House Science and Technology Committee

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.

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

BREAKING NEWS: House Transparency Bill Referred To House Science And Technology Committee

Delegate Ben Cline's (R-24, Amherst) online budget/budget transparency bill (HB 2285) has been referred to the House Science and Technology Committee (click here for members), which is a change from last year, where it was heard in the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology, Oversight and Government Activities, where it was held over for study (i.e., killed).  It still may be referred to Appropriations, especially if a fiscal impact is attached to it (no word on that yet, though we expect one, which will hurt its chances), but this is certainly something to watch. Last year, the Department of Planning and Budget stated an online budget would cost the commonwealth $400,000, although the feds were able to put its budget online for $600,000 (for a $2 trillion annual budget vs. two-year $78 billion budget; somehow that reminds us of fuzzy math). Meanwhile, Tertium Quids debunks the cost estimates, here,  and comments on the GOP leadership's growing support for transparency, here.

The Science and Technology Committee meets Mondays at 4:00 p.m. and its first docket does not include the transparency bill, so the earliest it could be introduced is next Monday, January 26. However, it is never too early to contact legislators. See the link above for the c0mmittee members. 

As for the Senate bill (SB 936) there still is no word on when it will get heard in the General Laws Committee (see members here). We are wary of a last minute fiscal impact statement and hearing notification, so as to give committee members a reason to kill it quietly before too much attention is given to the bill. Don't let them get away with it. Contact those committee members (see link above), ASAP, as well. There was some good news on Friday, however: Senator Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-27, Winchester), a committee member, signed on as a co-patron.