The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Before letting legislators leave for the day, House of Delegates Clerk Suzette Denslow reminded them that the faster they get their conference reports done, the faster they can be voted on.
“So don’t wait until the last minute,” Denslow said.
Lawmakers have a few more days to get their homework done before the 2020 session adjourns. But there’s still a big pile of it to get through. And the policy negotiations that must take place before that pile can shrink mostly happen out of the public eye through emails and phone calls, quick huddles in hallways or meetings in unknown rooms at unknown times.
As of early Wednesday, nearly 100 pieces of legislation had already been sent to conference committees. That’s General Assembly jargon for the small, ad hoc legislative panels designed to resolve lingering differences of opinion on bills that just need a final push. At this point in the session, the main question isn’t whether bills in conference live or die, but whether they’ll pass in the form favored by Senate Democrats, the form preferred by House Democrats or some combination of the two.
“The reality is there isn’t really a committee meeting for most these, aside from the budget conferees,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, part of Transparency Virginia, a collection of advocacy groups focused on improving transparency in a legislature whose members enjoy broad exemptions from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Conference committee usually just means lawmakers exchanging drafts, she added.
“The general public and the news media aren’t going to be in on that until they actually offer the report, at which times it’s often impossible to weigh in or cover,” Rhyne said.
This year, conference committees, which typically involve three legislators from each chamber, are responsible for finalizing policy decisions on many of the session’s marquee issues, including raising the minimum wage, legalizing casinos and sports betting, decriminalizing marijuana, expanding background checks on gun transactions and allowing local governments to remove Confederate monuments.
Though the process can seem chaotic, several lawmakers said it allows a level of fine-tuning and negotiating that may not be possible in a more formal setting.
“I get that from the outside it looks fairly opaque,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “But it’s generally just a matter of efficiency.”
Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, a co-founder of the Virginia Transparency Caucus, said he intends to ask for a rule change next year to require that conference reports — the final proposals that conference committees produce — be reviewable for at least three hours before they’re put to a vote.
“That way, with the cabal of six that made the policy, 140 of us have at least three hours to examine what happened,” Levine said.
Here are a few examples of issues Democrats are trying to decide before the session’s scheduled finish this weekend:
House and Senate leaders say they will raise the minimum wage, but they remain far apart on how much, how fast and where.
The House has advanced legislation that would increase the minimum wage statewide to $10 an hour this year and $1 an hour each successive year until it hits $15 an hour in 2025. After that, it would be adjusted annually to reflect the rate of inflation.
The Senate is pursuing a more conservative approach that would increase it to $9.50 an hour in 2021, ramping up to $11.50 a year in 2024, after which the wage would be increased on a regional basis pegged to median household incomes and cost of living.
The approach would ultimately increase the wage to $15 an hour, but only in Northern Virginia, which has by far the highest income levels in the state.
Lawmakers in the House have been vocal in their opposition to a regional approach, as has the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which said in a statement this week that it would leave behind most black Virginians.
What a compromise between the two positions might look like remains to be seen.
“We’ll get something worked out,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax. “We always do.”
Requiring universal background checks on all gun sales was a top priority for Democrats this year, but the House and Senate are divided on how far the bill should go.
The Senate chose to exempt gun transfers after Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, argued a broadly written law could trip up people who give or lend a gun to someone else with no nefarious intent. For example, he said, a hunter out in the woods could conceivably break the law by letting a buddy borrow a gun.
House Democrats and Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration feel the bill should apply to transfers where no money is exchanged. An overbroad exemption, they argue, creates a new loophole that allows guns to pass from person to person with no oversight. Their version of the bill includes several exemptions — including allowances for gifts between immediate family members, transfers to people who don’t leave the gun owner’s presence and transfers at shooting ranges — that they say address concerns about unintended consequences.
The two chambers are also at odds over how to restore the former one-handgun-a-month law. The Senate wants to exempt concealed carry permit holders from the rule, allowing people who have gone through that vetting process to buy as many handguns as they want. The House proposal did not have that exemption.
Leaders have appointed a ten-person conference committee to iron out issues with a high-profile bill to legalize casinos, and a separate conference committee is figuring out how sports betting should work in Virginia.
On casinos, a major difference between the two chambers is the tax rates. The Senate generally favors higher rates than the House. The outcome of that debate will determine both how much casino revenue the state takes in and the financial outlook for the would-be casino operators lobbying for the bill.
With sports betting, which could be available through an online app later this year, the two chambers are at odds over how to handle college athletics. Both versions of the bill allow some betting on college sports, but the House plan would prohibit betting on games involving Virginia schools, a provision supporters say would help prevent collusion or game-rigging involving Virginia teams.
“There’s a lot of money we’re talking about,” said Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax. “It makes no sense not to protect these kids.”
The House version also prohibits in-game bets on college sports.
Supporters of a more open approach have argued that sanctioning a broader range of college sports wagering will bring more sunlight to betting activity that’s already happening on the black market.
The House and Senate broadly agreed on a proposal to decriminalize simple possession of small amounts of the drug and both chambers propose reducing the penalty from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a civil infraction akin to a minor traffic offense.
They differ, however, on what constitutes a small amount, how much the fine should be and how to handle records of past and future convictions.
The House passed legislation that sets a $25 fine for possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana. They also propose purging past convictions from people’s criminal histories and banning employers and schools from requiring applicants to disclose past arrests.
The Senate proposes a $50 fine but sets the threshold for a civil infraction versus a potential felony distribution charge at a higher level — one ounce. The chamber’s legislation does not address how offenses will be recorded in a person’s criminal history.
The two chambers also differ on how to punish juveniles caught with the drug.
“We’ve just got some things to work out,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, one of the conferees. “It’s on the rails. It’s not off the rails.”
Legislation allowing localities to remove Confederate statues hasn’t been sent to conference yet, but an emotional debate in the Senate on Wednesday suggests it’s headed that direction.
After Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, called the bill unnecessarily divisive on the floor, Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, briefly broke down on the floor as she defended the legislation, for which she is the lead patron.
“I can’t do this,” she said, sitting down and yielding the floor to her friend, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
“I think you all are witnessing the pain that some of these monuments inflicted on Virginia’s black community when they were put up,” McClellan said.
The Senate version of the legislation lays out a more than 100-day process to remove statues that requires a historical review by the state, public hearings and a two-thirds majority vote by the local city council or board of supervisors.
The House version, like Locke’s original proposal, imposes none of those requirements, and she has said she hopes to have them struck from the bill.
Mercury editor Robert Zullo contributed to this story.
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