Virginia's short legislative sessions hinder public input

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 10:36 PM

RICHMOND

Considering how much the Virginia General Assembly prides itself on its nearly four centuries as a representative body, it's curious that the legislature is so determined to keep deliberations short that citizens often have at most 30 seconds to have their voices heard on a bill.

Virginia's annual legislative sessions are among the briefest in the nation. Under the state constitution, they're especially short in odd-numbered years such as this one, when the assembly is scheduled to consider nearly 2,600 bills in 46 days.

The practice dates from when a farm-based society squeezed the session into a few weeks before spring planting. The quaint tradition is outdated for a state whose population exceeds that of more than 50 countries, including Norway, Ireland and Israel.

The price of brevity was on display at a public meeting of the powerful Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday morning as the legislature hustled to finish its work before its Feb. 26 close.

The 15-member committee acted on 41 bills in 3½ hours. It had a varied and controversial agenda, including bills on abortion, the length of the school year and vaccinations against cervical cancer. It drew an overflow crowd of 220 activists and regular citizens, who filled the seats and lined the walls of a modern conference room in the General Assembly building.

But individuals wishing to speak were limited, on average, to about half a minute of comment. The chairman, Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania), spent most of his time pleading with people to be concise and keep it moving.

"Just state your position. We can't have extended testimony," Houck told one activist after she'd spoken for less than a minute.

For first-time witnesses unfamiliar with the process, it was a distressing experience. Houck asked Shelley Abrams, executive director of A Capital Women's Health Clinic in Richmond, to stop talking after 15 seconds. He didn't relent even when she said she had only four sentences to read in opposing a bill to tighten regulation of abortion providers.

"I think it's perfunctory. I guess I feel voiceless," Abrams said afterward.

On the other side of the issue, a longtime antiabortion activist was unhappy despite being accustomed to the compressed time frame. He said he was providing a fresh argument favoring the same bill, but nobody paid attention because all of the members of the committee already knew how they were going to vote before the hearing.

"One of the frustrations is when you do have new information, but they're used to voting a certain way, they don't hear what's being said," said Chris Freund, vice president for policy and communications of the Family Foundation.

The Democratic majority on the committee killed every anti-abortion bill that came before it on a party-line vote.

Virginia's legislative sessions are considerably shorter than those in Maryland. The latter's sessions last 90 days, even though Maryland's population is smaller. The D.C. Council meets year-round, even though the District's population is less than one-tenth that of Virginia's.

Virginia legislators of both parties defend the short sessions overall. They cherish the tradition of having part-time citizen lawmakers, serving in the Western Hemisphere's oldest legislative body.

They also note that some bills get fuller debate in subcommittee meetings or other hearings. Some merit less discussion because they're so similar to legislation rejected earlier. A longer session would cost taxpayers more. It would encourage grandstanding. Citizens can provide input via e-mail and other methods.

That's all fine, but there's no way sending an e-mail feels as influential for a citizen as speaking in person to legislators in a public meeting.

Also, lawmakers acknowledge they feel rushed. The House of Delegates has limited the number of bills that an individual member can submit in years with brief sessions. (The maximum length of a session is 60 days in odd years and 90 in even ones.)

"The pressure is tremendous. It's a really difficult task to deal with the volume of legislation that we have, particularly in these short sessions," Houck said in an interview.

Moreover, the limits on public hearings and debate make it easier for special interests to wield influence. It often happens that the key decisions on legislation have been made before the hearings take place, in conversations between legislators and lobbyists.

Irene Leech, a Virginia Tech professor and president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, says average people have little input at meetings on electrical utility regulation.

"The public meetings are very quick. They're for show. They have a tightly scripted setup," Leech said. "If you're not there in the middle of the game, it's really hard to know what's going on. Regular citizens just throw up their hands and say it's hopeless."

I don't think Virginia needs a full-time legislature. Such a change could not win approval, anyway. But after nearly 400 years, it's past time to add a few weeks for the sake of more thorough and public debate.


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