Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Mass Transit and Unfunded Pension Liabilities

It has long been known that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates the Washington region’s commuter rail and bus systems, has unfunded retirement-benefit costs approaching $3 billion (on top of its multibillion-dollar unfunded maintenance backlog). While the Commonwealth of Virginia is not legally obligated to made good Virginia’s share WMATA’s shortfalls, as a practical matter it may have to eventually or risk — again — Metro collapsing into fiscal insolvency.

What I have not reported in past posts is the magnitude of that liability in relation to the size of the enterprise. A new Moody’s Investors Service report has the answer: Adjusted net pension liabilities plus adjusted net “other” retirement benefits (primarily health care) amount to 305% of WMATA revenues. For the uninitiated, that’s a lot. It’s the highest ratio of the nation’s ten largest mass transit agencies.

Another cause for concern. According to Moody’s, “WMATA has greater than a 10% one-year probability of experiencing pension investment losses that amount to 25% or more of its revenues, a threshold known as our “pension asset shock indicator.” Continue reading

Danville’s Bad $912,000 Loan — Isolated Case or Tip of the Iceberg?

Danville City Council will decide next week whether to forgive $912,000 owed the city by its land purchasing arm, the Industrial Development Authority. The money represents the unpaid portion of a $1.6 million loan issued in 2015 to entice Telvista, a call center operator which closed its facility in 2018 and ceased making lease payments.

The city needs to clear the books on the Airside Industrial Park property to make way for a new investment by Norfolk-based PRA Group, which has promised to invest $15 million and bring 500 jobs. “The property can’t close until this is done,” said City Manager Ken Larking, as reported by the Danville Register & Bee.

City Council is likely to forgive the loan. The PRA operation — ironically, a debt collection center — will employ more people and pay better at $38,400 per year on average than the old Telvista operation. Continue reading

VDOE Spikes Public School Collaboration with Dream Academy

Joann Henry, program director of the Dream Academy

The Dream Academy, a Richmond nonprofit, is an adult education center that has worked in a collaborative relationship with the Richmond Public Schools. The academy provides the instruction and pays the school system to review student transcripts and authorize the diplomas. The program has helped more than 250 grown-ups, mostly African-Americans, earn their diplomas.

That relationship now is on the rocks. Virginia Department of Education officials have nixed the agreement on the grounds that the Dream Academy is a private organization. Now the nonprofit has no choice but to pursue private accreditation.

The incident raises issues regarding the legality of of public/private collaboration for adult education anywhere in Virginia.  Continue reading

Professors Teaching Less, Students Studying Less

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder is the nation’s foremost authority on college costs and productivity. His op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today is a devastating indictment of U.S. higher education. Compared to a half century ago, college professors are teaching less, students are studying less, and the ratio of administrators to faculty has soared.

He makes several points, some of which we’ve highlighted on Bacon’s Rebellion and bear repeating, and some of which we have overlooked:

Students studying less. College students today don’t study as hard as in generations past. According to surveys of student work habits, the average time spent in class and studying is about 27 hours a week. That compares to 40 hours weekly in the mid-20th century. Continue reading

Distracted Driving the New Drunk Driving

It is intuitively obvious to anyone who drives that other people using cell phones (not us, of course) are a menace to the public. We’ve seen them yakking away with the phone to their ear or, worse, actually texting with eyes on the phone. Indeed, a new study by Zendrive, a driving behavior analytics company, found that so-called “distracted” drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers.

In Zendrive’s two previous studies, Virginia ranked in the middle of the pack among the 50 states for the prevalence of distracted driving: 24th place in 2017, and 26th place in 2018. Zendrive’s press release didn’t provide state rankings this year, but in a communication to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, CEO Jonathan Matus said Virginia ranks the worst. Drivers in all states became more distracted, but Virginia drivers apparently outpaced the rest, spending more than 9% of the time actively ignoring the road. Continue reading

Addiction as a Workforce Development Issue

How ubiquitous is drug abuse in Virginia’s workforce? In western Virginia, it’s mind-numbingly pervasive.

“In many environments, as many as 50 percent of employee applicants who are eligible on the basis of their training, skills, and background fail to be employable because they fail to pass a drug screen,” Dr. Bob Trestman, chairman of psychiatry for Carilion Clinic, told Roanoke-area employers in a panel talk yesterday, reports the Roanoke Times.

Most employers have Employee Assistance Programs but Trestman said employees are reluctant to use them because addicts are stigmatized. “We need to think of them as people with an illness. Then we can reframe how we approach care and treatment and engage and support them in the workplace safely.” Continue reading

New Rules Make Year-to-Year SOL Comparisons Impossible

James F. Lane, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction

Fewer Virginia students will take end-of-course Standards of Learning (SOL) tests this spring due to revised regulations approved by the state Board of Education last year, making it impossible to compare school pass rates this year with the pass rates of previous years.

“This is a dramatic change in testing patterns,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane in a press release announcing the changes this morning. Pass rates for end-of course SOL tests in mathematics, science and history for 2018-2019 will mark the beginning of new trend lines, he added. “Comparing 2018-2019 pass rates with performance in 2017-2018 would be an apples-to-oranges exercise.”

The change comes after two years of falling SOL scores and revisions to Virginia Department of Education criteria for school accreditation. A third year of declining scores, especially in predominantly African-American schools, would have proved embarrassing for an educational establishment that has promised to narrow the white-black academic performance gap. It also would have called into question the efficacy of policies that de-emphasize traditional disciplinary policies in favor of a counseling-intensive, social justice approach. Continue reading

Qarni’s Agenda for Virginia Schools

Atif Qarni. Photo credit: Free Lance-Star

Governor Ralph Northam may have run as a political moderate, but his Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni, embraces the proposition that America is profoundly racist and supports policies that would transform Virginia’s educational system accordingly.

Speaking at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County yesterday, Qarni called for schools to move away from standardized testing and focus on deeper learning. He wants to expand access to preschool in the Commonwealth. He wants to pay teachers more. He wants to hire more resource officers, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. And he wants to pay experienced teachers as much as 15% to 20% as incentive to teach in “high needs” schools.

Who would pay for all this? Virginia has concentrations of great affluence as well as great need, he said. State government should play a role in helping to ensure students all across the state have equal access to quality education, he added, as reported by the Free Lance-Star“It’s very, very critical to look through an equity lens.”

Underlying these sentiments is a view that America is systemically racist. Here’s what Qarni, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan with his family at the age of 10, wrote last month in Blue Virginia: Continue reading

GMU Lefties Protest Kavanaugh, Cabrera Holds Firm… for Now

The progression of student protest movements: from “free speech” in the 1960s to “suppressed speech” in the 2010s. (Images taken from a student protester Twitter feed.)

Citing trauma to the psyches of sexual assault survivors, students at George Mason University are calling for George Mason University President Angel Cabrera to fire U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh from his new post as a visiting professor at GMU’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

So far, Cabrera is holding firm. At a recent board of visitors meeting, the GMU President said that Kavanaugh’s appointment was approved by the law school faculty in January and that he stands behind the decision, according to The College Fix website.

So far nearly 3,300 students have signed a petition demanding that GMU “terminate and void all contracts and affiliation with Brett Kavanaugh at George Mason University.” Several students, including some who said they were sexual assault survivors, made their concerns known during a public-address session of the Board of Visitors.

Said one female student: “As someone who has survived sexual assault three times I do not feel comfortable with someone who has sexual assault allegations like walking on campus.” Continue reading

Counting Death, Refugees and Migration in 1860s Virginia

Bacon’s Rebellion has been wallowing in history as of late, so we can’t pass up the latest research from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia analyzing the impact of the Civil War on Virginia’s population.

The war was bloody, of course. Recent historians have estimated the total number of military deaths around 750,000. Census data indicate that the white, male, military-age population in the South was nearly 25% smaller after the war than would have been expected without the war. But that doesn’t include the effects of economic destruction, the flight of refugees, the movement of slaves seeking emancipation, or disruption to the pre-war migration to western states. Continue reading

Go, School Board, Go. Hold Their Feet to the Fire!

Wow, the Richmond School Board is asking some very pointed questions about the unexplained ballooning of costs to build three new schools for the Richmond Public School system. I’m impressed.

In a letter sent to the city’s procurement director and city engineer in charge of the construction projects, four school board members asked why the estimated $110 million construction cost leaped to $140 million in just five months. The spunky Richmond Free Press obtained a copy of the letter. City officials blew off the Free Press when its reporter inquired into the cost escalation, but it may be more difficult to ignore the school board members. Continue reading

After I-81 Tax Compromise, Time to Talk VMT Tax

Interstate 81. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

The Commonwealth of Virginia has done some smart things in recent years regarding transportation policy. It has established the Smart Scale system for objectively ranking transportation projects. And it has reformed its Public Private Partnership process for attracting private-sector investment without giving away the store. But the assortment of taxes used to fund the state’s streets, roads, highways, and mass transit systems remains an incoherent hodgepodge of subsidies and cross subsidies that only remotely abide by the user-pays principle.

Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly kinda sorta took a step in the right direction yesterday by agreeing to new taxes to raise money for congestion-relief projects along Interstate 81, the transportation spine of western Virginia. But we can do better. It’s time for Virginia to seriously consider a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax to cover the maintenance cost of the state’s roads, bridges and highways.

Under Northam’s amendments, tractor-trailer registration fees will increase later this year and the diesel tax will increase to 2.03% of the statewide average average wholesale price per gallon. That make sense. Freight carriers dominate traffic on I-81 and they account for disproportionate wear and tear on the highway. Also, according to the Roanoke Times, revenues will be distributed on the basis of truck miles traveled on Interstate highways between the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund and other interstate projects around the state. Additionally, the gas and diesel tax will increase by way of a 2.1% wholesale tax in the I-81 corridor. All of those revenues will go directly to I-81 improvements.  Continue reading

Promoting Financial Literacy

Here’s a government initiative I like. The City of Richmond’s Treasurer’s Office is holding its first Financial Literacy Fair this Friday. States the press release:

The purpose of this fair is to empower the citizens of Richmond to take more control of their finances and begin the initial steps needed to build personal wealth. The mission of the Richmond City Treasurer’s Office is to inspire, encourage and pursue the high possibilities of potential in others through the elimination of financial barriers by taking “Small Steps for Big Change.” This literacy fair is one step toward big change in the lives of our Richmond residents.

The fair will hold workshops such as Banking 101, Budgeting and Saving, Balling with Budget and Credit. Financial counselors will be onsite.

Bacon’s bottom line: One reason — I’m not saying it’s the main reason, but it’s a contributing factor — that people fall into the poverty trap is that they often make poor financial decisions. The literacy affair addresses a root cause of poverty. Let’s hope it gets great attendance!

Will Virginia’s Real Recidivism Rate Please Stand Up?

In previous posts I have made much of the 23.4% recidivism rate from Virginia prisons. That’s the lowest — hence, the best — rate of all the 45 states that keep track. I’ve always construed the number as a fact that Virginians can be proud of. I have touted it as evidence that Virginia’s Department of Corrections was doing something right, and that, whatever it was, we should be doing more of it.

I should have known better. It turns out that there are many definitions of “recidivism.” And it’s not clear that Virginia is using the same definition as other states. We should hold off patting ourselves on the back until we’re certain that we’re comparing apples to apples.

Kudos to Jeff Schwaner with Staunton’s News Leader, who has dug into the numbers.

Update: Dick Hall-Sizemore, an expert in correctional issues, offers his own take on the numbers here in the comments. Continue reading

Brace Yourself for the “Food Justice” Movement

Richmond Food Justice Corridor “planting party”

“Food justice” is a thing now.

My first instinct when I read the phrase was cynical: While some people are busy running food banks and food pantries, growing urban gardens, and setting up grocery stores in Richmond’s inner city — you know, doing things that actually feed poor people — food justice warriors are busy advocating economic and political change.

As I looked into it, I decided my gut reaction wasn’t entirely fair — partly fair, but not entirely. The Richmond Food Justice Alliance, for example, has sponsored urban-gardening events and nutritional workshops. And some of the values it promotes — inner city citizens eating better, becoming food producers as well as food consumers, in sum becoming more self-sufficient — are actually quite admirable. The movement does appear to be pushing for some positive cultural changes in the inner-city black community.

Still, steeped in the rhetoric of the Oppression Narrative, food justice warriors seem hostile to the efforts of well-intentioned outsiders. There are signs that a rift has developed between African-American community militants and white liberals in the nonprofit sector who espouse similar goals. That doesn’t help anyone. Continue reading