The General Assembly began its short session of 46 days and adjourned only one day late with many accomplishments. After handling nearly 2700 bills and resolutions and appointing conferees from the House and Senate, budget changes were agreed upon. The short session was added for odd-numbered years for one reason: to adjust the budget; but once in session, really anything goes. This explains, in part, why the nation is reluctant to call a Constitutional Convention – it probably would never end.
This year there were hundreds of adjustments to the budget. A budget is, in reality, an estimate, so it stands to reason that it must be corrected from time-to-time. It is also a political document whether it’s for a home, church, school division, city, county, or the state. In other words, it’s all about money and who benefits.
Some say the short session is too short and deprives the public of time to speak to bills. The Virginia Founders intended that representatives would serve as part-time delegates and senators so that they would be home for spring plowing each year. During January and February, bills were considered in committee hearings where the public could participate.
Controversial bills drew crowds of 200 or more to the hearing rooms, so that committee chairs had to limit speakers to 30 seconds. Even with this limitation, one chairman told a speaker to “Just state your position. We can’t have extended testimony.” Such treatment leads citizens to believe that committee members have already made up their minds on issues and that the hearings are only a show.
One of the major achievements during the session was the creation of the Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission on Redistricting. The commission ensures bipartisan involvement in the redistricting process for legislative and congressional boundaries and it will make recommendations for General Assembly action and approval by the governor.
Since I have talked and written about the need for this approach to redistricting, I felt obligated to attend the first meeting on Jan. 31 at the Larrick Center on the campus of VCU near the medical school. It was a cold day with light sleet and rain, and I thought it was my lucky day when I found a two-hour meter available outside the center. It wasn’t all that lucky; I locked my keys in my car. I noticed a surprising number of security agents at the center but, unfortunately for me, the three I asked to open my car refused, saying, “We don’t do that anymore.”
When the meeting was opened, Gov. Bob McDonnell thanked the commission, which he personally appointed, told them of their responsibilities and limitations, and assured them that they would not have interference from him or members of the General Assembly. He pointed out problems of redistricting in the past and recounted how a friend had once called to tell him that he had been zoned out of his House seat, so he ran and was elected to Congress. When he was zoned out of his congressional district, he said he would run for governor: “They can’t zone me out of Virginia,” he said, and he was elected.
The governor’s presence indicated the need for the larger than expected security personnel – who don’t open cars. After he departed, I was able to reach my wife, Alice, who very kindly brought me another key.
Along with budget consideration, the assembly has sought solutions to transportation problems. The governor proposed accelerating borrowing $3 billion at a time when interest rates are low and contractors are hungry. The money will be protected for exclusive use for transportation.
On another important topic, parents of children with autism have come to the assembly for decades asking for assistance. This year, through grassroots activism, advocacy by autism professionals, and discussions among legislative colleagues, a bill was passed by both houses that requires insurance companies to cover autism therapy. The bill limits care to children ages 2 to 6, ensuring the early intervention that is so critical for significant progress, as in other educational endeavors.
Every bill passed goes to the governor for his approval, an indication that Virginia’s governor is very powerful. After this extended short session, members of the General Assembly will come back to Richmond on April 6 for the so-called “veto session” which allows representatives to override a governor’s vetoes.
They will also be back before Aug. 1 to work on redistricting, hopefully giving full attention to the work of the commission. When approved, senators and delegates will know whether they still live in the districts they represent and can decide upon running in November. All delegates and senators will be up for election or reelection in 2011.
Like housework, politics is never done.