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Stepping up

SoVaNow.com / February 19, 2009
Observations from the week that was:

We’ll see what the Board of Supervisors decides to do with the new bids for the county’s abandoned school properties, but I sure was glad to see Jack Dunavant step up this week with a $100,000 offer for C.H. Friend. By way of a disclaimer, I should note that I live up the street from the school, so of course its future is a matter of great personal interest to me and lots of other folks. That said, C.H. Friend’s location in the middle of town should make it an especially strong candidate for reuse, optimally as an educational institution someday.

What could or should be done to recycle C.H. Friend — or any other of the vacant county schools, for that matter — back into the public domain is obviously the $100,000 question. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center would seem like a logical candidate to take over the Friend building, but the SVHEC currently has its hands full converting the old bag factory into a wood design and manufacturing technology center. I’d love to see C.H. Friend renovated as a magnet school or as an alternative education center, but where’s the money? Truly the question for our times. In any event, Dunavant clearly has a similar desire to restore C.H. Friend to its former glory, judging from his pledge to preserve the building until a good use for it can be found, and he deserves credit for making a not-absurd bid for a facility with obvious maintenance and upkeep issues. It’s always gratifying to see a community take control of its own fate, and Dunavant certainly is doing his part here.

***
Chap Petersen, a Northern Virginia representative in the State Senate, wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post this week reminding folks of Virginia’s oft-skewed budget priorities. At the same time the state is considering a cap on Medicaid enrollments — the state/federal health care system takes a $416 million cut in the budget — Virginia also grants a tax break to its richest citizens with the recent appeal of the estate tax. Writes Petersen of the state’s current financial disarray:

“We are not unique. Every state is hurting. What is unique is Richmond’s refusal to reconsider special-interest tax breaks doled out in recent years, even as harsh cuts are impacting the youngest, the oldest and the poorest.

“The most flagrant example of a Richmond-based tax preference is the 2006 estate tax repeal, which eliminates all state taxes on inherited wealth — thereby reversing a state policy that had existed since 1927, when it was signed into law by Gov. Harry Byrd.

“Nowadays a $10 million inheritance in Virginia is tax-free, even as working families continue to pay state taxes on their earned income. That recently enacted tax shelter for Virginia’s wealthiest costs the state about $150 million in annual funds that we can never recover, even if the estate tax is restored in 2011 as currently planned.”
The elimination of the estate tax always ranked as one of the more bizarre policies of the Bush years, and for some reason Virginia Republicans — aided, sad to say, by Gov. Kaine — saw fit to repeal the state’s version of the levy. This is nuts; policymakers could and should have addressed legitimate criticisms of the estate tax by raising the dollar threshold for when it kicks in. But no. Instead, every Paris Hilton in the world gets their inheritance tax-free while working folks pay taxes on every dime of their paychecks. Now Virginia finds itself in the position of denying nursing home care to seniors and medical care to poor kids who depend on the Medicaid program, and aside from a few lone voices in the Virginia State Senate no one talks seriously about ending this giveaway to the pampered plutocracy.

Petersen goes on to note that Virginia shoots itself in both feet by cutting Medicaid funds because the federal government matches state contributions to the program dollar-for-dollar. Cut the state share, in other words, and watch federal matching funds go rushing out the door. Gov. Kaine proposed raising the cigarette tax to make up for the Medicaid shortfall, but that idea died a quick death in the General Assembly. There’s lots of hand-wringing and speech-making in Richmond on the horrible fate that threatens to befall Virginia’s most vulnerable citizens, but, as usual, talk is followed by precious little action.

***
A friend asked a question this week that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: How does the federal stimulus bill differ significantly in design and intent from the Virginia Tobacco Commission? The Tobacco Commission is now 10 years deep into its mission of investing in the future of Southside and Southwest Virginia, and unfortunately the commission has precious little transformative change to show for the roughly $500 million spent so far. Why would the stimulus bill be any more successful?

This is an excellent question, and it doesn’t lend itself to a simple answer. In the short space remaining I would only note that a big part of the stimulus bill is aimed at getting people back to work, and spending again: The construction-laden “shovel ready” piece of the package is meant to provide a (relatively) quick burst of economic activity. But stimulus proponents also argue that after the construction is finished, the projects funded in the package will transform the economy over the long term. This obviously is a much dicier proposition. I do think there’s one big difference between the stimulus bill and the Tobacco Commission: The former lavishes a lot of money on projects with broad public utility — schools, roads, broadband, and other infrastructure — while the Tobacco Commission has focuses heavily on projects such as industrial parks and business incubators that are designed to accommodate specific industries which in turn have been slow to materialize. While the distinction here is hardly absolute, there’s a major philosophical difference in the two approaches. Time will tell which one ends up producing the best result.

***
I wrote a story for Monday’s paper on a rather colorful spat in Richmond last week between local delegate Clarke Hogan and his Manassas counterpart, Del. Bob Marshall, in which we learn that politicians cuss like people, too. Hogan used a graphic turn of phrase to describe his Republican colleague after Marshall asked Hogan to co-patron a resolution honoring a constituent who died tragically last September rescuing his disabled son from drowning in a backyard septic tank. People who read the story can draw their own conclusions about what the story says for the caliber of our representation in Richmond, so no need to flog the point here.

The episode did get to me to thinking about something Hogan said a few years ago, however. The backdrop was a November 2006 campaign appearance by Susan Allen, wife of then-Senator George Allen, who was the guest of honor at an event held at John Greenbacker’s home in South Boston. It was the tail end of a rough-and-tumble campaign which Allen would go on to lose to Democrat Jim Webb, and Republicans had the strange notion that it would be politically effective to tout the GOP as “the party of civility.” (This was especially hilarious after Allen was captured on videotape calling a Webb campaign staffer of Indian descent “Macaca.”) So there was Susan Allen at the Greenbacker residence, surrounded by a gaggle of nice polite Republicans, and of course our delegate was there to trumpet the theme-of-the-day. “While this campaign has gotten a little wild sometimes,” said Del. Hogan, as reported in the Nov. 6, 2006 edition of the News & Record, “we’ve managed to be civil, polite and thoughtful. It’s (the campaign) been an embarrassment to the state.”

Who’s the embarrassment now?


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