It’s no longer spring so this can’t be a spring cleaning, so consider this a midsummer yard sale of odds and ends.
- Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s community college appointments. Regular readers will recall that earlier I looked at the geographical diversity – or lack thereof – on many state boards and commissions, with particular emphasis on the governing boards of state colleges and universities. The short version: Southwest and Southside are quite under-represented. Politically, this shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve just had two Democratic governors in a row, and Democrats don’t have much political strength in this part of the state – so not many supporters in Southwest and Southside to reward with these plum appointments. Youngkin, though, was elected with a record turnout of voters in rural Virginia, particularly Southwest Virginia, so the question is to what degree will Youngkin seek to rectify this geographic imbalance?
In his first round of college board appointments, Youngkin did geographically diversify some high-profile boards but not others. Previously, Virginia Tech had no board member from west of Staunton. Now it has an appointee from Blacksburg. Previously the University of Virginia had no board member from west of Vinton. Now it has an appointee from Abingdon. He added an appointee from Christiansburg to the Longwood University board (which previously had no one from west of the Blue Ridge). Meanwhile, a Bristol appointee on the College of William & Mary board cycled off and no one from this side of the state was named in his stead. Youngkin, did, though, add a Blacksburg appointee to the Virginia State University board and increased regional representation on the Radford University board. He didn’t add anyone from Southwest or Southside to the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia but did add a Salem appointee to the Board of Education. So, overall, yes, Youngkin did increase the geographical diversity of many of these boards.
Now he’s made three new appointments to another high-profile education board – the one that governs the state’s community colleges. Of the 15 board members when Youngkin took office, only one – Nathaniel Bishop of Roanoke – lived outside the urban crescent. Bishop wasn’t reappointed. Youngkin made three appointments recently, with appointees from Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Woodbridge. That means we now have a state community college board where every member lives in the urban crescent (although at least one, Maurice Jones, grew up in Southside — in Mecklenburg County).
I could easily make the argument that community colleges mean a lot more in rural Virginia than they do the urban crescent, simply because there are fewer four-year colleges in parts of rural Virginia. For instance, once you leave the New River Valley headed west, there are three four-year colleges in the state: Bluefield University, Emory & Henry College and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. But there are four community colleges: Mountain Empire, Southwest Virginia, Virginia Highlands and Wytheville. If you add up the number of students, there are more than twice as many community college students west of the New River Valley (8,754) than in four-year schools in the region (4,019). Obviously that leaves out Southwest students who are attending colleges outside the region, but the point seems clear: Community colleges are a big deal in Southwest. Individually, each of the four community colleges in the region is bigger than the biggest four-year school (UVA Wise). If you look at just state schools, the imbalance is even bigger – those 8,754 community colleges versus 1,844 at UVA Wise.
We see much the same thing in Southside. The only four-year state school in Southside is Longwood University (4,611 students), but there are four community colleges: Central Virginia, Danville, Patrick & Henry and Southside (10,661 students). Lynchburg has an abundance of private schools but, with the exception of Liberty University, Central Virginia Community College (3,464) is bigger than all of them. In Danville, Danville Community College (2,330) is nearly twice the size of Averett University (1,279). In Martinsville, well, there is no four-year state school in Martinsville so Patrick & Henry Community College (1,906) is it. That’s not the case in many urban areas. For instance, Old Dominion University (23,494) is much bigger than the enrollment at Tidewater Community College (16,797). Virginia Commonwealth University (28,919) is bigger than the enrollments at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (7,252) and Brightpoint Community College (8,558 at the former John Tyler) put together. When we talk about colleges as economic engines, in much of Southwest and Southside we’re talking about community colleges, yet no one now living in those regions has any say in how the system is governed at the statewide level.
Youngkin will have more board appointments to make over the course of his term so we maybe shouldn’t read too much into just these three – he didn’t create the original geographic imbalance but he has made it more imbalanced. A case can certainly be made that Southwest and Southside deserve a lot more representation on the community college board than they’ve got now, which is zero.
- State funding for GO Virginia gets “recaptured.” Here’s a way the recently approved state budget got balanced: The General Assembly took unspent funds away from the GO Virginia economic development boards across the state. In budget parlance, those funds were “recaptured.” This certainly isn’t unprecedented. Over the years multiple governors – both Democrats and Republicans – have “shifted” money from transportation to the general fund to plug budget holes. This is just the first time it’s happened with GO Virginia economic development funding. “Shifted” is the verb to use if you want to describe this neutrally, “raided” is the term to use if you think this is a bad idea. Others like the term “clawback,” which is certainly colorful.
In all, about $27 million of GO Virginia funding across the state was “recaptured.” In the context of a $165 billion state budget, that’s not much, but if you’re trying to make the dollars add up, finding $27 million that can be “recaptured” sure helps. Of this $27 million, the biggest single amount – $11.7 million – came from the GO Virginia council in Northern Virginia. For context, the second biggest amount “recaptured” was about $3 million from the council that covers the region from Fredericksburg east down the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. In our part of the state, Region 1 (from Wythe County west) lost at least $361,000, Region 2 (the New River Valley, the Roanoke Valley, the Alleghany Highlands and the Lynchburg area) lost $372,236. Curiously, one GO Virginia region – Region 3 in Southside – didn’t lose any. That region had already spent all its funding.
There are different ways to look at this. You could argue that some of these regions are clearly overfunded because they’re not spending their money. Or you could argue that some regions are being punished for being deliberative and careful in their allocations. I do wonder from afar about the $11.7 million unused in Northern Virginia; that sure seems like a lot of money. Maybe Northern Virginia won’t miss that money but I do wonder, by contrast, if Southwest Virginia will miss its $361,000. It also makes me wonder about something I heard on a recent visit to Southwest Virginia to talk with business leaders there: One told me the problem wasn’t lack of economic development funding (this was before the funds got recaptured), but a lack of worthy projects to spend it on.
- Congress might fund regional tech hubs, after all. Earlier this year, I wrote about the big, fat technology bills that were moving through Congress – 2,726 pages in the Senate version, 2,912 pages in the House version. In some ways, these bills represent everything that’s wrong with Congress, no matter which party is in power. In Richmond, the General Assembly passes (or kills) discrete, separate bills. Amendments have to be “germane” to the main topic. In Washington, Congress has no such rule. In Richmond, every bill introduction comes to some kind of resolution by session’s end – it’s either passed or killed (and there are many ways to kill a bill). In Richmond, introducing a bill at least means something. In Washington, it basically means nothing because bills only start moving when the party leadership wants them to – and once a bill starts moving, like a train pulling out of the station, legislators want to tack their favorite bill onto it, whether it fits or not. That results in these massive omnibus bills. If I could change one thing about Congress, it would be that: I’d require bills to actually get voted on under a certain schedule.
The core of those technology bills was to figure out ways to make the United States more competitive with China – a worthy goal, one that’s supported in principle by both parties. The core issue is funding to beef up American semiconductor production, which has mostly gone to Asia. Again, something largely supported by both parties. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, has been one of the driving forces behind this measure.
I was more interested in a related measure: to geographically diversify the nation’s technology sector (currently concentrated in a handful of places, such as Silicon Valley) by funding “regional technology hubs.” In that earlier column, I wrote about how the New River Valley might have a good chance at landing some of that funding.
In Richmond, if the House passes one version of a bill and the Senate passes another version, you can generally bet that some compromise version will get hammered out and pass. In Washington, things work differently. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, got mad at Democrats for something else and vowed that the Innovation and Competition Act would not pass. In effect, he held it hostage. This is why it’s hard for me to regard Congress as a serious legislative body. Maybe McConnell was right – that’s a matter of political taste – but here he appeared to be willing to junk something that seems pretty essential to the long-term American economy to achieve some short-term political gain. It also didn’t help that House Democrats had loaded up their version of the bill with a lot of things that the 50-50 Senate wasn’t likely to approve.
For a while, it looked as if nothing would pass. Now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, has come up with what’s being described as a “slimmed-down” version that includes only the things that can actually pass the Senate – the semiconductor funding plus a few other things with widespread support. A procedural vote on Tuesday picked up enough Republican votes to pass the Senate 64-34, which appears to have set up an actual vote early next week.
The good news for our part of the world: This slimmed-down version still includes $10 billion for those regional tech hubs. The actual language calls for the secretary of commerce to designate “at least 20” regional hubs for federal research and development funding (up from the original 18), with at least three in each Economic Development Administration zone. Virginia is in a zone that runs from here to Maine. The language further calls for at least one-third of these hubs to “significantly benefit a small and rural community.” There’s also a requirement that encourages proposals from regions “whose economy significantly relies on or has relied on coal, oil or natural gas production and development,” although there’s no language guaranteeing that such a community would win funding. I won’t repeat why I think the New River Valley is well-positioned to land funding for such a tech hub; you can go read the original column. All this language, though, sure does sound encouraging. It might also be encouraging for the coal counties, if a bid can be put together with the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
Another interesting thing: The language gives preference to places that can show “coordination of locally defined planning processes, across jurisdictions and agencies, related to developing a comprehensive regional technology strategy.” That sure sounds a lot like GO Virginia to me. That’s another reason why it seems to me that someplace in rural Virginia – be it the New River Valley or the coal counties – might stand a good chance of getting showered by federal billions. This bill could be one of the most important things Congress has done in a long time – if it passes. Let’s hope it does.