- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — House Democrats offered a change yesterday to rules put in place for the first time last year that allow as few as two delegates to kill legislation in subcommittees without recorded votes.

House Republican leaders put the rule in place at the start of the 2006 session to streamline the legislative process by winnowing out bills in subcommittees before they reach the full committee.

Critics, including government watchdog and freedom of information groups, were alarmed by the change because legislation could be quietly killed by subcommittee quorums of as few as three delegates with no record of how the lawmakers voted.

Previously, subcommittees advanced bills to full committees with recommendations that they be killed or advanced to a floor vote. Subcommittee meetings are open to the public, but are often early in the morning or late in the afternoon and sometimes lost amid the dozen or more daily subcommittee meetings all over Capitol Square.

“Of the nearly 2,000 bills that were considered in the regular session of 2006, 30 percent of them show no record of their disposition,” said Delegate Kenneth Plum, Fairfax Democrat, in offering the amendment on the House floor.

“There are 615 bills that we don’t know who voted for or against them,” Mr. Plum said. “The consequence of our rules change last year, whether intended or not, is that we’ve reduced our own accountability to our voters.”

Among the bills killed on unrecorded subcommittee votes were legislation that would have banned smoking in most public buildings, to reinstate the use of cameras to catch red-light runners and to authorize local sales tax increases in Northern Virginia.

Two years previously, during the 60-day legislative session, only nine bills out of 1,800 died without recorded votes, Mr. Plum said.

Mr. Plum sought to put the House’s Republican leadership on the defensive the same day other House and Senate Democrats announced legislation that would require an audit of the legislative branch of government.

Delegate Steve Shannon, Fairfax Democrat, will offer a resolution under which the arm of the General Assembly that investigates every other state operation would audit the legislature, with its annual budget of $63 million. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) would examine legislative efficiency, including the per diem system of reimbursement for legislators during the session, and make recommendations.

A clause in the legislation would provide for a private accounting firm to do the audit should the commission determine that auditing its own parent entity poses too great a conflict of interest.

Republicans were cool to both ideas.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said Democrats who want the subcommittee rule changed overlook the fact that any member of a full committee can revive any bill killed in a subcommittee and demand a vote by the full committee.

“If there is a feeling that some item of great importance to the commonwealth has been left in a subcommittee, I’d suggest that those who feel that way develop the spine necessary to say a few words in committee,” Mr. Griffith said.

Nor was Mr. Griffith convinced of the need for or wisdom of an audit.

“I’m not sure I understand and I’m not sure it’s constitutional,” he said. “I thought JLARC was already auditing things and doing stuff, and I thought the auditor of public accounts was doing these things.”

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