Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Deep State is real

The Deep State is real.

Well, sort of.

To the extent you’ve been told there is a vast network of semi-anonymous appointed business leaders and career government bureaucrats who work together with a chosen few elected officials to make the really important policy decisions while almost no one is looking . . . well, here in Virginia, we call those Boards, Authorities, Councils, Commissions, Studies, and sometimes Study Commissions, or Select Committees, or some combination of all of the above.

Ok, it’s really not as nefarious as I make it sound. The meetings are all open to the public and subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information laws and they provide a great forum of public and stakeholder input that we rarely have time for during our regular legislative sessions in January and February.

In fact, people ask me all the time how the General Assembly can really make the important policy decisions it needs to make during our very short legislative sessions – 60 day “long” sessions and 45 day “short” ones.

The short answer: We don’t.

The long answer: A lot of the heavy lifting is done in the off season with the help of these groups made up of subject matter experts, interested and affected parties, legislators, lawyers and advocates. Although these groups don’t have the power to change the law without General Assembly action, when their legislative recommendations are introduced, they carry a lot of weight and given the volume of work we have to do - rarely second guessed too much.

That’s why many times when people get down to Richmond to advocate during session, it feels like they are already too late. For the six years I served in the minority party in the House of Delegates, I often felt the same way. Legislators would appear before committees and their entire bill presentation would be “this is a recommendation of the Boyd-Graves Conference” and that would be that.

We made a lot of important progress during this year’s General Assembly session, but there is much more work to do. For the first time in 24 years, we’ve had both chambers and the Governor’s mansion under Democratic Control. Some of the bills dealing with stickier issues this year were referred to commissions for further study and refinement.

In the past, when a progressive policy agenda item was referred to a commission or “carried over” that was a relatively gentle way of killing the bill.

As our new Democratic majorities settle in for the long haul, though, the Speaker of the House has the opportunity to appoint new members to dozens of commissions, boards and councils. This creates opportunities for members who may have been sidelined previously to participate in the legislative process in new and more meaningful ways.

I was thrilled last week to learn that I’d been appointed by the Speaker to serve on the Board of Veterans Affairs, the Freedom of Information Advisory Council (FOIA), the Code Commission, and the Housing Commission.

The Board of Veterans Affairs works on policies related to veterans’ welfare and services available in the Commonwealth. It meets periodically throughout the year and works closely with the Veterans Affairs Caucus, of which I am also a member.

Transparency is the main purview of the FOIA Council. With some exceptions, the presumption is that documents from public officials and meetings of state and local public entities should be made available for review. It’s the exceptions that often cause the most issues. This is when the FOIA Council can step in to resolve disputes through advisory opinions, offering guidelines for interpreting Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

Established as a permanent commission 1946, the Code Commission is one of the oldest commissions around. It’s tasked with supervising the codification of statutes after each legislative session, revising Code titles, identifying obsolete sections, and reconciling the administrative regulations of state agencies into the Virginia Administrative Code. The Commission meets once a month.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Housing Commission is tasked with ensuring the availability of affordable housing in Virginia. Through permanent work groups, the Commission makes recommendations and oversees studies related to housing, real property, and community development. The full Commission meets three times per year and the work groups meeting more often as needed.

The legislative session we just finished was historic by any measure, and there is even more to come. I’m excited to be a part of the conversation.