Archive for August, 2011

Restructuring Virginia

A Virginia gubernatorial panel that’s been working to streamline state government says it is targeting more than the low-hanging fruit in its latest efforts.  Last year, its legislative achievements included consolidating or getting rid of 49 boards and commissions … and creating one-stop portals for business start-ups.  And this year’s goals could result in real restructuring within agencies and programs, with many proposed reforms on the table.

Many proposed reforms are on the table.  Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel said as a federal mandate requires states to expand Medicaid coverage, Virginia must change how it handles 1.1 million applications per year.

“We have about a 16%  error rate on Medicaid applications.  Unacceptable.  Some people get Medicaid that shouldn’t, others don’t get it who should.  But we have this error rate.”

Other plans include consolidating social services data across agencies to coordinate the flood of new requests.  The panel is still pursuing goals of 4-day work weeks for some state employees to save costs.  But Human Resource Management Director Sarah Wilson told the members that funding the unused leave of state workers is problematic:

“This is an unfunded liability for the agencies.  And if everyone in my agency that’s eligible to retire today retired, I don’t have the money to cover it,” she said.

Also under discussion is an inventory of surplus state property and buildings to gauge if they should be used or sold.

–Anne Marie Morgan

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Republicans Talk Plans

Although state Democratic leaders disagree …Virginia Senate Republicans believe the dynamics of state politics are about to change dramatically for the first time since 2007.  They believe they have the candidates in place to retake the state Senate and control both chambers.

But Lt. Governor Bill Bolling says the GOP has the numbers to propel the Republicans in the Senate to a minimum of 21.

“I can’t ever remember a year where we have fielded 36 Republican candidates out of 40 districts. That is an amazing accomplishment—and good candidates. You know candidates as Ryan said who are business leaders, some who have had prior political experience, either on the local level or the state level. It’s not just the number of candidates that we’re fielding–it’s the quality of the candidates that we’re fielding.”
 
Democrats are fielding nominees in only 28 of 40 Senate districts.  Bolling says some races will be challenging, but he believes this year, Democrats will be on the defensive.  The GOP senators also think they have more diverse candidates—from moderate to conservative—but that they’re more united on issues than their Democratic counterparts.

– Tommie McNeil

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Assessing the Aftermath

The sound of chain saws and generators still pierced are piercing the air in many parts of Virginia as residents dig out from under the debris that remains in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Power outages continued to affect hundreds of thousands of customers, while crews worked to clear the remaining impassable roads– both private and public-sector officials say conditions statewide are improving.

Most of the 218 road closures were caused by downed power lines and trees.  Dominion Virginia Power said initial outages to more than 1.2 million customers were the second-largest ever—behind Hurricane Isabel.  6000 personnel from eight states have been working to restore power …and the company says 75% of customers should have service by Wednesday and 90 – 95% by Friday.  Governor McDonnell has been touring impacted areas and briefed reporters on a telephone conference call from Tidewater.  He cautioned Virginians to be careful even though the hurricane is gone.

“One of the lessons of Isabel was that half of the people who died related to that storm died after the storm had passed in doing recovery and clean-up operations –from either hitting standing water on roads, touching live wires, having heart attacks from overexertion, or related activities. So it is still a time to be vigilant, ” he said.

Officials are now assessing damage statewide to determine Virginia’s eligibility for state and federal aid. 

–Anne Marie Morgan

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Studying Shore Birds

Because they eat fish and other marine life, shore birds can tell us about the health of our oceans and bays – kind of like canaries in coal mines.  So once a week, since April, Charlie Clarkson has driven from his home in Charlottesville to a salt marsh near Chincoteague to study  herons, egrets and ibis.  He wants to know if mercury, emitted by coal burning power plants, is taking a toll on the baby birds.

“I’ve been monitoring the growth and development of the nestlings for the past three years, looking at growth of the feathers.  The birds are actually pretty sensitive in indicating the amount of mercury that they obtain through diet. The mercury, once it enters into the birds’ system, is incorporated into the feather as an excretory mechanism.  It’s basically the only way the bird has to get the mercury out of its system,” he says.

Sometimes, he’s covered with mosquitoes as he crawls into a tent, where he’ll sit for five hours, making notes on the birds – how often and when they feed their babies.  Then, he hikes into the colony, where the birds get excited and often vomit, really leaving Clarkson with something to study.

– Sandy Hausman

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Irene’s Impact on Virginia

Hurricane Irene, now sweeping up the East Coast, has already led to the deaths of eight people in four states.  Three of those deaths occurred in Virginia.

In Newport News, an 11 year old boy died when a tree crashed through his apartment yesterday. In Brunswick County, one man was killed when a tree fell across the car he was a passenger in.  A Chesterfield County man died when a tree fell on his house.

After hours of roaring winds and driving rain through southeaster and central Virginia, many, particularly along the coast, are waking up without power….to find damaged homes, fallen trees, and flooding.

About 800,000 homes and businesses are now without power, and officials say it may be several days before they’ll get it back—so thousands are still seeking refuge in shelters,

The storm was fairly slow-moving—at 15 miles per hour—giving it more time to pound Virginia with wind and rain, and as Governor Bob McDonnell says, the broad impact of the storm made it an awesome force even inland.

“In fact, Richmond reported 71 mph gusts at 6:20 p.m. at the airport and that’s roughly 100 miles away form the storm’s center,”  he said.

The Governor also points out that  16 inches of rain fell along parts of U.S. 460…. And those heavy rains could cause rivers in the Southeastern part of the  state to flood for the next few days or so.

Virginia’s National Guard solders free 10 motorists trapped for hours by downed trees—and by 9 o’clock last night, the Virginia State Police fielded more than 1600  calls for help.

–by Connie Stevens

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PolitiFactVirginia.Com: Job Creation

Job creation has been the focus of some political back-and-forth in Virginia over the past couple of weeks.  So Virginia Public Radio’s Fred Echols called on PolitiFactVirginia.com to put things in perspective.

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The Storm Approaches

State agencies are closed, many coastal localities have ordered mandatory evacuations, and emergency service personnel have been mobilized—all in preparation for Hurricane Irene.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, Governor McDonnell anticipates that Irene could be as bad—if not worse—than Hurricane Isabel eight years ago.

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Disaster Relief

In a week that saw fires in the Great Dismal Swamp, an earthquake originating in Mineral, Virginia, and now an upcoming hurricane which could hit the Commonwealth over the weekend, Governor McDonnell is talking about disasters.

He says in terms of Hurricane Irene, state emergency operations officials will prepare for a worst-case scenario, meaning the storm’s path could track some of the state’s major interstates and significantly damage coastal and low-lying areas.  But he says residents, too, need to be prepared.

“Know where the shelters are, look out for their neighbor, have a plan for their pets, stock up on food and batteries and water now, have a generator if they have a significantly electrical… all those common sense things, today, tomorrow, Friday, that’s the time to be doing these things. We’ll do our part. We’ll put out the appropriate but prudent warnings that are necessary depending on the storm track,”  he said.

Additionally, the Governor is announcing major donations to the Virginia Disaster Relief Fund, which he established in April to encourage private companies and citizens to give to communities impacted by tornadoes. He also ordered that the fund be made a permanent part of Virginia’s disaster relief tools.

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Student Aid & the Middle Class

For the first time ever, the largest source of debt for Americans last year was not credit cards, but student loans.

Now a state advisory committee formed by the Governor is working on proposals to make higher education less costly for Virginia students.  One method is through student aid and similar programs, which officials worry could be more complicated  than it sounds.

The law now requires plans for need-based financial aid for low- and middle-income students.  Federal poverty measures define low-income.  But the panel said middle class is harder to define—and it plans to propose models that go beyond income to show actual need.  They also use factors such as the number of college students or disabled siblings in the family, or whether parents are older.  Work-study programs are another form of aid.

Secretary of Education Laura Fornash said research shows these students earn higher grades–but they’re underfunded. “The federal government provides a work-study program and each institution has a certain allocation of those resources.  And I think what you heard today was interest from the presidents of the public institutions, and I think the privates would agree, that more resources in that area really is a more meaningful way to help students with their need,” she says.

Some colleges use tuition to fund aid.  But lawmakers say their constituents object to that while they struggle to pay tuition—only to see their dollars given to others.

– by Anne Marie Morgan

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Aftermath & Aftershocks

Louisa County was the epicenter of Tuesday’s earthquake, and officials there are now gearing up to assess damage.

As the sun sent in her peaceful, rural neighborhood, Cleolive Cavanaugh sat outside in her Cadillac – contemplating the steering wheel and the shocking experience of an earthquake in Central Virginia.  Just before 2 p.m. she was chatting with a girlfriend – making plans for the evening’s church revival:

“I dropped the phone, and you know I just heard all this noise and I went to see what was wrong.  Vases, every picture is off the wall.  It’s just terrible inside.  I saw all of this, oh Lord, have mercy,” she said.

Her prized collections of China and vases were destroyed, and the brick that had covered her tidy home was now in an untidy pile on the ground. Next door, her nephew Ellis Quarrels also saw incredible damage.

“Everything that could fall, fell,” said Ellis.

Police, fire-fighters and emergency medical personnel were busy all afternoon and evening, responding to calls from frightened people.  Some thought they were having heart attacks.  Others had fallen or suffered head injuries when things fell on them.  Even Fire Chief Scott Keim admitted he was caught off guard.

“I was very surprised.  When you’re standing up and the floor is moving under you, it’s a surprising event,” said Keim.

–by Sandy Hausman

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Colonial Williamsburg Goes High Tech

Colonial Williamsburg is turning to some very un-Colonial  technology in hopes of engaging  a new generation of visitors …..without diminishing Williamsburg’s historic appearance and feel.

It means smart phones and text messages are joining fifes and drums as part of the Williamsburg experience.

Jim Horn, Vice-President of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historical area, says Williamsburg isn’t foresaking its familiar sights and sounds– but attracting more visitors is a continuing challenge.  While it drew 450,000 ticketed visitors last year, that’s still about 100,000 less than the year before.  ” Kids are wedded to the i-phone. That’s the world as they understand it. By bringing phones here, it makes more sense, connects them more to the period in history,” says Horn.

The Revquest plan began July 15th– and officials acknowledge that while it’s sure to undergo changes in the future, there is little doubt that it reflects a future trend at Williamsburg and other cultural attractions, one that might be considered revolutionary.

– by Evan Jones

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Earthquake

Louisa County was the epicenter of today’s earthquake.  There were no fatalities, but Sandy Hausman reports there were injuries and considerable property damage. As aftershocks continue, officials are trying to figure out who will pay for repairs.

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Virginia’s Primaries

They may not be at the top of everyone’s to-do list for summer activities, but Virginia primaries for a number of General Assembly and local offices are taking place Tuesday, August 23. This year’s primaries were scheduled later than normal due to redistricting, and as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, many voters may find they need to familiarize themselves with their new district boundaries.

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The Military Industrial Complex at 50

It’s been 50 years since a departing President Eisenhower warned the nation to keep an eye on what he called the Military-Industrial complex.

Next month, Virginia will host a national conference to see whether his predictions were accurate and to explore alternatives to massive spending on war and defense.

As  he prepared to leave office, President Eisenhower surprised the nation with a warning.  Before the Second World War, he said, this country didn’t have a defense industry – but now, the U.S.  was spending more on defense than the net earnings of all American corporations.  “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.  We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” he said in 1961.

Today, some observers think Eisenhower was right – among them author and activist David Swanson, who says he’s willing to wager the U.S. may have surpassed the former war hero’s worst nightmare.

“The military has grown drastically – the privatization and the profitability of the military, the ability to funnel money into congressional campaigns, all of these have put the military in charge of what used to be our congress members,” says Swanson.

Swanson’s helped organize a conference on September 16, 17 and 18 in Charlottesville, called the Military Industrial Complex at 50.  Speakers and participants will look at how the defense industry has influenced government and the media, and they’ll explore how resources could be moved from military to social needs.

- by Sandy Hausman

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PolitiFact: Education Spending & Federal Taxes

Our PolitiFact report this week is all about money, specifically Virginia education spending and federal taxes. Fred Echols has the details from Sean Gormon with the Richmond Times-Dispatch and PolitiFactVirginia.com

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Funding Unemployment Benefits

The cash-strapped federal government had loaned money to the states to help pay for long extensions in unemployment benefits.  But it will not waive the interest that states owe … and expects to collect $20 million  in interest payments from the Commonwealth.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie

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Governor Wants to Create Savings Fund

Bond rating agencies are considering reducing Virginia’s AAA status because of its close ties to the U. S. government.  Governor McDonnell has proposed creating a Federal Action Contingency Trust fund to help offset some of the potential federal spending cuts to the Commonwealth. The Governor also announced a $544 million budget surplus.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, he wants to deposit $30 million of that into the new fund.

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Possible Overhaul on Timeshare Options

It has been nearly three decades since the Virginia General Assembly made major changes to state laws governing timeshares. But in those decades, reports of problems with timeshare arrangements have accumulated. As Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, state lawmakers say it may be time for an overhaul.

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Interfaith Group Opposes Uranium Mining

Some Virginia lawmakers are poised to introduce legislation that would lift a 30 year ban on uranium mining.  But a coalition of anti-uranium mining groups says the risks associated with the practice far outweigh the potential benefits.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, the coalition has launched a campaign to educate residents of the potential dangers.

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Legalities of Tracking

State legislators say technological advances and the ways that people use them are developing so rapidly that the laws can’t always keep up. The latest example is how people deploy GPS systems to track other people– frequently without their knowledge. And as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, the General Assembly’s technology experts are considering a new law that would shorten the list of those who many legally do so.

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Editorial Cartoonists Find Humor Despite Cutbacks

Editorial cartoons get people talking, yet fewer newspapers are employing cartoonists full-time because dwindling circulations lead to layoffs. Dutchie Mirolli spoke with two Virginia artists who get their points across, one cartoon at a time.

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Phil Hamilton Sentencing

Former Virginia Delegate Phil Hamilton has been sentenced to nine and a half years in federal prison on extortion and bribery convictions—for his role in securing a job at Old Dominion University in exchange for state funding. But during the sentencing, the judge presiding over the case said it’s the most difficult decision he’s ever made. Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil provides insight on the courtroom proceedings.

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PolitiFact: Defense Spending & Medicare RoboCalls

Democrats and Republicans are sharpening the focus on their favorite issues as negotiators prepare to go back to work on deficit reduction.Warren Fiske with the Richmond Times Dispatch and PolitiFactVirginia.com is keeping busy checking out some of the claims coming from the two camps,  as we hear from Fred Echols.

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811 Miss Utility

The State Corporation Commission is using the date 8-11 to urge residents to dial 811 to contact the state’s “Miss Utility” line before performing ANY digging—as required by state law.  As Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, the SCC says too many incidents arise where an activity as simple as gardening in the backyard has caused major problems within a region.

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Veterans Benefits

Soon an influx of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans will return home…and many of them will head to Virginia, with medical injuries and job placement needs.  But already bogged down with requests for assistance from vets of wars past, a state Board of Veterans Services is asking the Governor to help beef up staffing and funding to accommodate the new requests.  Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil has more from the State Capitol.

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The Value of Banks

It might seem obvious that banks are attracted to wealthy areas, but it turns out, they also help make communities safer and more prosperous.  Sandy Hausman reports on why credit unions and banks can pay big neighborhood dividends.

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A Lesson in Civics

A Newsweek survey earlier this year was merely the latest in a long line of studies indicating that knowledge of U.S. history and government is on the decline among Americans.  Here in the Commonwealth, the General Assembly has revived a legislative commission to recommend ways to bolster civics education in the public schools … and as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, the panel’s goal is to galvanize Social Studies.

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Making Luring a Child a Crime

Many Virginians may be surprised to learn that it’s not illegal in the Commonwealth for someone to try to lure or entice a minor child to enter a car.  State lawmakers are weighing the idea of making it a crime … but as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, they also want to make sure there are no unintended consequences.

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Battle Over Broccoli

Fifty years ago, broccoli was a vegetable virtually unknown in America, but its popularity has grown steadily.  Consumption is up 600%, and Virginia farmers are vowing to get their share of the broccoli business –joining a federally funded campaign to grow more broccoli on the East Coast.  Sandy Hausman has details.

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Talking with the Attorney General

Publicly, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinnelli has been busy with two high-profile federal cases:  lawsuits over the healthcare mandate and greenhouse gas emissions.  His critics charge that he’s pursing a personal agenda.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, the Attorney General maintains that the litigation is in the public interest … and many of his other projects do not get enough attention.   

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PolitiFact: The Budget

There’s been quite a bit said about the national debt and the federal budget in the past few weeks. PolitiFactVirginia.com has been paying attention, as Fred Echols reports.

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Better Choices for Virginia Coalition

A new coalition of business leaders, educators, and health care providers is calling on the McDonnell administration and the General Assembly to take a different approach to balancing the budget.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, that includes allocating revenues to ensure that essential services receive the funding they need.

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Domestic Violence Prevention

Although proper disposal of mobile devices is an example of good environmental stewardship, one communications giant says that for more than 10 years, the revenue generated from recycling these devices has been a funding source for domestic violence prevention initiatives.  Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports from the Capitol.

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Offshore Drilling Debate Continues

While some Virginia lawmakers are fighting for the state to get revenue from allowing drilling off the state’s coast, the proposal is currently stalled in the U-S Congress and the state’s congressional delegation remains split over whether to drill in the first place. Matt Laslo reports from the Capitol.

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Investigating Health Care Fraud

With millions, even billions, of dollars in Medicaid and Medicare fraud committed each year, state and federal officials have set ambitious goals to find and prosecute more financial crimes.  But investigators say they need tougher law enforcement tools to effectively and safely do their job.

Randall Clouse, Section Chief for the Attorney General, says perpetrators are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous. “Last year, we convicted a nontypical organized crime ring which was Russians that came over to this country and set up an in-home health care company—and fraudulently billed to the tune of about $7-million. We convicted them in federal court.”

The  medical fraud control unit must ask law enforcement officers to serve subpoenas and warrents, and seize evidence, but Clouse says investigators are seeking law enforcement authority, which would include carrying arms and badges, because suspects may have drugs or guns.

The Virginia Crime Commission will make a recommendation to lawmakers later this year.

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The Cost of Identity Protection

Consumers, companies, healthcare providers, and governments are increasingly conducting business and exchanging information on-line instead of face-to-face.  That’s why many of them have begun using digital credentials to guard against fraud and identity thieves.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Morgan reports, a state panel is grappling with the question of who should be liable for costs or damages if those credentials fall into the wrong hands—or are misused.

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Virginia’s Country Stores

A good definition of the space between a rock and a hard place might be the economic viability of a traditional Virginia country store. Once the heartbeat of farming communities’ commerce and conversation, these old-fashioned emporiums have become endangered by rural Virginians increasing mobility. So, the question facing rural communities is how to keep “the country store” conversation going if “the country store” commerce is going elsewhere. Virginia Public Radio’s Martha Woodroof reports.

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