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Virginia lawmakers limit public comment and tell folks taking the mic to ‘make it quick’

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's part-time Legislature moves at a quick clip. And its time-pressed lawmakers expect the same from members of the public who want to make their voices heard.

Year after year, no matter which party is in charge, committee and subcommittee chairs have repeatedly exhorted those providing testimony at the Capitol to speed things along. They often remind speakers that a countdown timer is running or urge them to consider whether weighing in is even necessary.

There's broad agreement that some kind of public comment time management is necessary in Virginia's sessions, which generally run no longer than 60 days. But critics say the way the General Assembly structures its work means important deliberations take place privately and citizens' concerns get short shrift.

“Virginia's legislative calendar just isn’t designed for public input,” said Sally Hudson, a University of Virginia professor and former member of the House of Delegates, who has advocated for rethinking the way sessions are structured.

One particular exchange last week, during which victims of violent crime were limited in their remarks, highlighted the issue and drew a sharp rebuke from the state’s GOP attorney general and governor and Republican legislators, who are in the minority in both chambers.

The incident took place during a meeting led by Del. Vivian Watts, a Democrat who is the third-most senior member of the House of Delegates. The panel was hearing a so-called “second look” bill backed by criminal justice reform advocates that would allow individuals serving long prison terms to petition a court for a potential reduction to their sentence.

After the subcommittee heard an explanation of the bill, Watts told lobbyists and members of the public that she would allow six minutes of testimony for supporters in the room, who also included some crime victims, and then six minutes for opponents.

When the opponents' six minutes ran out after only three speakers, Watts attempted to cut the group off. As the wife of a murder victim insisted on being heard, it appeared her microphone was silenced.

Michael Grey, whose son was fatally shot while trying to sell an iPhone in 2018, stepped up to the microphone next. Watts asked him to stop speaking and then chided him when he persisted, saying: “I am not happy with the performance. However, I'll let you go forward."

Melinda Wallin, who appeared shaken, followed and simply introduced herself before Spotsylvania County commonwealth's attorney Ryan Mehaffey, whose office prosecuted the 2019 fatal shooting of Wallin's son, said: “Respectfully, I'd ask for one minute for Ms. Wallin. ... Her son died in her arms and she just wants one minute. We've been here all day. Please.”

“Next speaker, please,” Watts said after a long pause, according to a recording of the meeting.

“I just felt railroaded. I felt so disrespected,” Wallin said in an interview this week.

Watts said she had attempted to be clear and fair about the expectations she laid out and had tried to give some leeway to the speakers. Virginia's tightly compressed session means at some point, you have to move on, she said.

“We try to cover as many bills as Congress does in a whole year in eight weeks,” she said.

While the exchange was striking, it represented a common back-and-forth and underscored the time crunch faced by lawmakers, most of whom earn around $18,000 a year and many of whom travel long distances to Richmond.

The General Assembly legislates for a narrowly politically divided state of some 8.7 million people and considers thousands of bills in sessions scheduled for at most 60 days in even-numbered years, less in odd-numbered years. Lawmakers typically don't meet over the weekends and generally structure the weeks so work can conclude more quickly on Fridays.

Nationally, state legislatures — which differ widely in how long they meet — have varying policies on handling public input. Some offer visitors more time and latitude than others. Members of the public who visit capitols to petition their government also face varying regulations that limit the display of signs, political messaging on clothing and even where people can gather.

Virginia legislators can’t plod through discussion on every single issue or they would run out of time, said House GOP Leader Todd Gilbert. But the public broadly deserves more time, and especially on sensitive topics like the second look bill, he said.

Gilbert also suggested the limited public comment could have been by design in this instance.

Last year, the measure passed the Senate unanimously but died on a unanimous, bipartisan vote in a House of Delegates subcommittee after a public hearing that featured over an hour of testimony, including emotional pleas from victims who said the measure would add to their trauma.

By the end of the public comment, then-sponsor Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat, threw up his hands and said: “Do what you want with the bill. ... I’m sorry, so sorry for these families.”

Broadly speaking, the Assembly's time limits for speakers — which vary from panel to panel — have generally seemed tighter this session, said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. She also questioned why the Senate is not taking online public comment in subcommittees or allowing the submission of written public comments.

Joan Porte, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, expressed similar concerns about the Senate's virtual testimony policies and the lack of an option to submit written comments.

But other Assembly observers have noted how much access and transparency have improved since the pre-pandemic days when not all meetings were recorded and there was no ability to testify online.

The Assembly's current session has been replete with other examples of visitors and even legislators being told to keep their remarks or questions brief. One instance happened in a House subcommittee discussing the closure of several state prisons and another in a Senate committee debating collective bargaining and other employment-related measures.

“Please, make it quick!” Democratic committee chairman Sen. Creigh Deeds said, adding about a later bill with a chuckle: “You might speak too much, and we’ll kill it."

In an interview, Deeds said he seeks to allow as much public input as possible but with so many bills, “there's not much time for it.”

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This story has been corrected to show that the subcommittee hearing was held last week.