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Free Lance-Star reporter Chelyen Davis covers Virginia government.

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Ways to track Virginia legislation online

The General Assembly’s 45-day 2013 session starts this Wednesday. Lawmakers have already filed more than 600 bills, and more are pouring in by the day.

So how can you keep track of legislation? (Apart from reading this blog, of course.) These days there are a few online options.

First up is the legislature’s own website, at  http://virginiageneralassembly.gov/ . If you’ve used the legislative website before, you’ll notice that address has changed. So has the site, thanks to a revamp last year. It has various ways to find bills, legislators and meeting times, but to look at legislation, click in the middle of the homepage on 2013 session tracking. There you can look at bills filed by individual legislators, by day, or by subject.

The state site also livestreams each day’s floor session from the House and Senate — click on the “members and session” tab to find this. It doesn’t archive the video.

The state website is thorough but can be confusing if you’re not used to looking up legislation. A couple of private non-profit organizations have their own websites for tracking legislation, trying to make it easier for citizens to find what they’re looking for.

The older of these is Richmond Sunlight, run by former political blogger Waldo Jaquith. The site provides bill texts but also provides for user discussion of bills. You can look up individual legislators and find not only their contact information, but their political fundraising numbers (from the Virginia Public Access Project), their Twitter handles and a tag cloud of the most common terms in their legislation (so you can see if, for example, they have a lot of bills on election law, or transportation). It also has links to news articles about the legislators. Waldo has also been working to archive video of House and Senate floor sessions, although it’s not a fast process (it involves buying the DVDs and transferring them to the site).

More recently — i.e. today — VPAP has launched its own legislation-tracking tool, calling it Issue Matic. (http://www.vpap.org/issues). It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Richmond Sunlight — the user comments, the Twitter feed — but it does have a cloud of terms in legislation so you can see what issues are the subject of the most legislation (right now, commendations and local government authority) and then you can click on those tags to find bills on those topics. The site also lists broad issue areas (health care, transportation, etc) and from there you can look at all bills on more specific topics under those umbrellas, like abortion, the Chesapeake Bay or eminent domain. The site also links to news articles about those topics.

Apart from tracking bills online, here are a few things to know if you plan to come to Richmond to testify on legislation, or want to contact your legislators about a bill.

Both houses use the committee system to hear public comment on bills — the public can’t speak on a bill that’s up for debate on the House or Senate floor. So the committee hearing for a bill is when the public has a chance to speak on it. The House is especially prone to using subcommittees for this purpose, and often if a bill is heard in subcommittee, the full committee won’t take much, if any, public comment on it. So if you want to come to Richmond and speak on a House bill, you should plan to come to the subcommittee hearing.

Committees in both houses (and the subcommittees) generally meet on regular schedules during session, and typically they post dockets or agendas online, although these might not be posted until the day before the meeting. Committee staffs and chairmen handle this. Keep in mind that even if a bill is on the agenda for a particular meeting, it may not get heard that day if the committee meeting runs late or if the bill’s sponsor asks that it be put off to a later meeting.

If you don’t want to show up at a 7 a.m. subcommittee hearing, you can always call or email legislators’ Richmond offices (listed on the state website above).

 

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