Commentary

2022 exposed the dysfunctions of Virginia’s agrarian, part-time legislative model. Again.

June 27, 2022 12:02 am
Tulips are blooming at the Virginia Capitol, but a budget deal remained elusive Monday. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

The Virginia Capitol earlier this year. The "part-time" legislative model isn't working anymore and everyone knows it, Bob Lewis argues. (Virginia Mercury file photo by Graham Moomaw)

You hear it regularly on Capitol Square in Virginia: Ours is a “part-time” legislature.

Not really.

Not for years and years now, either in fact or by definition. But it sure evokes wistful nostalgia in presentations loaded with gauzy clichés about “the Virginia way.”

Look no further than this year’s long-running session in which the General Assembly came 13 days from being without a new budget in time for the start of Fiscal Year 2023 on Friday. That was extraordinary, even for legislators accustomed to extra innings.

The biennial task of cobbling together from scratch a two-year spending blueprint for state government remained unfinished when time ran out in March on the regular General Assembly session limited by the state Constitution to no more than 60 days.

Building the budget is a Herculean assignment and attempting it in just two winter months beggars the expertise and endurance of accomplished professional staffs and legislative laymen.

So again, as it has done for the past five years in a row, the legislature called a special session in 2022 to finish business left over from a mid-winter legislative work period – a timetable designed for Virginia as it was a century ago, when tobacco was king, most every town had a passenger train depot and everything west of Arlington and south of Alexandria, was for farming or hunting.

The business of legislating this year didn’t necessarily end when the House of Delegates and Senate completed work on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s amendments to the state budget on June 17. Instead of adjourning sine die, the General Assembly recessed a session that will extend into September – effectively eight months of the year.

Pardon the comparison, but doesn’t that sound a little like … Congress?

The time has come for a state as dynamic, wealthy and essential to national commerce and American global leadership as Virginia to part with an anachronistic model for enacting policy. Virginia deserves a longer-running, better compensated, less time-stressed legislative model.

None of this is a knock on our legislators. And it’s not really a knock on a system that served the commonwealth pretty well until the latter years of the 20th century. If anything, it’s a knock on Virginia’s notorious resistance to change, even when that change is necessary to provide our elected leaders the time to fully grasp the issues besetting our state and get policymaking right.

It’s impossible to precisely compare how many days the 50 U.S. legislatures are in session each year and definitively rank them because not all states prescribe specific dates or numbers of days, according to information compiled by Ballotpedia. Virginia’s regular session, however, is among the briefest.

The National Conference of State Legislatures classifies Virginia as one of 26 states with a “hybrid” legislature, a murky middle ground between the 14 part-time legislatures with low pay and small staffs and the 10 full-time assemblies with greater pay and smaller staffs. But the NCSL also notes that salaries for Virginia lawmakers are among the lowest nationally at $18,000 for senators and $17,460 for delegates, not counting $211 per diem for each legislative day. West Virginia, with one-fifth of Virginia’s population, pays its legislators a $20,000 annual stipend.

Virginia is the nation’s 12th most-populous state. Six of the 11 larger states have full-time legislatures as do four smaller ones, according to the NCSL. There are larger states, however, even more mired in the past. Texas legislators convene every other year and receive only $7,200 annually.

A hallway in the Capitol crowded with citizen and corporate lobbyists during the legislature’s 2019 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Government and Politics who focuses on Virginia, noted in a Washington Post op-ed in March that Virginia’s rapid, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population explosion in recent decades in addition to the increased speed at which business is transacted and information moves has made governing Virginia more complicated than anyone could have imagined 50 years ago.

“We need to get past the fiction that a very part-time legislative body working with a lame-duck governor can get the job done on time,” Rozell said in an interview last week, aptly observing that the problem is compounded in Virginia because it is the only state that prohibits back-to-back terms for its governors.

“How many more years consecutively can we see a legislature going into multiple special sessions before we acknowledge that it’s not working as it used to?” he said.

A look at the General Assembly’s Legislative Information System website shows that it has called special sessions to finish its work in 15 of the 23 legislative years since 2000. In four of them, including last year, it required more than one special session. Those figures alone demonstrate the need for a more expansive, dedicated and better resourced legislative system.

In this year’s regular legislative session, the House and Senate punted 47 bills into the current special session, including two budget bills – one that wraps up the current fiscal year that ends on Thursday and a $165 billion budget that begins when the clock strikes midnight. Of those bills, 21 won final passage on June 17, according to the LIS.

Most years, extra sessions are necessitated by the budget, the single most important piece of legislation enacted in any year. Not only does the budget direct scores of billions of dollars in state spending, its provisions supersede other statutes. That’s why Youngkin attempted to insert budget amendments that would establish a three-month gasoline tax holiday, create new felonies for demonstrations targeted at judges and deny state aid to help poor women pay for abortions when incapacitating fetal disabilities are diagnosed.

Despite their importance, budgets are the driest legislation of any session. For years, the task fell to me to keep an eye on the dozen or so senators and delegates sequestered in stuffy Capitol Square office suites dickering over differences between House and Senate versions of the budget. Many nights, they dickered into the wee hours, and I stuck it out with them. Sometimes they’d shake hands on a deal just hours away from final adjournment. A remarkable cadre of sleep-starved staff accountants and analysts was left to pull an all-nighter transcribing their compromise into written amendments, preparing summaries called “half-sheets” to be placed on the desks of all 140 legislators,  and briefing them on the changes by noon.

It’s a testament to the money committee staffs’ stamina and skill that there were no serious math or drafting errors in final printed documents nearly two inches thick. But while the spirit is willing, humans have limitations and sooner or later, the run of good fortune will expire as both the astonishing sums of money and the complexity of allocating them compounds with each succeeding biennium.

“The system as it exists made sense in an earlier time with a smaller, less diverse population, an agrarian economy and a political ethic that the less government does, the better,” Rozell said. “Any constitutional scholar (who is) asked to design a governmental system for such a state (as modern Virginia) would never say, ‘I have a great idea: let’s do a very part-time legislature with a lame-duck governor!’”

“You can’t imagine that they would pick the system that we have today,” he said.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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