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Votes

A Day at the Capitol

A visit to Richmond proves to be an educational, albeit hectic, experience.

Sometimes, members of the Virginia General Assembly can be tough to find. Del. Steve Shannon (D-35th) is no exception. Shannon's aide, Melanie Roberts, was trying to find Shannon on the morning on Feb. 3, a particularly busy day by the estimation of many who work in the General Assembly building.

This time of year, the office building located near the State Capitol is 11 stories of organized chaos. The state's 140 legislators must hear discussion on the merits of more than 3,000 bills, resolutions and proposed constitutional amendments in about six weeks.

About one month into the session comes "Crossover Day," the deadline for bills that were submitted in one house of the legislature to "cross over" into the other house if they are to advance.

This year, that date is Feb. 8. The week before, the various committees of each chamber — the House of Delegates and the Senate — conduct hearings to try to discuss each of their bills before forwarding them to the full body for a vote.

Legislators, in addition to sitting on the committees to which they have been assigned, must attend meetings of other committees to defend the bills they have proposed. When moving from one room to another, they are waylaid by lobbyists, members of the press and visiting constituents, all looking for a moment of their already crowded agenda.

In addition to the standard chaos that goes with the time of year, Feb. 3 was Planned Parenthood lobby day. Visitors from all over the state came wearing orange stickers saying "Pro-Family, Pro-Choice" to contact their legislators and promote their pro-choice position.

Somewhere in all of this was Shannon, two reporters wanting to interview him, and Roberts trying to track down the freshman legislator, who was defending bills he had proposed in one committee or another.

ANSWERING A cellphone while testifying before a committee is considered bad form, so Shannon didn't have his with him. Roberts, in front of Shannon's seventh-floor office, had to take her best guess about where he might be.

She went to the bank of elevators, pressed the down button and waited. Committee meetings take place in any of a dozen or so conference rooms on almost every floor. The most likely place Shannon might be was in one of the rooms on the first floor.

Roberts squeezed onto one of the crowded elevators and descended. Shannon was not in either of the first two rooms she checked, so she moved on to other floors, either sneaking onto elevators or up a flight of steps, whichever seemed the quicker. In one room Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine (D), was speaking to a group. Committee and subcommittee meetings were taking place in what seemed like every conference room.

Impromptu meetings and lobbying sessions took place on nearly every square foot of hallway and lobby space. Roberts asked some of the lobbyists she knows if they had seen Shannon, but none of them had. Several shared information about the fate of bills dealing with their own pet issues, updating Roberts on their status.

Roberts had been a lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters last year. Her experience working for a legislator is very different, she said. As a lobbyist she would become very familiar with a relatively small number of bills. Now, she must be relatively familiar with a very large number. "It's very different," she said.

After searching much of the building, Roberts went back to the office. One of the reporters would not be able to get an interview, and she had to call to let him know.

ROBERTS HADN'T quite caught her breath when a group of Shannon's constituents from the insurance industry appeared at the door. Insurance professionals were also having a lobbying day, and this group wanted to discuss a few bills of their own.

None of the four who came to Shannon's office were professional lobbyists. What typically happens on a lobbying day is that a group with members from all over the state will have their members descend on Richmond.

These people will then go to their own legislators to discuss the issue or specific bills that the group has an interest in. The theory is that legislators will be more willing to consider the proposals if they come from people they represent.

Roberts and the group sat in Shannon's office. The four asked first about two bills that had already passed out of the House of Delegates and were, therefore, out of Shannon's hands.

Another bill they brought up would allow for a tax credit for people who purchase long-term-care insurance for a relative. "We need this type of incentive for buying this long-term-care insurance," said Virginia Mylks, president of the Fairfax-based Virginia Insurance Associates.

Roberts listened to the concerns. "I'll make sure [Shannon] knows he's got constituents who really care about it," she said. "Keep us aware of the problems going on. It will better help us."

The group left, each of them shuffling off to discuss the issues with others.

A MOMENT LATER, Roberts received a call from Connie Houston, another of Shannon's aides. The delegate was about to defend one of his bills in the House Transportation Committee, in one of the first rooms Roberts had searched. Shannon and Roberts had likely crossed paths in the hall.

Roberts went straight to the elevator and down to the first-floor room where the committee was meeting. A moment after her arrival, Shannon took the floor to discuss House Bill 1931.

The bill would clarify how often a park may apply for grant funding to improve access. Without the bill, a park could apply only one time, and if park construction were set to take place in phases, this could make it difficult to get the necessary funding at the proper time, Shannon explained to the committee.

The change would benefit parks in Shannon's district such as Meadowlark Gardens, but he focused on how it would help others. Noting that Dels. Dick Black (R-32nd) and Joe May (R-33rd), both from Loudoun County, sit on the committee, he focused on how the bill would help Claude Moore Park in Loudoun County. "Every one of our jurisdictions benefits," Shannon said.

The bill passed through the committee unanimously, and on Feb. 7, was passed by the full House of Delegates. It will now move to the Senate for consideration.

AFTER THE BILL passed, Shannon took a moment to breathe. He went back to his office where he met with the Rev. Bill Burrough of Vienna's Wesley United Methodist Church.

Burrough would be delivering the day's invocation prior to the meeting of the full House, and Shannon explained the procedure to him.

Typically, only members of the House are allowed on the floor when a meeting is in session, but Burrough, of course, would be an exception today.

After being told the procedure, Shannon escorted the reverend and a few others to the Capitol Building. While Burrough and his wife were permitted on the House floor, the others would have to go to the gallery to watch the proceedings.

Burrough delivered his message and retired to the packed gallery. Prior to the start of the session, the House formally recognizes a variety of people sitting in the gallery, a sort of mezzanine above the chamber floor, as the delegates eat a quick lunch at their desks.

After the discussion on the bills of the day, the process starts again. Delegates like Shannon hurry off to meet with their constituents and attend the afternoon round of committee meetings.

Most of the legislators have other jobs and must find time to complete assignments from their work sometime during the day. Few will have a chance to rest until the session adjourns on Feb. 26.