Legislative session begins by ousting media from Senate floor

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RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia General Assembly opened Wednesday, introducing 18 novice legislators, squabbling briefly across party lines and courting a fight with the media.

Curiously, the press tables located on the Senate floor as recently as Tuesday afternoon were no longer available for use by the press. According to published reports, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County, made the decision to relegate the press to the upper balcony.

“You’ll get used to this refrain during this session: I have no comment,” Norment told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Senate floor

The General Assembly kicked off Wednesday. Credit: Capital News Service

Little mention was made by legislators about the unusual decision to restrict the media’s access, except by Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.

“We need more transparency in the General Assembly, not less,” Northam, a Democrat who serves as the Senate’s presiding officer, said in a statement. “Removing members of the press from the floor only makes their jobs more difficult and, in the end, is a disservice to Virginians.”

Another dispute also emerged in the Senate over rules governing committee appointments, presented by the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover.

According to Democrats, the new rules would allow the majority party in the Senate to stack committees with its members. The Senate currently has 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats.

As a result, Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, presented Senate Resolution 22, which would have based committee assignments on merit and given the minority party more representation.

Senate floor 2

The General Assembly kicked off Wednesday. Credit: Capital News Service

Norment opposed the resolution, saying “areas of expertise are already considered” in committee assignments. Senate Resolution 22 was voted down along party lines, 21-19.

Apart from the squabbles over committee appointments, the mood in the Senate remained light.

Seven new senators took their oaths of office:

  • Republicans Amanda Chase and Glen H. Sturtevant of Chesterfield County, Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico County, William DeSteph of Virginia Beach and David Suetterlein of Roanoke
  • Democrats Jeremy McPike of Woodbridge and Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon

The Senate voted unanimously to make Sen. Stephen B. Newman, R-Lynchburg, its president pro tempore. Susan Clarke Schaar was re-elected as clerk of the Senate.

Howell Re-elected as House Speaker

In the House, proceedings ran incredibly dry until Democratic Del. Mark Sickles of Fairfax, nominated Republican Del. William Howell of Stafford to continue as speaker of the House.

Republican outnumber Democrats in the House, 66-34. So it was a foregone conclusion that the GOP would hold the most powerful position in the chamber. Sickles and other delegates seemed intent on making light of the partisanship that often plagues the legislature.

“It can seem like we’re always waiting for the body on the other side of the hall to do something — to do anything, really,” Sickles said in his introduction, which on several occasions garnered laughs from both sides of the aisle.

Sickles said the House has a responsibility to serve the commonwealth in a fiscally responsible manner. He urged his colleagues to push the “green button” for Howell, who he said would forge a “dynamic plan” and work with “bipartisan spirit.”

“We may not be able to resolve our differences, but our future is as bright as we make it,” Sickles concluded.

Howell was re-elected with a 99-0 vote and a standing ovation. Donald Lemons, chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, administered the oath of office.

“I’m humbled by the trust you’ve placed in me to lead this distinguished body again,” Howell said, adding, “None of us are entitled to the seats we hold.”

Howell reiterated that his position, as well as any other elected office, comes with significant responsibilities and duties to not just one party, but the people of the commonwealth.

He then welcomed 11 new House members to “Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol,” and alluded to James Madison and Patrick Henry as “constant reminders” of the legislative body’s responsibilities.

Howell then turned his remarks toward the House’s priorities this session, beginning with the budget.

Republicans have ideological differences with Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats over health care, gun laws, gay marriage and abortion. But Howell chose to focus on issues on which the left and right share common ground.

“We need to be focused on real solutions to our fellow citizens,” Howell said, before he addressed the importance of the state economy, business and entrepreneurial opportunities.

He also stressed the importance of a “strong education system and providing flexibility and choice to parents and students,” before tipping his hat to President Obama’s support of charter schools empowering students of all backgrounds.

Howell noted that twice, McAuliffe has been shot down by the General Assembly for trying to expand Medicaid in Virginia. However, the speaker stressed that the legislature should aim to improve access to health care and strengthen the mental and behavioral health systems in a “fiscally responsible” manner.

“We’re not always going to agree, but we will exchange lengthy dialogue on how to move Virginia forward,” Howell said, “We have a long road ahead, and I’m confident we will find success.”

By Sarah King and Matt Chaney/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.