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Posted at 1:09 PM ET, 01/27/2011

A bill-writing basic: Less passion, more precision

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

Updated, 10:18 a.m.
Virginia's annual legislative offering can provide with a reminder of what happened around the state the year prior.

For example, Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) wants to add sexual orientation to the state's list of protected statuses. Last spring, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told public universities they couldn't adopt policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation without permission from the General Assembly.

Given their reactive nature, these types of bills can arrive with more passion than precision. That seems to have been the case with two revisions to FOIA law proposed by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William) last week.

Both were intended to target the University of Virginia, whose officials told Marshall it would cost thousands of dollars to compile climate-change documents he had requested via the Freedom of Information Act.

Shortly before Cuccinelli subpoenaed the materials last spring, Marshall had asked for them. At first he was told they weren't available. Then, after Cuccinelli got involved, U-Va. said they'd cost $8,300.

Marshall wants to hit back in two ways: by mandating that public employees be fired if they willfully withhold documents subject to FOIA and by requiring all public documents to be labeled at time of creation to indicate whether they are subject to FOIA laws.

But even Republicans who are usually sympathetic to Marshall weren't ready to jump on board. He was told by members of a House subcommittee that both bills need work.

Why? The first is written in such a way that would actually allow judges to fire public employees -- something Marshall didn't intend. His disclaimer: He'd just asked staff to create a bill that contained punishment for violating FOIA.

“I just asked … to draw me up a statute where there was something punitive there,” Marshall told the committee.

The second proposal -- the one requiring all public documents to be labeled as either subject or not subject to FOIA -- incited a flood of criticism from government associations, advocacy groups and even the Virginia Press Association. The way the bill is written now, even documents as common as emails would need to be marked since they're considered public documents under FOIA law. Training workers to label everything would be unbelievably expensive and time-consuming, opponents said.

So it's back to the drawing board for both bills, and a good thing, too, if you want Virginia law to be more substantial than codified reactions to every dispute our lawmakers encounter.

*This post initially stated incorrectly, "The way the bill is written now, even e-mail can be considered public documents." This version has been changed to correctly state: "The way the bill is written now, even documents as common as emails would need to be marked since they're considered public documents under FOIA law."
Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | January 27, 2011; 1:09 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia  
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