- Gratiot County Herald Letters To The Editor
Ithaca, Michigan school superintendent Nathan Bootz wrote an open letter to the governor to ask that his school system be converted to a prison, noting that Michigan spends $30,000–$40,000/year on each prisoner, but only $7,000/year on each student.
- WVEC: Taxpayers foot the bill when the governor flies on state aircraft
I don't think it's inherently bad that Bob McDonnell is using state aircraft more than prior governors, but using a state plane to fly his family to the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival to have his daughter crowned as queen? Less good. More problematic is the governor's office's response to WVEC's FOIA request, trying to figure out how to avoid responding, and offering conceptual excuses—it's a long drive from Virginia Beach to Cumberland Gap, it's a money saver—for which there's no real-world scenarios that support those claims.
- New York Times: Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts
Violent crime is at at forty-year low. Combine this with the recent news that divorce is at a thirty-year low, and you can see how the pervasive claims of alarmists are just foolishness. Those who would have you believe that our country is more dangerous and marriages more disposable than ever are either ignorant or trying to sell you something.
- NPR: Florida Bill Could Muzzle Doctors On Gun Safety
An NRA-written bill has passed the Florida legislature, and is likely to be signed by the governor, that will make it illegal for doctors to advise patients on gun safety. (Pediatricians frequently advise new parents on how to store firearms safely, and doctors concerned about teenagers' mental health want to make sure they're not a danger to themselves or others.) Every time I think about joining the NRA, they remind me that they are wretched human beings.
- Boing Boing: Portable Pepper Mill
I like Boing Boing a lot, I really do. I tire of Cory Doctorow writing about Cory Doctorow—nearly everything he writes—and I even subscribe via a Yahoo Pipe that removes anything containing the word "steampunk," but easily 10% of the posts are pure gold. But their "Cool Tools" section has gotten totally ridiculous. Exhibit A is this post, where the unnamed author says that she would "never go anywhere without [her] portable pepper mill," and then pimps the Vic Firth Pump and Grind Pepper Mill, complete with Amazon referral link. Which raises such questions as a) She really doesn't go to many places, does she? b) Aren't all pepper mills portable? and c) When did she become such an asshole?
- The Guardian: Osama bin Laden death—The conspiracy theories
Here's what the crazies think. A Fox News anchor says that Obama is lying about Bin Laden's death to get reelected. Glenn Beck says Bin Laden is alive, as a captive, being interrogated about where he's hiding his secret nuclear bomb. Conservative radio host Alex Jones says that Bin Laden was killed nine years ago, but was kept frozen until such as time as it would be convenient to claim that he'd just been killed.
- Bacon’s Rebellion: Why, Bob, Why?
Peter Galuszka contrasts Bob McDonnell's cutting $0.4M in funding for public broadcasting from the state budget and giving $3.5M to Steven Spielberg to make a movie. Not only is cutting funding for public broadcasting an economically unsound decision (that's how schools get some of their educational materials, which they'll now have to pay for to get from elsewhere), but giving 775% more to a private film production company a few days later is deeply hypocritical.
- PolitiFact: Bob McDonnell says he cut $6 billion from Virginia’s budget
Gov. McDonnell keeps claiming that he cut $6B from the budget "by cutting spending, not raising taxes." This is a lie. Spending reductions eliminated just $2.34B from the budget, only slightly more than the $1.9B of funding provided by federal stimulus dollars. (Apparently, federal stimulus money is "cutting spending.") The balance of the $6B is bookkeeping chicanery—mere slight of hand.
- New York Times: The Prosecution Rests, but I Can’t
John Thompson spent fourteen years on death row for a robbery and a murder, neither of which he committed. Prosecutors knew he hadn't done it—they covered up the ample evidence demonstrating his innocence. If a private investigator hadn't uncovered the conspiracy against him, he'd have been executed by now. In this op-ed, Thompson wonders what to make of a legal system where doing this to him and others is perfectly legal, as the Supreme Court ruled last month.
- Los Angeles Times: Ikea—Workers’ complaints surround Ikea’s U.S. factory
Ikea's Danville factory is becoming a national shame in Sweden. The story is par for the course for Virginia—the company is treating workers terribly, allegedly discriminating against black employees, paying employees terribly and providing lousy benefits. The employees have tried to unionize, but a) Ikea is preventing them from doing so—despite their corporate commitment to unions—and b) it's Virginia.
In the Post, Anita Kumar explains how the redistricting proposals came about:
This year, despite the appointment of a bipartisan commission to advise legislators, the lines were largely drawn by two men: Sen. George L. Barker (D), a health-care planner from Prince William County, and Rep. S. Chris Jones (R), a pharmacist from Suffolk.
The pair were part of a small cadre of legislators who worked quietly to draw the maps with input primarily from the majority party in each house. Fewer than 10 of the state’s 140 legislators were privy to the lines before they were made public last week, according to lawmakers and aides.
And how did Barker model his redistricting theories? Using Dave’s Redistricting. I don’t know whether to be depressed or pleased.
Also, it turns out that Del. Rob Bell assisted Jones in drawing the house maps, which only makes the crazy proposed boundaries for his district even more inexplicable. (The Daily News Record weighed in against the proposed lines in an editorial today.)
And what of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s “bipartisan redistricting committee”? Well, it’s more of a fig leaf than ever. McDonnell only established the commission in January—far too late to give them time to actually produce anything useful early enough for the legislature to even pretend to consider it—which is presumably why their recommendations weren’t issued until late last night, giving the legislature one half of one working day to even consider them. (Rather a brief period in which to review 151 districts.) The governor is already trying to distance himself from those recommendations—spokesman Tucker Martin told Tyler Whitley that “the recommendations of the commission are theirs alone; they are not recommendations by the governor.”
The Daily Press quotes my friend Sean O’Brien on the topic:
Committee member Sean O’Brien said the real change is likely to come during Virginia’s 2021 redraw.
“I feel like we’re laying the groundwork, the foundation for 10 years from now,” O’Brien said. “So that we’re not in a position of having public hearings in four days.”
We’re always hoping to get them right next time around. Why should it be any different in 2021?
- Richmond Times-Dispatch: 1,100 felons regain rights in McDonnell’s first year
Color me surprised. I would happily have put down $50 saying that McDonnell wouldn't restore the civil rights to but maybe 10% as many felons as Gov. Tim Kaine Kaine did. He's on pace to match Kaine. This is still a terrible system—we're one of just two states in the nation that still give only the governor the power to restore rights.
- PolitiFact Virginia: Virginia lottery claims all profits since 1999 have gone to education
Turns out that this is basically true. I'd wondered.
- Washington Post: In Utah, Sen. Hatch courts tea partyers one by one in quest for survival
I'm not what you'd call a fan of Sen. Orrin Hatch, but it's depressing to see how low he's stopping to kowtow to the most extreme elements of his party. He's taking to swearing in his speeches because it makes the tea partiers happy. He's been consulting a muscle car builder on his votes several times each day, apparently because he wants to make the guy feel special. He's having to apologize for his decades-long friendship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, because this bunch sees cooperation or even friendship with Democrats as failure. This article neatly summarizes everything that's wrong with politics. While claiming—weakly—to have (silently) opposed President Bush's policies, they're reproducing President Bush's scorched-earth politics.
- Pinboard: Anatomy of a Crushing
I have come to the conclusion that my future projects must include a revenue stream. It's swell to create a service for a community good, but without a revenue stream, that's committing to doing something forever because it once seemed like a good idea. That'd just dumb. The low-priced social bookmark service Pinboard (which I'm using to post this right now) has a great model that illustrates how a revenue stream can make a service significantly better without significantly reducing the accessibility of it. Also, I just love every detail here about how Pinboard is designed and how it was created, because it's precisely how I develop, for better or for worse. I thought I was the only one!
- Washington Post: Hampton Roads lawyer David McCormick to seek 2012 GOP Senate nomination
Some random guy is running for the Republican nomination for Webb's seat. In his announcement, he compared himself to George Washington.
- New York Times: The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women
Men in stable, long-term relationships rank women as less attractive when they're ovulating than when they're not. It's part of "relationship maintenance," a defensive mechanism to prevent themselves (ourselves) from straying.
- PolitiFact Virginia: Gov. Bob McDonnell says Virginia road bids are the lowest in a generation
They're not. In fact, they cost twice as much as they did a generation ago, meaning that McDonnell's claim is the opposite of the truth.
- Richmond Times-Dispatch: Senate panel refuses to hear illegal immigration bills
I'm just making a note of this for future reference: Del. Lingamfelter says that when a subcommittee recommends killing a bill, and the committee subsequently strikes that bill from the docket, then they are "hiding, shirking their duty, when they should actually vote on the bills." So noted, Delegate.
This is a very clever simulation of what it's like to be a member of the working poor. It's worth spending at least a few minutes with this. It's like "Jones in the Fast Lane," that great old Sierra game, only you have no realistic chance of improving your lot in life.
- The Oregonian: Rep. David Wu’s staff confronted him over concerns about his mental health
This is the story how Congressman David Wu (D-OR) lost his mind. Shortly before last November's election, his entire campaign staff quit, convinced that he was mentally ill. He was reelected anyway. It's pretty clear that his staff was right. Now Portlanders are represented by this guy.
- DFW NBC: Armed Agent Slips Past DFW Body Scanner
An undercover TSA agent was able to get through a full-body scanner with a handgun not once, not twice, but as many times as she wanted.
Candidate Bob McDonnell, September 2009, on Governor Tim Kaine’s suggestion that state employees should contribute to their own retirement accounts:
These are tough economic times. I understand the governor has been forced to make difficult decisions to balance the budget. As Attorney General, I made tough choices as well, cutting the office’s budget by 14% over a two-year period. But the decision to suspend a scheduled payment to the state’s Retirement Fund is a budget gimmick that will reduce the solvency of the fund at a time when the funded reserve has already declined. This should be of concern to every state employee and retiree. The tough fiscal climate also is no excuse for breaking a longstanding commitment to the men and women who have dedicated their careers to the service of Virginia’s people. […] But penalizing hard working state employees, and breaking a promise made to them, when they started their careers, cannot be the solution. […] But we will not make government work better by pulling the rug out from under the very people who serve in state government and will be charged with implementing these much-needed reforms.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) proposed Thursday that 87,000 state employees begin making annual 5 percent contributions—the first in nearly three decades—to the state’s retirement fund as a way to shore up the commonwealth’s pension system.
“This is a start for fixing a pension system that has been out of whack for years and years and years,” McDonnell told reporters. “I will not pass on a broken system to another governor. I will make every effort this year to begin to fix this system.”
But, wait, there’s more:
McDonnell was criticized after his decision to dip into the retirement fund to close a budget gap, which also required billions in spending cuts. He told reporters Thursday that borrowing from the Virginia Retirement System—a maneuver he and the General Assembly jointly undertook just a few months ago—”frankly, wasn’t a good idea.”
He said that the money would be repaid and that the state had not siphoned enough to affect the already-underfunded system in the long haul.
It’s swell that the governor is having so many valuable growth experiences, but wouldn’t it be great if he’d done his learning on his own time (and dime)? I’m looking forward to his quiet surrender on fixing transportation and privatizing the liquor stores. No doubt he’ll learn a lot from the experience.
Gov. McDonnell is again proposing cutting all funding for public broadcasting, though this time he wants to eliminate all funding—$2M/year—that the state spends on this public/private partnership. State funding provides about 15% of the budget for most public broadcasters, with that state contribution serving as the kernel from which the stations raise money. Clearly this is not about the money—the return on that investment is enormous, and it’s precisely the sort of government outsourcing that McDonnell adores. No, this is ideological, and his base is going to eat this up. (Some conservatives labor under the impression that NPR has a liberal bias. Anybody who thinks this has either never actually listened to Morning Edition or All Things Considered, or is so far to the right that they don’t know balanced coverage when they see it.) McDonnell’s intentions are made all the more clear by nonsense like this:
McDonnell said in a prepared statement on Wednesday that public broadcasting is a “wonderful resource. … However, in our modern media world there are thousands upon thousands of content providers operating in the free market.”
McDonnell was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1991. He was there for fourteen years, in which time he witnessed the withering of of the capitol press corps. Perhaps he hasn’t visited often since his 2005 election to attorney general, but it’s gotten much worse since then. The place is a ghost town. Everybody is pulling back their coverage…except public broadcasting. They’re actually increasing their coverage of the legislature this year, compensating for the evacuation of the place by commercial media. This contraction is the case throughout the industry, of course—every media outlet is in rough shape, with no sign that things are going to get better. One of the possible outcomes, about which I talked to a bunch of journalists when attending last year’s Society of Professional Journalists’ conference, is that media outlets convert to a non-profit model—actually convert to the public broadcasting model. Point being, McDonnell is either lying or deluding himself if he thinks that the private, free-market approach to media is really working out in the public’s interest on this front.
(On a related note, I’ve been trying to secure a press pass for this year’s General Assembly session, to report on behalf of Richmond Sunlight, but it looks like I’m simply not allowed to. They only give press passes to members of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association or, more specifically, those who qualify to be VCCA members. And their requirements specify that one must be a “full-time, paid correspondent…whose primary responsibility is coverage of the Virginia state government and the Virginia General Assembly…employed by a news organization…whose principal business is the daily dissemination of original news of interest to a broad segment of the public, and which has broadcast or published…continuously for 52 weeks.” What business of theirs it is from where I draw my salary, I cannot imagine. For whatever reason, the General Assembly is going along with this. I’m tempted to make a big fuss about this, but I don’t think I have the time or the energy for that just now. The VCCA has established a club with such high requirements that they’re fast running out of members. Ditto, incidentally, for the Virginia Press Association—I’ve been trying to join that for a couple of years now. They won’t have me, either.)
If McDonnell really wants to get public broadcasting to stand on its own, he should insist that they provide most of their budgets themselves. Say, about 85% of their budget. If it’s so great, they ought to be able to get people to just give them money by, say, running pledge drives or something. Yeah, that’d show ’em.
JLARC has published the results of their audit of Gov. McDonnell’s ABC privatization proposal. It’s harsh. Really harsh. If this plan had any chance of being revived, it seems to me that this must have killed it. Their overall conclusion is that McDonnell vastly overstated the amount of money that his plan would generate, through a combination of simple math errors, misunderstandings of how taxes work, claiming that ABC stores are located in municipalities other than where they really are, a bunch of erroneous assumptions, and flat-out not understanding how the ABC works. (I don’t think that the report provides a total amount by which much McDonnell overstated the value, unfortunately. For perspective, though, note that the administration claimed $458M in a one-time infusion from selling off the stores.) Some report lowlights follow.
One of the major aspects of McDonnell’s proposal is that the stores would be auctioned off. How? He’s not saying:
[T]he Administration proposal does not specify a structure or methodology for the auction of retail licenses. The structure of an auction can substantially impact revenues received, but this topic has not been addressed in the proposal. For example, in 1991 the design of West Virginia’s auction of retail licenses was one reason the state ultimately held three auctions instead of one, as originally planned, in order to sell all available licenses.
McDonnell’s staff didn’t take the time to figure out where ABC stores are located:
For example, the ABC store at 183 Community Street is located in Albemarle County, but the Administration proposal listed it in Charlottesville for the purposes of calculating minimum bids.
Working with ABC staff, JLARC staff identified a total of 16 localities which were affected by the error, with a total of 12 stores erroneously included as part of the wrong locality.
By not understanding grade-school math, McDonnell’s proposal overstated license income by $24M:
When Administration staff discounted minimum bid prices by removing the wholesale (20 percent) and retail (25 percent) markups, staff simply added the markups together and reduced the bid by multiplying the total by 0.55. This is arithmetically incorrect. If a wholesale markup of 20 percent were followed by a retail markup of 25 percent, total markup would be 50 percent, not 45 percent. The correct multiplier would therefore be 0.5, not 0.55. Adjusting the minimum bid prices to reflect compounded wholesale and retail markups would reduce potential revenue from the auction of retail licenses by $24.3 million, to $242.5 million.
How do liquor sales work? Well, McDonnell apparently just doesn’t know, accounting for another $57M mistake:
In calculating minimum bid prices for retail licenses, the Administration proposal used store-level adjusted net profits that include sales to on-premise licensees. Currently, on-premise licensees (e.g., restaurants) must purchase all distilled spirits served in their establishments from specified ABC retail stores. Statewide, ABC sales to on-premise licensees represent approximately 18 percent of total ABC revenue.
Sales to on-premise licensees at the current ABC stores range from 0 to 99 percent of total revenues. Post-privatization, on-premise licensees will be allowed to purchase distilled spirits directly from wholesalers. This likely means that off-premise retailers will not supply on-premise licensees with spirits, and thus will face a reduced base of consumers to which they may potentially sell spirits.
[…] Adjusting net profits at the store level to reflect the loss of sales to on-premise licensees reduces the total revenue from retail license auctions in the Administration’s model to $209.8 million, holding all else constant. This would represent a reduction of $57 million from the Administration’s estimate of $266.8 million.
And still more of that not-understanding-math:
There appear to be several problems with the total revenue estimate for the sale of wholesale licenses. First, use of the entire 20 percent wholesale markup rather than the five percent of wholesale gross receipts that is assumed to be wholesale profit appears to be incorrect. Wholesale markup differs from wholesale profit, because the markup includes the costs of wholesale activities such as warehouse rent and employee salaries. Wholesale profit nets out these costs and represents the actual return on investment to the wholesaler.
According to the staff presentation to the Governor’s Restructuring and Reform Commission on September 8, 2010, “Wholesale licenses will be sold at a cost of 2.5 times the gross profit of the spirit line being distributed.” To remain consistent with this claim, wholesale gross receipts should be calculated by applying the 20 percent wholesale markup to the cost of goods sold. Wholesale gross profits should then be calculated as five percent of wholesale gross receipts. This would have the effect of reducing the total revenue estimate.
And a smattering of not-having-taken-econ-101:
One of the most significant factors that may affect the volume of spirits sold under the Administration proposal and thus the excise tax revenue collected is how potential price increases may impact consumers’ demand for distilled spirits (referred to as the “price elasticity”). […] The Administration proposal does not take elasticity into account even though there would almost certainly be an impact on volume if prices increase.
JLARC staff estimated how these alternative volumes would cause the estimated sales tax revenues to change. [I]f prices increase…the likely result could be as much as $15.4 million less sales tax revenue than assumed in the Administration proposal.
This certainly isn’t everything in the twenty page report, just some of the bits that really stood out for me.
To be clear, not all of the errors brought the price tag down. There were also some serious mistakes that went the other way. For example, by not understanding how much retailers mark up liquor, the proposal understated potential income by $47M. That said, the net effect of all of these mistakes is a significant overstatement of the income likely to result from the governor’s plan.
The effect of this is going to be to show McDonnell’s plan as being haphazard and ill-conceived, precisely the sort of talking point that opponents are looking for to justify their often-ideological opposition. The governor doesn’t have the political capital to get Republicans in the General Assembly to support this, and Democrats already oppose it either because they’re broadly against privatization of government services, they worry about the social effects of making liquor more readily available, or because they don’t favor taking a one-time cash infusion from selling off the stores while giving up a steady source of revenue from continuing to sell liquor.
I think this privatization plan is dead.