The return to normalcy following the end of Virginia’s 2011 legislative session has been punctuated by events on the local, state, national and world stages that should remind us how fortunate we residents of Northern Virginia are to be living in an one of the most economically vibrant, diverse, politically engaged and effectively governed places on the planet.
Regular readers of this column-I’m sure there must be a few– may find this to be an unexpected insight, as I am prone to focus on what I believe are the shortcomings of our government organizations, political institutions and leaders. A survey of the budget meltdowns from New Jersey to California and Wisconsin to Florida remind us that Virginia’s tradition of political civility is a value that serves us well. We did pass a budget that included, for example, $300 million for transportation, support for education partially mitigating the impact of last year’s cuts and a small raise for government employees (the first in five years) to offset new employee contributions to their pensions investment. That looks pretty good, I would think, compared to paying for corporate tax cuts by eliminating jobs and taking money out of the pockets of teachers, social workers and first responders.
But, don’t mistake these relative judgments of Virginia’s performance for satisfaction with the pace and direction of government reform in Virginia. The transportation funding passed this session uses the Commonwealth’s triple A rating to sell bonds to finance infrastructure. This is a good thing. It’s certainly appropriate to pay for assets over the useful life of the asset at the lowest possible financing rates. Unfortunately, with the Commonwealth’s current revenues and no new revenue streams, there is little bonding capacity remaining for new investment that will be required for higher education facilities. We need to address this challenge before it reaches crisis levels, and I am convinced that Virginians value the quality of our educational institutions sufficiently to be willing to pay for them.
If my fellow legislators on the other side of the aisle do not believe this to be true perhaps we ought to be open to more radical solutions to the burgeoning higher education funding problem. My modest proposal: If the legislature is unwilling to invest in Virginia higher education at a level necessary to maintain excellence, maybe it would be better simply to privatize the system. Many want to privatize K-12 education through charter schools and stealth tax preferences. Why not UVA? Of course, under this alternative, all students would have to pay “out-of state” rates, say $35K to $40K per year. Think Duke, but bigger and better. This course seems to me to be consistent with the conservative ideology currently driving the Commonwealth public investment strategy. I know the conservative “think tanks” would get behind this.
Virginia has been a pace setter in harnessing the capabilities of the private sector to improve service delivery and reduce cost. Prisons, statewide network and computer infrastructure, online tax filing. These are examples of the Commonwealth turning over formerly government run functions to private, for profit vendors. At one time or another, both Democrats and Republicans have pursued this “conventional wisdom.” I understand the theory, but I do not believe that the actual results-as opposed to the PR versions-stand up to real scrutiny.
I strongly believe that government has an integral role in delivering a wide range of services that benefit all. But, government organizations must be held to high, objective performance standards. If our political leaders hire executives for competence of service delivery rather than ideological purity, offer competitive compensation for real talent, allow managers to manage in an environment where they are accountable and, in turn, they hold their workers accountable, I believe real reform is possible. Unfortunately, I do not think this is the direction we are moving in the Commonwealth. But, I am optimistic, energized by good things we have been able to achieve in the 2011 session and looking forward to work plans currently taking shape for the summer.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected].