Who is “LEEDing” the Way?

Put "green" and "government" in the same sentence and the story is usually about funding fights in our nation’s capital. In this case, Washington, D.C. has been recognized as having the most LEED-certified green buildings per capita. More than 100 are used by the federal government. Colorado is the top state. Governing reports: 

The District of Columbia and Colorado have the most LEED-certified commercial and institutional green buildings per capita in the United States, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

D.C. easily led the nation with 31.5-square-feet of LEED-certified space per capita as of 2011, according to the report. The council highlighted the renovation of the U.S. Treasury Building, which became the oldest LEED-certified building in the country, as an example of the city’s work toward becoming a more sustainable community. More than 100 D.C. buildings used by the federal government are LEED-certified, according to a complete list of LEED projects in the United States provided by the USGBC, along with dozens of local government, private and non-profit buildings.

The city’s green-building efforts began in 2006, when the city council passed a bill requiring that all publicly-owned commercial projects be LEED-certified, according to a USGBC database of policies in all 50 states. D.C. also initiated an incentive program in 2009 for private and residential buildings to pursue LEED certification.

"This is a great accomplishment for the D.C. metropolitan region and a testament to the drive, commitment and leadership of all those who live, work and play in our community," Mike Babcock, board chair of the National Capital Region Chapter of USGBC, said in a statement. "We also realize there is still more to do and hope to effectively guide the effort by engaging, educating and encouraging the dialogue around the value of sustainability."

Colorado ranked as the top state with 2.74 square-feet of LEED space per resident. Former Gov. Bill Owens issued an executive order in 2005 requiring that all state buildings be LEED-certified, according to the USGBC. Former Gov. Bill Ritter signed legislation in 2007 that required any project receiving 25 percent or more of its funding from the state to be designed and built to high-performance green-building standards, such as LEED. Numerous municipalities, including Denver, have adopted their own green-building statutes.

Illinois (2.69 sq. ft. per capita), Virginia (2.42), Washington (2.18) and Maryland (2.07) rounded out the top five. Delaware (0.03), West Virginia (0.14) and Mississippi (0.21) sat at the bottom.

"Our local green building chapters from around the country have been instrumental in accelerating the adoption of green building policies and initiatives that drive construction locally," Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of the USGBC, said in a statement. "These states should be recognized for working to reinvent their local building landscapes with buildings that enliven and bolster the health of our environment, communities and local economies."

Riding the Rails, Slowly but Surely

The road to high-speed rail has been a rocky one in many places. In the Northwest, purposeful efforts to slow down are proving successful – producing more riders at less cost. The goal is to increase the speed incrementally. Are there lessons to be learned? Governing magazine has the column.

Civic leaders still call their town the “Hub City,” a holdover from its role a century ago as a rail center for the movement of goods and people in all directions. A dozen passenger trains a day — half northbound, half southbound — still rumble through this western city of 16,000 that sits equidistant between Portland and Seattle.

They are run by the Washington state government-subsidized Amtrak Cascades passenger service, which has taken a deliberately incremental approach to developing the Cascadia corridor running from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.

Passenger rail service has been central to the corridor’s strategy and is reflected in a 15-year track record of increasing ridership (up 10 percent in the last year alone) and fares that cover nearly two-thirds of operating expenses. The strategy has marshaled local investment in infrastructure and forged partnerships with those who have an interest in the shared rail bed, including cities and towns along the corridor, Amtrak, the freight carrier Burlington Northern Santa Fe, federal funding agencies and regulators.

In the Northwest, passenger rail has purposely taken some of the speed out of high speed. Instead, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) measures its rail initiatives based on a three-part definition of convenience: reducing total trip time while boosting system efficiency and average speed. Scott Witt, former director of WSDOT’s State Rail and Marine Office, says a number of studies all indicate that sticking with faster (rather than fastest) rail would allow the region to realize 90 percent of the ridership and revenue targets at 50 percent of the cost of true high-speed rail, which can peak at 150 mph on Amtrak’s Acela service in the Northeast.

The lion’s share of the $781 million in federal passenger rail funding awarded to Washington is dedicated to raising the average speed by eliminating slow parts of the corridor with new bypasses and other upgrades.

This incremental approach to higher-speed rail has not isolated the service from the complexities of establishing a governance structure for the multistate, binational effort in which five governments must act in concert with one another. As part of that mix, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is transitioning from being a regulatory and safety organization to one responsible for project delivery, funding and management. Witt, whose career has been in project delivery, notes, “The FRA just has not seen this level of funding and complexity before.”

Still, he remains confident that the state will get there. “Our long-range vision is still to establish a dedicated high-speed track with trains running at up to 150 miles per hour,” says Witt, “but we’re laying the foundation to get there step-by-step.”

Nation’s Capital Says “Not So Fast” on Reimbursing Residents for Solar Panels

"Yaaaaaaa. About that…."

Government programs that incentivize citizens for responsible and eco-friendly behavior can certainly be beneficial at times. However, this tale from Washington, D.C. shows what happens to well-intentioned residents when the government doesn’t follow through. The Washington Post dishes the disappointing news:

It isn’t easy going green, and it may also prove costly.

Dozens of District residents who installed solar panels on their homes under a government grant program promoting renewable energy have been told they will not be reimbursed thousands of dollars as promised because the funds were diverted to help close a citywide budget gap.

In all, the city has reneged on a commitment of about $700,000 to 51 residents, according to the D.C. Department of the Environment. The agency has pledged to try to find money in next year’s budget, its director, Christophe Tulou, said.

"It just doesn’t seem fair to go through a process with them and have them make investments in solar panels under the assumption they would be reimbursed," Tulou acknowledged. "It’s really sad we are having these economic woes when we are."

The abrupt suspension of the city’s Renewable Energy Incentive Plan, an annual $2 million fund that was supposed to last through fiscal 2012, threatens to dampen budding enthusiasm for clean energy among homeowners. The program has helped 315 people install solar panels, with another 417 on a waiting list that has been closed by city officials.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who is leading the push for a sustainable energy utility to encourage green energy in the District, said officials are scouring the environment agency’s budget in hopes of finding reimbursement money for the 51 homeowners this year.

But, she said, "I would think people would take a cautious approach" to future installations.

A Little Fun in the Sun … or On the Strip?

Though children might shriek “Disneyland” when asked where they want to go on vacation, the “adult play land” of Las Vegas is the top choice for travelers in 2011, according to results from Travel Leaders’ 2011 Travel Trends Survey.

Vegas earned the top ranking once again, following a dominance from 2003-2009. But the children aren’t far off in their desire for Mickey and Minnie Mouse as Orlando narrowly missed first place by 0.36%, with travelers choosing the bright lights of Vegas over the magical world of Disney. Orlando edged out Las Vegas as the top destination spot for 2010.

The survey, which was conducted from November 3-30 and used actual booking data and responses from Travel Leaders owners and agents, determined the top ten domestic destinations for 2011. The list also includes (in descending order): an Alaskan cruise; Honolulu and Kahului (Maui) – tied for fourth place; New York City; Washington D.C.; a Hawaiian cruise; San Francisco; and Chicago and Phoenix – tied for tenth place. International vacation destinations included spots like Cancun, Rome, London, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and several Mexican and Caribbean cruises.

Survey results also point to the fact that people are spending more on travel than they did last year, highlighting an optimistic outlook for 2011. The findings show that just over half of Travel Leaders clients will spend more this year on travel than they did in 2010, while about 38% will spend the same amount. That’s good news for the oft-struggling travel industry.

Let’s hear your top travel destinations for 2011: Will your children be successful at pestering you into taking them to Disneyland? Or, will what happens in Vegas, stay in Vegas?

Congress: Here’s When We Won’t Be in Session

While Congress is limping to the finish line in 2010, calendars are already in place for 2011. The onoing joke is that America is safe when our representatives and senators are not in Washington. If you follow that philosophy, here’s when you can rest easy in the coming year.

The 112th Congress will convene Wednesday, Jan. 5. There’s no official date set for the State of the Union  address, but the night of Tuesday, Jan. 25, seems like a solid bet. The House GOP has set Dec. 8 as a target adjournment date; Senate Democrats long ago gave up on the notion of setting even a straw-man adjournment date. But the two chambers have very different plans for their time off beyond a shared recess week in February, two weeks off at the same time surrounding Easter in April and the same five-week August break.

These are the recesses planned next year:

  • Week of Jan. 17 (MLK Day) for the Senate only

  • Week of Jan. 31 for the House only

  • Week of Feb. 21 (Presidents Day) for both chambers

  • Week of March 21 for both chambers

  • Weeks of April 18 and April 25 for both chambers (Passover begins the evening of Monday, April 18; Easter Sunday is April 24)

  • Week of May 16 for the House

  • Week of May 30 (Memorial Day) for the Senate

  • Week of June 6 for the House

  • Week of June 27 for the House

  • Week of July 4 (Independence Day) for the Senate

  • Week of July 18 for the House

  • Week of Aug. 8 through Labor Day, Sept. 5, for both chambers

  • Week of Sept. 26 for both chambers

  • Week of Oct. 17 for the House

  • Week of Oct. 24 for the Senate, which has nothing noted on its calendar after that

  • Week of Nov. 7 for the House

  • Week of Nov. 21 (Thanksgiving) for the House

Movie Displays Education Heartbreak

Sure, I could insert some clever references here to kryptonite or various villians faced by one of America’s favorite comic book, TV and movie characters. But Waiting for Superman is too serious and too important to become a laugh line.

The David Guggenheim film has the education community (and hopefully soon many others) abuzz. It is, in the words of a National Review Online column, a "stabbing review of teachers’ unions and a plea for more charter schools."

Yon can check out the movie trailer and learn more. But below is a condensed review that does a good job of letting you know why you should be paying attention.

Bianca, Daisy, Emily, Anthony, and Francisco come from diverse locales — Harlem, L.A., Silicon Valley, D.C., and the Bronx — and are black, Hispanic, and white, but they share the same basic problem: Each is consigned by geography to an inadequate public school. Each wants a choice. 

The stories are heartbreaking. But the real message of the movie is revealed in the scenes of the adults who produce this heartbreak. Superman’s most memorable episode is the cartoon illustration of the “lemon dance,” in which school principals waltz their “lemons” (teachers who just can’t teach but can’t be fired) from school to school. The musical number would be hilarious if it weren’t so devastating. So, too, for the shots of the infamous “rubber rooms,” where middle-aged teachers sit in school kids’ chairs, playing cards or laying their heads on their desks to sleep, collecting full pay and pensions.

Guggenheim chooses one champion and one villainess. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, is energetic and assertive. She bluntly admits that D.C. students “are getting a crappy education right now,” she fires a couple hundred incompetent educators, institutes some incentive pay, and starts to turn D.C.’s schools around. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Rhee’s foil, is on the defensive. “It’s in vogue to bash teachers and unions rather than celebrate the work they do to help kids,” she said, responding to Superman. “That being said, I’m a big girl.”

Weingarten, obviously, can take the criticism, but she hasn’t rebutted it. Perhaps it augurs victory that the only thing she can find to fault is her opponents’ tone of voice. For now, though, Weingarten still has the power and the money. Weingarten’s AFT funneled over $1 million to defeat D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty (who appointed and supported Rhee) in the recent Democratic primary. The winner, Vincent Gray, used his victory speech to announce his desire for “a strong, empowered chancellor who works with parents and teachers.”Translation: Rhee is out. This is part of a pattern. Guggenheim, whose political sympathies are normally liberal, admits that the Democratic party is, on education policy, a “wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions.” The AFT and NEA — combined, the biggest campaign contributors in the U.S. — send more than 90 percent of their donations to Democrats.

New York City education chancellor Joel Klein was emotional as he explained the difficulties school reformers face. The important division, he said, shouldn’t be between Republicans and Democrats, between public schools and private, or between any one ideology or another — it’s about kids versus adults. “Right now, our kids aren’t getting educated because it’s all about the adults. We’ve put adults’ comfort before kids’ education. It’s not going to change until it becomes about the kids. The education monopoly wants to keep its monopoly.  The way things are now works just fine for the unions, many of the politicians, and others — that’s why it keeps going. So if we don’t rock this boat, we’re going to under-serve kids, mostly poor kids and kids of color.”

Waiting for Superman, with all the noise and buzz it’s generating, with the acclaim it’s received from diverse political circles, might be just the thing to start the boat rocking.

Chamber Visits Delegation in D.C.

Approximately 50 members of the Indiana Chamber visited with Indiana’s congressional delegation during the Chamber’s annual D.C. Fly-in event September 14-15. The group, accompanied by Chamber President Kevin Brinegar and other staff, arrived in a city where partisan tensions were ever present and more than a few congressmen were absent, locked in tight re-election fights back in the Hoosier state.

The Chamber delegation visited with both U.S. Sens. Dick Lugar and Evan Bayh, engaging with the latter in an informal Q&A session in the U.S. Capitol’s Visitors Center. Senator Bayh pronounced that it was likely the last time he would be meeting with us as a U.S. senator and further stated that predictions of an active agenda for a post-election “lame duck” session of Congress were overblown. Senator Bayh told the group that there was very little momentum for a broad agenda beyond a fiscal continuing resolution to keep the federal government functioning and perhaps some action on extending the ’01 and ’03 or so-called Bush tax cuts.

Senator Lugar addressed the group during dinner on September 14, joined by Reps. Pete Visclosky, Dan Burton, Steve Buyer (who is retiring) and Mike Pence. The group echoed Sen. Bayh’s assessment about the congressional agenda through year’s end, and tax legislation, the federal budget and the upcoming election were foremost on their minds.

The Chamber participants pressed the delegation on a variety of issues, including pending appropriations bills, reauthorization of the federal surface transportation act and “card check” legislation. Special emphasis was given to extending the tax cuts, as expiration of this tax relief at year’s end would negatively affect the frail national economy and Hoosier small businesses.

On January 1, 2011, Americans will face the biggest tax hike in history. If Congress fails to act, marginal tax rates will increase for every taxpayer, the capital gains rate climbs 33%, and dividend rates jump by as much as 164%. American small businesses, our economic jobs engine, will face marginal tax rates as high as 39.6%. Compounded with the loss of certain itemized deductions and personal exemptions, these small businesses face rates as high as 41.6%. And this increase hits successful small businesses, our job creators, particularly hard: Approximately half of the business income reported on tax returns in 2011 will be subjected to the top two marginal rates.

The Indiana Chamber’s message to the delegation was that outcome is unacceptable and Congress must act before year’s end, but no one in D.C. seems to know when, or if, that debate might occur. In a time of economic uncertainty, raising taxes on businesses and investors would hinder Americans from building individual savings and further investing in the economy.

Extending existing tax rates would, in one bold stroke, boost investor, business and consumer confidence by taking the uncertainty of tax policy off the table. It would leave hard earned income in the hands of the individuals and businesses that earned it and allow them to spur investment, boost consumption, promote economic growth and create jobs.

Now is not the time to increase taxes on all taxpayers, but rather to work together to keep the economy on the road to recovery.

How Much Will the Punch Line to This Joke Hurt?

The old joke, although some are not laughing too loudly, if at all, these days, is that democracy is safe when our elected reps and senators are away from Washington.

No joke because many actions in the capital have been, to put it mildly, counterproductive to employers and employees having the ability to succeed. No joke because there are so many issues that need to be addressed in a positive fashion.

The Chamber warned through several venues last week that lawmakers, just back from their extended August recess, were ready to hit the campaign trail once again. That seems to be the case, with this report from CQ Politics

Congressional leaders had a lengthy set of priorities for September, including a defense authorization bill, an immigration measure, food safety legislation, expiring tax policy extensions and fiscal 2011 appropriations. Rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans in both chambers angled for action on additional bills dealing with energy issues, stem cell research and proposals to boost the stagnant economy.

And House Democratic leaders said they were ready to take up anything the Senate passed.

But by the end of last week, Democratic leaders had punted all those issues until after the Nov. 2 elections, setting the stage for a possible pre-election recess as early as Oct. 1. The only items left on the to-do list were a small-business tax and lending package and a stopgap appropriations measure — known as a continuing resolution, or CR — to keep the government running until lawmakers return in mid-November.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., said that completion of the $725.7 billion fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill would have to wait until after the elections. Republicans had signaled they would block the bill from even coming to the floor because they have not been allowed votes on their priorities.

Reid additionally put off action on the food safety measure until the November lame-duck session. “We are very limited in the time we have before the election,” he said.

Democrats have said they only hope to “debate” before the elections an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that expire at the end of the year.

With the Senate gridlocked, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has based her chamber’s agenda on what the other body can pass.

We Better Keep Engaged in D.C. Doings

Here’s how expert journalists from CongressDaily (that means they’re in Washington every day reporting on what’s happening — or not happening) assess the return of Congress from its extended August recess:

The Senate is set to pass legislation as soon as this week to spur small-business hiring. Other measures might also move, but the final pre-election work session is expected to be mostly political theater, its goal more electoral than legislative. Republicans will look to hold a lead and avoid missteps while Democrats try to use control of the agenda to alter the game.

There is little chance both chambers before the election will pass a
package addressing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which expire this year,
leadership aides in both parties said. That leaves the debate, for now, as important for both parties as the result.

Not very encouraging, is it? But that does not alter one bit our (that’s all of us) role — maybe better defined as responsibility — to try and make a difference.

A contingent of state business leaders will do so in Washington for two days this week during our annual D.C. Fly-in; and we’ll tackle the policies (and probably a little bit of the politics) during our monthly conference call for Chamber members on Friday.

The bottom line: One can find plenty to complain about in the laws and regulations emanating from our nation’s capital. But are you entitled to keep up the criticism if you don’t at least try to do something about it? Trying could mean different things for different people. Attend events like the Fly-in (we go every year), spend an hour learning more about the issues on Friday, write or make a phone call to your representatives, get involved politically if you don’t like the current leaders, etc.

The point: Get involved.

Tax Issues Taxing Voters Across the Country

Statewide ballot measures are much more common outside Indiana than on Hoosier ballots. More than 140 such initiatives are being left to voters this fall, with significant fiscal consequences for many. The efforts include both tax increases and cutbacks:

Washington State is one of nine states without a state income tax. Bill Gates Sr., the father of the Microsoft founder, wants to change that. Gates is lending his high-profile name and influence to a ballot measure that would tax the income of individuals who earn more than $200,000 and couples who earn more than $400,000. His son — the world’s second-richest person — definitely falls into that category.

The elder Gates, who also co-chairs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says Initiative 1098 would generate $1 billion a year in new revenue dedicated to education and health care. He also says it would put an end to Washington being “the most regressively taxed state in the country.” If approved, the measure would gin up an extra $11 billion over five years by taxing 38,400 high-wage earners in Washington, while lowering certain business and occupation taxes and cutting property taxes by 20 percent. “The very future of Washington hangs in the balance,” Gates says.

Opponents of Initiative1098 contend the measure would open the door to taxing not just the rich, but residents who earn all levels of income. They also say the measure, if it passes, would eliminate a key advantage the state has to lure businesses. “Don’t Calitaxicate Washington,” they plead.

Washington is one of several states where voters this fall will weigh in on ballot measures that, if passed, would have enormous fiscal consequences. Voters in California, Colorado and Massachusetts will take up tax questions that could expand or shrink the foundations on which future budgets are built. Drama awaits on the spending side of budgets, too. In Arizona, voters could blow a $450 million hole in the state’s current budget if they reject two key measures this fall. And in Florida, voters will decide whether to save billions of dollars by relaxing limits on class sizes at schools.

In total, more than 140 statewide measures have qualified for the November ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Stateline has compiled a guide to the most crucial ones to watch here.