Call Me Crazy, But…

Some 43 years ago I arrived at the Homewood Campus of the Johns Hopkins University, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in African history under the tutelage of the then-dean of African historians, Philip Curtin. From an academic perspective, the program was brilliantly conceived. Hopkins had recruited top professors from the Yale University anthropology program with idea of creating an interdisciplinary historical-anthropological approach to studying nations and cultures bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Faculty and grad students gathered in weekly sessions to share insights into the interaction between civilizations as Europe established its primacy over Africans and native Americans. (Bernard Moitt, now a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, studied with me under Curtin.)

As intellectually stimulating as the program was in some ways, it was stifling in another. Ideological diversity of the faculty ranged from Marxist to far Left. Virtually all research and inquiry shared the common assumptions that (a) European colonialism was an unequivocal evil and (b) all the problems of the Third World in the early 1970s could be attributed to the legacies of colonialism and neo-imperialism. As the lone political conservative in the program, I stood out like a Christian missionary in the court of Shaka Zulu. When, as a junior-ranking graduate student, I dared express myself, I often inspired astonished disbelief. Colonialism wasn’t all bad, I suggested one time. Sure, it was exploitative in ways, but Great Britain ended the slave trade, quelled predatory African kingdoms, repressed tribal conflict, built roads and railroads, created export industries, and established a rule of law. I might as well have proclaimed that I ate my boogers for lunch.

The end result wasn’t pretty. While I wasn’t kicked out of the program, Curtin yanked my stipend, making it impossible for me to support myself while putting in a minimum of 60 hours of weekly study. In breaking the bad news, he made two suggestions. First, that I wasn’t really cut out for academia; perhaps I should consider a career as a stock broker. Second, that I should see a psychiatrist. Getting psychiatric help wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, he said. It might do me some good.

While Curtin was aloof and indifferent to my travails as a graduate student, he wasn’t deliberately cruel. He was quite sincere about my need for psychiatric help. He never did say exactly what I should seek help for, but I suspect that he thought I had something akin to Tourette’s syndrome — blurting out wildly inappropriate statements. To his mind, the gap in his frame of reference for looking at the world and my frame of reference was so vast that it could not be explained by a simple difference of opinion. There was something wrong with me. Although he never put it this way, I was emotionally or mentally defective.

That’s the baggage I carry with me when I hear politicians and mainstream organizations decry President Donald Trump as clinically insane.

Now, while I support many of his policies, I dislike Trump personally. I did not vote for him. I regard him as a Narcissist — an insecure Narcissist — who takes wildly disproportionate umbrage to insults. He picks needless fights. He is coarse, uncouth, and a misogynist. He is shockingly inarticulate and ignorant at times. He tweets before he thinks, causing needless chaos. And while I doubt that he is a racist, he is indubitably indifferent to the sensibilities of ethnic and racial minorities. In word and deed, he has degraded the dignity of the office of the presidency. 

But is he insane? Is he certifiably wacko, as we have been hearing in a growing crescendo of commentary in the news media? Is he a maniac with his finger on the nuclear button? No. Trump is very sane. His cognitive functioning is fine. He doesn’t have split personalities. He doesn’t hear voices in his head. His real sin is that he entertains a different version of reality than those who detest him the most.

As I learned from personal experience four decades ago, the Left in this country does not simply think that those who do not share their views of the world are simply uninformed, have different values, or have reached illogical conclusions. They are not merely wrong, they are defective as human beings. Either they are motivated by base self-interest and greed, or they are incredibly stupid, or they are clinically insane. Thus, in the formulation of the Left, Ronald Reagan was an amiable dunce; George W. Bush was lampooned as incurious and a non-reader,  and caricatured a chimpanzee; and Trump is a certifiable basket case — a greedy basket case out to enrich himself and overthrow democracy. The Left loves to psycho-analyze those it hates and to find them defective.

The Left scares me. While I disagree with cultural conservatives on many issues, at least they’re not trying to impose their views on me. At least they don’t brand their enemies as psychos — although, given the displays I’ve witnessed of Trump Derangement Syndrome, perhaps they should.

This column was published originally in The Republican Standard.

The Case for Performance-Based Funding in Higher Ed

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE: Performance-based (also known as outcomes-based) Funding for Virginia’s Public Colleges and Universities

PROBLEM:  Until a little over a decade ago, nearly all state funding for higher education was based on enrollment. Regardless of any outcome other than access, colleges and universities were funded simply on the number of students who attended courses, often measured mid-course, creating no institutional incentives or accountability for course completion or any other indicators of student success. 

OPPORTUNITY: Performance-based funding, also referred to as outcomes-based funding, is the growing concept that state funding for higher education should be connected to student success, rather than just course enrollment.  While the definition of performance-based funding can vary, there are currently at least 26 states implementing performance-based funding. There are also at least eight more states currently in transition to performance-based funding and several others in formal discussion around the concept. By connecting state funds to outcomes, institutions are not only financially incentivized to increase student success, but are also held publicly accountable to their peer institutions on common metrics.

SOLUTION: Performance-based funding formulas vary from state to state.  Typically states create separate formulas for community colleges and universities. Some formulas simply focus on shifting from only measuring seat-time enrollment to the number of students who complete a course with a passing grade, while others focus on more complicated and granular metrics of student success. To ensure incentives do not flow only to highly selective institutions, states weight metrics for at risk students (e.g., low-income and adult students). Additionally, several have or allow different metrics based on institutional missions. States also tend to create policies that limit risk and volatility for institutions, including having a guaranteed operational subsidy, only using new funds for performance-based funding, and/ or measuring outcomes on three- year averages.

Examples of leading states allocating nearly all their higher education funds on the basis of performance include:

Ohio: They have shifted to nearly 100% performance-based funding, with many of the metrics weighted based on at-risk students as well as specific program costs.

  • Universities: 50% of funding is based on number of degrees awarded, 30% is based on course completions, and 20% for doctoral and research set asides.
  • Community colleges; 50% of funding is based on course completions, 25% based on success points (includes achieving certain credit milestones and completing developmental courses and enrolling in college-level courses), and 25% based on completion (including associate degrees, transfer, and certificates).

Tennessee: Nearly all funds are awarded based on outcomes. Community colleges and universities have different success outcomes measured on a three-year average with weights added for adults and/or low-income students. Community college metrics include students accumulating 12, 24, and 36 credit hours, dual enrollments, job placements, degrees and certificates. University outcome metrics include students accumulating 30, 60, and 90 credit hours, degrees, research, and graduation rates, and are further weighted to align with institutional missions.

Dominion Closes Nine Obsolete Generating Units

The Bremo Power Station on the James River opened as a coal-fired power plant in 1931. Units 3 and 4 were converted to gas in 2003. Now they will revert to cold reserve storage.

As Dominion Energy Virginia continues to adapt its generating fleet to the realities of cheaper solar and abundant natural gas, the utility has decided to mothball nine of its older, less efficient power-generating units — all but one of them either coal-fired or converted from coal to gas. Because the units rarely run, they provide only one percent of the company’s current generation, reports the Associated Press.

As part of a month-long review of its power generation group initiated to increase its competitive position in the energy market, Dominion also decided to eliminate about 390 positions, including about 100 from its nuclear operations. The company expects many employees will be reassigned to other operations.

“When we look at the time, the materials, the people, when we look at the thermal inefficiency of these plants, and we look at the advancement of renewables, we look at continued gas-fired build, we just think this is a progressive step we can take to ensure that our fleet remain competitive,” said Paul Koonce, president and CEO of the power generation division.

In technical language, Dominion is putting the nine units in “cold reserve storage,” in which they are drained of oil and water, provided minimal staffing to ensure that they remain safe, and are capable of being restarted in about six months if market conditions warrant. Dominion will maintain all environmental permits and continue to pay local taxes.

Most of the units — those at the Bremo, Chesterfield, and Possum Point power stations — were commissioned in the 1950s and early 1960s. One, a combined-cycle gas unit at the Bellemeade power station was constructed in 1990. All told, they were capable of producing 1,200 megawatts of electricity, roughly comparable to a new, state-of-the-art gas-fired power plant.

In a handout, Dominion said the shutdowns reflected the changing economics of electric power industry:

  • Economics. Natural gas prices remain historically low, and forecasts call for supplies to remain plentiful. Gas and renewables have displaced coal and older, smaller gas units. And the cost to build large-scale solar has dropped 90% in the past six years.
  • Public policy. Virginia is considering policies that would mandate a 3% annual reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions over ten years, which would rule out running the older, inefficient power units even as a backup.
  • Technology. Energy efficiencies such as LEDs, EnergyStar appliances, and LEED certification are impacting demand across PJM Interconnection, which administers wholesale energy markets for a multi-state region. New round-the-clock generation technologies, such as those in the new Greensville County power station, are significantly more efficient than older-generation gas units.

NoVa Enters Finals for Amazon Sweepstakes

Just out: Amazon has narrowed its list of candidate locations for its $5 billion second headquarters, and Northern Virginia made the list. So did Washington, D.C., which gives the Washington metropolitan area a one-in-ten chance of winning the big prize.

USA Today lists the finalists.

(Hat tip: Rick Gechter)

The Case for Public Comments at University Board Meetings

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Speech,” 1943.

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE: Public Comment for Virginia’s Colleges and Universities

PROBLEM: Currently, the decision to raise tuition and fees on students of Virginia colleges and universities is done without any required public input. Yet rate-setting is one of the most important and consequential responsibilities that any policy board possesses. That’s why the law gives citizens the right to address their respective city council or local board of supervisors – the stereotypical 3 minutes at the podium – prior to these policy bodies setting the local property tax rate.

But the opportunity to provide public comment to inform public decision-making goes well beyond local elected bodies. This right of citizens extends to many appointed policy bodies in Virginia.*

The fact that the affected public, including student and parent consumers, have no say in rate-setting in some of Virginia’s largest enterprises (state colleges and universities) is an exception of the law and defies basic expectation of regular appointed policy bodies in the Commonwealth and their treatment of citizens.

OPPORTUNITY: Creating the expectation that appointed governing bodies of Virginia public colleges and universities at least consider the input of the public prior to setting the tuition-rate would be a fundamental improvement in their governance and responsiveness to the Commonwealth they serve.       

This policy would align the practices of college and university governing boards with the existing requirements of other appointed boards in the Commonwealth.

In addition, at least ten other U.S. states (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington) require public comment as part of governing board meetings.

SOLUTION: Require governing bodies of Virginia public colleges and universities to adopt public participation policies that include public comment periods at board meetings. In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law (SB1376, unanimous vote in both chambers) that requires colleges and universities to notify the public about their plans to increase tuition. The next logical step, is requiring public comment prior to those decisions.

============================

*The legal requirement for public participation/comment includes, but is not limited to, the following appointed Virginia state boards and commissions (links to statutes):

The State Board of Elections
The Commission on Local Government
The Milk Commission
The Board of Conservation and Recreation
Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board
State Council of Higher Education for Virginia
State Air Pollution Control Board
Virginia Aviation Board
Virginia Waste Management Board
State Water Control Board
Motor Vehicle Dealer Board
Commonwealth Transportation Board
Commission of the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program
Apprenticeship Council
Virginia Workers Compensation Commission
Safety and Health Codes Board
Virginia Employment Commission
Virginia Manufactured Housing Board
Board of Historic Resources

A College Ranking to Virginia’s Liking

There are plenty of people in the college rating game these games, from the venerable US News & World-Report to Forbes magazine to the Wall Street Journal. Results vary depending on the criteria selected and the weight assigned to those criteria, both of which entail decisions and value judgments subject to human bias. But what if Artificial Intelligence was used to compile the rankings?

That’s what MetaMetrics, a Durham, N.C.-based company specializing in educational metrics, has tried to do. MetaMetrics research engineer Steve Lattanzio explains:

Was it possible to have a computer algorithm take in a bunch of raw data and, through a sufficiently black-box approach, remove decision points that allow ratings to become subjective? … Could an artificial intelligence discover a latent dimension hidden behind all the noise that was driving data points such as SAT scores, admission rates, earnings, loan repayment rates, and a thousand other things, instead of combining just a few of them in a subjective fashion?

The company drew upon the College Scoreboard, an exhaustive U.S. Department of Education database on colleges, students, and student loans. Lattanzio continues:

We use neural networks to perform “representational learning” through the use of what is called a stacked autoencoder. I’ll skip over the technical details, but the concept behind representational learning is to take a bunch of information that is represented in a lot of variables, or dimensions, and represent as much of the original information as possible with a lot fewer dimensions. In a stacked neural network autoencoder, data entering into the network is squashed down into fewer and fewer dimensions on one side and squeezed through a bottleneck. On the other side of the network, that squashed information is unpacked in an attempt to reconstruct the original data. …  the AI isn’t figuring out which subset of variables it wants to keep and which it wants to discard; it is figuring out how to express as much of the original data as possible in brand new meta-variables that it is concocting by combining the original data in creative ways. …

It turns out that we were able to compress all of the information down to just two dimensions, and the significance of those two dimensions was immediately clear.

One dimension has encoded a latent dimension that is related to things such as the size of the school and whether it is public or private (in fact, the algorithm decided there should be a rift mostly separating larger public institutions from smaller schools). The other dimension is a strong candidate for overall quality of a school and is correlated with all of the standard indicators of quality. It seems as if the algorithm learned that for higher education, if you must break it down into two things, [the data] is best broken down into two dimensions that can loosely be described as quantity and quality.

Got that? Good. So, here are the results for the top 20 colleges:

  1. Duke University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Vanderbilt University
  4. Cornell University
  5. Brown University
  6. Emory University
  7. University of Virginia
  8. University of Chicago
  9. Boston College
  10. University of Notre Dame
  11. College of William & Mary
  12. University of Southern California
  13. Wesleyan University
  14. Yale University
  15. Massachusetts of Technology
  16. Northwestern University
  17. Bucknell University
  18. University of Pennsylvania
  19. Santa Clara University
  20. Carnegie Mellon University

What? No Harvard or Princeton? Correct. The AI does not take into account intangible factors such as prestige. By the AI’s reckoning, it appears, those institutions are over-rated.

Virginia higher-ed officials looking for bragging rights can surely find them with this methodology — at least if they don’t dig too deep. UVa ranks 7th in the country and W&M ranks 11th. They are two of only three public universities on the list. The University of Richmond, described as a “hidden ivy,” logged in at 32nd, while Washington & Lee University scored 63. As comedian Larry David might say, that’s pretty, pretty impressive.

Virginia’s non-elite public universities scored fair to middling, according to the AI’s way of thinking. Out of 1,313 institutions nationally:

James Madison University — 146
Virginia Tech — 157
Virginia Military Institute — 199
George Mason University — 316
Radford University — 482
Longwood University — 495
Virginia Commonwealth University — 504
Old Dominion University — 951
Norfolk State University — 1,164
Virginia State University — 1,213

I could find no mention of Mary Washington University or the University of Virginia-Wise.

MetaMetrics provides plenty of caveats, which you can read here. The ranking “is not perfect and the rankings should not be viewed as infallible,” writes Lattanzio. “But when viewed among other college rankings, its validity is undeniable. It’s not merely a measure of prestige, and it addresses most of the concerns of critics of college rankings, while undoubtedly raising some new ones.”

I do fine one thing very curious. The company is located in Durham, N.C., home of Duke University. Four of the company’s top 11 senior executives have Duke affiliations — as does Lattanzio himself. Who ranks as the No. 1 university in the country? Duke, of course. Pure coincidence? Let’s just say, when Duke plays the University of North Carolina in basketball, you can probably find the AI in the stands rooting for the Blue Devils.

(Hat tip: Mary Helen Willett)

The Only Thing Worse than a Tuition Cap… Is No Tuition Cap

A proposed cap on tuition & fees is a flawed solution for runaway college costs. But it has the virtue, like the sword of Damocles, of focusing the minds of college presidents on what should be their top concern.

In the previous post I published a position paper distributed by the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of this blog, making the case that the General Assembly should freeze tuition & fees at public Virginia universities.

I share the overall goals of Partners — long-time Bacon’s Rebellion readers know that I have crusaded against escalating college tuition for years. College affordability is one of the defining issues of this blog. Also, I fully support the Partners’ proposals for increased transparency and governance reform for Virginia’s higher-ed system. (See “The Reform Agenda of Virginia’s Higher-Ed Critics.“)

Escalating tuition & fees is creating a social crisis as ever-growing numbers of college graduates enter the working world encumbered with ever-growing piles of debt — not counting the college dropouts who fail to earn a degree and enter the workplace lacking the credential needed to find a job that will enable them to pay off their debt. The higher-ed system in this country is creating a generation of debt slaves (who cannot legally discharge their debt) in order to sustain out-of-control spending on administrative sinecures and star faculty who burnish institutional prestige but do little teaching.

So, yes, we have reached a crisis, and something drastic needs to be done. I’m just ambivalent about getting the General Assembly to cap tuition & fees. I see it as a necessary evil.

A strength of Virginia’s system of higher education is its institutional diversity arising from a decentralized system of governance. Virginia’s colleges and universities have been allowed to define their own identities and carve out their own niches in the highly competitive higher-ed marketplace. This has been particularly beneficial for the non-elite institutions. Thus, Mary Washington University has evolved as a college appealing to socially conscious kids with Peace Corps-like aspirations, Longwood University has positioned itself as a champion of the liberal arts (liberal in the traditional sense of the word), Norfolk State University is restructuring itself around faculty-student-alumni collaborations called PODS, and Christopher Newport University has evolved into that rarest of creatures, a college that is friendly to conservatives. These smaller institutions give Virginia’s higher-ed system bench strength that few other state systems possess.

Micro-managing tuition & fees is the antithesis of the decentralized management that has fostered this flowering of second-tier institutions.

Some public institutions have pushed tuition & fee increases more aggressively than others. As the Partners white paper notes, increases have varied widely from college to college, ranging from from 149.8% over the past 15 years at Old Dominion University to 344% at College of William & Mary. Imposing a uniform cap would penalize universities that have withstood the pressure to charge more in the past, depriving them of the ability to make necessary adjustments in the future. Outrage at William & Mary’s excesses do not justify punishing colleges like Virginia Tech, ODU, NSU, Longwood, Virginia State University, and the University of Virginia-Wise Campus, which have pursued more restrained tuition policies over the years.

We need more transparency — more openness into data and into the decision-making process inside colleges and universities — and better governance. Board appointees at public colleges and universities should be instructed that their primary responsibility is to the public and the students they serve, not to ambitious college presidents with dreams of institutional glory. The Partners’ recommendations on this score are excellent.

While I have yet to be persuaded that a freeze on tuition & fees would be a good thing if actually implemented, I do believe it is a useful “sword of Damocles” to hang over the heads of university presidents. Something needs to instill the fear of God in the top echelons of university administrations. University presidents are keenly attuned to the priorities of their internal constituencies. They need also to clearly understand the frustration and outrage of the parents and taxpayers who pay the bills. A credible threat of a tuition freeze should concentrate their minds wonderfully.

The Case for Freezing Tuition & Fees

The following position paper was published by Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a sponsor of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog.

ISSUE:  Tuition and fee increases at public colleges and universities are unaffordable for many Virginia students and families, and must be frozen.

PROBLEM: Tuition and fees at Virginia colleges are increasing at an out-of-control pace, making the cost of higher education a barrier for entry and also constricting graduates who take on debt to attend in-state public universities. In just the past 15 years, the average published tuition and fees charged at a Virginia four-year public institution has increased 3.3 times as fast as Virginia median household income. In that time period, university tuition and fee increases ranged from 149.8% at Old Dominion University to 344% at College of William and Mary, while distinctive higher education costs only increased by 53%.[1] Today, tuition at Virginia’s state universities ranks the seventh highest in America.

While tuition and fees is ultimately a maximum price and financial aid can help offset student costs, in the past 12 years tuition and fees in the state increased by 170%, while state funded financial aid only increased by 75%.[2]  As a result of Virginia’s high growing net cost to students, at least 62% of undergraduate students have turned to loans to attend university, with an average debt level constantly increasing to now $29,822 for recent graduates.[3]  These graduates now make monthly debt payments instead of spending that money contributing to the Virginia economy.

OPPORTUNITY: Dramatically rising tuition has become a national issue and plagues many states.  Recognizing the need to act, several state policymakers and institutional leaders have acknowledged that the ultimate way to improve affordability is to stop the increases in tuition and fees. In the past three years, 23 states have taken the bold move to freeze tuition.[4]  This action attacks the affordability problem at its root, ensuring that students will not spend more money or take out more debt to access public universities in their state.

SOLUTION:  Virginia should stop further tuition and fees increases.  This winter, Virginia public universities are already moving forward with proposed tuition increases for the academic year starting in fall 2018. Policymakers should step in and mandate a tuition and fees freeze at public institutions. During the 2017 Virginia General Assembly Session, legislation was introduced to limit increases in in-state tuition and fees to the annual percentage increases in the consumer price index, national average wage index, and Virginia’s median household income.

Other states that have chosen to implement freezes have done so through legislative mandates. While there are real costs to a high quality higher education that require revenue, Virginia is already in the top 10 of states nationally for dependence on tuition revenue to support higher education costs[5].  Several states have required tuition freezes while considering the need for balanced institutional budgets that focus on student success. For example:

  • California recently passed a four-year plan to freeze tuition in exchange for small increases in state funding to preserve institutional revenue.
  • Ohio has required tuition freezes for much of the past decade, while creating efficiency initiatives for universities to reduce costs without compromising educational quality.

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This Is Us. Ugh.

by Chris Saxman

During Monday’s Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, three bills were on the agenda attempting to raise the minimum wage. Virginia’s policy has been at least since the late 1990s to mirror the federal minimum wage which stands at $7.25 an hour. That rate became effective in July of 2009.

Watching the committee hearing via video streaming, I was struck by the political exchange. Trust me, this is not a criticism of any committee member or bill patron or even those who came to testify on the issue. It’s just where we are as a nation.

Like the title of the popular series on ABC: “This Is Us.

Full disclosure – I personally oppose a minimum wage. It is not the role of government to set the cost of labor or any other business costs. Federal Reserve Bank notwithstanding. Having run a business with my family in which we had some employees at an hourly rate and having been an employee paid the minimum wage, I think a federal minimum wage sets a false floor for fair, market based compensation for labor. For hourly workers, the minimum wage is the starting point for the negotiations rather than the true value of labor in the market. But that’s just me.

There were three bills submitted by Senators Rosalyn Dance (SB251), David Marsden (SB240), and John Edwards (58) on the agenda. During the discussion, Chairman Senator Frank Wagner pointed out that the committee last year defeated minimum wage increase legislation and that the committee composition was roughly the same, indicating a similar fate for the legislation.

This was a legislative courtesy to suggest that something needed to have changed in these bills from last year’s bills if a different result was to be possible. In short, “We haven’t changed much, have you?”

The bills from Marsden and Dance were “rolled into” Senator Edwards’ bill (HB58), which meant they were set to hear testimony and debate on that legislation seeking to raise the minimum wage to $8 in July this year, $9 in 2019, and $10.10 in 2020.

Seems pretty functional at this point, right? Here’s the “Us” — the text of the bill was NOT discussed. There was no mention of why those wage levels were offered and what impact it would be on either employers or employees. Instead, what happened was that a series of speakers for an increase just said, in essence, “We need more money,” “We can’t subsist on $7.25 an hour.”

(Senators would likely agree since, based on a forty hour work week, they only make $8.65. House members only get $8.48.)

Then came the opponents from the business community who opposed the legislation largely because they always have due to the fact that it hurts small business, which has smaller margins from which to negotiate labor costs.

It was like those scenes from Casablanca where Captain Renault rounds up “the usual suspects” and then to impress his German counterparts, he rounds up “TWICE the number of usual suspects.”

Back to Commerce and Labor…

During the meeting, all of the Democratic members of the committee spoke in favor of increasing the minimum wage but never discussed the actual bill that scaled up the wage from $8 to $9 to $10.10 an hour. Why $10.10?

Senator Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, asked some pointed questions of one lobbyist who represents several Northern Virginia chambers of commerce. Since the $7.25 an hour in Northern Virginia is very different than $7.25 in Wise or Matthews Counties, Saslaw asked, “Is raising the minimum wage anti-business? I have spoken to several of your members and they don’t oppose raising it.” Again, not to the text of the bill with possible economic implications but rather a political question based on some are and some are not. Saslaw is a very pro-business legislator and has been so for his entire career, but he was direct. There is direct and then there is Saslaw Direct. This was the latter not the former.

Senator Dance, whose bill offered a $10 to $13 to $15 in 2020 scale, again without economic impact, asked if there was something, anything, that could be done to help those making minimum wage.

Shortly thereafter SB58 was voted on achieving the same results as last year – 11-3 to Pass By Indefinitely or PBI for short. Defeated.

Had an amendment even been offered to adjust the 2009 rate of $7.25 to inflation ($8.34 in 2018 dollars) and peg the rate forevermore to CPI or COLA adjustments, that would seem more reasonable right? Well, until it got to the floor and then we’re back to square one – bidding up the bill with amendments to $15 an hour. That’s, again, political calculus rather than economic consideration.

No articles have appeared, to my knowledge, on this issue in either the Richmond Times Dispatch or via the VPAP daily news feed (you should get that by the way – www.vpap.org)

Thankfully, the committee meetings are live streamed so we can watch our legislative process in action or, in this case, inaction.

But didn’t the business community get the outcome it desired? Perhaps.

Yes, a $15 statewide minimum wage would be bad, but was any progress made on the merits – either way – on the best wage policy for the Commonwealth’s economic and business climate?

Not at all.

This is Us.

Chris Saxman is executive director of the Virginia Foundation for Research and Economic Education. This commentary was originally published as an email missive.

Tarheel Coal Ash Data Could Inform Virginia Debate

Coal ash at the Chesterfield Power Station. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Last week I argued that Virginians need more information about the disposal costs and health risks associated with coal ash ponds before the General Assembly rushes ahead with a law requiring Virginia’s electric utilities to recycle and/or landfill their coal ash. Some of that data could come from the experience of Duke Energy in North Carolina as well as utilities in South Carolina, which are farther along in the process than Dominion Energy Virginia.

Travis Fain, a former Daily Press reporter who has moved on to WRAL.com, reported yesterday how Duke Energy has blasted its opponents in a regulatory filing, asserting that they leaned on “simplistic crutches,” false analysis, and a Pollyanna hindsight to argue against the company’s bid to raise electricity rates sufficient to cover its coal as clean-up costs. Duke Energy’s foes have some not-so-nice things to say about the utility, too. The bottom line for Virginia is that political and regulatory facets of the coal-ash controversy are further along in North Carolina than they are in the Old Dominion. Many of the same issues are likely to surface here, and economic data from the Tarheel State could illuminate our debate.

Writes Fain:

The company complied with existing laws and industry standards when it left wet ash in unlined pits for decades, they said. At one point “the lack of a liner was considered a feature, rather than a flaw” because soil would filter out contaminants, the company said. Impact on groundwater wasn’t initially a concern “because the ash basins were built more than a decade before the adoption of any federal or state regulation related to groundwater corrective action,” attorneys argued.

That same commission will decide now whether Duke Energy Progress shareholders or its customers will cover the majority of costs for a cleanup that has since been ordered by changes in state and federal law. Between Duke Energy Progress and its sister company, Duke Energy Carolinas, parent Duke Energy has asked for more than $1 billion a year in increases. …

“They fault the Company for not doing something that no one was doing, but at the same time washing their hands of any responsibility of paying for that which they – in 20/20 hindsight – wish the Company had done,” the utility’s brief states. …

The Attorney General’s Office referenced to a number safety reports, including an inspector who found “open cracks” and other problems in safety features at the H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro in 1999. That inspector returned in 2004 to note that “those same problems had not been repaired and still existed,” the Attorney General’s Office said.

If Duke had been proactive, cleanup costs “would have been far less than the costs are now and will be in the future,” the Attorney General’s Office said. …

The Public Staff also proposed that Duke Energy Progress split coal ash cleanup costs 50-50 with customers, something the company rejected.

Coal ash cleanup costs alone would add nearly $183 million a year to customer bills under Duke Energy Progress’ proposal.

Dominion has said it would cost roughly $4.5 billion to landfill all the coal ash at its Bremo, Possum Point, and Chesterfield plants. Dominion foes have charged that its estimates are inflated because the utility could reduce its costs by recycling coal ash into cement, bricks and pavers. Basically, we have a he-said, she-said situation. Although both Dominion and the Southern Environmental Law Center have hired consulting engineers, no non-aligned third party has weighed in with a judgment.

One obvious step, it seems to me, would be to compare Dominion’s situation to Duke Energy’s. Duke Energy says the cleanup will cost $183 million a year. It’s not clear how many years we’re talking about — likely 15 at least, maybe longer. If so, that implies a total cost of  between $3 billion to $4 billion. As I recall, Duke Energy has to remove more tonnage than Dominion, so its removal costs per ton are likely lower than Dominion’s estimates.

However, it is dangerous to make simplistic comparisons. Costs vary widely power station by power station, depending upon a number of factors, and direct comparisons may or may not be appropriate. Furthermore, the properties of coal ash vary, and Duke Energy’s material could be more, or less, suitable for recycling. Finally, Duke Energy has first-mover advantage in recycling its coal ash. Its coal ash will flood the Mid-Atlantic market, arguably depressing prices and making the recycling option less attractive to Dominion.

The article hardly answers all the questions one might have, but it seems clear that we are talking about disposal costs in the billions of dollars. Whether recycling/landfilling is an economical option in Virginia remains to be seen. Hopefully, the General Assembly won’t pass law in the absence of authoritative information.