Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

virginia_state_capitol502By Peter Galuszka

If you are an ordinary Virginian with deep concerns about how the General Assembly passes laws that impact you greatly, you are pretty much out of luck.

That’s the conclusion of a study by Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of non-profit public interest groups in a report released this week. Their findings  came after members studied how the 2015 General Assembly operated.

Among their points:

  • Notice of committee hearings was so short in some instances that public participation was nearly impossible.
  • Scores of bills were never given hearings.
  • In the House of Delegates, committees and subcommittees did not bother to record votes on 76 percent of the bills they killed.

“Despite a House rule that all bills shall be considered, not all are. Despite a Senate rule that recorded votes are required, not all are,” states the 21-page report, whose main author is Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Transparency Virginia is made up of 30 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, the the Virginia Education Association and the League of Women Voters in Virginia.

The scathing report underscores just how amateurish the General Assembly can be. It only meets for only 45 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The pay is pin money. Delegates make only $17,640 a year and senators earn $18,000 annually.

It is not surprising then that a part-time group of 100 delegates and 40 senators can’t seem to handle their 101 committees and subcommittees that determine whether the consideration of thousands bills proceeds fairly and efficiently.

“A Senate committee chair did not take comment on any bills on the agenda except for the testimony from the guests of two senators who were presenting bills,” the report states. In other cases, legislators were criticized by colleagues for having too many witnesses. Some cut off ongoing debate by motioning to table bills. Bills were “left in committee” never to be considered.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires that open public meetings be announced three working days in advance. A General Assembly session is considered one, long open session. But the FOIA is often subverted by sly legislators who manipulate the agendas of committees or subcommittees or general sessions.

Agendas of the General Assembly are not covered by the FOIA because there is too much work to cram in 45 or 60 days. In the case of local and state governments, similar meetings are, presumably because they meet more regularly. House and Senate rules do not stipulate how much notice needs to be given before a committee or subcommittee session. So, crucial meetings that could kill a bill are sometimes announced suddenly.

The setup favors professional lobbyists who stand guard in the Capitol ready to swoop in to give testimony and peddle influence, alerted by such tools as “Lobbyist-in-a-Box” that tracks the status of bills as they proceed through the legislature. When something important is up, their beepers go off while non-lobbyist citizens with serious interests in bills may be hours away by car.

The report states: “While most of Virginia’s lobbyists and advocates are never more than a few minutes from the statehouse halls, citizens and groups without an advocacy presence may need to travel long distances.” Some may need to reschedule work or family obligations, yet they may get only two hours’ notice of an important meeting. That’s not enough time if they live more than a two-hour drive from Richmond.

The report didn’t address ethics, but this system it portrays obviously favors lobbyists who benefit from Virginia’s historically light-touch approach when it comes to limited gifts. That issue will be addressed today when the General Assembly meets to consider Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s insistence that a new ethics bill address the problem of allowing consecutive gifts of less than $100 to delegates or senators.

The only long-term solution is for Virginia to consider creating a legislature that works for longer periods, is better paid, more professional and must adhere to tighter rules on bill passage. True, some 24 states have a system somewhat like Virginia and only New York, Pennsylvania and California have truly professional legislatures.

The current system was created back in Virginia was more rural and less sophisticated. But it has grown tremendously in population and importance. It’s a travesty that Virginia is stuck with amateur hour when it comes to considering legislation crucial to its citizens’ well-being.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

14 responses to “Amateur Hour at the General Assembly

  1. I’m no fan of professional legislatures, but I agree that Virginia’s system has glaring flaws. Perhaps the General Assembly should consider holding longer sessions that provide enough time for the kind transparency and citizen accessibility that Megan Rhyne calls for. That would mean raising legislators’ compensation, but that’s a small price to pay to reduce the suffocating influence of professional lobbyists.

  2. Good time to let your representatives know that you support the vote to override Governor’s veto of Senate Bill 1059, championed by Howell & Obenshain. Better get on it–today.

  3. Will paying legislators more or extending the legislative sessions bring more economic growth? It sounds to me as if the nonprofits have figured out they will have more influence with a fulltime, professional legislature than with a citizen one. I’m just as fearful of the nonprofit lobbyists as I am of the business lobbyists. Keep what we have. Who cares if a bill doesn’t advance? Many times it takes several sessions to build a coalition of support. And there are plenty of ways to influence a local legislator beyond going to Richmond.

  4. Virginia’s General Assembly is a cesspool of corruption. By the way Jim – the actual compensation is not $18,000 per year. It is $18,000 per year plus everything you can steal.

    From about 1820 to 1970 Virginia was a backward, broken bigoted state. Only the rise of federal spending put Virginia on a path to economic success. Now with worries ranging from sequestration to Boomergeddon we’d better damn well fix the disastrous mess that is Richmond.

    Having a bunch of half-time half-wits with their hands buried in the pockets of corporate special-interests will not lead us to the promised land.

    $12.5B per year in company-specific and industry-specific tax breaks that go on FOREVER. Roll that around in your head while you consider the efficacy of The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. If that isn’t enough re-read the JLARC report that quite honestly admitted that there was no accounting whatsoever regarding whether these tax breaks did any good.

    Now, if there are 8M Virginians and the Clown Show has excused $12.5B per year in company-specific and industry-specific tax breaks what does that come to per person per year? Maybe my calculator is malfunctioning but I am getting $1,562.50 per year. Over $1,500 in tax breaks per year for every man, woman and child in Virginia. Forever. With no known benefits and no process to determine if there will ever be any benefits.

    Amateur hour? That’s unfair. Unfair to mere amateurs. Our state government is the least capable set of state government yo – yo’s anywhere in the United States.

  5. Unfortunately I submit for you consideration the Beach, Norfolk, and Portsmouth councils and school boards as examples on the local level and the US Congress on the national level, all of which are no better (read different) than the GA. The Hoos’ BOV except for Ms. D. seems to be dumbing itself down too. We’re screwed everywhere you look…

    • John:

      The difference is that I can see for myself in my 430 sq mi county. I can (and have) made my thoughts clear to county officials. State government is quite different. The state boundaries are accidents of history, nothing more. I’ve lived my whole life inVirginia (56 years and counting) and the simple fact is that I have more in common with the people of Montgomery County, MD than Montgomery County,VA. No disrespect intended to anybody but country boundaries count and local boundaries count. State boundaries are pretty much bullshit.

  6. Trust me, bills are considered. If a bill is never brought up, or if the bill dies on an unrecorded vote, that decision followed consideration by somebody. Many, many bills that disappear that way have zero merit, and often the patron is quite willing that it fade away quietly. If a committee hears a bill and then no member makes a motion on the bill, every member of that committee has made a conscious decision to do nothing.

    Longer sessions would not make things better. Mandatory roll calls on every single bill would not make things better. As for transparency, if you spend some time and learn how to use the online tools, Virginia’s process is quite open. When I started down here more than 30 years ago it was hard to follow a bill, and usually you needed a friendly legislator, aide or committee clerk to find out the agenda for a meeting. Now it is out there for all to see — and if the notice is short, well, the process requires that you pay attention. Even us lobbyists sometimes miss things, since we are so busy in the other room suffocating something or somebody…..

    Am I somewhat biased because I do get paid by people to follow the process? Maybe. But as noted, it is far easier for someone who is not a lobbyist to keep up than it was before computers, the LIS system, and the ubiquitous social media. And it is still possible, as I have seen recently, for an average citizen to appear in a subcommittee or committee and make a fresh argument that brings the whole process to a grinding halt.

    A full-time legislature filled with people on full salaries is an outcome greatly to be feared.

    • Steve:

      I don’t know you and you don’t know me. A simple question – do you now or have you ever received revenue from or profited by any action or attention of Virginia’s state government?

      I have not,

      Yes, I was educated in Virginia public schools. Yes, I graduated from The University of Virginia. However, I have repaid that debt many, many times over and I have the tax returns to prove it. So, please spare me the usual counter-attacks I usually get from Clown Show apologists. Either you have directly benefitted from Virginia’s state government or you have not – please let us all know which is the case. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: A roundup of press on Transparency Virginia’s report on the General Assembly | Transparency Virginia

  8. Allow this Marylander (where we also have a part-time General Assembly, though the sessions in Annapolis are longer) to share a thought.

    If the Commonwealth’s General Assembly is so bad (as more than a few posts above suggest), why don’t her voters show up on Election Day and throw the rascals out?

    • Excellent question. Through a combination of off year elections, a near impossibility for an independent to get on the ballot, unlimited campaign contributions, no term limits and endless gerrymandering the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond all but guarantees their incumbency.

      Ballotopedia rates the Virginia legislature as America’s least competitive state elections.

      I own a house and pay taxes in Maryland (despite being a resident of Virginia). Whether you like Maryland’s politics or not (I don’t) it’s clear to me that Maryland is a much, much better run state.

  9. Don, I made a decision a while back (probably unwise) to stop posting with a pseudonym (unlike most of you), but I also decided to stay engaged to support my long-time friend and former Roanoke Times co-worker Mr. Bacon. So who I am is no secret, and if you are unable to research me, then I understand why the computer tracking systems for the General Assembly elude you.

    Yes, Don, I have been employed by the state in the past and for 30+ years have made my living, in one way or another, off my knowledge of and experience within the legislative process and state government. If it is a clown show, and sometimes it is, then I’ve worn the paint and the floppy shoes myself at times. But a better image for me is probably the guy behind the elephants (and sometimes the donkeys, of course) with the big shovel.

    • Steve:

      I posted under my own name (DJ Rippert) until Jim Bacon had a spam problem that required that he cancel a number of sign-ons. I moved to DonR because DJ Rippert was both taken and unavailable to me. When I write on the main blog I sign my blogs as either DJ Rippert or Donald J Rippert. I use DJ Rippert on Disqus and that is both my Twitter and GitHub handle.

      I travel extensively within the United States and internationally. Within the US I make it a point to try to understand the political and human settlement patterns in every place I go. I’ve looked long and hard at places like Salt Lake City, Austin, Westchester County, NY, Raleigh, Silicon Valley, etc. My reasonably informed opinion is that Virginia is the worst run state in the USA. Fundamentally, it is a closed society of elites who become politicians for life and milk the state dry while lining their own pockets. There are essentially no checks and balances and many, many cases where Virginia stands alone among the 50 states with its bizarre structure and process. Three quick examples:

      1. The only state where practicing lawyers who are also legislators directly vote for the judges who will decide their cases with no vetting process. If that isn’t an overt conflict of interest I don’t know what is.

      2. The only state where the governor can’t run for a second consecutive term. This makes the governor a lame duck from the day he or she is elected. It is a clear violation of the theory of checks and balances.

      3. One of the very few states with no limits on campaign contributions at all. Anybody can contribute any amount to anybody at any time. Even the regulated electrical monopoly can be the largest corporate donor to the very politicians who write the laws that supposedly regulate that monopoly.

      If this was a case of one or two abnormalities you could chalk it up to coincidence. However, off year elections, independent cities, strict Dillon’s Rule, hardest state for an independent to get on the ballot add up to more than coincidence. Our state legislature is crooked and they are robbing us blind. The goats in Richmond can’t even be bothered to follow the few rules that are on the books. They “forget” to disclose gifts, fail to take roll call votes, enact hidden locality-specific legislation, refuse to comply with their own transparency laws, etc.

  10. Bravo,
    Don the Ripper!

Leave a Reply