Big lobbies, big issues and big votes

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Wouldn’t it be nice to find a way to turn around the crisis in confidence that voters have with their elected leaders?  Followers of politics easily can find reasons to be disappointed: no redistricting reform, talk of party loyalty oaths and the general predilection for political power being more important than issues of economic substance.

Political parties aren’t the only ones to blame.  Publicly and behind closed doors, single-issue special interest groups push party funding buttons on both sides of the aisle.

For example, one has to wonder about the timing of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s Jan. 9 decision to ban new uranium mines in Colorado, supposedly to protect the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. The announcement was made just before the Virginia General Assembly began its session at which a 30-year-old uranium mining moratorium was expected to be reviewed.

Skeptics might wonder if this has anything to do with Virginia being under Republican control, while White-House Dems look toward environmental organizations for 2012 campaign funds.  Could Salazar’s action be a deposit with a return expected in the upcoming presidential race?

For more than 50 years, the Yankelovich Monitor has been measuring social trends, among them “anti-bigness bias,” meaning that consumers tend to distrust large organizations and institutions.  Should we be adding “big enviro” to the same list as big oil, big labor, big business, big media and big government?

After all, once we’re done with banning uranium mining, nuclear power, coal, shale gas, even hydro and wind power for their environmental impacts, we’ll be in a fine state of affairs with no power whatsoever. Making all approvals contingent on the complete elimination of worst-case scenarios is perhaps one of the best recipes for inaction ever devised.

In 1976, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported that their source, “Deep Throat,” advised them to “follow the money” and uncover the source of the Watergate scandal.  Unfortunately, following the money also sheds light on why certain issues become part of the legislative agenda.

Not long ago, Virginia’s lawmakers spent the better part of two sessions working on legislation regarding payday lenders.  In 2008, lobbying expenditures for the General Assembly reached a record high of more than $20 million.  Of this total an estimated $3.8 million, or almost one in five lobbying dollars, was spent to influence payday lending legislation, yet there never seems to have been much outcry from voters on the issue.  Similarly, 2011’s time spent on ABC-privatization yielded no legislation but may have built future political capital with big-spending big-box retailers along the way.

State police statistics show a record number of gun-related transactions occurred in 2011, rising 16 percent over 2010.  Yet it’s expected that the General Assembly may spend significant time figuring how best to ease some of the commonwealth’s gun-buying restrictions, such as the one-handgun-per-month limit. Could this be yet another example of money driving the agenda?

Lobbying money isn’t all that matters; social issues also have an impact.  For example, the so-called “personhood bill,” proposes a legislative answer to the timing of life’s beginnings, a concept so fraught with unintended consequences that even Mississippi’s conservative voters turned it down in last November’s elections.

Then there’s the business of unfunded mandates.  Supposedly, these are a real problem when handed down from the federal government as in the case of the No Child Left Behind Act.  But what about when the state passes the buck to its localities?  Elimination of machinery and tools tax may sound good for economic development and also appeal to tax-shy voters, but it removes a key source of funding for cities and counties already stretched thin by high unemployment rates and depressed real estate values.

Let’s hope that some of this stuff never makes it past the rules committees and onto the floor for a vote.  After all, we have some pretty big issues with funding the essential functions of government, such as transportation, public safety, social services and education.  The budget work alone required to create positive impacts and lasting solutions for these areas should be enough to keep our lawmakers busy in an extended session.

Even then, the results are subject to interpretation.  We’ve already seen that repaying money owed to the Virginia Retirement System for teacher pensions is supposedly the same as providing new money to education.

In all fairness, voters themselves have to shoulder blame for lack of effectiveness in government.  Whether due to lack of participation in the political process or by selecting candidates based on social issues while expecting a better economy to be the result, we largely have gotten what we’ve voted for.  We’ll have new chances to have our voices heard and votes counted in 2012 and 2013.  Let’s make choices based on the results we’d like to receive.  It’s too important to do it any other way.

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