Pilot on Politics

Silence on Senate Committees Stir Curiosity, by Julian Walker

One of the intriguing subplots to emerge in the opening days of the General Assembly session is the hold up on an announcement of Senate committee assignments from Republicans.

A legislator central to that delay is freshman Sen. Kenny Alexander , a Norfolk Democrat who finds himself in position to get prestigious appointments from leaders of the Republican majority who are hashing out those arrangements.

Despite being in the minority party, Alexander may get preferential treatment from the Senate GOP Caucus due to his previous service in the House of Delegates and Republicans’ desire to appease a Democrat who’s made it clear he won’t always be a lockstep vote for his party.

Alexander won a special election last September to fill the unexpired term of former Sen. Yvonne Miller — she died last summer after a battle with cancer – and there’s speculation he could end up on at least one of the high-profile committee Miller had membership on.

Miller’s committees were Rehabilitation and Social Services, Transportation, Commerce and Labor, and Finance.

The latter two are among the most powerful in the Senate; legislation dealing with state fiscal policy flows through Finance, while business matters such as this year’s uranium mining proposals will come through Commerce and Labor.

Transportation is another key committee.

While he may stand to gain a seat on some of those panels, such promotions could also expose Alexander to political peril.

That kind of gift from Republicans could invite blowback from more senior Senate Democrats who might feel spurned if Alexander gets a seat they covet.

What’s more, he could face future retribution from his party if it regain control of the Senate now split 20-20 between the parties.

Seniority, geographic distribution, subject matter expertise, and of course, political considerations are all among the factors weighed

But personal relationships are also a factor and one of the Senate Republicans involved in committee assignments said Alexander is well thought of by many in the GOP caucus.

“Kenny is willing to put in the work and time” on legislative matters, said Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County. “Any time individuals are willing to work together to achieve solutions, regardless of ideology or party, it makes the process work smoother.”

McDougle did not say which committees Alexander is in line for.

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The State of Transportation

By 2017, there will be no more funding for new transportation infrastructure. Annual maintenance costs plus the expense of servicing debt for current projects will prevent critical transportation improvements. This will only get worse, unless we raise needed revenue. Raising funds by privatizing roads and tunnels places too heavy of a burden on families and small businesses, though it creates a bonanza for some private companies.  Issuing bonds to finance new spending through debt has created a multi-million dollar obligation, with constitutionally mandated yearly payments.  Meanwhile, the gas tax is a dwindling revenue stream, unable to keep pace with inflation and the rising costs of construction.

This dire situation has inspired legislation that I plan to introduce during the next Session of the General Assembly.  Virginia has imposed a $0.175 per gallon tax on gasoline, diesel fuel, and blended motor fuel purchased since 1987.  This static tax, which is not indexed to the consumer price or construction price indexes, needs a critical overhaul.  The gas tax only generated $822.7 million in 2012 and will diminish in following years as more fuel-efficient vehicles enter the market.  My legislation takes these important factors into account, by lowering the per gallon gas tax to $0.125 and removing the retail tax exemption on motor fuels purchases.  According to the Division of Legislative Services, this could raise an additional $500 million a year by 2015.  The prospect of any net increase in taxes is daunting.  However, given our options, this is, by all means, the best way forward.

Virginia is home to more than 70,000 miles of roads and 12,000 bridges, granting us the third largest transportation network in the country behind Texas and North Carolina.  We have only constructed 6,300 miles of new state roads in the past generation, while the Federal Highway Administration reported in 2011 that 25 percent of our bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The state has not increased revenues for transportation needs since 1987. In those 25 years, Virginia’s population has increased 30 percent, the number of licensed drivers has grown 36 percent, and vehicle registrations have expanded 61 percent.  Meanwhile, the purchasing power of transportation dollars has decreased by 40 percent.  For more perspective, consider that Virginia’s economic output has tripled since 1987, from $115 billion to $429 billion. Yet a degenerating funding structure that has not changed in a quarter century props up the roads and bridges that have supported a generation of economic transformation.

Recent attempts to provide crucial revenue for transportation have been fundamentally flawed and shortsighted.  Public Private Partnerships have been enlisted with minimal public input and oversight to improve our transportation network without an increase in the gas tax.  Though the pending improvements to Midtown and Downtown Tunnels, state highway 460, and Interstate 95 have been heralded, the financing of these projects is accompanied by great expense.  Backed by complex non-compete agreements, supported by subsidies and concessions, and financed through state bonds and onerous tolls, these schemes cost more in the long term, as they restrict the ability of citizens to determine the shape and scope of a public good.  Citizens have realized the negative impact of these projects on the economic health of entire regions.  No wonder these schemes have prompted two separate court challenges.

During the last session of the General Assembly, borrowing against our anticipated share of federal funding for transportation created additional funds for transportation.  As debt service has evolved into the sixth largest expense in the general fund, the prudence of expanding bond financing is questionable.  By borrowing against future transportation funds to pay for current projects, we limit our ability to undertake new projects while sinking further into debt.  In 2011, the Commonwealth Transportation Board announced plans to borrow $1.1 billion against future federal transportation funding.  This presents two problems.  First, it is only anticipated that federal transportation funding will remain consistent at current levels of the 15-year term of the issuance.  Pending federal budget negotiations may reduce the amount of transportation funds that we receive from the U.S. Department of Transportation.  Second, we risk a possible bond rating downgrade because of this uncertainty.

The leadership of the Commonwealth has exhausted both credit and political capital in seeking ways to avoid asking citizens to join in solving this dilemma.  In my long standing opposition the privatization the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels along with the Martin Luther King Expressway, I have met hundreds of citizens who have voiced concerns about this absence of political will to do what is necessary to improve transportation.  While Northern Virginia ranks first in the nation in annual delays with automobile commuters experiencing delays of 74 hours per accompanied by a cost of $1,495 per commuter, Hampton Roads ranked 26th and Richmond 64th in a report published by the Texas Transportation Institute. This will only get worse, unless we raise needed revenue.

Other states aware of the enhanced economic benefits, improved quality of life, and contributions to public safety provided by consistent transportation funding have used a dual tax structure on motor fuels. In contrast to states like North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, and Georgia, until now we have managed a large transportation network with a small revenue stream.  This proposal may not solve all of our transportation woes, but $500 million a year in additional revenue will go a long way toward restoring our decaying transportation network. The State of Transportation will only get worse, unless we raise needed revenue.

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Better Health, Longer Life

This Saturday, Aug. 18, I’ll be attending the African American Men’s Health Symposium at the Norfolk Public Health Center, 830 Southampton Ave. I’ll listen to talks by experts on prostate health, cardiovascular disease, cancer and the disparities in health between our majority and minority populations. I’ll also get in line to take to partake in some of the free health screenings.

It’s all free and includes lunch and jazz music. Doors open at 8 a.m. for registration, with the programs beginning at 9. You can learn more about it, as well as register online, at www.eventbrite.com/event/3488087965 or www.facebook.com/IGHECI, or call (757) 683-8836.

I hope many other men will join me. Learning together and motivating each other is only part of what we must do for the sake of our families, friends and communities. But we also must get a better handle on how health problems are sapping the resources of our commonwealth and country. As a member of Virginia’s General Assembly, I want to understand the issues facing us and how to develop the best solutions. These are stressful times for our economy, and the reforms in health care – while only a start – are still not guaranteed.

Health care not only is important to me as a governmental policy issue. It’s also very personal.

My father passed away from a massive heart attack when he was only 52 years old, and my mother from diabetes at the age of 36. Those are two big reasons why I try to live a healthy lifestyle – eating lots of fruits and vegetables, not smoking, keeping down my weight (most of the time), and maintaining health checkups.

More important reason: My family.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I receive constant reminders in my work as a funeral director. I’m burying more people who are dying of obesity-related diseases while only in their 40s and 50s, who have lost limbs and eyesight to diabetes, whose blocked hearts and arteries have given out well before they were supposed to. I’d much rather see these persons after they’ve led a long and enjoyable life.

Of course, we never know when an unforeseen health problem lurks around the corner. Better laws and progressive legislation can improve many situations, but there are some things that are beyond our scope.  I know I could learn much more about what my family and I must do to stay healthy. So, it’s important to take advantage of opportunities like Saturday’s African American Men’s Health Symposium – especially when it’s free!

Here are some startling statistics about the health problems of African Americans, according to The Office of Minority Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

• Around 40 percent of African American men and women have some form of heart disease, contrasted to 30 percent of white men and 24 percent of white women. Also, African Americans are 29 percent more likely to die from the disease than whites.

• African Americans are twice as likely to have diabetes as whites, and African Americans with diabetes are more likely to suffer complications of diabetes, such as eye disease, kidney failure and having conditions that lead to the amputation of legs and feet.

• African Americans are 10 times more likely to die of AIDS than whites, with AIDS being the leading cause of death in African American women aged 25-34 and the third leading cause of death in African American men in the same age range. More than 64 percent of HIV-positive infants are African American.

• In fighting off influenza, 69 percent of older white people received flu shots in 2003, contrasted with only 49 percent of older African Americans. For pneumococcal vaccinations, nearly 60 percent of whites received them but only 37 percent of African Americans.

How do these trends and other health trends translate for African Americans in South Hampton Roads?

According to a Virginia Department of Health report, based on the year 2006:

• The heart-disease death rate among African Americans across Virginia is 231.7 per 100,000 people. But for the five main cities of South Hampton Roads – Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach – the heart-disease death rate for African Americans is higher at 267.58.

• For diabetes, the death rate among Virginia’s African Americans is 44.8 people per 100,000. For African Americans in South Hampton Roads, it’s 54.84.

• Stroke? Across Virginia, the African American death rate is 68.9 per 100,000. The figure for African Americans in South Hampton Roads is 81.44.

• Throughout Virginia, 38.3 African Americans per 100,000 die of kidney diseases. In South Hampton Roads, the rate is 42.16 for African Americans.

• The HIV/AIDS death rate for African Americans in Virginia is 11.5 per 100,000 people. In South Hampton Roads, it’s 15.96.

• The cancer death rate throughout Virginia is 219.9 per 100,000 African Americans. The death rate for African Americans in South Hampton Roads is 224.8.

To be a little more specific in relation to Saturday’s free symposium, Hampton Roads has the highest death rate for prostate cancer in the nation, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Now, put that together with what The Office of Minority Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says about the prostate cancer rate: The prostate cancer incidence rate among African American men is 60 percent higher than for white men, while the death rate is more than twice as high.

We all have to learn much more about these and other health problems, and Saturday’s African American Men’s Health Symposium is a good place for doing that.

By the way, the symposium is subtitled “Illuminating Good Health: Eliminating the Cloak of Invisibility.” That means we all have a role in turning on the light and making the problems – and solutions – more visible.

Yes, such health problems require more governmental funding for a host of services including prevention, medical care, pharmaceutical research, education and public outreach. It’s also up to us to learn, to spread the information to other people, to encourage each other to take better care of ourselves and our families – and, indeed, speak up when necessary.

Please don’t forget. Check out Saturday’s African American Men’s Health Symposium at www.eventbrite.com/event/3488087965 or www.facebook.com/IGHECI, or call (757) 683-8836.

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