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Get smart

SoVaNow.com / May 09, 2018
Quick question: Like Snow White throwing shade at her stepmother, which town in Mecklenburg County is fairly smartest of all?

Answer: Brodnax (which technically speaking, is actually part of Brunswick County, although addresses that carry the town’s 23920 zip code fall on both sides of the county line.) How does Brodnax get to lay claim to being the smartest town around? Easy: they’re the only one to hold their municipal elections in November, which means Brodnax is the only place where people might actually come out to vote in any significant numbers for members of town council and mayor.

Everyone else — looking at you, Boydton, Chase City, Clarksville, La Crosse and South Hill — insists on holding their town elections in May. And what happens with that, every time? No one bothers to show up. Heck, most people have no idea an election is even taking place. Last Tuesday’s balloting for Mecklenburg town office was a classic example: in the Town of South Hill, the top vote getter for Town Council (Leroy Sasser) garnered 36 votes. Congratulations Mr. Vice Mayor! Mike Moody and Ben Taylor, running unopposed for at-large seats, got 35 and 34 votes, respectively. Lillie Feggins-Boone, running in Ward 1, took six votes. Six! It’s the Landslide Quartet, appearing at a phone booth near you.

Clarksville was no better: Mayor Kevin Allgood rang up a whopping 31 votes to claim a resounding victory (over no opposition), while members of Town Council — incumbents Carolyn Hite and Christopher Clarke and newcomer Danny Pittard — laid claim to a powerful mandate with anywhere from 29 votes (Clarke) to 23 (Hite). Boydton, a much smaller burg, had positively robust participation by comparison: the top finisher for Town Council (Ray Cherry) received 57 votes. In Chase City, Council incumbents Brenda Hatcher and James Bohannon led all comers with 68 and 66 votes, respectively. La Crosse candidates got between 20 to 30 votes, based on I have no idea what. In this entire pathetic picture, based on overall vote-to-population ratios, the Town of Boydton has to be the winner of the participation trophy. That is, if you’d even think to give out such an award and risk offending the hardboiled sensibilities of your typical elementary pre-K classroom.

C’mon people. These elections are not cost-free; towns have to foot the bills to hold off-cycle balloting. Towns have to pay the salaries for poll workers to stare at the walls all day long like a bunch of Guantanamo detainees, plus the costs of building usage, voting machines and so forth. These are expenses that are otherwise folded into November general elections. Practically the only reason to hold town elections in May is to ensure that people won’t show up — which, just to state the matter plainly, is a helluva way to run a democracy. You could argue that May elections are key part of any incumbency protection strategy, but I’m not even sure if that’s true. With such low turnouts, anyone with two or twenty cousins could run for office and pull off an electoral heist that would put the Ocean’s Eleven gang to shame — which unto themselves probably have enough votes to secure a Council seat somewhere.

Hey gang, how about everyone follow Brodnax’s lead and schedule your next municipal elections in November? The voters will thank you, town taxpayers will thank you, and everyone will feel better about the people who are chosen to lead town government affairs. Why not?

***

With the issue of uranium mining in Virginia now before the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s a decent chance we’ll hear in the next week or two whether the justices will take up Virginia Uranium’s lawsuit to overturn the state ban on yellowcake extraction. VUI, backed by the Trump Justice Department, has asked the high court to hear its appeal of the case, which asserts that the federal government, not the states, has proper regulatory oversight of uranium mining. If four justices decide that the question is a legitimate one and grant certiorari (a.k.a. cert petition), the matter will go forward for a full hearing in the high court. And if that happens, all bets are off.

Virginia Uranium’s lawsuit has failed in the lower courts (albeit by a 2-1 decision at the appellate level) and most cert petitions are denied as a matter of course, so it’s probably fair to say that VUI faces an uphill climb with this latest attempt to kickstart mining operations upriver from us in Pittsylvania County. Philosophically, this lawsuit would also seem to be a bad fit for what we think we know about the modern-era Supreme Court — that it’s a majority-conservative court which is actively hostile to federal authority and usurpation of states’ rights. How do you square these beliefs with a lawsuit that aims to rob the State of Virginia of its power to say “no” to uranium mining?

Taking their avowed federalist, limited government leanings at face value, you’d think this would be an easy call for the Supremes — if Antonin Scalia were still around, maybe the phrase “faster than a New York minute” would get tossed around. But I dunno. There’s enough inconsistency in the way conservative justices apply their so-called legal doctrines to cause one to wonder whether the idea of “states’ rights” is really to empower states at all. More often, the doctrine is used to open the way for corporate interests to exert their will in the world, unfettered by the constraints of the regulatory state. If that sounds applicable to our situation in southern Virginia, it should.

I have a bad feeling about this. (And very much hope to be proven wrong.) In his terrific book, The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court, legal writer and commentator Jeffrey Toobin recalls the famous wisdom of late Justice William Brennan, who used to quiz his law clerks on the most important law of the land. The young clerks would summon the standard responses: separation of powers, equal protection under the law, freedom of speech … and Brennan would correct them all: “Five! The law of five! With five votes, you can do anything around here!”

I wouldn’t count on five votes on this Supreme Court coming down in favor of the people of Southside Virginia over the corporate interests that are waiting in the wings.

***

State Sen. Frank Ruff has a new column out today on a matter of mutual interest — Medicaid expansion in Virginia — and as usual our senator manages to get almost everything wrong on the issue of health care. But here’s one point where Ruff and I (sorta) agree: “Expansion of Medicaid would provide healthcare benefits for those making almost $35,000 annually,” he writes. “If they made one dollar more, the children would receive care but the parents not a penny.” This is factually untrue — the $35,000 eligibility cutoff for Medicaid recipients applies to the heads of four-person households, a key fact that Ruff omits, and adults who earn higher incomes do in fact receive financial assistance to purchase health insurance via Obamacare tax credits. Nevertheless, it is true that Medicaid eligibility cutoffs are basically messed-up. Ruff thinks the income levels are too high, I think they’re too low. So there: we really don’t agree much after all.

The Medicaid program (or Medicare) should be expanded to cover more people. But even if one were to fix the flaws of Obamacare by keeping the law’s current structure in place, there are many improvements that would have to be made to the individual health insurance market to make plans more meaningful for average families — by lowering deductibles and out-of-pocket costs, primarily. If you earn anywhere between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level, the income threshold for Obamacare eligibility, you probably can find an insurance policy on the federal exchange with reasonable monthly premiums; it’s the side costs associated with these plans that are such a bummer.

Ruff evinces no clue about any of this. Nor is there any reason to think he recognizes which group is really getting clobbered of late by spiraling health insurance costs under Obamacare, and why. Individuals who make too much to qualify for Obamacare tax subsidies — those with incomes above 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is currently $97,200 — are completely exposed to rising health insurance premiums. For everyone else, the premium increases are offset by rising tax credits, which is how Obamacare was designed to work. In other words, if you receive tax credits to buy insurance, you’re pretty much shielded from the impact of sharply rising premiums.

On the other hand, if you’re pretty successful in life, but hardly rich, you’re probably having a very tough time right now finding an affordable health insurance policy (and a decent one, too, as opposed to junk plans that are making a comeback.) Premiums are soaring because the Trump Administration is doing its level best to undermine the law and drive people away from the individual insurance marketplace, thinning the pool by which medical expenses are spread around. All of this is very simple, and none of it is any mystery.

Nor does any of it have anything to do with Medicaid expansion in Virginia, yet since Ruff brings up the issue of “who stands for the Jones and Smiths” in the health care debate, let us emphatically state that the answer is not now, nor has it ever been, state Sen. Frank M. Ruff. If you read through his column, you might be struck by this line: “We should never have a system that discourages people from working harder to support their family.” Let that one sink in for a moment: Medicaid expansion would primarily benefit the working poor, such as the store clerk standing on her feet for eight hours at the local Wal-Mart, or the fast food worker who keeps the drive-through line humming all day long. By contrast, Frank Ruff is a part-time state senator who hasn’t worked in the private sector for decades and is compensated pretty handsomely for a few months’ work, by the time you add up the per diems, expense accounts and other bennies (including comprehensive medical care) that accrue from legislative service. Methinks someone has a lot of nerve to suggest that people who don’t have health insurance need to “work harder to support their family.” Out of touch much, Mr. Pampered State Senator?





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