Column: Institutional Stress

Column: Institutional Stress

The ship of state of the Old Dominion that traces its beginnings to a meeting of the colonists in the church at Jamestown in 1619 showed some stress lines last week as the legislative body, the General Assembly, turned a one-day reconvened session to consider the Governor’s amendments into two days of meetings with incomplete results. Arriving at a set of ethics rules that will permit part-time citizen legislators to live in local districts and interact with their constituents has proven to be a difficult task. Cynics may say that the problem comes from lawmakers who do not want to set limits on themselves, but the challenge is much more difficult than that. As one who wants the toughest ethics rules possible to maintain public trust, I do not at the same time want to be cut-off from regular contact with my constituents who ask me to come to their events, most of which are nonprofits fundraisers for causes in which I believe. Absolutely do away with the pleasure trips that I have never taken and which are an embarrassment to other legislators who have not gone on these trips, but legislators should be able to go the annual conference of the National Conference of State Legislatures that provides the best continuing education for legislators available. I do not have a copy yet of the compromise bill that the General Assembly will consider with the Governor’s amendments, but I believe it is safe to say that a bill will pass and that the law it establishes will be amended and perfected over many years.

Extending the reconvened or veto session by an additional day was a little embarrassing for a leadership that had bragged about ending the regular 45-day short session one day early. Work was rushed to save the state a little money by ending early, and some of the problems with the ethics bill came about in part because of the rush to get it completed. When 140 part-time legislators attempt to balance a budget with significant revenue shortfall and consider more than 2500 bills and resolutions on topics as diverse as sexual assault on college campuses, police surveillance including license plate readers and drones, and community and gun safety in a politically-charged, 45-day session in an election year, it is reasonable to expect some misfires and shortcomings. Some of the ways that the legislature has chosen to deal with its stresses need review and change.

A report by Transparency Virginia (TV), an informal coalition of nonprofits that advocate at the General Assembly, reported recently that in the 2015 session there were multiple times that committees met without adequate notice to make public participation possible, scores of bills were never given a hearing, and 76 percent of the bills and resolutions defeated in sub/committees in the House did not have a recorded vote. ( Many challenges face the Commonwealth, but it may be the case that more attention needs to be given to the health of the body before these issues can be resolved in a way that it is best for the citizens.