Get Behind Go Virginia

 

Here's something you don't hear every day: so much support for a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that the idea of opposition provokes laughter. According to Wednesday's Washington Post:

After hearing the glowing testimony, Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) asked whether anyone opposed GO Virginia — to laughter from the morning crowd of lobbyists and lawmakers.

Of course, as the piece pointed out, there was SOME opposition from -- who else -- Del. Bob Marshall, who joined a small minority of Republicans in complaining that the program would interfere with the free market. "We are entering into the marketplace as a government entity," Marshall said.

Of course, Marshall also thinks homosexuality "undermines the American economy," but his economic literacy is not the point here. Instead, the point is "Go Virginia;" does this program deserve such strong bipartisan support? And is it really such a good deal for Virginia taxpayers? The short answer, believe it or not, is "yes" to both questions.

Basically, Go Virginia is a grant program backed by state business leaders that rewards cities and counties for working together on economic development projects. The bills that create this program set up a matching grant fund to jump-start such projects, and also a board that helps ensure that localities share the resulting economic development benefits.

Why is this so important? Regional cooperation is the magic bullet that solves a fundamental problem in local politics. Back in 1981, political scientist Paul E. Peterson pointed out that cities and localities are actually engaged in dramatic competition with each other. The prize: "export" businesses that sell products and services that bring in money from outside the locality. Small businesses like grocery stores and dry cleaners are fine, but the best kind of economic development creates high-skilled jobs funded by customers from elsewhere.

This is why city and state leaders Virginia worked so hard to bring in Stone Brewing or new jobs from tech companies like Shift. Already established business can -- and do -- complain about the incentives offered to lure these new players, but it's a sound practice that benefits the locality. Stable jobs create stable employees who pay taxes and don't draw on too many services - a net gain for cities and counties. (And this gives these localities the resources to take care of their less fortunate citizens with services like homeless shelters and food programs. Otherwise they may literally try to literally drive the poor into neighboring areas.)

In other words, cities and counties -- and, to some extent, states -- are playing a zero-sum game; if another locality gains a business, then they lose. That's why you get what the Washington Business Journal calls "a heated competition" between Maryland and Virginia to host the headquarters of companies like Bechtel and Marriott. Back in 2013, Texas even ran radio ads in California to explicitly lure businesses to the state. This kind of competition is just as heated among localities within a state, and leads to tensions between neighbors over which residents are served by which services. (Stadium financing almost always revolves around this question; just ask the Richmond Flying Squirrels.)

So how do you solve this problem? Regional cooperation. Cities and neighboring counties can work together to bring economic development to a region with plans to share the economic bounty. And that's exactly what Go Virginia proposes to do.

Virginians have very good reasons to be skeptical of the solutions offered by business leaders and corporations. (Coal ash, anyone?) But in this case (and maybe JUST this case), they're definitely on to something. Regional cooperation is one way to ensure that cities and counties aren't always actively working against each other. (Even if it's probably too late to help Nutzy.)

Action in Richmond, not just Iowa

If you care at all about politics, you're probably paying close attention today to the Presidential primary results from Iowa. But if you're a Virginian, and that's ALL you're looking at, you're missing out on a lot of the political action.

Yesterday I was in Richmond for "TAG Advocacy Day." If you haven't found that on your calendar, it's because the day was invented by Virginia private colleges for one particular audience: the Virginia General Assembly.

Virginia has a part-time legislature, and meet for most of their business during the first month or two of the year. It's a frenzy of committee meetings, bill mark-ups, and votes that produces most of the major changes to Virginia law.

Behind the scenes, though, it's also the time where every organized interest in the state descends on Richmond to lobby for their preferred bills (or against the ones they hate). One of the chief jobs of the small army of professional lobbyists in Richmond is to organize these interests to meet with their legislators. If you're not Jonnie Williams, this is one of the major ways to influence legislators.

And so on select days during the GA session, you'll find hundreds of bankers in fancy suits, or healthcare workers in lab coats, wandering from office to office. If they're lucky, they get to meet with legislators for a quick talk and photo op; more often they meet with legislative staffers and communicate their concerns through them. Each visit is logged, formally or informally, by the legislative offices, and added to the political calculus that informs legislators' voting decisions.

Yesterday a group of students from colleges like my own wore big red buttons saying "Thanks for TAG." The Tuition Assistance Grant program was created in 1972 to help VA residents with financial need to attend private colleges and universities in the state. This year the Governor's budget proposal includes a $300 increase in the grant to $3,400; my students and I were tasked with asking legislators to support the budget increase, and the TAG program in general.

This is what we sometimes mean by "special interests." It's how interest group politics is supposed to work: groups of citizens who benefit from government services get to remind their public officials of why those services are provided in the first place.

Not that interest group politics works perfectly. Sometimes "special interests" involve hard-working poor and middle-class students who earn small tuition grants; other times we get billion dollar companies dumping coal ash into our rivers. A theory in political science called "pluralism" argues that everyone's interests are almost always represented through this kind of representative politics, but of course that's not true; not everyone has the time or resources to spend a day wandering around legislative offices. (As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider famously wrote in 1960, "The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.")

Still, sometimes the "special interests" are the good guys, and the students with me yesterday are just that: good guys. They're smart, they work hard, and they want to make a life for themselves and a difference in the world. I was glad they at least got the opportunity to advocate for themselves, and students like them, in a realm that too often seems far away and closed off to them. The events in Iowa may seem a thousand miles away -- literally -- but there's a whole world of politics going on right on our doorstep.