Bringing the people's work to the people

Transparency Virginia’s 2017 post-legislative review.

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20 January 2017

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Transparency Virginia, a collection of lobbyists and advocates monitoring transparency in the  General Assembly, will again this 2017 legislative session be monitoring the three areas of legislative accountability that first brought the group together in 2014.

First, TVa monitors the notice that is given for subcommittee and committee meetings so that citizens and advocates may observe or participate in them. Second, TVa also believes that all bills should receive consideration by a committee or subcommittee. Finally, TVa believes that all votes on bills should be recorded by name, not just by an up or down voice vote.

TVa members have endorsed HB1677, brought by Del. Ben Cline (R-Amherst), which would codify these second two points above:  The bill would require all legislation in both the House and Senate “to be considered by the committee of purview or a subcommittee thereof and receive a recorded vote.”

Passage of HB1677 would complement the committee notification system implemented in the House of Delegates last year by Speaker of the House William Howell. The notice system greatly improved the ability of citizens, the press, lobbyists and advocates to follow when bills they care about are being discussed and voted on in the House committees and subcommittees.

Though outside TVa’s three main areas, TVa also supports a measure announced by the Speaker this year to archive video recordings of House floor sessions on the House livestreaming website (http://virginia-house.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=3).  Video access enhances the public’s ability to monitor their elected officials  in action  and ascertain their positions on bills.

The meeting notice improvements and the video archives are improvements made since TVa’s formation and have brought Virginia government closer to the public.

TVa applauds the Speaker’s actions and encourages the Senate to make similar efforts.

Questions about TVa’s past and current work can be directed Megan Rhyne at 540-353-8264.

Transparency Virginia’s 2016 post-legislative review. Click here or click the image below to open the PDF.

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Please note that the article websites may have limits on how long the links stay live, and may require subscriptions or registrations. Transparency Virginia apologizes for any inconvenience.

Report: Virginia lawmakers block transparency, access to legislative process
In February, Delegate Jeffrey Campbell tried to revise Virginia’s “reckless” driving threshold so motorists couldn’t be criminalized for driving six miles over the speed limit on I-95. His bill never made it out of the Courts of Justice Committee. Like so many others, the Marion Republican’s measure was “left in committee,” where bills that lawmakers just don’t want to risk an up-or-down vote go to die, with no recorded tally. That way, constituents who couldn’t make the middle-of-the-day meeting in Richmond have no clue where their lawmakers stand on that bill or hundreds of others. It might be one thing if that was a rare occurrence. But a new report from Transparency Virginia backs up what anyone who’s spent time in the General Assembly knows well — both parties and chambers are rife with practices that thwart transparency and accountability in the legislative process.
Read more @ VirginiaWatchdog.org

Lack of Virginia’s General Assembly openness is criticized
Virginia’s lax ethics laws mean it can be tough to watch for officials’ conflicts of interest, but the job is even tougher with the General Assembly’s tendency to kill bills without recording how legislators vote. On top of that, General Assembly committees and subcommittees that are supposed to hear public views on legislation often give little notice of their meetings and agendas, and frequently block any public comment, according to a study of this year’s legislative action by Transparency Virginia, a coalition of citizen groups. The coalition released its report Tuesday. “People are being left in the dark,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and author of the Transparency Virginia report. (Marisa Porto, the vice president of content for the Daily Press, is on the Coalition for Open Government’s board of directors.)
Read more @ Daily Press

Editorial: Report faults Virginia House of Delegates on transparency
Have the members of the Virginia House of Delegates forgotten whom they work for?  Read the rest of this entry »

4ColorCapitolThe following statement was given by Megan Rhyne at the April 14 news conference where Transparency Virginia’s report was released. Rhyne is executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and the report’s principal author.

It is tempting for each of us in this room to take for granted the ways of the General Assembly.  Year in and year out, as lobbyists, advocates, media, staff or lawmakers, we all gradually figure out how the process works and how it doesn’t work.

We know how to look up committee meeting times, we know how to look up legislation, we know how to act and what to expect in a committee meetings. We know what the motions mean. We know how to approach the secretaries, the legislative aids, the staff attorneys.    And we always remember to preface our committee testimony by thanking the chair and the committee members.

We know these things because it is our job to know. We figure it out through being here, by observing, asking, and learning from others.

But are we in this room and elsewhere in the General Assembly and Capitol buildings today, are we the only ones who care about what happens here?  Are we the only ones who have a stake in the outcome of proposed legislation? Are WE the only ones who want to know how well our elected officials have performed the jobs we elected them to do?

The answer is clearly no.

Yet, for any member of the public or press who is not intimately familiar with the legislative process, following or participating in that process is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. For example, when seasoned lobbyists are chastised for not following unwritten rules for opposing a bill, imagine what a citizen faces when trying to participate in person.

When engaged observers are physically present in the committee room and yet still cannot completely pick out which members of a 22-person committee shouted out aye or nay, imagine a citizen’s confusion back home when the disposition of a bill is listed online only as “subcommittee recommends laying on the table by voice vote.”

The system is set up for those on the inside, yet even many professionals are frequently left in the dark. Where decisions about state and local laws that directly and indirectly affect each and every one of us are made, the short sessions and the rapid-fire scheduling of committee meetings undermine participation by and accountability to the citizens of Virginia.

It is with this backdrop that Transparency Virginia formed in December of 2014 and today releases its report documenting the murky practices frequently seen in the  Virginia General Assembly.

We are a loosely formed coalition of non-profit advocacy groups and individual lobbyists and advocates. We met in early January to identify the three practices we would take special note of during the session:

notice of meetings

the consideration of bills  AND

recorded votes on bills

We chose these three areas because citizens would have little trouble understanding the fundamental role of each in the overall legislative process.

Many of Transparency Virginia’s findings are disturbing. Bills were introduced but then left in committees without ever being added to an agenda much less given a hearing. Bills were defeated by unrecorded voice votes, allowing some lawmakers to avoid responsibility and disallowing others from making their position known. Meetings were called with notice so short as to make it virtually impossible for anyone other than the committee members to attend.

These practices paint a stark reality:  A body that prides itself on being a citizen legislature is too often a legislature that is NOT for the citizens.

It must be stated clearly and emphatically, though, that this report is not a condemnation of any one person or any one party.

Though Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, it would be as much of a mistake to say, “This is a Republican problem,” as it would be to say, “This is an attack on Republicans.”

The sad truth is that these are systemic problems. Problems that have developed over time, over parties and over party leaders.

To anyone who would reduce this to a partisan issue, I would make the following two points:

First, as the report mentions, there are committee and subcommittee chairs who do the right thing and committees that operate openly. All of these committees are chaired by Republicans.

Second, a committee is more than its chair. Every committee is made up of members of both parties. And any member of either party can make a motion or a substitute motion that is or is not in the spirit of transparency. The data Transparency Virginia analyzed shows only how the committee or subcommittee voted as a whole, not which individual made the motion. 

Further, any legislator of either party can speak out about opaque practices before, during and after committee meetings. No one from either party is gagged from advocating for transparency.

Transparency takes collective will and collective action. It can’t take place in a vacuum where lawmakers tell the public only how much they want to let them know, or where the public gets to demand that every detail be laid bare.

The aim of this report, and indeed for Transparency Virginia, then, is to facilitate a conversation about what makes better open government practices. What can we do to help citizens get and stay informed? What can we do to make participation easier?

We don’t have all of the answers.

It is our hope, instead, that our elected officials today and whoever they might be tomorrow take the public’s right to know seriously. They should work with their constituents and others to develop policies and procedures that work to the public’s benefit. And they should make it a priority to put those policies and procedures into practice.

This is what is best for us all. This is what makes us a Common-wealth. This is what makes us Virginians.

Transparency Virginia’s 2015 post-legislative review. Click here or click image to download the PDF.

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Killing bills by stealth

This is an Associated Press story that appeared Feb. 25, 2015, on the Washington Post website

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.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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