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Fairfax County bans Christian immigrants

Fairfax, VA – The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (BoS), in a raucous meeting last night,  voted 7 – 1 to ban any more Christian immigrants from entering Fairfax County.  The board cited a “clear and compelling danger” posed by Christians importing deadly rattlesnakes into the county.  The few stunned onlookers who could gather their thoughts enough to speak expressed skepticism over the both the legality and practicality of a county board banning immigration into a county based on religion.  However, seven of the eight board members were adamant that the board had the legal, moral and God-given right to protect the citizens of Fairfax County against the scourge of Christian rattlesnakes.

In a post-vote news conference, Board Chairman Nod Pmurt explained the reasoning behind the ban.  “It has come to our attention that some Christian sects have taken to collecting and handling rattlesnakes as part of their religious observance.  Fairfax County is a rattlesnake-free county and we can’t have Christians collecting rattlesnakes and bringing them into Fairfax County.”  Chairman Pmurt went on to say that he saw an expose on the Christian ritual of collecting and handling rattlesnakes on a 60 Minutes rerun so he knew it must be true.  Researchers at The Radish have located the 60 Minutes piece in question. (See video above.)

Fairfax County has a long standing domestic poisonous snake problem centering around copperheads.  County animal control officials have generally reduced the incidence of copperhead attacks although there have been notable exceptions.  Last year, for example, a copperhead bit a General Assembly member from Fairfax County during an outdoor luncheon meeting.  However, the General Assembly member was so intoxicated it was the copperhead that died.  Some in the county now worry that the good progress made in fighting home grown copperheads will be reversed as Christian refugees from other counties introduce rattlesnakes.

After the press conference Chairman Nod Pmurt stood under the statue of Gerry Connolly in front of the Fairfax County Government Center and said, “My forbearers didn’t come to this county from Pallendromia so their descendants could be eaten by rattlesnakes brought here by Christians.  I know most Christians are law abiding citizens but that’s faint solace to those who find themselves staring into the white cottony mouths of one of those killer reptiles.  And what comes after rattlesnakes?  Cobras?  I can tell you for a fact that the good citizens of Fairfax County will not see their taxes raised to buy a mongoose for every animal control officer in the county.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to curtail Christian immigration into this county until we get a better handle on the rattlesnake problem.”

— Reporting for The Radish, DJ Rippert

Cycling Rolls through Chesterfield, but Will it Reach the Finish Line?

bicycles

By John Szczesny

It’s official, maybe: 360 new miles of bike paths and trails in Chesterfield County. Whether the plan endorsed this week by the Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote ever gets funded (and built) remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt cycling advocates scored a big victory.

Given county staff’s initial price tag — pegging the per-mile cost of bike paths between $250k and $1 million — early odds had favored denial in the low-tax, conservative Republican stronghold that sent Dave Brat to congress.

There remains strong opposition from residents who argued against the scope and astonishing cost of the plan. The growing county has multiple competing budget demands, and it’s fair to ask where bike paths should rank compared to education, public safety, infrastructure, and other concerns. But with over 1,000 petition signatures and a vocal lobbying effort in favor of the plan, county residents clearly want safe bicycling facilities in auto-dominated Chesterfield.

It remains to be seen whether county officials can acquire all the necessary right of way to construct the pathways, as any missing link could doom an entire trail. As innocuous as bike paths may seem, this complex project likely will require the services of outside engineering consultants for overall project management and full-scale paving, grading, and drainage plans. In addition, recently enacted and more stringent EPA storm water requirements must be reckoned with.

Cycling proponents can savor victory for now, but there’s still a bumpy road ahead in Chesterfield. So far they’ve proven willing and able to hang on for the ride.

The Politics of Big Data

big_databy James A. Bacon

Yesterday I blogged about the All-Payer Claims Database, which has the potential to provide unprecedented insight into medical outcomes and charges in Virginia. By consolidating medical claims data for hundreds of millions of health claims, the database will enable employers, insurers and hospitals to conduct analytical studies that were impossible previously.

There is a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes regarding the database, as I have learned from an informed source whom I will not quote because we were chatting informally and he might have thought we were off the record.

Participation in the database is voluntary, so it took years of coaxing and wrangling to persuade Virginia’s private insurance companies to relinquish their data. Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurer, is the most ambivalent about the project. With more than one million Virginia customers, its database is big enough that it can go solo with the kind of analysis people envision for the statewide database. That ability confers it a significant competitive advantage over its smaller rivals. If Anthem dropped out, the value of the statewide database would diminish significantly. Accordingly, the General Assembly may consider legislation in 2016 to make participation mandatory.

That raises an interesting philosophical question: Is it justifiable for state government to mandate the sharing of outcomes data? In an era in which data confers tremendous marketplace power, any such mandate would penalize Anthem. The insurer could advance a plausible argument that a requisitioning of its data would amount to an uncompensated seizure of valuable property — property far more valuable than its office buildings, computer networks and other tangible assets.

But Anthem’s right to protect its property from government seizure conflicts with the public good that can be achieved through the sharing of data. The bigger and more comprehensive the database, the greater the benefits to public health that can be achieved by mining it.

Politicians comfortable with the exercise of state power will have no moral or philosophical compunction about extracting the data from Anthem against its wishes. But what of conservatives and libertarians who respect private property and distrust the arbitrary exercise of government power? Should we insist that any sharing be voluntary? Or should we compel Anthem to share?

I think there is a case to be made for mandated data sharing on conservative/ libertarian grounds that it can drive market-based reforms of Virginia’s health system. Health care in America is not a market-based system, it is a corporatist system negotiated between the federal government, hospitals, insurers, physicians and pharmaceutical companies. Prices are opaque to the patient-consumer. Accountability is so diffused throughout the system as to be meaningless. Making price and quality data available to the public, formatted in such a way that the public can understand it and act upon it, is essential to creating a market-based system.

But price and quality data are only part of the picture. Virginia has other state-level barriers to a market-based system, including the Certificate of Public Need (COPN), which restricts competition, and state-imposed insurance mandates, which force insurers to offer expensive plans with broad benefits. Price transparency cannot by itself drive the transformation to a competitive, market-based system. But as part of a bundle of reforms including the repeal of COPN and insurance mandates, data sharing could bring about a net gain in freedom, competitiveness and prosperity that would appeal to the conservative conscience.

McAuliffe Adminstration Gives P3s a Second Chance

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. Photo credit: Daily News.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. Photo credit: Daily News.

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration has spent much of its first two years unwinding the legacy of botched and controversial public private partnerships inked by the McDonnell administration: radically truncating the plan to to build a U.S. connector between Petersburg and Suffolk, and revising significantly the tolling for Norfolk’s Midtown-Downtown tunnel project. Now, after the enactment of significant legislative reforms, the McAuliffe transportation team is turning to the P3 tool to help fund and/or operate its ambitious plans for Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne is confident that he can avoid the pitfalls of the previous administration, and that a public-private partnership can make a major contribution to improving mobility along a transportation artery that Governor Terry McAuliffe variously described Thursday as a “parking lot” and “the most congested road in America” at the 2015 Governor’s Transportation Conference in Virginia Beach.

“We’ll be a big supporter of P3s,” elaborated Layne in his own remarks to the conference. “We need to share risk with the private sector. [Virginia] will very much continue to be a leader.”

The I-66 initiative essentially consists of two separate plans: one for inside the Beltway and one for outside the Beltway. The outside-the-Beltway plan entails widening the Interstate, installing HOT lane tolls and ramping up commitment to mass transit. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has generated 13 responses from private-sector players on how to structure the P3.

Where Sean Connaughton, Layne’s predecessor as transportation secretary, regarded P3s as a way to leverage finite public dollars with private investment, thus maximizing total dollars invested, Layne emphasizes the role of P3s in allocating risk. That feedback has been invaluable in surfacing cost and risk issues that VDOT had not considered. “Transparency is the way you have price discovery and risk discovery,” he said.

One set of risks revolves around building a major project on budget and on time. Another major risk is “demand risk” — the likelihood that traffic and revenue forecasts will materialize as projected. There also are risks associated with operations and maintenance. Layne is open to assigning those risks to a private-sector contractor. He has been far more skeptical, however, of relying upon private-sector capital. Private-sector demands for higher financial returns on investment can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of a project.

Layne’s approach is to establish public policy first — what does the Commonwealth want to accomplish along I-66, and how? The administration has made it clear that the I-66 corridor will be multi-modal, including transit, and that the state will not agree to covenants that would restrict for decades construction on other roads that might divert traffic, as the previous administration did in the Downtown-Midtown tunnel project. Those parameters are non-negotiable, except perhaps at the margins. Once those guidelines have been established, he said, the private-sector input can be extremely valuable.

In other remarks, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue told the conference that Virginia and California lead the country with their P3 laws, and that delegations from other states frequently visit the Old Dominion to see what has been done here. Stymied by transparency laws from talking to private corporations “off line,” he explained, other states cannot enact laws like Virginia’s. And that curtails the ability to put together deals like Virginia’s.

An open and transparent process is critical to Virginia’s P3 law, said Donohue, but so is the ability to engage in confidential negotiations. He believes that Virginia has done a good job, based upon its extensive experience with P3s, in threading the needle between transparency and confidentiality. “Steps we have taken in the last couple of years have addressed a lot of problems” with Virginia’s law, he said.

The decision-making process for the I-66 corridor will put the administration’s faith in P3s to the test. The issue of inside-the-Beltway tolls has exploded into a political furor. More controversy is bound to follow as the administration moves from the concept stage to specific proposals.

The Terry McAuliffe Show

Governor McAuliffe checks out a made-in-Virginia three-wheeler outside the Virginia Beach Conference Center.

Governor McAuliffe checks out a made-in-Virginia three-wheeler outside the Virginia Beach Conference Center.

by James A. Bacon

Terry McAuliffe doesn’t just fill the room — he fills the banquet hall. He’s loud, he’s animated,  he’s funny and he’s prone to superlatives. Economic development success, he proclaims, comes from superior salesmanship and the art of the deal. Indeed, if he doffed a wig of thinning blond, slicked-back hair, you’d be hard pressed to tell him apart from Donald Trump.

The governor regaled the audience at the 2015 Governor’s Transportation Conference in Virginia Beach around noon today. Among some of the more notable quotes:

Referring to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, McAuliffe said with typical enthusiasm: “He’s the greatest transportation secretary in the history of Virginia!”

Similarly, John Rinehart, CEO of the Port of Virginia is “the greatest port director in America!” The recent increase in container traffic, the governor added, is “an absolutely extraordinary record! … Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to have the greatest port in America!”

Touting the benefits of the Interstate 95 tolled HOT lane project, he proclaimed the awesomeness of private-sector concessionaire Transurban. “Give Transurban a great round of applause!” he urged the audience.

As for those opposed to paying tolls on the proposed Interstate 66 megaproject in Northern Virginia, they’re not just misguided or mistaken. What they’re saying about tolls is “an absolute lie! It’s a fiction! It’s misleading to voters!”

McAuliffe said he has probably spent more time promoting Virginia overseas than any other governor. Ever. And one could surmise from his remarks that he’s given foreigners the hardest sell. He told a story about talking to some wine stewards in France. “I spent an hour convincing them that Virginia wines are better than French wines.”

The governor has made self-driving cars and unmanned aerial vehicles a major economic development priority for Virginia. His goal, he said: “I want a clone in every home in Virginia. And I wanted it manufactured in Virginia!”

Agree with him or disagree, McAuliffe is never dull.

A Tax Structure Finely Tuned for… a 20th Century Economy

virginia_business_tax_burden

Virginia business tax rates. Image credit: Tax Foundation, KPMG

A new study by the Tax Foundation and KPMG of state business taxes differs from previous studies, which look at average levels of taxation, by examining how state tax structures affect different types of business. The big conclusion from “Location Matters: The State Tax Costs of Doing Business“: Firms experience dramatically different tax rates because their exposure varies to different state and local taxes.

The study’s analysis of Virginia’s tax structure suggests that established companies experience much lower overall tax burdens than new companies. The Old Dominion ranks second best in the country for mature, labor-intensive manufacturing operations but only 35th for R&D facilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have frequently decried the lack of entrepreneurial dynamism in Virginia as a root cause for our sluggish economic performance. There may be many reasons for Virginia’s mediocre growth record in recent years but, based upon the data shown in the chart above, one of them is certainly the structure of business taxes.

In every category analyzed, new firms experience higher effective tax rates than mature firms. Just as important, look at the comparative ratings. Virginia ranks No. 2 in the country for mature, labor-intensive manufacturing companies — neither a growth sector, nor a particularly high-paying sector — but only 35th for R&D, the kind of economic activity every state covets. If we wanted to design an economy for the 20th century, not the 21st, we’ve done a pretty good job.

(Hat tip: Larry Gross)

Proudly Training the Next Generation of Indentured Servants

indentured_servantsIn the latest example of do-gooders creating social injustice, we now hear that nearly 7 million Americans have gone at least a year without making a payment on their federal loans.

As of July, 6.9 million Americans with student loans hadn’t sent a payment to the government in at least 360 days, according to the latest quarterly data from the U.S. Department of Education, reports the Wall Street Journal. That translates into 17% of all borrowers with federal loans being delinquent. Millions more are behind on their loans but haven’t hit the 360-day threshold that the government defines as default.

Absent a change in legislation, student loan debt can’t be dismissed through bankruptcy. Of course, do-gooder politicians, who urged laxer lending policies to begin with, now are falling over themselves to find ways to ease the debt burden incurred by the intended beneficiaries. Hillary Clinton, for instance, has proposed a plan that would cost $350 billion over 10 years and would be financed by a reduction in tax deductions for affluent taxpayers.

Summing up the problem: the United States higher ed system experiences endless administrative bloat… the costs of which universities pass on to students by means of higher tuition and fees… which the U.S. government makes easier to pay by allowing nearly unlimited borrowing… while no one addresses the underlying problem of rising costs. And the solution to the debt problem? Stick it to affluent taxpayers!

What a racket!

The rise of massive student indebtedness, now approaching $1.2 trillion, is as a clear-cut example of social injustice in the United States as you can find, but it is not portrayed is such because (a) the building blocks were put into place by social justice warriors themselves, and (b) the primary beneficiaries, universities, are bastions of do-gooder thinking.

This is only one of many examples of how the social justice crowd has immiserated the poor and working class in the United States through misguided policy. Before “helping” with student loans, the social justice crowd pushed for lower credit standards for mortgages in order to promote home ownership. The result: a deluge of foreclosures on sub-prime loans causing one of the greatest liquidations of wealth among the poor in U.S. history. Now the social justice crowd wants to “help” the poor by jacking up the minimum wage to levels that will, according to reputable estimates, result in the loss of 5% of such jobs in the short run, increase automation of low-wage jobs in the long run, and make it difficult for the poor and young to find entry-level jobs.

— JAB