Tag Archives: general assembly

Senator Henry Marsh’s big day.

Senate Session

Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)

Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse—an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old—while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went onto college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”—shutting down public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education—and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill; at Hill’s encouragement, he got a degree in law from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.

So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, being sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.

Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided—without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings—to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.

I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”

Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[t]he General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what, exactly, this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural vote, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done—the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.

Lt. Gov Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.

Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.

Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he’s presenting himself as, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.

Photography is not a crime.

Near the top of my wish this for next month’s General Assembly session is a law explicitly authorizing citizens to videotape, photograph, and record audio of police officers in the line of duty. In the current issue of Reason, Radley Balko makes a powerful case for why this is important.

In theory, this is the sort of thing that Republicans should be all about. Sadly, I’ve got a tough time thinking of anybody in the General Assembly who would patron this.

How will we keep an eye on redistricting?

I’m really worried about how redistricting is going to happen. It strikes me as enormously likely that House Republicans and Senate Democrats will go into their respective huddles, and emerge with new district lines that will be voted on immediately. I fully anticipate that the first time that we see these lines will be when they are the law of the land. There will not be round after round of proposed district boundaries posted online, subject to public scrutiny, modified in response to public comment. Or, again, so I fear.

What’s to be done? Can we count on traditional media outlets—dwindling resources and all—to elbow their way into the proverbial smoke-filled rooms and tell us what’s going on? Will VPAP’s efforts be enough? What could be done, in theory? Imagine a healthy budget, tenacious volunteers, enthusiastic investigative reporters, and ample resources. In the face of a secretive legislature, determined to draw partisan boundaries, what would you have such a crew do to open up this process?

A General Assembly pre-filed tag cloud.

A tag cloud of the 139 bills prefiled for the 2010 General Assembly session thus far:

automobile bond bristol budget business calendar car charter children college commendation commerce committee concealed congress constitution constitutional amendment court crime custody death dillon rule disability divorce duffield education election elections electricity employment energy finance fire firearm governor gun handgn handgun health health insurance highway income tax insurance internet isle of wight judicial oversight legislature license plate loan locality marriage medicine military permission police property tax railroad real estate regulation river safety sbe school school board southampton sports sunlight tax tax credit tax cut telephone telework transportation university utility veteran voting vre weapon

Shorter sessions and zero pay for Virginia legislators?

Shaun Kenney agrees that our current legislative model isn’t working—as I wrote about recently—but proposes basically the opposite solutions as I: shorter sessions and no pay. It’s sort of the opposite of the free market approach. Shaun also coins the phrase “argumentum ad Jeffersoniam,” which I intend to repeat long and often enough that I come to believe I invented it, and start claiming credit for it.

The Hamilton scandal tells us it’s time to overhaul the General Assembly.

Phil HamiltonDelegate Phil Hamilton (R-Newport News) is in a lot of trouble for ethics violations, and rightly so. FOIAd e-mailed records show that Hamilton had Old Dominion University hire him as a consultant, using funding he’d allocated from the state budget, contingent on the earmark going through. Basically, he put in an earmark for himself, funneling it through ODU. That’s such a clear ethics violation that his fellow Republican, Speaker Bill Howell, has already asked the House Ethics committee to investigate, and the party’s leaders are lining up to declare that Hamilton has to resign.

There’s really nothing to debate here—Hamilton is clearly, totally in the wrong—which is precisely why Republicans feel so comfortable throwing him to the wolves.

(Incidentally, there’s no evidence right now that there’s anything about Hamilton’s behavior that indicates that his party membership has anything to do with it. There’s no reason to suspect that he collaborated with other Republicans on this, that there was a cover-up, and this is not a practice that is consistent with conservatism. Though I must confess there’s a certain amount of schadenfreude found in a supposed small-government Republican expanding government to employ himself.)

What’s interesting about this is that it shines a light on a long-standing problem of the General Assembly: we don’t pay legislators nearly enough for the work that we expect of them.

Phil Hamilton is going to lose his seat—and maybe worse—over a $40,000/year part-time job. We’re not talking about millions. Or a meaningful fraction of a million dollars. This is the sort of salary somebody can pull down managing a department of Sears. Why would Hamilton risk so much for so little money?

The answer to that is probably pretty simple: he has bills to pay, just like the rest of us. Though unlike you and me, he’s a member of the legislature, meaning that he has a job that occupies at least half of his time. And not half of his time in a convenient way, like Monday through Friday, 8 AM through noon, or two ten-hour shifts on the weekends. No, he’s got to head to Richmond and do nothing but legislatin’ for a couple of months every year. There’s a district office to run, fundraisers to hold, public meetings to attend, constituent service to provide, and the thousand small duties of the office. Then there’s the campaigning, which in a competitive race can easily eat up most of the day for a few months prior to the election. And how much do we pay legislators for performing this duty that is the centerpiece of their lives?

$17,640. That’s the annual salary for members of the House of Delegates. By my math, that’s something like twelve bucks an hour. I know people who make better money assembling sandwiches at Bodo’s.

Why do we pay them so badly? Because it allows us to maintain a happy fiction, the fiction that we have a part-time legislature with gentlemen legislators who represent the people because they are the people, who come together for a few weeks every year to do the state’s business, and then return to tilling their soil or making candles or selling slaves or whatever. This allows us to avoid a host of ethical problems, or at least pretend that we’re avoiding ethical problems. Put a banker on the banking committee that passes laws to regulate banks? No problem! Who knows banking better? A DUI attorney who introduces bills to toughen drunk driving laws, which benefits his business? That’s A-OK—because he’s obviously the man for the job.

We’re supposed to be shocked—shocked!—that Phil Hamilton, who works for the Newport News public schools, has introduced legislation that directly benefits him. If he were an attorney, that wouldn’t just be fine, it would be encouraged. But he’s not. So Hamilton is in deep shit.

Generally speaking, for a legislator to live within the minimal ethical boundaries established by the General Assembly, he must be a) an attorney b) independently wealthy or c) poor. Hamilton clearly had grown tired of option C, and figured that the state owed him for all of the time he’d put in for the public good. Had Hamilton done the correct thing and retired from his seat to earn some more money, he would have been in good company. I’ve never made a study of it, but it seems to me that a great many members of the legislature have stepped down because they simply couldn’t afford it anymore. The exception to that being attorneys.

Did you know that both Sen. Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell “work” for law firms right now? Obviously they’re not putting in a lot of office hours, but they’re drawing a salary. Any member of the legislature who is an attorney is free to do just that. You can get paid for doing nothing…as long as you’re a lawyer.

This should be a call to action for Virginia. We get the quality of government that we’re willing to pay for. At $17k, we’re going to get the idle rich, dilettantes, lawyers, and a handful of selfless, civic-minded individuals…and some of the latter group will not remain so selfless, winding up like Hamilton. We need to increase legislators’ salaries tenfold and bar outside employment. If you want to be in the legislature, you’ve got to go all-in. Then we can increase the length of the session to something humane, something that allows bills to get a proper airing—12 weeks, 16 weeks, maybe 20 weeks, spread out throughout the year, in the manner of Congress. Or we can keep doing what we’re doing. But from where I’m sitting, that’s not working out so well.

What Phil Hamilton did is wrong. He should lose his seat. He should lose his job. He should be shamed by his community. But let’s not pretend that he’s an anomaly. Hamilton just picked the wrong profession.

The legislature’s most prolific copatrons.

The more time that I spend mapping the social relationships of legislators via their copatroning habits, the more fascinated that I am by this mechanism of exploring the General Assembly. It really is a powerful tool. (To see one of the ways I’m using it on Richmond Sunlight now, check out HB1721, SB1436, or HB2482, where you can see a graph indicating the average partisan position of each bill’s cosponsors.)

Here’s a less thoughtful usage of this data, but no less interesting: a listing of the legislators in each body and the total number of bills that they copatroned in this year’s session.

Legislator #
Patsy Ticer (D) 61
Chap Petersen (D) 55
Robert Hurt (R) 51
Richard Stuart (R) 50
John Edwards (D) 45
Jill Holtzman Vogel (R) 44
Roscoe Reynolds (D) 44
Mary Margaret Whipple (D) 43
Harry Blevins (R) 41
Creigh Deeds (D) 40
Frank Wagner (R) 39
Fred Quayle (R) 39
Walter Stosch (R) 39
Janet Howell (D) 38
Tommy Norment (R) 38
John Watkins (R) 37
Don McEachin (D) 37
Toddy Puller (D) 37
Ken Stolle (R) 36
Henry Marsh (D) 35
Emmett Hanger (R) 35
Phil Puckett (D) 34
Steve Newman (R) 33
Ken Cuccinelli (R) 33
Frank Ruff (R) 33
Louise Lucas (D) 32
Mamie Locke (D) 32
George Barker (D) 31
Ralph Northam (D) 31
Edd Houck (D) 31
Yvonne Miller (D) 30
Stephen Martin (R) 30
William Wampler (R) 28
Ralph Smith (R) 27
Mark Herring (D) 27
Dick Saslaw (D) 26
Ryan McDougle (R) 26
John Miller (D) 23
Mark Obenshain (R) 22
Chuck Colgan (D) 21
Legislator #
Clay Athey (R) 102
Mark Cole (R) 96
Tom Rust (R) 91
Don Merricks (R) 89
Frank Hall (D) 83
Scott Lingamfelter (R) 81
John O’Bannon (R) 81
Vivian Watts (D) 80
Ken Plum (D) 75
Joe Bouchard (D) 74
Bob Hull (D) 74
Jennifer McClellan (D) 72
Dave Marsden (D) 70
David Englin (D) 69
Bobby Mathieson (D) 68
Al Eisenberg (D) 67
Jimmie Massie (R) 67
Paula Miller (D) 67
Joe Morrissey (D) 66
Tim Hugo (R) 66
Adam Ebbin (D) 66
Beverly Sherwood (R) 65
Mark Sickles (D) 65
Steve Landes (R) 65
Jim Scott (D) 63
Mamye BaCote (D) 63
Robert Tata (R) 63
William Barlow (D) 63
Bob Brink (D) 62
Phil Hamilton (R) 62
Ken Melvin (D) 62
Chris Peace (R) 62
Algie Howell (D) 60
Dave Albo (R) 60
Sal Iaquinto (R) 59
David Bulova (D) 58
Anne Crockett-Stark (R) 58
Margi Vanderhye (D) 58
Terry Kilgore (R) 57
John Cosgrove (R) 56
Chuck Caputo (D) 56
Charles Poindexter (R) 56
Kris Amundson (D) 55
David Toscano (D) 55
Ward Armstrong (D) 54
Jeion Ward (D) 54
Albert Pollard (D) 53
Jackson Miller (R) 53
Todd Gilbert (R) 53
Danny Bowling (D) 53
Dave Nutter (R) 52
Shannon Valentine (D) 52
Onzlee Ware (D) 52
Bill Carrico (R) 52
Danny Marshall (R) 50
Morgan Griffith (R) 50
Steve Shannon (D) 50
Harvey Morgan (R) 50
Bill Janis (R) 49
Riley Ingram (R) 49
Lionell Spruill (D) 49
Manoli Loupassi (R) 48
Ed Scott (R) 48
Glenn Oder (R) 48
Lynwood Lewis (D) 48
Roslyn Tyler (D) 48
Kenny Alexander (D) 47
Barry Knight (R) 47
Johnny Joannou (D) 47
Delores McQuinn (D) 47
Ben Cline (R) 47
Matt Lohr (R) 46
Rosalyn Dance (D) 46
Chris Jones (R) 46
Sam Nixon (R) 45
David Poisson (D) 45
Brenda Pogge (R) 45
Harry Purkey (R) 45
Joseph Johnson (D) 44
Kirk Cox (R) 43
Tom Gear (R) 43
Chris Saxman (R) 42
Paul Nichols (D) 42
Kathy Byron (R) 41
Jim Shuler (D) 41
Bud Phillips (D) 40
Bill Fralin (R) 39
Lee Ware (R) 39
Bill Howell (R) 39
Jeff Frederick (R) 37
Joe May (R) 37
Charniele Herring (D) 36
Lacey Putney (I) 36
Bobby Orrock (R) 35
Frank Hargrove (R) 35
Rob Bell (R) 35
Watkins Abbitt (I) 35
Bob Marshall (R) 32
Tom Wright (R) 28
Clarke Hogan (R) 22

Sen. Patsy Ticer comes in #1 in her chamber, with 1.69 times as many bills copatroned as the average member of her chamber, while Del. Clay Athey is at the top of his half of the legislature—and the whole of the General Assembly—with an impressive 1.82 times as many bills copatroned as the average member of the House.

Analysis bears out notions of Republicans in the House and Senate

I crunched the numbers on the collective partisanship of Republican and Democrats in the Virginia House and Senate, and I think that the results are really interesting, insofar as they support the perception that House Republicans are much farther to the right than House Democrats are to the left and that Senate Republicans are closer to the center than Senate Democrats or either of the parties in the House.

This was done by analyzing three different natures of copatroning relationships between legislators:

  1. The party membership of all of the legislators who have copatroned all of a legislator’s bills.
  2. The party membership of all of the legislators who have introduced bills that this legislator has co-patroned.
  3. The party membership of all of the legislators who have co-patroned bills that this legislator has also co-patroned.

These three percentages are then averaged and scaled. A legislator with a perfect balance between the legislators in those cosponsoring relationships—and by “perfect” I don’t mean 50/50, but I mean in proportion to each party’s representation in their respective chamber—would have a score of 0. A legislator who only worked with Democrats would have a score of -100, and a legislator who only worked with Republicans would have a score of +100. These numbers don’t tell us anything about ideology, only about partisanship—the extent to which members of these parties group together to the exclusion of members of the other party. For examples of these results in action, see the Richmond Sunlight pages for either of my two legislators, Del. Rob Bell or Sen. Creigh Deeds.

Here are the results from averaging these numbers across parties and chambers:

D -26
R +46
I +26
D -22
R +20

So not only can we see that the parties’ reputations are borne out, but that the House’s two independents are significantly to the right of the center, though not as far to the right as the average House Republican.

I can see that I’m going to have fun with the results of these new partisanship calculations.

Sen. Obenshain’s miscarriage criminalization bill.

Sen. Mark Obenshain is trying to criminalize miscarriages. Old-timers in the Virginia political blogosphere may remember when Del. John Cosgrove tried this in 2005. That was hoot. Maura Keaney had him on Nightline within days. Cosgrove had some cock-and-bull story about how the bill didn’t do that at all, accusing bloggers of making it all up, but he ultimately withdrew the bill out of embarrassment.

Won’t this be fun?