accountability

Another Transparency Victory (Or, A Legislative Journey: The Life And Times Of HB 2285)

As a follow-up to yesterday's victory for reform, government spending transparency and accountability with our hard-earned tax dollars, late last night the House version of the spending transparency bill, HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Rockbridge), was approved by both chambers unanimously. It is on its way to Governor Tim Kaine's desk to sign, amend and send back, or veto.  Along with SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), these two Family Foundation priority bills, if they become law, will allow Virginians, over time, to track government spending on contracts, the vendors the state pays and for which work they do, as well as other important information; and allow us to be able to more easily track such items online. 

Just as with SB 936, HB 2285 did not receive a single negative vote throughout its legislative journey which included: Two House committees, a House sub-committee, a House floor vote, a Senate sub-committee, a Senate committee, a Senate floor vote on accepting a substitute, a Senate floor vote, a House vote to accept the Senate substitute and reject an extra Senate amendment, and a final floor vote in the Senate (last night) to accept the House's rejection of that amendment. 

I know it sounds confusing, but it makes an important point: just because a bill gets a unanimous vote, it doesn't mean it was easy to accomplish. Even popular and just ideas are difficult to get passed and can come unraveled in a moment. For example, both patrons deserve a great deal of credit for their patience and parliamentary skill. They adapted the bills at strategic points to fight off bogus fiscal impact statements which would have doomed them as "too costly" to adopt. Grassroots activists also deserve much credit for staying informed on the issue and contacting their senators and delegates along the way. Click here to get a taste of this Byzantine, egg-shell-walking process

One simple example of the improvement these bills will bring is that a link to the Commonwealth DataPoint Web site will have to be put on the state government's homepage. Right now, if you are not a policy wonk, and don't know the name Commonwealth DataPoint, or don't know that it's on the Auditor of Public Accounts' Web site, you can't even begin to find what limited information is state government offers. So, imagine — it takes an entire act of the General Assembly just for a simple Web link! So, you know what we go through on controversial legislation. (Click here and scroll down to see a Sunshine Review's report on the current status of Virginia's online transparency. Hint: not good.)

For years, it has been very difficult to determine for what and to whom the state contracts and pays for services, not to mention what spending is duplicated and otherwise wasted — and whether it is spent on nefarious groups such as Planned Parenthood. It took almost the entire session, but these are major victories. That said, at least we had one humorous moment in this process, appropriately, near the end. If you haven't checked out yesterday's QOD, click here to read about the House "debate" on HB 2285.

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).