Officials weigh in on the pros and cons of a full-time legislature

It’s 2021, and it looks like the new year’s resolution for Virginia’s General Assembly is to have a shorter session — convening for no more than 30 days. 

The upcoming unusually short session follows an unusually long one in 2020. Regardless of length, Virginia’s legislators will put their livelihoods on hold because the General Assembly is not and never has been a full-time job. 

What if it were?

Del. Sally Hudson, a Democratic lawmaker who represents Charlottesville, thinks it could be. 

As she enters the second year of her first term in the legislature, she considers herself fortunate to have been able to balance her position as a professor at the University of Virginia with her service to her district politically — but, she said, the part-time nature of her elected seat is not without shortfalls and can be exclusionary to others who may wish to serve. 

“I can teach in the fall and serve in the spring, but there aren’t a lot of careers where you can just peace out for three months and then pop back in and have everything be all right,” Hudson explained. “So that really affects the kinds of career paths that we have in the legislature.” 

Hudson explained that many legislators have legal or consulting careers outside of their political services with flexible hours but, in recent years, journalists and medical professionals have been elected. 

Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds, a lawyer by trade whose 25th District also includes Charlottesville, estimates that almost half of the General Assembly was composed of lawyers when he first entered politics in 1991. Now, he said, it may be “around 25%.”

“Everyone brings something different to the table,” Deeds explained.

Though he and Hudson diverge on whether the part-time nature of Virginia state politics truly allows for more diversity of people to become elected to it, they both agree that diversity in representation brings more insights when drafting laws. 

“If there’s one thing I learned in my first year on the job is that diversity in life experiences in the room matters enormously with what kind of work gets done,” Hudson said. 

Other things Hudson believes the state could benefit from if its legislative body functioned full-time would be more bandwidth for carrying bills and more importantly, more bills penned in-full by the people elected to write them. 

As the nation’s oldest legislature, and functioning as a part-time body since its inception, the idea of a “citizen-legislator” is that elected officials return to their district and this strengthens representation. 

“You live amongst the people you represent,” Deeds said. “It’s a part-time job and a full-time responsibility. You have to live under the laws you create, and I hope it keeps you closer to the people you represent.”

Hudson notes the “romanticism” of a part-time legislature for the ideals of engagement with constituents. However, she said, the nature of shorter sessions can leave the state with a “powerful executive and a super powerful lobbying core because they’re the ones who do the work year-round.”

“When the legislature is weak, it’s not that less work gets done, it just gets done by people who are less accountable to the voters,” Hudson said. 

She also pointed to a joint investigation by USA Today and The Arizona Republic that analyzed how corporations and special interest groups or their lobbyists infuse model legislation that often gets widely adopted almost verbatim by state legislatures — and Virginia was no exception

With more than 10,000 model bills circulated nationwide and over 2,000 of those passing state legislatures, the article found that from 2010 to 2018, Virginia was among several states that had passed model bills written by special interest groups. 

“We do much less writing of our own law in our own words for the needs of our own people,” Hudson said. “With a part-time legislature as weak as ours, we are much more vulnerable to power pressure campaigns from outside of Virginia.” 

For Hudson, a full-time legislative body doesn’t mean she and her fellow elected officials should spend their entire year “sitting in Richmond,’ but rather she imagines an assembly that could be in session for a week once a month throughout the year. 

“That would give us time in between to let things percolate and to get feedback,” Hudson said. “Instead of trying to do all of the wordsmithing of the laws in the couple months around session and then have all the laws take effect on July 1, you could imagine a slightly more rotating model where we have a session once a month and passed laws take effect maybe on the quarters.”

Hudson said the once-a-year nature of session can be a “pain for local governments.” Being a Dillon Rule state, localities often must defer to their state legislature for permissions or new laws relating to some local matters. 

“They always have to come to us to ask for things and then we have to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t have enough bill slots to carry that this session.’”

A matter of time

LEG Type

Credit: National Conference of State Legislatures

Presently, Virginia’s constitution states that in even-numbered years regular sessions may not extend past 60 days, while in odd-numbered years regular sessions run between 30 and 46 days, the latter of which is often due to a two-thirds vote. 

This year, some lawmakers are aiming for a 30-day session. In November, Republican leaders in the House of Delegates and state Senate announced they would oppose extending the session.

“The constitution limits the duration of General Assembly sessions to ensure we have a citizen legislature, not one populated by full-time politicians,” Del. Todd Gilbert, R- Shenandoah, said in a statement. 

In March ahead of the pandemic, lawmakers skipped a day of adjournment to continue operating as if it were Thursday on a Friday. By August, a special session convened both physically and virtually and went on to last more 12 weeks.

Now, some Republican lawmakers want to hold true to time limits this year while some Democratic lawmakers say there’s too much to tackle. 

While not every legislator would agree on a totally full-time General Assembly, some agree sessions could be longer. 

If the General Assembly were to transition to a full-time body, it would require a change to the state’s constitution —  and Deeds has advocated for at least adjusting the length of sessions each year. 

“I don’t know that the pros of a full-time body really weigh out for Virginia, but I’ve advocated for a longer session for a long time,” Deeds explained. “The sessions ought to always be 60 days every year. You could probably solve a lot of the problems you need to solve in a 60-day session.”

Currently, Virginia is among 26 states to be classified as a hybrid of part- and full-time by the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

According to Natalie Wood, a director at NCSL, several variables classify different types of bodies from levels of full- and part-time, ranging from session frequency and length to staffing needs and salaries. 

The four full-time states are New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and California — all large in population — while Texas is among the hybrid states alongside Virginia. Wood said a factor for Texas’ label is that it holds its session every other year, rather than annually or year-round.  Also, like Virginia, it uses the interim to conduct studies or commissions. 

Amigo Wade, director of Virginia’s Division of Legislative Services, said that as things are now, he views the division’s workflow as having three “seasons.” 

One, he said, is where his division staff committee and subcommittee meetings during the actual legislative session each year. Another is during the interim after the session has ended — the bulk of the year — where the division staffs legislative commissions in preparation for the next session. Wade said this is when things calm down a bit for his department. 

“It turns into a more regular work week whereas during the session we are here whenever [General Assembly] members are here,” Wade said. “There’s no weekends off. It’s straight on through.” 

The third “season” is the drafting session, where delegates and senators file proposed legislation to be drafted. Wade said this usually takes place between November and December of each year ahead of the next legislative session that begins each January.

If Virginia were to shift to a full-time legislature, Wade said it would change how much staffing is needed from his division — likely more. 

There are also salaries to contend with for legislative services, as well as the legislators and their aides. Currently, a legislator makes about $18,000 per year, along with per diem for sessions — more aligned with what a true part-time state legislator makes, while NCSL indicates that hybrid and full-time legislators typically earn between $40,000 and $80,000 in salary. 

Between weighing pros and cons of salaries, time spent in and out of session, along with studies and drafting, Wood said there is no one size fits all for every state. 

“Full time legislators might say ‘as full-time we are a more coequal branch of government with the other two branches [executive and judicial]  because they don’t have limits on the time that they can meet,’” Wood explained. “Whereas someone coming from a part-time legislature may speak to how it creates focus for the legislature — by having a time limit you’re kind of geared up to crank through what you need to do.”

“There’s lots of different ways to design a legislative institution,” Wood added. “It has been debated and probably will continue to be.”