Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

Phew! I finally made it through the all-consuming Christmas season, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Christmas is a wonderful but grueling time of year for the Bacon family, marked by numerous feasts, expanding waistlines, excessive gift giving, shrinking bank accounts, and considerable out-of-town travel to distant relatives. But I’m back in the saddle at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters and eager to get the blog cranked back up.

Many publications publish a retrospective look at the “Top 10 Stories of the Year.” I have never done this at Bacon’s Rebellion, but perhaps it is time. A few obvious candidates for the Top 10 stories in Virginia’s political-public policy realm come to mind. Please feel free to add, subtract, modify or opine upon this list in the comments.

  1. Republican wipe-out in the November 2017 election. In a wave election driven largely by anti-Trumpism, voters obliterated the seemingly insurmountable Republican majority in the House of Delegates and elected Democrats to all three statewide offices. The Northam administration will look and act a lot like the McAuliffe administration, but it will have more friends in the legislature.
  2. Civil War statues and the Charlottesville riot. Virginia became the cockpit of U.S. culture wars and the debate on race as national and local media alike fixated on statues that memorialize Civil War generals. The controversy exploded as outsiders flocked to participate in, and oppose, the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  3. Virginia’s lagging economy. The U.S. economy gained momentum during the first year of the Trump administration, but Virginia’s economy, once a national growth leader, continues to under-perform. Caps on military spending have hobbled growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Virginia’s rural, mill-town economy continues to struggle. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shined as the superlative state salesman, but his policies have not budged economic fundamentals.
  4. Dominion on the defensive. Dominion Energy, a dominating political presence in Virginia, was a big loser from the election, as an unprecedented wave of anti-Dominion politicians was elected to the General Assembly. Despite making great progress toward solar energy, the electric utility found itself under attack for its rate freeze, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and coal ash disposal. In a dramatic, end-of-year gambit, Dominion proposed upgrading its transmission and distribution systems to a more resilient, renewable-friendly smart grid.
  5. Higher-ed mobilizes to defend status quo. The year began with sharp criticism of Virginia’s public colleges and universities for runaway costs, tuition and fees. The year closed with an industry P.R. blitz highlighting the link between higher ed and economic development. Virginia is nowhere near a consensus on how to balance the competing imperatives of affordability, access, workforce development, and R&D-driven innovation.
  6. Death spiral for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges in Virginia entered the year in a slow-motion death spiral due to internal flaws and contradictions. Policies enacted by Congress and the Trump administration accelerated their swirl into oblivion, while offering nothing obvious to replace them. The election of Democrat Ralph Northam will renew the debate over expansion of Medicaid, all but guaranteeing that the focus in Virginia will be on the zero-sum question of who pays for health care rather than how can we improve productivity and outcomes in order to lower costs for the benefit of all.
  7. Interstate 66 and HOT lanes. The McAuliffe administration advanced its signature contribution to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure by developing major upgrades to Northern Virginia’s I-66 transportation corridor. The opening of HOT lanes inside the Beltway erupted in controversy over the fairness and effectiveness of using dynamically priced tolls to ration scarce highway capacity.
  8. Accountability in K-12 education. By some measures, Virginia’s system of public schools made progress in 2017 but by other measures it continued to struggle. One of the most important trends, neglected by the media, is the continued effort by state bureaucrats to use Standards of Learning tests to hold local schools accountable and the continued gaming of the rules by local officials to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, revisions to disciplinary policies to advance social justice concerns has undermined school discipline and made a difficult job — teaching disadvantaged kids — even more difficult. The breakdown in discipline makes it ever harder to recruit teachers to the most challenging schools.
  9. Salvaging the Metro. The Washington Metro heavy rail system needs billions of dollars to compensate for past failures to invest in maintenance, even as it struggles with union featherbedding, declining ridership, and an unwieldy governance structure. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government can’t seem to agree on much. Metro is critical for the functioning of the Northern Virginia economy, but Virginia wants to see labor and governance reforms before coughing up billions of dollars to prop up a failing system that, lacking those reforms, inevitably will come back and ask for more in the future.
  10. Turn-around at Virginia’s ports. This end-of-the-year list is gloomy, with an emphasis on crumbling and failing institutions. But there is at least one good news story (which I have neglected to cover on this blog): the revival of the Ports of Virginia. Traffic is booming and profitability has revived.
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9 responses to “Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

  1. That seems to me to be a pretty fair summary.

    As to what’s happening a year from now, I suggest we will be beginning to see real and serious efforts by leaders in higher education to restore the dignity, worth, and effectiveness of those professors who teach Virginia’s college students, including the traditional undergraduate humanities (Arts and sciences). And that this renaissance will be lead by the University of Virginia.

    • I agree that Jim did a good job of hitting the big stories in Virginia – good, bad and indifferent. I do, however, expect Dominion will land on its feet. Perhaps, not exactly where it expected the jump to finish, but in a good position (from its perspective) anyway. Dominion will shift its positions some, but so will the newly elected from their campaign positions.

  2. For what its worth, I suspect that Dominion getting repeatedly bitch-slapped by the SCC and the GA will be next year’s No. 1 story.

  3. Good list and I agree that Dominion faces so much pressure from opponents of several of its projects that it is not getting its way as usual.
    However, I strongly disagree that Dominion is making “great” progress on renewables. Virginia is a laggard when it comes to wind and solar. In 2016, it ranked 35th out of 50 states as far as renewables. Dominion is very much to blame for that poor showing. Maybe they have announced some projects but they have a long, long way to go.

  4. Good list by Jim. The Charlottesville and I-66 HOT lanes issues dominated national press and put Virginia in a bad light. Neither situation was managed well by our elected officials. The anti-Trump Va. election was epic, and while I was not happy with the Repub-dominated GA, I am not as hopeful about Virginia’s future now. If I was a liberal, I would be very hopeful that more liberal legislative goals will be achieved in Virginia, but I am not hopeful that that philosophy gets Virginia moving the right direction either.

  5. Looking longer term it seems inevitable that the Democrats will make more progress in 2019 with control of the state senate up for grabs. If the Dems control both houses after the 2019 elections look for aggressive gerrymandering around the 2020 census. By 2021 Virginia will be indistinguishable from Maryland, politically speaking.

    By this time next year the following stories will be headliners in Virginia:

    1. Medicaid expansion.
    2. Gun control. While meaningful reform will not pass this year the Dems will see gun control as a means to set up victory in 2019. Sadly, it’s just a matter of time before another gun-related massacre occurs and the Dems use that to demand changes in Virginia.
    3. Capital punishment. Look for Northam to use his credibility as a medical doctor to commute death sentences against Virginians convicted of murder but displaying considerably below average mental facilities.
    4. Dominion. The outcry against Dominion’s status as the state’s largest private political contributor, monopoly electrical provider 9In some areas) and major eminent domain beneficiary will increase. Dominion’s plans to use the pipeline primarily for out-of-state sales of gas will send it’s public image reeling.
    5. Federal government spending / departures. The Tump Administration will continue to cut back discretionary Federal spending and will start moving agencies out of the Washington, DC Metropolitan area. Both of these policies will impact Virginia adding budgetary pressures that will be solved with yet higher taxes.

  6. Unmentioned but imminent …
    Next year the state will have to own up to “climate change” and that will mean a row with Dominion which, as many of you acknowledge, is keeping VA in a 20th century energy system and blocking change. We must allow a multi owner, multi directional electricity system to develop if VA is to keep up with her neighbors, both North and South.

    And Norfolk is why Virginia will have to take her head out of the sand … https://insideclimatenews.org/news/28122017/sea-level-rise-coastal-cities-flooding-2017-year-review-miami-norfolk-seawall-cost
    The site includes an animated map of Norfolk flooding …

    “To get a sense of how much it will cost the nation to save itself from rising seas over the next 50 years, consider Norfolk, Virginia.”

    “In November, the Army Corps released a proposal for protecting the city from coastal flooding that would cost $1.8 billion. Some experts consider the estimate low. And it doesn’t include the Navy’s largest base, which lies within city limits and likely needs at least another $1 billion in construction.”

    “Estimating what it would cost to avoid some of this is trickier. It will certainly be expensive—look no further than Norfolk’s $1.8 billion—but some research indicates it may be less costly than failing to act. An analysis by NRDC found that buying out low- and middle-income owners of single-family homes that repeatedly flood could save the National Flood Insurance Program between $20 billion and $80 billion by 2100.”

    China is taking over the lead in de-carbonizing their economy. Trumpians will have to modify their positions as flooding costs become more evident.

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