Some of the statutory birds that migrate to Richmond each winter with the General Assembly are hard to judge by their feathers, explained the Republican senator from Newport News the other day. Often, after a bit of persistent probing, a bill introduced as a legislative eagle will begin to squawk like a buzzard.
But this year, complained Sen. Herbert Bateman, with too many bills to consider in the session's final six days, it is particularly difficult for Virginia's lawmakers to separate the fiar bills from the fowl.
"There's a high risk of some real turkeys flying through the legislature without comment," said Bateman.
There is a considerable difference of opinion here about whom to blame for throwing Virginia's lawmakers into the Capitol with 1,600 bills and only five weeks to study them.
Many legislators are unhappy with the General Assembly leaders who decided to cut this odd-year's short session by more than a week from its normal 51-day length. The leadership, as well as individual senators and delegates, are blaming their colleagues for trying to fly too many unnecesssary bills.
One thing most members do agree on is that the night meetings, weekend sessions and the general frenzy of this year's lawmaking convocation has produced some questionable legislation.
"We're doing some sloppy work," said Del. Elise Heinz (D-Arlington).
"We are forcing ourselves at such a pace that we are going to make some dramatic mistakes," warned Del. Warren Barry (R-Fairfax), who saw one of his bills executed two Sundays ago by House Democrats during a fit of partisan pique. "The majority of the Democrats decided they would simply kill all Republican-backed measures. Everybody was just worn thin."
The odd-year sessions were begun 10 years ago to mop up legislation introduced during the previous yer's 10-week session and to adjust the biennial budget. But in the last six years, the amount of new legislation introduced during the short sessions has grown geometrically. This year, the General Assembly is considering only 200 fewer bills than last year's regular session.
"Half of what we do are junk bills," said Del. Vincent Callahan (R-Fairfax).
Earlier this month, Callahan cosponsored a resolution to limit the type of bills considered during the off year to those dealing with appropriations, budget adjustments and emergencies, with a special exemption for bills introduced by the governor. In all cases, three-quarters of the legislature would need to approve any bill before it could be considered.
That measure, which would amend the state Constitution, was defeated in the House. But a similar resolution was passed in the Senate and will be considered soon by a House committee.
Opponents of both resolutions argue that limiting their lawmaking power would give more control to the office of the governor, which many legislators feels is too powerful already. Besides, said critics, they were elected to legislate.
"I can't very well tell a constituent of mine, sorry, his interests are not important," said Del. Daivd Brickley (D-Prince William).
There have been lengthy debates this year over such meaty matters as the repeal of the food tax future Medicaid funding and Governor John N. Dalton's budget. Today in the House, a bill to impose stringent guidelines on sterilization of juveniles and mental incompetents passed after considerable deliberation.
But critics point to the time spent this session on other bills with less obvious significance as evidence that the business of lawmaking is out of control.
During the last four weeks, the General Assembly has concerned itself with such matters as bear wrestling, oyster tongs, pituitary glands and the Sunday hunting of weasels. A delegate from Culpeper introduced a bill that would make it a felony to steal a cat. Another delegate from Dinwiddie asked his collegues to help the town of Crewe determine whether hunting dogs should be allowed to run free within the town limits.
Many legislators blame Virginia's Dillon Rule for the mountain of legislation they must wade through each year. Under that rule, localities are prohibited from exercising any power not expressly granted to them by the state Constitution or the legislature. When Arlington County officials wanted to keep mopeds off the county bicycle trails, for instance, they had to ask Elise Heinz to introduce a bill to accomplish that.
"It's absurd that we have to come to Richmond to keep mopeds off bike trails," said Heinz, who is upset by the current legislative crunch but opposed to any constitutional amendment ot limit what she can do for her constituency. "We have a different situation in Northern Virginia than some other places in the state. A whole lot of people living all snugged up against each other create a lot of problems. And those problems need legislation."
Like Heinz, Brickley is opposed to any mandatory limits on his power. At the same time he says the bill overload has created a system of legislation by subcommittee which he predicts will be "the ruination" of Virginia's reputation for prudent lawmaking.
"Everything this session is being relegated to subcommittees. Instead of being decided on by 20-member committees, there are maybe five people on a subcommittee voting a bill up or down," said Brickley. "Because of that, probably some junk legislation is going to come out of here."
The current session, he adds ruefully, has helped make this "the worst year of my life, bar none."