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Challenges for a decade


Column by David Cox
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This being the first year without two zeroes in the middle, many are pondering what the decade ahead will hold. Yeah, I know it’s not really a new decade. Still, it’s worth contemplating what we face over the next 10 years. Having issued some projections for 2010–some might call them wishful thinking–here goes for my view of what we in Virginia will face in the “Teens.”

And oh, do we have our challenges ahead.

* We’ve got to confront the transportation mess. That’s the same one people have been promising to tackle for at least six years. And how far have we come? Last week my wife, daughter and I took four hours driving time to get the ninety miles from suburban Washington’s “mixing bowl” to Richmond. From DC to Fredericksburg, a slow-moving parking lot inched along I-95–we managed to get onto Route 1 which was almost as bad–and it was all just traffic. Our nerves, our environment, and our economy cannot sustain that. If Virginia’s future is to prosper, Virginia absolutely must resolve the obvious issues that only get worse and worse.

* We’ve got to confront our jail population. The study for our local expansion projected an increase of inmates of about 4 percent a year; yet our population growth is virtually flat, well under 1 percent. If such growth continues, at some point in Rockbridge there will be more people in jail than who are not. Not by 2020, of course; but this ever-soaring percentage bodes ill for society at large, and the economy in particular. Without being “soft on crime,” let’s take the look that Sen. Jim Webb proposes for the nation at sentencing, parole, and the nature of punishment. Is spending $30K+/year for more and more inmates really the best way to grow our society?

* We’ve got to reexamine how the state and its localities fund themselves. As David Reynolds astutely observed in these pages a few weeks ago, our tax system is awry. Taxing property may have made sense in 1775, when wealth was defined by how much land a person owned. I’m not sure that assumption was true then, but it surely isn’t now: It’s easy to imagine a family that inherited a big property but doesn’t have much income, and a frugal local mogul who owns a modest parcel on which he pays far less of a percentage of his income to support his city or county. This needs rethinking. (Sen. Hanger sat on a group that did just that a few years ago. Their work went nowhere.)

Meanwhile, politicians who pledge “no new taxes” must find ways of funding governmental responsibilities, and that’s where the games begin: Unfunded mandates that require localities to do what the state demands but doesn’t pay for. Fees for licenses and you-name-it, or tuition hikes because the state lowers its support of higher education: These extract money from pockets just as effectively as taxes, even as they allow the no-tax-pledgers to plead innocence. It’s about to happen again.

* Speaking of which, we’ve got to consider anew the proper role of government–what it should do and what it shouldn’t, and who should do what–federal, state, local. Duties keep getting added, often by popular demand and for worthy reason, but rarely are they subtracted even if their shelf-life has long expired.

And thinking of governance, let’s seriously reconsider redistricting. The partisanship that has guided how our electoral districts are carved, and thus who gets power and who doesn’t, has failed our democracy and our very ability to govern.

* We’ve got to confront, even more, the ecological disaster that is already at hand. Climate change or no, our Valley is filling up with smog. That’s just one example. And allowing current trends to continue will soon affect our quality of life as well as our economy.

Notice that each of these has profound economic repercussions. Each also affects our society in major ways and, ultimately, the quality of life that characterizes Virginia. In other words, I think these are really, really important. You may have others to add to the list. I bet they’re important, too.

How much will get done? Ah, now the clouds roll in. The ’09 election predetermined no action on tax reform, probably none on prison reform, little on transportation because it will surely cost big bucks that the state doesn’t have and won’t without finding new revenues, and no incentive to revise redistricting.

I surely do hope I’m wrong, and that, instead, wise leadership will guide us forward. It can happen. It had better, sooner than later. Our future depends upon it.




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