Tomorrow morning, a Senate Rules sub-committee will vote on two important reforms that will bring greater transparency — and thus, less government — to the Commonwealth's budget and spending practices. Senator Ralph Smith (R-22, Botetourt) is the patron of SB 867, a "read the bill" bill. It requires a 72-hour period from the time the budget is submitted to the House and Senate by the House-Senate Conference Committee. During that time legislators could actually read the budget bill and comprehend its contents — the two-year budget contains $70 billion worth of spending. Currently, they get only a few hours on the last day of session and are expected to digest the entire document (as thick as a phone book) and vote up or down under a great deal of time-related pressure: Either vote for a massive budget bill or shut down the government. This bill will bring long-needed inspection and transparency to the budget process, not only for legislators but also for the public. The more eyes on the bill, the more wasteful spending can be caught.
The second bill is SB 1353, patroned by Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg). It would prohibit the House and Senate Budget conference committee from including in its budget any funding for non-state agencies, funding for projects that were not introduced as legislation during session, and items that were not included in either chamber’s version of the budget — unless the chairmen of the money committees enumerate those types of spending items in a letter to all 140 members of the legislature and post it on the committees' Web sites. Most of the final budget is a mystery and lawmakers only have a few hours to digest all $70 billion in the document. It also would shine the spotlight on legislators who insert in the budget what they were afraid to ask their colleagues to vote on separately as all other bills must be. Right now, the few members of the House-Senate Conference Committee have a privilege no one else has — they can insert spending that has not been vetted through the regular legislative process — no sub-committee, no committee, no floor votes in either chamber. They get buried in the budget and get passed into law as part of a mammoth spending bill that funds our police, schools and transportation.
Virginia's budget process leaves much to be desired and is no way to run the country's best managed state. Contact the senators on the sub-committee and ask them to vote to report SB 867 and SB 1353 to the full committee!