Zero Tolerance

In my time in public office, I’ve often been asked to vote on ”zero tolerance” policies.  Zero tolerance for drug use.  Zero tolerance for students with weapons.  Zero tolerance for DWI.

While the underlying goals are important, I’ve always thought that “zero tolerance” policies — when applied  without context — lead to arbitrary and even unjust results.   Therefore, I’ve often voted against mandatory penalties when they outstripped the gravity of the behavior (See “fees, abuser”).

But I’ve found one I can support.

Zero tolerance for lawmakers using the state budget to benefit themselves personally. 

Now the state budget has a lot of constituences:  taxpayers, teachers, state police, hospitals, et al.  Each has an open and obvious stake in the process.  In each case, the interested parties can plead their case and support those lawmakers who support them, either by volunteering their time or donating funds.  It’s not a perfect system but it’s pretty transparent.

The way that lawmakers set their salary is also transparent.  In fact, it’s so transparent that the salary has not been increased in twenty years.  It’s still $18,000 annually for the Senate.  In addition, Senate members get $169 per diem while we’re in session and $14,000 in an “office allowance” to maintain a district presence. 

But you don’t need me to tell you that, because it’s all itemized in the state budget.

Do special interests get a break sometimes?  Sure they do.  For example, as a Delegate, I supported a budget amendment allocating funds for “Black Women United for Action,” a Fairfax County nonprofit featuring youth enrichment programs.  My amendment became part of the Budget in 2005.

That request came from a good friend who asked me to help her.  I did it.  And I’m glad we were able to maket that investment.  In a similar vein, I helped Fairfax City get funding for the Blenheim House, which is a historic property the City has preserved.   

One can argue that these are worthwhile project or “pork barrel” spending.  Either way, I was the connection to the state legislature.  Our local cause benefitted.  However, I had no financial stake in the deal. 

This brings us to the story that is just now breaking in the media and on the blogs ….

What has happened in Newport News is unacceptable.  Having public power requires that you hold your personal finances apart from any political decisions that you make.  There is no excuse for carrying a budget amendment and inserting it into the Budget with the expectation you will personally benefit. 

The General Assembly is not an employment agency. 

The Governor and Assembly should state their position on this.  We’ve heard a lot about “zero tolerance” in Richmond when it comes to the bottom of society.  Now it’s time to apply that law to ourselves. 


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