General Assembly Issue Four: Transparency Isn't Just A Word

This is the fourth in a series about key issues facing the 2011 General Assembly, which starts January 12. Issue One, Life Defined And Protected, was posted Tuesday; Issue Two, Eliminate ObamaCare Induced Abortion Funding In Virginia, was posted Wednesday; and Issue Three, Restoring The Balance Of Power, was posted yesterday.

For several years The Family Foundation has supported legislation that would bring more transparency to Virginia state government. From our idea to put the state's expenditures online for citizens to review (click here to see it), to a more understandable budget, we believe the more citizens know the better they can influence policy decisions.

One of the least transparent aspects of Virginia government is the General Assembly's budget writing process. While you can go online to read the budget as passed by the 2010 General Assembly, how the legislature got to that final document is anything but open. In fact, during the final days of the budget writing session, only a handful of legislators (budget conferees) meet behind closed doors to work out differences and produce a final budget. Often, the rest of the General Assembly is given little to read the final budget but votes on it to get out of Richmond on time.

This process can be used to add elements to the budget that, if voted on independently, would not pass. In particular, increases in taxes or fees. This was evident last year when the final budget included increases in fees that came as a surprise to many legislators — as well as the public.

To remedy this, Delegate Bob Marshall (R-13, Manassas) has introduced legislation that would prohibit the General Assembly from including in the appropriation's bill . . . 

any provision that imposes, continues, increases, or revives any tax, fee, or fine, nor shall any such law contain any provision that reduces, suspends, or eliminates any credit, deduction, or exemption associated with any tax, fee, or fine.

The budget is an appropriations bill — it is intended to direct how taxpayer money should be spent, not how revenue can be generated or increased. If the General Assembly wants to increase taxes or fees they should make the case for those increases publicly — and put their vote on record. Certainly, one can argue that fee increases to cover the cost of higher administration expenses related to those services is understandable. But questions arise when those increases are done behind closed doors. Delegate Marshall's bill would correct that.