That’s forcing Virginia’s 140 legislators to be especially selective about what bills they submit. The first casualty of that policy could be the handful of lighter and quirky bills that usually leaven each session. The second could be the Democrats’ agenda.
At least that’s what some of the party’s more prolific legislators fear. They wonder why Democrats would clip their own wings while they control all the levers in Richmond — in an election year with the House and governorship up for grabs.
“We have a Democratic majority in the House and Senate and a Democratic governor for the first time in 27 years,” said Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who helped inspire the Senate limits by filing a whopping 63 bills during this year’s regular session. “I’m concerned about limiting our ability . . . to make the changes that I feel like the voters asked us to fight for in the election 13 months ago.”
Sen. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), a geriatric nurse practitioner who plans to devote five of her bills to nursing homes, said she can understand why some Democrats think the cap is self-defeating.
“If I was on the other team, I would be saying that because they know they have free rein,” said Kiggans, who hopes to shoehorn a bill limiting balloon releases into her list. “This is their last, sure time when the stars align.”
But many Democrats say it won’t hurt the party to be more focused and disciplined — particularly as the GOP tries to portray them as overreaching radicals.
“If you can’t get to the people’s business with 385 bills, something’s wrong,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, referring to the maximum number that could be submitted by the House’s 55 Democrats.
Whatever the political fallout, legislators on both sides of the aisle are struggling to pare down their bill lists. Some have been forced to turn away interest groups — they include fresh-faced Boy Scouts, not just wing-tipped lobbyists — pitching legislation they’d normally want to carry.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William), who will probably scrap her bill to designate the pawpaw Virginia’s state fruit so she can focus on more critical matters, such as winning paid sick time for workers exposed to the virus. She came up with the bill at the request of a local Scout troop, and still holds out hope that another legislator might carry it this year.
Democrats — who control the House, Senate and Executive Mansion — proposed the bill cap after a year of especially profuse legislating in the newly blue Capitol. After flipping the House and Senate in 2019, Democrats dropped a mountain of pent-up priorities on the Capitol during the regular session that convened in January. They followed up with a marathon 84-day special session to address the pandemic and to launch a criminal justice overhaul spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.
Howling over the extended special session, Republican House and Senate leaders have announced plans to limit the coming session to 30 days, instead of the usual 46. House and Senate Democratic leaders say they will be able to get around that effort, but they’ve decided to back the bill caps as their own way of reining things in amid the challenges of pandemic-era legislating.
Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington), who submitted 20 bills in this year’s regular session, voted this month as a member of the Senate Rules Committee to impose the limits.
“We have to remember the participation of the public, of stakeholder groups . . . they’re all going to be participating virtually and it’s going to be very challenging to go through a heavy workload and legislation that is very complex,” she said.
Republican leaders have welcomed the limits.
“We should only focus on the most serious of issues during this short session,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover), the chamber’s GOP caucus chairman. “I have not decided whether I will introduce any bills at all — that’s how seriously I feel about it.”
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) announced plans this month for the seven-bill cap, although in that chamber, the whole body will have to vote on the rules change at the start of the session.
The House started imposing limits in 2009, capping them at 15 bills in odd-numbered years, when the session typically runs for 46 days. There were no limits in even years, when the session runs 60 days.
Although the Senate had an informal 25-bill limit two years ago, senators have generally been allowed an unlimited number of bills in regular sessions as long as they submitted them during the early “pre-file” period.
Surovell was chafing at the new limits — in part because Democrats will have to defend their five-seat House majority and the governorship in elections next year. If they lose one or both, their ability to advance their agenda will be greatly hampered. (The Senate won’t be on the ballot until 2023.)
“It concerns me a little bit because the pandemic itself creates the need for legislation,” he said.
Surovell said the limit “doesn’t give us a lot of bandwidth to carry the bills that sort of always tend to pop up. I probably had to turn down about five to seven requests to carry bills in the last two weeks.”
Surovell said he publicly committed to carrying several pieces of criminal justice legislation that did not advance in the special session, including bills to abolish the death penalty and mandatory-minimum sentences, reinstate parole, expunge certain criminal records, and address qualified immunity, which makes it difficult to sue police for misconduct.
On top of that, he said, two counties he represents asked him to carry bills related to zoning authority. He said he had to turn down bike-safety and animal rights groups that approached him about legislation.
Del. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) stayed below the 15-bill limit in 2019, the last 46-day session, and he has modest-sounding goals for the coming session. The high school civics teacher hopes to make “a lot of small, technical fixes” to the sweeping changes approved earlier this year to expand access to voting. But even he’s having to make tough choices.
“They quickly add up to a number of bills, and seven’s not really a big number,” he said.
The bill limits come on top of pandemic-related budget constraints that, in their own way, have curbed legislators, said Sen. Ghazala F. Hashmi (D-Chesterfield). She said she’d love to increase pay for community college faculty but figures this is not the year. She’s focused instead on a bill to shore up food banks. She’s also pursuing a rent-relief measure that, as it turns out, won’t count toward her total because it’s a budget amendment, not a bill.
Del. Rodney T. Willett (D-Henrico) thinks the limits are a good idea, even as he wrestles with whether to go ahead with a bill of his own that clearly falls in the nonessential category: It would designate as the official state folk song “Virginia, the Home of My Heart,” by Henrico singer-songwriter Susan Greenbaum.
Virginia already has a state pop song, “Sweet Virginia Breeze.” A traditional song, “Our Great Virginia.” And a state song emeritus, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” But each has its detractors, particularly the last one, an old minstrel tune that glorifies slavery.
So Willett would like to move ahead with the bill if he can squeeze it in with his other priorities, which include measures to improve the environment and the voting process.
“It is the most beautiful song,” he said.
Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) has asked the state’s Division of Legislative Services to draft about 20 bills, since there’s no limit on drafting requests. Once he has them in hand, he’ll whittle them down by the filing deadline of 10 a.m. on the first day of session.
Among those in the mix is one that would ban the use of solitary confinement. Another would allow someone who touches a police officer in a “minor” but unlawful way to be charged with misdemeanor assault instead of a felony.
But Morrissey is not ruling out including a bill that could create a buzz, including one that would allow strip clubs to serve mixed drinks. Currently, they’re limited to beer and wine, a restriction Morrissey said he would relish challenging.
“I’m looking forward to a lobbyist saying, ‘You can quaff as many beers or wine as you want, but you can’t buy a gin and tonic,’ ” he said.
That said, he likes the idea of capping bills.
“It forces senators, legislators to really focus, laserlike, on what their real priorities are,” he said. “And that doesn’t mean you can’t have what I’ll call — for lack of a more artful phrase — a fun bill.”