Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Jim Nolan: Watchdog group's report hits Virginia's General Assembly on Transparency. “When lawmakers are pressed for time, they often take shortcuts that prevent the public from monitoring and participating in the proceedings.”

Transparency Virginia - Website
The Virginia General Assembly: The case for improved transparency - Report

Original Post:
Watchdog group's report hits Va.'s General Assembly on transparency, April 15, 2015
By Jim Nolan

The House of Delegates and Virginia Senate routinely called public meetings of legislative committees with little or no notice and denied scores of bills a hearing, according to a report released Tuesday. 

The House either did not take a recorded vote, or any vote at all, on 76 percent of the bills that were killed in subcommittee or committee, according to the report by Transparency Virginia. 

A volunteer coalition of 29 nonprofit groups and associations that advocate and lobby in the General Assembly, it compiled the report after spending hundreds of hours monitoring the recently concluded 45-day General Assembly session. 

Lawmakers return to Richmond today to consider the governor’s vetoes and his proposed amendments to bills, including omnibus ethics legislation, and bills dealing with technology and government surveillance. 

The group said its goal is to promote discussion about how to improve transparency in government, keep residents better informed and make participation easier. 

The report plums the depths of the murky process for proposing, considering and disposing of legislation that keeps the average citizen in the dark and can leave even some seasoned observers scratching their heads. 

“Bills were introduced but then left in committees without ever being added to an agenda, much less given a hearing,” said Transparency Virginia participant Megan Rhyne, of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
“Bills were defeated by unrecorded voice votes, allowing some lawmakers to avoid responsibility and disallowing others from making their position known. Meetings were called with notice so short as to make it virtually impossible for anyone other than the committee members to attend,” Rhyne continued.

In just one example, bills seeking bipartisan redistricting were tabled in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee on a voice vote, sparing individual accountability. 

In another instance during the session, a bill to give school divisions a statewide health insurance option cleared the Senate but was killed in a House Appropriations subcommittee without a vote. 

“These practices paint a stark reality: A body that prides itself on being a citizen legislature is too often a legislature that is NOT for the citizens.” 

Transparency Virginia said it attended approximately 79 percent of the meetings held by the 101 committees and subcommittees of the House and Senate. 

The report cited:
  • subcommittee and committee chairs who refused to take public comment on bills
  • vote tallies in subcommittee that did not match votes recorded online
  • meetings called without notice and held at the committee chairman’s desk immediately after adjournment of a legislative session, or rescheduled meetings with less than two hours notice
  • one House committee that allowed almost half of the bills before it to die without a vote
“Lawmakers must operate openly, proactively subjecting themselves to public scrutiny and accountability,” the report states. 

“When lawmakers are pressed for time, they often take shortcuts that prevent the public from monitoring and participating in the proceedings.” 

The report takes note of one committee chairman who said at the session’s outset that his committee would pass no more than five bills in one particular category of legislation. 

But it also makes a point of stating that “many committee chairs went to great lengths to hear all bills and give the public an opportunity to speak.” 

House rules do not require a recorded vote on subcommittee and committee levels. The report said delegates relied on this loophole extensively. 

On the issue of killed bills, the Transparency Virginia report found that 825 of the 1,892 House bills died in subcommittee or committee. But only 104 died with a recorded vote, while 513 died without a recorded voice vote and 117 died without any vote at all. 

In the Virginia Senate, fewer bills died in subcommittee and committee — 388 of 1,652. Senate rules state that votes must be recorded, and the group found that 7 percent of bills died without a recorded vote or any vote at all. 

While House and Senate rules do not specify how much notice must be given before a committee meeting, the Transparency Virginia report said “too little notice will affect the debate when those who want to observe or participate in the discussion are not afforded enough time to attend.’ 

The report also takes lawmakers to task for disposing of some bills without a hearing. 

“Every bill deserves the dignity of the debate,” it states. “The failure of a sub/committee to give consideration to a bill may be frustrating to lobbyists and advocates, but it is downright perplexing to those following from home who are unaware of or unfamiliar with a process that leaves docketed issues unresolved.” 

The report reserves its strongest criticism for the practice of not recording the vote of an elected official, calling it “so fundamental that it is incredible it is not done consistently.” 

But the report notes that the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act apply only to state and local governments and that FOIA allows the House and Senate to adopt its own rules on the votes of members. 

And the report and its members stressed that the issues raised are not the result of partisanship, or the sole cause of one party over another. 

“Though Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, it would be as much of a mistake to say, ‘This is a Republican problem,’ as it would be to say, ‘This is an attack on Republicans,’” Rhyne said. 

“The sad truth is that these are systemic problems. Problems that have developed over time, over parties and over party leaders. 

“Transparency takes collective will and collective action,” she continued. “It can’t take place in a vacuum where lawmakers tell the public only how much they want to let them know, or where the public gets to demand that every detail be laid bare.” 

The report concludes by urging the 140 members of the General Assembly to work toward improving transparency in the halls of government.