Unitarian Universalists moved the needle on gay marriage

The Thinker by Rodin

Marriages between gays or lesbians seem to be a fading issue in this country. In certain parts of the country, particularly in Southern states, the issue is still radioactive. Overall it is succumbing to a number of forces, probably the most important of which is simply demographics. The people that care the most about it are dying, and those who are comfortable with it tend to be younger.

Still, it is remarkable how quickly the tables have turned. Just a few years ago I was hearing from friends who were against gay marriage that only unelected judges were allowing gay marriage, not the people. “In every state where voters have had a say, it’s been turned down.” That’s no longer true, as Maine voters approved gay marriage by referendum in 2012. We have legislators paid to make these decisions. Vermont, of course, was the first to have civil unions and was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2009, over the veto of Governor Douglas. Legislators in New Hampshire and the District of Columbia followed Vermont’s lead in 2009. In 2011, New York State joined the club. In 2012 it was Washington State. In 2013, the floodgates opened. Legislators approved gay marriage in Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii and Illinois.

Gay marriage is now legal in 17 states, and it is being disputed in court in states you would not expect, like Tennessee, Utah and Indiana. These rulings were prompted by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor v. United States, which struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling made lawful gay marriages legal for federal purposes. And because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. constitution, many federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws against gay marriage. The Supreme Court will likely get to rule on the issue again, which last year was narrowly tailored. While our Supreme Court tends to be conservative, it has a libertarian streak. It is likely that within a few years that laws or state constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage in the United States will become null and void, like sodomy laws.

This kind of rapid change is pretty breathtaking, even for me. In 2006, I disparaged my state of Virginia. In 2005, Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage in the state. That seemed to cement prejudice into law for decades. I wrote:

Yet the time of their repeal will come eventually. It may take 50 years. It may take a hundred years. Yet it will happen in time, yes even here in Virginia. Just as we once hung our heads in shame for tolerating evils like slavery, just as we flagrantly hung on to white and black only schools as recently as 1964, the time will come when we will look back on these sad modern times wholly aghast that we could have ever been so shallow, intolerant and mean spirited.

So how is Virginia doing with the whole gay marriage thing in 2014? Due to the Supreme Court’s decision, our Democratic Attorney General refuses to enforce that part of our state constitution, but that’s kind of moot at the moment. That’s because in February, our federal district court in Bostic v. Rainey invalidated our state’s constitutional amendment. The judged stayed the ruling on appeal. The case went to the Fourth Circuit Court, which heard oral arguments on May 13. It’s likely the ruling will be upheld. Since our Attorney General won’t appeal the ruling if it is upheld, gay marriage will likely be legal in Virginia sometime this year. In short, it looks like it will have taken eight years, not 50. Meanwhile, the polling here in Virginia has totally switched in eight years. According to a Quinnipiac poll released March 31, fifty percent of Virginia voters favor gay marriage, with 42 percent opposed.

While some of this is due to demographic forces, it’s also due in part to a lot of people being very noisy on the issue. Most Americans get it. They may find gay marriage morally repugnant, but they can’t get over the fairness argument. It’s simply not fair to extend to one class of citizen privileges not afforded to another, and it sure appears to be a violation of both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to do so. Increasingly most of those disgusted by gay marriage are simply willing to hold their nose rather than fight it. There’s also the general sense that fighting it is futile.

How did this happen so fast? It happened because of a convergence of various forces as well as demographics. I am proud to say that my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, was the point of the spear on this issue, at least as a social movement. Back in 2009, I wrote about our national convention that I attended in conservative Utah. We took over the convention center in Salt Lake City and had an eight story banner “Standing on the Side of Love” going down the side of the convention center. It was bold, breathtaking and in 2009 felt pretty futile, particularly since we had converged on the bright red state of Utah.

The banner since then has been everywhere. It is hard to find pictures of any march anywhere for gay marriage without seeing the banner. In demonstrations and marches, the banner is prominent, with mostly Unitarian Universalists (UUs) carrying the banner. It’s not a hard message to grasp: UUs take the side of love, not hate. The banner is still in use, and its use is not just to help gays and lesbians acquire marital rights. It is also being used for the many of us UUs that support immigrant rights, and other endeavors that require love and compassion as a solution. Of course, the movement is more than a banner, it’s people, and our current president as well as past president has been leading our denomination on the issue.

I wish I could point to other great successes like this among UUs. There have been many prominent UUs throughout the years (including Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin) and more than a few presidents, but as leaders of social change we have often been laggards. (I am thinking about racial tolerance and sexism in particular.) That has changed. UUs have proven instrumental at moving the needle on this fundamental issue of civil rights and fairness. UUs everywhere, but the Standing on the Side of Love team in particular, have certainly earned my gratitude. I’ve never been prouder to be a UU.

I hope we can keep this streak going and keep moving our country toward acting as if love and compassion is the core of who we are as a nation. We are now trying to move the needle on the child refugee crisis on our southern border, among other issues. I hope that you will join us.

Good luck with the budget voodoo, Governor McDonnell

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t heard, not only does Massachusetts have a new senator-elect, but Virginia has a new Governor. Bob McDonnell, your typical grey haired white Republican male with a toothy smile and a blonde arm candy wife was sworn in a week ago. He won election by promising no new taxes (a position few find hard to argue with) but also by promising all these new services. Yes, he has a four billion dollar budget hole to fill, but somehow he’s going to cut spending and add services. This includes increasing funds to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is already decades behind where it needs to be in providing sufficient roads to handle Virginia’s burgeoning population.

Good luck with that, Governor McDonnell. Not that I am wishing you any bad luck or anything, but you are hardly the first governor, Republican or Democratic, to promise all these magical new services without raising any additional taxes. In a way, it’s an easy promise to make. After all, you don’t have to worry about reelection. Virginia governors can only serve one term.

I guess it wouldn’t work to tell voters the truth: that state services, already cut to the bone, have zero fat in them already. To close the four billion dollar gap outgoing Governor Tim Kaine outlined, most residents are going to squeal when they see what it actually means. Virginia’s total budget is around $38 billion, so $4 billion is hardly a drop in the bucket and amounts to about ten percent of the budget. I doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that if you are not going to raise taxes, you are going to add services and you already have a large projected deficit, then you are going to have to further cut services somewhere. You already promised to give more money to transportation and increase the portion of state money given to fund teacher salaries. The only problem is that both the easy and the hard cuts were made years ago.

How crazy has it gotten? The last cut to VDOT budget was $42 million from the road maintenance fund. How much is Fairfax County getting from the state for road maintenance this year? Zero dollars. That’s right, despite being the most prosperous county in the state as well as providing more tax revenue to the state than any other county as well as tons of revenue in gas taxes which is supposed to go for things like highway maintenance, we will get zero dollars for maintenance. So either we just let the potholes get bigger or we raise county taxes to pay to fix potholes which hitherto has been at least partially a state responsibility.

Now as a frequent driver, I’m all for changing this, so I think it’s great that our new governor is going to add to VDOT’s funding but I just don’t see where the money is going to come from. Education, health and human services, and transportation, in that order, are the biggest consumers of state tax dollars. It doesn’t look like education will be cut, unless it is subsidies to state universities, which have already been dramatically reduced and have students howling over their tuition rate increases. You say that transportation will get more funding which leaves human services as a likely place to use your budget knife. These services of course have already been pared to the bone. It’s hard to see how you reduce spending more there. It’s not like Medicaid is optional. It’s a nice gesture that you and your senior staff are going to be taking pay cuts, but that’s all it is and will do almost nothing to address a four billion dollar shortfall.

As best I can tell, you are pinning your hopes on two scenarios. One: the overall economy will improve to the point where more tax revenues come in. I would not take that one to the bank at least for a year or two. The other is your hope to sell oil leases off Virginia’s coast in 2011 and using some of that money to fund the state budget. I’d say the odds are pretty long there too. First, you have to get the federal government to agree to do this. Second, you have to hope that oil companies will be willing to front the money. Lastly, you are assuming that environmentalists won’t tangle this up in the courts for years.

So good luck governor but as Virginia is not licensed to print money, it’s pretty easy to see what’s going to give. Since you promised not to raise any taxes, it likely means that our overstretched state services are going to be more overstretched, which is to say the state will have to stop doing stuff that states typically do and we’re already pretty much giving up on road maintenance. I think it is much more likely that you will find reason to consolidate prisons and let non-violent prisoners out early in an attempt to make your budget math work. You just have to hope Virginia voters do not notice. As costly as prisons are, you still won’t be able to cough up four billion dollars in savings from them.

One promise I can make is that when you leave office in four years we will be lucky if our transportation funding is where it is now and our public school teachers do not have an extra four or five pupils in their classes. As for my fellow Virginians, shame on us for falling for these lies once again. Just once, I’d like to hear a Republican run for office promising no lower taxes and fewer services because that’s what it always means. Virginians would be well advised to buy extra heavy-duty shock absorbers for our cars. There will be many bumpy days ahead.

Virginia, just say no to Terry McAuliffe

The Thinker by Rodin

My dinner was interrupted tonight by a phone call from the Terry McAuliffe for Governor campaign. In case you haven’t heard, Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is running for governor of Virginia. No doubt, his campaign wanted my support and likely my money too. Just hearing whose campaign was calling me was enough for me to hang up the phone. While I am a good Democrat, I simply cannot abide this man. I will hold my nose and vote for him in the general election if necessary, because the Republicans will doubtless field someone worse. However, I refuse to vote for him in the upcoming Democratic primary.

You ever see a picture of someone or just hear them and instinctively not like them? I feel that way about Terry. So in part, my reaction is not logical. However, it is not hard to find logical reasons to hope this guy’s campaign flounders. Let us start with the biggest one: despite having a house here in Fairfax County for twenty years, in spirit he is no Virginian. Rather he is a Washington insider intimately connected with national politics.

Nevertheless, let’s not be too hasty. Let’s look at his resume. How did he do as chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005? It depends on whom you ask. Friends and partisans like Donna Brazile have plenty of nice things to say about Terry. He was good at raking in the money. During his tenure, the DNC raised a record $578 million. He also compiled a computerized database of over 170 million voters for targeting. It takes money to win elections, of course, but the money he raised apparently was squandered. In the 2002 election, Republicans gained eight House seats and two Senate seats. In 2004, Republicans picked up three more House seats and four Senate seats. In short, all that fundraising prowess was for naught. He left the Democratic Party significantly politically weaker than it was when he assumed chairmanship. The party was so out of touch with many of us Democrats that many like my wife had to be coaxed (or in her case, pushed) into the voting booth. The slate we were given was milquetoast.

What did he do wrong? Clearly he had to deal with some strong Republican headwinds, flamed by 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. It does not matter because he had the responsibility to change the dynamic, and he failed. He lacked the imagination to properly harness the power of the Internet. He raised money the old fashioned way, with rubber chicken dinners for wealthy donors and by sending out fundraising letters to targeted demographics. Nor did he give the Democratic Party a clear and positive message to distinguish its brand from the Republican’s. When he left the DNC, the Democratic Party still looked like Bill Clinton’s party. What it needed was a chairman willing to remake the party into a newer and better brand.

It took Howard Dean to change the dynamics. Dean was somewhat reluctantly elected DNC chairman in 2005, almost as a consolation prize. Dean however had a grasp of the bigger picture and the changing dynamics. Dean may have irritated the party establishment, but he proved to be a focused and agile leader of the party, putting recruiters in all states, not just the swing states. The results in 2006 and 2008 were telling. Democrats now control Congress and the White House. Most importantly, Dean connected with the disenfranchised Democratic voter, people like me who wanted a progressive agenda, not more of the Democratic-lite brand popularized by Bill Clinton. The result was apparent not only in the voting booth, but in bulging DNC coffers and an energized Democratic Party on both coasts and many states in between. Today, compared with a few years ago, significantly more Americans identify themselves as Democrats than they do Republicans.

In short, despite his protests to the contrary, McAuliffe represents the Democratic Party that was, not the Democratic Party we are today. Apparently, he figures he can use his old-school skills to buy his way into the governor’s mansion. With his well-practiced schmoozing, he will likely have little trouble raising more funds than his two announced primary challengers. He also looks trim and dashing in his three-piece suit. To try to connect with Virginians beyond the Capital Beltway, who he knows tangentially at best, he is trying to do a Mark Warner thing and visit every part of the state. The problem is that he comes across as a Washington insider because, well, he is.

Call me old fashioned, but if I am going to vote for someone for governor, can they first have experience in state and local government or running a business or large non-profit in the state? McAuliffe has none. He knows as much about the Virginia beyond the beltway as he does about city council elections in Fargo, North Dakota. At best, he only dimly understands the culture of the state, which is complex and very polymorphic. How would he get along with the Virginia legislature, which has one house firmly in Republican hands? Many prominent Virginians who have spent many years in public office do understand the dynamics of our state government. McAuliffe appears clueless.

Virginia, don’t be mesmerized by this fast-talking Washingtonian. McAuliffe’s real destination is the White House. The governor’s mansion in Richmond is just a way station. Elect someone who understands our state. Just say no to the slick and superficial Terry McAuliffe.

A new inconvenient truth: we need to raise taxes

The Thinker by Rodin

Way back in 2003, I penned this post that more than five years later still gets regular hits. (It has received eighty hits since the start of the year, according to Google Analytics.) I was very politically incorrect back then when I suggested that we are not paying enough in taxes. I still feel this way and I am sad to say that recent news articles bear me out. We are woefully behind simply maintaining the infrastructure that we have. This was tragically borne out a year ago with the catastrophic bridge collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis that killed thirteen people. As a direct result of this event, federal and state money suddenly materialized to replace this bridge. The replacement bridge will cost $234 million and is scheduled for completion by Christmas.

You would think that this event might have changed the dynamics. However, as the Associated Press found, just twelve percent of our most structurally deficient high use bridges have been repaired. It would cost an estimated $140 billion to repair just the bridges that need to be repaired right now. Yet, President Bush is threatening to veto a transportation bill because it spends $1 billion more than he likes. It will not surprise you to learn that Bush’s motives are wholly ideological. He is a conservative and conservatives do not believe in raising taxes or spending money on projects not considered essential. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, bridge construction is not essential to this president. Our War in Iraq though is essential, and at least some of that money is going to build new bridges for Iraqis. Apparently, bridges are essential for Iraq, but are not essential for the United States. Go figure.

I picked bridge repair as an example only because it is easy to see the consequences of inaction. In fact, our infrastructure is crumbling all around us. Here in Virginia, our state House of Delegates once again bollixed up attempts to raise transportation taxes. The result is that not just bridges that are suffering, but cars spend much time sitting in traffic and consequently unnecessarily spewing emissions. So far this year there have been three Code Red air quality days for the Washington region, and twelve Code Orange days.

Better air quality, like safe bridges, are solvable problems. Neither is solved by rocket science but by the application of money and will. Just as maintaining your car means you extend its useful life, bridge life can be extended through regular maintenance too. Instead, we would rather defer the cost of maintenance to have a little more cash in our pockets today. The result is like driving your car on a half a quart of oil. You can do it for a while, but at some point, you are looking at some very expensive consequences. It is pennywise and pound-foolish.

The anti-tax crowds, epitomized by nuts like Grover Norquist, are pennywise folk. They are convinced that all expenditures of money by governments are ultimately wasteful no matter how much they address a public need. Their philosophy though amounts to living in the moment and closing their ears when the application of their philosophy results in inconvenient news, like what happened in Minneapolis one year ago exactly on August 1, 2007. These problems do not go away by ignoring them. They simply get worse and more expensive to fix.

The irony is that if instead of aggressively cutting taxes we had prudently kept the old tax rates then we would have had the money back then to fix many of the systemic problems that are cropping up all over the place today. Our tax rates seemed quite acceptable to the American public when our president was inaugurated. We were even paying back some of our massive debt. Granted, even back in 2000 we were not quite spending what we needed to spend to address problems like deteriorating bridges. This was due in part to federal gas taxes not having changed since 1993. However, construction costs have increased during that time. The result is that there is less money available to fund projects like bridge maintenance. Rather than raise gas taxes, thus far Congress’ solution is to charge it. Hopefully only as an interim measure, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to add eight billion dollars to the Highway Trust Fund by supplementing it with money from general Treasury funds. In other words, we will go into more debt to pay for it and pass its cost on to future generations.

Our fiscal crisis in many ways mirrors our blindness with the oil crisis. We buy more foreign oil because we are used to an oil-based economy and do not want to think about how hard it would be to change to something else. We know that recoverable oil is a finite resource that in general will only get pricier because it will be harder to extract. Similarly, we borrow money from creditors on the expectation that they will always be willing to lend it to us. As some overleveraged homeowners are finding out, if your liabilities exceed your assets no one is willing to loan you any money. The same can happen to the United States government. Our weak dollar, trading at record lows, suggests the time may not be that far off.

To solve the oil crisis we must realize that we cannot drill our way back to our previous lifestyle. To solve our fiscal crisis, we have to realize that we cannot indefinitely depend on our creditors unless we first show a willingness as a nation to roll up our sleeves to fix some of these problems. In short, we need to raise taxes.

Raising taxes is never convenient, particularly at a time when so many Americans are struggling. That is why my suggestion will go over like a lead balloon. That is also why if I were ever inclined to move my fantasy run for president into a real run for president, my message would fall mainly on deaf ears. Like John Anderson in 1980, I would lose spectacularly.

Still, most of us, if we stop listening to the spin and start listening to our hearts, know that we face a new inconvenient truth. The cost of not raising taxes today simply means that to fix these problems tomorrow will cost even more. So yes, for a while, those extra taxes would hurt. At some point, you sufficiently address the under-funded infrastructure problems and taxes can be eased. Nevertheless, taxes must never be eased beyond the point that we can adequately maintain the infrastructure we need to run our modern society.

Instead of running for president, all I can do is be that fly in the ointment. I am more than willing to pony up my share of additional taxes. Most likely, I would pay disproportionately more in taxes than many of you, since I have a six-figure income. I do not like paying more taxes either, but I am willing to do so. I do know that despite laughably naïve men like Grover Norquist, we are interconnected. We critically depend on our infrastructure and our social safety nets. Since like you I get great value from these things, I am not afraid to pay my share.

As was true when I wrote about it in 2003, things cost money! They cost what they cost because that is how much it costs! No ideology can change this. I expect to pay close to $200 on Monday to have a locksmith fix a bad lock, which must work with our house key. It seemed like a lot of money to me too, but that is the going rate for fixing a problem that I cannot fix by myself. I would rather pay the $200 than find that anyone could get into my house or that I could not get out when I needed to.

We have a great nation that thanks to the low tax mantra is rapidly moving from first-class status to second-class status. I think I am a patriot by coming forward to proclaim that I am willing to have my taxes raised to make sure we remain a first class nation.

Jim Webb: Mr. Smith goes to Washington

The Thinker by Rodin

As regular readers know, I have been keeping my ears close to the ground these days. I still hear a political earthquake coming tomorrow. Of course, I could be wrong. I certainly was wrong calling the 2004 election. As I ponder political earthquakes closer to where I live in Northern Virginia, I hear another one coming: tomorrow Jim Webb, who was virtually unknown at the beginning of this year, will defeat George Allen in his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate. Virginia will wake up Wednesday and find it has wisely chosen a person of substance over a man of image.

Recent polls have been saying this race is too close to call. Very recent polls give hope to both George Allen and challenger Jim Webb. I think Webb will win though because he is the real deal, whereas George Allen is just another George W. Bush clone.

Really, it is eerie how much George Allen imitates President Bush. Bush pretends to be a Texan, even though he is a New Englander. Allen pretends to be a Virginian, even though he is a Californian. Both go out of their ways to be perceived as Southerners. Both were governors of very red Southern states who touted dubious achievements in education. Bush claimed to have turned around the Texas public schools. Allen promoted the now institutionalized Virginia Standards of Learning. These tests, like those in Texas, have become so dumbed down that my senior age high school daughter informs me, “You have to be really stupid not to pass a SOL exam.” Both belong to mainstream Protestant denominations: United Methodist in Bush’s case, Presbyterian in Allen’s case. Both avoided serving in war but at least Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard. Perhaps the closest identification to Bush is seen in Allen’s votes. He voted for virtually whatever Bush promoted, including our failed war in Iraq. He was one of the last Republicans to stop insisting the way to win in Iraq was to stay the course.

Until a few months ago, many Republicans considered Allen to be a leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. No one thought Webb had a snowball’s chance in hell at defeating this popular ex-Governor and senator. You know what happened since then to bring Allen down, so I will not repeat these incidents. Suffice to say that George Allen was one of many Republicans who were not agile enough to respond to changing political winds. Moreover, he, like our president, was headstrong enough to think he could do things like put Confederate Flags and nooses in his office and it did not matter or speak to his true character.

For a politician like Allen, his worst nightmare is a challenger who seems tailored to expose all his personal deficiencies. Jim Webb seemed to come out of nowhere. He did not even start running for the Senate until February. A successful Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, U.S. Naval Academy graduate and decorated marine, Webb was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts while a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam. A successful author of eight books, self-described Reagan Democrat and former follower of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, he was moved to become a Democrat and run against George Allen because Allen supported Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. While not totally without his share of controversy, Webb comes across as a clear-eyed and sober patriot while Allen comes across as George W. Bush lite: handsome, giving the appearance of being a family values man, but headstrong and with obvious vindictive and prejudicial sides. His real constituency was white Protestant Republicans, and everyone knew it.

Webb is something of a political oddity. In many ways he is who I would be if I were to be a politician. Unfortunately, I could never begin to match his credentials. He is the genuine reluctant candidate, motivated by conviction rather than ego. Webb is a man who refuses to pick up the phone and schmooze donors for campaign contributions. He may be the last of his kind. In spite of this, he has pulled in impressive campaign contributions, including huge amounts of relatively small donations from the Netroots and from ordinary Joes like me.

I was one of the 3% or so of Virginia Democrats who voted in the primary. Despite Webb’s previously Republican leanings, I was enthusiastic about voting for Webb. He won that election narrowly, and he may well win tomorrow’s election narrowly too. This time though I expect we will see something close to record turnout for a midterm election. His election will send a powerful signal that genuine character matters again in politicians. Voters will reward honest accomplishments rather than empty rhetoric. Webb is authentic and genuine. He is perhaps the last of the Mr. Smiths to go to Washington. He will probably be the only politician in Congress who will not be influenced by special interests. It may doom him to a single term. Still, it will be a refreshing six-year term.

I expect big things from Jim Webb. Should he choose to seek even higher office some day, I think he will find an enthusiastic group of supporters from both sides of the political spectrum, as long as he remains true to his values. His campaign says he was born fighting. He has some huge fights ahead in the Senate on behalf of not just Virginians, but the vast majority of us disenfranchised Americans. Virginians: let us establish a beachhead for him by voting for Jim Webb tomorrow.

More Virginia Legislature Madness

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s dangerous when our legislature is in session. It seems they can’t help themselves. Rather than concentrate on boring things like funding roads and education they have to find ways to infringe on our civil liberties instead. And lately they seem to have this thing for women who might actually want to choose when they get pregnant.

It started back in early January with the introduction of HB 1677. Delegate John A. Cosgrove (Republican, naturally) of Chesapeake decided it should be a crime if a woman did not report a miscarriage within twelve hours. She would be guilty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor. In other words after suffering the trauma of a miscarriage, any woman who didn’t have her wits sufficiently together to promptly report the experience would be a lawbreaker. For this “crime” she could spend up to 12 months in jail and pay a $2,500 fine.

I, along with many other Virginians, were outraged. Fortunately we had time to act on this bill before it was presented for an up or down vote. I did my part and contacted my state representative and senator. And thankfully this horrible bill was withdrawn.

But the wingnuts are back. Yesterday the Virginia Senate passed the Devolites Davis bill, SB 456. This is an amendment to a bill submitted by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple. Her bill simply defined contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm or egg or implantation of an egg in the uterine wall. No problem there: this seems like an obvious and straightforward definition.

But our legislature couldn’t leave well enough alone. As the Hampton Roads Daily Press put it:

[Whipple’s] bill would legally define contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm and egg or implantation of an egg in the uterine wall.

Commonly prescribed birth-control pills prevent pregnancy through both means. Abortion opponents who contend life begins at conception insist that denying a fertilized egg the opportunity to attach itself to the womb and develop as a fetus is a form of abortion.

Whipple’s bill and a companion measure by Del. Kristin Amundson, D-Fairfax County, would head off anti-abortion groups’ efforts to classify birth control pills as a form of abortion. That could subject obtaining the pills, intrauterine devices and other forms of birth-control to Virginia’s growing list of abortion restrictions, including parental notification and consent for girls under 18…

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis’ floor amendment applied a less specific dictionary definition of pregnancy. It was adopted largely along party lines in a 21-17 vote with one abstention.

Rather than take the chance that this amended bill could classify birth control pills as abortion devices Whipple has withdrawn the legislation.

Meanwhile, Delegate Mark Cole introduced HB 1918, which wants to give any fertilized human egg protection. “That life begins at the moment of fertilization and the right to enjoyment of life guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia is vested in each born and preborn human being from the moment of fertilization.” Never mind the inconvenient scientific fact that life does not begin at conception. A fertilized egg is a zygote. It cannot grow nor does it divide at this stage. It is inert. It has not even divided once. Conception occurs when the zygote travels into the uterus and implants itself onto the wall of the uterus. It is when the zygote comes in contact with the blood of the uterine wall that energy allows cell division to begin. It is then that something resembling life has actually started.

I hate learning about these things after the fact. But if you are a concerned citizen of Virginia you cannot wait until these stories show up months later in The Washington Post. Their editors there seem to be asleep on these issues. But you can get on the Democracy for Virginia Legislative Sentry mailing list. And be prepared to act quickly before yet another needlessly intrusive bill is quietly voted into law and one more right you’ve always taken for granted vanishes from the Commonwealth.

Virginia is for Haters

The Thinker by Rodin

What is it about my state? Why does our legislature go out of its way, not just to merely be conservative but to craft laws that actively find ways to stick it to those it doesn’t like? Lately I’ve been feeling like the Christian Taliban has taken over my state government. We had Operation Iraqi Freedom. When do the Marines come in to liberate the citizens of Virginia? What a sad irony: the state that set the standard for freedom in America and gave innovative statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and George Mason now gleefully enacts more and more laws that restrict social and economic freedoms for those it doesn’t like.

The latest outrage totally escaped me until I read about it yesterday. Yes, I knew that our legislature had passed yet another defense of marriage act law. But I thought it was symbolic because Virginia already has many statutes on the book that outlawed gay marriage. Another one seemed like it hardly could make things worse. But I was wrong.

How did Virginia go the extra mile to stick it to gays? On April 21st the Virginia legislature banned all contracts between partners in homosexual marriage-like relationships. Here it is, H.R. 751, in its entirety: one short paragraph:

A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable.

Think about what this means. This means that a gay person who has lived his life with his spouse cannot legally pass on any of his or her assets to his or her partner. It means a gay’s life partner cannot have Power of Attorney privileges. He or she cannot be a beneficiary of their partner’s will. At the end of life a gay’s life partner cannot decide their partner’s end of life care.

This is truly bizarre. In Virginia as a married man I can name my sister as my beneficiary, give power of attorney over to my business partner and write a will that leaves my wife with nothing but my debts. And it’s all perfectly legal if a bit despicable. But if I happened to be gay and have a life partner then under Virginia law I can’t leave him a penny in my will. He could have spent decades loving me and nurturing me. Even though I may have millions of dollars of my own assets I am prohibited from giving even a penny of it to my life partner.

But it appears to be more than that. What sort of other financial things do married people usually do together? Buying property is one. This statute appears to prohibit two gay people from buying shared housing together. Presumably joint bank accounts are not allowed either. Any loans for which both parties are responsible appear to unlawful. Potentially a gay person could adopt a child but certainly not both a gay person and his spouse.

Even more discouraging is that the bill was passed with veto proof majorities. This bill is now the law of the State of Virginia, effective July 1st. This means it will be almost impossible to overturn.

Who was responsible for this monstrosity? Sadly, it was not some down state representative representing Jerry Falwell’s oxymoric Liberty University. No, it was Robert G. Marshall, who represents the nearby city of Manassas. This is the same guy who pushed a law barring access to contraceptives at Virginia colleges and universities.

There are a number of groups here in Virginia who are working to change this law. But make no mistake. We live in a state that even though the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the sodomy laws refuses to take them off its books. Changing this law will be a tough, uphill fight. One way is through a boycott of Virginia businesses. This group for example is maintaining a Virginia business boycott list and only those businesses that certify they are pro-tolerance will be exempted. (Of course it will be hard to call attention to the boycott, so it depends on word of mouth. So trackback this blog entry and forward it to all your progressive friends!) The group is also working on a counterpoint to the Yes Virginia campaign. That effort is trying to convince businesses is other states to relocate to Virginia. But if your business is progressive enough to realize that sexual orientation has no bearing on competency in the workplace you should locate your business elsewhere. Virginia is actively making it more difficult for your business to attract and maintain a quality workforce through blatantly discriminatory laws against homosexuals.

For 35 years Virginia has claimed it was the state for lovers. What a joke. Well, it’s certainly not the state for homosexual lovers. Fornication is unlawful so it’s certainly not the state for unmarried lovers. Adultery is also illegal so it’s not the state for hanky panky. It’s certainly not the state for unmarried couples of the opposite sex who don’t want to get married. Shared cohabitation between unrelated people of the opposite sex is against the law. And until the Supreme Court abolished sodomy laws (including Virginia’s) it wasn’t the state for committed married couples who liked to engage in oral or anal sex. I guess there needs to be an asterisk next to the state slogan: applies to married, heterosexual couples who copulate using the missionary position only.

To all those who are homosexual, bisexual or anyone with any sense of decency and fairness: I am sorry we have a state run by anal retentive knee jerk conservative wackos. I am sorry my state legislature consists of a veto proof majority of twits who have apparently zero sense of compassion or empathy in their tiny little hearts. The Grinch’s heart was two sizes too small. I’m not sure you could find the heart of Rep. Robert G. Marshall. Like Dick Cheney, he must have ice water running through his veins.

Virginia Emerges from Budget Gridlock

The Thinker by Rodin

I note with relief that the Virginia legislature finally seems to have agreed to a budget solution. It took more than three months, much vitriol, and chronic wailing and gnashing of teeth. But our Republican controlled legislature seems to have bit the bullet and ever so modestly raised taxes. In brief our sales taxes will be going up from 4.5 cents per dollar to 5 cents, while taxes on groceries will be eased. The cigarette tax, currently the lowest in the nation at 2.5 cents a pack will go to 30 cents a pack, which is still a bargain. The personal property tax on cars, which former Governor Jim Gilmore tried to phase out altogether, will be frozen. This means no further relief for Virginia drivers, who will have to pay 30% of the car tax out of their own pockets. Income tax rates remain unchanged.

It seems that since Virginia can’t print its own money it can’t have its cake and eat it too. No matter how many times the legislature did the math it couldn’t satisfy its constituents, fund basic services and not raise taxes. It appears that even in my notoriously anti-tax state there are certain minimum expenditures that if not met the public will squawk about. This includes basic funding the public schools, prisons, public safety and roads.

To come to agreement Republicans in the Virginia House had to actually turn against their own speaker. It was House Speaker William J. Howell who overreached his power. Time and time again he refused to even allow conversations of new taxes to come up. Eventually Republicans felt stifled and frustrated, and a critical mass joined with the Democrats to do the people’s business. Consequently we have the bizarre reality of a Republican controlled legislature falling behind a moderate Democratic governor and minority Democrats to raise taxes.

The reason it happened first in Virginia is not because Virginia is a progressive state. Far from it. It happened here in Virginia because Virginia has always been a niggardly state. Advocates for the infirmed and mentally retarded made numerous trips to Richmond to try to persuade the legislature to support basic services for those who could not help themselves but who had been a casualty of declining tax revenues. In the Virginia House their pleas fell on deaf ears. If you can believe it, our legislature was more concerned about not raising taxes than about assuring basic mental health care for our most needy and desperate citizens. “Let all but a handful wander the streets,” seemed to be their enlightened motto in dealing with the mentally ill. However, when asked to cut subsidies for Virginia tobacco farmers they couldn’t summon the will.

Maybe there is a silver lining in this. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of the “no new taxes ever” revolution. If it can happen here in Virginia it can happen anywhere. A precedent has now been established. Apparently there is a point to having a state government. If our House had had its way, the tax increase would have had to be put to a referendum. But this strategy failed. Citizens began telling their representatives they were elected to make tough decisions, not pass the buck. Duh!

Anti-tax advocates are threatening to have those Republicans who voted for the tax increase voted out in 2005. It remains to be seen if they will succeed. But I sense even among Virginia’s most conservative voters there is some floor of basic fiscal sanity that they expect from their legislative representatives. In their zeal for no new taxes, they aren’t going to turn the state into a dysfunctional organization. In 2004 we may have found that boundary at last. Ideology, however reluctantly, has yielded to pragmatism.

I salute those brave Republicans who broke with the party leadership on this issue. Their “leaders” demonstrated zero leadership and zero courage. This $1.36B tax increase is hardly more tax and spend. It barely makes a dent in the state’s needs, which have been woefully out of balance since the economy tanked in 2001. But at least during this year this new revenue will keep Virginia from irretrievably falling into fiscal madness. While insufficient it is a step in the right direction. And it does allow counties, cities and colleges to now plan their own budgets.

Hold the presses! Virginia Republicans are raising taxes!

The Thinker by Rodin

Things are tough in Richmond, Virginia. Our legislature is back for its annual attempt to have its cake and eat it too. Last year it papered over massive state budget problems. This year it has run out of creative ways to keep basic state services going and not raise taxes. Needless to say for our Republican legislature this has involved a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

True to form for the first few weeks our Republican legislature made brave promises that it would not raise taxes and parroted the usual silly assertions that the state government was just spending too much. Our governor Mark Warner, after campaigning on a platform of no new taxes, submitted his plan to address our state’s serious revenue deficiencies. It said that yep it looks like we really need to raise taxes folks but let’s call it rewriting the tax code instead of a tax increase. In the legislature it was, of course, declared immediately dead on arrival. On Monday Governor Warner conceded as much. But that still leaves that pesky little problem of how to balance our state budget (required by law) and not cut funding further for schools, transportation, the prisons and all those other essential services.

So how did the Commonwealth get into this mess? There is no denying the economic slowdown affected Virginia as well as virtually every other state out there. But it is more than that. During the 1990s Virginia, like many states, lived in flush times. Our technology industry in particular was going gangbusters. The area where I live in Northern Virginia (Fairfax County) attracted some of the very best and brightest of the software industry, including companies like AOL. We also had innumerable technology companies providing services to the federal government, like SAIC and AMS. While they were raking in the profits the state got its share. This meant citizens’ tax rates could be kept about where they were. All was right: we could keep spending more without changing the sales or income tax rates. Partially as a result the Republicans took over both houses of the state legislature.

We also elected James S. Gilmore as our governor back in 1998. The Reagan-like Republican Gilmore rode into office promising to get rid of the most despised tax in Virginia: the car tax. Counties are allowed to tax personal property in our state. However, the car tax money was critical to the counties. It was used for minor things like funding the schools. Gilmore succeeded in keeping the first $20,000 of the assessed value of the car from being taxed. The state reimbursed counties for the lost revenue. And all was right until the recession started. At that point it became politically untenable for the State to stop subsidizing the counties for this lost revenue. So it became a huge new liability for the State it couldn’t politically undo.

The State became caught between the rock and a hard place. One solution could have been to reinstate the car tax. However, the voters would not stand for it. So this new state liability became politically impossible to remove. Instead the legislature invoked the usual one time accounting tricks while making cuts to transportation, education and public safety.

This year there the choices become extremely painful. The legislature now has to figure out whether it will increase taxes or cut deeply into essential state services. Will it lay off public school teachers? Make civil servants go another year without a cost of living raise, or actually reduce their salaries? (It already laid off thousands of civil servants.) Will it in effect continue to raise taxes by shifting the burden to universities, who have to make up the difference in huge tuition increases?

Former Governor Gilmore is of course appalled that his fellow Republicans would even consider raising a tax. Yes, the same governor whose reckless overspending and tax cutting got us into this situation is castigating Mark Warner for his proposal to increase taxes!

Slowly, and with the greatest reluctance the legislature is considering (gasp) tax increases. The straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been various reports that the state’s excellent credit rating was about to take a tumble. That wouldn’t look good. It would prove our legislature was full of incompetent boobs who could not manage money. If Moody’s decides Virginia is being run by a bunch of flim flam artists, our costs of borrowing go up or maybe go away altogether. We might even end up looking like California, which is going through its own fiscal shenanigans and has already had its credit rating lowered.

I’ve been a resident of Virginia for 20 years. I was not drawn here because taxes were a bit lower than they were in Maryland. I just wanted to live in Reston. But one aspect of Virginia government I did admire somewhat was that the state had a reputation for living inside its means. It knows how to pinch a penny. But it’s clear that any waste and bloat that did exist in Virginia government is long gone. Even the silly Center for Innovative Technology, a state funded high tech consortium, has largely lost its state funding as revenues sank. But no more. Our credit rating is in jeopardy.

Virginia Republicans are raising taxes. Who would have thunk? Looking for those to absorb the tax increases, businesses have become the primary targets. I guess it’s because businesses don’t vote. The House plan calls for $520M in tax increases. The Senate plan, proposed by a much more sober State Senator John Chichister, calls for $1.8B in tax increases. Governor Warner seems to favor the Senate approach. It will be interesting to see what actually passes and even more interesting to see how the state Republicans spin their tax increases.

Meanwhile rest assured our legislature is working on things that really matter. Noting that gays are being married in truckloads in San Francisco, it is reaffirming that it will have none of that same sex gay marriage crap here in Virginia. It is also working hard to restrict abortion rights. One proposal would make it unlawful for university health clinics to provide over the counter morning-after birth control pills.

But at the same time two other curious bills are going through the legislature. HB1006 will allow companies to offer group insurance benefits to gay partners who live together. This is especially curious since we still have sodomy laws the legislature refused to repeal even though they were invalidated by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. In addition HB187 was passed that no longer restricts state mortgage loans only to those who are married or are blood relatives. It remains to be seen if our state senate will go along. It is also unclear why we are getting a couple progressive bills through the legislature while being obnoxiously conservative on other bills. But maybe, just maybe this is a small sign of progress. If Virginia Republicans can actually vote to raise taxes anything is now possible in my state again.