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.