Category Archives: Governance

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.

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.

Poll: Virginians Unhappy with Runaway Tuition

A large majority of Virginia voters favor restricting tuition increases to the Cost of Living.

A large majority of Virginia voters favor restricting tuition increases to the Cost of Living. Source: Partners for Affordable Excellence poll

Virginia’s public colleges and universities have a big P.R. problem. Eighty-eight percent of Virginia voters think they are too expensive, according to a poll released this morning, and three quarters say they should not be allowed to increase tuition faster than the cost of living.

Furthermore, a large majority of voters said they want greater transparency into university budgets, and responded that university trustees should put the interests of students, families and taxpayers before the ambitions of university administrators.

The poll of 600 registered voters was conducted in early January by Public Opinion Strategies and Lake Research Partners. The underwriter was Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a sponsor of this blog. Founded in response to the rising cost of college attendance, the organization’s mission is to bring about change at America’s premier public research universities “in ways that maintain or enhance academic excellence and result in affordable tuition.”

Traditionally, the public policy debate in Virginia over higher-ed affordability and accessibility has revolved around the level of financial aid provided by state government. Universities defend higher tuitions as a justifiable response to reductions in state support. A recent report to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) found that cuts accounted for about half the increase in tuition over the past 20 years and about 14% of the total Cost of Attendance (which encompasses student fees, room, board and other costs as well as tuition).

Re-framing the debate, the Partners poll focused on policies within the control of universities, such as the percentage out-of-state students, financial aid, administrative waste, the prestige arms race, and, specifically, the University of Virginia’s accumulation of $2.2 billion in “unspent money” in its Strategic Investment Fund. (See poll results and pollsters’ commentary here.)

“This is the first in-depth look at voters’ views on an issue of critical importance to the state’s economic well-being,” said James V. Koch, president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence and a former president of Old Dominion University. “When it comes to economic growth, Virginia has trailed the nation for the last six years. How we change the narrative can’t be viewed in a vacuum, and making higher education more affordable can lead to more jobs and improve Virginia’s economic vitality.”

“This poll confirms what many of us have thought for years — college costs are out of control and there is a clear link between affordability and economic success of every Virginia family,” said Helen Dragas, Partners board chair and former rector of the University of Virginia.

While the out-of-control escalation of the Cost of Attendance is not on a par with K-12 education, job creation and even traffic congestion among voter’s top concerns, it is “a strong second-tier priority” with 23% of those polled ranking it No. 1 or No. 2, the pollsters concluded. That scoring placed college affordability somewhat lower than crime & drugs but significantly higher than the environment, recreation areas & open space.

On the positive side, 84% of voters classified Virginia higher-ed institutions as “among the best” in the country. On the other hand 75% described them as too expensive.

The poll also found strong support for requiring at least 75% of the state’s undergraduate students be Virginia residents. Sixty percent of voters agreed with that proposition. Although Republicans were most likely to agree (71%), a majority of independents (61%) and Democrats (51%) went along as well. That finding can be construed as good news for Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, who has submitted a bill, HB 1410, this session that would require 75% of the undergraduates at all but three state universities to be comprised of Virginians. If enacted, the bill would impact the three institutions with out-of-state enrollments exceeding 25%: the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and James Madison University. Continue reading