Category Archives: Governance

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.

Continue reading

Media reaction to Goodlatte’s 2018 Chesapeake Bay Amendment

Background: Republican Rep Bob Goodlatte (Va – 6th) has proposed an amendment to an appropriations package which would forbid the EPA from using federal funds to take action against bay states that fail to meet pollution-reduction targets set by the EPA and agreed-to by the states.  The amendment is to the 2019 Interior, Environment, Financial Services and General Appropriations Act.  The amended bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives 213 to 202.  The same bill (without the Goodlatte Amendment) was passed by the US Senate 92 to 6.

Goodlatte’s rationale. Rep Goodlatte previously explained his rationale for restricting the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup on his website.  You can view that explanation here and here. (Hat Tip: Jim Bacon). However, it should be noted that the first link was from 2014 and the second from 2016. One would think that Goodlatte’s most recent attempts to curtail the EPA’s enforcement of the TDML Blueprint would require an updated explanation of intent … especially in light of the continued success of the Bay cleanup effort since EPA enforcement began.

Media reaction to the 2018 amendment. In order to get the essence of the media reaction to Bob Goodlatte’s proposed amendment I performed an internet search with the argument “Goodlatte & Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.”  There were 42,800 results. Here are the top 10 written in 2018 pertaining to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict the EPA from enforcing the TDML Blueprint:

  1. Measure to weaken EPA enforcement of bay cleanup is up for House vote – again (Daily Press)
  2.  US House again votes to restrict federal enforcement of Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (Baltimore Sun)
  3. Editorial: Goodlatte once again targets the bay cleanup (Fredricksburg.Com)
  4. Senators vow to fight stripping funds to enforce Chesapeake Bay cleanup (LA Times)
  5. Environmentalists claim measure will set back Chesapeake Bay (13 News Now)
  6. Virginia GOP Congressman Again Tries to Gut Accountability For Chesapeake Bay Cleanup (PA Environment Digest Blog)
  7. Goodbye and Good Riddance to Goodlatte (Bacon’s Rebellion) (LOL)
  8. Harris backs Bay cleanup (The Star Democrat)
  9. Bay Journal: Hogan urges US Senate to reject curb on EPA role in Bay cleanup (Maryland.gov)
  10. House Republicans Advance Bill that Would Derail Chesapeake Cleanup (NPR)

Methodology reminder. Bob Goodlatte has made many failed attempts over the years to prevent the EPA from regulating the Chesapeake Bay’s TDML Blueprint. Interspersed with articles relating to his most recent attempt were articles referencing his prior attempts. Those prior articles were omitted from this list.

Conclusion. Goodlatte seems to have very little support for his latest attempt to restrict the EPA’s authority over the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond the dearth of media articles in support of Goodlatte, seven of Virginia’s eleven U.S. House of Representative members voted against Goodlatte’s amendment. Both Virginia U.S. Senators committed to blocking the amendment in the Senate. Even Maryland’s Republican governor came out publicly against the Goodlatte amendment. I also quickly scanned the next 10 articles (numbers 11 – 20) on the sorted list of responses to my internet search. All were opposed to Goodlatte’s latest attempt to restrict EPA enforcement of the TDML Blueprint.

— Don Rippert

Saul Trumpinsky – Donald Trump and Saul Alinsky

Yes Virginia, there is a United States. Most posts published on this blog are dedicated to Virginia-specific issues. This post is an exception. It is an attempt to understand the unexpected popularity of Donald Trump. While all states are impacted by the federal government and national politics, Virginia is perhaps the most affected state. The proximity of Northern Virginia to the nation’s capital as well as the military influence over Hampton Roads’ economy make the federal government particularly important to Virginia. So it behooves us to understand the president and how the heck he got elected.

Saul who? Saul Alinsky was a Chicago-born community organizer and writer. He was best known for his book Rules for Radicals published in 1971. Even before his famous (or infamous) book Alinsky was on the political radar. In 1966 William F. Buckley wrote an article in his “On the Right” column calling Alinsky an iconoclast and “close to being an organizational genius.” However, as would be the case with many critics on the left and right, Buckley ultimately found Alinsky’s approach ineffective. Famously, Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis was a 92-page critique of Mr. Alinsky and his methods. Back in 1969, 22-year-old Clinton was sympathetic to Alinsky’s concerns but ultimately found his approach ineffective. Even Hoover’s FBI kept a close eye on Alinsky during the late 1960s. But the 1960s came and went and Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was written and discussed, and then faded from view. There were momentary flare-ups around Hillary Clinton becoming First Lady and Barack Obama becoming president. However, Alinsky was largely relegated to those creaky crevices of the cultural cranium as a curious cartoon-like character. Or … was he?

Donald Trump and the resurrection of Saul Alinsky. As far back as early 2016 the right wing-media outlet Newsmax began to see parallels between Donald Trump’s approach as a candidate and Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. After being elected some of President Trump’s conservative critics continued to associate Trump’s actions with the Alinsky brand. Could it be? Could this odd collection of #neverTrumpers have unraveled the secret to Donald Trump’s inexplicable election success? Is he simply following Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals? Repeated searches of Trumpian philosophy found no fond commentary by The Donald for The Saul. However, there are many points of commonality between Trump and Alinsky.

A baker’s dozen.  Alinsky outlines 13 specific rules in his book. Donald Trump is following 12 of them. To wit (along with the Trump translation or Trumplation):

  1. “Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.” (Trumplation: constant exaggeration.)
  2. “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” (Trumplation: Make America Great Again. A simple, understandable motto.)
  3. “Whenever possible go outside the expertise of the enemy.” (Trumplation: Canada’s 243% tariff on U.S. dairy products … who knew?)
  4. “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” (Trumplation: Slam Hillary Clinton for taking millions for giving speeches to banks.)
  5. “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” (Trumplation: Crooked Hillary, Corrupt Kaine.)
  6. “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.” (Trumplation: campaign speeches that look like revival meetings, “deplorables” as a badge of honor.”)
  7. “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.” Trumplation: (Whatever happened to the NFL kneeling “controversy”?)
  8. “Keep the pressure on.” (Trumplation: From North Korea to the EU to London to Helsinki backed by an unending chorus of tweets.)
  9. “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”  (Trumplation: Nominate me or I’ll go third party.)
  10. “The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.”  (Trumplation: One Donald Trump tweeting, many Democrats attempting to rebut.)
  11. “If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside” (Trumplation: Forget my business deals, look at Crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary, Crooked Hillary …)
  12. “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”  (Trumplation: The only rule he seems to have missed although GDP growth through corporate tax cuts might be an example.)
  13. “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”  (Trumplation: target individuals not institutions – Carmen Yulin Cruz, Stephen Colbert, Megyn Kelly.)

Advise to President Trump. Read Hillary’s thesis. She did get an “A”. Alinsky’s tactics work well at first but fail to create a lasting unity among their adherents. They generate notoriety at a rapid rate but the momentum doesn’t last. Charles “the Hammer” Martel may have defeated the Moors at Tours but it was his grandson King Charles (aka Charlemagne or “Charles the Great”) who forged an empire. Hammers are forgotten while greatness is not. Hammer time is over. What’s next Mr. President? You’ve taken the rules for radicals as far as they will go. It’s time to start writing “lessons for leaders.”

— Don Rippert

Does the RPV have the guts to scuttle the GA?

Sink the Bismark.  Folklore and decades of accepted history hold that the German battleship Bismark was sunk by the Royal Navy.  However, recent underwater archeological research tells a slightly different story.  At first the Bismark seemed invincible.  She engaged HMS Hood, the pride of the British fleet, and sank her.  The Bismark also damaged the HMS Prince of Wales which withdrew from the battle using a smokescreen for cover.  But then the commanders of The Bismark began to make the mistakes that would doom the great warship.  The ship set sail for a port in France instead of returning to Norway and broke radio silence along the way.  The British fleet found the German ship and engaged her with the full force of the Royal Navy.  However, they didn’t sink The Bismark.  The Bismark was scuttled by its crew to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.  Putting aside the horrific cause for which the Bismark’s crew fought one has to recognize the heroism of their actions in a desperate situation.  The RPV can learn a lot from the crew of the Bismark.

Failure is not only an option, it’s inevitable.  In a column published yesterday I described the inevitable “Marylandization” of Virginia.  Like the Bismark the destruction of the Republican / conservative hold on Virginia was probably inevitable.  Also like the Bismark that demise was hastened by a series of ill advised moves by leadership.  The question now is whether the RPV has the courage to scuttle the weaponized state legislature it has so long commanded.  There is little time left.  The Republicans either scuttle the over-powered legislature or it falls into the hands of liberals in the Democratic Party.

Scuttling instructions, process.  The US Navy leaves little to chance.  For example, during World War II there were clear instructions on how to scuttle the USS Enterprise (CV-6).  The instructions for scuttling Virginia’s overpowered legislature are found in Article XII of the Virginia State Constitution, entitled Future Changes.  The article has two sections – one for making amendments to the state constitution and the other for calling a constitutional convention.  Calling a convention requires a two thirds vote of the members of both houses and the Republicans have no chance of reaching that threshold.  However, the processing of amendments requires a simple majority in both houses and Virginia’s Republicans presently (barely) have that level of power.  Unfortunately for the RPV the vote on amendments has to be taken twice, in two different GA sessions, with an election happening between the two session.  In this case a vote in the 2019 session followed by the elections of 2019 with another vote in the 2020 session would get the amendments on the voters’ ballot for the 2020 elections.  At least, that’s how I think it would have to work.

Scuttling instructions, amendments.  The fearsome liberty-killing capabilities of the Virginia General Assembly flow from the absurd lack of checks and balances on the GA.  The amendments required to scuttle the General Assembly’s Politboro-style powers implement those checks and balances, especially with regard to local government.  The following amendments are needed:

  • Join the other 49 states by allowing the governor to sit for a second consecutive term.  The two most popular governors in America right now are the Republican governors of Maryland and Massachusetts, two obviously liberal states.
  • Direct election of judges.  Judges need to know that they are accountable to the law and the people not the 140 tyrants in the General Assembly.
  • Cities incorporate inside counties.  Fracturing localities weakens localities.  Joining the other 49 states by using a city / county structure strengthens the localities and weakens the General Assembly.
  • Implement home rule through strong city / county charters.  Cities and counties should have the right to raise taxes on personal income, they should have responsibility for funding, building and maintaining all surface roads and making all land use decisions with no interference from the GA.

It’s now or never.  Republicans will lose control of the General Assembly in the 2019 elections.  If these amendments are passed in the 2019 session there is some hope that momentum with Virginia’s voters will compel enough Democrats to support these common sense democracy enhancers in the 2020 session.  After that, it’s hard to imagine Virginians failing to endorse the long overdue scuttling of the General Assembly.

— Don Rippert

The Virginia529 Board Should Be Lauded, Not Criticized

Participation in Virginia 29 pre-paid tuition plan has declined in recent years as measured by the number of accounts and semester-units sold. Graphic credit: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

State government, local government, universities and independent authorities in Virginia are larded with debt and unfunded liabilities. No one, to my knowledge, has compiled a total inventory of public institutions’ exposure to pension obligations, leases, maintenance backlogs, infrastructure debt, economic development loans, and other long-term obligations. Institutions’ exposure to the vagaries of the economy and fluctuations of interest rates is largely hidden from public view.

One fund operating in the shadows is Virginia529’s tax-advantaged, pre-paid college tuition program. In contrast to the many entities that take on unwarranted risk, however, Virginia529 is a rare instance of sterling governance. The $2.7 billion fund for the prepaid tuition plan is defensively invested to guard against market downturns. It makes a conservative assumption about future returns on its investment portfolio — only 6.25% annually rather than 7.0% for the Virginia Retirement System. And rather than being chronically underfunded as the General Assembly has allowed the VRS to be, Virginia529 is 138% funded. Indeed, the plan is in such solid shape that actuaries judge that it has a 98% likelihood of meeting future obligations to the parents who are trusting that it will deliver on promises to pay for their children’s educations.

Apparently, that’s a problem.

In a review of the 529 plan, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) suggested that the plan is too conservatively run. Its intolerance of risk means that has built up unnecessarily large reserves that make the program unnecessarily expensive. By reducing the size of the pricing reserve on future contract sales from 10% to 7%, JLARC says, Virginia529 could lower the price of an eight-semester contract by $1,851.

Key lawmakers strongly favor the JLARC recommendations, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and they have pressured Virginia529 CEO Mary Morris to adopt the recommendations. Said Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City ominously: “Sometimes there’s a very thin line between defiance and supreme independent confidence.”

True enough, the cost of participating in the Virginia529 plan has surged as the cost of college tuition has consistently outpaced inflation and income growth — a fact that can be attributed (a) to the General Assembly’s cutbacks in support for higher education, and (b) administrative bloat, mission creep and other policies pursued by colleges and universities themselves. Rather than price its plans over-optimistically as, say, long-term care insurers did a decade or two ago only to increase their premiums in order to maintain plan solvency, Virginia529’s governing board prices its product based on the conservative — one might say, cynical — assumption that tuition and fees at Virginia four-year institutions will increase by 5% in the 2018-19 academic year and by 6.5% each year thereafter.

Also true, participation in the plan has declined in the past 10 years as the price has risen, as seen in the chart above. Since fiscal 2009, the number of plan participants has declined from 71,800 to 63,900. Meanwhile, participating families are buying less coverage. The number of annual “semester units sold” has tanked 43% from 18,800 to 10,700 over the same period. Admittedly, that is a disappointing trend.

Virginia529’s investment performance has lagged industry benchmarks over one-, three- and five-year time horizons, says the JLARC report, although it has met or outperformed benchmarks for the 10-year period. “Virginia529 staff, the investment advisory committee, and the program’s investment consultant indicate that the fund is defensively positioned with the intention of protecting assets in down markets and periods of market instability.”

The JLARC report seems to accept that explanation. Staff has a bigger problem with Virginia529’s large pricing reserve. The pricing reserve is a portion of the contract price in excess of the amount needed to pay future contract benefits; the reserve generates surplus revenue to protect the fund against risk. JLARC recommends a guideline that would reduce the pricing reserve as long as the Virginia529 fund has assets in excess of 130% of liabilities. “Reducing the pricing reserve from 10 percent to seven percent would improve affordability of Prepaid529 contracts but would have only a minor impact to the fund.”

Virginia529 staff disagrees. First, reducing the pricing reserve on future contracts creates equitability concerns for those who already purchased contracts. In effect, risk would be shifted to people who paid higher premiums so newcomers could enjoy lower premiums. Second, future dips in portfolio performance could affect actuarial soundness and necessitate returning the reserve to a higher percentage, creating contract pricing volatility. And third, reducing the pricing reserve would have only a modest impact on contract prices. Slashing the reserve to 7% would reduce the price of an 8-semester contract of $67,880 by only $$1,851.

Bacon’s bottom line. Here’s what JLARC and Virginia legislators seem to miss: Virginia529 signs a contract with Virginia families locking in college tuition at a certain price. Virginia529 doesn’t promise to “try real hard” to fulfill the terms of the contract. It will fulfill the contract. It doesn’t have the luxury of raising taxes, or diverting revenue from other programs, or literally borrowing from its investment portfolio and promising to pay it back later, as the General Assembly has done with the VRS. The program should be applauded for adopting an actuarial gold standard.

While JLARC raises reasonable points worthy of discussion by the Virginia529 board, legislators need to butt out. They have no skin in the game. They don’t pay a price if Virginia529 fails to fulfill its promises. If lawmakers want to make college tuition more affordable, they should either (a) increase state funding for public institutions, or (b) do the really hard work of driving costs out of the higher-ed system. Otherwise, brow-beating the Virginia529 board is cheap grandstanding.

Supremes Reject “Compactness” Argument against 2011 Redistricting


Using the courts to reform Virginia’s politicians-pick-their-voters redistricting procedures got harder than ever, thanks to last week’s ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court.

One Virginia 2021, a nonpartisan redistricting reform group, had challenged the 2011 gerrymandering of five House of Delegates districts and six Senate districts on the grounds that they violated the state constitutional requirement that legislative districts must be “compact.” But the Supremes, concluding that reasonable, objective people can reach different conclusions about what constituts compactness, ruled against the challengers.

What Virginia house districts would look like if drawn by Brian Olson to be compact.

“We learn from today’s opinion that there’s a great deal of science in the redistricting process,” wrote Steve Emmert, publisher of the Virginia Appellate News & Analysis blog, immediately after the ruling, “but it’s a social science, not something as readily definable as physics. Both the challengers and the legislature … adduced expert testimony exploring the issue by various means of calculating compactness.”

The opinion written by Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn lays out the challengers’ argument in Rima Ford Vesilind versus the Virginia State Board of Elections as follows:

Article II… of the Constitution of Virginia … provides that legislative districts “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,” as well as federal requirements of “one person, one vote” and the Voting Rights Act. … The complaint asserts that “[w]hile the legislature may consider other rational public policy considerations, the mandates of the United States and Virginia Constitutions can never be subordinated to those considerations.”

The Challengers allege that the General Assembly “subordinated” the mandatory compactness requirements to other public policy considerations, and ignored compactness in favor of “nonconstitutional considerations,” such as “favor[ing] partisan interests” and “protect[in] particular incumbent[s],” “with the result that the Challenged Districts are not within any acceptable objective measures of compactness.”

During a three-day trial in March, Dr. Nicholas Mueller testified how he used software called Maptitude to draw an alternative district map to compare against the 2011 plan. He showed how it was possible to draw districts meeting the constitutional requirements while also refraining from splitting political subdivisions and refraining from pairing incumbents. Also, using the Reock, Polsby-Popper and Schwartsberg scores for measuring compactness, Dr. Michael McDonald showed how the districts enacted by the General Assembly degraded compactness scores by more than 50%.

However, wrote Goodwyn in his analysis of the testimony, “Compactness is a somewhat abstract concept.”

Determining compactness does not admit to a bright line approach in determining whether a legislative district is, in fact, compact. … Social scientists have developed at least 50 different methods of measuring compactness. The proliferation of measures does not provide clarity. It does exactly the opposite. In the social science community, there is no universal definition or consensus as to what constitutes the best measure for compact districts.

Furthermore, wrote Goodwyn:

Contrary to a core premise in Dr. McDonald’s test, the Constitution of Virginia does not require districts to be as compact as possible. [It] simply requires that districts “shall be … compact.” … As the Board observed, the compactness requirement is not based on the same type of objective comparative inquiry as the equal population requirement. …

Our Constitution speaks to the result of the redistricting process, and mandates that districts be compact in the end. It does not attempt to curtail the legislative process that creates the end result. Nor does it require that compactness be given priority over other considerations, much less establish a standard to determine whether the legislature gave proper priority to compactness.

While taking no issue with the Justice’s logic, blogger Emmert expressed his repugnance for the result. “I regard partisan redistricting as a form of blatant political corruption; as a cancer on our Republican form of government. The justices’ decision today means that we, the voters, are the surgeons who must remove this cancer. We can do so by telling our legislators that we insist upon it, and by voting for candidates who will pledge to commit the redistricting process to a nonpartisan group, as six states have already done.”

This Metro Deal Literally Smells

As the General Assembly debates the state’s contribution to the bailing out of the Washington Metro system, Virginians are continually reminded of the company’s history of dysfunctional management. The latest news from the Washington Post:

An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General has found that the grimey, orangey-brown, 1970s-era carpet installed in Metro trains are the product of “exceedingly stringent” requirements likely written to favor one supplier. The 100 percent pure virgin wool specification is no longer in use in the industry.

The recently concluded investigation found Metro’s standards for its carpeting were unchanged for two decades and that no other vendor could plausibly compete for the contract.

Moreover, the carpet lacked a required coating to prevent fungus and mildew, according to Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington — though it did meet standards for being fire-resistant and mothproof.

Further investigation found the carpet’s compliance testing was not being performed by an independent facility, as Metro requires, but by a laboratory with ties to the carpet manufacturer.

“The director of the lab used by the vendor is married to the Chief Financial Officer of the company that provided the vendor a line of credit” for the carpet order, according to a synopsis of the investigation included in a report to the Metro board.

Over the years, the WaPo reports, the carpet became known for collecting dirt and grime. “Riders are especially put off by the way it soaks up liquids — be it rain, slush, spilled beverages or um, other fluids — and smells.”

Meanwhile, back in the General Assembly, Republicans are far less amenable than Democrats to providing Metro the $150 million a year in additional support the ailing mass transit agency has requested to work down a maintenance backlog that has contributed to safety incidents, schedule delays, and declining ridership.

The new version of a bill sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has been unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee and will serve as the basis for negotiations with the state Senate over a final Metro funding bill, reports WTOP. Hugo’s proposal would provide Metro $105 million a year, less than the roughly $150 million requested, and provide the funds only if Metro limits operating spending increases to 2 percent per year.

Further, the bill requires studies and reports on Metro’s governance, labor agreements and the federal law that outlines arbitration rules. “Reforms have to go hand in hand with the money,” Hugo said.

Unlike the proposal recommended by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Republican proposal would not immediately require changes to Metro’s Board.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is Virginia’s one opportunity to hang tough and demand long overdue managerial, labor and governance reforms to Metro. Once legislation is passed and the money starts flowing, the Commonwealth loses all leverage over the mass transit system. While the current senior management appears to be more competent then its predecessors, the mal-governance of the system has been spectacular, and it costing Virginia taxpayers (especially Northern Virginia taxpayers) dearly. Without fundamental reform, Metro will remain a festering, oozing, pustular sore that will continue to drain Virginia’s scarce transportation resources.