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