Category Archives: Politics

In Politics: “Cherchez la femme?”

Fitzhaber and Hayes

Fitzhaber and Hayes

By Peter Galuszka

The two governors couldn’t seem more different.

One is a popular progressive who dressed in an “urban cowboy” style of boots, jeans and down jacket and ran a state as green as a rain forest.

The other favored Joseph A. Banks suits and helmet hair-dos while pushing a “God, Mom and Apple Pie” persona that appealed to Republicans.

Oddly perhaps, especially on Valentine’s Day, women seem to be their downfall. Cherchez la femme?

Until his sudden resignation Friday, John Kitzhaber was into his fourth term as Oregon’s governor and had been highly regarded by liberals nationally for his support of populist ideals and goals involving sustainability. A former emergency physician, he won points for his low key style.

The problem was his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, who lived with him at the governor’s mansion in Salem and acted as the state’s de facto First Lady. She is under investigation for allegedly using her position to win contracts for “green” energy projects she was pushing. As probes grew, Kitzhaber resigned.

the McDonnells

the McDonnells

Sounds a lot like the case of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell, the former first family convicted of corruption last September.

In that case, the former First Lady of Virginia (FLOVA in code), was smitten with a fast-talking vitamin producer and salesman and convinced her husband, Bob, to arrange meetings with top state officials to help.

The couple was convicted of a variety of felonies after a six week trial. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison and his wife is due to be sentenced Feb. 20.

Coincidentally, both governors were high fliers in their respective camps. Kitzhaber represented a particular kind of progressive Oregon way of thinking that is strongly influential throughout national politics and journalism.

McDonnell’s good looks and projection of patriotism went down so well with Republicans that he was once on the short list of 2016 GOP possibilities.

And, both women involved raise issues of what role First Ladies (officially married or not) have in state government. Are they public figures? How much influence should they really have? Are ethics laws tough enough? Do they apply to spouses? Ms. McDonnell’s lawyers suggested that she was being set up to take the fall for her husband as part of a “throw Maureen under the bus” strategy.

Issues like these are certain to come up when Maureen McDonnell appeals her conviction. Similar questions may evolve in the Hayes case as well if she ever faces criminal charges.

Dominion Resources Is on a Tear

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources has been on a tear recently.

It’s been muscling through a dubious law in the General Assembly that would allow it to avoid State Corporation Commission rate audits for six years.

And, it has been throwing its weight around in less populated sections of the state. It is suing to force its way on the land of private property owners to survey its $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline project that would take fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania on new routes to the southeast.

Property owners, particularly those in Nelson and Augusta Counties, are fighting in federal court in Harrisonburg.

What’s most interesting about this case is how the Commonwealth of Virginia, which swaddles itself in the ideals of the American Revolution of individual rights , somehow ignores the rights of small property owners when a big utility with deep pockets for political donations is involved. One wonders where all the conservatives are who were huffing and puffing over the Kelo case a few years back

And (bonus question) what do the two situations have in common? Republican State Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, that’s who. He introduced the bill for Dominion to sidestep SCC oversight with the excuse that Dominion has deal with the impacts of a yet-to-be-finalized set of new federal carbon emission rules.

In 2004, Wagner also carried water for Dominion and other power companies by getting a law passed that would allow a “public service company” to survey private property without getting permission.

This is the basis of several hundred lawsuits Dominion has filed against small landowners. In the pipeline case, it will be interesting to see whether the natural gas is used for the common good of American customers or will end up being exported to foreign countries. Dominion insists it won’t,  but time will tell.

Another oddity is that Dominion is demanding access to survey a pipeline route when it hasn’t formally applied for  the project with the Federal Energy Energy Commission. Imagine if some private landowners showed up at the front door of Dominion’s downtown Richmond headquarters and demanded access to the building because they were thinking about building a natural gas pipeline? (Somebody call security!)

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for this morning’s Washington Post.

Best and Worst from the 2015 General Assembly

by James A. Bacon

thumbs_upThe best: crowdfunding. A bill submitted by Del. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia Beach, will make it easier for entrepreneurs to raise money for start-up businesses through crowdfunding. The bill creates an exemption from the state Securities Act applying to the first $2 million raised per year. A business still could not raise more than $10,000 from any single purchaser unless the purchaser is an accredited investor.

States Taylor: “The greatest challenge that start-ups with good ideas face is finding the capital to grow. ‘Crowdfunding’ has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry that lets entrepreneurs make their case to small investors and get their ideas off the ground. This legislation will make it easier for Virginians to invest in promising Virginia start-ups, creating a culture of entrepreneurship and more good-paying jobs.”

The bill passed the House of Delegates on a 99 to 0 vote.

pukeworthyThe worst: Selective COPN rollback: The Certificate of Public Need (COPN) law, which regulates investment in new medical facilities and expensive equipment, protects hospitals from competition — justifiable only as a way to offset hospitals’ significant obligation to provide indigent care. A bill submitted by Bobby Orrock, R-Thornburg, would roll back the law in certain instances.

The bill would provide exemptions for existing general hospitals and psychiatric hospitals when adding non-nursing home beds, exemptions for certain hospitals adding open heart surgery, and exemptions for certain hospitals adding neonatal care facilities.

Less regulation is a good thing, right? Yes, when applied to everyone equally. COPN review adds unnecessary cost and makes hospitals less responsive to market conditions. But less regulation is NOT a good thing when it serves to advantage certain players over others. Please note: The exemptions apply only to existing hospitals — not to anyone trying to enter the market. In effect, it lifts the burden of regulation for established providers while maintaining it for anyone who wants to compete.

Second, the bill provides arbitrary conditions on who qualifies for the exemption. Hospitals adding open heart surgery must have “at least 1,100 adult inpatient or outpatient cardiac catheterizations, including at least 400 therapeutic catheterizations, or discharged at least 800 patients with the principal diagnosis of ischemic heart disease during the 12 months immediately preceding such registration.” What? Is there any medical justification for such a restriction, or has it been inserted into the bill to apply to one particular hospital only? Who is that hospital? People should demand to know.

The bill also exempts “intermediate- or specialty-level neonatal special care services at an existing medical care facility that registers the new service and delivered more than 1,000 infants in the 12 months immediately preceding such registration.” Really? What’s the justification for that exemption? Who’s the beneficiary here? How about a little transparency?

Orrock’s bill was passed unanimously by the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee.

Time for a Red Cloud’s Rebellion?

ISideWith

I don’t need much of an excuse to pull up stakes and move to Jackson Hole — and this could be enough to push me over the edge. I took the ISideWith.com quiz to see which party I was most closely aligned with, and which states other respondents most closely matched my own. As far as states are concerned, I’d clearly feel most at home in Wyoming. Virginia… not so much. That probably explains all the guff I get on this blog!

Think there’d be a publishing niche in Wyoming for a Red Cloud’s Rebellion?

Check it out. Where do you fit in?

– JAB

Dominion’s Strange Ploy to Avoid Audits

dominion By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Virginia Power appears to be getting its way with strange legislation to freeze its rates and avoid regulatory audits for the next six years.

The state senate will hold hearings today on a bill that would cancel biennial rate reviews by the State Corporation Commission to 2020. Dominion’s rates will be frozen and couldn’t go up or down.

The utility’s reasoning is that it may have to spend a lot to comply with unfinished regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would cut carbon emissions from coal plants by 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Always looking out for its customers, Dominion doesn’t want to stick them with astronomical rate hikes resulting from the EPA rules.

The bill was drafted by Dominion, the state’s largest donor to political campaigns, by Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) who is the go-to guy for laws favoring energy firms.

In 2004, Wagner sponsored legislation that allowed companies the right to survey land for proposed natural gas pipelines without having to obtain the owner’s permission first. The nettlesome law figures heavily in the current battle by property owners over proposed gas pipelines in the state, notably the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline in which Dominion is a partner. The pipeline would take gas 550-miles from West Virginia, through Virginia and on into North Carolina. Dominion has sued more than 240 landowners who have refused to grant access. They are challenging the constitutionality of the pipeline law in federal court.

There’s a lot odd about Wagner’s current bill. The first problem is that it would supposedly protect Dominion customers from federal rules that aren’t even final. It is weird that Dominion would use the excuse that it might be socked with huge costs by having to shutter coal-fired plants. Surprise, surprise! Dominion announced several years ago that it would shut down aging coal units in Yorktown and Chesapeake. So, what’s the connection between the new EPA rules and coal-plant closures?

Atty. Gen Mark Herring says that the Wagner bill is a ploy to keep Dominion from having its profits overseen by the SCC because the utility might have a $280 million surplus that ordinarily might have to go back to ratepayers. After  a 2011 SCC rate review, Dominion had to pay back $78 million to customers.

The other oddity is why Dominion and Wagner are suddenly so scared about exploding costs brought on by the EPA. After all, prices for natural gas, which fuel some of Dominion’s units and is  less polluting than coal, are very low – so low that the fracking boom that released a flood of cheap gas is slowing down considerably.

Environmental groups say that the Wagner bill is a gift for Dominion. The senator has received more than $43,000 in donations from the utility over the years.

The Many Problems of Offshore Drilling

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

Almost five years after the infamous Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama has again proposed opening tracts offshore of Virginia and the southeastern U.S. coast to oil and natural gas drilling.

The plan poses big risks for what may be little gain. Federal surveys show there could be 3.3 billion barrels of crude oil and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the potential lease area stretching from Virginia to Georgia.

Energy industry officials praised the plan while complaining it doesn’t go far enough. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation condemned it. Besides the ecological risk, the move is a step away from refocusing energy on renewables that do not lead to more carbon emissions and climate change.

Obama’s plan would restrict drilling to areas more than 50 miles off the coast. This is a sop to the Navy and other military which conduct regular exercises offshore and to the commercial and sports fishing industries.

Is the restriction worthwhile? It is generally easier for oil rigs to be placed in shallow water and much of the areas off of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina and off of South Carolina and Georgia are in plateaus that aren’t very deep – maybe just a few hundred feet. Yet the Atlantic takes a huge plunge not far off of Cape Hatteras, descending as much as two miles down.

Drilling in deep water presents special problems for oil companies involving high pressure and high temperatures. That was the case with the Deepwater Horizon tragedy on April 20, 1010 that killed 11 workers. One big factor that a blowout preventer, designed to shut down the rig if drilling hits abnormally high levels of pressure, didn’t work completely. The rig was in 5,000 feet of water and crude spewed uncontrolled. Winds from the south washed the oil towards land and polluted nearly 500 miles of coastline in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude were released.

oil-drilling-mapAlthough it isn’t certain if energy firms would drill in the very deep waters off of North Carolina, there is cold comfort in the fact that the Deepwater rig was only 48 miles from shore. In other words, it would have been too close in for the latest plan involving the southeastern coast. Supposedly, blowout preventers have been upgraded but there were still spills involving them off of Brazil and China post-Deepwater.

If something like that happened closer to home, it is not exactly certain where the oil would go. Winds can blow from the ocean and currents are very fickle. The Labrador Current might tend to push spilled oil back onto environmentally sensitive shoreline while the Gulf Stream might tend to take the spilled oil out to sea.

There is no question that drilling off any of the southeastern coast would be of some benefit to the now-struggling Tidewater economy since it has plenty of steel-bending industries, an able workforce and no significant bridges to pass under to reach deep water. It might help since the defense sector is winding down, but who knows what world conflicts will be like in 2025. Hampton Roads would be a more logical staging area than other ports such as Wilmington, N.C., Charleston or Savannah.

There’s a rub, however. The 3.3 billion barrels of estimated reserves isn’t that much. It is a fraction of the total estimated reserves in the country. Energy sector officials claim there is probably much more. Okay, fine, but no one knows for sure. The natural gas reserves involved are also somewhat small – just a fraction of the estimated reserves in the U.S.

It’s not the first time offshore drilling has come up locally. There was a big push for it in the late 1970s, prompting oil rig giant Brown & Root to buy up land near Cape Charles for fabricating rigs. Nothing happened and much of the land now is used for a luxury golf community. Obama was supposed to back lease sales in 2010 but then Deepwater happened. This begs the question – if the offshore petroleum is so valuable, why has it taken so long?

Yet another issue is what cut Virginia would actually get from offshore drilling. There was a flap a few years ago when offshore drilling was being pitched. Some revenues to states from offshore petroleum production are computed by how much shoreline a state has. In Virginia’s case, it is not much, at least when compared to North Carolina. Virginia politicians have pointed this out and hope for some adjustment.

No one can predict energy markets a decade from now. For instance, no one knew that hydraulic fracturing would increase petroleum production by 64 percent and possibly make the U.S. a petroleum exporter for the first time since the 1970s. Granted it is a rock and a hard place kind of choice. Fracking is fraught with pollution problems just as offshore drilling is.

There are certain to be plenty of lawsuits over the offshore plan and economics will likely determine its future. An important choice is whether it is worth risking Virginia’s military, resort and fishing businesses for Big Oil whose promise is uncertain when it comes to offshore drilling.

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.

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.

Interview: McAuliffe’s Economic Goals

 maurice jonesBy Peter Galuszka

For a glimpse of where the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe is heading, here’s an interview I did with Maurice Jones, the secretary of commerce and trade that was published in Richmond’s Style Weekly.

Jones, a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and University of Virginia law, is a former Rhodes Scholar who had been a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. Before that, he was publisher of The Virginian-Pilot, which owns Style.

According to Jones, McAuliffe is big on jobs creation, corporate recruitment and upgrading education, especially at the community college and jobs-training levels. Virginia is doing poorly in economic growth, coming in recently at No. 48, ahead of only Maryland and the District of Columbia which, like Virginia have been hit hard by federal spending cuts.

Jones says he’s been traveling overseas a lot in his first year in office. Doing so helped land the $2 billion paper with Shandong Tranlin in Chesterfield County. The project, which will create 2,000 jobs, is the largest single investment by the Chinese in the U.S. McAuliffe also backs the highly controversial $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline planned by Dominion because its natural gas should spawn badly-needed industrial growth in poor counties near the North Carolina border.

Read more, read here.

(Note: I have a new business blog going at Style Weekly called “The Deal.” Find it on Style’s webpage —   www.styleweekly.com)

Whatever Happened to “Boomergeddon?”

rush_limbaugh5By Peter Galuszka

Attention ditto-heads!

Before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, there was an interesting piece on CNN of hard-line conservatives claiming two years ago that the U.S. economy would collapse if Obama were re-elected.

They claimed that the U.S. faced uncontrollable government spending and ever-growing budget deficits. Obama’s efforts to kick-start the economy were just one missfire after another. Don’t believe me? Look up a zillion posts in Bacon’s Rebellion written by the usual suspects.

My favorite segment on the CNN report was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh making his usual dire predictions about our plunge to Boomergeddon:

“How long does this country have if Obama wins? We’re headed toward an economic collapse and we are the leader of the world. ….If Obama’s re-elected, it will happen. There’s no IF about this. And it’s gonna be ugly. It’s gonna be gut-wrenching, but it will happen. The country’s economy is going to collapse if Obama is re-elected. I don’t know how long: a year and a half, two years, three years.”

Well we’re almost there and guess what? Obama felt comfortable enough strong economy last night to rebrand himself as a liberal and push programs to finally help out the middle class. They include a more fair tax system and helping make community college study free. In a University of Richmond poll in last year’s fourth quarter, most of the 62 chief executive officers of Central Virginia companies said they had “strong optimism” about the country’s brightening economic picture.

What about deficits? Well, not to raise any names associated with this blog, but last October, the budget deficit had dropped to its lowest level since the Great Recession. It had fallen to $483 billion in f/y 2014. That’s only 2.8 percent of GDP and less than the average of the previous 40 years, the U.S. Treasury Department reported.

Hmm. Does anyone have a copy of the book “Boomergeddon?” I can’t find mine and want one as a keepsake.