Virginia voting tip: distrust constitutional amendments

Ballots in Virginia generally stay on the simple side. There’s no raft of minor-party candidates, courtesy of strict ballot-access laws, and no long list of referenda and initiatives like California’s 17 statewide propositions. But the Commonwealth’s elections do feature one enduring oddity: constitutional amendments that leave you wondering why they must exist.

Newspaper ad for 2016 Virginia constitutional amendmentsOver more than 20 years of voting here, I’ve seen these constitutional questions fall into two categories: grandstanding exercises in cementing existing laws, or unavoidable workarounds for the constitution’s micro-managing minutiae.

This year’s two amendments ably represent each genre.

Question 1 would enshrine “right to work” provisions–as in, a union can’t make you pay its dues if it represents workers in your workplace–that have spent decades facing no serious challenge.

This Republican-backed measure is a fundamentally unserious provision, as Brian Schoeneman ably argues at the conservative blog Bearing Drift: “There is no need to lard up the Virginia Constitution with policy provisions that are not fundamental to the running of the government.”

On the other hand, it’s arguably no worse than the right to hunt and fish that is now enshrined in the constitution. (I voted against that amendment but gladly voted for its sponsor–Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds, who has since endured more than any of us should have to bear–when he ran for governor and lost in 2009.) And it doesn’t stain the state’s honor like 2006’s gay-marriage ban, which statehouse Republicans apparently want to keep out of spite even after the Supreme Court has consigned it to oblivion.

Question 2 would allow localities to grant a property-tax exemption to the surviving, not-remarried spouses of police, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. That seems both an eminently fair thing to do and something that shouldn’t require a constitutional amendment to enact.

But the Virginia constitution is nothing if not specific. It nears 25,000 words–compared to that, Apple’s roughly 6,700-word iTunes Store terms-of-service document represents Hemingway-esque brevity–and refuses few invitations to plunge into the weeds. Sample quotes:

“town” means any existing town or an incorporated community within one or more counties which became a town before noon, July one, nineteen hundred seventy-one, as provided by law or which has within defined boundaries a population of 1,000 or more and which has become a town as provided by law

No rights of a city or town in and to its waterfront, wharf property, public landings, wharves, docks, streets, avenues, parks, bridges, or other public places, or its gas, water, or electric works shall be sold except by an ordinance or resolution passed by a recorded affirmative vote of three-fourths of all members elected to the governing body.

Seriously, what justifies that kind of a control-freak constitution?

We’re nearing 50 years since the adoption of a new constitution in 1971–an overdue remedy for 1902’s racist relic. I would like to see the state start from scratch and then stick to the basics. But when I look at the nonsense that goes on in Richmond, I have zero trust in the ability of the folks there to get this right. My reluctant hope is that we have many more years of silly constitutional questions.

My advice under those conditions: Keep voting no unless the amendment in question would allow something that normal constitutions don’t forbid in the first place–in which case, vote yes and feel dirty afterwards.

Weekly output: SXSW panel pitch, Verizon Wireless pricing, TPP, Winvote, retargeted e-mails

For much of this week, I took notes from a seat in a room while somebody else stood before me and others to deliver a lecture about one subject or another. It was a bit like college–except I used a laptop instead of paper, I was never unplugged from the outside world, and there was the prospect of getting paid for what I wrote about those talks instead of Mom and Dad paying for me to attend them.

SXSW panel on panels8/10/2015: A Panel On Panels: Things We’ve Learned Not To Do, SXSW PanelPicker

For the past couple of years, I’ve talked about pitching a SXSW panel about nothing other than the weird performance art that is participating in a panel discussion. I finally went ahead and wrote up a proposal, featuring me as well as ACT | The App Association’s Jonathan Godfrey and Tech.Co’s Jen Consalvo. Please vote for it, if you’re so inclined; if it gets a spot on the SXSW program, you’re welcome to show up in Austin and ask a question that’s more of a comment.

8/11/2015: Verizon Wireless’s new plans, WTOP

I answered a few questions from the news station about VzW’s switch to no-contract prices without phone subsidies–speaking via Skype on some iffy conference WiFi. How scratchy did I sound on the air?

8/11/2015: The Latest US Export: Bad Copyright Laws, Yahoo Tech

I’ve had “write a post about the intellectual-property implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal” on my to-do list for a while, and the leak of a much more current draft gave me a reason to turn that into an actual column. Something tells me this won’t be among my most-read stories this month, but it’s a post I had to write.

8/14/2015: Unlocking Democracy: Inside the Most Insecure Voting Machines in America, Yahoo Tech

I spent most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the USENIX Security Symposium in D.C., which gave me a chance to attend Jeremy Epstein’s entertaining and enraging autopsy of the incomprehensibly insecure voting machines on which I cast my ballot for over a decade. This post got a spot on the Yahoo home page over the weekend, in case you’re wondering how it racked up 665 comments.

8/16/2015: How ‘retargeted’ ads sneak into your inbox, USA Today

This is the column I’d meant to write last week–and could do this week when the reader who’d sent the e-mail I couldn’t find re-sent that message after reading about my holdup here.

Tax phobia will make you do stupid things

For years, Virginia has had a problem everybody can identify: It’s running out of money to repair its existing roads, rails, airports and ports, let alone build new transportation infrastructure. The reason why is obvious too–the gas tax, unchanged since 1987 at 17.5 cents a gallon, doesn’t take in enough and will yield increasingly less as fuel economy improves.

Virginia General Assembly logoIt doesn’t require a graphing calculator to conclude that the easiest fix would be to hike the gas tax by a dime–the price per gallon has gone up by that much in the last two weeks, and we all seem to have survived.

But in the confused state of my state’s politics, the gas tax–which is buried in the retail price–has somehow hit an iron ceiling. Raising it, at least among most state Republicans, is now unthinkable; I’ve even seen that low rate sold as a competitive advantage over other states.

(You can also apply that argument to the commonwealth’s exceedingly low cigarette taxes, which have created a thriving market for cigarette smugglers.)

In January, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R.) suggested a way out of this artificial impasse: Get rid of the gas tax entirely and raise the sales tax from 5 to 5.8 percent. Having ensuring that car-free Virginians would underwrite free use of their roads by the rest of the East Coast, this plan would also sock hybrid and electric-vehicle owners with a $100 annual fee.

That economically insane proposal passed the House but got amended by the Senate to a saner plan bill built around adding a nickel to the gas tax and then indexing it to construction-cost inflation, plus a 1 percent wholesale tax.

Alas, the conference committee then went to work and gave birth to a mutt of a bill that passed the House of Delegates today. It would end the retail gas tax but then impose a wholesale tax–3.5 percent on gas, 6.5 percent on diesel–which would then rise with inflation.

That difference is supposed to account for the wear tractor-trailers impose on the roads, but it also punishes drivers who bought diesel cars for their greater efficiency. In the same vein, the $100/year hybrid fee is back. Apparently, Richmond only likes efficient vehicles if they run on gas alone.

The hybrid fee bothers me in particular–we bought a Prius in 2005–but then again we’ve benefited from being exempted from the state’s car tax. And why did we get that freebie? Because our county government wanted to encourage people to buy hybrids, but the state wouldn’t let them push people to buy more efficient vehicles in the most obvious way: yup, raise the gas tax.