Category Archives: General Assembly

Tommy Norment: W&M’s Man in the State Senate

Sen. Tommy Norment appears with former William & Mary President Gene Nichol.

In this 2007 photo, Sen. Tommy Norment appears with former William & Mary President Gene Nichol. Nichol presented him with the Prentis Award for civic involvement benefiting the college and community. Said Nichol: “Our College—like our community and our Commonwealth—is beyond fortunate to have Tommy Norment in our corner. William and Mary couldn’t ask for a more devoted advocate in Richmond.”

Does Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, have a conflict of interest regarding legislation affecting William & Mary?

Like many Virginia lawmakers, the Senate Majority Leader attended two Virginia institutions of higher education – the Virginia Military Institute and the College of William & Mary school of law. Unlike his colleagues, he is employed by a Virginia university. He works as an adjunct professor at William & Mary, which pays him $60,000 a year. That’s on top of his $50,000-a-year state senator’s salary and earnings from his private law practice with Kaufman & Canoles.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax County, objected when a half-dozen tuition-reform bills he and other senators sponsored were routed from the Senate higher education subcommittee to the Senate Finance Committee, where they have died. Norment is co-chair of the Finance Committee.

“That’s an obvious conflict of interest if you have someone who’s an employee of an institution who is going to sit in judgment on all these tuition bills,” Petersen said, reports Karin Kapsidelis with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Norment did not return Kapsidelis’ phone call asking for a response.

Concerns about Norment’s ties to W&M have dogged both the university and him for years. Eight years ago, W&M President Taylor Reveley justified having Norment on the payroll this way:

Before Senator Norment joined us, we had only one full-time Coordinator of Legal Affairs and one part-time Assistant to the Provost for Legal Affairs (focusing on disciplinary matters). We have badly needed more inside legal help.

The work Senator Norment does as a William & Mary employee is substantive and demanding. His employment here is not a Potemkin village. His work involves both teaching and legal advice. His teaching has been extensive and successful. From the beginning of his time at William & Mary, the Senator has provided me with legal counsel. He continues to do so while also now working closely with our Coordinator of Legal Affairs.

Tommy Norment’s compensation reflects his status as an experienced lawyer coming from private practice. It is less than would be expected for someone of his seniority and ability in private practice or the corporate world. It makes sense for a university, however, and is consistent with how we compensate our other lawyers.

No “quid pro quo” was involved in Senator Norment’s and my conversations about the possibility of his joining William & Mary. The Senator did not offer to do anything for William & Mary in return for employment. Nor did I premise the possibility of his employment here on his doing anything for the university in the future.

No quid pro quo was necessary. Norment was an advocate for W&M before he went on the payroll, and he no doubt will continue to be when he leaves. And, to be fair, Norment is not the only powerful senator opposing tuition reform. Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the senate minority leader, supported diverting the reform bills to Senate Finance.

When Petersen asked why a higher-ed bill was assigned to the finance committee, Saslaw responded, “It’s going to Finance when you start messing around with out-of-state numbers.” Presumably he was referring to caps on the number of out-of-state students at UVa and W&M. The General Assembly did not need to “micro-manage” the universities, Saslaw added.

(For details on the bills, see “Virginia Higher Ed Faces Backlash.”)

Bacon’s bottom line: How deep do the ties between a legislator and university have to run before it becomes a objectionable conflict of interest? Let me set the stage by asking some hypothetical questions:

• What if an Altria employee served in the state senate and voted against a higher tobacco tax? Would there be any question at all? It would be universally regarded as a conflict of interest.

• What if a Dominion Virginia Power employee served in the state senate and approved a measure that would increase electric rates? Clearly a conflict of interest. Del. Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, has abstained from voting on Dominion-related legislation on the grounds that his father was CEO of Dominion.

• What if the provost of W&M served in the state senate and deep-sixed measures designed to curb tuition increases? Clearly a conflict of interest.

• What if a tenured faculty member of W&M served in the state senate and deep-sixed measures designed to curb tuition increases? Still a conflict of interest.

The whole thing smells fishy to me.

The Legislative Logic of Proton Therapy

Proton therapy delivers precise doses of radiation, resulting in fewer side effects and less damage to surrounding tissues.

Proton therapy delivers precise doses of radiation, resulting in fewer side effects and less damage to surrounding tissues.

I just love it when legislators tell insurance companies whose services they should insure. Lawmakers are obviously so much more qualified to judge the efficacy of different medical treatments — why shouldn’t we trust their judgment?

Pardon my snark. A bill has passed the House of Delegates and moved to the state Senate that would forbid insurance companies from holding proton therapy to a higher standard of clinical evidence than other radiation treatments.

Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, submitted the bill on behalf of Hampton University (HU), which just happens to have a Proton Therapy Institute. HU complains that the procedure is still treated as experimental despite decades of research, explains Travis Fain with the Daily Press.

To tug at legislators’ heart strings, the bill’s supporters brought in Carolyn Lambert, wife of Benjamin Lambert, who served in the Senate more than 20 years and died in 2014. The Lamberts’ son is fighting prostate cancer now. Speaking in a halting voice, she said, the insurers “have abandoned him.”

Insurance lobbyists counter that they use blind studies to make coverage decisions, and that proton therapy makes the cut in some cases, such as pediatric and skull cancers, but not in others. “The bottom line is we don’t evaluate them differently,” said Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans.

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed the bill on what appeared to be a unanimous voice vote, reports Fain. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, a motioned “as a cancer survivor” to send the bill to the floor.

Bacon’s bottom line: This illustrates the worst of everything about the way the General Assembly works. Anecdotal information and sentimentality demolish reason and empirical evidence. The legislature is well on its way to passing a law that could well nudge the cost of insurance policies higher. The prostate cancer of Sen. Lambert’s son is a tragedy. What we will never see is the tragedy of the “third man,” the invisible victim for whom the cost of medical insurance will be put just out of reach.

When Registered Voters Outnumber Voting-Age Citizens

Time for a closer look at the number of registered voters in Virginia.

Time for a closer look at the number of registered voters in Virginia. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Eight localities in Virginia have more registered voters than voting-age citizens, and in another 15 localities registered voters amount to 95% of the voting-age citizens. Sound funny to you?

SB 1105, authored by state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and approved by the Senate, would require registrars to look into the data whenever the ratio exceeds 100%.

America is a mobile country. People move between localities and states frequently. While voters typically think to register in a new locality, I doubt it occurs to them to inform registrars in their former localities that they have departed. Speaking for myself, I would expect registrars to exchange information with each other and figure this out for themselves. But it appears that the administrative systems of some registrars offices are ill equipped to keep up with the population flux. If thousands of people across Virginia are improperly registered in multiple localities, that creates the potential for abuse by unscrupulous individuals.

(Some say that fraudulent voting occurs infrequently, so what’s the point in worrying about it. I would respond this way: We don’t know that it occurs infrequently, only that registrars have no systems in place to determine whether illegal voting is occurring, and that in instances where discrepancies have been reported to local authorities, commonwealth attorneys have shown little interest in prosecuting them.)

Speaking as a citizen, I don’t think it’s too much to ask registrars, perhaps with the assistance of the state, to put processes into effect that systematically update voter rolls for deaths, address changes and improper registration by noncitizens.

By the way, another Obenshain bill would require the periodic audit of voting machines, and a third asks registrars to adopt electronic pollbooks that allow them to match voters’ photo IDs to DMV identification records.

Converting Coal Mines into Pumped Storage

Is it practicable to convert old coal mines into pumped storage facilities? We may find out.

Is it practicable to convert old coal mines into pumped storage facilities? We may find out.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea in the renewable-energy package promoted by General Assembly Republicans (see previous post) is the idea of converting abandoned coal mines into pumped storage generating units.

Dominion Virginia Power operates a pumped storage facility in Bath County. The facility has two reservoirs. During periods of high demand when the price of electricity is high, Dominion releases water from the upper reservoir into the lower; during periods of low demand when the price is low, the company pumps water back into the upper reservoir.

The idea is to replicate this process on a smaller scale inside old coal mines. Frankly, I’m having a hard time visualizing how this would work — the underground coal mines I’ve visited follow are as level as the coal seams they follow — but I’ll assume that proponents of the idea know much more about the subject than I do.

One advantage of using coal mines for pumped storage is that they use water already in the mines, and there is no need to dam a river or creek. Further, Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who sponsored the bill, envisions using wind or solar power to pump the water. You can’t get any greener than that.

Here’s the topper: Use the abundance of green power to sell big corporations on locating their data centers in Southwest Virginia. One of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s two data centers is located in Lebanon, Va., on the edge of the coalfields, and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has invested heavily in equipping the region with the broadband access that any data center requires. High bandwidth and clean energy make a winning combination, the thinking goes.

Dominion, which already has a coal plant in Wise County, doesn’t have a specific project in mind, but says it is keenly interested in what Kilgore’s bill would allow, reports the Roanoke Times.

“This is a BIG deal longer-term in the coalfields,” Jack Kennedy, Wise County’s clerk of circuit court and regional technology advocate, told the Times. “It could lead to hundreds of millions in investment, maybe over $1 billion.”

Hope always springs eternal in Virginia’s suffering coalfield region. The idea of converting underground coal mines into pumped storage facilities sounds extremely conceptual, and the economics are far from proven. But you never know. If the idea does work, and if the region could attract a handful of data centers — stranger things have happened, Microsoft located a data center in Mecklenburg County —  it could be a game-changer.

Pro-Solar Tweaks Advance in General Assembly

If big corporate customers start generating their own electricity, who will pay to build and maintain the electric transmission-distribution grid?

If big corporate customers start generating their own electricity, who will pay to build and maintain the electric transmission-distribution grid?

As the General Assembly reaches the mid-point of its session, solar-energy legislation sponsored by Republicans has a very good chance of passing, reports Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The proposals emerged from lengthy discussions in a working group of Virginia’s electric utilities, electric cooperatives, and solar industry proponents. While the package is “a mixed bag,” said Will Cleaveland with the Southern Environmental Law Center, he conceded that it “leans slightly to the positive.”

According to Zullo, the package includes bills that:

  • Allows farmers to sell more renewable energy generated on their property to utilities;
  • Establishes a pilot community solar program for subscribing utility customers;
  • Allows streamlined permitting for small-scale renewable energy projects; and
  • Allows utilities to ask the State Corporation Commission for recovery of costs for pumped hydroelectric generation and storage facilities in Virginia’s coalfields. As envisioned, this pump-storage would be coupled with solar energy.

Bacon’s bottom line: Anything that injects more entrepreneurs and competition into the equation is a good thing. However, these bills leave unanswered perhaps the most important issue facing solar energy in the state: legal clarity for power-purchase agreements, specifically for arrangements involving third-party financing. A consortium of Fortune 500 corporations had requested clarification of laws that would make it easier for them to execute deals with third parties in order to generate their own solar energy. Power-purchase agreements are complex legal and financial instruments set up to extract maximum value from federal tax credits.

Many corporations have made a commitment to clean power and would like to derive a bigger percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources, which in in most parts of Virginia means solar. From their perspective, the ideal law would allow them to generate their own solar electricity and sell surplus power back into the grid at the full retail rate. However, power companies argue that independent solar generators should recoup a lower wholesale rate for the electricity. Electric utilities oppose laws that allow competitors to capture retail market share without compensating the utilities (and their rate payers) for the cost of maintaining the transmission-distribution grid that everyone relies upon when the sun isn’t shining.

Until the General Assembly grapples with the fundamental issue of how to generate solar electricity without undermining the transmission-distribution grid, all the rest is window dressing.

Who Needs Amazon Drones When You’ve Got a Starship Robot?

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded.

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded. The company claims the devices are “inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.”

A robot developed by Starship Technologies, of London, can make deliveries in urban environments. Capable of carrying loads as large as two grocery bags, this “personal courier” can make deliveries of groceries, wine, flowers, whatever, within a three-mile radius. Customers can track the robot’s location location on a smart phone.

“Our delivery platform will launch a new era of instant, unscheduled delivery as well as significantly lower the costs of shipments,” says the Starship website.

Legislation allowing the use of Electric Personal Delivery Devices (EPPDs) in Virginia unanimously passed the state Senate today.  The bill marks the first statewide approval of EPDDs operating on sidewalks, shared-use paths, and crosswalks in the United States, according to a press release issued by the office of Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who patroned the bill. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates.

“Starship Technologies is delighted with the passage of Senator DeSteph’s legislation from the Senate, and the team is excited about the opportunity to bring this technology to the Commonwealth of Virginia” said Allan Martinson, COO of Starship Technologies.  The bill was supported also by the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, and other Virginia officials have targeted unmanned vehicles as an economic development opportunity for the state. Drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has held up their deployment for safety reasons, but the use of ground-borne robots on public roads and sidewalks are governed by the states. Virginia also is playing a leading role in the research of driverless cars.

Impact on human settlement patterns… The Starship robot could tilt consumer preferences for urban areas over suburban. As a practical matter, the device can travel only where there are sidewalks and where development is compact. As much as I would love to order my Kroger groceries online (which I now can do) and have them delivered by a robot, there is no sidewalk in suburban Henrico County the device could travel to reach me. The street network and relatively high density of the City of Richmond would be far more suitable. In the grand scheme of things, delivery-by-robot is a small amenity. Still, it is one more reason to move from the ‘burbs into the city.

Here’s an Idea — Let’s Impose Unfunded Mandates on Shrinking School Districts

Does it make sense to impose unfunded mandates on jurisdictions with shrinking school populations?

Dozens of Virginia localities have lost population since 2010. Does it make sense to impose unfunded mandates on jurisdictions with shrinking tax base and school enrollment?

There seems to be no end to the ideas that Do Gooders have to improve conditions in Virginia’s schools. And there’s always someone in the General Assembly willing to submit a bill to force Virginia school districts to adopt those feel-good ideas without providing any money to pay for them.

This year, the Do Gooders have backed unfunded mandates that would require every school in Virginia to hire a nurse and every school district in the state to hire a dyslexia adviser. I have no quarrel with the aspiration of employing more nurses and dyslexia advisers in our schools. But I do take issue with enacting bills that would impose those priorities over those of local school boards, many of which are grappling with shrinking budgets and all of which have a keener insight into local needs than anyone in Richmond.

Fortunately, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education killed HB 1757, the nurse bill, recognizing that unfunded mandates create fiscal hardship for  local school divisions, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Virginia Association of School Nurses said the state has one school nurse per 830 students. The bill would have mandated a ratio of one nurse per 550 students. Children need the service of trained professionals to deal with a host of medical conditions, the nurses argued. Ailments range from Type 1 diabetes to seizures, asthma and severe allergies. Some school districts put a nurse in every school. But some have other priorities. Small districts would be especially hard-pressed to meet the standard.

Another bill, HB 2395, would require every school district to staff a dyslexia specialist. The Dyslexia Research Institute contends that 10% to 15% of the U.S. population has the learning disability, but only one in twenty dyslexics are recognized and receive assistance. The syndrome interferes with children’s ability to learn how to read.

In this instance, reports the Times-Dispatch, the House Appropriations subcommittee approved the bill, which follows a law enacted last year that required new teachers to receive training in identifying and dealing with dyslexia.

Larger school districts already maintain dyslexia specialists. Here’s my question: What’s different between an unfunded mandate for hiring dyslexia specialists and an unfunded mandate for hiring school nurses? Perhaps the price tag is smaller — a single dyslexia specialist costs less than multiple school nurses. But the underlying principle is the same — the General Assembly is imposing its priorities upon local school boards.

While all this is going on, lawmakers are grappling with the financial problems experienced by shrinking school divisions. As coincidence would have it, the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, has just published  its latest population data. As can be seen in the map above, dozens of localities have lost population since 2010. Presumably that population decline is matched by a decline in school population.

According to a third article in today’s Times-Dispatch, 39 localities have lost either 1,000 students or 20% of their enrollment between 2006 and 2016. Lower enrollments mean less state support for schools. The House Appropriations Committee is considering a bill that would scrape up $8.6 million to provide relief for those jurisdictions on the grounds that they are too small to offset the loss of state revenue by consolidating services and facilities.

In what world does it make sense to impose a new unfunded mandate — in this case, the dyslexia expert — upon these localities?

Virginia Higher Ed Faces Legislative Backlash

Virginia higher ed, and the University of Virginia in particular, are facing toughest General Assembly scrutiny in twenty years.

Virginia higher ed, and the University of Virginia in particular, are facing toughest General Assembly scrutiny in twenty years.

Frustration with Virginia’s higher education establishment boiled over during a press conference in the state Capitol building this morning as 15 senators and delegates from both political parties expressed their intention to curtail tuition hikes at public colleges and universities.

Legislators have introduced some 20 bills so far in the 2017 session addressing affordability and access at Virginia universities, and they expect more will be filed. A primary source of concern is how the state’s elite institutions are steering millions of dollars into financial aid to out-of-state students even as Virginians find the cost of attendance increasingly unaffordable.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, a graduate of the College of William & Mary, decried the high percentage of out-of-state students at his alma mater. Referring tongue-in-cheek to William & Mary as “the College of New Jersey-Williamsburg campus,” he said, “We need more in-state students.”

The University of Virginia is spending $20 million to $30 million in scholarships for out-of-state students, said Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield. He found that dispensation ironic given the fact that “for years we were told we needed out-of-state students to fund the schools.”

Another source of resentment was the accumulation of large financial reserves, particularly at the University of Virginia. UVa had cobbled together a $2.2 billion “strategic investment fund,” expected to generate $100 million a year in investment returns, even as the board of visitors raised tuition aggressively and lobbied for more state support.

The press conference followed the release of a poll released yesterday by Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a group created to fight runaway college tuition hikes (and a sponsor of this blog). That poll of registered Virginia voters found that a large majority overwhelmingly believe that the cost of college attendance is too high and support greater transparency of university budgets and decision-making.

Dr. James V. Koch, a former president of Old Dominion University and president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence, opened the event with a review of data. Since 2000, he said, the Consumer Price Index had increased 35.2%. Over that same period the national Higher Ed Price Index had jumped 52.9%. In Virginia, the cost of in-state tuition and fees had shot up even faster, even as incomes have stagnated. The number of work-hours that it took a Virginian earning the median hourly wage to pay average tuition and fees for a four-year college increased from 227 in 2001-2002 to 438 this year.

Bills before the General Assembly would cap the percentage of out-of-state students at 25% at Virginia higher ed institutions, forbid colleges from using in-state tuition revenues to pay for financial aid, restrict the amount of out-of-state tuition that could be applied to financial aid, and limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation, among other measures.

University officials justify high enrollments of non-Virginians on the grounds that out-of-state students on average pay 160% of the tuition cost, in effect subsidizing Virginia residents. If lawmakers cut out-of-state enrollments, they will increase pressure on universities to jack up in-state tuition. Also, providing financial aid to some out-of-state students, they argue, is necessary to make attendance affordable for lower-income students and preserve socio-economic and racial diversity.

Del. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, was more concerned with helping poor, minority Virginia students. In Virginia, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants for low-income students is around 20%, the lowest rate in the nation, he said. The reason for the low participation, he explained, is that tuition, fees and other costs are so high in the Old Dominion that low-income students can’t afford to attend. Poor Virginian students should be first in line for student loans, he contended.

A similar argument was advanced by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who represents an district in far southwest Virginia. As unaffordable as costs are for a family in affluent, suburban Fairfax County, he said, they create an insurmountable barrier for many families in Appalachia.

While legislators at the press conference shared a common concern about the cost of Virginia higher ed, they indicated no agreement upon which bills to support. Indeed, the issue of financial aid may prove divisive. While Spruill and Kilgore focused on the need of their lower-income constituents, a disproportionate percentage of of whom rely upon financial aid, other lawmakers represented middle-class households who are tired of seeing some of their tuition money diverted to financial aid for others.

“The high tuition, high aid model is out of control,” said Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. Continue reading