Blog » Senator Garrett’s Disappearing Bills

December 5th, 2012 by Waldo Jaquith

Something interesting happened on Richmond Sunlight last week—three bills were listed here that weren’t listed on the legislature’s website. SB704, SB705, and SB706 were all displayed on Richmond Sunlight, all filed by Sen. Tom Garrett (R-Lynchburg), but the legislature’s website listed completely different bills under those same numbers. The bills on Richmond Sunlight were as follows:

Electric utilities; advanced meters. (SB704)
Prohibits any electric utility from installing an advanced meter on a customer’s premises or requiring a customer to use any advanced meter unless the customer has requested it. An advanced meter is a meter that is capable of measuring, recording, storing, and reporting usage according to predetermined time criteria and that allows two-way communications suited for demand-response programs. Electric utilities are also required to uninstall an advanced meter at a customer’s request; prohibited from giving any meter use data from an advanced meter to any person other than the electric utility; prohibited from shutting off service to a customer based on the amount of electricity the customer uses or the customer not having or using an advanced meter; prohibited from imposing any disincentive on a customer for not agreeing to the installation or use of an advanced meter; prohibited from obtaining data from an advanced meter more than once per month unless requested by a customer; and required to notify customers in writing that the installation and use of an advanced meter is not mandated by state law and is not permitted without the customer’s request. The measure also repeals an existing provision that prohibits an investor-owned electric utility participating in an energy efficiency program from connecting advanced metering technology and equipment on the customer’s side of the interconnection without the customer’s express consent.

Hunting nuisance species. (SB705)
Makes it lawful to hunt or kill nuisance species on Sunday. Among the species that could be hunted on Sunday are blackbirds, coyotes, crows, cowbirds, feral swine, grackles, English sparrows, starlings, and those species designated as nuisance species by regulations of the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Transportation of loaded rifles or shotguns; exemption. (SB706)
Provides an exemption for persons having a concealed handgun permit from local ordinances that prohibit carrying or transporting a loaded rifle or shotgun in a vehicle on public highways or roads.

As you can see, the same bills on the legislature’s website (SB704, SB705, SB706) are completely unrelated, filed by different legislators.

So what was going on?

The simplest explanation was that these bills had been filed and then un-filed, but I didn’t see how that was possible. If the patron had pulled the bills, they’d still be listed, and their numbers certainly wouldn’t be reassigned. At a dead-end, I contacted Senate Clerk Susan Schaar (who, like the rest of the staff at the General Assembly, has been wonderfully, crucially helpful to Richmond Sunlight over the years) and asked her what was going on. She explained that, in fact, they had been un-filed, though under extraordinary circumstances.

They’re moving to a new electronic bill filing system—legislators no longer need to submit bills on paper, and now can do it via computer. A new legislative assistant inadvertently hit a poorly labelled button, and accidentally introduced three pieces of legislation. Schaar authorized pulling the bills, since they was never really properly introduced in the first place, as only a legislator has the administrative power to do that.

In the brief time that the trio of bills existed on the legislature’s website, Richmond Sunlight dutifully captured and displayed all of the information about them. When they were pulled and replaced with new, unrelated bills with the same numbers, the site updated all of that information appropriately, but kept the tags and comments, resulting in a trio of very confusing, utterly unrelated comments and wildly inappropriate tags. With no other course of action available, I deleted the comments (one of which I had written) and replaced the tags, leaving no sign that the inadvertently filed bills had ever existed. Though I’m still not sure that’s the best thing to have done, I don’t know of a better approach. Hopefully this is an edge case that won’t soon be repeated, because the site’s data structure wasn’t built to handle disappearing bills.

(A tip to Sen. Garrett: if you’re going to file “Hunting nuisance species,” you’ll need modify it so that it complies with federal law. Grackles, blackbirds, and crows are protected under the Migratory Bird and Game Mammal Treaty with Mexico, which limits hunting each of these birds to just 124 days a year. This bill would raise the limit to about 140 days, more than is allowed under federal law.)

5 Responses to “Senator Garrett’s Disappearing Bills”

  1. LarryG Says:

    wow.. hopefully this is a one-time hiccup.

    and filing legislation that violates Federal Law?

    I foolishly thought that patrons had their bills vetted by legislative staff before making utter fools of themselves..


  2. Waldo Jaquith Says:

    wow.. hopefully this is a one-time hiccup.

    You and me both—I’d hate to have to rewrite the code to handle this!

    I foolishly thought that patrons had their bills vetted by legislative staff before making utter fools of themselves.

    To be fair to Sen. Garrett, the bill wasn’t supposed to have been filed yet—the reason for that may well be that it’s still undergoing review! And, hey, I’m no lawyer—maybe I’m missing something fundamental about the Migratory Bird and Game Mammal Treaty. I mean, I’m pretty familiar with it, and I’m pretty sure that I’m right about this, but the legislature employs some pretty smart attorneys to figure out this sort of thing. Incidentally, legislators don’t have to listen to legal advice from legislative staff. I happen to know that there are at least a couple of bills filed each year that the legislature’s attorneys advise against, but the sponsor chooses to ignore that legal advice. This’d be a pretty goofy hill to die on, though, so I’m not proposing that’s what’s happened here!

  3. LarryG Says:

    re: advice … I wonder what legislative staff’s “advice” was on the Constitutionality of the 3202 regional transportation tax?

    the Va Supreme Court made short work of the question.. made me wonder if that part of 3202
    was actually vetted…

  4. anony Says:

    Not all that interesting really. The GA site obviously provides automated error correction / clean-up for, well, human error… which apparently doesn’t happen on your site… a common problem in the world of shadow web sites. Perhaps you should try to fix your software.

    Finally, it’s hard to see the distinction between your choice to publish legislation (repeated and quoted for posterity in your commentary) that apparently was never intended to go public, and the gossip sites that chose to publish Anne Hathaway’s “wardrobe malfunction”. Is that what your site is about, or perhaps just misdirection from your software failure? And yes, I can already imagine your indignant/defensive/justified response.

  5. Waldo Jaquith Says:

    Finally, it’s hard to see the distinction between your choice to publish legislation (repeated and quoted for posterity in your commentary) that apparently was never intended to go public, and the gossip sites that chose to publish Anne Hathaway’s “wardrobe malfunction”.

    If you cannot perceive a distinction between publishing surreptitiously taken photographs of a woman’s labia and republishing public-domain legislation, then I can understand why you feel compelled to hide your identity. This legislation isn’t secret—it’s a government work product, already made public. (Your head might explode if you saw Politiwoops.) Not a soul at the legislature has objected to my republication of these bills, and for good cause.

    I think I’ve been pretty fair to all parties involved here, disclosing my own mistakes, explaining why people’s comments were erased, expressing concern that there may have been better ways to handle the problem (“I’m still not sure that’s the best thing to have done”), and working with the legislature to understand the source of the problem. You wouldn’t know about any of this (which you simultaneously react to strongly and claim is “not all that interesting”) if I hadn’t volunteered all of it. I could just as easily have deleted the bills and said nothing, but instead I explained what happened in detail. If this is a problem for you, then you’re in the wrong place, because this is what I do when I make a mistake—I inform people about it loudly and in detail. On the other hand, if you have actual suggestions for a better way to handle this and problems like it (other than “cover it up and pretend it never happened”), then great! I’d love to hear them. You’re clearly passionate about and interested in legislative transparency. You might, however, try presenting those suggestions in a fashion that doesn’t lead with accusing me of being a pornographer, because that just makes you look like an angry, insensitive creep.

    And yes, I can already imagine your indignant/defensive/justified response.

    Then why post this comment? You ask me a question, and then immediately inform me that I don’t need to respond, because you already know what I’m going to say? Is your goal not to engage in discussion? You reload this page every few minutes, eager to see a response, a response that you all but demanded that I not provide. It doesn’t make any sense.

    But, hey, no need to respond. I already know what you’re going to say! And you know what I’m going to say in response to that! Let’s just communicate psychically from here on out, and spare everybody else from having to read the tortured, predictive exchange. (That’s where this is leading, right?)