On I-66, Virginia can have high peak tolls or gridlock. Pick one.

Since 1982, I-66 has provided a limited-access car route to the District of Columbia from Virginia’s prosperous and growing suburbs. That highway connection to one of America’s most important cities has surely played a part in the meteoric growth of the counties along its route.

But there’s long been a string attached: on the narrow segment between Dunn Loring and DC, “inside the beltway” in local parlance, I-66 has been limited at peak hours to carpools and buses. Faced with limited physical space, Virginia correctly decided that the best way to maximize the utility of I-66 was to move as many people as possible, and that meant restricting access for solo drivers that would otherwise gum up the works.

With the introduction of the new high-occupancy tolling (HOT) plan, allowing solo drivers the opportunity to legally use the road at peak for the first time in decades for a price, the priority remains the same. The utility of I-66 lies entirely in moving people. To succeed at its mission, buses and carpools must take extreme priority over single-occupant vehicles at peak hours, because of simple geometry: they move more people while taking up less space.

Dynamic tolling is a huge help in making sure that happens. When traffic is flowing very freely, the rates are quite low because adding additional vehicles to the roadway doesn’t hurt. When traffic isn’t moving freely, the rates are high because adding additional vehicles to the roadway compromises its ability to move people along.

It’s an intentional demand management strategy, not an unforeseen flaw, that the rates get high enough to keep solo drivers off the road.

Don’t let your eyes water at the absolute top-line toll. It has to be expensive to strongly discourage drivers that have any alternative from using it and keep the buses already on it moving when traffic is heavy. It’s really that easy.

There’s no shortage of ways for commuters to avoid the tolls either. Fairfax Connector, Metro Bus, Metro Rail, Loudoun Transit, OmniRide, and Virginia Railway Express all offer direct connections to DC. Travelers that choose not to take advantage of any of these services can drive and completely avoid tolling by simply finding one other person to share their commute. A vast array of organizations will even help match drivers with a carpool mate.

There is a surefire way to improve commutes for all Virginians. That’s to improve their transit service – higher frequency, more routes, and more options – and not just to and from DC, but within Northern Virginia. Because of induced demand, we simply can’t pave our way out of traffic congestion. Virginians deserve the freedom to go where they need to without driving at all, and too few of them have that.

The new I-66 HOT expands choices for commuters, but Virginia just can’t have it both ways. Capping the tolls for solo drivers would cripple our ability to keep traffic free-flowing for carpools and transit vehicles that make more efficient use of the roadway, ensuring that everyone is permanently stuck in traffic.

The recipe for success is to let peak demand tolls for solo drivers go as high as they need to mitigate demand, and invest the toll revenue in transit service frequency to make it even easier for Northern Virginians to avoid frustrating, stress-filled drives.

What you need to know about Virginia’s General Assembly

It’s that magical time of year again in Virginia’s capital city, where people from all over the Commonwealth come together for General Assembly. Virginia’s very part-time legislature can be a little intimidating to keep up with — especially in short session years like 2017 — so here’s some GA 101 to get you grounded.

General Assembly is a specific and strictly time-limited event

The Constitution of Virginia dictates the length of our legislative sessions and when they begin in Article IV, Section 6. Unless the Governor calls for a special session, which is quite unusual and usually limited to addressing very specific emergency circumstances, this one brief window of time is the only time of year when Virginia’s body of statutory law, the Code of Virginia, can be updated, changed, or amended.

Make no mistake either — the General Assembly session is brief. In even-numbered years, the session is 60 days long, and in odd-numbered years (like 2017), constitutionally prescribed to be just 30 days, though by tradition the members agree to extend it to 46 days. Every year, it begins on the second Wednesday in January.

The members of Virginia’s 100-member House of Delegates and 40-member Senate then have just between today, January 11, and 46 days later, February 25, to make law.

Not surprisingly, things get really frantic

All over Richmond and the Commonwealth, the General Assembly Session Calendar has been printed out likely many hundreds of times and taped up directly in front of peoples’ eyes at their desks. The brevity of the General Assembly forces the body to adopt very strict deadlines for its work, and every one of them will be a struggle to hit.

This means very long days for legislators, their staffs, lobbyists, issue groups, Executive Branch agency staff, reporters, and basically everyone whose work depends on Virginia law. Meetings will often be scheduled from the pre-dawn hours of the morning until very late at night.

Just know that in General Assembly, things can happen really fast. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Most of the action is in committees

Here on the first day of the 2017 General Assembly, there are already 1,585 bills sitting in front of the members, and the filing deadline is still nine days away, so that number will keep rising. The sheer volume of measures coupled with a short session means that the House and Senate have to divide up the work if they’re to have any hope of managing the flood. The House of Delegates has 14 standing committees, and the Senate has 11.

The higher volume committees in turn have subcommittees underneath them, with snappy titles like “General Laws Subcommittee #3.” These committees and their subcommittees are where the vast majority of the discussion, presentation, and testimony takes place. There simply isn’t much time for any of that once a bill has made it to the floor.

It’s important to be clear about this: a majority of the bills that members file will die before they reach the floor of the chamber where it was introduced. In 2016 session, House committees reported about 46% of their own bills upward, and Senate committees reported about 56%.

Even though the bills that will appear on a committee’s docket are determined by the Speaker of the House in the case of the House of Delegates or the Clerk of the Senate in that body, committee chairs have a lot of authority. They decide how to order the bills, how much time to devote to testimony or discussion, and generally take the lead on when and how to move the committee.

Committees have a lot of ways to kill bills, which have technical variation in how and why they’re used:

  • Fail to Report: Committee votes on a motion to report the bill. If the majority votes no, it’s dead.
  • No Action Taken: Committee just doesn’t make a motion to report the bill. Same effect. It’s dead.
  • Pass By Indefinitely (PBI): When a committee votes on a motion to PBI, it reserves the right to consider the bill at the next meeting, but far more often than not, that doesn’t happen. A PBI’d bill is almost always dead.
  • Strike: Almost always, the bill’s patron makes a request to strike, which removes it from the committee docket and kills it.

In way of contrast, they only have one way to advance a bill: a majority “yes” vote on a motion to report. They can choose to tinker with it before reporting though. The bill can be reported as is, but they can also report it either with amendments, usually minor technical changes, or as an Amendment in Nature of a Substitute, where the bill is essentially redrafted before passing it along.

Committees have three additional things they can do with bills. They can incorporate, or merge, multiple bills together into one. In even years, they can carry over a bill, which just takes it off the docket for the current sitting General Assembly and move it on to the next. Since 2017 is an odd year, the session will open by considering the 242 bills that were carried over from 2016, but won’t carry over any bills itself. Finally, they can move for a rereferrral, which picks up the bill from their committee’s docket and puts it onto that of a different committee.

Here’s the real kicker though: bills don’t just go through the committee wringer once. Each chamber begins the session working through the bills their own members introduced, but after crossover, every bill that was reported out of committee to the full body and then passed by that body will start the entire committee process over again in the opposite body.

So if HB100 is reported from subcommittee to committee, then from committee to the floor, and the House of Delegates passes it, after crossover HB100 will be referred to an appropriate Senate committee, which will be able to process it precisely the same as if it was a Senate bill. For it to become enrolled — ready for the Governor’s signature — it must be passed by both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

It’s worth noting that bills which have passed one chamber already tend to move more quickly through the committee process, and the report rate is much higher than in the chamber of origin. In 2016, Senate committees reported about 90% of bills the House of Delegates had passed on to the full body for a vote, and House committees reported up about 80% of Senate bills.

The two rounds of committees and floor votes whittle down the volume of bills that reach the Governor’s desk substantially. In the 2016 session, just 37% of Senate bills and 35% of House bills (excluding resolutions) made it all the way through and received Governor McAuliffe’s signature:

General Assembly is uniquely difficult to cover in news media

Put all these elements together — a very short time window where a dump truck full of bills must each pass through a lengthy process with a wide array of outcomes, and often meet their final resolution quietly and suddenly in subcommittee with a voice motion to simply not vote on a bill — and you can understand why even the most dedicated members of the General Assembly press corps have to perform extreme triage to decide what to report on.

With literally thousands of bills up in the air, there’s a good chance there will be some bills you would personally care a lot about one way or another, but don’t expect that to automatically mean there will be general-circulation coverage of them. This session will be like any other, where a small number of highly controversial bills and maneuvers, even some that are nearly guaranteed to be swiftly killed in committee, will get a lot of ink, and many others just won’t be discussed at all.

When you see General Assembly reporters around Richmond this month, know they are basically working harder than it’s actually possible for humans to work, so please offer them a choice of either something caffeinated or alcoholic. Or both. They deserve it.

Keeping up with your pet issues is where state-level issue advocacy groups come in. If there’s something you’re really into, you’re much more likely to hear about bills affecting that issue from them than you are from any other source, and chances are they know when it’s the right time to pull out the action alerts and when they think they can do better by quietly nudging a sponsor to strike something troubling.

Don’t forget that you are a constituent

You shouldn’t be discouraged by the rapid pace of the General Assembly from contacting your elected officials, early and often, about things that are important to you. On the contrary: the firehose of bills means it’s not unheard of for a Delegate or even a Senator, to receive just one comment about a bill. That comment could be yours, and it could be right on the front of their mind as they walk into a committee to vote on a bill you think is critically important.

You should go ahead right now and find out who your Delegate and Senator are. Write down their email address and phone number. Have them handy. Ask any legislative assistant and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that they absolutely keep track of constituent contacts about legislation, and share them with their members often.

The most important thing when you’re making that contact is to be specific about what you want the legislator to actually do. Your phone call, or email, or letter, or even in-person meeting — yes, just anyone can schedule a meeting with their Delegate or Senator — should come from an explicit thing that you want them to do for you. Do you want them to support a bill in committee? Vote against it on the floor? Even seek an amendment you think could make it better?

Go for it! Tell them!

Your informed General Assembly watcher toolkit

  • Virginia Legislative Information System is your best friend for keeping up with the status of legislation, committee and floor dockets and calendars, and all manner of other things. If you see a screen of a laptop or a tablet illuminated in the General Assembly Building, chances are about 80% that it’ll be displaying an LIS screen. It’s essential.
  • DLS’s Virginia Law portal is your spiffy go-to for reading Virginia’s current laws and regulations, which you’ll certainly need to refer to for info on what a particular bill is modifying in the first place.
  • Also from DLS, the Virginia State Budget site is an absolute masterpiece that I can’t believe we lived without before. It puts the entirety of both budget bills and amendments in one easy to review place.
  • The major Virginia General Assembly publications are also handy. Don’t be fooled by seeing the coloring books and activity sheets at the top, though don’t feel ashamed if you want to do those too. There are really useful references here. I’d particularly suggest you keep “Your Guide to the General Assembly” handy. I’ve been known to forward that PDF to people with GA questions as a nice alternative to “let me Google that for you.”

Vote “No” on Virginia’s constitutional amendments

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In an exciting general election season, it’s easy to overlook the dreary matter of amendment questions. Virginia voters must approve all amendments, and this year, they’re being asked about two of them.

One needlessly jams a piece of sound extant labor law into a place where it doesn’t belong, and the other is an ill-considered tax scheme that doesn’t serve meaningful policy objectives.

Both proposed amendments for 2016 deserve to be soundly rejected at the ballot box.

Amending our constitution is a big deal

As provided for in Article XII of the Constitution of Virginia, amending the document requires approval by a majority of both the House of Delegates and the Senate in two separate sessions with a House of Delegates election between them, followed by a voter referendum. Constitutional amendments are one of the few ballot issues most Virginia voters see with any frequency. Unlike states with more populist traditions that allow citizen groups to propose statewide ballot initiatives, only the General Assembly can put matters to such a referendum, and it rarely chooses to do so.

Let’s break this process down to how these amendments wound up in front of voters in 2016:

  1. In 2014, a majority of members of the House of Delegates and the Senate voted for each new amendment.
  2. The Constitution requires an intervening House of Delegates election, which we have every two years, before amendments go back for their second approval. We held this in 2015.
  3. Following that election, the 2016 General Assembly was presented the same measures again. A majority of members of the House of Delegates and the Senate voted in favor of them again.
  4. The amendments were then ordered to be placed on the ballots for voter approval in the November General Election. If a majority of voters vote “Yes” on the amendments, they will become part of the Constitution of Virginia.

If these amendments are approved, it will be the conclusion of a three year process, which is as short of a process as is possible under the constitution. So if later we decide these things we put into the Constitution of Virginia aren’t a good fit for us anymore and we’d like to change them, how do we do that?

Repealing amendments to the constitution, or even changing the wording of them, is a form of amending the constitution. So yes, you guessed right: by putting these matters into the constitution, we’ve moved them from matters we can tweak, adjust, or drop altogether in one General Assembly session to matters that take a minimum of three years to resolve.

Bearing the ardor of approving amendments, they should address matters that can only be resolved through constitutional change, and represent extraordinarily sound, well-designed policy.

Neither of the 2016 amendments rises to that standard.

Question One is already properly defined by statute

Should Article I of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to prohibit any agreement or combination between an employer and a labor union or labor organization whereby (i) nonmembers of the union or organization are denied the right to work for the employer, (ii) membership to the union or organization is made a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer, or (iii) the union or organization acquires an employment monopoly in any such enterprise?

The so-called “Right-to-Work Amendment” doesn’t belong in the Constitution.

The Code of Virginia already has an entire article devoted to spelling out the commonwealth’s position that union membership or non-membership shouldn’t be a condition of employment. This article was adopted in 1970, and to date has survived the scrutiny of the courts as consistent with the constitution.

The assessment of whether the amendment proposed by Q1 is a good idea or not can actually stop with just that one fact: the statute is on the books and it’s worked as the General Assembly intended for nearly half a century. The only reason to embed this language in the constitution would be to make altering it more difficult.

But the proposed amendment actually takes § 40.1 Article 3 even further. While current statute holds that companies can’t make employees join or not join unions, the amendment would merely restrict companies from mandating union membership for employees. That sounds like a dweeby quibble, but it’s a shift from decades of employment policy that favors corporate bodies to the disadvantage of employees.

Whether you think “Right-to-Work” is good policy or not, the Virginia Constitution is the wrong place for it to be defined. Turn this one down.

Question Two helps the wrong people

Shall the Constitution of Virginia be amended to allow the General Assembly to provide an option to the localities to exempt from taxation the real property of the surviving spouse of any law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel who was killed in the line of duty, where the surviving spouse occupies the real property as his or her principal place of residence and has not remarried?

The second amendment before voters is the latest in a string of flawed amendments that would create a tricky, caveat-loaded benefit for a tiny number of Virginians. The General Assembly, in advancing this measure, has decided that the best salve for grief is, of all things, property tax relief. The intent is probably OK, but the strictures that come with this amendment ensure it will help few Virginians, and those it does offer relief to aren’t the ones who need it most.

For a person to receive a property tax exemption under the Q2 amendment, they’d have to meet all of these qualifications:

  • Have been legally married to an emergency service worker – specifically, “law-enforcement officer, firefighter, search and rescue personnel, or emergency medical services personnel” – who died while doing their job
  • Own their own home
  • Live in a county or city whose governing body has decided to offer a property tax exemption to spouses of emergency service workers who died while doing their job
  • Remain unmarried if they wish to continue receiving a property tax exemption

With me still? Cool. With that in mind, what’s the purpose of this amendment?

If the purpose is to help partners financially after a sudden loss, then this measure is seriously mistargeted by offering a tax break to those least likely to need one. The median household income for homeowners in Virginia is $81,739, nearly twice the MHI of renter-occupied households, $42,613.

mhi

By that measure alone, a property tax exemption is the wrong tool to help widows and widowers. But even providing this benefit to spouses comes with issues, as being married in the first place tracks with substantially higher individual and household income. Marriage also comes with vast ethnic disparities. Where 75% of white adults in Virginia are currently married, just 33% of black adults are.

Statistically speaking then, this measure would largely benefit higher-income whites. Does that sound like the kind of benefit that we’d like to permanently embed in our constitution?

Not even mentioning the perverseness of asking widowers who’ve found a new partner to check in with a tax professional to determine if they should claim the tax benefits of marrying them or the tax benefits of the property tax exemption that they would forfeit by choosing to move on from their grief and remarry.

That’s just cruel.

Question Two seems like a sensible act of state compassion on its face, but its structurally flawed design means it can’t provide one bit of assistance to many of the neediest families that lose a loved one in service. Vote no on this and ask the General Assembly to design something better.

Always default to “no” on constitutional amendment votes

Constitutions are meant to be compact. They define the powers and limits of governmental authority and the essential rights of citizens, and are supreme over all statutory laws and regulations. As such, amending Virginia’s constitution should only be done with extreme scrutiny and obvious need.

Constitutional amendments are one of the very few matters of policy that most Virginia voters will ever vote on directly. Don’t be afraid to exercise your veto power over them. If they’re really important, the General Assembly can always go back to the drawing board and rewrite them or explain them better, but if voters approve putting bad policy into the constitution, as they did in approving the so-called “Marriage Amendment” in 2006, the fix isn’t nearly as simple.

Happy voting, Virginia!