Suzanne Paciulli, vice president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, drove down here last week to testify for a bill concerning industrial revenue bonds, a matter of keen interest to the county's business community. The committee hearing was first scheduled for Wednesday morning before the Senate Local Government Committee.
On Tuesday afternoon, Paciulli was standing in the hallway of the General Assembly building when she heard that her bill was being debated just then by the General Laws Committee.
"Thank God we just happened to be standing there," said Paciulli, whose bill was killed anyway. "We didn't have all our troops down because they were all set to come the next day . . . I don't know how any citizens group could ever find out what's going on."
In fact, most can't and neither can many legislators and lobbyists amid the mass confusion that passes for Virginia's legislative process. The customary chaos peaked last week as legislators frantically rushed to meet today's deadline for winding up commitee business on more than 1,474 bills and 637 resolutions.
The result is often abrupt cancellation and rescheduling of committee and subcommitee meetings, frequently with no public notice; agendas that are hard to come by and rarely posted, and late-night or early-morning meetings in which bills are killed with little input from citizens.
"It's a challenge to your ingenuity to find out where a subcommittee is meeting and to your high school track record to get there in time," said freshman Del. Nora Squyres (D-Fairfax).
For many lawmakers, simultaneous meetings in opposite ends of the Capitol are standard during the legislative crunch. One recent morning, for example, Del. Bernard S. Cohen (D-Alexandria) was supposed to be in three 9 a.m. meetings to defend his bills or act on those sponsored by others.
"It's just insane," said Cohen, who tries to track his bills on a large manila chart in his office.
Lawmakers are fond of bemoaning the legislative crush, but say they don't quite know what to do about it. Most are unwilling to limit the number of bills that may be considered or extend the calendar, lest it be perceived as abandonment of Virginia's colonial heritage of a part-time "citizen legislature."
This year, Virginia, with a population of 5.3 million, has the shortest legislative session in the nation except for Wyoming, which has 470,816 people, fewer than Fairfax. The beneficiaries, according to many lawmakers, are well-connected special-interest groups who can afford full-time lobbyists.
"The system gives a distinct advantage to groups who can hire lobbyists to be here every minute," said Del. Marian van Landingham (D-Alexandria).
But not even that can guarantee success, as last week's horror stories suggest. Take these examples:
Gordon C. Morse, the full-time director of Virginia's Common Cause, had spent days trying to find out when a House subcommittee was meeting on one of his bills, which dealt with revenue bonds. "I must have asked the subcommittee clerk three or four times," he said last week. "Then I found out they had met yesterday afternoon--boom, like that. There was no notice or anything. But the bond counsel for Hunton and Williams (a blue-chip Richmond law firm) had been called."
"If I'm down here working every day and I can't find out what's going on," Morse said, "can you imagine what it's like for the average citizen who comes down for the day? It's ludicrous."
Calvin Larson, a Reston lawyer, was interested in a bill to protect consumers who buy into vacation time-sharing arrangements. He thought the best way to persuade lawmakers to pass it was to bring down one of his clients, a 62-year-old disabled man, to recount how he'd been fleeced by a high-pressure salesman.
Last Monday, Larson rescheduled his appointments, picked up his client in Manassas and drove to Richmond. Once there, he discovered that the House General Laws subcommitee meeting scheduled for 3:30 p.m. that day had been canceled at noon because subcommittee Chairman George Heilig (D-Norfolk) had not returned from the Super Bowl.
"I shot the whole day I could have been spending in the office, making some money," Larson said.
The same thing happened to Steve Mellette, vice chairman of the Alexandria Landlord-Tenant Commission. He had come for the same subcommitee hearing, which had been rescheduled twice previously. "What I said isn't printable," said a disgusted Mellette. "It was a completely wasted trip."
Although pandemonium has been a way of life here for years, there are some signs this session that the leadership may finally be ready to do something about it. The House Rules Committee last week approved a resolution, introduced by House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk) and backed by Common Cause, that would authorize a study of the General Assembly process and recommend changes that "will simplify public access to committee deliberations."
There are those who believe the present system serves a sound conservative purpose. Amid the confusion, overly ambitious and controversial measures usually can't be accommodated, at least not in one session. Such was the case last week with a proposal to rewrite state law governing commitments to mental hospitals, which died in a House committee. The commitment bill, a long and complicated measure, came up on a crowded docket at 1 a.m. Friday and was dead by 1:30 a.m., in part because legislators were reluctant to vote for something they didn't understand.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax). "On the one hand, we do things so fast we probably don't do anything too damaging. On the other hand, we go so fast that we may slip something in without even realizing it."
Also contributing to this story was Washington Post Staff Writer Fred Hiatt.