Lawmaker seeks to reverse rules on media access to Senate floor

RICHMOND — Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham County, will move Tuesday to return the working media to the floor of the Virginia Senate.

Garrett introduced a resolution Monday that would reverse a change in Senate rules last week that banned the news media from their customary place on the chamber floor.

He said he would seek to discharge the Committee on Rules, requiring approval by two-thirds of the Senate, to bring the resolution to amend the rules to a vote.

“If folks have to go on the record, I can’t fathom that we would have trouble getting two-thirds of the votes in favor of transparency and access for the media,” he said Monday. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s about accountability to the voters. We work for them, not the other way around.”

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Garrett said his proposed resolution would return the Senate to its operating rules from last year, before the Republican majority voted on Jan. 13 to move the news media from tables flanking the rostrum on the chamber floor to seats in the visitor’s gallery

“I think it’s the right thing to do, in conjunction with the transparency initiative, to let the Fourth Estate back on the floor,” he said in an interview after a news conference launching the Virginia Transparency Initiative.

Garrett will have the support of at least one colleague in the Senate Republican Caucus, freshman Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield County, a founding member of the transparency caucus.

“I would support it,” she said.

Chase, a conservative Republican, joined with freshman Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, to form the caucus so the public can see how the legislature handles legislation, especially in committees and their subcommittees.

“Even though Amanda and I are ideological opposites … we still strongly agree on open, transparent government,” Levine said.

The rules banning the media from the floor were adopted on the first day of the General Assembly session on a 21-19 party-line vote commandeered by Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City County.

Chase said she supported the new rules initially because during her experience in working for Republican members of Congress the media did not have access to the floor of the House of Representatives and she understood the media still would have seats in the chamber gallery.

However, she said, “My personal opinion is I don’t have a problem with the press being on the floor again.

“There is a discussion going on now in caucus,” Chase said.

Garrett said he had been prepared to take up his proposed resolution on the Senate floor Monday but agreed to wait a day before proceeding.

Chase said she and other new members of the Senate have been assertive with their questions in the Republican caucus, which is why senators were five minutes late in arriving on the floor Monday.

No Republican senators were present when Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam gaveled the chamber into session promptly at noon as he promised last week. Norment told the Democratic lieutenant governor then that the majority would set its own schedule and keep him informed.

Republican senators began filling into the Senate chamber five minutes after the session began, missing the opening prayer and the introduction of some guests in the gallery. The prayer was given by the Rev. Mark Morrow of CrossWalk Community Church in Williamsburg, represented by Norment, who later introduced him.

Chase and Garrett said Monday that the delayed arrival was not aimed at Northam, but reflected heated discussions within the caucus.

“We went over today because we have questions,” she said.

Chase and Levine decided to form the transparency caucus because they want the public to know how the legislature votes on bills and why.

They said they would hold to a “gold standard” by video-recording committee and subcommittee action on bills and resolutions they introduce.

“One of the things I ran on was transparency,” said Chase, who defeated longtime Sen. Stephen Martin, R-Chesterfield County, in the Republican primary last June.