The Commonwealth has a unique opportunity to revise and restructure its legislative governance, especially in light of the proposed independent redistricting commission. Virginia has 400 years of experience in self-governance for its citizens and, now, has a chance to create a modern model of democratic representation that addresses the concerns and criticisms voiced by its electorate over several decades. Citizen discontent with government arises, in part, from a sense of tone deafness of representatives, along with a cynicism based upon a perception of insularity among representatives. There are measures that can be taken to diminish that “distancing” and increase the connection between the governed and the governors. Therefore, we present four issues for consideraton.
Streamline the Size of the General Assembly from 140 members to 40.
The existence of bicameral legislatures in 49 states is not evidence of their effectiveness or democratic purpose but, rather, of modelling that of the US Congress. That bicameral body at conception was necessitated due to discrete and distinct jurisdictions between a central government and its constituent states. States have no similar endemic distinctions or discrete jurisdictions and, for that reason, a unicameral legislature would streamline lines of authority for legislative governance. At present, the Commonwealth has two types of state representatives, elected by an identical constituency, and creating legislation in the same assembly.
There is, of course, no magic or ideal number of districts or representatives to constitute a state legislature. Modern transportation and communication capacities have altered the necessity for mega multiple local jurisdictions, as well as those constituting a state legislature.
In the case of the Commonwealth of Virginia, settling on the 40 state senatorial districts is a simple approach acknowledging jurisdictions already in existence. Eliminating the 100 house districts offers citizens the potential to be able to name every state legislative representative. Given the state’s gerrymandering experience, creation of an independent districting commission remains a priority. The economies of scaling down add to the attractiveness and acceptance of a 40-member unicameral body while not diminishing the democratic environment.
Establish Term Limits for State Legislators.
Both within states and across the nation, voters have expressed both disaffection and disinterest in governance, particularly legislative. One contributing factor is the career professionalization of political representation, contributing to a sense of permanence to legislative bodies. This permanence contribute to distancing between those who govern and the governed. One antidote is to subject all elected officials to term limits. Here again, there is no magic formula, but one qualitative goal in this regard is a return to citizen legislators, those having other fulltime jobs. Limiting elective office to 3 or 4 consecutive terms, perhaps each of 3 years in duration, would represent sufficient length of time for representatives to gain valuable experience and discharge campaign pledges before returning to ordinary citizenship at the end of that period.
Such a plan might also contemplate re-election following a hiatus of at least two 3-year terms. In addition, representatives would be subject to a lifetime ban against lobbying state government. Another consideration might be to bar such individuals from service in other state agencies so as not to pad pension benefits, thereby diminishing any sense of permanence or revolving-door professionalism. Increasing compensation for term-limited representatives would be necessary to attract qualified individuals. And a multi-month session provides time for adequate consideration and debate of state interests, while still affording plenty of time for work in the community and for campaigning. The term-limited tenure would be enhanced if accompanied by strict campaign finance rules and regulations.
Enact a “Home Rule” Measure to Allow Localities to Exercise Greater Autonomy and Authority.
At present, the 140-member General Assembly devotes an inordinate amount of time and energy to consideration of legislation that affects localities under a “Dillon Rule” principle adopted by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1896. The rule limits the jurisdictional responsibility and authority of localities upon an assumption of inexperience and limited vision.
While this principle may have served the electorate in more rural and bucolic eras, the Commonwealth’s counties and localities today are vastly more mature and sophisticated in their abilities to manage their own affairs. Here again, modern transportation and communication systems have diminished the necessity of a single, centralized legislative government.
The Dillon Rule is an anomaly amenable to being replaced by a home rule provision that would expand the scope of jurisdiction localities exercise over their own affairs. Home rule would further contribute to the maturation and professionalism of local governments, while conserving state legislative energy and providing the electorates of the 40 districts greater access to and participation in governing.
Relocate the Seat of Government to a More Central Geographical Location.
In conjunction with a scaled down legislature and increasing accessibility to the general population, a unicameral state legislature might be geographically centered as a symbol of restoring more intensive participation for the state’s citizenry as well as accessibility. At present, there is a 350-acre campus being proposed for redevelopment and re-purposing (Central Virginia Training Center, between Appomattox and Roanoke), which offers an alternative for the seat of a reconsituted legislature.
These admittedly immodest proposals are also intended to encourage a permanent process of evaluation of the governance of a state, in the interests of sustaining and cultivating citizen participation. None are radical, though some may think so. Further, they are not interdependent, and may be considered separately. The health of the civic culture will be enhanced by discussing these proposals.