Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

SC ScorecardBy and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate change is doing to the commonwealth and around the planet and support a course correction. And regardless of ideology, large majorities from both parties vote for whatever Dominion Power wants.

These are the major takeaways from this year’s legislative session and the 2016 Climate and Energy Scorecard, just released by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Constituents and clean energy advocates will want to look at not just the raw grades of individual legislators, but also the discussion provided in the report, to understand the dynamics of our General Assembly.

Twenty-eight Democrats earned perfect scores. All but a handful of Republicans earned failing grades. Sierra Club gave extra credit to legislators who introduced bills that advanced clean energy. This included several Republicans highlighted in the scorecard, but their bad votes on other bills dragged down their overall scores.

This is really a shame, since some Republicans have worked hard to advance clean energy legislation. Leesburg Delegate Randy Minchew comes to mind here for his dogged efforts on behalf of distributed solar energy, something you might not guess from his overall grade of D.

Often, it seems, reform-minded Republicans go along with their party’s more retrograde positions where they are pressured to do so by their party leaders, or where the votes are so lopsided that there is nothing to gain from breaking with the majority.

If party leaders have an outsize influence on voting, so too does Dominion Power. In fact, if you want to know who the true champions of the people are, don’t look at party affiliation. Look for the few legislators who will stand up to the most powerful political force in Richmond.

That assumes you can find votes to examine. In the introduction to the Sierra Club scorecard, Legislative Chair Susan Stillman noted with frustration this year’s paucity of recorded votes available to score:

The challenges of producing a fair and even scorecard are growing, as are the opportunities for Virginia citizens to have a clear and accurate picture of their elected representative’s voting record. Transparency in the General Assembly sunk to a new low this year: 95% of the bills defeated in the House of Delegates were done so on an unrecorded vote or no vote at all. This is not business-as-usual: just over a decade ago, nearly every bill that passed through the House received a recorded vote.

An ongoing problem, both for scorecard referees and for clean energy advocates, is that most bills that would advance the cause of renewable energy and energy efficiency never make it out of committee; in the House, the bills are heard in a tiny subcommittee. Not only do votes go unrecorded, but this approach deprives most of our elected representatives of the opportunity to vote on some of the most important energy policy issues facing Virginia.

And then there was this year, in which even the subcommittee members never got a chance to vote. A dozen or so of the most promising clean energy bills were never heard at all, but were sent to a newly-formed interim study subcommittee, ostensibly for the purpose of giving these bills the benefit of greater deliberation. The effect was to kill them quietly for the year.

As Stillman notes, all these unrecorded votes make it hard to know where the vast majority of legislators stand:

Without a recorded vote, the public is deprived of the full measure of his or her elected official’s voting history. And the problem of unrecorded votes is growing worse. This year’s unprecedented rate of unrecorded votes in the House is up from 76% in 2015—a 25% jump in one year. Virginia legislators are killing more bills than ever without accountability for their actions. This practice is wrong, and it’s dangerous for our democracy.

Stillman gives a shout-out to the founding members of the new, bipartisan Transparency Caucus for its efforts to make all votes public and ensure every bill gets a hearing.

These would be modest reforms, but welcome. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, there’s a big, dirty House (and Senate) in Richmond that need cleaning.

5 thoughts on “Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

  1. Thanks for this very informative, if disturbing, piece, Ivy. Virginia is clearly moving in the wrong direction, when it comes to democracy!

  2. I just read your post. It was very good and thank you for sharing the Sierra Club Scorecard. I noticed Sen. Tim Kaine was not mentioned anywhere. What has he done? I read somewhere he may have ties with Dominion. Is this true?

    Maria Bergheim 350 Loudoun

    On Mon, Jul 18, 2016 at 10:47 AM, Power for the People VA wrote:

    > Ivy Main posted: “By and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a > fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide > their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate > change is doing to the commonwealth and around the pl” >

    • Thanks, Maria. The Virginia Sierra Club’s scorecard grades state senators and delegates but not U.S. senators and congressmen, so Kaine is not included. But Kaine has been criticized for his close ties to Dominion. It seems to be a recurring theme in Virginia politics.

  3. Pingback: Sierra Club Scorecard Plumbs Divisions Among Virginia Legislators – Enjeux énergies et environnement

  4. Ivy, in the Hampton Roads Daily Press:

    “Nearly 95 percent of bills defeated in the Virginia House of Delegates this session went down without a recorded vote, according to a new analysis from the coalition Transparency Virginia.”

    No record of how elected officials are voting on 95% of Virginia bills…WTF? That sounds a whole lot like the beginning of the end of democracy.

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