Category Archives: Governance

Failing to Fix the Unfixable

Cranky (aka John Butcher) is on a tear these days, most recently exposing the Virginia Board of Education’s ineffectual effort to fix the City of Richmond’s broken school systems.

The Richmond’s schools are in turmoil. According to the state board, 27 of the city’s 44 schools are not fully accredited. The school board has booted out the district’s superintendent, who only two or three years ago had been highly touted, for reasons that remain opaque. City and state bureaucracies are moving ponderously to address the deep-rooted dysfunction. But so far, the only product of the teeth gnashing and foot dragging is a “Memorandum of Understanding,” which, in Cranky’s jaundiced eyes, “does nothing but create busy work and a ‘rough draft’ plan that is not a plan.”

Cranky proceeds to dismember the MOU like Jeffrey Dahmer rended his victims. The MOU, he suggests, is vague, redundant, intrusive, and unenforceable. Worst of all, he writes, “VBOE does not know how to fix Richmond’s broken school system. They don’t know what to tell a judge that Richmond should be made to do, so they don’t even contemplate exercising their authority to sue.”

If you want to find yourself laughing and crying at the same time, check out his post.

Business Leaders Demand WMATA Governance Reform

An alliance of Washington-region business groups is calling for a fix for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) that would create dedicated funding streams for the Metro rail system and a restructuring of the authority’s board.

Twenty-one chambers of commerce and employers groups outlined the proposal in a letter to the region’s political leaders, reports the Washington Post. The proposal is expected to have influence, the Post says, noting that executives with the signatory businesses are frequent campaign contributors.

WMATA has said it needs at least $500 million a year to restore to functioning condition the commuter rail transit system, which has been plagued by maintenance issues, safety incidents, and declining ridership. The letter signatories did not specify a particular funding mechanism.

“We’re not trying to get into the weeds,” said Bob Buchanan, founder of the 2030 Group, told the Post.

One commonly floated proposal is a region-wide, penny-per-dollar sales tax, but Northern Virginians have objected on the grounds that Northern Virginia would wind up paying more than Maryland and the District of Columbia combined.

Describing the Metro as in a state of “crisis,” the letter linked the creation of a dedicated revenue source toward a revision of the tri-state governing compact and a restructuring of the board. States the letter:

We reiterate our strong conviction that any reform effort must include reforms to WMATA’s governing, financial and operational structures. Reform of any one structure alone will not be sufficient. For instance, additional funding for Metro will only be beneficial if it is accompanied by structural changes that give WMATA’s board the flexibility to effectively allocate resources and staff the flexibility to leverage additional resources to make operational improvements.

Governance reforms include “right-sizing” the WMATA board and requiring directors to have expertise in specialized areas, including transit operations, management, finance and safety.

Bacon’s bottom line: WMATA is critical to the functioning of the Washington metropolitan region. After decades of short-changing maintenance, WMATA needs billions of dollars to remain a viable transportation mode. There is no avoiding the necessity for regional taxpayers to cough up more money to restore the rickety system to health. Washington-area residents have been enjoying the benefit of a heavy-rail transit system for years without paying its full cost — now it’s time to pony up. But given WMATA’s dismal history, the NoVa business leaders are absolutely right to demand reforms that will ensure that any new funds are not mis-spent or frittered away in concessions to WMATA labor unions.

Working out a compromise with Maryland and D.C. won’t be easy, but Virginia’s political leaders need to hang tough.

Virginia Needs a New Constitution, Part 2

1901 constitution flyer

by Donald J. Rippert

The Commonwealth’s Cornucopia of Constitutions. Virginia has written, scrapped and rewritten its state constitution many times. Virginia is presently operating under its seventh constitution. While that seems striking compared to the U.S. Constitution, it’s not that unusual for a state constitution. Florida and Pennsylvania have had five constitutions, South Carolina six, Georgia nine and Louisiana a whopping eleven different constitutions. Of the original 13 colonies only Massachusetts has yet to perform a constitutional rewrite.

The Spirit of ’76. Virginia’s first constitution was written in 1776. George Mason and James Madison are seen as primary authors. After the obligatory heckling of King George III the constitution got down to the basics of defining the state government – bicameral legislature, governor and so on. The accompanying Virginia Declaration of Rights was a strong point of this first constitution. That document would effectively become the predecessor to the U.S. Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, elitism has been a constant companion to Virginia politics and this constitution was no exception. Voting was reserved for owners of substantial property and men of wealth. The landowners of Southeastern Virginia would be in control of the state.

East vs West – 1830. By the 1820s Virginia was (predictably) one of only two states that restricted voting to landowners. The state constitutional convention of 1829 to 1830 tried to address this distorted concentration of power in the landed gentry. Suffrage requirements were reduced but not enough to address the concerns of the small farmers in the western parts of the state. Virginia kicked the can down the road.

The Reform Constitution, 1851. As the population of western Virginia continued to grow, the Richmond-to-Norfolk “corridor of evil” vainly tried to maintain control of the state through voting rights that required substantial property ownership and a bizarre county-based representation system. Talk from the west of abolishing slavery and / or secession from the state forced the eastern elites to change. The new constitution gave the vote to all white men of voting age and called for election of the governor, the lieutenant governor and all judges by popular vote.

Wartime Constitution, 1864. After years of political abuse by Virginia’s southeastern elite, a number of the counties in the western and northern part of the state decided they would not follow the Richmond-centric rebels into what can only be called an apocalyptic Civil War. The Constitution of 1864 could effectively be called the first state constitution for West Virginia. What remained of Virginia was too busy marching toward utter destruction and unconditional surrender to bother with constitutional niceties.

The Carpetbagger Constitution, 1870. The provisions of The South’s surrender included military occupation of states like Virginia. Given that slavery had been abolished the military commander of Virginia called for a constitutional convention to memorialize America’s new reality. However, the Richmond-based elite would have none of it. Many of the white conservative Virginians who developed the bright idea of a failed secession from the United States now refused to vote for delegates to the constitutional convention. This led the way for a Republican led convention headed by John C. Underwood. In what should come as a surprise to nobody, the “elite free” convention wrote one of Virginia’s best constitutions. The new constitution granted suffrage to all males over 21, established a public school system with mandatory funding and ended the disenfranchisement of former Confederate government members.

The Empire Strikes Back, 1902. Virginia’s short period of competent government was ended as the Democratic Party retook the state legislature. The usual band of elitists called for another constitution to be written. It was a doozy. Poll taxes and literacy tests were included to effectively remove African Americans from the voting booth. Segregation became the law of the land. Power was aggrandized in Richmond with the elimination of the county court system. The State Corporation Commission gave added weight to the centralized government. Since African Americans still could vote based on the 1870 Constitution The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond decided to pass this abomination without a popular vote. This was both Virginia’s worst constitution and its longest-lived.

Do we have to? 1971. While Virginia’s political elite moved smoothly from poll taxes to literacy tests to segregation to massive resistance, the rest of the country progressed. Mounting federal pressure in the form of U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it harder and harder for Virginia’s elite to persecute a large percentage of Virginia’s population. A new constitution was needed. The most heinous racist provisions of the 1901 Constitution were removed and Governor Mills Goodwin managed to convince the delegates to drop the “pay go” policy that had infected prior constitutions. However, the aggrandizement of power in Richmond generally and the General Assembly in particular remained.

The history of Virginia’s constitutions has been the story of a small elite eschewing true democracy in a sad effort to keep the lives of many under the thumbs of a few. To date, progress in Virginia has only come from the barrel of a gun (1870) or the threat of federal action (1971). The present state constitution continues to thwart democracy albeit more subtly than was the case with the 1902 travesty.

In the next section of this series the many flaws of Virginia’s existing constitution will be examined.

Ralph Northam’s Plan to Empower Virginia’s Political Class


Under pressure from his rival for accepting money from Dominion, Democratic Party candidate for governor Ralph Northam has called for a cap on campaign donations and a ban on corporate contributions.

“Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government,” Northam said in a statement. “Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors.”

Reports the Washington Post:

Northam’s plan would limit donations to $10,000 (with political parties excluded), bar businesses and corporations from giving and require nonprofits trying to influence Virginia elections to reveal their donors.

Hmmm. Interesting plan. Let’s see how it would work out in the 2017 gubernatorial race.

Based on campaign contributions reported so far on the Virginia Public Access Project website, the $10,000 cap on donations would hurt Northam but cripple his opponent Tom Perriello. Northam would lose $832,000 from the capped donations while his radical chic opponent, reliant upon a handful of well-heeled donors, would lose $1,243,000. The ban on business contributions would harm Northam to the tune of $220,000 while not touching Perriello at all — not one business entity was reported to have contributed to him — but the sums of money contributed by business are trivial compared to those donated by individuals. (For purposes of this analysis, I counted only business donations of $1,000 or more.)

If Northam’s plan had been enacted in this election cycle, it would have effectively knee-capped his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination. As the party-establishment candidate, Northam would have surged from a two-to-one fund-raising advantage over Perriello to a more than four-to-one advantage.

Of course, if Northam’s campaign-finance plan were enacted, it would apply to future elections, not this one, so no one can accuse him of designing it with the idea of taking out Perriello. But the numbers show how campaign reform proposals potentially can have an anti-democratic effect. Personally, I have no use for Perriello or his leftist brand of populism. I believe that Perriello would be a disaster as governor. But I do believe he injects a healthy competition into the democratic process.

Virginia’s political process is dominated by a two-party oligarchy which has erected all manner of rules to maintain the status quo. Northam’s plan would stifle the democratic impulse even more by making it even more difficult for outsider candidates to make a credible run at office.

Yeah, Virginia’s system of unlimited campaign contributions sucks. It gives rich people far more influence over the electoral outcome than ordinary Virginians. But is the alternative any better — bequeathing the advantage to those who rise up through the political machinery of the two-party duopoly and freezing out outsiders? The only way a third party — a Libertarian Party or a Green Party — stands a chance to make a successful run in Virginia is if an insurgent can persuade a handful of deep-pocketed sponsors to underwrite his or her campaign.

You can count on the two-party duopolists re-writing campaign donation laws to benefit themselves and squelch competitors. Northam proposes to outlaw business contributions. Why would he not also outlaw labor union contributions? Because labor unions donate overwhelmingly to Democrats — duh! It’s an iron rule of politics: People in power rig the rules to perpetuate their hold on power.

How about donations cycled through “leadership” committees? Northam would specifically exclude political parties from his caps and bans. As it turns out, he has received $110,000 from Common Good VA, a “leadership” committee set up by Northam’s political ally Governor Terry McAuliffe. Since 2014, the committee has raised $8.6 million in donations. Under Northam’s plan, contributions by Common Good VA to candidates would be exempted from the ban. Less clear from his press release is whether big donors would be permitted to contribute more than $10,000 leadership committees like Common Good VA and similar entities on the Republican side.

Northam’s plan does include a couple of good ideas. It would ban the personal use of campaign funds, and it would mandate donor disclosure for nonprofits seeking to influence Virginia elections. But the main effect of his proposals would not be to rid money from politics, but to fortify the control of Virginia’s political class over the money and suppress insurgent candidates. I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good idea but members of the political class.

GMU Should Cough up Terms of Charles Koch Donations

Charles Koch. Yeah, he's a bogey man for the left. Even so, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what strings he ties to his donations to GMU.

Charles Koch. Yeah, he’s loathed by left. Even so, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what strings he ties to his donations to GMU. Image credit: Huffington Post.

Unlike my friends of a leftish persuasion, I don’t have a problem with Charles and David Koch. I largely agree with their libertarian political philosophy. In a nation awash in foundations that underwrite liberal and progressive causes on college campuses, I am happy to see at least one organization backing free-market/limited government principles. In particular, I’m a big fan of the Koch-supported Mercatus Center at George Mason University, whose scholars I quote frequently in this blog. Without the Koch brothers, academia would be even less diverse intellectually than it already is.

But my personal affinity for the Koch brothers does not alter my opinion that any dealings they have with public Virginia universities should be fully transparent. Therefore, I am inclined to endorse a lawsuit filed by Transparent GMU, a student group with legal backing from the liberal-left Appalachian Mountain Advocates, against GMU. The purpose of the lawsuit is to compel GMU, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release records about donor agreements between the Kochs and the university.

The Charles Koch Foundation has donated $48 million to GMU between 2011 and 2014. Charles Koch himself serves on the board of the Mercatus Center. It is a legitimate matter of public inquiry to know what strings might be attached to Koch’s donations. Of course, the same holds true not just with Koch but any and all mega-donors to the university, including industrialists pursuing business interests and philanthropists backing liberal and progressive causes.

GMU officials argue otherwise, according to Fourth Estate, GMU’s student-run news outlet.

“Philanthropy is a critical aspect of George Mason’s success, especially in a time when public universities are receiving fewer funds from the Commonwealth,” GMU spokesman Michael Sandler told the publication by email. “We are grateful to the thousands of donors who give to Mason for a variety of reasons. Some of these donors wish to make their gifts public. Some wish to remain anonymous, which is their right and something the university and the Foundation have a responsibility to respect.”

Privacy is a serious matter worthy of debate. But that wasn’t the logic given in GMU’s response to Transparent GMU’s FOIA request.

In a Jan. 9, 2017, FOIA filing, Transparent GMU sought any records, including grants, cooperative agreements, gift agreements, contracts or memoranda of understanding, related to to contributions that Koch-related entities made to the university. On Jan. 12, Elizabeth Woodley, FOIA compliance officer, replied that GMU was not in possession of such records.

Transparent GMU then asked if the George Mason University Foundation would provide the records. GMU refused to turn over any foundation records on the grounds that it was a separate, private, 401(c)3 charitable organization not subject to FOIA. Citing a fee it enacts on gifts its accepts on GMU’s behalf and its close working relationship with the GMU administration, the lawsuit argues that the foundation is a “component unit” of the university.

The lawsuit is much bigger than GMU and the Koch brothers. Conservatives and libertarians might be inclined for reasons of partisanship to side with GMU in this instance in order to shield Charles Koch and the Mercatus Center from scrutiny. That would be short-sighted, in my view. If there are terms and conditions, then Koch and Mercatus should be willing to defend them.

The internal workings of public research are a black box. GMU alone has dozens of centers and institutes. Last year, I blogged extensively about inadequate oversight of GMU’s Institute for Global Environment and Society, some of whose principals engaged in double dipping. More recently, I have tried to probe the link between the pursuit of research dollars and higher tuition at public Virginia universities generally. We need to crack open university finances. We need to understand the forces at work influencing the affordability and academic integrity of higher ed. Conservatives and libertarians have much more to gain than lose from a court ruling subjecting donor agreements to the reach of FOIA.

Probing the Political Economy of Higher Ed

The political economy of higher ed.

UVa President Teresa Sullivan addresses the Faculty Senate in 2012. In this case, faculty and administration united to buck control by the Board of Visitors.

Growing administrative overhead is a major force driving up the cost of higher education. While there is no simple, uni-causal explanation for bureaucratic bloat, George Mason University law professors Todd Zywicki and Christopher Koopman observe that growing higher-ed bureaucracy coincides with a long-brewing power shift in academe from faculties to administrators.

“Of particular concern and importance appears to be the relationship between the faculty and administration that has, in many ways, created a permissive culture in which administrative bloat has been allowed to thrive,” they write in a new paper, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.” “The faculty is either unwilling or unable to take on the growing administrative bureaucracies.”

Zywicki and Koopman identify other forces at work as well. One contributor to bloat is the pressure to provide students with more luxurious accommodations — the so-called “Club Ed” phenomenon — and the increasing subsidies in the form of federal loans and grants to students to pay for it all. But the overarching theme in their paper is a shift in internal power from faculties to administrators.

“The faculty essentially ran universities for their own personal benefit, adopting policies that benefited the faculty and which they rationalized as being good for the university as a whole,” the authors write. “Faculty salaries and perquisites increased, teaching loads decreased, and faculty increasingly asserted control over many of the core functions of the university.”

In recent years, however, the balance of power has tipped to administrators who have captured the unprecedented flow of tuition revenue (financed by federal loans and grants) and lush endowments to pursue their agenda of expanding bureaucratic fiefdoms and enhancing institutional prestige.

Universities have plowed more resources into administrative hires and compensation than into faculty. Between 1980 and 2009, spending per student increased 61.2% for administration while spending on instruction increased 39.3%. Universities now have more full-time employees devoted to administration than to instruction, research and service combined. It takes 39% more full-time administrators to manage the same number of students than it did in 1993.

As administrators have taken the lion’s share of resources, so have they abrogated power, say Zywicki and Koopman. “Today the faculty has little or no input or control over student admissions, a task that has been completely delegated to bureaucratic specialists.”

Decisions with respect to hiring and promotion are increasingly hemmed by a raft of guidances and limits imposed by administrators, such as diversity mandates and the like. Perhaps most astonishingly, core policies regarding academic freedom for students and professors — such as the existence and terms of a university speech code — have increasingly been ceded to student life offices and other non-academic university administrators. Administrators have also unilaterally imposed student and faculty disciplinary procedures for certain controversial topics such as allegations of sexual assault, routinely overriding faculty objections. Thus, not only do university bureaucrats consume an increase amount of university resources, they also have gathered an increasing amount of power and decision-making authority.

What is driving the power shift? One explanation is increasing federal regulation and ever-expanding requests for information by state and institutional governing boards. Whenever federal legislation on higher education is enacted, Zywicki and Koopman say, the government establishes a new office to administer the law. Subsequently a “clone” of that office appears on most major university campuses.

Faculty members have largely acquiesced to the growing bureaucracy. One possible reason, the duo says, is that they have benefited from the outsourcing of traditional duties, such as advising students, to academic administrators.

The prototypical professor … has three related objectives: job security, freedom to spend his time on activities he prefers, and maximization of professional reputation and income. The prototypical administrator seeks to keep his job, build his reputation, and to free his own time for outside income opportunities. Further, the administrator also shares the goal common to all managers, such as the desire for status and power manifested in a large office and support staff.

Thus, senior professors devote more time to their own research and writing while sloughing off teaching and other duties to instructors, graduate students and others. Administrators are happy to take up the slack, expanding their spheres of responsibility.

The two GMU profs have no concrete recommendations to reverse administrative bloat, although they suggest that the non-profit structure of public universities is part of the problem. Under a for-profit model of higher ed, they suggest, equity holders would focus on efficiency. “In such a governance system, a runaway growth in administration is unlikely as it reduces the bottom line profit. … A for-profit ownership and governance model could better align the incentives of owner, managers and students in a way that the current structure does not.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Privatization is an interesting idea, although I think it demands closer scrutiny. The track record of for-profit education in an era of indiscriminate federal student loans has been less than glorious. And, unless privatization is handled properly, university administrators will control the process and enrich themselves. Think Russia, Yeltsin, privatization and oligarchs.

More rewarding for our purposes here at Bacon’s Rebellion, Zywicki and Koopman provide a useful framework for understanding public colleges and universities in Virginia. In all my scribblings on the topic of higher ed, I had never paid close attention to the “political economy” inside public universities, much less the balance of power between faculties and administrators. I had more or less assumed that the interests of the two groups were aligned in protecting university prerogatives against tuition-paying parents, soundbite-spewing legislators and other pitchfork-wielding Philistines who would claw back tuition, fees and state support. But I now appreciate that there might be an ongoing struggle between faculty and administrators over the spoils. I will be more attentive to this dynamic in my future coverage of Virginia colleges and universities.

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.

More Great Moments in Virginia Governance: Election Fraud File

Waverly Mayor Walter Mason

Election irregularities in Virginia? No way. They never happen.

Except when they do.

A grand jury has indicted Walter Mason, mayor of the town of Waverly in Sussex County of a dozen felony charges of election fraud. Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports that Mason was accused of making false statements on absentee ballots and trying to help others violate absentee voting procedures in connection with his March 2016 election victory.

Michele Kathleen Brumfield (left) and James Hunter Higginbottom

Meanwhile, in central Virginia, two Altavista town council members, Michele Kathleen Brumfield and James Hunter Higginbottom, have been charged with prohibited activity at the polls, reports the News & Advance.

The newspaper did not spell out the exact nature of the activities. A copy of the state code section that lists prohibited activities at election polls can be viewed here.

Reform Redistricting, Dampen Toxic Politics

PowerPoint slide presented in Richmond Circuit Court Monday in a redistricting lawsuit pursued by OneVirginia2021

PowerPoint slide presented in Richmond Circuit Court Monday in a redistricting lawsuit pursued by OneVirginia2021. Image credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Given a choice between a House District 72 configured as it is today or the community-based district like the alternative displayed above, who, besides the political party that drew the district to its advantage, would not prefer the latter?

Imagine a country where the voters selected their representatives, not one in which representatives selected their voters. Is there any doubt that elections would become more competitive? Is there any doubt that elected officials would be less ideological, more pragmatic and more inclined to work across party lines?

The United States is becoming more polarized, and that polarization is turning toxic. Two forces are driving this phenomenon. One is the rise of alternative media which allows people to seek news and commentary that confirms their partisan biases without fear of contradiction. The other is the proliferation of computer-aided redistricting which stifles the need for politicians to appeal to voters with different viewpoints.

Here in Virginia, state government can’t do anything about the media, which rightly enjoys freedom of the press. (Fortunately, media is less overtly partisan on a local level than it is in Washington, D.C.)

But we do have the power to change the way we do redistricting. We should do so quickly — before Richmond replicates the partisan hell that is the nation’s capital.

Newly Scrupulous Legislators Reporting Fewer Gifts

The giving of gifts to members of the General Assembly — or perhaps I should say the acceptance of them — has declined precipitously since 2013 when former Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted in a scandal best remembered by favor-seeker Jonnie Williams paying for his daughter’s wedding reception. Although McDonnell was ultimately cleared by U.S. Supreme Court of breaking the law, his political career was finished. Lawmakers took note. The graph above shows the declining value of gifts reported by legislators, courtesy of the Virginia Public Access Project based on the latest public filings.

The most dramatic drop occurred in the category of “gift items” — objects of value — followed by invitations to sporting events and hunting, fishing and outdoor activities. Even “meals/receptions” were down sharply, which I find surprising, for that would be one category the acceptance of which could be defensible. If you’re an elected official, it’s one thing to attend a UVa basketball game or a theatrical production, true diversions, and quite another to go to dinner or a reception, during which you spend the whole time talking to lobbyists — not much different from your day job.

Be that as it may, all such gifts are down sharply.

Another VPAP infographic shows the breakdown of gifts between Republicans and Democrats. The largesse flows heavily in the favor of Democrats. The imbalance would be even more pronounced if one took into consideration the fact that Republicans are more numerous, especially in the House, than Democrats. It’s hard to know what to make of this, though. My hunch is that Republicans, scalded by the example of McDonnell, a fellow Republican, are more acutely worried about how gifts might be perceived by the public than Democrats are.

All told, says VPAP, fewer than half of the 140 General Assembly members accepted meals, gala tickets or other gifts valued at more than $50 in the last eight months of 2016. Whatever the gifts and whatever the party affiliation, that’s a big improvement. Let’s hope legislators’ new-found scruples reflect lasting lessons learned.