Category Archives: General Assembly

Bye, Bye, GAB

by Steve Haner

Okay, I admit that particular sign was not in that particular frame until I got creative.

Today was the big flea market/yard sale of stuff in the General Assembly Building. Senate Room B is a location of many pleasant and painful memories for me over four decades (heading toward session #34) so I bought the agenda frame from beside the door for five bucks, figuring to make it a picture frame or put my own sign in it for the vanity wall.

Then I superimposed it over other signs around the building reminding people to not just walk off with their prints, lamps, nameplates, direction signs, chairs and desks.

Am I implying that things have been for sale all along in Senate Finance or Senate Commerce and Labor? Heaven forbid. Not my intention at all. Am I implying that the decisions in that room cost people real money? That, I will admit.

I guess I first walked into the GAB to cover State Board of Social Services meetings for the Roanoke Times in the early ’80s. I had covered the Robb inauguration in 1982 but I don’t remember going into the GAB that weekend. It really became the center of my working life in January 1985 when I started covering the session start to finish.

The biggest yard sale in Richmond.

The affection so many of us have for that building, with all its flaws, is akin to the affection that sailors and shipbuilders have for the hunks of steel that ride the waves. Lifeless? Don’t believe it. Ships have personalities, souls even, and the GAB has been a part of the legislative process. No bodies are really buried there, but thousands of dreams, careers and grand illusions have expired there.

It will not be the same in the temporary quarters in the Pocahontas Building, and the new building will need to create its own aura. The play matters but so does the stage. A new stage will change the play.

All of us will have to learn once again where the quieter bathrooms are, what back staircase leads to which corner of the building, what exit a legislator might use to avoid a lurking lobbyist, who rates a locker in the wide hallway and who gets relegated to the basement. Which offices always have cookies. Where to have a quiet word unobserved or where to go if you want to be seen with somebody to start the gossip. Long forgotten (but once crucial):  where to find a pay phone or even a free phone where you can plug in a mojo wire (see: Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing at Ninth and Broad”).

So many of you on the blog love to disparage the Assembly and the process, but you’re wrong. It is very human, with all that means, and I accept no whining from people who have not actually worked it for a while. It was nice to see so many lined up to buy some stuff to keep the memories alive. Sales tax was applied.

Steven Haner, a lobbyist, is the principal of Black Walnut Strategies. 

Who Serves on the Education Committees?

Reader Vic Nicholls raised an obvious question about the lists we’ve posted recently that show the higher-ed affiliations of state legislators: How about the education committees?

One could reasonably hypothesize that legislators who attended Virginia public colleges and universities are more likely than their peers to participate in the legislative committees that oversee their alma maters. Here, using the same color coding as the table I posted yesterday, I summarize the educational affiliations of the Senate and House members who serve on their respective education committees.

Lo and behold, we find that 61% of the House education committee members attended a public undergraduate college, community college or university versus only 41% for the House as a whole.

Likewise, we find that 40% of the Senate education and health committees attended a public undergraduate college versus 30% of the Senate as a whole.

Those numbers seem to confirm our theory. But let’s drill down by examining the composition of the Senate and House higher education subcommittees.Here, we find that only 50% of House subcommittee members attended a public undergraduate college in Virginia — actually a smaller percentage than the House education committee.

Here, we find that 40% of the Senate subcommittee members attended a public undergraduate college in Virginia — the same percentage as for the committee.

There is no denying that legislators with deeper ties to Virginia public universities serve disproportionately on the House and Senate committees and subcommittees overseeing higher education. But the differences are not dramatic. It would be hard to build a case based on these numbers alone that the General Assembly committee and subcommittee structure are stacked with legislators with a predisposition, as measured by their educational affiliations, in favor of public higher-ed in Virginia.

This quick survey is hardly the final word. It would be interesting to see if these committee members maintain strong ties with their Virginia alma maters. Do they contribute to fund-raising campaigns? Do they attend football and basketball games? Do they participate in alumni events? Do they serve on university boards or committees? Do they serve large higher-ed constituencies in their districts? One can always dig deeper.

Virginia Delegates’ School Ties

When I asked if a reader would be willing to compile the educational background of Virginia’s House of Delegates members, Carol Bova responded to the call. Thanks, Carol! This list is meant to accompany a list, published yesterday, of state senators’ school ties.

Here is the logic behind my color coding. Light blue indicates that a delegate has attended a private Virginia college or university, hence has had at least a tangential involvement with Virginia higher ed. The medium blue indicates that a delegate has attended a public university, reflecting a deeper connection to Virginia’s state-supported system of higher education. The dark blue indicates undergraduate attendance at a Virginia college or university. In my experience people feel the strongest ties to schools they attended as undergraduates.

Elaborating upon the hypothesis advanced in “Legislators, School Ties and Funding,” that legislators are more likely to approve state support for higher ed if they attended a public university, I would expect, all other factors being equal, the strongest support to come from elected officials with the strongest ties to the institutions receiving the funding.

If anyone has any ideas of how to correlate these school ties with critical votes cast, let me know.

Legislators, School Ties and Public Funding

Public state colleges and universities benefit when alumni are elected to state legislatures. A Duke University study, “School Spirit: Legislator School Ties and State Funding for Higher Education,” finds that every state legislator who attended an in-state public college or university is associated with an additional $3.5 million in funding.

“Our results show a statistically significant, positive association between funding and the share of legislators who attended in-state public institutions,” write Aaron K. Chatterji, Joowon Kim and Ryan C. McDevitt. The positive relationships are even stronger for legislators with school ties who also represent the alma mater’s district.

States the study: “An addition of one publicly-educated senator who also represents his or her alma mater is associated with an estimated $375.9 million increase in state funding of higher education, compared to an increase of $21.6 million by adding an identical senator without alma mater representation.”

The study got me to thinking. What are the old-school connections between Virginia legislators and public Virginia universities? Public attention has focused on Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, and his ties to the College of William & Mary. But what other connections are there? Herewith are Bacon’s Rebellion’s findings for the state senate:

All but nine senators have a Virginia educational connection. By my hasty counting before moving on to the next blog post, 22 attended a public Virginia institution of higher education.

It would be interesting to explore deeper connections. For example, Del. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, is a member, his bio says, of William & Mary’s Challenge 1 Strategic Planning Committee, and served three years as Chairman of the Athletic Educational Foundation. In 2002, William and Mary awarded him the Young Alumni Service Award.

I wish I had time today to conduct a similar exercise for members of the House of Delegates, but I don’t. If a kind and selfless reader out there is interested enough to do the grunt work, I’ll be happy to publish the results.

Update: Hamilton Lombard with the demographics group at the University of Virginia reminds me that his former colleague Luke Juday presented data on the StatChat blog two years ago about where Virginia’s delegates went to college.

Fostering the TNC Revolution

Starship robot: Now legal in Virginia.

It’s always refreshing when Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly play well together. We don’t hear about such instances very often — reporters are drawn to conflict — but I suspect they occur more frequently than we hear about.

An illuminating instance is how legislators from the two parties collaborated to create what Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, calls a “comprehensive legal framework” for Transportation Network Companies (or TNCs) popularized by Uber and Lyft.

Writing in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, McClellan detailed several bills enacted in the 2017 session with bipartisan input. If signed by the governor, the legislation will accomplish the following:

  • Lower up-front fees. TNCs will have a new option for applying for certificates. Instead of paying the existing up-front fee of $100,000 upon application, businesses can pay a $20 surcharge per record when purchasing driver transcripts. This measure will make it easier for smaller, less capitalized companies.
  • Less red tape for drivers. A requirement will be removed for TNC drivers to register personal vehicles for use as a TNC partner vehicle. State Police can recognize another state’s annual motor vehicle safety inspection in lieu of Virginia’s.
  • Brokering rides. Third-party companies will be allowed to broker TNC rides. This measure responds to a request by Richmond-area startup, UZURV, which piggybacks on Uber and Lyft by allowing passengers to reserve rides with specific drivers.
  • Robot deliveries. London-based Starship Technologies wants to make deliveries in cooler-sized robots, which can travel up to four miles (round trip) and can navigate sidewalks, shared-use paths and crosswalk. These “Electronic Personal Delivery Devices” will become legal.
  • Less red tape for property carriers. Some requirements regarding property carriers and bulk property carriers will be eliminated.

The TNC revolution will prove a fertile field for innovation, and the more Virginia does to loosen regulatory restrictions (within the bounds of protecting public safety and creating a level playing field), the more innovation we will see. Companies like Starship will set up shop in Virginia before investing in states where their service is illegal. Entrepreneurs like UZURV will spring up to build on the Uber revolution. And Virginia consumers will benefit from options they never imagined having before.

Now, if the legislature can just figure out what to do with AirBnB…

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.