budget online

Budget Transparency Bill May Come Up Soon!

The General Assembly is barely under way, yet already there is urgency in the air. Most people think this session will be dominated by the budget and the revenue surplus that has been squandered, putting our state finances in a deficit. Complementing the budget debate is a very important issue and one of our very top priorities this session: Budget Transparency and Accountability, which entails putting the state budget online in an easy-to-search format.

How can we control spending when no one knows how much is spent, where it is spent and on what it is spent? Lawmakers from both chambers readily admit that unless they are on the powerful money committees, they don't know where our money goes because after it is appropriated, it gets funneled around and through departments and agencies in forms of grants and contracts that make it virtually impossible to track. In fact, lawmakers themselves have to file several Freedom of Information Act requests just to discover the purpose of one  check.

Without an accountable, easy-to-use online tool, how can anyone track the many thousands of tax dollars the commonwealth doles out to nefarious organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, under cryptic "education" grants? How to uncover the millions of wasted tax-dollars on earmarks and political paybacks for non-essential services to special interest groups or district-friendly pork barrel projects?

Not only will an online budget — easily searchable in a Google-like format — help legislators make informed decisions on how to budget billions of your hard-earned tax dollars, it will allow hundreds of thousands of citizen watchdogs to point out the waste in government spending. In short, this is a just concept of open and good government; of sunshine; of the people having oversight of their government, as the Founders intended.

We were informed early this week that the Senate bill creating online budget accountability, SB 936, might come up as early as Wednesday, January 21, in the Senate General Laws Committee. The patrons are Senators Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) and Chap Peterson (D-34, Fairfax), but despite this same bipartisan support last year, the committee defeated it with bipartisan votes. Lawmakers of both parties, and their bureaucrat allies, who are more interested in the accumulation of power via the purse and the secrecy of the budget's intricacies, are determined again this year to arrogantly deny the families and people of Virginia their rights to know what their government does with their hard-earned tax money.

However, this year, with an overspent government desperately trying to "find money to cut" and with the twin backdrops of an election year and federal bailouts to banks and businesses that have refused to account for what they've done with our tax money, the time is ripe for accountability in the commonwealth's finances.

The "Google Government" bill, SB 936, may come before the Senate General Laws Committee as soon as this Wednesday, January 21. Don't let opponents of open government kill this bill quietly, early, when few are paying attention.

It is urgent for you to write members of the Senate General Laws Committee (click here) and to find others to do so as well — all the better if one is your senator — and let them know you want the ability that the citizens of several states already have, to conveniently research how and where your money is spent. Amazingly, President-elect Barack Obama's one major accomplishment in the U.S. Senate, was to partner with Oklahoma's conservative Republican Tom Coburn, to put all federal contracts online.  

If the behemoth that is the federal budget can be put online, so, too, can Virginia's.

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.