Category Archives: Regulation

Smooth Ride Ahead for Uber, Lyft

Is that a smile I see under that Lyft mustache?

Is that a smile I see under that Lyft mustache?

It looks like Uber and Lyft will be a permanent part of the Virginia transportation landscape. Legislation essentially legalizing the two ride-for-hire companies has passed both houses of the General Assembly, and Governor Terry McAuliffe has indicated his willingness to sign the bill.

The legislation proposes entirely reasonable regulations that will allow the transportation-network companies (TNCs) to preserve their business models intact, while providing basic protections for riders. Companies must ensure that all drivers are at least 21 years old and properly licensed, and have been screened for criminal backgrounds and sex offenses. Drivers convicted of driving under the influence or other moving violations would be disqualified. Additionally, drivers are required to maintain an $1 million in liability insurance.

Far from putting a damper on the emerging industry, the regulations could legitimize Uber and Lyft in the minds of consumers. At the same time, the new rules are not so onerous that they would discourage competitors from entering the market. This is a victory for everyone.

“The legislation … provides the perfect balance of public safety measures while fostering innovation,” said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, a co-patron. “Improving transportation for Virginians takes more than just building infrastructure; it requires us to embrace new technology to better meet citizens’ transportation needs.”

Hugo has it exactly right.

There is more to Uber’s technology than apps that connect riders with drivers. Those apps can, and have been, readily replicated. The real secret sauce is Uber’s proprietary algorithms that tell the company how many cars to have on the road at a given point of time and where they should be positioned.

The next step. It is in society’s best interest for these ride-for-hire apps and algorithms to migrate to lower price-points. The end goal is for Uber, Lyft or other companies inspired by them to provide rides in vans or buses for just a couple of dollars. That will put them in competition with municipal bus companies, which carry a lot more political clout than the taxicab industry. That will be the true test.

– 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 49 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 Strange Story of Health Diagnostic Laboratory

HDL's Mallory before her fall.

HDL’s Mallory before her fall.

By Peter Galuszka

The biggest problem facing the health care industry in Virginia and the rest of the country isn’t Obamacare or the lack of new medical discoveries. It the lack of transparency that hides what is really going on with pricing tests, drugs and hospital and doctors’ fees. Big Insurance and Big and Small Pharma cut secret deals. We are all affected.

I’ve been wanting to blog about this – especially after Jim Bacon’s recent post on the supposed tech trend in health care – but I wanted to wait until a story I’ve been working on for a few weeks was posted at Style Weekly, where I am a contributing editor.

In it, I explore the strange story of Health Diagnostic Laboratory, a famed Richmond start-up that went from zero to $383 million in revenues and 800 employees in a few short years. The firm said it was developing advanced bio-marker tests that could predict heart disease and diabetes long before they took root. HDL’s officials thought it would transform the $1.6 trillion health care industry.

Richmond’s business elite applauded HDL founder Tonya Mallory, a woman who grew up just north of the city and had the strong personality and drive to create the HDL behemoth. Badly wanting a high tech champion in a not-so high tech town, the city’s boosters did much to publicize HDL and Mallory, believing they could draw in more startups.

The story was too good to be true. It start to deflate last summer when the federal government noted that HDL was one of several testing labs being probed for paying doctors $17 for using HDL tests for Medicare patients when Medicare authorized $3 per test. Mallory resigned Dept. 23. Several lawsuits by Mallory’s former employer, Cigna health insurance and another have accused HDL of fraud. HDL has responded in court.

One legal picture suggests that HDL wasn’t a true tech startup but a new firm that stole intellectual property and sales staff. HDL says no, but its new leader Joe McConnell has taken steps to reform sales and marketing and is said to be working with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a federal investigation.

The HDL affair raises issues about the inside marketing and apparent payoffs that are the biggest problem the health care industry faces. It doesn’t matter what kind of “market magic” combined with new technology comes up if something like this keeps happening.

This is all the more reason for a universal payer system. That may be “socialized” medicine but in my opinion it is the only logical way to go.

Medical Crush

surdak

Chris Surdak

by James A. Bacon

One day historians will look back upon the healthcare debate in the United States and marvel at how oblivious the politicians, lobbyists and pundits were to the massively disruptive changes to come. Congress battling over Obamacare and Virginia legislators grappling over Medicaid expansion will appear to future generations like so many dinosaurs hunting and munching and rutting, totally unaware that a meteor bearing down on them would bring them all to extinction.

In the view of futurist Chris Surdak, author of “Data Crush: How the Information Tidal Wave Is Driving New Business Opportunities,” the U.S. health care system is beyond reform. Massively entrenched special interests — physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, Medicare and Medicare recipients —  are deeply wedded to the status quo. “They are politically very powerful,” he tells Bacon’s Rebellion, “and rhetoric is all about self-preservation and self propagation. Who wants to see an unlicensed doctor? Who is against helping sick people?”

But that system is so dysfunctional and resistant to change that it will collapse as entirely new medical practice models emerge. Writing in HP Matter: The Healthcare Issue, Surdak identifies game-changing technologies that will give rise to new medical products and services that will deliver such better outcomes at less cost that they will render the old system obsolete.

New sensors are making it possible to track an ever-growing array of medical markers — temperature, pulse, blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and virtually any kind of molecular compound — around the clock in real time, and then to transmit that data to central repositories where it can be subjected to predictive analytics. Soon, writes Surdak:

When you or I feel a bit sick it will be completely normal for us to stop by a vending machine at the mall, buy a disposable, $5 plastic cube (like today’s Square credit card reader), lick it, and then get an accurate diagnosis of our ailment in 10 seconds or less.  We’ll then get a coupon for the best treatment for that ailment and an invitation to consult with a five-star specialist in that condition, who practices medicine on a different continent. This will all be normal to us by 2020.

Existing health care providers will avail themselves of these technologies to make incremental improvements to the quality and cost of medical care, but they have no incentive to disrupt the system in which they are so heavily invested. Real change will come from entrepreneurs who build new business models around the technology. Healthcare incumbents can stifle domestic competition — although it is interesting to see how big players like drugstore chains are planning to disrupt the urgent care and diagnostics businesses — but they can’t quash competition from abroad.

Medical tourism, a large and growing industry, will explode, Surdak predicts. Instead of traveling outside the country for big-ticket procedures like open-heart surgery or kidney transplants, patients will consult with their doctors via FaceTime or Skype.

With telemedicine, it won’t matter where I live, or where my provider practices; we will simply log into a consultation session online. As a result, I will seek out the very best providers wherever they are in the world, and they in turn will work to market directly to me through online exchanges not unlike Angie’s List or eBay. This transformation is already taking place, and doctors who do not join such exchanges immediately will, again, find themselves providing commodity services to the least-common denominators in the market.

Traditionally, incumbent businesses have used their power to influence laws and regulations to protect themselves from competition. Change is moving so fast, however, that the politicians and regulators won’t be able to keep up, Surdak says. Much as Uber disrupts the transportation-for-hire industry by entering a market, developing a constituency and then asking for regulatory permission, the new wave of medical providers will develop powerful constituencies — new business ecosystems and, most importantly, happy patients — before the incumbents can shut them down.

If Surdak is right, and I think he might be, there will be a huge reshuffling of winners and losers. The biggest winners will be patients, who will get better medical treatment at lower cost, and the new wave of medical enterprises. The losers will be hospitals, insurers and physicians wedded to the status quo. If they don’t adapt, they will go extinct.

Insofar as state and federal governments pay for half the tab for the nation’s healthcare, governments will be big winners, too. The changes Surdak predicts could bend the medical cost curve radically downwards. Tens of trillions of dollars in future Medicare and Medicaid liabilities could evaporate. Boomergeddon will never arrive, and I’ll have to write a groveling apology.

I asked Surdak if there is anything that government can do to hasten medical disruption, especially at the state level. He suggested that we could get to work dismantling the barriers to change — professional licensure requirements, Certificate of Need regulation, mandated medical benefits — by which vested interests protect themselves. But from his Olympian perspective, he didn’t seem to think it really mattered. Disruption is coming regardless.

From a Virginia-centric perspective, I think it does matter. I draw an analogy with the deregulation of the banking industry in the 1980s. North Carolina got the jump on Virginia, enacting deregulation a couple of years before Virginia did. North Carolina banks started the process of consolidation and rationalization earlier than Virginia banks, eventually growing big enough to swallow the Virginia banks whole. Today, banking is a pillar of the North Carolina economy, not of Virginia’s. Similarly, if Virginia medical institutions are subjected to the full force of Surdakian disruption earlier than their peers in other states, they will have more time to adapt and innovate. They could emerge from the ashes stronger than before.

Will Virginians take up the challenge? I’m not optimistic. We don’t call ourselves the “Old” Dominion for nothing. But you never know. Medical miracles occasionally do happen.

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)

A Free-Market Approach to Protecting Our Water Supplies

Lynchburg train derailment. Image credit: CNN.

Lynchburg train derailment. Image credit: CNN.

by James A. Bacon

Writing in the Times-Dispatch today, my friend Noah Sachs highlights a systemic risk in our society: the threat of chemical leaks and spills to our water supply. Last year the release of toxic chemicals into the Elk River disrupted the drinking supply of 300,000 inhabitants of Charleston, W.Va. Closer to home, a Duke Power plant in North Carolina dumped coal ash into the Dan River. And a train derailment in Lynchburg sent three railroad cars into the James River.

“The accidents in 2014 are a stark reminder of the vulnerability of our drinking water, and we can’t fix the problem by imposing new requirements on water systems alone,” writes Sachs, a professor of environmental law at the University of Richmond. “We have to look upstream to the real source of the problem. Industries that store toxic chemicals near our waterways are putting Virginians at risk.”

The threat is real, and I credit Sachs for bringing attention to it. The question is how best to address the risk. Do we, as he suggests, need to impose a new set of regulations? Or are there potential private-sector remedies that could ameliorate the risk at less cost?

Sachs proposes three guiding principles for Virginia regulation:

  • Businesses that store large volumes of toxic chemicals “should be subject to some public oversight.”
  • There should be “minimum standards” for construction, inspection and maintenance of chemical storage tanks. Setbacks and secondary containment of requirements should be imposed for tanks near water sources.
  • Tank owners should prepare public communications and response plans in the event of an incident.

In this day and time, when the Environmental Protection Agency has taken upon itself to rewrite the Clean Air Act in order to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and shut down much of the coal industry, these standards do not sound especially unreasonable or onerous. But that’s hardly the criteria we should use when enacting new regulations. We should also seek to minimize the impact on industry consistent with our obligation to protect the public.

The red flag is Sachs’ suggestion that “minimum standards” should apply to everyone. Invariably, there will be instances in which the minimum standards are irrelevant, inappropriate or represent regulatory overkill. The problem is inherent with one-size-fits-all government regulations — they cannot take all unique circumstances into account.

What alternative is there to regulation? The tort system. Corporations should be held accountable for the harm they cause others. If a company spills chemicals into the water, it should be liable for the cost of the clean-up and compensation to those who suffer harm. Government should impose one rule only: As a condition of storing and transporting toxic chemicals, companies should be required to buy insurance. Insurance companies then would serve the risk-mitigation role. The insurers’ own inspectors would assess the level of risk and premiums would be adjusted accordingly. Companies could buy down those premiums by implementing measures such as those Sachs describes or perhaps by devising other solutions unique to their operations.

Regulators apply standard remedies and discourage innovative approaches, especially in situations when there may be idiosyncratic, site-specific solutions. Instead of telling industry how to do its job, perhaps Virginia should simply tell industry that the commonwealth will hold polluters liable for clean-up and damages — and let industry figure out how best to tackle the challenge.

Back to Pork at Ft. Pickett

fort pickettBy Peter Galuszka

It was curious that Gov. Terry McAuliffe, while emphasizing that the state needs to wean itself from the sweet milk of federal spending, pushed a very interesting government project in the piney woods of Nottoway  and three other counties.

In his speech to the 2015 General Assembly on Wednesday, McAuliffe said he was “thrilled to help convince the State Department and the General Services Administration to choose Fort Pickett as the home of the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, bringing as many as 500 jobs and millions in investment along with it.”

The U.S. State Department has been trying for years to get an adequate training facility for its guards and U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The U.S. Marines they use are pretty much ceremonial and the deployment of private armies such as the former Blackwater of Moyock, N.C. is fraught with problems as several recent high-profile court trials attest.

The need for well-trained, non-privatized guards was underlined on Sept. 11, 2012 in the bloody siege of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Last spring, Ft. Pickett, a Virginia Army National Guard base, was chosen for the $461 million Foreign Affairs Security Training Center which will create 1,500 permanent and part-time jobs.

It’s a project both parties can love. Republican U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes and Robert Hurt are smitten as are Democratic U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and of course, McAuliffe. It may be ironic that the Ft. Pickett site can draw such bipartisan support in Virginia when Republicans beat everyone up so badly, especially former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over Benghazi. It’s also curious that a national security expense like this goes down so easily with politicians while accepting federal money to expand Medicaid coverage to 400,000 lower income Virginians is such a no-no. Conservatives argue that Medicaid would hurt budget discipline, but won’t this training center do the same?

The State Department says it has 2,000 security people in 160 countries and plans 75 more. They now take a 10-week training course at a military base in West Virginia that includes a local race track that is considered inadequate.

Ft. Pickett is probably a logical site. Its 45,000 plus acres were carved out of several counties during World War II and an airfield was built. During the Cold War (as now) the facility was used for artillery and tank practice since its rolling pine-gum forest somewhat resembled the terrain of Eastern Europe where the real fighting might be.

It had been marked for closure but somehow survived, sustaining the small town of Blackstone where one often sees troops in utilities at the local Hardees or McDonald’s. From time to time, Ft. Pickett hosts special guest trainees such as the Navy SEALS, the Marines, Army rangers and Delta Forces, the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement and others. I live about 20 miles from the base and from time to time, my house shakes either from artillery shots or helicopters that roar at low altitude. One particularly loud weekend, I looked up the fort’s website to see who was there. It was the Canadian Army shooting up Old Virginny.

There was a rumor going around a couple years ago that Ft. Pickett housed a to-scale mockup of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and that SEALS used it to train before killing him. The story was so juicy that it ended up on the Blackstone Chamber of Commerce Website for a while but I don’t think it is true. It was probably in North Carolina at a CIA base at Harvey Point on Albemarle Sound or at Ft. Bragg.

The State Department facility will be built on 1,500 acres of land and supposedly 10,000 students a year will use it. I can’t understand where they get that number if there are only 2,000 State Department guards, but never mind.

The base used to be fairly open. When my German Shepherd was alive sometimes we’d drive down there to see what was going on. Usually, nothing, but on occasion you’d see helicopters or an Air Force cargo jet practicing takeoffs and landings.

The facility will help the local area but I am sure the old access will be limited. Meanwhile, it’s back to federal money that Virginia loves so well, at least in this case.