The End of Primaries In Virginia?

With Virginia’s legislative session beginning next week, Delegates and Senators are busy getting all of their affairs in order.  If you check the Legislative Information System, you can find a wealth of pre-filed bills and resolutions from General Assembly members across the state.  A few moments ago, I received an email from my State Senator, Mark Obenshain.  In what promises to be the first part of his previews, he discusses some of his legislative priorities.  It reads as follows:

Perhaps January 12 isn’t circled on your calendar, but it is on mine – it is the first day of the General Assembly Session.  I know that what takes place in Richmond matters to you too, which is why I want to use the coming days to tell you about the bills I plan to introduce and some of the big issues facing the General Assembly this session.

Today, I would like to take the opportunity to outline some of my proposals for a leaner, smarter government. Honestly, we don’t have much of a choice: although the economy is starting to recover, state revenues remain low and need remains great. We have to prioritize, to come up with more efficient ways of doing the work of government, and to ensure that the true agents of recovery – individual Virginians – aren’t hampered by overbearing regulation.

If ever there was a time for government reform, this is it. Here are a few of the bills I will be introducing this year designed to change the way the Commonwealth governs for the better.

Creating a Transportation Lockbox

Here’s an idea: revenues specifically raised for and dedicated to transportation should be spent on … transportation!

Time and again, legislators have raided transportation revenues to pay for other projects. Often, less important functions are funded by revenues designated for far more important ones, on the theory that when the more essential program experiences a budget crunch, there will be no choice but to appropriate new monies to cover the shortfall.

No more: it’s a poor way to govern, and it’s bad faith with the people of Virginia. That’s why I’m proposing the creation of a “transportation lockbox” to ensure that revenues specifically raised for transportation are only spent on transportation projects. The time for dallying on fiscal responsibility is over – indeed, it ended long ago. It’s time to put transportation funds in a lockbox to help ensure the funds we need to make critical infrastructure improvements.

Getting a Better Deal on Government Contracts

When the Commonwealth puts a project or purchase order out to bid, it doesn’t always take the best deal – or anything close. Due to an entrenched system of preferential procurement, 40% of all requests for proposals are submitted to qualifying small businesses and women- and minority-owned (SWaM) businesses alone.

Whatever you think of preferential contracting, this is an incredibly bad way to go about it. Some states “score” bids on various factors – price, specifications, reputability – and include a preference component. Virginia, on the other hand, simply sets aside 40% of contracts exclusively for SWaM vendors, and we have no idea much it costs us since we have no other bids by which the contracts can be compared.

Under my proposal, bidding would be open to all vendors, and agencies will be permitted to enter into as many SWaM-preferred contracts as they wish so long as total project costs are not increased by more than 3% off the low qualifying bids. The question is this: can we really justify unquantifiable cost overruns at a time when we are asking so many to do more with less?

Ending Subsidies to Political Parties

Virginia is in a somewhat unique situation: we don’t allow voter registration by political party, but we still pay for party primaries. And the truth is, we pay through the nose, sometimes as much as $20 per voter.

There are perfectly good alternatives. Parties often choose to nominate via convention or party canvass, or through a “firehouse primary,” in which a limited number of polling places are opened in each locality, usually for fewer hours than in a government-run election. All of these methods are common, all are relatively affordable – and all are paid for by the political parties themselves.

If a political party wants a conventional primary, fine – but they can pay for it. Our localities are burdened enough as it is. If a party cannot or will not put up that much money, they can always go with a cheaper option. Our localities can ill afford it – and under my proposal, they wouldn’t have to.

Studying Options for a Fiscally Sustainable Future

It’s easy for an entity as large as state government to get stuck in the past, and sometimes the way forward is less than obvious. But we can’t just keep spinning our wheels; at very least, we should always be looking for ways to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars. That’s why I’m introducing legislation instructing Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to study proposals for making state government smarter and more efficient.

As you probably know, federal health care legislation requires a massive expansion of state Medicaid programs by 2014, with substantial new financial burdens falling upon already cash-strapped states. Here’s what you probably don’t know: state involvement in Medicaid is optional.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and no, of course I would never support repudiating our obligations to low-income families in Virginia. I simply point out that we don’t necessarily have to provide these services through Medicaid, especially with a raft of new regulations and eligibility changes on the way.

Several states are looking at the possibility of running their own programs independent of the federal Medicaid program – and it wouldn’t be the first time. Some states ran their own programs into the 1980s, when changes in federal funding ended the cost-effectiveness of such alternatives. With the nature of Medicaid set to change, it’s time to give that option another look to determine if Virginia could meet the needs of the Medicaid population more cost-effectively outside the federal Medicaid program.

The second study I am requesting deals with state employee pay. Recently, several studies have demonstrated that federal employee compensation routinely exceeds that of comparable private sector positions, raising the question of whether state pay scales are similarly disproportionate – something we should wish to know for future hiring.

Going beyond the value of compensation packages, moreover, we need to give a good long look at how we provide retirement benefits. The Virginia Retirement System’s default choice is a defined benefit plan which looks a lot like the pensions of the 1950s – ’70s, but bears little resemblance to the more cost-effective defined contribution plans and 401(k)s common in today’s workplace. If being behind the times is costing us, things need to change. That’s part of what my bill would instruct JLARC to study.

Of course, these are just a few proposals to make government more efficient and responsive. I will be carrying a number of other bills with similar themes, and look forward to working with my colleagues on further reform proposals, a number of which have emerged from the Governor’s Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, of which I am a member.

In coming days, I will be sharing more with you about my legislative priorities, and about major issues facing the General Assembly this coming session, and as always, I welcome you to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns with me now and throughout session.

With best regards, 

Mark D. Obenshain
Virginia State Senator
Authorized and paid for by Friends of Mark Obenshain

Now there is quite a bit of meat in this email.  However, one particular issue that stands out to me concerns political primaries.  As I’ve stated before, I believe primaries are a poor method to nominate party candidates.  Not only are they an added expense to the Virginia taxpayer, but they often create weaker nominees and ones less wed to their party’s supposed ideology.  Given that the costs of holding a convention falls squarely on the parties, I understand why political parties might choose a primary, but is it fair to defray these costs to average Virginians?  That doesn’t sound very fiscally responsible.

I was greatly disappointed when state Republicans decided upon a primary to select our 2012 Republican nominee for Senate.  Given that the decision has been thrown open to every Virginia voter, we will likely end up with a nominee that is not the most conservative (and some may argue not the most Republican), but rather the one who best panders to the liberals and the moderates.  After all, they will have as much of a say in choosing the Republican nominee as Republicans will.  What a great idea ladies and gentlemen!  Let’s let the Democrats pick the Republican candidate.  What could possibly go wrong?


Well, I’m glad to hear that Senator Obenshain is working to correct this issue.  If political parties still insist on holding primaries, it is high time that they cover the bill themselves.  Once the RPV and the DPVA have to front the cost of their own nomination process, if only for financial reasons, maybe they will come to realize that conventions (or canvasses) are a better method.  After all, as they say, “It’s the money stupid.”

5 Replies to “The End of Primaries In Virginia?”

    1. I have no objection to publicly funded elections either. After all, as you say, they are a critical part of our democratic process. I just think the nomination process (or pre-game show for you sports fans out there) shouldn’t be paid for by the masses.

  1. I don’t have a problem with the primary system per se, but I wonder at Virginia’s system of opening party nominations to the entire electorate, rather than just to members of that party. I really don’t understand what the goal of that is. What right do Democrats and Republicans have to, say, determine who the Libertarian or the Constitution Party nominate, or any permutation thereof? Where I live, and I think in most places, primary elections are by party. Why this weird system in Virginia?


    1. In Virginia we have no party registration. There are no registered Democrats, Republicans, or anything else. You can be a member of one party or another, but that fact alone does not hinder your ability to vote in any party’s primary.

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