Opinion

Tone deaf, mean-spirited

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Bernie Niemeier
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Recent events are not flattering.  Our politicians are obviously angry, so angry that perhaps they’ve become reckless. 

One can only imagine what might have been overheard by a fly on the wall during an early-June conversation between former state Sen. Phillip Puckett

(D-Russell) and Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), who also serves as chair of the Tobacco Commission, or was it with state Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City), former Senate minority leader, now majority leader?  Regardless of who actually said what to whom, the outcome was unseemly.

Puckett decided to resign from his seat in the Virginia Senate, turning a Republican minority into a majority, just before the long-delayed state budget came up for a vote

Puckett’s daughter, Martha P. Ketron, an interim juvenile court judge, was being denied a permanent seat on the bench because of a Senate  practice of not appointing family members of sitting senators. Furthermore, there was a job vacancy at the Tobacco Commission that Puckett allegedly might occupy after resigning, considerably fattening his state pension.

Since the fly on the wall isn’t talking, we don’t know what was said by whom or to whom.  The U.S. Justice Department, however, heard enough to launch an investigation.

In short order, the Republican-controlled House and the new Republican majority in the Senate passed a budget that stuck Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the eye with a stick, adding language to make Medicaid expansion difficult, if not impossible, to implement and stifling the governor’s ability to make interim judicial appointments when the General Assembly is not in session.

Constitutionally, the governor has seven days from the time the budget is delivered to his office to act upon it.  Presumably to speed the process, Republican Speaker Bill Howell saw to it that the budget was delivered to the governor’s office during weekend hours on Father’s Day.  The governor’s office was not only closed, but also locked.  Access was gained by staffers from the House clerk’s office with the help of Capitol Police.  (You just can’t make this stuff up!)

The end result: more gubernatorial vetoes, most of which could not be overridden, blockage by Howell of action on a Medicaid reform-related veto, based upon Howell’s reading of the Virginia Constitution (not the attorney general’s).  Now, everyone is lawyered-up.

One has to wonder why our politicians are so focused on party control?  Not surprisingly, money is at stake.  The House speaker selects committee chairs.  Members of the party caucus, subcommittee chairs and committee chairs make cash donations to the party caucus fund, which is controlled by the caucus leadership.  The level of donation depends upon the status of the committee assignment, which is largely a function of its importance to lobbyists and political donors.

Given the paltry official salaries of our part-time lawmakers, this little-publicized practice, along with tax-free daily stipends when the assembly is in session and low-cost health insurance, may explain why these posts are sought.  In Virginia, the legitimate use of campaign funds is subject to interpretation.

To make matters worse, these events occurred just before former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were scheduled to go on trial on charges of conspiracy to use the powers of the governor’s office for personal gain.  In pretrial filings and publicity, the defense seemed to consist largely of she said, he said and everybody does it — excuses our mothers never would have bought, and neither should we.

On the other hand, former Del. Phil Hamilton, now serving a 9½-year sentence for bribery and extortion, is on the record as saying that federal prosecutors can be “overly zealous.”

Let’s face it; the recent track record of our elected officials isn’t attractive.  Listening to many of these tone-deaf politicians, you’d think everything is business as usual and that nothing is either unusual or wrong.

That Puckett wouldn’t realize the obvious perception of quid-pro-quo in the timing of his resignation is embarrassing and unimaginable.  It is equally embarrassing that McDonnell wouldn’t realize the perception of conflict of interest in his acceptance of vacations, loans and golf junkets.  Howell’s wielding of power to attack the governor’s office is simply mean-spirited.

Just ask Eric Cantor; gerrymandered districts don’t guarantee re-election. It’s time to vote these career politicians out of office.  Virginia deserves better.


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