Friday, March 18, 2011

My Letter To Eric Cantor

Dear Eric,

I was so glad to get your letter. Your “Dear Fellow Conservative” salutation was a bit surprising but I guess you meant it as a compliment. I really appreciate you calling on me for help with the terrible troubles you face. As you point out in your letter, you need to stop the liberal lies of the left-wing media; you need to push your conservative agenda of lower taxes, eliminating wasteful spending and more freedom; you need to prepare for an epic battle against the liberal Democrats. As we say in Yiddish, Eric you have real tsuris. It’s no wonder you ask me to send you $1,000.

Eric, I feel for you. It is terrible that the liberal media is filled with such liars as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck. They are constantly distorting your record. And even your home-town newspaper, that bastion of Left-wing thinking, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is always opposing everything you do or say. It’s about time we showed them the door.

And your conservative agenda of lower taxes, eliminating waste and more freedom, are things that every Right-thinking American would support. They may call it “Voodoo Economics,” Eric, but you and I know that the only way to reduce our national debt is to cut taxes more severely. We have proven in the Reagan, Bush and Bush administrations that cutting taxes actually increases revenue to the Government. (Or we would have proven it if only those leftist Democrats had let the experiment run longer.) So, we’ve got to cut taxes more or else we will never balance the budget.

You are so right! Everybody knows that most government spending is wasteful. And it’s also socialist. Just look at these programs—public broadcasting, public transportation, public this and public that. If they were good capitalist programs, would they call them public? I am so glad that this week you Right-thinking conservatives cut funding for public radio and public TV. That stuff is not only a waste of taxpayer money, but it’s downright subversive. Eric, did you ever watch that Sesame thing? They’ve got all these puppets of different colors and with different accents living happily and singing about numbers and letters. Is this the kind of thing we want our children to learn? They even have this big yellow bird! Give me a break. Eric, thank you for cutting that nonsense.

Now, I know that those lying liberals will accuse you of voting for a lot of wasteful spending during those years when W was president. They will say that you voted year after year for budgets that added trillions of dollars to our national debt. But they just don’t understand. Sometimes in Washington you have to vote for things you disagree with. I know that you strongly oppose deficit spending and would never have voted for those things if you had a choice. But, you had more important things on your mind than the welfare of your constituents. After all, would you be Majority Leader now if you had voted against your Republican president during those eight years?

Your third goal—more freedom—who could oppose it? We all know that our freedoms are constantly under attack by Washington. They are always trying to regulate us. They expect us to provide safe workplaces, even to miners; they expect us to clean up our factories and farms so we don’t pollute the air or water; they expect us to tolerate labor unions. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. We need to get rid of all those Washington regulations. How can a company make a decent profit unless we get free from these meddling bureaucrats in Washington?*

Finally, Eric, there is your epic battle against the liberal Democrats next year. This one will truly be Armageddon. You say that we need to take down Obama and Pelosi, but isn’t it liberal thinking that we must really oppose? We need to fight to the finish against such liberal concepts as feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, protecting the powerless in our society, helping the poor or welcoming the stranger. We need to crush out the outrageous liberal ideas that we are responsible for each other or that we are responsible for leaving this world to our children and grandchildren in as good a shape as we received it from the generations that preceded us. We need to stamp out the idea that government has any valid purpose other than protecting our right to make as much money as possible.

Now, comes the bad news, Eric. You asked that I contribute as much as $1,000 to support your campaign to save America. Unfortunately, because of the state of the economy, my wife and I have really had to cut our wasteful spending. (You should be happy that we are following your example.) So, I am sorry to say that we cannot give you any money now.

In any event, Eric, thanks for the letter.

*Eric, you have to be careful with that phrase “more freedom.” You certainly wouldn’t want people to think you supported the freedom to marry who you want or the freedom of women to control their own bodies!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

New Sports Arena? Whoa!!!

In his column in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, Michael Paul Williams urges the Richmond area to stop stalling and begin the process of replacing the Richmond Coliseum now. Urgency needed for new facility. Mike makes this recommendation even though he acknowledges that a new sports/concert arena would cost about $147 million, that money is tight and that nobody knows how we will pay for it.

In support of his suggestion that action on a new arena is urgent, Mike Williams points out that the Coliseum is nearly 50 years old, that we face the risk of losing the annual Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) basketball tournament and that we need to compete with the University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena to get back all those big music concerts. All of these are legitimate concerns (except, of course, the 50-year old thing—this maven is way past 50 years and I need no replacing.) I must admit that architecturally the Richmond Coliseum is no thing of beauty and that the inside is in bad shape. And, if the Richmond area were swimming in surplus money, I would agree that a new sports/concert arena would be nice. However, as Mike admits nobody knows where we will get the money to build the new facility. This maven thinks that before we commit to spending $150 million we ought to find out who’s gonna pay for it.

We also need to know whether this is something we really want to pay for. Mike Williams is worrying about losing the CAA tournament. He points out that the tournament generates $6 million in local economic impact (I assume per year). However, $6 million, which is spread over a multitude of recipients, does not justify nor pay for a new arena. Do we build a new facility to be used for four days per year?

Do we have prospects for a professional sports franchise? Can we lure the Carolina Cougarz of the Continental Basketball League to Richmond from Fayetteville? Would we want to? Will a new arena bring the Renegades back to life or lure any other minor league hockey team to Richmond?

Will any of the local universities move their basketball programs to a new arena? VCU has the Siegel Center, which admittedly seats less people. Would they move some or all their games to a facility they would have to pay rental for? U of R has demonstrated, with the construction of Robins Stadium that they would prefer to keep their games on campus, even with a lesser seating capacity. Does Virginia Union have any need for a bigger basketball venue? I think not.

So, who is going to use this shiny big new stadium? We do have the current tenants of the Richmond Coliseum—the Richmond Raiders, our indoor professional football team; Arena Racing; Ringling Brothers Circus; WWE Monday Night RAW (once per year); the Jehovah’s Witnesses national convention. But what about new tenants? Aren’t we really talking about luring events from the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville or the Hampton Coliseum or the Scope Arena in Norfolk? If the venues are more-or-less similar what guarantees do we have that musical acts and shows will choose Richmond over the other areas?

Another thing to think about is whether we can afford to build two facilities at the same time. The Richmond area has already committed itself to building a new stadium for our beloved Flying Squirrels. Although an outdoor stadium will probably be cheaper than an indoor arena we are still not sure how we will pay for the new stadium. Can we possibly afford to build two new facilities? We can’t choose to build an arena rather than a stadium. If we back out of the stadium commitment, not only will the Squirrels leave but Richmond may never get another professional sports team.

So, do we go ahead and commit a significant amount of money, which we don’t have and don’t know where it will come from, to build a venue that may or may not be used more than the Coliseum is currently used? I ask you, treasured reader.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Balanced Budget Amendment: A Disaster In The Making?

With my years of preaching against our constantly escalating federal debt, you would think that this maven would be a big supporter of a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. This should be especially true of a proposal that goes by the name of the Common Sense Balanced Budget Amendment. After all, how can any maven not have at least a modicum of common sense? So you might be a bit surprised to learn that I oppose the proposed balanced budget amendments pending in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The House and the Senate versions of the balanced budget amendment differ, but not significantly. H. J. Res. 1 and S. J. Res 3 (112th Cong., 1st Sess.) provide that—

1. total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless 2/3 of the “duly chosen and sworn” members of each house (Senate) or unless 3/5 of the “whole number” of each house (House) shall authorize otherwise;

2. total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed “20 percent of the gross domestic product” of the United States for the calendar year “ending before the beginning of such fiscal year” (Senate) or shall not exceed “one-fifth of economic output of the United States” (House) unless 2/3 of the “duly chosen and sworn” members (Senate) or unless 2/3 of “each House of Congress (House) shall provide otherwise;

3. the limit on the debt of the United States “held by the public” shall not be increased unless 3/5 of the “whole number” of each house shall authorize otherwise (House version only);

4. prior to each fiscal year the president shall submit to the Congress a proposed budget for that fiscal year in which total outlays do not exceed total receipts;

5. a bill to increase “federal taxes” (Senate) or “revenue” (House) shall not become law unless passed by 2/3 of the “duly chosen and sworn members” of each house (Senate) or 3/5 of the “whole number” of each house (House);

6. the Congress may waive the provisions of this article for any fiscal year in which either a declaration of war is in effect or the United States is engaged in military conflict that causes “an imminent and serious” military threat to the national security and is so declared by a joint resolution adopted by a majority of each house;

7. total receipts shall include all receipts of the government except those derived by borrowing; total outlays shall include all outlays of the government except those for repayment of debt principal;

8. the Congress shall enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation that may rely on estimates of outlays and receipts and on estimates of gross domestic product (House version only);

9. the article shall take effect beginning with the 4th fiscal year beginning after its ratification (Senate) or the later of the 2nd fiscal year beginning after its ratification or the first fiscal year beginning after December 31, 2016 (House).

Simple, isn’t it?

As I read the language of the House and Senate versions of the proposed amendment I became more and more convinced that the authors (Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah in the Senate; Bob Goodlatte, Republican from the 6th District of Virginia in the House) don’t really understand the complexities of the federal budget process. Or, perhaps they are just depending on some future Congress straightening out the mess through legislation. Or, most likely, they just don’t care because the whole balanced budget thing is just a political ploy.

So, a little lesson for Senator Hatch, Representative Goodlatte and their Republican colleagues:

1- The number one requirement of the Amendment (if passed by the Congress and ratified by the states)—that outlays in any fiscal year not exceed revenues in that same fiscal year--is nearly impossible to achieve. The problem is that all outlays are not the same. First, the larger part of the amount of federal outlays each year comes from direct spending (or entitlement) programs. All of these programs contain a permanent appropriation (“such amounts as are necessary” to carry out the program). This means that outlays from these programs depend on the eligibility requirements of the program, the demographics of the eligible group and the economy. They do not require action by the Congress. For the Congress to control this spending would require it to amend the basic program legislation, a task not politically easy to do.

Second, although both versions of the amendment exempt amounts spent to reduce the amount of the national debt from the definition of outlays, they do not exempt interest payments on the debt. This means that an amount equal to most of the nondefense discretionary side of the budget cannot be affected by the Congress. (When interest rates go up, as they probably will in a post-recession economy, annual interest on the debt will exceed even defense spending). These two bring us to—

Third, the discretionary side of the budget, the side that requires congressional appropriations and thus is practically doable, does not contain enough spending to balance annual outlays and revenue. This is especially true because of another factor that the amendment’s proponents seem not to be aware of. A significant amount of appropriations on the discretionary side of the budget do not result in outlays in the fiscal year for which they are enacted. What do I mean? Well, for salaries and expenses type appropriations, almost all of the amount appropriated will be expended (outlayed) in 12 fairly equal parts during the fiscal year for which appropriated. However, for appropriations that require contracting (all procurement appropriations) amounts may be expended for several years after the fiscal year for which the appropriation was enacted. In fact, for much defense contracting the process of awarding the contract may take more than a year. This means that the budget effect of the appropriations for these programs extends over several years. To control the outlays in these programs, the Congress would have to cut appropriations years before they might contribute to a deficit. Is the Congress prescient?

2. The second major requirement of the proposed amendment is that total annual outlays not exceed 20% (1/5) of the gross domestic product (or economic output) of the United States. This requirement will also be exceedingly difficult to achieve for the same reasons I just mentioned for the balanced outlays and revenue requirement. The Congress just has very little control over outlays in any given year.

3. The proposed amendment requires supermajorities (2/3 in the Senate, 3/5 in the House) to increase taxes. This nearly guarantees that a balance of outlays and revenues cannot be achieved. It deprives a majority of the members of each house of the Congress of the ability to increase government revenues as a method to achieve the requirement of section 1 of the amendment. That means that the annual budget will have to be balanced solely by cutting outlays. And, as I just finished explaining, that will be well nigh impossible.

4. Both the House and Senate versions have delay provisions. In the Senate, the amendment would not become effective until the fourth year after ratification. In the House, it would not become effective until the second year after ratification (or 2016 if ratification is swift). Presumably, this delay period would give the Congress some time to plan and enact implementing legislation. But, would it provide sufficient time for the Congress and the president to make the cuts required to meet the requirement of section 1 of the amendment?

The recently elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives promised to reduce spending by $100 million in the current fiscal year. Events since they took office in January have made it clear that this was an a lot easier promise to make than to accomplish. For most of the reasons I already talked about there just isn’t that much outlay reduction that the Congress can accomplish during a fiscal year. The House Republicans may have to settle for half the cuts they promised. Now, I think that is a great accomplishment and clearly a step in the right direction. However, it is not anywhere near meeting the balanced outlay and revenue requirement of the amendment.

The real problem is that there is no way of bringing outlays and revenue into balance without increasing federal taxes. It was cutting taxes that created our deficit problems in the first place (see at least a half-dozen things I have written in the last four years). By requiring politically that all budget balancing will have to be done on the outlay reduction side, the amendment invites disastrous results. Where can you find a trillion and a half dollars to cut?

The solution to bringing the budget to balance (and then beginning the mammoth task of paying off the debt) does not lie in an amendment to the Constitution. Rather, it lies in the president and the members of the Congress having the courage to do what is necessary both in cutting expenditures and in increasing revenues. The members of the president’s bipartisan commission (and others) have come up with many proposals for attacking our budget problem. All of these proposals require members of the Congress and the president to make unpopular decisions. Will they? Or are they only interested in getting reelected?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Richmond Public Schools: Proclaiming The Good News

Back in 2008, both before and after I became a candidate for the Richmond School Board, I was constantly pointing out to those who would listen that the enrollment in Richmond Public Schools was constantly shrinking. I pointed out that at that time RPS was losing about 500 students per year. I attributed this shrinkage to what I called the middle class hemorrhage, the constant abandonment of the city by those middle class parents who thought Richmond Public Schools was not good enough for their children.

Last year, I was encouraged by the fact that the shrinkage in RPS enrollment was only 208 students. But, I wasn’t sure whether this was a one-year anomaly or that we had really turned the corner. But now. . . .

From the 2009-10 school year to the 2010-11 school year, the enrollment in Richmond Public Schools (according to statistics published by the Virginia Department of Education) has increased from 22,994 to 23,454. That is an increase of 460 students!

This growth is particularly significant since our beloved governor and his Republican brethren and sistren in the General Assembly have justified cutting spending by claiming that school enrollment is down in Virginia. Well, I don’t know about the rest of the Commonwealth, but here in Richmond our school system is growing. There is no justification for cutting funding for our children.

When I get a chance to look at the census data, I will report back to you on where in the city these newly enrolled children are coming from. In the meantime:

To Superintendent Dr. Yvonne Brandon, to the nine members of the Richmond School Board, to Mayor Dwight Jones, to the nine members of the City Council: Congratulations!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Politics And Money In The Old Dominion, Revisited

“I’m constantly in the business of raising funds. It takes funds to be in elected office. We’re going to be raising funds all the time.”
Dwight C. Jones, Mayor, City of Richmond

According to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, the planned fund-raiser for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones by the lobbying firm Capital Results, originally scheduled for last night, was postponed. The reason—bad timing. You see, Capital Results has been lobbying with the city on behalf of the Carrytown Place development. On Monday, Mayor Jones announced that he supported the development. Since the City Council will not be voting on the proposed development until March 28, Capital Results as well as Jones decided it would be best to postpone the fund-raiser.

Not that you should think, dear reader, that Capital Results expects that it’s fund-raiser would in any way effect either the mayor’s support for the project or the eventual decision by the City Council. As Mayor Jones made clear in the TD article, his political activities are unconnected to any positions he takes on behalf of the City of Richmond. This maven knows Dwight Jones and if he tells me that his support for the Carrytown Place project is unrelated to any funds raised for him by Capital Results I certainly believe him. Yet, Mr. Jones recognized that postponing the fund-raiser would “avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

According to the TD article, Capital Results is not the only entity trying to raise funds for the mayor. Last week the law firm Williams Mullen (“Where every client is a partner”) held a reception for Mr. Jones (recommended donation $500 per person). Coincidentally, one of Williams Mullen’s clients is the developer of Carrytown Place. Another of its clients is the group that is attempting to win the contract to design and build a new city jail.

Of course, the funds raised by Williams Mullen last week were not intended to influence either the Carrytown or city jail projects. Raising funds is just one of those services that Williams Mullen supplies to politicians in its altruistic desire to improve state and local government. As a spokesman for the firm pointed out, it held a fund-raiser for the mayor “to reinforce what he’s doing and wish him well for the future.”

So, dear reader, what are we to make of this? In a month the City Council will vote on the Carrytown Place project. Then, I suppose the time will be right for Capital Results to raise some funds for Mayor Jones. There will be no worry about the appearance of impropriety by then. Or will there?

This maven is in the seventh decade of his sojourn on this planet. I am not so na├»ve as to think that politicians don’t need money to keep their present jobs or to run for new ones. And, I am certainly happy that people like Dwight Jones can keep the need to constantly raise money from affecting his performance as mayor. But, is it reasonable for us to rely on a politician’s desire to avoid the appearance of impropriety?

In Virginia, it is unlawful for senators or delegates to accept political contributions while the General Assembly is in session. Why? To avoid the appearance of impropriety. Do we really expect that our state legislators can accept money from anybody for ten months of the year and that it will not affect how they vote during the two months that they are doing the people’s business?

Precious reader, I am not a believer in altruism. I do not believe that law firms raise funds for politicians because they want to wish them well in the future. And, I also do not believe that the appearance of impropriety is a matter of timing. If holding a fund-raiser for Mayor Jones would have suggested impropriety yesterday, it will suggest the same thing in a month or even six months. The fact is that lobbyists for clients who want certain results from government are providing funds for officials who directly or indirectly can bring about those results. How can they ever avoid at least the suspicion of impropriety?

What we have here in the Commonwealth is a system in which Mayor Jones’ statement, with which I started this piece, is unfortunately true for all elected officials. If you have any idea that you may want to run for reelection, you need to start raising funds as soon as you are elected. All of our elected officials are “constantly in the business of raising funds.” Is this any way to run a city, a state, a country? Trusted reader, you tell me.