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As newly elected lawmakers head to Richmond, lobbyists remain

People tour the new General Assembly Building
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
People get a tour of the new General Assembly Building on Tuesday, October 3, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia.

There were more than 1,000 lobbyists registered in Virginia last year, according to VPAP.

Dozens of new and first-time lawmakers coming into the General Assembly present lobbyists with an opportunity to influence policy this upcoming session.

The House of Delegates class of 2024 will have 34 new members, although some are returning to the Legislature after losing races in 2021. The 17 senators entering that chamber for the first time are even more pronounced, although 11 had previously served in other government roles.

“That is a tremendous loss of not just institutional knowledge, but knowledge of the Code of Virginia, knowledge of its economy and knowledge of all the entities across the commonwealth that one learns throughout a lifetime of service,” said Chris Saxman, a former delegate and the executive director of Virginia Free, a pro-business group.

The turnover means some legislators may be unfamiliar with parliamentary procedure and policy.

“I may differ for some from some lobbyists, I think that the turnover is a great thing,” said Carter T. Whitelow, a government relations adviser for Williams Mullen, a prominent Richmond law and lobbying firm. “We're kind of starting from square one. But it presents an opportunity for people like me to educate new members, and I'm truly excited about that,” he said.

Alex Keena, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the turnover can also present challenges for lobbyists.

"When legislators leave, then that creates a whole new concern: You have to end up developing new relationships with new people,” he said of lawmakers.

There were over 1,000 registered lobbyists in Virginia last year, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. Teachers’ unions, cities and counties, utility monopolies and single-issue groups are among those represented on Capitol Square.

Being a Virginia legislator is technically a part-time job, potentially limiting a newly elected official’s ability to learn about what those lobbyists might be saying about an issue during a jam-packed session.

“So, lobbyists play an outsized role in that context. If lobbyists weren't there, then it would probably make it even more difficult to do your job if you're a legislator,” said Keena, who noted that lobbyists represent their clients’ interests and not necessarily the interests of the public. “It's complicated … . [W]hether it's good or bad depends on what your perspective is.”

House Democratic Leader Scott chats with supporters
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
House Democratic Leader Don Scott chats with supporters during the Virginia House and Senate Democratic Caucuses watch party on Tuesday, November 7, 2023 at Omni Richmond Hotel in Richmond, Virginia.

In this year’s session, legislators only have 60 days to judge competing information and opinions garnered through committee testimony, staff recommendations, advocacy groups — and lobbyists.

“The General Assembly, when it meets, is not a deliberative body. It's a decision body,” said Saxman. He added that new members should look to committee chairs for guidance and that subject-matter experts from advocacy groups could be a resource, too.

He called the Legislature a "relationship-oriented business."

Democrats chose to keep on Republican Paul Nardo, who runs that chamber’s business, overseeing the House’s budget and day-to-day operations.

“Mr. Nardo’s return, for at least this first session, will secure continuity as we enter this new chapter,” said Speaker-Designee Don Scott in a press release.

The legislature gavels in on Jan. 10.

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.