Kill Switch

If you’ve ever worked in an office where there are lots of closed door meetings, you know what can happen over time. Trust diminishes, divisions arise, and eventually, productivity declines. What happened yesterday in Richmond was a classic example of that, only it was on a much bigger stage, with issues that affect all of us being decided behind closed doors, with little or no transparency. And because this is how the General Assembly has operated in dealing with budgets and judges, few citizens trust the outcomes.

Regardless of whether or not the cause was intentional or an honest mistake in budget drafting, lawmakers yesterday had to once again fix the state budget in order to ensure that our taxes will go up, and money from those higher taxes will go where they “promised” it would go – to transportation.   The details of the mishap are long and confusing, but in a nutshell, when the General Assembly increased taxes in 2013 to pay for transportation projects, they did so by assuring anyone who would listen that the money would always go to transportation. Some legislators even stood on the floor of the House of Delegates and said that they would vote against any budget that redirected the new tax money. When The Family Foundation questioned that guarantee in 2013, we were harshly chastised by Republican leaders at the time.

But then, for whatever reason, less than two years later, the new budget had money from that tax hike redirected to cover other areas of the budget due to revenue shortfalls. Such a redirect should have triggered a “kill switch,” ending the tax hike. How it happened is still a bit of a mystery and what you believe depends on who you trust. Whatever the case, yesterday, lawmakers had to quickly “fix” the problem and move the money back to transportation or face losing the tax hike they fought so hard to pass.

The problem with all of this is that many of the budget negotiations and decisions that are made take place behind closed doors, outside the scrutiny of the press and public. And, much of the detail is left to unelected and unaccountable House Appropriations and Senate Finance staff. In this year’s case, because the new budget was updated at a special session in September, lawmakers and the public had no time to actually read the document – everyone had to “trust” that it did what they were told. Only it didn’t.

For several years The Family Foundation has supported more transparency when it comes to the budget process. One helpful change would be to give lawmakers 48 hours to review the budget after it comes out of conference (where just 6 legislators from each chamber craft a budget, generally in secret). This simple bill would go a long way in helping the public to regain some “trust” in the budget and our elected officials. Would it mean that legislators might have to stay in town an extra couple of days? Maybe. But that seems a small price to pay to rebuild trust in our government.

Another bill we’ve supported would require budget negotiators (conferees) to detail for other members the exact changes to the budget they’ve made meeting behind closed doors, specifically the differences between their negotiated budget and the budgets the House and Senate adopted prior to the conference committee meetings.

In 2015, we plan to make budget transparency a top priority. Here’s hoping that legislators have learned a lesson from this year’s budget debacle. The more open the doors the better.