Monday, January 31, 2011

What a sweet guy

I got a press release from Del. John O'Bannon (R-Henrico) Friday.

He was pretty proud of himself.

He'd asked for and gotten an opinion from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that two of Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposed amendments to the budget were unconstitutional.

That's pretty unusual, because everybody involved -- O'Bannon, Cuccinelli and McDonnell -- are Republicans. Usually that's not the kind of thing a delegate, or an attorney general, would do to a governor of his or her own party.

What was O'Bannon's objection?

Was it money for the Governor's Opportunity Fund, which provides corporate welfare to attract businesses here. These are deals on which the state usually gets the short end, since there is no enforcement if the businesses actually bring the jobs and the economic activity they've promised?


Was it breaking the agreement that the state made years ago with public employees, requiring them to pick up more of their own pension costs in return for a raise that would see them lose "only" 2% from their take-home pay?


Was it issuing between $3 billion and $4 billion in new debt to pay for highway contruction?


What O'Bannon wanted stopped were two amendments, each for $500,000, for Operation Smile and the Federation of Food Banks.

Operation Smile is a worldwide charity that provides medical volunteers to treat facial deformities -- like cleft palates -- in poor children.

The food bank group is pretty self explanatory. The money was to buy food that would be distributed to needy Virginians.

So what Del. O'Bannon found objectionable in the state's $70 billion-plus budget was giving deformed children a better appearance and outlook, and feeding hungry Virginians.

That's certainly the way to win friends and influence people and disabuse anyone of that old notion that the Republican Party doesn't have any compassion.

What a sweet guy, that O'Bannon. And he's a doctor.

I'm sure he has a great bedside manner.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Thank God for cable

 I don't find myself in agreement with George Will often, unless the bow-tied curmudgeon is writing about baseball.

Will has an ongoing, and I'd guess premature since  he's had it for 20 years or more, case of grumpy oldmanism.

Most Will columns can be summed up succinctly as "Hey, you kids get off my lawn!"

But on Sunday's "This Week" on ABC, he was on the money about the waste of time that the State of the Union Address has become.

I think Will is right that the State of the Union is almost never a great speech.

That's true even for presidents, like Obama, Clinton and Reagan who can give a speech. When the president is a poor speaker, like George W. Bush or Carter or Ford, the address is just interminable.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Okay, NOW can we get down to business?

The House of Representatives just got through wasting time debating the repeal of last year's health care reform bill. To no great surprise, the repeal bill passed the GOP-controlled House, 245-189, with every Republican and three Democrats voting to repeal it.

The debate and vote were largely symbolic.

Democrats control the Senate. Even if they did not, President Barack Obama would veto any repeal of "Obamacare."

So Republicans were just engaging in political grandstanding and pandering, they knew they weren't actually accomplishing anything.

And that's okay, because very few people really want to repeal health care reform, including (shhh, keep this under your hat) the Republicans who just made such a show of trying to do so.

Polling on the issue has been shifting. A Gallup poll in early January found 46% in favor of repealing the law and 40% against. An Associated Press-GfK poll last week finds only 25% favoring repeal and only 30% against the health care reform law. Finally, an NBC-Wall Street Journal polls split the difference, with 39% opposing health care reform and 39% supporting it, and 46% opposing repeal while 45% favored it.

I don't doubt there are about  a third of the voters who are strongly for repealing health care reform. That's the hardcore Tea Party "we're-against-anything-Obama-does" crowd.

There's no question the GOP majority in the House owes them a debt. They turned out in disproportionate numbers in November's election and fueled a Republican landslide.

Hopefully. now that we've got the symbolic repeal out of the way, Congress can get down to doing the people's business.

Because, let's be honest here, everybody knows we need health care reform -- including Republicans.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Bad Bill

With the General Assembly in session again, easy targets for the political commentator abound.

I usually do a story for the Gazette on silly bills filed each year. I'll get to that soon.

But a bill that's not so much silly as just bad has captured my attention.

Sen. Steve Martin (R-Chesterfield) has introduced S.B. 812 which would amend the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to, essentially, make the identities of public employees secret.

Like Batman and Captain America, state and local government employees do many good deeds. Unlike the Caped Crusader or the Sentinel of Liberty, they don't really need the veil of anonymity.

What Martin's bill specifically does is require that lists of job positions, salaries and benefits of public employees, exclude the names of the employees.

The bill is a reaction to a story in The Richmond Times-Dispatch last year listed those state employees who made over $50,000, along with their departments and job titles.

A lot of state employees weren't too happy that their names and salaries were in the newspaper (Full disclosure: my wife is a state employee and it didn't make our day either).

But it's unavoidable. Like the price you paid for your house -- another thing readers are often irate to see in the paper -- it's public information.

It's understandable that Martin would introduce the bill. His suburban Richmond district contains a lot of state employees. He's frankly said that he submitted the bill at the request of contituents.

Which doesn't mean it's still not a really bad idea.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Time for another round of kick the can?

The General Assembly goes back into session Wednesday.

So it's time for our elected representatives to start putting off until tomorrow what they could be doing today.

They'll be ably assisted by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

It's easy to tell the governor is a former legislator, because his administration has been busy pushing important decisions down the road.

Last year the governor and the legislature conspired to balance the budget by withholding the state's payment to the Virginia Retirement System. That payment is due to be paid back, with 7.5% interest, over ten years. Those payments will start in 2013. Guess who leaves office that year?

After passing up a chance last year to push his reluctant allies in the House to do something about bi-partisan redistricting in time to matter for this year's redrawing of the state's congressional and legislative districts, the governor appointed an advisory panel the other day. Their input, which legislators aren't under any requirement to pay attention to, might have some impact on redistricting. In 2021.

The fact is McDonnell never favored bi-partisan redistricting. He was a consistent vote against it when he was in the House. But his half measure this year allows him to say he's fulfilled a campaign promise, without having any effect on the partisan gerrymander that House Republicans have planned.

The governor's transportation plan, while admirable in some ways, gives the administration another opportunity to kick the can down the road. And they've jumped at it.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Choppy seas ahead - The 2011 General Assembly

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."
                                                                   Bette Davis
                                                                    "All About Eve"

The late Ms. Davis would have enjoyed the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

Because 2011 promises to be a turbulent year in the legislature.

Since this is a redistricting year, there was little chance 2011 would be a placid year on Capitol Square.

But the national rise of the Tea Party, including its Virginia darling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has assured the year will feature pitched partisan warfare on other topics as well.

On redistricting we're on uncharted ground. For the first time, the state's Congressional and legislative districts will be redrawn with one party controlling the  House and the other controlling the Senate. There's no telling where that could lead.

Congressional redistricting shouldn't be too hard. Incumbents usually hammer something out between themselves and hand it to the General Assembly. In any case, Republicans won so many seats this year (8 of 11), that it would be impossible to protect them all in redistricting. The 2nd and 4th District may become somewhat more Republican by shedding African-American voters to the 3rd. Other than that, the status quo will probably prevail.

It's when they redraw their own districts legislators have the potential to become an unruly mob.

Many are predicting the gentlemen's agreement that prevailed in the past, the House doesn't meddle in the Senate's plan and vice versa, will be maintained. I'm not so sure. Neither Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (R-Springfield) nor House Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford) and new House Majority Leader Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) have sounded very conciliatory lately. Saslaw and Cox, in particular, have reputations for hard-nosed partisanship.

House Democrats, whose paltry numbers leave them helpless in the face of the Republican majority, may appeal to Saslaw as their only chance to get anything resembling a fair redistricting. In 1991, their first opportunity to draw a new map, House Republicans showed they'd learned their lessons from more than  century in the minority. They drew what is arguably the most devastating partisan map in the  history of Virginia redistricting. They managed to effectively decapitate the Democratic leadership in the House and draw a map that let them keep the majority for the entire decade.

Republican Senators, who had a smaller majority to start with, were more merciful. They picked the one Democrat they wanted to get rid of  -- Northern Virginia's Leslie Byrne -- and were satisfied. Perhaps as a consequence, they lost their Senate majority in 2007.

Even if Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House reach some understanding on redistricting -- which would be amazing since they haven't managed to so so on highway funding or electing judges -- will Gov. Bob McDonnell manage to restrain the temptation to kibitz? His predecessors didn't.

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