Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Deciphering Higher Ed Statistics

Last week at a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) board meeting, board member Heywood Fralin launched into an impromptu digression on a topic of great frustration to him: the claim that for every dollar the General Assembly has cut in state support to higher education, state colleges and universities have increased tuition by two dollars.

“Reports about tuition increases lack perspective,” said Fralin, a successful businessman and former head of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The two-for-one claim might reflect reality if you pick 1996 as a starting date, he said, but if you select 2001 as the starting date, you would see a one-for-one match between state cuts and tuition increases.

Fralin was correct in pointing out that it matters which start and end dates are used in making a statistical analysis. But was the year 2001 any more reflective of reality when analyzing the impact of state budget cuts on tuition than the year 1996?

The two-for-one claim likely originated in a presentation by fiscal analyst Tony Maggio at a House Appropriations Committee retreat in November 2016. At that event, Maggio shared the following chart:

Translator key: UG = undergraduate, GF = General Fund, FTE = Full-time equivalent, T&F = tuition & fees, I/S = In-State, O/S = Out-of-State. Maggio’s bottom line: “Essentially, in-state tuition grew $2 for every $1 loss in General Fund.”

By Maggio’s calculation, state support per in-state student (nobody is terribly concerned about out-of-state students) shrank by $1,634 inflation-adjusted dollars between 1996 and 2015. Over the same period, average inflation-adjusted tuition & fees increased by $3,186, almost twice as much.

Legislators picked up this factoid during the 2017 General Assembly session. During a press conference highlighting several bills designed to reign in runaway tuition increase, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, declared, “For every dollar we cut, they raise tuition two dollars.” The claim was repeated in newspaper ads paid for by Partners 4 Affordable Education (a Bacon’s Rebellion sponsor). I’ve repeated the number myself on this blog.

A March editorial in the Virginian-Pilot, cited by Fralin, took exception to the two-to-one meme.

When an advocacy group recently placed newspaper ads and op-eds asserting that Virginia colleges raise tuition $2 for every $1 dollar of state funding cuts, it was the wrong thing to do. It was misleading to the point of being false.

Over the 15-year period since 2001, there has been roughly a 1:1 correlation between state funding cuts and tuition hikes.

How do you get a figure of $2 in tuition increases per $1? By including cuts made between 1996 and 2001.

It could have been far more useful to evaluate the 15 years between 2001-2015. That would include the last two recessions, along with corresponding budget cuts and tuition increases.

It is interesting to see the Virginian-Pilot accuse the newspaper ad of being “misleading to the point of being false” for picking a start date that fit its narrative while the editorial writer did precisely the same thing! The table below (also prepared by Tony Maggio) shows how a starting date of 2001, when state support was highest, would include the cuts in state support that followed and exclude the increases that preceded it, thus biasing the findings in a totally different direction.

This graph, prepared by House of Delegates staffer Tony Maggio, shows General Fund support per in-state undergraduate student at Virginia’s public four-year institutions using a starting date of 1996. The yellow highlight (which I added) shows the starting date proposed by a Virginian-Pilot editorial writer.

The Pilot editorial writer did raise one interesting point: Perhaps comparisons should take into account the fiscal impact of the business cycle. In the writer’s view, it was important to “include the last two recessions, along with corresponding budget cuts and tuition increases.” Continue reading

Chesapeake Coal Ash Ruling — Advantage Dominion

Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

My initial reaction to Judge John A. Gibney Jr.’s ruling in Virginia’s first coal ash-related federal court case was to call it a draw. As I blogged yesterday, both the Sierra Club and Dominion Virginia Power found aspects of the judge’s order that supported their positions. But as I sort through the implications for the ongoing debate over coal ash in Virginia, I’m thinking that Dominion was the real winner in the long run.

True enough, the Sierra Club and its attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) did win one important tactical victory: Gibney found that arsenic-tainted groundwater passing through the coal ash ponds at Dominion’s former Chesapeake Energy Center (CEC), did, in fact, reach the Elizabeth River in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Here’s how Seth Heald, chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, framed that finding in a press release:

A federal court has found Dominion responsible for breaking the law and polluting the Elizabeth River. That is important for all Virginians who seek to hold the utility responsible for its mishandling of toxic coal ash. Now we must push Dominion to do the right thing and get this toxic ash out of the groundwater and away from the river, which is highly susceptible to disastrous flooding from sea-level rise and other climate-change effects.

But the judge also found that Dominion had been a “good corporate citizen,” had cooperated with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) “every step of the way,” and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.”

More importantly, Gibney applied what is, in effect, a cost-benefit test to any proposed remedy. While it is true that a tiny volume of leachate reaches the Elizabeth River, arsenic concentrations have been rendered harmless by dilution in the massive volume of river water. No threat to aquatic life and human health has been detectable so far. Unless evidence emerges that arsenic levels are reaching dangerous levels, he saw no justification to spend upwards of $600 million to excavate and remove the coal ash.

Gibney also found Dominion’s remedy of “monitored natural attenuation” — in effect, letting nature run its course — to be inadequate as well. He ordered Dominion to conduct more extensive monitoring of sediment, water and wildlife in and around the Chesapeake cite, and to report the results to the Sierra Club’s counsel and the DEQ. “In the event of a significant change in the amount of arsenic in the water or sediments,” Gibney wrote, “either party may move the Court for further relief.”

But Gibney’s cost-benefit test favors Dominion as the coal-ash controversy unfolds. Riverkeeper groups have opposed Dominion’s requests for solid-waste permits at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations. They argued, as the Sierra Club did in the CEC case, that evidence of contaminated groundwater migrating into nearby water bodies is grounds for removing the coal ash to lined landfills away from the water regardless of expense. But the application of Gibney’s logic to future cases would mean that demonstrating the leakage of small volumes of contamination into surface waters is not sufficient to seek a massively expensive remedy. The leakage must be on a scale to affect aquatic health and human safety.

Over a half century of burning coal at the Chesapeake power plant, Dominion accumulated 3.4 million tons of combustion residue and disposed of it in coal ponds. The ash contained high levels of arsenic — an estimated 150 tons. In 2014, samples of groundwater from ten wells around the ash landfill showed arsenic concentrations higher than 10 micrograms per liter, the groundwater protection standard set by DEQ. At one location, the judge noted, the arsenic concentration reached 1,287 micrograms per liter.

Gibney accepted the Sierra Club’s arguments that groundwater migrates from the coal ash to the surface waters of the Elizabeth River and its tributaries. In so doing, he rejected Dominion’s contentions that the groundwater was unconnected to the surrounding water bodies, and that arsenic traces found in the Elizabeth River originated from other industrial sources. Wrote the judge:

Dominion argues that because sediments move upstream and downstream with the tides, it is impossible to tell where the sediments used for the poor water samples originally came from. Although some tidal action may move sediments around, it defies logic to argue that an enormous amount of arsenic does not contribute to the arsenic in soil and water right next to it, especially given the evidence of groundwater movement from the mound outward.

While the evidence shows that Dominion does discharge some arsenic into nearby surface waters, Gibney reasoned, “it does not show how much.”

The Court cannot determine how much groundwater reaches the surface waters, or how much arsenic goes from the CEC to the surrounding waters. .. What the Court does know, however, is that the discharge poses no threat to health or the environment. All tests of the surface waters surrounding the CEC have been well below the water quality criteria for arsenic….. The CEC is surrounded by an enormous body of water, and even a large arsenic discharge would amount to a drop in the bucket.

Continue reading

Dominion, SELC Spin Coal Ash Ruling as Victory

Dominion Virginia Power and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are both declaring victory after a ruling by a federal judge regarding Dominion’s disposal of coal ash at its retired Chesapeake Energy Center.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney ruled today that the coal ash ponds are contaminating the Elizabeth River with arsenic and that the process of “natural attenuation,” or letting nature take its course, is a “completely ineffective solution,” says a press release issued by the SELC, which represented the plaintiff, the Sierra Club.

“The judge agreed with the Sierra Club’s experts, and rejected the testimony of Dominion experts who said arsenic does not reach the Elizabeth River,” said the statement.

But Dominion found much to celebrate in Gibney’s ruling as well. “The court has confirmed that there has been no threat to health or the environment resulting from the coal ash stored at its former Chesapeake Energy Center,” said a Dominion statement. “The court noted there has been ‘no evidence that shows any injury … has occurred to health or the environment.”

Furthermore, the ruling noted that Dominion had abided by all permits and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.” Accordingly, the court imposed no penalties on Dominion.

That’s the breaking news. I’ll try to have more tomorrow regarding the implications of the ruling for coal ash controversies at Dominion’s Bremo, Possums Point and Chesterfield power stations.

McAuliffe Orders WMATA Review

Governor McAuliffe has ordered a sweeping review of WMATA, the Washington area's train-wreck of a commuter rail system.

Governor McAuliffe has ordered a sweeping review of WMATA, the Washington area’s train-wreck of a commuter rail system.

Governor Terry McAuliffe has announced an independent review of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA), the troubled organization that runs rail and bus systems in the Washington metropolitan area. Hampered by massive maintenance backlogs, high labor costs, safety issues and declining ridership, the authority requires billions of dollars in capital funds and hundreds of millions a year in operating funds to reverse a devastating loss of traffic. There is no consensus on where the money will come from.

Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, will lead an “objective, top-down review” of WMATA, said a statement issued by the governor’s office today. Virginia will pay for the review but will not control it. WMATA is governed by an interstate compact between Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

WMATA’s rail and bus operations move more than one million people a day, making it essential to the Washington-area economy. “Unfortunately,” the statement said, “WMATA today has significant problems that hinder its ability to serve this region’s residents and businesses. It did not happen overnight. It is the result of decades worth of decisions.”

“Everything will be looked at, including operating, governance, and financial conditions,” the statement said. That includes board governance, labor policy, and long-term financial stability. The study will benchmark system costs and expenses, governance, funding levels, cost recovery, maintenance costs, and rail safety incidents. A final report is expected to be issued this November.

The latest fiasco. There was no explanation of what prompted McAuliffe’s decision to launch the review, but news of another management fiasco today illustrates how badly WMATA has broken down. Federal track inspectors have found that the new 7000-series rail cars, which are heavier than the older cars, may be damaging the tracks, reports the Washington D.C. Patch.

WMATA purchased 528 of the 7000-series rail cars in 2013. News reports revealed last year that the cars wouldn’t be used on Blue, Orange and Silver lines because they can’t navigate a steep curve on a stretch of tracks shared by the three lines. Then this year, it was reported that the trains were experiencing failures every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, way below the contract expectations of 20,800 miles.

The decision in 2013 to purchase rail cars that can’t navigate a critical curve, experience failures at three times the contracted rate, and also damage the rail lines is a management failure of spectacular proportions — and the responsibility doesn’t go back decades.

McAuliffe’s decision to act is welcome, even if it’s overdue. The Commonwealth of Virginia cannot continue to dump money into a dysfunctional organization without concrete assurances that the money won’t be wasted.

Update: I was curious about how the McAuliffe administration came to the decision to launch this review but had no insight to share when I made this post. Turns out that the 2017 budget bill called for it, ordering the Secretary of Transportation to “initiate an objective review of the operating, governance and financial conditions” at mWATA.

The review shall encompass the following: (1) the legal and organizational structure of WMATA,; (2) the composition and qualifications of the WMATA board of directors; (3) potential strategies to reduce the growth in labor costs; (4) options to improve the sustainability of employee retirement plans; (5) safety and reliability; and (6) efficiency of operations.

Probing the Limits of Tuition Hikes at VCU

VCU is going where no Virginia university has gone before: high tuition, needy student body, low financial aid.

VCU is going where no Virginia university has gone before: high tuition, needy student body, low financial aid.

Virginia Commonwealth University is pondering a tuition increase of between 3% and 5% — over and above a 2.8% increase for the current academic year — to compensate for an $8 million reduction in state appropriations and a 3% salary raise authorized by the General Assembly, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Meanwhile, the university plans to hire a firm to recruit more international students to bolster revenue with lucrative out-of-state tuition payments. (The total cost of attendance for an out-of-state student is about $19,000 higher than for an in-state student).

If the VCU board of visitors OKs the tuition hike, Virginians will get to observe an interesting experiment in higher-ed economics — how high can a second-tier university push tuition before diminishing enrollment? Is there an upper bound to the cost of attendance at which point students say, “No more!”?

VCU has increased its tuition aggressively over the past decade. By the 2015-16 academic year, the Richmond university had the second highest in-state cost of attendance of any public, four-year institution in the state: $26,700. That was higher than the University of Virginia’s and second only to the College of William & Mary’s. Likewise, VCU’s out-of-state cost of attendance, at $48,500, was the third highest. (I draw these numbers from the SCHEV’s higher education database.)

Two Virginia universities with stellar national reputations, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, arguably have the latitude to boost their tuition & fees should they choose to do so. Perceived as near-Ivy League in quality, they likely could get away with charging near-Ivy League prices. Virginia Tech is not quite in the same league, but its undergraduate engineering school is one of the top rated in the country, so the institution probably has some pricing leeway, especially considering that its cost of attendance is lower than the state average.

Although VCU has a rising reputation among state universities, it has not reached the rarefied atmosphere where it can charge top dollar. Demand for a VCU education is more “elastic,” meaning that students are more sensitive to price increases. Here’s my question: Will higher prices at VCU push down enrollment by discouraging students from applying?

The chart below compares VCU to two peer institutions — big research universities located in large metropolitan areas — George Mason University and Old Dominion University — and adjusts the sticker price by the amount of financial aid provided.

“Financial aid per student” was derived by dividing total in-state financial aid by total in-state undergraduate enrollment. All numbers are for undergraduate students.

VCU is not a bargain: Its net cost of attendance per year is almost $2,500 higher than George Mason’s and about $11,000 higher than Old Dominion’s.

Now consider that VCU draws from a less affluent demographic base than, say, UVa or W&M. Sixty-eight percent of its students graduate with debt. Indeed, 29% of VCU students receive federal Pell grants reserved for lower-income students. Needless to say, these students are highly price sensitive.

How much in higher expenses can VCU’s less-affluent demographic absorb? At what point will enrollment numbers start declining? VCU’s board of visitors seems determined to probe the outer limit. Continue reading

When “Social Justice” Leads to Social Injustice

Under the Obama administration, social justice advocates have pushed through a revolution in school disciplinary policies in scores (maybe hundreds) of local school districts across the United States. Whenever minority students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, there is a presumption of prejudice. As former Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it, the disparity in rates of suspension “is not caused by differences in children, it’s caused by differences in training, professional development, and discipline policies. It is adult behavior that needs to change.”

In place of suspensions and other traditional disciplinary tools, the feds imposed a new approach called restorative justice. A student who misbehaves is encouraged to reflect on his actions, take responsibility and resolve to do better. Counseling and dialogue replaces suspensions and other sanctions. This is precisely the approach imposed upon Henrico County Public Schools, as I have blogged about frequently in the past.

How has this all worked out? Enough years have passed that it should be possible to measure the results. One conclusion is beyond dispute: The restorative-justice approach has driven down the number of student suspensions. But has discipline improved? Have educational outcomes improved? There is abundant anecdotal evidence around the country to suggest that more often than not, discipline has gotten worse. Classrooms are being disrupted. Teacher morale is sagging. And the learning experience of orderly students is suffering. But those are just anecdotes. Social justice advocates can cite anecdotes of their own to suggest that the programs are working.

Now comes a study by Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute: “School Discipline Reform and Disorder.” Drawing upon extensive student and teacher surveys of school conditions, Eden examines the impact of two sets of “reforms” — one under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which suspensions were pruned back for low-level infractions, and a far more aggressive set of reforms under Mayor Bill de Blasio, which set up rigorous administrative hurdles to limit school suspensions and to train teachers to employ the “restorative justice approach.”

Survey questions addressed perceptions of school discipline. Students were asked: Do students get into physical fights? Do students treat each other with respect? Do students drink or use drugs at school? Is there gang activity? Teachers were asked: Are order and discipline maintained?

Eden’s conclusion: “Overall the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: school climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s.” The decline in discipline has led to an increase in disruptive behavior with significant spill-over effects. Those who suffer ill effects from the disorder in schools are most likely to be poor and minority students. In other words, writes Eden, “Discipline reforms may be doing great harm to students, especially the most vulnerable.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This comes as no surprise. I feared precisely this result when writing about the imposition of restorative justice disciplinary techniques in Henrico a couple of years ago. Given the evidence proffered by New York schools, we need to take a look at the impact in Henrico County, the case with which I am most familiar, and any other Virginia locality where similar measures have been enacted.

Virginians need to know: Is this social experiment having the same negative consequences here? Has school disorder gotten better or worse? Has academic achievement gotten better or worse? Are we, in the name of social justice, imposing untested theories that create even greater social injustices?

The data exists to answer these questions. There is no excuse for not knowing the answers.

What Does SCHEV Do? More than You Think.

Think of SCHEV as the Commonwealth Transportation Board of higher ed -- but with bigger staff and more responsibility.

Think of SCHEV as the Commonwealth Transportation Board of higher ed — but with bigger staff and more responsibility.

Someone asked me the other day what the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) does. It monitors and coordinates the state’s public universities, I said. But what does it actually do, my friend said. Well, I replied, it puts together a strategic plan for higher education, and it maintains a lot of databases, and conducts a lot of analysis. But does it actually have any power, my friend persisted.

Well, I’m just a couple of months into covering higher education as a beat, and I’m still learning. But during a board meeting held at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, I learned yesterday of at least one substantive power SCHEV exercises. Colleges and universities wanting to implement new academic programs must obtain SCHEV approval. And the organization does not rubber stamp requests.

Three proposals came before the Council yesterday — two were approved but one, an Old Dominion University request to launch an M.S. program in sports management, was kicked back to the university for re-tooling.

The Council approved a request by Tidewater Community College to establish an Associate of Fine Arts degree.  The degree is designed specifically to ease the transfer of TCC students to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Bachelor of Music Program. The new degree will allow students to complete their bachelor’s degree with an estimated 124 credit hours rather than the 144 that would have been required otherwise. Those 20 credit hours represent a significant savings in time and tuition to the transferring student, and the program advances SCHEV’s goal of providing a lower-cost pathway to a B.A. degree than a full stint at a four-year institution.

The Council approved a similar J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College program providing an Associate of Science degree to community college students seeking to earn a science degree at a four-year institutions. The logic was similar: to grease the transition between community college and four-year college.

But the ODU sports management program encountered heavy skepticism in SCHEV’s Academic Affairs and Planning Committee, and that committee recommended that the program not be approved at this time.

ODU has long offered a physical education degree with a concentration in sports management. But the university wanted to expand the concentration to a standalone program because sports management needs a pedagogically distinct curriculum. Additionally, claimed ODU, there is a strong industry demand in Hampton Roads for master-level graduates in sports management.

But SCHEV staff concluded otherwise, primarily on the grounds that no documentation exists of the proffered demand in the Hampton Roads sports industry. Moreover, a 2015 study of sports management master’s degree programs generally found that not only were sports management graduate degree holders earning less than other graduate degree holders, but they were earning less than those with a bachelor’s degree.

Rather than rejecting the request outright, the SCHEV board asked ODU to re-try to strengthen the program. (For details, see the SCHEV board’s March agenda book, beginning page 26.)

Thus, dear reader, while Virginia does maintain one of the most decentralized systems of higher education in Virginia, the state oversight body is far from toothless. Colleges and universities can not create expensive new programs, departments and schools without SCHEV’s blessing. Staff analyzes the student demand and market demand for each request and examines possible duplication with programs at other institutions to ensure that the investment of resources is justified. In that way, the Council is comparable to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which has the final say over transportation funding projects.

Furthermore, SCHEV’s powers and prerogatives will expand this year thanks to 12 new responsibilities assigned it by the General Assembly. Most are arcane items that would mean little to the general public. But at least one will give the Council a significant role in economic development: developing the Commonwealth Research and Technology Strategic Roadmap. This planning tool will identify research areas worthy of economic development and institutional focus. Priority projects will receive grants from a $2.8 million funding round this year from the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund.

Every arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages. Virginia’s decentralized model of higher ed certainly has  flaws — and I will not hesitate to point them out when I encounter them. But by common estimation, Virginia has one of the best, if not the best, systems of higher education in the country. The SCHEV model of measuring, monitoring and lightly regulating Virginia’s colleges and universities has much to recommend it.

Trump Budget Bullet Barely Grazes NoVa

President Trump’s proposed budget would cost the Washington metropolitan region up to 24,600 jobs and billions in lost salaries and procurement spending, according to a new analysis by regional economist Stephen Fuller.

But Washington’s Virginia suburbs would get off easier than Maryland and the District of Columbia, reports the Washington Business Journal. The district would lose 14,000 to 15,000 jobs and Maryland would lose 5,500 to 6,000. But in Northern Virginia, where cuts to the federal bureaucracy would be partially offset by an increase in defense spending, would lose only 500 to 3,600 jobs.

Overall federal spending in the Washington region would drop between $4.2 billion to $5 billion, reducing growth in the region’s gross domestic product by 1%. If GDP tracks job losses, the impact on Northern Virginia will be even milder.

Bacon’s bottom line: Trump’s budget will not be enacted as submitted. Congress will tinker, undoubtedly sparing some non-defense programs on Trump’s chopping block. (I’m rooting for preservation of funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration.) But assuming that Fuller’s projections are in the ballpark, it doesn’t look like Virginia has much to worry about. The loss of 500 to 3,600 jobs in Northern Virginia’s dynamic economy will cause no more than a burp in growth.

Health Care as Entitlement for All

State involvement in health care can be traced back to 1773 when the "Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" opened in Williamsburg.

Virginia”s state involvement in health care can be traced back to 1773 when the “Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds” opened in Williamsburg.

by Allen Barringer

For seven years now we have lived with “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act, and now we are engaged in rewriting it as the American Health Care Act, and, yes, it’s “all very complicated.” One thing already is clear: both Democrats and Republicans talk about “affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans” — but neither the ACA nor the proposed ACHA truly lives up to that description.

I understand that standards of health care are contentious. We don’t agree on what is “quality” or “adequate” care, let alone “humane,” and we don’t even agree how limited medical resources, such as transplantable organs, should be allocated. But until this year, I thought we did agree on equal access to whatever it is the government provides. If there is a health entitlement at all, it should be available to all.

Health care has long been a government responsibility. From medieval times, the established Church organized hospitals and administered the poor house and other components of the social safety net, while the King dealt with public sanitation, quarantines and military health. The Enlightenment brought about a greatly expanded government role in public improvements, including public health, during the 17th and 18th centuries. Those traditions were brought to the American Colonies; indeed, persons drafted for their medical skills were among the earliest settlers in Virginia and in New England. By the 19th century, and particularly after the Civil War, public health (including, individual care for the ill and the indigent) was generally recognized as a concern and a responsibility of the States.

In Virginia, the first mental hospital was built in Williamsburg in 1773 at the urging of Governor Fauquier, and Western State opened in Staunton in 1825. Jefferson’s Anatomical Hall, completed in 1826, was an early building for medical instruction at the University of Virginia. The Hampden-Sydney “Richmond Department of Medicine” opened in 1834, becoming the Medical College of Virginia in 1854. After the Civil War health activity in Virginia exploded due to the legacy of military health care and new learning about the importance of cleanliness, the source of infections and epidemics, and use of anesthesia.

Virginia’s State Board of Health came in 1872. Virginia mandated vaccinations and sanitary sewers and quarantine regulations in its port cities. In 1889, a young doctor recently trained in Vienna, Austria, in the latest medical and public health practices, was hired as Professor of Medicine at the University of Virginia. He quickly convinced Charlottesville and university authorities that to maintain the good health of university students and faculty it was necessary to address the health of the whole community they lived in. Eventually he persuaded the General Assembly to support this approach also. Teaching students through the practice of public health was the hospital’s mission. Teaching better health practices to the community and abating communicable disease at the source was its outreach.

Health care for the community means everyone in the community. Disease afflicts rich and poor and all races and occupations alike; every occupation has its hazards. The University hospital which Professor Barringer, my grandfather, founded and promoted so tirelessly was from its inception open to the Charlottesville community without regard for university affiliation, status, gender, race, or ability to pay. Many medical professionals and hospital administrators in Virginia still provide medical care on those principles, although they try to obtain payment when they can. And health remains an object of State concern and appropriations. For example, just a few months ago, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced State measures to make counteragents available at little or no charge aimed at combating the growth of opioid addiction, which he described as “a public health emergency” in Virginia.

The involvement of our state and federal governments in providing health care is so pervasive that we cannot pretend this is, “by default,” a private responsibility. The details of how the government goes about providing “affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans” are not as important as the affordability, the quality, the coverage offered. And this is a Virginia issue, not just a federal one.

Medicaid has a state budget impact, and there is talk of turning the entire health entitlement spectrum into federal block grants to the States. When McAuliffe tried to expand Medicaid under the ACA (essentially “free” to Virginians for a time, at the expense of the federal government), the General Assembly turned him down. That seemed to many observers (including me) to be more a partisan rejection of Obamacare than a vote against the public health and economic welfare of Virginians — but it certainly had the latter effect. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the ACHA as proposed would substantially aggravate that effect.

Government support for health care has two rationales. One is economic. A healthy community is more productive, with less missed work, less down-time, less family distraction and dysfunction, and less threat of a catastrophic epidemic. Even if it isn’t you who is ill, you have an economic stake in the health of those around you, and you receive a direct benefit from the investment of your tax dollars in health care for others, not to mention the indirect benefit of a higher quality of community life. There is no distinction between individual health and public health in this regard.

The other rationale, of course, is compassion. Compassion is a moral imperative, and while I hear very little about compassion from Republicans these days it’s high time they re-discover it. The parable of the Good Samaritan is in the Bible, not a book of etiquette. Working in health care is an intensely rewarding endeavor, which attracts churches, charities, and all those many individual volunteers who devote their time to helping others. Not incidentally, compassionate policies also appeal to voters. Continue reading

Fix the Broken Regulatory Process

There must be a better way for federal agencies to review infrastructure mega-projects.

A few days ago, I asked why, after three-and-a-half years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to give a yea or nay on Dominion Virginia Power’s permit request for the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line. The issue I’m raising isn’t what the Army Corps decides but how long it takes to reach a decision. Because of the interminable time spent pondering the permit application, citizens and businesses on the Virginia Peninsula will be at risk of blackouts this year and next, if not longer.

Today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlights the frustrations expressed by Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Transmission (DT), sister company of Dominion Virginia Power and managing partner of the proposed $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

“To make these beneficial investments we need certainty from federal agencies. Not a rubber stamp, but a rational path forward with clear processes, reasonable schedules and reasonable decisions,” said Leopold in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The pipeline requires more than 18 major federal permits and authorizations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Parks Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The most visible hang-up at the moment, as judged by Robert Zullo’s article in the T-D, appears to be with the Forest Service.

Dominion says it will use state-of-the-art technology and best practices that will minimize the risk of landslides and erosion on steep mountain slopes. But environmentalists claim that Dominion is under-estimating the landslide risk, and it appears that the Forest Service shares their concerns. Dominion is convinced that it’s right, and its foes are equally persuaded that they’re right. The debate will never be settled by having one side back down.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Instead of a time-consuming bureaucratic battle, why not just specify the desired erosion-and-sediment-control outcomes and require the pipeline to meet them? A reasonable approach would entail careful monitoring of land crossed by the pipeline to detect landslides and other forms of erosion — a cost that ACP would have to absorb. All monitoring data would be made available to the public so government agencies and environmental groups could inspect them to ensure the pipeline was fulfilling its responsibilities. ACP would be required to pay the full cost of restoring mountain slopes and compensate nearby landowners or water authorities for any damages. Perhaps ACP would be required to maintain insurance or post a bond sufficient to guarantee the damages are covered.

There should be one debate over the standards appropriate to steep mountain slopes, and those standards should apply to everyone who wants to build an interstate pipeline in comparable terrain. The purpose of regulation should not be to prescribe how pipelines do their jobs but to ensure that they achieve the desired outcomes. Finally, the review process should not require months and months of review. It should take no more than a week or two to ascertain that the pipeline applicant has the financial wherewithal to live up to its commitments.

Wouldn’t such an arrangement work better for everyone?