01/09/15: 45 days of expectations in Richmond

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE SECOND Wednesday in January marks the start of the General Assembly regular session. In odd years, the legislature holds its shorter session. There is a lot to be done in just 45 days.

Already, more than 500 bills have been filed. If history is a guide, there will be many more by the time the prefiling deadline arrives Wednesday morning. In the last odd-year session, 2,575 bills were introduced. As is the norm, among the bills introduced were various resolutions. Over 800 such measures — most recognize the achievements of individuals and groups — were introduced, leaving 1,739 bills that could have become state law.

We’ll also see a number of bills that can best be described as “brochure bills.” These are designed to enhance the reputation of the sponsor on a particular issue. They show up on campaign literature as “introduced legislation” because they often fail to make it out of committee, let alone become law. In 2013, of the 1,739 legislative bills introduced, 805 became law.

While not all of the failed bills were brochure bills, a fair number were. We see more brochure bills in odd years because those are also election years in Virginia. This fall, all 140 seats of the legislature — 100 in the House of Delegates and 40 in the Senate — will be on the ballot.

Notwithstanding the upcoming elections, the legislature has some serious work to do. At the top of the list is the revision of the state’s budget. Virginia adopts a two-year budget in its even-year, theoretically 60-day sessions. (I say “theoretically” because of what we saw in 2014. The regular session adjourned March 8th but a special session convened March 24. That special session has yet to adjourn — it last met in November.)

Adjustments to the budget are normal — it is always a challenge to predict revenues. If they are lagging behind forecasts, the state has to cut spending, since the state constitution requires a balanced budget.

The biennial budget adopted last June was adjusted in September. Further adjustments are necessary, even though revenues have rebounded. The governor announced his proposed adjustments last month, including the expansion of Medicaid. The legislature will weigh in with its own proposed adjustments. I don’t expect Medicaid expansion to be among them.

The other big issue will be ethics reform. Last year, in the wake of the indictment of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, the legislature nibbled around the edges. The changes were minor, to put it nicely. The convictions of the McDonnells resulted in a flurry of statements about the need to make Virginia’s rules conform more closely to the federal statutes. The McDonnells faced 20 years and a $250,000 fine on each of the counts for which they were convicted.

Tuesday’s sentencing of Bob McDonnell to 24 months — according to experts, he will likely have to serve about 20 months, due to time off for good behavior — will have an effect on what ethics reform ultimately passes.

It is possible, like last year, that there will be no substantive changes. But there’s enough embarrassment around the state Capitol that wholesale changes, including an outright gift ban, at least have a chance.

According to the approved calendar, this General Assembly session is scheduled to adjourn on Feb. 28. It’ll be an entertaining six weeks.