Virginia Senate allows reporters back on floor

AP News
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Posted: Jan 29, 2016 4:25 PM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Reporters in Virginia will once again be able to get an up-close look at how the state Senate is operating, while plans proceed in Missouri to move reporters away from the action.

GOP Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment said Friday that he plans next week to allow reporters back on the floor of the Virginia Senate, where they had worked for decades until banned earlier this month at the beginning of the 2016 session.

Norment said he had reached an agreement with members of the Capitol press corps on new procedures for reporting from the floor, which include having reporters sit at desks instead of tables and spell out specific punishments for reporters who violate the Senate's established rules of conduct.

"I think we've come to a good mutual resolution," Norment said.

His action to ban reporters to an upstairs visitors' gallery with only a partial view of the proceedings drew criticism from Democrats, national press organizations and even some members of his own caucus.

GOP Sen. Tom Garrett, a conservative lawmaker who has often clashed with Norment, publicly issued an ultimatum earlier this week urging Norment to bring reporters back to the floor or face a potentially embarrassing vote on the issue.

In Missouri, the state Senate is moving ahead with plans to kick the news media off the chamber floor, despite objections from the Capitol press association. A committee of Missouri Senate leaders voted Wednesday to proceed with a plan that would bar reporters from continuing to work at a 10-seat table on the Senate floor effective March 29. The plan calls for building two rows of desks for them in a visitors' gallery overlooking the chamber.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard has said he initiated the move because some reporters "have violated their code of ethics" in recent years by posting to social media details of conversations they overheard that senators intended to be private. But Richard has not publicly pointed to specific examples.

The Missouri move would eliminate 50 seats — nearly one-fifth of the total in the visitors' gallery — to accommodate the new working space for the news media. Costs haven't been released yet. As in Virginia, the view from the gallery would be partially obstructed, in this case by large columns. Senate staff members would take over the space now used by news media on the Senate floor.

About three-fourths of states in the U.S. allow reporters on the floor of their Senate and House chambers. Many provide seats or desks for them to use.

Until this year, the most recent state to boot reporters was Wyoming, which ended news media access to tables on the House and Senate floors in 2013.

Some Wyoming legislators cited concerns that the line was blurring between the traditional role of the news media and lobbyists, and that it was becoming difficult to determine which organizations should be credentialed as news media. Some lawmakers also noted that fewer reporters had been using the tables on the House and Senate floors since live audio feeds of the proceedings were made available. The move was opposed by the Wyoming Press Association.

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.