A Spending Boost We Don’t Need

Here are a couple of items in the Governor’s proposed budget that the Commonwealth could do without.  Both are in the Office of the Governor, each with a budget request of $599,192 for each year. That is a total of $2.4 million for the biennium. The description of the purpose of each budget amendment comes from the Budget Document, prepared by the Department of Planning and Budget.

Office of Chief Diversity Officer. “This office promotes inclusive practices across Virginia state government; implements a strategic plan to address systemic inequities in state government practices; and facilitates ways to turn feedback from state employees, external stakeholders, and community leaders into concrete equity policy.”

From my Soapbox: This is a classic bureaucratic statement that says nothing.  This sounds like a make-work position.  To top it off, the office is to have three employee positions: the director and two others. Continue reading

A Spending Boost We Won’t Object to: Medicaid Fraud Prevention

Participants in the REAL LIFE program.

by James A. Bacon

As legislators ponder the next two-year budget, which incorporates a $2.2 billion-per-year increase in spending (14%) in FY 2022 compared to the current fiscal year, they would do well to take into account a new Medicaid scam.

Medicaid covers expenses categorized as “mental health skill building.” These mental-health services are particularly valuable to the homeless, drug and alcohol addicts, and people coming out of incarceration. Since the enactment of Medicaid expansion, the number of agencies providing such services has increased significantly. And so have the fraudsters who have learned how to game the system.

‘We have seen mental health skill builders drive their clients to our Community Center, sit in the waiting room sometimes for two to three hours while waiting for us to deliver services; meanwhile they are billing Medicaid,” says Sarah Scarbrough, director of REAL LIFE, a nonprofit that serves marginalized populations. Continue reading

Analysis: Only Assembly Can Impose Carbon Tax

By Steve Haner

It is illegal in Virginia for a petroleum wholesaler to arbitrarily reduce the amount of product it provides to retailers. The General Assembly has intervened in that marketplace, probably for the reasonable public purpose of preventing price gouging. Regulating the sale of fuel for some other purpose should also require action by the General Assembly.

The “other purpose” under scrutiny at this time would be reducing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. David Schnare of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy was researching whether the governor could impose the Transportation and Climate Initiative on Virginia without General Assembly action. He found and cites the existing state law against rationing gasoline and other legislative oversight of that market in an analysis published today.

Schnare holds both environmental and law doctorates and served 34 years with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. His conclusion is the Governor lacks the authority to act arbitrarily through an executive order or agency decision.  t was the same conclusion reached recently by the Supreme Court in Washington state in reviewing and rejecting a cap-and-trade effort from that state’s governor, Jay Inslee.

Here’s the take on that from the Wall Street Journal editorial board:

Good news: The political panic over climate change doesn’t justify one-man rule. That’s the message the Washington Supreme Court delivered this week to Governor Jay Inslee, who tried to impose his command-and-control agenda by fiat.

Perhaps you heard Mr. Inslee for a millisecond in the presidential race last year declaring that climate change is “the most urgent challenge of our time.” He failed to galvanize the masses, much as he failed to persuade the Washington Legislature in 2015 when it rejected his cap-and-trade proposal.

Continue reading

Richmond During the Rally: The Safest City in Virginia

Wait? What? Where were all the white supremacists?

by James A. Bacon

Twenty-two thousand armed citizens packed the streets of downtown Richmond yesterday, and not one shot was fired. No one was killed. No one was injured. There was only one arrest — of a 21-year-old woman who refused, in violation of a prohibition against masks, to remove a bandana from her face. And she, most likely, was of the leftist persuasion. As the Virginia Mercury quotes her male companion, “Way to keep our city safe, guys, while there’s fuckin’ Nazis and terrorists around here.”

After hyping fears that far-right extremists might create mayhem, the mainstream media heaved a collective sigh of relief. Some headlines:

Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Gun-Rights Rally Draws 22,000 to Capitol; No Violence.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch: “No Violence as Thousands with Firearms Gathered

Washington Post: Weapons, Flags, No Violence: Massive Pro-Gun Rally in Virginia Capitol.”

Associated Press: “Pro-Gun Rally by Thousands in Richmond Ends Peacefully.”

Urban journalists and other progressives never cease to be amazed when law-abiding rural rustics with guns are, well… law-abiding. The media — especially the Washington Post — had fanned fears that the event would be disrupted by armed militias, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Continue reading

Thoughts on the Big Pro Gun Rally

By Peter Galuszka

 I was tempted to go the large anti gun-control rally but I had other work to do for customers and I didn’t want to get caught in a traffic jam. I have been to a few of these things before – some violent, some not.

There seems to be a certain amount of self congratulation now that the demonstration is over with no violence and one arrest. A few takeaways:

(1) Gov. Ralph Northam and his team deserve credit for taking smart precautions such as requiring no guns and metal detectors even though I didn’t quite see the point with having thousands of guys tricked out in military garb carrying assault style rifles just outside the fences at Capitol Grounds. This is what should have been done in Charlottesville in 2017.

(2) This was the approach taken at Klan rallies I covered in the late 1990s in Cleveland and Clarksburg,W.Va. The police tolerated nothing. I also was at a two-day riot in Moscow on Oct. 3 and 4 1993 where order completely broke down in a coup against Boris Yeltsin. Hundreds were killed including some people standing close to me. I also was almost caught in a machine gun cross fire on a highway. Among the dead were seven journalists.

(3)  This being Bacon’s Rebellion, one has to ask the most important question. How much is this costing the city, state and federal government? Why hasn’t anyone asked this question before? We’re supposed to shell out public dough so a bunch of guys opposing fairly moderate gun regulations can feel good about themselves?

(4) Lastly, there’s the moral aspect to this. I can’t say it any better than Ross Catrow in Good Morning RVA. Here’s what he wrote this morning: Continue reading

Answer Basic Questions, Please, Before Demanding Mo’ Money

The Heights, a $100 million school in Arlington County, co-locates a “democratic alternative magnet” program and a program for students with severe intellectual disabilities, according to School Construction News. It comes equipped with a lobby/gathering space, a theater, a gymnasium, rooftop terraces, and smart panel screens. Wildly extravagant, yes. But, in all fairness, no one else in Virginia is building schools like this.

by James A. Bacon

Some public schools in Virginia, especially in inner cities and rural areas, are in disgraceful condition. Rainwater leaks into classrooms, ceiling tiles are falling, mold is growing, and rats are scurrying. We can all agree that something needs to be done. But what? How widespread are these problems? Are they so ubiquitous that the state should step in?

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, thinks so. “We have a constitutional obligation to provide high-quality education to every child, regardless of their ZIP code or financial situation in life,” he says. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond seems to agree. “We ought to be able to figure out a way to do better for our children and teachers.” So reports the Roanoke Times.

To lawmakers, finding a better way almost always translates into providing mo’ money. Schools crumbling? Give localities more money to pay for repairs, renovations and new construction. And maybe mo ‘money is what’s needed. But maybe not. Given legislators’ Pavlovian response to any problem — spend more money — citizens should insist that legislators examine the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways to deal with the phenomenon of crumbling schools. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: In Non Gun-Related News…

In the Virginia political world, everyone’s attention is riveted today upon the gun-rights rally in Richmond. We are all hoping that everyone behaves himself and the event remains peaceful. But other things of interest are happening around the Commonwealth.

Washington Metro ridership back up. The years-long downward slide in Washington Metro ridership reversed itself in 2019, increasing 4% over the previous year — about 20,000 trips per weekday on average, according to the Washington Post. One possible explanation for the turn-around: People now can use their cell phones as fare cards. Also, Metro now offers a money-back guarantee that credits riders whenever a rush-hour trip is delayed more than 10 minutes. The greatest growth occurred in Saturdays and Sundays. Metrobus ridership continues its steep fall, down 2.5% last year. But it’s encouraging to see that the Metro, after years of effort to improve safety and on-time performance, may be pulling out of its slump.

Cherokees will have skin in the game. With the surge in proposals by Indian tribes to build casinos in Virginia, a central question I have been asking is what value the tribes are providing. Do they contribute anything beyond bartering their privileged status as a federally designated tribe? Are outside investors doing all the work and taking all the risk? Or do the tribes actually have skin in the game? Well, in the case of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which is proposing a resort and hotel in Bristol, it appears that the tribe is willing to invest $200 million of its own money. The Bristol Herald-Courier quotes tribe chief Richard Sneed: “Looking at the potential customer base and what the market would support, we’re estimating about a $200 million investment. The Eastern Band could come in covering the full cost of the investment as an owner operator.”

Well, there’s always home school. The culture wars in Loudoun County public schools are roiling around the appropriateness of LGBTQ literature in elementary school libraries and classrooms. Should public schools being legitimizing gay relationships and trans-sexual identity as early as elementary school (or at all)? Many parents, especially those of a fundamentalist Christian persuasion, object to books they consider “leftist propaganda” and “moral corruption”? Said one parent, according to the Washington Post: “They’ve removed everything with a Christian influence … and replaced it with smut and porn.” In a nation with irreconcilable value systems, this kind of conflict seems inevitable in public schools. Perhaps the best way to deal with the conflict is to let the majority’s values prevail (in this case, those who promote the LGBTQ agenda) while making it easier for those with minority views to opt out of the system, either through private school or home schooling.

— JAB

Runaway Costs and Hospital Monopolies

Employee contributions to medical insurance premiums (family coverage, 2018 by state — Virginia is the highest. By a longshot.

by James C. Sherlock

Healthcare costs are crowding out other spending by citizens and governments. All Virginians know this. Few understand, though, that their elected leaders in Richmond, who are recipients of huge campaign contributions from hospital interests, bear a significant share of the blame and some are actively working to increase costs further.

Virginia had the highest priced commercial health insurance in the country in 2018. (See chart above.) At $6,597, the 2018 average annual employee premium contribution for family health insurance coverage was the highest in the nation. The premium for single coverage in Virginia was the third highest.

The Affordable Care Act exchange is no better. The Centers of Medicare/ Medicaid database lists 16,900 lines of Silver plans and locations nationally in 2018. Virginia had 22 of the 55 highest priced, including 14 of the top 16. In the worst case in the nation, a 40-year-old couple with two children in the Charlottesville area paid almost $39,000 in premiums in 2018 for the less expensive of the only two family Silver policies available on the ACA exchange. Both were offered by Sentara’s Optima Health. With that policy, their out-of-pocket costs were capped at $14,700. Both policies were HMOs with no coverage for out-of-network providers. It was a Sentara network.

Hospital systems in Virginia’s five largest metro areas, either own their own health plans and insurers or have joined exclusive partnerships with one. Sentara, the largest, controls 63 corporations, 43 of which are for profit. Its non-profit subordinates include Optima Health and Sentara providers except its ambulatory surgery centers, which are for-profit partnerships. Continue reading

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reported and summarized, the Northam administration has introduced a comprehensive bill covering a wide range of transportation issues. The proposal is being carried in the House by S[eaker Eileen Fuller-Corn (HB 1414) and in the Senate by Sen. Saslaw of Fairfax (SB 890).

This bill (the introduced House and Senate bills are identical) covers subjects ranging from the use of cellphones while driving to a major reconfiguration of how transportation revenue is disbursed to a decrease in vehicle-registration fees to an increase in gas taxes.  The scope of the topics covered in the bill’s 86 pages is mind-boggling.

It would seem that the bill would be in clear violation of the “one-object” rule of the Virginia Constitution:  “No law shall embrace more than one object, which shall be expressed in its title.”  To be fair, the bill does express in its title one object: transportation. That is comparable to saying that a bill expanding Medicaid and reforming foster care would have one object: social services. Nevertheless, the bill is safe from challenge on this score. In the House, the Speaker rules on whether a bill violates the “one object” rule, and I have no doubt she would rule in favor of her bill. Continue reading

At Least Some Legislators Dream of Tax Fairness

By Steve Haner

The new chair of the House Finance Committee has introduced a major long-term tax reform proposal that will help most Virginia families, and the former chair of the same committee has offered a significant improvement to it. Both are good bills and combined they are great tax policy.

Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, has proposed House Bill 735 to apply an annual inflation adjustment to Virginia’s income tax brackets, credits and the standard deduction. The federal tax code does that, recognizing that without that simple adjustment a progressive tax system becomes more and more regressive over time. Without indexing inflation provides the government with an annual unearned raise and families with a sneaky annual tax hike.

Delegate Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, dropped in House Bill 1717 right on the deadline Friday, to increase the standard deduction used by most Virginia taxpayers from the current $9,000 per married couple to $12,000. That was the standard deduction level recommended in several bills during 2019, and the Assembly did raise the amount – just not that high. It remains a goal of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

Neither bill has been “scored” by the Department of Taxation, and once their fiscal impact is estimated the outcries from the spending crowd will begin. Were they to pass, there would be a large tax cut in the early years, followed by a general downward bend in Virginia’s future revenue growth. Tax policy should be considered without respect to the appetite for spending, if only because it will never keep up.  Continue reading

Tensions Build as Gun-Rights Rally Nears

Sen. Amanda Chase

by James A. Bacon

The gears are moving for the Second Amendment rally at the state Capitol scheduled for tomorrow. Buses are loading up with protesters. Law enforcement authorities are planning their crowd-control measures. Despite professions of everyone in charge that they want the event to take place peacefully, there are many disquieting signs. The most disturbing indicator, of course, was the arrest of three far-right extremists Thursday on allegations that they were planning to instigate violence.

But gun-rights sympathizers are arguing that Governor Ralph Northam is going to excessive lengths to maintain security. Not only has he prohibited protesters from carrying weapons on the Capitol grounds, they say security forces have erected heavy fencing around the Capitol and plan to limit admission to the area through a single entrance.

The gun-rights crowd is not responding well. State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has suggested on her Facebook page that protesters are “being set up.” With the assistance of the media, she said, Northam has laid the groundwork “to make the entire movement look like insurrection.” Continue reading

Early-Release-For-Murderers Bill Advances

A Virginia Senate committee voted Friday 9-to-5 (largely along party lines) to make many murderers eligible for release when they reach age 50. SB 624 effectively reinstates parole for many long-time inmates, even though the Virginia legislature abolished parole in 1995. The bill also guts Virginia’s three-strikes law, which required life without parole for offenders convicted of three separate murders, rapes, or robberies, or any combination of the three.

SB 624 would let inmates seek release at age 50 if they have served 20 years, or age 55 if they’ve served 15. Inmates would not be eligible for geriatric release under the bill if they committed a “Class 1 felony,” but such felonies are reserved for only the most heinous of crimes. First-degree murder, classified as a Class 2 felony, would be affected by the bill.

Supporters of the bill cited low recidivism rates by offenders previously given “geriatric release” in their 60s or later ages. But that doesn’t justify granting geriatric release to people in their 50s, who are younger and more capable of committing murder and rape. Moreover, changes to the parole board’s composition may lead to higher rates of geriatric release in the future, resulting in the release of higher-risk offenders. Continue reading

Booming Telework Spurs Job Growth in Rural Virginia

Source: Statchat

by James A. Bacon

The Internet, pundits long predicted, would emancipate people from the necessity of living near where they worked. The connectivity provided by cell phones, laptops and broadband would allow people to plug in at home…. or even while lounging by the pool or on the beach. It was a nice fantasy, but telecommuting never lived up to its potential. Far from freeing people to live in the bucolic countryside, the logic of the Knowledge Economy impelled more people to the city. A new theory emerged: that the clustering of knowledge workers led to such huge gains in productivity and innovation that it outweighed any lifestyle benefits to telecommuting long distances. The bigger the labor market, the greater the pull.

Now Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group, has been so bold as to suggest the dynamic might be shifting again. New Census Bureau data, he writes in the StatChat blog, suggest that over the past three years “the places Americans chose to live are becoming less connected to where their employer is based.”

What’s different all of a sudden? Perhaps the tighter labor market. Lombard suggests. As certain sectors of the economy experience labor shortages, employees have more bargaining power. He doesn’t say this, but I’ll throw it out there for consideration: Instead of pushing for higher wages, perhaps more people are using that bargaining power for more control over their work-life balance.

Whatever the reason, the impact of the increasing work-from-home phenomenon is potentially profound. Outside of Virginia’s major metro areas themselves, the regions that seem particularly effected are the Shenandoah Valley and the Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading

Prison Space Fiscal Impacts

In 1993, the late, great Delegate Chip Woodrum of Roanoke introduced a bill, which was subsequently enacted into law, to hold the General Assembly fiscally accountable for any legislation it passed that would add to the Commonwealth’s prison population.  The statute has been tweaked several times since its original enactment, but the overall purpose remains the same: the General Assembly must provide a specific appropriation to cover a portion of the costs of housing any additional inmates resulting from the passage of a crime-related bill.  Around Capitol Square, any legislation meeting this criteria is known as a “Woodrum bill.”

Del. Chip Woodrum Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The statute directs the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission (subject of a future post) to prepare the fiscal impact statement.  In accordance with the law’s provisions, the Sentencing Commission staff project how many additional inmates would be housed in each of the succeeding six years as a result of the enactment of a proposed bill.  It then takes the highest of those six annual projections and multiplies it by the average annual cost of housing an inmate in prison (supplied by the Department of Planning and Budget) to determine the fiscal impact of the bill.  If there is insufficient data available to make a determination of a bill’s impact, a provision of the Appropriations Act requires that an impact of $50,000 be assigned. Continue reading

Legislative Staffer Files Retirement Mid-Meeting

By Steve Haner

I am no longer with the Division of Legislative Services. If you need assistance, please contact…”

That is the message you get back if you send an email today to one of the key players in all the energy debates down at the General Assembly, perhaps the key player during the actual session.  That would be former senior staff attorney Frank Munyan, who calmly stood up and walked out of a House of Delegates committee meeting, went upstairs and filed his retirement papers.

As the staff person for both the House and Senate committees and the author or editor of most energy-related bills, Munyan has been considered an honest craftsman and adviser by all the various contestants for years.  As far as I know, everybody trusted him. He certainly kept all the legislators’ various secrets well, but if I asked him “do this bill do what I think it do?” he would answer.  He was also helpful with amendments.

He is a shining example of the uncounted cheerful professionals around that building in various jobs who keep the rest of us looking a bit less dumb.  If he comes back, many will cheer. Perhaps his Vontae Davis moment was enough and some apologies will come his way.  Continue reading