Report faults lawmakers on transparency

A report from a group of nonprofit lobbying organizations has criticized the 2015 General Assembly for what it describes as shortcomings in giving notice of meetings, debating all bills and recording votes.

The report by Transparency Virginia focused mostly on committees, where lawmakers do most of their work on individual bills.

The report was especially tough on the House of Delegates, where it found that 76 percent of almost 825 bills that died in a committee did so without a recorded vote or without any vote at all. In the Senate, only 7 percent of bills failed without a vote, recorded or unrecorded.

Much of the remainder of the 20-page report offers anecdotes and examples of what Transparency Virginia called “unacceptable” practices by lawmakers that make it hard for average citizens to understand the legislative process and obtain full access.

As one example, the Transparency Virginia report cited “multiple instances where public notice of upcoming House and Senate committee or subcommittee meetings was so short as to make public participation impossible.”

Transparency Virginia did not condemn any legislators by name or attack either political party in its report, but Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, bristled at its findings and conclusions.

Gilbert, who is deputy majority leader, called the report an attack on Republican legislative leadership and challenged Transparency Virginia to conduct a review of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s governing practices in areas such as compliance with freedom of information requests.

“This notion that there are things being done in secret is a lie, pure and simple,” Gilbert said. “It’s just a political hit piece by a left wing group . . .and it’s not accurate.”

Gilbert cited pro gun control and pro-abortion rights organizations on Transparency Virginia’s membership list as examples of what he called “an extreme left wing” group. Other members include the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the Alliance for Progressive Values and AARP Virginia.

Gilbert is chairman of the General Laws committee, where Transparency Virginia reported 74 percent of bills died with no vote or no recorded vote in the 2015 General Assembly.

Gilbert said any member of the House of Delegates can request a full vote in committee or subcommittee, and each committee is made up of Republicans and Democrats in proportions that reflect their overall numbers in the House. It takes no more than one or two members from either party to obtain a recorded vote on most subcommittees, Gilbert said.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, who is chairwoman of the Privileges and Election Committee, called transparency vital for lawmakers, media and the general public.

Vogel said she and other lawmakers count on receiving adequate time to relay information and work on bills.

“Transparency only helps me,” Vogel said, adding, “I’m sure anybody can argue we can do better, and I think it’s fair to say it’s easy to take shots but unless you run it yourself, you can’t appreciate the sheer volume and demands on committee and staff.”

Transparency Virginia found no bills died in Vogel’s committee without a vote or recorded vote, although the report noted that Senate rules require all votes to be recorded.

The Senate’s Courts of Justice Committee, which is co-chaired by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, also gave all bills a vote or a recorded vote. Obenshain did not return messages seeking comment on Transparency Virginia’s report.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com