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Votes

A Peek at the Process

Area legislators reflect on the process of government at the midpoint of the 2005 General Assembly

On any given day in Richmond during the six-week Virginia General Assembly session, Del. Dave Albo (R-42nd) knows there isn't going to be enough time in the day.

"This is the first night this week I've gotten seven hours of sleep," said Albo over coffee in the sixth-floor cafeteria of the General Assembly Building. It's 9:30 a.m., and like the other legislators crowded in the cafeteria discussing issues with each other, or constituents, Albo has already been through several cups of coffee and several hours of testimony on dozens of issues.

Nonetheless, Albo said his priority this session is the same as it has been for each of the 11 other ones he has been a part of.

"The most important thing we can do is take care of our constituents," said Albo.

Del. Mark Sickles (D-43rd), who is in his sophomore session in the Assembly after winning his seat in the 2003 elections, said the condensed schedule of the 2005 edition has made him even more focused.

"It seems like it's wearing me out more this year," said Sickles. "We have the same number of bills for a six-week session as we did in the eight-week session."

For both Springfield delegates, the day usually begins around sunrise, at a meeting with one of the several bipartisan committees on which they serve. Albo said on the previous day, he had committee meetings at 6:45 and 7:30 a.m., followed by meetings with constituents at 10 a.m. and a Republican caucus to plan party strategy at 11:30 a.m. The day's session on the House floor was scheduled to run from 12-3 p.m. but ran long and was followed by a subcommittee on Criminal Law, which Albo chairs. That meeting was especially tricky, said Albo, because each bill that is submitted must have its verbiage exactly correct, or risk opening an unforeseen loophole in the law.

"It's excruciating. It takes so much time because you have to be so careful," he said.

After the sun goes down, said Sickles, delegates have a different set of challenges — attend extra meetings with committees, or choose a few from a full slate of dinners, banquets, or other events, all of which involve worthy causes.

"A lot of it is self-imposed," said Sickles of knowing when to call it a day. "Sometimes there's five events in one night."

One way Sickles said he unwinds from the day is to conduct a weekly Bible study on Thursday nights in his office in the General Assembly Building.

<sh>Things Have Changed

<bt>On the sixth floor of the General Assembly Building, Sen. Jay O'Brien (R-39th) was not aware of the day-to-day dealings of his colleagues in the House, since the "crossover" date of Feb. 8 when the House and Senate exchange bills had not yet arrived.

"People ask me my opinion on a House bill. I don't even know what they are," said O'Brien during an interview in a brief pause between committee meetings. "No one on this side knows. You can read about it in the paper, but they [the House of Delegates] are going through the same process on that side."

O'Brien is spending his 14th year in Richmond, but only his third as a senator, after earning a seat in a special election in 2002. After climbing the ladder of seniority through his 11 years in the House, O'Brien started over in the Senate.

"Even though I knew the process, and all the people, I was the bottom guy in the Senate," he said.

O'Brien serves on several committees, including the Transportation Committee, and said he believes the opportunity for any citizen to present his views before a committee in Richmond is what he enjoys most about the process.

"I have seen it so often. People are [in committee] just sitting in to observe, and [the committee members] are talking about something [the citizens] care about. They stand up and say, 'I'm just here with this group, but I want to object to this bill,'" said O'Brien.

"The process is very accessible."

O'Brien said that accessibility can be a double-edged sword. After proposing a bill this session that would extend the federal waiver allowing hybrid vehicles to travel on the HOV lanes of I-95, but require those vehicles to be HOV-2, O'Brien said he received phone calls and e-mails from constituents who had read the bill's general description — which didn't include the HOV-2 caveat — online and didn't want to extend the waiver and further clot the HOV lanes.

"I started getting e-mails from the slug people, because all they saw was that I was extending the time of the waiver from 2006-08, but they failed to see it had an HOV requirement, from one to two," said O'Brien.

"They can study these bills on the Internet, and I would encourage people not to respond to the first thing, but try to get to know more about it."

THE ACCESSIBILITY doesn't just benefit the constituents, according to Albo. Prior to this year's session, he marked out several communities, which he targeted for feedback during the session. Several nights a week, he dials up those constituents, asking them what they think he should be working on.

"It takes them awhile to realize I'm not a recorded message," said Albo. He said he calls his constituents to stay grounded, and try to stay out of the partisan politics in the Capitol.

"You get down here, and things that seem important in Richmond aren't important to your people," he said.

<sh>Budget Surplus Battles

<bt>The No. 1 issue this session is the battle over the budget surplus. While last year's General Assembly session ran late, following partisan haggling over Gov. Mark Warner's (D) budget proposal, this year's session is currently engaged in determining how to spend the more than $2 billion surplus from last year's budget.

"We just raised taxes last year. How do we spend that money?" said O'Brien.

A secondary issue that Sickles said he sees as almost as important as the surplus is one that is localized to Northern Virginia — transportation.

"The one thing that I want to see happen is a substantial transportation package," he said.