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Another year, another blackout in General Assembly committee rooms

By   /   January 8, 2013  /   No Comments

COMMITTEE ACTION: An abortion protester is removed from a committee room last session.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

RICHMOND — Virginia’s venerable legislative body is showing its age … or not.

The General Assembly, descendant of the circa 1619 House of Burgesses, convenes again Wednesday. And, once again, Virginians will be in the dark when legislative subcommittees and committees meet.

Oh, sure, a dwindling few members of the press will attend and report on some of the proceedings. A Richmond TV station might even air a bit of random footage now and then.

But unlike 37 other states, there will be no streaming video of committee and subcommittee hearings in real time, or any other time. No audio feeds either. (See a state-by-state comparison at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ site here.)

It’s not as if the technology isn’t already at the Capitol. Floor sessions of the House and Senate can be viewed online at http://virginiageneralassembly.gov/

But legislation is made or broken at the subcommittee and committee level. And, for all intents and purposes, these panels operate out of the public eye.

What’s worse, the General Assembly’s public-notification rules further obfuscate the people’s business. Agendas are rarely posted more than a day ahead of time, and there are no guarantees.

“Keep in mind that even if a bill is on the agenda for a particular meeting, it may not get heard that day,” writes Waldo Jaquith, at his Richmond Sunlight website.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, notes, “The bulk of the work, especially on the House side, is done in the committees and subcommittees.”

Yet House committees will not always entertain public testimony if citizens have already spoken at a subcommittee.

This all makes it particularly tough on interested citizens living in far-flung corners of the Old Dominion.

A resident of Ewing, which actually lies west of Detroit, has a 400-mile, 6 ½-hour drive to Richmond. And what should be a two-hour jaunt from Alexandria can take twice that long on chronically congested Interstate 95.

Virginia’s long-standing transportation challenges, when combined with a technological gap, keep the state’s seat of government a remote redoubt.

While lawmakers can’t do anything about traffic in the short term – even if they had hundreds of billions of dollars of free cash to spend – the General Assembly does have the power to enter the 21st century on the cheap.

Florida, for example, uses Florida State University’s public television station, WFSU, to operate the Florida Channel, which has carried gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative hearings since 1996.

To call it the Florida Channel, singular, is a misnomer. Sometimes, as many as four or five committee meetings are streamed on multiple channels simultaneously. All live. All free.

Is there any reason this state couldn’t utilize hometown Virginia Commonwealth University and Richmond’s PBS station in the same fashion? VCU does have a School of Mass Communications, after all.

To be fair, computer-savvy Virginians aren’t totally in the dark. The General Assembly’s Legislative Information System offers online resources to track bills. Private sites such as Jaquith’s and the Virginia Public Access Project’s new “Issue*Matic” tool augment the LIS.

But, good as they are, these are no substitutes for live, unscripted video.

State Delegate Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, has twice introduced resolutions to shed more sunlight on committee meetings. Ironically (or not) his proposals never made it out of the Rules Committee.

Republican Sen. Richard Stuart of Montross and Delegates James LeMunyon, R-Chantilly; Mark Keam, D-Vienna; Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church; Tag Greason, R-Landsdowne; and Rich Anderson, R-Woodbridge, are among those who favor greater transparency.

Making legislative proceedings freely and fully available to the taxpaying public is not a partisan issue. It’s a matter of good government earning the public’s trust.

Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward



Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.