Amherst

Update: Governor's Substitute Transparency Bill Accepted

Earlier today, during the General Assembly's veto session, the House and Senate concurred unanimously to accept Governor Tim Kaine's substitute version of HB 2285, a state spending transparency bill, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-25, Amherst). This substitute, at first look, and based on conversations with some legislators and staffers, appears to be even stronger than SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), and signed last month by Governor Kaine. The language of the bills was identical when they reached his desk.  Although neither bill received one dissenting vote in several sub-committee, committee and floor votes in both chambers, and now today's veto session — after each got unceremoniously dumped last year in committee (Senate) and sub-committee (House) — it wasn't as easy as it sounds getting them passed and signed into law. Each had to deal with the dreaded fiscal impact statement, which many times attributes bogus costs to bills as an unassailable hurdle in the money committees, often to thwart reforms. In this case, each bill had duty in front on the money committees and HB 2285 even had to go to the Senate Rules Committee.

In essence, we started with two great bills last year and again this year, that changed form, but not function, though perhaps not as comprehensive as we might have liked after several amendments, and ultimately got something more than what we thought after the regular session ended. Not bad. What a difference an election year makes.

Now a huge window has opened up on state spending, with a massive spotlight to boot. Soon, citizens — be they media, grassroots activists, policy wonks or even (for Heaven's sake) bloggers — will be able to closely examine exactly how Virginia government spends the hard-earned tax money we send it, and with which vendors it contracts for services, as well as other open government features. It simply is not enough to say a department spends this much money; we need to know down to the line how much, on what and with whom. That, in turn, will let us know if the purpose was worthy or wasteful, duplicative or duplicitous. You get the picture.

Despite what would seem broad interest in government spending transparency, many self-proclaimed "open government" groups were noticeably absent form the debate. The  Mainstream Media, for example, which touts its annual "Sunshine Week" each March, was nowhere to be found. No doubt, however, in years to come, it will, as we all should, tout this new found access to the otherwise indecipherable bureaucratic nuances of state government.

Update: Okay, So We Have Spending Transparency After All

Lost in my curiousness over Governor Tim Kaine's proposed substitute for HB 2285, Delegate Ben Cline's (R-25, Amherst) spending transparency bill, which passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously, is that the same day he signed SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax). Both bills are written exactly the same. (I blame the Legislative Information System, which sent notice only on HB 2285. A manual check of matters legislative today shows that the governor signed SB 936.) So, there you go. Kind of anti-climatic. Spending transparency will be law as of July 1. 

But why did the governor sign one but amend the other? If he had done this today, we'd think it was a prank. Does he really want more thorough transparency and reform? Was SB 936 only a hedge, securing a baseline while trying to get more? If so, we gladly welcome him to the club. We're not sure yet that his HB 2285 substitute does that, although it sure looks good. We're in the process of trying to learn more. 

There are other theories out there. One we're not counting on is that he was trying to make Senator Cuccinelli look good for his run for attorney general. On the other hand, the governor did sign his Choose Life license plate bill. Hmmm.

UPDATE And Clarifications: Cautiously Optimistic On Transparency Bills

Hopefully, sometime today, or, if not, then tomorrow, we will have a  spending transparency bill sent to Governor Tim Kaine (contact here) for his signature. Here's the status of both HB 2285 and SB 936: The former, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), is back in the House after getting conformed to the Senate version then amended further. The House must accept the amendments or reject them. If the former, it will go to the governor. If not, it goes to a conference committee. As amended, it has a bit more transparency than the Senate version.

The Senate version is back in the Senate because the House made amendments, but it should have no problems — the House amendments were offered by the patron, Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), when it was in the House. When amendments by the other body are supported by the patron, they are accepted. Then that will go to the governor.

Right now, it's a matter of seeing what the House does. If it accepts the Senate amendments, we're golden. If not, it will probably end up mirroring SB 936. Either way, it looks like we're going to get at least an moderately expanded window in which to view the doling out of our tax dollars.

Transparency Bills Breeze Through Senate And House; Not So Fast

The good news? The Senate today accepted Ken Cuccinelli's (R-37, Fairfax) floor amendment to conform HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), to his SB 936 by a unanimous vote. The House, meanwhile, unanimously approved SB 936. Sounds all so cut-and-dried, let's-send-it-to- the-third-floorish, right? That'd be too easy.

Here's what happened late this morning. As you will recall from yesterday, Senator Walter Stosch (R-12, Henrico) raised concerns that language in the floor substitute might allow for Social Security numbers to be put online. The bill was passed by for the day for the day in order to work that out. However, as the Senate discovered today, federal law safeguards such a happenstance and all were prepped to go forward.

Then stepped up Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg). Exactly what might he want? It seems he had a little bill that would bring some much needed reform to the workings of the two chambers (SB 1401). It would require that anything budget conferees stuck in their final budget report —which the two chambers must vote up or down — that was a nonstate appropriation, an item not included in either chamber's budget, or an item that represents legislation that failed during session, would have to be announced as such in letters to all 140 members by the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees.

The bill sliced right through the Senate only to be left to die in House Appropriations. So, here was an opportunity to revive it and he jumped at it. Unfortunately, his original bill had a dreaded "fiscal impact" statement attached — then said the cost was "indeterminable." (Odd, though, that no budget amendment was necessary. Besides, what's the cost of writing a letter and making 140 copies?). Still, just having it there scares some lawmakers. And us. (Would it have to go before a bill-killing re-referal to Appropriations?)

Great stuff, actually, this amendment. All about transparency. But legislative transparency. Not spending transparency. One is actual facts about state spending. One is about GA procedures. Not exactly germane. Senator Norment admitted as much on the floor, saying he thinks the House may reject his amendment on those grounds. But no one asked the chamber's presiding officer, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, for a ruling (he cannot make one unilatterally). So the amendment proceeded to a vote and accepted by the body.

Here's where it all stands: Instead of the two bills conformed exactly to each other (which we figured wouldn't happen anyway only because we thought at the outset the Senate would leave HB 2285 alone) and avoiding a conference committee, HB 2285 goes back to the House since the Senate changed it. It must either accept or reject the Senate amendments. Either way, it will be different than SB 936: If it rejects the amendments, it is slimmer than SB 936; if it accepts them, it is larger. Meanwhile, the Senate must accept or reject SB 936, since it was tweaked in the House to meet Appropriations Committee concerns. Since the changes were the patron's, it  won't be a problem. 

Many variables from this last minute twist of the tale: Now that Senator Norment is part author on HB 2285, will he be on the conference committee? If so, how might that affect the dynamics? If the House insists on its version of HB 2285, will it give the Senate an excuse to scuttle it in conference? Or will the meat of the bill survive if Senate conferees insist on the slimmer HB 2285 as a slap? Is this all paranoia? We hope so, but just covering all bases.

To repeat, never have bills that still have not received a single dissenting vote gone through so much tortuous twisting. That said, an important reform still is within reach. Updates tomorrow.

BREAKING: Effort To Conform Transparency Bills Temporarily Fails

Just a few minutes ago, on the Senate floor, Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) took HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), out of the uncontested third block reading in order to offer a substitute which would conform the bill to his own, SB 936, which itself will be on its first House read tomorrow. If adopted and conformed exactly to each other, and no further alterations to either bill are made to either bill, then the need for a committee of conference would not be necessary. So Senator Cuccinelli decided to go forward with the amendment instead of an uncontested block vote. Instead, Senator Walter Stosch (R-12, Henrico) raised concerns that the language in the substitute could be interpreted as putting Social Security and tax identification numbers online. Although, after several questions to Senator Cuccinelli, he said his concerns were satisfied, but requested it go by temporarily so as to work out a clarifying amendment. It seemed the amendment was destined to be adopted with but a slight delay later today. However, Senator Edd Houck (D-17, Spottsylvania) asked that it go by for the entire day so as to have enough time for a carefully crafted amendment that will satisfy everyone's concerns.

As we posted earlier . . . despite the overwhelmingly positive votes these bills have received, it hasn't been easy. More waiting, more patience. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Spending Transparency: Close To Two Major Victories, Keep Contacting Lawmakers

Spending transparency is one of our priority issues this session and the bills involved (SB 936 and HB 2285) have had a long and winding path thus far (as do most major reform efforts). Just as predicted, their paths are somewhat similar to eminent domain reform bills in 2007, with many twists and turns and near-death experiences. Although each committee vote has been non-controversial, the behind the scenes efforts have been exhausting to get it to that point, with great credit going to the two patrons — Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) and Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), respectively, and their co-patrons, particularly Senator Chap Peterson (D-34, Fairfax) and Delegate Joe Bouchard (D-83, Virginia Beach). There has been tweaking of the bills to avoid the inexcusably outrageous and bogus fiscal impact statements which would have made the bills cost prohibitive to implement, especially in these tight budgetary times. (Fiscal impact statements once served a good purpose — cautionary breaks for lawmakers on new programs or government administrative expenses. Now they are used as excuses to stop much needed reforms.)

Each bill has gone through numerous committee hearings, amendments and substitutes, been reported and refered to money committees and the House version even was sent to a Senate committee the Senate version had no part of (see here). (As it turned out, HB 2285 was sent to the Rules Committeebecause the Auditor of Public Accounts comes under legislative directive, or some such governmentese, but still begs the question why SB 936 didn't go that route.)

All that said, we are closing in on major victories, but it's not time to let down our collective guard. A final push is needed from concerned citizens who believe the government has a serious obligation to shine the light on where our tax dollars are spent. 

SB 936 unanimously passed the House Science and Technology Committee only to have another obstacle thrown in its path — a trip to House Appropriations tomorrow. Committee members Bob Marshall (R-13, Prince William) and John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake) tried to avoid the referral by asking for a vote to report straight to the House floor.

However, things look positive. Committee Chairman Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg) told committee members the bill had to be referred to Appropriations to be vetted for costs, but that she would inform Appropriations Chairman Lacey Putney (I-19, Bedford) there are no costs associated with this bill. Appropriations meets tomorrow afternoon.

Indeed, Auditor of Public Accounts Walter J. Kucharski and Joe Damico, deputy director of the Department of General Services, both testified that the bill, offered in its third form, would have no fiscal impact on the state budget. Amazingly, the Department of Planning and Budget attached a fiscal impact statement to the bill claiming its original and subsequent amended versions would cost state government between $1.5-$3 million in new equipment and software, man-hours, and more employees. One small problem: no one asked the departments involved (read this about impact statements).

Earlier in the week, HB 2285 emerged with unanimous approval in the Senate Rules Sub-Committee on Studies and now is in the full Rules Committee which meets at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. 

Spending transparency is an important issue (read here) for many reasons: good government, accountability, taxpayer protection and the like (read here). It also will give us a clearer window into how often, how much and for what reasons nefarious profit making groups such as Planned Parenthood get our tax money! We are very close to victory on a major priority this session. Let's not take it for granted.

Contact Rules Committee members here (HB 2285) and Appropriations Committee members here (SB 936).

Another Hurdle For Spending Transparency

Spending transparency (SB 936) cleared another hurdle today only to have another one thrown in its path — a trip to House Appropriations (click here for contact information), this Friday. However, things look positive. It passed on a 21-0 vote and in the House Science and Technology Committee late this afternoon, but then referred to the Appropriations. Delegates Bob Marshall (R-13, Prince William) and John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake) tried to avoid the hurdle by asking for a vote to report straight to the floor. According to committee Chairman Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg), it simply is a safeguard measure — if a cost to it was discovered on the floor, the bill would die because Friday is the last Appropriations Committee meeting. Better for it to be vetted there, and amended if necessary.

However, Auditor of Public Accounts Walter J. Kucharski and Joe Damico, deputy director of the Department of General Services, both testified that the bill, offered in its third version today, would have no fiscal impact. Amazingly, the Department of Planning and Budget posted a fiscal impact statement claiming that the second version of the bill would cost these two departments and state government $1.5 million in new equipment and software, man-hours, and more employees. One small problem: no one asked the departments.  

It's no time to rest, however. SB 936 and HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), and which emerged yesterday with unanimous approval in the Senate Rules Sub-Committee on Studies and now is in the full Rules Committee (contact information here), should both be heard Friday in those committees. Contact members of both committees. We're very close to victory on a major priority this session. Let's not take it for granted.

Why Is The House Transparency Bill In Senate Rules Committee?

As Gomer Pyle would say, "Well, I'lllllllllllllllllllllll be!" HB 2285, the government spending transparency bill passed by the House 99-0 recently, and patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), seemed destined for one of the General Assembly's great bipartisan accomplishments this session. After all the substitutes and amending, it even lost its fiscal impact to the overspent budget. Its Senate companion, SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), was similarly stripped down and passed cost muster in the Senate, and also was unanimously passed on the floor.

But, and there's always a but, the committee of jurisdiction for SB 936 was General Laws and Technology. HB 2285 is bound for Rules. Not only that, but knocked down the chain to the Sub-Committee on Studies (click here to contact). Tomorrow morning. Say what?!

All of a sudden, this most important government reform, that the entire Senate voted on last week, must be studied? Yeah, right. I'm sure you can smell the stink through your monitor. Could it be a coincidence that Speaker Bill Howell (R-28, Stafford) touted this as a major House accomplishment at crossover, sending up a red flag to Senate Dems? You know, perhaps it's the, "you-killed-one-of-our-pets, we'll-kill-one-of-yours" routine? Creative killing at that: studying it to death or kicking it around from committee to committee while the GA clock runs out. For its part, the House assigned SB 936 to the appropriate committee, Science and Technology, where the House version crusied 22-0.

There's always hope this will be another love fest tomorrow, and the bill will move on in the correct direction — toward the Senate floor. However, we're preparing for a sub-committee meeting tomorrow morning that will reach a new low in creative excuse making.

Exclusive: Interview With House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith

Below is our interview with House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R-8, Salem). We submitted the questions to him via e-mail and he replied and returned them to us. Here it is in its entirety — as the questions were submitted and as his answers were written. Familyfoundationblog: Mr. Majority Leader, thank you for agreeing to do this interview! You are the first member of the leadership of either party or chamber to agree to an interview at familyfoundation.org.

The House, for years, has passed, often with huge bipartisan majorities, many of our priority pro-life, pro-family bills. Thank you for your leadership and the caucus' resolve in those matters. With that ground covered, so to speak, we thought we'd ask you about some other issues. We, and our readers, are looking forward to your answers and greatly appreciate your participation. Hope we haven't built up expectations and the pressure. ...

Familyfoundationblog: What big issue or reform would you like to see the caucus embrace and lead the General Assembly in passing? For example, SOQ reform? A taxpayer bill of rights?  Budget reform?  Real estate tax reform? Or something else entirely?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: In the long-term, it is the budget that poses the greatest challenge for us. Simply put, some key core services are growing at an unsustainable rate. With its budget doubling over the last decade, Virginia is among the top five states for spending growth.  Unfortunately, it will probably take a strong Republican governor, one committed to thoroughly reexamining the role, size, and scope of state government before this can be successfully addressed.

Familyfoundationblog: The House Republican majority has decreased over the last few cycles. Why is the GOP losing seats and how does the caucus plan to reverse the trend?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: Explaining why we've lost seats is complex, but the short answer is a combination of changing demographics in some parts of the state, the national political climate, and an inconsistent campaign operation overall.

We are preparing for an aggressive campaign to reclaim seats, and I have been concentrating my efforts on lining up strong candidates in Republican-leaning seats we do not currently hold. I am encouraged by our early work on this, and I think we're going to have some very exciting contests this year as a result.

Familyfoundationblog: Last session Delegate Ben Cline's (R-24, Amherst) online spending transparency bill, which would have put the budget online in a Google-like, user-friendly format, so an average Joe could look up any state expenditure, did not make it out of sub-committee. Several states have adopted such an online budget. We think budget transparency is important in general to generate public trust of government, but also to shine the sun on some nefarious groups that get state contracts, such as Planned Parenthood. What do you think the chances of passing such a bill are this session? Will it be a priority of the leadership? Most Virginians favor this and some think the GOP has ceded the issue for the Governor to carry out on his own.

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: This year, the House approved Delegate Cline's Budget Transparency Bill (HB 2285) by a vote of 99 to 0. We have passed budget transparency measures previously (the issue has long been a priority of Senator (Walter) Stosch (R-12, Henrico), and former Delegate (Michelle) McQuigg spearheaded this effort in the House). As Chairman of the FOIA Commission, I know all-too-well that Virginia's government needs to improve the user-friendliness of its reforms and transparency measures.

Familyfoundationblog: The Standards of Quality formula is a big concern for many Virginians because it is antiquated and either needs massive reform or needs to be scrapped and re-fashioned from scratch for a student-based, more efficient education funding system. This would save hundreds of millions of tax dollars that could be re-prioritized. Do you see an opportunity to address this at some point in the near future?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: No. I don't believe the prospects for any substantive government reform in any area are promising under the current administration.

Familyfoundationblog: Everyone is curious now about the leadership's reaction to the Supreme Court's decision on the regional transportation authorities. Did you agree with the decision and did you think it is a good one?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: The Court's decision was well-reasoned, and there were some aspects of it that did not come entirely as a surprise. For legislators, though, the decision was frustrating. The bill that left the General Assembly would have complied with the Court's requirement that an elected body would have to impose the taxes. The Governor's amendments changed that aspect, and it was those amendments the Court struck down.

This was not the first time that a portion of HB 3202 fell into disfavor because of the Kaine Administration's amendments. The controversy over abusive driver fees was largely fueled by the public's rejection that the fees applied only to Virginia drivers. This was not the case when the bill left the General Assembly. The Kaine Administration made that alteration. In that case, the change was not disclosed in the Administration's briefing to the General Assembly on its amendments to HB 3202.

Familyfoundationblog: Are tax and fee increases the only things lawmakers are looking at? Why not make real cuts and/or prioritize tax dollars out of the General Fund toward transportation funding if it's that much of a crisis?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: Actually, the House passed a bill during last year's Special Session that would do just that, dedicating the growth of current revenue stream — income from Virginia's ports — directly to transportation. The Administration and the new Democrat Senate majority would not consider any measure that would increase the revenue flow to transportation without increasing taxes. This year, Delegates (Glenn) Oder (R-94, Newport News) and (Dave) Albo (R-42, Fairfax) have made significant improvements to that bill (HB 1579), and the House approved it by a vote of 67 to 31. But as long as the Democrat Senate majority and Governor Kaine insist on tax increases, the prospects for real progress on transportation are seriously diminished.

Familyfoundationblog: Perhaps one of the most talked about moments — and certainly one conservatives relished — of last session was on January 24, when you forced the vote on a couple dozen Democrats who refused to vote on one of their own member's bills, a bill that would have allowed public employees to bargain collectively (see video here). You made our blog's Quote of the Day for that! So, please take us through that:

Were you expecting the Democrats not to vote and prepared to force their vote? Or was this a spontaneous reaction? All they had to do was vote present to avoid this, right? Also, many have asked us why did you not record their vote in the affirmative to put them on record for public employee collective bargaining? What other insights can you provide our readers on this rare parliamentary event?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: The House Rules are very specific on this. If a member is in their seat but not voting and another member points that out, their vote must be recorded in the negative. This same motion was the first rules motion I made as a second-year delegate in 1995. We were in the minority then and I wanted to learn the rules thoroughly. Now every time there is a tough vote to take, I'm on the lookout for members hiding form the vote. An abstention would have prevented the challenge.

Curiously, the Democrats got over their shyness about expressing their support for collective bargaining later in the session. We ultimately got a vote on this issue, as the Democrat majority in the Senate passed a similar measure. At that point, they went on the record, with an overwhelming number of their caucus voting for an expansion of collective bargaining.

Familyfoundationblog: Mr. Majority Leader, thank you very much for your time during this especially busy period during the General Assembly. We greatly appreciate it and hope you enjoyed answering these questions, and hope you will join us again in the future.

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: Thank you. The Family Foundation plays a vital role during each General Assembly session, providing members with much-needed information and a well-grounded perspective on the issues that are vital to Virginia's families. I know our members greatly appreciate the hard work you do on behalf of the families of Virginia.

As Crossover Approaches, It's All To Play For

Tuesday is "crossover" day in the General Assembly, the day when work on bills from their respective chambers must be complete. The past two weeks have been long and intense, as you have been able to tell by reading this blog and by the number of e-mail alerts you've received. (If you don't receive our e-mail alerts, you should. They are informative, fun, fast and have received critical acclaim. People tell us that when they read them, they feel as if they were in the committee room. Click here to sign up.)   Several bills in The Family Foundation's bill profile were acted on recently. Here's an update:

SB 1270: Abortion Center Licensing Requirement (Support)

This legislation, introduced by Senator Jill Vogel (R-27, Winchester), would have required abortion centers to become licensed, have life-saving equipment in their facilities and submit to one yearly inspection. It was drafted to make abortion centers safer for the women who visit them. In fact, the original bill had numerous regulations, many of which pro-abortion activists claim are onerous and designed put these centers out of business. Anticipating this argument, Senator Vogel stripped down the bill to the three simple requirements listed above.

The fact is that there are several types of medical facilities that are much less invassive, such as podiatry centers; and altogether different types of facilities, such as puppy mills, that have much tougher regulations. Furthermore, all medical disciplines and specialities have oversight by peer review boards, with the notable exception of abortionists.

Finally, the pro-abortion side traditionally argues that the Board of Medicine regulates Virginia's abortion clinics. Fine. Senator Vogel presented SJ 276, which the Senate passed unanimously last year, that slams the Board of Medicine, citing a 1999 JLARC report, that discovered "the Board of Medicine  took too long to resolve cases, did not adequately protect the public from substandard practice by doctors, and did not handle medical malpractice cases adequately," among other charges. When confronted with its hypocrisy and the truth, the pro-abortion side did the only thing it could do — ignore it.

So, this bill, which seemed like a logical and bipartisan issue, failed in the Senate Education and Health Committee by a party line vote of 10-5. So much for "safe, legal and rare." Instead, in Virginia, abortion centers remain an exempted class, untouchable and protected by their overlords in the Senate. Read more about this issue here and see video of the Ed and Health hearing here.

SB 801: "Choose Life" License Plates (Support)

This legislation, from Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), not only would have created "Choose Life" license plates, but would have sent part of the proceeds from the plates to pregnancy resource centers around Virginia. The bill was debated in the Senate Transportation Committee. Of course, the opposition denounced the plates, claiming they are political in nature and out of the purview for recognition.

Even more infuriating, a family practitioner unashamedly attacked crisis pregnancy centers in her testimony. The bill died in committee by a vote of 6-6 with Senators Harry Blevins (R-14, Chesapeake) and John Watkins (R-10, Midlothian) abstaining. Senator Blevins was in the room up until just before the vote and then walked out — leaving a "proxy" vote of "abstain" behind.

HB 2579: Informed Consent, Ultrasound Requirement (Support)

Delegate Kathy Bryon's (R-22, Lynchburg) bill would require abortionists to take an ultrasound and allow the woman to view it if she desires before having an abortion. The Family Foundation supports this bill not only because it would give women medically accurate information to aid their decision making, but also with hopes that more women would choose life after clearly seeing that life inside them. The House Courts of Justice Committee reported this bill 15-6. It now goes to the House floor.   

HB 2634: Providing Information on Fetal Pain

Another informed consent bill, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), would require that a woman be told that her unborn child could feel pain during the abortion process and provide her with information on anesthesia for the child. Again, the House Courts of Justice Committee passed this bill 17-5, and the House will vote on it this week. See some of the sub-committee debate here.  

HB 1624, HB 1625, HB 1726, HB 2385, SB 945, SB 1247:  Legislation on "Sexual Orientation" (Oppose)

With homosexual rights advocates feeling emboldened by recent election victories, every effort has been made this legislative season to make sure that the term "sexual orientation" finds its way into Virginia code. It has been attempted in every form from group life insurance and housing discrimination, to making sure that it becomes a protected class under Virginia's human rights laws. Any incremental step they believe they can take, they will. Thankfully, we can report that all efforts to expand the homosexual agenda have failed thus far, with the exception of SB 945 (life insurance). 

These battles are far from over and other skirmishes over other issues undoubtedly will materialize. If ever it was all to play for, this year's second half is it.

BREAKING: Spending Transparency Approved In House Committee!

Just a few minutes ago, the House Appropriations Committee approved by unanimous voice vote, HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst). Were it so easy. This is the background: The bill wasn't heard until late in the process by its committee of jurisdiction and, with an unjustifiable price tag by the Department of Planning and Budget of up to $3 million, it was doomed for Appropriations.

Plan B: Scale it down. Instead of a new or rebuilt data collection system, both Delegate Cline and Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), patron of the Senate companion, SB 936, worked with the Auditor of Public Accounts to improve current data collection and "retrievability" by the public, to go along with "searchability" improvements the auditor instituted since last year.

Problem: Despite all that, the jurisdictional Appropriations sub-committee had finished its pre-crossover meetings. Solution: Pressure and persuassion, and the chairman allowed for an additional meeting.

What just happened: After all that, and a glowing endorsement for two days running in Senate committees by the auditor, and Senate Finance taking the first step in the water, you'd think all was a slam dunk. More like those blooper reel missed dunks. At the sub-committee this afternoon, Delegate Cline was late and almost got passed over. Then, once he introduced the substitute, he and committee staff realized he had no substitute. Legislative Services, which drafts legislative language, and Delegate Cline had a failure to communicate, apparently, and either there was no substitute in front of the committee or there was, but with the original bill's summary attached. That meant is that the FIS was still in play. Not gonna pass in that posture. A sinking feeling if ever there was one.

What to do? Or is there anything to do? Delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R-31, Woodbridge) attempted to save it with a motion to report to the full committee with the understanding the Senate language would be introduced. Not what the chairman, Delegate Steve Landes (R-25, Augusta), wanted.

Delegate Landes then threw Cline a lifeline of sorts, agreeing to report with no recommendation if the proper substitute could be drafted by the full committee's last hearing, about a half hour hence. Proviso: Bills recommended in this manner only are brought up at the full committee chairman's discretion.

Scramble: Cline, committee staff and Legislative Services hustled to unravel the knots. Meantime, potential wolves at the gate: A guy from Virginia Enterprise Application Program showed up with questions and talked with yours truly and another pro-transparency lobbyist. Not against, but concerns, and concerns are enough for Appropriations to put the kibosh on apple pie and the flag. More: He tipped us off that General Services was against it. What a perfect Friday early evening.

Finally, full committee in progress and after a few bills were heard, and wondering exactly how many days it would be before I'd see family and friends, a mini-miracle. After a lengthy and contentious debate on transportation funding, where Democrats grilled Delegate Glen Oder (R-94, Newport News) on his innovative plan while Republicans grilled, in turn, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer for not having a plan at all, the Chairman, Delegate Lacey Putney (I-19, Bedford) called up HB 2285, substitute ready and all!

Here's what I don't get: The committee has the correct substitute language, and during discussion of the bill several key members say they have had conversations with people who could be affected or must administer the bill if it becomes law, including the auditor and the Secretary of Technology,  and they report these people say there are no costs. (Question: How did they know what to ask if they didn't know what the substitute language was?) But they want the committee staff's opinion. Not that committee staff isn't great. They are. But how much vetting do you need when the members have gone to the top guys to begin with and they can see the difference in the substitute and original?

More discussion. Costs or no costs? How can we be sure? No one from Public Accounts to verify, but luckily the VEAP guy is silent and no one from DGS is around. Then, what's the purpose? If the information is out there, why do we need this? Is this about transparency? Is this about good government? Come clean Delegate Cline.

Finally, a motion and a second. Unanimous voice approval. I wiped the sweat off my brow and made the Sign of the Cross.

State Government Spending Transparency Updates

Last night I posted about action on taken on HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), which would make state government spending transparent in an easy-to-use, online searchable database of state spending.  Here's an update:  The House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities (see committee member here) today did not hear HB 2285. One little problem . . . today was the last meeting of the sub-committee before crossover. However, the sub-committee has scheduled extra meetings in the past. It is urgent that this sub-committee hear from you as soon as possible. Tell them that not only do you support the bill, but you expect it to be heard in sub-committee. 

If you want a quick  reference to their phone numbers, click here.

Meanwhile, tomorrow the Senate General Laws Committee (for members click here) meets and will take up SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax). Expect the argument against spending transparency to be a bogus cost estimate by the Department of Planning and Budget.

Many states, including Missouri and Nebraska, have put their spending online for almost no new money — and doing so has more than paid for itself in the finding of duplications and other wasted spending. Our friends at the National Taxpayers Union have secured two letters to the various committee members that we have circulated: One from the Treasurer of Nebraska and one, just last night, from former Missouri Governor Matt Blount's chief of staff, detailing how Virginia's $3 million cost estimate is completely unfounded and unrealistic.   

It is urgent that everyone concerned about good and open government contact members of the Senate General Laws Committee and urge them to pass SB 936 Wednesday, as well as contact the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities — for good government and transparency in how our tax money is spent!

A Major Victory Tonight On Transparency, But Big Hurdle Tomorrow

Early this evening, a broad coalition of groups, including The Family Foundation, won a unanimous victory for open government when the House Science and Technology Committee, without dissent, voted to report and refer HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-27, Amherst), to the Appropriations Committee.  However, it faces a major hurdle — the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities, perhaps as early as 10:00 a.m. tomorrow. If you want transparency of the state's expenditures, click on that sub-committee link above and e-mail or call the members now. Tell them you want to be able to search, in an easy-to-use online search engine, how they spend our hard-earned tax money, and that other states have done it for only a few thousand dollars. Refer them to this blog if they don't believe you. 

The road block is the Fiscal Impact Statement attached to the bill by the Department of Planning and Budget which says such a system would cost as much as $3 million. Not True! Several states, such as Nebraska, have put their spending online for almost no money. (See the Nebraska Treasurer's statement to the General Assembly here.)

We also received a late tonight a statement, which we will distribute tomorrow, from Edward R. Martin, Jr., chief of staff to former Missouri Governor Matt Blount, detailing how they put that state's spending online for a fraction of the preposterous DPB claim of $3 million (the feds did its online budget for $1 million). See the following post.

So, as you can see, some people in government will do anything to keep you from knowing how they spend your money and we must overcome this obstacle. But in committee tonight, Delegate Joseph Bouchard (D-83, Virginia Beach) said, "This is an excellent bill. I worked in IT and I don't believe these projections for one minute!"

If Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Missouri can put their spending online at little or no expense, hi-tech Virginia, where the Internet was invented, sure can. This is a high priority bill in our legislative agenda, and we are close to a major victory. Who wins government contracts — notorious groups such as Planned Parenthood, for example? Or is the state paying for duplicate and unneeded services and wasting our hard-earned money? We can only find out with your help.

Contact members of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities and urge them to pass HB 2285 Tuesday — for good government and transparency in how our tax money is spent!

If you want quick access to their phone numbers, click here, for a list on an alert put out by our friends at the National Taxpayers Union.

Spending Transparency Vote Monday!

One of our highest priorities this General Assembly is budget transparency —putting the state's expenditures online in an easy to search, Google-like format (see our position here). This would allow average citizens, the media, business people, experts, academics, policy organizations, and anyone with a computer and Internet hookup to search the state's expenditures.  Who wins government contracts — notorious groups such as Planned Parenthood, for example? Or is the state paying for duplicate and unneeded services and wasting our hard-earned money? Within a few months of its expenditures going online, Texas found tens of millions of dollars in duplications and waste, getting into such detail as duplicate office equipment and fleet services. This should be a non-controversial issue, but as always, there is resistance by the "This is how we always do it crowd." 

HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) would put each fiscal year's expenditures online in an easy-to-search, Google-like format. It is up for consideration in the House Science and Technology Committee and it meets this Monday at 4:00 p.m. Budget transparency is a Family Foundation priority this session of the General Assembly. While the naysayers will say it is too expensive, we secured from the Treasurer of Nebraska a letter to committee members explaining how he put his expenditures online for free! (See below.) If Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma and Mississippi can do it, Virginia, where the Internet was invented, should be able to do it too!

We urge everyone to contact members of the House Science and Technology Committee (they are in the link above) and urge them to pass HB 2285. In addition, if it is passed Monday, it will go directly to the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities (click here) for a Tuesday morning hearing. Those committee members need to be contacted as well.

Dear Virginia Legislators,

In Nebraska, I created NebraskaSpending.com by Executive Order in 2007. NebraskaSpending.com proves that putting a searchable budget database online could be done inexpensively without compromising its purpose.

For $38,000, NebraskaSpending.com includes information on state government dollars to be spent, state dollars received, investment operation pool, grants, contracts, and a breakdown of property taxes and state aid.

I heard the same arguments about the cost of a searchable database; we received an estimate of $1.1 million at one point. In the end, we were able to shine the light on Nebraska's budget at a cost to the taxpayer of $38,000.

Taxpayers demand absolute transparency from their government. As elected officials, it is our job to deliver it in a cost effective manner. I've seen expensive estimates like these, but in the end government can roll up their sleeves and deliver it for far less. That's exactly what we did in Nebraska.

As far as the $3 million fiscal impact statement attached to Virginia SB 936/HB 2285, I can't envision a situation in which a budget site would even approach that price range. If we can do it for five figures in Nebraska, there's no reason for anything close to seven figures in Virginia.

Sincerely,

Shane Osborn, Treasurer

    State of Nebraska

Conservative Caucus To Unveil Legislative Agenda Tomorrow At Capitol News Conference

Tomorrow at the House media room at 11:00 a.m., the Virginia Conservative Caucus will unveil its 2009 legislative agenda. Co-chairmen Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) and Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg) and several members of both chambers will review the agenda and comment on the introduced legislation. We'll be there and report on any breaking news.

Pastors Day At The Capitol: Restoring A Culture Of Life

Fresh off our large turnout of more than 250 grassroots Christian conservative activists at our annual lobby day yesterday, we have another day at the capitol: for pastors. It will be on February 5 and those attending will be treated to every bit the great lineup of speakers and lobbying opportunities with their senators and delegates.

The theme of Pastors Day At The Capitol is:

Restoring A Culture Of Life.

No coincidence, then, that February 5 is the same day as Planned Parenthood's lobby day.

Among the speakers confirmed are Senator Jill Vogel (R-27, Winchester), who is carrying SB 1270, a bill to licence abortion facilities; Delegate Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg), the 2007 Family Foundation Legislator of the Year; and Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), who doubles as the co-chairman of the Virginia Conservative Caucus, a group of conservatives senators and delegates who shape alternative and innovative conservative proposals during the General Assembly.

Among the non-legislators slated to speak are the Rev. Bill Haywood and former Virginia State Police Chaplain Steve Lambert, one of the six who resigned rather than obey an order prohibiting prayer "in Jesus' name."

Please make your pastor aware of this unique opportunity. For more information, contact The Family Foundation of Virginia at 804-343-0010.

There's Also A House Transparency Bill

Delegates Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) and Johnny Joannou (D-79, Portsmouth) are the patrons of a "Google-government" bill in the House, HB 2285. It has not been assigned a committee yet, although we anticipate it will go first to the Appropriations Committee's sub-committee on Technology and Oversight (see committee, here), as it did last year, when it was carried over (effectively killed). Stay tuned.

Family Foundation's 2009 Legislative Agenda: Budget Transparency

Yesterday, we posted information about our efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and abortion in Virginia, through grants it receives through the state budget. One of the challenges we face is actually finding the expenditures. You see, there isn't a line item in the budget that says "Planned Parenthood." The money is distributed by local health clinics from money appropriated to the Department of Health. At least the money we know about. An example of the difficulty in finding the truth came just last year when we sent Freedom of Information Act letters to every school board in Virginia concerning contracts with Planned Parenthood. The City of Richmond schools responded that they had no contract with Planned Parenthood but, just days later, we learned from Planned Parenthood that they were holding workshops in Richmond City Schools. Who is paying for this has yet to be determined, but we're working on it.

Several years ago The Family Foundation introduced legislation that was an attempt at making state budget expenditures more available to citizens. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Walter Stosch (R-12, Glen Allen), resulted in Commonwealth Datapoint (click here), a Web site where one can look through every check written by the state.

But plan on spending a lot of time, because while everything is there, it is about as user-friendly as Windows Vista. 

Last year, Senators Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Centerville) and Chap Petersen (D-34, Fairfax) and Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) introduced legislation that would make the budget Web site more user-friendly, including a Google-like search engine. That legislation was killed in committe in both the House and Senate. Senator Edd Houck (D-17, Spotsylvania), a member of the Finance Committee, was particularly offended by the idea that taxpayers should have the right to hold him accountable for budget decisions. Similar legislation will be introduced again this year by those same legislators.

As the Commonwealth now deals with a spending surplus of at least $4 billion, finding where we can save money is extraordinarily important.  Most legislators will tell you that there isn't much waste in state government or any more "trimming of the edges" that can be done. While it would be great to take their word for it, the fact that we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Planned Parenthood gives us doubt.

The way to righting this large ship of state begins here: It cannot be done without knowing exactly where and how government spends our hard-earned money; it cannot be done if we continue to sit in darkness while extreme organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, are provided with taxpayer bailouts.

In short, online budget transparency is a just concept of open and good government; of sunshine; of the people having oversight of their government, as the Founders intended. This year's legislative battle will be one of the bureaucrats and politicians who put power (via the purse) over the people's right to know.

Who will win? Rather, who has the will to win?