Report Shows Virginia Lawmakers Block Transparency, Access to Legislative Process

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By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — In February, Delegate Jeffrey Campbell tried to revise Virginia’s “reckless” driving threshold so motorists couldn’t be criminalized for driving six miles over the speed limit on I-95. His bill never made it out of the Courts of Justice Committee.

Like so many others, the Marion Republican’s measure was “left in committee,” where bills that lawmakers just don’t want to risk an up-or-down vote go to die, with no recorded tally. That way, constituents who couldn’t make the middle-of-the-day meeting in Richmond have no clue where their lawmakers stand on that bill or hundreds of others.

It might be one thing if that was a rare occurrence. But a new report from Transparency Virginia backs up what anyone who’s spent time in the General Assembly knows well — both parties and chambers are rife with practices that thwart transparency and accountability in the legislative process.

NO VOTE? A Virginia House committee led by Speaker Bill Howell has the worst track record when it comes to bills not getting recorded votes, according to a new report.

 

75% of Bills Killed in Committees

 

Perhaps the most shocking statistic the new transparency advocacy group found is that three-fourths of all bills that reach a House committee or subcommittee die either with no vote taken or no vote recorded. The House Rules Committee, chaired by Speaker of the House Bill Howell, R-Stafford, was the biggest offender. Transparency Virginia found that 95 percent of bills that came to Howell’s committee died without a recorded vote, or without any vote at all.

Members of Transparency Virginia, an informal coalition of nonprofit organizations, attended at least two-thirds of all committee and subcommittee meetings, tracking meeting notices, whether bills were considered and allowed for public comment, and whether a vote was taken and recorded.

 

Committee Chairs Play “Musical Chairs” with Schedules

 

Since members didn’t attend every meeting and track every bill, it isn’t a perfect survey, as the report admits. Then again, it’s nearly impossible to show up at every meeting, even if that were humanly possible. Committee chairs sometimes call or cancel meetings just a couple of hours in advance. Other times, meetings are switched at the last minute from a scheduled location to a lawmaker’s desk.

Anecdotally, members of Transparency Virginia witnessed more than a few instances where the committee chair simply refused to take public comments, or only let certain people comment.

 

Committee Meetings Are Not Recorded

 

And if Virginians want to check on what was said about a bill after a committee or subcommittee meeting, they can forget it. Unlike other state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, the General Assembly doesn’t record video or audio of any of the more than 100 committees and subcommittees that meet multiple times throughout the year.

 

Governor McAuliffe Doesn’t Like Transparency Either

 

Transparency isn’t lacking in the General Assembly alone. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, as Watchdog.org has reported, vetoed a bill that would have put a cap on the amount outside lawyers can collect, and place those contracts online. Howell and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the bill’s sponsor, slammed McAuliffe for the veto in an op-ed over the weekend.

“These are common-sense steps that would protect taxpayers, increase transparency and make government more accountable,” they wrote. “McAuliffe’s veto sends the wrong signal to Virginians at a time when all elected leaders should be taking steps to restore the public trust.”

— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.