money committees

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.

Spending Transparency: Close To Two Major Victories, Keep Contacting Lawmakers

Spending transparency is one of our priority issues this session and the bills involved (SB 936 and HB 2285) have had a long and winding path thus far (as do most major reform efforts). Just as predicted, their paths are somewhat similar to eminent domain reform bills in 2007, with many twists and turns and near-death experiences. Although each committee vote has been non-controversial, the behind the scenes efforts have been exhausting to get it to that point, with great credit going to the two patrons — Senator Ken Cuccinelli (R-37, Fairfax) and Delegate Ben Cline (R-24, Amherst), respectively, and their co-patrons, particularly Senator Chap Peterson (D-34, Fairfax) and Delegate Joe Bouchard (D-83, Virginia Beach). There has been tweaking of the bills to avoid the inexcusably outrageous and bogus fiscal impact statements which would have made the bills cost prohibitive to implement, especially in these tight budgetary times. (Fiscal impact statements once served a good purpose — cautionary breaks for lawmakers on new programs or government administrative expenses. Now they are used as excuses to stop much needed reforms.)

Each bill has gone through numerous committee hearings, amendments and substitutes, been reported and refered to money committees and the House version even was sent to a Senate committee the Senate version had no part of (see here). (As it turned out, HB 2285 was sent to the Rules Committeebecause the Auditor of Public Accounts comes under legislative directive, or some such governmentese, but still begs the question why SB 936 didn't go that route.)

All that said, we are closing in on major victories, but it's not time to let down our collective guard. A final push is needed from concerned citizens who believe the government has a serious obligation to shine the light on where our tax dollars are spent. 

SB 936 unanimously passed the House Science and Technology Committee only to have another obstacle thrown in its path — a trip to House Appropriations tomorrow. Committee members Bob Marshall (R-13, Prince William) and John Cosgrove (R-78, Chesapeake) tried to avoid the referral by asking for a vote to report straight to the House floor.

However, things look positive. Committee Chairman Kathy Byron (R-22, Lynchburg) told committee members the bill had to be referred to Appropriations to be vetted for costs, but that she would inform Appropriations Chairman Lacey Putney (I-19, Bedford) there are no costs associated with this bill. Appropriations meets tomorrow afternoon.

Indeed, 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 form, would have no fiscal impact on the state budget. Amazingly, the Department of Planning and Budget attached a fiscal impact statement to the bill claiming its original and subsequent amended versions would cost state government between $1.5-$3 million in new equipment and software, man-hours, and more employees. One small problem: no one asked the departments involved (read this about impact statements).

Earlier in the week, HB 2285 emerged with unanimous approval in the Senate Rules Sub-Committee on Studies and now is in the full Rules Committee which meets at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. 

Spending transparency is an important issue (read here) for many reasons: good government, accountability, taxpayer protection and the like (read here). It also will give us a clearer window into how often, how much and for what reasons nefarious profit making groups such as Planned Parenthood get our tax money! We are very close to victory on a major priority this session. Let's not take it for granted.

Contact Rules Committee members here (HB 2285) and Appropriations Committee members here (SB 936).

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.