Virginia Legislative Session Length: An Issue That Keeps Coming Up

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    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?

    • NotJohnSMosby

      feel that emulating Mississippi and Alabama is a good thing, and emulating New York or Connecticut is evil socialist/marxist/high taxes/hands off our guns/god wouldn’t like it/etc, then there’s no chances of lengthening the regular session.  While it’s true that Delagates and Senators are paid peanuts for their “part-time” job, they do in fact work it all year round.  Any increase in session should have a proportional increase in pay, which of course Republicans don’t want because that’s just evil big government.

      And besides, this would just lead to better government, which is illogical to the illogical Republicans since government is inherently evil and should be abolished.

    • Steve Vaughan

      …is to limit what can be introduced in the “short” session. The purpose of that session was orginally to deal with necessary amendments to the budget.

      Extending the session would help to relieve the pressure that legislators are under. Current General Assembly session do have the feel of an all-out sprint.

    • The Richmonder

      More isn’t necessarily better.  I like that our legislators are part timers.  They have the entire year to prepare and write legislation and lobby and be lobbied for it.  The shorter session makes people pay attention and focus.

      Virginia is better run than any of the states you mention as having longer sessions: why imitate less well run states?

    • The Richmonder

      We benefit from having part timers in government.  We don’t need and would not benefit from a full time class of politicians who would promptly be bought by big corporations the way Congress has been bought.

      The system works well enough as it is, and every state you’ve cited is worse off than we are, some terribly so.

      There is nothing preventing you from lobbying the General Assembly.  I think the fee to register is $15.  I’ve thought of registering myself.

    • The Richmonder

      You’ll create a whole party of Brian Morans–people who have forgotten how to make an honest living and are “forced” to take sinecures from lobbyists.

      The best Democrats in Virginia are those who can support themselves from honest work when they are not in part time session.  When Donald McEachin or Chap Petersen tell me they need a longer session then maybe I’ll reconsider my position.

      Until then, there are few things I can think of that I want than for Virginia to be more like New York, California, or Pennsylvania–all of whom are on the verge of financial collapse.

    • don’t have time to focus on what they’re doing because there’s no time.

      This bill, extending a tax credit for coal, passed the Democratic-controlled Senate unanimously!  That’s right, even strong environmentalists voted for this. When I asked one of those strong environmentalist Senators what happened, I was told, basically, that in the “short session,” zero attention is paid to 95% of bills and that this was on an “uncontested docket” so it passed unanimously. Great, huh?

    • See Ox Road South for more (e.g., ” “lobbyists get more control — because who else has the time to be here full time?”)