Saturday, July 23, 2005

Is Anyone in WV Noticing This? Unaffordable Housing in NoVa Forces First Responders to Live Far From Communities They Serve

Today's Washington Post has a piece on how local governments in the DC area are having to play landlord to provide subsidized housing for police officers and firefighters due to the astronomical cost of housing in the entire metro area. I point this out to highlight the problems that are already beginning to afflict the Eastern Panhandle, although on a smaller scale for now.

The Post highlights the story of a single mother who is a Fairfax County firefighter living in a county-owned condo that she rents for $800 per month after heavy subsidization by the county. While starting firefighters in Fairfax earn over $40,000 initially and quickly go to over $50,000, that's not nearly enough to make ends meet in place where the market rate for a house is $500,000+ and an apartment is upwards of $2,000 a month. Indeed, many of the region's first responders along with other public employees live as far away as Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. And this doesn't even count the tens and hundreds of thousands of private sector workers making less than a six-figure income who are a crucial part of the DC metro area's economy.

Unaffordable housing that has forced poor and middle income workers to live as much as two hours away from where they work has become a very common problem in California, where environmental and zoning laws have restrained the supply of new housing, and in the Northeast, where there is no more land. In the case of the DC metro area, the lack of land in the inner and middle suburbs and zoning efforts in the outer counties are taking their toll, and as I've said before, our Eastern Panhandle is the next battlefield that will suffer the onslaught. Moreover, the astronomical housing costs that the DC metro area is suffering despite the massive development for dozens of miles into the suburbs and former countryside gives rise to extreme pessimism about the ability to solve rapid price increases by increasing the supply sufficiently to prevent the translation of high demand into high inflation.

Before the cash-strapped state of West Virginia passes the point of no return and is stuck with the bill for quickly building dozens of new schools and mile after mile of water and sewer lines, new roads, and extra lanes on existing roads, shouldn't we tackle head-on the questions of whether to cap housing growth and, together with Maryland and Virginia, develop a plan to balance the growth of employment with the capacity of the region to serve as a home to the people who will fill those jobs? We cannot continue forever with a regional economy over in the DC suburbs where most people cannot afford to live in or even within a reasonable (i.e., a 20-30 minute commute) distance of the communities where they work. And Heaven forbid some disaster that would not be adequately responded to because the cops, firefighters and EMTs all live an hour or two away, even with lights, sirens, and a brick on the gas pedal.

Friday, July 22, 2005

What a Difference a Poll Makes

Less than three months ago, Senator Byrd led the pack in defending the unprecedented filibusters that Senate Democrats had mounted against many of President Bush's nominees for federal judgeships.

Then, a funny thing happened: the Charleston-based polling and PR firm RMS Strategies polled a potential US Senate contest between Byrd and Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito. This was an independent poll not done for any candidate, political party, or special interest group. The result: Byrd led 46-43. Keep in mind that Shelley is only considering running against Byrd and is rumored to still be a couple of months away from making a final decision. This was so bad that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee felt forced to respond by releasing their own poll that showed it was actually a 51-41 contest. To astute observers of West Virginia politics, even the Democratic poll spelled major trouble for Byrd, who has several times in his 6 elections to the US Senate carried all 55 counties, as he did in 2000 when he won 77% of the vote. Those of us who knew better thought that the Dems should have responded to the RMS poll by ignoring it and referring to the senator's past and consistent electoral performance. But by releasing their own poll showing the hypothetical matchup a real horse race, the DSCC destroyed the aura of invincibility that has long cloaked our senior senator.

Once Sheets found that he might be in the very real danger of breaking next year the records for both the longest-serving senator ever and the longest-serving senator to be defeated, the tune on his fiddle changed dramatically. Byrd joined the infamous Gang of 14 that brokered a deal to break the filibusters without invoking the constitutional option to end the filibuster of presidential nominees by a simple majority vote. Now, we hear lavish praise for the selection of Judge John Roberts for the Supreme Court. Today's Washington Times has a story on Byrd's turnaround from Bush basher in chief to a chief Democratic advocate of confirming Judge Roberts to be the 109th associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Endless Growth of DC Metro Area Threatens Eastern Panhandle

Today's Washington Post had two front page with two stories of great significance to West Virginia: the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court and preliminary approval by the Loudon County, Va. Board of Supervisors of strict limits on new housing developments. So, what's so significant about a Virginia county's zoning laws?

The Washington, DC metro area is one of the nation's fastest growing urban areas and, unfortunately, one of if not THE worst for suburban sprawl. Fairfax County, Virginia, where a then four-lane highway to serve as a bypass of the nation's capital was built through farmland in the 1950s and 60s, and now the infamously gridlocked Capital Beltway, has grown from just over 275,000 residents in the 1960s to become the first county in the Old Dominion to eclipse the 1,000,000 resident milestone, a mark reached one year ago. Fairfax is completely built out--there is no more vacant land. Price William County, to the southwest, similarly grew from just over 50,000 in 1960 to over 336,000 today. To the northwest, Loudon County grew from just under 25,000 in 1960 to almost 240,000 today.

The upsides to this growth include the tens of thousands of people that have moved to Northern Virginia to take part in a thriving regional economy; real estate values have skyrocketed and made existing homeowners very well-off. However, the downsides that we have only begun to see include the extreme difficulty in affording a home close to work, skyrocketing property tax bills for homeowners, the endless devouring of farmland for more strip malls, suburban office complexes, and subdivisions where every home is pre-sold at above the asking price before the first shovel of dirt is turned, and the endless traffic jam from Hell. I won't even begin to discuss the fact that public servants like teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc., cannot afford to live in the communities they serve or anywhere close, for that matter.

And then we have the infrastructure issues. Virginia upgraded I-66 from the Capital Beltway to Manassas to 8 lanes just a few years ago. Almost as soon as it was complete, the widened freeway became the parking lot VDOT hoped it would no longer be. Indeed, I-66 is clogged constantly all the way from Washington to its current western terminus at I-81 75 miles to the west. Indeed, if the same freeway mileage as exists in Los Angeles were built in NoVa, it too would turn into a parking lot almost from Day 1.

So, what in the world does all this have to do with West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle? The EP is the next target of developers lusting for cheap land to airlift and drop in tens of thousands of homes as they have done to the once picturesque countryside of Price William and Loudon counties. West Virginia is unable and politically would be unwilling to build the public infrastructure necessary to support the addition of tens of thousands of residents to the eastern tip of our state at the exclusion of long-promised projects in the rest of the state. Current commitments for building roads and water and sewer works will take our state 200 years to complete with the funds available. The people who live in the 90% of the state that needs infrastructure as a predicate for avoiding further economic decline will not stand by diverting all the money to the 10% of the state that is growing, and growing only because of a land rush mentality fueled by risky and unsustainable mortgage lending practices.

The growth that has already encroached on our Eastern Panhandle has already done enough. Already, home prices in the EP have tripled over the last decade. Teachers and police officers who teach the children and protect the public cannot afford to live in Berkeley or Jefferson counties. Rent for an efficiency apartment--essentially a hotel room with a mini-fridge and hot plate--runs at over $800 a month, or more than half the monthly take-home pay of a beginning teacher in West Virginia. The average home now costs over $250,000--triple the price of a similar home in almost every other county in West Virginia. For those who bought their home long ago, skyrocketing property values have translated directly into skyrocketing property taxes that are putting the squeeze of people who bought a home long ago with an assumption of a stable cost of ownership. Thousands of new homes have devoured the countryside. The roads are clogged with constant congestion that will only get worse.

I will write later on some of the solutions I think West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia need to jointly undertake before the problems mushroom even further. But if we don't do something soon, Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan, and maybe even Hampshire and Hardy counties will have clogged roads, overcrowded schools, unaffordable housing, and the rest of West Virginia will be stuck paying for the kinds of infrastructure improvements that this will require and will therefore have to forego any attempt at fulfilling the billions of dollars of promises that have already been made.

Feds Bust Logan County Clerk for Vote-Buying

Logan County Clerk Glen D. "Hound Dog" Adkins was arrested Thursday (July 21) on a federal charge of conspiring to buy votes. Adkins was released on a personal recognizance bond and ordered to not leave the US Southern District of West Virginia and to remove all guns from his house. Adkins is just the latest official in Logan and Lincoln counties to face charges in a wide-ranging federal probe of political corruption in this infamous hotbed that rivals Chicago for corrupt political machines.

brown paper bag

Politics in Logan and Lincoln counties are rotten to the core. Both counties are firmly controlled by corrupt Democratic courthouse political machines and, thanks to the two counties being in the same state legislative and congressional districts, the two machines collaborate on district elections. Political corruption there is only the tip of the iceberg, as the politicians in office use their ill-gotten power to get away with vast amounts of improper and illegal activity ranging from controlling public employment to ticket-fixing and lowballing friends' property tax assessments and highballing their enemies to letting off criminals who "vote the right way" for crimes ranging from theft to drugs to DUI and insurance fraud. I'll rant more in another post.

O, Canada! Canadian Newspaper Mistakes Limbaugh Parody Ad for Real Thing

As anyone who's ever regularly listened to Rush Limbaugh knows, Rush likes to create parody ads and songs from time to time usually based on current events and play them on the show and on his Web site for subscribers to the Rush 24-7 service.

Canadian flagOne of the latest parody ads involves the Karl Rove situation and has at the end a man speaking with an eastern European accent saying, "Paid for by George Soros and travel friends of Nancy Pelosi." Click here to listen to the ad. Rush has run this for a few weeks and now, it seems, some members of the press in Canada have mistaken this parody for a real ad. In fact, the reporter of the story said that he first thought the ad "was a clever and very funny spoof on the Democrats’ feelings about Karl Rove." He should have stuck to that first impression, because it was actually true.

Roberts Successsfully Litigated on Behalf of W.Va. Coal Industry in Mountaintop Suit

Judge John RobertsThe Charleston Pravda--er, Gazette--reported this morning that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts was among the appellate attorneys for the National Mining Association in itss successsful appeal to the 4th Circuit overturning the late Judge Charles Haden's 1999 ruling endangering mountaintop mining in West Virginia. This was the only case Roberts ever handled on behalf of the NMA. Given the outrage our senior senator, Senator Byrd, demonstrated after Judge Haden's ruling, I sure hope both our senators will not only oppose obstructions of this nomination but will actively support Judge Roberts and vote to confirm him to the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Manchin Considers Helmet Law Relaxation

Governor Joe Manchin, a Harley rider himself, is publicly toying with the idea of proposing a relation of West Virginia's motorcycle helmet law to boost motorcycle tourism in our state. On this, I'm on his side but note the uphill fight he faces.

In the late 1990s, after Congress repealed the last federal motorcycle helmet law mandate tied to federal highway funds, legislation to repeal the helmet law for adults passed the House of Delegates but suffered continual defeats in the state Senate. This was a nonpartisan issue, with both parties divided on the issue and no clear ideological or geographic division. Today, the issue has greater importance than it did in 1997 & 98, as Kentucky and Pennsylvania have joined Ohio in letting those who ride decide. More significantly, only 20 states and DC still require all adults to wear helmets when riding a motorcycle.

Because the whole debate centers on what the law should require of adults and would leave the motorcycle helmet law intact for minors, the real question is a philosophical issue over the role of government in personal safety decisions where no person other than the person making the decision would stand to suffer as a result.

The statistics available on this issue provide, at best, mixed results on the efficacy of motorcycle helmet laws on safety. In fact, the states without all-rider helmet laws actually tend to have lower per accident fatality rates than states with all-rider laws. Helmets themselves add weight to the head, resulting in more momentum and a higher neck injury risk. In addition, helmets do little to protect a rider from the many other hazards that exist when thrown at highway speeds.

In fact, one warning label found on motorcycle helmets begins:

"No helmet can protect the wearer against all foreseeable impacts. Riding motorcycles, bicycles, mopeds, or off road vehicles can be extremely dangerous. Some foreseeable impacts may exceed this helmetÂ’s capability to protect against injury. The helmet affords no protection against facial, neck, or spinal injury. Severe head or brain injuries, including paralysis or death, may occur despite using this helmet."

The information above is not intended to discourage someone from voluntarily wearing a helmet in the absence of a legal mandate, just to demonstrate conflicting safety considerations that do not support a universal mandate on this issue.

So what about the social cost considerations? The data available from similar-size states like Arkansas and Kentucky that have relaxed their helmet laws in recent years suggests that the change in the law will result in likely costs to society that are very minimal and not nearly significant enough, together with the lack of conclusive and overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of helmets and the lack of a negative safety impact in many situations, to override the justifications for letting those who ride decide.

Liberals Twice Blocked Roberts Nomination to DC Circuit, Now Complain About the Lack of a Paper Trail

Click here for the liberals' latest marching orders.

The usual suspects of the left are now bemoaning the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court because he does not have a "paper trail" indicating how he would tend to rule as a member of the nation's highest court. I for one hope that all their "fears" are well-founded; I agree wholeheartedly with a brief that he co-authored as an attorney for the Justice Department in 1990 in which it was argued that Roe v. Wade "was wrongly decided and should be overruled."

The dirty little secret behind the left's rhetoric is that they bear the responsibility for Judge Roberts not having a longer tenure on the DC Circuit. Roberts was originally nominated to the DC Circuit in 1992 by former President Bush 41 to replace Clarence Thomas when he was appointed tot he Supreme Court. The Democrats were salivating for the opportunity to retake the White House and thus denied Roberts and many other nominees a hearing and a vote. President Bush 43 nominated Roberts again in 2001, but his confirmation was derailed after Jumpin' Jim Jeffords bolted the GOP and gave the Democrats control of the Senate. Finally, after we gained control of the Senate in the 2002 election, Roberts got a hearing and was confirmed by unanimous consent in 2003.

Trial Lawyers Lose Their Sacred Cow, Seek Greater Influence in Judicial Selection

Former Justice Warren McGraw, DEFEATED DEFEATED Justice Warren McGraw having his infamous Labor Day Meltdown (audio of speech & resulting political ads still available--makes the Dean Scream seem sedate)

Only after West Virginia's trial lawyers find themselves on the losing side of an election for a justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals do they consider reforming our partisan election system. For years, they supported keeping competitive partisan elections for all judges in West Virginia because they said they "trusted the people" to elect the judges and staff the juries. Who in politics does not profess an eternal trust of the people? When We, the People, handed their patron-in-chief Warren McGraw his gold watch and early (or as most of us thought, long overdue) retirement last fall, they were stunned.

The trial lawyers long supported competitive partisan elections for judges because they believed they could get judges sensitive to political concerns whose interpretations of the law would be heavily influenced by a desire to protect their personal popularity. That's why most of us who did not share that judicial philosophy have wanted a change. We've still got too many circuit judges in this state who view their job as just another political post in which they must follow the will of the people rather than the rule of law. The will of the people must channel itself through the Legislature and the actions of the Legislature in writing the law. Popular or unpopular, judges have a duty to the Constitution to totally disregard public opinion and apply the law as it as written. That cannot be done when judges obtain office through competitive partisan elections in which, notwithstanding Don Blankenship's efforts in last year's state Supreme Court race, the bar is still the predominant financier of judicial races.

My reform plan is very simple. All judges would keep their current term of office of 12, 8, or 4 years, as applicable. The beginning of judges' terms of office would be moved from January 1 of the year following the statewide and presidential election to March 1. All judges would be nominated by the Governor and subject to confirmation by the state Senate. Justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals would hold office for 12 years as they do now, judges of the circuit courts and family courts for 8 years as they do now, and magistrates 4 years. A governor would not be bound by any requirement to renominate someone, nor prohibited from doing so, and would not be bound by any requirements other than to nominate someone who meets the constitutional eligibility requirements and who meets the approval of the state Senate.

The state constitution's 2 consecutive term limit for governors would ensure that the chances of a governor having the opportunity to consider renominating a jude other than a magistrate he nominated previously, are slim. Indeed, because of the cycle of judges' terms, had this system been in effect in the past, the only time a governor would have been able to appoint the same judgeships two consecutive terms would have been Arch Moore, for 2 justices of the state Supreme Court, for the 12-year terms that commenced in 1973 and 1985. No circuit or family court judges would have ever been subject to going before the same governor twice consecutively for nomination to the bench. To have the opportunity to nominate the circuit & family court judges or a majority of the state Supreme Court justices for two consecutive terms, a governor would have to be elected to four terms in a 20-year period, serving 2 terms, followed by the required term out of office, and 2 more terms.

I realize that the basic problem of changing judicial selection is deciding between the politics of the many and the politics of the few. While listening to Talkline, I heard one caller discuss New Jersey's judicial selection system, which involves nominations by the governor and confirmation by the state Senate, and its history of domination by political bosses. Unlike my proposal, New Jersey's system involves lifetime appointments like the federal system. I believe that placing the appointment of judges in the hands of the governor and state Senate, together with fixed terms of office rather than lifetime appointments, we will be more likely to get judges who respect the Constitution, the separation of powers, and the coequality and not the superiority of the judiciary over the executive & legislative branches of government.

Something in W.Va. Actually Not Named for Robert C. Byrd.

From the Associated Press:

After waiting three years for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd to suggest a name, the Little Kanawha Conservation District board decided to go ahead and name the new lake at North Bend State Park.

The newly dubbed North Fork Hughes River Lake and Dam provides flood control and a water supply for Ritchie County, as well as recreation.

I don't believe it: Did our senior senator, for whom I don't think we have yet named a lake, decline an opportunity to attach his name to a public facility?

A Senator's Thoughts

Gary Abernathy over at Get Elephant Wars has a real gut-buster today on what might be going through the mind of Sheets--er, Senator Byrd--as he contemplates the possibility that Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito might challenge him next year. Several weeks ago, Gary wrote about what Shelley might be thinking, so now we have the flip side on what salient thoughts might be bubbling in the vast cauldron of the mind of our octogenarian senior senator when he isn't counting all the ways he despises President Bush.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Highway robbery, W.Va. Style

In the last few years, West Virginia has resorted to increasing "court costs," or additional fees added to criminal convictions from traffic tickets to serious crimes, for paying for many aspects of the criminal justice system. Who could oppose making the criminals pay for things like operating the jails, funding the Crime Victims Compensation fund, and maintaining courthouses? Me, when by criminals you mean everyone down to people who commit petty infractions for which the actual fine might be as little as a MAXIMUM of $5, such as speeding by 10 mph or less on interstates and controlled-access highways.

The Charleston Daily Mail had a good editorial Monday about how the state adds $153.50 to the most minor infraction and how this practice has become very popular in recent years as the Legislature tried to create the impressions that it is tough on crime and that it's not raising taxes. West Virginia's highways may not seem like a police state compared to our neighbors in the Buckeye State or the Old Dominion where a smokey seems to lurk behind every bridge abutment, but how much more will we really take?

While this would be about item #30 on my own agenda if I were in the Legislature, I propose that the Legislature exempt offenses not punishable by a possible jail sentence from the following court costs:
  1. $48.50 for the per diem regional jail fee.
  2. $40 for the Regional Jail Authority.
  3. $30 for the regional jail operating fund.
  4. $10 for the crime victims fund.
  5. $3 for the community corrections fund.

Finally, for those of you seeking the kind of organization the Daily Mail suggests, may I recommend to you the National Motorists Association? The NMA, founded in 1982, was THE organization that led the successful fight in the 80's and 90's to relax and ultimately repeal the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit. Today, their network of volunteer activists continue the fight for reasonable speed limits based on sound traffic engineering principles, to prevent the abuse of motorists for revenue generation, and advocate the interests of North American motorists.