Experience in error

Posted: Jul 25, 2004 12:00 AM

If I didn't live in Virginia, I would find its state legislature much more amusing.

Earlier this year, our experienced legislators passed a $1.3 billion dollar tax increase, which they knew the majority of their constituents opposed. And, accordingly, legislators refused to allow voters to have any say over the tax increase in a referendum.

Gloomy financial projections as well as fear-mongering about Virginia's bond rating were used to help sell legislators on the tax package. But the bill had barely been made law when those projections changed and now the state is putting surplus tax money into a rainy day fund.

Then the legislators left the Commonwealth with a little "going away" present: they mistakenly reactivated a law requiring employers to give employees Sunday off or to pay them triple the wages and be subject to still further fines. It's known as Virginia's "day of rest" law and was designed to protect workers from having to work weekends and, thus, from having to miss religious services.

However, times have changed and with so many stores open on Sundays, the old law is unworkable. Even Virginia's best-known religious figure, Jerry Falwell, called the old law "totally impractical."

And yet legislators have never repealed that arcane anachronism, that unworkable law. It's still on the books, hence the current problem. Over the years, exemptions to it have been tacked on again and again. And so it came to pass that this year these exemptions to the act were repealed along with specific tax exemptions the legislature actually meant to repeal.

The legislators managed this clever piece of destructive lawmaking by sheer accident. They didn't know what they were doing. Not a clue. Comforting, eh?

"Oops!" has now been added to our Commonwealth's official glossary of legislative terms. (Virginia is far from alone, of course. My free Common Sense e-letter chronicles the endless oops! of career politicians from coast to coast.)

A judge halted enforcement of the new law, ending the immediate threat to many employers, so Governor Mark Warner and legislators hoped against hope that all the attention to their big goof would die down. "His preference would be that we resolve this without the cost and disruption of a session," said a spokeswoman for the governor.

However, the problem refused to go away. Businesses were truly concerned. As Attorney General Jerry Kilgore said, "It only serves to hold the confusion and damage to Virginia's businesses in abeyance for a relatively short period of time." Businesses began putting enormous pressure on Governor Warner and the legislators to fix the problem their bone-headed legislating had caused, and for good.

The governor called legislators back to the capitol to correct their mistake in a special session. That session was over in a day and legislators are now back home. Thank goodness.

But, wait a second . . . can you imagine if this foul-up had happened in a state with legislative term limits? Oh, we would never hear the end of it. Would it have been BIG NEWS! It would have been claimed as proof positive that term limits create inexperienced legislatures totally incapable of effectively conducting the people¹s complex business, blah blah blah.

So, what does it prove now? When a legislature loaded with super-incumbents who have served for decades commits this serious an error? It sure proves that experience as a politician is not the end-all and be-all.

I'll bet you're wondering: How did Virginians even come to discover this legislative blunder?

The legislation had been reviewed by lawyers galore: legislative lawyers, administration lawyers, and the attorney general's office. These experienced attorneys, with special experience in such legislative matters, all completely missed the impact this legislation would have on real-world employers.

But one day Buddy Omohundro, an attorney for a private firm, and only a few years out of law school, was asked a fairly routine question by a client about the law covering weekend time off for employees. Omohundro read the law (always a good start, although so often overlooked by our state and federal legislators) and he caught the problem.

Virginia's abundantly "experienced" legislature is yet one more good argument for term limits. If these are the experienced professional legislators, bring on the amateurs.