Virginia Cannot Afford Transportation and Climate Initiative

Few issues were more important during my time in the General Assembly than transportation funding. Representing a district filled with long-distance commuters and congested highways, it always was a struggle to balance the need for funds against public reluctance to raise taxes.

One compromise in 2013 raised transportation revenue during my tenure as speaker of the House of Delegates and the 2020 General Assembly approved another set of tax increases, including an automatic escalator on future fuel taxes. Parts of the state will see their state gasoline taxes doubled by next summer to almost 35 cents per gallon, and then continue to rise.

Yet transportation dollars — not taxes, just dollars — will begin shrinking again if the General Assembly decides to join the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). That agreement would require us to join 11 other states and the District of Columbia in imposing a regional carbon tax on fuels. The tax would be coupled with a declining annual cap on the number of gallons for sale in the region.

The goal of the interstate compact is to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from transportation fuels by 25% over 10 years. Basically, that translates to 25% fewer gallons sold in 2031 than in 2022, despite any population growth during those 10 years. Fuel taxes remain the primary source of transportation funding, so that means steady declines in revenue for highway construction and maintenance, mass transit and rail.

Supporters of the TCI estimate the initial carbon tax — imposed as an allowance that wholesalers must buy at auction — will add 17 cents per gallon to the price of fuel in Virginia. The Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy had another set of economists examine the proposal, and they project the increased costs instead will be 33 cents per gallon for gasoline and 28 cents per gallon for diesel.

In those areas of Virginia where the gasoline taxes doubled from June 2020 to July 2021 it almost will double again. The Beacon Hill Institute calculated the economic impact on Virginia, since such massive fuel price increases touch every industry, product or service dependent on transportation, at just under $1 billion per year. Assuming those costs find their way to consumers (and most will), it approaches $700 per year, per household.

No one can be sure of the costs until the regional auctions for fuel allowances begin, and each auction will produce a slightly different result. Each year’s auction also will allow fewer and fewer available gallons of fuel, and that dropping supply is a major reason allowance prices will be bid up. In a few years we might envy those Virginians who live near our four neighboring states that are not in this compact.

The billions of dollars collected by the TCI allowance sales will not be spent on highway construction or maintenance. The bulk of the funds will be spent trying to divorce Virginians from their internal combustion engines by subsidizing electric vehicles and charging stations, and promoting alternatives such as bicycle lanes and walking trails. Any subsidies provided to mass transit may just replace the funds being lost through declining collection of traditional fuel taxes.

Will this achieve the ultimate goal of the program architects? Will it make a difference in the projected increases in global average temperatures, which many blame on carbon dioxide emissions? No. Using the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) model used by those most worried about climate change, the lower emissions will lower future temperatures by 0.0001 degrees centigrade.

The TCI advocates understand this is not a climate solution and instead are touting the various ways the revenue will be spent, with an emphasis on claiming to serve low-income and urban populations. That demonstrates this simply is a tax increase, taking money from one group of citizens to spend on another group of citizens. The biggest winners likely are to be the electric vehicle industry and its customers. The biggest losers will be low- and middle-income households dependent on their cars.

The Virginia General Assembly already has imposed a carbon tax on electricity that will increase everybody’s power bills starting next year. It has mandated construction of wind and solar electricity generators that will cost Virginians billions more than fossil fuel alternatives over the next 10 years. This new carbon tax on fuel actually will cost people more but reduce revenue for roads and bridges, which even electric vehicles need, so expect yet more taxes for those. Virginia cannot afford this.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the November 16, 2020 issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Contact him at: info@thomasjeffersoninst.org

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Outcome Disputes May Help Kill Electoral College

The battle is now rejoined to kill the Electoral College and elect a U.S. President in 2024 based purely on the national vote total. The stubborn refusal of President Donald J. Trump and many other Republicans to accept the November 3 outcome is likely to become a new talking point for Electoral College foes.

Trump and his legal team see a path to victory if they can reverse votes in a handful of states he narrowly lost, by challenging votes or forcing recounts. Without the Electoral College process, the effort would be futile in the face of President-elect Joe Biden’s huge popular vote margin of victory. If the public grows tired of or even angry over the dispute, scrapping the Electoral College entirely may become more attractive.

With House Bill 177, the Virginia House of Delegates voted earlier this year to have Virginia join a compact of other states which have agreed to award their votes in the Electoral College to the highest national vote recipient, without regard to the outcome among their own state’s voters.

That bill was carried over to next session in a State Senate committee, but under Senate rules could be revived if voted on by early December. The chair of that committee, Senator Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, told Bacon’s Rebellion today he will not be calling that meeting to look at carry-over bills.

But he also said his main objection to the idea in February was that it might be seen as an effort to affect this year’s election. That concern is now passed, and the 2024 election is far in the future. Fresh bills will be introduced in January.

Deeds had made similar comments, but no announcement about the meeting, in a Richmond television interview a few days ago. But in the interview, which you can watch or see here, he also sounded open to the proposal. Only one Democrat WRIC Channel 8 talked to, Roanoke Senator John Edwards, expressed opposition. He believes the approach of the compact violates the United States Constitution, which established the Electoral College. He wants to scrap it, but not via the compact.

The final weeks of campaign coverage and now the post-election disputes over a relative handful of votes illustrate the importance of the Electoral College.  There might not have been any suspense at all had it not been possible to win the White House without winning the popular vote, as has happened several times in American history including 2016.

Some hoped that an election where the popular vote total matched the Electoral College outcome might dampen the ardor for change.  It is not to be, and Virginia’s coming decision on the issue will matter greatly. The close outcome has also revived the idea of awarding electoral votes by the outcome in individual congressional districts, not by state, but implemented nationally that helps the Democrats, too.

Ending the Electoral College is the major step still outstanding in the well-executed Democratic Party effort to remake American elections. The same master plan, played out over the past few years in Virginia and other states, has been built on the presumption that a massive increase in voter participation would accrue to Democratic benefit. It did this time. Republicans now need to learn to play on this new field.

The steps that built that record turnout included easier restoration of rights for felons, ending photo identification requirements, expanding absentee and early voting opportunities, and allowing ballots arriving post-election to get counted. In Virginia, the Democrats even tried to remove the need for a postmark on mailed absentee ballots and did end the requirement for a witness signature.

were individual pieces in a plan not to cheat or steal the election, but to change the rules in ways Democrats considered favorable to their chances. And when it was done through legislative actions, fine, that’s how the game is played. Doing it through regulations or judicial activism is more debatable.

An end to the Electoral College would be the jewel in the crown, creating an incredible uphill climb for any future GOP contender. The key lesson of legislative life is “what goes around, comes around,” and some Democrats may think hard about what happens when a future national popular votes goes against them. But short-term thinking is all the rage these days.

A version of this commentary originally appeared on November 9, 2020 in the online Bacon’s Rebellion.

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What Works: Helping Students Complete Their College Degrees

In Virginia, nearly 30% of students who enroll in community college or four-year college fail to complete their degrees within six years. There is widespread agreement across the political spectrum that it would be a good thing if more students completed their degrees and fewer dropped out of college after loading up on student-loan debt they can never repay. The question is, how do we improve the college completion rate?

Recently, I highlighted analysis found in a study by Rachel Fulcher Dawson, Melissa S. Kearney, and James X. Sullivan, “Comprehensive Approaches to Increasing Student Completion in Higher Education,” that shed light on why students drop out of college. Today, as promised, I focus on eight programs they have identified that measured their results in raising the completion rate. These include:

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) was developed by the City University of New York (CUNY) in 2007. This program assigns full-time, low-income students to advisors with small caseloads to help them to transition to college life, navigate their college campus, plan a career path, and access additional supports if they fall off track. The program provides tuition waivers, a MetroCard, and free use of textbooks. The program achieved an 18 percentage point increase in degree completion, twice the graduation rate of a control group. But it was extremely expensive — $42,000 per student for a three-year program.

Stay the Course (STC) was designed and implemented by Catholic Charities Fort Worth. This comprehensive program places students from low-income families with trained social workers, called navigators, who provide coaching, mentoring and referral services. Enrollees have access to limited emergency financial assistance. This program has been most successful with females, showing a 31.5 percentage point increase in associates degree completion for females, three-times higher than the control group. The cost is $5,640 per student over three years.

Inside Track is an independent, nonprofit provider of coaching services that combine different methods, curricula and technologies. It serves students from all income levels but students tend to be non-traditional with an average age of 31. Students are matched to coaches who support them, by telephone and digital communications, through the start of college and through the first year. Coached students were four percentage points more likely to graduate. Cost: $500 per student per semester.

One Million Degrees, founded in 2006, provides comprehensive supports to community colleges in Chicago, serving first-time, low-income students with at least a year of college remaining and a GPA of 2.0 or higher. The program pairs students with a program coordinator with whom they meet at least months to address challenges and plan a path for success. The program provides performance-based stipends, last-dollar scholarships, an skill-building workshops, advising and coaching. One-year persistence participating in the program was 20.7 percentage points higher, a 35% increase over the control group. Cost: $2,500 to $3,000 per student per year.

Project Quest, founded in 1992 in San Antonio, Texas, provides financial assistance, remedial instruction in math and reading, counseling to address personal and academic concerns, referrals to outside agencies for other assistance, and weekly meetings focused on life skill like time-management and study skills. In six- and nine-year follow ups, participants had significantly higher earnings. Cost: $10,501 per student.

Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS), launched in 2016 by the University Innovation Alliance based on a model piloted at George State University, addresses the lack of “know how” of many low-income and first-generation students. Counselors help students navigate key academic choices, provides real-time alerts prompted in part through analytics-based tracking when they go off path, and intervenes to get students back on an appropriate academic path. Participants in Georgia State accumulated 1.2 more credits and 0.17 point higher cumulative GPA. Other campuses have yet to see an effect on persistence so far. Cost: not available.

Opening Doors, based in Ohio, serves both part- and full-time lower-income students. Students have access to counselors with relatively low caseloads (157 cases on average) and meet at least twice per semester for two semesters. Students are eligible for a $150 stipend for each semester. The program showed no significant increase in credits earned over a three-year follow up period. Cost: not available.

Student Achievement and Retention Project (Project Star) was implemented at a large Canadian university in 2005. All first-year students were randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups. One offered a full set of support services, including mentoring by upperclassmen and supplemental instruction; a second received cash awards up to a full year of tuition by meeting a target GPA; a third offered a combination of services and incentives. The program was not continued beyond the life of the research study. The program showed an increase in GPA and credits earned for first-year female students, but none for males. Cost: $739 per student per year.

Bacon’s bottom line: This overview lends itself to some conclusions. First, some programs make no measurable difference. Second, the more impactful programs apply greater resources and are more expensive. Even then, success is not guaranteed. The program with the best results, CUNY’s ASAP program, costs $42,000 per student over three years. That’s far too expensive for Virginia to contemplate funding with public dollars, and beyond the means of the philanthropic community for more than a few students.

The underlying assumption of all these programs is that failing students require one of two things: more counseling or more financial support. On occasion, that may be exactly what the doctor ordered. But how often?

Two programs showed results for female students, but not for males. Clearly, male college students confront a different set of challenges that aren’t being addressed. Are program designers taking this reality into account?

Virginia data for four-year colleges shows that 22.8% of higher-income families fail to graduate within six years. That’s a lot of students for a demographic segment that, according to the assumptions that animate these programs, should have few problems. The truth is that mental illness and substance abuse are shockingly common and a cause of student failure at all socioeconomic levels.

To be sure, the dropout percentage is higher for students from lower-income Virginia families — 42.2%. But we don’t know if the problems are due to a lack of money, which financial aid can address, or due to family circumstances, which financial aid cannot fix, or a combination of the two.

We still have a lot to learn about what works. Any initiatives we pursue — such as a program scheduled to go into effect this year to means test Virginia community tuition and provide financial assistance for low-income students for when “life gets in the way,” to use Governor Ralph Northam’s words — should be carefully tracked to see if they make a measurable difference. If they work, we can expand them. If they don’t, we should fix them or pull the plug.

A version of this commentary originally appeared on November 16, 2020 in the online Bacon’s Rebellion.

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President-Elect Biden Will Rejoin Paris Climate Accord

President-Elect Joe Biden is planning to quickly sign a series of Executive Orders shortly after being sworn in on January 20, 2021. This is according to media outlets.

The Washington Post states “He [Biden] will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and…[fulfill] commitments he has made in recent months, and he will reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.”

Look for new limits on agricultural activities because agriculture is accused of emitting millions of tons of greenhouse gases.

Tax dollars to developing countries

More money will come from the United States and other industrialized countries to provide financial assistance for global environmental initiatives if Mr. Biden has the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Accord.

In October 2019, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) evaluated U.S. financial commitments already expended pursuant to the Paris Climate Agreement (more here). Many observers, including alleged President-Elect Biden, state that “…industrial countries [should] take the lead in addressing these issues…” The CRS report states “The United States and other industrialized countries have committed to providing financial assistance for global environmental initiatives…”

This means the United States will send hundreds of millions of dollars to lower-income countries. President Trump wanted to stop this out flow of taxpayer funds to these countries, where many of the governments are alleged to be corrupt.

What is the GEF?

In Article IV in the Paris Convention, higher income parties will agree to the full costs incurred by a developing country. The Convention established the Global Environmental Facility in 1991 as an international financial institution to provide monies and foster actions in developing countries, in an effort to halt climate change. The GEF is now the financial mechanism for the United States to send money. The George H. W. Bush administration supported creating the GEF in 1991 and since that time the U.S. has sent to the GEF $430 million in 1994, $430 million in 1998, $430 million in 2002, $320 in 2006, $575 million in 2010, $546 million in 2014, and $273 million in 2018.

Since 1994 the U.S. contributed approximately $2.7 billion to the GEF!

In the Cancun Climate Agreement there was a “…pledge by the developed country Parties to achieve a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion per year by 2020 to address the climate finance needs of developing countries.”

And now, the Green Climate Fund

Beginning in November 2014 the Obama Administration pledged $3 billion over 4 years. In 2016 the Obama State Department sent $500 million and on January 17, 2017, it sent another $500 million tax dollars to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). In 2018 President Trump submitted a budget request to eliminate U.S. funding of the GCF. On June 1, 2017 President Trump stated his desire to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

It appears the alleged President-Elect Biden will reverse the effects of the Trump Administration’s announced withdrawal from the $100 billion agreement.

Countries are concerned about the problems posed by climate change. It is believed trans-boundary changes to the environment pose incalculable risks to human populations, economies, and ecosystems. In an effort to reduce these risks some observers believe industrialized countries must help lower-income countries mitigate climate change. International financial assistance has been the principle avenue by which higher-income countries support environmental issues in lower-income countries.

The question for all U.S. agriculture is the various ways it will be called upon to reduce this risk, and to provide funds to alleged corrupt countries around the world.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the online Farm Futures on November 10, 2020.  The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

 

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Virginia’s New Political Landscape

2020 presidential election map. Source: Virginia Public Access Project

So, where do yesterday’s elections leave us?

We don’t know who won the presidential election, and we probably won’t know for days, if not weeks. Still, we can draw some meaningful conclusions.

Virginia remains a solid blue state. The Democrats’ political dominance has jelled. With 98.44% of votes reported, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the presidential election by 53.7% to 44.5% — a nine-point margin. Democratic Senator Mark Warner trounced his Republican opponent Daniel Gade by an eleven-point margin. And Democrats won, or were poised to win six of eleven House seats, with only the election between incumbent Abigail Spanberger and challenger Nick Freitas too lose to call.

Northern Virginia has transformed the demographic equation. Not only do a handful of Northern Virginia localities dominate Virginia’s electorate in the absolute number of voters, NoVa is lopsidedly blue. Biden’s margin of victory was 64.7% in Arlington County, 62.% in Alexandria, 41.9% in Fairfax County, 28.7% in Prince William County, and 24.7% in Loudoun County.

Democrats dominated big-metro suburbs. But there was more to the Democratic Party victory in the Old Dominion than Northern Virginia. Biden swept the most populous suburban jurisdictions. He captured a small majority of votes in Stafford County, traditional red territory. In Hampton Roads he dominated Virginia Beach by a 7.6% margin and Chesapeake by a 6.1% margin. In metro Richmond, Biden blew out Trump by 5.9% in Chesterfield and by an astonishing 27.8% in Henrico County.

Trump hatred as a factor. Have Republicans irretrievably lost Virginia’s suburbs? The conventional media wisdom is that the polarizing figure of Donald Trump alienated suburban women. I expect the in-depth, post-electoral analysis will support that conclusion. Gone are the days of the “angry white male.” Now we live in the era of the “angry white female.” Trump hatred was surely exacerbated in Northern Virginia by the relentless pounding by the Washington Post where, one is tempted to believe, senior editors imposed a quota of at least three explicitly anti-Trump articles on the front page each and every day. But female loathing of the president extended far beyond NoVa.

The polarization is bigger than Trump. If President Trump leaves the White House in January, Virginia will remain a deeply divided place. Republicans may constitute a permanent minority in the Old Dominion now, but they remain a large permanent minority. And I expect they feel more deeply alienated from the dominant cultural institutions and the political power structure than ever. Many working-class and middle-class voters see Trump as their tribune protecting them from the depredations of an increasingly assertive oligarchy. They regard the dominant left wing of the Democratic Party as a soft-totalitarian movement that is determined to refashion not only the political structure, not only the economic structure, but every facet of society — and crush anyone willing to stand in its way.

Culture wars never die. They don’t even fade away. In Washington, it appears that Republicans will retain a slim majority in the U.S. Senate, not to mention a six-to-three majority in the Supreme Court. They will have the institutional means to resist Democratic overreach if Biden ascends to the presidency (with Kamala Harris replacing him shortly thereafter if Biden’s encroaching senescence renders him unfit for office or if the Hunter Biden scandal finally engulfs him).

But Republicans have no such power centers in Virginia. Democrats control all three statewide offices, the state Senate, and the House of Delegates. Their ideological allies in the media totally dominate news coverage and frame the issues to the liberal/progressive advantage. Progressives are transforming K-12 education, and universities are reinventing itself as political indoctrination centers, especially in matters of race. Left-leaning nonprofits are flush with cash and aggressively pushing their agendas. And public-employee unions, once an impotent political force in the state, are expected to make significant gains, thus creating a new source of campaign boodle to maintain Democratic political dominance.

Virginia presidential election results are almost identical to 2016. Trump’s share of the vote stands at 44.5% at the present, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Four years ago, he won 44.8%. What has changed since then is that Virginia Democrats have strengthened their hold on the state’s levers of power.

Virginia is not California. Democrats have made California a one-party state. The Dems have virtually untrammeled power to impose their agenda on race, the environment, wealth redistribution and other critical issues of the day. For Republicans and conservatives, resistance has been futile. Virginia has not reached that point yet. Republicans and conservatives still have some fight left in them. Will they choose their battles wisely, or will they engage in pointless, futile gestures? That remains to be seen.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the November 4, 2020 edition of the online Bacon’s Rebellion

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