In my conversations with Virginia General Assembly members, one subject that keeps coming up is short legislative sessions and what effect those have. If you’re not aware, in Virginia, General Assembly sessions run “60 days in even-numbered years and for 30 days in odd-numbered years, with an option to extend annual sessions for a maximum of 30 days.” This compares to 90 days in Maryland; about 5 months in North Carolina in odd-numbered years (and around 2 months in even-numbered years); 60 days in West Virginia; 30 or 60 days in Kentucky; about 6 months in New York State; and 5 months in Illinois.
For a state of Virginia’s size – 8 million people; 12th in the country – it’s even shorter. For instance, New Jersey has about the same population as Virginia, but its legislature meets for about 6 months. Connecticut has just 3.6 million people, but its legislature meets for 6 months in odd-numbered years (when the budget is completed) and 3 months in even-numbered years. In Pennsylvania, they meet pretty much year-round, as do the New York General Assembly and California State Assembly.
The bottom line is that Virginia’s legislative sessions are among the shortest in the country, most similar to southern states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. The question is whether this schedule remains optimal for a Virginia of 8 million people in the earliest 21st century. Based on my conversations with several Virginia General Assembly members, three major issues keep coming up.
1. There’s no time to really know what’s going on or to understand the bills members are voting on.
2. The people who do understand are the lobbyists, who spend all their time, year ’round, on their specific issue(s).
3. The Executive Branch is there pretty much 365 days, which puts the Legislative Branch at a serious, structural disadvantage.
On the first point, based on what I’ve observed the past few years of following Virginia politics, I’d have to agree. You know how we occasionally point out seemingly crazy votes by Democrats for legislation that they never should have voted for? Well, I’m sure some of it really is crazy, with no excuse whatsoever, but how much of it comes about simply because the legislators have little or no clue what they’re voting on? That’s what I’m hearing, over and over again, from General Assembly members.
On the second point, that worries me a great deal, and I’d argue it should worry all citizens of Virginia, especially given the almost complete absence of campaign finance restrictions in our Commonwealth. The question is, are you comfortable with a system which, structurally and by design, gives tremendous power to unelected lobbyists for big business, or for that matter for any special interest group? I’m not.
Finally, on the third point, this seems to me like an issue that would cut across party lines. Thus, one could argue that when Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine were in the governor’s mansion, General Assembly Republicans were at a serious, structural disadvantage, and when Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore were governor, same thing for General Assembly Democrats. But really, it affects the entire branch of government, in that the Executive branch has all year to organize, maneuver, plan, strategize, etc. The Legislative branch has much, much less time to do that.
Is it optimal to have a system where the lobbyists and Executive branch have tremendous power vis-a-vis the Legislative branch, and where our Delegates and Senators barely have time to know what they’re voting on? Not in my book. Would lengthening the sessions of the Virginia General Assembly help balance this out? Along with restrictions on the activities of lobbyists, I’d argue that it’s worth a try. What do you think?