Another session with vital work left undone: Virginia outgrows its part-time legislature

February 28, 2023 12:07 am

The 2023 Virginia General Assembly. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

It’s been a long time since the biggest business in Virginia was tobacco. Or since people hunted rabbits where rail mass transit and office towers now stand in Tysons. And since a drive from Bristol to Winchester consumed a whole day on looping two-lane roads.

One constant during that span is the amount of time Virginia’s elected legislators allow themselves to assess those changes — and the dizzying increase in the pace of the changes — that have inundated the commonwealth since the middle of the 20th century.

And on Saturday, for the sixth consecutive year, the General Assembly adjourned its regular winter session with its most important work unfinished.

Legislatively, the nation’s 12th largest state by population and 13th largest by gross domestic product uses the same part-time model that it used 50 years ago or more. Residing, as it does, hard against the boundary of the nation’s capital and now as a major global crossroads of the internet, Virginia still presumes to need only 46 to 60 days, depending on the year, to formulate policy solutions for issues that would have been considered science fiction during the Eisenhower administration.

Virginia still presumes to need only 46 to 60 days, depending on the year, to formulate policy solutions for issues that would have been considered science fiction during the Eisenhower administration.

– Bob Lewis

“The part-time legislature is a fiction. It was great for the 19th and maybe 20th century. To say they can get their jobs done in an abridged legislative session is silly. It’s not possible anymore,” said Mark Rozell, founding dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “The task of governing is too complex to be completed in such a short period of time.”

In an article he wrote for the Washington Post last March, Rozell noted that Virginia is among 26 states that have what the National Conference of State Legislatures calls a “hybrid legislature,” a broad midpoint between the 10 states with full-time, professional legislatures and the 14 that are strictly part time.

Of the 11 states more populous than Virginia, he wrote, six have full-time legislatures. He also notes that legislative pay in Virginia ($18,000 for senators, $17,640 for delegates with $210 per diem for both each legislative day) is in the bottom third for hybrid legislatures. West Virginia, he discovered, with one-fifth Virginia’s population, pays its lawmakers $20,000 annually.

In one sense, this should not reflect on the 140 members of the General Assembly. They’re painted into a corner in which they’ve finished their work within the short time prescribed just eight times in the past 24 years. Since 2000, they’ve required at least one special session to complete their essential work in 16 of those years. Four of those years — 2021, 2018, 2008 and 2004 — required more than one extra session.

Yet it’s a dilemma only the General Assembly can fix. It alone has the authority to modernize a legislative system locked into a time when Virginia was a somnolent, Dixiefied, agrarian economy. Indulging the conceit that the level of study and debate required for lawmaking in 2023 can be achieved on yesteryear’s terms is indeed folly.

Consider that the commonwealth’s population of 3.3 million in 1950 increased by 162% — to nearly 8.7 million — by 2020. Consider also that the state’s operating budget of $21.4 billion in fiscal year 2000 almost quadrupled to $80.6 billion in the fiscal year that ended last June.

While there is much to be said for the ideal of a “citizen legislature” whose members remain more connected to their communities than they can in the myopic Capitol Square process, there’s also something to be said for time to deliberate and get the job done.

I watched the process melt down and spill into extra innings many times firsthand in my decades of covering the Legislature. In the few sessions when the House and Senate adjourned on schedule (or reasonably close to it) without going into a special session, there was a sense of weary happiness and accomplishment. There were celebrations, including some in the Capitol’s media filing quarters that remain legendary.

By contrast, regular-session adjournment in years when an unfinished budget or other essential business necessitated trudging back to  Richmond in the spring and/or early summer for an indefinite period was met with near-universal dread and discord. Legislators knew their real lives and livelihoods would be disrupted and, as former Del. Barnie K. Day described it in his 2005 insider’s look at legislative processes, the sausage-grinding would resume.

There is a massive amount of work that the General Assembly shoehorns into one of the shortest legislative meeting schedules in the nation. The brunt of that heavy lifting falls on  the staff of the committees where bills either die or advance to the floor. That’s particularly true for the committees that decide the final shape of the state budget — the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees.

In the closing days of a legislative session, as a dozen or so senators and delegates from those committees huddle behind closed doors to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget, I’ve watched staffers of those committees toil almost round-the-clock, fighting off sleep with bad coffee and energy drinks as they crunch hundreds of pages of numbers, hoping it will hasten a deal and — fingers crossed — a dispositive floor vote  in an impossibly short timeframe.

That didn’t get done this year. It hasn’t since 2017.

Other committees deal with staggering workloads under the same punishing schedules, including the Courts of Justice, Public Safety, Transportation, Education and Health, Welfare and Institutions committees.

The operational math of the 2023 regular session alone gives you a sense of the workload. According to Virginia’s Legislative Information System’s statistics, the General Assembly this year dealt with just over 3,000 separate pieces of legislation, counting 166 carried over from 2022. Of that, 2,062 were bills which, if passed and signed by the governor, become law. Forty percent passed both chambers; 60% failed.

Spread across the full 46-day run of this year’s “short session,” that would average final action on 45 bills per day. But that’s not how it works. Lawmakers tarry and jam most of their action into a couple of frantic weeks just before crossover (each chamber’s mid-session deadline for passing legislation it originated) and final adjournment.

Fatigue can cause concentration to lapse. Errors get made. Tempers grow short.

Given such procrastination by lawmakers, however, it’s a tribute to the legislative staffs that so few blunders are made. One notable d’oh! was in 2004 when errant bill drafting inadvertently reinstated Virginia’s Victorian-era blue laws requiring businesses to close on Sundays. Dour lawmakers returned to Richmond in July for that year’s second special session to enact a legislative patch.

Despite the compelling case for legislative reform, it’s the elephant in the room that’s seldom spoken about. Change never comes easy in the Old Dominion. I’ll spare you the hackneyed joke about how many senators and delegates it takes to change a light bulb. And there seems no chorus of objection from either lawmakers themselves or the citizenry.

But as long as we’re dealing with down-home bromides, let’s not forget the cautionary tale about what happens when you put 10 pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag.

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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]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]