Delegate Mark Keam - Virginia's 35th House District

Injecting transparency into goverment

Fairfax Times

Injecting transparency into goverment

Dec 30, 2011

When the Virginia House of Delegates convenes in January, there might be more people keeping tabs on how state legislators work. Those people could include you.

A resolution passed in 2011 requires the General Assembly's website provide an easy way for the public to look up votes by a delegate's name. This is a significant change because, until now, if a constituent wanted to find out how a delegate voted on a bill, the constituent needed to look up each bill – one by one – and read through the lists of "yes" and "no" votes until they found their legislator's name.

With more than 1,000 bills considered each year by the General Assembly, it's virtually impossible to track the voting record of any legislator. We learned how tough it is for Virginians to piece together their representative's voting record when we were first-time candidates in 2009. The project was so involved it often was more productive to pay a legislative researcher to do the work. Political candidates might be willing and able to spend money to find voting records, but citizens should not have to.

We were both elected in November 2009 and met in Richmond at the freshman class orientation. After speaking to several General Assembly staff members, we learned the archaic and cumbersome system Virginia uses to retrieve voting records didn't exist by accident. Some legislators in Richmond didn't mind that it was difficult for taxpaying voters to keep tabs on the legislature. The bill and vote tracking system had the effect of protecting members more than informing the public.

During the orientation, we discussed this problem with other newly-elected delegates, and received significant support for changing the system. We introduced a bill in 2010, House Bill 778, to require the voting records of all members of the House and Senate be made retrievable by member name from the General Assembly's website. All 20 members of the freshman class – Democrats and Republicans alike – signed onto the bill as co-patrons.

H.B. 778 became known as the freshman class bill, and by the time the bill made it to the House floor, half of all delegates had signed on.

The bill passed the House 86-13. It was sent to the Virginia Senate where it was promptly defeated in committee on the pretense that it would be too costly to implement, even though the IT staff indicated to us that the cost would be negligible.

Fast forward one year later. We were ready for another attempt in January 2011, so we introduced the same bill with a different bill number, H.B. 1566.

The Speaker of the House, Bill Howell, referred the bill to the Rules Committee, which he chairs. Realizing H.B. 1566 might meet the same fate in the Virginia Senate in 2011, the Howell suggested changing the bill to a resolution that would apply the new voting record transparency rule only to House members, not the Senate.

We took the speaker's advice and introduced H.R. 64 requiring all recorded votes cast in the House to be retrievable by member name. H.R. 64 applies not only to floor votes, but to all recorded committee and subcommittee votes as well. It passed the House 6332.

After a long, two-year journey, we are pleased you will be able to find out how your representative in the House of Delegates votes by typing in his or her name on the General Assembly's website. The new website feature takes effect for the 2012 General Assembly session in January.

And as for your state Senator's votes, you'll still need to figure that out the hard way unless the Senate wants to pass a similar rules change. The ball is in the Senate's court.

Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) and Mark Keam (D-Vienna) are Republican and Democratic members, respectively, in the Virginia House of Delegates.

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