fiscal impact statement

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.

Bills Undermining Marriage On Senate Floor This Week!

Tomorrow at noon, the full Senate is scheduled to take up two bills on the floor that would undermine marriage in Virginia and, we believe, may violate Virginia's Marriage Amendment.

Please contact your senator now and urge him or her to vote NO on SB 1121 and SB 1122. To call his or her capitol office, click here. To e-mail him or her, click here.

SB 1121, patroned by Senators Donald McEachin (D-9, Richmond) and Mark Herring (D-33, Leesburg), would permit local governments to extend health and life insurance to "any other person" as agreed to by the insurer and the local government. Included in "any other person" would be domestic partnerships between non-married hetero- and homosexual couples. In essence, this bill creates domestic partner benefits for local government employees.

A second bill, SB 1122, also patroned by Senator McEachin, would allow the state to expand benefits in state government to cover domestic partners. The fiscal impact statement done by the state admits this saying the bill . . .

could create an increase in costs paid by state agencies, state employees, and retired state employees under the state employee health insurance plan. The provisions of this bill may allow coverage to be offered to extended family members and other non-related individuals not currently covered.

The cost to the state (and consequently the taxpayer) to these bills may not be determinable by the state, but we can guarantee that the creation of this new entitlement will be extraordinarily costly for you and your family. At a time when the state can't even pay its full commitment to Virginia Retirement System and is struggling to make ends meet, the Virginia Senate is about to pass legislation that will bury the state in insurance costs.

While the legislation is "permissive," and doesn’t require that benefits be offered, this legislation is obviously the next step in the progression toward domestic partner benefits in Virginia. The long-term consequence of this legislative track goes beyond finances to a threat to religious liberty. Eventually, private employers will be forced to provide these benefits against their will in order to be eligible for government contracts. We have seen this progression elsewhere and many other states are eliminating faith-based providers from contracting with them for this reason.

According to the state constitution:

Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.

Insurance long has been recognized as a benefit of marriage in our Commonwealth. This legislation would create a "class of persons" and assign them a benefit of marriage.

A Little More Sunshine In The Forecast

I know everyone is tired of the snow, the rain, the overcast skies. But there will be a little more sunshine in Virginia before too long. This isn't a weather forecast. But thanks to SB 431, the books in Richmond will be easier to inspect. Monday morning, the House Appropriations Sub-committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities, amended, then passed unanimously SB 431. Later that day, it passed the full committee 22-0 and is on its way to the House floor.

The bill, patroned by Senator Mark Herring (D-33, Leesburg) builds on the landmark spending transparency bills last year by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst) and then-Senator Ken Cuccinelli. Although it was more detailed in its original incarnation — it was stripped down due to the ever-present and dreaded “Fiscal Impact Statement” — it adds yet more sunshine to the current law. It will require each state agency to put their check and credit card purchases online, including a description of the good or service and the date of purchase. It also makes finding this information easier for citizen budget hawks — each agency must place an icon on its home page that links directly to a page that details its spending. Believe it or not, this simple procedure has been lacking and will make navigating the often confusing state spending trail much easier for concerned citizens, watchdog groups and grassroots organizations who care where or hard-earned tax dollars go.

Perhaps most important, it will save the Commonwealth money because the more people looking, the more waste and duplication is caught. This has been the case in every state that has opened itself up, and even with the federal government. After all, private citizens looking over the federal budget online detected the infamous “Bridge To Nowhere.”

Along with Senator Herring, thanks go to the sub-committee chairman, Delegate John O’Bannon (R-73, Henrico), who arranged the committee meeting late in session to guarantee the bill’s fair hearing. The Virginia Coalition For Open Government and Americans For Tax Reform joined us in supporting SB 431. Once passed by the full House, it will go back to the Senate to work out differences but is expected to maintain the features outlined above.

You never know during the General Assembly where a bill is going to come from that will give an unexpected lift for good policy and constitutional government. Sometimes, less publicized bills pop up on your radar screen and other times high profile bills crash and burn. Better the former than the latter when it actually accomplishes something.

Property Rights Bill Faces Key Senate Test Tomorrow!

Yesterday, we posted an update on HB 652, a bill that would allow property owners to present certain evidence to juries in eminent domain just compensation cases. The bill, patroned by Delegate Ward Armstrong (D-10, Martinsville), will be up tomorrow for a key vote at a 4:00 hearing in the Senate Courts of Justice Civil Sub-committee. We don't know yet if the big government lobby will try to make a last stand to block or water down this important legislation in the Senate. Their attempt in the House failed. We and several allies are working hard to ensure the bill gets reported unamended. But, to give you a taste of what has happened in the past — and what may happen still — here is video of the hearing in the House Appropriations Sub-committee on Transportation. You will see a VDOT representative try to defend a speculative Fiscal Impact Statement designed to sink the bill because of alleged costs to the Commonwealth. Notice his nervousness. He knows the numbers don't fly (as we explained here).

The sub-committee didn't buy it either. It unanimously reported it to the full committee — which deals with all money bills and knows a red herring when it sees one — and which also reported it without a dissenting vote, thanks in large part to Chairman Lacey Putney (I-19, Bedford) who spoke some plain common sense during its final vetting. Then it passed the full House 98-1. But overwhelming numbers in one body has never stopped determined opposition from trying in the other chamber. Remember: Contacting committee members (see here) never hurts.

Constitutional property rights upheld in the House. Will the Senate follow tomorrow?

Update: Governor's Substitute Transparency Bill Accepted

Earlier today, during the General Assembly's veto session, the House and Senate concurred unanimously to accept Governor Tim Kaine's substitute version of HB 2285, a state spending transparency bill, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-25, Amherst). This substitute, at first look, and based on conversations with some legislators and staffers, appears to be even stronger than SB 936, patroned by Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax), and signed last month by Governor Kaine. The language of the bills was identical when they reached his desk.  Although neither bill received one dissenting vote in several sub-committee, committee and floor votes in both chambers, and now today's veto session — after each got unceremoniously dumped last year in committee (Senate) and sub-committee (House) — it wasn't as easy as it sounds getting them passed and signed into law. Each had to deal with the dreaded fiscal impact statement, which many times attributes bogus costs to bills as an unassailable hurdle in the money committees, often to thwart reforms. In this case, each bill had duty in front on the money committees and HB 2285 even had to go to the Senate Rules Committee.

In essence, we started with two great bills last year and again this year, that changed form, but not function, though perhaps not as comprehensive as we might have liked after several amendments, and ultimately got something more than what we thought after the regular session ended. Not bad. What a difference an election year makes.

Now a huge window has opened up on state spending, with a massive spotlight to boot. Soon, citizens — be they media, grassroots activists, policy wonks or even (for Heaven's sake) bloggers — will be able to closely examine exactly how Virginia government spends the hard-earned tax money we send it, and with which vendors it contracts for services, as well as other open government features. It simply is not enough to say a department spends this much money; we need to know down to the line how much, on what and with whom. That, in turn, will let us know if the purpose was worthy or wasteful, duplicative or duplicitous. You get the picture.

Despite what would seem broad interest in government spending transparency, many self-proclaimed "open government" groups were noticeably absent form the debate. The  Mainstream Media, for example, which touts its annual "Sunshine Week" each March, was nowhere to be found. No doubt, however, in years to come, it will, as we all should, tout this new found access to the otherwise indecipherable bureaucratic nuances of state government.

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!

Another Hurdle For Spending Transparency

Spending transparency (SB 936) cleared another hurdle today only to have another one thrown in its path — a trip to House Appropriations (click here for contact information), this Friday. However, things look positive. It passed on a 21-0 vote and in the House Science and Technology Committee late this afternoon, but then referred to the Appropriations. Delegates Bob Marshall (R-13, Prince William) and John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake) tried to avoid the hurdle by asking for a vote to report straight to the floor. According to committee Chairman Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg), it simply is a safeguard measure — if a cost to it was discovered on the floor, the bill would die because Friday is the last Appropriations Committee meeting. Better for it to be vetted there, and amended if necessary.

However, 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 version today, would have no fiscal impact. Amazingly, the Department of Planning and Budget posted a fiscal impact statement claiming that the second version of the bill would cost these two departments and state government $1.5 million in new equipment and software, man-hours, and more employees. One small problem: no one asked the departments.  

It's no time to rest, however. SB 936 and HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), and which emerged yesterday with unanimous approval in the Senate Rules Sub-Committee on Studies and now is in the full Rules Committee (contact information here), should both be heard Friday in those committees. Contact members of both committees. We're very close to victory on a major priority this session. Let's not take it for granted.

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.

A Major Victory Tonight On Transparency, But Big Hurdle Tomorrow

Early this evening, a broad coalition of groups, including The Family Foundation, won a unanimous victory for open government when the House Science and Technology Committee, without dissent, voted to report and refer HB 2285, patroned by Delegate Ben Cline (R-27, Amherst), to the Appropriations Committee.  However, it faces a major hurdle — the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities, perhaps as early as 10:00 a.m. tomorrow. If you want transparency of the state's expenditures, click on that sub-committee link above and e-mail or call the members now. Tell them you want to be able to search, in an easy-to-use online search engine, how they spend our hard-earned tax money, and that other states have done it for only a few thousand dollars. Refer them to this blog if they don't believe you. 

The road block is the Fiscal Impact Statement attached to the bill by the Department of Planning and Budget which says such a system would cost as much as $3 million. Not True! Several states, such as Nebraska, have put their spending online for almost no money. (See the Nebraska Treasurer's statement to the General Assembly here.)

We also received a late tonight a statement, which we will distribute tomorrow, from Edward R. Martin, Jr., chief of staff to former Missouri Governor Matt Blount, detailing how they put that state's spending online for a fraction of the preposterous DPB claim of $3 million (the feds did its online budget for $1 million). See the following post.

So, as you can see, some people in government will do anything to keep you from knowing how they spend your money and we must overcome this obstacle. But in committee tonight, Delegate Joseph Bouchard (D-83, Virginia Beach) said, "This is an excellent bill. I worked in IT and I don't believe these projections for one minute!"

If Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Missouri can put their spending online at little or no expense, hi-tech Virginia, where the Internet was invented, sure can. This is a high priority bill in our legislative agenda, and we are close to a major victory. 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? We can only find out with your help.

Contact members of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Technology Oversight and Government Activities and urge them to pass HB 2285 Tuesday — for good government and transparency in how our tax money is spent!

If you want quick access to their phone numbers, click here, for a list on an alert put out by our friends at the National Taxpayers Union.

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.