Archive for January, 2008

Tracking the Budget

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Every two years the General Assembly sets the budget for the next two years. This is one of those years. Rather than a 45 day session, it goes on for 60, with the understanding that it’ll take an extra couple of weeks to sort out the budget. (Often it has gone substantially longer, not because of extra work, but because House and Senate Republicans have found themselves at an impasse, and had to stare each other down and see who would blink first.)

The tricky thing about the budget is that it’s all in one fat bill. When a senator or a delegate wants $50,000 for a project in their district, she doesn’t file a bill, but a budget amendment. Those end up as amendments to the House budget and the Senate budget. You can’t track those on Richmond Sunlight. But you can keep up with budget amendments on the General Assembly’s website, which lists every budget amendment filed by every legislator. You can even check to see what your own legislators have requested from state coffers. It’s a great little system that they have set up. A whole lot of money gets spent in this process, so it’s well worth taking a peek at the figures.

Republicans introduced a measure that would create a unified system to track the final budget, keeping a ten year history, SB585 in the Senate and HB1360 in the House. But each bill was passed by for the year in their committees yesterday, effectively killing them.

Highlighted Legislator Comments

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Sometimes legislators comment on their own bills, but what they write appears just like any other comment, so it can be easy to miss. No longer. Now, when reading comments on bills, it’s now a snap to see when a bill’s patron has spoken up. Their comments are highlighted graphically to call immediate attention to them. For instance, here’s a recent comment by Del. Sal Iaquinto:

Sal Iaquinto writes:
Lee,

The bill was amended to make the home study valid for 24 months for all adoptions. This should make everything equal.
Posted 7 days ago.

For other examples, see comments by Del. Kris Amundson or Del. David Toscano.

House Showdown Over Bill Withdrawal

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

A strange scene presented itself on the floor of the House today, pitting Republicans against Democrats in a procedural debate. The Associated Press’s Bob Lewis explains:

Del. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, had asked that his legislation to allow collective bargaining by state and local government employees be withdrawn. Such requests are often made and routinely granted every year.

But Republicans refused, intent on forcing Democrats to take a floor vote that could potentially alienate unions, among the Democrats’ most generous constituencies.

[…]

The ensuing roll call showed 55 Republicans, two conservative independents and two Democrats voting not to advance the bill. There were no votes in favor of it, and 42 of the House’s 44 Democrats did not vote.

Then, invoking a rare parliamentary privilege, Republicans singled out 25 Democrats who did not vote and, one-by-one, ordered that the official record reflect that they had voted no, just as the Republicans had, creating an inflated final count of 82-0 to effectively kill Ebbin’s bill. Griffith said he quit after 25 because he got tired.

Here is the official House video of Griffith’s challenges to the votes.

Tracking Lobbyists

Monday, January 21st, 2008

There are hundreds of people who are paid to go to Richmond during session each year and lobby members of the General Assembly on behalf of businesses and interest groups. These folks make a real impact on the legislative process. Lobbyists are required to register with the state, naming their clients and stating what issues they’ve been hired to lobby for or against.

Unfortunately, that’s where the requirements end. They don’t have to say who they’re lobbying or cite a single bill that they’re concerned with. One lobbyist, hired by the Alcohol Beverage Council of Virginia, unhelpfully discloses that she’s representing the group in “matters affecting the alcohol beverage industry.” Most are just that vague. At the other end of the spectrum is a lobbyist representing AOL, disclosing that he’s representing their interest in the realms of “internet governance, technology policy, tax reform.” Which is much more helpful, but still just not very useful. Short of some significant change in lobbying regulations — which would be tough to pass, what with all of the lobbyists surely opposing it — that’s as good as it gets.

That said, there’s some useful information available. A list of all registered lobbyists can be found on the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website. But it’s presented in a far more useful format on the website of our friends at VPAP. There you can find who has volunteered that they’re lobbying about energy, farming, and even gamefowl. By looking over how many lobbyists are following an issue and who they’re working for, it can give you a good idea of how contentious that issue is likely to be and even whether a bill is likely to pass.

Notification of Bill Hearings

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Richmond Sunlight is mostly about telling you what has already happened, but isn’t particularly good at telling you what’s going to happen. In an effort to improve that, we’ve built up a database of committee and subcommittee meeting times and dates, and we’re gradually writing the code to pry upcoming meeting dockets out of the General Assembly’s website. That allows us to notify people when a particular bill is going to come up for a vote, so that they can contact their legislator or attend the meeting. For example, here’s a notice currently appearing on the page for SB376:

Hearing Scheduled
This bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education and Health‘s Public Education subcommittee on 01/21/2008. It meets on Monday, 1/2 hour after adjournment, 4th Floor East.

Right now this feature is only in place for 20 of the Senate’s 28 subcommittees and none of the House’s 47 subcommittees. It’ll just require a little more boring data entry to get the Senate done. The House will be trickier. Their agenda listings are rendered in Java, which is to Richmond Sunlight as kryptonite is to Superman, and their docket pages have URLs so long that they allow for 4 x 1099 (or 0.4 googols) possible dockets, enough for the General Assembly to have a unique URL for every committee docket for every session between now and the heat death of the universe. So…uh…that’ll take us a while.

Spruill Seeks to Bar Truck Balls

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

As media outlets across the state are reporting this evening, Del. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) has introduced a bill that prohibits the display of “objects or devices representing or resembling genitalia on motor vehicles.” A Wikipedia entry for just such an object explains precisely what Del. Spruill has in mind:

Truck balls, also known as Truck nuts, are accessories for pickup trucks and other vehicles. Capitalizing upon the association of trucks with machismo, truck balls resemble oversized human testicles inside scrota of various colors. This trend began in the United States in 1998 and first sold on the internet in 1999.

It was during the 2005 General Assembly session that the House made international news for passing a bill that would ban low-slung pants, in what became known as “the droopy drawers bill.” That bill was introduced by Del. Algie Howell (D-Norfolk). It failed in the Senate, preventing it from becoming law. Ironically, Del. Spruill derided that bill, and was widely quoted describing it as “foolish” and asking his fellow legislators to “let these kids express themselves.”

Photosynthesis Notes Listed on Bills

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

This evening we added a new feature to Photosynthesis, the free, custom bill tracking software on Richmond Sunlight. When you make a note about a specific bill (click on the little “e” — for edit — icon on the right side of your bill listing), now that note will appear blended in with the comments on that bill’s page. (For example, you can see one of Virginia Interfaith Center’s own bill notes here.) No longer are your bill notes limited to appearing on your own portfolio page.

Individuals, organizations, businesses and even legislators can take advantage of this by having a single place to put position papers, video, audio, and links to additional resources that provide evidence in support of or against a bill.

Committees Updated

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Forty eight hours after committee assignments were made, we’ve got them entered into Richmond Sunlight. It’s surprisingly laborious to enter 456 committee assignments for 140 legislators.

Live Senate Video

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

The House of Delegates may oppose transparency, but the Senate is at least conceptually OK with it. The Senate provides a live video stream of floor sessions. It’s only available via Windows Media Player, there’s never enough bandwidth for many people to watch at once, and they don’t archive it — if the middle of the work day isn’t a good time for you to watch, you’re out of luck. But they are doing it, and they deserve credit for that. You can tune in whenever the Senate is convened, generally around noon on weekdays.

House Opposes Transparency Proposals

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

With the open of the sixty day General Assembly today, the House of Delegates debated a pair of open government measures, and both failed.

House Minority Leader Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Martinsville) introduced a rules change to require that House floor sessions be broadcast for the public to observe. After a brief debate, with Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City) speaking against the proposal, the plan was defeated, 55-43.

House Democrats also proposed overturning the 2006 change in legislative process that allows subcommittees — with just two votes required — to kill bills with secret votes. In 2006, 491 bills were killed secretly. That number rocketed to 840 in last year’s session. Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) spoke in favor of the change, while House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) opposed it, claiming that writing down who votes for what isn’t “efficient.” That proposal, likewise, failed, so the General Assembly will continue to hold hundreds of votes in secret.

Ironically, the House Democratic Caucus recorded these two debates, and has made each of them available on their blog — live broadcasting and recording votes.