Category Archives: Open Government

Holding Richmond Public Schools Accountable — Part I

by James C. Sherlock

We have discussed here the failures of the City of Richmond Public Schools (RPS) in educating its economically disadvantaged children, as well as the abysmal performance of Black children in its schools.  

I intend to help readers understand how it manages to fail repeatedly even with major federal funding as guardrails and state oversight officially in place.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) such as RPS and its schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet state academic standards.

It is useful to drill down into the details of that program so that readers can understand how every school district in Virginia is supposed to plan and execute the education of poor kids to improve their chances of success.

The question that will remain when I finish will be accountability.  

How does a system like the Richmond Public Schools continue to submit similar paperwork every year and every year fail to meet its stated goals? Where is the accountability? Why do the people of Richmond put up with it?  Continue reading

Federal COVID Funding to Virginia K-12 Schools

by James C. Sherlock

The federal government allocated a great deal of money in each of two different pieces of legislation in 2020 to provide COVID-related relief to K-12 schools.

I will endeavor here to explain briefly what that means to Virginia.

The two pieces of 2020 federal legislation that provide funding to K-12 schools were:

  • Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27, 2020; and
  • Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA) signed into law on December 27, 2020

Two of the major program elements under each of those two bills are :

  • Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER and ESSER II) funding – Virginia’s allocation is $1.2 billion dollars, 90% of which is to be sub-allocated by formula to school districts.
  • Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEERS and GEERS II) funding – $132 million to be allocated to the neediest public schools and non-public schools at the Governor’s discretion.  Money for the Emergency Assistance for Non-Public Schools (EANS) program is part of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund.  Virginia’s EANS allocation was $46,618,019. For comparison, total Virginia K-12 school spending from all sources was estimated by the NEA at $17.8 billion in 2018-19.

By way of comparison, the federal government sent $1 billion to Virginia for K-12 schools in 2019, including big money from the Department of Agriculture for the National School Lunch program ($247 million) and other non-educational programs, so the 2020 COVID supplementals already exceed the original annual federal appropriations for Virginia. Continue reading

Fix the Structurally Broken Virginia Government

by James C. Sherlock

Great Seal of Virginia

When offered a choice of reasons for failures of large scale government actions, your first choice should always be incompetence, not bad intentions.

Big government requires competent legislatures, competent management and  control of executive departments, apolitical oversight by attorneys general and objective studies of its failures if it has any hope of being efficient and effective.

Absolutely no one after seeing the Virginia government reaction to COVID would accuse it of any of that. We need to fix it.

Unintended consequences of legislation

Readers just had an extended discussion over my column on the unintended consequences of minimum wage hikes.

It should be not too much to ask that Virginia politicians demand a full study of the effects of legislation, including minimum wage legislation, that is guaranteed to have far-reaching effects on the state. But they do not do it in the case of minimum wage hikes.

A structural problem in the General Assembly Continue reading

Democrats Propose Expanded Virginia Government Personal Information Collection, Integration and Dissemination

George Orwell

by James C. Sherlock

There are few things the Left desires more than government access to personal data on every citizen and everything he or she does. Virginia continues down that path.

Government Data Collection & Dissemination Practices Act Chapter 38 of Title 2.2 of the Code of Virginia (§ 2.2-3800 et seq.) reads in part:

B. The General Assembly finds that:

1. An individual’s privacy is directly affected by the extensive collection, maintenance, use and dissemination of personal information;

2. The increasing use of computers and sophisticated information technology has greatly magnified the harm that can occur from these practices;

3. An individual’s opportunities to secure employment, insurance, credit, and his right to due process, and other legal protections are endangered by the misuse of certain of these personal information systems; and

4. In order to preserve the rights guaranteed a citizen in a free society, legislation is necessary to establish procedures to govern information systems containing records on individuals.

Democrats in the General Assembly consider those principles trumped by their desires for control of every aspect of citizens lives from birth until death. Thus they are leading an effort to expand government collection, dissemination and integration of citizens’ personal information.  Continue reading

Joe Biden, the SALT Cap and Virginia’s Hidden Taxes

by DJ Rippert

SALT of the Earth. The Trump Administration pushed through a change to the US tax code which capped the deduction for State And Local Taxes (SALT) at $10,000 per year. Previously there had been no cap. The imposition of the cap effectively increased the federal taxes paid by high-income earners, especially in high tax states / localities. Given that many high-income, high-tax areas in the U.S .are solidly Democratic, this loophole reduction rankled Democrats in the Congress. Those Democrats have made several unsuccessful attempts to repeal the cap.

Democrats are likely to win the presidency in the upcoming election and may take control of the U.S. Senate as well. If that happens, it is likely that they will make good on their prior efforts to remove the SALT cap. In Virginia, Democrats control the House of Delegates, the Senate and the Governor’s mansion. They have used that control to raise state taxes including the passage of a number of hidden taxes that have been implemented through regulation. If Joe Biden is elected, will the hidden taxes imposed by Virginia’s Democrats put the state’s residents at a disadvantage since they won’t be deductible when the SALT cap is lifted? Continue reading

Amanda Chase and Mark Herring: the Odd Couple in Constitutional Deception?

by Paul Goldman

The Virginia Bill of Rights – Article I of the Virginia Constitution – grants you and me the right to cast an informed vote free from government manipulation. When considering this right, I cannot decide who is the bigger phony: Republican gubernatorial hopeful Senator Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, or Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring.

According to Chase, the gun on her hip and leadership role in the “Transparency Caucus” mean citizens can trust her to protect them against being manipulated by the political elite. As for Herring, he is seeking re-election as legal gunslinger whose leadership role in bringing federal lawsuits against outside special interests shows he can be trusted to protect Virginians from the financial elite.

Move over Oscar and Felix: Here come Amanda and Mark. They are the Odd Couple selling the biggest constitutional scam in Virginia since 1902.

Back then the General Assembly, backed by the Attorney General, enacted the “white supremacist” Constitution disenfranchising 90% of African Americans and 50% of white voters (this latter statistic is seldom cited). The political elite in Virginia have long feared a free and informed vote of all the people. The actions of Chase and Herring here in 2020 demonstrate the continued existence of this bipartisan disdainful elitist element in Virginia politics. Continue reading

Maybe We Can Sue

by James C. Sherlock

Updated August 30, 3:30 pm

I wrote yesterday about a House of Delegates bill that ultimately was passed by the House Committee for Courts of Justice as House Bill No. 5074 Amendment In the Nature of A Substitute (the bill).  

I wrote of its effects on public officials and owners and managers of private companies for violations of COVID-19 regulations. The bill makes them not just accountable to state and federal regulators, but also personally civilly liable for the slightest violation of any part of the virtually unclimbable wall of applicable regulations. And Virginia has the strictest COVID-19 occupational safety regulations in the nation.

This essay will discuss the ethics of two different original bills and reveal the secretive process by which the final substitute was developed in committee. It will ask the General Assembly to clean up a scandal of its own making.

Some may say this “goes on all the time.” It may, but that does not mean it should.

Continue reading

Woke War on America’s No. 1 High School

by Asra Q. Nomani

Last month, Suparna Dutta spent countless hours researching how her son could safely return to school this fall as a rising sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a sprawling campus of classrooms, laboratories and open spaces with names like “Gandhi Commons” and “Einstein Commons,” outside the nation’s capital here off Braddock Road. Little did she know that a secretive “task force” assembled by orders of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was quietly meeting to discuss legislating radical changes to the school that would threaten the very future of the school.

Unbeknownst to Dutta — and me, also a TJ mother — Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, a former teacher, met remotely on Friday, July 24, with a carefully curated list of Democratic lawmakers, state education officials and others in a “Diversity/Equity/Inclusion Group” to make recommendations to the Virginia State Legislature on how to increase the number of Black, Hispanic and low-income students at the state’s 19 Governor’s Schools, specialized public school programs with admissions requirements. The group met again on Friday, July 31, and last week on Friday, August 7, and is expected to issue its recommendations in the coming days.

In its final meeting last week, the group weighed several options that would gut TJ’s merit-based, race-blind admissions process and replace it with standards that they even admitted in their private meetings would essentially be race-based. They are expected this week to issue several recommendations to the Virginia General Assembly before it convenes in special session next week, including: quotas from every middle school in the county (to boost acceptance from certain middle schools with underrepresented minorities); a second-step lottery in the admissions process; and an admissions bump for students with “socioeconomic disadvantage” (also a backdoor way to increase underrepresented minorities). Continue reading

Who is Behind NAH, LLC?

Screen Grab from the contractor’s invoice filed by NAH, LLC, for $1.8 million in work performed in removing Confederate statues and cannons.

by James A. Bacon

Most of the Confederate statues and memorials in the City of Richmond are gone. Only the statue of Robert E. Lee, the subject of ongoing litigation,  remains. The statues and cannons are not coming back. The broken egg cannot be reassembled. But there are legitimate issues relating to Mayor Levar Stoney’s use or abuse of power. It’s one thing to remove the statues in accordance with state law and local ordinance. It’s another to take them down in violation of the same laws and ordinances under pressure from protesters and mobs.

One big question is by what authority Stoney spent $1.8 million to pay the contractor that removed the memorials. City Council never appropriated the funds. An employee of a state agency familiar with state procurement policy, who asks to remain anonymous, thought Stoney’s procurement of statue-removal services seemed “irregular,” so she filed a Freedom of Information Request for more information. She shared the resulting documents with Bacon’s Rebellion.

Among her more interesting findings was the fact that Stoney contracted on July 1, 2020, with a Henrico County entity, NAH, LLC, to do the work. The paperwork for creating the partnership had been filed with the State Corporation Commission June 22 — only days previously. The timing suggests that NAH was not an ongoing business enterprise but was formed for the express purpose of removing the statues.

That raises several questions. Who are the principals behind NAH? How was the plan conceived? Do the principals have any connection to Stoney beyond the signing and execution of the contract itself? Continue reading

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lobbying Entertainment Data Still Deceptive

“Reported” entertainment events for the 2018-2019 cycle, a fraction of the actual number due to loopholes in Virginia law. Click for larger view.

By Steve Haner

‘Our friends at the Virginia Public Access Project are a bit later this year with their data and visuals on Virginia’s embarrassingly weak and intentionally vague lobbyist entertainment reporting.  It is still nothing but a sham, exactly how the legislators and lobbyists want it.

The 2018 VPAP coverage was subject of a May 2018 Bacon’s Rebellion report, but this time we are five weeks away from tight elections in both bodies.  Voters are not short of things to get outraged about, but we can add this to the list.

The basic 2019 report is little changed from VPAP’s 2018 data.   Last year 109 of the 140 legislators admitted accepting at least one entertainment event, and this year it appears 111 did.  The number who report accepting five or more has dropped.  The key word in that sentence is “reporting”.

UPDATE:  VPAP has now added this year’s graphic on the high number of lobbyist disclosures that simply ignore the directive to be specific about the “matters” that get their attention.  A few well placed $100 fines and red faces would fix that, but of course, the point is to PRETEND to disclose….

Continue reading

Virginia’s Dark Money Legal Machine

Sen. Jill Vogel

When the deep-pocketed corporate backers of “Doctor Patient Unity” set up their dark money entity, they registered the partnership in Virginia. The State Corporation Commission filing listed the partnership’s registered agent as North Rock Reports, LLC, in Warrenton.

North Rock, reports the New York Times in an article about Doctor Patient Unity’s $28 million advertising campaign to influence Congress on legislation affecting surprise medical billing (see previous post), is common to more than 150 other political action groups. North Rock’s name surfaced a couple of years ago in news reports about “Protect America’s Consumers,” a group that attacked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a creation of the Obama administration criticized by conservatives for engaging in regulatory overkill. The LLC also has ties to the Republican National Committee, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

It turns out that North Rock Reports LLC has its own SCC registration filing, and North Rock’s registered agent is Jason Torchinsky, who, coincidentally enough, listed the very same business address as North Rock — 45 North Hill Dr., Suite 100, Warrenton — and is a partner of the Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC law firm at the same address. The “Holzman Vogel” in the firm refers to founding partner Jill Holtzman Vogel, a state senator from Winchester and Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. Continue reading

Specific Updates: Lobbyists, Lottery, Tuition

A few updates, clearing the decks before I disappear next week (I’m not quite as dedicated as Bacon, although I will take the laptop to Duck.)  My son who blogs on University of Virginia sports is going to give me some tips.  (StLouisHoo or something like that…)

Specifics on Who is Not Specific

The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) has once again demonstrated the power of a good chart (see above), this one tracking the number of 2018 disclosure forms filed by lobbyists which list bill numbers, and frankly it is a lower percentage than even I realized.   Absent any corrective action by the existing oversight committee or legislators, who are probably not motivated to require more disclosure, the number of disclosure forms listing bills by number will drop further.  No consequence, no change.

If the situation changed, you can see on VPAP the potential for a real tracking system where you could see which companies or associations weighed in on which bills.

Specifics on Who Plays the Lottery

Source: Virginia Lottery

A request for additional information on lottery spending or lottery frequency by income category, following my earlier report, drew a response from the Virginia Lottery that the information is not available.  Perhaps it is a question they do not want to ask or a survey crosstab they do not want to see.

My query did produce some additional data on who plays which games.  It was interesting that those with the lowest level of education, the 12 percent of respondents who didn’t finish high school, are least likely to play and of course least likely to have much discretionary income.  (They are underrepresented in the sample, however.)  People with a high school diploma but no college are the heaviest players of daily games and scratch games, which as noted earlier produce the most revenue.

Additional data was sent on the purchase of lottery tickets by automatic debits or charges, called a subscription in their terminology.  That approach to playing is most popular in the more economically healthy and urban regions of the commonwealth.

Source: Virginia Lottery

They did push back a bit on my assertion that the purchase of U.S. Treasury investments to cover deferred future payouts is another way the house wins, and correctly pointed out the state lottery doesn’t gain any benefit from that.  Yes, in that case I was using the term “the house” to mean government in general, including the federal government, which most certainly benefits from this steady market for these securities.

Specifics on Higher Education Inflation

You read it first on Bacon’s Rebellion a few weeks ago, but the large increase in the tuition and fees bills for this coming term at the state’s public colleges and community colleges is now fully detailed in the official release from the State Council of Higher Education.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage is here.

Somebody Must Think We’re Stupid

David Poole and his team at VPAP have provided another illustration of how the reporting requirements placed on lobbyists at the state Capitol are intentionally vague and useless.  The chart above deals with the reports on lobbyist compensation.

This is usually the figure at the heart of the occasional stories about the amount spent by an individual company, or the gross amount spent on lobbying by all who file these forms.  But in practice almost nobody reports in full what they are paid, and they of course do things other than lobbying with their time.  So they pro-rate their fee and salary and report only a portion of it.

Who draws the line?  Who picks the formula for pro-rating the time? The lobbyist or the principal do so for themselves and are never asked to report their rationale.  That’s why comparisons are impossible – some report 5 percent and some 100.  Partly there is the natural reluctance everybody has to reveal their income, but there is also a reluctance to stand out as a big spender on charts like those produced by VPAP or in a news story.

A Peek Inside the Process

Years ago, one of the best lobbyists I ever worked with, a fine lawyer, instructed me that only the time I spent talking or writing to a legislative or executive branch official about a specific bill or vote was lobbying.  The time I spent researching the issue, drafting legislation or talking points, driving to the meeting, sitting in the anteroom – none of those hours, the bulk of the time, constituted lobbying.  The ten or fifteen minutes in the room, that was the only actual lobbying.

This all flows back to the very narrow definition of lobbying in Virginia law, which does not get into indirect lobbying or grassroots lobbying or lobbying preparation, all things that come up when companies are deciding what is and isn’t lobbying for federal tax compliance purposes.  This situation is too ridiculous to be accident or oversight, and extremely convenient for both the lobbyists and the lobbied.

Compensation is not that relevant.  What matters far more, the real glaring gap in the reports, are the details about what specific subject matters, bills, budget amendments, gubernatorial appointments or procurement decisions are being influenced.   The shameful gaps in the reports include loopholes that allow expensive dinners, gifts or entertainment to be given with no recipients named, or money to shuffle between various entities under the guise of some unregistered coalition.

Also, the full extent of grassroots or indirect efforts needs to be revealed.  More and more issues now spark television, direct mail, phone bank and other campaign style communications efforts, and every dime spent on those should be just as transparent as if they were being spent on a candidate.

One area where compensation should be reported in full is when the client is the government.  Beyond that, we need to focus on those other more important failings in the current non-disclosure disclosure regime, although this contribution by VPAP is useful in demonstrating that somebody out there thinks we’re stupid.

Lobbyist Forms Not Mentioned At Council Meeting

A Peek Inside the Process

The state’s Conflicts of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council met Tuesday making no mention of  my column published in July 21’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, pressing for specific bill numbers, budget item numbers and other details on the state’s lobbyist disclosure forms.  I had been told in advance the issue wouldn’t be added to the agenda.

In fact the council’s meeting lasted less than 30 minutes, had no business items, and the only vote was on previous meeting minutes.  Those minutes reveal that the June meeting’s big decision was to approve a staff suggestion to add student loan balances among debts disclosed by public officials.

I don’t want anybody to think I’m making up the complaint that the forms disclose nothing at all, despite a direction to be as specific as possible, so I pulled a few examples at random.  Who owns up to working on which of the 3,722 individual pieces of legislation at the 2018 session?   

As previously noted on July 9 most of the filings lack specifics and the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council has sent signals this is acceptable with its published examples.

Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce: “Business Issues.”  Well, that narrows it down to 600 or so bills.

Virginia Chamber of Commerce: “Executive and Legislative Actions and Procurement Transactions.”  I looked at this a few times before I realized it simply repeated back the phrase from the question.    

Mecklenburg County: “Matters involving issues affecting local government.”

Fairfax County Water Authority: “Matters of interest to the Fairfax County Water Authority, including but not limited to, issues arising under the Virginia Water and Waste Authorities Act.”  But not limited to. 

Norfolk Southern Corporation: “All matters affecting Norfolk Southern Corporation.”

City of Norfolk: “Local government.”

Virginia League of Conservation Voters: “Matters related to land conservation, land use, energy issues, and transportation financing.” Continue reading