Category Archives: Politics

Playing the Racism Card… Just Pathetic

howard_myers

Mayor Howard Myers. Photo credit: WTVR

In other Petersburg-related follies… Petersburg Mayor W. Howard Myers has told fellow City Council members that the attacks on his leadership are motivated by racism and partisanship.

“I will as a representative of Ward 5 and as major duly to my right hand, serve the public without blemish and from scare tactics from a few racists[s] and Republican supporters,” he wrote in an Aug. 11 email that he asked the city clerk to share with other council members, reports the Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Dude, you presided over the worst financial meltdown of a Virginia locality probably since the Great Depression and you think your critics are motivated by racism? Under your watch, the city is facing a current-year budget gap of $12 million (nearly 20% of General Fund revenue) on top of $19 million dollars of unpaid bills, and you have conceded in unguarded remarks that you had no idea how this all happened, yet you expect anyone to believe that the people who are unhappy about it are being partisan in their attacks?

Do you know how totally pathetic that is? Not only pathetic, but in this racially polarized era, wildly irresponsible?

As I understand from the news coverage, Petersburg’s five City Council members are all African-American while many of the citizens who get irate and engage in shouting matches with you during council sessions are mostly white. Yeah, I suppose one reason that they’re argumentative is that they’re racist. But there’s another possible explanation: They’re pissed off at how you ran the city into the ground!

The System Is Rigged… and Trump Ought to Know

The system is rigged!

Building a big, beautiful tax break

Back in the day, Virginia was one of the most reliable Republican states in presidential elections.  That changed in 2008, with the election of President Obama.  Current polling indicates that the deeply flawed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton has a double-digit lead over Donald Trump.  The core of this support seems to be amongst college-educated whites in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Now there is more trouble ahead for “The Donald”!! The lead story in today’s New York Times details how, after filing for bankruptcy, Trump’s New Jersey casinos owed the state of New Jersey $30 million in back taxes.  The article discusses how, after Chris Christie ascended to the governorship, the state settled for 17 cents on the dollar, or slightly less than $5 million.

And Governor Bob was indicted for, amongst other matters, riding around in a Ferrari?

— Les Schreiber

Why “The Donald”

trumpLast summer as the Dow Jones average hovered near its all-time high of 18,000+, one of the commentators on the CNBC business channel commented that Lloyd Blankenfein had just joined the billionaire’s club. I was a bit taken aback. While Goldman is the premiere investment bank on Wall Street, during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the largest percentage of the $85 billion spent to bail out A.I.G. was funneled to Goldman Sachs in order to settle credit default swaps issued by AIGFP to Goldman as a counter-party. Who knew that a person could be a billionaire and a welfare queen at the same time?

Recently, the charity OXFAM AMERICA issued a report stating that for every dollar spent by corporations in America on lobbying activities, they receive $130 in tax breaks, and approximately $4,000 in federal loans. Since 1952, the share of corporate taxation as part of federal revenue has declined from 32% to 11%.

From studying the results of recent primaries, there is a significant backlash against the economic policies of Republican and Democratic administrations.

In addition to the financial crisis and tax policies, foreign trade agreements are perceived as benefiting a few while middle class jobs disappear. A recent article in the New York Times outlined the decline of the steel industry in Birmingham Alabama. It was not pretty.

Somehow, Trump, whose companies have gone bankrupt more than once, has been able to feed on this feeling that the system is structurally unjust, to win the nomination of a major American political party. This is not pretty. And while Donald the person may be dismissed, the reasons for his success should not be.

— Les Schreiber

McAuliffe’s Dangerous Game

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, when he helped run L. Douglas Wilder’s history-making gubernatorial campaign, Paul Goldman was regarded as a progressive voice in Virginia politics. If he writes many more op-eds like the one published Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he could well become anathema to progressives. Not because he has changed his principles, mind you, but because progressives have come to toss around accusations of racism with such reckless abandon.

Goldman’s topic was Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring full civil and voting rights to 206,000 felons convicted of both violent and non-violent crimes. The Richmond attorney and political activist makes two critical points that dovetail with my critique of contemporary progressivism.

One is that McAuliffe’s defenders make unsupported accusations of racism and discrimination that only “make it harder for those fighting for honest change.” Specifically, Goldman tackles the notion that Article II, Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution — “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority” — was intentionally written to disenfranchise African-Americans.

To the contrary, notes Goldman, disenfranchisement of felons dates back to colonial times when only white men were allowed to vote. Moreover, Virginia civil rights legend Oliver Hill reviewed and approved the provision for inclusion in the 1971 Virginia constitution.

A second point is that the people who get so agitated about the injustice done to felons are remarkably quiet about the injustices the felons inflicted upon their victims. While felons in Virginia are disproportionately African-American, so are crime victims.

As Goldman writes, “For the government to suggest a victim or loved one is anti-black because she opposes automatic restoration [of civil rights] without any showing of contrition is unjustified. It demeans the victim.”

A strong case can be made that the process of restoring rights to non-violent felons should be made easier — no individual petition necessary. But blanket restoration for violent felons without giving the victim an opportunity for input or any requirement for the predator to show contrition should be prohibited, Goldman writes. “The petitioning process must not itself be punitive. Yet it can’t be pro forma.”

Lastly, Goldman didn’t make this point but I will: Finding the proper balance for restoring felon rights is not the sole prerogative of the governor. McAuliffe needs to engage in give and take with the legislature. Sadly, the rule of law is regarded among political elites as increasingly optional — something to be enjoined when they can harness it to advance their aims and sidestepped when it cannot. A couple of years back, I said that progressives should be cautious with the precedents they set — just imagine how worried they would be if Sarah Palin were elected president with the power to re-write laws through executive decree. Now they face an even more terrifying prospect — an imperial presidency run by Donald Trump, the man for whom everything is negotiable and “so sue me” is a business best practice. Granting presidents and governors power to re-write laws at will cuts both ways.

Update: General Assembly Republicans are filing suit to halt enforcement of McAuliffe’s executive order.

What Donald Trump Tells Us about the Changing Character of Virginia Politics

by Frank Muraca

When Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, Virginia’s Republican candidates for governor and Congress offered tepid support. Barbara Comstock, representing the diverse 10th district in Northern Virginia, actually withheld an endorsement, saying that Trump needed to “earn” her vote.

And when House Speaker Bill Howell told the Times-Dispatch that he, too, would back Trump, he tacked on an interesting comment:

Politics at the national level won’t change how Republicans in Virginia govern and lead. We’ve distinguished ourselves from Washington over the years, and I think voters recognize that.

Howell’s comment was true – Virginia has historically distanced itself from the unpredictability of national politics. There was a time when Virginia’s political leaders could step away from national politics, even declining to support their own party in presidential elections. But the fact that Virginia’s Republican establishment fell in line for Trump, whose persona and ethos run counter to the Commonwealth’s image of politicians as genteel statesman, shows how much that independence has waned in the past few decades.

The legacy of Harry Byrd Sr. influences Virginia politics today. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Virginia was dominated by a one-party oligarchy that maintained unbridled control over the state government. The “Byrd Organization,” was just one of a handful of conservative, Democratic machines that controlled the political apparatus of southern states in the first half of the 20th century. Former Senator John Battle, one of the organization’s top leaders, described it as follows:

It is nothing more nor less than a loosely knit group of Virginians … who usually think alike, who are interested in the welfare of the Commonwealth, who are supremely interested in giving Virginia good government and good public servants, and they usually act together.

V.O. Key, one of the preeminent political scientists to study southern politics in this time period, wrote that Virginia was a “political museum piece.”

Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy. Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who, themselves and their predecessors, have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government. The Commonwealth possesses characteristics more akin to those of England at about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 than to those of any other state of the present-day South.

One of Byrd’s most consequential accomplishments was creating a political reality separate from the national scene.

With a small, controllable electorate, Virginia’s Democratic leaders were able to act independently of national trends or opinions. The organization flexed its muscle during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt, a fellow Democrat, was selling the New Deal to the American electorate. Virginia, a Democratic stronghold committed to fiscal conservatism, was one of the least cooperative states in enacting the New Deal’s programs. Continue reading

Here, Piggy Piggy Piggy!

pork_barrel

Woo hoo! GO Virginia!

by James A. Bacon

Any time business leaders, university presidents and legislators agree on a great new spending initiative, I put my hand on my pants pocket to make sure my wallet is still there. When their brilliant idea slides through the General Assembly without a dissenting voice, or even a word of skepticism from the news media, I take out my wallet to make sure my cash hasn’t disappeared. The GO Virginia initiative — $36 million allocated over two years to incentivize regional cooperation in economic development — inspires that reaction.

I don’t adamantly oppose GO Virginia — I don’t know enough to form a strong opinion. What worries me is that the proposal has been subjected to so little critical analysis.

Thankfully, Attorney General Mark R. Herring issued a legal opinion yesterday finding that the Virginia Growth and Opportunity Act faces a “significant risk” of being found unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the separation-of-powers doctrine by giving the General Assembly the power to appoint a majority of the board’s 22 members as well as a legislative veto over its grants. (See the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting here.) Gov. Terry McAuliffe has until Sunday to amend or veto the legislation, which he originally supported.

It’s nice to see that someone has taken a serious look at the bill. Herring raises a critical point. If anyone needs an example of what can happen when legislators insert themselves into the executive function, one need look no further than the shenanigans of the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission.

According to the GOVirginia website, the project was the brainchild of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) and the Council on Virginia’s Future “to foster private-sector growth and job creation through state incentives for regional collaboration by business, education, and government.”

Why is the program needed? Backers argue the following:

Because Virginia is a large and diverse state, the opportunities for private-sector growth vary significantly from one part of our state to another, requiring collaborative innovation among employers, entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, educators, governments, and other leaders in each region. Too often this cooperation has been lacking, causing Virginia to lag behind other states.

State government can solve the problem:

The State can and must do more to encourage strategic, job-focused collaboration in each region. Significant state funds currently flow to localities, schools, and higher education institutions; the Commonwealth should use such resources to promote joint efforts on economic and workforce development and to encourage collaboration that can improve performance and reduce costs.

The original concept behind GOVirginia was to fund the program through “use of growth revenues, re-purposed dollars, and efficiency savings” — not new taxes, mandates or layers of government. Somewhere along the way, the initiative morphed into a program supported by $36 million in state funds over the two-year budget. The concept may well have morphed in other ways beyond its original formulation, although, judging from Travis Fain’s reporting for this Daily Press article, the legislative package of four bills has stayed fairly true to the original vision.

Here is how the money would be distributed:

The plan includes $5.5 million a year for the first two years to stand up the regional councils, vet project proposals and study various aspects of regional economies, particularly the gaps in education and skills training needed to support desired industries.

Beyond that, $15 million would be up for grabs, with regional councils competing to get the state board to fund their projects. The remaining $12.4 million would also go toward project-specific grants, but it would be broken down between the regions based on population.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s a little late in the game, I’ll concede, but let’s get the conversation going. Is this a worthwhile expenditure of $18 million a year?

Let’s start by looking at the new overhead created: $11 million, or 30% of the funds allocated, would go to setting up the administrative structure for the program. That’s pretty much a waste. Don’t higher-ed institutions have mechanisms for discerning the job-training needs of local industry already? What can these new studies possibly add?

Then consider the how the money is distributed geographically. Funds will be distributed amongst a number of regional councils reflecting the diversity of the state’s economy. Let’s assume that roughly $15 million a year would be made available for actual grants. How would the sum be divvied up? By the merits of the projects? What if all the high-ROI projects were located in, say, Northern Virginia? Would the other councils feel short-changed? Conversely, what if the money were distributed evenly between regions, would some high-ROI projects be denied funding?

Next, consider the pork barrel aspects. Fain quotes House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a local project – the Aviation Academy at Denbigh High School – as a good example of projects that would get funding.

The Newport News school system runs the school at the Newport News/ Williamsburg International Airport. It would get $100,000 a year under Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget, but Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, wants another $2 million next year and $1.5 million the year after that to expand the school.

Yancey will go before the House Appropriations Committee to ask for that funding, but with limited time during session to vet these proposals, Cox said he’d rather see projects like this bubble up through the regional councils.

Pork by any other name still smells like pork.

There is a vast gap between the airy and idealistic justification of GOVirginia and the ugly implementation guided by legislators toward their pet projects. If the Newport News project is a good example of what would get funding, I hate to see a bad example. I foresee GOVirginia funding projects that couldn’t raise the money from either the private sector or existing government programs, thus creating new programs of marginal value that will be dependent upon government for funding, and creating new constituents that lobby for government hand-outs year after year.

To some degree, I’m playing devil’s advocate — filling a role that no one else has seen fit to play. I’m open to arguments in favor of the program. But so far, I haven’t seen anything that persuades me and a lot to make me keep checking my wallet.

VLDS Big Data Just Got Bigger

big_databy James A. Bacon

This blog post is geeky, but it’s important — so stick with me! If you favor public policy based on what works as opposed to public policy based on ideology or political muscle, then you should be very encouraged by the progress made by the Virginia Longitudinal Data Survey (VLDS) in incorporating new government data sets.

The VLDS started as a master database of mainly educational and employment data. Now it is adding poverty-related data from the SNAP (food stamp), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and VIEW (Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare) programs from 2005 to 2014. Coming up: data sets for foster care, child care, child protective services.

Combining all this data will allow researchers to provide more authoritative answers to a host of public policy questions.

For example, writes Jeff Price in a recent VLDS blog post, “We have never been able to evaluate the impact food security, as provided by the SNAP program, has on the academic success of young children. Do children whose family receives food stamps miss fewer days of school and do better on standardized tests than children from other low income families that do not participate in the SNAP program?”

Previously, it was a bureaucratic nightmare for researchers to obtain this data. VLDS eliminates many of the obstacles by anonymizing the data, that is, stripping out personal identifiers. Price continues:

We now have the opportunity to describe the entire population of citizens we serve in ways we never could before. This will provide insight into patterns and relationships we either knew existed but couldn’t quantify, or never knew existed.  It will allow agencies to better evaluate their program policies and the approaches and strategies used in the past to determine what works best.  In some cases current assumptions will be confirmed.  In others prevailing assumptions will be shown to be incorrect.

The value of the VLDS cannot be overstated. For population studies it is a game changer.

Bacon’s bottom line: VLDS has enormous potential. My only beef is that the research conducted so far has addressed extremely narrow-bore topics, and I have yet to see any eye-opening findings. (Click here and scroll down to “VLDS Research” to view the research projects based on VLDS data.)  Hopefully, that will change as new data sets are added and researchers are able to address an ever wider array of questions.