- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

RICHMOND Near the end of each Virginia General Assembly session, a handful of lawmakers have met in secret to hash out differences between House and Senate versions of the budget violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the state's open-meetings laws.
This year, nine House and Senate members are conferring on the budget in meetings whose times and locations are not always posted publicly.
"It's very hard to negotiate in public," said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman. "What bothers me is that there is a lot of gamesmanship [in public meetings]."
Virginia law states that meetings "require notice and must be open to the public" whenever three or more lawmakers meet as a committee to discuss public business. The state's Freedom of Information Act allows 27 exemptions for closed meetings, but conference committees are not on that list.
In fact, a committee vote must be taken for a meeting to go into "executive" or private session, but that never happens in the General Assembly.
Many other states have open-meeting laws similar to Virginia's and also turn a blind eye to secretive conference discussions.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, said the way the General Assembly conference committee members meet goes against the principles of open government.
Mr. Kaine said that he helped persuade fellow members of the Richmond City Council to stop having closed-door budget meetings when he joined the council in 1994 and that state lawmakers should be held to the same standard.
"When you did it in public, you have to have a really good reason to cut something," he said.
With Virginia facing a $3.8 billion budget shortfall through 2004 that will require severe cuts in the budget, having an open forum is even more important, Mr. Kaine said.
Lobbyists and public watchdogs also do not like that conference committees negotiate out of sight.
"It's always been a transparent process. I don't think there is much accountability," said Robley S. Jones, chief lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association.
Mr. Jones said one of his key issues teacher-salary increases is typically a part of the budget conference, yet there is no record of what side the lawmakers are taking. "It never goes to a vote," he said. "Nobody is held accountable."
Some lawmakers said the way the budget conference committe members meet goes around some of the open-meetings laws in unethical ways.
Several delegates and senators who asked not to be identified pointed out that Mr. Callahan and the chief Senate conference committee member Sen. John H. Chichester, Fredericksburg Republican will meet one-on-one to resolve differences.
Since there are just two of them, there is no "official" meeting.
After they have met, Mr. Callahan and Mr. Chichester then meet one-on-one with other confererence committee members and ask their opinions and get feedback, state lawmakers said. Such actions do not technically violate the open-meetings law or the state's ban against secret balloting since the legislators are only polling the opinions of other members.
Most legislators do not seem concerned by the secret nature of the negotiations.
"It just doesn't bother me," said Delegate R. Lee Ware Jr., Powhatan Republican.
House Majority Whip Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican, said the legislative process would slow to a crawl if all the conference committees met in open session.
"I don't think anything would get done," Mrs. Devolites said.
Sen. Warren E. Barry, Fairfax Republican, who has been in the General Assembly since the 1970s, said the budget process has opened tremendously since those days when the conference commitee members did not meet in Capitol Square, but in hotel rooms or other government buildings.
Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat, said she does not believe that "anything would get resolved in open meeting."
However, Miss Darner said hiding behind closed doors to vote on the state budget is unsettling. "I don't want them meeting all in one place, meeting in secret," she said.

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