The 2011 General Assembly session has entered the home stretch. With just one week remaining before the scheduled adjournment on February 26, legislative workdays are getting longer as lawmakers work to finish the process of hearing the hundreds of bills still under consideration this session.
This year, the final legislative week began with a holiday. As I have noted before however, holidays during a General Assembly session are marked by speeches and not days off. CLICK HERE to view a short video update from this week.
February 21 was Washington's Birthday. While this federal holiday has been marketed by retailers as "President's Day" for as long as anyone can remember, the official name for the day still honors only one of the 43 men who have served in that high office.
Even though our nation's first President was born in Virginia, was a resident of Virginia throughout his entire life, served in the Virginia House of Burgesses (the predecessor of the House of Delegates), and represented Virginia in the First and Second Continental Congresses, the Virginia General Assembly had a normal workday on the federal holiday honoring him. Considering that the man known as the "Father of his Country" spent most of his adult life in public service, it may be entirely appropriate that we acknowledge his countless contributions and world-changing accomplishments by working on the holiday commemorating the 279th anniversary of his birth.
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This week, the Senate and House began negotiations to reach agreement on their two different packages of amendments to Virginia's 2010-2012 Budget. Those negotiations are conducted by lawmakers who serve on the Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committees.
These lawmakers, of which I am one, are commonly referred to as "conferees" and are charged with the responsibility of meeting during the remaining days of the session and hammering out an agreement on changes to our two-year spending plan. While this may sound simple, it is not. The process can be grueling, as legislators have to spend long hours poring over spreadsheets detailing the differences between the two competing proposals. Adding to that challenge, the tight schedule of the final days means most of those meetings will take place late in the evening.
While a lot of news is generated by the activities of the budget conferees, they are not the only legislators who have to hold negotiations to reach agreement on bills. In the process of approving legislation, the Senate and House often produce different versions of the same bill. When hearing a House bill, the Senate may want to make a change, and the House may make changes to a Senate bill. But, only one version of the bill can be sent to the Governor.
Hammering out differences in legislation is the responsibility of conference committees. These committees usually consist of six legislators, three senators and three delegates. When the two houses pass different versions of the same bill, both bodies appoint three legislators to meet and resolve the differences. When the conference committee reaches an agreement creating a single version of the legislation, the bill is returned to the Senate and the House for final approval. Only after that approval is given can a bill be sent to Governor McDonnell for his consideration.
Unfortunately, this week my budget transparency bill, Senate Bill 1353, was killed by the House of Delegates. I introduced this legislation to make the process of approving the Commonwealth's biennial budget more transparent while increasing the accountability of lawmakers. SB 1353 would have required the Chairmen of the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee to provide a report specifying items included in the conference committee report on the budget that were not in the House or Senate versions of the budget, or were provisions of legislation that failed to pass either house. The bill is part of the Senate Republican Legislative Agenda for 2011.
This common sense reform would have held our elected officials accountable for budgetary excess, and keep Washington-style budget practices out of Virginia. I believe that the public and legislators should be made fully aware of what is in the budget and how it got there. There have been instances where legislators have slipped earmarks into the budget at the last minute, leaving most legislators in the dark until after the budget has passed. This is simply unacceptable. I introduced this bill before I became a budget conferee and I will continue to push this measure as a budget conferee. Including such items in the budget undermines public confidence in the legislative process. This much needed measure would have added needed sunlight to the budget process.
Location, Location, Location
In the final days of the General Assembly session, if you hear about an issue that you'd like to weigh in on with your opinion, please drop me an email at District03@senate.virginia.gov.or or come and visit us in room 426 is the General Assembly Building which is located at 9th and Broad St in Richmond.
Very truly yours,
Senator Tommy Norment