Last week while Democrats in the North Carolina House of Representatives were attending a 9/11 remembrance service, Republicans called a surprise vote to overturn the Democratic governor’s veto of the state budget. While Democrats and media were told that there would be no voting during the morning session, Democrats’ attendance at the vigil allowed Republicans to get the three-fifths vote needed to over-ride the veto.
Reaction to the maneuver has been harsh. The Charlotte Observer in an editorial said that “the verdict is now plain. North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders–not actually leaders but connivers–are beyond shame.” The paper described what happened as a “stunning display of contempt for democracy…but this isn’t a case simply of hardball politics and sly legislative maneuvering. This is a case of breaking faith with the people…” The Senate must concur on the over-ride before it becomes effective.
Before Virginians get too smug about what happened in North Carolina we must remember what happened in the Virginia General Assembly about a month ago. With the continuing string of mass murders in the country–beginning about the time of the massacre at Virginia Tech that for a while was the largest ever and continuing through a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building–Governor Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly to consider several bills intended to reduce gun violence. The special session convened on July 9 to take up bills related to gun violence but without notice to Democrats or media the Republican majority adjourned 90 minutes later without taking up any of the bills and with a return date scheduled after the elections.
There were no bills among those introduced to respond to gun violence that would have confiscated guns or altered the Second Amendment. They were common-sense bills that according to all public opinion polls I have seen are supported by more than 80 percent and some by more than 90 percent of the public. The experience in Virginia can be described by the same terms of that in North Carolina: contempt for Democracy, a travesty of the process, legislative deceit. You may have seen news reports that the Republican floor leader in the Virginia House received a $200,000 campaign contribution from the NRA several weeks later.
Partisan control of the Virginia House and Senate are on the line this November 5 as all 140 seats are on the ballot. There are numerous critically important issues on the ballot that it would take several columns to enumerate. I do want to add one that gets too little discussion and that is legislative reform. Such reform includes independent drawing of legislative district lines, or getting rid of gerrymandering, that allows the abuses of legislative power in North Carolina and Virginia that are discussed here. As the Charlotte Observer said of the situation in North Carolina, “It was an illegitimate majority acting in an unethical way.”
What happened in both states demonstrates once again that the speakership be defined not as the head of the majority party but as an impartial and fair leader. In both instances the speakers of their respective houses should have stopped these episodes of legislating by skulduggery.
People who work in early childhood and day care programs have known intuitively and anecdotally for a long time that children in their programs were much more likely to be successful by a number of different measures than were children who did not have access to their programs.
Now, however, there are many longitudinal studies that provide empirical evidence that there is an exponential payback from programs aimed at young children. Children who have early learning experiences in quality preschool programs are much more likely to be successful in school and much less likely to be in trouble with the law or to be on public assistance programs.
The return on public investment in preschool education is not immediate; it accrues over time as the young person becomes a teenager then an adult. Just as one of the secrets to financial investments is to leave your money in place for long-term returns, policy makers must recognize that the returns for funding quality day care and preschool education programs are not realized for decades or more.
As Arthur Rolnick and Robert Gruenewald of the Minnesota Federal Reserve Board have said, “Early childhood development programs are rarely portrayed as economic development initiatives. They should be at the top of economic development investment lists for state and local government.”
Unfortunately the budgeting process in the public sector does not work favorably for programs with long-term payback. In a time of recession or sluggish recovery, there is an understandable reluctance to spend money without an obvious and clear benefit. Saving dollars in future projections is not helpful to public officials who must make ends meet when there is not enough money to go around.
Recent innovations in early childhood education are often the first to be cut because there is no immediate feedback about their successes and there are no alumni associations to lobby on their behalf. Those most in need may be the least likely to speak up in the community and before legislative bodies. Obviously the children cannot do it, but too many times their parents lack the knowledge and skills to do so as well.
Fortunately many faith communities have taken up the challenge and operate day care and preschool programs as part of their missions or social justice activities. These same institutions are important voices on behalf of the needs of children as are nonprofits like Voices for Virginia Children and Every Child Matters that advocate on behalf of children for anti-poverty, feeding and educational programs. Devotion to Children provides scholarships to needy families for day care services.
At a time when food stamp programs are being reduced and educational dollars are becoming scarce, it is important that legislators see and understand the long-term benefits of investing in our children.
Del. Ken Plum (D-36th) represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. He writes a weekly opinion column on Reston Now. He can be reached at [email protected].
Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe hit the ground running when the day after his election he announced his transition team and a webpage at which he solicits ideas and suggestions and invites resumes from those who want to work in his administration.
His approach of assembling a bipartisan transitional team, moving quickly and seeking input are crucial for Virginia at an important transitional time. Last week, I talked about many of the issues like Medicaid expansion that were debated during the campaign and need immediate attention. There are many other issues that do not get as bright a spotlight but deserve serious attention. One is the natural landscape of Virginia and the quality of its air and water.
More than a month ago, VIRGINIAforever, a coalition of concerned businesses, environmental organizations and outdoor enthusiasts, presented to the gubernatorial candidates a five-year plan, “Investing in the Commonwealth’s Land and Water.” As the report points out, Virginia’s population has doubled in the last 50 years putting great stress on our land and water.
The Commonwealth has a constitutional requirement unique among the states “to protect its atmosphere, lands and water from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.” Virginia currently spends just over one percent of its budget on land conservation and water quality improvements. As the title of the report suggests, it will be necessary to “invest” more greatly if the goals of the report are to be met. But investing also suggests that there is an expected return.
Part of the changing landscape of Virginia is the loss of farmland. Since 1997 nearly 150,000 acres of farmland have been converted to other uses. A drive through the Shenandoah Valley can provide immediate visual evidence of the change. While the new use is justified in economic terms, it needs to be recognized that farming and forestry has nearly a $100 billion impact on Virginia’s economy.
The report calls for Virginia to protect 120,000 acres of farmland over the next five years through the use of tax credits. And, in order to meet the growing demand for state parks at a recommended level of 10 acres of park per 1,000 Virginians it will be necessary to conserve an additional 18,000 acres by 2020.
Only about one-third of Virginia’s 52,255 miles of rivers have been assessed for impairment, and of those assessed waters 71 percent are impaired for one or more uses as are over 80 percent of Virginia’s lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, according to the VIRGINIAforever report.
One of the most important statements in the report is that “concerns about cleaning up our polluted waters often fall back on predictions of negative consequences for the economy. Experience has not just disproven the concern that environmental restoration threatens economic prosperity, it has demonstrated just the opposite—economies cannot thrive in a world of depleted and degraded natural resources, and in fact, innovation, investment, and competition have spurred job growth in new sectors just when traditional sectors were faltering.”
The nature of Virginia must be a priority of the new administration!
Ken Plum (D-36th) represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. He writes a weekly column for Reston now. He can be reached at [email protected].
Recently, I was asked to participate in a workshop for a group of leaders who were planning a future for their organization. Specifically, I was asked to discuss the characteristics of our community of Reston. While I try to stay on top of trends and am out in the community on a daily basis, I learned a lot preparing for the presentation at the workshop.
While the 400 square miles of Fairfax County are about average size for a county in Virginia, there is little else average about us in the state or in the nation for that matter. Virginia is the 12th-largest state in population among the 50 states, but the 1.1 million people in Fairfax County is larger in population than any other jurisdiction in Virginia. Richmond has just over 200,000 people; Washington, D.C. just over 600,000.
Virginia is the eighth-wealthiest state in household income, but the Northern Virginia jurisdictions of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Arlington have the highest level of household income in the nation. In fact, the median household income in Fairfax County is more than twice that of the United States.
That is not to say that everyone in Fairfax County is wealthy. We have the same income gap between the top and bottom incomes as exists throughout the country. While Fairfax County has a seemingly low rate of poverty at six percent, that rate translates into 72,000 individuals; a low rate but a high number! Eight percent of children under eight were below the poverty level compared with four percent of people 65 years and over. Thirteen percent of families with only a female head of household present had incomes below the poverty level.
Just as our county’s population has gone from about 454,000 in 1970 to 1.1 million today with an expected growth to 1.37 million in 2040, the population has become more diverse. Thirty percent of the people living in Fairfax County are foreign born. Of the foreign born, just over half were born in Asia, about 30 percent in Latin America, and the rest from throughout the world.
The diversity of our population by ethnicity and race can best be seen in our schools that are themselves diverse in different ways. Hunters Woods Elementary is 33 percent Asian while nearby Dogwood Elementary is 60 percent Hispanic. Lake Anne Elementary is 37 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic and 21 percent black. Nearby Forest Edge is 40 percent white, 18 percent Asian, 20 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic. Demographic information is available on each public school’s website.
The population of Fairfax County is among the best educated in the country. Of persons age 25 and older, 28 percent have advanced degrees beyond the bachelor’s, 30 percent have bachelor’s degrees, and only about eight percent have less than a high school education.
All these characteristics make our community unique and special. A wonderfully diverse population with very different backgrounds and needs contributes to our special culture. I would not want to live anywhere else in the world.
Reston resident Ken Plum has represented Virginia’s 36th District in the Virginia House of Delegates since 1982. Plum’s campaign is Reston Now advertiser.