Category Archives: Governance

Virginia Rated Worst State for Partisan Gerrymandering

By DJ Rippert

They’ll be back (in office forever). The USC Schwarzennegger Institute released a report finding that Virginia had the highest degree of partisan gerrymandering among all U.S. states. The report analyzed the “statewide popular vote in 2017 or 2018 state legislative elections and the partisan composition of the state legislative chambers in 2019.” While other studies draw somewhat different results, Virginia is often near the top of the list of “most gerrymandered states.” In mid-2019 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lawsuit by Virginia voters challenging Virginia’s voting districts on racial grounds.

As the USC report states, “Self-interested legislators who seek reelection have long attempted to draw their own districts to protect their personal reelection chances and to improve the electoral odds of their political party.” Repeating for emphasis, Virginia is not only one of many states with extreme gerrymandering, it is rated by this study as the most extreme case of partisan gerrymandering. This is no accident. It is the result of deliberate actions by members of our General Assembly hailing from both parties.

Partisan gerrymandering is a form of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. It should not be allowed and Virginia should certainly never be the worst offender. Beyond that, the Virginia Constitution states, “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” A state does not become the worst example of partisan gerrymandering in the United States by using contiguous and compact districts. Once again our General Assembly’s actions show that they believe laws are for the little people and not for themselves. Continue reading

Governance Nightmare: Integrating Hospitals and HMOs

Sentara: the epitome of Big Medicine

by James C. Sherlock

Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, has introduced a terrific piece of legislation, HB 1731. The bill tackles for the first time an increasing threat to competition, cost, availability, consumer choice and quality of health care in Virginia — the vertically integrated carrier.

The combination of hospitals and insurance carriers has captured the attention of neither the media nor the political class, but it is a fundamental driver of runaway healthcare costs in Virginia.

To illustrate the impact of vertically integrated carriers in the marketplace, consider Sentara Health’s offering of its Optima HMO plans in Charlottesville and surrounding counties in 2018 — Hudson’s legislative district. Optima was the only carrier that year to offer plans on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) marketplace in multiple locations where Sentara had hospitals. The people depending upon the federally administered program found that their only option, Optima, charged the highest plan prices in the United States.

A 40-year-old couple with two kids had to pay $40,000 in premiums for a Silver Plan. Plus they were liable for up to $11.700 in co-pays and deductibles. Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital was included in the network. The University of Virginia Medical Center was not. All in the family. Similar scenes played out in other areas of Virginia where Sentara had hospitals and Optima was the only ACA seller. Continue reading

Marijuana Decriminalization in Virginia: Issues and Recommendations for Regulators

Photo credit: Snopes

By Don Rippert

Ready, fire, aim. In Virginia, it seems likely that the Democratic Party’s control of the General Assembly and Governorship will result in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. This legislation will likely be passed in the 2020 session and go into law next summer. But what are the details of decriminalization? What specific policy decisions should our lawmakers consider when drafting the decriminalization legislation? Failing to consider these issues in advance of the legislative session could usher in a repeat of the shambolic attempt to legalize casino gambling in Virginia

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Virginia Legalized Gambling: Outlook for 2020

Photo credit: Gambling Herald

By Don Rippert

It’s not called the OLD Dominion for nothing. Virginia has lagged the nation in allowing legalized casino gambling. This is especially noteworthy since the United States doesn’t have a very tolerant attitude toward legalized gambling compared to other countries. In other words, Virginia has been a laggard within a lagging nation. That is changing. As of 1997 only two US states allowed legal casino gambling. Today 43 US states have operating casinos.  Virginia is not among those 43 states. Is anybody surprised? However, legislation passed in 2019 will change that. It seems very likely that Virginia will be joining the modern world of legalized gambling in 2020 (and beyond). The biggest barrier to Virginia casinos opening in 2020 is the bureaucracy of our state government. More on that in a moment. First, let’s review a brief history of legalized gambling in the Old Dominion.

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Northam Asserts “Systemic Inequity” Exists in State Government, but Doesn’t Say Where

Janice Underwood (foreground). Photo credit; Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Governor Ralph Northam has appointed Virginia’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the new “senior-level position,” Janice Underwood, former director of diversity initiatives at Old Dominion University, will develop a “sustainable framework to promote inclusive practices across Virginia state government,” stated a press release from the governor’s office. As part of that job, she will implement a “measurable, strategic plan” to address systemic inequities in state government practices, and turn feedback from state employees, external stakeholders and community leaders into “concrete equity policy.”

Well, this  is quite the indictment of Virginia state government, including the tenure of Northam’s four gubernatorial predecessors, three of whom were fellow Democrats: Terry McAuliffe, who is rumored to be pondering running again for the governorship, as well as Virginia’s two U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Who knew that Democrats allowed inequities to persist so long?

Remarkably, Northam, who has vowed since his blackface controversy to dedicate himself to racial equity, provided no details regarding what “systemic inequities” exist in state government. The inequities must be pretty grievous if they are to be described as “systemic.” But he leaves citizens hanging as to what they might be. Remarkably, the Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch, which normally are hyper-alert to evidence of racial injustice, neglected to inquire what Northam might have been referring to. (The Daily Press covered the story, too, but I could not get past the firewall.) What, oh, what could the governor mean? Continue reading

A Dialogue on Money in Virginia Politics

Jeff Thomas: Thank you for having me to Bacon’s Rebellion, Jim. I’m a longtime reader, first-time poster. Money in Virginia politics is an important topic on which I think we both agree, and I’m eager to hear your take on it. As I understand it, we’ll each answer and ask a question of the other within a 500-word limit. So let me begin.

What would be the rules for your ideal campaign finance system in Virginia?

Jim Bacon: Jeff, I’m delighted to engage in this exchange. As author of “The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016,” you are one of the few writers to take a deep interest in Virginia’s political economy, genuinely trying to understand the sources and distribution of power at the state/local level. Hopefully, this dialogue will prove illuminating.

Like you and many others, I find the role of money in politics to be disturbing. It is deeply unfair that the rich and powerful can buy more political influence through campaign contributions than ordinary citizens. But unfairness is part of the human condition. The question is whether the cure is worse than the disease. I do not believe in restricting campaign contributions, even if it means giving a billionaire California liberal like Tom Steyer and his NextGen Climate Action group (more than $3.7 million in the past few years) a bigger voice in Virginia politics than a life-long resident like myself. The Constitution gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and the right to petition government, and I regard the donation of money to political candidates as an extension of both those rights. Continue reading

Koch’s Recipe for Reforming Higher-Ed

James V. Koch’s indictment of the U.S. higher education system can be summarized as follows: The cost of attending four-year public universities has soared in recent decades, creating an affordability crisis. Lower- and middle-income students and their families have coped by piling up massive student loans to the point where indebtedness has become a major social and economic problem. Higher-ed institutions, especially those with brand names and pricing power, have extracted wealth from its students to fund institutional priorities of bolstering prestige and influence.

The underlying problem, Koch suggests in his recently published book, “The Improverishment of the American College Student,” can be traced to an asymmetry in political and market power.

Undergraduate students come and go. They and their families usually focus intently on college costs for a period of one to six years. After this, their attention dissipates. There is no permanent constituency of interested parties or victims. … Hence it is difficult to organize student or parent pressure groups that might address tuition and fee issues…

By contrast, the institutional interests of colleges, universities, and their bureaucracies endure. Boards of Visitors, set up to provide oversight of ambitious administrators, are routinely captured and dominated by university presidents. Board members adopt the goals and priorities of the administration rather than those of largely invisible students and families. Continue reading

Compare Localities to Improve Performance

Roy Fauber. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

I like the way Roy Fauber thinks. One doesn’t have to agree with the conclusions of the retired Federal Research Bank of Richmond executive to appreciate how he goes about dissecting issues in a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The cities of Richmond and Norfolk are close peers, he observes. They are similar in the sizes of their population (Norfolk 243,000 and Richmond 217,000), the percentage of the school-age population (11% and 12%), and poverty rates ( 22% and 25%). One might add that both cities are similar in that they are 200+ years old, can boast large downtown districts, and suffer from decaying decayed inner city neighborhoods and aging infrastructures.

Despite the similar nature of their challenges, Fauber notes, Richmond’s real estate taxes are 19.6% higher than Norfolk’s on a per-capita basis. General taxes are 26% higher per capita. He asks: “What accounts for this major disparity? … Do Richmond citizens get more for their money?”

Darn good question. Politicians are masters of deflection and excuse making. Citizens can cut through the rhetorical fog by posing questions like Fauber does. Continue reading

The Latest Front in Virginia’s Energy Wars: Rural Electric Co-Ops

One in six Virginians get their electricity from a rural electric cooperative. In theory, because co-ops are owned by their electrical customers, the interests of owners and customers and owners are aligned — in contrast to Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., in which the interests of stockholders and customers often come into conflict. But in the real world, the agency problem intervenes: The electric co-ops are run by professional managers, and a question arises as to whether entrenched management is putting its own interests ahead of the owner-customers they serve.

The policies of Virginia’s electric co-ops has been the source of considerable consternation among environmentalists. As noted last month by Ivy Main, a Sierra Club of Virginia blogger and contributor to the Virginia Mercury, “While a few co-ops have adopted innovative customer-friendly programs, most actively resist change.”

By “actively resisting change,” Main refers to their reluctance to embrace the environmentalists’ clean energy agenda. Coal accounts for 75% of energy generated by electric cooperatives nationwide, compared to less than 28% for all utilities nationally. “Worse,” she writes, “failing to see the promise of distributed generation, most co-ops have locked themselves into long-term supply contracts that give them little room for self-generation with solar and wind. … In fact, stuck with the dirty black stuff, rural electric cooperatives are much more likely than investor-owned utilities to support coal and oppose climate regulations.” Continue reading

Constitutional Officers–The Problem

Our recent discussion of the primary elections and an incidental comment by Steve Haner were the catalysts to get me to develop a posting that I had been mulling over for awhile. The system of elected administrative officers established in the Virginia Constitution for local governments needs to be abolished.

These officers, called constitutional officers for obvious reasons, and their primary responsibilities, are:

  • Circuit court clerk—responsible for the administration of the circuit courts: preparing trial transcripts, handling jury lists, preparing orders, etc.  The office is also the depository of the locality’s land records (deeds, liens, etc.) and wills.
  • Sheriff—responsible for law enforcement in many localities, administration of the jail, provision of courtroom security, and service of legal processes.
  • Commonwealth’s Attorney—chief criminal prosecutor.
  • Commissioner of the Revenue—property assessor and processor of income tax returns
  • Treasurer—collects tax and other state and local revenue and deposits funds into appropriate accounts; invests funds of local government

All officers are elected for four-year terms, except the clerk, who has an eight-year term. The Constitution requires that each city and county have these officers, although it also provides that localities can share officers and that localities can abolish the offices, if approved by referendum.   Continue reading

More Great Moments in Virginia Governance

Former Front Royal-Warren County EDA chief, Jennifer McDonald

Front Royal hanky panky. The Commonwealth Attorney of Warren County has asked to convene a special grand jury to probe “possible criminal activity” by the former executive director, Jennifer McDonald, of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, reports the Northern Virginia Daily. The request follows the Tuesday filing of a $17.6 million lawsuit by the EDA against nine defendants alleging financial improprieties including loans, use of lines of credit for certain projects, and authorization of work and purchase agreements of which the board was ignorant. “We, like many others, were misled and unaware of the extent and magnitude of this scheme,” said that board in a statement.

Meanwhile, back in the City of Richmond…

Sloppy accounting. An audit of Richmond city finances discovered poor accounting practices going back to the tenure of former Mayor Dwight C. Jones. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch: The audit “also found problems with the figures [Mayor Levar] Stoney’s administration said it had reconciled and released last summer.” Five of six accounts tied to school maintenance and construction did not have accurate balances, the result of erroneous or inappropriate charges and other sloppiness in accounting.” Continue reading

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

I Wonder Why That Is

by Megan Rhyne

We humans are observant creatures. We notice everything, even when we don’t notice that we’re noticing. We especially notice when things are different. How often have you seen something in your community, something that’s part of your regular routine, and noticed that it’s just not quite the same as it used to be. And haven’t you often asked yourself, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

If that’s happened to you, you should meet Lee Albright and his wife, Paulette, who retired to Nelson County some years ago. A dozen years ago, Lee and Paulette liked to visit their local fish hatchery, which was run by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). When the fish hatchery was suddenly closed to tourists, Lee and Paulette asked themselves, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

Lee wasn’t content to let that question be merely rhetorical. Instead, Lee set out to get answers.

He turned to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that can be used by any Virginia citizen to gain access to the records our local and state governments use, maintain, generate and possess in the course of carrying out the work of the people. Continue reading

Virginia’s Two-Faced Democrats

A very bad week. One can only assume that Virginia’s Democratic Party is very happy to see this week draw to a close. The Democratic Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General are facing deep scrutiny over revelations that came to light this week. While the specifics of each scandal remain hazy the sudden evaporation of moral outrage from fellow Democrats is crystal clear.

Northam: the expendable man. Govenor Ralph Northam was the first to fall under a thick cloud of disrepute as pictures from his personal page in his med school yearbook surfaced with people dressed in blackface and Klan outfits.  Democrats moved quickly to condemn Northam and call for his resignation.  Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were joined by the Virginia Black Caucus, former Governor McAuliffe, national Democrats and (most interestingly) Attorney General Mark Herring in calling for Northam’s resignation. Appearing in blackface is intolerable they all wailed in unison. Blue Virginia touted the calls for Northam’s resignation as proof of the ” … VAST moral difference between Virginia Democrats and Republicans …” Continue reading

Uh, Why Does JLARC Scare AG Herring?

Virginia AG Mark Herring

Just what does Mark Herring have to hide?

One of my goals during four years as director of administration for Attorney Generals Mark Earley and Randy Beales was to keep the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission busy somewhere else.   Having JLARC combing through your office asking inconvenient questions is no fun.

But had JLARC shown interest, I don’t think our response would have been quite the whine about partisanship that is coming from the current incumbent in that office.  “No one should be under any illusions about the partisan, election-year motivations that led to this review,” says Attorney General Mark Herring in an AP article in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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