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New Building Should Usher in New Era
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRichmond – Rising very slowly in Capitol Square —its jagged eastern boundary doesn’t make it a square at all — is the new General Assembly Building. It’s been a long process thus far. A painstakingly deliberate demolition — because of the cautious removal of large quantities of hazardous materials and the stabilization and preservation of an ornate, historic section of a building incorporated into it — has finally given way to the construction of a state of the art, 15-story tower that will give homage to the stately flavor of the square.

The new building — which, like its predecessor, is on Darden Mall, originally Capitol Street that the commonwealth bought from the city of Richmond in the 1970s and closed off so lawmakers could walk to the capitol without concern of traffic, actually makes the campus rectangular — promises all sorts of improvements, namely, real committee rooms. The committee rooms in the old GAB were converted conference rooms from the corporate headquarters that it once was. This will improve access, seating capacity, sight lines and sound.

There will be dozens of other improvements, as well, not the least of which are health related. At its core, it was a nasty place. But the visible changes spell more than comfort, convenience and efficiency. Legislative and staff offices will be greatly improved and that has people talking. While the old and current offices are small and cramped, respectively, especially when accommodating as many as three staffers, new amenities are lending themselves, some sources say, for quartering full time staff — and members.

The idea of a full time legislature isn’t new, but it hasn’t been discussed in years. At least not openly. Has Virginia become so large that it needs year-round politicians concocting still more ways to tax, regulate and otherwise stifle its citizens? Legislators already meet more than the regular session — for committee and commission meetings, committee retreats and briefings, special sessions and the like.

A full-time legislature wouldn’t meet like Congress. Most likely, it would add a second legislative session in the late summer and continue committee meetings in between. But instead of this mammoth undertaking and the creation of another new professional ruling class, there are ways to improve the current situation.

For example, the session could start in late February and end in late March or early April. The better weather would give citizens improved conditions in which to travel to those shiny, comfortable committee rooms. It would also give a new governor a chance to submit his own budget during his first year. Currently, the outgoing governor submits a budget in December for the General Assembly to amend during the new session. The incoming governor also can submit amendments but has little time to do so.

Another idea is to take a month long break at crossover. This would slow down the feverish, jail break pace of the current schedule and allow constituents to digest the legislation each chamber has passed over to the other and voice their opinions to their representatives, as well as afford lawmakers time to actually read the bills.

Or, the session could expand to 60 and 90 days on alternating years, but with a strict limit on the number of bills each member can introduce (the House already limits bills for the 45-day session). This would allow for more time to consider each bill. Committees, with tight daily and session deadlines, often rush through testimony and impassioned debate before voting on an unlimited number of submitted bills, could schedule separate committee days for testimony/ discussion and voting.

While no system is perfect, perhaps a new legislative calendar should accompany the new legislative edifice. It would truly complete the new legislative era promised by the new General Assembly Building.

 





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InBrief 13dec18

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