By Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — Several Virginia institutions received less than glowing remarks this week that probably won’t make it on the Commonwealth’s refrigerator. Here is the week in the review:
Despite being an oft-referenced feather in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s cap, Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state took a hit this week. The CNBC television network downgraded the state from first to third in its annual “America’s Top States for Business” list. The reason: soul-crushing commutes and highways so clogged with congestion they need an angioplasty.
In search of a solution, a representative from the Northern Virginia Tea Party suggested state government should shutter public transportation and education programs, a University of Virginia economist offered to raise taxes and the state’s Chamber of Commerce is banking on the long-awaited economic recovery to solve the highway parking lot crisis.
The governor’s office pointed to legislation passed last year to pour $3 billion into 900 backlogged transportation projects over the next three years. There was no comment from the motorist idling on the Beltway.
This week, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce gave a D to 15 four-year and 24 two-year colleges in Virginia for their lack of accessible data on graduation rates at the school.
“‘We realized that a lot of higher ed (institutions were) touting their (incoming class data) and not so much (graduate data), so we kind of asked ourselves, ‘With tightening state budgets and the situations that we’re in, what’s the value of the nation’s public higher ed systems?’” said Mark D’alessio, ICW manager of communications.
The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which oversees the state’s higher ed data, noted that it will publish the earnings of graduates by major and institution, but not what percentage of graduates earn jobs.
Wily members of Congress have found a way to breathe new life into the practice of earmarking, in which lawmakers direct specific funding in a bill toward projects in their districts.
It’s called “phone marking” or “letter marking,” depending on how these members request money.
Using the defense budget, members of Congress will wait until a spending bill becomes law and pour into the “operation and maintenance” budget with more special requests than a disc jockey at a high school prom.
“This money has the distinct odor of being a slush fund, not for the bureaucrats, but for members of Congress. When the legislation is signed into law, (the Department of Defense) will get some letters and phone calls,” said Winslow Wheeler, a military analyst for the Project on Government Oversight.
The practice has been around for quite some time, but in light of potential budget cuts, defense officials soon may have to choose between legitimate military spending and buying Korean War-era flashlights from a legislator’s district.
“These kinds of things really screw up the system,” said Steven Bucci, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “If (DOD) is forced to purchase something they didn’t ask for, it takes money away from something else. It’s not helpful.
“It’s a waste money at a time when we don’t have any money to waste.”
The Thomas Jefferson Institute released its annual economic forecast report Tuesday, and it ended with a cliffhanger … literally.
The “tepid” economic recovery from the Great Recession is expected to continue into 2013, that is unless Congress opts for the dreaded “sequestration” built into the Budget Control Act of 2011, a series of across-the-board budget cuts known as the “Fiscal Cliff.”
The cuts, which may go into effect in January 2013 unless Congress passes deficit-reduction legislation, would hack $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade.
The potential cuts would hit hard on the defense budget, where a lot of federal dollars are spent in Virginia, and could affect a fragile economic recovery.
“Just to give a feel for how much defense spending means to Virginia, $60 billion annually comes into Virginia from (that) spending,” said Ryan Dunn, vice president of government and business relations for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “Fifteen percent of the entire commonwealth’s gross state product and 19 percent of Virginia’s workforce is directly tied to defense spending.”
A panel of business advocates who discussed the forecast on a Tuesday conference expressed that careful, measured cuts would be better in the long run rather than the slash-and-burn cuts promised by the Fiscal Cliff. No word yet if Congress plans to pump the brakes on sequestration.