The Virginia Capitol at sunrise. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
It wouldn’t take a huge leap for 2022 to be better than either of the past two years. Let’s face it, 2020 and 2021 set the bar pretty low.
In Virginia, I grant you, we have dodged the tribulations of many sister states.
The West, particularly California, suffered fires that left thousands homeless and charred millions of acres of timberlands — a hellscape worthy of Dante Alighieri.
Last year began with a freakish cold snap that blacked out much of Texas and killed nearly 200 plus an attempted coup at the seat of American government. It ended with monstrous tornadoes – among the worst on record – that strafed Kentucky, Illinois, parts of Arkansas and my hometown in Tennessee, killing scores of people.
It was a time filled with rage and heartbreak.
It is time to turn the page.
In Virginia, that began on Nov. 2. Voters spoke and they said it’s time to do things differently. After Democrats wore out their welcome from a decade of dominance, Republicans won the top three statewide offices and a narrow House of Delegates majority – something that seemed improbable to most this time a year ago.
Here are a few ways Virginia could benefit its residents over the next 12 months.
COLLABORATE MORE, OBSTRUCT LESS
It’s a good idea in its own right, but this one should be self-evident if not intuitive for state government. After all, with a Democrat-ruled Senate able to checkmate any GOP initiative it wants for the next two years, it’s a clear choice: negotiate or stalemate.
Stalemate is not recommended. Witness the way job approval numbers that were healthy if not robust for President Joe Biden and a Democratic-led Congress last January have cratered. And the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves. The internecine bickering between moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and the party’s progressives that tanked Biden’s signature Build Back Better promise has done more for a reeling Republican Party than it could ever have done for itself.
Compromise may be anathema on the political fringes, but the November election proved that the fringes in Virginia are just that. The state’s great, moderate mass voted for measured, sensible government that doesn’t get too far out over its skis or veer wildly left or right. Compromise is how you get things done, especially until the 2023 legislative midterms when all 40 state Senate seats and all 100 delegates’ seats are up for electoral renewal.
That election will be the report card on how much or little our elected leaders achieve until then.
REFORM PROBLEM AGENCIES
Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has promised to do just that at state agencies that raged into full-on Dumpster fires during the second half of departing Gov. Ralph Northam’s term.
The coronavirus pandemic provided a real-world stress test to institutions public and private, and some of them failed. In the private sector, that means bankruptcies and boarded-up storefronts. In Virginia state government, it meant public money continued to prop up floundering performances, specifically at the Virginia Employment Commission and the Parole Board.
Northam and his lieutenants seemed to countenance failure after failure, outrage upon outrage and agency leadership remained in place.
It took a lawsuit and a federal judge’s order to get the attention of the VEC, which did not meet its court-ordered November benchmarks for thinning a huge backlog of claims that had languished for months. A scathing report by the General Assembly’s investigative arm explicitly recommends future governors and secretaries of labor take more of a hands-on role in monitoring the agency’s performance and demanding better.
The Parole Board is already on notice. It failed to adequately notify families of murder victims that their loved ones’ killers were being freed in early 2020, then stonewalled efforts by the press and even the government to hold it accountable. Republican Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares announced shortly after he unseated Democratic incumbent Mark Herring that he will launch a fresh inquiry into potential misconduct at the board.
INVEST IN INFRASTRUCTURE
Not only are billions of dollars from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed in November on the way to the commonwealth, the state is sitting on the largest budget surplus in its history.
Twenty years ago, governors and Virginia legislatures would have given their right arms for a $2.6 billion unspent balance and the chance to use some of it to improve the state’s gridlocked highways and substandard bridges.
There are needs aplenty vying for the state’s windfall, and Northam’s proposed farewell budget, introduced two weeks ago, allocates much of it in areas where he and Youngkin seem to concur, especially tax cuts.
Nothing is wrong with returning some of the spoils to taxpayers. But one thing legislative budgeteers of the past got right is this: spend one-time cash bonuses on one-time improvements such as maintenance.
Credit where it’s due: the state has made significant new investments in pushing broadband internet into rural areas, giving them the potential to compete economically with Virginia’s wealthier and more populous cities and suburbs.
But much work remains, particularly on the state’s transportation infrastructure, including bridges where failures can be catastrophic. According to a study last year by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, 577 (or 4.1 percent) of Virginia’s nearly 14,000 bridges were in poor or worse condition. While that’s about 35 percent fewer structurally deficient bridges than five years ago, the trade organization estimates that nearly 6,400 bridges need repairs at a total cost of about $10.2 billion.
The commonwealth can substantially improve the safety of its highways now while it has the means.
CONTAIN COVID: VACCINATE
This should be another no-brainer. Yet 2022 begins with another tiresome surge in infections from another coronavirus variant.
And while vaccinations are no total silver bullet as breakthrough cases are reported even among those fully inoculated, it is beyond honest debate that vaccines are overwhelmingly effective at preventing serious COVID-19 disease, hospitalizations and death.
The coronavirus appears like it’s never going away. Just like the flu, it will abide as a pox on humanity. But also like the flu, we can manage it and avert the carnage of the previous two years.
As of last week, a little over two-thirds of Virginia’s population was fully vaccinated according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. That’s the sixth best in the nation and exceeds the national rate of 63 percent, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control figures analyzed by USAFacts.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that collects and shares government data.
Getting buy-in from the reluctant remainder of the population, however, has proved difficult in Virginia and nationally. And that is enough to give the virus a foothold to spread, mutate and remain an obstacle to fully resuming our pre-pandemic lives.
Some resistance to the “Fauci ouchie” has been politically driven. One might imagine that some of that would abate since former president Donald Trump, who spent much of his final year in office dismissing the disease’s severity and downplaying COVID-19 precautions, publicly endorsed vaccinations and boosters, but even his comments have been booed by the right.
Demonizing vaccine mandates as breaching basic freedoms by one side versus pious preachments about shared civic duty by the other miss the point and do nothing to end the pandemic.
Can we drop the polemics and see this for what it is: an opportunity within our grasp?
In late 2019, when an unprepared world was just glimpsing the misery this novel pathogen would cause, we pinned our hopes for deliverance on science and a vaccine. Science delivered.
Vaccines remain our best hope; our ticket to a better 2022 and beyond.
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