Tag Archives: cuccinelli

At Last, a Transportation Plan from Cuccinelli

A data matrix for transportation.

A congestion matrix database for transportation.

by James A. Bacon

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has unveiled his long-awaited transportation plan. It’s a mixed bag — it has some good ideas and some not-so-good ideas. But at least he has a plan. As far as I can tell, his rival Terry McAuliffe has articulated no transportation-related ideas beyond, “Build, Baby, Build.” In other words, Cuccinelli would move the state in the direction of useful reform, however imperfectly, while McAuliffe would continue Business As Usual.

The Matrix Revolutions. The centerpiece of the Cuccinelli plan is establishment of a “Virginia congestion matrix database” to use in establishing project priorities based on traffic congestion and road capacity. The matrix would measure “a number of equally weighted variables, including population, volume of licensed drivers, volume of automobiles, volume of motor carriers, vehicle miles traveled, number of businesses, roadway incidents, response time and infrastructure age and condition.” Then, the state would rank the “top 100 most congested roadways” on VDOT’s public dashboard so that the public could begin planning future projects.

Assuming the wording in his plan is precise, Cuccinelli proposes to publicly rank roadways by congestion only. There’s nothing terribly wrong with ranking  by congestion, but the focus pushes other considerations into the shadows. Traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities cost the economy three times as much as congestion. Why not focus on them? The ranking also overlooks the fact that road projects vary widely in the impact they have upon property values. Some projects create value, others actually destroy it. What we need is a measure that ranks transportation projects — roads, highways, bridges, mass transit, smart roads, whatever — by economic return on investment. The ROI measure should incorporate not only congestion metrics but safety metrics and, to the extent that they can be reduced to believable numbers, pollution and wealth-creation metrics as well.

Devolution revolution. Still, the broader idea of ranking road projects by objective criteria is a good one. And it would dovetail nicely with the second important piece of the Cuccinelli plan, decentralizing the transportation system.

“One of the fundamental reasons why our state has been plagued by transportation problems for decades is an undeniable lack of decision making and buy-in at the local level,” states the plan. A Cuccinelli administration would make it a priority to devolve decision-making for secondary roads to local governments, which, as he notes, are the entities that make land-use decisions. The plan would start by turning over secondary roads to four counties with populations of 250,000 or more — Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Chesterfield — which presumably have the administrative resources to take on the responsibility. In time, roads would devolve to counties with populations of 100,000 or more.

To pay for the new obligations, Cuccinelli envisions giving localities money in the form of block grants that VDOT spends now on secondary roads. Counties have resisted devolution for fear that the state would not provide them with enough resources to maintain their roads properly. Cuccinelli acknowledges the problem: “Some counties will be wary of taking over secondary roads that are deteriorated or have been behind schedule for maintenance.” The state might have to bring up the roads to standard before turning them over to localities. He also proposes allowing localities to lease large construction and snow-removal equipment from the state or to actually turn over the equipment “to cover initial capital costs,” and he says the state should no longer accept newly constructed subdivision roads for maintenance.

Will that induce counties to assume responsibility for their roads? I’m skeptical. Cuccinelli will have to sweeten the pot or face intense local-government resistance.

New funding formula. In another guaranteed source of controversy, Cuccinelli would revamp the formula for distributing construction and maintenance funds for secondary roads. The current formula distributes money to nine transportation districts on the basis of lane-miles for cities and towns and “need,” as determined by the condition of roads and bridges, for counties. Cucinelli says he would “replace the current city-county formula with a new formula based on the results of the matrix system identified above that would take into account road usage and economic development.”

A formula that incorporated road usage would radically skew the dollars to where the traffic is: Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea — but it is a controversial one. There would be major winners and losers. The Commonwealth Transportation Board broached the subject two years ago and, after extensive study, dropped it.

Bacon’s bottom line: Frankly, the plan shows signs of having been rushed out to make good on Cuccinelli’s promise that he would have a plan. It’s got some good ideas — at least it tries to address glaring flaws in the existing system — but it needs work. The ideal outcome for Virginians would be to combine the best devolution piece from Cuccinelli’s plan with the legislative package outlined by House Speaker William J. Howell a month ago. Then you’d  see real reform.

Update: The Washington Times quotes Cuccinelli in a good wrap-summary of his philosophy: ““When we spend transportation dollars, I intend to move as far along the road of cost-benefit analysis — how much congestion relief do you get per dollar spent here versus your alternative here? Which one beats it? I’m perfectly comfortable spending on rails, roads, hot air balloons — whatever actually moves people most efficiently, cost effectively. Least money for the most transportation, whatever mode that is. But if localities take on what amount to those sorts of economic development programs, they need to take them on.”

Another Take On Cuccinelli’s Vague Road Plan

cooch.pixBy Peter Galuszka

So far, Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign for Virginia governor has been long on rhetoric and short on specifics. Such was the case with his piece on Sunday’s Washington Post  Local Opinions page headlined: “Taking the politics of roads funding in Virginia.”

What caught my eye were two of Cuccinelli’s ideas. The first is that building roads and other transportation links in the state is a muddle of cronyism that can be laid at the feet of Democrats – a curious observation since almost all of the big road projects undertaken in the state since 2010 have been the brainchildren of Republicans.

The second idea is even more intriguing. Political hacks pick Virginia’s road projects in that swamp known as Richmond, Cuccinelli says. So, Cuccinelli wants to introduce some kind of “point system” that will track traffic congestion in localities. This empirical point regime will then be used to pick which road ideas get funded and when.

As he writes: “Instead of political reasoning, my administration would rely on a statewide traffic congestion index to determine how new construction is prioritized. Every locality in Virginia would have independent trigger mechanisms — based on quantifiable measures of traffic congestion and road capacity — that would determine funding and prioritization of projects. No matter how vigorously certain localities or special interests try to sway lawmakers in Richmond, every new project would be considered under the same guidelines.”

Interesting idea, but how would it work? Cuccinelli says he’ll spell out details “in coming weeks.” My understanding is that under the current system, localities and the Virginia Department of Transportation make plans for new roads and include congestion relief as part of their analysis. They then go to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which sets priorities.

It isn’t clear whether Cuccinelli would replace the board or what else he might do. Eliminating the CTB would be a very big deal. But we don’t know yet.

Cuccinelli notes that he tried as a legislator to reform planning and funding by allowing congestion-prone Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to set their own taxes. That’s actually a good idea. Having Richmond dictate everything goes back to Virginia’s stubborn use of the so-called “Dillon Rule,” which dates back about a century to a long-gone jurist who thought that localities should only have the power afforded to them by their state capitals.

What I don’t get, however, is why Cuccinelli tries to paint Democrats like his opponent Terry McAuliffe as being the centers of road cronyism. In recent years, McDonnell and his Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, a fellow Republican, have been steamrolling ahead with a number of new projects of questionable value, such as a toll superhighway paralleling U.S. 460 in southeastern Virginia and a north-south connector near Manassas.

Is Cuccinelli running against McDonnell or McAuliffe? It isn’t clear. Meanwhile, I anxiously await details on his road point system plan.

(Note: I had the same idea Jim Bacon this morning and sent it to the Washington Post which used it in their online Local Opinions section. I had intended to also post it on the Rebellion but Bacon beat me to the punch. PG)

Cuccinelli Hints at New Formula for Road Construction

congestionRepublican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has yet to roll out his promised comprehensive transportation plan, but he hinted in a Washington Post op-ed Friday that he won’t mince around with baby steps when he does.

Instead of political reasoning, my administration would rely on a statewide traffic congestion index to determine how new construction is prioritized. Every locality in Virginia would have independent trigger mechanisms — based on quantifiable measures of traffic congestion and road capacity — that will determine funding and prioritization of projects. No matter how vigorously certain localities or special interests try to sway lawmakers in Richmond, every new project would be considered under the same guidelines.

The numbers — not the lobbyists — will dictate Virginia’s transportation projects if I am elected governor. Our plan will allow for significantly more transparency and public input, which I believe will have a positive impact on the system.

The move toward standardized decision-making based upon defined metrics sounds promising. I have long called for prioritizing transportation projects on a Return on Investment basis that optimizes congestion mitigation and safety. This tantalizing preview sounds like a move in the right direction but Virginians will have to know the particulars before passing judgment. Among the questions that must be addressed:

  • Which metrics will be employed? Would traffic mitigation be the sole goal or would safety considerations be part of the mix? Remember, according to the American Automobile Association, the economic cost nationally of automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities is three times that of congestion.
  • Would the funding formula for distribution of construction dollars between highway districts, and localities within highway districts, remain the same? Or, with the new emphasis on congestion, would  dollars flow to regions and localities with the worst congestion, regardless of how much they paid into the system?
  • Would the proposed formula encourage local governments to make more responsible land use decisions, or would it bail out localities that experience more congestion because they made the biggest hash of coordinating transportation with land use?
  • Would there be flexibility for transportation planning officials to override the metrics in special cases where other factors, such as economic development, need to be considered?

Whatever the details, Cuccinelli’s proposal should stimulate a productive dialogue. For the past four years or more, debate has focused almost entirely on how to put more money into the system — regardless of how it would be spent. Cuccinelli appears willing to accept McDonnell’s 2013 transportation tax restructuring as a starting point going forward but wants to shift the discussion to how the money is spent. I don’t see how Virginia can lose by having that conversation.

– JAB

Cuccinelli, Penguins and Natural Gas

pittsburgh-penguins-j-black016By Peter Galuszka

Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s strange episode involving a natural gas lawsuit involving one of his largest political contributors for his gubernatorial campaign raises yet another issue about his ethics.

First, whatever was a Cuccinelli staffer doing advising a subsidiary of coal and gas giant CONSOL Energy, which has given Cuccinelli more than $110,000 in political contributions? The case involved a dispute over compensation that energy firms apparently do not pay to landowners but are supposed to for natural gas they extract from their land.

One would think that the state’s top law officer would either be neutral or would be representing the smaller players who don’t have the legal deep pockets of large corporations.

In any event, a U.S. Magistrate blew the whistle on Cuccinelli’s office’s behavior, saying it was shocking. Now there is a call by State Sen. Phillip Puckett, a Democrat from the Southwest, asking  that the state Inspector General review Cuccinelli’s behavior.

This is just a long line of odd doings that have come up regarding the attorney general since he started running in earnest for governor without resigning. He is out of legal action regarding the Star Scientific scandal because he owned stock in the firm and took gifts that he did not readily report as required. Ditto the ChefGate scandal involving theft charges against Todd Schneider, Gov. Robert McDonnell’s former executive chef.

No question there’s a pattern. It’s odd that it didn’t seem to show up earlier in Cuccinelli’s political career since he had been a state senator for about a decade. I don’t know if there was a pattern of accepting gifts in exchange for apparent favors then, but there certainly has been in the past several years.

The Virginian-Pilot has reported that Cuccinelli has been feted by Pittsburgh energy firm CONSOL which operates coal mines and gas wells in Southwestern Virginia. Virginia isn’t exactly a major coal producer, but CONSOL saw fit to fete treat the attorney general to a fund-raiser at a Pittsburgh Penguin hockey game this spring. Cuccinelli’s parents live in Pittsburgh. CONSOL also has donated thousands of dollars to his campaign.

The peculiar interference by a Cuccinelli staffer “advising” CONSOL and another firm smacks of shenanigans more common in West Virginia where the interplay between energy firms and politicians is a lot more obvious.

Don Blankenship, the notorious former CEO of Richmond-based Massey Energy, got plenty of bad headlines when he went on a French Riviera vacation with the state’s top appeals judge who was in a position to influence Massey’s many lawsuits. West Virginia elects its judges so Blankenship let his donations flow.

That story ended badly, with 29 miners dead in a horrible coal mine disaster in 2010. Blankenship was cashiered with an $86 million parachute and Massey was sold to Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources.

The sad thing is that Puckett’s calls for a probe will likely go nowhere. Virginia has never been known for cracking down on political donations. Its policy is hands-off. There is no State Ethics Commission to investigate. The best the state can do is rely on a non-profit, the Virginia Public Access Project, to collect and massage data on who gets what from whom, but as the McDonnell and Cuccinelli cases have shown, that information is useless if the data in is incorrect or misleading.

True, in any campaign there are plenty of accusations. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is a master of fund-raising and far beats Cuccinelli in terms of dollars raised.

It might be oddly reassuring if Cuccinelli’s guile was all part of some cynical ploy. But it doesn’t seem that way. It just seems stupid.

Business Taxes Not a Problem State Gov’t Should Try to Solve

Maybe Richmond doesn't know best.

Maybe Richmond doesn’t know best.

by James A. Bacon

Both Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli have proposed reducing or eliminating three locally imposed business taxes — the Business Professional Occupation Licensing (BPOL) tax, the Machinery and Tool (M&T) tax and the Merchants Capital (MC) tax. Both sides of the partisan divide agree that Virginia should be able to find a way to raise local tax revenue that doesn’t discourage business activity and investment.

I’m totally in favor of scrapping the business taxes, but it’s not so easily accomplished. According to the center-left Commonwealth Institute, local governments collected $899 million in 2012 from the three business taxes — 6.2% of locally generated tax revenue statewide.

“All but two of Virginia’s 171 cities, towns, and counties collect at least one of these local taxes, according to a survey by the state’s auditor: 130 collect BPOL, 153 collect M&T, and 47 collect MC taxes,” states CI in a new position paper. Cities and towns are especially reliant upon the taxes. Also, as a generality, lower-income and less property-rich localities are more reliant upon them.

How could localities offset the lost? Not the income tax, argues CI — that is largely proscribed for local government in Virginia. Not the meals and lodging tax — 75% of Virginia localities already have one. That effectively means higher property taxes… unless the state reimburses local governments for lost revenue. But Virginia has already tried that once, with the car tax, and it didn’t work out so well. As CI reminds us:

The “Personal Property Tax Relief Act” of 1998 sought to eliminate the locally imposed car tax, but the cost of reimbursing the local car tax was such a drain on state revenues that the General Assembly was never able to give 100 percent reimbursement and had to cap it at just 70 percent in 2002. Then, beginning in 2006, reimbursements were frozen at $950 million and distributed based on each locality’s 2005 reimbursement.

I totally understand the desire to eliminate the business taxes, but there are inherent difficulties in using state revenues to make up for lost local revenues. Eliminating the car tax bestowed its blessings very unevenly around the state: Jurisdictions with higher tax rates got back a lot more money than those with lower tax rates. The same would be true if the state eliminated BPOL and its cousins. I am open to clever ways to solve the problem but I am skeptical that any exist.

Raise property taxes instead. If business taxes are bad for business, perhaps local governments should take the lead in eliminating them by raising property taxes

Consider this thinking out loud. I’m playing with the idea to see where it goes. And, yeah, yeah, I know, such a move potentially would be regressive, shifting the tax burden from businesses to homeowners. But hear me out.

Local governments have enormous power to create taxable real estate value — or to destroy it — through the types of investments it makes in infrastructure and other public improvements. The more heavily local governments depend upon property tax revenues, the more focused they will be upon broadening their tax base by maximizing property values.

In an ideal world, local governments would share knowledge and adopt best practices on which investments create the most value. As I have repeatedly pointed out on this blog, public investments vary widely in economic Return on Investment. Some improvements, like parks and bike/pedestrian-friendly streets, create value. Other so-called “improvements” — like street-road hybrids known as stroads – destroy economic value. One way to measure economic value created and destroyed is to measure the change in property value. In theory, shifting to the property tax could incentivize local governments to invest their capital budgets in ways that enhance property values. Aligning local government incentives with wealth creation is a good way to create more wealth.

Cuccinelli: Promote Economic Development by Creating Level Playing Field

cuccinelliby James A. Bacon

In a press conference this morning at a Richmond SweetFrog restaurant, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli laid out the philosophical principle that would guide his approach to economic development if he were elected governor: Create a level playing field for all businesses rather than incentives for a lucky few.

He would close tax loopholes carved out for special interests, restructure the tax code to eliminate local business taxes and reduce the top corporate income tax rate from 6% to 4%, and he would pare way back on grants and tax breaks used as economic incentives. “Relative to what you’ve seen in the past, I would take a much harder view” of incentives, he said.

Cuccinelli said he would follow the example of Governor Bob McDonnell in making job creation his top priority. But he has no intention of playing a wheeler-dealer in seeking big corporate investments. Instead, he wants to create a tax climate that is more attractive to job creators by lowering taxes for every Virginia business.

The presumed Republican gubernatorial nominee was introduced by Vance Spilman, chief operating officer of Sweet Frogs, a chain of yogurt shops that opened in 2009, now has 250 locations around the country and is preparing to expand overseas. Sweet Frogs is profitable, Spilman said, and it is reinvesting its profits to grow the enterprise, which currently provides jobs for about 400 Virginians. Reducing the corporate income tax from 6% to 4% would allow the company to grow faster, he said.

Cuccinelli’s plan contained only a few specifics. He would:

  • Reduce the top individual income tax rate from 5.75% to 5% over four years beginning in 2014.
  • Establish a Small Business Tax Relief Commission with the goal of reducing the state corporate income tax and eliminating or reducing local Business Professional Occupational License (BPOL), Machine and Tool (M&T), and Merchants Capital (MC) taxes.
  • Pay for those tax reductions by eliminating outdated tax exemptions and loopholes “that promote crony capitalism” and by limiting the growth of General Fund spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth.

If his revenue cap had applied to the current fiscal year, in which spending increased 5.8% and inflation + population growth increased 3.3%, his formula would have saved $530 million.

Cuccinelli did not say specifically which loopholes he would cut, although he did endorse a proposal outlined by Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, and Del. R. Lee Ware, R-Chesterfield, that would have closed about $75 million in loopholes. He also said that service-sector exemptions for the sales tax would be “on the table,” although he ruled out extending the sales tax to education or health care.

Curtailing incentives, broadening the tax base and lowering tax rates would be “fairer” and create opportunity for all business, he said.

The candidate also highlighted the “unique window of opportunity” presented by the expansion of the Panama Canal and Hampton Roads’ temporary status as the only East Coast port with channels deep enough to accommodate fully loaded post-Panamax vessels. The next governor, he said, needs to maximize that opportunity, which is expected to last only three or four years, by participating actively in state marketing efforts to attract more port cargo and more distribution centers.

EPA Bows to Cuccinelli on Accotink Stink

Accotink Creek. Photo credit: Connection Newspapers.

Chalk up another victory for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in his ongoing campaign against federal overreach. It looks like he has won his lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for attempting to regulate storm water flowing into Fairfax County’s Accotink Creek.

In January, federal judge Liam O’Grady accepted Cuccinelli’s argument that the EPA had surpassed its authority by trying to regulate storm water on the grounds that water (as opposed to the sediment it carried) was a pollutant. An EPA edict would have cut the flow of water into the creek by half at an estimated cost of $300 million to Virginia and Fairfax County taxpayers.

EPA officials informed Cuccinelli’s office that it would not appeal the case. Stated Cuccinelli in a press release:

This would also have been a dangerous precedent for Virginia, as the EPA could have demanded this solution in localities across the commonwealth at an enormous price tag to Virginia and its residents, with no proof that the EPA’s solution would work.

Bacon’s bottom line: Maybe this will stifle talk that Cuccinelli is a fruitcake whack job for resisting policies that would effectively convert the 50 states into administrative sub-units of the federal government. He hasn’t won every battle, but he’s got a pretty good batting average.

– JAB

Cuccinelli Withhholds Judgment on Transportation Package

Guess which member of the Republican Party establishment is not yet jumping on board the legislative compromise crafted to restructure Virginia’s transformation funding mix… Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general and presumed Republican candidate for governor.

While applauding Governor Bob McDonnell and the General Assembly for taking action to address Virginia’s serious transportation issues, Cuccinelli did not endorse the product in a press release issued this morning. He urged the legislature to give the bill a “thorough review” before voting on it.

Quoth the Cooch: “If reports are correct, this new bill contemplates a massive tax increase.  In these tough economic times, I do not believe Virginia’s middle class families can afford massive tax increases, and I cannot support legislation that would ask the taxpayers to shoulder an even heavier burden than they are already carrying, especially when the government proposes to do so little belt tightening in other areas of the budget.”

Cuccinelli opposes tax hikes. No surprise there. Here’s the stunner: Addressing the component of the compromise that would raise more revenue for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, he said, “If localities are given more authority to address their most urgent transportation needs, that would be an element that I strongly support, and it would be an element that addresses one of the most fundamental disconnects in Virginia transportation today:  the one between those responsible for land use planning and those responsible for transportation planning. ” (My emphasis.)

OMG! Cuccinelli actually acknowledges the link between transportation and land use!! I’ve lost my bearings. I’m staggering with disbelief. Things fall apart. He is absolutely correct that the transportation-land use connection is critical, but this is the first time I’ve heard him utter such a thought, and it is language that has been totally missing from the McDonnell administration, which has hewed to the “pragmatic” model of just getting projects done — whether the projects are economically justified or not.

For those with short memories, the last governor to talk about the connection between transportation and land use was Democrat Tim Kaine. Hmmm. I wonder what Terry McAuliffe thinks of the legislation.

– JAB

Update: Why has Terry McAuliffe’s campaign website not posted a press release since October 10, 2012? And why doesn’t the www.terrymcauliffe.com splash page link to anything on the site? Just asking.

Update: McAuliffe supports the plan, according to the Virginian-Pilot. McAuliffe said the compromise plan “would provide funding to improve our transportation system and keep Virginia competitive.” He doesn’t like the $200 million diverted from the General Fund but, “More inaction is not an option. Inaction on transportation has meant that our families have been stuck in traffic, companies have seen their products delayed and the Commonwealth has seen our competitiveness reduced.” Hat tip: Don Rippert.

Cuccinelli on Health Care Reform

Primum non nocere

by James A. Bacon

In his book “The Last Line of Defense,” Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli delineates his constitutional views as the state’s top lawyer and he opines on the philosophical principles that undergird his approach to public policy. But he provides few specifics on how he, as the presumed Republican candidate for governor this year, would govern if elected. Laying out a campaign platform was not his intention, of course,  as the book is not a campaign document but a description of how he and other Republican AGs fought the Obama administration’s unconstitutional erosion of state sovereignty.

However, we do get a glimpse of Cuccinelli’s thinking in one realm, that of health care. Because so much of his book is devoted to his legal battle against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Cuccinelli digresses briefly to discuss how to reform Virginia’s health care system if Obamacare were rendered ineffective by state action (by opting out of the Medicaid expansion and the set-up of a health insurance exchange).

As it happens, Cuccinelli’s views on the subject coincide largely with my own: First do no harm. The current system of health care in the United States is a mess, he writes. But the answer is not giving government more power. In effect he subscribes to Bacon’s axiom of political reform: Before you create new laws, regulations and programs to fix what’s broke, un-do the laws, regulations and programs that broke it in the first place.

The book treats us to no more than a bullet-point description of Cuccinelli’s market-based remedies but the proposals are suggestive. At the federal level, the AG would allow the purchase of insurance across state lines, give individuals who purchase their own insurance the same tax status as employees who purchase it through their employers, and incentivize the use of Health Savings Accounts.

That’s all fine and good (and pretty standard fare), but the governor of Virginia doesn’t have much influence over federal law. Within the realm that governors can control, Cuccinelli would:

  • Roll back the mandated benefits required for the purchase of private insurance plans;
  • Eliminate restrictions against the purchase of health insurance across state lines (presumably by means of interstate pacts);
  • Require transparency in pricing without which it is difficult for consumers to exert meaningful influence in health care markets; and
  • Put caps on malpractice liability.

I am comfortable with the first three measures but believe the fourth to be superfluous in Virginia, given the fact that the commonwealth’s malpractice laws are pretty reasonable to begin with. Also, I believe the list of needed reforms is only partial. Others include: (1) The state should create more than transparency for prices, it needs to create transparency for risk-adjusted medical outcomes, too; (2) the state should eliminate Certificates of Public Need, which restrict competition between health providers; (3) the governor should use his bully pulpit to encourage (not coerce) hospitals, physicians and other providers to embrace best practices that boost productivity and improve the quality of medical outcomes; and (4) the governor should establish the goal (a tall order, admittedly) of making Virginia the healthiest state in the country by means of such strategies, highlighted on this blog, as creating more walkable/bikeable communities, encouraging the consumption of more nutritious food, and working ceaselessly towards the goals of cleaner water and cleaner air.

I don’t sense that Cuccinelli has given these matters anywhere same the amount of thought that he has to the constitutional issues arising from Obamacare. But if he wants to govern well – and persuade others that he can govern well – he would be well advised to flesh out his ideas.

A Book from the Man Who Was Tea Party before There Was a Tea Party

By James A. Bacon

If you’re doing opposition research on Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and you’re looking for evidence of a wild-eyed culture warrior, you’ll find thin gruel in his new book, “The Last Line of Defense,” co-written with his communications director Brian Gottstein. The book chronicles the struggle of the AG and his conservative peers in other states against the Obama administration’s unconstitutional power grabs in pursuit of an expansive, big-government agenda. Abortion, gay rights and other culture-war touchstones make no appearance.

Instead, describing the Obama administration as “the biggest set of lawbreakers in America,” the book soberly develops the argument that President Obama has repeatedly violated the United States Constitution in pursuit of its goals in health care, global warming, labor relations and net neutrality.

“No other president, no other administration has had such a willful disregard for the law,” writes Cuccinelli. He elaborates:

The Obama administration aggressively used administrative agencies like the [Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board and the Federal Communications Commission] and their unelected bureaucrats to accomplish policy objectives that the people’s elected representatives in Congress wouldn’t even approve. President Obama and his appointees time and time again ignored any limit to their power that they found inconvenient – federal laws, binding rulings of federal courts, and the Constitution – all to make government work in ways they couldn’t achieve through the democratic process.

In the book, Cuccinelli promises an inside look at those legal conflicts. In clear, concise language, he explains the concepts of enumerated powers, checks and balances and the co-sovereignty of federal and state governments as they apply to Obamacare and other initiatives, and he spells out the legal logic behind the succession of lawsuits and appeals that he and others filed in opposition. Along the way, he makes occasional forays into policy questions – what “should be” as opposed to what is “legal.”

Political junkies will be disappointed. Cuccinelli offers few anecdotes and has next to nothing to say about the political personalities involved. (One of the few tangible details to be found in the book is a brief description of how newsrooms and Democratic Party operatives deluged the AG’s office office with Freedom of Information Act requests seeking to determine how much money the office had spent on the Obamacare legal challenge. The apparent hope was to advance the Democrats’ claim that Cuccinelli was squandering taxpayer dollars. As it happened, the AG’s office hired no outside counsel and incurred expenses of only $22,000 over two-and-a-half years, mostly on filing fees, transcription fees, copying costs and postage.)

While some of Cuccinelli’s combativeness comes through, he remains mostly a cipher throughout the book. What we learn of him, we must deduce from the tone of his narrative. The Cooch does not come across as a back-slapping pol of the Joe Biden variety, full of engaging yarns and bonhomie. He does not engage in ad hominem attacks, labeling foes as extremists, whack-jobs, kooks or the demon seed of Ba’al, as his critics are inclined to do to him. Instead, Cuccinelli picks fights over principle, and the lodestar guiding his actions is his belief in a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

Almost to the point of seeming bloodless, Cuccinelli engages his foes in the realm of law and ideas. One might respond that characterizing the Obama team as “lawbreakers” is invective but, in fact, it is not. He builds a case supported by a broad body of facts and constitutional theory to document his case. You may disagree with his interpretation but you cannot dismiss it as a careless slur.

In the sole departure from a civil tone that I could glean, Cuccinelli does have harsh words for the media: “I take many in the media to task in this book: those who deliberately distorted the truth in their stories (okay, this is a euphemism; actually they outright lied), those who only told half the facts (the facts that supported their world view), those who advocated for big government regardless of the consequences, and those who couldn’t help but be openly hostile in their interviews with me.”

It would have strengthened his case if he had backed up those accusations with specifics. I suspect he would have had no difficulty in doing so. Real-life anecdotes would have made good reading, and they would have highlighted the fact that “The Last Line of Defense” recounts an important untold story that the media chose not to tell:

My colleagues and I shifted the paradigm for what was expected of Republican state attorneys general. When I was elected, Texas was the only state I knew of that had some kind of standard review of laws and regulations that were considered federalism threats. We adopted that mold in Virginia and put such scrutiny on steroids.

In other words, the media have been blind to one of the most important political stories of the past four years – the emergence of Republican state attorneys general as a counterweight to President Obama’s aggressive assertion of federal power. Instead, Americans were treated to coverage that treated the AG lawsuits as epiphenomena of no great or lasting significance.

“The Last Line of Defense” is well worth reading for that reason alone. The book also provides insights into how Cuccinelli, the presumed Republican nominee for governor in the 2013 election, would govern the state, if elected. He has not backed off one iota from his self-identification as a partisan of the Tea Party movement. One can infer the book that a Governor Cuccinelli would use the powers of office to fight further erosion of Virginia state sovereignty, oppose further expansion of the welfare state (including Medicaid and the Obamacare health-care exchanges), and seek market-based reforms to make health care more affordable.

On the other hand, if your interest is simply to dredge “The Last Line of Defense” in search of wild and intemperate remarks, as seems to be the case from some early reviews of the book, save yourself the time. You won’t find anything to titillate you here.

Update: If you think Cuccinelli is exaggerating by accusing the Obama administration as acting as if there were no limits to presidential authority, read this Boomberg article published today: “When President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the biggest question he’ll face will be how to get an ambitious second-term agenda through a divided Congress. The answer: Go around it. On climate change, gun control, gay rights, and even immigration, the White House has signaled a willingness to circumvent lawmakers through the use of presidential power.”