If city government is like a regular school year that drags on with continuances and deadline extensions, the General Assembly is summer camp: a whirling dervish of activity that can suck you into its vortex.
Only it’s during the cold of winter.
While the Capitol and its hallowed conventions may seem impenetrable and opaque, there are some simple ways to engage with the legislative process:
Tracking: For the most part, you can skip the creaky official Legislative Information System and go straight to Richmond Sunlight, at richmondsunlight.com. The nonprofit transparency organization has a user-friendlier site with a calendar of bills being heard in committees. And it’s free to sign up to search and track bills in which you’re interested.
Watching: The House and Senate floors broadcast a live stream on the General Assembly page, but access to archives has been a pain. Through this year, Waldo Jaquith of Richmond Sunlight bought each $12 DVD of the House and Senate floor sessions and uploaded them to the site — days later and at much cost to the nonprofit.
Now the House has started archiving its videos. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, has offered a budget amendment to do the same on the other side. “It’s 2017 People” is part of the bill’s pitch.
While Sunlight soon may be off the hook for archive keeping, another nonprofit, Charlottesville-based ProgressVA, steps in for committee and subcommittee meetings.
“In order to get to the floor, bills have to go through that process. A lot of bills don’t make it, and citizens deserve to be able to hear the conversation and understand why,” says Anna Scholl, ProgressVA’s director. “Amendments and public testimony and all those things are happening in committee as well. That’s a really key part of the process.”
Virginia is only one of nine states that doesn’t broadcast committee legislative sessions, a recent Daily Press report found. “Eyes on Richmond” is deploying 17 fellows and four cameras to attend about three-quarters of those meetings and archive them.
“While we are a progressive organization, [Eyes on Richmond] is designed to be nonpartisan,” Scholl says. “We’re not cutting off the feed for certain bills. We’re trying to cover the same committees every week from start to finish.”
The future has arrived, Richmond. No thanks to our own government’s commitment to access.
Join In: Letters, emails and calls are always an option, but you live in Richmond. Take advantage of your proximity to the Capitol. You can attend a committee meeting where a bill you’re interested in is being heard and testify.
Make an appointment — or just show up — at your delegate or senator’s office in the General Assembly Building. You’ll at least talk to an aide.
There are the well-paid professionals who make sure corporate interests and those of major political donors are being looked after in the state legislature, and then there’s the other kind of lobbyist: you. Even if your issue ends up being not in your elected officials’ jurisdiction, your delegate can direct you to the right place.
One problem that Scholl and others acknowledge is how difficult it is to get more than 24 hours notice about when a particular bill will be discussed in committee. So getting into your representative about your interests early is essential.
That’s also where advocacy groups and nonprofits come in. Most organize “lobby days” that set up the meetings and help you tell your story.
The Virginia League of Conservation Voters will keep an eye on environmental legislation. Drive Smart lobbies for bills on distracted driving. The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is concerned with all manner of rights and liberties. Virginians for the Arts preserve State funding for arts projects and nonprofits.
There are numerous business associations that lobby for bills that help companies and stakeholders in your professional field. And I’m sure Dominion Resources would accept help lobbying for the continued success of its utilities monopoly. To each their own.
Now go forth and enjoy your democracy while it lasts.
Your Local Delegation
District 9: Jennifer McClellan (D)
District 10: Glen H. Sturtevant Jr. (R)
District 16: Rosalyn Dance (D)
House of Delegates
District 68: Manoli Loupassi (R)
District 69: Betsy Carr (D)
District 70: Delores McQuinn (D)
District 71: Vacant
District 74: Lamont Bagby (D)