Ken Plum: General Assembly values efficiency over effectiveness
At the time of this writing, the General Assembly seems to be on course for an earlier than scheduled February 28 adjournment date. For a part-time legislature that in recent years has found it difficult to stay within its 60-day session in the even-numbered years and 45-day session in the odd-numbered years, finishing work ahead of schedule would be unprecedented.
The good news for the Commonwealth would be savings in the money it costs to run the legislature; for many members who have employment obligations and for all who leave their families, an early adjournment would mean a return to normal living. For legislative members running for re-election—all of us this year because all House of Delegates and State Senate seats are up for election this November–adjournment of the General Assembly would mean an early start to fundraising prohibited during the legislative session and campaigning. Among those who believe the old adage that “the Commonwealth in its persons and property is never safe when the legislature is in session” there is probably a collective sigh of relief when the legislature adjourns sine die(without a future date set).
Adoption of various forms of technology over the past several years has sped up the law-making process. For most members, the process is now essentially paperless. Mammoth bill binders have been replaced with laptops and iPads. The floor voting system that was a series of electric switches when I first went to the legislature is now electronic. Citizens have complete access to bill texts and histories, including member voting records at http://lis.virginia.gov.
A serious question remains as to whether the push for efficiency and early adjournment is in the best interests of constituents. While more than 2500 bills and resolutions were considered in record time, did the work of the people get done? In too many major instances it is clear that important work was put aside in the interest of efficiency that represents a serious loss to constituents. Certainly the refusal to take up Medicaid expansion reduced debate, but it meant the loss of health care coverage for nearly 400,000 working poor Virginians and the loss of billions of dollars paid by Virginia taxpayers that will not be returned to the state. Lost, too, is the economic stimulus that would have come from the provision of more health care services in the state. I am not sure that advocates of the state ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, establishing an independent redistricting commission, or passing common sense gun safety measures will be too impressed with the efficiency of the legislature that came at the expense of their issue not being adequately addressed. Nor will local governments and school boards and colleges and universities that are being severely pinched by reductions in state assistance.
A more significant metric that should be applied to the General Assembly is not how few or how many days the members were at the Capitol but rather how many significant issues faced by Virginians were effectively addressed.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.