budget transparency

Budget-Making Transparency Bill May See Light Of Day, Finally

Persistence is one of the most important ingredients in the legislative process. Defeat of a bill cannot deter a lawmaker, nor even people who support the idea. Some laws languished as remains in the sausage grinder for years before they met a governor's signature, shred to bits by designated "kill sub-committees" designed to ensure they would never see the light of day (i.e., a floor vote). But a good and just idea won't die, at least not quietly, especially if its patron carries on the fight session after session. One such bill, a perennial budget-making transparency bill from Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg), may earn its long overdue status as a law this year. That is, may, as in there is a potential sliver of a window crack of opportunity for SB 1129, a bill that would require some disclosure during the crafting of the state budget by the House and Senate conference committee. It passes the Senate year after year but meets its fate in a House Appropriations sub-committee. One can tell the disposition of the respective chambers toward certain bills by the committees to which they are assigned: The Senate sends this bill to Rules each year; the House to Appropriations — a committee more keen to efficiency than eyeballs.

This glimmer of hope comes from a noticeable change in the fiscal impact statement attached to the bill.  Originally a terrific stab at legislative reform, fiscal impact statements were designed to show lawmakers how much a bill would cost so as to reduce the likelihood of pork barrel spending. But years ago they evolved into weapons by the bureaucrats who compile them to kill off needed reforms by placing contrived and/or vague figures on the alleged added cost the bill would incur to government.

They were used in past in attempts to scuttle property rights legislation and transparency for payments to state contractors, both of which eventually became constitutional amendments and/or statutes — and never mind that tax increase bills never have attached to them the impact they would have on families (so we did it for them on these bills as well as on this infamous proposal), while tax reduction bills must have impact statements showing the "cost" to government. A double-double standard.

The bill itself requires the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees to issue a listing with the budget that provides "a narrative description, dollar amount, and name of the member of the General Assembly who inserted" . . .

» any non-state agency appropriation (supposed to be illegal, anyway),

» any item in the conference report that was not included in a general appropriation bill as passed by either the House or the Senate, and

» any item that represents legislation that failed in either house during the regular or a special session.

Doesn't sound like a big inconvenience, does it? Over the years, however, the impact statements made it sound as if this simple disclosure would bring the entirety of state government to a halt. From the same bill last year (SB 267) the impact statement said:

This legislation could potentially increase the workload demands on House Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee staff and may require changes to existing systems to provide this information.

In other words, "time and money, and we have neither," even though specific numbers were not provided. We didn't know taking hand written notes of line item insertions and typing them up required new systems. But this year, the exact same bill offers this backtrack on the impact statement:

This bill would require additional work by the staff of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees. The staff time would be needed to generate the reports required by the bill. Both committees staff leadership have indicated that they can absorb the extra work and any additional costs within their existing operational budgets.

Why the change of heart? Does it portend passage? In the past, the potential cost and time have been the excuse for the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities to table the bill on unrecorded voice votes. But this seems to signal the all clear from the money committee staffs, which have an influence on its members not seen in any other committee. Hopefully, we'll find out when the same sub-committee considers the bill in the next week or two. But we're likely to see it law before we get an explanation. Of the two, we'll gladly take the latter.

Budget transparency is important for accountability of the budget writers by the public, for non-budget writing members to make an informed decision, as well as reigning in unnecessary spending. The more eyeballs on the budget, the less funny business. If there is no funny business, appropriators have nothing to worry about and should pass this bill, finally.

Two For Two On Two

Earlier today, the Senate unanimously passed two necessary budget transparency bills: SB 1129, patroned by Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg), identifies earmarks; and SB 1161, patroned by Senator Ralph Smith (R-19, Roanoke County), requires the proposed conference committee budget to be posted online for 48 hours before it's voted on. Just a few years ago, the 48-hour bill couldn't even get a motion in sub-committee. Now it's up to Virginians to demand from the House, which has killed similar bills in sub-committee for years, to pass these bills! We'll update you later in the week. Prior to that, two truly pro-family pieces of legislation, affecting students and parents, passed major hurdles: The Senate passed SB 1074, the Student Groups Bill (freedom of association for college student clubs), patroned by Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26, Harrisonburg), 22-18; and the House passed HB 1642, the Parents Rights Bill, patroned by Delegate Brenda Pogge (R-96, James City County), 70-30.

Two bills passed each on two important areas of concern regarding family and individual liberty as well as government accountability. Not a bad batting average for morning.

If It's Good Enough For New Jersey, Shouldn't It Be Good Enough For Virginia?

Every legislative session we make open government, transparency and spending reform major issues on our legislative agenda. In 2009, after years of trying, we were successful in helping guide the passage of a online spending transparency bill into law. While it did not put an online a search mechanism as straightforward and simple to use as those put into online in Nebraska or Missouri, it was a significant step forward. Since then, we have advocated for transparency on the budgeting side of the issue, as opposed to after-the-fact spending transparency. While it is great for citizen watchdogs to have the ability to investigate how much and with whom the commonwealth spends our money, it would be better to see where our lawmakers are appropriating it before it gets that far, in order to stop the wasteful spending before it becomes law. That's why we've supported bills to flag down earmarks in the appropriations process, to require a 48-hour or 72-hour reading period before the budget is voted on, to require agency budget prioritization, to spotlight new major spending priorities and for zero-based budgeting.

Not only would each of these reforms help taxpayers learn where there money is going, as well as reduce wasteful spending (and keep overall spending under control), it would help lawmakers — ostensibly. One would think, anyway. After all, it's pretty hard to keep up with 80-plus billion dollars over a two-year budget when you're a part-time legislator, even if you are a Prince of the Highbacks. But each of these bills died silently in General Assembly money committees, including five unanimously in sub-committee in the Republican controlled House.

The reason given was pretty simple and seemingly on the up and up: The House and Senate leadership of both parties and  both chambers made a fairly well publicized "we're all getting along" declaration prior to the legislative session's start that many of the transparency principles would be adhered to in a gentleman's agreement, while the budget prioritization stuff was coming from the executive branch with its new $15 million "performance based budgeting" software. Easy to say then, with fresh-off-elections, beginning-of-session-optimism reigning supreme. Not as easy to do without a budget. Or even a process.

That all as prelude, or even an aside, to the news today, about another reason transparency is important: corruption. It turns out that an unprecedented — in size and scope — 18-month investigation of state corruption safeguards ranked Virginia — Yes, Virginia — sweet, innocent, stately Virginia, as the 47th ranked state for anti-corruption laws and regulations (see report here). We received a big, fat, F. Kind of puts a new spin on that "Best Managed State" stuff, doesn't? Said Randy Barrett, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, one of the sponsoring organizations of the State Integrity Investigation (see The Daily Press):

The bottom line is that Virginia did really poorly in nine of the 14 categories. The areas where Virginia did well were in procurement and internal auditing and it did fair or OK in redistricting, and civil service management did pretty well. The rest of it was pretty weak. 

What constitutes "the rest of it"? Take a guess: access to information, campaign finance, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, budgeting and ethics enforcement, among others. "Follow the money" isn't a cliche. It certainly follows that if the money is spent in the light of day, there will be less temptation (former Delegate Phil Hamilton, for example). One year, when the spending transparency bill was defeated in a Senate committee, then-Senator Edd Houck infamously bellowed out that the whole idea of the bill implied that General Assembly appropriators were doing something "in the dark" and evil, and they couldn't spend the money for an online transparency program because they were trying to "educate the children." (Seriously.)

Perhaps the most ignominy about this study is that New Jersey was ranked first (see Reuters and Real Clear Politics). New Jersey, where an elected is arrested ever other week, has stronger anti-corruption laws than Virginia (which is probably why New Jersey officials regularly are arrested.)

Then there are those fiscal conservatives went after their social conservative colleagues this session, complaining that "social issues" distracted our representatives from doing "real" work. But there was plenty of fiscally conservative spending reform bills far removed from "distracting" debates in other areas. Oh, for those halcyon days of early January when handshake deals were transparent for media consumption. All of which begged the question: If it's good enough for a handshake deal, why isn't it good enough for a law? Put another way, if it's good enough for New Jersey, isn't it good enough for Virginia?

Today,  the sun shines only on New Jersey. New Jersey!

Exclusive: Interview With House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith

Below is our interview with House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R-8, Salem). We submitted the questions to him via e-mail and he replied and returned them to us. Here it is in its entirety — as the questions were submitted and as his answers were written. Familyfoundationblog: Mr. Majority Leader, thank you for agreeing to do this interview! You are the first member of the leadership of either party or chamber to agree to an interview at familyfoundation.org.

The House, for years, has passed, often with huge bipartisan majorities, many of our priority pro-life, pro-family bills. Thank you for your leadership and the caucus' resolve in those matters. With that ground covered, so to speak, we thought we'd ask you about some other issues. We, and our readers, are looking forward to your answers and greatly appreciate your participation. Hope we haven't built up expectations and the pressure. ...

Familyfoundationblog: What big issue or reform would you like to see the caucus embrace and lead the General Assembly in passing? For example, SOQ reform? A taxpayer bill of rights?  Budget reform?  Real estate tax reform? Or something else entirely?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: In the long-term, it is the budget that poses the greatest challenge for us. Simply put, some key core services are growing at an unsustainable rate. With its budget doubling over the last decade, Virginia is among the top five states for spending growth.  Unfortunately, it will probably take a strong Republican governor, one committed to thoroughly reexamining the role, size, and scope of state government before this can be successfully addressed.

Familyfoundationblog: The House Republican majority has decreased over the last few cycles. Why is the GOP losing seats and how does the caucus plan to reverse the trend?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: Explaining why we've lost seats is complex, but the short answer is a combination of changing demographics in some parts of the state, the national political climate, and an inconsistent campaign operation overall.

We are preparing for an aggressive campaign to reclaim seats, and I have been concentrating my efforts on lining up strong candidates in Republican-leaning seats we do not currently hold. I am encouraged by our early work on this, and I think we're going to have some very exciting contests this year as a result.

Familyfoundationblog: Last session Delegate Ben Cline's (R-24, Amherst) online spending transparency bill, which would have put the budget online in a Google-like, user-friendly format, so an average Joe could look up any state expenditure, did not make it out of sub-committee. Several states have adopted such an online budget. We think budget transparency is important in general to generate public trust of government, but also to shine the sun on some nefarious groups that get state contracts, such as Planned Parenthood. What do you think the chances of passing such a bill are this session? Will it be a priority of the leadership? Most Virginians favor this and some think the GOP has ceded the issue for the Governor to carry out on his own.

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: This year, the House approved Delegate Cline's Budget Transparency Bill (HB 2285) by a vote of 99 to 0. We have passed budget transparency measures previously (the issue has long been a priority of Senator (Walter) Stosch (R-12, Henrico), and former Delegate (Michelle) McQuigg spearheaded this effort in the House). As Chairman of the FOIA Commission, I know all-too-well that Virginia's government needs to improve the user-friendliness of its reforms and transparency measures.

Familyfoundationblog: The Standards of Quality formula is a big concern for many Virginians because it is antiquated and either needs massive reform or needs to be scrapped and re-fashioned from scratch for a student-based, more efficient education funding system. This would save hundreds of millions of tax dollars that could be re-prioritized. Do you see an opportunity to address this at some point in the near future?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: No. I don't believe the prospects for any substantive government reform in any area are promising under the current administration.

Familyfoundationblog: Everyone is curious now about the leadership's reaction to the Supreme Court's decision on the regional transportation authorities. Did you agree with the decision and did you think it is a good one?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: The Court's decision was well-reasoned, and there were some aspects of it that did not come entirely as a surprise. For legislators, though, the decision was frustrating. The bill that left the General Assembly would have complied with the Court's requirement that an elected body would have to impose the taxes. The Governor's amendments changed that aspect, and it was those amendments the Court struck down.

This was not the first time that a portion of HB 3202 fell into disfavor because of the Kaine Administration's amendments. The controversy over abusive driver fees was largely fueled by the public's rejection that the fees applied only to Virginia drivers. This was not the case when the bill left the General Assembly. The Kaine Administration made that alteration. In that case, the change was not disclosed in the Administration's briefing to the General Assembly on its amendments to HB 3202.

Familyfoundationblog: Are tax and fee increases the only things lawmakers are looking at? Why not make real cuts and/or prioritize tax dollars out of the General Fund toward transportation funding if it's that much of a crisis?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: Actually, the House passed a bill during last year's Special Session that would do just that, dedicating the growth of current revenue stream — income from Virginia's ports — directly to transportation. The Administration and the new Democrat Senate majority would not consider any measure that would increase the revenue flow to transportation without increasing taxes. This year, Delegates (Glenn) Oder (R-94, Newport News) and (Dave) Albo (R-42, Fairfax) have made significant improvements to that bill (HB 1579), and the House approved it by a vote of 67 to 31. But as long as the Democrat Senate majority and Governor Kaine insist on tax increases, the prospects for real progress on transportation are seriously diminished.

Familyfoundationblog: Perhaps one of the most talked about moments — and certainly one conservatives relished — of last session was on January 24, when you forced the vote on a couple dozen Democrats who refused to vote on one of their own member's bills, a bill that would have allowed public employees to bargain collectively (see video here). You made our blog's Quote of the Day for that! So, please take us through that:

Were you expecting the Democrats not to vote and prepared to force their vote? Or was this a spontaneous reaction? All they had to do was vote present to avoid this, right? Also, many have asked us why did you not record their vote in the affirmative to put them on record for public employee collective bargaining? What other insights can you provide our readers on this rare parliamentary event?

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: The House Rules are very specific on this. If a member is in their seat but not voting and another member points that out, their vote must be recorded in the negative. This same motion was the first rules motion I made as a second-year delegate in 1995. We were in the minority then and I wanted to learn the rules thoroughly. Now every time there is a tough vote to take, I'm on the lookout for members hiding form the vote. An abstention would have prevented the challenge.

Curiously, the Democrats got over their shyness about expressing their support for collective bargaining later in the session. We ultimately got a vote on this issue, as the Democrat majority in the Senate passed a similar measure. At that point, they went on the record, with an overwhelming number of their caucus voting for an expansion of collective bargaining.

Familyfoundationblog: Mr. Majority Leader, thank you very much for your time during this especially busy period during the General Assembly. We greatly appreciate it and hope you enjoyed answering these questions, and hope you will join us again in the future.

Majority Leader Morgan Griffith: Thank you. The Family Foundation plays a vital role during each General Assembly session, providing members with much-needed information and a well-grounded perspective on the issues that are vital to Virginia's families. I know our members greatly appreciate the hard work you do on behalf of the families of Virginia.

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

The Cost Of Open Government: It Ain't Anywhere What DPB Says It Is

One of our most important legislative priorities this year is budget transparency. Where do state agencies spend our money? You think you know because you see a line item that says the Department of Education was appropriated X Billion Dollars? Wrong! All we know are some top line figures. Because the Commonwealth's budget is not in an easily searchable online database, how the agencies and departments well within the bureaucratic structure dole out wads of appropriations for grants and contracts is not easily known.

For example, if the Department of Health is appropriated $1 million to provide grants for research on physical exercise and fitness of older adults, that may well be detectable. But after that, it's anyone's guess as to who gets the grants. Or, if a city got some money for a park, who is doing the landscaping and is it the best bid? Simple examples, but you get the point.

So, who doesn't want online spending transpareny? The entrenched interests who don't want you to know where your money is getting spent. Their argument? It will cost too much money to put online, especially when we're in a budget deficit. Okay, then, who says? The Department of Planning and Budget in one of its infamous Fiscal Impact Statements.

Last year, it said it would cost more than $1 million. This year, between $1.5-$3 million. This might seem plausible except for the fact that no state has created such a search engine for more than $300,000 and the federal government put its $2 trillion of annual spending online for $1 million. Virginia spends a "paltry" $39 billion each year. Most states have done it for free, because OMB Watch, a group that created the software for the feds, has made it available for free to states!

So today, working with the National Taxpayers Union (special thanks to Josh Culling), we secured a statement that will will distribute to the General Assembly. It comes from the Treasurer of Nebraska. He created NebraskaSpending.com by Executive Order in 2007. He proved 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.

We will have much more to say about this in the coming days. For now, here is the official statement from Nebraska Treasurer Shane Osborn to the Virginia General Assembly:

"We 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."

Regarding the $3 million fiscal impact statement attached to Virginia SB 936 and HB 2285, Osborn said,

"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."

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.

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.

Family Foundation's 2009 Legislative Agenda: Budget Transparency

Yesterday, we posted information about our efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and abortion in Virginia, through grants it receives through the state budget. One of the challenges we face is actually finding the expenditures. You see, there isn't a line item in the budget that says "Planned Parenthood." The money is distributed by local health clinics from money appropriated to the Department of Health. At least the money we know about. An example of the difficulty in finding the truth came just last year when we sent Freedom of Information Act letters to every school board in Virginia concerning contracts with Planned Parenthood. The City of Richmond schools responded that they had no contract with Planned Parenthood but, just days later, we learned from Planned Parenthood that they were holding workshops in Richmond City Schools. Who is paying for this has yet to be determined, but we're working on it.

Several years ago The Family Foundation introduced legislation that was an attempt at making state budget expenditures more available to citizens. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Walter Stosch (R-12, Glen Allen), resulted in Commonwealth Datapoint (click here), a Web site where one can look through every check written by the state.

But plan on spending a lot of time, because while everything is there, it is about as user-friendly as Windows Vista. 

Last year, Senators Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Centerville) and Chap Petersen (D-34, Fairfax) and Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) introduced legislation that would make the budget Web site more user-friendly, including a Google-like search engine. That legislation was killed in committe in both the House and Senate. Senator Edd Houck (D-17, Spotsylvania), a member of the Finance Committee, was particularly offended by the idea that taxpayers should have the right to hold him accountable for budget decisions. Similar legislation will be introduced again this year by those same legislators.

As the Commonwealth now deals with a spending surplus of at least $4 billion, finding where we can save money is extraordinarily important.  Most legislators will tell you that there isn't much waste in state government or any more "trimming of the edges" that can be done. While it would be great to take their word for it, the fact that we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Planned Parenthood gives us doubt.

The way to righting this large ship of state begins here: It cannot be done without knowing exactly where and how government spends our hard-earned money; it cannot be done if we continue to sit in darkness while extreme organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, are provided with taxpayer bailouts.

In short, online budget transparency is a just concept of open and good government; of sunshine; of the people having oversight of their government, as the Founders intended. This year's legislative battle will be one of the bureaucrats and politicians who put power (via the purse) over the people's right to know.

Who will win? Rather, who has the will to win?

Building The Case For Budget Transparency

If you haven't been able to tell, we've dropped several lines over the last few weeks about the lack of budget transparency in Virginia and urging the General Assembly to pass a bill this session that will make searching through Virginia's budget as easy as a Google search. (It's never too early to contact your senators and delegates, click here if you don't know who they are.) We will continue to comment on this essential piece of good and open government, that has a broad coalition, across the political spectrum, supporting it. The only people against it are the politicians, of both parties, whose power rests largely in appropriating money, much of which the average voter would be disgusted to know they are spending.

But, for now, although a federal problem, could there be a better reason to have full disclosure of any government's appropriations than the arrogant bank executives (see Washington Examiner, here) who refuse to reveal what they've done with the hundreds of billions of TARP tax dollars which have been used to bail out their sorry, mismanaged rear-ends? Just asking.

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.

Where To Cut The State Budget? Here's Two Ideas (Or, The Need For Budget Transparency Now)

When I appeared on Tertium Quids Radio Friday (click here) with fellow guest Nick Howard, host Norm Leahy asked us where we would make cuts to balance the in-deficit Virginia budget. I offered the observation that the deficit is about the exact size of the new spending over the previous budget's baseline, i.e., when revenue is flat, you don't spend more. Imagine that! (Especially when it's people's money). But here are two good specific cuts, not only because they will save money, but because the principle involved is sound and just. First, all state money to Planned Parenthood must be eliminated, immediately. An organization that makes millions killing babies should not be on the government dole (see here). Regardless of what you think about abortion, if it is such a "private matter" then it should not be publicly financed.

It would save us at least $200,000 a year in Virginia. We can't say for sure because that's all we can find for sure. The rest is tucked away in certain nooks and crannies of state bureaucracy under grants and contracts that are not always easy to find, for various reasons.

This brings us to another, but not unrelated topic (also discussed Friday): Budget transparency. It's not too early to bug your delegate and senator about voting for online budget legislation this coming General Assembly session so we easily find where our money goes. Simple line items for entire agencies doesn't cut it anymore. We need to know which vendors are employed, where the grant money goes and why, and what contracts are offered and to whom.

Here's another example, courtesy of Republican Attorney General candidate Dave Foster. Friday, he released a letter he sent to Jean Cunningham,  chairman of the Virginia State Board of Elections and all board members.    First, as a matter of principle and dignity, he urged the board to count the hundreds of absentee ballots cast by Virginians serving overseas in the military. (The courts have ruled that Virginia is at fault here, but did not offer a remedy, unfortunately.) As if their votes not counting isn't bad enough, get a load out of this:

According to Foster:

"In response to a complaint filed by the Department of Justice, the Board is refusing to count even those ballots that were filled out by Election Day. As you read this, your tax dollars are supporting the legal fees of a private law firm that is defending the Board's refusal to count these ballots." (Emphasis added. See full statement here.)

We don't know the figure, but one dollar is too much. Governor Kaine (contact here) should order an immediate halt to this horrible insult to those who serve and defend our country.

There. That's two ideas. Plus budget transparency. Plus holding back the increase over the last budget. Pretty soon, we'll see surpluses again.

Review: Your Admin On The Tertium Quids Christmas Show!

It was an honor to discuss the events of the day, discuss (and try in vain to predict the actions of) the General Asseembly, project (in equal vain) ahead to the 2009 campaign, and offer Internet Land merry Christmas wishes with host Norm Leahy and fellow guest Nick Howard this morning on Tertium Quids Radio. Among the topics covered (hard to believe it was just 30 minutes) were the auto bailout, the state budget and its deficit, the budget transparency/online budget bill and its prospects, the Democrat gubernatorial campaign, possible tax/fee increases, Tim Kaine losing the Mark Warner playbook (line of the day cred to Nick), and our political Christmas gift requests. Mine was for a conservative leader to emerge and focus the country on the virtues of our founding principles with clarity and purpose. But there's much more, and in a very entertaining format, so don't use this summary as an excuse not to listen.

So it turned out pretty well, but it's hard to screw up when in such fine company. The podcast is posted, so click here to listen to the discussion in its entirety (and to access other excellent programming on TQ Radio). We hope you take a listen and find what you hear informative and entertaining.

How Transparent Is G.A. Willing To Be?

Aside from the overspent state budget and resulting deficit, the biggest news coming out of the capitol this week has been the House Republican Caucus' decision to record sub-committee votes (see Richmond Times-Dispatch, here). (As the GOP is the majority, the rule change will pass, although House Dems favor recorded sub-committee votes as well.) This certainly will spice up a session already promising to be electric because of factors ranging from the budget deficit to the 2009 statewide and House elections. It certainly will give us more fodder for our e-mail alerts. (More on that in the next post.)

Another issue that promises to bring a lot of heat and fireworks to the cold of January and February, is an issue that ties all of this (i.e., transparency, the budget and politics) together — bills to bring the state budget online so that all Virginians will have the opportunity to see how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent. Not only is this an issue that should win on principle (the people have a right to know) but in these times of economic disaster caused by unaccountable people and institutions, what better safeguard is there than to have millions of citizen watchdogs perusing the use of billions of their own tax dollars? Although online budgets are in effect in several states now, and Virginia should be embarrassed it is not leading on this issue, since we bill ourselves as the "Digital Dominion," sometimes great opportunities only arise from trying times, which we surely are in.

However, last year the House Republicans only went so far as to study the matter in committee. A combination of Republicans and Democrats teamed up to kill the bill in a Senate committee, ostensibly afraid of the cost to implement the project, with one senior Democrat invoking "the children" as a reason to kill the measure. Ostensibly, because, they are afraid to let the people take a peak inside their palace of power, which is the budget itself.

Now that House Republicans are in a reform mode, the only question is how far will they and their Senate colleagues go? Or, should the question be, why wouldn't they be for budget transparency given it's wide appeal (and Founding Fathers' wisdom)? It's a winning issue and it is an election year. You don't need easy to understand budget numbers to figure how those add up.