Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Spotlight in McDonnell Trial Shifts to Judge Spencer

Judge James Spencer

Judge James Spencer

Hmmm…. It turns out that Judge James Spencer, the judge who presided over the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell, is married to Judge Margaret P. Spencer — whom McDonnell voted against in 1997 when she was nominated in an unsuccessful bid for appointment to the Virginia Supreme Court. Republican/ conservative bloggers are wondering if Mr. Spencer’s overwhelmingly consistent rulings against McDonnell on points of law and his framing of jury instructions reflect personal animus on his part. At the very least, they are asking, did the judge have a conflict of interest?

I don’t know enough to say one way or another. I’d like to know more about that 1997 vote. If McDonnell had been prominently involved in defeating Ms. Spencer’s Supreme Court judgeship, the conflict-of-interest idea might have merit. If he was but one of fifty or so members of the House of Delegates who voted against her in a party-line vote, it’s more difficult to imagine that Mr. Spencer bore a grudge.

What’s also interesting is that in the wall-to-wall coverage of the trial — including the judge’s rejection of the McDonnell defense team’s numerous legal gambits — none of the media took note of this potential conflict. The issue came to light only when raised yesterday by Will Houp at WAVY TV. (His story here contains some details of the 1997 nominating controversy.)

It’s also worth asking why the story surfaced now, just a month before McDonnell’s sentencing. Did Houp just pick up scuttlebutt in the legal community? Or did McDonnell’s defense team leak this information to apply pressure on Spencer to stop leaning so hard against McDonnell?

– JAB

Collective Punishment at UVa

sororityhouse2

Collateral damage

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan’s suspension of fraternity and sorority social events was a case of collective punishment for the alleged rape of a first year student at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house — and arguably unconstitutional. So contends Hans Bader at Liberty Unyielding. Writes Bader:

The University’s action was totally arbitrary in its scope and application.  U.Va. sororities are generally quite law-abiding (for example, they don’t even serve alcohol), and no one says sorority members committed sexual assault. Yet U.Va. shut down their social activities along with all Greek organizations until January. That seems like a flagrant violation of constitutional norms.

I never did understand why sororities were included in the ban. No one’s arguing that sororities are hot-beds of the “culture of rape” at UVa. How can anyone justify this? Where are the women’s rights advocates?

– JAB

McAuliffe Goal: Take a Closer Look at Incentives

Governor Terry McAuliffe as salesman in chief

Governor Terry McAuliffe as salesman in chief

by James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe’s great gift is salesmanship. He approaches the job of Virginia’s chief economic development officer with great enthusiasm, and he loves to wheel and deal. It’s not surprising, then, that his new strategic plan, “New Virginia Economy,” calls for an increase in the Governor’s Opportunity Fund to keep it “competitive with other states.” The fund is nearly depleted after the first year of the biennial budget, and the economic-development game won’t be much fun without more incentives to dangle.

The problems with incentives are well known. First, it is unknowable whether incentives actually induce a particular company to invest in Virginia, or whether the company simply takes the money because it is there for the taking. Second, there is an inherent unfairness in taxing existing citizens and businesses in order to shower benefits to newcomers.

What’s refreshing about the strategic plan is that it does recognize the need to scrutinize state incentive programs. In particular it proposes to prioritize the allocation of state dollars by conducting Return on Investment (ROI) analysis on different incentives and programs to see which yield the biggest bang for the buck. “New Virginia Economy” mentions three specific ideas:

Evaluate current policies and study the ROI on incentives and programs. The idea of setting up an “internal working group” to review performance is a good idea. All programs should be continually scrutinized by outsiders to see if they deliver value. I would argue that scarce public funds should be channeled to programs that yield the greatest ROI and poorly performing programs should be shut down.

The fact is, administrators of the programs themselves cannot rarely be trusted to give an honest evaluation. Bureaucrats have an instinct for self preservation. They want to maintain their programs — to grow them, if possible — and can be counted on to cherry pick evidence to justify continued funding. The best counter to this all-too-human tendency is to have outsiders  ask tough questions. Private companies have elaborate systems for allocating capital within their organizations with the goal of maximizing ROI. State government needs to create comparable processes for allocating public funds.

Enhance state research capacity for conducting ROI analysis. The strategic plan only hints at what the authors have in mind, but it seems self evident that it is impossible to conduct ROI analysis without data. In the realm of economic development, that means evaluating programs in light of the number of jobs created, how well those jobs pay, the level of capital investment, the impact on the state and local tax base and other basic data. A more sophisticated level of research would look for second-order effects. Would recruiting a new business to Virginia contribute to building a competitive and self-sustaining industry cluster? Would the company create contracting opportunities for other Virginia businesses? The list of questions is endless.

Reform the Tobacco Commission. The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Development Commission was founded with high hopes that it would revitalize the economies of Southside and Southwest Virginia, beset by the erosion of tobacco cultivation and the decimation of its mill-town manufacturing economy. The Commission has been criticized for a lack of oversight, which allows powerful politicians on the Commission to reward favored constituencies. The strategic plan calls for reforming the Commission to “maximize ROI on Commission investments” and to create a long-term sustainable funding model.

If we accept the premise that state government should dispense subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives to business — I personally don’t accept that premise, but the practice isn’t going to change any time soon — then we ought to ensure that the money is spent to the great public benefit.

Taking Another Whack at Virginia’s Dysfunctional Job Training System

workforceby James A. Bacon

Virginia spent $341 million in government funds in fiscal 2013 on workforce development programs. What did taxpayers get for their money?

There is no way to tell, according to a new Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report, “Virginia’s Workforce Development Programs.” Some of the main findings:

No consistent accounting. Virginia’s workforce development programs appear to spend a high percentage of funds on training rather than administrative overhead — a good thing — but there’s no way to tell for sure. Different programs have different definitions of what constitutes “programs” and what constitutes “administration.

No consistent performance metrics. Virginia programs do not fully measure participants’ success, employee satisfaction or employer satisfaction. Apprenticeship programs do not capture outcomes, such as whether apprentices remain in the industry after program completion or whether they earn higher wages.

Employers don’t use state programs. According to a JLARC survey, only 16% of employers use workforce programs. Employers find them complex, disjointed and difficult to navigate. They are overwhelmed by the number of partners and programs. Instead, they rely upon internal recruitment and training to meet their workforce needs. In many cases, the programs aren’t training skills in demand by employers. In other cases, programs are under-utilized because they are poorly marketed to students and job seekers.

Marginal return on investment. Contract researchers have conducted ROI analysis for several programs and found marginally positive 5- to 10-year returns for Workforce Investment Act programs and a negative return for the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

These findings should come as little surprise given the way the state’s 24 programs are structured and administered. Sixty one percent of the funding comes from federal sources, which means they have strings attached on how the money can be spent. Administration is scattered across nine state agencies, innumerable regional workforce centers, community colleges, high schools and the Virginia Employer commission.

The fragmentation and ineffectiveness of state workforce development programs has been well known for years, if not decades. In 2014 the General Assembly replaced the old, ineffective Virginia Workforce Council with a Board of Workforce Development to advise the governor and legislature on workforce development matters.  This board, which includes representatives from a wide range of stakeholders,  is expected to monitor and oversee state agencies’ development of a common state vision.

However, JLARC says that state agencies continue to operate in silos, committed foremost to their individual agency missions. Moreover, the Workforce Board lacks the legal authority and the dedicated staff to fulfill all of its responsibilities. “The majority of board members are executive-level staff from Virginia businesses who reported that they have limited time to carry out all of the board’s responsibilities, and several board members expressed only vague knowledge of their responsibilities as board members.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Commonwealth of Virginia probably could save a lot of money with little harm to the workforce simply by shutting these programs down. The state can’t do that — many of the programs are outgrowths of federal initiatives, and someone local has to administer them. But JLARC has the right idea. Let’s at least develop metrics to measure how well they’re working so the state can conduct Return on Investment analysis to prioritize how the $130 million or so in state dollars are spent.

As for reforming giving more power and resources to the Workforce Board, I’m dubious. We’ll return to the same issue four years from now, a new JLARC team will look at the fragmented, ineffective workforce-development system and, seeing how centralized it is, will recommend we decentralize it. The problems are so fundamental, I suspect, they can’t be fixed by redrawing the organization chart.

Big Energy’s Conspiracy with Attorneys General

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller --toady for Big Energy

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller –toady for Big Energy

By Peter Galuszka

What seems to be strong opposition to a host of initiatives by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon and other forms of pollution is no mere coincidence.

According to a deeply reported story in Sunday’s New York Times, some state attorneys general, most of them Republicans, are part of what seems to be a covert conspiracy to oppose carbon containment rules in letters ghost-written by energy firms.

And, there’s a big Virginia connection in former Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller and George Mason University which have been bankrolled by conservative and Big Energy money for years.

The cabal has drawn its modus operandi from the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-right, oil-rich Koch Brothers of Kansas. In that case, ALEC prepares “templates” of nearly identical legislation that fits the laissez-faire market and anti-government and regulation principles held dear by the energy and other big industries. Many marquee-name corporations such as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have dropped their ALEC membership  after public outcries.

In the case of the attorneys general, big petroleum firms like Devon Energy Corporation of Oklahoma draft letters opposing proposals that might hurt their profits such as ones to regulate methane, which can be a dangerous and polluting result of hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The Times notes that Oklahoma Atty. Gen. E. Scott Pruitt then took Devon’s letter and, almost-word-for-word, submitted it in his “comments” opposing EPA’s proposed rules on regulating fracking and methane.

The secretive group involves a great deal of interplay involving the Republican Governor’s Association which, of course, helps channel big bucks campaign contribution to acceptable, pro-business attorneys general. In 2006 and 2010, Greg Abbott of Texas got more than $2.4 million from the group. Former Virginia Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli got $174,5638 during his 2009 campaign.

One not-so-strange bedfellow is former Virginia Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller who was in office from 1970 to 1977 and is now 82 years-old. He’s been very business promoting energy firms. As the Times writes:

Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general of Virginia, has in the years since he left office built a practice representing major energy companies before state attorneys general, including Southern Company and TransCanada, the entity behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times collected emails Mr. Miller sent to attorneys general in several states.

“Mr. Miller approached Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma in April 2012, with the goal of helping to encourage Mr. Pruitt, who then had been in office about 18 months, to take an even greater role in serving as a national leader of the effort to block Obama administration environmental regulations.

“Mr. Miller worked closely with Mr. Pruitt, and representatives from an industry-funded program at George Mason, to organize a summit meeting in Oklahoma City that would assemble energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and executives to have closed-door discussions with attorneys general. The companies that were invited, such as Devon Energy, were in most cases also major campaign donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“Mr. Miller asked [West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey] to help push legislation opposing an Obama administration plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. Legislation nearly identical to what Mr. Miller proposed was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature and then passed. Mr. Morrisey disputed any suggestion that he played a role.”

Not only that, but George Mason has an energy study center that is bankrolled by Big Energy and tends to produce policy studies of what the energy firms want. It also has the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by the Koch Brothers.

So, when you see what seems to be a tremendous outcry against badly needed regulations to curb carbon emissions and make sure that fracking is safe, it may not be an accident. And, it comes from attorneys general who should be protecting the interests of average residents in their states instead of being toadies for Big Energy.

Meet the New Plan, Same as the Old Plan

ed_planby James A. Bacon

Last week Governor Terry McAuliffe published his strategic plan for economic development, which will provide a road map for legislative and executive policy for the remainder of his term. My quick-and-dirty analysis is that there’s nothing much new here — it checks all the usual boxes — but there’s nothing offensive either. This strategic plan, like those of previous administrations, represents the conventional wisdom of the usual stakeholders.

While the plan does acknowledge the necessity of emancipating Virginia’s economy from his dependence upon the federal government, it ignores the state’s slipping rating in a variety of national business climate rankings. Indeed, the report engages in delusional thinking. “From the robust economy to competitive taxes and incentives, Virginia’s pro-business climate has few, if any, peers,” states a passage describing Virginia’s economic development assets. I think Virginia is a great state and wouldn’t live anywhere else but, really, I know nonsense when I see it. Few peers? C’mon.

Virginia does have many strengths, which served the state well in a previous economic era dominated by corporate recruitment. Our building costs are eight to 22 percent lower than the national average. We have the second lowest workers’ compensation costs in the country. The state has maintained a AAA bond rating since 1938. Virginia can boast of “the greatest number of scientists and engineers of any state.” But the state is struggling to shift to an entrepreneurial, knowledge-based economy.

At least the authors of the report understand that such a transition must be made. As they note, thirteen of the state’s top 20 employers are either public-sector enterprises (U.S. Department of Defense, Fairfax County Public Schools) or private contractors dependent upon federal spending (Huntington Ingalls Industries, owner of the Newport News shipbuilding complex). But the situation is even worse than that. Of the top private sector employers, three are retailers (Walmart, Food Lion and Lowe’s Home Centers) and two (Sentara Healthcare and HCA Virginia Health System) are medical enterprises, none of which provide goods or services tradable outside the state. Only one company — Capital One Bank — creates products and services that it trades outside Virginia. That’s a sad commentary indeed.

The report correctly contends that the focus of economic development should be on building private companies that aren’t dependent upon government spending. To foster that growth, it sees government playing supporting role by being best in class in five areas: infrastructure; strategic growth sectors; overall business climate; entrepreneurism and innovation; and talent. The report also is realistic enough to know that in the current economically constrained environment, the commonwealth of Virginia is in no position to launch any big spending initiatives. The proposals described in the report are appropriately modest and focused.

The biggest void in the report is the lack of any connection between economic development and community development. Arguably, the biggest single challenge in economic development is not just developing a skilled and educated workforce but recruiting and retaining a workforce. It’s the old Richard Florida creative-class thesis. Corporations locate where the skilled labor is. Workers with education and skills tend to pick where they live, based on lifestyle amenities and cultural attitudes, not on where they can find a job. If a company can’t recruit workers to live in [name of your town here], it will suffer a competitive disadvantage. If young, skilled employees decamp for other metropolitan regions, the labor pool shrinks… and employers suffer a competitive advantage.

Our understanding of what mobile but highly desirable creative-class employees are looking for in their lives is still fairly primitive. We have some vague ideas — educated young people like walkable urbanism, bicycle lanes, cool food, a live music scene, etc. etc. — but no one is factoring that knowledge into a clearly articulated strategy that encompasses zoning policies, transportation improvements and public works investments. Until we do, every governor’s economic-development strategic plan will fall short.

Suddenly, It’s Raining Gas Projects and Tax Breaks

Anti-Pipeline By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly it seems to be raining natural gas pipelines and snowing millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives for rich electric utilities.

Dominion Resources, the powerful and politically well-connected Richmond-based utility, apparently is getting $30 million in public money from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission without apparently asking for it to help build a new natural gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The information was broken by the Associated Press.

Largesse for Dominion stretches to the other side of the Potomac River as well. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Calvert County Md., where Dominion has approval to convert a liquefied natural gas facility to handle natural gas exports, is going to give the utility about $560 million in tax credits.

And, back in Virginia, controversial is growing over the $5 billion natural pipeline that Virginia and three other southern utilities are planning to take natural gas drilled by hydraulic fracking methods from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear that gas is not the cleaner panacea to coal that many think. Landowners complain that Dominion and its powerful Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods, are using strong arm methods to force their way on their land to survey possible routes.

mountain valley pipelineYet another pipeline – this one doesn’t involve Dominion – is drawing concern in southwestern Virginia. The $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline that would likewise begin in the fracked gaslands of northern West Virginia and head south west of Roanoke and then cut to the small town of Chatham.

The complaints are the same as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – green concerns about leaking methane and the threat of bulldozing bucolic private land by companies using eminent domain.

The Mountain Valley project is being spearheaded by EQT Corp. of Pittsburgh and NextEra Energy of Florida.

So what gives? Utilities like Dominion are using more gas, namely at its new Brunswick County natural gas plant and at an older coal-fired station that’s been converted at Bremo Bluffs on the James River. But how much gas does it actually need?

In the case of Cove Point, Dominion notes that the plant has been importing LNG from places like Northern Africa and Scandinavia for decades although imports have come to a spot given the glut of cheap, domestic gas.

Dominion, which bought the facility about a decade ago, can get gas from an older pipeline that for years has linked the Chesapeake Bay area with gasfields in Pennsylvania where some of the fracking for new product is occurring. Dominion can also tap gas from the venerable Transco Pipeline that for decades has transported gas the traditional way – from the Gulf State processing stations to the northeast.

Dominion says it already has contracts to export gas – from where it comes domestically – to utilities in Japan and India. But when one looks at the spaghetti-like twirl of all of the proposed new pipelines, one wonders what the game really is.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a leg that bounds over to Hampton Roads from near the North Carolina border. Dominion says that this one will help supply one of its pipeline partners with gas because it serves South Hampton Roads. Ok, fine, but it might also serve another new LNG export facility in that area that has perfect deep water conditions for such a facility.

And, as some environmentalists and property owners wonder, why couldn’t the energy companies tap rights of way near existing pipelines? Why can’t existing pipelines be expanded? Go back to the utilities and they say they don’t know exactly where the pipelines will go.

That is very curious. While they don’t know where mega-billion project projects are going to go, they seem to be getting tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in public funds and tax breaks to help them proceed with the Brave New World of natural gas.

 

UVa: Can We All Calm Down Now?

What would T.J. say?

What would T.J. say?

So, the credibility of the Rolling Stone article about the gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity has been demolished. I’ll let others sort through the wreckage to determine how much, if any, of the rape story can be believed. The more interesting question now is, where does that leave the University of Virginia leadership? What’s the next move?

The first thing President Teresa Sullivan should do is reverse the shut-down of fraternity and sorority social functions until the spring semester. The crackdown on the Greek social organizations was a panicked reaction to horrifying allegations that the university administration and Board of Trustees appeared all too willing to accept at face value. The shut-down also was indiscriminate, punishing all fraternities and sororities, even though the rape was alleged to have occurred at only one. First the UVa leadership acted before the facts were known; then it punished the innocent.

The next thing Sullivan needs to do is get a handle on whether there is, in fact, an “epidemic of rape” at UVa and, if so, what the nature of that epidemic is. Is it a matter of predatory frat boys drugging or coercing young women into unwanted sex on a massive scale? Is a matter of rampant and promiscuous drunken couplings which the women later regret? Is it a jumble of the two or something else altogether?

It also would be worthwhile to know whether the epidemic of rape/regret sex is confined to the alcohol-soaked fraternity scene, or whether it also takes place in university dormitories or off-grounds housing. Is it fair to blame the fraternities or is the problem wider in scope?

A highly vocal feminist movement has been largely successful in imposing its epidemic-of-rape narrative upon the ongoing controversy. Perhaps predator males are unleashing an epidemic of rape — clearly there is a problem of some sort — but I’m not going to believe it just on the say-so of ideologically motivated activists. As an alumnus, I want to see a dispassionate presentation of the facts.

– JAB

Rolling Stone Backs Down on Rape Story

 By Peter Galuszka

This just in. I am sure there will be plenty of comment. It seems that the descriptions that “Jackie” had of her alleged rapists don’t match reality. The very fact that Rolling Stone now says it has “misplaced” its trust is a huge and troubling step that will seriously damage its credibility.

Be Patient: NextGen Energy Technology Coming Soon

new_technologies_paperA new generation of advanced technologies reaching the commercialization stage could enable Virginia to generate all the electric power it needs without air pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions. While the dialogue over “alternative energy” focuses mainly on wind and solar power, new technologies such as small, modular nuclear reactors and electric generators using waste heat could provide viable alternatives as well.

Rob Hartwell, president of Hartwell Capitol Consulting, highlights some of the more promising technologies in a new paper, “New Technologies for Coping with Climate Change in Virginia,” published by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

Mini nukes. The next generation of nuclear power, Hartwell asserts, will come in bite-size portions — less than 300 megawatts per unit, which makes them more economical because capacity can be brought on incrementally, as needed, rather than in gargantuan chunks. New designs are said to be even safer than conventional nuclear power and to be less vulnerable to catastrophic failure.

Waste heat. Berken Energy, a Colorado company, has developed a promising electric generator using waste heat as a power source. “Almost every industrial process in the world … creates wasted heat. Even the most efficient power plants are roughly only 30% efficient, thus losing nearly 70% of their initial baseload power in creating electricity,” writes Hartwell. As much as 20% of the power in electric generation can be recaptured through thermo voltaic power generation. Building costs are comparable to the cost of fossil fuel plants but there are no fuel costs, no moving parts and virtually no maintenance costs.

Waste-to-energy. eCycling USA, a Vienna, Virginia, company, is bringing the most advanced raw materials recovery processes from Germany to the U.S. Not only can its technology capture valuable resources such as copper, gold, platinum and aluminum, Hartwell writes, “even our garbage (all organics and plastics) can be turned into fuels and any ash or glass left over into insulation. In short, nearly 100% of all items in our waste stream can be converted to energy, raw materials or usable commodities to be sold and reused again.”

These technologies, Hartwell contends, will allow Virginians (and everyone else) to use carbon-based energies significantly more efficiently and in environmentally sensitive ways. “Virginia and our nation should find a way to formally test and evaluate these technologies to help them get to market sooner,” he writes.

Bacon’s bottom line: Hartwell’s paper has obvious implications for the debate over Renewable Portfolio Standards, which some people would like to make mandatory in Virginia. If Virginia electric companies were required to adopt solar, wind and biomass power at current cost levels, we would lock expensive energy into our rate base for the full life-cycle of those assets — in other word, for decades. If we were willing to wait just a few years, it is possible that these new technologies could provide comparable environmental benefits at lower cost. In effect, we can have our cake and eat it, too — cheap, abundant energy and less impact on the environment.