A move to let the General Assembly limit the number and types of legislation it can take up during its odd-year, short sessions is shaping up as the most controversial of three proposed state constitutional amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The other amendments would change requirements for voter registration and would allow the General Assembly to adopt guidelines to allow certain felons to regain civil rights.
A simple majority is required for approval of each question.
The controversial amendment, listed as Question No. 3 on the ballot, was prompted by concerns the assembly is becoming swamped with legislation in its 30-day short session. Although a Northern Virginia legislator was a cosponsor of the proposal, it has little support among the area's state respresentatives.
"As Virginia becomes more urbanized we have problems that change from year to year and we ought to have the ability to put in legislation which meets those changing needs." said Del James H. Dillard, a Fairfax Republican opposed to the measure. This would effectively limit that ability . . . ."
Proponents argue, however, that by permitting a simple majority vote of both chambers to limit the number of bills considered as well as the subjects that could be covered, huge legislative logjams could be avoided.
But among the proposal's opponents are some political heavyweights, including the state chapters of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause. They contend the amendment would undermine the democratic process because a simple majority of legislators could block legislation that might be crucial to some delegates' constituents.
Opponents also contend the proposal would create yet another bottleneck in the legislative process, because legislators would not know until after each short session opens just what legislation would be limited or forbidden. That would leave little time for the crucial research often needed to help legislators adequately consider a bill, they say.
State Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax County), who cosponsored the proposal, said the short sessions have become unwieldy because of huge numbers of bills that are proposed.
Under 1970 revisions to the state constitution, the long sessions are limited to 60 days and short sessions to 30 days, although short sessions can be extended to 60 days. Brault said short sessions in recent years have averaged 47 days.
"Although it was not stated, the understanding was that the short sessions were to be used for making adjustments to the biennial budget and handling emergency matters," Brault said. "(But) politicians sometimes succumb to the whim of their constituents and our own ambitions and put in as many bills in the short session as the long session."
As a result, Brault said, the assembly "simply cannot do justice to all the bills introduced that we have to consider . . . . We can do the work more efficiently if the we restrict ourselves on the number and types of legislation we introduce."
Opponents say the proposed amendment would give legislators an easy way to avoid controversial issues in the short sessions, however, which fall in election years for the 100-member House of Delegates.
Brault countered that the assembly has demonstrated it can avoid controversial issues if it wants. Failure to approve the amendment, he said, would result only in longer and longer sessions. "The next thing you know, we'll be like New York and California with year-long sessions," he said.
Question No. 2 on the ballot would allow the assembly to adopt legislation that would establish criteria by which felons automatically could regain their rights to vote and hold office. Only the governor, upon petition from a felon, now may restore those rights.
The proposal was introduced by State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), who said the plan would be more equitable than the current system.
"Many [felons] are relatively unsophisticated people, and to expect them to be aware of how to go about petitioning the governor or to have the money to hire an attorney is expecting too much," Mitchell said.
"The governor's office says it routinely grants [such petitions]. So if that's the case, all we're doing is creating an artificial barrier [by leaving the current system intact]. The present system is unfair and the General Assembly at least ought to have the right to consider an alternative."
The proposal has met with little opposition, although some legislators say felons should bear the responsibility of getting those rights restored. Other opponents have questioned whether the legislature should get involved in an area of the governor's domain.
George Stoddard, a spokesman for Gov. Charles S. Robb, said Robb has granted 137 petitions to restore felons' right. Stoddard added, however, that Robb has taken no position on the proposed amendment.
The third proposed constitutional amendment, Question No. 1, has encountered little, if any, opposition. Under its provisions, the state no longer would require women registering to vote to give their maiden names and men and women to list their occupations. Registrants would be required to list any previous legal names, however.
Supporters say the proposal is intended to apply voter registration rules equally and to avoid multiple registrations.