citizen watchdogs

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.

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.