Monday, March 21, 2011

Please split up my 'community of interest'

It's redistricting time.

The General Assembly meets next month to draw the new lines for the state's 11 Congressional districts, 100 House of Delegates district and 40 State Senate districts.

This year we've had an appetizer, since the governor's commission on redistricting (which only has advisory status), college students participating in a redistricting contest, and the incumbent members of Congress have given us sneak peeks at maps they like.

To no one's surprise, the plan the congressmen came up with protects all 11 incumbents, which requires at least two egregious gerrymanders: the continuation of the snake-like 3rd District which winds its way down I-64 in search of African-American voters, and a new "Gerry-mander" in the 11th to give Rep. Gerry Connolly a more Democratic district than the one he almost lost last November.

The other maps are more interesting because they try to create compact, contiguous districts without regard for politics and try to keep "communities of interest" intact. (That's not something the congressmen care about, they created a 5th District that includes Danville and parts of Loudoun County).

That was one of the governor's charges to his commission. It also echoes the major concern I've always heard expressed by local government leaders, and by voters, in the previous rounds of redistricting. "I just hope they don't split up my city/county."

That concern is very important to people. But I've never understood why.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Not a bad year, all things considered

The 2011 regular session of the Virginia General Assembly is in the books.

Compared to recent years, I'd say the legislature did pretty well.

Sure, they took an extra day to get the budget worked out, but that happens more often than not these days. And it's not really partisan gridlock that causes the problem, because the General Assembly had longer budget standoffs when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate.

Of course one reason this session looks better is that state revenues exceeded forecasts, meaning not only that we didn't have to have another round of big budget cuts but that legislature was actually able to restore some cuts made last year, particularly in the area of public education. Things always run smoother in Richmond when there's more money to spread around.

The final budget seemed to be a pretty fair compromise between the positions of the Senate and the House.  The Senate managed to minimize the amount of the general fund money spent on transportation, an issue the Senate has been adamant about under both Republican and Democratic leadership. The House won on putting more money in the state's Rainy Day Fund.

The House also prevailed on one of the biggest issues of the session, state employees contributions to the Virginia Retirement System.

 Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed that employees begin picking up a 5% contribution that had previously been paid by the state, in exchange for a 3% raise.

The Senate proposed to ignore McDonnell and continue the status quo. The House chose instead to go along with the 5% employee contribution but to couple it with a 5% raise to hold state employees harmless.

Actually, it doesn't hold them quite harmless. Due to higher taxes, state employees will still see a small decrease in their take home pay. It would have taken about a 5.2% salary increase to hold them totally harmless. But, in return for that small decrease in take home pay, state employees will see higher retirement benefits, which are figured on their highest three years of compensation.

That fact makes one wonder if  any progress has been made toward McDonnell's stated purpose in making the VRS changes - to address a shortfall in the pension fund. More money will go into the fund in the short term due to this year's change, but higher benefits will have to be paid out on the back end.

How does that affect what we're told is a $17 billion shortfall in VRS? Well, there are a couple of things to remember about that. What you seldom hear mentioned when the VRS shortfall is discussed is that it's a shortfall over the next 80 years, which is how far into the future VRS figures its liabilities.  The other thing to remember is that the shortfall was not caused by state employees not paying their share of the contribution. It was caused by past governors and legislatures deciding in tough economic times not to make the full payment required to keep the system fully funded -- as McDonnell and the General Assembly did last year by shorting the pension more than $600 million -- and by bad recent returns on VRS's investment portfolio.

While the investment returns will likely average out in the long run, the state's elected officials should probably stop looking at the pension fund as a piggy bank to raid when they need money. That's part of what sent Jimmy Hoffa to prison. We might consider a constitutional amendment that would require the correct payment is made. In years when we have extra funds, the General Assembly probably should consider paying back past shortfalls, with interest.

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