In whirlwind finish to a hectic session, many remaining issues will be resolved out of the public eye

In whirlwind finish to a hectic session, many remaining issues will be resolved out of the public eye
The Capitol at dusk. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Before letting legislators leave for the day, House of Delegates Clerk Suzette Denslow reminded them that the faster they get their conference reports done, the faster they can be voted on.

“So don’t wait until the last minute,” Denslow said.

Lawmakers have a few more days to get their homework done before the 2020 session adjourns. But there’s still a big pile of it to get through. And the policy negotiations that must take place before that pile can shrink mostly happen out of the public eye through emails and phone calls, quick huddles in hallways or meetings in unknown rooms at unknown times.

As of early Wednesday, nearly 100 pieces of legislation had already been sent to conference committees. That’s General Assembly jargon for the small, ad hoc legislative panels designed to resolve lingering differences of opinion on bills that just need a final push. At this point in the session, the main question isn’t whether bills in conference live or die, but whether they’ll pass in the form favored by Senate Democrats, the form preferred by House Democrats or some combination of the two.

“The reality is there isn’t really a committee meeting for most these, aside from the budget conferees,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, part of Transparency Virginia, a collection of advocacy groups focused on improving transparency in a legislature whose members enjoy broad exemptions from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Conference committee usually just means lawmakers exchanging drafts, she added.

“The general public and the news media aren’t going to be in on that until they actually offer the report, at which times it’s often impossible to weigh in or cover,” Rhyne said.

This year, conference committees, which typically involve three legislators from each chamber, are responsible for finalizing policy decisions on many of the session’s marquee issues, including raising the minimum wage, legalizing casinos and sports betting, decriminalizing marijuana, expanding background checks on gun transactions and allowing local governments to remove Confederate monuments.

Though the process can seem chaotic, several lawmakers said it allows a level of fine-tuning and negotiating that may not be possible in a more formal setting.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.