Lawmakers had plenty of time to finish their work during the 2004 General Assembly session.
After all, most of them sat around for almost two months while budget negotiators argued about whether to raise taxes. Still, the Virginia General Assembly ended the 2004 session with an astounding 425 unfinished bills.
There are leftover bills about homeowners insurance, health insurance and long-term care insurance. There are dozens of tax bills that never saw the light of day. And numerous bills about crime remain undecided: tougher sexual assault penalties, sentencing changes, new regulation of dangerous dogs, changes to firearm restrictions and new penalties for car theft.
Also still sitting on the docket for consideration are constitutional amendments for transportation, education, budgeting and redistricting. Lawmakers never did decide whether to impose a tax on admissions to entertainment venues in Charles City County or allow golf carts in certain parts of Middlesex County.
Legislators said they would wait to vote on several bills to extend and revise the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority (too late, now). And they punted on a bill by state Sen. William Roscoe Reynolds (D-Franklin) to require a $4 bear damage stamp to raise money from hunters so that homeowners can be compensated for bear damage to their property.
This is not the first time Virginia lawmakers have delayed decisions during the legislative session, which usually lasts 45 days to 60 days. In fact, it's become something of a habit.
In 2002, Virginia's delegates and senators declined to decide on more than 390 bills and resolutions. In 2000, they left 552 bills "nestled in the bosom of the committee," as longtime House Finance Chairman Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas) once called the action.
Why would legislators forward so many bills -- almost 15 percent of all 3,000 pieces of legislation considered -- to the next session? Shouldn't politicians vote aye or nay and move on?
In a few cases, complicated bills require more study and more time. Virginia lawmakers are, after all, part-time politicians, and some of the subjects they deal with -- for example, electricity deregulation -- can take years to understand. When that happens, lawmakers will often vote to carry forward or continue a bill to another legislative session.
Many times, though, such a vote is really about avoiding making a tough decision to put a final end to a well-meaning bill.
Bills that are continued can, at the patron's urging, be considered during a series of little-noticed, pre-session committee meetings in October and November. Those that don't get referred on by the beginning of the next session conveniently evaporate.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), a senior member of the House Courts of Justice Committee, said that he and his colleagues in both chambers often take the easy way out when they would prefer not to anger a bill's sponsor whom they might need in a future vote.
"Sometimes, you just don't have the guts to kill a bill right in front of his face," Albo said.
There are also elections to consider. Legislative leaders in both parties go to great lengths to make sure their incumbents don't vote unnecessarily on controversial topics that might come back to harm them in the next election.
When a tax bill is voted up or down, for example, those votes often become fodder for campaign ads. When a bill is carried forward and then dies off-season, it's harder for an opponent to use it in a sound bite.
That's why, with House members and statewide officers on the ballot in November 2005, we're likely to see even more bills left on the table at the end of the upcoming session.