conference committee

BREAKING: Spending Transparency Will Go To The Governor!

The Senate earlier this afternoon passed by a vote of 38-0 SB 936, by agreeing to the House's amendments, thus avoiding a conference committee and sending the spending transparency bill to Governor Tim Kaine (contact here). The bill, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), did not receive a single negative vote in two Senate committees, one House sub-committee, two House Committees, one House floor vote and two Senate floor votes, three bill versions and three fiscal impact statements. Within the last few minutes, on the House floor, the House agreed to the Senate substitute of HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Rockbridge). Then, by a vote of 93-3, it rejected the Senate floor amendment which would have added legislative transparency to the budget writing process, but had nothing to do with the posting of actual state spending online. It was rejected because the same basic idea of the amendment was rejected by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this session as a free-standing bill. Lawmakers are hesitant to approve policy on the floor as bill amendments when previously rejected in committee where the pros and cons were aired out.

This action makes the bill conform to SB 936. It goes back to the Senate to accept or reject the House's action, probably tomorrow. If it accepts it, it will go to the governor as an identical bill as SB 936. If not, there will be a committee of conference at which point the amendment will be accepted, rejected or negotiations will fall apart and the bill will die. Either way, SB 936 is a baseline, and there is the slimmest of chances — if the amendment is included — HB 2285 can be made a bit stronger. At the very least, SB 936 will go to the governor!

UPDATE And Clarifications: Cautiously Optimistic On Transparency Bills

Hopefully, sometime today, or, if not, then tomorrow, we will have a  spending transparency bill sent to Governor Tim Kaine (contact here) for his signature. Here's the status of both HB 2285 and SB 936: The former, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), is back in the House after getting conformed to the Senate version then amended further. The House must accept the amendments or reject them. If the former, it will go to the governor. If not, it goes to a conference committee. As amended, it has a bit more transparency than the Senate version.

The Senate version is back in the Senate because the House made amendments, but it should have no problems — the House amendments were offered by the patron, Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), when it was in the House. When amendments by the other body are supported by the patron, they are accepted. Then that will go to the governor.

Right now, it's a matter of seeing what the House does. If it accepts the Senate amendments, we're golden. If not, it will probably end up mirroring SB 936. Either way, it looks like we're going to get at least an moderately expanded window in which to view the doling out of our tax dollars.

Transparency Bills Breeze Through Senate And House; Not So Fast

The good news? The Senate today accepted Ken Cuccinelli's (R-37, Fairfax) floor amendment to conform HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), to his SB 936 by a unanimous vote. The House, meanwhile, unanimously approved SB 936. Sounds all so cut-and-dried, let's-send-it-to- the-third-floorish, right? That'd be too easy.

Here's what happened late this morning. As you will recall from yesterday, Senator Walter Stosch (R-12, Henrico) raised concerns that language in the floor substitute might allow for Social Security numbers to be put online. The bill was passed by for the day for the day in order to work that out. However, as the Senate discovered today, federal law safeguards such a happenstance and all were prepped to go forward.

Then stepped up Senator Tommy Norment (R-3, Williamsburg). Exactly what might he want? It seems he had a little bill that would bring some much needed reform to the workings of the two chambers (SB 1401). It would require that anything budget conferees stuck in their final budget report —which the two chambers must vote up or down — that was a nonstate appropriation, an item not included in either chamber's budget, or an item that represents legislation that failed during session, would have to be announced as such in letters to all 140 members by the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees.

The bill sliced right through the Senate only to be left to die in House Appropriations. So, here was an opportunity to revive it and he jumped at it. Unfortunately, his original bill had a dreaded "fiscal impact" statement attached — then said the cost was "indeterminable." (Odd, though, that no budget amendment was necessary. Besides, what's the cost of writing a letter and making 140 copies?). Still, just having it there scares some lawmakers. And us. (Would it have to go before a bill-killing re-referal to Appropriations?)

Great stuff, actually, this amendment. All about transparency. But legislative transparency. Not spending transparency. One is actual facts about state spending. One is about GA procedures. Not exactly germane. Senator Norment admitted as much on the floor, saying he thinks the House may reject his amendment on those grounds. But no one asked the chamber's presiding officer, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, for a ruling (he cannot make one unilatterally). So the amendment proceeded to a vote and accepted by the body.

Here's where it all stands: Instead of the two bills conformed exactly to each other (which we figured wouldn't happen anyway only because we thought at the outset the Senate would leave HB 2285 alone) and avoiding a conference committee, HB 2285 goes back to the House since the Senate changed it. It must either accept or reject the Senate amendments. Either way, it will be different than SB 936: If it rejects the amendments, it is slimmer than SB 936; if it accepts them, it is larger. Meanwhile, the Senate must accept or reject SB 936, since it was tweaked in the House to meet Appropriations Committee concerns. Since the changes were the patron's, it  won't be a problem. 

Many variables from this last minute twist of the tale: Now that Senator Norment is part author on HB 2285, will he be on the conference committee? If so, how might that affect the dynamics? If the House insists on its version of HB 2285, will it give the Senate an excuse to scuttle it in conference? Or will the meat of the bill survive if Senate conferees insist on the slimmer HB 2285 as a slap? Is this all paranoia? We hope so, but just covering all bases.

To repeat, never have bills that still have not received a single dissenting vote gone through so much tortuous twisting. That said, an important reform still is within reach. Updates tomorrow.

Update: Transparency Bills Likely Headed For Conference

In what may have been a record for the House Appropriations Committee, it got through a 25 item docket in about 17 seconds around 2:00 p.m. today. Committee members were far ahead of staff, who struggled to keep up with members who made rapid fire motions to adopt substitutes and report bills as soon staff read the first line of bill summaries. Every item was adopted by unanimous voice vote. Can you tell it's getting near the end? One beneficiary was you humble admin who got out of the committee earlier than anticipated. So did SB 936, which should head to the House's uncontested  calendar tomorrow. That's where HB 2285 sits on the Senate side. Not to count chickens or anything, but the two should go to conference unless some type of amending happens to conform the two. We'll know more tomorrow and keep you posted.

OOOPS! How'd This Slip By?

There must be some embarrassed members of the House right about now. At least those who consider them fans of Welfare reform and the good that it's done to get people into productive lives. Seems a little ol' bill called HB 1714 got by the House unanimously, despite the fact that it would, in large part, re-institute direct payments to individuals. In bureaucratic speak, it increases the frequency of  "diversionary cash assistance" from one four-month payment every five years to one such payment every year.

How did this escape the budget hawks in the House, so eager to kill any new spending the last few years because of tight state finances? Surely it had a Fiscal Impact Statement — you know, those pesky little red flags the Department of Planning and Budget put out to the money committees as excuses to kill real reforms that will save money, ostensibly because they will cost too much?

Answer: It put out a Fiscal Impact Statement saying that spending all this money will save money. Brilliant! Because the House and Senate bought it! Literally! Congrats to all involved.

There is a chance this can be stopped. The Senate did attach an amendment, so the House has a chance to reject it, water it down with amendments, or force a conference committee, where perhaps it can run out the clock. It's amazing how three-sentence long bill can wreak so much damage on a major reform that has improved our society.