Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cville Hook: Stupid Legislative Tricks...

From the Charlottesville Hook...

COVER- Stupid legislative tricks? 2,900 bills flood General Assembly
published 2/14/2008 12:00:00 AM

Virginia's General Assembly started its 60-day session January 9 and has until March 8 to come up with a budget for the next two years, although that doesn't always happen-- witness 2004, when it took 100 bitter days to reach an agreement.

Along with that weighty fiscal responsibility, the state's part-time legislators have at current count 2,935 bills to consider, including some on questionable topics, such as the display of genitalia on vehicles (HB 1452), text messaging while driving (HB 39), and carrying concealed box cutters (HB 169).

That means about two minutes consideration per bill, estimates Waldo Jaquith, creator of Richmond Sunlight, a website that tracks all bills and the legislators who carry them.

"They're clearly overwhelmed," says Jaquith about the volume of would-be legislation, 1,958 of which come from the House of Delegates and 977 from the Senate (at press time-- legislators are still adding!). With 140 legislators, that's 20.96 bills per legislator.

So why do those elected to the General Assembly think Virginia needs more and more laws, in particular, felonies?

"They think it's a good thing, that their constituents want it," said former delegate Mitch Van Yahres a week before his February 8 death. "Sometimes it's just to correct an error in the code. I think legislators tend to put in too many bills."

Delegate Rob Bell has 26. "I assume every one of my bills is genius, but the volume is a problem," he concedes. "We need to winnow it down."

He notes that for 2009, a nonbudget year in which the General Assembly meets for 45 days, "We've passed a rule you can't have more than 10 bills in an off year."

Among Bell's legislative offerings this time is HB 992, which defines prostitution to include-- well, hand jobs. "It's a bill brought to me by a constituent," explains Bell. The bill did not get out of subcommittee.

His candidate for the silliest legislation? That would be HB 1452, which prohibits displaying on motor vehicles any object representing human genitalia-- even though the impetus for that bill is horse and bull testicles. "Is this something the government should be spending time on?" Bell wonders.

Charlottesville's other delegate, David Toscano (57th District), had relatively few bills in 2006, his first year in office, but now is carrying 28.

"That was a mistake," concedes Toscano. "I put in too many bills. You can do a lot here without getting bills passed. I can do more in committee by fixing language than by passing bills that do little." And he suggests that legislators need to do a better job disciplining their bill-carrying urges.

Toscano defends two of his bills that address idling buses and explains why such issues need to be regulated by state law rather than, say, the Department of Education.

HB 884 prohibits diesel-powered school buses from idling while picking up or dropping off students. "It's designed to do two things," says Toscano-- "reduce children's expose to carcinogenic materials and cut down on greenhouse gases."

HB 885 allows counties to make ordinances to limit bus idling. It's a result of Virginia's Dillon Rule, which means if the General Assembly doesn't say it's okay, localities can't do it. In fact, the Rule is probably a major culprit in the sheer volume of bills.

State Senator Creigh Deeds leads the local legislators in number of bills, clocking in with a hefty 37. "I represent nine localities," says Deeds, who compares that number to, say, Fairfax, which has plenty of reps to share the bill carrying.

Deeds' SB 265 creates a civil cause of action for a person damaged by false academic credentials. That one, still in committee, was requested by a UVA person, says Deeds, who notes that a fraud charge is still an option in such cases.

His bill SB 270, like SB 3, redefines indecent exposure. Flashing has to be intentional so that it can be seen by others, even if not in a public place. That bill is now "singing with the fishes," says Deeds; it came from Mathews County, where a supervisor who was stalking his neighbor masturbated twice inside his house in view of the neighbor but was not convicted because the acts didn't take place in public.

And SB 784 allows ABC stores to sell magazines that educate the public about Virginia wine, which could help out a Lynchburg publisher, explains Deeds. And maybe even Wine Spectator.

Deeds points out that this year sets no record for bill-writing-- in past years, he's seen over 3,000.

"You do the best you can," he says about the volume. "Legislators have to make the best decision based on the information they have at the time."

Of the more than 2,900 bills, Jaquith picks a few that stand out as most inane. Topping his list is the aforementioned "truck nuts" bill.

"The patron, Lionel Spruill [D-Chesapeake], was one of the most outspoken opponents of the droopy drawers bill," says Jaquith, a bill that drew national snickers last year. "This one will go down as the dumbest bill of the year." At press time, it's still languishing in committee.

The cat bill, HB 334 carried by Jen McClellen (D-Richmond), makes it a Class 5 felony to steal a cat. The bill drew meows in the House but did make it out of committee. "The reason it's a felony to steal a dog is it's a useful animal," says Jaquith. "It's a working animal, whereas cats don't do anything."

Jaquith also takes aim at Delegate Harry Purkey (R-Virginia Beach), whose HB 127 would make it a crime for parents to give alcohol to their children, even under their supervision in their own home. Offenders would lose their driver's license. "Give your teenager a glass of wine with Christmas dinner, lose your license?" writes Jaquith on the website.

"When you have these unenforceable laws, you lose respect," he says.

For example, of the text-messaging ban, local police have said that an officer would have to witness the texting to write a ticket. "Isn't it already a crime-- not paying attention while driving?" Jaquith asks.

Fairfax Republican Dave Albo's HB 169 makes it a crime to carry concealed box cutters. "I think you'd have to buy a box cutter holster," says Jaquith. "If you're a carpet installer, you'd have to holster that bad boy." That bill has not made it out of committee.

Another Albo bill, HB 160, declares that a person convicted of larceny who uses an emergency exit for a getaway is suddenly looking at a Class 6 felony. Jaquith writes on Richmond Sunlight: "Theft is a misdemeanor, unless the thief uses an emergency exit, and then it's a felony? If it turns out that the guy was parked in a loading zone, is it a capital crime? What planet does Dave Albo represent, again?"

We're laughing now, but wait until the session ends in March.


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