The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Some senators unhappy with House’s decision to stay home; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

There’s no dearth of political strategy as the General Assembly’s special session on the 2006-08 budget and transportation moves forward.

Part of the plan for the members of the House of Delegates is waiting back at home until there is something to do in Richmond.

There’s really no need for delegates to be in town until the 11 budget negotiators have some kind of breakthrough, said House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem.

“The general rule that we’re operating under is there’s no need to keep 140 people in Richmond when 11 are doing the work,” he said.

The sticking point in this year’s standoff between the Republican House and Senate is taxes. Senators want to raise taxes by $1 billion per year, but delegates will have none of it.

Some senators were not pleased with the House’s departure.

Floor Leader Sen. Thomas K. Norment, R-Williamsburg, whose job it is to schedule the movement of bills on the floor, said the legislative exodus caught him by surprise.

“When I left to go back to my beloved soybeans farms [on Monday night], I thought the House was going to stay here and do some work,” he said, speaking from the floor Tuesday.

When senators adjourned Monday just after 2 p.m., the House was still tied in procedural knots, dealing with amendments to the 2004-06 “caboose bill” that would tie up loose ends on the state budget ending June 30.

“Obviously, they became much more efficient, because they adjourned until Thursday,” Norment said. “I must tell you it was dreadfully quiet at the other end of the hall when I walked in.”

The surprise was apparently the result of some poor communication, Griffith said.

“[The Senate] adjourned without talking to us,” he said. He and Norment had been in discussions about the matter for some time. The Senate was well aware that the House might hit the road after passing the caboose bill.

But House leaders aren’t lining up to get their members back to Richmond. They will convene for a pro forma session on Thursday, but that’s all.

There’s some strategy behind that decision, according to Griffith. With the delegates back in their districts, it’s far more difficult for any mass lobbying groups to twist arms.

In 2004, when the Republican majority fractured and the Senate won a $1.5 billion tax hike, both houses spent several days in Richmond before heading home.

This time “the lobbyists won’t be there to knock on the doors of the members,” Griffith said. Being back in the district puts the delegates in closer touch with the people who sent them to Richmond in the first place.

“If the citizens of Virginia want this tax increase, they don’t want to have to drive to Richmond to tell us about it,” he said.

Capitol Square can be its own fish bowl for legislators — they’re isolated from the rest of the state and easy targets for groups of lobbyists or activists who are trying to sway opinion one way or the other, said former Del. Allen Louderback, R-Luray.

Keeping delegates on their home turf makes them more likely to stick together, “particularly with the issue this year,” he said. There’s some “misinformation” flying around the Capitol, he said, and there’s no better antidote for it than a trip around a delegate’s home turf.

Pleas from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads for traffic relief pack a punch, he said. Lobbyists and activists have made themselves heard almost anywhere the subject has been transportation.

“The key to staying in your district is that you hear from the people who will be directly affected by whatever legislation action is being proposed,” said former Del. Winsome Earle Sears, R-Norfolk, who now works with the Blue Ridge Association of Realtors in Winchester.

“These are the people who can’t take time off from work to come to Richmond to talk with their representative in the way that paid lobbyists are able,” she said.

But legislators can only run so far from organized influence.

“The truth is that lobbyists will find you wherever you are, whether in Richmond or back in your district,” she said. “You can’t hide.”