Governor McAuliffe announced last Friday that the state would not meet its revenue projections for fiscal year 2016, which just ended June 30, with the result that this year’s budget will be short a projected $266.3 million. Revised forecasts for the state’s two-year budget (which ends June 2018) places that shortfall at $1.2 billion. This has put much-needed pay raises for teachers and state employees this next year in peril, and will require further belt-tightening and possible curtailment of some state services. Why did this happen? Could it have been averted? [Read more…]
General Assembly 2016
Solar Energy and Change in Virginia
There is a quiet, but significant, revolution occurring in our energy sector, driven by dramatic declines in the cost of solar energy and exponential improvements in the technology that undergirds this section of the economy. For Virginians, the question is whether we have the policies in place to allow this sector to grow, creating economic opportunity and jobs for our citizens, producing revenue for our communities and the Commonwealth, and generating energy savings for businesses and consumers, all the while helping reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere.
There are now more than 208,000 solar energy employees in the United States, in jobs ranging from design to sales to installation. In fact, the solar industry has added 115,000 new jobs since 2010, with 35,000 of those in the last year alone. By contrast, oil and gas firms slashed nearly 17,000 extraction jobs in 2015. Today the solar industry workforce is larger than that of the entire coal extraction industry. Wages in the solar industry are higher than the U.S. median wage, ranging from $18 per hour to nearly $30 per hour. And the cost of solar is dropping fast. From 2009 to 2014, the average cost of solar panels dropped by 73 percent. In the first half of 2015, consumers could build rooftop solar at a cost of $3.79 per watt and were not projected to receive a return on their investment for over ten years. In Charlottesville today, residential systems can be built for $2.70 per watt and the expected time for a return on the investment has been lowered to about 7.5 years. In other places, costs are now close to $2.50 per watt. It took forty years for the United States to hit the 1 millionth solar installation mark. The next million installations will occur in the next two years; we call that exponential growth. And while we typically think of these as rooftop residential systems, perhaps even more significant growth has occurred in the so-called “utility scale” systems installed by the Walmarts, Ikeas, and Amazons of the world, where costs are falling even faster; there were none of these as recently as 2007.
While solar is expanding in Virginia, it has been barely noticeable compared to other states. As of the end of 2015, we had about 22 megawatts of solar generation (1 megawatt can power between 150-180 homes) in our portfolio; by contrast, North Carolina already had over 2,000 megawatts of solar in its portfolio, and many independent studies place Virginia low in ranking of states for solar market penetration. There are a number of reasons for this, but one lies in the policy arena, where Virginia has lagged far behind its competitors.
Some Change in Virginia
The pace of Virginia change has been slow, but it is occurring nonetheless, and could be accelerated with some minor changes in policy. In 2015, we were able to pass a law stating that 500 megawatts of solar energy was “in the public interest,” a signal to a sometimes reluctant State Corporation Commission (SCC) that it should approve some solar projects, even if they might cause a very small increase in utility rates for consumers (the building of all new power plants, regardless of energy source, causes an increase in rates to enable a utility to recover its capital costs). Dominion Power, as part of its pledge to build 400 megawatts of solar by 2020, won SCC approval for three solar farms, one of which will be built in partnership with a company headquartered in Charlottesville, Coronal Development. These three projects will produce 56 megawatts of power and support 800 construction jobs. In August 2016, Dominion was granted approval for a $35 million project in Buckingham County that will generate 19.8 megawatts, enough to provide electricity to 3,500 homes, and the state recently announced an agreement whereby Dominion Power would build and own a 21 megawatt facility – enough to power 4,400 homes – at Naval Air Station Oceana in exchange for the Commonwealth purchasing the generated power. The Governor has pledged that state buildings will derive 8 percent of their electricity from solar by 2019. Electric cooperatives are also getting into the act; the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative is working with Coronal on two 5 megawatt facilities expected to service 1,200 homes, and Old Dominion and A&N Electric Cooperatives just announced a partnership with Hecate Energy, LLC, to build a 20 megawatt solar farm in Northhampton County designed to provide power to 3,000 homes. Locally, Secure Futures, a Harrisonburg firm, is building a 1 megawatt capacity system at Albemarle High School, a system designed to meet 14 percent of the school’s electricity needs. These recent developments, while productive, are just scratching the surface of solar possibilities.
Policy Initiatives for Virginia
In Virginia, we lag behind for a number of reasons. We have no mandatory Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS), a requirement that has spurred investment in renewables in other states. While we provide huge tax credits to coal companies who are failing to increase jobs, we have no solar tax credit – none. We impose artificially low limits on “net metering” arrangements by which residential consumers can sell their excess energy to the utilities. We even have prohibitions about how much energy individual solar power generators can put onto the grid at any one time.
To accelerate change in this market, we should consider the following changes in Virginia policy:
- Increase the size of the caps on net metering systems.
- Protect the rights of individuals and groups generating solar energy to be fairly compensated and allow them the flexibility to enter into Power Purchase Agreements with third party operators and consumers of solar power.
- Pass a state solar credit.
- Modify the 2015 bill to quadruple the amount of solar that the SCC considers to be “in the public interest.”
- Allow for more distributive power and community net metering, including incentives for utilities to invest in these innovative approaches.
- Change the coal tax credit into grants designed to “solarize” portions of Southwest Virginia, creating jobs and saving energy in the process.
A Coming “Disruption” for Utilities?
Many argue that the utilities will oppose these changes because they threaten their bottom line. There is some truth to this, as witnessed by the efforts nationally by these companies to roll back “net metering” policies that require them to purchase excess power from residential solar generators at retail price. But there is little doubt that change is coming, and regulators in several states have studies underway to determine how to grapple with this major transformation. Some analysts, including Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tony Seba in his book, Clean Disruption, go so far as to argue that the dramatic decline in solar energy prices threatens to throw utilities into a “death spiral” unless they embrace an entirely new business model. At present, this is difficult to see because the energy from the sun is now only usable during daylight hours. That could all change when technological advances permit large scale energy storage at reasonable cost. But for now, getting to a renewable energy future with the utilities is easier than without them; there is simply too much infrastructure and business acumen embedded in these companies upon which we must rely. Electrons, whether green or brown, must be transmitted and distributed. And, at present, our utilities are the only ones who can do this.
In the short run, then, policymakers face a choice. Will we take advantage of improving market conditions and accelerate changes to help our constituents and the environment? Or we will remain on the sideline, losing benefits that are now available while ignoring changes in the industry that may disrupt our utility companies and affect energy distribution in unpredictable ways? The solar market is changing and the revolution is coming; Virginians would benefit by us becoming more proactively engaged in the process.
Several weeks ago, in a piece entitled “Why States Matter,” I argued that while we are rightly focused on the Presidential election, we should not lose sight of what is happening in our states, where the concerted efforts of conservatives around the country over the last decade have skewed the political composition of our state legislatures – with dramatic results.
As we focus on Congressional, Senate and Presidential contests, we must remember that the actions of state legislatures greatly impact their outcome. What we have seen over the last decade from conservative-dominated legislatures are new laws designed to make it harder to vote and to reduce turnout, especially in minority communities. These laws are justified by so-called voter fraud, which numerous independent studies have shown either to be non-existent or so small that it has no impact. State legislatures, including Virginia’s, continue to impose new requirements for voter identification. Prior to 2006, not a single state required a person to present photo ID in order to vote; by 2015, 34 states had such laws. Virginia enacted its current law in 2014. Many were enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that struck down certain portions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. This coincidence has not gone unnoticed.
Courts Take Action
A number of courts have recently ruled that these state actions are unconstitutional. Statutes similar, though not identical, to those in Virginia were just struck down in Wisconsin and Texas. A federal district court in North Dakota has now blocked implementation of that state’s 2013 voter ID law. In Wisconsin, the federal court wrote, “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement.” And last week, the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down North Carolina’s voter suppression law, among the most draconian in the country, the court stating that the law’s provisions targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.” This same court will hear the case against Virginia’s photo ID law on September 22, 2016.
Some courts are acting to correct the most insidious voter suppression laws. But in states where these laws remain, they will likely depress turnout, especially among minority voters. A new study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego suggests that Democratic turnout drops an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections in states with strict ID laws and Republican turnout drops 3.6 percentage points. In Virginia, the Department of Elections says 179,000 “active voters” have no DMV-issued photo ID. These numbers are so high that they are almost hard to believe. Nonetheless, it is clear that conservative legislatures are attempting to suppress the vote in order to keep power.
Some citizens will be encouraged by court decisions, saying that “the Courts and the Constitution will have our backs” by overturning these suppression efforts. But lawsuits cost money and take time, and despite these recent decisions, courts generally defer to legislatures; the battlegrounds remain, therefore, in the legislatures.
Gubernatorial Overreach, or Voter Suppression?
In Virginia, the rallying cry has become “they are making it harder for people to vote – make sure you bring your ID to the polls.” But voting should be made easier, not harder. And when Virginia Democrats proposed to make it easier, for example, with measures that would allow early voting for persons over 65, same day registration, and no-excuse absentee voting, the answer from the Republican House of Delegates has been a resounding “No.” In Virginia, the only thing preventing more draconian voter suppression efforts from being enacted into law is a Governor’s veto, together with enough Democrats in the legislature who will sustain it.
One way to view the recent dispute surrounding Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights to felons who have paid their debt to society is through a lens of voter suppression. We have heard a lot about “second chances” and “redemption,” but when the Governor attempted to accelerate the process for reviewing individual applications for rights restoration by hiring more staff, the House Republicans just said “No,” and offered no alternative to help streamline the individual application process. In fact, they have voted against all legislation that would do so. Consequently, to speed up restoration of these rights, the Governor acted to restore rights to all felons who met specific criteria. The Virginia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision in Howell v. McAuliffe, the swing vote coming from the recent Republican appointee in the aftermath of Justice Jane Roush’s firing, overturned the Governor’s Executive Order, despite the plain language of Article V, Section 12 of our Virginia Constitution that states “The Governor shall have power…to remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction….”
State House to Courthouse
In Virginia, not only does the state legislature make the laws about who can vote, when they can vote, and how they can vote, but it appoints the judges who interpret these laws. And slowly but surely, our judiciary is being populated with conservative judges; the decision in Howell v. McAuliffe shows clearly how these appointments matter. This is yet another reason why we need to work to change the House of Delegates. Who knows how Justice Roush would have approached the felon restoration of rights issue, or whether her presence would have changed the vote. We do know, however, that rules about voting and the interpretation of laws by judges appointed by state legislatures again show “Why States Matter.”
Dear Friends and Colleagues:
As the Democratic Leader, and member of the minority party, in the Virginia House of Delegates, I know how you feel. While our Commonwealth has elected Democrats in all five of the statewide elected posts, Republican control of the redistricting process has given them a super majority in our House of Delegates. In Virginia, we have experienced how the Rules operate to prevent even the most popular public initiatives from getting to the floor. Virginia House Democrats have proposed a variety of common sense gun safety initiatives in the last 10 years, only to see them die in small subcommittees of five persons or less, often without any recorded vote. We have railed against Republican-sponsored initiatives that repealed Virginia’s “one-handgun-a-month” law and allowed guns in bars. We have fought initiatives that would allow guns in airports and guns in schools. And all of this has taken place in the context of our major gun tragedy at Virginia Tech, which, until Orlando, was the largest mass shooting of its type in American history, and the public execution of television reporter, Allison Parker, and her colleague, Adam Ward, on live television in August 2015.
Like you, we have participated in our “moments of silence” and expressed our sympathies for the victims of gun violence. Like you, we have prayed for the victims and their families. And like you, increasing numbers of us are now saying, “Our thoughts and prayers are no longer enough.” Like the American public, we are asking, “What will it take, and when will we act?”
With your courageous action, you have brought attention to this issue in a way that few of us would have thought possible. Like you, we are mindful of the rules, procedures, and history of our legislative bodies. Virginia is proud of asserting its claim to be the longest consecutively operated Democratic legislative body in the Western Hemisphere and we, therefore, respect institutional procedures. It is for that reason that we understand, more than most, the significance of your actions and why you have departed from established procedures.
Your efforts bring to mind the sentiments expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” You undoubtedly recall that King addressed his letter to his fellow clergymen who had expressed concern about the tactics of the civil rights movement in confronting racism. In Dr. King’s letter, which includes the often quoted phrase “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he challenges his colleagues and our citizens to embrace the “tension in society” created by protest “so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myth and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal (in order that we might) rise…to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
This is what you are seeking to do – create a tension and insist that the voices of the majority are heard. And those voices speak loudly and clearly for common sense gun safety measures.
In the days and weeks to come, you will continue to hear the drumbeat of those who would seek to do nothing. They will wrap themselves in the blanket of the 2nd Amendment, failing to recognize that the rights set forth therein, as are the rights of the other amendments, are not unfettered; our right to free speech does not allow us to cry “fire” in a crowded theater and most realize that prohibitions against individuals owning bazookas and surface-to-air missiles are reasonable restrictions to the right to bear arms. You will be criticized for violating rules over which you have no control. You will be accused of participating in a “political stunt.” But with all of this criticism, I hope that you will continue to stand strongly and firmly for our great American tradition of political protest and our assertion that the will of the majority ought to be recognized and realized in promoting common sense gun safety measures in this country.
I speak for many Virginians in saying we are ready to help and to make the change necessary to help our country become a safer place.
Virginia is One Election Away from Becoming North Carolina
Many Virginia citizens are actively engaged in the 2016 presidential race and Congressional races down-ticket from the Clinton/Trump contest. But as we focus intensely on the national races, we should not ignore the state gubernatorial and legislative races, including those which will occur in Virginia next year.
The conservative movement in this country recognized a long time ago what many of us who seek common-sense solutions to everyday problems in an atmosphere of civility and genuine political exchange have neglected at our peril, and that is that states matter!
The statistics clearly bear this out. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans have been very successful in electing their candidates to state legislatures in the last decade. The GOP gained 721 state legislative seats in 2010 and has continued to build their margins in the succeeding years. In 2009, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers in 14 states; by 2015, they had 30. They now control 70 of 99 legislative chambers. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is committed to spending in excess of $100 million to expand their margins.
Our Southern Neighbor
Where Republicans have taken over, the results have been dramatic. Witness our close neighbor, North Carolina. In 2008, the state chose Obama for president, but by 2011, both the House and the Senate in the state had flipped to Republican control. With Republicans in control of redistricting, they drew new lines that further solidified their election victories, and began their “conservative revolution.” In August 2012, North Carolina banned the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions of sea level rise. A Republican governor was elected in 2012 and the state took a dramatic turn to the right.
In February 2013, North Carolina cut maximum weekly unemployment benefits by 40 percent, from $530 per week to $350 per week, and shortened the period of time when workers could receive the benefits, at a time when North Carolina’s unemployment levels were approaching 10 percent.
Under the guise of “tax reform,” the state imposed a greater tax burden on the middle class. It repealed “teacher tenure” for any teacher hired after July 2013, invested more taxpayer dollars in “private school vouchers,” and repealed many of the measures previous legislatures had passed to increase voter participation throughout the state.
In 2015, North Carolina reduced a fine on Duke Energy from $25 million to $7 million in the aftermath of 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater being spilled into the Dan River from the company’s defunct coal plant. In 2015, the legislature abolished a wildly successful solar investment tax credit, which had generated substantial revenue for the state and created thousands of jobs. The legislature and Governor approved the termination of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, a program hailed by Ronald Reagan as the most effective anti-poverty program that we have in this country. Almost one million low-income North Carolinians were affected. The president of the University of North Carolina was ousted and replaced by a former Bush appointee, Margaret Spellings.
Then, in late March 2016, the conservative turn became national news when, in a Special Session that took less than 12 hours, the state passed a bill that not only prevented localities from enacting anti-LGBT discrimination measures, but made it more difficult for any person to enforce claims of discrimination in state courts. The publicity from its so-called “bathroom bill” has generated protests around the nation and has prompted many businesses to stop expansion plans in the state or consider relocating.
While our state elections are another 17 months away, the actions of our neighbor to the south show what can happen in the absence of the checks and balances of divided government. And we are not even talking about the next regular redistricting process, which will occur under the scrutiny, and potential veto, of the next governor. Clearly, a lot is at stake.
The “Virginia Way”
In Virginia, we celebrate the so-called “Virginia Way.” The Virginia Way implies a civil approach that embraces moderate changes focusing on core services of government and supporting a good business climate. For years, Virginia had “divided government;” Democrats and Republicans each controlled either the House, Senate, or Governorship. In addition, there was a group of moderate Republican Senators who would stop some of the most socially regressive legislation passed by the Virginia House of Delegates from ever getting to the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, most of those moderates are now gone from the Virginia Senate and all that stands between Virginia and North Carolina is a Governor who is willing to exercise his or her veto pen in the service of moderation. If you look at the vetoes in Virginia’s last General Assembly session, you can see this in full force. The Governor successfully vetoed efforts by the Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood, prevent the state from producing a state-initiated clean power plan, allow discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, continue inefficient and special tax benefits for coal companies and utilities, and place further restrictions on Virginians’ ability to register and vote.
Our ability to influence state races is dramatically affected by voter turnout. Although it is unlikely that voter participation in the presidential race will reach the historic levels of the 2008 Obama campaign, the percentage of registered voters who will make it to the polls this fall is likely to exceed 70 percent. Contrast that to the last Virginia gubernatorial race when only 43 percent of registered voters appeared at the polls, and state delegate races which often produce participation numbers even lower (under 30 percent in 2015).
Virginia’s Elections Matter
So as we rightfully focus on the Presidential election, we should not lose track that in Virginia we could be only one election away from our state adopting the politics of North Carolina and producing a new redistricting plan that will put the checks and balances of divided government at further risk for the next decade. The stakes could not be higher.