A Few Numbers from Staunton

We learned a lot in Staunton.  Here’s a few numbers that will illustrate the economic trends in Virginia, most of which indicate the growth (or lack of it) in our state economy since the Great Recession, January 2008-March 2010, ended:

10.4, 7.5, 7.6.  The annual growth rate of our economy in the 1980′s, 1990′s and 2000′s.

3.9.  Our annual growth rate from 2010.

144,000  The number of jobs lost in manufacturing & construction in 2008-2010.

4,000  The number of jobs gained back in those sectors since.

51,000  The number of jobs gained in education/health services since 2010.  (note:  that’s our highest sector for job growth).

0.06%  Overall growth rate of Virginia economy in 2012-2013.

48th  Ranking by state of our economic growth in 2012-2013.  (MD is 49).

14  Consecutive months in which Virginia has lost professional and business service jobs, from June 2013 until today.

15  Consecutive months in which Virginia has lost Federal government jobs from June 2013 until today.

$2,101 Average loss in real household income for NoVA household since 2009.

5.5%  Unemployment rate in Virginia (U.S. rate is 5.9%)

The above figures are not intended to scare anyone.  Virginia’s economy grew rapidly in the Eighties and Nineties.  After the recession of 2001-2002, it rebounded strongly with the “homeland security” economic boost – and reached its apex in mid-2007.  At that point, the real estate market started to falter and, by early 2008, the national recession had arrived with full force.

Our economy had stabilized by early 2010 and was growing again, albeit slowly.  However, the sequestration of 2013 — exacerbated by the shutdown in October 2013 — have had a major impact on our economy, especially in northern Virginia, which accounts for about half of Virginia’s economy.  Call it the “silent recession.”

Nearly every major Federal contractor has been cutting back work, which has a ripple effect all over the state.   (Thirteen of our top twenty corporations contract directly with the Federal government).  Nobody expects that to change in the near future.

Again, these are not disastrous numbers.  Virginia still ranks as one of the wealthiest and best-educated populations in the USA.  We still have a competitive advantage of all our neighboring jurisdictions in terms of our business climate and educational facilities.  But our economic future is less certain than it was, even two years ago.

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Senate Retreats to Staunton

The Senate is in Staunton for two days for our annual Finance retreat.  It’s when our Finance staff briefs all the members on the state economy and budget issues in anticipation of the 2015 session.  Lots of knowledge going on — will be posting up some examples over the next few days.

Staunton is a charming historic city in the heart of the central Shenandoah.  It’s also the home of Western State Hospital, our state psychiatric hospital (which we toured), as well as Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.   From the downtown, it also has some sharply rising hills, which I re-discovered on my early morning run.

We are staying at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in downtown Staunton.  It’s next door to the Blackfriars Theatre, which houses the premier Shakespeare group in Virginia.

Last night, they performed a sketch from “As You Like It” for the assembled Senators.  They also did a more modern version from “Faustus,” which included an a capella version of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”  (Bill Stanley was not referenced by name).

We’ll be here until the early afternoon.   Weather staying cold.  Is Old Man Winter moving in for the year?

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American Spartan

Fairfax City Library is my favorite place to find new reading.  I was there in October and borrowed a great book, which I just finished reading.

“American Spartan” is the story of Major Jim Gant, a Special Forces commander who spent years living amongst the tribes in eastern Afghanistan.  Depending upon your perspective (and literary inspiration), Gant was either a “Lawrence of Arabia” who unified the independent mountain clans to defy the Taliban or a “Colonel Kurtz” who lived amongst the savages so that he could elevate himself to a god-like status.

The evidence seems to strongly favor the former.  In fact, General Petraeus — the most effective and visionary U.S. commander in the Middle East — singled out Gant’s unorthodox tactics, including his willingness to live with the Afghanis, learn their language (Pashto), and adopt their native culture (Pashtunwali), as the key to gaining trust and building alliances which could survive in an area traditionally dominated by the Taliban.

Of course, U.S. Army bureaucracy had other ideas.  After living out in the mountains for two years, with a small crew of Special Forces and his own Afghani militia, Gant was arrested and court-martialed for by the U.S. Army for a series of infractions which would appear ridiculous to his Afghani colleagues (and don’t look any more valid on this side of the Atlantic).  He was stripped of his Special Forces tab and kicked out of the Army.  It was a strange and dispiriting end to an endeavor which began with so much promise and, unlike most U.S. strategies in Afghanistan, actually had a vision of ultimate success.

American Spartan is not an objective account of Gant’s career or controversies.  It’s written by Ann Scott Tyson, a war correspondent who lived with him in Afghanistan and is now his wife.  Her role in the narrative is actually critical, as it apparently helped him gain trust with the Afghani villagers (i.e. the presence of Gant’s wife assured the villagers that he was committed to the safety of the community).   To say that this relationship violated U.S. Army protocols would, of course, state the obvious.   And it did help lead to his downfall.  (But now they have the last word).

Again, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Afghanistan and America’s involvement in a war which now spans generations.  (I’m returning it to the Library today so you can have my copy). Let me know what you’re reading ….

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I Ran Richmond Today

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been a nervous wreck.  Preoccupied.  Scared.

I had signed up this spring for the Richmond marathon, with the intention of running it with my cousin (who bailed).  All summer and fall I struggled to train.  (There are no shortcuts.  It’s all about putting in mileage).  As of three weeks ago, I was not able to complete my standard 20-mile course “Ox Road South” from Fairfaxl to Lorton and back.

I tried to downgrade a few weeks ago to the half-marathon, but the slots were filled.  So there I was this morning in freezing temperatures ready to run 26.2.

The rest of the day is a series of vignettes:  crossing the Huguenot Bridge in brilliant fall sunshine, climbing up Forest HILLS Avenue, coming back over the diabolical Lee Bridge in the face of a stiff wind.  Around that point (Mile 15), my lack of effective training kicked in and I slowed down considerably  along Main Street.

At Mile 21, we turned into Ginter Park.  At that point, I had been out on the course for 3:30.  My hands were frozen, having jettisoned the gloves.  We had a nice stroll through the Park, although my legs and groin were now seizing up with cramps.

At Mile 24, we reached Broad and turned for the home stretch.  I was stopping to drink water and Powerade at every stop to get rid of the cramps.  No luck.  But I was close to the end now and catching my fourth (?) wind.

I sprinted the last quarter-mile down the hill on Fifth Street, right past “Penny Lane” (no Guinness today, guys).  I finished at 4:30:15 — my slowest time since 2006.  But, hey, I finished, which was more than I was expecting a few weeks ago.  (For those keeping track, Father Time is still undefeated).

As always, my thanks to the organizers of the RVA race and the spectators who got out there early and stayed late.  (Next time, it’s all about the “half” for me).

That was my sixth full marathon and my last. Looking forward to getting back on the rugby pitch next year.  As for you ultra-runners, you guys are crazy!

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Assembly Does Do-Si-Do with Transporation Funding

Two years ago, the legislature passed a transportation bill with multiple moving parts — lowered the gas tax, raised the state sales tax, created an “add-on” sales tax in NoVa and put a surcharge on hybrid cars (since repealed).

One of the moving parts involved the dedication of funds from a future Federal sales tax on Internet sales.  But that’s not happening which means that those funds don’t exist — and will be replaced by an increase in the gas tax.  (yes, it’s confusing)

Another moving part involved the dedication of the increased state sales tax, which is transferred to our Transportation Trust Fund in phased  increments of $50M a year.  However, this year (FY 2015) the Assembly failed to transfer that money to transportation and, instead, left it in the General Fund.

That’s a problem.  Under the provisions of the transportation bill, there is a “kill switch” which will terminate all the new taxing provisions if the resulting funds are not used for transportation.  Failing to transfer the new sales tax money violates the law presumptively, even if you “name it by another name.”

That raised a major alarm with bond counsel for the NoVA Transportation Authority, which has issued bonds on the new tax revenue.  As a result, the Assembly voted tonight to kick the $50M back into transportation — and attempt to make up the shortfall elsewhere in the Budget.  (This is the peril of using sales tax for transportation; you are literally cutting off education funding).

I voted “yes” on the bill which passed by a large margin.

Still waiting on judicial votes tonight.  May not get home until well after midnight.

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