Legislative Abstinence

Year after year, school choice bills are introduced in the General Assembly, only to die in the Senate Finance Committee. Earlier this year, Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg) lost a Pennsylvania-style school choice bill in the committee's typical fashion, for lack of a motion. The reason the bill never gets a motion is because, if no one makes a motion, no one is held accountable for a vote.  This morning, Delegate Chris Saxman (R-20, Staunton) had his school choice bill, HB 1965, defeated, but the story of defeat is a bit different this year.

After much debate, for only the third time in the last decade of our educational freedom efforts, a bill of this nature received motions to report (pass)! However, Senator Dick Saslaw (D-35, Springfield), seldom one to miss a chance at killing a Family Foundation bill, offered a substitute motion to PBI the bill (pass by indefinitely/kill). The substitute motion was seconded and the bill eventually died a slow and painful death. There were 10 votes to PBI, 4 votes against the PBI, 1 abstention, and 1 no vote. 

You may ask — what's the difference between an "abstention" and a "no" vote. A "no" vote usually applies when a legislator is not present to vote on the bill or, in the case of the Senate, does not leave a proxy (or a note on how he wishes to vote). An abstention may be used when there is a conflict of interest (for example, some legislators abstain on voting on certain issues because their spouse is a lobbyist, thus creating a conflict of interest), but is most often used when a legislator does not want to be held accountable for his or her vote. 

Most significantly, an abstention is a fabulous way of avoiding a lower rating on The Family Foundation Action's Report Card. Knowing that school choice is a top priority for TFF, it is a reasonable guess to think that this vote might affect one's score on that document. Since The Family Foundation Action must rate legislators objectively and strictly according to public record, it can not dock a legislator for an abstention because one's reasons may be a legitimate conflict of interest. 

Given the inability of The Family Foundation Action's Report Card to capture this game in print, The Family Foundation has sought new ways to hold legislators accountable. The Family Foundation has begun an initiative to get committee hearings of interest on tape.

Today for whatever reason, Senator Emmett Hanger (R-24, Augusta) didn't feel compelled to vote for educational freedom, or vote at all for that matter.  Watch the video below and see for yourself!


I wonder how the 74 percent of people in Senator Hanger's region who, according to a Mason Dixon poll, support this legislation, will feel about his decision to hide abstention?

BREAKING: Spending Transparency Approved In House Committee!

Just a few minutes ago, the House Appropriations Committee approved by unanimous voice vote, HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst). Were it so easy. This is the background: The bill wasn't heard until late in the process by its committee of jurisdiction and, with an unjustifiable price tag by the Department of Planning and Budget of up to $3 million, it was doomed for Appropriations.

Plan B: Scale it down. Instead of a new or rebuilt data collection system, both Delegate Cline and Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), patron of the Senate companion, SB 936, worked with the Auditor of Public Accounts to improve current data collection and "retrievability" by the public, to go along with "searchability" improvements the auditor instituted since last year.

Problem: Despite all that, the jurisdictional Appropriations sub-committee had finished its pre-crossover meetings. Solution: Pressure and persuassion, and the chairman allowed for an additional meeting.

What just happened: After all that, and a glowing endorsement for two days running in Senate committees by the auditor, and Senate Finance taking the first step in the water, you'd think all was a slam dunk. More like those blooper reel missed dunks. At the sub-committee this afternoon, Delegate Cline was late and almost got passed over. Then, once he introduced the substitute, he and committee staff realized he had no substitute. Legislative Services, which drafts legislative language, and Delegate Cline had a failure to communicate, apparently, and either there was no substitute in front of the committee or there was, but with the original bill's summary attached. That meant is that the FIS was still in play. Not gonna pass in that posture. A sinking feeling if ever there was one.

What to do? Or is there anything to do? Delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R-31, Woodbridge) attempted to save it with a motion to report to the full committee with the understanding the Senate language would be introduced. Not what the chairman, Delegate Steve Landes (R-25, Augusta), wanted.

Delegate Landes then threw Cline a lifeline of sorts, agreeing to report with no recommendation if the proper substitute could be drafted by the full committee's last hearing, about a half hour hence. Proviso: Bills recommended in this manner only are brought up at the full committee chairman's discretion.

Scramble: Cline, committee staff and Legislative Services hustled to unravel the knots. Meantime, potential wolves at the gate: A guy from Virginia Enterprise Application Program showed up with questions and talked with yours truly and another pro-transparency lobbyist. Not against, but concerns, and concerns are enough for Appropriations to put the kibosh on apple pie and the flag. More: He tipped us off that General Services was against it. What a perfect Friday early evening.

Finally, full committee in progress and after a few bills were heard, and wondering exactly how many days it would be before I'd see family and friends, a mini-miracle. After a lengthy and contentious debate on transportation funding, where Democrats grilled Delegate Glen Oder (R-94, Newport News) on his innovative plan while Republicans grilled, in turn, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer for not having a plan at all, the Chairman, Delegate Lacey Putney (I-19, Bedford) called up HB 2285, substitute ready and all!

Here's what I don't get: The committee has the correct substitute language, and during discussion of the bill several key members say they have had conversations with people who could be affected or must administer the bill if it becomes law, including the auditor and the Secretary of Technology,  and they report these people say there are no costs. (Question: How did they know what to ask if they didn't know what the substitute language was?) But they want the committee staff's opinion. Not that committee staff isn't great. They are. But how much vetting do you need when the members have gone to the top guys to begin with and they can see the difference in the substitute and original?

More discussion. Costs or no costs? How can we be sure? No one from Public Accounts to verify, but luckily the VEAP guy is silent and no one from DGS is around. Then, what's the purpose? If the information is out there, why do we need this? Is this about transparency? Is this about good government? Come clean Delegate Cline.

Finally, a motion and a second. Unanimous voice approval. I wiped the sweat off my brow and made the Sign of the Cross.