Perhaps the biggest disappointment thus far in session is the failure of both the House (HB 1360) and Senate (SB 585) to pass budget transparency, also known as "Google government" because many states, as well as the Feds, now have put their budgets online in an easy-to-use Google-like keyword format. It crossed party lines and has brought together Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. The sponsors of the federal bill were Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Barack Obama (D-Illinois). The patrons here were Delegates Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) and Onzlee Ware (D-11, Roanoke) and Senators Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) and Chap Peterson (D-34, Fairfax). So the opposition isn't so much by party but by age (younger members tend to be for it, older ones, not) and from the appropriators of both parties who simply don't want the public to know where their money goes. (The biggest opponent in the U.S. Senate was Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican, known for his "Bridge To Nowhere" and other pork.) The problem is not that we don't know how much each department gets, but what they do with it. It is near impossible to find out with whom they contract and how much they are paid.
A great example is the Virginia Lottery. By law it cannot advertise. However, it gets around this by calling its ad budget "administrative spending." FOIA's take forever, and even the Washington Post had a difficult time getting information on how much it is paying Howie Mandel for its new "Deal Or No Deal" promotion. As it turns out, it's going to be $860,000 even though by the Lottery Department's own admission, celebrity promotions move sales negligibly.
A few weeks ago we blogged about how Senator Edd Houck led the fuddy-duddies on the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in its defeat of SB 585, in response to his outburst that, "I am offended by this bill because it implies that we are operating in the dark. . . . The message we're sending with this bill is we're not transparent and we're operating in the dark. It's not true!"
Due to Senator Houck's vociferous public chastisement of the bill and his defense of the indefensible (hiding the budget from those who pay for it), Senator Cuccinelli took up his colleague on another claim he made during the committee. Below is the released letter Senator Cuccinelli sent to Senator Houck. We have much, much more on to post on this very important subject, but for now, please enjoy the senator's letter. As of now, Senator Houck has not replied, nor do we expect him to. (Point of references: Data Point is the antiquated system the Commonwealth uses which is almost impossible to use unless you are a budget data analyst. Legislative assistants to high-ranking members of the Senate Finance Committee told me even they find it extremely difficult to use when their bosses need to get some information. Also, the strikethrough represents Senator Cuccinelli's edit by hand; italics represents his handwriting.)
Monday, February 11, 2008
The Honorable R. Edward Houck
General Assembly Building, Room 326
Thank you for sharing your perspective of Data Point when you spoke against my SB585 in the General Laws and Technology Committee on January 30. SB585 directed the Auditor of Public Accounts, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and the Director of Virginia Enterprise Applications to work together to coordinate efforts to use Data Point to provide a more citizen friendly, more searchable, less state-lingo oriented presentation.
Given your hearty endorsement of the efficacy of Data Point being sufficient for budget, expenditure and performance transparency for ordinary citizens, I would like ten minutes of your time for a meeting with me and a group of reporters, perhaps some time after crossover. Given a typical question or two from a reporter about our state budget or expenditures or performance, we would like to have you show how both the process of asking a question in Data Point and the resulting response can be commended to our citizens as effective and easy to use.
Please let me know if you are willing to participate in such a demonstration and when you would be available and I will help issue the invitations.
Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II
CC: General Distribution