General Assembly progress

Gov. Bob McDonnell fulfilled a campaign promise in early January when he signed Executive Order 31 creating the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting. The commission ensures bipartisan involvement in the redistricting process for state legislative and congressional boundaries. This commission will use census data to create proposed plans for the Virginia House of Delegates, the Senate and congressional districts and will then make recommendations for General Assembly action and approval by the Governor.

In a news release, McDonnell remarked: “As Virginia redraws its legislative districts later this year, the process should take place in a manner that is fair and open. Legislative districts should be drawn in a way that reflects commonsense geographic boundaries and communities of interests as required by law. This commission will contribute to public involvement, openness, and fairness.”

The commission consists of 11 members with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, two former judges – one former federal judge nominated by a Republican President and one former state judge initially elected by a Democratic-led legislature – and one independent chairman. The members are drawn from business, former government service and higher education. This is a major step forward and, if handled properly, may lead to more contested elections in Virginia.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Gov.Doug Wilder applauded the formation of the commission. Chairman Bob Holsworth of VCU said: “I am honored to chair the Governor’s Bipartisan Commission. Encouraging more citizen involvement and input in the creation of our legislative and congressional districts is crucial to increasing participation in the electoral process.” The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years, its primary purpose being to determine voting districts. In the past, both political parties have used redistricting to favor their own candidates, which meant that politicians were selecting their voters rather than voters selecting their leaders. This is an ideal year for the General Assembly to accept a plan that is fair to all. Several other states have used nonpartisan redistricting successfully. Virginia will live 10 years with the districts the Assembly and Governor approve in 2011. We send our best wishes and support for the commission. Its effectiveness will be seen when the General Assembly and Governor give final acceptance to a plan.

Another matter that concerns the Governor and legislature is the state budget that was passed last year and will be amended during the “short” session, which is scheduled for 46 days, although the official website says 30 days. A lot of work is ahead before adjournment on Feb. 26. We regret that the governor plans to amend the budget by severely cutting funds for National Public Radio, the only one of the media outlets that cannot broadcast political advertisements.

The Governor and members of the Assembly appear shocked – Shocked! – that the Virginia Retirement System, which includes state workers, teachers, judges, state police and certain local employees, is seriously underfunded with a liability of $17.6 billion. We hope they haven’t forgotten that less than a year ago, they borrowed $675,000,000 from VRS to balance the budget without raising taxes and got favorable national attention for their efforts. This money is to be repaid beginning in 2013 in 10-year increments at a whopping 7.5 percent interest. I would like to be able to invest safely at that rate. With the prime at 3.25 percent, we wonder why Virginia, “the best managed state,” must pay a premium for loans.

The plan to make VRS whole will require state employees to pay 5 percent of their salaries for retirement, eliminating a benefit that was given in lieu of a raise in 1986. Thus it is hoped, or gambled, that an improved economy or inflation, will make it easier for future governors and new members of the Assembly to pay the debt. This sounds suspiciously like a Ponzi scheme, something financier Bernard Madoff, now in a federal penitentiary, might have done.

A third measure presented by McDonnell is a proposal to privatize ABC stores. It does not seem right that the state should be in the liquor business, even though there is general agreement that the Board is doing an excellent job and is steadily raising money for the state. The pros on this topic are stronger and more numerous than the cons, but the cons are saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While fixing it, we might ask, “If the state shouldn’t be in the liquor business, then should it be in the lottery business?” Someone pointed out that the Virginia Lottery, whose profits are a sacred source of income for the General Assembly, has worse odds than the illegal numbers game, and the numbers folks don’t file a 1099 form on you if you win; but winners would pay their taxes, we hope.

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