Archive for March, 2010

Two Special Sessions Likely

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Governor Bob McDonnell is considering convening two special sessions of the General Assembly, Anita Kumar writes for the Washington Post. He’s looking to hold one on transportation and one on “government reform,” but only if he can first gain enough support for his plans that they’re likely to pass. There’s not yet any indication of when these will be held, how long they’ll last, or what they’ll involve, but we’ll follow them on Richmond Sunlight as closely as any regular session.

General Assembly Sets Budget, Adjourns

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

The legislature set the budget this evening, wrapping up the General Assembly session just one day after their allotted sixty days. Now all of the bills that passed the legislature will go onto Governor Bob McDonnell, who will sign or veto each bill. (Generally only about a dozen bills are vetoed each year—most are signed into law by the governor.) As those bills are signed, we’ll list them here, along with the 169 bills that he’s signed off on so far.

After that, the General Assembly will get together again in their annual reconvened session on April 21—just five weeks from now—when they’ll have a chance to muster enough votes to override the governor’s veto on any bills. That’s usually very brief—a few hours—and whether it’ll be interest depends on what the governor vetoes.

But Richmond Sunlight doesn’t shut down during the rest of the year. As always, we’ll be adding new features, analyzing what exactly happened this year, and filling you in on all of the stuff that goes on during the other ten months out of the year. After all, prefiling for the 2011 session starts in just four months.

The Light Side of the House

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Some folks picture the General Assembly as a serious, strait-laced place. It is not. The House of Delegates can be especially funny, in no small part because of the quick wit of Ward Armstrong (D-Martinsville), who is said to harbor ambitions to run for statewide office:

Video courtesy of the House Republican Caucus.

Senate Quietly Killing Bills in Subcommittee

Monday, March 8th, 2010

An editorial in Saturday’s Virginian-Pilot explained the new Senate trend of killing bills in subcommittee. It was the House that started this new system, four years ago, making it possible for just four delegates to kill a bill that had already passed the Senate unanimously. Senators thought this was just awful. But now they’re doing the exact same thing, killing bills in subcommittee meetings with as few as two members present. Like Delegates, Senators use these little-attended, unrecorded subcommittee meetings to kill bills that they worry would be too popular with constituents to vote against, but that they can’t stomach voting for, or vice versa.

Senate Committee Kills Vote-Recording Bill

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Del. Jim LeMunyon’s (R-Oak Hill) HB778 was killed in the Senate Rules Committee this morning, on a 13-2 vote. The bill would have provided legislators’ voting records on the General Assembly’s website. (The website already tracks the outcome of every recorded vote, it simply doesn’t allow visitors to list the votes by legislator.) Officially, the bill was “continued to 2011” (meaning held over for further consideration next year) but most bills continued to the next year are quietly killed before the session even begins. At the Roanoke Free Press blog, Valerine Garner talked with Sen. John Edwards (who voted against the bill), about which she wrote:

According to Edwards the Clerk of the Senate, Susan Schaar said this would take substantial staff time to comply with such a bill. In any case Edwards said the House could do this on their own administratively saying “you don’t need a bill … it sounded like the House was trying to tell the Senate how to run its own affairs.”

The Senate has its own website internally explained Edwards that is not available to the public. Edwards wondered why anyone would “want to look at the whole list” of bills and “aren’t people just interested in looking at one bill at a time.”

Note that, despite Edwards’ remarks, the House and Senate use the same computer system to display vote data, and only one system would need to be changed. Note, too, that the legislature doesn’t even make it possible to look at one bill at a time—the public can only look at one vote at a time. To find out how legislators voted on this very bill, for instance, it’s necessary to look at three different sets of vote results. A significant reason that people want to look at a big list of bills, as Edwards is likely aware, is for opposition research. If a Republican was to challenge Edwards, she would need to read through and hand-tally thousands of votes to assemble a comprehensive voting record for Edwards, in order to inform voters whether Edwards’ record matches his rhetoric. (Journalists, bloggers, and constituents all frequently find themselves faced with performing the same task, too.) Putting all of a legislator’s votes in one place makes that process substantially easier.

HB778 was opposed by Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31), Chuck Colgan (D-29), John Edwards (D-21), Janet Howell (D-32), Mamie Locke (D-2), Louise Lucas (D-18), Henry Marsh (D-16), Yvonne Miller (D-5), Tommy Norment (R-3), Phil Puckett (D-38), Toddy Puller (D-36), Dick Saslaw (D-35), Patsy Ticer (D-30), and William Wampler (R-40). The only two legislators who supported it were Edd Houck (D-17) and Fred Quayle (R-13). Although the committee is controlled overwhelmingly by Democrats, this was not a party-line vote: two Republicans voted against the bill, while one voted for it.

Senate Debating Providing Legislators’ Votes

Friday, March 5th, 2010

The Senate Rules committee is today debating HB778, a bill introduced by Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-Oak Hill) that would provide legislators’ voting records on the General Assembly’s website. Right now there’s no way to learn how a legislator has voted. You can see how legislators voted on a given bill (such as the House’s overwhelming passage of this bill, 86-13), but not in the other direction, not grouped by legislator. Which means that if you want to figure out a legislator’s voting record for this year, you’ll need to look at every single vote held on every single bill introduced in every year this year, a task that would take weeks. The Senate Rules subcommittee who heard the bill a few days ago was not favorable to it, and this bill’s fate doesn’t sound good.

This very flaw in the legislature’s website was a significant impetus behind establishing Richmond Sunlight. Want to get Del. LeMunyon’s 2010 voting record? Download from us it as a spreadsheet. It just takes a few seconds. That spreadsheet is generated on the fly—no human effort required—using the very data that’s already on the General Assembly’s website. You can download any legislator’s voting record from the bottom of the right-hand column of their page.

The Roanoke Times, in an editorial today, calls for legislators to open up their voting records, and includes some very nice words about Richmond Sunlight:

The clerk of the Senate reportedly worries that compiling the records would be costly and difficult. One must look no further than RichmondSunlight.com to see such concerns are unfounded.

RichmondSunlight is a nonpartisan Web site that compiles General Assembly information, including the voting records for each member. If a shoestring, volunteer Web site can do it, surely legislative staff can.

Indeed, RichmondSunlight, for its ease of use and comprehensive presentation of General Assembly records, has become the go-to site for anyone who follows the action in Richmond. Yet because a private group runs it, it could disappear in a moment after a fundraising shortfall or volunteer disinterest. It’s nice to have, but Virginians need an official tally.

We agree entirely, although with one correction.: Richmond Sunlight has an annual budget of $0, there is no fundraising, no staff, just one volunteer. It exists because Blue Ridge InternetWorks, a big supporter of open government, has donated a dedicated server. Which, if anything, further validates the Times’ position that the General Assembly has got to provide voting records themselves. Richmond Sunlight will exist for many years to come, but odds are that the General Assembly will be around longer still. Their website should be the official record, not ours.