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Someone has a data center problem

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I just reviewed the latest installment of Ivy Main’s serial “critiques of capitalism” entitled “Commentary: Virginia has a data center problem” In her latest critique, Ms. Main has a problem with data centers. Last time it was natural gas appliances that she didn’t like. The time before, I have forgotten. First, there should be no left and right regarding energy sources and uses, the reality of global warming, and the policies needed to lower CO2 emissions. Policies should be based on an unbiased examination of facts. There’s still plenty of room for somewhat partisan debate on how to provide incentives to capitalists to meet various environmental goals. I appreciate Ms. Main’s passion for solving the CO2 problem, but I believe there needs to be more detail in what is published on the topic, including in the Royal Examiner. Also, I want to specifically thank her for the “For you energy nerds” parenthetical.

Near the beginning, Ms. Main claims, “a single building covers acres of land, causing massive rainwater runoff problems that can impact streams and drinking water resources miles downstream.” That’s a nice easy math problem. A four-inch rain within a few hours is to be expected in our area (BTW, there’s no trend in short-duration rainfalls). Let’s assume there’s a building with a two-acre impervious roof. As Ms. Main notes later, there are relatively few employees at these data centers, so less of a need for parking lots. Two acres and four inches are about 30,000 cubic feet of water. Let’s assume the facility must retain 100% of that water for gradual, environmentally beneficial release. They will need a holding capacity with dimensions of 55 feet by 55 feet by 10 feet deep. With sloping sides, probably 60×60 feet. That’s a simple regulation to enact and enforce. Problem solved.

Next, the claim is that “Cooling the servers requires a single data center to consume as much water as a city of 30,000-50,000 people, and giant fans make the surrounding area noisy day and night”. Ms. Main provides a link to Google’s use of reclaimed water, but I found a local link https://www.loudounwater.org/commercial-customers/reclaimed-water-program which points out that businesses in Loudoun county that need non-potable water, like data centers can use reclaimed water, which is treated wastewater. The requirements for data center water are that it is cool and relatively clean. Reclaimed water meets those requirements. Presumably, data center wastewater can also be reclaimed, the only issue being cooling. Seems like a solvable problem to me, just like noise abatement. I work in Rosslyn directly above a diesel backup generator that is tested weekly. It’s annoying for about a half hour per week, but I am right above it, and the noise barriers channel the noise upwards.

Next, we get to the meat of the matter: “Moreover, data centers require astonishing amounts of energy to power their operations and cool their servers. The industry uses over 12% of Dominion Energy Virginia’s total electricity supply more than any other business category.” Dominion built a gas plant on the Shenandoah in Warren county, where I live, to feed Loudoun county. The river supplies the water, and the lines were routed over the Blue Ridge on an existing right-of-way. The plant was a win for both counties. But the more important point is what is that energy used for?

Full disclosure: I have Bitcoin and about a dozen other cryptocurrency holdings. A quick explanation may be useful. I participated years ago simply because the technology was so amazing. In order to ensure that cryptocurrency transactions are immutable (permanent) and valid (not fraudulent), a cryptocurrency scheme employs independent miners who perform massive numbers of computations in a never-ending series of contests. Winning miners automatically receive payment in cryptocurrency, so the problem being solved has to be difficult and impossible to cheat. Thus the current method for Bitcoin requires enormous amounts of energy. However, the cryptocurrency Ethereum switched to “proof of stake” last September, which uses 1,000 times less energy. I’m sure that won’t matter to Ms. Main. Like the Chinese government, she simply wants to ban cryptocurrency in Virginia, and she says so. I find that frankly astounding. Had some world government banned “proof of work” Ethereum years ago, there would be no even more amazing “proof of stake” Ethereum today. Also, as with all capitalist endeavors, the participants constantly try to reduce costs, mainly their energy use. The problem will solve itself, with no need for authoritarianism. (Editors note: Ethereum is a decentralized, open-source blockchain with smart contract functionality. Ether is the native cryptocurrency of the platform. Among cryptocurrencies, ether is second only to bitcoin in market capitalization.)

I read the linked op-ed described as an argument that there’s “no such thing as a green data center.” The argument appears to be a NIMBY argument, not a reasoned analysis of data centers. I could write many pages on why data centers are beneficial. I have about a half dozen virtual servers at data centers in various locations that are extremely productive and inexpensive. Like many people, I do a lot in the “cloud,” but even less than kids these days who don’t even own a CD (all their music is in the cloud). Those darn kids have orders of magnitude less environmental impact than my CDs, but still, I cling to my old CDs, although I mostly buy them used. We all need to think about the truly miraculous uses of data centers along with the miracle of capitalism, which constantly lowers costs (and energy use) but will need some incentives like a carbon tax or even a tax on data centers. And as Ms. Main acknowledges up front: “Data centers pay a lot of local taxes while requiring little in the way of local services.” Problem solved.

Eric Peterson
Warren County

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It’s not complicated

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At the March 7, 2023, Board of Supervisors meeting, it was reported that homeowners of Warren County did a “good job” and “successfully” appealed over-assessments totaling $30.6M. And the knife twist: None of the under-assessed objected to their great good fortune.

A $30.6M error is not “a good job” by homeowners. It is the failure of the Board to ensure an accurate, uniform, consistent, and equitable valuation based on fact as required of the licensed mass assessor they contracted and oversee. The knee-jerk reaction to glaring inconsistency and inexplicable numeric discrepancies was to go to ground “on the advice of an attorney.”

Stop looking at the evidence!

It was easy to speak eloquently about the worrisome impact of a 40% increase in property assessments on demographics of a certain age, but where the rubber meets the road, “Your three minutes are up.” The video is available online. It is a must-see master class in spin and obfuscation.

Tax rates based on inconsistent, grossly inaccurate assessments can not be fair and impartial. It’s not complicated.

C.A. Wulf
Warren County

 

Editor note: There is a link to the video in the story below.

Real Estate re-assessment appeals numbers raise eyebrows at supervisors pre-meeting work session – EDA personnel surprise at regular meeting

 

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Commentary: The Big Chill

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Running the gauntlet of life

I’m reminded of a time when Graham Nash (of the musical band Crosby, Stills and Nash) visited Winchester Cathedral at Hampshire, England. He noticed a gravestone that caused him to ponder a bit and wrote down what eventually became lyrics to the song, ‘Winchester Cathedral,’

“I was standing on the grave of a soldier that died in 1799, and the date he died was a birthday, and I noticed it was mine. My head didn’t know just who I was, and I was spinning back in time.” I’ll stop there but suffice it to say this song will catch your attention. The grave at Graham’s feet was that of a young lieutenant killed in battle a couple hundred years before. This young officer had a long and promising life in front of him but collided with a bullet that changed all that. Essentially, the grave marker is all that remains of this person and countless others just like him – to include you and I one day.

This song’s tempo is rather slow but does get in a hurry now and again. My team of soldiers and I used to increase the volume during the high tempo parts of the song and speed down the streets of Kunduz and Kandahar to minimize the chances of getting shot. I kept thinking, I wonder if this officer had the same adventuresome life experiences that I had replete with romantic trysts, the sting of battle and other adrenaline filled excursions before he went down? No one alive today has any idea of that lieutenant’s life experiences, nor will they know any of mine. All that he experienced and knew and all the knowledge he accumulated died with him. I was quite sure I was going to end up just like him on several occasions in various conflict zones. A frequent musing went something like this, “Why didn’t I choose a different path in life – perhaps one down a more lead-free lane.”

I tried to be normal but the alternative lifestyle of being a normal person and driving back and forth to work amongst the masses was not appealing either, so what do you do? If you hold on too tight, you’ll have a dismal existence, so you may as well come to grips with your mortality and just go for it. It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years I keep telling myself. Everyone you know will cease to exist one day soon, so enjoy the ride while you can. That is the reality for all of us.

Getting back to our soldier at the Cathedral for a moment. Aside from a gravestone, there is no record that his family, or his friends ever existed or any memory of the sunny days or cool things they witnessed. One simply lives and dies, and the world turns, and it will continue to do so with no regard to how self-centered and concerned about the here and now that we may be.

Join me for a quick mind melt. For example, if you are 50 years old today, it is unlikely that anyone will speak your name 50 years from now, nor will they speak the name of anyone you associated with 75 years from now. Fifty years ago, is only 1973. Think about it for a minute. How often do you think about any of your relatives or friends that died over 50 years ago? First, you must be about 60 years old to even have known them at all. If their closest friends aren’t thinking about them – who is? It’s a rhetorical question. The year 1799 was 220 years ago. Countless generations of people have walked the earth before and after. One day 200 years from now, in the year 2223 someone will look at your gravestone and wonder the same. In short, it really comes down to “Out with the old and in with the new and what you do during your brief excursion on earth is largely up to you.”

As Stephen Jobs once said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Hunter S. Thompson sort of reflects the road I’ve taken, although my parents oriented me along a proper azimuth with a healthy dose of Sunday School during my developmental years. Nowadays, my friends tell me I have more lives than a cat and some say, “God must be watching over you.” So, I’ve got that going for me – which is nice. Many of the people around me were not so fortunate though. Death is always close. The end of “your run” is always just a foot away. Ponder that the next time you are traveling down Route 340 at night.

While in Afghanistan in 2011, the Taliban blew up the front gate of our compound and poured through the breach throwing grenades and shooting people. The initial explosion knocked out all the power and scattered body parts all over the place. I had been out running around the compound for physical training earlier that morning and was getting dressed when the explosion occurred. As I dropped down to the floor in the dark to find my eyeglasses, a stream of bullets stitched across the walls of my room. Had I been standing – I wouldn’t be writing this. That’s the difference in life and death. Most of it is chance. There’s an old saying, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Often luck will save a man. It did that day.

In another instance, I missed the doomed ‘Lockerbie flight’ on 21 December 1988 because of delayed dry-cleaning in the little town of Swaebisch Gmuend, Germany. With nothing to wear on my two-week journey home, I changed my flight to the following day. Otherwise, my originally scheduled connecting flight from London Heathrow to JFK in New York was the flight that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Picture from YouTube. Sky Limited. June 30, 2019

In fact, my friends in Charlotte, NC saw my name amongst the list of dead in the USA Today paper on Christmas Eve and called my house to offer condolences. They were rather elated when I answered the phone. Countless families and acquaintances of those killed experienced a horrible Christmas in December 1988. The gauntlet of life is strewn with potholes and chance. Sometimes the ride is relatively easy and other times – it’s incredibly remarkable and sometimes it’s short. Sometimes your run gets interrupted prematurely and sometimes you can sustain life for 5 score.

One last story regarding the gauntlet of life. I was introduced to members of the Kaiserslautern Ski Club over Veterans Day weekend in the year 2000. We were all there to go skiing on a glacier in the little town of Kaprun, Austria – one of few places in Europe with skiing that early in the season. On Friday, the 10th of November I met a father and his son who were members of the ski club. We were playing water polo in the lodge pool that evening. They were celebrating his son’s birthday. His mother and other siblings were unable to come along. The following morning (November 11th), we were in a cue boarding the monorail-like train for an ascent into the mountain tunnel to the glacier at the top. At the last moment, my shoestring came untied and I stopped to tie it. That 10 second pause caused me to miss the train. They were the last ones on the train as it reached capacity, and I was forced to wait for a follow-on train.

I was the only one in my little group that didn’t get on that train. Within 10 minutes, 155 people on that train were dead. An unauthorized kerosene heater had leaked over time in the driver’s compartment and somehow caught fire after the train entered the mountain tunnel. Fire rapidly spread through the polyurethane-lined train. The skiers were trapped in the tunnel and were incinerated or died of smoke inhalation. Later that evening, I had the painful experience of informing the wife that her husband and son were killed in what became known as the Kaprun Ski Disaster. [Caption by; BBC News. Europe] For her family, that day will live in infamy and their family will never be the same. For me, after more than 20 years since Kaprun, I’m still navigating my way through the gauntlet of life hoping to arrive in the grave worn out and reveling in all the unreal experiences a full life has afforded me. But as alluded to earlier, no one will have any idea of those experiences fifty years from now. Just a tombstone with the remnants of a dead soldier below it. As the French say, C’est la vie…..(such is life)

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Questions about recent assessments

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When you hear, “It’s complicated,” in answer to your questions on the recent property reassessment, ask who walked the property, and check the DPOR website to see if they have a residential real estate appraiser’s license.

When I asked those questions, I got two different names; neither were licensed appraisers. The guy I met to appeal the assessment was not licensed either. That explained what I see as a convoluted mishmash of under and over-valued properties without basis, in fact. It has resulted in inequitable taxation and a database of inaccurate assessments used by mortgage and insurance companies.

Do not take my word for it. Anyone can access the database by Googling the Virginia Mass Appraisal website, finding the assessed value of just the building, and calculating the dollars per square foot of living space. Comparing that same number to the average $/sf for properties actually sold in the County, to neighbors with similar properties, and to our elected official’s homes was a real wake-up call. Assessors do not enter homes, so finished basements ought to increase, not decrease, the price per square foot that you’ve just found by this comparison method.

No need to trust my judgment. You can assign this as homework to your age-appropriate children. Or, you can pay your assigned property tax for another four years without question.

C.A. Wulf
Warren County

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Commentary: Can carriage houses and granny flats ease the housing crisis?

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Whether carriage houses, in-law suites, English basements, or granny flats, what all accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have in common – the reason their backers love them and why few folks think of them as a possible solution to the housing crisis – is that they blend in with the neighborhood.

A garage-to-accessory dwelling unit conversion in Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon)

 

A bill patroned by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, this year would have expanded permission to build such supplemental housing across the commonwealth, but the proposal was killed on a party-line vote in a Republican-controlled House subcommittee last month. If ADUs are as unobtrusive as their supporters say, then why won’t Virginia legislators make it easier to build them?

An ADU for who?

As defined according to Hudson’s HB 2100, an ADU is “an independent dwelling unit on a single-family dwelling lot with its own living, bathroom, and kitchen space. An ADU may be within or attached to a single-family dwelling or in a detached structure on a lot containing a single-family dwelling.” In short, no matter what form it takes, adding an ADU to a single-family parcel enables two households to live on a lot that would otherwise be home to just one.

Doubling housing density without significantly altering the neighborhood character can prove especially appealing in cities like Charlottesville, where demand is plentiful, and vacant lots are not. As retirees, tech professionals, and folks affiliated with the University of Virginia have poured into town over the last few decades, the housing supply has remained stagnant.

Unable to find a place to call home in Charlottesville, ever more people who work in the city are forced to live further out, causing congestion and long commutes. With an abundance of garages, barns, and carriage houses in the region, relatively quick upgrades to ADUs could yield big results for Hudson’s district.

“If you’re looking for ways to put more missing middle housing into really hot housing markets like ours, ADUs can be a great option,” she said. “Sometimes folks build them to have a rental income stream, to age in place, to help someone recovering from an injury or illness, or to house multiple generations on the same property.”

If it had passed, Hudson’s proposal would have set consistent standards for ADUs across the commonwealth on everything from setbacks to owner occupancy requirements, ending the current patchwork of rules and regulations that often make ADUs technically legal but practically unfeasible.

While critics often decry the Dillon Rule for hindering localities’ ability to tailor the public policy to their needs, in this instance, Hudson hoped to use its power to streamline ADUs standards and make it easier to build the additional housing her constituents require.

“This is an example where the local authority is sometimes used to stop homeowners and businesses from constructing ADUs which are good for their bottom line as well as our housing supply,” she said. “These are units that the building industry would love to be able to build for homeowners if the regulations would get out of the way of the people who want them.”

An ADU with alley access in Richmond’s Fan neighborhood. (Wyatt Gordon)

Localities lean no

Nothing is currently stopping localities in Virginia from streamlining ADU standards and adopting a more permissive approach to supplemental dwellings. In light of such existing authority, many of the commonwealth’s cities and counties viewed Hudson’s bill as a state-level overstep that would diminish their discretion over land use rules and regulations. That’s why Joe Lerch, director of local government policy for the Virginia Association of Counties, opposed the proposal.

“Many counties exercise their authority to allow for the inclusion of ADUs within their zoning ordinances,” Lerch wrote in an email. “In doing so, they determine the context of where ADUs can be reasonably accommodated to meet the needs of residents and homeowners. A one-size-fits-all mandate to authorize an ADU wherever a single-family dwelling exists excludes input from citizens and communities on how ADUs can fit within existing and proposed residential developments.”

Other groups, like the Coalition for Smarter Growth, support ADUs in principle but had concerns that a statewide override of localities’ permitting processes could inadvertently cause more sprawl.

“It’s important that affordable places to live are located closer to existing services, public transit, and jobs,” said Stewart Schwartz, the Coalition’s executive director. “More and more people who live farther out choke our transportation systems with car drivers, and that means a greater loss of farms and forests as well as more greenhouse gas emissions. There is an awful lot of demand to live in walkable, urban neighborhoods, but often there aren’t any options. ADUs are a good option.”

Such concerns may have easily been assuaged with more time and stronger stakeholder engagement. The vast majority of suburban sprawl comes from the expansion of single-family home subdivisions, not the infill construction which typifies ADUs.

“Based on the work that I have done, I think I would be aware of a lot of new greenfield ADUs being built, but I just haven’t heard of that happening,” said Emily Hamilton, a researcher with the Mercatus Institute, an economic markets research center at George Mason University. “For ADUs to lead to more sprawl than the status quo, they would have to be changing developers’ calculations on subdivisions, and that seems highly unlikely to me.”

“Not nearly enough housing”

In response to the opposition, Hudson ultimately proposed a substitute version of HB 2100 that watered down the bill to include no requirements on localities. Instead, the proposal would have formed a state-level advisory panel to merely offer guidance on how to encourage the development of ADUs across the commonwealth.

Even in California, where a slew of bills have made it easier for homeowners to build tens of thousands of new ADUs in recent years, attic apartments and carriage houses are not significant solutions to the housing crisis.

“It’s not nearly enough housing to meet the need,” explained Hamilton. “ADUs are simply a smart first step that gives homeowners more rights to put their homes to a slightly more marginally intensive use when it makes sense to them.”

Hudson had hoped that her calls to reduce regulations on homeowners and builders might garner her ADU bill bipartisan support, especially given Gov. Youngkin’s recent remarks railing against localities’ exclusionary land use rules.

“Bills like this are a direct response to the governor’s call for some cross-partisan work on housing affordability,” Hudson said. “Anybody who is listening to Virginians knows that cost of living tops the list of things keeping people up at night, and housing is the biggest slice of anybody’s paycheck. This is a very practical thing we can do to put more units on properties where the owners want them.”

by Wyatt Gordon, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: Farewell and adieu – Possible pitfalls and historical context of pending legislative retirements

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I was something of a young pup in the Virginia Capitol press corps, at least in terms of tenure on the beat, if not age, in 2001 when an astonishing number of exits from the Senate and House of Delegates shook Capitol Square.

Almost all of the 12 delegates who announced their exits ahead of the 2001 elections for the 100 House seats were Democrats. Many of them, just a few years earlier when their party held the majority, pretty much ran things. Among the retirees were the immediate past House speaker, Tom Moss, and the former majority leader, C. Richard “Dickie” Cranwell.

The reason was redistricting.

In 2001, for the first time in Virginia history, Republicans dictated the decennial reapportionment by virtue of House and Senate majorities they won in 1999. In so doing, aided by quantum advances in digitized demography and computer technology, they redrew the lines to the Democrats’ maximum disadvantage. So surgically precise was the digital remapping that Republicans were able to select the exact block on which Cranwell resided and place it into a Republican-voting district where his chances at reelection ranged from nil to nada.

As of last Friday, the number of announced House retirements had reached 14, eclipsing 2001’s high water mark, according to a tabulation by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan tracker of money in state politics. Add in six senators’ retirements, many with decades of tenure, and 20 pending departures that represent the aggregate loss of 325 years of legislative experience. Six of the announced farewells are from lawmakers with 20 or more years of experience, and they account for 204 of those years, or 63% of the cumulative institutional memory loss.

Another 12 delegates and one senator are also leaving their seats to seek another office rather than seek reelection — many of them are delegates avoiding a primary clash with another sitting delegate. The senator, Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond, left to fill the vacant congressional seat of the late Rep. Don McEachin.

The reason, again: redistricting. But this time it wasn’t partisan.

Four years ago, Virginians approved a statewide referendum establishing a nonpartisan commission to take over the nakedly partisan process that the Legislature had always handled. After the commission’s abject failure to do its one job, the task was taken over by the Virginia Supreme Court.  This yielded dramatically reconfigured legislative and Congressional lines which, refreshingly, showed no regard for incumbency.

In the House, there are 22 districts in which two or more incumbents reside, including 20 that pair sitting delegates of the same party.

In the Senate, eight of the 40 districts pit two incumbents against each other, including six in which sitting senators are of the same party. Those include the districts of retiring Sens. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, who have swapped the powerful title of majority leader back and forth for most of the past decade, depending on whose party held the slim majority.

How the departures will affect the partisan balance of power in the General Assembly that will take its seat next January is hard to predict. A gauntlet of primaries — many of them sure to be bruising — cloud this fall’s general election contests.

The infusion of new blood into the process is healthy and inevitable. Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond-area political analyst and retired dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, calls Virginia’s new nonpartisan redistricting system “a backdoor term limits law” for the number of incumbents it has pushed from the stage.

“If you like term limits, then you think this is fantastic. If not, then it’s problematic,” he said.

New lawmakers come to Richmond with new perspectives. They are less bound to the hoary traditions of the House and Senate or the norms of political deportment and increasingly act as mavericks. They’ve also, in recent years, tended to be more doctrinaire – Democrats who tend to be more liberal and Republicans who are more conservative or “Trumpy” — which confounds the lost legislative art of compromise.

Another consequence of losing so much collective experience, particularly in the Senate, is an indirect shift of power away from elected lawmakers, Holsworth said.

“That’s going to be a challenge,” he said. Newbies who replace veteran leaders who bring decades of institutional knowledge to their powerful roles overseeing critical policy areas of government will face a time-consuming learning curve. Until the replacements learn the ropes, the process seeks out others to fill the expertise gap.

“The challenge is that power doesn’t go away. That power goes to the staffs and to the lobbyists,” Holsworth said. “That power will still be there, but a lot of it won’t be in the hands of legislators until they catch up.”

Lobbyists and legislative staff in Virginia already enjoy outsized importance and input by virtue of one of the most abbreviated annual legislative calendars in America. Our General Assembly has routinely busted its deadlines for finishing essential work within those truncated timelines throughout the 21st century.

“The other person who will benefit from this will be the governor. He has a large staff and advisers to help him,” he added.

Finally, there’s a wistfulness at seeing these legislators who have been fixtures on Capitol Square for generations leave. Like them or not, these are the personalities that animate the staid, unchanging, dry-as-dust legislative process. The friendships they forge over those decades of service can’t just be turned off on the way out the door.

But for every one of the long legislative careers that end this year — some of which, like Saslaw’s and that of Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, exceed 40 years — there was that scary first day of their freshman terms when they were at the bottom looking up and asking directions to the restrooms.

Even in an institution with historical roots, more than 400 years old, change remains the only constant.

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Commentary: Another session with vital work left undone: Virginia outgrows its part-time legislature

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It’s been a long time since the biggest business in Virginia was tobacco. Or since people hunted rabbits where rail mass transit and office towers now stand in Tysons. And since a drive from Bristol to Winchester consumed a whole day on looping two-lane roads.

One constant during that span is the amount of time Virginia’s elected legislators allow themselves to assess those changes — and the dizzying increase in the pace of the changes — that have inundated the commonwealth since the middle of the 20th century.

And on Saturday, for the sixth consecutive year, the General Assembly adjourned its regular winter session with its most important work unfinished.

Legislatively, the nation’s 12th largest state by population and 13th largest by gross domestic product uses the same part-time model that it used 50 years ago or more. Residing, as it does, hard against the boundary of the nation’s capital and now as a major global crossroads of the internet, Virginia still presumes to need only 46 to 60 days, depending on the year, to formulate policy solutions for issues that would have been considered science fiction during the Eisenhower administration.

“The part-time legislature is a fiction. It was great for the 19th and maybe 20th century. To say they can get their jobs done in an abridged legislative session is silly. It’s not possible anymore,” said Mark Rozell, founding dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “The task of governing is too complex to be completed in such a short period of time.”

In an article he wrote for the Washington Post last March, Rozell noted that Virginia is among 26 states that have what the National Conference of State Legislatures calls a “hybrid legislature,” a broad midpoint between the 10 states with full-time, professional legislatures and the 14 that are strictly part time.

Of the 11 states more populous than Virginia, he wrote, six have full-time legislatures. He also notes that legislative pay in Virginia ($18,000 for senators, $17,640 for delegates with $210 per diem for both each legislative day) is in the bottom third for hybrid legislatures. West Virginia, he discovered, with one-fifth Virginia’s population, pays its lawmakers $20,000 annually.

In one sense, this should not reflect on the 140 members of the General Assembly. They’re painted into a corner in which they’ve finished their work within the short time prescribed just eight times in the past 24 years. Since 2000, they’ve required at least one special session to complete their essential work in 16 of those years. Four of those years — 2021, 2018, 2008 and 2004 — required more than one extra session.

Yet it’s a dilemma only the General Assembly can fix. It alone has the authority to modernize a legislative system locked into a time when Virginia was a somnolent, Dixiefied, agrarian economy. Indulging the conceit that the level of study and debate required for lawmaking in 2023 can be achieved on yesteryear’s terms is indeed folly.

Consider that the commonwealth’s population of 3.3 million in 1950 increased by 162% — to nearly 8.7 million — by 2020. Consider also that the state’s operating budget of $21.4 billion in fiscal year 2000 almost quadrupled to $80.6 billion in the fiscal year that ended last June.

While there is much to be said for the ideal of a “citizen legislature” whose members remain more connected to their communities than they can in the myopic Capitol Square process, there’s also something to be said for time to deliberate and get the job done.

I watched the process meltdown and spill into extra innings many times firsthand in my decades of covering the Legislature. In the few sessions when the House and Senate adjourned on schedule (or reasonably close to it) without going into a special session, there was a sense of weary happiness and accomplishment. There were celebrations, including some in the Capitol’s media filing quarters, that remain legendary.

By contrast, regular-session adjournment in years when an unfinished budget or other essential business necessitated trudging back to  Richmond in the spring and/or early summer for an indefinite period was met with near-universal dread and discord. Legislators knew their real lives and livelihoods would be disrupted and, as former Del. Barnie K. Day described it in his 2005 insider’s look at legislative processes, the sausage-grinding would resume.

There is a massive amount of work that the General Assembly shoehorns into one of the shortest legislative meeting schedules in the nation. The brunt of that heavy lifting falls on  the staff of the committees where bills either die or advance to the floor. That’s particularly true for the committees that decide the final shape of the state budget — the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees.

In the closing days of a legislative session, as a dozen or so senators and delegates from those committees huddle behind closed doors to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget, I’ve watched staffers of those committees toil almost round-the-clock, fighting off sleep with bad coffee and energy drinks as they crunch hundreds of pages of numbers, hoping it will hasten a deal and — fingers crossed — a dispositive floor vote in an impossibly short timeframe.

That didn’t get done this year. It hasn’t since 2017.

Other committees deal with staggering workloads under the same punishing schedules, including the Courts of Justice, Public Safety, Transportation, Education and Health, Welfare and Institutions committees.

The operational math of the 2023 regular session alone gives you a sense of the workload. According to Virginia’s Legislative Information System’s statistics, the General Assembly this year dealt with just over 3,000 separate pieces of legislation, counting 166 carried over from 2022. Of that, 2,062 were bills which, if passed and signed by the governor, become law. Forty percent passed both chambers; 60% failed.

Spread across the full 46-day run of this year’s “short session,” that would average final action on 45 bills per day. But that’s not how it works. Lawmakers tarry and jam most of their action into a couple of frantic weeks just before crossover (each chamber’s mid-session deadline for passing legislation it originated) and final adjournment.

Fatigue can cause concentration to lapse. Errors get made. Tempers grow short.

Given such procrastination by lawmakers, however, it’s a tribute to the legislative staffs that so few blunders are made. One notable d’oh! was in 2004, when errant bill drafting inadvertently reinstated Virginia’s Victorian-era blue laws requiring businesses to close on Sundays. Dour lawmakers returned to Richmond in July for that year’s second special session to enact a legislative patch.

Despite the compelling case for legislative reform, it’s the elephant in the room that’s seldom spoken about. Change never comes easy in the Old Dominion. I’ll spare you the hackneyed joke about how many senators and delegates it takes to change a light bulb. And there seems no chorus of objection from either lawmakers themselves or the citizenry.

But as long as we’re dealing with down-home bromides, let’s not forget the cautionary tale about what happens when you put 10 pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag.

 

by Bob Lewis, Virginia Mercury


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