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02.25.15 - In Virginia General Assembly, Many Bills Die By Stealth

RICHMOND, Va. — There’s more than one way to kill legislation in the Virginia General Assembly.

There’s the straight-up way: Put it up for a vote and lawmakers must go on record, pro or con.

Then there’s the stealthy way: Kill it in a subcommittee without a recorded vote, and it vanishes without a trace.

It’s a longstanding practice in Virginia’s 400-year-old legislature. But transparency advocates say the public deserves better.

A new broad-based coalition of 22 advocacy organizations says the system is undemocratic and should be changed. Throughout the 2015 legislative session, Transparency Virginia has been documenting instances of unrecorded votes, bills killed with no hearings, and failure to provide timely notice of meetings.

Most stealthy bill deaths occur in the House of Delegates, where the practice is routine. And no bill is too high-profile to escape such a fate.

Redistricting, for instance.

An ethics advisory panel appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year recommended removing the job of drawing legislative district lines from the General Assembly and turning it over to an independent, bipartisan commission. Critics say the current system results in bizarrely shaped districts designed to protect incumbents and preserve the majority party’s power.

A bipartisan measure to establish a redistricting commission in the state constitution passed the state Senate easily.

Then it went to the House Privileges and Elections Committee. It was assigned to a subcommittee and was never heard from again. No vote was taken.

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier County, the measure’s Republican patron, said she didn’t bother making a full-blown presentation to the panel because she knew from prior experience what would happen.

“The bottom line is, it was not going to succeed,” she said.

When Sen. Adam Ebbin’s proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reached the same House committee, Ebbin wasn’t even given the opportunity to make a pitch for it.

The amendment would ban discrimination based on sex.

“No hearing. No consideration,” said Ebbin, an Alexandria Democrat. “Just dismissal of the prospect of equal treatment of all without any discussion.”

In other cases, bills were killed by a voice vote of a subcommittee, with no record made of who voted which way. Among them were bills to:

— Allow voters 65 and over to vote by absentee ballot.

— Prohibit discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation.

— Allow future governors to seek a second consecutive four-year term.

After watching legislation get the stealthy death treatment for years, a group of activists decided this year it was time to make some noise about it.

The result was Transparency Virginia, which includes the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Julie Emery, executive director of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, another member of the coalition, noted the problem is bipartisan.

“Whatever party has been in control has abused that power,” she said.

Del. Mark Cole, the Spotsylvania County Republican who chairs the Privileges and Elections Committee, said unrecorded votes are rare.

“The vast majority of those votes are recorded, or have the ability to be recorded if a member requests it,” Cole said.

Even an unrecorded voice vote occurs in a public meeting where witnesses can see it, he said: “There’s nothing done in secret.”

Any change in the procedure would require a modification of the House rules, Cole added — “and I understand the rules have been that way forever.”