- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

RICHMOND It's fast approaching midnight on a Tuesday, and a few of the state's most powerful lawmakers are huddled behind closed doors in separate offices on the ninth and 10th floors of the General Assembly Building.
Weary-to-the-bone Senate Finance and House Appropriations committee staffers, fueled by caffeine and takeout food, shuttle between the floors, delivering proposals and counterproposals on how the state will spend $50 billion of the taxpayers' money.
Reporters hang around outside the offices Finance on the 10th floor, Appropriations on the ninth asking questions about the progress of negotiations or specific items in the budget whenever lawmakers or staffers emerge. Sometimes the questions are answered.
If everything goes well, the doors are opened and an announcement is made: House and Senate budget conferees have finished their task of resolving differences in the two chambers' versions of the state's two-year spending plan. The major compromises are disclosed, and reporters press for more details.
That scenario is repeated each year as a select group of lawmakers shapes the final version of the state's most important piece of legislation, the budget bill, largely out of public view. Meetings of the full budget conference committee are typically open, but the nitty-gritty negotiations by individual members are not.
This year, the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association has urged the budget conference committee, four senators and five delegates, to open the process.
"It is our unshakable conviction that government at all levels serves best when it operates in full view of those governed," the statehouse reporters' organization wrote in a letter to the money committee chairmen and other legislative leaders.
"These are precious and proven precepts that Virginians such as Thomas Jefferson and George Mason helped enshrine as foundations of representative democracy in America. To continue the practice of shaping the state's budget away from public scrutiny is hostile toward that ideal and to the spirit, if not the letter, of Virginia's open government law."
Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the legislature's Freedom of Information Advisory Council, said the organization is on solid legal ground in making its request. She said the state's Freedom of Information Act requires a meeting to be open whenever at least three members of a government body are talking about public business.
"Clearly this is a public body, so whenever three or more of them get together and discuss public business, it has to be open unless they can invoke some kind of exemption," Miss Everett said.
She said the only exemption that might come into play is consultation with legal counsel but that that would rarely be necessary in budget negotiations.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's open," said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan, Fairfax County Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
However, he acknowledged that there is not much reporters can do if a couple of negotiators "wander off" to talk privately.
Mr. Callahan did not formally reply to the organization's letter, but state Sen. John H. Chichester, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote that the frenetic and unpredictable nature of the negotiations makes a completely open process impractical.
Mr. Chichester, Stafford County Republican, noted that each conference member is assigned various areas of responsibility, and that House and Senate "discussion partners" meet when their personal schedules allow.

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