Author Archives: Dick Hall-Sizemore

Tourist Storm Protection

According to a story in Saturday’s Virginian Pilot, Virginia Beach is slated for more beach widening this summer.  The total cost of the project is $22.6 million, with the federal government providing $14.7 million (65 percent) and the city of Virginia Beach paying the remaining $7.9 million.

The newspaper article says that this project is a “part of a long-term plan to protect the commonwealth’s shoreline from storms.”  That sounds like a worthy idea, especially in this era of sea-level rise.  But, let’s not kid ourselves.  This project is not about protecting the shoreline or about resiliency, the buzzword of the day.  After all, if one is going to protect the shoreline and make it more resilient to stronger storms, one would not try to do so by putting down a substance that will start washing away the day after it is put down.  The owner of one of the ocean front hotels stated quite plainly the real purpose of the project:  “…having  a wide beach is important, not only for safety, but for what we’re selling to our guests.”

I do not have an objection to spending public funds to enhance a tourist attraction of the Commonwealth.  After all, tourism is one of the state’s largest industries.  The Virginia Tourism Corporation reported that, in 2017, tourism accounted for $25 billion in domestic visitor spending, supported 232,000 jobs, and brought in $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.

I do have an objection to who is providing the funding for the beach widening.  Continue reading

Dumping, Again, on the Lowest-Paid Folks

A recent article in the Washington Post highlights an issue I alluded to in my recent post on government outsourcing  functions.  To summarize:  The Alexandria school superintendent’s budget proposal called for eliminating 30 custodian positions and outsourcing the jobs to a private company.  (The system already contracts with private companies for custodial services in many schools.  This proposal would have completed the outsourcing.)  The reason for the proposal was budget savings.  After a lot of blowback, the superintendent relented some, proposing that custodians who had worked for the school system for at least five years could keep their positions during the next school year.  That left 10 custodians facing the loss of their jobs.

This sort of outsourcing is common at all levels of government.  In Richmond, the custodians for state buildings are not state employees, but work for a company that has contracted with the state to clean the offices.  The same is true for security guards at the entrances to state buildings, with the exception of the Capitol Police. Continue reading

Contracting Out MH Transportation Not Best Choice

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has a front-page article today that raises many questions. It reports that the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental  Services (DBHDS) has entered into a two-year, $7 million contract with a private company to transport persons, who have been temporarily detained, to hospitals or mental health facilities for evaluation of being involuntarily committed.

Traditionally, sheriffs’ deputies or police officers transported these individuals, usually in marked police cars and sometimes in handcuffs. The rationale for contracting out this service is that it will be less traumatic for the involuntarily committed person and it will free up law enforcement officers, who spend thousands of hours on these transportation runs, for other public safety functions.

I sympathize with the motives for the change. Putting mentally ill people in police cars, sometimes in handcuffs, undoubtedly increases their trauma and reinforces the stigma accompanying mental illness. Law enforcement officers often have to drive many miles, sometimes across the state, to transport these patients, wait until the mental health facility accepts them as patients, and turn around and drive back to their home locality. That is a lot of time that the officers could have been on patrol duty, enforcing traffic laws or responding to calls for law enforcement support.

Nevertheless, contracting out this function to a private company is not necessarily a good idea. Continue reading

It’s the Money, Stupid

A fascinating article in Sunday’s New York Times deals with one of the subjects that is a frequent topic on this blog—housing patterns. Using demographic data from the Census Bureau and home lending data published as part of the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, the reporters “identified every census tract in the country that has grown notably more racially diverse since 2000.”

They found a consistent nationwide trend of increased diversity. Affluent whites are moving into central city areas that have been populated by blacks for many generations and middle-class non-whites are moving into suburbs long the domain of white families. The authors posit that the movement of whites into the central cities is a result of several factors. The major factor they cite is historical disinvestment by society in those areas, which has made them ripe for reinvestment. Another factor is old housing stock that was approaching the end of its life.

This increased diversity is altering the nature of the communities affected. The primary finding highlighted in the story is that the non-whites moving into the suburbs blend into, or integrate, their new communities relatively seamlessly. However, that is not true for whites moving into the central cities. The reason is not racial tension, but economics. While the non-whites moving into the suburbs have incomes similar to the families already living there, the average incomes of the whites moving into the central city neighborhoods are significantly higher than those who have lived there for many years. It turns out people feel more comfortable associating with those on their same income level. (This is not really a surprise.) Continue reading

VRS Not Out of Woods Yet

Following up on Jim’s recent post about the WMATA pension problems, I decided to check on the recent performance of the Virginia Retirement System.  Now that I get a monthly check from these folks, my interest is more active than in the past.

Analysis of pension plans is out of my league, but there is a recent report that does create some concern and even I understand it.  VRS is required by statute to conduct periodic stress tests.  The latest one was released in December.  For those who are interested in digging into the weeds, here it is .  Toward the end of the report, the authors point out that VRS lost about 25% of its value in the first couple of years of the Great Recession.  They warn that, if there is another great shock or even a period of a few years of returns lower than needed, the plan would be in a worse position to absorb the shock than it was in 2009.  The Free Lance-Star had a good summary of the issue in this editorial.

In summary, to keep VRS able to meet its pension obligations, the General Assembly needs to continue its recent practice of paying down the plan’s unfunded obligations.

Get the Shots

As if the anti-vaccination lunancy were not bad enough, now we have the Governor of Kentucky declaring that, not only is he opposed to his state’s mandatory chicken pox vaccination requirement, he sent his nine children to a “pox party”, so they could contract the disease while they were children.  They were “miserable for a few days” he reported, but they “all turned out fine.”

Although chicken pox is considered by many to be a relatively benign disease, the Centers for Disease Control reports that in the early 1990’s, before the vaccination was developed, 10,500 to 13,000 people were hospitalized and 100-150 died each year from the disease. I wonder what the Governor’s kids think of their father playing the odds with their health and lives?

There have been reports in the press about an outbreak of measles in the state of Washington in an area in which a relatively large number of children are not vaccinated. According to the CDC, the country seems to be on the way to a banner year in measles outbreaks.  Although the outbreak in the Northwest got  most of the attention earlier in the year, the biggest number of cases have been in New York City, particularly in Queens and Brooklyn. Now, a suburban New York county has banned unvaccinated minors from from public spaces.  It is well known that measles can lead to serious health conditions and can be fatal.

I can personally attest to the effects of measles. I had the disease as a child, but suffered no after effects. My brother and sister were not so lucky. Both developed serious hearing loss as a result of their bouts with measles.  lso, for many years, I worked in an office with a man who had almost total hearing loss due to having measles as a child.    Continue reading

Time to Stop Kicking the Can

The hypocrisy of General Assembly members is astounding sometimes.  They complain about vexing problems, but create obstacles to fixing those problems.

Governor Northam included funding in his proposed budget to begin detailed architectural and engineering planning for replacing Central State Hospital in Petersburg, one of the state’s major mental health hospitals.  There is a consensus that the facility is badly outmoded and needs replacing.

The General Assembly cut the planning money, but said that it was open to a different  approach if the Governor were to propose one  for the reconvened session.  The Governor has announced that he will be proposing a slightly different project.

The main reason given by the General Assembly for cutting the planning money was that the proposed project was going to take too long (seven years to plan and complete construction).  That complaint is worth examining: Continue reading

Still Making Furniture in Virginia

Since we have been discussing manufacturing in Virginia,  I want to take the opportunity to recommend this wonderful book.  It is the story of how one man fought to maintain his manufacturing operation in Virginia.  While the main focus of the story is the problem of Chinese subsidization of companies that were competing with Virginia furniture manufacturers, the story does illuminate many of the other problems facing manufacturers in rural Virginia.  In addition, for long-time observers and students of Virginia politics and history, the story of the interlocking family operations- Bassetts, Stanleys, Vaughans, and Lanes–that comprised furniture making in Southside Virginia in the 20th century, is fascinating.  (I just discovered to my chagrin that Jim Bacon had a long post several years ago about this book.  Regardless of my neglecting to check BR history, it does rate a second recommendation.)

The subject of Macy’s book, John Bassett, III, has published his own book on how manufacturers can continue to succeed in America.  I have not read this one, but, based on his success, he needs to be taken seriously.

More Power for States: Good or Bad?

One of the most pleasant surprises that I discovered upon becoming a frequent follower of this blog was the whole world of energy regulation. RGGI, and, now, TCI, were new terms for me. I became aware of the cap- and-trade concept in its first widespread use in dealing with sulfur dioxide emissions, but was not aware of its current use for carbon dioxide.

Steve Haner’s recent post on TCI referred to RGGI and TCI as interstate compacts. That caught my attention. Long ago, in my political science courses, I learned about interstate compacts (my professor wrote what was then the definitive study on interstate compacts). The U.S. Constitution provides, “No state shall, without the consent of Congress…enter into any agreement or compact with another state….” (Article I, Section 10) Virginia has entered into a number of agreements with other states that fall under the ambit of this provision.  The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which sets limits on the catches of certain fish species, is one example. Another, more familiar, example is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. But  RGGI and TCI have not been approved by Congress, which puzzled me.

It turns out that not all agreements among states constitute an “interstate compact” in the Constitutional sense. The Supreme Court in its first case dealing with interstate compacts (Tennessee v. Virginia, 1895), and confirmed in 1985 in its most recent case on this subject, declared that an agreement among states does not require the consent of Congress if it does not infringe on, or encroach upon, federal supremacy. Continue reading

More on Solitary Confinement

(This is a follow-up to, and expansion on, an earlier post by Jim Bacon on solitary confinement.)

“Solitary confinement” is a term fraught with dread or terror. It conjures up images of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, or, in real life, John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton. That is not the reality in Virginia prisons. 

During my tenure at the Department of Planning and Budget, the Department of Corrections was my primary assignment. As part of that assignment, I toured Virginia prisons each summer for about 20 years. I realize that my visits were somewhat sanitized. I was accompanied, most of the time, by senior DOC officials. As a result, the inmates and officers were probably on their best behavior and DOC officials did not tell or show me everything  (They would have if I had asked, but I did not always know enough to ask.)  With those caveats, however, I think I have a good sense of the overall situation.

By its very terms, “solitary confinement” means being confined alone, not having contact with other humans. That is not the case with Virginia prisons. Those inmates housed in DOC’s version of “solitary” confinement are in single cells, but can communicate with their guards, can leave their cells several times a week for showers and outdoor recreation, have regular visits from counselors and psychologists, and, in some cases, can participate in education or other programming. As a result, DOC avoids the term “solitary confinement.”  Instead, it uses other terms. For a long time, such offenders were placed in “segregation.”  More recently, the euphemism is “restrictive housing”.  (Another outside analyst I worked with responded to this term by saying, “I thought all correctional housing was restrictive!”)  Continue reading

Let Your Light Shine

I have been reluctant to weigh in on the recent discussions dealing with electricity demand and related topics because such topics are way beyond my experience.   However, a recent New York Times article highlighted one topic that has come up in our discussions—energy conservation—that I found fascinating.  The article points out that the residential demand for electricity per household in the U.S. rose steadily from 1970 to about 2010, but then began to decline.

A primary reason given for the decline, cited in both the NYT article and in more detail by an energy economist from UC Berkley?   The large-scale switch to more efficient light bulbs.

The catalyst for the switch was 2007 Congressional legislation mandating efficiency standards for bulbs.  When the second phase of that legislation takes effect next year, only compact fluorescent and LED bulbs will meet the standards.  LED bulbs use up to 85 percent less electricity than traditional bulbs and can last up to 25 years.  And, as with most new technology, the price has come down as it has been more widely accepted.

This is a good example of government-set standards that have spurred a new industry, reduced costs for consumers, and conserved energy, with only minor disruptions.

Bad Analysis, Legislative Gamesmanship, Misplaced Priorities

In 2016, Keith Harward was released from Virginia’s prisons after serving 33 years for a crime he did not commit.

Harward was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder largely on the basis of the testimony of forensic dentists that bite marks on the victim matched his teeth. Many years later, following improvements in DNA testing methods, analysis of evidence left at the crime scene excluded Harward as the perpetrator.

The use of bite marks and other traditional evidence such as hair analysis has been largely discredited as being unreliable and having little scientific basis by both the National Academy of Sciences (here) and by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (here).  In addition, the current guidelines of the professional governing body for forensic dentists recommends the use of bite mark evidence only for exculpatory purposes (here).

Virginia rules for the introduction of new evidence after a person has been found guilty of a crime are among the strictest in the nation. Generally, a convicted person has only 21 days following the entry of a final order by the court to bring forward new evidence supporting his or her innocence. There are two exceptions. If there is new evidence that was unknown or unavailable at the trial, the convicted person may petition the Court of Appeals to consider that evidence and set aside the finding of guilty. However, the bar is high for anyone to use this avenue. The other exception relates to previously unknown or untested “human biological evidence”, i.e. DNA testing. Upon learning the results of such testing, the convicted person may petition the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence. Again, the conditions under which such a writ can be granted are strict. Failing to succeed with, or qualify for, these methods, the convicted person may petition the Governor for a pardon. Continue reading