Legislative Services

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.

More On G.A. Transparency: What Senate Ed & Health Doesn't Want You To Know

With all the talk about more transparency in the 2009 session of the General Assembly, such as House sub-committee votes going on record for the first time starting this session (see Richmond Times-Dispatch, here), and the brewing battle over putting the budget online in an easy, Google-search format, I stumbled upon an interesting element of non-transparency. Legislative Services a couple weeks back offered a refresher course in its Lobbyist-In-A-Box Web page to G.A. lobbyists, many of whom, by the way (at my session), were agency employees, something else disturbing on an altogether different level (try government bureaucrats lobbying your legislators, with your tax dollars, to regulate and tax you more, for example). But one disturbing trend at a time.  

Lobbyist-In-A-Box is a great tool for the professional lobbyist as well as the grassroots activist, and anyone in the public can access it and use it to follow the progress of bills, who voted for what, amendments to bills, etc. The only difference between lobbyists and the general public is that with our registration, we can track unlimited bills at once; the public is limited to tracking five at once (although anyone can track as many bills at anytime individually outside of the automatically tracked five).

Coincidentally, a few days before the LIAB refresher course, a delegate asked us to come up with the amended form of HB 894, a bill last session patroned by Delegate Matt Lohr (R-26, Harrisonburg) that would have licensed abortion facilities. Although it easily passed the House with bipartisan support, it met the predictable outcome in the Senate Committee on Education and Health (aka, the Committee of Death). The amended form of the bill was offered to the committee by Delegate Lohr in an attempt to win passage by reducing the number of regulations his original bill required of abortion facilities to get a licence.

The substitute would have required less regulation than in last year's well-publicized "puppy mill bill" which passed and was signed into law. It would have required only annual cleanliness inspections and life saving equipment. This stripped-down version of the bill was voted down 10-5 on a procedural motion on a party line vote. Sad, but not surprising the Committee of Death would give preferential treatment to dogs over women.

Now, here is where the lack of legislative transparency and the life issue intersect: When our LIAB instructor gave us a "tour" of where to find and how to track amendments and legislative history, she assured us every change to every bill is on the Web site. However, days before, when I looked for the substitute for the delegate, it was not on the site. Interest peaked, I asked the instructor if she was sure all amendments were posted. She said yes.

I asked her to look up, for the class' edification, HB 894. I told her that Delegate Lohr had introduced a substitute but it was not posted. She tooled around the Web site and could not find it either, although another substitute, defeated on the House floor, was posted.

Hmmmmmmmmmmm. It gets curiouser and curiouser.

You see, the liberal dominated Committee of Death didn't want to look like it was voting down an elementary bill, which would give women more protection than puppies in a breeding facility. It would rather only post the original bill so it can boast to its radical abortionist/Planned Parenthood constituency that it shot down another radical right wing, anti-woman bill; not a simple, commonsense, I-can't-believe-that's-not-already-law bill, where they would appear to the general public as the incredibly out-of-touch, extreme, abortion-for-any-reason-at-any-stage pols they are.

The upshot to all this? Even as the instructor said, Ed and Health can do pretty much what it wants to do, protocol or not. That's why budget transparency and accountability, which go hand-in-hand, is crucial to the big picture. We need to know where and how much of our hard-earned tax money goes to organizations such as Planned Parenthood. It would be nice to shine the light on those in the Senate who are protecting that organization's state-sponsored ATM, even if the Committee of Death won't post all the information that's fit to post.

By the way, something anyone can find with a little research that not even Ed & Health can conceal: Eight senators on the Committee of Death last session voted for the puppy mill bill in other committees, enough to send HB 894 to the Senate floor.

Let's play "Find The HB 894 E&H Substitute:"

Click here for the bill's tracking page and let us know if you can find Del. Lohr's substitute submitted to the Senate Education and Health Committee on February 8, 2008.