Sunday, January 23, 2011

Recent Interviews with Virginia Policymakers

Virginia State Capitol
My last post reported on the public appearance in Charlottesville of U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who answered my question about free trade issues during a press gaggle backstage at the Dickinson Auditorium on the campus of Piedmont Virginia Community College.

This was not my only recent encounter with elected officials.  In the past two weeks or so, I have had the opportunity to conduct interviews with several other Virginia policymakers, including Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, State Senator Mark Obenshain, Delegate Harvey Morgan, and Delegate David Toscano.

My interview with Attorney General Cuccinelli resulted in at least four articles on

The first addressed what, at the time, was Topic A in the national conversation, the shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Tucson.  Six people were killed by alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner in that incident.

In "Exclusive: Va. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reacts to tragedy in Tucson," published on January 12, the Attorney General identified some parallels that are close to home for Virginians:
Cuccinelli said that he has “been watching the information that’s rolled out about” Saturday’s events and that it is natural to ask, “What else could we have done?”

That question, he continued, “walks me right into a lot of the mental health work that I’ve done over the years. I’m still looking at Loughner’s history to see what sort of parallels there are to experiences we’ve had in Virginia, tragically” – referring to the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007 – “and what sort of systems that, if in place, might have caught and treated this guy.”

In what turned out to be a supplement to an earlier interview I conducted with Maria Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, Cuccinelli spoke to me about his support for a strong FOIA statute and system in Virginia. He expressed concern about proposals to eliminate the FOIA Council.

In "Va. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli talks about Freedom of Information," published on January 14, Cuccinelli responded to the recommendation of Governor Bob McDonnell's government reform commission that the FOIA Council -- which only has two staff members yet processes upwards of 1,800 inquiries each year -- be cut:
“Obviously,” he said, “I think that to have a robust FOIA you need some central clearinghouse, so if there’s going to be a substitute, which I don’t really see right now, I think their notion is that every agency will just handle its own.”

The commission suggested that the Office of the Attorney General could handle inquiries and disputes about FOIA matters, but Cuccinelli ruled that out as a realistic possibility.

“That’s a natural fallback,” he conceded, “because everybody would then turn to us and say, ‘Do I have to do a, b, or c?’ That’s got its problems.”
Cuccinelli also talked about government transparency more generally, and the need to provide access to budget information to citizens on a ready basis.

It turns out that state Senator Ralph Smith has proposed a rule to make the state budget available on line for scrutiny by both legislators and citizens for at least 72 hours before either chamber of the General Assembly may vote on it.

Cuccinelli pointed out some logistical hurdles that state agencies still face, in "State Senator Ralph Smith and Att'y Gen'l Ken Cuccinelli promote transparency," published on January 16:
“I learned doing the transparency work” in the General Assembly, Cuccinelli said, that “there’s a logistical hurdle to the kind of transparency I’d like to see, which is immediate, on-line, from your desk, in your office” access to government information.

“Half our state government,” the Attorney General explained, “is still not on what you and I would call anything approaching modern databases.”

As a consequence, he said, Virginia citizens “can’t plug into the databases and make available that information on the web, because -- I jokingly say -- they’re still using punch cards.”

Joking aside, he said, about half of state agencies are actually “just above that level. I’m sure they’re not happy about it either.”
In the final excerpt from our lengthy interview, "Va. Att'y Gen'l Ken Cuccinelli endorses curbs on eminent domain in constitution," published on January 20, Cuccinelli noted his support for an amendment that will enshrine protections for private property owners in the Virginia Constitution. (The constitutional amendment has been patroned by both Delegate Rob Bell [R-Albemarle] and Delegate Johnny Joannou [D-Portsmouth], with a bipartisan list of copatrons.)

The Virginia Attorney General addressed how the Bell-Joannou amendment -- which has to pass two sessions of the General Assembly with an intervening election before being put to the voters as a referendum for their approval -- strengthens protections against eminent domain abuse:
Cuccinelli went on to explain that he and his colleagues have “been working for months on good language that will address four different issues.”

The first issue is “proper damages to people whose property is taken.”

The second is “requiring the government entities taking property to prove that it’s going to be put to a public use.”

The third is limiting those entities “to take no more than is absolutely necessary for the achievement of the public use.”

The fourth issue is “not treating such things that we typically refer to as the ‘Kelo elements’” – such as “economic development, increasing tax base, those kinds of things" -- as rationale for a taking.

The proposed amendments, Cuccinelli said, “eliminate those constitutionally as possibilities for legitimate – by ‘legitimate.’ I mean legally allowable by a court – explanations for a taking for a public use."
Speaking of eminent domain abuse, I spoke to two members of the General Assembly about that issue: my own representative, Delegate David Toscano (D-57), and state Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg). Obenshain has his own proposal for a constitutional amendment, and Toscano opposes putting these protections in the constitution.

In "Delegate David Toscano discusses transparency and eminent domain reform," also published on January 20, the former Charlottesville mayor argues against putting too many things in the Commonwealth's constitution:
“We did a lot on eminent domain three or four years ago,” he said, when a bill “that ultimately I didn’t feel all that good about” was approved. Despite his own misgivings, he added, “it’s what the legislature wanted and so it got passed.”

This year, he noted, “we hear renewed efforts to make it a constitutional amendment. I’m very leery about that. I’m not going to support it.”

Not just the eminent domain proposals, he said, “I’m very leery about amending the constitution, anyway.”
In the same interview, Toscano spoke about his own efforts to improve government transparency through two bills that he has introduced.

For his part, Senator Obenshain -- whom I interviewed last year on the topic of ABC privatization -- talked about his strong support for including property rights in the Virginia Constitution.

In "State Senator Mark Obenshain discusses property rights and eminent domain reform," published on January 17 (the same day that I met with the senator with a delegation of Republican Liberty Caucus members), he argues for the inclusion:
Senator Obenshain went on the record with the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner and spelled out what his constitutional amendment would do.

The resolution “basically codifies the statutory language that we adopted two years ago” in reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London (2005). “It prevents the economic development/employment-type of eminent domain exercises that have been subject to abuse across the commonwealth of Virginia. It gives us the opportunity to memorialize that [language] in the Constitution so that it can’t just be undermined by efforts of the General Assembly in years to come.”
Finally, I should note that last Monday I spoke to the criminal law subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee in favor of HB 1443, Delegate Harvey Morgan's bill to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. Nobody spoke against the bill but the subcommittee, chaired by Delegate Rob Bell, killed it on a voice vote without raising an argument one way or the other.

After the vote, I spoke with Delegate Morgan, an elfin octogenarian, conservative Republican, and retired pharmacist who last year endured ridicule over his marijuana-reform proposals, yet persevered this year. He told me, in "Disappointment as Va. House subcommittee votes to keep pot possession a crime," also published on January 17 (which happened to be Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a federal and state holiday):
“The bill I introduced,” Morgan explained, “would have made the simple possession of marijuana [subject to] a civil penalty and not a criminal penalty.”

Saying he was not advocating marijuana usage “at all,” Morgan went on to say ruefully that today, if a person is arrested – “even if it’s set aside” under the first offender law in Virginia -- the arrest and conviction are “always on your record as an arrest for a drug offense.”

As a result, he said, “anyone who has that on a record finds that it is an absolute barrier to employment for a commercial driver’s license, to work in a health care profession, to be a teacher.” In many jobs that require security clearances, he added, “they do a background check and up pops a drug offense and they just cannot hire you.”
Weather permitting -- forecasters indicate there may be a big storm coming up the East Coast on Tuesday and Wednesday -- I will be in Richmond next week, with opportunities to speak to other legislators. Stay tuned.

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