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A bad feeling about this

SoVaNow.com / May 24, 2018
If I’m associated with Virginia Uranium Inc., I’m feeling pretty good about the odds of uranium mining happening in Pittsylvania County — if not tomorrow, soon.

Just think about it: a year or so ago, VUI was a zombie outfit, shuffling and shambling aimlessly, not quite alive and not quite dead: undead, just like in the movies. The State of Virginia had a very long shotgun to keep the threat at bay and the locals were sleeping soundly at night. Then along comes a right-wing federal government to further the right-wing project of stacking the judiciary with right-wing judges, a shoe drops loudly, and bam! — the corpse has been reanimated to once again terrorize the countryside. This movie is so bad, you can’t even find it in the dregs of Netflix.

Unfortunately, this isn’t fiction, it’s our new reality. The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a lawsuit by Virginia Uranium challenging the state’s longstanding ban on uranium mining, a case that had failed twice already in the lower courts. Of course, just because the justices take on a legal question doesn’t mean they have a specific outcome in mind, but you do have to wonder. (It takes four of the court’s nine members to grant an appeal.) This passage from a report in The Washington Post on Monday hints at the problem: “The conflict sets up a test of states’ rights under the Trump administration that caught at least one legal scholar by surprise. ‘It’s a bit of a different juxtaposition from what you might expect from a Republican administration,’ University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said. ‘If the administration really cares about federalism and states’ rights, it shouldn’t be weighing in this way.’”

Yeah, um, about that: we’ll never know for sure, but it’s pretty hard to imagine that VUI’s effort to undo the mining ban would have got-ten this far without a big assist from the Trump Administration, whose Solicitor General submitted a brief in support of the company’s Supreme Court petition for appeal. “If the administration really cares about state’s rights,” to quote Professor Tobias, the White House never would have gotten involved. And yet it did. As for the Supreme Court, I guess we’ll see how true its conservative members are to the principles of federalism — enumeration of powers, allowing states to manage their own affairs, blah blah blah — and how much the doctrine serves as cover in the ongoing quest to expand corporate influence in the public sphere. Most of the time, states’ rights as an actual governing philosophy takes a back seat to states’ rights serving as an excuse to undermine laws that keeps projects such as VUI’s uranium mine from ever seeing light of day.

On the face of it, a court ruling favorable to the mining opposition shouldn’t even be a close call. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is ex-pressing confidence that his team will prevail on the merits — for the third time, before the highest court in the land — and strictly as a matter of law I suspect the AG is right. But if the course of recent jurisprudence tells us anything, it’s that the conservative-dominated Supreme Court is hardly averse to bending the law to serve specific ideological and political ends. That VUI’s lawsuit refuses to die should tell you something.

The upshot, alas, is straight from the movies: Be afraid, be very afraid.

***

Just curious about something. Does anyone else believe it’s odd to close down the stretch of 501 through Riverdale when “flooding” there amounts to roughly the same amount of water (or less) pooling by the roadside than you’d get with a garden-variety thunderstorm? Wondering if it’s just me who thinks this.

***

Last Thursday, the school division hosted a very well-done event at The Prizery to honor Halifax County’s teachers and support personnel: the Staff Appreciation Night came with free (and delicious) dinner, door prizes, a minimal amount of dull speechifying, and best of all, recognition of the county’s excellent teachers and school staff, all of whom uphold the noble project of educating our kids and developing tomorrow’s citizens and leaders.

It’s almost impossible to thank a teacher enough for what she or he does in the classroom — for their students, their families, for the entire community. So let’s give them a hand, and also thank the HCPS administration for organizing a much-deserved evening in the spotlight for these hard-working professionals. Yet the banquet also reminded of something that’s been gnawing away for a while: Why hasn’t Virginia been part of the national movement to push for higher teacher pay, organized by teachers themselves in some of the reddest states in America?

You’ve probably read about teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma where conservative legislatures have been forced to cough up more money for K-12 education budgets. Most of these states have been eager to cut taxes on the wealthy, so it’s not like they can’t find the money to compensate their teachers fairly. On Tuesday night, the House majority floor leader in the Kentucky statehouse (and a favorite of Mitch McConnell) lost his seat after he was beaten in the GOP primary by a political upstart — a high school math teacher who is plenty conservative but had gotten fed up with the state’s cheapskate attitudes towards public education. (Among other indignities, the winning candidate had his pension cut by the losing candidate.) This all actually happened — in Kentucky!

So why not Virginia? In case anyone is laboring under the misimpression, Virginia is not a red state. It has been governed by and large for the past decade by Republican majorities in the General Assembly, although this is likely to change soon. (Democrats made huge gains last year in the House of Delegates, coming within a coin flip of reaching 50-seat parity with Republicans, and the next election in both the House of Delegates and State Senate is just around the corner in 2019.) Meantime, teachers in Virginia have an excellent case for launching the same kind of brass-knuckles labor action that has brought troglodyte lawmakers in places like Arizona and Oklahoma to their knees: the same conditions that prompted strikes in those states exist in Virginia as well.

Let’s just do an apples-to-apples review of West Virginia (scene of a nine-day school shutdown earlier this year) and Virginia: since 2003, 15 years ago, which state would you guess has hit teachers with the largest pay cut, in real terms, adjusted for inflation? If you said Virginia, the answer is DING DING DING gee whiz you’re right — real teacher pay has declined by 10 percent in the Commonwealth since 2003, compared to 8.6 percent in West Virginia. Of course, in absolute terms Virginia teachers earn more, but this is largely due to the Old Dominion being home to high-income communities in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and other points on the Golden Crescent. Take that away, and it would be fascinating to see how far apart teachers in the West Virginia Appalachians and the Southside red clay hills are in terms of their pay. (The information above on teacher compensation comes from an excellent article on the subject at Vox.com, “Your state’s teachers are underpaid. Find out by how much.” Good stuff — go read it.)

Anyway, none of this is meant to detract from the staff appreciation banquet. It really was a nice event. And no one should really blame county government for the fact our local school employees are, for the most part, woefully undercompensated. In addition to the comparative information on teacher pay, the Vox.com piece also includes an interesting graphic on how local schools are funded: the chart highlights the relative differences among states in the types of revenue — state, federal, local — that flow into school budgets. Compared to most states, Virginia localities bear an outsized share of the cost of their school budgets. State K-12 funding, on the other hand, is stingier than it should be. Perhaps James Edmunds could give this data a look? Our delegate derives a fair amount of goodwill by recognizing a Teacher of the Month in Halifax County schools. Which is all well and good. But maybe rather than certificates, he could do more in his official capacity as a state lawmaker to hand out pay raises instead?


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