As we first reported over the weekend, Rep. Andy Davis is floating the idea of moving from biennial regular sessions of the General Assembly to annual sessions. Such a change would require a constitutional amendment. Davis’s idea would keep the total number of days in session approximately the same, but increase the number of session days explicitly devoted to policymaking.
I spoke with Davis yesterday afternoon in more detail about his idea. He told me that there was an 80 percent chance that he would file such a measure (the deadline is tomorrow), but said he thought there was only a 20 percent chance that the House would actually push the proposal through. Under new rules this year, the Senate and the House can each propose one constitutional amendment, via recommendation from their respective State Agencies committees, which would then need to be ratified by voters. The Senate is expected to recommend a so-called “tort reform” proposal; it is unclear what the House will do.
Under current law, the General Assembly meets in 60-day regular sessions in odd-numbered years; since a legislatively referred amendment to the constitution approved by voters in 2010, it also meets for a 30-day session ostensibly only devoted to budget issues in even-numbered years. The legislature can extend those limits via supermajority votes. Most other state legislatures meet annually.
Davis stressed that his proposal would aim to keep the actual number of days in session approximately the same as they are today. The 60-day regular session inevitably gets extended, generally to around 90 days or even more. His idea is to scrap the fiscal session altogether and replace it with annual 60-day regular sessions, but put a hard cap on them. No extensions would be allowed. (If there was a need to meet for longer, the governor would have to call a special session. I wonder whether that would tend to happen, in practice, under Davis’s proposal.)
“I think we meet enough days,” Davis said. “But I think we meet too infrequently as a policymaking or lawmaking body. I think a regular session every year would make things run a little smoother around here.”
Davis said that shorter, more frequent meetings would be more productive than longer, less frequent meetings. “I think that takes some pressure of members to feel like they have to get everything done in a particular session,” he said. He noted that House members in particular face the pressure of potentially only being in office for one term, and the biennial regular session begins shortly after freshmen are elected to office.
While the Davis idea is to keep the approximate total number of days in session the same, it would significantly increase the number of days devoted to passing laws and making policy. The fiscal session, in theory, is only for budget matters. It takes a two-thirds vote to bring up special topic legislation outside of the fiscal appropriation bills.
However, in practice, lawmakers have often larded up budget bills in the fiscal session with “special language” that amounts to de facto legislation (this is probably unconstitutional and is certainly just about the opposite of transparent good government).
“If we’re going to do it, let’s just get it out in the open and do it right,” Davis said. (An alternative approach is to keep the regular session but kill the fiscal session and just meet biennially; Sen. Jim Hendren has filed a measure to do just that.)
Special language shenanigans aside, the fiscal session does impose some limits on policymaking. The Davis proposal would codify 120 days for that purpose. Skeptics might worry that the more time the legislature is in session, the more that special interests and lobbyists would tinker with the code to their advantage (certainly the presence of lobbyists, PACs, special interest groups, etc. is stronger during a regular session). The squeaky wheels know how to get legislative grease, and the sheer volume of bills, often on impactful but technical matters, can overwhelm citizens hoping to stay engaged. For better or worse, I’d say it’s pretty clear that if you create more space for making laws, more laws would get made. Whether or not that’s in the public interest is an open question.
“If we have more regular session days, sure, that gives lobbyists more time to try to get something done,” Davis said. “However, if they know that you’re going to meet annually, there’s less pressure to do more in a given session. I think you would see more incremental steps taken in policy and less taking too big of a step. One thing I’ve learned here: Most of the bills we run are fixing things we did in the past. It’s not that we have 1,000 new laws, we have 10 new laws and 990 fixes to old laws. Some of that is maybe something got done too quick, maybe we took too big of a bite at the apple. And a lot of it is just the economy changes, society changes, so laws have to be updated periodically. That’s another plus, I would say, to meeting annually, is that as a state I think we would be able to update and adapt more quickly to changes in the world.”
Another criticism of the idea of meeting more often is that the legislature would tend to micromanage and gratuitously interfere with the executive branch and the functioning of state agencies. This legislature has certainly been accused of doing that in interim review processes in the last several years.
Davis said that he thought annual sessions would actually help to curb the micromanaging issue. “Some members have said that if we meet annually, we don’t need as much oversight of the executive branch and review authority as we do now,” Davis said. “Again, I think it relieves a pressure to try to overly assert overview and review — of the executive branch and of agencies specifically. If you get out of a session in the middle of February, you’re looking at less than 12 months before you’re back in. You don’t need as much overview in the interim to address issues with agencies in that scenario.”
Davis said that he was aware of the perception that some legislators enjoy getting per diem and other assorted goodies, but he reiterated that his idea was to use hard caps to keep the total number of days in session the same.
He pointed out that under the current system, the governor has frequently called special sessions, which he said suggested that the legislature simply needs to meet more than biennially do deal with policymaking issues. “I think I’ve had seven special sessions in two terms,” he said — including two policymaking special sessions just before and just after the fiscal session last year.
Davis said that he had talked to various members about the idea yesterday but hadn’t formed any sort of strong coalition to back it (he said there was no truth whatsoever to the rumor that one lawmaker had told us — that the House might hold up tort reform if the Senate wouldn’t back annual sessions). Davis said that most members he had spoken with about the idea were initially opposed, but some seemed to open up to it when it was fully explained.
Davis added that while he preferred annual regular sessions, either way, the fiscal session should be canned. Hard to argue with that.
In unrelated news, the House yesterday passed a bill to try to stop the creeping encroachment of Sharia law, another to gut ethics reforms and allow more travel junkets and swag bags for lawmakers, and another creating a regulatory change to try to stop the Satanic Temple from pursuing a monument.