I have written several columns focusing on how the Arlington County government can improve the transparency of its activities. This column focuses on how the Virginia state government can improve its transparency.
Virginia is a “Dillon Rule” state. That rule prohibits localities like Arlington from enacting ordinances unless expressly authorized to do so. For that reason, Arlington citizens have a greater stake in state government transparency than we would have if Virginia were a “Home Rule” state.
Unfortunately, “Virginia has a terrible record when it comes to transparency.” Last year, Virginia received a grade of D for transparency from the Center for Public Integrity:
Virginia again scored poorly on information access, lobbying disclosure and political financing. The state’s Freedom of Information Act has many exemptions, notably including all work conducted by the major regulatory body for businesses, insurance, financial institutions, utilities and railroads, known as the State Corporation Commission.
Discussed below are reforms that would improve state government transparency.
The Virginia State Senate continues to hold committee meetings at the desks of Senators on the Senate floor. This practice was discontinued in the Virginia House of Delegates because it lacks transparency. It’s time for the Senate to discontinue the practice as well.
House of Delegates
In the House of Delegates, Democratic Delegate Mark Levine, who represents some Arlington precincts, says he will post on his personal YouTube page videos of all committee meetings about his bills:
By videotaping every one of my bills, which are really my constituent’s bills, I can show them what happened. If they are voted down, they can see who voted them down [and why]. If they were amended, people can see why ….
Kudos to Levine, but why shouldn’t videos of all committee meetings on all bills be made and posted on the General Assembly’s official website?
Republican Delegate Jim LeMunyon has offered a bill that would overturn a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision that allows state agencies to withhold entire documents rather than redacting only the portions that are exempt from disclosure:
The First Amendment, among other things, says that people have a right to redress grievances. Well you don’t know what to grieve unless you know what the government’s doing. And so this is the way that the people can find out.
Although its budget exceeds $100 billion, Virginia state government has a grade of D for transparency. Regardless of what your positions are on issues like guns, reproductive rights, health care, education or transportation, we should all be able to agree that the state should strive for a much higher grade on its next report card.