House Appropriations

Breaking News: Two Budget Reform/Transparency Bills Up Tomorrow Morning!

The House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities released only a few hours ago its first meeting agenda — and the meeting is tomorrow morning! Why is this significant? Bills dealing with budget reform are difficult to get through the General Assembly. Here's our chance! These are the two bills: HB 1681, patroned by Republican Delegates Dickie Bell, Ben Cline and Mark Cole, that would put Virginia make Virginia budget writers appropriate on a zero-based principle. Currently, if an agency has a budget of $10 million one budget cycle, it starts off the next budget cycle at $10 million. This makes reducing government difficult. If, however, an agency must prove, via its performance, what budget it deserves, efficiencies and a smaller government can be realized.

The second bill is HB 1869, patroned by Delegate David Toscano, a Charlottesville Democrat. It would provide that the House and Senate Budget conference committee could not include in its budget, which is what both chambers vote on during each session's final day, items to a non-state agency, not introduced as legislation, nor not included in either chamber's version of the budget unless the chairmen of the money committees notify, via letter, all 140 members of the legislature and post it on the committees' Web sites. This is vital! So much of the final budget is a mystery and lawmakers only have a few hours to digest all $70 billion in the document. Last year, this bill was not even heard in committee.

This is no way to run the country's best managed state. Contact members of the sub-committee! Here is the sub-committee list with links to their contact information.

Quote Of The Day: Ward Armstrong, TFF's Legislator Of The Month?

There have been some odd partnerships in the history of the General Assembly. We've partnered with some organizations, such as the NAACP and Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy on payday lending, for example. But one creating the double-takes, stares and, in some cases, guffaws, is our partnership with Delegate Ward Armstrong (D-10, Martinsville) — the House Minority Leader — on HB 652, a bill that would provide a greater degree of jurisprudence to land owners who seek just compensation in eminent domain hearings. More about the bill later, but as an example of the reaction we've received in committee after committee was best exemplified Friday afternoon in the House Appropriations Sub-committee on Transportation when Delegate Scott Lingamfelter (R-31, Prince William) who feigned a heart attack to a room full of laughs after I followed Delegate Armstrong's presentation to offer support for the bill.

So, today, on the bill's second reading on the House floor, Delegate Armstrong, who has been milking our partnership for all that it's worth, offered this in support of his bill:

And I might add this bill has a broad range of support including The Farm Bureau and The Family Foundation of Virginia for whom I am in the running for Legislator of the Month.

We've enjoyed the partnership, ourselves, Delegate Armstrong. But, it does prove a point. When there's good legislation involving our principles, we don't care who the patron is. We support it. We also oppose bad legislation, no matter the patron. By the way, just for the record, HB 652 also has four Republican co-patrons: Delegates Glenn Oder (R-94, Newport News), Sal Iaquinto (R-84, Virginia Beach), Ed Scott (R-30, Culpeper) and Matt Lohr (R-26, Harrisonburg). That's a good heap of bipartisanship for anyone. Now, on to the Senate, where we hope for the same.

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.

Update: Transparency Bills Moving Forward

HB 2285, after a few questions, especially some unexpected ones from Senator Henry Marsh about what a pain it will be to post audits and reports online (poor government workers), except that the senator had to be told it's not anything they don't already do, because if they are in electronic format, then it's no big deal, and what's not in electronic format anymore? — got through Senate Rules today on a unanimous voice vote. It's still in its House substitute form. Unless amended on the Senate floor, it will go to conference with SB 936, which was supposed to go to House Appropriations this afternoon, except the committee decided not to meet. Have a good early weekend, guys. What did happen, unexpectedly, was that SB 936 yesterday was in the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities with no notification online or through e-mail. But there it was today, as I logged on to the bill's home page, that it was reported out from the sub-committee to the full committee on a 7-0 vote. We were under the impression that it would go straight to the full committee, led to believe that is, by the fact that it was listed in the full committee with no sub-committee meeting notification. Just a small technicality.

Where it all stands: HB 2285 is on the Senate floor. SB 936 should go through full Appropriations early next week and then the House floor and sent back to the Senate since it has changed since it left there. Right now everything looks good, but patience and vigilance are needed until this entire legislative maze is traversed.

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).

One Transparency Bill Alive, One In Limbo

Today, in Senate General Laws, Senator Ken Cuccinelli's spending transparency bill, SB 936, stayed alive. It almost just plain won. In a nutshell, here's what happened: He streamlined the bill with new language worked on with Senator Walter Stosch and the director of public accounts, two people who were adamantly against it last year. It seemed to work. It wasn't going to be "Google Virginia" like supporters want, but it was a sure step forward.

Then, Senator Edd Houck asked where the dreaded fiscal impact statement was. The answer is that there is none, because the substitute bill was drafted with input with the auditor to endure he could do the search upgrade with existing funds — and clearly stated it and supported the bill in his testimony.

But Senator Houck wanted more assurances. Unlike last year, however, when he went on a tirade against the bill and claimed the cost would keep Virginia from educating children, he seemed genuinely interested in it, even withdrawing a very restrictive enactment clause amendment when the clerk read it aloud and he heard how it would kill the bill. Unfortunately, however, he was able to refer it to the Finance Committee. He and Senator Cuccinelli talked afterward and were all smiles. Legit? Seemed so. Senator Cuccinelli said the bill is still alive and it has a chance. We'll see.

Click here and start contacting members of the Senate Finance Committee now!

As for Delegate Ben Cline's version, here's the story: He is adopting the Senate substitute language. However, his bill was referred by the House Science and Technology Committee to House Appropriations and the jurisdictional sub-committee. Problem: The sub-committee doesn't meet again before crossover.

There is a mega outcry over this, with some very high ranking people not particularly pleased, because bills they support will get the silent death treatment without a meeting. Rumors are that negotiations were held with Appropriations Committee Chairman Lacey Putney and affected parties to schedule a Technology Oversight and Government Activities sub-committee tomorrow. But where? At the chairman's desk on the floor after session, where the public is excluded? If in a regular committee room, when? 7:00 a.m.?

Click here and contact Chairman Lacey Putney now and tell him you want HB 2285 to get a fair hearing.