Sunday, February 20, 2011

Structural Flaws in Virginia Government - #1 Short Sessions

Robert McCartney has an interesting column in today's Washington Post regarding Virginia's shorten legislative sessions. Also, my law partner, Senator Chap Petersen also posted up a piece on his blog yesterday which completely captured my thinking about some concerns he has regarding some legislation we're voting on tomorrow.

I'm coming up on my fifteenth month and I'm starting to come to some conclusions about the structure of Virginia's system that really ought to be changed. I'm going to post up a series of articles about these problems which I've summarized in my little picture to the right regarding the some of the Foundations of Virginia Government. I've got some other ideas about structural policy problems, but that's for another day.

McCartney points out that our 45 and 60-day sessions limit opportunities for public input and reasoned decision making. I couldn't agree more.
The practice dates from when a farm-based society squeezed the session into a
few weeks before spring planting. The quaint tradition is outdated for a state
whose population exceeds that of more than 50 countries, including Norway,
Ireland and Israel.

An involved, vibrant, and engaged legislature sheds more sunshine on policy making. The idea that we can carefully consider 2,500 bills and take 2,000 votes with the care and consideration that we owe our constituents is unrealistic in the present system.

When I'm sitting on the House Floor trying to process all of the information coming at me through the firehose sometimes I feel like I'm shooting skeet on the Floor of the House. The Clerk shouts out the bill number, the bills start flying and we wildly start shooting trying to hit them as they fly past.

Policymaking is supposed to be careful, thoughtful, deliberative and above all - done in the open. McCartney is correct that our current system maximizes the influence of special interests, lobbyists, House & Senate Staff, and the full-time state employees. Under our present system, all of our legislators and their staffs simply do not have the time process all of the details necessary to make decisions on 2,000 votes and appropriate an $80 billion budget.

As a freshman, I actually have time than most to study legislation. I do not chair any committees, I only serve on two committees that do not have a large volume of legislation, and I am not in leadership. But the longer you are are around, you tend to accumulate more responsibilities which brings demands on time without additional help.

It's not a system that designed to yield the best results for our constituents.


  1. There are, however, solutions short of paying full-time legislators (after all, look where that got us in the federal realm).

    - Allow bills to be submitted and studied year-round. The "but elections intervene" argument is moot; these are bills for Virginia, not for a party or a patron. Perhaps that would also cut down on "Delegate Surovell's bill..." or "Senator Marsh's bill..." and instead we could begin to refer to bills by number or purpose.

    - Our legislators could actually think about what they submit.
    -- If a bill is already submitted, don't duplicate. Your bill should not need to be rolled in to someone else's bill if you had a keyword search, a no-duplication policy, and communication between patrons who consider submitting a bill.
    -- If a bill is not necessary for conduct of Commonwealth business, don't bother. That would eliminate many of the "in honor of..." bills that are a significant percentage of the 2600.
    -- If a bill regulates something that cannot *directly* be tied to the Constitution of the commonwealth, it is probably just as well left out. Such regulations are often either feel-good legislation or attempts to benefit one locality only.

    Another potential piece of advice...eliminate caucuses. Think of the meetings you could avoid. The additional benefit to that is that representatives MIGHT (and I recognize it's *only* a slight possibility) vote as Virginians instead of partisan politicians, special-interest partisans, or local fief holders.

  2. Here is one example of bad aim in the House.

    Elected to office with at least a third of his $500,000 in campaign contributions coming from lobbyists and those in the road-building and development industries (and much of another $200,000 from Republican organizations, whose donors are from ditto), Del. LeMunyon promptly introduced three bills handed to him by Bob Chase of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that has long sought to remove decision making from citizens and localities and award it to that industry. That is precisely what bills HB1998 and 1999 are designed to do. These lobbyist bills are now in the Senate.

    These bills take away local representation on the NV transportation board and award it to a governor’s appointee (read: high-dollar contributor), dictate where roads will be built (not to solve congestion but to support new development) regardless of the priorities set by citizens through their local representatives, and allow prioritization of road projects based on hugely exaggerated traffic projections such as those used in Loudoun.

    For example, the projected 2030 volume projected for Route 15 in Loudoun north of Leesburg (by a private consultant using substandard methodology--write me for an independent study citizens commissioned detailing the flaws) is 48,000 AADT; the official figure from the Maryland State Highway Administration for 2030 for that same stretch of road, just across the Potomac, is 22,000 AADT. Bob Chase's Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance continues to use this bogus figure to insist that more and more roads and more lanes in northern Loudoun are essential. (And he had a secret meeting with Loudoun's OTS and got an 8-mile "bypass with an imaginary river crossing put in the county's transportation plan update--until citizens raised holy hell. I can show you an interested FOIA'd doc.)

    One of LeMunyon’s campaign issues was transparency and good government, and his blog states that “Constituents have a right to know how they are being represented in Richmond.”

    So, here is more transparency for Mr. LeMunyon’s constituents!