Frank Wagner in the Center Ring

By Steve Haner

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, came to the General Assembly in the 1991 election, as part of a large GOP class that included future Governor Bob McDonnell, future Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Bill Mims, future U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor and current State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment.

Those names probably produce a mix of reactions with readers, but if you take the job of legislator seriously there will be bumps in the road and controversy. People will cheer you sometimes and cuss you other times. Like the others listed above, Wagner has taken the job seriously. Nobody gets mad at the back-benchers, but years later people also strain to remember them.

Combine Wagner’s legislative success with his Navy career and his experience building a ship repair company, and Wagner is extremely well prepared to be Virginia’s next governor. If he gets there, I’m confident he will think long-term and value good policy. He will have my vote June 13 and I hope I get a chance to vote for him again in November.

A third of a century watching the doings in Richmond has taught me that governors do matter. When big things happen, good or bad, it is usually with the governor doing the pushing and the pulling.

But what governors propose the legislature must dispose. If Wagner does not get a chance to move into the mansion and pick his own brew for the kegerator, he will remain chair of a key Senate committee and a member of the budget conference committee. The next governor (if smart) will be calling Wagner as often or more than Wagner will be calling that new governor.

The power in Richmond abides with the Assembly. This was on my mind as I listened to a tribute Monday to retiring Speaker of the House Sen. Bill Howell, R-Stafford. I doubt he would trade his two decades as speaker for one term as governor, and few governors in my experience have had greater impact on the lives of Virginians than Howell has. And yes, some people have cussed a time or two.

The General Assembly takes its lumps on this blog, with one contributor in particular comparing it to the Ringling Brothers’ clown corps. Me, I always liked the clown acts. Emmett Kelly. Lou Jacobs. Reflecting on my own time inside the tent, holding safety ropes, scooping poop, hawking cotton candy, enjoying the view from ringside, it is the legislators I’ve known who come to mind. That Class of 1991 turned out extremely well. But as a rule, every legislator I’ve known had the ability to make a contribution, had some issue they understood well, had their own shot at the center ring. Most were and are remarkable in some way. Virginia has been better served than many realize.

Sure it’s a circus, and there are clowns, but look up there above the center ring.  Now it’s Frank out there walking the high wire hoping for stardom and risking a big fall.  t the other end of the wire is another performer who climbed up from the sawdust, Ralph Northam. That’s the show we all came to see.

Steve Haner is a lobbyist who is the principal of Black Walnut Strategies.

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20 responses to “Frank Wagner in the Center Ring”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    It’s a clown show because it’s a circus. It’s a circus because the current Virginia Constitution is horribly flawed. If you put three rings under big tents people with red balls on their noses riding undersized bicycles will show up. The Virginia Constitution created The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. Let’s see why …

    1. Hopelessly overpowered legislature (Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely):

    One term governor (only state in America where governor can’t run for a second consecutive term), huge “checks and balances” error.

    State judiciary elected by the legislature (including practicing attorneys who will have their cases tried in front of the judges they elect and re-elect). No judicial recommendation committee. Only one of two states to work this way, huge “checks and balances” and “due process” error.

    Strong Dillon Rule implementation. Limits local authority in favor of state authority. Anti-democratic and another huge “checks and balances” error.

    Only state in the country where cities aren’t in counties. Keeps the localities small, isolated and relatively powerless.

    2. Incredibly uncompetitive elections

    Off year election (one of only two states I believe) holds down voter turnout and helps create “politicians for life”

    No term limits for legislators despite having the country’s harshest term limit for the governor.

    Hopelessly gerrymandered despite clear language in the state constitution prohibiting gerrymandering (who will stop them … the judges they elect?)

    Only one of four states where there are no limits whatsoever on campaign donations.

    No effective visibility or accountability for the flow of campaign contributions as donations are bundled, re-bundled and distributed.

    Hardest state in the country for a third party to get on the ballot.

    3. An open invitation to corruption

    Unlimited gifts directly to politicians. Kaine’s free vacation, McDonnell’s Rolex.

    Industry and company specific tax breaks that go on forever, are never reviewed and remain completely opaque due to JLARC’s willful incompetence.

    Trust me … I could go on.

    The next time you hear a member of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond lower their head and refer to Thomas Jefferson as “Mr Jefferson” you should laugh out loud. Those autocratic buffoons either don’t have the faintest idea of Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy or they think the electorate is too stupid to see through their pompous charade.

    If Thomas Jefferson came back to life and saw what had become of his beloved Virginia he’d either cry or vomit. If George Washington ever came back and saw the same he’d kick the clown’s asses.

    Our state motto should be, “Virginia – corrupt by design”

    Also, in the future, don’t feel that you have to refer to me as “one commentator” I proudly affix my real name to the criticism of the most corrupt legislature in America.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Virginia – corrupt by design” What a way to start a day. While I disagree with some of the reasoning, I agree with the conclusion.

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        And while I agree with some of the concerns, I reject the conclusion as sophistry. Jefferson and Washington would be dazzled by the universal suffrage and political cacophony of today, but they were creatures of the General Assembly as well – and in their day it was almost an oligarchy. I assume, Rippert, this means you prefer statewide candidates who have not been tainted by service in the Assembly? (Damn, the vocabulary is hot today…)

        1. djrippert Avatar

          I prefer candidates who live in 2017 rather than 1957. We are operating under Virginia’s seventh constitution. It’s time for number 8. The current constitution went into effect on July 1, 1971. It was written under considerable pressure from the federal government to void the absolutely horrible, Richmond-elite 1902 constitution. In less than a month the constitution will be 46 years old. A lot has changed over the last 46 years. It’s time to re-think governance in Virginia. Find me a candidate who recognizes the need for transformational change and I’ll support that candidate … whether they came to understand the need for change in the General Assembly or the Mechlenburg Correctional Center.

        2. djrippert Avatar

          Universal suffrage was driven by the Virginia General Assembly?

      2. djrippert Avatar

        If it were one thing where Virginia is an outlier, that would be OK. But, over and over again, it’s Virginia is the only state that does this, the only state that does that, one of only two states that do X, one of only four states that do Y. It’s like this state is one of those insects that got frozen in amber years ago. Meanwhile, states in the New South like Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and even South Carolina are progressing faster than Virginia. Virginia is increasingly being grouped with Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas in the Old South.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well maybe time for DJR to follow Steve at the blog rostrum.. and perhaps regale us with how much better Maryland is than Virginia!


    1. djrippert Avatar

      Maryland seems to do a decent job of balancing the needs and desires of the rural areas of the Eastern Shore against the urban and suburban areas of the Baltimore – Washington corridor. In Virginia, it’s “us vs them” with an excessively powerful General Assembly pretty much blocking progress in the state. Freezing the gas tax in cents per gallon for decades was a classic example of the grossly incompetent, culpably negligent behavior of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. “We ain’t payin’ fer no NoVer roads”. Morons.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        RoVA simply plays NoVA for the fools we are. While we don’t have enough votes to pass legislation we want, we do have sufficient numbers to hinder bad bills. But it’s rare that NoVA legislators are willing to stand up to stop or modify legislation that doesn’t provide benefits to NoVA.

        Heck, no other Democrats were willing to support Chap Petersen and Steve Shannon when they tried to force Mark Warner to run the additional state aid for K-12 outside the standard aid formula. They got so aroused at the idea of a tax increase that they simply rolled over for Warner and left Petersen and Shannon out to dry.

        Similarly, a sizable number of NoVA legislators voted for the bill that limits residential proffers and forces higher taxes to subsidize development. Unless and until voters are willing to hold their legislators accountable and vote for legislators who are willing to rock the boat, we get exactly what we deserve – the opportunity to subsidize low real estate taxes throughout much of Virginia. We have met the enemy – it is us.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” WMATA officials say they need about $15.5 billion for capital spending over the next 10 years to work through a massive backlog of deferred maintenance. Virginia’s state-government share would be about $150 million a year over and above the $200 million it allocates annually to operations and capital spending.”

    $350,000,000 from Rova to NoVa for WMATA is not exactly chump change.. and that does not even count the Federal funding for WMATA that comes from other taxpayers outside of NoVA.

    I’d say that NoVa is not exactly hurting on the who-subsidizes-who conundrum .

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      It’s my understanding that, generally with respect to transportation, NoVA does OK with state funding. The state K-12 aid formula is totally unfair and inadequate to the point that, if local officials had any stones, they’d sue the Commonwealth. Lots of state expenditures are on centralized services that really don’t affect the amount of tax dollars sent and received in return.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    So does NoVA receive MORE in cross-subsidies overall?

    the idea that the composite index is “unfair” to NoVa… I’m totally not convinced of because the basic idea is – in ALL STATES per SCOTUS decision – it is up to the State to ensure that there is EQUAL funding of all kids regardess of geography. That basically means that the urban areas ARE going to subsidize the rural areas..

    and the reality is when it comes to urban infrastructure and services like WMATA – that THEY are subsidized by all taxpayers including rural.

    so is there good and accurate data to show the subsidies to and from NoVa or is there just a “belief” using selective data to make the claim that NoVa is being treated “unfair”?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry – the idea that NoVA receives cross-subsidies doesn’t make sense. I looked up the Department of Taxation’s annual report for Fiscal 2016. Fairfax County residents paid 23.7% of all the Individual Income Tax collected by the Commonwealth. We paid $2,758,475,854 out of $11,623,977,320. The Census Bureau put the County’s July 1, 2016 population at 1,138,652 and the state’s at 8,411,808. We represent about 15.3% of the total state population. If Virginia had a head tax that raised the same amount of money, Fairfax County residents would pay only $1,778,468,530 – a cut of almost $1 billion dollars. We get no subsidies.

      SCOTUS only held that states must ensure poor school districts can provide the same quality of basic education as wealthier districts. That requires a lot of facts, including the cost of living, the actual local tax effort as opposed to “capability” and the nature of the requirements to provide the same quality of education. Fairfax County’s cost of living is so much higher than rural Virginia. A fair comparison might show that it only costs $5000 in RoVA to educate a child, whereas the same level of services cost $15,000 in NoVA. So let’s assume Rural County A can fairly raise $2500 from local taxes. That suggests state aid ought to pay the remaining $2500 to Rural County A. NoVA County B might be able to raise $10,ooo locally, so state aid should be $5000 or twice as much just to treat all jurisdictions alike.

      And then there is the issue of the student body. Fairfax County has more kids on free and reduced lunch than there are students in all but a few Virginia school systems. Say it costs an extra $5000 to educate poor kids. Petersburg has 4200 or so kids on free and reduced lunches. If the state paid the entire bill, Petersburg would get $21 million. But Fairfax County has almost 40,000 of this class of student. If the state paid the entire bill, Fairfax County would get $200 million. Moreover, it costs more to educate the poor kids in Fairfax County, so our take should be even higher. Good lawyers could beat the state in a lawsuit.

      NoVA is screwed, but lacks the stones to litigate.

    2. djrippert Avatar

      There is no data because JLARC is a puppet of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. The last thing cockroaches want is the disinfecting power of the kitchen light being turned on. Add up all of the state taxes collected by jurisdiction then subtract the total amount of state spending by jurisdiction. For spending that can’t be allocated by jurisdiction (very little in my mind) average the spend by population and credit the jurisdictions with their per capita benefit.

      Why isn’t this done?

      Well start here …. whatever happened to this effort?

      “Del. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax County, said he doesn’t think the political will exists yet to tackle the issue in a serious way.

      Surovell introduced a measure last winter, which he dubbed a “sunshine bill,” seeking to have the names of all recipients of tax credits worth more than $1,000 published on the state Department of Taxation website. Surovell’s rationale: Public scrutiny of tax breaks might focus lawmakers’ minds on the issue.

      “The problem with these things is, once they go into effect, it’s impossible to measure their effectiveness – whether they’re being used for the purpose they were intended or whether they’re accomplishing anything – because the people who claim the benefit are completely confidential,” Surovell said. “It becomes very opaque.”

      Surovell’s bill never made it out of committee.”

      The clowns are robbing you blind Larry.

  5. TBill Avatar

    I like some of Wagner’s ideas. Whoever gets Repub nod has to be willing to veto the dumb divisive stuff the Repubs send up these days, like McAuliffe does but it’s easier for him.

    I wish DJR would keep going…
    4. Out-dated tax code right?

    1. djrippert Avatar

      The tax code is very outdated but I don’t see that as an issue from the Virginia Constitution. That’s just sloppy thinking and a preference for inaction over action.

      Lack of citizen initiated referenda.

      Legislative districts too large (or … too few legislators) – The more population represented on average the more money it takes to mount a campaign. At 1 legislator : >80,000 people Virginia has the 9th highest resident per legislator in the US

      Look at this link. Select the tabs for 2014 and 2015 absolute competitiveness index. Virginia manages a rating of 17.6, making it the third least competitive state for state legislative elections in the United States. It was 49th in 2012 / 2013. Dead last in 2010 / 2011.

      The game is rigged for the incumbents … in so many ways.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    well as bad as it is.. we could have those idiots in Kansas in charge….

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    Beware of ANY candidate who promotes the Laffer Curve idea that cutting taxes will increase economic activity and in turn generate higher tax revenues.

    It’s Voodoo Economics … and Kansas is the poster child.

    Both Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore were architects of the Kansa Tax Reform Plan that ended in disaster and yesterday THEIR General Assembly not only had to go back to a more sane tax regime but they had to override the Governor’s veto.

    ” Kansas Legislators Repudiate Governor, Override Tax Veto
    Vote ends Sam Brownback’s experiment employing tax cuts to spur economic growth – June 7, 2017 4:31 p.m. ET”

    So what kind of tax “plan” should voters in Virginia be looking for in it’s next Governor?

    What position will the candidates take on Health Care? Will they support the current GOP replacement of ObamaCare to include turning MedicAid into a de-facto bock grant program?

    Should Virginia be taking more responsibility for it’s own economy rather than be dependent on Federal govt deficit spending?

    Should Virginia take more responsibility for the health care of it’s citizens instead of depending on money from the Federal Government?

    These are the issues I’m going to pay attention to with respect to the candidates for governor and any of them that mentions Laffer in their “economic” plan will lose my vote forthwith… no more Voodoo Economics!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry’s point has some truth behind it. Just cutting taxes alone will not necessarily spur sufficient growth to pay for itself. But the bigger problem seems to be the unabated increases in public spending that outpaces growth in income or inflation. See the Poster Child WMATA.

      Conceptually, money received from the government ought to be considered as taxable income above some floor like Social Security is for FIT purposes. What would happen in the event personal exemptions and the standard deduction were raised significantly and government payments were considered to be income? A works and gets paid $40K. A is taxed on the $40K. B works, gets paid $15K and receives $25K in government benefits? Should they both be taxed the same? If not, why not?

      What if it were determined that it cost $12K to educate a child in public schools. Fairfax County spends $17K on average. What if the additional $5K was taxable income.

      I’m not offering a plan or proposal. I’m just testing a concept.

  8. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    Regarding Wagner …. I just have a hard time understanding how citizens along Virginia’s coast, which is in the top ten of places in the US in danger from the effects of climate change, continue to vote for someone who maintains the Republican denial line about climate change, even as their problems with recurrent flooding continues to get worse.

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