Vote “No” on Virginia’s Constitutional Amendments

Always default to “No” on constitutional amendment votes.

Originially posted on taberbain.com

In an exciting general election season, it’s easy to overlook the dreary matter of amendment questions. Virginia voters must approve all amendments, and this year, they’re being asked about two of them.

One needlessly jams a piece of sound extant labor law into a place where it doesn’t belong, and the other is an ill-considered tax scheme that doesn’t serve meaningful policy objectives.

Both proposed amendments for 2016 deserve to be soundly rejected at the ballot box.

Amending our constitution is a big deal

As provided for in Article XII of the Constitution of Virginia, amending the document requires approval by a majority of both the House of Delegates and the Senate in two separate sessions with a House of Delegates election between them, followed by a voter referendum. Constitutional amendments are one of the few ballot issues most Virginia voters see with any frequency. Unlike states with more populist traditions that allow citizen groups to propose statewide ballot initiatives, only the General Assembly can put matters to such a referendum, and it rarely chooses to do so.

Let’s break this process down to how these amendments wound up in front of voters in 2016:

  1. In 2014, a majority of members of the House of Delegates and the Senate voted for each new amendment.
  2. The Constitution requires an intervening House of Delegates election, which we have every two years, before amendments go back for their second approval. We held this in 2015.
  3. Following that election, the 2016 General Assembly was presented the same measures again. A majority of members of the House of Delegates and the Senate voted in favor of them again.
  4. The amendments were then ordered to be placed on the ballots for voter approval in the November General Election. If a majority of voters vote “Yes” on the amendments, they will become part of the Constitution of Virginia.

If these amendments are approved, it will be the conclusion of a three year process, which is as short of a process as is possible under the constitution. So if later we decide these things we put into the Constitution of Virginia aren’t a good fit for us anymore and we’d like to change them, how do we do that?

Repealing amendments to the constitution, or even changing the wording of them, is a form of amending the constitution. So yes, you guessed right: by putting these matters into the constitution, we’ve moved them from matters we can tweak, adjust, or drop altogether in one General Assembly session to matters that take a minimum of three years to resolve.

Bearing the ardor of approving amendments, they should address matters that can only be resolved through constitutional change, and represent extraordinarily sound, well-designed policy.

Neither of the 2016 amendments rises to that standard.

Question One is already properly defined by statute

Should Article I of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to prohibit any agreement or combination between an employer and a labor union or labor organization whereby (i) nonmembers of the union or organization are denied the right to work for the employer, (ii) membership to the union or organization is made a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer, or (iii) the union or organization acquires an employment monopoly in any such enterprise?

The so-called “Right-to-Work Amendment” doesn’t belong in the Constitution.

The Code of Virginia already has an entire article devoted to spelling out the commonwealth’s position that union membership or non-membership shouldn’t be a condition of employment. This article was adopted in 1970, and to date has survived the scrutiny of the courts as consistent with the Constitution.

The assessment of whether the amendment proposed by Q1 is a good idea or not can actually stop with just that one fact: the statute is on the books and it’s worked as the General Assembly intended for nearly half a century. The only reason to embed this language in the constitution would be to make altering it more difficult.

But the proposed amendment actually takes § 40.1 Article 3 even further. While current statute holds that companies can’t make employees join or not join unions, the amendment would merely restrict companies from mandating union membership for employees. That sounds like a dweeby quibble, but it’s a shift from decades of employment policy that favors corporate bodies to the disadvantage of employees.

Whether you think “Right-to-Work” is good policy or not, the Virginia Constitution is the wrong place for it to be defined. Turn this one down.

Question Two helps the wrong people

Shall the Constitution of Virginia be amended to allow the General Assembly to provide an option to the localities to exempt from taxation the real property of the surviving spouse of any law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel who was killed in the line of duty, where the surviving spouse occupies the real property as his or her principal place of residence and has not remarried?

The second amendment before voters is the latest in a string of flawed amendments that would create a weird, caveat-loaded benefit for a tiny number of Virginians. The General Assembly, in advancing this measure, has decided that the best salve for grief is, of all things, property tax relief. The intent is probably OK, but the strictures that come with this amendment ensure it will help few Virginians, and those it does offer relief to aren’t the ones who need it most.

For a person to receive a property tax exemption under the Q2 amendment, they’d have to meet all of these qualifications:

  • Have been legally married to an emergency service worker – specifically, “law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel” – who died while doing their job
  • Own their own home
  • Live in a county or city whose governing body has decided to offer a property tax exemption to spouses of emergency service workers who died while doing their job
  • Remain unmarried if they wish to continue receiving a property tax exemption

With me still? Cool. With that in mind, what’s the purpose of this amendment?

If the purpose is to help partners financially after a sudden loss, then this measure is seriously mistargeted by offering a tax break to those least likely to need one. The median household income for homeowners in Virginia is $81,739, nearly twice the MHI of renter-occupied households, $42,613.

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By that measure alone, a property tax exemption is the wrong tool to help widows and widowers. But even providing this benefit to spouses comes with issues, as being married in the first place tracks with substantially higher individual and household income. Marriage also comes with vast ethnic disparities. Where 75% of white adults in Virginia are currently married, just 33% of black adults are.

Statistically speaking then, this measure would largely benefit higher-income whites. Does that sound like the kind of benefit that we’d like to permanently embed in our constitution?

Not even mentioning the perverseness of asking widowers who’ve found a new partner to check in with a tax professional to determine if they should claim the tax benefits of marrying them or the tax benefits of the property tax exemption that they would forfeit by choosing to move on from their grief and remarry. That’s just cruel.

Question Two seems like a sensible act of state compassion on its face, but its structurally flawed design means it can’t provide one bit of assistance to many of the neediest families that lose a loved one in service. Vote no on this and ask the General Assembly to design something better.

Always default to “No” on constitutional amendment votes

Constitutions are meant to be compact. They define the powers and limits of governmental authority and the essential rights of citizens, and are supreme over all statutory laws and regulations. As such, amending Virginia’s constitution should only be done with extreme scrutiny and obvious need.

Constitutional amendments are one of the very few matters of policy that most Virginia voters will ever vote on directly. Don’t be afraid to exercise your veto power over them. If they’re really important, the General Assembly can always go back to the drawing board and rewrite them or explain them better, but if voters approve putting bad policy into the constitution, as they did in approving the so-called “Marriage Amendment” in 2006, the fix isn’t nearly as simple.

Happy voting, Virginia!

The RTD endorsement of Jack Berry reminded me of Joe Morrissey

Two tales of two-city rhetoric.

Today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board endorsed Candidate Jack Berry for mayor. Here’s the language they used to describe the state of the city:

We don’t want to sound too bleak. The city has made much progress in recent years, with a growing population, a reviving downtown, pockets of educational success, a long decline in crime rates, and significant improvements in race relations — especially when compared with the first two centuries of our history.

And yet.

There is a palpable sense of two cities here: One bustles with young professionals, trendy restaurants and breweries, a city of hope and progress. Sometimes only a few blocks away, public housing, unemployment, disappointing schools, business deserts and dangerous streets are the rule. There are no easy or obvious solutions.

It reminded me a lot of Candidate Joe Morrissey’s closing statements at the RTD mayoral debate a while back. Here’s Morrissey with those same remarks to Style Weekly when asked why he wants to be mayor:

Two distinctly different Richmonds live side-by-side:

  • One is public and visible, the other is private and hidden;
  • One is largely white, the other is predominantly black;
  • One is successful, thriving and hopeful while the other is characterized by poverty, despair and hopelessness;
  • One is safe at night while the other suffers from gunfire and violence;
  • One sends its children to dynamic, secure private schools, while parents from the housing projects send their children to crumbling, unaccredited, 50-year-old schools.

Enough.

Unintentional or wonderfully ironic?

Single-ride fares for Richmond’s bike shares

Our bike share system will have single-ride fares! This fills me with joy and gladness!

The other week I was up in D.C. for a thing at the Department of Transportation, and wanted, so badly, to use the city’s bike share system. I saw about a dozen stations as I walked from my car to the DOT—which was quite a walk because I’m a country mouse that rarely ventures into the big city and never really thinks about things like “Northern Virginia Traffic” or “Parking.”

I needed exactly two rides out of their bike share system: to my meeting and back to my car. The cost of a daily membership was $8, and while it would have allowed me infinity rides, all I needed was just the two. Lacking a single-ride fare, the bike share equivalent of a bus pass, I ended up walking. And it was fine. Annoying, but fine.

“Annoying, but fine.” is not how I’d want to describe Richmond’s bike share system to someone hoping to use it.

After my hours-long car ride home, I sent Jake Helmboldt—Richmond’s Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Trails Coordinator—an email asking if our (still-pending) bike share system would offer single-ride fares. And, it turns out, I should have already know that it totally will! City Council has already approved the fee structure which includes a $1.75 single-ride fare (PDF). Hurrah!

Having a single-ride fare unlocks the bike share for spontaneous trips—and this is what you want out of all your transit systems. Transit genius Jarrett Walker puts it this way in his book Human Transit:

In transit, the real test of freedom is spontaneity. Can I change my plans suddenly? Can I get home if I need to, or to my child’s school if something comes up? Can I simply move freely around my city, following whatever impulse I may feel at the moment? Some transit systems approach that level of convenience, at least in dense cities. In some of those same cities, you’ll find that your car is an encumbrance. If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic on a busy downtown street while pedestrians and cyclists flow past you and subway trains zoom beneath you, you know that sometimes your car can become your prison.

Folks aren’t going to plunk down $8 to avoid walking the mile from their office to the burrito place or walking from the bus stop to their destination. Such a high relative cost removes bike share from the transit toolbox of a lot of regular Richmonders who don’t use the system enough to buy a monthly or yearly membership. Gone are spontaneous trips and gone is that freedom. But with a fare close to cost of a bus pass, it’s totally doable. In fact, $1.75 is exactly the cost of a single-ride-plus-a-transfer bus pass. I imagine that’s intentional!

So, yeah, I’m thrilled about this.

While I had Jake on the digital line, I asked him about bike share launch dates, something that seems to keep slipping further into the future. At the moment, the city is now looking at a spring launch—a bummer for sure, but a bummer that makes sense. The middle of college football season, as temperatures drop, is a terrible time to launch a thing that’s success requires people to be outside.

Remember, too, that a second phase of bike share is coming (like, in a has-been-funded way), and this phase will have electric pedal-assist bikes. No longer will you need to arrive sweaty and gross to your top-of-a-hill meetings! Let the bicycle do the work for you! So this is the silver-lining situation that I will cling to over the next couple of months: When our bike share does launch, it will be a smoother, more linear rollout of the entire system rather than a distinct Phase I and Phase II separated by a cold and dreary winter. It’s something!

I know I keep zzzzing on about buses and bikes, but it’s exciting! All of these pieces are suddenly coming together at exactly the same time, and they’ll completely change how we get around the city. A lot of trips that were once only practical or possible by car will now be unlocked for folks who don’t own car, don’t want to deal with a car, or just happen to find themselves without a car. Transit freedom is on the horizon, y’all!

A note about D.C.’s bike share system and legibility

If you look at D.C. bike share page, you’ll see that there actually is a single-ride fare. It’s new and exists only because of the recent problems with their metro. Since it’s an impromptu thing, there’s no signage at any of the bike share stations I saw, so I had no idea that it was an option. This is a failure of what aforementioned transit genius Jarrett Walker describes as “legibility” of a transit system. Without legibility I can’t understand the system, and if I can’t understand the system I won’t use the system.

The Richmond Transit Network Plan really does exist!

Despite what Candidate Morrissey may think.

In response to a question about addressing the transportation needs of households that rely on biking or walking, mayoral candidate Joe Morrissey gave this non sequitur response implying that he doesn’t know about the Richmond Transit Network Plan.

Here’s the quote:

First of all, we’ve implemented already and approved by city council, a BRT line that has its anchors at Rockets Landing on one side and all the way over to…not quite, far short of where we need to go—we should go all the way to Short Pump. Here’s the problem that I see: We have one main thoroughfare now, we’re going to spend approximately $53 million for it, and we haven’t implemented a plan or even considered how we’re going to connect arteries to that. For example, the corridors on Midlothian Turnpike, Hull Street, Commerce, Chamberlayne Avenue—those folks need to use those roads to get to the BRT main line on Broad Street in order to get to schools, shops, jobs, and return. As mayor, I would implement and send to city council a resolution to create auxiliary arteries so that we will connect south Richmond and those other folks that I just mentioned—Northside, Chamberlayne Avenue—to the main BRT line.

With the opening of the Pulse next October, it does seem like it would make a lot of sense to study how the existing GRTC routes will interact with the BRT—so many of those routes spend so much of their time trundling down Broad Street exactly where the Pulse will run. Turns out just such a study exists; has been in progress for a good, long while now; and it’s official recommendation will drop in just a couple of months. It’s called the Richmond Transit Network Plan, it’s awesome, and a mayoral candidate should definitely know about it.

Specifically, Candidate Morrissey should know about it because he answered questions about it in a pre-Mayorathon questionnaire. Here’s his response to a question about, win or lose, how he would support the RTNP:

Either as the Mayor, or as a private citizen, I will advocate for adoption of this plan as long as it is in the best interests of the residents of Richmond.

If he plans on advocating for the adoption of it, you’d think he’d know what it does!

But for those mayoral candidates and regular citizens not in the know, the Richmond Transit Network Plan can be confusing and overwhelming. While its biggest impact may be the implementation of the first rethinking of our bus routes in 40 years, its impetus was the Pulse.

From the RTNP Choices Report:

  • Develop a long-term blueprint for transit service for the City of Richmond.
  • Examine opportunities to take advantage of the possibilities that open up when The Pulse, GRTC’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service, comes into service in 2017.
  • Facilitate a two-way conversation between GRTC the City of Richmond.

This plan is much-needed and would be totally welcomed without the opening of the Pulse, but connecting the existing transit network to our new BRT spine is what brought internationally-known transit genius Jarrett Walker to Richmond to work on the RTNP. He and his team have produced three concepts for what our revamped bus system could look like and how it interacts with the Pulse. Here’s one of them, the High Ridership Concept, that will be similar to their final recommendation:

Look at all of those sweet, sweet connections. Tap for a bigger version.
Look at all of those sweet, sweet connections. Tap for a bigger version.

Note how the 8, 10, 61, and 62 terminate directly into the Pulse (the black line). Then check out how a bunch of the other lines cross Broad Street at BRT stations. This is totally intentional and exactly the point of this study! Given a new, frequent BRT line stretching down Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn, we needed to create new ways to connect folks to the main BRT line—so that’s what we did.

This is all great news for Morrissey who, if victorious come November, won’t even have to draw up that resolution to send to Council. With any luck, it’ll already have been passed by the current sitting Council. In fact, the Organizational Development Standing Committee received the official policy direction recommendation from the RTNP on October 3rd, which says to me the legislative process is a’ moving.

But wait! Maybe in that Mayorathon quote, Candidate Morrissey was talking with a more regional focus. Maybe he wants to create BRT arterials on the region’s major corridors like Hull Street, Midlothian, Broad Street, and Route 1? Well, turns out, the state is working on another plan about this very thing! It’s annoyingly called the Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan (RRTVP (not the RTNP)). This plan will give a state-approved vision for a regional transportation network and will include bus services up and down Midlothian, Hull Street, and Route 1—exactly the places Morrissey wants to see it (he was asked a question about this plan in the pre-Mayorathon questionnaire, too).

By next fall we should have an opporational BRT. Shortly after that we’ll have an entirely new bus system that integrates smoothly with said BRT. At some point along the way our bike share system will debut. Suddenly, while we were all busy pumpkin spicing and Folk Festing, Richmond took a whole bunch of steps towards a real-deal transportation system.

Also!

If all of this sounds fascinating to you (or if you’re confused to the point of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), there’s an opportunity to hang out with internationally-known transit genius Jarrett Walker on October 18th. He’ll be in town to talk about the progress his team has made on the RTNP and to inspire us with what modern transit could bring to Richmond. You should come! It’ll be awesome.

Go Do This: 1776 at the Virginia Rep

This show is hot as hell (in Philadelphia) (but also here).

What it is

1776 is a musical about the Continental Congress and its dithering over declaring independence.

Man, does that sentence sound like I could be leading you down a path of boredom! Fear not, my fellow Americans. The musical adaptation of a Founding Moment and the creation of compromise can be really, really fun. Oh wait, you’re all obsessed with Hamilton, so you already know that.

Sherman Edwards wrote this musical, which opened in 1969, and he wrote it to be informative, funny, inspiring, thought-provoking, and even racy at times.

There’s a whole scene where John Adams and Ben Franklin are literally waiting outside for Tom and Martha Jefferson to finish doin’ it!

So racy, guys!

1776 is also a 1972 movie, starring many of the same people from the Broadway cast (including William Daniels, whom you may remember from Night Rider and/or Boy Meets World, depending on your age).

The film version was one of the handful of musicals I fell in love with at a young age and watched over and over—jury’s out on whether that INFORMED my love of all things Founding Generation or whether our frequent trips to Colonial Williamsburg and Philadelphia did. Who cares. Sit down, John, we’ve got one of the most fun musicals ever to discuss.

Scott Wichmann (John Adams) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Scott Wichmann (John Adams) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

The musical has John Adams as its hero—an obnoxious and disliked representative from Massachusetts with independence on his mind. He teams up with Ben Franklin and Jefferson to try to convince the rest of Congress to just declare independency so they can form a new nation already, dammit. Jefferson is whatever about helping out because he’s trying to get home to his young wife, but they convince him to stay and write something or other. Meanwhile, the rest of Congress is rolling their eyes, then taking it a little more seriously, then discussing some tricky issues, and then finally…well, I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say, we live in the country they created.

The music is beyond catchy, the lyrics are clever as all get-out, and the whole thing goes from impassioned to funny to tender to transfixing-in-a-legal-drama-way so smoothly that you wonder why Sherman Edwards didn’t go on to write a thousand more treasures.

Who’s behind it

Virginia Repertory Theatre, who has a brand new Artistic Director, Nathaniel Shaw. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do with this already top-notch company. So far, so good.

As far as the cast goes, I was thrilled to see Landon Nagel back as Jefferson—he had me at his performance in Firehouse’s Maple and Vine last year. I’ve got a major soft spot for ol’ TJ and his individualistic and enlightenment thinking, despite the best efforts of all my Hamilton-loving pals, and this show comes from a time when it was still cool to be into Jefferson.

Scott Wichmann’s performance as the little, fiery Adams was undoubtedly the casting high point. One would hope that he started his acting career planning for this role, because he was certainly made for it. Likewise Alexander Sapp was perfect for his performance of the sometime villain but actually pretty logical Edward Rutledge (representative from South Carolina who convinced everyone to keep the infamous “let’s get rid of slavery” clause out of the Declaration of Independence). Dude’s drawling confidence gave me chills.

Alexander Sapp (Edward Rutledge) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Alexander Sapp (Edward Rutledge) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Worth noting also is Jason Marks as Ben Franklin (funny if somewhat overacted) and Sarah Kate Walston as Abigail Adams (sweet if somewhat underused).

My favorite part in the movie, though, was also my favorite part in the play—a small but heart-wrenching ballad featuring the courier who keeps bringing messages from George Washington. It’s a rare moment of 100% seriousness, when we remember that it’s not just about these men bantering in Philadelphia. There are also men dying in Washington’s Continental army. Really young men, who often weren’t even old enough to leave their mothers. And now they’re crying for them as they die, forgotten, under a tree.

Even thinking about it makes my stomach hurt. Keaton Hillman, who played the Courier and who just graduated from William and Mary, sang with the voice of an angel. I can’t believe I just said “voice of an angel,” but he made me cry, so, there it is.

And lordy, those sets (Rich Mason), those lights (BJ Wilkinson), and those dang waistcoats (Sue Griffin)—intricate, super useful for marking time, and gorgeously detailed, respectively.

Director Debra Clinton, you’ve done a wonderful job. 1776 is one of those shows that has to be directed well for it to remain fresh (it’s a lot of actors sitting and standing in one room). But from the very first drumbeat, I was like “Oh noooooo, that’s one drumbeat closer to the end. AND IT SHOULD NEVER END.”

Where it is

The November Theatre, Marjorie Arenstein Stage, aka that big place on Broad Street with the well-lit marquee. 114 W. Broad Street.

Park where you can on the street or in Jackson Ward. Or, take public transit. Or an Uber, like I did!

When it is

1776 runs through Sunday, October 23 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights as well as Sunday afternoons. Oh, and some Wednesdays. Just look at the schedule, please.

How much it costs

$36 – $60 depending on your seating requirements. I don’t really see any reason to choose extra premium seats. Get tickets here or call the box office at (804) 282-2620.

Other things to note

In an election year, we should all be made to watch this film. In an election year in which a live version of this musical is available for your eyes to see, we should all be made to go. The play is very critical of conservatives (although throws in some nice Virginia jokes that perhaps mollified the bow-tie crowd, although who knows what they went home and posted to Facebook about it. Not me!), and there’s one whole musical number devoted to calling them overly money-minded and too absorbed in their own self-interest.

Fun fact: In the film, that musical number “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was deleted! Nixon was in office and, according to the internet, his anti-conservative regime put some pressure on the film’s producers to nix-on the scene.

Musicals pissing off presidents! I love it!

It’s really difficult to dislike 1776. Well, it’s difficult to dislike it and remain friends with me. What would we even talk about, you know?

Watch the Mayorathon from the comfort of your own pile of blankets

Like you need another reason to stay in bed.

Perhaps you live under a rock, or maybe just haven’t roused yourself from bed in a while, but this past week Richmond Magazine and a group of nonprofits put on the most policy-based mayoral forum in all the land.

Named by some sort of naming genius, The Mayorathon packed, like, 800 folks into the VMFA for what I thought was going to be an exceedingly dry night of wonky discussion. In the hours before the event, I started to worry that normal people—people who don’t spend their free time elbows deep in PDFs—would find questions about regional transit funding, the master plan process, and the Roanoke 40 to be…boring? Turns out I was so super wrong, and folks are way into the details of how a city is run and who should be running it! Two lessons I learned:

  1. If you’re planning a mayoral forum, put on the forum that you yourself would like to attend.
  2. Come up with an awesome name for it.

Watch the full forum, including the candidates’ self-chosen walkup music, below:

P.S. I work for RVA Rapid Transit, one of the nonprofits involved, and spent a lot of time watching in amazement as very talented and organized people (double shoutout to Ruth!) pulled off this very amazing thing.