frustrated with her husband ignoring her for his political career that she got entangled with Jonnie (the serpent) Williams, who ran Star Scientific, a Henrico company that made and marketed vitamin supplements.

Williams gave the financially strapped McDonnells about $177,000 in gifts, loans and trips while the McDonnells set up meetings with state officials to the products of his money-losing firm. Ironically, the main product was Anatabloc, a skin cream, which has since been ordered off the market the Food and Drug Administration.

At the top of this blog, you see a teaser story that the convictions were corrupted by Williams’ dubious integrity. That’s nonsense, of course. Prosecutors use inside testimony, especially in organized crime and drug cases, all the time.

The bigger issue is whether “honest services” means bribery or whether it is a normal part of setting up appointments by public officials to consider projects that might benefit their city, state or country. This will be the key issue in the appeals.

Meanwhile, the soap opera has been weirdly painful, fascinating and entertaining. It’s also been rather crass. The former governor tries to come off like a Boy Scout yet refused a chance to cop a plea in exchange for Maureen not being indicted at all. She was not a public official, but non-public officials have been convicted in the past of honest services fraud.

Both defense teams made Maureen the scapegoat. She was portrayed as a greedy and unstable hustler who brought her husband down.

Before delivering the sentence to Maureen, who gave a tearful, first-time statement asking for mercy, Spencer made bitingly critical remarks of the defense lawyers. “The ‘Let’s throw Momma under the bus’ defense morphed into the ‘Let’s throw Momma off the train defense,’” he said. Ms. McDonnell seemed to be two very different people and Spencer had trouble figuring it out.

Her lawyers had asked for no prison time and 4,000 hours of community service. Federal guidelines could have given her more than six years but prosecutors asked for only 18 months in prison.

Spencer split the difference, mostly because he gave Mr. McDonnell a light sentence. He was more culpable since he was a public official, not to mention a former state prosecutor and the state attorney general.

He cut Maureen some slack, too. By sentencing her that extra day, he gave her the opportunity to get out in only 10 months for good behavior since that’s the rule under federal prison guidelines.

Look Who’s Disenfranchising Whom

Winning nominee Kevin Sullivan -- suspiciously white looking.

Winning nominee Kevin Sullivan — suspiciously white looking.

by James A. Bacon

Most would agree that the caucus method chosen by the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) to pick a nominee to run in a snap election Jan. 13 for the 74th House of Delegates seat was less than, ahem, democratic. In the caucus, also known as a “firehouse primary,” only 50 or so local party committee officials were allowed to participate. They selected Kevin Sullivan, who wound up losing the general election to Joseph D. Morrissey, the former Democratic Party delegate who resigned his seat after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and then running as an independent.

Did the nomination, a classic case of machine politics, discriminate against the predominantly African-American electorate of House District 74?

A lawsuit filed on behalf of David Lambert, son of long-time state Senator Benjamin Lambert, contends that the firehouse primary effectively disenfranchised African-American voters who comprise approximately 60% of the roughly 53,500 registered voters of the district, which encompasses 26 precincts in Henrico County, three in Charles City County and one in the City of Richmond. The candidate selected by the process, Kevin Sullivan, was white. For that matter, so is Morrissey.

I’m not sure I buy the argument in the brief filed by attorney J. Paul Gregorio in Federal District Court, but I think the case deserves an airing. At the very least, it should serve as a cautionary tale to Democrats who have charged Republicans with disenfranchising African-Americans — or, to paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden when speaking in Virginia during the recent presidential election, “putting y’all back in chains” — for the offense of enacting Voter ID laws.

Lambert, one of three plaintiffs in the lawsuit, wanted to be a candidate in the nominating process. But, according to the suit, “the required $1500 mandatory, nonfundable filing fee, and the lack of any alternative means for a candidate to get on the nomination ballot without paying this fee, worked to deny him ballot access.”

That fee, while not specifically prohibited, was against the spirit of Democratic Party rules, which states that no fee be charged for the right to vote at a caucus. Voting isn’t the same as running for nomination, but that might strike some as a fine distinction. Democratic Party rules declare that “full participation by all Democrats in all phases of … nominating procedures” is to be granted whenever possible.

The firehouse primary rules took away the right to vote and disenfranchised all these Democrats – overwhelmingly African American – except for those considered to be ‘members in good standing'” of local Democratic committees, the lawsuit alleges. And even those committee members had to pay mandatory fees for the privilege of serving on the committees. The fee of the Charles City County committee was mandatory. Henrico committee members also were expected to pay a fee, although they could apply for a waiver.

The lawsuit also took issue with the disproportionate representation of Charles City County committee officials among those allowed to vote in the caucus. Democrats in Charles City County accounted for only 9% of the votes cast in the 2013 House of Delegates election, yet they had nearly as many participants in the firehouse primary as Henrico County, which accounted for 88% of the vote. Not one committee member from the City of Richmond participated, the suit alleges, effectively disenfranchising the 1,441 registered voters there.

Continues the lawsuit:

The DPVA, operating through the Nominating Committee, wanted to prevent a sizeable, identifiable group of African America Democrats from exercising their right to vote, their right of political speech, their right of association, and such other rights enabling them to act individually and together in order to choose the individual they wanted as the nominee of their party. …

The DPVA, operating through the Nominating Committee, feared this group of African Americans, who were not members of a local democratic party, might use their First Amendment rights to support a candidate the DPVA and other local party officials didn’t want to win the Democratic nomination. Therefore the firehouse primary rules were intentionally designed to disenfranchise them all.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the Democratic Party firehouse primary rule to be in violation of the the U.S. Constitution and to prohibit its use in the future. The suit also asks for a judgment against the mandatory imposition of the $1,500 filing fee.

Bacon’s bottom line. To my mind, the logic of the lawsuit essentially boils down to this: The firehouse primary had a disparate impact on African-Americans, therefore it amounted to unconstitutional discrimination. Yet consider: Dwight Jones, mayor of Richmond and state chair of the DPVA, is African-American. Many of the party committee members who participated in the primary undoubtedly are African-American. (I don’t know this for a fact, but it stands to reason if 60% of the voters are African-American, most of the committee members are as well.) If anything, this is a case of the political elite, which happens to be African-American, manipulating the political process to do an end run around the electorate, which also happens to be African-American. It isn’t racial discrimination — it’s brass knuckle politics.

However, the charges couldn’t be delivered against a nicer group of people. The plaintiffs are subjecting the DPVA to the same kind of logic — equating disparate impact with discrimination — that the DPVA and DPVA office holders apply to the Republicans (Voter ID laws) and businesses (discrimination in hiring) every day. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Should the Democratic Party open up the process to everyone? Of course it should. So should Republicans. Does its failure to do so violate the Constitution? I’m no constitutional scholar, but I’m not buying it.

Addressing the Real Source of Voter Disenfranchisement

voter_disenfranchisementby James A. Bacon

While partisans of a particular political party, which shall go unnamed, works itself into a righteous wrath over Voter Identification laws that supposedly threaten to bring back the Jim Crow era, they have been less vocal about the very tangible disenfranchisement of African-Americans created by the denial of voting rights to people with felony convictions. Perhaps it’s too embarrassing to bring up the issue because it was that very same party, in its pre-Civil Rights incarnation as the party of Southern segregation, that enacted those laws in the first place.

But consider: Of Virginia’s 6.4 million citizens of voting-age population, 450,000 have been disenfranchised by their felony status. The laws disproportionately affect black citizens. In 2010, 20% of the state’s voting-age African-American population could not vote as a result of a felony conviction, according to Helen A. Gibson, a University of Virginia civil rights historian, writing in the current edition of The Virginia News Letter.

In “Felons and the Right to Vote in Virginia: a Historical Overview,” Gibson walks through the history of what she calls “felon disenfranchisement” in Virginia in ante-bellum Virginia, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights era. “Despite recent steps toward reform,” she writes, “Virginia continues to struggle with its legacy of one of the highest disenfranchisement rates in the country.”

But the state has made progress in recent years. Former Governor Mark Warner streamlined the application for non-violent offenders to get their voting rights restored, reducing the period they had to wait before petitioning to get their rights restored. Former Governor Bob McDonnell issued an executive order making 350,000 Virginians convicted of non-violent felonies eligible to have their voting rights restored without the three-year waiting period. Most recently, Governor Terry McAuliffe has reduced the waiting time for restoring voting rights to those convicted of violent felonies and petitioned to have drug offenses removed from violent felonies. (Seventy-two percent of Virginians incarcerated for drug offenses are African-American.) The administrative systems for restoring voting rights has not kept pace with these gubernatorial actions, so voting-right restoration lags.

Here’s what I’d like to know: How many people have been unable to vote in Virginia due to Voter ID disenfranchisement compared to how many have been unable to vote compared to felony disenfranchisement? Maybe two or three hundred compared to two or three hundred thousand? Would it be asking too much to have the rhetoric of outrage directed at the source of greatest injustice?

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