Toward the end of January, Rosalie McKeel came here from Norfolk to demonstrate in opposition ot the Equal Rights Amendment. While she was at the state capitol, she stopped in to watch one of her area legislators, Del. Thomas B. Moss (D-Norfolk), chair a committee, and happened on to a hearing on a bill that would legalize pari-mutuel horse racing, provided it is approved in a statewide refrendum.
After introducing herself as a housewife ("so I'm for motherhood and all that jazz,") she said she was "going back to Tidewater and raise hell" and promised to return for the second half of the public hearing. She did - a 90-minute hearing held last week.
Thus McKeel became a player in once of the regular dramas that take place almost daily at the General Assembly: a public hearing.
Theoretically, the purpose of a public hearing is to provide a forum for the average citizen and for special interest groups to argue for the passage or defeat of a bill. Public hearings usually are scheduled only for controversial measures. Controversial measures being what they are, however, public hearings on several issues have taken on the character of a summer rerun.
Since most groups have caught on to the numbers game (pack the committee room with as many people of your viewpoint as possible), and since most legislators have fixed positions on the issues they have heard argued many times before, it is questionable who benefits by these public debates.
This is the tenth year, for example, that pari-mutuel horse racing has been an issue; the Equal Rights Amendment has been discussed for five years, and the fuel adjustment clause for at least three. Certain elements at a public hearing are almost predictable: Someone will drone on with too many statistics; someone will have charts or pictures; someone will quote the Bible.
At the pari-mutuel hearing, 16 people spoke against the bill, including heads of Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic churches. On man described himself as a "concerned agnostic" and a 70-year-old businessman from Fredericksburg said he "didn't represent the Baptists for the Methodists or agnostics. I don't think I even represent my wife."
An illustration of how well-known some witnesses are came when Mrs. T. Roy Jarrett, head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Virginia, took the stand.
"Don't you have some sons who are dentists in Virginia Beach?" asked Chairman Moss.
"A couple of them," she answered.
"Well, how are they doing?"
"Just fine. And I have one in Florida who comes up every few weeks for a long weekend."
"Isn't that nice."
Predictably, the opponents agrued that pari-mutuel betting is immoral, would encourage organized crime, create traffic and other crowd problems for localities and would fail to produce tax revenues needed to offset administrative costs. The previous week supporters said tracks would generate as much as $25 million in tax revenues, that ties to organized crime were not automatic and that failing to legalize horse racing was denying a livelihood to Virginia's 5,000 horse breeders.
There is to be a lengthy hearing on a proposal to exempt religious day-care centers from state licensing, and there is sure to be one on several measures relating to abortion.
There are no hearings on the appointment of judges, who will be dealing with the issues these citizens so urgently argue. Those deliberations are held in secret.