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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Pay Day lenders find a loophole

Virginia’s culture is based on a moderate to conservative outlook combined with a certain amount of common sense.  This approach is reflected in the way the state is governed.  Our taxes are low and historically we have been recognized as one of the most efficient state governments in the country. We also, reflecting our conservative outlook, don’t like gambling, slots, or liquor sales outside of state control.  To which I readily nod my head in agreement.  
However, when it comes to payday lending, and let’s not mince words here, legalized loan sharking, we let our guard down.  In 2002, in what was called the Payday Lending Act, our conservative lending laws were changed to allow storefront style lenders to charge more for loans than the previous cap of 36%.  The idea, and this is how it was billed, is that those folks who need “short term” just in time cash, could take out a loan for a week or two, with their collateral being their next pay check.  
It’s doubtful that even the bill’s strongest supporters in the legislature had any idea just how quickly this industry would catch on.  In a matter of months pay day lenders started popping up all over the Commonwealth.  Now there are hundreds.  They are in strip malls, store fronts, and perhaps most ominously, on the main streets just outside military bases where there are large populations of young enlisted personnel.   What can I say, these guys know their target market and aren’t afraid to exploit it.
This industry has also gotten its foot in the door when it comes to politics.  They give campaign contributions to delegates and state senators, but most telling, is the amount of money they spend on lobbyists.  Their outlay for lobbying was over a million dollars in 2007 and last year was probably substantially more.
The legislature, having heard complaints from religious leaders, community activists, as well as military advocacy groups, attempted to change the rules in 2008.  The Assembly, who seemed more swayed by the pay day lending industry than the concerns of their constituents, only managed a few half hearted changes.  They capped the interest rate and limited the number loans that a borrower can take out each year to five.  While not going as far as some would have liked and banning these loan sharks entirely, it seemed like a move in the right direction.  But the pay day lenders are a clever bunch, and they quickly managed to find and exploit a loophole.
Under the 2008 legislation, while capped in interest charges, the pay day lenders were still allowed to charge their fees.  This rather insidious practice allows them to continue to operate under an interest rate cap, but through charging fees, allows them an opportunity to still make a lot of money.  If the fees are counted as something of a “defacto” interest rate, the cost of a loan, even under the new legislation, can quickly become exorbitant.
However, where the pay day lenders really scored a coup was in the business of open ended lending.  Under the old rules lenders could only operate with fixed one week, or two week loans.  But under the new rules, while they are capped in the number of loans they can give each year, it’s now perfectly OK to offer extended credit.  However, unlike even the most outrageous credit card rates, this new structure, with the fees and interest rates factored in, can reach the equivalent of nearly 700%.   
There are those who claim that payday lending, almost like a Good Samaritan, fills a valuable niche in the market.  In other words, they are giving a line of credit to those people who couldn’t find a loan any other way.  There is some merit to this argument, but that’s not really what these loans are about.   The reality is that they are notorious for putting people most at risk in a no win position.  Once they get into this cycle of debt, particularly at these outrageous interest rates, there is almost no way out.  
In the upcoming General Assembly, with so many other worries, it’s hard to see either chamber moving ahead with new legislation.  Rather, they will probably to take a wait and see attitude.  In the meantime, however, not everyone has pursued such a laid back approach.  Our neighbors in Kilmarnock, while having no authority to limit pay day lending, rather ingeniously used their zoning ordinances to deny these guys space in their town.  Under the town’s zoning rules banks are allowed, but other “small lending businesses” are not.  So, in this case a pay day lender who wanted to set up shop in Kilmarnock had to find somewhere else to do business.  
However, the reality is that unless Virginia, like other states, to include Ohio, New York, and North Carolina, puts an effective clamp on pay day lending, this scourge is going to continue.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Race, Obama, and Virginia

This week we watched history.  It was more profound, more encouraging, and more uplifting than most of the history we’ve had to face the past few years.
 Barack Obama, a black man from Illinois, became the President of the United States.  It was a moment that just a few years ago few doubted they would ever see.  America, for all the progress we have made, just didn’t seem to be ready.  Even some of Obama’s closest supporters, when he announced his intention to run for President, said the time wasn’t right.  But, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, and our own Doug Wilder, the first African American ever to win a Governor’s race, he went ahead with his campaign anyway.
This week’s inaugural was profoundly moving and on a personal level it meant a great deal to me.  As a native Virginian I am proud of the Commonwealth.  We have the legacy of George Washington, my personal favorite, George Mason, and, of course, Thomas Jefferson.  Our general assembly is the oldest legislative body in America and our state, in this century, is one of the most modern and efficient in the nation.  When it comes to being a Virginian there is a lot to be proud of.  However, the story of Virginia is a complex one, and sadly, there is a less than admirable side of our history and that concerns race. 
Most of us over a certain age remember a different world.  When I was little I recall waiting in the “whites only” section of the train station.  My school was segregated.  The black kids who lived just across the street were bused to a school that was miles away.  I don’t recall ever asking why.  I guess I was a victim, as were most adults, of the old refrain of, “that’s just the way things are.”  But I also recall thinking it somehow the way things should be when these kids joined us for the start of the 1966 school year.
But, still, racism was a fact of life.  It wasn’t until 1971 that a Republican Governor named Linwood Holton would demand the rewriting of the Virginia Constitution to cleanse it of the racist clauses governing schools and voting.  A few years before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Virginia vs. Loving, said a black person could finally marry a white person if they chose to.  Virginia argued against the ban on mixed marriages.  It’s all a grim memory.  A legacy, which until very recently, always seemed to get in the way of any meaningful resolution of the human relations issues dealing with race.    
 Like a lot of white people race and racism is something I tend to talk about in the third person.  The reality, as much as I deplore it, or as a child growing up, observed the remnants of the Jim Crow system, was that racism happened to someone else.  No one ever denied me access to someplace I wanted to go because of my race and no employer ever gave me a second look because I was white. Still, that kind of system, and the prejudice that goes with it, wasn’t just a burden for African Americans.  They felt its cutting edge, but it was also a terrible burden on society as a whole.  Racism sidelines talent and ability, and worst of all, creates deep anxiety and hostility. 
For some people the election of Barack Obama represents a profound departure from that world.  However, what really mattered, and this is the defining point, was that for many Virginians the election wasn’t about voting for a black man or a white man.  It was simply about voting for the person they wanted to see as the next President.  That alone could represent the most remarkable transition in Virginia’s modern history. 
Twenty years ago, Douglas Wilder, a moderate, and arguably even a conservative Democrat, was elected Governor.  As we celebrate the Virginia of the 21st century we forget that in 1989 Virginia elected the nation’s first African American Governor.  But there is a footnote to that story.  The polls in that election all showed Wilder with a decisive lead going into Election Day.  However, and this is still debated, it seems that enough voters had a sudden change of heart, probably based on race, to make his election one of the closest in history.  In 2008 there was no evidence of the so-called Wilder effect.  Times really have changed.
Barack Obama’s election doesn’t mean our national debate, and some would say, our national obsession, over race is over.  But it does mean that when it comes to race in America nothing about the discussion is ever going to be the same again.  To which I say, with a relieved sigh, “thank goodness.”

Virginia should say “no” to Real ID

It’s a familiar scene in a number of Cold War era spy movies.  A train is entering East Germany, always at night, on its way to East Berlin and a police officer is walking down the aisle saying, “papers, papers, please...”  The highlight is that particularly tense moment when the officer, eyeing the passenger suspiciously, gives the paperwork the once over.
In all Communist countries, from the Soviet Union, to the smaller states, national identity cards were a given. No repressive national government can live without them.  Citizens were tracked and monitored all the time.  It was just part of life in a totalitarian state.  
While most of the Communist block has withered away, even today, national identity cards and internal travel papers are still common in some countries.  But in the United States, with the exception of the way we use social security numbers, there has never been anything remotely close to a national identity system.  
Nearly forty years ago President Nixon was presented with a proposal to create a national identity program, but he dismissed the notion out of hand saying it was “Un-American.”  Ronald Reagan, in the early 1980’s, was shown a similar proposal.  Reagan said he was thoroughly opposed to any kind of national identity card.
When President Clinton, in the early days of his administration, proposed a national health card, there was an immediate outcry that this was the first step in creating a national identity card.  This charge was quite a stretch.  His health care proposals died for other reasons, but that complaint didn’t help any.
Now, however, thanks to a bill enacted in 2004, it seems we’re on our way to a national identity card after all.  In a way, it sort of snuck up on us.  The “Real ID Act,” passed by a Congress that would approve anything as long as it had the word security in it, requires the standardization of state driver’s licenses.  
On the surface that doesn’t sound particularly menacing.  That is, until you read a bit more.  What the federal government wants to do is substantially enhance the data carried on all licenses and then connect all of the state driver’s license data bases through one hub so that they can be easily searched.  The Department of Homeland Security says that this is for the purposes of making sure that holders don’t have duplicate licenses in other states.  But somehow that doesn’t seem like a convincing argument.  
Real ID is more than just a driver’s license.  The legislation includes a number of new information requirements, ones that don’t have a lot to do with operating a vehicle to include fingerprints, biometric information, machine readability and possibly a data chip.  This all takes time and money to implement, and to make it a reality, the states, and each legislature has to do this, have to pass special legislation.  
The federal government is pushing hard on this one and is threatening not to recognize a state’s driver’s license, for say, purposes of air travel, unless it conforms to the Real ID requirements.  That’s a powerful incentive, particularly, if on some date in the future, people without a nationally approved driver’s license can’t travel.  
As the result of this mandate most states, some reluctantly, have gone along with the idea.  There has been relatively little resistance.  However, with the deadline approaching several states, and even a few who have already approved the legislation, are having second thoughts.   Virginia is one of them.
Under the law, everyone born after 1964 will have to have a nationally approved driver’s license by 2014 and anyone born before that will have until 2017.  These requirements are going to make getting a driver’s license more expensive and time consuming than it already is.  The data requirements are considerable, and could involve, at least in some cases, some form of a modified background check.
However, there are several legislators in Virginia who are having second thoughts about complying with the federal mandate.  They think that Real ID is an invasion of privacy and they aren’t at all comfortable with the notion of a national identity system.  Many in the state are also concerned about the cost and inconvenience drivers will face in getting a license in the future.
Real ID has been approved, almost effortlessly in most states, and the modest uprising the Virginia General Assembly, may be too little, too late.  The legislature has a lot to worry about during the upcoming session.  But, the bills that have been introduced, with the support of civil libertarians and conservatives, may at least add a hint of caution to what seems to be a rush towards a national identity card.  
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Kaine is backing the GOP into a corner

Not too long ago I was saying that the Democrats would be hard pressed to find a “wedge” issue to propel them to victory in 2009.  In 2007 they had that issue when it came to transportation and it carried them a long ways.  The Republicans lost their majority in the state senate and the Democrats increased their number in the House of Delegates to 45. That was impressive.  However, this year seemed a bit more problematic.  
Now that we’re in a recession, transportation, while important, just isn’t as important an issue as it was two years ago.  However, maintaining key state services in the face of declining revenue is.  That seemed to be setting the stage for an election where the Republicans could run the kind of campaign they’re good at.  Namely, cutting spending, pruning back government, and opposing any new taxes.  That would have given them the leverage, perhaps, to break the Democratic winning streak and at the very least hang on to their majority in the House of Delegates.  
However, that was until Governor Kaine threw them a curve.  Now, once again, they’re off balance.
Kaine, as the state’s chief executive, is looking to plug a $2.9 billion shortfall in the state’s budget.  Because of the recession, the state’s revenue picture is grim.  Kaine’s problem is in how to fill that gap.   He is cutting departmental budgets, canceling projects, and at the same time looking for some effective ways to make up lost revenue.  That’s where his proposed increase in the tobacco tax comes in.
Thirty years ago Virginia was heavily dependent on tobacco as one of its principal industries.  In those days an increase in the tax on the tobacco would have been politically unthinkable.  No Governor, and very few in the legislature, would have dared propose such a thing.  But times have changed.
Besides, it’s been argued, the state’s tax on tobacco is the 47th lowest in the nation.  That’s why there is such a vibrant and illicit market in buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them in New York City.  So, why shouldn’t the tax be raised?  
The Republicans, probably with a little more vehemence than was advisable, immediately declared the Governor’s proposal dead on arrival.  That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do.  From a political perspective, the wisest thing to have done would have been to taken a deep breath before they said anything.  
But, they didn’t.  
They have a majority of the House of Delegates and if they want can easily derail it.  However, they should have realized that Tim Kaine knows that too.  In fact, many think he is counting on it.  More than likely this tax proposal will get the axe.  The GOP just won’t stand for it.  They have declared it a “job killer,” though this argument is somewhat weak, and want nothing to do with it.
However, they seem to be missing the point.  
Kaine, in proposing this tax, may have given the Democrats that wedge issue they need for November.  If the GOP dominated House kills the cigarette tax the only option the Governor will have is to make further cuts in key services.  This will include, at the very least, education and Medicaid.  Most people, given a choice between the tax on cigarettes and help for the elderly or aid to their local school system usually find that decision easy to make.  
That’s certainly what Kaine and the Democrats fighting to take over the legislature will be telling the voters next fall.  Also, and the Republicans should have taken note of this, the key swing districts, the ones the Democrats need to win in November, aren’t in areas dominated by tobacco interests.  
The same is true for the regions they need to win if they want to capture the Governor’s mansion.  Northern Virginia voters and those in the outer rung of the D.C. suburbs and indeed, in a number of other regions throughout the state, may not react too well if they are told that key services are being cut because the General Assembly wasn’t willing to raise the tax on cigarettes.
Kaine would dearly love to have the additional revenue of a tobacco tax.  It would help him deal with a serious budgetary shortfall.  But if he doesn’t get it, he is ready, and probably chomping at the bit, to use it as a wedge issue next fall.
 

An answered prayer at Valley Forge

During its long history the American military has celebrated many wartime Christmases.  Often, these are in difficult circumstances a long ways from home. At this very moment our men and women in uniform are doing the same in Iraq and Afghanistan.  
However, perhaps the most desperate Christmas ever celebrated by members of the armed forces occurred early in our history.  In December of 1778 the Continental Army was retreating in the face of a British advance on Philadelphia, but they also needed a place, as armies did back then, to make winter quarters.  The army’s commanding general, George Washington, chose a spot on the Skuylkill River called Valley Forge.  It was a hamlet and hardly anyone lived there, but it was defensible, and there were lots of trees to build winter huts and fortifications.  
It was also strategically located.  In the unlikely event the British broke winter quarters and began to move, the Continentals, from Valley Forge, were well positioned to intercept them.  However, given the poor state of the Army, this was something Washington hoped didn’t happen.
Pennsylvania winters are harsh and the army was tired. They had neither winter clothing nor a regular supply of food.  Most of the soldiers lived on near starvation rations.  When Washington arrived at Valley Forge, just days before Christmas, his army numbered about 10,000 and his situation was desperate. But his objective that winter was to keep the Army together.  As the military strategists say today, he wanted to maintain a “force in being,” and thereby keep the dream of American independence alive.
However, as desperate as the situation was the army still celebrated Christmas.  Washington considered this important.   There was heavy snow on Christmas Day and since they were still working on building cabins, most of the men were still in tents. They hadn’t been paid, didn’t have enough food, and many had no shoes, but Washington did his best to see that the men had some kind of Christmas.
He hosted a somewhat meager dinner for his officers, and then saw to it that each soldier had an allotment of rum, very important in those days, and something to eat.  Both the General and Mrs. Washington did their best to visit each encampment.  
It was also at Valley Forge that Washington is said, on Christmas Day, to have ridden into the woods to pray.  It’s presumed that the General prayed for strength and guidance, but no one really knows.  Besides, what he prayed about is his business, but his need to find some time to be alone and to talk to God suggests the spiritual side of this remarkable individual.   It could also be argued, given what followed, that God was giving a little extra attention to the General’s prayers.
Amazingly enough and this was recorded by several of the foreign officers, including the Marquis De Lafayette, the morale of the Continental Army at Christmastime revived.  Even without adequate rations and amid appalling living conditions, the men sang, told stories, and enjoyed their Christmas.  
But Christmas in Valley Forge was also a dramatic turning point for the army.  It gave them the lift in spirits, and by shared hardship, a camaraderie that started a transformation.  Those that remained were committed to the cause of independence and most, if not all, were willing to see it through.  
There was also an almost miraculous early running of the Shad, a fish well known to local fisherman here in Stafford that is high in protein; that saved them from an even more desperate food shortage.  
As the winter continued, under the direction of Baron Von Steuben, a former Prussian officer, the Continental Army remade itself.   Baron Von Steuben wasn’t really the Baron he made himself out to be, but he was an experienced soldier and he knew a lot about training. The men drilled each day and began regular field exercises.
 The officers, under Von Steuben’s direction, got experience in handling their men.  This hard work, even while done under the worst of conditions, would bear fruit.  Just a few months later, at the Battle of Monmouth, the British saw for the first time, not a ragtag collection of continentals and militias, but a real Army that would fight them to a standstill.  
Christmas at Valley Forge may have been harsh, the conditions may have been grim, but it was also a time that began a transformation.  One that helped build the Army that would win the war.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Why I am a Christmas music junkie

There are several radio stations in our area that start playing Christmas music, non-stop, immediately after Thanksgiving.  
There is also even one station that for some bizarre reason offers a day of Christmas music in July.  Why?  I have no idea, but I always tune in.  That’s because, no matter what time of year it is, I enjoy Christmas music.  It’s cheerful, it’s moving, it’s festive, and for many of us, it has a deep and abiding meaning.
 However, I think there must be an unwritten rule someplace, maybe it’s an FCC thing, that you can only listen to Christmas music, two or three weeks before Christmas, and then immediately after the holiday it has to disappear.  So, like any junkie, at this time of year, I try to get in as much as I can, while I can.
My favorites are what most people would consider the traditional carols.  “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” a carol which is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ famous story “A Christmas Carol” is my number one pick and I can listen to it over and over.  If I close my eyes, I am at Trafalgar Square, a very long time ago, on a snowy Christmas Eve.  If it is sung by a chorus, with a full orchestral accompaniment, then all the better.  That just gives it a little majesty.  
“Silent Night” is another favorite, written in 1818, with the German title “Stille Nacht.”  On Christmas Eve 1914, during the First World War, it was the song the Allied soldiers heard from the other side of “no man’s land” being sung in German.  It didn’t take long before they realized it was one of their favorite Christmas carols too.  Its simple beauty pierced night and led to what has become known as the “Christmas Truce.” This short cessation in the fighting began with a Christmas carol.
I also tend to like the carols that offer a view of the lighter side of Christmas.  “Jingle Bells,” which I think I first sang with the rest of my class in the first grade at Belvedere Elementary School, is one carol I think I know all the words to.  
 And yes, I can almost, but not quite, do the same for “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”  Rudolph might have started out as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Wards, but his story, and his TV special, airing every Christmas since 1964 has made this song one of my favorites.
There are some Christmas songs, that even I, Christmas music aficionado that I am, would prefer go away.  Never to be sung or played anywhere ever again.  It’s not a long list.  While it was cute when it was first released several years ago, I would be very pleased if I never, ever, heard “Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” again.  If it could somehow be purged from human memory, that would be good thing too.  
The same goes for Alvin and the Chipmunks and their Christmas songs.  For some inexplicable reason, they always seem to slip into radio station play lists.  
There is another genre of Christmas music, not too often captured, certainly not sharing radio air time with Rudolph, that involves one of my favorite instruments, the harp.  In this case it is a unique and relatively little known smaller version of the instrument known as the Clarsach.  The Clarsach is Scottish, actually, it’s more accurately described as Celtic, and there is a recent release of its music, by a former resident of the Northern Neck, Jo Morrison.  Her “Christmas Gifts” CD, perhaps because it allows me to “time travel” a bit, to when I lived in Scotland, is one of my favorites.
Perhaps one of the most famous Christmas carols, at least here in America, written by Irving Berlin and originally sung by Bing Crosby is “White Christmas.”  In 1954, the song led to a movie with Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby by the same name.  
However, by itself, this one song had a remarkable ability, even for people who grew up in places where it never snowed at Christmas time, to bring back memories.  The Captain aboard my Dad’s ship in World War II who was fond of having music played aboard ship, specifically directed that this song not be played.  He liked it, but he also noticed that it made some of his most seasoned sailors cry when they heard it.  
That, in a way, probably sums up why I find the Songs of the Season, both religious and secular, so compelling.  They tell a story, warm the heart, and sometimes, in a few stanzas bring back some warm and wonderful memories.  

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 
 

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