Archive for July, 2012

Pending Defense Cuts

Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain and a rumored vice presidential contender plan to stump in Virginia today, 7/30/12, to rally support against pending Defense cuts. Matt Laslo reports that Democrats say it’s all politics.

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Primary Care in Virginia

Under the Affordable Care Act, 32 million more Americans are expected to get health insurance or coverage through Medicaid, and some critics wonder how the nation will pay for so many new patients.  Those who crafted the law say we can actually care for more people at less cost if we change the way medicine is delivered, and new data from Virginia Commonwealth University suggests that’s  true.  Sandy Hausman reports.

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Blue Virginia?

Political analysts may be holding their breath this fall, but it’s Virginia that’s turning blue.

So says an expert on demographic trends in the Commonwealth.

Dustin Cable works at the Weldon Cooper Center, where social scientists study population trends in Virginia.  He’s especially interested in partisan politics and sees two things that suggest the Commonwealth may be turning into a blue state.

“We’re looking at growing diversity and growth in Northern Virginia.”

Northern Virginians tend to vote for Democrats in presidential elections.  So do Asians and Hispanics living there and in other urban areas – like Richmond, Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads.

“The share of eligible voters is expected to increase by minorities even from two years ago. In a close race, that could make the difference.”

Cable says Democrats have made gradual gains here, and President Obama’s victory in 2008 was impressive, with blacks and young voters turning out in record numbers.

“So if Obama – and this is a big if – if he can match those turn out rate this November, he’s looking pretty good in Virginia, and he can probably increase his margins in Virginia. That’s not likely going to happen though.  We’re going to probably see turn out levels between what we saw in 2004 and 2008.”

The study says Mitt Romney has a more reliable base – white men, affluent voters and the elderly, who can be counted on to show up and vote.  The population of people over sixty is growing in Virginia, but Cable adds, Romney will need to make inroads with some Hispanics and college-educated voters in Northern Virginia if he wants to carry the state in November.

-by Sandy Hausman

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Senator Webb Breaks with Party over Taxes

Retiring Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb has bucked his party leaders and voted to extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

He’s one of a growing number of Democrats in the region breaking with the party on tax policy.

The Democratic Party isn’t portraying a unified message on taxes – at least not in Virginia. On Wednesday Senate Democrats voted to let tax cuts expire for wealthy Americans, but they did so without the help of Senator Webb. He wants to tweak the tax code so wealthy people can’t reap as much profit from investments, but he says other than that…the Bush-era tax cuts shouldn’t be touched.

“I just happen to believe we need to keep them in place for everyone who is making their income through what we call ordinary earned income.”

Webb is retiring and the Democrat vying for his seat is also breaking with party leaders on tax policy. Former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine says he only wants to let the tax cuts expire for people making half a million dollars a year. Still other Virginia Democrats are frustrated with the entire debate. Congressman Bobby Scott says the party should fight to let them all expire instead of agreeing to massive spending cuts.

“I will guarantee you that letting the tax cuts expire will look a lot less unpopular than the alternative.”

The debate will roll on through Election Day.

-by Matt Laslo

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Toll Debate

Many Virginians agree that the state must find a way to provide a consistent funding source for transportation—although several polls suggest that placing tolls on the Commonwealth’s most traveled road is NOT the preferred way to go about it.  But a grassroots organization believes the Virginia Department of Transportation has ignored those surveys … and has formed a new coalition to fight the tolls.

Jay Smith with “Keep 95 Toll Free in Virginia” points to a AAA Mid-Atlantic study where only 14% approved of placing a $2- to $12  toll on I-95 to fund transportation projects.  And he says most people oppose it for several reasons.

“First it causes major diversion and congestion onto smaller secondary roads that aren’t as well suited to handle the traffic that would come as cars try to avoid paying the toll,” says Smith.

He also says that in the tolls’ first six years, 38%  of the revenue will pay for and operate the facility, which Smith thinks is a waste of money.  He adds that it makes the state less competitive economically:

“Why would a company or a business who manufactures goods and needs to ship their goods come locate in an area that is saddled with a huge toll on a major interstate?”

Smith says soon VDOT will submit its proposal to federal officials, THEN hold public comment, which is backwards.  He adds that most people don’t know VDOT’s plans, so the group’s website has Facebook and Twitter links and will allow people to submit opinions that will be forwarded to VDOT.

Those who wish to submit an opinion can go to the website,

–Tommie McNeil

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Voter Registration Forms

Virginia election officials say voter registration forms that were distributed by a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., have resulted in citizen complaints across the Commonwealth.  They add that the forms may contain clerical errors and have been distributed to some individuals who are not eligible to vote.  And as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, they also have asked the organization to immediately revise its methods.

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Anti-Psychotic Drugs in Nursing Homes

Anti-psychotic drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, but they’re widely used in American nursing homes to sedate people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.  Critics say those drugs can be dangerous for the elderly, and experts here in Virginia are cheering a federal push to stop the abuse.  Sandy Hausman has more on that story.

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Financial Sustainability

An analysis of nearly 1,700 colleges and universities in this country suggests more than a third are on an unsustainable financial path, based on trends from 2005 to 2010, but  Virginia’s public universities fared well in the survey.

Two higher education consultants have issued a report suggesting many colleges and universities could run out of cash if they don’t change their ways of doing business.  Bain and Company and Sterling Partners drew conclusions from two key numbers.

“They looked at how expenses relative to revenues have changed over five years, and they’ve also looked at how assets have changed over five years.” That’s Goldie Blumentsyk, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education – one of two publications that got a preview of the numbers.  She says the time frame in question was tricky, because many school endowments lost money between 2005 and 2010.

“So when you’re looking at college assets, obviously that’s going to skew some of the figures a little bit.”
Nevertheless, the analysts say many campuses face a cash crunch.

“They found that more than a third of the institutions were on an unsustainable path, and another 28% were on the way.”
The study cited several factors contributing to shaky finances at places like Cornell, Harvard and Princeton.  Debt increased 11.7% on average, and spending to maintain property and equipment rose 6.6%   Instructional costs were up less than five percent over the five year period, but the analysts say universities are spending too much on middle managers.

Virginia’s public universities fared well overall in the survey.  UVA, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Virginia Tech all saw declines in spending, although equity ratios were down 8% at Old Dominion  and 12% at George Mason.  The survey also showed the University of Virginia with a hefty cushion  against future costs — an endowment per student of more than $157,000 – compared with about $16,000 at Tech, $8,000 at VCU, $7,000 at ODU and $1,800 at George Mason.

–Sandy Hausman

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Federal Disaster Assistance

Photo: WAMU, Jonathan Wilson

Virginia Governor Bob Mc Donnell has requested federal disaster assistance in the wake of the June Derecho.  The storm resulted in the loss of 15 lives in Virginia along with extended power outages and damage to public and private property.

Governor McDonnell praised first responders, state agencies and private partners for their focus on the health, safety and welfare of Virginians.  Bob Spieldenner of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management says the state has requested $25-million from FEMA to reimburse local and state agencies for their costs associated with responding to the emergency.

Even though the storm was devastating on many personal lives and property, the damage does not meet the criteria for personal assistance from FEMA. But Bob Spieldenner says there may still be some help out there:

The $25-million for Local and State Agency reimbursement is a request and that number could change during the process.

–Tab O’Neal

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Transportation Costs

The Virginia Department of Transportation HAD proposed an additional one-dollar monthly fee on “EZ-Pass” transponders that allow motorists to keep moving and avoid long lines at toll facilities.  But under its revised plan, new customers will pay when they open an account, and existing users will pay a monthly 50-cent fee when they buy a new transponder.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, a state delegate who says people don’t like to be “nickel and dimed” is proposing a way to prevent VDOT from EVER charging an extra monthly fee on an automated pay program on state roads.

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Senate Debate

The outcome of the race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine may well determine which party has control of the U.S. Senate next year.  But at the first debate of the fall campaign both Allen and Kaine indicated that a partisan win may depend on which candidate voters think would be the more bipartisan Senator. Joe Staniunas reports.

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New Program Debuts August 3, 2012

May-Lily Lee


Virginia Public Radio will launch Virginia Conversations, an issue-oriented live weekly broadcast beginning Friday, August 3.

The program will initially air at 9:00 AM on WVTF/RADIO IQ and WHRV.

Hope you’ll join us for this regularly-scheduled, mountains-to-ocean, statewide weekly radio broadcast, hosted by May-Lily Lee of Richmond,  with Jerry Caldwell of Roanoke producing.

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Education & Disabilities

With nearly 163,000 students with disabilities in Virginia’s public education system, a state legislative work group is tackling  how services can be improved and be made more efficient in the midst of budget constraints.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, special education needs are changing even as the funding outlook grows more dire.

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Medicaid Expansion

In 2014, many states are expected to expand their Medicaid programs to help cover more people who now lack insurance, but in some states, Republican lawmakers contend it will be too expensive to do that.  Sandy Hausman reports that the federal government will pay most of the cost for Medicaid expansion, and states that refuse to go along may end up losing money.

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Property Rights

Virginians would have stronger property rights under a proposed state constitutional amendment and related measures that were signed by Governor McDonnell.  The bills set the date for a referendum for voters to accept or reject the amendment—and also clarify some legal definitions.  Supporters are hoping that a large majority of voters will get on board in November.

If voters approve, the guarantee would be inserted into Virginia’s Bill of Rights and would permit eminent domain only when the property taken or damaged is for a true public use—and not for private benefit or enhancing tax revenue.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said it also defines what will be “just” compensation to property-owners.  “The cost of the taking has to be borne by the public.  If we’re going to take your property for the benefit of the community, the community needs to bear that cost—not just you because you happen to live in the wrong place at the wrong time or your business was located there, or what have you.  Fair and full compensation has to be made when property is taken or damaged.  And that includes the loss of business profits and the loss of access when the takings occur.”

Opponents say that will cost governments more—but supporters counter that it’s fairer to the landowners.  The State Capitol ceremony was packed with advocates, including the Virginia Farm Bureau, which just rolled out a campaign to win voter approval.

–Anne Marie Morgan  

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Open Education Curriculum

Each year lawmakers work to devise ways to strengthen the state’s Standards of Learning in order to make Virginia students more globally competitive.  Because computer and electronic use are usually common in a child’s everyday life, lawmakers crafted legislation to incorporate digital media into the SOL curriculum—although some educational resources are not yet readily accessible.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports, a state board is now looking at ways to incentivize both businesses and teachers to expand lesson plans beyond the textbook.  

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Electric Vehicles

A state environmental advocacy organization has unveiled a new report to make the public more aware of the growing availability of electric vehicles and their pollution-curtailing benefits.  ‘Environment Virginia’ says major auto manufacturers are now supportive, and the infrastructure to charge electric cars has been expanding.  And, as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, the group believes policymakers could also make a difference. 

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University Presidents

The uproar caused by UVA’s board of visitors has brought new attention to the job of university presidents. UVA Law school Professor Jeffrey O’Connell and his brother – a retired community college president – dissected the job and made a surprising discovery – one which helps explain why today’s college leaders struggle to survive.  Sandy Hausman has that story.

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“The Great Moonshine Conspiracy”

Photos: Blue Ridge Institute & Museum of Ferrum College, Lloyd Ingram, Franklin County Bicentennial Collection

The 1935 Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy Trial was the longest in Virginia’s history. More than 200  farmers testified about their role, producing  illegal whiskey under the guidance of some of the County’s most powerful men. Jesse Dukes of Big Shed Media produced this documentary and Scholar Charlie Thompson tells the story.

Funding for “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy” was provided by The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.  

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529 College Savings Plan

With more than 2.1 million accounts, Virginia has the nation’s largest 529 College Savings Plan …which includes both prepaid and other investment options. The programs are named after the Internal Revenue code section that establishes tax advantages for participating.  But as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, in spite of those incentives, the prepaid program applications have declined as the costs of contracts skyrocket.

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New Laws Series Continues: Entrepreneurs

Governor McDonnell dubbed 2012 as “The Year of the Entrepreneur” and in doing so, pushed for legislation to help small businesses expand and compete and to enable other economic development initiatives.  Virginia Public Radio’s Tommie McNeil reports that many of those bills received bipartisan support, gained passage, and became new state laws this week.

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Health Care Vote

This week the U-S House will vote once again to repeal the president’s signature health care law.

Republicans are doubling down on their efforts to repeal the health care law. Virginia Republican Randy Forbes says repeal has always been a priority for his party but that they’ve gained new energy now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the law.  “Our efforts have never been slack. It’s a multi faceted attack to do it,” said Forbes.

The G-O-P is holding yet another vote to repeal the law this week. At the same time they’re working to defund and dismantle the law piece by piece. With the Senate controlled by Democrats the efforts of House Republicans are bound to fail but they do score points with the party’s base. That’s why Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith says the most important thing the G-O-P can do to eventually unwind the law is to mobilize their base in November.  “I’m disappointed the Supreme Court didn’t straighten it out, but Congress made this mess – Congress can fix it. But we need a few more senators who understand that a government run health care plan is not what the American people want or need,” said Griffith.

Now that the law has been ruled constitutional Virginia Democrat Jim Moran says the G-O-P strategy is bound for failure.
“They want to continue politicizing this and I think they do so at their peril. The more Americans understand what’s in this bill and how it will affect them the more they realize this was clearly in the best interest. And I think in the long term the president is going to be benefited by the Republicans labeling it ‘Obamacare.’”


–Matt Laslo

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Lasers & the Law

Spend any time in a resort area or office supply store, you’ll see them for sale:  Lasers.  They’re seemingly innocuous enough, until you talk to a pilot. Sondra Woodward reports on a new Virginia law that prohibits pointing lasers at aircraft.

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New Laws: Voting

The topic of voter IDs took center stage this past General Assembly session.  And despite the lack of popularity among several organizations, Governor McDonnell moved forward with signing the bills, which are some of the new state laws that just took effect this week.  While the Governor did not like some of the provisions, he also issued an executive order as a compromise.

The bills that became law establish that a voter who doesn’t show an ID can no longer just sign a sworn statement that he’s the named registered voter. Opponents argued that it’s an effort to disenfranchise voters—especially minorities—and that there’s been no need to strengthen the law. But Senator Tom Garrett countered that while he was Louisa’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, there were at least two instances of voter fraud by two groups:

“In one of those instances, a group called ‘Women’s Voices-Women’s Votes’ which is part of the Tides Center has solicited the registration, and when the person who illegally registered queried as to whether or not this was a problem they said don’t worry about it, nobody will check and even if they do, nobody will do anything about it. So, you know there are loopholes in the system that some groups, it would appear, are actively seeking to exploit. All we want to do is close the barn door before the horses get out,” said Garrett.

Acceptable forms of ID will include utility bills, student and employer IDs, and bank statements.  The Governor issued an executive order for the state to send new voter ID cards to all Virginians who are registered—and to launch an awareness campaign about the new voting process and the need for proper IDs.

–Tommie McNeil

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They Love a Parade

While some people– particularly those celebrating having electricity–  will spend the July 4th holiday relaxing with friends and family Virginia’s politicians are using it for a little good old fashioned politicking. Matt Laslo reports.

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New Laws: Health Care

New state laws to enhance access to a number of health care services in the Commonwealth just took effect this week.  As Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, some will also make care more affordable while others could help improve patient outcomes.

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New Laws: Behind the Wheel

Virginia motorists need to be aware of the new state laws that will impact them that just took effect this week. Tens of thousands of drivers each year unintentionally let their vehicle registrations expire or lose their licenses, but as Virginia Public Radio’s Anne Marie Morgan reports, that will result in additional costs from now on. 

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Small Business Perspective

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to upheld most of the federal healthcare law, a number of business owners are discussing how the measure would hurt them and their employees as a result.  Lawmakers who support the mandate say that businesses could greatly benefit through subsidies.  But some entrepreneurs say they have yet to be informed of what they are and how to take advantage of them.

White House Catering owner David Napier says he would love to expand, but the number of his full-time staffers hovers at under 50—where he knows the law will mandate that he provide health insurance.  He says salaries are his greatest expense, but health costs would overtake that.  He has inquired, but says information is not readily available to small business-owners to learn how to stay afloat while helping his staff as he would like to.

“I don’t know if I’m better off giving them a raise and telling them to go to Obamacare or do I do it. I mean I just don’t know. The uncertainty is what’s killing everybody and what’s killing my ability to make decisions and the bigger businesses here in downtown Richmond–is their ability to make decisions. So it’s one of those things that I feel responsible–maybe some business owners don’t–but I feel responsible to my employees in a holistic way. I mean I want their lives to be good. I want them to be there 10 years from now,” said Napier.

Napier says if subsidies exist and are less than the cost of hiring more people, then he’ll lose money.  He doesn’t believe small business-owners had input into the law and would rather repeal it than tweak what he thinks was muddled from the start.

–Tommie McNeil

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