Monday, March 31, 2008

Housing and Corruption

If people are looking for people to blame for the housing crisis, for the root causes of our troubles, look no farther than a corrupt leadership at the top, which exacerbates flaws all the way down.
Housing secretary Alphonso R. Jackson resigned on Monday, saying that he needed to devote more time to his family. The announcement came as federal authorities were investigating whether he had given lucrative housing contracts in the Virgin Islands and New Orleans to friends.

His resignation, effective April 18, also comes as the Bush administration is increasingly relying on the department’s Federal Housing Administration to help stanch the widening foreclosures.

In recent weeks, Mr. Jackson had faced mounting pressure to leave his post. The FBI has interviewed several of his employees, and two senior Democratic senators called on him to resign, saying the allegations of wrongdoing had undermined his leadership. Lawmakers have also raised concerns about accusations that Mr. Jackson had threatened to withdraw federal aid from the Philadelphia Housing Authority after its president refused to turn over a $2 million property to a politically connected developer. - The New York Times
There is a culture at the top which sees government as a mechanism for enriching ones friends (we've been here before) and punishing ones enemies. That complete disdain for the public trust trickles down, and manifests itself in unexpectedly bad ways. This is why we must stand for clean government, the public interest and always, always work from reality towards a brighter tommorrow.

Because democracy works, no matter how hard some push it to fail.

PETA Euthanizes Animals

I bet most folks don't know that PETA kills the vast majority of animals given to it.
Let’s start with what I am absolutely not wrong about, which is something most people do not seem to know about PETA: That the animal-rights group kills almost all the pets surrendered to it, almost 3,000 killed in 2006 alone. This information comes from PETA itself, as reported to the Commonwealth of Virginia in a report required of all the state’s shelters. More than nine of 10 pets who end up at PETA are killed there. - Gina Spadafori
Just something to remember as PETA tries to clean up its image. I wonder if Leesburg Tomorrow is going to get in trouble with them now?
Apparently Mr. Kerr’s been busy telling bloggers to stop picking on PETA. Nathan Winograd got a letter, too (PDF). And the Center For Consumer Freedom seems to have got wind of this: It’s all over their sites. Here’s the link to their article. - Pet Connection Blog

Home Prices and Our Expectations

At the core of the debate over taxes and budgets are housing prices. In general, Loudoun residents still have their jobs, with an unemployment rate somewhere between 2.0% and 2.9% for the past year, so incomes are basically steady. The perception of hard times is a function of two major things: the increase in the price of necessities (gas and food) and the decrease in the value of our biggest asset, our houses.
Loudoun County had the Washington region’s sharpest drop in home prices last year.

The median price of single-family houses and townhouses sold in the county last year was $492,000, down 8 percent from $535,000 in 2006, according to a Washington Post analysis of government sales records. - LoudounExtra
This is where the divergence between prices and expectations becomes important, as it will greatly inform the debate about taxes and budgets. If home prices are down, on average, by 8% (as the article states), then all-else being equal, assessments should also be down on average by 8%. However, assessments have actually fallen faster than home prices, on average. Assessments are down by 10%, where prices are down by 8%.

Before going on, it should be noted that these are averages, there will of course be very uncommon, specific cases where prices fall but assessments do not. However, the windfall from the Federal Government is likely to offset the additional costs in these rare cases.

When housing prices fall, people feel less wealthy, so they want to spend less. They feel they cannot spend less (or, perhaps more accurately, should not be asked to spend less) on things like their mortgage, gas, car payments, etc. After all, they don't get to vote on those prices. Thus, they complain not about the costs that are hurting them the most (ARM mortgages that are resetting, gas prices, food prices) but those that they feel they have the right to complain about. Furthermore, those in government know this, and as a result, assessments fall a bit more than home prices, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to mitigate some of the complaints to come.

Of course, this puts our elected officials in a tough position. With assessments lower than home prices, and the required public goods (education, roads, safety, etc.) higher than ever (thanks to the policies of previous local administrations) taxes have to be higher to simply maintain the level of services the vast majority want. Ultimately, all of our problems, complaints and irrational expectations (see below) get dumped on nine people in the entire county.

Nine elected Supervisors. Nine scapegoats for problems the majority of them have done nothing to cause and all of them have spent their terms so far trying to solve.

The real culprits of our problems are not taxes and local budgets. The real problems are the trifold issues of bad mortgages, which push people out of homes they can no longer afford and depress prices throughout the area; a weak dollar, which is a big reason why food and energy costs have spiked so high; and unreasonable expectations, by which many people expected incomes and home prices to go up forever even as other prices stayed stable, with no impact from a trillion dollar "emergency expense" at the Federal level and balooning consumer debt.

The thinking goes like this: My income and home value is always heading up, therefore I can spend more of what I have today, because I can save and pay myself back tomorrow. I know this to be true because the media, government, and mortgage brokers all tell me it's true and they wouldn't lend me money if I couldn't afford it. Now, when things go south, I have been told for years that the problem is always government, never the businesses who made bad decisions. Furthermore, I am a free rider, I would prefer to not pay for public goods when I can instead spend that money on consumer goods. Unlike all other goods and services I consume in my life, I actually get to help set the short- and medium-term prices for public goods by voting for the officials who can control their short- and medium-term prices (i.e., taxes). Thus, as a self-interested consumer, I want to vote for people who make me pay less for public goods so I have more money for mortgages, gas and other things.

But what happens when this thinking reaches its logical conclusion? The prices for public goods cannot be reduced forever, eventually you have to increase their price, or decrease the amount of that good (education, safety, roads, environmental quality, emergency services, etc.) available to the public. More often than not, this moment coincides with other difficulties, because the community has been fed a ceaseless diet of baseless promises from vendors and elected officials who should (and probably do) know better.

A reduction in the availability of many public goods (i.e., the alternative to marginally higher taxes) has a vicious effect on the long-term quality of life of a community. A marginal decrease in a public good has an effect many times greater than a marginal decrease in a private good because of the extent of the people effected and the long-term impact of the decrease. If you do not build more fire stations and hire more police as a population grows, everyones' safety decreases, whereas if one household drives less and buys less gas, it is only that household that is impacted.

Of course we taxpayers have the right to complain to our public officials about taxes, but we also have the right to complain about all the other costs that impact our bottom line. In a world where ExxonMobil makes more than $1,287 of profit for every second of 2007, we have a right to complain about gas prices. In a world where the Federal Government bails out an investment bank before people investing in their own homes, we have a right to complain about our mortgages. It is a testament to how how-of-whack the public perception of relative costs have become that the part of our budget suffering the mildest increase - local taxes - has received the wildest overreaction, even as those behind the root causes of that increase are rewarded for their hubris and greed.

For example, gas prices have gone up over 30% in a year. ExxonMobil recorded the highest profit in history in 2007. Some of that profit couldn't have been returned to the consumer as lower prices? Where are the protests and angry letters about ExxonMobil taking too much of "my money?" This is for a product whose impact on society is known to be negative, from traffic to pollution, fossil fuels are among the root causes of many of our local problems, not to mention higher retail prices because of higher transportation costs.

Contrast that with local public goods like education and safety, where a little bit of prevention goes a long way. A rational allocation of resources would transfer investment away from negative returns (cars and gas) and towards positive returns (education and public well-being). And yet, still our Supervisors get angry phone calls, while the head of Bear Stearns, the biggest financier of the people selling sketchy mortgages, retires with hundreds of millions of "thanks for completely sucking at your job" money.

Sometimes, we need to get a little perspective on our problems, in order to properly see where they originate from, and how to deal with them. Local taxes are not the problem, they are the last symptom of a much wider, much broader set of issues, and it is to those issues we must turn our focus and our votes, because that is how we will solve for our local budget in the coming years. When our home prices and income expectations actually match the reality of the world around us, we will find a much more stable political consensus. Until then, we owe it to our Supervisors to trust them, their whole career is predicated on trying to solve this mess. No one has better incentive to do the job right. We can pass judgment on that job in the months and years go come.

Let's all take a moment to breathe, and let our elected officials do their job. After all, it's what we elected them to do.

Some Clarity for Budgets and Schools

John Stevens has a great post up this morning on the discussions between citizens, Supervisors and School Board over the proposed budget and tax rate, here's an excerpt:
1. The Board of Supervisors allocates funds; the School Board determines how they are spent. Therefore, within limitations it is the School Board who determines teacher salaries. The School Board may be able to offer staff a modest raise this year by cutting back on programs and staff levels. Doing this will require substantial cuts, and I don’t think it can be done without impacting the quality of our schools, but it is possible.

2. There are two kinds of salary increases for LCPS employees. One is a cost of living adjustment (COLA), the other is called a “step increase” and is essentially a raise for gaining another year of experience. The $10M I have been advocating for the past few days is for a “step increase” without a COLA.

3. The Board of Supervisors has fallen short of allocating funds equivalent to stable per-student funding plus a step increase for LCPS employees, a standard I had hoped they would meet. - Our Loudoun Schools
Thanks are due to John for providing some clarity in the debate between our Boards. Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors determines how much there is to spend, and the School Board decides how to spend it. At issue right now is whether to add a penny to the proposed tax rate (bringing it from 1.14 to 1.15) to enable the School Board to provide a modest raise to teachers without significantly increasing class sizes and reducing the number and extent of education programs.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Teacher for Judy Feder

Today, Judy Feder picked up the endorsement of a teacher. In and of itself, that is unremarkable. Judy is an educator herself, and has the respect and support of many from that profession. The teacher who endorsed her today, however, is slightly different. Today, Judy Feder received the endorsement of teacherken, a very highly regarded national blogger. Here's what he has to say about Judy.
What appeals to me about Judy is the knowledge she brings about public policy, health care in particular, given her experience at places like Brookings, being staff director for the Pepper Commission, and serving as Dean at Georgetown. She has developed the fundraising mechanism that will be necessary to defeat a longterm incumbent like Frank Wolf. And given how important healthcare is as an issue, having someone as knowledgeable as is Judy will be important for not only her constituents, but to all Virginians, for whom a better national policy on health care is critical.

I know that Judy is willing to listen to people with expertise and insights on issues about which she knows less. She actively sought me out for input on education, for example, and I know she has done similar things with people in other fiels. Given the wealth of expertise among her constituents and other Northern Virginians, this is a very positive approach to take. - RaisingKaine
The progressive netroots are getting behind Judy's challenge to Frank Wolf. It is great that she's returning the favor and out there working so hard to be our next Representative, and turn the 10th District blue.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

On Being a Nerd

For all of us, and we know who we are.
So if intelligence in itself is not a factor in popularity, why are smart kids so consistently unpopular? The answer, I think, is that they don't really want to be popular.

If someone had told me that at the time, I would have laughed at him. Being unpopular in school makes kids miserable, some of them so miserable that they commit suicide. Telling me that I didn't want to be popular would have seemed like telling someone dying of thirst in a desert that he didn't want a glass of water. Of course I wanted to be popular.

But in fact I didn't, not enough. There was something else I wanted more: to be smart. Not simply to do well in school, though that counted for something, but to design beautiful rockets, or to write well, or to understand how to program computers. In general, to make great things. - Why Nerds are Unpopular
As ever, the best revenge is living well, and I, for one, feel that it has served very well indeed. While this quote doesn't actually represent my experience, it does strike a chord and offer a reflection on an experience distilled:

"Personally, I got beat up every day after school for six years. Being the class reject during grade school did wonders for my patience. I spent the entire time reading and plotting revenge."
-Crasher, 13th Gen

And then there's this:
For example, teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don't consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids' opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things "right" is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular.

Nerds don't realize this. They don't realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don't realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who "can draw" like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that's why they're good at it. Likewise, popular isn't just something you are or you aren't, but something you make yourself.

The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about. Their attention is drawn to books or the natural world, not fashions and parties. They're like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly, and wonder why they seem so incapable. - Why Nerds Are Unpopular
This directly reflects my own experience. I just plain don't care about fashion. I want to look good, but only insofar as you have to not look like an idiot in order for people to listen to you, and insofar as I want my wife to be happy to be seen with me when we go out. That is about it.

Something I often hear when I come home from work is my wife saying "you know that doesn't match." And the thing is...I don't. I just cannot subconsciously internalize what it means to "match" when the rules change every year. (Can't we just all vote on a series of RFCs on what matches and be done with it?) If the clothes still fit, and aren't threadbare, why can't I just keep wearing them?
As a thirteen-year-old kid, I didn't have much more experience of the world than what I saw immediately around me. The warped little world we lived in was, I thought, the world. The world seemed cruel and boring, and I'm not sure which was worse.

Because I didn't fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn't realize that the reason we nerds didn't fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.
...
Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits. - Why Nerds Are Unpopular
And I think we'll leave the excerpts there. The entire essay is worth the read, a considered and compelling characterization of the modern teenage circumstance.

An old friend and comedian gets the last word.

"The secret to happiness is pissing off the people trying to hold you down by enjoying life."
-Jeff Hawkins

(With a tip-o-the-hat to OpenLeft.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

More Loudoun Tax Math

Yesterday's post about the implications of the $1.14 tax rate underestimated its impact for certain homeowners. Here in Loudoun, there are definitely homeowners for whom this increase will lead to a net increase in all taxes paid, even when including the Federal refund in the calculations. However, it is interesting to identify which homes will see this kind of tax increase.

In order for the rate adjustment from $0.96 to $1.14 to actually yield a net increase in the total amount of taxes paid, the following must be true:

The 18.75% increase in the rate must yield a greater than $1200 increase in property taxes charged, since Loudoun's property taxpayers are largely families, and therefore eligible for the $1200 (or more) stimulus refund from the Federal government.

We can reverse engineer the home value necessary for that kind of property tax increase. A $1200 increase in property taxes from 2007 to 2008 implies a 2007 tax of $6,400 ($1200 is 18.75% of $6,400). A 2007 tax of $6,400 implies a 2007 home assessment of $666,667 ($6,400 in taxes divided by the $0.96 2007 tax rate, then multiplied by $100 since the taxes are per $100 of assessed value, equals $666,667).

But wait, one might say, home prices are down, assessments are down, just because a house was valued over $650,000 in 2007 does not mean it's worth that much in 2008. And on the face of it, this would be a very good argument. Unfortunately, the evidence and facts do not bear it out. The only kinds of homes not suffering a remarkable decline in value in Loudoun are single family homes on over an acre of land, the ones, not incidentally, generally worth more than $600,000.
Class 200 to 299 – Single Family Residential: This category includes properties that are over an acre and less than 20 acres in size. They generally are served by private water supplies and waste systems. These properties are generally found in the more rural parts of the County. The 2007 assessments for this class totaled $8,641,200,601 based on 16,435 parcels. The 2008 assessments for this category total $8,899,030,515 based on 17,109 parcels. This represents an increase in value of 2.98% for this category and parcel count growth of 4.1%. Construction and growth accounted for $203,819,900 of the total assessments. The equalized class 200 to 299 assessments from 2007 to 2008 increased by 0.63%. This class represents 15.3% of the taxable properties in Loudoun County. The average equalized assessed value for 2007 is $534,087. [emphasis mine -P13] - Loudoun County 2008 Assessment Summary
Properties larger than one acre ("Rural Residential") also saw an increase in value (anywhere from 10% - 25%), and represent approximately 2.3% of the taxable properties in Loudoun.

So, the only properties who will see a net increase in their total tax burden (i.e., the County tax increase raises their tax burden by more than $1200) are properties whose values have increased by 2.98% or more between 2007 and 2008. These properties had an average value of $534,087 in 2007. That means that an increase of 2.98% represents an added $15,916 in the value of these houses. So the owed net tax increase is less than 10% of the year-to-year increased value of these homes! Furthermore, these properties are only 17.6% of all taxable properties in the County. So, a tax "increase" is carried by less than 20% of taxpayers, and is only carried by taxpayers who have seen the value of their houses increase by ten times (or more) the cost of the tax increase from 2007 to 2008.

So, at the end of the day, the taxpayers who will actually pay more taxes are those who actually made money in real estate in a down market. These property owners will come out ahead on their real estate investments in spite of the most difficult housing crisis in modern memory and marginally higher taxes.

Just something to keep in mind as these discussions continue.

Beef Recall Hits Virginia Schools

Even though Virginia is one of the best-managed states in the nation, we are still dependent on the Federal Government for many aspects of our quality of life. For example, Virginia does not have a major role in inspecting the food that is used in our institutions, as that is a USDA responsibility (thought the state does inspect restaurants). As with so many things, the Federal Government has not lived up to its responsibilities in this area, and as a result our nation is still reeling from one of the largest beef recalls in history.
The Department of Agriculture issued the largest beef recall in United States history last month after the Humane Society of the United States released undercover video showing workers at Hallmark/Westland Meat Company in Chino, Calif., forcing sick cows onto a slaughterhouse kill floor by using forklifts, electric prods and high-pressure water hoses.

There have been no reported illnesses from the meat, and agriculture officials emphasized that the chances of someone becoming sick was slim. The meat was recalled because cows that cannot stand on their own — called “downer cows” — are typically banned from the human food supply because they are more susceptible to certain illnesses, including mad cow disease. - The New York Times
The terrible downer cow incidents caught on tape led to news that some unsafe beef made it into our schools through the Federal school lunch program. The USDA has released the list of school districts which received tainted beef today, and there are many here in Virginia.

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(From the USDA report on the Hallmark-Westland beef recall.)

The list of affected Districts spans the state, from rich to poor, southwest to NoVA. This is an issue which impacts both Arlington and Danville, and is of equal importance to all Virginians. It is an issue which strikes at the heart of our strength - the quality of the opportunities offered our kids. Virginia's children have the best chance to succeed of any kids in America. By introducing potentially tainted meat into our school systems, the Federal Government has put that remarkable achievement at risk. So far, only a very limited amount of the meat has made it into our kid's lunches, but the fact remains that none of it should have been fed to our kids.

Recalls like these are the consequences of eroded government expertise and competence. The best thing we can do about it is change the people we're sending to Washington, to elect more and better Democrats who care about making the government work for us, not for powerful interests. We need a Democratic President and a strong Congress who will recommit our government to putting the citizens first.

Never again should the government be able to ship bad meat to our kids schools.

[update] Here's what 6th Congressional District candidate Sam Rasoul has to say about the recall.
he Sam Rasoul for Congress campaign believes we must be diligent not to let powerful lobbyists and special interests impact the quality of our nation's food supply by preventing proper oversight. Not only do we risk endangering the health of our citizens, but we also risk damaging our agricultural industries. - Sam Rasoul for Congress

Why We Care Less About Global Warming

In a fascinating study, scientists are discovering why otherwise involved and educated people become so deeply bored when the prospect of global warming is raised.
The more you know the less you care -- at least that seems to be the case with global warming. A telephone survey of 1,093 Americans by two Texas A&M University political scientists and a former colleague indicates that trend, as explained in their recent article in the peer-reviewed journal Risk Analysis.

"More informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming," states the article, titled "Personal Efficacy, the Information Environment, and Attitudes toward Global Warming and Climate Change in the USA."

The study showed high levels of confidence in scientists among Americans led to a decreased sense of responsibility for global warming. - ScienceDaily
So, basically, the more informed you are, the less you care, because the more confident you are that we'll research and invent our way out of the problem.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Loudoun's Tax Rate is $1.14

Last night the Board of Supervisors voted on, and passed, a county property tax rate of $1.14 per $100 of assessed value.
Property taxes in Loudoun County appear to be on the rise, as the Board of Supervisors decided last night to assume a tax rate of $1.14 -- up from the current rate of 96 cents.

The rate is not yet set in stone. It means the county will re-work its proposed budget under the assumed rate to see what expenditures it will be able to finance. A vote to formally adopt a tax rate for fiscal year 2009 is expected April 1.

Jim Burton (Blue Ridge District) moved to adopt the $1.14 tax rate early in last night's work session. The motion was seconded by Sally R. Kurtz (Catoctin District) and passed 5-to-4, with Chairman Scott K. York (At Large), Vice Chairwoman Susan Klimek Buckley (Sugarland Run District) and supervisors Eugene Delgaudio (Sterling District) and Lori Waters (Broad Run District) opposed.

A motion introduced by Buckley and seconded by Kurtz (Catoctin District) to adopt a rate of $1.152 was defeated. - LoudounExtra
This rate will surely stir some impassioned debate in Loudoun, as some sectors lament any increase (never mind the fact that the legally mandated services the County must provide are increasing) and other sectors lament the lack of even greater funding. It is valuable and interesting, before the words start flying, to actually analyze the impact of the new rate on the average Loudoun household.

You can see a house's assessed value on the county website: Loudoun County Real Estate Tax, Assessment & Parcel Database. To calculate what the passed rate means for your 2008 taxes, divide your home's assessed value by 100, then multiply by $1.14. Thus, if you have a $400,000 home, your taxes would be $4,560 for the year ($400,000 / $100 = $4,000 x $1.14 = $4,560). If that house kept the same assessed value from 2007 to 2008, county taxes would increase by $720 from 2007 to 2008, since the 2007 tax rate was $0.96 ($400,000 / $100 = $4,000 x $0.96 = $3,840), a rate which Supervisor Burton said "cut things way too close."

Of course, the average assessment in Loudoun declined 10% in 2008.
While Kaufman did not reveal all of the county's district-by-district information, he said that Sterling saw the greatest decline in residential values, 18 percent on average. Ashburn saw an average drop of 10 percent in every residential category, while condos in Leesburg took the greatest category hit, dropping an average of 30 percent in assessed value. Overall, Kaufman said, the eastern portion of the county saw the largest decline, which he said is natural - Leesburg Today
Thus, a $400,000 home in 2007 would only be worth $360,000 in 2008, changing the tax calculation ($360,000 / $100 = $3,600 x $1.14 = $4,104) and reducing the year-to-year tax increase to only $264. Consider also that inflation was 4% from February 2007 to February 2008. Thus, inflation alone would increase the house's taxes $154, from $3,840 to $3,994.

That means that our Supervisors only increased our taxes $110 more than would have happened from natural inflation alone. That is an effective increase of merely 2.9%, at a time when the school system is absorbing over 3,200 new students each year, meaning they need over $42,000,000 more than last year just to keep everything equal (without any teacher raises or new programs).

But let us not forget that none of this takes place in a vacuum. Loudoun's taxpayers will be receiving anywhere from $300 to $1,200 (or more!) from the Federal Government later this year. So, from a whole-tax-burden perspective, the average Loudoun household actually comes out ahead in 2008, by something in the neighborhood of $100 to $1,100. The Federal stimulus payments will completely cover the County increase with hundreds of dollars left over. Thus, any complaints about "higher taxes" are not only baseless, they're factually disingenuous.

Considered as a whole, everyone's 2008 government taxes will be lower at the $1.14 rate.

Of course, this begs the question, "Why $1.14? Why not $1.15 or $1.21?" The original budget from the County Administrator proposed a $1.216 rate. As late as last night, $1.152 was on the table. The short answer as to why the rate wound up at $1.14 is votes on the Board. A strong plurality were in favor of a radically lower rate, anywhere from Supervisor Delgaudio's $1.07 to Chairman York and Supervisor Waters' $1.10. When Supervisor Buckley proposed a rate of $1.152, which would have enabled the School Board to reward our excellent teachers with some merit increases, only Supervisors Buckley, Kurtz and Burk supported it. To put it simply, the votes for a higher rate were not there.

And so, when a compromise rate of $1.14 was proposed by Supervisor Burton, Supervisors Burk, Miller, McGimsey and Kurtz had the political courage to pass it over the objections of Supervisors Delgaudio, York and Waters, who are not willing to pay for the services we actually need, and Supervisor Buckley, who decided to stand on principle and let her Democratic colleagues make a difficult decision by the barest majority.

It should be noted that even now, the debate is not yet done.
The rate is not yet set in stone. It means the county will re-work its proposed budget under the assumed rate to see what expenditures it will be able to finance. A vote to formally adopt a tax rate for fiscal year 2009 is expected April 1. - LoudounExtra
So, The five Supervisors who voted in favor of this rate did not make it law, they merely established that there is a working majority on the Board of Supervisors who are likely to support a budget at the $1.14 rate when the budget itself is up for a vote. A week remains during which advocates can try to put together their own working majority for a higher (or lower) rate.

It is these kinds of decisions, discussions and compromises that we elected our Supervisors to make. I, for one, applaud the Supervisors for taking a very difficult situation, and making the best of it they could with the votes they had.

Supervisor Kelly Burk gets the last word.
"The previous leadership did not plan for the economic downturn that we all saw coming and they used one-time funding sources to prop up their budgets, and continue to allow and encourage uncontrolled growth that has left us in the situation we find ourselves in today," she said. - LoudounExtra

Coal is Unhealthy, No Really!

Apparently, working with and using coal is unhealthy. While not a surprise, it is always good to have a reminder.
According to Hendryx, as coal production increases, so does the incidence of chronic illness. Coal-processing chemicals, equipment powered by diesel engines, explosives, toxic impurities in coals, and even dust from uncovered coal trucks can cause environmental pollution that could have a negative affect on public health.

According to Hendryx, the data show that people in coal mining communities

* have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease.
* have a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as emphysema.
* are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure (hypertension). - Science Daily
An interesting parallel can be drawn between coal and cigarettes. The fact that cigarettes were bad for you was known and proven for decades before constant repetition of the message and tidal waves of evidence started to impact the rate of smoking in America. It now appears that coal may follow a similar path in the public mind.

The case for coal has always been an economic one. It is a "cheaper" source of energy and adds jobs to the local economies that are otherwise suffering. The evidence presented today demonstrates that the true economic costs of coal are much higher. Coal communities suffer greater healthcare costs, and given the average incomes of these communities, it is the state and the taxpayers that are much more likely to pickup these healthcare costs in the long run. In effect, the coal companies are incurring long-term costs (healthcare externalities) without paying for them.

When the true cost of coal, in environmental impact, health impact and lost alternative opportunities, is accounted for, it becomes clear that better solutions are not only healthier, they are actually cheaper for Virginia in the long-run.

(Crossposted from RaisingKaine.)

LCDC Meeting Notes - March 2008

Last night was the Loudoun County Democratic Committee meeting for March. A lot was said and done, here are the highlights.


  • New Bylaws passed - After three months of discussions and revisions, new Bylaws were passed last night. Under the new Bylaws, quorum is reduced to 30% to accommodate the growth of our committee. There are a number of refinements to be made by amendment which will be discussed in the coming months, but passing the new Bylaws means that implementing those changes will be a lot easier. On a personal note, a huge debt of gratitude is owed to Phyllis, Thom, Gary and Rollie for all their hard work.


  • Photobucket

  • Creigh Deeds Speech - Sen. Creigh Deeds, candidate for Governor, addressed the LCDC last night. The essence of his speech was that Democrats needed to build on the successes we've already had, and work together to elect a Democrat to Congress in the 10th District and to the White House. Of course he hopes for our support in 2009, but there is plenty of work to be done in 2008.

  • LCDC Jefferson-Jackson ("JJ") Dinner - The Loudoun JJ Dinner will be held on Friday April 18th in Lansdowne. Tickets are $125. It promises to be a fantastic event, as Gov. Mark Warner, Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Creigh Deeds and Del. Brian Moran have all said they are coming. Incidentally, Supervisor Kelly Burk is the honorary Chair of the dinner. If you're interested in coming, email jjdinner [at] loudoundemocrats [dot] org.

  • Two Resolutions - The LCDC passed two resolutions last night. The first advocates reforming the primary system. The second expresses opposition to censorship of books and educational materials in schools.

While there were times last night that it seemed we got bogged down by procedures, the truth is that we got a lot more done last night than we have in previous meetings, and got it done in a fashion that complied with the rules we all have agreed to follow. We must ever work to perfect or organization, while always recognizing it will never be truly perfect.

"I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat" - Will Rogers

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Loudoun County in The Economist

Our very own Loudoun County is mentioned in The Economist this week, as an example of the critical exurbs that are trending Democratic in Virginia, and in America as a whole. Remember, Bill Foster's district in Illinois is a Chicago exurb in the same way that the 10th District here is a Washington DC exurb. Here's what the Economist had to say.
Democrats will get some help from rapid change at the very edges of America's cities. A rapid influx of voters has thrown Loudoun county's politics into disarray. The county narrowly plumped for Jim Webb, now Virginia's Democratic senator, in 2006 after years of Republican domination in the area. Tim Buchholz, Loudoun's Democratic committee chairman, says his party held just three of 29 elected county offices in 2003. Now they are running even with the Republicans.

Not only have more Democrats moved in from bluer cities but, critically, more independents have come, too. Now Loudoun politicos say the county comprises roughly one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans and one-third independents. Voting in Loudoun now closely mirrors that of the state at large, which is increasingly competitive because of the population spike around Washington: the Republicans, in other words, can no longer depend on what was once a solid vote for them. Fast-growing exurbs are particularly exposed to the subprime crisis, which will focus minds on economic matters rather than security—John McCain's strength.

If the eventual Democratic nominee is able to appeal to Loudoun's swing voters, he or she has a good shot at taking once deep-red Virginia. Repeat that in exurbs across the country, and the Democrats' chances look good. - The Economist




Loudoun's Democrats have the opportunity this year to help our next President by electing Judy Feder to Congress, providing the Democrat who will win the White House with a strong ally in the critical debates on Iraq and healthcare to come.

In order to do that, however, we need to sustain the success we have had thus far. We must continue to knock on doors, engage our neighbors, and hold the line in local elections in May. That means working today for people like Dave Butler and Karl Phillips so that we can work this Fall for our Congressional and Presidential nominees.

Our world-recognized success only means that the forces of regression and fear will be working all the harder to tear Loudoun down. The difficult decisions faced by our leaders will only make these fights harder. We must offer our elected officials our support even as we help our candidates to win new races. But perhaps most importantly, we must stand united and walk together towards the future, always remembering the words of our forefather, Thomas Jefferson:
"Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

Sen. Deeds in Leesburg Tonight

Gubernatorial candidate Sen. Creigh Deeds will be speaking to the LCDC meeting in Leesburg tonight. The Committee is also trying to get Del. Brian Moran to come to speak. Loudoun is a critical swing county in Virginia, and winning the Gubernatorial primary here is critical to either candidate's nomination path. Sen. Deeds has already started solidifying support in his Valley backyard, even as Del. Moran does the same in his I-95 Corridor backyard.

A major question in nomination campaign between these two leaders is what about the critical downticket races in 2009? There are a sprinkling of lesser-known Democrats considering runs for Lt. Governor and Attorney General. But none of these candidates have the name recognition of their Republican opponents. The best outcome for Democrats would be a unified ticket with both Del. Moran and Sen. Deeds on it in different positions, but that seems remarkably unlikely.

In Virginia, there is always another election immediately on the heels of this one, and good leaders should always be thinking two or three moves ahead.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Supervisors' Unenviable Position

Tonight's Board of Supervisors' meeting promises to be one of the most important, and most difficult, in many years. Gone are the days when Supervisors could sit on the dais, approving any development that came its way and mocking the residents who came before them. Today, our Board of Supervisors faces a difficult series of heart-wrenching decisions. No one will go home happy, and everyone will feel abused by the process.

Tonight, the Board of Supervisors will have to attempt to split the baby, to decide how much of the School Board's budget to fund, and how much revenue must be raised to do so. Regardless of their decision, loud and vocal minorities will run to the press screaming that the Board has made a horrible mistake, forever harming Loudoun's schools, taxpayers, public safety, rule of law or other interest, depending on their point of view.

Welcome to the politics of recession.

Good people who have put their lives and families on hold to stand and serve in elected office in Loudoun are feuding with their long-time friends and colleagues over the funding question. No doubt, the newly energized Loudoun County Republican Committee stands ready to make mischief by blaming the Board for any decision made, regardless of what it is (even as they try to avoid actually dealing with real problems). Never mind the fact that it was the previous Republican-dominated Board that put the county in this position.

And let none of us forget that at the end of the day, no matter what is decided, our County's needs remain the same, and the sources of funding remain constrained by Richmond and the Dillon rule.

Wishing, hoping and complaining will not reduce our need for more schools and teachers. Closing our eyes, covering our ears and saying "lalalalala!" won't reduce our traffic, make our streets safer and preserve our land, air and water for the future.

And yet, we all know many people believe that wishing does make it so. Regardless of any decision made by the Supervisors tonight, people will shout loudly that it was wrong. The level of vitriol and anger reported in the papers will be entirely out of proportion with the level of frustration actually felt by the residents of Loudoun, who largely have much larger worries than whether their local taxes increase by an amount less than the amount the Federal government will be giving away to all taxpayers later this year.

That's worth repeating: The 2008 Stimulus Package means that even a decision to steeply increase local taxes would not actually impact the average Loudoun household's 2008 bottom line. So any lamenting about tax increases is just noise for the sake of noise. In fact, investing that money in our local schools, roads and services is exactly the kind of stimulus package that probably should have been passed by Congress in the first place!

A friend has said that what the Board of Supervisors' is called upon to do is "not fun, but really necessary." Truer, more responsible words have never been spoken. Our Board of Supervisors will do what is not fun, but is really necessary. They will act for the good of us all. We may not like their answer, but the previous Board left us with no good answers. It is the responsibility of those who complain, and those who would excoriate revenue-responsible decisions to make the case for a different model of government. The voters of Loudoun elected this Board to make these difficult decisions, and it is our responsibility to give them the room and time to do so.

Gov. Kaine To Talk Budget in Ashburn

From LoudounExtra:
Gov. Tim Kaine is making a stop in Loudoun County next week.

Kaine has scheduled a town hall meeting from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday in the Farmwell Station Middle School auditorium, 44281 Gloucester Parkway in Ashburn.

The governor will be discussing the state budget and legislation passed during the 2008 General Assembly session. He also will take questions from the public.

No sign-in is required to attend or ask questions. The meeting is open to the public. - LoudounExtra
Keeping in the great tradition of the Warner-Kaine governorships, Gov. Kaine is going out to the voters of the commonwealth to get their feedback on the budget situation in Richmond, and make his case for his priorities.

So come on out Monday and let the Governor answer your questions.

John McCain Should Know

Things a person running for President should know:

1. The difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam. This fundamental divide in the Muslim world is essential to understanding the potential for conflict and cooperation in the Middle-East, as well as an important factor in respecting the people who control the Oil on which the industrial economy depends.

Of course, John McCain completely misunderstood this important distinction, while standing in Jordan, on the very land which lives and breathes these distinctions. (With a tip-o-the-hat to DailyKos.)



2. Basic Economics. Given the horrifying shape of our economy, and the "welfare for the rich, warfare for the poor" policies of The Executive, it is pretty important to have a President who at least understands that you cannot have "zero interest rates" and "no inflation." The two are, by definition, mutually exclusive.



3. Americans want to leave Iraq. A strong majority of Americans are opposed to American involvement there. 61% want the next president to remove American troops from Iraq. (The last time 60% of Americans agreed on anything, it was opposition to warrantless surveillance, and the Republicans opposed that too.) It is the duty of Presidential candidates to have a responsible plan for Iraq, not an open-ended commitment filled with wishes and dreams.



It is time for a President who has demonstrated knowledge and judgment in his or her thinking on foreign policy, the economy, and war.

[update] RaisingKaine has more.
There's been plenty of talk about how the media had already "vetted" Hillary Clinton and how Barack Obama is going through the process now. When is the media going to start taking a good, hard look at John McCain? Ever? - TheGreenMiles

Trees for Tech

The Virginia Tech tragedy impacted our community of Leesburg. Many of our neighbors have children who go to Tech and new those impacted most deeply by the events there. Some of our citizens are working on a memorial to the tragedy for Ida Lee park, and they need our help.
The Virginia Tech Memorial Grove At Ida Lee Park

The Virginia Tech Memorial Grove will be located on the southeast corner of Ida Lee Park and adjacent to Union Cemetery in Leesburg, Virginia. This landscaped grove of ornamental and shade trees memorializes those who tragically lost their lives on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007 and is in response from the Town of Leesburg citizens.

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The tree species selected for the site will include: Japanese Maple (4), Crimson King Maple (7), and Village Green Zelkova (21).

For the contribution of $250 or more, you, your family, business, or corporation can sponsor one of these trees soon to be planted as a living tribute to these fallen students and faculty. However any donation, regardless of the amount, will be acceptable. For your generous memorial gift, your name will be permanently placed nearby on a metal and stone marker for recognition of your community support.

Dedication of the Virginia Tech Memorial Grove at Ida Lee Park is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 12, 2008. The public is welcomed.

You may send your tax-deductible check made payable to the Town of Leesburg (Please note on memo line: “VA Tech Memorial Grove”) to: Town of Leesburg, Parks and Recreation Department, 50 Ida Lee Drive, NW, Leesburg VA 20176, ATTN: VA Tech Memorial Grove.

For more information online at www.leesburgva.gov, or call the Leesburg Town Park and Recreation Office at (703) 777-1368. Or try the Web site of the local Virginia Tech Alumni Association chapter at: www.alumni.vt.edu/ncr/.

Please consider supporting this worthwhile cause in our community – The Virginia Tech Memorial Grove at Ida Lee Park.
If you can help, please consider a donation to the memorial. And please come out on Saturday April 12th for the dedication.

Awayness II

Sorry I've been largely absent for the past little while. A combination of work, travel and holidays made it very difficult to regularly.

Some quick observations from the past few days.

- No matter how disgruntled, some Republicans simply cannot vote for a Democrat. Regardless of the validity of the arguments, evidence at hand, or quality of the Democratic candidate.

- No matter how moderated, some people will consider any support for a given candidate "buying into the myth, hook, line and sinker."

- The politics of local personalities can be very, very nettlesome.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Risk, Regulation and Insurance

From the Marketplace website comes a great idea.
Having heard stories about government bailouts and regulation and why they're both bad, I was wondering if maybe there wasn't a way to relate the two. Require companies to purchase government "bailout insurance" and their premiums will be set based on risk factors just like any other form of insurance. If companies want to dabble in risky behavior or have opaque accounting, fine, but they will have higher premiums. How much various risk factors influence the premium should be under the control of the Fed, giving them another set of controls to work with. New regulations could be eased into enforcement indirectly, and the rate of corporate participation will help establish accurate measures of the cost of compliance. - The Marketplace Confessional
If homeowners in low-lying areas are required to buy flood insurance in order to get Federally-backed loans, why aren't businesses required to by similar insurance?

On NPR this morning Robert Rubin suggested that the Fed might implement margin requirements for new investment instruments, which is also a good idea. I think we should consider implementing both.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Virginia's Coal Economy

Raising Kaine has posted a very compelling perspective on Virginia's coal country and the southwestern corner of our state, to which many of our neighbors here in Loudoun have doubtless never been (save, perhaps, to Blacksburg for a Tech game). Eric and Lowell spent three days there, comparing things there with things here. They cover topics from transportation to the economy and provide a NoVa perspective on SWVA.

Here's a snippet.
But it appears that there really aren't that many options, so despite how bad coal is it still allows people to make a living when they otherwise couldn't.

There are also great arguments for why this is a bad long term solution. When the coal seams disappear the jobs do to - it's not sustainable over the long term for a given area. The health problems that develop over time are horrible. But when a person needs to feed his family today, the long term issues are not important.
...
Short term jobs vs the environment. Short term jobs vs long term family sustainability.

Are these the false dichotomies that another RK poster (Faithfull) mentioned just yesterday? These exclusive choices sure seem real enough - I'd imagine even more so to the people who have to make those choices. No doubt, it's always difficult to invest for your future when your present needs help now.

So is there a way out? A way to break this dichotomy?

Certainly a three day trip has not given me the insight to solve this problem. But based on our discussions, I feel there is hope to find a solution that isn't just the status quo. - RaisingKaine
Go read the whole thing, it's an important story for all Virginia's voters to know and understand.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jim Gilmore Is Contagious

First Jim Gilmore messed up Virginia's balance sheet. Now it turns out he may have had a small role to play in messing up Bear Stearns' balance sheet as well.
Former Governor Jim Gilmore was chairman of a Bear Stearns subsidiary that was set up to market some of its highest-risk securities.
...
There's no indication Gilmore's actions were illegal or improper. But manager Axel Merk says close ties with credit markets dependent on the declining home loan industry through last summer show naivete on Gilmore's part. - The AP via WDBJ7
Our former governor appears to have the reverse Midas touch, every financial endeavor he gets involved with suffers horrible losses that need to be cleaned up by an outside third-party, be it his successor in office or the Federal Government.

For heavens' sake, let's keep this man away from the U.S. Federal Budget. Elect Mark Warner in November!

(With a tip-o-the-hat to MyDD.)

An Interlude: Science and Beer

Is there a relationship between the quality of a scientist and the amount of beer that person drinks?

Yes and no.
According to the study, published in February in Oikos, a highly respected scientific journal, the more beer a scientist drinks, the less likely the scientist is to publish a paper or to have a paper cited by another researcher, a measure of a paper’s quality and importance.

The results were not, however, a matter of a few scientists having had too many brews to be able to stumble back to the lab. Publication did not simply drop off among the heaviest drinkers. Instead, scientific performance steadily declined with increasing beer consumption across the board, from scientists who primly sip at two or three beers over a year to the sort who average knocking back more than two a day. - The New York Times
But remember, correlation does not equal causation, and this is a limited and non-control population.
Some scientists suggest that biologists in the Czech Republic could prove to be an anomaly, given that the country has a special relationship to beer, boasting the highest rate of beer consumption on earth.

More important, as Dr. Grim pointed out, the study documents a correlation between beer drinking and scientific performance without explaining any correlation. That leaves open the possibility that it is not beer drinking that causes poor scientific performance, but just the opposite.

Or, as Dr. Mike Webster, an ornithologist and a beer enthusiast at Washington State University in Pullman, said, maybe “those with poor publication records are drowning their sorrows.” - The New York Times
I give the Times a lot of credit for dedicating sufficient space in the article to explaining a logical fallacy (correlation does not equal causation) as they do to the surprising finding.

The Leesburg Murder and Community

Barack Obama's speech on race, religion and community struck a chord. The echos of its tones have been ringing around my head even as I took my dog for a walk this evening. While outside in the rain - neither me nor the dog really wanted to be there - I overheard some of my neighbors standing in the parking lot, talking. I couldn't make out what they were saying in the squall, but the fact that there was a group standing outside, at night, in the rain, talking, raises the question on any middle-class homeowners' mind: why?

These were our neighbors, from down the block. They are part of Leesburg's small, but visible, hispanic community. Recently, a member of their community was the victim of a terrible murder on our streets. A crime of passion over a failed relationship.


(Narciso Landero-Pons)

The hispanic community in America, and here in Loudoun, has been under siege for a while. The 2007 elections saw appeals to baseless fear of the "other" who does not look or talk like us. Our neighbors to the south in Prince William are busy wasting what little money is in the county coffers hunting for people whose only crime is seeking a better life for their families (the very same thing that brought the vast majority of new people to Loudoun over the past twenty years). And it was not too long ago that the Federal Government sought to make the very act of helping a migrant a crime, turning many of the community resources, like churches, depended on by the so many immigrants, the vast majority of them legal, into potential INS checkpoints. The victim was among that legal majority, though that fact should not, and does not change our horror at his death.
Santos-Machado was in Loudoun on a valid work visa, Simpson said. Most of the victim's family members, including two children, are still living in El Salvador. - Leesburg Today
The Leesburg hispanic community is relatively small and concentrated in one part of town. This is a community that values direct interation with friends and neighbors, a community that walks miles to and from jobs and makes it a point to get together and be a community at every opportunity. It is this community that saw one of its own, a success story, a legal migrant who had bought his own home and sent money back to build two more for his family in El Salvador, murdered, in cold blood, on our streets.

Place yourself in this community for just a moment. Imagine you are on a foreign land, among a small expatriot community in a country that really didn't like you (say, Russia). Though your presence was tolerated, every election cycle opportunistic politicians gin up anger against you for being different. Imagine a few years ago, a law was nearly passed prohibiting the branch of McLean Bible Church that had opened in your city from helping you when you were in trouble. And now imagine one of your own was murdered, by another from your community.

Imagine how that would make you feel. Imagine how the Russians around you would react. Imagine you do not feel safe going to church to grieve with your community, you do not feel comfortable talking to the authorities about what happened.

Imagine that, and perhaps standing, in the dark, in the rain, talking with some of your friends may seem like the best thing you can do.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Power of Words

Throughout this campaign, Barack Obama has been denigrated for being "merely words." But words matter. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" are just words, but words which set the standard by which history judges the nation. "We the people" are just words, but words that forged a nation from bickering colonies. "Of the people, by the people, for the people" are just words, but words which regrounded our nation in the fundamental sovereignty of the voters.

Barack Obama is a man who speaks in such words, with such language. And he does so on the greatest stage in the world - an American Presidential election. And he uses these words to tackle the most difficult, divisive issues we face as a people.

Today, he stood up to his most difficult test, addressing the issues of race and religion in America in the white-hot heat of a nomination battle. And in doing so, he once again proved the power of words.



(With a tip-o-the-hat to DailyKos.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Property Taxes

There are historic reasons why local governments fund most of their operations through property taxes and variants thereof (like taxes paid upon transfer of property), but does anyone really think it is a sustainable, long-term revenue source?
Continuing its budget review sessions the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors last night heard from 10 county departments, some concerned about the struggling real estate market and its affect on the cash-strapped bureaucracy.

Circuit Court Clerk Gary Clemens told supervisors that the number of home foreclosures processed by his department "is not a pretty picture."

Between 2000 and 2006, his department handled 476 deeds of foreclosures, Clemens said. In just January and February of this year, the circuit court has processed 184 foreclosures.

Clemens projected that the court will handle paperwork for more than 2,000 foreclosures by the end of the year. - Leesburg Today
Foreclosures cost the county money to administer, thus turning property transfer from a revenue-positive transaction to, in some cases, a revenue-negative transation. With the dependence of the county on property taxes, the spike in foreclosures is a double whammy on the budget.

There has to be a better way to insure stable and reliable revenue for the county.

Friday, March 14, 2008

On Race in America

There are a million opinions on race in America. In the Virginia blogosphere today are perhaps two of the most well written and compelling pieces of writing on the subject in the past year. If you read nothing else on the question this month, read these.

Vivian J. Paige on Geraldine Ferraro.
As for this election, for the very first time, black women matter. Early on, black women supported Hillary Clinton, some of them, no doubt, because she was a woman. Slowly but surely, through boneheaded missteps of this campaign, she has lost this important voter group. I suspect in many minds it was a pretty easy transition to make. Because, you see, I think black women think of themselves as black first - and women second. It is hard for us to see the injustices of being female when we are whacked over the head daily for being black.

The United States of Jamerica on Affirmative Action.
Affirmative action in - employment and college admissions - is essentially a (so far successful) attempt to use the principle of homophyly against itself. Its an attempt to both use the principle of homophyly to get more minorities into higher positions without the help of a government program (black people will be more willing to promote another black person) and a long-term effort to nullify racial homophyly by expanding everyone’s circle of inclusion beyond race, so that people literally don’t think about racial categories in hiring or education, but equal representation is maintained.
It is days like today that I am proud to be both a blogger, and a Virginian.

Frank Wolf Fails on Mental Health

This just came from the Feder Campaign.
He's at it again. Frank Wolf voted against the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Act. Forty-seven Republicans crossed party lines to vote to end the stigma of mental illness, but Frank Wolf continued adding to his dismal record on health care issues.

Wolf's record on health care includes voting to allow insurance companies, not doctors and patients to make health care decisions, gutting state protections for diseases like diabetes and breast cancer and repeatedly voting against potentially life saving stem-cell research.

As a leader in the fight for quality affordable health care I know we have serious problems with our health care system. Whether it's mental health equity or the need for affordable health care for all Americans, I'll put my expertise and experience to work to finally get something done.

The status quo simply isn't good enough any longer and no one epitomizes the status quo more than Frank Wolf. - Judy Feder
Judy is demonstrating the kind of forward thinking about real, growing problems that the 10th District of Virginia needs in Congress. Go Judy!

[update]In case you were wondering, Frank Wolf is in favor of retroactive immunity for the Telecom companies who illegally helped the Bush administration spy on us as well. Just another rubber stamp for George Bush from his friend Frank.

How To Help Virginia's Democrats in 2008

As we enter a downtime in the 2008 political season, that time between Mississippi and Pennsylvania in the Presidential contest, after the Assembly has passed a budget and adjourned, but before the public positioning and posturing for 2009 begins with a vengeance, it is appropriate to consider what can be done to help our chances in 2008 and 2009 in this downtime.

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The Democratic Party of Virginia has two programs which are specifically designed for front-line Democrats to get involved and help the Party without promising to make a ton of phone calls, donate hundreds of dollars, or knock on hundreds of doors:
  • Neighborhood Leader Program - The Neighborhood Leader Program is for active and concerned Democrats who want to get involved on their own street. People who sign up are asked to promise to talk to 25 neighbors, three times between now and November. For those of us who read the blogs, talking politics is second nature, and talking to one's neighbors is a lot easier than talking to strangers. This program just creates a way for the Party to help organize and manage interactions that are probably happening anyway. If you already talk Democratic politics with your neighbors, friends and families, this is the program for you.

  • Faith in Action - The DNC is sponsoring a nationwide "Faith In Action" campaign for democrats to organize around their faith-based commitments to social justice and the environment.
These are just two of the myriad ways you can get involved this year and help the Democratic Party turn Virginia blue!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why Bill Foster's Win Matters

You might think Bill Foster's victory in the special election for Dennis Hastert's seat is important because it proves that Americans oppose FISA and want out of Iraq.

You might think it's because one vote does matter.

Nope. It's because Bill Foster can code in assembler.
In what appears to be a first, the US House of Representatives now has a Congressman with coding skills. Democratic Representative Bill Foster won a special election this past Saturday in the 14th Congressional District of Illinois. Foster is a physicist who worked at Fermilab for 22 years designing data analysis software for the lab's high energy particle collision detector. In an interview with CNET today, Foster's campaign manager confirmed that the Congressman can write assembly, Fortran and Visual Basic. - Slashdot

An Interlude: On Spitzer and Marriage

Marriage is a mysterious and highly personal institution, that only the two people involved can truly understand, and which others should be cautious about judging too harshly. Gloating over someone else's foibles in that area is just asking for karmic retribution. Nobody is immune from marital problems. - digby

Hospital Politics in Loudoun

It's sad when politics is played with people's health, but that is the nature of the game in America. Witness, for example, the travesty that is Republican opposition to SCHIP. The previous Board of Supervisors made a similar political mess of the question of another hospital center in Loudoun.


(An artist's rendering of the proposed HCA medical campus, from LoudounExtra.)

Here is a little background. Currently, the only hospital system allowed in Loudoun is Inova, which runs Loudoun Hospital Center in Lansdowne. Rival hospital manger HCA proposed a new hospital for Loudoun in 2002.
HCA, one of the largest health care systems in the United States, announced Monday it will locate a new, 180-bed hospital on Broadlands Blvd. in Loudoun County, Virginia, just off the Dulles Greenway between exits 4 and 5.
...
HCA could be facing an uphill battle to gain approval due to the recent growth of Loudoun Hospital Center, which recently filed a letter of intent with HSA to expand its bed size from 133 to about 200. The company is confident the plan will be approved. - Washington Business Journal, 2002
The Washington Business Journal article proved prescient, as the Board of Supervisors, lead by a Republican majority that had usurped the Board Chair's powers, denied the HCA application in 2005.
Supervisor Snow moved that the Board of Supervisors deny SPEX 2002-0030, ZCPA 2004-0006, ZCPA 2004-0007, Broadlands Regional Medical Center, based on and affirming the findings for denial by the Planning Commission dated October 12, 2004 and the recommended denial. Seconded by Supervisor Staton.
...
Supervisor Snow’s motion passed 6-3, Supervisors Burton, Kurtz, and York voted no. - Loudoun County Board of Supervisors minutes, August 1, 2005
At the time, the denial was supposedly based on traffic and safety concerns. Of course, this was the first and only time, up to that point, that Board had ever denied an application for any reason. In what was to be a not uncommon occurrence under the previous Board, HCA subsequently sued Loudoun over the denial.
HCA was prepared to argue that the previous Board of Supervisors' denial of its application to build a hospital on Broadlands Boulevard was arbitrary and capricious, and that the denial violated HCA's rights to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.

The key claim in the lawsuit, HCA's Mark Foust said, was that the board had approved 86 of 87 special exception requests since taking office in January 2004. Only the HCA special exception was denied. - Loudoun Times-Mirror
Our current Board of Supervisors has taken the initiative to try to settle this problem and put it in the past. This involves a resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors last week that allows the lawsuit to be postponed while the application for a hospital in Broadlands is resubmitted by HCA.
I am excited to announce that one of the results of this business meeting was an agreement approved by the Board to settle with HCA regarding their proposed hospital in Broadlands. I have been a strong supporter of this proposed hospital since HCA’s announcement several years ago to locate at this site. If approved, Broadlands Regional Medical Center will become part of our corporate tax base as well as contribute several millions of dollars for road improvements. More importantly, this proposal will offer additional healthcare without giving one entity a monopoly on hospital care in Loudoun County. The meeting summary below [The email from Chairman York had meeting minutes at the bottom -P13] does not reflect this action, as the summary is a reflection of the business meeting as it recessed on Tuesday. This action was done Wednesday evening by reconvening the business meeting. The vote was 5-4 with Supervisors Miller, McGimsey, Burk, Kurtz and York in support. - Scott York, email to constituents
Shortly after the decision by the Board of Supervisors, HCA announced it would be dropping its lawsuit against the County.
HCA Virginia today announced that it will dismiss its legal claims against Loudoun County’s prior Board of Supervisors for denying the company’s zoning request for Broadlands Regional Medical Center (BRMC), which were scheduled for trial beginning Monday, March 10, in Loudoun County Circuit Court. - HCA Press Release
According to HCA's Mark Foust, HCA is dropping all legal claims arising from the specific actions of the previous Board of Supervisors, thus the current Board of Supervisors has succeeded in reducing the County's legal exposure from decisions made by the previous board. Credit is due to Supervisors Miller, McGimsey, Burk, Kurtz and York for taking action on behalf of the County's budget and legal liability.

The basic questions surrounding the Broadlands Regional Medical Center at issue in 2005 are still at issue today. The Broadlands hospital would be in a location not zoned for a hospital, thus requiring a Comprehensive Plan Amendment (CPAM). The current Board has been more cautious when it comes to approving CPAMs than the previous board.

Furthermore,
"The residents of that area made it loud and clear to the previous BOS and Planning Commission that they expected a quiet neighborhood when they bought their homes there, not a 24 by 7 all night parade of emergency vehicles running up and own the streets of their community." - greyghost, comment, Leesburg Today
The questions of land use and neighborhood impact arise with this development, as they do with any development.

Additionally, progress is being made already on a proposal from Inova for a hospital on Rt. 50, which may be impacted by an approval of the Broadlands center.
Inova Health System, parent corporation of Inova Lansdowne Hospital, is making headway in its request to build a second hospital in the Aldie area of U.S. 50, with the Board of Supervisors moving the application into the Transportation and Land Use Committee. - The Loudoun Times-Mirror
Only one of the two potential hospitals, HCA in Broadlands or Inova in Aldie, is likely to be approved, given the manner in which hospital regulatory approval works.

Adding even more mud to the waters are questions surrounding the sources of support for and against the hospital. The organization spearheading opposition to Broadlands Medical Center is Concerned Citizens of Broadlands. The head of the organization actually works for HCA's rival, Inova.
About 25 members of the Concerned Citizens of Broadlands a residents group against the proposed HCA Virginia hospital in Broadlands, came to the Board of Supervisors public input session last week to show their opposition to the project. Of those 25, several were couples and families with children.

Honestly, I was expecting a larger turnout of residents opposed to the Broadlands Regional Medical Center (BRMC). After all, Donna Fortier, a Broadlands resident who has been vehemently opposed to the hospital and is now employed by Inova Health System, claims her anti-BRMC e-mail list is up to 2,500. [emphasis mine -P13] - Living in LoCo
Not to be outdone, there are indicators that HCA has also retained professional assistance to shape the debate over hospitals in Loudoun. For example, The Washington Post's rendering of the proposed facility (used above) was provided by The Casey Group, a local PR firm.

Our Board of Supervisors will have to decide this application on its merits. Though the application promises to be largely the same as the one denied in 2005, at least four supervisors (Burk, McGimsey, Miller, and Buckley) have not yet seen it. With Burton, Kurtz and York already on the record as in favor, only two of the new Supervisors would have to agree for it to be approved.

In the end, it is all sadly political. One group of residents, probably egged on by Inova, has agitated against this hospital for a number of years, retroactively providing cover for a questionable decision by the previous Board of Supervisors. And yet, even as support for their opposition has waned (as evidenced by the relatively low turnout at the recent Supervisor's hearing on the question), HCA has used a lawsuit and local PR help to overturn their previous loss and move forward with their project.

Regardless of the Supervisors' decision, someone's ox will get gored in the short-term and there will some anger and frustration expressed. However, ten years from now, Loudoun's citizens will be benefiting from more available medical care, be it in the form of the Broadlands Regional Medical Center or the proposed facilities on Rt. 50. And that is, quite simply, a good thing.