The short session

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On the second Wednesday in January, the Virginia General Assembly will convene for 30 days, as it does in odd-numbered years.

Our Assembly dates from the establishment of the House of Burgesses at Jamestown in 1619 and is heralded by Virginians as the “oldest continuous lawmaking body in the New World.” The opening is often carnival-like. Last year’s enemies greet each other as old friends, Senators and Delegates are eagerly moving into the General Assembly Building – often into new offices – along with legislative assistants, secretaries, receptionists and other aides. Many of the 900 lobbyists are there to exchange brief words with their representatives, and some may be recovering from pre-session receptions and parties.

While the General Assembly may have to deal with thousands of bills and resolutions, and will handle most of these in an orderly manner, it must do at least these three things:

  1. It must adjust the budget. The Assembly used to meet every other year, but in the 1970s its members realized that there was a need to adjust the biennial budget every year, and the so-called short session was initiated. Adjusting the budget will be a major undertaking in 2011 because of shortfalls in revenue, rising costs, increased needs, mounting interest in making loans and the near universal inability to raise taxes in a year when all seats in the House and Senate are up for election.
  2. Federal law requires each state to redraw its Congressional districts, as well as its House and Senate seats, during the year following the U. S. Census. The responsibility falls on the General Assembly to present its plan to the Governor for approval. The party in power is usually successful in determining districts that will keep its members in office. This amounts to office holders selecting their voters rather than voters selecting their representatives, something not planned by the Founding Fathers. With the House controlled by Republicans and the Senate narrowly in the control of the Democrats, this would be an ideal year to form a nonpartisan commission to do this work. Some states have been successful in this effort. In recent years, there have been relatively few really contested elections for General Assembly seats in Virginia.
  3. The Assembly must develop a feasible transportation plan. A plan passed a couple of years ago called for an appointed commission in Northern Virginia to set special tax rates for road building. Del. Bob Marshall took the plan to court based on the claim that an appointed body could not levy taxes. The State Supreme Court ruled 11-0 that the plan was unconstitutional, reminding us that we fought a successful war against “no taxation without representation.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed funneling $4 billion to road projects, largely through accelerated borrowing. His transportation plan stresses that now is the best time to start road projects, when construction costs are low, as well as interest rates. The Governor will also push for a constitutional amendment to protect this transportation fund from transfers to the general fund.

The Assembly needs a constant reminder that the 2010 session took $620 million from the Virginia Retirement System fund to balance the budget, although the state constitution reads, “The trust funds shall be segregated from all other funds of the Commonwealth, and shall be invested and administered solely in the interests of the members and beneficiaries thereof.” This money belongs to state workers, teachers, judges, state police and some local employees. Although it was stated that the Assembly will begin repaying this debt in 2013, there is no plan to set aside funds for repayment. The obligation will obviously be passed on to future members of the Assembly and to new Governors who may not take this responsibility seriously. Should the proposed amendment to safeguard borrowed money be approved, there is no guarantee that it will get more attention than the constitutional provision safeguarding VRS funds. Diverting pension contributions to meet current needs is not tax-and-spend. It is borrow-and-spend, which is even worse.

If there is additional time in its 30-day session, the General Assembly will be able to deal with thousands of less important bills and resolutions. Fortunately, there is also a provision that allows a 30-day extension of the session, and it is also possible for the Governor to call for a special session.

We admire members of the General Assembly, the Governor and other elected state leaders and wish for them much success in dealing with matters that affect all Virginians.

Anyone willing to serve in these roles is commended for giving the time, effort and resources required first to get elected and then to live under strenuous conditions for months each year to participate in the process of lawmaking.

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