Notes on Virginia politics

If it’s November, we’ll have an election in Virginia. This year, we shall elect 11 representatives to the U.S. House. In November 2011, we shall elect the 40 members of the Virginia Senate and the 100 members of the Virginia House of Delegates. In November 2012, we’ll elect the President of the United States, one U. S. Senator, and 11 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2013, we’ll elect a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and the 100 delegates. And in 2014, we’ll elect one U. S. senator and 11 representatives.

While we won’t be electing members of the Virginia General Assembly this year, lobbyists are already making plans for its 2011 session. Everyone is a lobbyist, because the U. S. Constitution gives us the right to petition under the First Amendment. Several issues concern me.

I’m concerned about the loan the General Assembly made to balance the biennial budget. The governor and General Assembly have received high praise and national attention by passing a budget without raising taxes. What is rarely or casually mentioned is that they did this by borrowing $620 million from the Virginia Retirement System. This trust fund money belongs to teachers, policemen, state employees, judges and certain local employees.

The General Assembly agreed to begin repayment in 2013 at the rate of 7.5 percent. This raises additional questions: Will it be paid by a new governor and by new General Assembly members who may not see it as their responsibility? And why does the “best-managed” state need to borrow money at 7.5 percent when the prime rate is 3.25 percent?

Virginia’s repayment of debt has not always been above board. History texts rarely mention that in the late 1870s, when Virginia was saddled with pre-Civil War debt and harsh economic conditions, some felt they had had no part in contracting the debt, and others thought the western counties, now West Virginia, should shoulder their share of the debt.

Major General William Mahone of Petersburg, who had failed to secure a gubernatorial nomination in 1877, organized the Readjuster Party and in two years built a powerful political machine that elected a Readjuster governor and later sent two members to the U. S. Senate. Under the new party’s rule, the state debt was readjusted in two ways: One-third of the principal and accrued interest was set aside for West Virginia. The U. S. Supreme Court ordered West Virginia to pay, and the final payment was made in 1939. The total debt was declared to be $21 million (rather than $45 million) as of July 1, 1882, and new bonds were issued in exchange for old ones. The new bonds were worth about half the original value and became known as “Riddlebergers” for Harrison Holt Riddleberger, a former Confederate soldier, state senator, U.S. Senator and leader of the “forgotten party” that ruled Virginia.

The present General Assembly members and future candidates for office will need to be reminded each year that funds to make payments to the VRS should be budgeted. To neglect to do so would mean that future sessions and governors might have to raise taxes.

Another duty of the 2011 General Assembly will be the redistricting of the House, the Senate, and Congressional districts. Gerrymandering has been used nationally since state senator Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts produced a district shaped like a salamander.

Congressional districts are expected to be compact and contain a community of interest. Gerrymandering can be useful, as well as abusive. Districts may be shaped to include river people, valley people and to ensure the election of minority persons. Usually, districts are shaped by the majority party to protect incumbent members.

In the 2011 session, the House will be controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats. This should provide an opportunity for the two bodies to work out a nonpartisan commission to do the job more fairly.

Talk around Capitol Square indicates that it will be “business as usual.” It is widely believed that the House will redistrict itself and the Senate will redistrict itself, each without interference from the other. While this is easy and efficient, the founders did not intend for the office holders to select their voters. In recent years, there have been relatively few actually contested elections for the 100 House of Delegates seats.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has proposed the sale of ABC stores at auction to private dealers and indicates this will provide a windfall for transportation. The benefits of his proposal are being debated and will be debater further when the assembly meets in January. When I was a school administrator and a convenience store or restaurant near a school requested a beer license, the ABC Board sent a representative to ask if the school division objected. Will the new proposal include this courtesy for the one thousand new outlets for alcoholic beverages?


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