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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The Silent Sun and Climate Change

sunspotsby James A. Bacon

One of the reasons I call myself a climate change agnostic — I’m not yet persuaded that man-made influences on the climate are pushing temperatures calamitously higher — is that there are alternative explanations for what has been driving long-term temperature fluctuations on the planet. One serious body of thought, largely overlooked by the climate establishment, posits that sun spots have a significant influence on the climate. That proposition is due to experience a major test.

As I understand it, sun spots are said to exercise an effect on climate through a complex chain of physical causation. According to this theory, sunspots indicate a heightened level of electro-magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. Electro-magnetic energy ejected from the sun interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field to reduce cosmic radiation penetrating to the atmosphere. Cosmic radiation interacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to seed certain types of cloud formations that reflect sunlight. The prediction arising from this series of conjectured linkages is that a dearth in sunspots will result in weaker electro-magnetic forces radiating from the sun, less blockage of cosmic rays, more cloud cover and lower temperatures.

Sun spots come and go in regular cycles, but the cycles vary in amplitude. As it happens, the sun is experiencing one of its weakest solar cycles in a century. (See this account at Vencore Weather.) Weak solar cycles — the so-called Maunder Minimum of 1645 to 1715 and the Dalton Minimum of 1790 to 1830 — coincided with the Little Ice Age. Some critics of the “consensus” climate-science view — that human-caused increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the critical variable driving climate change — suggest that the paucity of sun spots will induce a cooling of the Earth.

After reaching a new plateau of high temperatures in the 1990, the planet is in the 18th year of no meaningful temperature increases. That pause was not predicted by anyone hewing to the Global Warming “consensus,” and scientists are busily working to explain it within their own paradigm. But it’s also put-up or shut-up time for advocates of the sunspot hypothesis. If sunspots play a significant role in Earth’s climate, the weak solar cycle soon should be reflected soon in lower temperatures.

If global temperatures actually decline in the next few years, we could reasonably conclude that predictions of the Warmist camp to be refuted and the conjectures of the sunspot camp to be confirmed. On the other hand, if temperatures don’t decline, the sunspot people will have to go back to the drawing board and scribble some new equations. The one thing neither group is predicting is another two decades like the past two. It is entirely possible that both camps will be confounded. Wouldn’t that be something?

Yes, Virginia, the Millennials’ Shift from Burbs to Downtowns is Real

washington

by James A. Bacon

The debate still rages over the extent to which young Americans, especially members of the Millennial generation, are moving back to the urban core. Data published by Luke Juday on the StatChat blog should settle that question once and for all. The only questions worth pondering is why they are moving, and how many will move back to the burbs.

The chart above shows the proportion of Millennials living at varying distances from downtown Washington, D.C. In 1990, there was a weak tendency for young adults (defined as 22- to 34-year-olds) to live in the urban core but it was not pronounced. By 2012, however, the next generation of post-college young people had shifted markedly to the urban core.

The chart below shows Richmond.

richmond

In Norfolk, where the distribution of young military-age people in military facilities is determined largely by the location of military bases, the shift is less evident.

Norfolk

While the change is preference is dramatic, it is important to note that a large number of young people still resided miles from the city center in 2012. It’s not as if the suburbs are emptying of young adults. But even a modest shift in locational preference can drive the demand for new construction.

Juday, a Millenial himself, suggests a couple of reasons for the shift. Millennials have worse job prospects than previous generations at the same age and are saddled with greater student loan debt. As a consequence, they are less likely to take on mortgages for single-family dwellings in the suburbs. They’re also postponing marriage and child-bearing, which diminishes the incentives to move to suburban school jurisdictions with better schools. In keeping with their more modest economic prospects, Millennials place less emphasis on home ownership, automobile ownership and driving; they prefer walkable urban neighborhoods.

Testing Educational Technology in Real-World Settings

Bavaro Hall, Curry School of Education

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia’s Jefferson Education Accelerator will contribute to the creation of educational technologies and solutions by helping entrepreneurs test their ideas in the classroom, the Curry School of Education Foundation announced yesterday.

When word of the accelerator program first leaked out last year, the Curry School left its value proposition vague. The idea, as then described, was to create an accelerator/incubator to foster the start-up of enterprises that use technology to improve educational access and outcomes. The Curry School had given rise already to several entrepreneurial spin-offs such as PALS, CaseNex and Teachstone, and the thinking was that an accelerator could support even more.

In formally launching the accelerator yesterday, the Curry School of Education Foundation said it would provide more than office space and venture funding. Said Curry School Dean Robert Pianta, who will chair the Accelerator board:

Increasingly, schools of education have a responsibility to ensure that classrooms and campuses are equipped with tools that carry strong evidence of their effectiveness.

The Jefferson Education Accelerator is building a nationwide network of K-12 schools, colleges and universities that have demonstrated both an interest and capacity, to test promising products and services.

“Successful education technologies must be informed by the insights of teachers, administrators, and real-world implementation data,” said Accelerator CEO Bart Epstein. “The number one criterion for investing in education has to be efficacy. We want to bring transparency to the process of evaluating solutions—to help both educators and investors make better informed decisions and make an impact.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The project sounds  well conceived. Raising capital and finding affordable space is the easy part of launching a new educational enterprise. The U.S. educational system is ponderous and bureaucratic. It resists innovation and change. Decision-making is diffuse. Failure is punished and success is little rewarded. Anyone seeking to introduce new technologies or services to schools would be well-served by testing innovations in real-world environments and providing social scientific support of efficacy. The Curry School’s accelerator addresses those challenges head-on.

There may be hope for American education yet.

Measuring Automobile Dependency

auto_dependency2

Rankings among 794 locations.

Fascinating data from Governing magazine comparing auto dependency of various municipalities around the United States: Arlington, Alexandria and the City of Richmond led the pack in Virginia as the least auto-dependent, with Norfolk, Lynchburg and Roanoke close behind.

There are two main variables affecting automobile dependency: income and availability of transportation alternatives.

autos_povertyIncome: Poorer communities, or those with large concentrations of poverty, tend to have more car-less households and fewer cars per family. These households are more likely to car pool or avail themselves of whatever non-car alternatives exist, typically municipal bus systems. As the Governing scatter chart to the left shows, there is a significant correlation between the poverty level and the vehicle-to-household ratio. Note: Governing identified Harrisonburg as an “outlier” having both a high poverty rate and high rate of auto ownership.

Transportation alternatives: Core urban jurisdictions have the best developed transportation alternatives. In Virginia, traditional cities (and Arlington County) tend to be highly walkable and have access to mass transit.

By way of comparison, New York has the lowest rate of auto dependency in the country — o.6 vehicles per household.

– JAB

Why Hide Details of Lethal Injection?

lethal injectionBy Peter Galuszka

It has to be one of the creepiest bills ever considered by the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1393, sponsored by Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), would drop a veil of secrecy over how Virginia executes prisoners by lethal injection. Its backers, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, are pushing it against a backdrop of global politics and questions of morality.

Virginia is one of 32 states that allow capital punishment. Since 1982, it has so far killed 110 prisoners, either by lethal injection or in the electric chair.

The preferred method is lethal injection. In the process, a doomed prisoner is strapped in a gurney and is given a series of three shots. One is to anesthetize; another is to paralyze; and the third is to stop his or her heart from beating. In some states, one drug may be used. Usually, there are witnesses to the execution, including members of the news media.

But Saslaw wants to start hiding crucial aspects of the gruesome practice. His bill would make information about lethal drugs. Companies that make or compound them would be exempt under the state Freedom of Information Act.

There are persistent national shortages of drugs used in the death process. According to The New Yorker, the sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making the key, killer drug in 2011. Death penalty states looked to European manufacturers, but the European Union, which crusades against capital punishment, forbids European drug companies to export it if it will be used in executions.

Harried U.S. prison officials started shopping around to their counterparts in other states as shortages spread to other drugs. The situation seemed dire enough for Virginia to consider dusting off the electric chair, which it also allows for executions.

For a while, Virginia did have a good supply of killer drugs but by 2014,it ran short or drugs went past their expiration dates. A solution is to use pharmacies to compound drugs for executions but it could expose the firms to lawsuits.

So, as is too often typical in Virginia, Saslaw & Company started pushing the rights of private companies over the public’s right to know. His bill has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the Society of Professional Journalists.

Underscoring the horror of the drug drama is what happened last April in Oklahoma during the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett. He was injected with the three-drug cocktail, but 10 minutes into the process, he revived as stunned onlookers watched. He died after another half an hour.

There is considerable evidence that lethal injection is not a painless way to go. In fact, the issue may be back before the U.S. Supreme Court again about whether injections are an unconstitutional “cruel and unusual” punishment. Another issue is why facts around execution must be made confidential.

There are larger issues about the ethics of capital punishment. Virginia, after all, follows only Texas when it comes to legally-sanctioned killing. Virginia does not have an unusually high crime rate (ranking No. 34 in violent crimes  per 100,000 population according to 2006 U.S. Census statistics). So why is it so intent on keeping capital punishment and hiding it?

 

Go South, Young Black Man, Go South

black_business

The South is by far the best region in the United States for blacks to own businesses, and the Golden Crescent is one of the best places in the South — at least if you put any credence in the methodology created by NerdWallet.

The credit card blog has ranked the 111 metropolitan regions with populations exceeding 100,000 according to two equally weighted sets of measures — economic environment and black-owned business success — to determine where black-owned businesses succeed.

Georgia clearly ranks as the best state in the country by these metrics, with Columbus ranking No. 1 on the list, Atlanta No. 3 and Savannah No. 9. But Virginia’s major metros also appear to be hospitable territory, with Washington ranking No. 5, Richmond No. 11 and Hampton Roads No. 13. Remarkably, with the exception of Salt Lake City (No. 19), every one of the top twenty metros are located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Metros in the West Coast, the industrial Midwest and the Northeast consistently scored dismally.

There are two possibilities here: that (a) the South is more fertile field for black businesses, or (b) the ranking methodology is skewed toward metros with high percentages of African-American residents. The second interpretation is entirely possible, given that 30% of the entire score is based upon “the percentage of black-owned businesses” in a metro area. All other things being equal, a metro area where 30% of the population is black will tend to have ten times the percentage of black-owned businesses as a metro area where 3% is black. A better indicator would be to compare the percentage of blacks who own a business versus the percentage of the population as a whole that owns a business. I tried contacting NerdWallet this morning for clarification but had no luck.

Another finding: The vast majority of black-owned businesses are sole proprietorships — fewer than one in ten actually hire employees. In other words, most are self-employed. Do self-employed people — many of whom are free-lancers — really count as businesses? How do those numbers compare to the rate for the population as a whole? Sadly, NerdWallet doesn’t say. Yet another question: How does the average revenue of black-owned business compare to that of other racial groups? Again, NerdWallet doesn’t say.

As much as I would like to crow that Virginia is great location for black entrepreneurship, I hesitate to do so on the data provided here. This data needs polishing before we can draw any meaningful conclusions from it. If someone is inclined to do the grunt work and submit results to Bacon’s Rebellion for publication, I would be most grateful.

– JAB

In Politics: “Cherchez la femme?”

Fitzhaber and Hayes

Fitzhaber and Hayes

By Peter Galuszka

The two governors couldn’t seem more different.

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

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

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

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

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

the McDonnells

the McDonnells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Self-Inflicted Infrastructure “Crisis”

Gravel roads look a whole lot better if you're paying for them yourself.

Gravel roads look a whole lot better if you’re paying for them yourself.

by James A. Bacon

We continually hear about an “infrastructure crisis” in the United States, a malady from which Virginia has not been spared. Talk of pot-holed streets, tottering bridges and crumbling highways invariably moves to talk about the need to spend more on infrastructure, which morphs into raising taxes — never by talk about paring back infrastructure that has outlived its economic usefulness.

However, there is a growing body of commentary suggesting that the problem may not be too little infrastructure but too much — too much of the wrong kind of infrastructure in the wrong place. The drum-bangers for more infrastructure spending ignore a fundamental reality: The more infrastructure you build, the more you have to maintain. The more maintain, the more you spend on maintenance. The more you spend on maintenance, the less there is to spend on new stuff.

Writing in New Geography, John Sanphillippo focuses on the disproportionate resources devoted to paving and maintaining subdivision roads in New Jersey. Based on his description, New Jersey should rename itself from “the Garden State” to “the Asphalt State.” The New Jersey Highway Trust Fund is near bankrupt, he writes. Unless the gas tax is raised, all revenue will go exclusively to debt service. And we thought we had problems in Virginia!

Consider the dynamics in the historic Water Witch subdivision near Sandy Hook. The Home Owners Association maintains gravel subdivision roads. Writes Sanphillippo:

When people believe their property tax money entitles them to certain things they often have high expectations. They tend to have a very different attitude when they know they’re going to be writing a check directly for the level of service they ask for. This difference in who pays for the roads leads to different outcomes.

Back in the late 1980’s I was privy to HOA meeting debates where some members demanded that the roads be paved. They were tired of the ruts, mud puddles, and problems of snow removal. The dirt roads were one of the things that had kept property values depressed for decades. So a consulting engineer was brought in and explained exactly what it would cost to pave the roads. It would be many millions of dollars divided by the forty-two homes in the community. That conversation came to a halt instantly. So much for paved roads at Water Witch. The compromise was to maintain the gravel roads to a slightly higher standard with annual adjustments that were far more cost effective.

When government pays for subdivision roads — or bridges, highways or mass transit — people tend not to care about cost. After all, someone else is paying for it. When confronted with the reality of paying themselves, they have a very different attitude.

Here in Virginia, people get frustrated by traffic congestion, which costs them considerable time and inconvenience. They demand that “government” fix the problem — just don’t raise their taxes. Someone else should pay. When it comes down to forking over their own money, people display a remarkably high tolerance for congestion. If they have to pay for it, they’ll usually opt to plug in their iPod and put up with an extra ten minutes of driving.

This reality — that people always want more of something if someone else is paying for it but will settle for less if they have to pay for it themselves — suggests that we should apply an acid test to transportation projects whenever possible: Can the project be paid for with tolls or user fees? If there’s enough demand, the project should be built. If the demand isn’t there, it shouldn’t be.

Questions we should be asking ourselves: Why should the public be asked to pay to maintain non-through subdivision roads? Why should the public be asked to pay for rural roads that carry barely any traffic? What percentage of Virginia’s maintenance spending is consumed by lightly traveled subdivision roads and country roads — and how many more miles of each do we continue to build year after year? In other words, how much of our infrastructure “crisis” is entirely self-inflicted?

Silting, Resilience and Climate Change

by James A. Bacon

Atchafala delta, 1984

Atchafalaya delta, 1984

Louisiana’s coastline is shrinking. Humanity’s impact on the state’s massive but fragile wetlands — levees accelerating Mississippi River water flows, the criss-crossing of marshes with canals — has aggravated the natural phenomena of subsidence and sea-level rise to inundate some 1,900 square miles of coast land over eight decades. It’s an object lesson for Virginia, much of whose low-lying Tidewater region also could end up waterlogged as sea levels rise. We’ve seen the maps — I’ve published some on this blog. A hundred years from now, there could be little left of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in a storm surge but a bunch of islands.

Atchafalaya delta, 2014

Atchafalaya delta, 2014

But, wait, the process of shrinking land mass is not inevitable. Portions of the Louisiana coast are expanding. That’s exactly what you’d expect to find in the Mississippi River delta as the nation’s mightiest river deposits massive volumes of silt and sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. An article in Atlantic CityLab shows satellite photos of the Atchafalaya River, which empties west of the Mississippi, in 1984 and 2014. This delta complex is growing at the rate of one square mile per year.

Writes John Metcalfe: “Scientists are quite interested in studying these processes, as they believe they might help counter today’s leading cause of coastal deterioration: rising sea levels.”

There is a widely held assumption that Virginia could lose hundreds of square miles of wetlands as local subsidence and rising global sea levels conspire to flood the Tidewater marshlands. But is inundation inevitable? The James, Potomac, Rappahannock, Susquehanna  and other tributaries dump large volumes of sediment into the Chesapeake Bay — so much so that the silt clouds the waters, blocks sunlight and disrupts the bay ecology. But eventually the sediment settles to the bottom, contributing to the build-up of mud and muck.

It would be interesting to know: Which process is occurring more rapidly in the Chesapeake Bay — sea level rise or sedimentation? A related question: How is the sediment distributed? Accumulation of silt in the middle of the Bay just makes a shallower bay. But accumulation in the marshlands might support the creation of new land mass that we see in the Atchafalaya delta.

craney_islandDredging the sediment build-up in Virginia’s shipping channels costs tens of millions of dollars a  year. Much of the dredge material has been directed to Craney Island, a man-made land mass that has transformed the coastline of Hampton Roads. We have a lot of raw material to work with.

Last summer, Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed a Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission to prepare Virginia’s coastal communities for the impact of climate change. It strikes me that the sedimentation issue is ill understood and little discussed. How likely are Virginia marshlands likely to survive incremental sea-level rise as the deposition of silt raises the bay bed? To what extent can Virginia productively re-route sediment from channel dredging to build up the most vulnerable sections of the coastline?

There is a strong bias among those who fret about Global Warming toward solutions that entail re-engineering the nation’s energy economy in order to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions implicated in rising temperatures. Any changes we make in Virginia will have an infinitesimal impact on global temperatures, even if, as widely asserted, CO2 emissions are driving them higher. To survive global warming and rising sea levels, we must make our communities more resilient. That’s where our actions can make a difference.

The Governor’s commission is scheduled to submit its recommendations by June 30 this year. Let us hope that it incorporates the insights scientists are gleaning from Louisiana’s Atchafalaya delta.

Coal Giant Won’t Pay Blankenship Legal Bill

don-blankenshipBy Peter Galuszka

The the man described by Rolling Stone as the “The Dark Lord of the Coal Fields” is suing coal giant Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol for refusing to pay his legal bills as he approaches his criminal trial April 20 related to the worst coal-mine disaster in 40 years.

Donald L. Blankenship, the former head of Richmond-based Massey Energy, filed suit in Delaware against Alpha which said: “Going forward, we do not intend to pay any legal fees with regard to Don Blankenship’s defense.” Those fees are likely to run in the millions.

Blankenship was indicted in November on four felony counts related to safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, 2010. He is also accused of securities fraud.

Blankenship resigned from Massey in December 2010 with a parachute estimated at $86 million. Alpha bought Massey in 2011 for $7 billion.

Since then, Alpha has been retraining the hundreds of Massey workers it absorbed but has gone through severe layoffs as demand for coal has stumbled.

Alpha’s stock has slipped from about $5 a share a year ago to $1.19 a share now. The firm lost $875 million last year. Demand for thermal coal has been drying up as cheaper natural gas from fracking has flooded the market. Also, the rich steel-making coal reserves Alpha got with its buy of Massey have gone wanting as Asian nations, especially China, go through an economic slump.

Blankenship will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va.