Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Presumed Guilty

UVa fraternities -- guilty until proven innocent? Photo credit: www.andrewkouri.com.

UVa fraternities — guilty until proven innocent? Photo credit: www.andrewkouri.com.

by James A. Bacon

Suspending the social activities of University of Virginia’s sororities and fraternities is a violation of student rights, said the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) earlier this week in a statement to the Washington Post. The suspension, put into place by UVa President Teresa Sullivan in response to now-discredited allegations of a gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, is scheduled to last until January 9.

While stressing the organization’s commitment to combat sexual assault and improve campus safety for women, NPC protested the indiscriminate nature of the shut-down: “The sanctions imposed on the sorority and fraternity system, particularly at U-Va., have punished all members with no cited wrongdoing and their rights have been violated.”

Admittedly, the ban is largely symbolic. Greek-system organizations hold few social functions during exams and the Christmas holidays. But the symbolism is important. It’s a sign that the UVa administration holds sororities and fraternities collectively accountable for a presumed epidemic of sexual assault. The administration is effectively saying that the Greek system, as opposed to specific fraternities, is responsible in whole or in part for the problem.

The university’s persistence in sanctioning sororities and fraternities is all the more remarkable given the fact that the Rolling Stone gang rape story that ignited the controversy has been thoroughly discredited. While it remains possible that the young woman, “Jackie,” who told the story may have experienced some kind of traumatic event, there is almost no way at this point of knowing what happened, where it took place or who was responsible. The evidence suggests that Phi Kappa Psi, where the gang rape allegedly occurred, was not involved at all.

There is a generalized upwelling of angst and concern at UVa about unhappy sexual encounters, some of which may legitimately be called “rape” but some of which may not. Many women have told stories of being coerced into sex, usually in the context of binge drinking and hook-ups. Undoubtedly there is a very real problem that needs to be addressed — women should not be coerced into having sex under any circumstances, period, end of story — but there is much that we don’t know. We don’t know how many of these incidents occurred while both participants were drunk, and we don’t know whether consent was given or implied, and we don’t know how many episodes constitute “regret sex” — women waking up in the morning and going, ewwww, I did what? or waking up in the morning and being shabbily treated by the man she’d just slept with.

We don’t know how many of these incidents took place in fraternities, as opposed to sororities, dormitories or off-campus housing.  We don’t know how many incidents involved physical coercion by males or how many involved social coercion — women engaging in sexual activity solely to avoid ridicule by their peers. I don’t know the answers to those questions, and neither does anybody else.

But who needs facts? At UVa, anti-rape activists are imposing an ideological template that conflates every form of sexual transgression — from pinching fannies to stalking, raping and murdering someone — as “sexual assault.” We also have a prevalent mindset, that extends into the faculty and administration, that views issues through the prism of gender, race and class and is primed to blame “white male privilege” for every evil under the sun.

Perhaps an unbiased investigation will show that some UVa fraternities are dens of orgiastic depravity. Anything’s possible. Even so, we must hew to the fundamental American principle that we don’t punish the collective for the sins of an individual. Insofar as sexual assaults occur at particular fraternity houses and it can be demonstrated that the fraternities knowingly created an atmosphere of permissiveness that allowed the assaults to occur, the University is arguably within its rights to shut them down. But the idea of punishing innocent fraternities for the sins of the guilty ones is reprehensible. The idea of punishing sororities is beyond reprehensible, it’s ludicrous. Has there been a single documented incident of rape at a sorority house?

A century ago, white segregationists dealt with rape — especially if a black man allegedly raped a white woman — by stringing up a rope and hanging the guy on the spot. Who needs facts? Who needs a court of law? Thankfully, no one is being lynched in the literal sense anymore. But we still have mob rule energized by emotion and prejudice. University administrators need to to address the problem of sexual assault within their community, but it should not be part of the mob.

Easy Savings: LED Street Lights

LED street lights in action -- China

LED street lights in action — China

by James A. Bacon

Installing LEDs  in street lights may be no panacea for municipal budget woes, but the payback is so high that one can’t help but wonder why every local government in Virginia isn’t doing it.

It’s heartening to heart that Virginia Beach, Virginia’s most populous city, is taking the plunge. Well, dipping its toe might be a more accurate description. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Highway Electric of Chesapeake will install about 180 LED street lights in the median of the newly expanded Princess Anne Road beginning January 5.

The main drawback of LEDs (light emitting diodes) is that they are more expensive than the high-pressure sodium lamps they replace: $6,600 compared to $4,800.  But fewer LEDs are needed to light Princess Anne Road — 182 compared to 257 of the sodium lamps —  so the total project cost is lower.

Moreover, maintenance and electricity costs are lower. An LED street lamp lasts five times longer than conventional lights. Over time, that saves the cost of buying new lights and the cost of sending crews to replace them. They also consume about half as much electricity as a sodium light. Virginia Beach spends about $5.4 million a year lighting all of its street lights, according to the Pilot. The city expects to be saving $650,000 annually within ten years by phasing in the LED lights.

Arlington County had converted 85% of its street lights to LEDs by August. But only a few Virginia localities have implemented the technology.

Bacon’s bottom line: The payback is so high that any citizens ought to get up in arms if their locality is failing to take advantage of this cost savings. But why not go a step further? Local governments can save even more by attaching sensors that detect the movement of cars and people. The lights turn on when someone is walking or driving nearby and turn off when no one’s around. As a bonus, burning less electricity reduces carbon dioxide emissions and power-plant pollution.

Admittedly, in Virginia the picture is complicated by the fact that Virginia Dominion Power owns many street lights. I’m not clear on how much say-so local governments have over how those lights are maintained. With that caveat, smart LED street lights is low hanging fruit that every local government should be plucking.

Sex, Genes, Love and Rape

Rape protest at UVa

Rape protest at UVa

by James A. Bacon

Emotions are running high in the discussion of the “epidemic of rape” at the University of Virginia. I get the sense that we’re wandering in a fog.  Not only are there wildly conflicting numbers regarding the incidence  of rape (a worthy topic for another blog post), making it difficult to gauge how extensive the problem is, people are talking past one another. There is considerable conceptual confusion about what is happening on college campuses and why.

As I see it, there are three broad frameworks for approaching the issue of sexual relations and sexual assaults at UVa. The first reflects the perspective of traditional morality, which recognizes the flawed nature of mankind and applies traditional norms for regulating sexual behavior. The second, the Darwinian outlook, seeks to understand the relationship between the sexes from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In this view, the male and female sexes have evolved different reproductive and mating strategies to maximize their genetic fitness, and often want different different things from sexual encounters. The third, the deconstructionist view, strips God and biology out of the equation and asserts that gender and sexual norms are purely social constructs.

In the United States, I would argue, we have transitioned from a set of institutional arrangements based upon traditional morality (pre-marital sex on campus is to be stifled) to institutional arrangements based upon the deconstructionist philosophy (anything goes… except for violence against women) without paying much heed to the biological basis of human behavior.

Traditional morality recognizes the power of the sexual impulse, generally framing it as a temptation to be resisted outside of marriage. The emphasis on chastity, especially female chastity, made sense in the era preceding the sexual revolution when sex was inextricably joined with procreation. Chaste women did not get pregnant, they did not bear children out of wedlock and they were not saddled with the financial and psychological obligation of raising a child (or children) alone. Traditional sexual morality was entwined with the traditional view of the family: that children are best raised in the same household as their biological parents. Traditional morality extended to the campus as well. Men did not always act behave like chivalrous “gentlemen” towards ladies, but society expected them to and condemned them when they didn’t. While rapes did occur on campus, they were relatively rare and they were regarded as scandalous. As a consequence, there was no “epidemic of rape.”

The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought an end to traditional morality on campus. Once upon a time, men and women lived in segregated dorms, colleges restricted men’s access to women’s dormitory rooms, fraternities had house mothers and parties were chaperoned. All of those restrictions and inhibitions have been cast away. Much to the delight of students, colleges got out of the business of enforcing traditional sexual morality. The attitude of college administrators became one of moral laissez-faire: What the students did was their own business.

Reinforcing the relaxation of traditional standards were pervasive changes in society at large. Divorce became common. Out-of-wedlock births were de-stigmatized. Acceptance of gay sexuality spread. Perhaps most important, many proponents of traditional morality updated their values for the age of birth control. When men and women frequently delay marriage until their 30s, it is unrealistic to expect them to remain chaste for 15 years or more. Most Baby Boomer parents of college-bound children are comfortable with channeling sexual relations channeled into loving monogamous relationships outside marriage. These neo-traditional relationships need not be life-long but they are underpinned by a strong conviction that committed partners do not cheat on one another. Promiscuity is frowned upon. Among families of college-bound men and women today, the ideal of serial monogamy is arguably the dominant ethos. Thus, serial monogamy is the default moral setting for most college-bound kids when they arrive on campus.

But college culture is very different from the culture of broader society. For one, colleges are jam-packed with 18- to 22-year-olds at the peak of physical attractiveness and desire. They have more freedom and less responsibility than at any time of their lives, and many have every intention of taking full advantage of the fact. They are ready to party and have fun. They are also much more precocious about sex than their Baby Boomer parents. While Boomers learned about sex by sneaking peeks at “dirty magazines,” young people today are exposed to ubiquitous online pornography. To a significant degree, relations between the sexes has been pornofied. Because the dominant market for pornography is sex-obsessed young males, the id-driven fantasies of sex-obsessed young males has become the template for modern-day sexual coupling. Women are treated as objects whose purpose is to provide sexual gratification to men.

Concurrent with the revolution of ubiquitous pornography has been the feminist revolution, asserting female rights and prerogatives in a male-dominated society. In society at large, feminism was associated mainly with such workforce issues as equal pay, sexual harassment and the glass ceiling. Many women deemed themselves feminists even while adhering to neo-traditional norms of serial monogamy. But colleges and universities have become a petri dish for all manner of radical offshoots. Rejecting traditional morality associated with an oppressive male patriarchy, one strand of strand of feminism insisted that women should be free to explore their sexuality as freely as men supposedly do — seeking a variety of partners in expectation-free, guilt-free encounters. This strand of thought is underpinned by the conviction that traditional gender roles and sexual preferences are purely social constructs. There is no “human nature.” Men and women should be free to define their own sexuality however they please, whether they are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. (I would hasten to add that some feminists abhor pornography for its objectification of women. The feminist movement is hardly monolithic.)

So, three broad cultural trends have intersected in college campuses: the laissez-faire approach of college administrations; the pornofication of sexuality, especially though not exclusively among young men; and the spread of feminist views of sexuality among young women. This would be a combustible mix under any circumstances. But colleges add two more ingredients: binge drinking and a fraternity sub-culture that celebrates male bonding and solidarity, which at its best can lead to long-lasting ties of brotherhood but at its worst can descend into misogyny. Continue reading

Express Lanes as Precursors to Ubiquitous Road Pricing

express_lane_simulation

I-95 Express Lanes simulation

by James A. Bacon

After years of anticipation, 95 Express Lanes opened its Interstate 95 HOT lane system to the public Sunday. Drivers get to use the lanes for free outside of rush hour, when the lanes remain restricted to high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs). Tolls will go into effect around the end of the month.

The nearly $1 billion project converts existing HOV lanes along I-95 into tolled HOT lanes while letting HOVs continue to drive for free, and extends the lanes to Stafford County. While the project won’t do much to shorten the commute for most commuters, it will give them an option when they place a high value on their time, said Matthew Click, vice president-national director of price-managed lanes for HNTB, an engineering firm that worked with 95 Express Lanes on the project.

“We expect most people to use them sometimes, when they really need to get somewhere and they need to get there now,” said Click in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. Click took issue with the description of HOT lanes as “Lexus” lanes. Tolled lanes provide a valuable option for less affluent drivers, he said. Someone making $25,000 a year could use the express lanes to pick up their kid at day care to avoid the $10-per-minute late charges. Plumbers might use the lanes to squeeze in an extra call, or taxi drivers an extra fare.

That was the predictable part of the interview, entirely in line with the business case for building HOT lanes. I have written extensively on this blog in support of HOT lanes. They come as close to a “win win” arrangement politically as it’s possible to devise in the transportation realm. They conform to the principle of “user pays,” they use market mechanisms to ration scarce capacity, and no one has to use them if they don’t want to.

Traffic forecasts. The conversation got much more interesting when we veered into the topic of demand for the HOT lanes. Will the volume of traffic on the Beltway and I-95, both of which are public-private partnerships, generate sufficient revenue to pay the back the billion-dollar investments?

The revenue forecasts for express lane projects are “very sensitive” to demand, Click said. “In an express lane situation, the competition is three feet away in the general-purpose non-tolled lane,” he said. The worse the level of service in the general lanes, the greater the traffic — and revenue — in the tolled lanes. An increase in demand for the tolled lanes does two things. It increases the number of cars being tolled, and it increases the toll rates, which are dynamically priced according to demand.

Click conceded that 495 traffic volumes are lower than forecast. “You’re seeing some initial birthing pains getting up and running,” he said. “It’s taking a little longer for volumes to ramp up during peak hours. … We’re seeing the impact of the recession of 2008., the greatest downturn in the economy since the Depression.” As the economy recovers, he said, he expects traffic demand to increase. The public-private partnership has a 75-year time horizon. “It’s warranted to give a couple or few years” for traffic volumes to recover.

But there are risks over the mid- to long-term as well, Click acknowledged. Demographic pressures may dampen Vehicle Miles Driven (VMT) overall and demand for HOT lanes specifically. Members of the Millennial Generation tend to drive less than predecessor generations. The population is aging, and the elderly don’t drive as much. Also, technology and the sharing economy are scrambling long-term demand forecasts.

“Imagine a future when people don’t own a car,” Click said. “I’ve got my mobile phone. I walk up to a subscription car, and it recognizes me. The car starts driving. I see my buddy Tim two blocks over. I pick him up. He bumps his phone to mine, and we split the fare. … Destructive creativity is really coming. It’s real.” And it means that VMT will not grow in the same linear relationship with population and the economy as in the past. “I see a future where [demand] is flat.”

Transformative technology. Click sees express lanes as the “precursor” of a world in 25 years “in which all lanes are priced.” The main barrier to such a future is not technology, it’s political will, he said. “The American public has a 50-year relationship with the fuel tax and the federal Interstate program. Peoples’ reaction to tolls is, ‘I’ve already paid.’ But I say, once you’ve paid off the mortgage on your house, you still have to fix the roof. You have to maintain the roads.” As fuel taxes decline and infrastructure degrades, express lanes will look better and better.

“We will fondly look back on express lanes as the first step toward the new transportation paradigm,” Click said. Charging drivers for usage of all roads on the basis of dynamic pricing will be the greatest driver of urban transformation since the invention of the elevator. “The next generation will change everything.”

Learning from Buena Vista’s Golf Course Default

vista_linksby James A. Bacon

In 2005 the City of Buena Vista in the Shenandoah Valley issued $9.2 million in bonds to pay for construction of the Vista Links golf course.  To obtain financing, the city purchased insurance for $400,000 and pledged the golf course, police station and municipal building as collateral.

The city made its debt payments for several years but encountered difficulties in 2010 when the annual payment was scheduled to increase to $660,00 and the golf course was still operating in the red. The city went into default and entered into an agreement with its insurer, ACA Financial Guaranty Corp., to make half payments for five years. ACA remitted the other half but added it to the principal. The agreement calls for the city to return to the full $660,000 annual payment in 2016 and continue for 27 years.

On the logic that the city will be unable to make the full payment in 2016 if it continues make the half payments today, City Council voted earlier this week to default on its bond payment due in January 2015. Needless to say, ACA is unhappy with that decision. “The unilateral act by the current city council demonstrates an unwillingness to act in good faith to negotiate a solution,” said ACA in a press release. According to the Roanoke Times, ACA could foreclose on the golf course, police station and the portion of city hall that does not include the courts.

What possessed the City Council of Buena Vista, a city of less than 7,000, to go deep into hock to fund construction of a golf course? The Roanoke Times provides some background:

Vista Links was viewed as an economic development project that would move the city away from its industrial base and spur commercial and residential development while attracting visitors and their money.

“In the 1990s we were struggling to find an economic driver to enhance our aging housing base and diversify our economy,” [Mayor Frankie] Hogan said. “So we hired some consultants who showed city council projected numbers for a golf course that exceeded reality. Little did we know. But we should have.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Three lessons here. First, beware economic-development Hail Mary passes based on municipal debt. The city is far worse off now, saddled with debt and a ruined credit standing, than it would have been had it stuck to more prudent policies. Second, beware consultants. Maybe they know what they’re talking about, maybe they don’t. Third, beware fads. Other municipalities turned to golf courses as a development elixir. Many of those have fallen short of rosy projections. Indeed, the entire golf industry, public or private, is hurting.

The only people who should build golf courses are those who really understand the business and are prepared to handle the risk of failure — which excludes just about every municipality in the country. The lesson applies not just to golf courses but convention centers, baseball stadiums and other speculative “economic development” ventures. Local governments should stick to core competencies like education, public works and public safety at which they can excel.

Chopra Pushes “Open Innovation” in Hampton Roads

Aneesh Chopra

Aneesh Chopra

Aneesh Chopra took his message of “open innovation” on the road to Hampton Roads yesterday, pushing the case for making government data more readily available to the public for transformation into commercial products and services. Perhaps the single best example of wealth creation that can flow from government data, the Weather Channel, came from Hampton Roads, he noted. Norfolk-based Landmark Media Enterprises, which owns the Virginian-Pilot, launched the Weather Channel, which grew into a company of more than $500 million a year in revenue.

“Weather is a $5 billion-a-year industry,” said Chopra, “but the source data that fuels that industry comes from the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which funds the satellites and the sensor networks that produces the raw data, which is open to anyone to consume, to build weather apps and other products and services.” (See story in the Pilot Online.)

A former Secretary of Technology for Virginia and former chief technology officer under President Obama, Chopra touted the “democratization of data” as one of several strategies for increasing entrepreneurial opportunity. Citing data showing the Hampton Roads had the lowest rate of new business start ups of any Virginia region in 2013, he also discussed ways of building the entrepreneurial talent pool by recruiting from the immigrant community, establishing regional early-stage capital and tapping the skills of tech-trainable veterans.

“No one’s going to come here – a white knight – saving the region while you sit back and observe passively,” said Chopra, a co-founder of Hunch Analytics, a Northern Virginia big data firm. “This requires active participation.”

– JAB

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.