Del. Ken Plum: Starting Anew in Richmond

This is a commentary from Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

The Virginia General Assembly will celebrate its 400th anniversary in a couple of years, making it the longest-running representative legislative body in this hemisphere.

Although not much has changed in the basic procedures of lawmaking with committees and structured floor debate, over the centuries there have been adaptations to the times as the Legislature has sought to best serve those it represents. Most recently, the biggest changes have been to the housing of the legislative functions.

For those interested in details, here is a summary of the major changes — past and present. The General Assembly in 2004 abandoned Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol for the first time since the Civil War to give the place a major renovation that would keep it standing and expand its size underground so as to not take away from its iconic exterior. For that renovation, the Legislature moved to the former state library, whose upstairs had been renovated to be the Governor’s Office but whose reading rooms downstairs had been left intact and became very efficiently the House of Delegates and Senate chambers for several sessions.

Meanwhile, the offices of legislators in the General Assembly Building (GAB) have been crumbling asbestos, explaining the white dust that periodically appeared on the furniture. Legislating should not be considered hazardous duty, at least in a physical sense, nor should failing plumbing and heating and cooling systems cause delays in the work of the Legislature.

For decades, the Life Insurance Company of Virginia had occupied the building before it moved to an office park in the suburbs and sold its aging building to the Commonwealth. The building is currently being demolished, and a new office building will be constructed in its place with a parking garage across the street. That will be good news for those who want to participate in the legislative process but have been prevented from doing so because they simply could not find a place to park.

The last act of legislators this past session was to pack ourselves up for a move down Richmond’s Capitol Hill to the Pocahontas Building, formerly in private hands as the State Planters Bank of Commerce and Trust Building, where we will have temporary but nice and asbestos-free offices for several years while the new building will be constructed. The Pocahontas Building was available to us as the Attorney General and his staff, who had offices there, have recently relocated to the Barbara Johns Building, formerly the Hotel Richmond and later state offices, just across the street from where the new General Assembly Building will be.

Regardless of whether you chose to follow all that, the good news is that when you come to Richmond you will be much more likely to find a convenient place to park, and you will be in a safer setting.

With our physical surroundings taken care of, now we need to go to work on bringing the legislative process up to date by making it more transparent and responsive. Maybe a significant anniversary and a change in working environment should be viewed as a time to start anew.

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