Category Archives: Taxes

How to Convince Your Mom that Congestion Pricing Is Good

by Michael Brown

Odds are if you show up at a family reunion and try to convince your parents and siblings that congestion pricing is good, you’ll be lonely pretty quickly. People want the freeways to work but they hate paying tolls! If you are reading this, then you’re probably part of the choir. My goal isn’t to convert the converted as much as to provide new arguments and sound bites when talking to others.

So, how do we reach others? Millions must be convinced to put down their pitchforks long enough to test the theory and decide for themselves if congestion pricing is worthwhile. Elected officials are afraid to take a position contrary to polls, and polls are overwhelmingly dominated by uninformed opinions.

Too many citizens “learn” the issues of the day in 30-second television spots. Even those who make an effort to stay well informed are not the best ones to ask.  There are many fine teachers, dentists, and doctors with intelligent opinions but if you ask them about Congestion Pricing, most would focus on a single point – “double taxation.” Because no one listens long enough for a good explanation, politicians conform to polls of the uninformed rather than risk trying to change public opinion.

congestion_pricing1

=================
This is the fourth part of a four-part series.

Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4
=================

Geeks and used car salesmen

Congestion Pricing’s true believers are insiders who spend years exploring how market mechanisms can solve our transportation headaches. Typically, they are “nerdy engineer” types and Ph.D.’s at universities. They come up with great ideas but their main focus is convincing other geeks. Peer-reviewed articles loaded with incomprehensible equations and data may be good stuff and true, but the world will never move out of the congestion morass until the world “gets it” at the lowest-common- denominator level of things that matter to them.

Many geeks know Congestion Pricing is worth billions but they’re poor at delivering the message personally. So they set aside “public awareness budgets” that are embarrassingly tiny relative to the potential payoff. That’s like hiring a used car salesman to deliver the message. That approach may persuade a few but it won’t convince your mom – it won’t even reach your mom. Great ideas need great enlightenment efforts.

congestion_pricing2Evangelists and professional marketers

When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they actually had a hard time selling it. Everyone was intrigued, of course, but few understood how it could help them in a way that was worth the price. The airplane seemed like an exciting new toy that could kill you! So the Wrights became evangelists. They met with government officials and anyone else with the means and potential motive to buy, and sold them hard on dozens of potential uses. Now we could scarcely imagine the world without planes.

Think of the Bible. Many find it very difficult to read and hard to get excited about. But some people are very passionate about the bible, and very gifted at translating its meaning to large crowds. Congestion Pricing and Freeway Optimization have been peddled mainly by geeks and insufficient public awareness efforts. Are we really surprised that people are skeptical?

Gifted evangelists are essential but so is “Hollywood.” By that, I mean it takes people who have figured out how to sell stuff to people. We need marketing artists who can place an object in the hands of a big star, then watch that object fly off the shelf in the following month. For ideas worth billions, we should spend millions to attract the top-notch marketers, and give them a budget to craft emotionally persuasive visuals and sound bites. Continue reading

How Planners Can Rescue Virginia from the Fiscal Abyss

This is a copy of a speech that I presented to the Virginia Chapter of the American Planners Association Monday, with extemporaneous amendments and digressions deleted. — JAB

Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. Urban planning is a fascinating discipline. As my old friend Ed Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science – it’s much more complex. Planners synthesize a wide variety of variables that interact in unpredictable, even chaotic, ways. In my estimation, you don’t get nearly enough respect and appreciation for what you do

OK, enough with the flattery. Let’s get down to business.

toastThis is you. You’re toast. Unless you change the way you do things, you and the local governments across Virginia you represent are totally cooked. … Here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to tell you why you’re toast. And then I’m going to tell you how to dig your government out of the fiscal abyss, earning you the love and admiration of your fellow citizens.

Why You’re Toast

old_people2Here’s the first reason you’re in trouble — old people. Or, more precisely, retired government old people. Virginia can’t seem to catch up to its pension obligations. The state says the Virginia Retirement System is on schedule to be fully funded by 2018-2020. But the state’s defines 80% funded as “fully funded,” which leaves a lot of wiggle room. The VRS also assumes that it can generate 7%-per-year annual returns on its $66 billion portfolio. For each 1% it falls short of that assumption, state and local government must make up the difference with $660 million. As long as the Federal Reserve Board pursues a near-zero interest rate policy, depressing investment returns everywhere, that will be exceedingly difficult. A lot of very smart people think 5% or 6% returns are more realistic. In all probability, pension obligations will continue to be a long-term burden on localities.

potholesSecond, the infrastructure Ponzi scheme — that’s Chuck Marohn’s coinage, not mine — is catching up with us. For decades, state and local government built roads and infrastructure, typically with federal assistance, proffers or impact fees with no thought to full life-cycle costs. State and local governments have assumed responsibility for maintaining and replacing this infrastructure. Well, the life cycle done cycled, and the bill is coming due. We’re finding that we built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain at current tax rates, leaving very little for new construction.

accotinkThird, after years of delay, serious storm water regulations are kicking in. Local governments bear responsibility for fixing broken rivers and streams like Accotink Creek, showed here. (Yeah, that’s a creek. It’s having a bad day.) Best guess: These regs will cost Virginia another $15 billion. But no one really knows. And it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I recently talked to Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and she noted that a lot of the storm water infrastructure that developers built in the ‘50s and ‘60s is crumbling. The developers are long gone. Someone’s going to have to fix that, too. Guess who?

property_taxMeanwhile, the largest source of discretionary local tax dollars – real estate property tax revenues – is stagnating. According to the Demand Institute, residential real estate prices in Virginia will increase only 7% through 2018 – the third worst performance of any state in the nation. Don’t count on magically rising property tax revenues to bail you out.

In fact, the tax situation is worse than it looks. Demand for commercial real estate is dismal, too. Consider what’s happening to the retail sector. We’re going from this…

shopping_centerTo this..

amazon_warehouse

Every Amazon.com distribution center represents dozens if not hundreds of chain stores closing. It means more vacant store fronts, more deserted malls, less new retail development. Continue reading

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there –  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.

Is the End of America’s Culture Wars in Sight?

Lind

Michael Lind

by James A. Bacon

Have the Culture Wars peaked? Is the national debate over God, Gays and Guns on the downward slide? Michael Lind, a conservative thinker and cofounder of The New America Foundation, thinks the end is foreseeable. Just as the Civil War didn’t end after Gettysburg — the Confederate states still had a lot of fight left in them — the controversy over abortion, gay rights and gun rights will generate headlines for years to come. But there isn’t much doubt who will win the war.

Look at the views of the Millennial Generation and you can see which way popular sentiment is heading. Millennials are far less likely than their elders to say religion plays an important role in their lives, and they are more likely to define themselves as social liberals. They are less likely to own guns and more likely to support gun control. They are the only demographic cohort in which a majority — 70% — support gay marriage.

As liberal Millennials replace conservatives from the G.I. Generation and the Silent Generation, will political power swing decisively to the Democratic Party? Not necessarily, writes Lind in “The Coming Realignment,” an essay in The Breakthrough. But there will be a massive shift in the fissures dividing the nation. How that will play out in terms of partisan politics is difficult to predict but rest assured that the Republican Party, a coalition of disparate and often fractious groups, will reinvent itself.

Lind analyzes contemporary U.S. politics along two great dividing lines: economics (free markets, regulation, inequality of wealth) and culture (guns, God and gays). Democrats represent the economic and cultural liberals; Republicans represent the economic and cultural conservatives. But there are many economic liberals/social conservatives (often called populists) and economic conservatives/social liberals (often labeled Libertarians) who don’t fall easily in either camp. As the social conservatives are slowly eased out of the picture, Lind argues, political coalitions will reorganize around two new poles: Liberaltarians and Populiberals.

Liberaltarian, a term already in use, describes “a broad camp including neoliberal Democrats skeptical of government in the economic sphere along with libertarian Republicans and independents who recognize the need for more government than libertarian ideologues believe to be legitimate.”

Populiberal, Lind’s coinage, describes “social liberals who share the liberal social values of liberaltarians, but who tend to be more egalitarian and to favor a greater role for the government in matters like social insurance, business-labor relations, and redistribution of income.”

Lind then boldly suggests that these two new coalitions will align themselves geographically between “Densitarian” and “Posturbia.” By Densitaria, he refers to the higher-density urban precincts, both downtowns and suburban villages, where higher-income Americans increasingly prefer to reside along with the service class that caters to their needs. Posturbia is comprised of lower-density suburbs and rural areas where the working and middle classes live. Residents of Densitaria and Posturbia will tend to disagree about the nature of the social safety net (should it be tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable, or should it structured more like universal social insurance?), the tax structure (soak the rich?) and the nanny state (using government power to combat obesity).

Though fascinating, Lind’s argument is not entirely convincing. He is entirely correct that the national sentiment is becoming more liberal on some Culture War issues, most notably gay rights. But I don’t believe the needle has moved much on abortion. And, as medical science advances, I think we will see entirely new ethical dilemmas arise. It won’t be long before genetic engineering allows people to create “designer kids” or before the use of manufactured limbs, hearts and organs on the one hand and the rise of robots imbued with Artificial Intelligence raises questions of what it means to be human. It is not hard to predict a growing revulsion against what some deem to be progress. Some of that revulsion may be religion-based, but much of it could be secular.

One additional point: Millennials are culturally liberal now. But will they stay liberal when they get married, settle down and have kids? Look what happened to the Baby Boomers. Who would have thought in 1968 that a majority of the generation would wind up voting Republican in 2012?

Still, I think Lind is right about some things. The shift toward equal rights for gays is likely to be permanent and, within a decade, no longer will be controversial. I also think Lind is right that the last remnants of racial prejudice are dying out with the passing of the older generations. As young “people of color” see race as less and less of a factor affecting their lives, they will be less attached to the Democratic Party and more open to appeals by Republicans.

In my spare time, I am working on a novel set in 2075. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what the United States will look like in 60 years. I’ve concluded that the world is so complex and the interactions of technology, economics, politics and culture so impossible to predict that the future is unknowable. With that caveat, I postulate the break-up of the Republican Party into two entities — the Enterprise Party (which is economically conservative and culturally liberal) and the Faith Nation (which is first and foremost culturally conservative). In my scenario, the Enterprise Party hives off some people who call themselves Democrats today, and the Democratic Party shifts so far to the populist-redistributionist left that it rebrands itself as the Social Democratic Party. (In my novel, the Social Democrats predominate. I guess you could call it a dystopia!)

Such idle speculation aside, America has seen dramatic political realignments before, and it will see them again. Lind makes a provocative case and he identifies key dynamics that will influence the outcome. Popular dissatisfaction with Americans political institutions is so intense today that it’s hard to believe that the current two-party duopoly can long continue in its current form. Lind’s essay is as good a place as any to start thinking about what comes next.

More Defense Cuts Plague Virginia

Special deliveryBy Peter Galuszka

Virginia continues to see painful military spending cuts in the aftermath of the years’- long U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the latest news is that the Army may cut 3,600 jobs at Ft. Lee, ironically the site of a recent and large expansion, by 2020. That could result in a decline of 9,000 residents near Petersburg which is close to  the base.

Plus, the Air Force plans on cutting 742 positions at its Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton although some of the positions are already vacant and won’t be filled.

These are just some of the changes that are affecting Virginia, which is the No. 2 defense industry state after California. Many of the cuts involve active duty personnel whose vacancies are not being filled or are being asked to take early retirement.

Defense industry jobs are likewise taking cuts. A report by the National Association of Manufacturers states that in 2014, California will lose the most military-related jobs (148,400) followed by Virginia (114,900) and then Texas (109,000). Maryland will lose 40,200 jobs, the report says.

Many of the jobs are in heavy manufacturing, such as aerospace and ship building, and search and navigational services, but general business and other services will also be affected.

The news is especially hard on Petersburg and nearby Ft. Lee which just a few years ago enjoyed a major boost after a Base and Realignment and Closure round consolidated many multi-service logistics and supply functions. The influx of thousands of soldiers, contractors and their families boosted the city and surrounding areas.

Hampton, the location of Langley Air Force Base, doesn’t seem to be in store for such heavy impacts since the cuts involve some jobs already being lost to attrition. Other bases and areas hurt by the Air Force cuts include Washington, D.C.; San Antonio; Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Belleville, Illinois.

Newport News Shipbuilding, now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, could lose a deal to build one submarine and might delay another to build as Ford class nuclear attack carrier, if automatic defense budget cuts return in 2016. Another potential hit: refueling the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington but may mothball the ship if the budget cuts kick in. About 24,000 people work at Newport News Shipbuilding, making it the largest private employer in the state.

Besides the Washington area, Hampton Roads is greatly dependent upon defense spending. Some 47 percent of the regional economy depends on it. Anticipating more defense cuts, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell formed a commission to come up with ideas before he left office this year. One of them is to be pro-active and recommend cuts of its liking before the federal government acts.

One of its recommendations cuts both ways on environmental issues. It recommends against offshore oil and gas drilling in watery areas where the military trains, thus making them available over the long term. It likewise recommends against wind turbines in the same areas.

These are interesting, but very difficult choices.

McAuliffe Hits Private IT Outsourcing

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Just a decade ago, privatizing and out-sourcing traditionally government work was all the rage.

Virginia’s Democrats and Republicans alike saw a philosophical advantage in fending off Information Technology, road maintenance and other work to for-profit, private companies who supposedly – if you believed the hype then  –could always do things better, faster and more efficiently than state workers.

The concept of “government” workers always seemed to be negative. Not only would taxpayers have to pay their health and retirement benefits, they might try to join unions and make labor negotiations even more difficult. It didn’t wash with Virginia’s conceit of being an anti-labor, “right-to-work” state that promised to keep workers docile as the state tried to recruit outside firms.

Now, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is turning this concept on its head. He is ordering a review of state contracts, especially on out-sourced IT service work that he says may be inefficient and expensive. “I am concerned that state government is inappropriately dependent on expensive contract labor when traditionally appointed state employees can perform at a higher level at a lower cost.”

Now that’s a major turn-around, even for a Democrat. After all, it was fellow Democrat and former Gov. and now U.S. Senator Mark Warner, currently running for re-election, that worked the get the state to accept a $2.3 billion contract for defense contractor Northrop Grumman to take over and upgrade the state’s antiquated IT system in 2005.

That deal proved disastrous as the contractor’s performance issues brought on bouts of oversight and renegotiation. The state ended up extending its contract with Northrop Grumman by three years.

An underlying problem is that while the contract lasts until 2019, the state must make some decisions if it wants to continue with the outsourcing route or start relying on its own state workers.

Another problem is whether the state identifies independent contractors as such or employees of state organizations. About 1 percent of the state’s workers were misidentified as independents. Apparently, state workers have their Social Security and taxes withheld from paychecks. But are they really independents? Or is it just window dressing to play homage to some fad thought up by fiscal conservatives?

McAuliffe is right to start thinking in these terms. What he’s going to have to face, however, is the conventional wisdom in Virginia that “public” is always bad and “private, for-profit” is always good. For evidence of this hidebound view, just read this blog regularly.

Denying Truth on the Outer Banks

Sun Realty

Sun Realty

By Peter Galuszka

North Carolina’s Outer Banks have always been a touchstone for me – in as much as anyone can associate permanence with sandy islands being perpetually tossed  around by tremendous wind and water forces.

The Banks and I go back to 1954 and Hurricane Hazel when I was an infant. They mark many parts of my life. So, I read with great interest The Washington Post story by Lori Montgomery about how real estate officials in Dare County and other coastal parts of North Carolina are trying to alter clear-cut scientific projections about how deeply the islands will be under water by 2100.

State officials say that the ocean should rise 39 inches by the end of the century. This would mean that 8,500 structures worth $1.4 billion would be useless. Naturally, this has upset the real estate industry which is pushing for a new projection of an 8-inch rise 30 years from now. Think of it like a photo in a rental brochure. You don’t choose shots of dark and stormy days. The skies must be blue.

Ditto science. The insanity is that so many still don’t believe what is going on with climate change and carbon dioxide pollution. Over the past several years, Virginians, many of whom vacation on the Outer Banks, endured and paid for former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli’s legal attacks against a former University of Virginia climatologist who linked global warming to human activity. The assaults went nowhere.

Instead of addressing such profoundly transitory events, too many in the region say it isn’t so or pick away at what is really happening as we speak. And as Mother Jones magazine points out, it isn’t because weather change deniers, usually conservatives, don’t understand science.

The Outer Banks are an extreme example because of their incredible fragility. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of the islands knows that they are completely under the thumb because they are where two major ocean currents meet.

The only reason Hatteras has developed at all is the Bonner Bridge, an ill-conceived, 51-year-old span over Oregon Inlet so decrepit that it is often closed for repairs. Replacing it has been constantly delayed by the lack of funding and the threat of lawsuits. The federal government has been complicit for decades by spending at least hundreds of millions on sand replenishment programs or offering flood insurance coverage.

About 15 miles south of the bridge is Rodanthe, a flyspeck village just south of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuse. It is at the point of the Banks that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic and is under the strongest attack by ocean currents and storms. Route 12, the only way to evacuate by car when a hurricane comes, is on a narrow spit of constantly shifting sand trapped between the ocean and Pamlico Sound.

I’ve been going to Rodanthe for years. Starting in the 1980s, friends and I would pool our money and  rent one of the big beach houses. We have been constantly amazed how the distance between the structures and the surf is disappearing. One favorite spot was “Serendipity,” a skinny, tall beach house that we rented perhaps twice and featured fantastic views from the top-floor bar.

It was dressed up as a bed and breakfast in the movie ”Nights At Rodanthe,” a 2008 weeper starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. The film was panned and the house was equally threatened. In fact, the next year, the owner had the whole thing placed on a truck and moved nearly a mile down the coast where there’s a little more sand.

More hurricanes followed, cutting a new inlet a few miles into Pea Island and its watery bird impoundments. The oceanfront houses we used to rent are in trouble. The ones across Route 12 now have dramatic new views.  A small, new bridge spans the inlet.

One can argue that building on the Banks is madness, global warming or not. There’s a lot of truth to this. But rising ocean water is truly going to accelerate the changes no matter how hard politicians or North Carolina’s real estate industry say it isn’t so.

McAuliffe: Time for Some Real Ethics Reform

mcauliffePeter Galuszka

One can hardly blame Gov. Terry McAuliffe for ditching the General Assembly’s absurdly weak ethics panel along with deep-sixing the line items in the budget that restrict him from expanding Medicaid.

Obviously, the nice-guy, bipartisan approach he had advocated simply isn’t possible with the likes of Tommy Norment and Bill Howell in the legislature. So, it’s hard ball time.

After a year-long trauma of the tawdry gift accepting of former Gov. and Mrs. Robert F. McDonnell and their upcoming corruption trial, it is high time the state got serious about ethics reform. But true to form and the traditional senses of entitlement and privilege, the General Assembly has created a ridiculously weak entity called the Virginia Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council.

This wrist-slapper would collect and review financial filings of donations to legislators and help “educate” those poor dears about those mistakes they might surely make even though they obviously didn’t intend to.

As for real teeth, it has gums. It doesn’t cover “intangibles” like trips to the Masters, deep-sea fishing, African boar-hunting, feasts at high-end steak houses and so on. Dominion, Altria and anyone else can shower on such goodies. Jonnie R. Williams could still fly Bob and Maureen anywhere in his private jet. Subpoena power? Forget it!

Well, McAuliffe has defunded this effort and wants real ethics legislation by next assembly.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s cozy politicians are “shocked, shocked, mind you” that the feds are taking a harder look at them. Many can’t get over the fact that McDonnell was actually indicted. They can’t believe he really faces trial in six weeks. Five former Attorneys General harrumphed their way to federal court saying that this is certainly not corruption. A federal judge effectively showed them the door.

Now we have a new federal case. Veteran State Sen. Philip Puckett, a key Democrat, decided to take a powder just before the General Assembly vote on the $96 billion, two-year budget and the Medicaid expansion matter. His bizarre departure just before the vote tilted matters the way of conservative, anti-expansion Republicans.

It was said at the time that Puckett might be considered for a six-figure job at the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which would be a step up from the $18,000 he makes as a senator. In the mix, his daughter could get appointed as a state judge.

The outcry was so strong that Puckett withdrew from the tobacco commission job possibility. But there’s a federal probe in Abingdon and Puckett has hired Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., a former federal prosecutor. Likewise lawyering up is tobacco commission head Terry G. Kilgore, who will be represented by Thomas Cullen, another former federal prosecutor. This sounds just like GiftGate.

Now the tobacco commission has always been a fun place since it doles out hundreds of millions from the state’s settlement with Big Tobacco back in the 1990s. Many of the 46 states who got the money used it to prevent smoking but Virginia also created a gigantic slush fund supposedly to advance products in the Southside and Southwest tobacco belts that grow bright leaf and burley.

Their first act was to hand out checks worth thousands to anyone who held a tobacco quota in a now-defunct tobacco program. You could use this to invest in your community, buy new golf clubs or vacation in the Maldives. Your choice. (We Virginians like free choice, it’s the Jefferson thing).

A few problems set in. Turns out that former director of the commission, John W. Forbes II, was dipping in the well to the tune of $4 million and also set up a suspect “literacy fund” worth $5 million. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence after his trial in 2010.

Since then, there’s been more suspect stuff going on. Last fall, for instance, the commission gave a $240,000 grant to Virginia Intermont College, a tiny and troubled liberal arts school in Bristol. The college has received lots of money form the commission over the years.

Well, the grant was supposed to help Intermont turn the corner financially as it tried to merge with another institution. The latest is that the merger failed and Intermont is kaput and the city wants it to pay its bills. And where did that $240,000 go?

Not to worry, folks. We’re dealing with Virginia gentlemen here and we are all honorable. Or maybe not. As State Sen. Creigh Deeds says: “We ought to be troubled. We ought to all tremble. I’ve read some pretty nasty speculation. We ought to fear people talking like that. … When you’re elected to office, your public actions ought to be beyond reproach.”

Brat and Cantor: Two Unsavory Choices

BratCantorWebBy Peter Galuszka

The hottest political race coming up is the Republican primary this Tuesday involving the 7th Congressional District now represented by Eric Cantor, a powerful conservative who is House Majority Leader and could possibly one day be Speaker of the House.

His opponent, college professor David Brat, has gotten much national attention because Brat is trying to out-Tea Party Cantor who tried to shed his Main Street background and led the insurgent Tea Party parade during their days of glory back in 2010.

But if you want to see just how intellectually barren both men are, read what they wrote in opposing columns in the Richmond newspaper this morning. They show just how out of touch they are and how they are dominated by a tiny group of hard-right fanatics who have split the state GOP.

Brat is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in the quaint railroad town of Ashland that might be a set for a Jimmy Stewart movie.

He spends a lot of time debunking Cantor’s ridiculous claim that he is a “liberal” college professor but the very fact that he is doing this is a throwback to the Old Virginny days of yore. First, off, what is wrong with being a “liberal professor?” Are we supposed to have academics that pass a litmus test? Maybe Brat would have House UnAmerican Activities Committees on colleges to make sure that “liberal” professors don’t poison young minds.

Secondly, the use of the term is an exercise in euphemism that smacks of the Massive Resistance days when a candidate was accused of being a “social engineer” if he or she backed integration and civil rights.

And while Brat makes some fair points about Cantor masquerading as a budget hawk, his ideas on finally dealing with undocumented foreign-born residents are downright scary and are obviously intended as a populist ploy to the lower elements of voters.

Indeed, Brat’s column raises serious questions about just how well he understands economic reality, especially when it comes to immigration. Forces are aligning for some kind of long-overdue resolution of immigration. He claims Cantor backs amnesty for undocumented workers. (If so, what’s wrong with that?)

Brat paints a weird picture in which “illegals,” working in collusion with giant corporations, are stealing jobs from “real” Virginians. I won’t go into the borderline racist and nativist aspects of his statements. They smack of the older days of the No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to keep non-Protestants, such as Catholic Irish, Poles, Germans and Italians, or Chinese or Japanese, out of the country.

Strangely and even more troubling, Brat simply doesn’t understand the American labor market. One of the reason so many immigrants are in some sectors of the economy, such as construction and poultry processing, are because the jobs are dirty, messy and there aren’t enough native-American workers willing or able to do them. That is why turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley have so many hard-working Hispanic immigrants. Ditto construction jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Brat ignores the dilemma at the high-end of the economy. American universities are not producing enough software and other engineers so we have to import them through visa programs. Some companies are so hungry for foreign intellectual talent that immigrants end up working just across the border in Canada where it is easier to get visas although their efforts support American firms.

This may come as news to Brat in his little college town, but the world is becoming more global and, like it or not, there will be more foreign-born people working here and elsewhere. His complaint that illegals are getting soldier jobs that Americans might want is strange. The military needs to wind down after 13 years of war. One wonders if Brat even has a passport and has traveled overseas.

Cantor’s column is the usual Eddie Haskell boilerplate. He spends a lot of time tearing down the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have launched at least six unsuccessful assaults on it and still refuse to accept the Supreme Court’s decision of a couple of years ago.

Generously funded by the managed care industry, Cantor raises no alternatives to the current health care system that is plagued with overbilling, a lack of transparency and has cruelly prevented millions from getting coverage because of “pre-existing conditions.” Granted the roll out of exchanges was a mess last year, but health care sign ups have exceeded expectations in Virginia. The expected number was 134,800 in enrollment plans under the ACA. At the beginning of May it was 216,300.

Neither candidate talks about crucial issues such as income inequality, climate change or America’s changing role in world diplomacy. Neither talks about about poverty or smart growth or student debt.

Cantor is likely to win Tuesday but neither man seems worthy of leadership. They are just more evidence about how the right-wing fringe has been allowed to highjack the agenda. As this continues to happen, Virginia will be stuck in its ugly past.

Why Executive Fiats Are Needed

idiot gets shotBy Peter Galuszka

Two initiatives — one on the state and the other on the federal level– show just how untenable the politics of confrontation has become. It is forcing the executive side to take charge at the expense of the legislative.

Democrats Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Atty. Gen. Mark Herring are exploring ways to have the governor take emergency authority to continue operating the state of no budget is passed by June 30. Herring has brought in a constitutional ringer from the University of Virginia to help out.

Meanwhile, on Monday, President Barack Obama will unveil new rules to stem carbon dioxide pollution at electricity power plants. This will most likely involve some kind of cap and trade system that actually has worked for a couple decades for preventing emissions that contribute to acid rain.

Obama is late in promulgating the rules because King Coal and its well-paid lobbyists and members of Congress want to blunt the impact on coal-fired electricity plants that provide about 40 percent of the electricity in this country. They and the annoyingly boring global change naysayers have rendered Congress useless in addressing one of the most pressing issues of our time. Result? Gridlock.

So, Obama is taking executive power through existing law, namely air pollution laws that date back to Republican Richard M. Nixon.

It’s a shame that there can’t be intelligent discussion about either issue. In Virginia’s case, the stubborn resistance by conservative Republicans in the House of Delegates to expanding Medicaid has deadlocked action on passing a $96 billion two year budget.

Turns out that the fiscal situation is even more dire because of a $350 million shortfall this year in revenue which is the result of many wealthy Virginians taking advantage of capital gains tax law changes that made it better to ditch stocks last year as they did. The shortfall will only snowball if nothing is done. Localities and state employees will be severely impacted.

Hence McAuliffe is seeking out a Constitutionally-acceptable way to keep the government going regardless of what hard-liners like House Speaker Bill Howell do.

So, there you have it: rule but executive fiat. To be sure, in Virginia’s case, there are possible ways to get out of the mess, namely Republican Sen. Emmet Hanger’s compromise plan on Medicaid. But when it comes to global warming, forget it. The power of the Koch Brothers and the fossil fuel industry is simply too great. No matter what practically every climate scientist in the world says, we are having to answer to the deniers.

Hang on. June will be a lively month.