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Editorial: How long should General Assembly sessions be?

Editorial: How long should General Assembly sessions be?

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It takes seven to ten minutes to boil an egg, depending on how firm you want the yolk to be.

It takes 30 to 50 minutes to bake a cake, depending on what kind of cake it is.

All those are known facts of science.

But how long does it take to make laws, especially good ones? That’s answer is more like art and beauty — it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Virginia’s constitution limits even-year General Assembly sessions to 60 days and odd- sessions to 30 days, with an option for legislators to extend either another 30 days. Typically, those 30-day sessions become 45-day sessions, which is what Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers, were counting on. Not in 2021. Republicans, who have the votes to block an extension, say they won’t agree to anything more than 30 days. This comes after a 2020 regular session that went 65 days, followed by a special session that started in August and went on for 84 days — a total of 149 days or 40.7% of the year.

“We are at risk of veering away from our citizen legislator model,” said state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County. “As elected officials, we are accountable to our constituents and if we continue to extend our sessions, we are effectively creating a full-time legislature and another rank of career politicians here in Virginia.”

Or, as Del. David LaRock, R-Loudoun County, put it: “We’re doing what we can to limit the amount of further destruction Democrats can inflict on the Commonwealth in their remaining 12 months in power.”

Whether the majority Democrats are inflicting destruction or enacting long overdue reforms is a matter of opinion, and whether they retain power in November’s elections depends on the voters — specifically voters in the mostly suburban districts that a few years ago routinely sent Republicans to Richmond but then decided during the Trump years to send Democrats instead.

All those things will reveal themselves in time. For now, let’s turn to the specific question at issue — the length of Virginia’s legislative sessions. How do the length of our General Assembly sessions compare to those of other states? That, like boiling an egg or baking a cake, is a matter of science — specifically the search algorithm that leads us to the websites for the National Conference of State Legislatures and Ballotpedia, both of which have a handy list of session lengths in each state.

Ballotpedia says 10 states have full-time legislatures — Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — although defining “full-time” is apparently a term of art. Even some of those states have limits on how long the legislature can meet. New Jersey’s legislature is officially considered part-time yet meets for most of the year, so that would be an 11th full-time legislature, at least in practical terms.

Four other states don’t have full-time legislatures but don’t impose any artificial lengths on sessions, either — Idaho, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont. Kansas makes four and a half — its sessions are limited to 90 days in even years, but unlimited in odd years.

You will not be surprised to find that, without a constitutional limit, the sessions do sometimes drag on. Last year Idaho’s legislature met for 95 days. This year’s appears to have gone 53 days with a 3-day special session to deal with the pandemic. However, the Idaho Press newspaper says the two longest sessions were 118 days in 2003 and 117 days in 2009.

There are several lessons we can draw from that one example: First, the length of sessions doesn’t relate to party. Idaho has one of the most Republican legislatures in the country but apparently “limited government” doesn’t mean limited sessions in Boise. Second, even the longest sessions in unlimited Idaho were shorter than the 149 that Virginia’s General Assembly spent in session this year. Democrats might chortle over the first observation but the second definitely gives Republicans a good talking point.

Of the states that do limit the length of legislative sessions, Virginia appears to be pretty much in the middle. Oregon has both the longest session and one of the shortest ones — 160 days in odd years and 35 days in even years. Colorado is 120 days. Iowa is 110 days in odd years and 100 days in even years. Washington is 105 days in odd years and 60 days in even years.

On the short end, Utah is 45 days, Georgia and South Dakota are 40 days, Wyoming is 40 days in odd years and 20 days in even years. Alabama is 30 days.

Four states have legislature only meet every other year — Texas then has 180 days, Nevada 120 days, Montana 90 days, North Dakota 80 days. If you add up the total number of days over two years, then Alabama and Wyoming, at 60 days, are the shortest, and Colorado, at 240 days, is the longest among the so-called part-time legislatures. In normal years Virginia runs about 105 days over two years. By going 149 days this year, Virginia’s General Assembly has become one of the longest-running part-time state legislatures in the country.

None of this answers the question of how long a legislative session should be. What can be answered more definitively is that while Virginia doesn’t have a full-time legislature, it doesn’t really have a part-time one, either. Even if they only meet in Richmond (or now, virtually) for a few months, legislators have lots of duties during the “off-season.” There are still meetings of some sort — with other legislators, with administration officials, with community groups — and demands from constituents certainly don’t end when the legislature adjourns. Republicans are right to be worried about the creeping calendar — not because a shorter one will necessarily prevent Democrats from passing whatever it is they want to pass; it might not — but because it starts to change the type of people who have the time to serve in the General Assembly. In fact, you can turn the argument around: Republicans might want to be concerned about hastily-written legislation that can get jammed through without time for proper vetting in a short session, but Democrats might want to ponder how much sessions that go on for months at a time limit the pool of potential candidates. Neither of those seem very good for democracy.

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