Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Sen. Cuccinelli Goes to . . . Synagogue?

State Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37) spoke to a Men’s Club meeting at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield on April 22, 2007. The congregation’s Men’s Club had been looking for ideas for speakers, so I asked if they would like an elected official. Since the congregation hasn’t had many stop by, the Men’s Club officers approved the idea of having Senator Cuccinelli speak.

After the introduction (during which one member of the audience made a wry comparison with Tevye the Dairyman upon hearing that Cuccinelli had five daughters), Sen. Cuccinelli spoke about his observations on how Northern Virginia voters devote their political attentions. Much of the focus is towards Washington (given that many residents work for the Federal government or contractors). However, not as many people pay attention to the goings on in Richmond, where much of the responsibility for transportation funding lies.

Senator Cuccinelli spoke at length about his efforts to divest the Commonwealth’s employee retirement fund from Sudan, since the Darfur issue is of great interest to many congregants. He spoke of his work through many Senate committees, and his efforts to get real action rather than a statement. His efforts paid off as his bill passed the Senate on a 40-0 vote. However, the House of Delegates passed a very different bill, and the bill finally died in conference committee.

Also of interest to the Jewish community was the kosher/halal bill that passed in the previous session. Previous bills had been ruled unconstitutional by Federal courts, so crafting a new bill took a lot of careful wording as well as legal wrangling. Senator Cuccinelli praised the efforts of the Jewish Community Center lobbyists, and gave credit to Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and Del. Kenneth Alexander (D-89) for a halal bill. The bill takes regulation out of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and requires that the certification authority information be made available to the consumer. Penalties for consumer fraud start with civil, but can become criminal as well.

Many in the audience were interested in education funding. Senator Cuccinelli told the audience how he has made efforts to change funding formulas only to see them die in the Senate Finance Committee. He noted that Fairfax County has 14% of Virginia’s school children, pays 16% of sales taxes, and 25% of income taxes. However, Fairfax County receives only 7% of K-12 education money back from Richmond. The audience gasped at those numbers. Senator Cuccinelli told the audience of how he tried to amend the educational funding formulas on the floor of the Senate in 2006, but was opposed by Fairfax Senators. He didn’t mention any names, but someone in the audience asked if Senator Richard Saslaw (D-35) was one of them, and Cuccinelli confirmed that he was the leader of the opposition to the budget amendment.

One member of the audience also brought up how new schools opening in Fairfax County look quite grand, like they have overly expensive flourishes well beyond what is needed for functionality. (Liberty Middle School was given as an example.) However, they also become overcrowded quickly. Sen. Cuccinelli pointed out how the Fairfax County School Board knew that schools were going to be overcrowded when they first opened based on known population projections, but did not spend the extra 15% to add another floor to a school (i.e., Westfields High School) to alleviate the problem in advance. He also did not mention that his opponent is on the School Board and would be responsible for these kinds of poor decisions.

Another question included imposition of business, professional and occupational license taxes (“BPOL” tax). Sen. Cuccinelli corrected the misconception that the tax was imposed by the Commonwealth. It is authorized by the Commonwealth, but local jurisdictions decide whether or not to impose it. Senator Cuccinelli noted that the tax was originally imposed to pay for the War of 1812. Apparently, that was a tougher war than we had previously realized, since we still seem to be paying for it…

An audience member asked about health care. Sen. Cuccinelli talked about how Massachusetts has mandated that everyone chooses a health insurance policy, whether through an employer or not. However, Virginia has no health care mandate. He described how Virginia is looking at ideas for cross-state health plan pooling to lower insurance costs to make insurance more widely available.

The topic of health care brought up concerns about temporary detainment of mentally ill people. Sen. Cuccinelli has been personally involved in representing people in these hearings. He pointed out the need for improvement in judicial handling of these cases as well as more money for facility improvements and to increase the number of available beds. This is a long term challenge for the Commonwealth that he hopes will improve in the near future. Senator Cuccinelli noted that he is not a "big spender," but that this is one area that he believes should be a priority within the existing budget.

Although time was starting to run short, Sen. Cuccinelli did discuss the recent transportation compromise. He described how is got a bare majority of votes (21) in the Senate. He said it wasn’t ordinarily the kind of bill he would vote for, but he also understands the need for road improvements, particularly in Northern Virginia. He said that the Northern Virginia delegation does not have a majority in either House of the General Assembly, so compromises and alliances (particularly with the Tidewater delegation) are often necessary. He credited the Governor for signing construction contracts while labor rates have become lower to take advantage of lower costs for taxpayers.

There was a little bit of discussion of Second Amendment rights (given the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech), and Sen. Cuccinelli affirmed his support of those rights. He did point out that some revisions were forthcoming concerning access for those individuals who have received temporary detention orders.

Sen. Cuccinelli had time for one more question from a high school student in attendance who asked about what the Commonwealth was doing about global warming (perfect for Earth Day). Sen. Cuccinelli said that the Government could do more to improve its own energy efficiency. He is also looking at concepts such as congestion pricing for roads that would help traffic flow and thus save drivers on fuel and reduce air pollution, based on the experience of other States.

Based on my own previous observations, it is a safe bet that most Jewish crowds (particularly the non-Orthodox ones) are 70-80% Democratic leaning and very socially liberal. At the end of his discussions with the Men’s Club, Sen. Cuccinelli received a warm applause. Several attendees offered him their thanks for speaking with the group. I would say that his command of the facts as well as his fiscal views made a strong positive impression on the audience.